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Digital Xchange “Exchange on the Impact of AI on Society”

It has now been more than six months after the launch of ChatGPT. Its widespread accessibility – thanks to so-called generative Artificial Intelligence (AI) such as Bard, Claude, Dall-E, or Midjourney – makes it one of the hottest digital topics of 2023. From geeks, to school teachers, to grandparents – everyone is talking about it. The opportunities AI brings are covered extensively in the press – as are the fears it raises. While AI has long been mastering everyday tasks, making scientific breakthroughs and developing creative solutions to the challenges of our time, its pace of development and its ability to learn autonomously are impressive. What does our (near) future look like with digital intelligence? Will AI one day also be able to think and act ethically? And what consequences would this have for us humans? Should we be optimistic or fearful? These are the questions we asked the attendees of our event “Künstlich und Intelligent?” held in collaboration with SRF in June 2023. 

People’s biggest fears about AI

One thing is clear:  The public’s greatest fear about AI is that it can be misused. In fact, a lot of people realise the massive potential this technology represents, and how it can just as easily be used for the wrong purposes such as in cyberattacks, data manipulation, social media manipulation, hacking of information systems, hospitals or cars – just to name a few. In this sense, many have also raised fears regarding  distortion of reality, misinformation, proliferation of fake news that can all have major implications for our democratic society. The threat of hidden manipulation by AI, lack of transparency over systems and algorithms are all growing concerns that will undoubtedly have to be addressed quickly. In addition, and similarly to other technologies, people have also questioned the responsibility and accountability in the development of AI. 

Therefore, for many, adopting norms and regulations (as it is currently ongoing at the European level), including a framework favourable to the development of these technologies while limiting the risks of abuse was highlighted as approaches to reduce fears in the population. 

06.06.2023,SRF Event, künstlich und intelligent?

The bright side of AI

Most people recognise the positive potential of AI. While they don’t expect to understand the technology in detail, they definitely hope to be able to use it to make their daily lives easier. The hope of increased productivity (i.e., reduce repetitive and less demanding intellectual tasks) was by far the most positive aspect shared by the attendees. Indeed, AI can be an enormous support tool, in particular at work, to simplify complex procedures and can surely increase creativity (i.e. video, image, text). Other people also noted how AI can open up new possibilities, such as further advances in science and research, support for global threats (e.g. sustainable solutions to climate change via intelligent irrigation systems).

06.06.2023,SRF Event, künstlich und intelligent?

How can our fears about AI be overcome ?

Humans have always adapted to new technologies. Nevertheless, the speed of technological change today is unprecedented. Trying to keep up with this pace can lead to feelings of being overwhelmed. It can even lead to fear – fear that technology could escape society’s control – as mentioned several times by the attendees. That is why we asked them what it would take to overcome their fears: 

The most pressing need expressed was the need for transparency: most of the participants explained how transparent information, awareness and communication is essential to create understanding about how AI algorithms and systems are built and work. This is key to building trust. Another important need that was raised several times was education. Educating the population on how to make use of AI through learning, sharing of experiences, exploring, and in particular, promoting critical thinking skills. Others highlighted the need for governance and regulations to ensure responsible design and use of AI through means of international agreements, implementation of ethical filters and rules. Some attendees raised the need for verification mechanisms to prevent the spread of misinformation. This could, for example, be achieved through fact-checkers, or cross-referencing of other reputable sources.

What lies ahead

Overall, as with most new technological breakthroughs, there is always a period of adaptation before society accepts it, integrates it and benefits from its full potential. Many questions will remain open for now and will inevitably be addressed in the near future. From a societal perspective, one of the main challenges will be to ensure everyone has access to these new technologies as well as learning tools. Finally, one of the very specific characteristics of new, AI-driven, digital technologies is the speed of their deployment (ChatGPT has been used by more than a million people in about two months) and their transversality (i.e. the fact that they impact almost all aspects of our private and professional lives). One of the associated big challenges is to find adequate (legal and societal) adoption mechanisms able to efficiently cope with the speed and broadness of the ongoing changes. 

The global pandemic has continued to drive rapid digitalisation, while also revealing digital inequalities resulting from differences among people in their digital skills, competences and usage. The digitalswitzerland Foundation addressed this topic through its Digital Xchange, a series of interactions on “digital divides and digital inclusion”. From expert interviews, Swiss-wide public focus groups and a high-level forum, diverse stakeholders from the private and public sectors, academia, NGOs and civil society organisations came together to discuss and identify ideas and opportunities to tackle the issue.

Learn more about the stakeholder’s different perspectives on digital divides and what can be done to be more digitally inclusive in the synthesis written by the digitalswitzerland Foundation team.

Fears and hopes of the population on digitalisation, Series of public focus group 2022

As part of its Digital Xchange project, the digitalswitzerland Foundation organised in collaboration with some of its partners, a series of Swiss-wide public focus groups. The aim was to offer an open forum for the population to raise questions and discuss the opportunities and challenges of a rapidly advancing digital future. As a result, key fears and hopes were captured. 

Sharing hopes and fears

In different parts of Switzerland and in collaboration with  partners such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Kanton Aargau, Ville de Martigny, and Haute Ecole Spécialisée de Suisse occidentale (HES-SO), diverse groups of participants expressed their views, shared their experiences, their hopes and fears, as well as their ideas on how to foster an inclusive digital transformation. The content of these interactions fed into the discussion between decision-makers about our digital future on 5 September in Bern at the Digital Xchange Forum.  The exciting event to place on the same day as the launch of Swiss Digital Days in Bern.

Sébastien Kulling, Executive Director of the digitalswitzerland Foundation

Change is the only constant

Overall, people’s mindset is adapting to the evolving digital environment. Generally, many people have a positive view of the new digital technologies and see them as a tool that has the potential to generate value for business and unlock benefits for society.

However, deep fears remain.

Preparing for a digital future

Many of the participants realise that mastering digital tools is becoming a prerequisite for economic, social and cultural integration, and worry that digitalisation can amplify pre-existing socio-economic inequalities. In particular, older generations fear being left behind by failing to use new digital tools.

On this point, everyone agrees that the key answer to “keep up with” and “benefit from” digital technologies is training. There’s an urgent need to develop skills and competences by setting up adequate training for various types of users (i.e., children, teenagers, adult workers, retirees…). Nevertheless, the question remained as to what are the skills needed? How can we train people who are professionally active and/or retired? Who is responsible for providing such training? Many participants raised the importance of having regular support, for example, by providing a space where people can go to get the digital support they need.

Public focus group: Audience

The importance of governance

Furthermore,  the  majority of people were  concerned about the grey areas of digital governance: fear of the consequences of a lack of limits, framework, and regulations with regard to fundamental aspects of our lives, such as use of private data, security, mass surveillance, individual freedoms or polarisation of opinions. 

A strong consensus arose that the discourse surrounding digitalisation can be too complex and technical, which can generate mistrust and even self-exclusion.  As a result, there is a clear aspiration to put the human back at the centre and to strengthen the debate on the human and social aspects of digital transformation. This will enable each of us to benefit from more information and to be better integrated in the associated decision-making processes.

Would you also like to be part of these discussions, collaborate with different stakeholders and become a partner of the digitalswitzerland Foundation ? 

Please, email Sébastien Kulling, sebastien@digitalswitzerland-foundation.org

Or Sandrine Denti, sandrine@digitalswitzerland-foundation.org