Q BERLIN review: Looking together into the future
In reviewing this year’s edition of Q BERLIN, you can’t help looking into the future as well. For one entire day, fifteen experts were joined by around 800 guests in Berlin to discuss and debate the key issues of today. The topics included climate change, civil responsibility, artificial intelligence, new work and urban life. Yet as diverse and varied the views and opinions were, everyone agreed on one thing – as digitisation and globalisation exponentially accelerate changes to existing structures, shared discourse is more urgent than ever. And this is the basis to shape the movement to a positive shared future.
Friederike Otto, Acting Director Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University, showed how the problem of climate change is evident from, above all, current data on the higher frequency of natural catastrophes. Today, she argued, one can prove how human beings are intensifying this effect, in particular through the use of fossil fuels. This is especially serious since these catastrophes hit, first and foremost, those who are already socially disadvantaged. “Climate change reinforces social inequality,” Otto said and appealed to those present to initiate a structural change in how they deal with resources in their own personal environment.
African feminist and activist Rosebell Kagumire illustrated what can be achieved when women reclaim their voice. She told of women who take up that fight, women who claim their rights, women who overthrow dictators or initiate a global climate movement. And of women who need support – since, as Kagumire said, “Today, when we talk about the Fall of the Berlin Wall and celebrate freedom, we should also remember that by no means all walls have fallen.”
We live in a divided world, a fact often forgotten. There are wars and weapons, persecution, fear, shame, injustice and rape. In the interview with Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Nadia Murad, the horrors of this reality, seemingly so far away, was suddenly very much present. In an empathetic interview, Maria Exner, deputy editor-in-chief of ZEIT Online, engaged with this courageous young woman fighting for the victims of the genocide on the Iraqi Yazidi by the terrorist organisation ISIS – the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Even after living together for three years, Nadia Murad admitted, she and her sister had never told each other about their own stories of what happened to them. The experiences were just too painful. “I would never ask any victim to talk about what happened,” she said, “if they are not ready to do so and don’t feel safe and secure.” And the situation of people there on the ground is anything but that. Murad ended with the urgent appeal, “We have to bring these victims justice”.
But what is justice? And can it be independent of individual interests? The conflicts often enough start in our own minds. In his contribution, Goran Buldioski held a mirror up to the western world. “We take many things as givens”, he said, “such as gender equality or progress. But that also means we ignore how western capitalism has more challenged democratic values than developed them.” Democracy, he continued, is hard work. “Democracy needs time, a willingness to accept risks and a good shot of optimism. My optimism is that people already know that capitalism needs to be repaired.”
And the best examples for that came from the day’s two youngest speakers. The 'Bye Bye Plastic Bags‘ initiative by eighteen-year-old Eugenia Chow from Hong Kong has now become a global movement to cut plastic waste. And Suhani Jalota, 24, has turned the taboo topic of sanitary products into a business model – not only helping women in the Mumbai slums meet a basic need, but also offering them the chance of a better, self-determined life. Through their stories, both of these young speakers showed how joint efforts can lead to positive change.
In essence, nearly all Q.BERLIN’s thematic areas dealt with the acceptance of change and shaping transitions to create a positive future. After all, as Suhani asked, what will happen “if low skilled children from the poor social classes can no longer simply do the stupid jobs of their unskilled parents because machines can do them more efficiently and cheaper?” Here, she continued, we need to set the course for the future in good time. Digitalisation and new technologies will inevitably change society and the world of work – making it crucial, she noted, for people to be prepared for these changes and participate in shaping their own future. “Digitalisation can be a chance for many who are unskilled today,” Suhani said. “We need to ensure that those who are already marginalised today are not left behind tomorrow as well.”
What opportunities are there exactly to leverage the chances offered by digitisation and new technologies? And how do we deal with the challenges we are facing from algorithms and artificial intelligence? In the course of the talks and discussion groups, a broad debate developed over the ethical, economic, philosophical and regulatory issues. Neuroscientist Prof. Dr. Thomas Metzinger joined the conversation from Brussels to present his insights. “The idea is that Europe’s ethical approach to AI is also an advantage,” he said. “That might be the case, but also might not – unless we have a technological lead in AI itself.”
Björn Böhning, State Secretary at the Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs (BMAS) argued for decision-making in democracies to remain the provenance of people and policymakers, and not to be handed over to AI. But, he added, the realm of databased prognosis can play an important role in establishing the basis for decisions. The role people will play in future alongside AI was also explored by author and publisher Florian Illies in his contribution. “In the long term it sounds rather dull only to be the consumer of what machines produce,” he speculated in his talk on creativity as possibly the last unique distinguishing feature of the human being. “But perhaps the machines would be so much more intelligent it would be stupid of us not to let them do the work.”
When it comes to shaping a joint future for human beings and AI, there is no shortage of exciting ideas, approaches and advances. As for example, in the works of composer and musician Holly Herndon, who uses AI as a member of her ensemble. Much is possible if we are only open to it. That also includes, for example, a model of society enabling everyone a life in dignity – a vision presented by the scholar and artist Heather Brown. “Yes, I am a dreamer,” she said. “But I very much wish to live in a world where dreamers are also taken seriously.”