Neelie Kroes and Carl-Christian Buhr: Human society in a digital world

Humanity 2.0? Neelie Kroes and Carl-Christian Buhr set out below their thoughts on the digital challenges in the longer term.

The world is changing all around us. It is happening in so many small ways it can be easy to overlook the long-term implications. Are we becoming the proverbial frog who boiled to death because he failed to jump out of the boiling water in time? Or are we on the road to the digital nirvana – where reality is starting to look like science fiction’s predictions of yesteryear?

Will the world be totally digital? With all objects connected, with “body area networks”, with everybody talking to swarms of smart objects (or even smart dust) at all times, enhanced with silicon-based technology, or whatever comes after the physical limits of classical integrated circuits will have been reached – perhaps very soon. Will we have tiny repair robots in the blood stream, perhaps? Will we reach immortality, even?

Or will it just be the games that get more real, the kids spending more time in virtual worlds than on social media (or in social virtual worlds?), the gadgets becoming more powerful as they always do, and the machines becoming more electronic each generation, while most of our lives continue as normal?

Or are these just two different perspectives on the same development, differing in tone and perhaps by a few years, but not in any fundamental way?

We have these questions in our mind about the last five years of digital policy-making – and about the way ahead. If we are serious about wanting to successfully ride the wave of the digital development toward more growth, more jobs, more competitiveness and a better society in Europe, then we need to start thinking about them right now.

How we transact

Our work, our lives are moving online. We already have online identities, but they are dispersed. The services you deal with now increasingly know you and your profile. Some even help others to know you for example by using a single sign-on. And, of course, regulations, infrastructure and technology are underway to provide hardened, individualised, public online identities. But this is only the start.

A passport or ID card does not protect us from being exploited or simply underserved by companies and service providers in the bricks and mortar world. And the same is true online, only that the environment is still far less mature. If one or two services make it very simple for us to seamlessly integrate a device with a data stream, an online profile and a database of past actions, etc., then that is deemed convenient. If 10 or 20 do it, it is complicated. If 100 or 200 do it, we are lost and things become unmanageable, and massively inefficient; and not only for the person concerned, but for the overall system.

It is not a good thing for data to be locked up in domain-specific systems rather than being under the control of the customer, liquid and mobile. Holding data in proprietary tools and formats might do the job at hand, but that does not mean we are maximising its utility. It is the equivalent to CD-ROMs, or paper, gathering dust on shelves and in drawers. Of the museum items that sit in storage instead of on display. Companies fold, passwords get lost, ideas are forgotten. Then the meaning and value eventually ceases to be retrievable as proprietary file formats change; our identity and our value fades away.

That is just one of the problems. Here is another: suppose services are linked in cascades, each one building and depending on other services’ outputs. Being in good relations with one service provider as the sine qua non of continuing even to exist for others. What if a computer bug could revoke your identity, your credit, your access to your tools, data, contacts, everything? This is not just about the danger of criminal intervention or wilful sabotage. The sheer complexity of the system becomes a source of problems and danger.

One way to address such problems and risks is to go “back to the future” – a future of “walled gardens”, people deciding to source all or almost all their relevant online identity and services from just one, very large provider.

But we don’t think that’s the way it should go. Firstly, those walled gardens will just become “too big to fail” like some banks where in 2008 – we don’t need an internet crisis like the financial crisis that followed those mistakes (not to forget the ease of spying on users when all are in one place). Secondly, and more fundamentally, we are convinced that we have to stick to the principles of the open internet and the world wide web – decentralisation and the ability to move ahead without asking for permission.

We should see a new class of digital tools and services that do not depend on advertising or other forms of side monetisation. Such tools would directly charge for what they do, namely to provide a user-controlled online space for data, identities etc. Everyone’s own private locker in the cloud. Think safety deposit box for the 21stcentury, as safe and secure as in banks, but connected to everything else. Why should we have to give up our privacy for a “free” service if we prefer to pay for that same service with cash and keep our privacy?

In the long run, as the amount of data and the ability to process and glean knowledge from it will skyrocket, such a decentralised set-up will also mean a better overall efficiency and effectiveness of use. Users becoming more comfortable with sharing data, information and access where they believe it is beneficial (e.g. anonymised health records for medical research or location information to optimise traffic management systems). And those making sense of data (scientists, market researchers, marketing professionals, increasingly everybody) will be able to more comfortably use and exploit such information, in legal certainty.

In Europe we currently have a public debate about certain large American companies, their behaviour, and what they mean for the European media and telecoms sectors. There is a related debate about access to knowledge and culture. One company in particular is often criticised for not correctly playing its role as the map of the web: Google.

It would not be right to criticise Google simply for being successful. And it is not realistic to expect Google to act like a public service. Google the company is not a public service. It is not in the business of providing objective statistics about the online landscape. It monetises eyeballs via advertisement and therefore it is in the business of keeping those eyeballs happy and coming back. (And apparently it is quite successful doing just that, especially in Europe.)

If it is collectively felt that this is not good enough, or not all there should be, perhaps it is time to rethink what online search is or could be. Can there even be “objective” search results? And if yes, would they help real people who search something online? What role should the public sector have, if any?

Imagine a public agency whose first task would be to create and maintain an index of the world wide web, a mirror of what is out there at any given moment, as up to date and complete as possible. And whose second task would be to make that index available for re-use, enabling competition on the basis of that shared resource. A resource that is not accessible beyond a small number of companies today because the costs to build the necessary infrastructure are daunting for new entrants. This would be “big data” as a public service. And it could allow new search engines to bloom, compete, improve based on this collectively maintained core: horizontal and vertical ones; language-specific ones; free and fee-charging ones.

Could this be done, technically, legally and financially? And what would it mean for the current debate?

How we sense

We have seen a steady evolution in the means in which information can be displayed or otherwise transmitted to people. Jumping over the oral tradition and a few centuries of books, this has boiled down to ever larger, thinner, more colourful digital displays.

We won’t need resolutions to get much higher before we can reproduce pictures at a par with what we see with our naked eyes. But the development will not stop there. Already now we talk about information overlays, augmented reality and, perhaps soon, fully virtual surroundings.

Now an immersive Virtual Reality (VR) experience would for sure blow a number of things out of their familiar waters: starting with gaming, television, videoconferencing, and conferencing as a whole. Think about a videoconference that in all respects looks and feels as if everyone really is in the same room – for the price of a VR-Headset and a fast internet connection.

Not just phoning anywhere, but “being” anywhere. What are maps and pictures of street scenes today may become our daily surroundings tomorrow.

When this trend becomes wide-spread what will it mean for the way our cities are organised? Our working life? Will we need physical offices at all anymore? Will there be a new body/brain divide: a need to keep the body healthy even though the brain is mostly elsewhere?

Maybe right now it is still a bit too early to discern the public policy questions that will arise on the back of this development. But arise they will.

How we live

Speaking about the body: we know that it is made up of very tiny parts – a lot of them – and science is understanding those parts better each day. And we finally start to be able to build machines at comparable nano-levels, predicted since the 1980s, that can work inside the body.

Think about a lab on a chip. A blood-stream filter that hunts individual cancer cells. Smart pills that navigate their payload to the right place in the body. And so on. But also think about prosthetics: artificial limbs which get connected to severed nerve ends so that they can be stimulated by muscle movements, or thought alone. Will this stop at handicapped recipients? Stories abound of “makers” who are already busy “improving” their bodies. Why just increase the hearing capability of the impaired? Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to hear long-distance? Dozens of meters – or through walls, if needs be? The technology is there already. Will it be allowed to be used? It certainly is not forbidden today. And where are the principles that could orient regulation in this area?

Should there be special rules for children or for people in formal settings such as education? Surely yes. But what should they be?

Imagine a system in which information retrieval is stimulated by thought (as prostheses are today) and the results are than laid over one’s vision through a smart lens. If working reliably, this system could end learning by rote. Why deprive our kids of an opportunity to use their time on other things, things that machines really can’t help them with? Think about the past: people used to buy and carry around tables of logarithms to simplify other mathematical calculations. Today only few even understand this concept. There’s certainly a cultural loss in this, but nobody can say it isn’t progress.

But what if such systems could not be afforded by many? That is a distinct possibility. A new digital divide could arise, much wider than anything we have seen before. It would not be a divide between the processing power of one’s device or the bandwidth of one’s connection and those of others – but the difference between a normal human life and an enhanced one. Between one world and two worlds.

Plus none of this looks as if it would stop at intellectual use. The body itself could become the target for optimisation. If all its parts become repairable or even replaceable, could we ultimately avoid death? What if it can be fought back, e.g. in the way drug cocktails today can curtail previously terminal illnesses virtually forever? How would a society have to look in which increasingly many people stop dying of anything but accidents or violence?

How we socialise

We have described a number of possible, even probable, developments. If even some or part of each really came to pass, they would point towards a whole new chapter in the development of human civilisation. A relentless acceleration that public policy will struggle to keep up with. And changes may continue to come faster than ever before because that is the nature of exponential processes such as Moore’s Law (the observation that, on average over the last few decades processing speeds of computer chips have been doubling every two years).

What, if anything, can or should public policy do to prepare us, or to act early?

We already struggle with how to regulate messaging services and mobile roaming – how on earth to do it for virtual reality, drones, recording glasses, driverless cars, 3D printing, connected everything, and all at the same time?

We see the risk that the new technology could completely change the younger and new generations even while politics in Western countries remains geared towards the elderly (and in particular those already elderly today). That could lead to a very dangerous democratic divide on top of a digital one. We will see new classes of social behaviour emerge, new social and cultural norms, and we will see clashes with the old ways.

But it goes even further than that.

What is human?

One could say that being human is what most people consider to be human in 2014. It won’t be that simple in the future.

Who is to say that it should be Man’s destiny to forever stay bound to Earth, limited by biological decay, not in charge of his own future? Put differently: would carrying a mind-enhancing implant (whatever the details) be a travesty or a dream come true?

I’m sure many will come down strongly on either side of these questions, making the transition, or the management of the co-existence of new and old, a public policy challenge. Today we may think, at least in parts of the world, about atomic fission, or genetic engineering, as topics that are likely to generate heated public debate. But prepare for much higher temperatures when electronics and genetics merge to allow people to transcend thousands of years of biological history. Mind in silicon. Mind in artificial bodies. Will it become possible? We don’t see why not.

Would such a development be good or bad? Wrong question: it will just be. Its different impacts may variously be good or bad, depending on the details and the perspectives.

Human life, happiness, dignity; democracy, solidarity, fairness: what will they mean, what should they mean when silicon meets flesh, when virtual reality overlays our senses, when manual labour could be a thing of the past because of robots, when we could truly live the life of mind – if we choose to?

These are all huge questions. Where to begin, practically, from today’s perspective? For starters, we know we could not stop the technological development even if we wanted to and therefore should not lose time trying. We should work on equipping our institutions and processes for societal decision-making to take up these developments early and thoroughly: New approaches to communicating about issues, in a two-way fashion. Faster, more frequent, more reversible decisions. Rules and regulations that leave more room for more differences between individuals. New types of protections for new types of minorities. Bringing Mill’s “On liberty” into the 21st century.


We like to think that we are optimistic realists when it comes to technology. Not all problems will vanish, not all will be good. And things might even go seriously wrong, but we still need to accept that these technologies will advance to some degree. But to what degree?

New devices might continue to require specific ingredients that come from war zones, or countries bound to translate their natural resource wealth into geopolitical control and other forms of power (e.g. “rare earths” materials used in mobile devices today). More research and development is almost certain to find ways around this – in the middle and longer term. But markets may have moved by then, monopolies created, history changed.

A near universal experience with high-tech over the last decades, especially general-purpose computing devices from the PC to the smartphone and tablet, has been obsolescence, ever faster obsolescence. Exponential increase in computing power also means that the time it takes for your latest shiny device to look positively stale will continue to plummet. And the markets on which this takes place today are global, sometimes boasting unit figures in excess of the human population. So we need to address the issue of electronic waste, gigantic amounts of it, with heavy metals and other toxic substances. If recycling and reuse does not become much more prominent, the Internet of Things may end up being just a gigantic health hazard.

By some measurements the Internet is already responsible for a significant fraction of the Earth’s energy use. Putting the other half of humanity online in the next few years, plus all their data into the cloud, will mean further rapid increases, as will the smartening up of our environments, all objects equipped with sensors, connected and constantly exchanging data. Ambitious research is underway for more energy-efficient computing and self-sufficient components that can harvest ambient energy. But also here it looks like a race between the economic juggernaut of new gadgets finding (or founding) global markets rapidly and fascinating research that will take time to reach the scale and cost figures needed to compete.

And finally, perhaps most importantly, advancing virtual reality – starting with overlays, heads-up devices, clunky VR googles and stopping …who knows where? – sets humanity as a whole on a course into the unknown. There are reasons to expect adaption even to completely new experiences, as with the first trains in the 19th and the first planes in the 20th century. But we can’t be sure. And tricking your own brain into thinking that a computer-generated picture is your own body, an artificial surrounding is a “place”, and so on, certainly affects us in much deeper ways.

For decades there has been debate on the effects of video-gaming on the behaviour and personality of gamers. It seems like a sure bet to see many of the arguments and research used and performed there to come back with a vengeance for everything related to VR.

But this is not just about human physiology, whether our sensory apparatus can keep up with novelty while also keeping us sane. It is also about fundamental changes in what it means to be human among humans. Even today in principle everyone could reach everyone else in a matter of seconds. The problem becomes filtering and finding – not talking, seeing or even touching, once found.

The discussion of societies with themselves, formerly done in institutions, books, newspapers, and other media, is moving online and speeding up. It puts a strain on control mechanisms: it is not anymore the slowness of the medium that can guarantee a certain amount of reflection. Plus we will increasingly see artificial agents acting on behalf of people, and acting at their own speed that is measured in micro-seconds. If automatic trading, software agents acting on behalf of banks, are feared to even today have the potential to bring down the global financial system if only a small number of bad constellations coincided, what will such more general-purpose agents be capable of doing once there are seriously many of them and they all react to the same stimuli, in no time?


The future combines enormous promise with completely new challenges. Digital is here to stay, but the future is open. So we can’t allow ourselves to stall in closed environments – closed by geography, by restrictive copyrights, by ignorance, by bad laws. Let’s get to work shaping our open world. Making it work for us, with a full sense of ourselves as humans and a full view of the good society we would like to build and enhance and not damage or destroy. We want to be improving details without forgetting about the big picture. And let’s always keep our sense of wonder.

Source: European Commission

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