Every second on the Internet we send more than 2 million emails around the world, start some 50’000 Google searches, and likes about the same amount of posts on Facebook. And that is actually only the tip of the iceberg. In fact, we become more and more reliant on huge amount of data distributed around the globe. But how exactly can we make sense out of the vast sea of data? Let’s discover what is a stake in this digital revolution and how data science is deeply changing our world.

The digital revolution is a hot topic, but it began long ago. Artificial intelligence was already a topic back in the 1980s, but nowadays we talk a lot about this new revolution. However, as computer scientists, we see it more as an evolution rather than a true revolution. That people are speaking of a « digital revolution » all of a sudden is probably because they are more aware that software is taking on an ever-greater role in everyday life. In fact, digitalization has been taking place for quite a while now! As we have seen in the past, digitalization has always come in from of waves and turned entire sectors upside down, with accompanying concern for jobs: the first banking systems were created in the 50s, then the PCs arrive in the office in the 80s, telephony was digitalized in the 90s and finally came the digitalization of television and other medias. Nevertheless, it is clear that something big is brewing up. There are number of technologies that have matured. For instance, cloud computing is springing up quickly because connectivity has become extremely cheap and because large data stores are now easily available. Furthermore, these developments all together suddenly create new potential and synergies are leading to an avalanche of effects. And all of a sudden, everyone wants to digitalize even though very few know what this does actually imply.

When the Internet was emerging in the 90s, we experienced a proportional enthusiasm, but this time there is an important difference: software engineering is becoming an even more important component when it comes to improving products or services. This also means that this wave of digitalization will likely be accompanied by a much more permanent and comprehensive shift in society. Rather than affecting only a few sectors, this time, it will have a major impact on industry politics, as well as on our social life. This may not happen over night, but this will change our world. The question is now to determine how well this kind of new technologies will be accepted, as software applications are increasingly collecting more and more personal data. Well, usually, this depends how the new technology is introduced to people: if people can gain a direct benefit or fun, they usually tend not to think about the potential damage. On the other hand, these concerns can go beyond the data protection issue and degenerate into paternalism, where machines will increasingly act as our « guardians » for our own safety. For example, cars will not be able to drive faster than the speed limit or will not even be able to start their engines as long as you do not fasten your seatbelt. Indeed, we are already quite close to this today. It is all well-intentioned, but it limits our freedom of action. Which bring us to an important point:

« In the future, we will need more than mere data protection; we will need data ethics. »

Connected devices and ubiquitous computing is developing fast and we won’t be able to stop this development of more and more things requiring and analyzing large quantities of data.

There is cultural difference, however, that might influence the acceptance of smart technologies. It will be more difficult to accept these technologies in our individual society (as opposed to some Asian countries), especially in Switzerland where you can’t simply sell your personal data like property. But the real question is who will have the power to impose their standards: in recent years, all major developments that are changing our lives comes from the US with the major American companies such as Google and Facebook setting the standards; the values being ultimately set by those whole wield the economics and industrial power. As for Switzerland, even though we enjoy a high standard of technology, it is difficulty to play in the big league. Based purely on knowledge it is feasible, but we simply don’t have as many intelligent software engineers as in the Silicon Valley for instance. Sure, we are a leading European IT center, but this is very different from the US that has a huge market and a single language and culture. Switzerland can only occupy certain niches, which is presumably not sufficient to set world-wide standards.

In Switzerland, we simply cannot cover all the important fields to a sufficient extent today. For this, we need the political courage to make the necessary investments and to have a hub, i.e. a central place to foster the exchange that sparks creativity. If we do not become soon a computer science hub in Europe, we will continue to struggle to produce unicorns and endure the rules set by the Internet giants. All in all, Europe and Switzerland need such as hub to ensure that the European values will be reflected in our digital future.

Reference: « Machine don’t have morals yet », Globe No. 2 / 2017, ETH Zürich.
(Image from kamanja.org)