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Confronted with the competitive ethos in America and China’s surveillance-oriented approach, Europe is increasingly leaning towards adopting Digital Humanism and Corporate Digital Responsibility (CDR). Martin Giesswein, a digital humanist and faculty member of WU Executive Academy, explains the reasons why Europeans should seize the opportunity to pioneer the use of emerging technologies for the greater good.
In 1965, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore authored an article discussing the advancement of semiconductor technology, predicting that the number of transistors that can be packed into a given unit of space will double about every two years – a prediction that came to be known as Moore’s Law. The law has been proposed to be part of the explanation of how mobile devices nestle in humanity’s palms with unprecedented power, one catalyst behind video games that transport one to virtual realms, and the guiding star of GPS navigation systems.
As the tools we create are becoming more powerful while getting smaller and more cost-efficient, questions about a possible end to this exponential curve are being discussed today, as some experts claim that Moore’s Law has come to a halt, while others argue that science and business have to focus on how society benefits from the advances in computing power.
“Moore’s Law is an outdated question,” says Martin Giesswein, WU Executive Academy faculty member, author, digital economist, and speaker, “because it’s all about what technology can do in terms of performance.” According to Giesswein’s humanist perspective, the questions of today should be: What can we humans do with these assets, what benefits can we derive from them, and why should we use them in a certain form?
These questions gain increasing relevance with the emergence of powerful AI systems. According to Giesswein, AI acts as a catalyst for contemplating Digital Humanism, an approach that emphasizes the responsible use of technology, prioritizing tangible benefits for people and environmental protection over short-term profit. “Questions that AI raises are actually questions that we are having for ourselves,” he says. “So, what is the dignity of a human being? Why is it vulnerable? What are our ethical bases? What shall we do? Shall we just make money out of it? Shall we put services into the field that are not ready simply to test them and make them better with human intelligence?”
Shouldn’t we as humans decide that we’re using digital technology for the good of people, the planet and profit?
The main approaches to making use of digital systems worldwide include the 20th-century model that prioritizes short-term profit. “As soon as it works, we put it out there and make money with it,” Giesswein explains the idea. “And this worked in the 20th century, even in the last 23 years of this century.” More often than not, both current and future tech giants appear fixated on the notion of scaling – implementing technology and observing its consequences later, often leading to a point where rectifying the issue becomes too late. “While the tech giants of the Silicon Valley excel in innovation, entrepreneurship, and introducing new technology, they often view technology not as a gift to the world but as a means to establish dominance,” says Giesswein. “If you examine the past 25 years of digital economics, it was characterized by hyperscaling and rapidly building immense monopolies or oligopolies in specific technology sectors. This led these digital giants to become the largest companies globally, alongside a petroleum company from Saudi Arabia. They achieved this success through the entrepreneurial spirit of individual leaders backed by investor demands for growth and dividends.” The second model of utilizing digital technologies is the “surveillance state”, observed in some Asian countries. “Then there is another system that we know from some countries in Asia where we believe that digital systems are used to control or govern society. Interestingly enough, this second system is also combined with a capitalistic viewpoint,” says Giesswein. “In my talks, keynotes or discussions in the classroom, I feel that this might be too naive and too short-sighted,” he continues, asking, “shouldn’t we as humans decide that we’re using digital technology for the good of people, the planet and profit?”
Digital Humanism, largely originating in the EU, presents a contrast to the tech industry’s dominant “scale it up and see what happens” approach, which has transformed innovation dynamics, shifting the emphasis from state-driven, university-led research to corporate-led innovation. The EU, recognizing its lag in innovation, has turned to regulation as a response, culminating in significant regulatory efforts. This approach advocates for software transparency, reliability, and open-source systems that prioritize human oversight, aligning with the EU’s drive to set global precedents in digital regulation. “In essence, we are proposing a fine-tuning of international innovation based on values through Digital Humanism,” says Giesswein. “It’s about giving individuals the power to make these choices in a world where the hyperscalers and self-driven digital entrepreneurs would otherwise dictate the terms.” Today, the concept of Digital Humanism, rooted in philosophy and science, has infiltrated the business world, with terms like Corporate Digital Responsibility (CDR) emerging.
But why are responsible approaches emerging in the business world and why should executives care? In addition to the motivation to contribute positively, Giesswein emphasizes three reasons for organizations to adopt Digital Humanism. Firstly, modern shareholder value, encapsulated by ESG principles, demands that sustainable growth and profitability align with the well-being of employees, customers, and the environment. “Shareholder value has been often misunderstood as solely stock gains, now hinges on societal responsibility, as emphasized by influential proponents like Larry Fink from Blackrock,” Giesswein says. “Secondly, the fierce competition for digital talent necessitates demonstrating a commitment to digital impact responsibility, serving as a potent tool for attracting and retaining talent beyond monetary incentives, provided that companies genuinely commit to this responsibility and avoid superficial ‘humanism washing’.” And lastly, the European Union’s legislative landscape (including the Digital Services Act, AI Act, Data Governance, and Data Act, note) reflects digitally humanistic principles, emphasizing transparency, responsible AI usage, fairness, and unbiasedness. “Companies that proactively integrate Digital Humanism into their systems and adhere to relevant standards, such as IEEE 7000, can anticipate and navigate future compliance challenges effectively, ensuring ethical and legal certainty while contributing to a more responsible digital world,” argues Giesswein.
While the undeniable advantages of digitalization and technology are apparent in sectors like education, healthcare, renewable energy, and space exploration, it’s vital to recognize that unless technology is harnessed for the betterment of humanity, the promising strides in global connectivity, agricultural progress, and enhanced quality of life might veer unexpectedly towards challenges such as economic inequality, environmental degradation, and mental health concerns. Adopting a strict pessimistic stance, solely highlighting unfavorable impacts, isn’t in itself a productive approach, but it is a necessary one to put these advances in perspective. Yet, proposing counter-measures without nuance can amount to vacuous discourse in the worst scenario and offer limited assistance at best. The best way to shape tomorrow and the days to come seems to be an open discussion in society, which presupposes the digital competence of the members of a society.
In a time when science and society grapple with numerous uncertainties, and businesses recognize the importance of embracing Digital Humanism, there is a need for translation between the worlds of science and philosophy and everyday business practice. To this end, Giesswein has taken it upon himself to strengthen the digital skills of at least 10,000 people per year by his teaching, coaching, podcasting and writing. He has authored and co-authored several books, under which “Digital Game Changer” and “Being Social”, and is presently crafting another book aimed at bringing the principles of Digital Humanism to a broader audience, which centers on AI in 2050. “It presents a futuristic narrative from an AI’s perspective, depicting the unfolding of the last 25 years, highlighting the premise that a humanistically programmed AI will be the world’s savior,” he explains.
This translation role is also undertaken by universities, including the WU Executive Academy. A notable example can be seen in a practical paper co-authored by Giesswein, Yvonne Pirkner, Martin Rohla, and Barbara Stöttinger, in collaboration with project partners at Goodshares and with funding from The Vienna Business Agency. The paper introduces the Digital Impact Method, consisting of six steps: fostering a common understanding, assessing system impacts and stakeholders, defining measures, prioritizing authenticity over marketing, formulating concise guidelines, and maintaining an ongoing review and consolidation process, making Digital Humanism an evolving and adaptable approach for all organizations.
Giesswein anticipates a future characterized by innovation driven by values and is actively taking measures to facilitate its realization. “When we look at Europe, we understand that there’s still much to learn,” he says, recognizing the vital role WU Executive Academy can play in understanding corporate digital responsibility. “Starting September 13th, we’re incorporating these ethical values directly into our business courses, which has been well-received by our executive students. Digital Humanism provides answers and a starting point for better execution, making the WU Executive Academy a crucial bridge between academia and practical corporate digital responsibility.”
Fotos: Gianmaria Gava