The truth in the age of technical manipulability


Artificial intelligence: It brings fascinating new possibilities into the everyday life and business world. But it also opens the door to disinformation and manipulation. Companies could counter this.

Written by: Stefan Paul Mechnig, Nils Janus

“The first victim of every war is the truth” – this frequently used quote is once again depressingly relevant. In light of the war in Ukraine, which the aggressor Russia trivializes as a “special military operation”. Or with a view to the spiral of violence in the Middle East, when it must be constantly emphasized that news and, above all, images of the fighting in the Gaza Strip cannot be independently verified.

Truth and facts: both mined area and endangered biotope; especially in times of geopolitical crises and the spread of populist slogans. But now this area of ​​tension has a new dimension: the digital revolution. Social networks suddenly give space to millions of voices, can multiply them immeasurably and send billions of bits of information around the world in milliseconds every day. The algorithm as parameter for setting topics, forming opinions and viewing the world.

Disputed disruptor

With the triumph of artificial intelligence – which fluctuates between miracle and threat in public perception – a new stage has been reached. On the one hand, AI is welcomed, especially in business. Companies see it as a driver of progress on many levels, with good reason. At Covestro, for example, researchers can find new chemical formulations much faster now – the basis of innovations which we urgently need to solve many global challenges such as climate change and feeding the growing world population. The plastics manufacturer is therefore relying on generative AI across the board.

On the other hand, there is a palpable sense of unease in society. In Germany, for example, a survey on the attitude towards artificial intelligence from April 2023 revealed considerable fears. The clear majority of participants believe that AI could, among other things, influence the public discourse and even become a threat to mankind. And in the US, the proliferation of misleading audio and video deepfakes as well as political propaganda are the top concerns people have about AI, according to a September YouGov survey. The chatbot as demagogue.

More critical awareness

The political answer is, above all, to contain the technology. Accordingly, the EU has now agreed on the world's first AI law. But we can't really get anywhere with regulation, controls and bans. Because AI ​​itself is not the problem. Rather, the decisive factor is us humans. AI ​​only reflects what it learns from us, what we implant in it. Ultimately, it is up to all of us to ensure that technology is aligned with humanistic standards. That is why there is a need for more critical awareness in society.

The economy and companies can contribute to this. Only because employees probably have similar concerns. But also because firms have a special responsibility for society. In our complex, uncertain times, they are the institution that is still trusted the most, ahead of politics, the media and civil society organizations.

Companies can give something back from this trust capital. They can and should advocate for scientifically objective truth and fact-based dialogue in the age of technical manipulability (to borrow the title of Walter Benjamin’s book on “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility”).

Highlighting the human factor

Questioning, analyzing and evaluating will become increasingly important in the future. And scientifically oriented industries such as chemistry can help to further develop or awaken these skills. People have the power to design AI according to their values ​​and ideas - this constructive message needs to be conveyed to an unsettled society. Covestro, for example, will train a planned AI-based “Virtual Assistant” for employees in a way that its answers correspond to the company’s code of conduct and ethos.

What else can companies do? Help build a culture of trust. By naming others we trust: scientists, journalists and bloggers, small and large associations, think tanks, start-ups or established companies. A coalition of pioneers that show: Only a fact-based worldview accompanied by critical optimism can move us forward.

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