As I wrote in a past post, I was selected to present a school project at a Symposium in Berlin. The event happened last Tuesday, and it was fantastic. I got to spend a couple of days in (my favorite) city and enjoy all its quirkiness, and I manage to see my brother who lives nearby and family who live in Berlin. Of course, it also meant that I had to put my thesis aside for a couple of days and now I need to get back on track, as there are only 10 days left. But all in all, it was worth it. And so I wanted to talk a little bit more about the Weizenbaum Institut and “The Future of Work and Innovation in a Networked Society” symposium.
The Weizenbaum Institut
Digitalization is changing the world rapidly, that is unquestionable. But what will be the consequences of such transformation? This is the fundamental question the Weizenbaum Institut wants to answer. It is a consortium between German Universities with €50 Million funding over 5 years, and from what I heard it will be most likely renovated in as this period is over.
The Institut is organized in research areas, which investigate a myriad of things. Work and Innovation; Contracts and Responsibility in Digital Markets; Education and Social Inequality; Democracy and Participation; Governance; Technological Change. All of these areas and its overlappings are explored by a number of researchers and students, proving its goal of providing deep knowledge about the impact digitalization will have on our lives.
Who is Weizenbaum?
The Institut’s name is a homage to Joseph Weizenbaum, a German computer scientist, and philosopher. To be honest, I had no clue who he was, but now I did some reading (that is, looked up the Wikipedia page). Born in Berlin to a Jewish family, they fled to the US shortly before the war. There, he studied math and started going towards the computer science field.
Have you heard about the ELIZA computer program? It was the first dialogue simulator ever built, an ancestral to today’s chatbots. Weizenbaum is the author/creator of it, and by seeing people interacting with the program and basically opening their hears to it, he began to think about Artificial Intelligence in a more philosophical way. As he pondered about the matter, he started becoming more and more critical about computers and technology, arguing that it could hinder societal changes. Such inquires of how technology and society interplay are the reason why the German Academia decided to honor him with the Institut.
When we applied to the event, we had no clue what we were getting into. There were no pictures of previous editions, no list of participants, no past publications. So it was a complete shot in the dark. But it made sense, as this was the first symposium the Institut put together.
The focus was on how Digitalization will affect the workplace. The sessions varied a lot in theme and approach, from Internet-based business models to learning and knowledge, to platform and crowd work, to artificial intelligence. It had great speakers and experts from many fields. And the opening keynote was given by the State Secretary of Education. So, as you can see, a “big conference”.
And that made us so, so nervous!
See, everyone there was presenting their years-long project, their Ph.D. Thesis, their Research Group results. And we were just showing a 3-month exploration done in a Master course. Of course, we believed our project was good, but would people take us seriously? Especially when we decided a completely unorthodox presentation mode (with bits of role-playing). To be honest, impostor syndrome hit really hard.
But it went really, really well!
The audience liked our role-playing thing, they liked the subject also. After we were finished some of the Institut Researchers came to talk to us, and we were really surprised when they came in a “peer talk”, that is, really interested in what we had to say, not as “merely master students”. Another person, an older man, said he has been going to conferences for decades, and it is always the same thing, boring slides, boring presentation; so he enjoyed what we did so much.
[one of my colleagues recorded the whole thing, but he lost his camera, so I have no picture of myself presenting it]
This was fantastic feedback! We were so happy at the end of the day, in a perfect mood to mingle with researchers and professors. Such a great day!
It was worth it!
Going to Berlin was a great experience. More than once I thought about canceling, as I need to focus on my thesis and it would cost me some money. But it was great. The experience of being in such an event with great people and have awesome discussions was unique. Hopefully, it won’t be the last!