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Maximum dose of knowledge: Maciej Kawecki, PhD, about new technologies and his online journey

Maciej Kawecki – doctor of law, president of the Lem Institute, vice-rector for innovation at the Warsaw School of Banking, EU digital ambassador, founder of the channel “This is IT”

Maksymiian Mirecki – third-year student of law and international relations at the University of Warsaw. Journalist at Coopernicus.

MM: Doctor of Law, president of the Lem Institute, vice-rector for innovation at the School of Banking, digital ambassador for the EU, and more recently, technology journalist and influencer. I must admit – quite an impressive track record. Which of the roles I mentioned above do you most identify with?

MK: I certainly wouldn’t call myself a lawyer anymore today. Probably the most fitting term for me would be influencer because it most strongly reflects what I do because it comes from the word influence, which means to exert influence. Therefore, this term fits me, but not in Poland, because in Poland influencer is associated with the worse side of influencing others, namely sharing information about one’s private life and product placement, which I don’t do or do extremely rarely. For this reason, today I would introduce myself as a technology journalist or science popularizer.

MM: So not a lawyer anymore?

MK: No longer a lawyer although it must be bold to say that I graduated from law and wrote a doctorate on new technologies – algorithms, online privacy, and the Internet. However, every year I was further and further away from law and closer and closer to new technologies, so I wouldn’t call myself a lawyer anymore today.

MM: You were in charge of an extremely important topic – personal data protection. You were responsible for the implementation of RODO in Poland.

MK: The recognition I gained from the implementation of RODO allowed me to develop my own social media and my own channels. I started hosting a program on Onet – “Computer in the World” and a technology series on TVN, and that’s how my career as a popularizer began.

 MM: So, it has been a smooth process?

MK: Definitely yes. It’s been a fluid process, which also shows that we don’t necessarily have to deal with what we graduated from, and we can always re-brand ourselves. The law also gave me a huge regulatory awareness and it helps me in my profession today because very often when I talk about new technologies I refer to the knowledge I gained before and this regulatory context.

MM: You have had many successes as a lawyer. In 2019 you were ranked fifteenth in the ranking of the most influential lawyers in Poland by Dziennik Gazeta Prawna.

MK: Indeed, I owe this to the implementation of RODO. It was a reform that required the amendment of 170 laws. I coordinated this process when I was 30 years old – I was a very young man. It was a huge challenge, especially since we faced very strong lobbying. At the time, I was conducting numerous public consultations and answering questions related to personal data, so this popularity probably stemmed from that. Many of you may remember some of the absurdities resulting from RODO. I remember a phone call in the middle of the night asking if it was okay to sign newborn babies’ names on their bracelets, or if it was okay to sign IVs in hospitals with the patient’s name. In this regard, I had a very responsible task, because a mishandled narrative could lead to misfortune – people panicked in Poland during this period.

MM: We will come back to RODO again. Let’s now move to March 2020, when you founded the Stanislaw Lem Foundation for the Poland of the Future. Tell us in a few words what your foundation does.

MK: This is a foundation that is the only one in Poland that refers to the legacy of Stanislaw Lem. Together with his heirs – including Tomasz Lem, we use Stanislaw Lem’s literature to talk about new technologies, whose central reference point is a man. Lem’s works ranged from techno-enthusiasm at the beginning to techno-skepticism before his death. We focus on popularization activities and this is the first part of our mission. In addition, we are running two very important projects. The first is “Embrace the Hate,” in which tens of thousands of young people have participated. So far we have been going to elementary schools, and starting next school year we will also visit high schools. We mainly talk about the consequences of hate speech and show that hate can kill. The second major event is the annual “Festival of the Future Megabit Bomb” conference in Krakow. Last year in September we had seventeen thousand visitors, and this year in early November we are hoping for even more. During the festival we talk about new technologies, but in a somewhat unconventional way – through the prism of art, literature, and science. This year the theme of our conference will be “intelligence” – we intend to talk about artificial intelligence, emotional intelligence and the intelligence of nature.

MM: You referred to the “Embrace Hate” campaign. On your website, you state that three out of four Polish students experience hate. How do you help these young people deal with hate and how do you personally deal with online hate?

MK: I have already started dealing with the hate, while it took me a very long time. I have to admit that I also suffer from anxiety and depression in part because of the hate because it flooded me at times. I feel that it is impossible to fully win with hate. There is something destructive about it for the other person. For me, the best cure for hate was not to read malicious comments, but I had to come to that conclusion myself. When someone told me don’t read, don’t care it acted like a bull’s eye on me. The matter is made more difficult by the fact that hate is often mixed with criticism, and constructive criticism can build us up. For example – how can I not read the comments under my YouTube videos, when I see them as a form of dialogue with my viewer. As a result, I had to learn to distinguish between hateful and constructive criticism. In a nutshell, constructive is meant to build us up, while hate is meant to destroy us. For some time now, I have stopped expressing myself completely on certain topics, knowing that they strongly generate negative emotions. For me, this is a certain form of self-defense against hate. I don’t bring up topics related to pandemics and climate change, because I know that no matter what I say I will be met with hate speech. By my own admission, I also avoid political topics, because I feel that science doesn’t like politics – politics is polarizing, and science is objective, so in my opinion, politics often does a disservice to science. This is my approach to this issue. As for the “Embrace the Hate” project, we visit elementary schools, meet with teachers, parents, and students, and talk about issues related to hate speech. We conduct special workshops for young people, and use the so-called “shock model” – we show that hate can kill, speak openly about cases of suicide, and are not afraid to answer difficult questions. We also provide care for vulnerable people, keep in touch with teachers and help students who turn to us in crisis situations. Our motto is that we can’t win with hegemony – I myself have already stopped believing that we can win, but instead, we can learn to deal with it.

MM: You said that you don’t talk about difficult topics related to pandemics and climate change, but on the other hand, isn’t it the role of science to talk about difficult, complicated things and explain them gradually? When Albert Einstein created the general theory of relativity there appeared a book of a hundred physicists against Einstein, who completely disagreed with him and claimed that his discoveries were completely wrong. In the end, it turned out that Einstein was right. This example shows that science is not a democracy, but a dictatorship – a dictatorship of truth. So why do you avoid difficult topics and not give the truth a chance to defend itself?

MK: Yes, you are definitely right. Full agreement. I recently prepared material on UFOs, which is very controversial, and exactly what I predicted is happening – I am met with heckling. Some time ago, there was a hearing in the U.S. Congress of high-ranking military officials on the issue of unidentified flying objects. I spoke out on the merits of the case, showing where we stand, but my material was not well received. I believe that due to the numerous false information about UFOs, we today in the public space with this issue are just crawling. For years, scientists speaking out about UFOs have been treated like crazy. There are more such taboo topics in science – for example, the afterlife and the aura, or the electromagnetic field that humans generate. We know very little about these issues because for years scientists who have studied these issues have been discriminated against. You are right that difficult topics need to be discussed, but I make the assumption that when it comes to issues of particular public emotion, I only speak out if I feel I am an expert. In the “This is IT” program, I mainly cover technological issues, i.e. issues on which I can be a discussion partner with my guests. I do not, however, feel I am an expert on climate change and pandemics.

MM: Let’s now turn to the “This is IT” channel, which you founded a few months ago. What inventions, scientists, and start-ups have impressed you the most recently and why?

MK: Definitely this channel is my most important project at the moment. For years I was afraid to get on YouTube because it’s a very difficult medium, but my channel is doing very well, which shows that Poles are interested in science and want to talk about it. The most impressive of the people I met recently was Professor Dawid Kielak from Oxford University. This is a mathematician who confirmed the mathematical theorem of the symmetry of all symmetries, which is used in the creation of 3D models, among other things. In our conversation, he also admitted that we, today, are not able to create human-level artificial intelligence, because we do not have a mathematical theorem that can describe how the human brain works. I was also impressed by Professor Wodzislaw Duch, a Polish cognitive scientist and computer theoretician from the University of Torun, who wrote a paper in the 1990s, “The Inner Life of Computers,” in which he showed that in a few decades we will be able to talk about the fact that complex neural networks are a separate species, fulfilling the premises of life, feeling pain, having the ability to produce their own culture and communicating in a language we do not understand. Also important for me was a conversation with Professor Karol Mysliwiec, an archaeologist who spent fifty-four years studying ancient Egypt and discovered, among other things, the huge necropolis at Sekra. Of course, I also greatly appreciate the young people and am very impressed by their talents

MM: You mentioned talented young people. A large number of them decide, however, to go abroad to study, and only a handful stay in Poland. The numbers do not give us a reason for optimism – in the “World University Ranking” of universities, the best universities in Poland, i.e. Jagiellonian University and Warsaw University, were ranked 381st and 402nd, respectively. How, then, are we to keep these young people in Poland if our universities fare poorly in the world rankings?

MK: In my opinion, we don’t need to keep young people in Poland. Poland is objectively a better and better country to live, to study, to work, but we cannot compete and will never be able to compete with the best American universities. If only because the annual finances of these universities are billions of dollars – Yale University’s funds are higher than all the funds allocated to all of Polish science. On the other hand, we should build in these young people the need for healthy patriotism, that is, encourage them after graduation to return to Poland, and if they do not want to return then convince them to do something to benefit their own country. I used to wonder whether, by sharing these posts about the successes of young people on my social media, I wasn’t accidentally promoting bad role models and encouraging young talent to emigrate from Poland. After some time, however, I came to the conclusion that everyone has the right to make his or her own decision about where to study. We must remember that the ratings of Poles in the United States have improved significantly. We have been for a dozen years or so such a little colony of the United States in the sense of American thinking, and this causes us to be treated by Americans as friends, thanks to which it is now much easier for young people to make a career there.

MM: So in general, Americans’ perception of Poland has improved in recent years?

MK: It has improved diametrically. Whether I’m talking to American elites or ordinary residents from smaller towns and villages, we are seen as a brave nation supporting Ukraine and a huge intellectual base. It’s worth mentioning that we have great programmers overseas – the popular OpenAI company, after all, has Polish roots, as does one of Google’s CEOs, Jack Kowalski, responsible for the implementation of the ChatGPT competitor Bard.

MM: On the “This is IT” channel, you also talk often about Polish start-ups and companies. I was surprised to learn that in the “European Innovation Scoreboard” ranking, which measures the level of innovation, we are ranked 24th in the European Union out of 27 countries – ahead of only Bulgaria, Romania, and Croatia. This is definitely not something to be proud of. What is the reason for such a low position of Poland in this ranking?

MK: This is a drama. As a consolation, I can only say that these rankings are not always fully authoritative, because they are prepared through a demographic prism. What matters most in these rankings is how many start-ups there are per a certain number of citizens, while the quality of these start-ups is already overlooked. Let’s remember that Poland has one of the higher rates of commercialization of start-ups in Europe, and this should be important to us, and this ranking does not take this into account. Perhaps our country’s poor position in this ranking is due to the fact that we specialize in such technological segments where their incubation period is very long. In 2023, it is likely that the number of start-ups will decrease again relative to 2022 as a result of inflation, but I would be skeptical of clinging to these rankings.

MM: We can say that rankings are unreliable and we shouldn’t pay much attention to them, but still, I think they prove something. Maybe instead of looking for various complex justifications for this state of affairs, we should focus on attracting more start-ups to Poland?

MK: The key to success is investment capital. We need risk-oriented capital, but unfortunately, we still have too little of it in our country. The problem is that in Poland we invest mainly in technologies with not much return in the short term. This state of affairs excludes investments in the space industry, pharmaceuticals, modern medicine, and even RES. Therefore, the recipe for success is simple – investment capital.

MM: At the very beginning of the conversation you described yourself as a popularizer of science. As I’m sure you know well from experience, the role of a science popularizer can be very difficult, because on the one hand, you have to balance the precision of the content you provide and the substantive nature of the information you make available, and on the other hand the news you publish has to be simple enough to reach a wide audience. How do you handle this task and try to maintain the balance?

MK: This is indeed a very complicated task, but I try to learn from my mistakes. I had the beginning of this year exceptionally difficult because there were several journalists who pointed out my mistakes and showed examples of my materials that too generalized the content conveyed. I, I think, already know that in the long run, it is better to develop an audience that is able to read more than to build a clickbait narrative. Of course, you gave the example of YouTube and my channel “This is IT”, which is quite a specific medium because, without a flashy thumbnail, no one would see my video there. I always face a dramatic choice when preparing these thumbnails – either I make a clickbait thumbnail that will attract viewers to interesting content, or I prepare a reliable thumbnail that will not interest anyone and will not encourage them to watch my video. I try to find the golden mean in all of this – I take out of my guest’s speech what is most controversial to attract the viewer, but at the same time I do not manipulate it. Of course, finding the golden mean is very difficult and I am learning all the time. I am also developing a team of experts – people who search and verify content. Through trial and error, I have learned that when I am not sure if a technology is really effective I try not to describe it.

MM: How does the information verification process work in your team?

MK: We have managed to expand our business so much that we now mainly verify the information we receive from outsiders. Various people send us news about international success stories, innovative start-ups, and breakthrough inventions, and we verify whether they are true. A reference point for us is technical universities. We cooperate with polytechnics all over Poland, besides more than 90% of the technologies we present on our channels come from Polish polytechnics. We try to be the original source of information and avoid copying different content because this gives us credibility. We want the media to get their information from us, not the other way around, and we actually succeed in this.

MM: Let’s go back to the law. On May 25, 2023, we celebrated the fifth anniversary of the landmark Data Protection Regulation coming into force. What puzzles me is how do you envision the evolution of the RODO regulations in the context of the rapid development of artificial intelligence? We are well aware that so-called LLM (Large Language Models), or in Polish, large language models such as Chat GPT, Bard, or Bing Al rely on huge amounts of data, which they use for deep learning, while we often do not know for what purpose this data is processed. Therefore, my question is, are we able to comply with RODO regulations while developing AI?

MK: It doesn’t foresee any changes in this regard at all, because RODO is technology-neutral. RODO does not talk about how to process personal technical data but indicates that you have to process data in proportion to the risk every time, and this will not change. RODO will need to be revised to some extent, but these will be rather cosmetic, because, as I mentioned, these modern pieces of European Union legislation are based on technological neutrality. It is important to keep in mind that the AI Act, recently adopted by the European Parliament, is only a preliminary legislative process opening the so-called trialogue, that is, the dialogue between the European Parliament, the Council, and the European Commission. It is always the case that the most important legal reforms of the European Union are adopted because of some sudden phenomenon, and not because of pressure from citizens. This time such a phenomenon was the emergence of large language models like the Chat GPT, Bard and Bing AI you mentioned. The European Union AI Act regulation is based on the so-called pyramid model – it regulates only certain areas of AI application that involve particular risks.

MM: In your opinion, is the area of regulation specified in the AI Act sufficient? I wanted to address mainly the general risk mentioned in this regulation, related to the emergence of generative artificial intelligence. This act mentions three main requirements imposed on large language models such as ChatGPT. First, they must not publish illegal content, second, they must clearly label all deep fakes, and third, they must provide reports with a summary of copyrighted content used. Do you think this is enough for us?

MK: I think the regulations you mentioned are sufficient. Let’s remember that we also face a certain conflict of two fundamental rights. One fundamental right is, of course, the protection of privacy, but the other fundamental right is the freedom to do business, and we as the European Union have to keep our economy competitive. In this respect, we are between the United States and Asia. Of course, what sets us apart is that as the European Union, we attach more importance to fundamental rights, ethics, and principles, but we also need to take care to attract entrepreneurs and stimulate the development of start-ups. The solution to this dilemma is to regulate artificial intelligence only in certain areas.

MM: Some time ago there was a report from Goldman Sachs bank regarding artificial intelligence, which showed that 46% of all professions will be automated. Should we be worried about these predictions?

MK: In my opinion, this is one big clickbait. Certainly, AI will affect the employment sector, and we cannot compare the current situation to any other in our past. Until now, new technologies supported job creation because they fueled consumerism, which motivated entrepreneurs to produce more goods, and producing more goods required more employment. Today, the disparity in the use of new technologies is huge – I use AI once a day, and my mother uses her phone mostly for messaging and calling, so surely artificial intelligence will displace certain people from the job market. Let’s also keep in mind that for the cause of Africa and Asia and the huge demographic growth taking place on these continents, by 2050 we will have more than a billion more people in the world, while in Poland our population will decrease by more than a million citizens. Artificial intelligence in the first range will displace jobs of a repetitive nature, which are mainly located in Africa and Asia, not in Poland. Therefore, the effects of the technological revolution will be felt first by the poorest countries, thus only widening the gap between the global North and the global South. Interestingly, if we look at the results of the International Mathematical Olympiad, Poland ranks fourth in the world after the United States, Russia, and China, but taking into account the ratio of the number of laureates to the number of citizens our country outclasses the competition. Today we have the most raw material, which is the most valuable in the world. Today the most valuable raw material is not oil, but the computing power that programmers give us. We as Poland need to realize this and skillfully use it because we have the opportunity to build and develop on it.

MM: You said at the beginning of our conversation that you don’t feel like a lawyer anymore today, but you have a lot of experience in the profession, and from our conversation, it seems that you are very familiar with the current legal regulations, so I wanted to return to this issue for a moment. How do you think artificial intelligence will affect the legal profession?

MK: It’s already affecting in a huge way. Large language models cannot yet cope with analyzing legal texts – at least in the Polish language version. On the other hand, an area where lawyers are slowly being replaced by AI is case law retrieval. Admittedly, in the Polish legal system, case law and precedents do not play as important a role as in the American and British systems, i.e. case law, but they also have some importance. In the past, a lawyer’s great asset was knowledge of case law, while today’s lawyer no longer needs to know it by heart – tools that allow him to search for this case law are enough. Artificial intelligence is causing more and more lawyers to decide to change their specialization – I myself was professionally involved in the law of new technologies, and more and more universities are introducing new courses that focus mainly on this area of law. The horizontality of one’s knowledge and the development of comprehensive skills are also increasingly important in the legal profession. For example, if one specializes in environmental protection then it would be good to know basic information about energy and climate, while if one wants to deal with artificial intelligence then it would be useful to assimilate key concepts related to this field of science.

MM: We’ve talked a lot about artificial intelligence. But there are plenty of other innovative technologies that are impacting our lives – blockchain, metaverse, and quantum computers. Which of these technologies do you think will have the greatest impact on the future?

MK: I would not use the term metaverse technology. The metaverse is the use of technologies to digitize our senses. The metaverse consists of VR, AR, XR, haptics, and many other technologies designed to take us as deep into the virtual world as possible. I feel that the metaverse has the strongest PR dimension, and I don’t believe that the virtual world will replace real life, because we as humans need contact with each other. As for blockchain technology and its undeniability, which is used in the financial sector, I believe it will find wide application in various areas of the economy. Blockchain allows us to trace the history of conducted operations in publicly available records, so it can provide us with greater security for data transfer. The situation is similar with quantum cryptography, so I also believe that it will find wide application.

MM: The topic of the metaverse is a very interesting one, as it is causing controversy among major technology leaders. On the one side, we have Mark Zuckerberg, who is a huge proponent of this solution and has renamed Facebook Meta, and on the other side of the barricade, we find Elon Musk, who claims that we will never go digital permanently. Which one of them is right?

MK: The truth is probably in the middle. It’s a little bit like that when we look at the metaverse world, we have to analyze the history of the development of new technologies. In the beginning, we digitized the flow of information between us, and around the 1950s the Internet was created. That was not enough for us. Then we began to digitize the relationships between us, and in the first decade of the 21st century, social media was created. That wasn’t enough for us either, so we started digitizing the world around us a mixed virtual and augmented reality was created. We, as humanity, now have one last thing left to digitize – senses other than sight and hearing. Now we want to feel the technology, smell it or see it even differently than before. In its essence, then, the metaverse is a kind of closure of the cycle of digitizing the world, thus digitizing what we have not yet digitized – our senses. If we define the metaverse as the world reaching our senses, rather than Zuckerberg’s promotion of putting on glasses and moving to a virtual world, then that’s the metaverse I believe in.

MM: We must sadly be heading to the end, but I have one question from our viewers. What is your favorite work by Stanislaw Lem, and why did he inspire you so much that you established a foundation named after him?

MK: I like that Lem was able to look at new technologies from both an optimistic and pessimistic perspective. We should remember that technologies are neither inherently good nor bad – they are how we use them. By far my favorite work by a Polish filmmaker is “Do You Exist, MR. Johns?” from 1955. The book tells the story of a rally driver who, as a result of a large number of accidents, has various artificial elements incorporated into his body. At some point, the Electronic Company, which was implanting these elements into him, concluded that MR. Johns is no longer human because his body consists of more unnatural elements than natural ones. In this way, Stanislaw Lem was the first to talk about transhumanism. Today, transhumanism is not only the implantation of microprocessors in our brains, promoted by Elon Musk but also, in a broad sense, what is happening in social media – the impact of information filters, the dysmorphia associated with Snapchat use, the way our thumb is positioned to adapt to smartphone use.

MM: As we are on the subject of transhumanism, I was reminded of the philosophical dilemma of a ship in which all the planks were replaced during the voyage in such a way that when it returned to the port of destination it already consisted only of new planks. The basic question was – what determines that a ship is still the same ship? The materials from which it was made, or the history that follows it? This dilemma can easily be applied also to a man who changes as he travels through life. In your opinion, if new technologies allow us to replace parts of our bodies like in the story “Do You Exist, Mr. Johns?” will we continue to remain human?

MK: We already have start-ups in Poland today that are beginning to implement such technologies. Just mention Walletmor created by Wojciech Paprota, which offers to implant a payment chip under the skin, using NFC technology. I even thought for a while about implanting such a chip in myself, but I gave up the idea because I have no need for it. If such a chip would instead inform me in real time about my blood glucose level, for example, I would absolutely use such a solution.

MM: Maciej Kawecki was my and your guest. Thank you very much for the interview!

MK: Thank you very much!

Maksymilian Mirecki
I am a journalist and editor in Coopernicus. I study law and international relations at University of Warsaw. I am also a host of the podcast "Maximum Dose of Knowledge".
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Maksymilian Mirecki

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