Life Engineering - The book

Will Machine Intelligence Help or Hurt?

Humanity is facing the greatest change in its history, a leap in socio-technical evolution. That, at least, is the view that scientists from many disciplines and above all the media convey to us. They stir up hopes and fears. Medical professionals promise an increasing understanding of diseases such as cancer and tools to cure them. Logisticians dream of efficient passenger transport and goods flows with autonomous vehicles. Political parties want to disseminate and enforce their goals via digital media. And consumers expect ever new and improved offers of services and products such as a smartwatch with reliable measurement of heart frequency or stress level.


Such utopias are met with even greater numbers of dystopias. Robots become job killers; electronic communication displaces personal human communication; digital services relieve us not only of much work but also of much autonomy and lead to a surveillance state; digitalization widens the gap between population groups; and technology displaces the human element, i.e. humanism.

In recent years, numerous initiatives on the part of private and governmental organizations have begun to permeate the changes brought about by digitalization and to formulate ethical guidelines motivated by goals such as "digitalization for a better world" or "artificial intelligence for the benefit of people".

Life Engineering: Machine Intelligence and Quality of Life
Verlag Springer 2020,

ISBN-10: 3030314812, ISBN-13: 978-3030314811

In his new book, Osterle starts from the diversity of expectations. He criticizes the fact that, on the one hand, science has so far mostly provided only very nebulous recommendations and little that can be implemented in practice, and, on the other hand, that the reports in the media are supported more by sensationalism than by a balanced analysis. He sees a danger that the discussion will be driven by emotion rather than reason and that dealing with trivialities, such as the loss of the traditional library or the frequently lamented youth culture that is centered around the cell phone, will distract from crucial decisions regarding the direction to be taken. He stresses, for example, that while the achievement of human-like or even superhuman intelligence can only be expected in 50 or more years from now, we must find new forms of human culture and technology along the way. He calls for the sciences that can contribute to the accomplishment of the tasks at hand to pool their knowledge and create the basis for human development in a discipline called "Life Engineering".


Österle consistently places the quality of people's lives, i.e. joy and suffering or happiness and misfortune, at the center of his reflections. From the diverse approaches of disciplines such as psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, religion and political science, he develops a simple quality of life model based on human needs and the effects of perceptions on those needs.                                 He stresses that a large part of the needs, for example the need for food, sex or status, is inherent in our genes, i.e. inherited without us humans having any significant influence on them. But he also points out that, according to the current state of knowledge, people are perfectly able to contribute to their own happiness or misfortune, but understand little about how this can be done.                     As a consequence, they have a tendency to continually yield to the temptation to satisfy short-term needs (hedonia). They eat more than is good for them. They give in to their need for comfort and fall for the unrealistic promises of advertising. Thus, they repeatedly sacrifice any long-term satisfaction with themselves and what they have achieved (eudaimonia) to hedonistic immediate satisfaction of needs, even if they are basically aware of this – as demonstrated by the manifold efforts to find meaning in life.

Science, and even more so the individual, has an inadequate understanding of the quality of life mechanisms. In Osterle's view, we are driven by the mechanisms of evolution, i.e. evolution in a broad sense, which includes not only the human body, but also technology and the organization of human society. These evolutionary mechanisms, however, date back to the primeval times of mankind, when survival, safety, food and reproduction were almost the sole concerns.


In "Life Engineering", today's state of the art, particularly with regard to information technology, makes these needs fulfillable for ever larger numbers of people and thus orientates human action increasingly toward “secondary needs”. These are above all social status, self-esteem and knowledge. Power, appearance, status symbols, and our communities determine how we are ranked within our peer group. These needs put people on the treadmill of differentiation. Everyone runs to distinguish themselves positively from their peers, to better position themselves and thus improve their status. This can result in people sacrificing their quality of life in a pointless competition for status symbols such as cars or professional positions, or it can trigger resignation if someone sees no chance of fulfilling their expectations and capitulates to competition.

The treadmill of evolution is the driver of capitalism and has led to an unprecedented standard of living to this day. However, the path that this mechanism has taken, in the form of progress at any price, capital growth for the sake of capital, and not least in the form of massive consumerism driven by advertising, has led ad absurdum. It is time to think about how the inherited control mechanisms of evolution can be further developed so that they lead to an increase in quality of life at the next stage of human development.

The book outlines consequences for individuals, businesses and the state. This ranges from education in digital skills to metrics for corporate social responsibility. Osterle comes up with some surprising approaches, some of which are certainly in need of in-depth discussion. He recommends, for example, a renunciation of privacy, i.e. the opposite of today's data protection efforts, and justifies this with the argument that, for example, the EU's basic data protection regulation strengthens the power of the monopolies and makes that power difficult to control. He adds that the confidentiality of personal data is in any case not very realistic, since state secret services, operating system manufacturers, and megaportal operators possess increasingly pervasive data records.

Osterle also comes to an unexpected conclusion in the assessment of Chinese social scoring. He compares state control with political objectives to market control with the goals of revenue and profit, as pursued by megaportals like Amazon or Alibaba. He goes on to argue that an incremental control of socially desirable behavior through social scoring is a priori no worse than control through the penal code and the punishment of large population groups if they deviate from state-sanctioned rules.


Osterle sees the current limits of a scientifically based way of life. He therefore calls for the establishment of a discipline "Life Engineering". This is intended to make the data on humans collected by all digital services available to science under state or individual control. Science should use the possibilities of statistical data analysis and machine learning to recognize the connections between human behavior and quality of life, to condense them into general patterns, and to formulate metrics for happiness measurement. The next step would be to introduce these findings into political processes and thus implement them in society and above all in the economy. If this could be achieved, Life Engineering would concretize the current ethical principles of states and organizations such as the OECD and make state consumer protection more effective.

"Life Engineering. Machine Intelligence and Quality of Life" is not a thick book (170 pages), but is nevertheless a demanding read. For that reason, it is perhaps unlikely to become a bestseller, but could well become essential reading for anyone with an interest in digitalization for human benefit.


Henning Kagermann, former CEO of SAP AG

This book is an extremely realistic review of technological trends and their consequences for people's quality of life. The questions raised and the attempts at rational answers contradict many of the views widely accepted today, especially on human autonomy. Whether one agrees or disagrees, the challenges facing the individual, business, politics and civil society are ones we must face

Prof. Thomas Hess,Director of the Institute for Information Systems and New Media at LMU

Machine intelligence is a challenge for people, companies and politics. The book provides a thorough analysis of technological trends and their opportunities and threats to the quality of life. Based on the maxim of Homo Digitalis' happiness, Österle formulates sometimes extremely provocative questions such as the value of privacy. It is precisely such questions and the answers that deviate from the mainstream on the basis of comprehensible considerations that make it mandatory reading.

Andreas Goeldi, Partner at btov Partners

If you want to think more deeply about what machine intelligence (aka AI) really means for humanity, you should read this book. Hubert Oesterle takes an amazingly broad and multi-disciplinary look at all relevant aspects, from the roots of human behavior to the impact advanced digital assistants might have on our daily lives (and who will control these assistants). Highly recommended!