The power of data and its effects on society

In light of our upcoming event on Artificial Intelligence, we invited Aral Balkan, Cyborgs Rights Activist, to be our guest writer on the blog and write us a small article about it.

‘The “intelligence” bit of artificial intelligence comes not so much from the algorithms we use (which, for the most part are very simple), but from the huge amounts of data that we feed these systems in order to train them. The algorithms, in the case of a neural network that can learn to recognise hand-written letters with >96% accuracy are no more complicated than basic matrix multiplication and can be written in less than 50 lines of Python code. It is the amount and quality of data we feed the network – in the shape of samples of hand-written letterforms – that are the greatest factor in determining the behaviour of the system in recognising new, previously-unseen letterforms in the future. So the intelligence of AI comes from the data. Which brings us to the fundamental question of our time: where does the data come from? Who owns and controls the data? And, furthermore, who owns and controls the algorithms by which we derive insight from and begin to make predictions based on the data?

Where does data come from?

If the answer to those questions is that we do, as individuals, then there’s no problem here. This is a system that is inherently compatible with human rights and democracy. It is a “smart” future where we are getting smarter about ourselves using “smart” devices that employ techniques like machine learning. In such a system the algorithms and data either stay on our devices that are under our own ownership and control or they can be hosted by others in end-to-end encrypted systems where only we have access to the data.

If, however, the answer to those questions is that corporation own and control our data, the insight derived from it, and the algorithms and technologies used, then we are talking about a very different type of social system; we’re then talking about a corporatocracy – rule by corporations – and that is where we find ourselves today. Today we live in the social system that Shoshana Zuboff from Harvard Business School calls Surveillance Capitalism. Surveillance Capitalism is the result of the feedback loop between capitalism (the accrual and concentration of wealth) and surveillance (the accrual and concentration of information and knowledge). It has resulted in a world where, according to Oxfam’s statistics, the richest five men in the world have as much wealth as half of the world’s poorest population combined. Those five men are also household names from the mainstream technology world: Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Michael Bloomberg, and Larry Ellison. This is not a coincidence.

[Surveillance capitalism] has resulted in a world where the richest five men in the world have as much wealth as half of the world’s poorest population combined.

Now ask yourselves what comes next. Do we continue on this path, where these handful of men and their slightly less successful brethren accrue even more information about everyone to feed into their algorithms to better predict and exploit our behaviour to further enhance their wealth? In other words, do we continue with business as usual with centralised, surveillance-based technologies amplifying centralised, surveillance-based societies? Or do we chart a different path forward where we fund and encourage the development of democratic technologies that empower us as individuals by giving us ownership of our own data and algorithms and the insights we gain from them?

I know which future I’d rather live in. I hope you’ll join me in helping to create it.

This is a path that will require us to fund decentralised, free and open, interoperable technologies from the commons to reclaim our individual sovereignty and public space in the digital age. One path leads us further down digital imperialism and feudalism to an autocratic place I feel many of us would rather avoid. The other leads to a fairer, more sustainable, and more democratic future. 
I know which future I’d rather like to live in. I hope you’ll join me in helping to create it.’

Come and take part of the Artifical Intelligence debate at Porcelænshaven the 10th of October! For more information check AI & You: How AI is Affecting Your Future.

To read more from Aral Balkan, access ar.al.

Othilia Pedersen