On March 10th this year a well-known journalist flew into Austin–Bergstrom International Airport from Europe to cover SXSW.
Although having no previous criminal record, or any demographic profiling that would alert him to the US customs authorities, as he walked through security he was pulled to one side and told he needed to be taken to secondary screening.
When he questioned why, he was simply told, “Sorry, sir, it’s not us - it’s the algorithms”
So this is where we are – no longer are decisions made using human reasoning. We are now in the hands of artificial intelligence (AI) & machine learning: decision-making without explanation.
Does this mean that it’s all bad?
Well no. On the up side are the benefits these algorithms provide, making our lives easier by personalising experiences - websites that remember us and our preferences - and CUIs (Conversational user interfaces) like Alexa, Siri and Google Home that can help us manage our lives and entertain us through voice interactions.
Fundamentally, what it boils down to is ownership of our data.
Currently, businesses and governments are mining and scraping our data for every single digital interaction that we make on our phones and other devices and, in fact, almost every time we interact with the internet through devices that are connected to it, both at home and in public.
There are countless examples of algorithms being used to process our personal data and feed it back to us in the form of targeted advertising, whether it is being used to sell us products, services, and even ideologies.
Maybe unsurprisingly, even Donald Trump is now in on the act by repealing a data protection bill, allowing ISPs to sell traffic data.
For me, the most insidious example is Cambridge Analytica and their role in both the Trump and Brexit election shocks nicely described in this article as ‘weaponised AI propaganda’!
There is a big call for ‘Data literacy’ from within our industry which means educating the world's internet users (3.4 Billion by the end of 2016) about the need to own and value their own data. The trouble is until we have an easy to use system or service to help people do this it is unlikely to become a reality. Why? Well for the big players in data like Facebook, Google, Amazon and the like this would completely undermine their business models. They like the status quo and they are quite happy for us to all remain in the dark.
This makes some people feel a little uncomfortable and, indeed, the EU are bringing in legislation to combat this.
The General Data Protection Act comes into effect in 2018 and has some key tenants:
Firstly, your right to erasure, more commonly described as a ‘right to be forgotten’, enabling an individual "to request the deletion or removal of personal data whether there is no compelling reason for its continued processing”.
Secondly, the regulations prohibit any automated decision that “significantly affects” EU citizens. This includes techniques that evaluate a person’s “performance at work, economic situation, health, personal preferences, interests, reliability, behaviour, location, or movements.”
Thirdly, it regulates your “right to explanation.” So in the example earlier, the customs official would have had to explain why our journalist was taken to secondary screening.
But it’s going to be incredibly difficult to enforce this last regulation or comply with it, and to be frank, the big players who have invested possibly billions in technology will find ways around it.
And it raises other questions…
Does it mean that smaller set-ups will not be able to compete or will something else emerge?
Use of data is already intertwined within so many systems that there could be significant impacts if the regulation is heavy-handed in its application.
But there is other push back too.
Interestingly, there are advocacy groups being set-up like AI Now run by Kate Crawford and Meredith Whittaker to lobby people using AI, holding them accountable for their actions.
There are also new players in this space. The likes of Andrew Hill, CEO at SET Inc who are focussing on developing powerful ways to deliver personalised experiences whilst protecting your security at the same time.
We also have the Redecentralize community who are focused on decentralising control of information technologies – getting it out of the hands of a few large companies and governments and to getting ‘decentralized products into the hands of billions’.
Most interestingly of all, in his role as co-lead of the Decentralized Information Group at MIT’s CSAIL, Tim Berners-Lee, the grandfather of the internet, just published an article in Wired describing how they intend to reshape the internet around this premise: an internet where we all control who and what has access to our data and therefore what the algorithms can actually do.
The landscape of the internet continues to change informed by EU legislation, players like Tim Berners-Lee and many others within the start-up community. This means there is the chance that a new super brand will rise up to own this space and change things again. However, without massive education and until we all realise quite how important our data is, our futures lie in someone else’s hands.
In the meantime, here are some practical tips on what we can all do now as individuals:
And as a business, be transparent and act responsibly:
- Don't store data you don't need
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