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It’s time the American people woke up and understood what the big tech companies, many of which are now publishers and telecommunications companies masquerading as neutral platforms, are doing with their personal data.
Respecting individual privacy is the most common concern you find in the media and elsewhere. But privacy is only part of the challenge before us—and a relatively small part at that. By feeding companies like Google, Amazon, and Facebook untold amounts of personally identifiable data, Americans—specifically American workers—are helping sow the seeds of their own demise.
Many people don’t take the time to consider what happens to their data when they give it away. Where does it go? With whom is it being shared? How is it being used to accelerate the growth of new technologies, including artificial intelligence and automation?
The data being given freely to these tech companies and the amount of personally identifiable data being collected put the National Security Agency’s efforts to shame. Like it or not, all of this data isn’t being used simply to inform algorithms that help you make better movie selections or put funny cat videos into your Facebook feed or remind you that you’re about to run out of toilet paper.
All of that information is feeding projects such as Google Brain and Facebook’s artificial intelligence research and development. These are grand efforts by very large, private companies that have vast and untold implications for public policy. Yet these same companies are not being very transparent about their work.
They are, in reality, playing with fire that they can barely control—such as building robots that invent languages understandable only to themselves, as happened at Facebook two years ago. Facebook was able to shut the program down, but what happens in the future if the kill switch fails? What then?
Are we really so arrogant as human beings to think we can unleash general artificial intelligence and still be in control a generation or two from now? Would it even take that long?
Our elected representatives appear to be asleep at the switch on both general AI and automation. Ford Motor Co. recently announced it would be cutting 7,000 jobs, or roughly 10 percent of its entire workforce. Those jobs will be replaced by automation and Ford reportedly will increase its profits by $600 million annually. But to what end? And where does it stop?
If you think corporations are interested in merely cutting 10 percent of the workforce to increase profits, just wait until it’s feasible to cut 90 percent of the workforce. What are the implications for American society then?
Imagine a country in which one-third of Americans are put out of work because of automation—it may not be far off. What about 40 or 50 percent of workers? And why—because corporations, many of which are foreign-owned or based offshore, want to increase their profits?
To be clear, I am all for smart people making money. But in this scenario, corporations make greater profits and the American people are stuck with the tab. What happens when the tax base dries up and there’s a significant decrease in tax revenue so that something like a universal basic income is impossible?
It’s past time for our elected representatives to step up and insert themselves into this conversation in a real way and address this issue of the tech companies and artificial intelligence and automation.
First, it begins with protecting the individual’s right to his or her own data. The individual’s personal data is sovereign to the individual and individuals have the explicit right to control that data.
As John Locke and James Madison wrote with respect to property rights, property is not just physical objects or even land. Property is about all of our unique qualities as human beings, from our rights to intellectual content to personal data. Locke believed the first object and priority of government “created by the consent of the governed is to protect the right to property.” So we need to view data sovereignty as a natural right for every individual human being and that all humans own their data—not the party that collects it.
Part of the solution involves shifting the burden of individual informed consent from “opting out” to “opting in,” and doing so with transparent, clear, and plain language provisions, not several dozen pages of dense legalese presented in six-point type. Then individuals must “opt-in” to all technology, software, and platforms that ask for and use personal data, including personal information, imagery, location data, financial data, consumer data—everything.
At any point, an individual should have the right to be forgotten—the right to have their data removed and permanently deleted, including all derivative works from any platform.
For reasons good and bad (mostly bad), we’ve abandoned common sense when it comes to tech companies. We’ve allowed them to masquerade as something they are not while abusing personal and private data to pursue ends that many of us believe are not beneficial to the American people.
Our leaders need to come to grips with the rapid changes underway. AI, automation, personal data, illegal immigration, and social welfare systems are all interconnected. In the near future, when artificial intelligence leads to mass automation, accelerated by personal data, while we’re accepting small cities’ worth of low-skilled and unskilled workers, while more American workers are jobless, our social welfare systems will come to rely more and more on draconian taxes. We’ll essentially be working for the state, all thanks to the feckless leadership of the major political parties.
So we must ask ourselves what kind of future we want for ourselves and for our children. Because those decisions are being made right now and will impact each and every one of us.
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