You all are going to think I am the Grim Reaper of new technologies, crying that the sky is falling at every turn. Yes, I am using this blog as a forum – amongst other things — to discuss the difficult decisions that businesses, lawyers and society need to face when looking at how new technologies like Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain and Biometrics may impact our lives. (examples, here, here and here).
Working for a tech company that invests millions in innovation, I am very interested in seeing how we can use new technologies to improve society. But in order to do that, we need to be very vigilant. The consequences of not doing so could be disastrous and significantly change the course of humankind.
Am I exaggerating? In a must read article in The Atlantic, Yuval Noah Harari (author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Homo Deux: A Brief History of Tomorrow) makes precisely that argument:
More practically, and more immediately, if we want to prevent the concentration of all wealth and power in the hands of a small elite, we must regulate the ownership of data. In ancient times, land was the most important asset, so politics was a struggle to control land. In the modern era, machines and factories became more important than land, so political struggles focused on controlling these vital means of production. In the 21st century, data will eclipse both land and machinery as the most important asset, so politics will be a struggle to control data’s flow.
Unfortunately, we don’t have much experience in regulating the ownership of data, which is inherently a far more difficult task than regulating land or machines. Data are everywhere and nowhere at the same time, they can move at the speed of light, and you can create as many copies of them as you want. Do the data collected about my DNA, my brain, and my life belong to me, or to the government, or to a corporation, or to the human collective?
. . . Currently, humans risk becoming similar to domesticated animals. We have bred docile cows that produce enormous amounts of milk but are otherwise far inferior to their wild ancestors. They are less agile, less curious, and less resourceful. We are now creating tame humans who produce enormous amounts of data and function as efficient chips in a huge data-processing mechanism, but they hardly maximize their human potential. If we are not careful, we will end up with downgraded humans misusing upgraded computers to wreak havoc on themselves and on the world.
If you find these prospects alarming—if you dislike the idea of living in a digital dictatorship or some similarly degraded form of society—then the most important contribution you can make is to find ways to prevent too much data from being concentrated in too few hands, and also find ways to keep distributed data processing more efficient than centralized data processing. These will not be easy tasks. But achieving them may be the best safeguard of democracy.
The world my children and their children will inhabit will be vastly different from ours in ways we cannot even begin to imagine.