Beware the rise of the digital oligarchy

Beware the rise of the digital oligarchy 1024 566 Neil Lawrence

My latest post for The Guardian on the rise of the digital oligarchy:

Powerful algorithms are concentrating the ownership of personal data in few hands. We need rights to control who accesses it.

The Bank of St George, founded in 1407 in the Italian Republic of Genova, is one of the world’s oldest banks. It was so powerful that it governed many of Genova’s possessions on the republic’s behalf. This power was based on accumulated capital. The power of accumulated capital can still dominate international affairs, but a new form of power is also emerging, that of accumulated data through loyalty cards, text messages, credit card transactions, web browsing and social networking. Data is the new currency.

Where does this power come from? Cross-linking of different data sources can give deep insights into personality, health, commercial intent and risk. The aim now is to understand and characterise the population, down to the individual level.

Personalisation is the watchword, with targeted search results, social network news feed, movie recommendations and adverts. The upside is good: we could target specific health recommendations, give better treatments and earlier diagnoses for disease, and provide better support to the elderly and otherwise incapacitated people.

But there are also major ethical questions. For banks it is clear, we own the money we deposit there. They only hold our capital under license and pay us directly for using it. Ownership of data is less clear. In the past acquiring data was expensive: it required questionnaires and manual collation of information. Today we leave digital footprints in our wake, and acquisition of personal data is relatively cheap.

Our personal data reflects our interests, our desires: it is a digital extension of our soul. By giving it away so freely to social networks, supermarket loyalty cards and internet search engines have we engaged in some form of Faustian pact? Our digital souls may not be immortal, but they can certainly outlive us. What we choose to share also affects those around us: my wife and I may be happy to share information about our genetics, but by doing so we are also sharing information about our children’s genomes. Using a supermarket loyalty card gains us discounts on our weekly shop, but also gives the supermarket detailed information about our family diet.

Machine learning is at the heart of the current revolution in artificial intelligence. A major aim of the field is to develop algorithms that better understand all of this data. Already machine-learning techniques are used to recognise faces or make movie recommendations, but as we develop better algorithms for aggregated data, our understanding of the individual also improves. There have been calls from Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking and others to regulate artificial intelligence research. They cite fears about autonomous and sentient artificial intelligence that could self-replicate beyond our control. Most of my colleagues believe that such breakthroughs are beyond the foreseeable horizon of current research. Sentient intelligence is still not at all well understood.

Continue reading on The Guardian here.

Picture credit: Roman Mager

Neil Lawrence

Neil holds the collaborative Chair in Neuroscience and Computer Science at the University of Sheffield. Neil’s main research interest is machine learning through probabilistic models. He focuses on both the algorithmic side of these models and their application. He was Program Chair of NIPS in 2014 and is General Chair for 2015. Neil has a monthly column in The Guardian and is writing a book about Data Ethics. He enjoys cycling and last summer he spent six weeks cycling up and down the Alps. Many have tried, but no one has figured out how he fits everything in.

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