Big data and Artificial intelligence

Harnessing massive volumes of data and developing predictive and prescriptive models to beat out the competition or adversaries is the 21st century’s arms race. This development is a natural progression following the availability of cheaper storage capacity and the computing power to process it.

It’s tempting to think of technological innovations as morally neutral. After all, it’s how we choose to use them that determines whether they produce desirable or adverse outcomes. Big data and the related Artificial Intelligence algorithms are different because machines can be taught to make decisions on our behalf. Depending on how these algorithms are trained human bias can easily (inadvertently or deliberately) creep in and distort outcomes or push agendas.

In the same way that data can be analysed to find cures for diseases, alleviate poverty, and combat climate change it can also be used to tempt us to click on ads more often and buy more stuff that we didn’t know we needed. Add to this the potential to disseminate disinformation then the picture becomes worse.

Today, we voluntarily give up personal data about our physical activities to ‘earn’ Apple watches and cappuccinos or allow Insurance companies to monitor our driving habits in exchange for reduced premiums. Tomorrow, we might allow our brains to be probed for the lure of big screen TVs and super-fast internet connections. That’s extreme and improbable but not impossible.

So even though we want to consider technological innovation morally neutral each new innovation brings with it new ways of viewing the world and treating people; essentially it shapes Society. Political currents and capital distribution then further dictate the contours, the winners and the losers.

There is, of course, huge upside but taken to extremes we risk losing a bit more (or a lot more) of what it means to be human.

Zaheer Ismail