Beware the Rise of the Digital Oligarchy

The Guardian’s media network published a short article I wrote for them on 5th March. They commissioned an article of about 600 words, that appeared on the Guardian’s site, but the original version I wrote was around 1400. I agreed a week’s exclusivity with the Guardian, but now that’s up, the longer version is below (it’s about twice as long).

On a recent visit to Genova, during a walk through the town with my colleague Lorenzo, he pointed out what he said was the site of the world’s first commercial bank. The bank of St George, located just outside the city’s old port, grew to be one of the most powerful institutions in Europe, it bankrolled Charles V and governed many of Genova’s possessions on the republic’s behalf. The trust that its clients placed in the bank is shown in records of its account holders. There are letters from Christopher Columbus to the bank instructing them in the handling of his affairs. The influence of the bank was based on the power of accumulated capital. Capital they could accumulate through the trust of a wealthy client base. The bank was so important in the medieval world that Machiavelli wrote that “if even more power was ceded by the Genovan republic to the bank, Genova would even outshine Venice amongst the Italian city states.” The Bank of St George was once one of the most influential private institutions in Europe.

Today the power wielded by accumulated capital can still dominate international affairs, but a new form of power is emerging, that of accumulated data. Like Hansel and Grettel trailing breadcrumbs into the forest, people now leave a trail of data-crumbs wherever we travel. Supermarket loyalty cards, text messages, credit card transactions, web browsing and social networking. The power of this data emerges, like that of capital, when it’s accumulated. 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 is now to understand and characterize the population, perhaps down to the individual level. Personalization is the watch word for your search results, your social network news feed, your movie recommendations and even your friends. This is not a new phenomenon, psychologists and social scientists have always attempted to characterize the population, to better understand how to govern or who to employ. They acquired their data by carefully constructed questionnaires to better understand personality and intelligence. The difference is the granularity with which these characterizations are now made, instead of understanding groups and sub-groups in the population, the aim is to understand each person. There are wonderful possibilities, we should  better understand health, give earlier diagnoses for diseases such as dementia and provide better support to the elderly and otherwise incapacitated people. But there are also major ethical questions, and they don’t seem to be adequately addressed by our current legal frameworks. For Columbus it was clear, he was the owner of the money in his accounts. His instructions to the bank tell them how to distribute it to friends and relations. They only held his capital under license. A convenient storage facility. Ownership of data is less clear. Historically, acquiring data was expensive: questionnaires were painstakingly compiled and manually distributed. When answering, the risk of revealing too much of ourselves was small because the data never accumulated. Today we leave digital footprints in our wake, and acquisition of this data is relatively cheap. It is the processing of the data that is more difficult.

I’m a professor of machine learning. Machine learning is the main technique at the heart of the current revolution in artificial intelligence. A major aim of our field is to develop algorithms that better understand data: that can reveal the underlying intent or state of health behind the information flow. Already machine learning techniques are used to recognise faces or make recommendations, as we develop better algorithms that better aggregate data, our understanding of the individual also improves.

What do we lose by revealing so much of ourselves? How are we exposed when so much of our digital soul is laid bare? Have we engaged in a Faustian pact with the internet giants? Similar to Faust, we might agree to the pact in moments of levity, or despair, perhaps weakened by poor health. My father died last year, but there are still echoes of him on line. Through his account on Facebook I can be reminded of his birthday or told of common friends. Our digital souls may not be immortal, but they certainly outlive us. What we choose to share also affects our family: my wife and I may be happy to share information about our genetics, perhaps for altruistic reasons, or just out of curiosity. 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. In this way we’d expose both the nature and nurture of our children’s upbringing. Will our decisions to make this information available haunt our children in the future? Are we equipped to understand the trade offs we make by this sharing?

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 horizon of current research. Sentient intelligence is  still not at all well understood. As Ryan Adams, a friend and colleague based at Harvard tweeted:

Personally, I worry less about the machines, and more about the humans with enhanced powers of data access. After all, most of our historic problems seem to have come from humans wielding too much power, either individually or through institutions of government or business. Whilst sentient AI does seem beyond our horizons, one aspect of it is closer to our grasp. An aspect of sentient intelligence is ‘knowing yourself’, predicting your own behaviour. It does seem to me plausible that through accumulation of data computers may start to ‘know us’ even better than we know ourselves. I think that one concern of Musk and Hawking is that the computers would act autonomously on this knowledge. My more immediate concern is that our fellow humans, through the modern equivalents of the bank of St George, will be exploiting this knowledge leading to a form of data-oligarchy. And in the manner of oligarchies, the power will be in the hands of very few but wielded to the effect of many.

How do we control for all this? Firstly, we need to consider how to regulate the storage of data. We need better models of data-ownership. There was no question that Columbus was the owner of the money in his accounts. He gave it under license, and he could withdraw it at his pleasure. For the data repositories we interact with we have no right of deletion. We can withdraw from the relationship, and in Europe data protection legislation gives us the right to examine what is stored about us. But we don’t have any right of removal. We cannot withdraw access to our historic data if we become concerned about the way it might be used. Secondly, we need to increase transparency. If an algorithm makes a recommendation for us, can we known on what information in our historic data that prediction was based? In other words, can we know how it arrived at that prediction? The first challenge is a legislative one, the second is both technical and social. It involves increasing people’s understanding of how data is processed and what the capabilities and limitations of our algorithms are.

There are opportunities and risks with the accumulation of data, just as there were (and still are) for the accumulation of capital. I think there are many open questions, and we should be wary of anyone who claims to have all the answers. However, two directions seem clear: we need to both increase the power of the people; we need to develop their understanding of the processes. It is likely to be a fraught process, but we need to form a data-democracy: data governance for the people by the people and with the people’s consent.

Neil Lawrence is a Professor of Machine Learning at the University of Sheffield. He is an advocate of “Open Data Science” and an advisor to a London based startup, CitizenMe, that aims to allow users to “reclaim their digital soul”.


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