A Public Option for Artificial Intelligence

Hard on the heels of my recent participation in the conference on “Governing the Future: Digitalization, Artificial Intelligence, and Dataism”  in Thailand, this morning I found myself reading a New York Times piece about the future of data and AI. In Thailand, I argued from my just-finished book (which is undergoing peer review at this very moment) that we must uncover the cultural values that underwrite our interest in AI. Elsewhere in this blog, I noted that the collapse of Google’s ethics board for AI has something to do with a general disregard for the past and the present in its presumption that we can compose the future on a blank slate.

The NY Times essay (written by Ben Gansky, Michael Martin, and Ganesh Sitaraman) suggests that we need a “public option” in AI and big data management. The authors believe that if state and federal governments in the U.S. worked together they could open the door for start-ups and other entrepreneurs by maintaining data outside the confines of the big tech companies dominating the marketplace (Google, Facebook, etc.). In general, I support government efforts to democratize technology and to protect individuals from being disenfranchised by uniquely powerful modes of social control. In my conference talk, I suggested that collaboration among lawyers, policymakers, and academics might provide helpful direction for global decisions about technology. So this opinion piece looks like a positive step forward.

Nevertheless, I have some concerns about the approach:

  1. The authors claim that maintaining this public option will produce publicly funded R&D, thereby advancing U.S. economic interests. I’m not sure which research this will fund that couldn’t be handled by NSF or other government support: why would this public option provide a wider range of research than gets evaluated there? Why not simply improve NSF funding? The authors suggest that big tech companies want only to advance their profit margins and the public option would have a different motive, but I’m not sure they’ve shown this. After all, the point is supporting other market entrants. That U.S. law has enabled publicly-funded research to be patented (a questionable decision from the standpoint of the taxpayer) further muddles the question of how this project moves away from corporate value systems.
  2. As I’ve noted above, I’m interested in cultural values. In this case, the values built into the NY Times piece are principally about economics. The authors conclude by saying the public option “would facilitate the conditions for a competitive market with many players and many new innovations, all while preserving our democratic values and improving our society.” Intertwining competitive markets with democracies may be an important effort in defending the latter from the former, but that’s not self-evident. It might even be self-contradictory. Supporting small companies does not in any obvious way create a different approach to democracy and technology from that held by large companies.

Wider possession of data might open up democratic opportunities, but I suspect that we need a bigger shift. We need to see data analytics and AI data mining (not to mention AI data production through the composition of news pieces, film, etc.) as an opportunity to empower individual self-control rather than corporate control over individuals.

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