By Arab News
By Yossi Mekelberg*
In his rather dystopian foray into an educated prophecy about what society will look like 100 years from now, the celebrated historian Yuval Noah Harari remarked: “We will be the last generation of homo sapiens. In 100 years, the species that will inherit the Earth will be as different to us as we are from Neanderthals or chimpanzees.” Equally telling was his assertion that the future of humankind will be decided by the people that own our data. With the pace at which the development of big data and artificial intelligence (AI) is gathering momentum and influencing our daily lives, this is probably going to happen much faster than Harari predicted.
We, as humanity, submit ourselves to technological innovations that are radically changing our way of life and compromising our privacy beyond repair, without stopping to reflect on what it may be doing to us as individuals or societies. Public debates and legislation on containing the hazards that stem from technology are constantly lagging behind the pace of innovation. In a matter of just over two decades, the big data collectors — be they governments, businesses or any other organizations with which we interact— have turned into hungry monsters with an infinite appetite for information. We the public acquiesce with our thirst for innovation marketed in shiny gadgets, and are throwing away basic human rights that collectively have taken many centuries to achieve, including the freedom to be autonomous decision-makers, and to control the extent to which we are prepared to share our private information with others.
As a consequence, those with vested interests who follow our activities are feeding AI with this information, aiming to influence our behavior to their own advantage, not ours. Thus we become puppets on a string controlled by those behind AI. This process is making redundant that which makes us humans and a unique species capable of thinking for ourselves, being creative, being intuitive as much as rational, and learning through trial and error — and not programmed machines.
Last month, John Hancock, one of the largest life insurance providers in North America, announced that it would no longer offer policies that do not include digital fitness tracking. Had this been a project aimed at encouraging people to exercise, especially considering the obesity epidemic that is affecting many parts of the world, John Hancock would have deserved a hearty slap on the back. After all, exercise has been proven to increase both life expectancy and improve quality of life. Many of us who harbor a guilty conscience because we have paid for membership of a gym we hardly ever use, do recognize the need for more time spent doing sport instead of watching it.
However, before we rush to congratulate the John Hancocks of this world, we should actually be afraid; very, very afraid. John Hancock’s move is an example of the corporate world dictating — not suggesting, recommending or advising — how to improve our health. The company’s new policy will give it the power to track its customers’ whereabouts, their intake and expenditure of calories, monitor their heart rate and blood pressure at any given time, and tell them how they should alter their way of life.
Offering policyholders discounts and rewards, such as gift cards, for hitting exercise targets cannot compensate for taking away individuals’ judgment and responsibility over their own lives. Canceling someone’s life policy for behavior deemed by an insurance company to be responsible for one’s untimely demise will leave many families not only heartbroken, but also penniless. What might be the next condition insurers impose before they issue a certificate of life insurance? A DNA test perhaps, followed by a hike in the premium or even an outright refusal to insure a person if they don’t like the results? This will end in further enriching insurance companies while exposing too many of us to their whims.
There is also an element of arrogance in the claims made by those who believe that big data and the rise and rise of the algorithm can provide an answer to all of society’s ills. Any data, big or small, is only as good as its analysis and interpretation. Moreover, big data supporters appear unable to accept that humans are imperfect and hence make imperfect choices — themselves included. AI is only as good as those humans who develop and program it. What is inevitable is that tracking any and every single human action will eventually lead to authoritarianism, but this time we will not be controlled by the people with political or military power, but by those who possess information about every aspect of our lives.
Cyberspace data vultures follow us every time we surf the internet, logging our interests, preferences, and our social and political habits. Then, with the help of some obscure algorithm, bounce it back to us with endless advertisements and promotions, tailor-made to alter or reinforce our behavior. Free will as a concept was a complex issue that was open to interpretation long before we became so careless about sharing information with complete strangers. In the age of smartphones and smartwatches, where information is a source of social and political power, not to mention money, free will becomes a dwindling commodity.
There is a huge difference between technology mobilized to improve the human condition, and technology that uses data to spy on and control people’s lives. Who doesn’t find it spooky that, when they leave a restaurant, their phone is asking them to review that restaurant? A private meal with your friends or business associates is being monitored by someone or something.
It is, of course, of more concern when medical, personal or financial details are collected with no forewarning or explicit permission. It is an unsettling and frightening invasion of what in a free society is regarded as private space. This space should be displaying a huge sign declaring “no unauthorized entry.” Innovation in the name of improving human health and well-being is something to be encouraged, but “algoritocracy” is a menace to all free people and societies.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg