Controlling technology
BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz (The Philippine Star) - April 19, 2018 - 12:00am

The term “technology titans” refers to a handful of technology-based companies that have become so dominant that they are being accused of being BAADD – big, anti-competitive, addictive and destructive to democracy. The three largest titans are Google, Facebook and Amazon. These companies are also accused of using their power to protect and even enlarge their dominance to the detriment of consumers. 

Recently, the most controversial titan has been Facebook which reportedly has allowed its accumulated data on its hundreds of millions of subscribers to be used by commercial and political entities without notifying the subscriber that his or her privacy has been breached. Facebook has also been accused of allowing itself to be the primary channel for “fake news” and “hate news.” There is increasing political pressure to try and break up the monopoly of these technology titans. However, the recent congressional hearings in the United States regarding Facebook revealed the difficulty of regulating or controlling technology.

The traditional method of controlling monopolies is by price controls, such as setting power rates and gasoline prices; or, by forcing companies to break up. The problem is that technology companies like Google and Facebook offer their services for free and are, therefore, immune to price controls. These companies are also considered impossible to break up because they do not have any fixed assets to divide. 

However, the threat of regulation has forced Facebook to try and address the issues of data privacy and “fake news.” In the United States, Facebook announced that it was increasing its manpower utilized for monitoring possible “fake news.” In other countries, this monitoring has been outsourced to local organizations. In the Philippines, Facebook has tied up with Rappler and Vera Files for the task of monitoring “fake news.”

While the present obsession is the regulation of the Internet, a bigger and much harder challenge is already upon us. This is Artificial Intelligence (AI) which will have a greater impact on our daily lives and will even be more difficult to regulate.

According to Alexandra Suich Bass, AI is spreading beyond the technology sector, with big consequences for companies, workers and companies. In a recent article in the Economist, the following examples were cited:

“Lie detectors are not widely used in business, but Ping An, a Chinese insurance company, thinks it can spot dishonesty. The company lets customers apply for loans through its app. Prospective borrowers answer questions about their incomes and plans for repayments by video, which monitors around 50 tiny facial expressions to determine whether they are telling the truth. The program, enabled by AI helps pinpoint customers who require further scrutiny.

AI will change more than borrowers’ bank balances. Johnson & Johnson, a consumer goods firm and Accenture, a consultancy, use AI to sort through job applications and pick the best candidates. AI helps Caesars, a casino and hotel group, guess customers likely spending patterns and offer personalized promotions to draw them in.  Bloomberg, a media and financial information firm, uses AI to scan companies’ earnings releases and automatically generate news articles. Vodafone, a mobile operator can predict problems with its network and with users’ devices before they arise. Companies in every industry use AI to monitor cyber security threats and other risks such as disgruntled employees.”

Artificial Intelligence will be beneficial for the world of business. But several writers have already warned us of the negative effects of AI. First and foremost is the effect on jobs. It has been reported that one European bank already has a study on how AI can reduce its operations personnel from 50,000 to 500. The study reportedly showed that AI can take over functions in customer services and human resources. 

McKinsey, the world’s leading consultancy firm has estimated that by 2031 up to 375 million people or 14 percent of the global workforce could have their jobs automated. I have seen other studies that show a higher percentage of jobs lost to automation. This means that a person entering college this year could find his job automated by the time he reaches the age of 30. Millions of people will have to be retrained or we will have a huge army of unemployed educated people. 

One of the major issues that the Facebook scandal unearthed is the loss of privacy of the individual. But as AI spreads, governments and businesses will even have better tools for monitoring their population and potential consumers. Facial recognition techniques, using AI, have become very advanced. Countries with a record of suppressing political dissent are already using AI to monitor political activity in order to suppress dissent. The issue of privacy will be a major human rights issue in the coming world of AI.

Another major concern is that a technology company that achieves a major breakthrough in AI could put competitors out of business and lessen competition. This is already happening in the retail sector where Amazon has used advanced technology to put traditional store retailers out of business. 

The technology of the future, especially AI, will pose a major risk of becoming a disruptive social and political force.  We cannot suppress technology; but, the world must find a way for all people to adapt to the changes it will bring so that coming technological revolution will be a positive force for humankind.

Summer creative writing classes and workshop for kids and teens

Young Writers’ Hangout on April 21 and 28, May 12, 19 and 26 (1:30 pm-3 pm; independent sessions); Wonder of Words Workshop on May 7, 9, 11, 14, 16 and 18 (1:30-3:30 pm for 8-12 years old/ 4-6 pm for 13-17 years old) at Fully Booked BGC.  For details and registration contact 0945-2273216 or writethingsph@gmail.com.

Email:elfrencruz@gmail.com

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