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No, Scientific American, Don’t Starve AI!

Don't unplug AI; just make sure everyone shares in both the creation and the benefits

William Davidow and Michael S. Malone argued recently in Scientific American for “starving” AI of data, to thwart the constant surveillance and data grabs of corporations and government. In my view, however, the problem is not AI; it’s the fact that vast personal data lie in the hands of a few, who also hold the levers of power.

First, using data for bad purposes is not a new problem. It’s been with us ever since people started collecting data on each other. We can find an example in the Old Testament when David sins by taking a census of Israel about 1000 BC. (The sin is thought to be his desire to raise a bigger army than needed and levy more taxes). In the early 20th century, the United States’ government, as well as others, was using census data to assist with carrying out eugenics policies. Computers made oppression easier by giving those in power the ability to crunch enormous amounts of data. For example, the Nazis gave IBM its start when IBM provided punch card computers that helped them keep track of the Jewish and other populations and more efficiently carry out the Holocaust.

How can we prevent this sort of exploitation? We can invent new technologies to better restrict data spread, but that’s not a one-stop solution. The technology itself enables the digitization and capture of data. Most likely, regardless of what technology is invented, data will continue to be collected and used to exploit the population.

To most people, it’s an invisible theoretical problem. Just as there is seldom an outcry over the massive, constant big business breaches of data privacy, many people will not take steps to protect their personal data. Plus, we enjoy and value the free services these companies offer us in exchange for all the personal data we give them.

Not only will it be difficult or impossible to prevent the collection of our data, our data will also shape us. Because the data will be used to control what we have access to, we will conform to gain the access we want.

So, this is all pretty grim and pessimistic. Is there any silver lining? Yes. Data is the new oil. Just as oil has negative outcomes, it also has positive outcomes. It pollutes the environment but it has driven the global economy to the point of pulling the majority of the world’s population out of abject poverty. In the same way, our very ability to generate all this data can lead to another global economic revolution.

The fundamental difference between a computer and a mind is that the human mind — and this is every single human mind — can create information. On the other hand, computers are fundamentally incapable of creating information.

While many are concerned about all the jobs that AI will eliminate and the way it accelerates data exploitation, no one is talking about the fact that AI needs humans. Information is the fuel that powers AI, and only humans can create this information.

So, the real revolution that AI will bring is not data exploitation, but the empowering of people all around the world to power our economy through the creation of information. Is that good news for everyone? No, those who merely use AI to control people, like the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), will miss out on this revolution and fall behind. Whereas those who understand this fundamental power of the human mind will triumph.

We saw this happen at the end of the 20th century, when the Soviet Union fell. The Soviet Union went bankrupt because it did not understand that humans create wealth; it focused on merely redistributing wealth. Likewise, the CCP, which believes that humans are just fancy computers redistributing information, will fall behind the economies that operate on the basis that the human mind creates information.

Further reading:

At Scientific American: Starve artificial intelligence! Silicon Valley authors seek to limit AI’s power. Jonathan Bartlett doesn’t think it really has the power they are worried about. He agrees with Valley pioneers Davidow and Malone, authors of The Autonomous Revolution (2020) that there are real problems with the misuse of AI. But, he says, that’s because we treat it as powerful. It is a servant but we make it a master.

Eric Holloway

Senior Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Eric Holloway is a Senior Fellow with the Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence, and holds a PhD in Electrical & Computer Engineering from Baylor University. A Captain in the United States Air Force, he served in the US and Afghanistan. He is the co-editor of Naturalism and Its Alternatives in Scientific Methodologies.

No, Scientific American, Don’t Starve AI!