Algorithms AI and Power

Should The Public Share Ownership of Algorithms Developed by Tech Giants?

Rajiv Malhotra’s book titled Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Power has given us much food for thought.

A chunk of it, to be honest, was known to me but not crystallized as well into problem statements, as he has done.

I have for instance worried about my data being used by technology giants in particular, and also, web page owners and God knows who else to map my character and behavior and whereabouts, with the goal of manipulating my actions.

I also found it disturbing that most of these parties were foreign entities doing business in India.

But Malhotra took my worries to another level when he pointed out that as these companies continued to operate in India, they would capture more data, identify patterns in that behavior to develop algorithms, and then those algorithms, with or without robots would replace Indian workers.

So now I’m thinking that when we’re welcoming foreign companies into the country in the hope that they will bring employment to our billions, they are in fact working to ensure that this employment wouldn’t happen. At least not on the scale that the government is anticipating. But while negotiating with the government for tax breaks and other advantages, they continue to use employment as an advantage that they’re bringing. 

And the problem doesn’t end there. Malhotra points out that robots don’t spend as consumers would nor do they pay taxes. So their activity doesn’t help the economy in any way. On the other hand, using them impoverishes the government, playing havoc with its ability to operate successfully and also to undertake welfare measures.

Now we may wonder why we don’t get rid of these guys. But it’s not that simple. The American technology giants have such deep pockets and tremendous resources that they are like a government unto themselves. Malhotra compares them with the East India Company. The East India Company was a mere corporation, but it assumed the power to frame laws, pass judgement, capture land and other property, dictate things to the rajas and mediate between them. The colonization of our country by the East India Company resulted in the sucking out of our wealth and the shut-down of our factories, transferring all the manufacturing (future wealth) to England.

Today’s technology giants, with all the real-time data that they have on us (through our online and sometimes offline activity), can control us more completely. And they’re working overtime to ensure 24-hour surveillance over each one of us. They’ve moved beyond “smart” phones and “smart” watches, to “smart” home products including “smart” TVs, “smart” washing machines, “smart” refrigerators and what have you. They’ve also introduced a new category (the Amazon Echos and their equivalents from Google and Apple) that are sitting in your living room, always on, waiting to respond swiftly to your voice command and capturing all your personal data in the process.

Because of the tremendous amounts of cash that they control, governments also find it hard to deal with them. Their lobbying expenses (decent way of labeling corporate bribes to government officials) continue to rise by the day.

Moreover, they’ve made huge long-term investments in platforms that are extremely sticky (Facebook, WhatsApp, Amazon, YouTube, etc.). So if you’ve spent a lot of time, and sometimes money, to build a huge following on social media, it becomes very hard to move away and risk losing that. Yet, the longer you stay, the more data they have on you and your followers, and the better they can control you. They can dictate terms to you, disallowing any post on the grounds of violation of “community standards”. And yet, they’re not obliged to reveal what those standards are, nor can you challenge them in any court.

India doesn’t have any comparable social network and most of the Indian startups are financially backed by American or Chinese venture capital. So as soon as they develop anything of value, they’re bought out by the tech giants or their technology is replicated by them (that’s true not just in India but elsewhere as well). For example, Facebook bought out WhatsApp and Instagram and when Snapchat refused, it copied its technology.

Indian software law is so behind the times that software isn’t patentable in India. So Indian software appears vulnerable to imitation by global giants. And artificial intelligence regulations are yet to be framed.

So as things stand now, we are stuck with many of these platforms. And we need a regulatory framework that can deal with the data theft by technology companies.

Users often give up their transaction and other data, because it seems like a small thing. And technology giants frame long and complex terms of use to trap people into accepting their default settings, which facilitate more data harvesting. The interesting thing however is that once this data is used to develop an algorithm (pattern of behavior, rule, etc) the data on which it is based becomes irrelevant and the algorithm has individual value.

Let me illustrate with an example from our culture. The Vedic rishis developed Jyotisha as a set of rules. Although I don’t know of my own knowledge if this was based on big data, but it must definitely have been based on observations of some kind. So we know that if Saturn or Rahu occupies the third house of your horoscope, you will either have no younger siblings, or your younger sibling will be a problem child or die early. As you can imagine, once this rule has been framed, it doesn’t matter at all what data was used to create it. We can now use this rule for future predictions. Vastu rules also have this predictive capability.

The problem with these tech giants is that they behave as if they own these algorithms whereas it is the property of the people they have mapped. Because they don’t share this knowledge, they have the power to make more advanced products that they can then sell at high prices to the wealthy. The people that contributed to the intellectual property are cut off. Our Vedic rishis wrote books defining the rules of Jyotisha, Vastu, etc., so people desiring to learn these things could do so. And this information could be embedded in our culture and architecture for the welfare of humankind.

In his book, Malhotra draws reference to the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity that echos this sentiment with respect to genetic resources:

A good analog for demanding fair data rights would be the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity, whose goals include the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from genetic resources. The treaty establishes conditions for access to genetic resources and ensures sharing fairly and equitably the results of research and development, and the benefits that arise from commercial and other utilization of genetic resources. The spirit of the treaty is based on the concept that developing countries providing genetic resources should receive a transfer of the technology that uses those resources. It stipulates that special attention be given to the development of national capabilities to reduce the vulnerability of developing nations.
Rajiv Malhotra, AI and the Future of Power, pp 62-63

Malhotra argues that the same principles should be the subject matter of debate in framing an international treaty on data rights. It shouldn’t be the prerogative of a financially motivated few to determine the future of the world’s data. I couldn’t agree more.

Sejuti Banerjea
Sejuti Banerjea

Financial analyst with interest in religion, philosophy and spirituality

1 thought on “Should The Public Share Ownership of Algorithms Developed by Tech Giants?”

  1. Old wine in a new bottle, East India Company then, Digital Colonization now aiming at obliterating Hinduism is clandestine and vulnerable remain clueless, suck up to the bait. Who is transforming whom and who is being transformed? The time is ripe to wake up the Kshatriya within us, enough of playing the victim card. Wake up Partha…

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