IS THE MIRROR OF THE NEW TECHNOLOGIES AS BLACK AS ALL THAT?

LE MIROIR NOIR DES NOUVELLES TECHNOLOGIES

Ever since the Enlightenment, we have tended to believe that technical and social progress go hand-in-hand. Following this logic, the new technologies are often depicted as drivers of equality. Whether we are talking about efforts by Facebook, Google and SpaceX to bring Internet connection to rural areas, drones that deliver medicines to the most isolated parts of Africa  or algorithms designed to aid decision-making which are supposed to avoid any bias likely to prevent people from behaving fairly and impartially, there is no shortage of examples showing how technology can serve to even up the situation for people. However, in parallel with the progressive current of philosophical thought which has permeated western society since the Enlightenment, there has always been a degree of skepticism as regards technical progress, and digital technology is no exception to this rule.

So, although few would deny the amazing potential of the new technologies, many nevertheless accuse them of mainly favoring the interests of the better-off in society. Automation and robotics, which enable overall efficiency gains, consequently threaten to increase the level of unemployment among technically less-qualified workers. Algorithms developed to aid decision-making are often biased against disadvantaged people; and in spite of all efforts to narrow the digital divide, a majority of the world's population still have no Internet connection. All these drawbacks lead to the inherently egalitarian dimension of the new technologies being regularly called into question. This topic was debated with great passion by Rose Stuckey Kirk, Chief Corporate Responsibility Officer at Verizon, and Babak Hodjat, co-founder and CEO of  Sentient Technologies, a company specializing in evolutionary Artificial Intelligence, at the latest Collision event in New Orleans in April-May.

rose stuckey kirk at collision

collision

Rose Stuckey Kirk argues that while the new technologies undoubtedly possess amazing potential to make people both more prosperous and more equal, the imperfections of our society nevertheless mean that today, in practice, these technologies are actually fuelling inequality. In a country like the United States, where the education system is already highly inequitable, she told the Collision audience, digital technology is serving only to widen the divide between disadvantaged children and kids from well-off families. Better-off children, who already use the new technologies in their daily lives, are also lucky enough to attend schools that have ample budgets and can therefore help them even more to get to grips with digital tools. These pupils learn to use a computer and to write code at a very young age.

Education is key

Children from underprivileged families, who do not have such opportunities, therefore often find themselves way behind their peers who come from more prosperous families or regions. This means they have very little chance of gaining access to better training, which would in turn enable them to obtain well-paid jobs with firms in the digital technology industry. This concern was also voiced by Laurent Alexandre in his book entitled La Guerre des intelligences ('the War of Intelligences'). The French doctor and author fears that, given the progress being made in Artificial Intelligence, a school that is unable to carry out radical reforms can only increase inequality, with on the one hand an elite which is perfectly integrated into the digital economy, and on the other the rest of the population, who will be condemned to unemployment or a life of serial odd jobs.

 "These algorithms, which are supposed to be objective, are in reality prey to the same biases as the people who designed them, and this hurts the least well-off."

Rose Stuckey Kirk insists that education is the crux of a problem that extends to all areas of society. The United States health system, which is already working at two different speeds – one for those who enjoy a good insurance package paid for by their company, and a different speed for those who simply do not have the means to pay prohibitive health costs – could be rendered even more unequal by the workings of the new technologies. Wealthy people will benefit from the latest advances in precision medicine and robotics while everyone else will be left behind. Last but not least, argues Ms Stuckey Kirk, algorithms designed to assist with decision-making, which are used by the courts, the police and insurance companies, are not as neutral as is claimed. "These algorithms, which are supposed to be objective, are in reality prey to the same biases as the people who designed them, and this hurts the least well-off", the Verizon Chief Corporate Responsibility Officer told the Collision conference. She is far from being the only one to think so. In her book Weapons of Math Destruction, mathematician Cathy O'Neil also points to the discriminatory nature of decision-making algorithms and the devastating consequences for the most vulnerable fringes of the population. Ms O'Neil recently started up a business that specializes in auditing algorithms with the aim of ensuring that they are free of all bias. Rose Stuckey Kirk summed up the situation by saying that "in a society where the jobs and the economic equality and opportunity are sitting with those who have access to technology, we are inadvertently leaving behind the least well-off people because technology is indeed creating inequality."

ARE WE ALL 'eQUAL' AS REGARDS THE NEW TECHNOLOGIES?

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The new technologies: a positive impact overall

2.3

MILLION

JOBS WILL BE CREATED IN THE USA BY 2020 THANKS TO AI

Babak Hodjat takes a more optimistic view. While recognizing that the new technologies are undeniably having some undesirable consequences, he insists that, on the whole, they are making a positive impact. "There is definitely inequality, there's no doubt about that. But I don't think technology is responsible for that. It's a syndrome of systemic issues in our society, our democracy and our capitalism", he told the Collision audience, arguing: "For the most part, it's technology that enables us and empowers us to fight that. Technology is the source of most job creation around the world." The Sentient Technologies CEO acknowledged that new technology has brought a wave of "job displacement" but pointed out that "ultimately it has brought about a net gain in jobs. Since 1990, the computer industry has added 18.5 million jobs in the United States. Mobile technology has created ten million jobs and added 5.1% of GDP." Meanwhile, Artificial Intelligence, "which many people thought was going to take over our jobs, will account for a net gain in jobs of 2.3 million in the United States by 2020", according to a recent Gartner report. And jobs are "fundamentally an enabler" for equality, Babak Hodjat underlined.  

The Internet has played a strong role in spreading democracy around the world. We keep hearing about the 'Twitter Revolution' and the 'Facebook Revolt' – countries with no knowledge of what democracy and freedom are opening their eyes to that.

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Babak Hodjat

Moving on to the field of education, Babak Hodjat did not deny that there are inequalities when it comes to accessing the education system but argued that here again technology is a practical means of reducing injustices in this domain. Thanks to the availability of online courses such as those provided by Khan Academy, which are "democratizing” learning, "anyone who has access to a mobile phone and the Internet has access to the highest quality education possible", he told the Collision auditorium.  Meanwhile Internet players and digital sector manufacturers and providers are also working to narrow the digital divide. "Facebook, Google, Verizon, Dell, etc. know that increasing their market means increasing the penetration of broadband, WiFi and Internet. So, for example, Dell alone helped 2.3 million low-income family kids get access to new technology" at school.   

Mr Hodjat went on to mention microloans and online payments facilities that enable "mom-and-pop stores and entrepreneurs with a dream to get to where they want to go. This was not possible even ten years ago."

The Sentient Technologies CEO also underlined how the Internet has played a strong role in spreading democracy around the world. "We keep hearing about the 'Twitter Revolution' and the 'Facebook Revolt' – countries with no knowledge of what democracy and freedom are opening their eyes to that", he pointed out.

Technology is responsible for increasing inequality
  • 1 min

Should tech monopolies be broken up?

Babak Hodjat suggested that the harmful role sometimes pinned on the new technologies is partly due to an inherently alarmist tendency in human beings. By giving us access to a wide array of information, including "negative stories", the Internet tends to show up what is going wrong and what remains to be done to improve things, but it "does have this power to magnify disproportionately what is wrong."  However, the digital world is not exempt from failings either, he told the audience, arguing that we should "hold parties responsible for the disproportionate power that they wield with the technology they have at their disposal."

Mr Hodjat suggested that Facebook is a good example of this. He had attended a conference last year where "Mark Zuckerberg talked about how he had made an exception to their filtering rules so as to allow something that Donald Trump said to propagate as a news item, which would ordinarily have been filtered out. How did Mark Zuckerberg get to make that call? We've given this one person disproportionate power – and that's where the responsible party lies in this particular case, in my opinion", insisted the Sentient Technologies CEO, arguing that society ought to be enacting rules and regulations around ethics and conduct in such fields.

During Mark Zuckerberg's recent hearing before Members of the European Parliament, a number of EU legislators expressed concern over the power wielded by Facebook, some claiming that the social network provider now had the ability to control information, others arguing that a monopoly of this size ought in any case to be dismantled.  Meanwhile, other commentators have been voicing their alarm at the power wielded by all the Internet giants and calling on politicians and legislators take appropriate action to curb it. Google is also faced with a lawsuit filed recently by opinion crowd-sourcing platform Yelp alleging that the world's favorite search engine provider has been indulging in anti-competitive practices, notably by routing Internet traffic towards its own content and services.  Moreover, the European Commission slapped a €2.4 billion fine on Google for 'abuse of dominant position', against which the company has filed a formal appeal.  

Man will always be the master of technology

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Behind the screen, a human being is still at the controls

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Regard d'expert

Babak Hodjat

CEO Sentient Technologies

We need to explicitly think about the implications of technology rather than blindly following the latest breakthrough.

Although Rose Stuckey Kirk argued that "we will never be able to fix human biases" and that there are always going to be inequalities, she suggested that the best way to maximise the positive aspects of the new technologies and minimise their undesirable effects is to work for a more egalitarian education system. "I think our best point of intervention is in the hearts and minds of the young people that we're educating in America." She expressed the hope that we can "take those hearts and minds and (…)  teach them how to use the tools (…) to help solve society's problems but also to ensure respect for each other – not only give everyone access to the technology but also teach them to use it responsibly."

Babak Hodjat broadly shared this view. He underlined: "We need to explicitly think about the implications of technology rather than blindly following the latest breakthrough. If you build a deep learning model just based on images or text, you're likely to have it reflect the biases that were there when that data was collected or created.  We need to come up with ways to (…) ensure that the systems we're building comply with what we believe is an equitable society… and of course, on top of that, have the regulations and the laws to ensure that we are on the path to get to that society."

Mr Hodjat agreed that education is a major area for action here. "When we're using mobile technology or the social networks, we somehow seem to delegate our responsibility. We're now very reactive to what is shown to us, it's a quick feedback loop, we see something and we hit 'like'. We're really going the wrong way. But the responsibility is on us. If fake news is causing issues in our democracy, it's not inherently that there's a medium in which the fake news is propagated, it's the people who are affected by that without thinking. So we need to educate our kids at a very young age about that responsibility" as regards the use of the Internet and digital technologies, the Sentient Technologies CEO told the Collision audience.

By Guillaume Renouard