Joseph Stiglitz on artificial intelligence: 'We’re going towards a more divided society'


Saturday interview

Joseph Stiglitz on artificial intelligence: 'We’re going towards a more divided society'

The technology could vastly improve lives, the economist says – but only if the tech titans that control it are properly regulated. ‘What we have now is totally inadequate’
‘All the worst tendencies of the private sector in taking advantage of people are heightened by these new technologies’ ... Joseph Stiglitz.
by  Science editor Sat 8 Sep 2018 
It must be hard for Joseph Stiglitz to remain an optimist in the face of the grim future he fears may be coming. The Nobel laureate and former chief economist at the World Bank has thought carefully about how artificial intelligence will affect our lives. On the back of the technology, we could build ourselves a richer society and perhaps enjoy a shorter working week, he says. But there are countless pitfalls to avoid on the way. The ones Stiglitz has in mind are hardly trivial. He worries about hamfisted moves that lead to routine exploitation in our daily lives, that leave society more divided than ever and threaten the fundamentals of democracy.
It is the potential for datasets to be combined that most worries Stiglitz. For example, retailers can now track customers via their smartphones as they move around stores and can gather data on what catches their eye and which displays they walk straight past.
“In your interactions with Google, Facebook, Twitter and others, they gather an awful lot of data about you. If that data is combined with other data, then companies have a great deal of information about you as an individual – more information than you have on yourself,” he says.
“They know, for example, that people who search this way are willing to pay more. They know every store you’ve visited. That means that life is going to be increasingly unpleasant, because your decision to shop in a certain store may result in you paying more money. To the extent that people are aware of this game, it distorts their behaviour. What is clear is that it introduces a level of anxiety in everything we do and it increases inequality even more.”
Stiglitz poses a question that he suspects tech firms have faced internally. “Which is the easier way to make a buck: figuring out a better way to exploit somebody, or making a better product? With the new AI, it looks like the answer is finding a better way to exploit somebody.”
Grim revelations about how Russia turned to Facebook, Twitter and Google to interfere with the 2016 US election brought home how effectively people can be targeted with bespoke messages. Stiglitz is concerned that companies are using, or will use, similar tactics to exploit their customers, in particular those who are vulnerable, such as compulsive shoppers. “As opposed to a doctor who might help us manage our frailties, their objective is to take as much advantage of you as they can,” he says. “All the worst tendencies of the private sector in taking advantage of people are heightened by these new technologies.”
So far, Stiglitz argues, neither governments nor tech firms have done enough to prevent such abuses. “What we have now is totally inadequate,” he says. “There is nothing to circumscribe that kind of bad behaviour and we have enough evidence that there are people who are willing to do it, who have no moral compunction.”
In the US in particular, there has been a willingness to leave tech firms to thrash out decent rules of behaviour and adhere to them, Stiglitz believes. One of the many reasons is that the complexity of the technology can make it intimidating. “It overwhelms a lot of people and their response is: ‘We can’t do it, the government can’t do it, we have to leave it to the tech giants.’”

But Stiglitz thinks that view is changing. There is a growing awareness of how companies can use data to target customers, he believes. “Initially, a lot of young people took the view that I have nothing to hide: if you behave well, what are you afraid of? People thought: ‘What harm is there to it?’ And now they realise there can be a lot of harm. I think a large fraction of Americans no longer give the tech firms the benefit of the doubt.”
So, how do we get back on track? The measures Stiglitz proposes are broad and it is hard to see how they could be brought in swiftly. The regulatory structure has to be decided publicly, he says. This would include what data the tech firms can store; what data they can use; whether they can merge different datasets; the purposes for which they can use that data; and what degree of transparency they must provide about what they do with the data. “These are all issues that have to be decided,” he says. “You can’t allow the tech giants to do it. It has to be done publicly with an awareness of the danger that the tech firms represent.”
Fresh policies are needed to curb monopoly powers and redistribute the immense wealth that is concentrated in the leading AI firms, he adds. This month, Amazon became the second company, after Apple, to reach a market valuation of $1tn. The pair are now worth more than the top 10 oil companies combined. “When you have so much wealth concentrated in the hands of relatively few, you have a more unequal society and that is bad for our democracy,” says Stiglitz.
Taxes are not enough. To Stiglitz, this is about labour bargaining power, intellectual property rights, redefining and enforcing competition laws, corporate governance laws and the way the financial system operates. “It’s a much broader agenda than just redistribution,” he says.
He is not a fan of universal basic income, a proposal under which everyone receives a no-strings handout to cover the costs of living. Advocates argue that, as tech firms gather ever more wealth, UBI could help to redistribute the proceeds and ensure that everyone benefits. But, to Stiglitz, UBI is a cop-out. He does not believe it is what most people want.
“If we don’t change our overall economic and policy framework, what we’re going towards is greater wage inequality, greater income and wealth inequality and probably more unemployment and a more divided society. But none of this is inevitable,” he says. “By changing the rules, we could wind up with a richer society, with the fruits more equally divided, and quite possibly where people have a shorter working week. We’ve gone from a 60-hour working week to a 45-hour week and we could go to 30 or 25.”
None of this will happen overnight, he warns. A more robust public debate around AI and work is needed to throw up new ideas, for a start. “Silicon Valley may hire a disproportionate fraction [of people who work in AI], but it may not take that many people to figure it out, including people from Silicon Valley who have become disgruntled with what has been going on,” he says. “People will, and have already begun to, think about new ideas. There will be people with skills who try to work out solutions.”

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