In the past we always thought technology products would always be a force for good. We were lured by their convenience and ease-of-use; by the idea of free access to everything and everyone. We did not see and did not focus on the dark side until it was too late. By then, most consumers were already addicted, with horrific consequences for public health democracy and the economy.
Smart-phones in these days are incredibly valuable, but the apps delivered on them are the technological equivalent to sugar: easy to consume to excess. Internet platforms apply the techniques of propaganda or gambling to trigger emotional responses over which users have little or no control. Technology companies are running an uncontrolled psychological experiment on billions of people. Silicon Valley has reached a point which we could summarize as “Build it first and ask for forgiveness later”. In a perfect world, the markers of smart-phones and applications would recognize the harm they have caused and take remedial action. With only a few small exceptions, they have not done so and that without the tools of the 4th Industrial Revolution like Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Virtual Reality (VR)
In the pursuit of profit, internet platforms are mounting an assault on the minds of children. Governments, educators and parents must step up to address the crisis. Advertising-supported platforms should be regulated in the same way as alcohol and tobacco, with age restrictions and warning labels. Youtube Videos for example has become a wasteland of age-inappropriate videos, stimulating children in ways that make the real world seem boring. While Google has removed huge amounts of age-inappropriate content from Youtube Kids, it has not taken adequate precautions to prevent the posting of such content.
Youtube has also become a place for recruiting and training extremist. Facebook recently introduced Messenger Kids, a texting service whose primary function seems to be to drain children for a life lived within its product eco-system. For adolescent, Instagram has become a weapon for psychological bullying.
Advertisers themselves are starting to recognize the problem and some are taking actions. This week Unilever announced it would withdraw ads from platform that ‘create division in society and promote anger or hate’. Platforms such as Google and Facebook must take steps to “protect our children” as per company’s view.
Western democracies need a coordinated response to the manipulation of their populations by hostile powers. Facebook alone is used by more than 2 billion people.
In a world of limitless access to information, disinformation is spreading rapidly. Google’s search results can be gamed with conspiracy theories and nonsense. Facebook exploits its user’s fear and anger to such a degree that many are vulnerable to manipulation by those who exploit its algorithms and architecture to undermine democracy and harm the powerless. The current technology ethical crisis we face today is the result of bad incentives created by advertising business models, poor judgment by the executives in charge and ineffective regulation.
In these days about one-third of the world’s population owns a smart-phone, and many owners check their phones a frightening numbers of times a day, often from the moment they wake up until the moment they fall asleep. Not all users of internet platforms are addicted, but the 1.3 billion people who use Facebook everyday are psychologically attached to it to a certain degree. Even if they could break the attachment, those users are at the mercy of big corporations whose data archives rival those of the best intelligence services, and whose terms of service confer no meaningful rights to the owners of that data. And that is the fact today without usage of extensive AI.
Big technology companies at the same time insist that they should be allowed to regulate “their monopoly” themselves. Unfortunately, their record on this point is dreadful. For example, the response of Facebook, Google, and Twitter to evidence if interference on elections has been to deny, delay, and dissemble. Their so far proposed “fixes” have been inadequate according to our opinion.
Facebook and Google have grown so large and powerful that new approaches to regulation are per our opinion required. The EU’s Global Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is an important step in the right direction, particularly with respect to privacy and data rights. Unfortunately, the EU’s enforcement mechanisms will need an upgrade if they are to deliver on the promise GDPR.
But it is not only the governments who should do more to regulate the Technology Companies, the Tech Companies themselves have to realize that technology today is not neutral anymore and that with new upcoming technology tools like AI and VR the ethical responsibility of technology companies are getting more and more important.
Companies involved in technology have to realize that they can patch their software and their algorithms but that they are unable to patch a person’s psychological or personal damage. Our responsibility is to teach and show to our employees that there is a dark side to the idea that you should more fast and break things and build it first and then ask for forgiveness later which is one of the ideologies of Silicon Valley. The choices that get made in building technology today have social ramifications and therefore we should be developing new technologies work within our means.
Inventive Ventures does a lot of ethically charged decision making by carefully choosing what kind of product we should develop and what kind of policies we adopt around the collected user data. In our corporation we focus on training data science ethics entirely on the individual responsibility of the data scientist to have maximum impact and showing him the risks by overlooking this role on the broader enterprise. We have realized that we have an ethical responsibility to play and a leadership role to proof by integrating these perspectives throughout our organization. In our corporation we believe also that we generate the next generation of leaders in the technology sector and we will do our level best to encourage our employees in as much ethical responsibility as possible and we strongly believe that other Tech Companies should follow us and should get on the same train.
Restoring privacy and data rights in the EU would be a huge step forward, but there needs to be more steps. We need to repair democracies in Western Europe and North America. We need to protect children from technology stunts their emotional development. We need to protect adults from interruptions by endless notifications and applications that compete with their sleep. We need to protect economies from the monopolistic behavior of internet platforms, which has already produced lower rates of innovation and start-up formation.
Unlike a year ago, the threat from the internet platform companies is a topic of conversation across the developed world. The next step is to convert talk into action the same way we did it in our organizations in Inventive Ventures and Calvin・Farel. So let’s put ethics at the heart of everything we do and let’s measure up.