Image source: NVIDIA blog by Michael Copland

Updated: Here is an article about by NYT on how the tech giants are becoming monopolies and asks the question is it time to break them up?

The speed of technological progression is accelerating. The exponential growth and ubiquity of sensors, devices and machines is upon us. It is not a question of if but a question of when the machines will take over. I am not going to jump into the quagmire of discussion around the ethics or viability of A.I. but I do believe these technological advances can be a force of good if we take conscious steps. The first step in this exercise is to take control of our personal data.

We have been quite careless about what data we have floating around about ourselves on the internet. The advent of social networks and e-commerce has created tremendous economic engines but the value capture of this exercise is disproportionate. Facebook, Google and Amazon capture the lions share of the advertising and e-commerce value as they have far superior technologies and network effects. They have been investing heavily in the next generation of technologies that will prove to be difficult for anyone to displace at least in the near future.

What is the value of personal data you ask? well it depends on what you want to do with it. I believe the first principles thinking around personal data is useful. If we are self aware of our personal data then we can ask some simple questions about how do we use it. The companies that rely on personal data to drive their economic engine have done just that and there are lessons to be learnt from that. Make no mistake Facebook, Google and Amazon use personal data to drive their economic engine, they have just done it so very well that it seems so natural.

Facebook advertising engine uses advanced natural language processing to target ads to specific cohorts organised by geography, age, sex, interests, likes, dislikes and content created by those on its platforms. Google tracks every search term, IP address, mac address and geography to target its adwords algorithm. Amazon recommends products based on your purchasing behaviours. All of these seem innocuous on the surface but it is a total breach of privacy, we are ok with it because it possibly makes our lives easier or harder depending on the side you take. The most important thing about all of this is the fact that personal data is being captured, stored and analysed by algorithms that are unknown to us. We blindly share everything about ourselves into this uber sophisticated machine. I am not a luddite but it does makes you think what could you possibly do once you have all this data?

The value exchange between users and providers of these advanced technologies has not been clear from the beginning. This is going to change at least in the European Union, the new General Data Protection Regulation (EUGDPR) that is coming into effect in 2018 is a legislation in the right direction. Possibly regulation around privacy and data protection could help to reduce the speed of this progression. I believe decentralising personal data is a good thing and enabling every person to own their own data is also a good thing. In the age of data, machine and A.I., our personal data is possibly the only thing we may have agency over.

The advance of A.I. is staggering if one has to see the progression of this, it is obvious that we have underestimated the power of neural network based machines and intelligence. We need to rethink our role in this progression. Of course we will be asking some of those questions during Startup Iceland this year. The theme for the year is Personal Data, Health, Wellness and Technology. If you are a founder and you have read this far then I urge you to participate in the event, if you are not a founder but want to learn more about what is going on with regard to technology and how it is impacting your health? then participate in the event.

The way to build a better future is to take a concerted effort to define the kind of future we want and work hard to build it. Startups are the salvation to monopolies, bureaucracy, lethargy, tyranny and stagnation. Startups are the only endeavour where a small group of people can work to build a different future. I have said this to my students and to anyone that I meet, if you want to start a revolution or change the path of the future then build a startup.