Comment: Why AI is a threat to democracy—and what we can do to stop it

The developmental track of AI is a problem, and every one of us has a stake. You, me, my dad, my next-door neighbor, the guy at the Starbucks that I’m walking past right now. So what should everyday people do? Be more aware of who’s using your data and how. Take a few minutes to read work written by smart people and spend a couple minutes to figure out what it is we’re really talking about. Before you sign your life away and start sharing photos of your children, do that in an informed manner. If you’re okay with what it implies and what it could mean later on, fine, but at least have that knowledge first.

Hao, K. (2019). Why AI is a threat to democracy—and what we can do to stop it. MIT Technology Review.

I agree that we all have a stake in the outcomes of the introduction of AI-based systems, which means that we all have a responsibility in helping to shape it. While most of us can’t be involved in writing code for these systems, we can all be more intentional about what data we provide to companies working on artificial intelligence and how they use that data (on a related note, have you ever wondered just how much data is being collected by Google, for example?). Here are some of the choices I’ve made about the software that I use most frequently:

  • Mobile operating system: I run LineageOS on my phone and tablet, which is based on Android but is modified so that the data on the phone stays on the phone i.e. is not reported back to Google.
  • Desktop/laptop operating system: I’ve used various Ubuntu Linux distributions since 2004, not only because Linux really is a better OS (faster, cheaper, more secure, etc.) but because open-source software is more trustworthy.
  • Browser: I switched from Chrome to Firefox with the release of Quantum, which saw Firefox catch up in performance metrics. With privacy as the default design consideration, it was an easy move to make. You should just switch to Firefox.
  • Email: I’ve looked around – a lot – and can’t find an email provider to replace Gmail. I use various front-ends to manage my email on different devices but that doesn’t get me away from the fact that Google still processes all of my emails on the back-end. I could pay for my email service provider – and there do seem to be good options – but then I’d be paying for email.
  • Search engine: I moved from Google Search to DuckDuckGo about a year ago and can’t say that I miss Google Search all that much. Every now and again I do find that I have to go to Google, especially for images.
  • Photo storage: Again, I’ve looked around for alternatives but the combination of the free service, convenience (automatic upload of photos taken on my phone), unlimited storage (for lower res copies) and the image recognition features built into Google Photos make this very difficult to move away from.
  • To do list: I’ve used Todoist and Any.do on and off for years but eventually moved to Todo.txt because I wanted to have more control over the things that I use on a daily basis. I like the fact that my work is stored in a text file and will be backwards compatible forever.
  • Note taking: I use a combination of Simplenote and Qownnotes for my notes. Simplenote is the equivalent of sticky notes (short-term notes that I make on my phone and delete after acting on them), and Qownnotes is for long-form note-taking and writing that stores notes as text files. Again, I want to control my data and these apps give me that control along with all of the features that I care about.
  • Maps: Google Maps is without equal and is so far ahead of anyone else that it’s very difficult to move away from. However, I’ve also used Here We Go on and off and it’s not bad for simple directions.

From the list above you can see that I pay attention to how my data is stored, shared and used, and that privacy is important to me. I’m not unsophisticated in my use of technology and I still can’t get away from Google for email, photos, and maps, arguably the most important data gathering services that the company provides. Maybe there’s something that I’m missing out but companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft are so entangled in everything that we care about, I really don’t see a way to avoid using their products. The suggestion that users should be more careful about what data they share, and who they share it with, is a useful thought experiment but the practical reality is that it would very difficult indeed to avoid these companies altogether.

Google isn’t only problem. See what Facebook knows about you.

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