Analysis & Opinions - The National Interest

Big Data and AI Can Defend Democracy—Or Destroy It

| July 29, 2022

Data analysis is like any other tool; its impact on our lives depends upon its owners' intentions.

Today's world is full of sensors, and the higher your nation-state is on the advanced-industrial food chain, the more likely it is that you carry a sensor on your person every minute of every day (and for many, even while asleep). That matters: the data collected by these sensors can be stored, analyzed, and weaponized. It can be stolen. It can be subpoenaed. And although most of today’s data collectors are for-profit corporations, there are dire risks alongside the potential for breakthroughs in areas such as medicine and global warming. The collection, analysis, storage, and theft of information about you have lethal implications; both for you as an individual and for all of us in terms of interstate war.

Data as Crude Oil?

In his 2018 book AI Superpowers, author and entrepreneur Kai-Fu Lee likened big data to the new crude oil and noted that insofar as the analogy holds, that would make the People's Republic of China (PRC) the world's data Saudi Arabia. The analogy is useful in that, like crude oil, data can be converted to many other valuable things. It can be used to train algorithms that run machines or make predictions, solve difficult problems, cure diseases, make water resilient crops, design safer and more fuel-efficient cars, and so on. But data collected on humans can also be used to oppress, kill, and torture.

In other words, the political, economic, and social implications of data analysis depend directly on the aim of that analysis. That aim might be trying to figure out whether I need a new pair of shoes or shorts for summer wear, or whether I'll vote for a specific candidate.

In democratic states with relatively unregulated market economies, like the United States, we've moved into an era of what author Shoshana Zuboff calls "surveillance capitalism." This begins by selling the idea that data analysis can be used to predict what we will buy, and therefore increase profits by taking the uncertainty out of the design, production, marketing, and sale of consumer goods. But Zuboff goes further: those data analyses have already reached a point where for-profit corporations are now able to deploy algorithms not only to predict what we want, but to shape our purchasing desires. And understand: while we may vaguely consent to the former, we have not been given the option of consenting to the latter....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Arreguin-Toft, Ivan.“Big Data and AI Can Defend Democracy—Or Destroy It.” The National Interest, July 29, 2022.

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