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Will.i.am, yesterday

Will.i.am urges humanity to wrest back control of personal data, like ‘Jedi rebel forces’

Image credit: Eric Michael Roy

Technology evangelist Will.i.am believes that personal control of our own individual data is the real future of AI.

Speaking to the audience via video link at the IET’s AI conference, ‘This AI life: ensuring our AI future works for us’, held at Savoy Place, Will.i.am traced the current issues over data ownership back to the early education stage, recalling his own childhood growing up in a poor neighbourhood.

“Education is the most important thing,” he said. “Machines are getting smarter and smarter, human intelligence is not.

“No one is educated on the power of data – especially in the inner cites... I need a data scientist to make sense of my data for me,” he said, lamenting the fact that “the only people making money from my data are companies”.

He pointed to the “data monarchies in society today”, the handful of big internet companies such as Google and Facebook who possess and control so much of our data.

Positing questions such as: “What is currency 2040? New types of crypto currency in our society? Where’s that coming from? Who’s in control?”, Will.i.am iterated a central theme to much of the work he does, namely that the next generation, the youngest children down to primary school age, are not learning these things or being taught them consistently enough, anywhere in the world, especially in inner-city US schools, where the situation is only getting worse.

However, he remains positive and optimistic about the future and advantages that technology could bring, suggesting that AI is going to create new opportunities in the poorest communities, with jobs coming out of these communities building new work around tools such as AI. AI need not replace jobs: AI should augment the person in the workplace, not replace them.

“AI is not the problem of humanity,” he said. “I think greed is the human problem which we still haven’t fixed.”

His own LA-based company I.am+ is working on a new AI, one intending to do only good things for humanity – “because my mother raised me right” – and to avoid the problems of greed and bias.

“I was a recipient of the do-gooders,” he recalled, referencing early education opportunities he was given, at odds with his socio-economic status. “So I as a person am going to do something good for humanity. We should be aiming to sustain and amplify the jobs we currently have. It’s going to make the candlestick maker a better maker, the baker a better baker... the raker a better raker.” [laughs]

“Morally, we are building a sound system, from the perspective of an AI for humanity.”

The stated core mission of I.am+ is to “enable and empower people with their own data”. He noted that at present there are no laws or regulations prohibiting certain actions around AI, like there are for the automotive or aerospace industries – how he couldn’t, for example, build a new autonomous car with 300bhp. This laissez-faire attitude towards AI development, he contends, is allowing certain companies to exploit their market dominance in negative ways for individuals.

He reminded audience members of the pressing need to take control of our personal data and how this should be a prerequisite for the new age of AI and the internet: “We are Jedi Rebel forces”.

He recalled the phrase ‘Idatity’ he coined five years ago whilst attending an event at Davos: “I am my data”, he said, arguing that we are defined more by our data than our official government-issued identity – driving licence, social security number etc.

Citing the example of Steve Jobs and Apple, who in the 1970s took on the entrenched computer establishment in the form of IBM, which questioned why anyone would want to own a ‘personal’ computer, Will.i.am continues to believe in the power of humanity prevailing in any ‘David and Goliath’ business struggle – especially pertinent now in the fight to own the world’s data. In a small operator’s favour, he said, is the fact that, “Google’s business model is too big to pivot to provide data to individuals. Their model is to provide data insights to business.”

He was also critical of the current level of AI development, noting that ‘AI’ is used as a very loose term, with lots of different types and implementations, “all rolling out, in its separate ways”.

“Where we are right now is not true AI,” he said. The future is true cognitive computing: “An AI that is a halo on your life, not just an algorithm”. Something that goes far beyond voice-assistant technology housed inside gadgets – “It’s still a remote control, only Alexa is now the remote” – to a place where, for example, your house recognises you on your return; turns on the lights; sets the thermostat to the temperature it knows you like; gauges your mood based on its understanding of your commute home, according to the traffic data it analysed; asks if you want to order the same pizza you had this time last week, and so on. Your technology knows you and understands your needs, on a day-to-day basis.

“This is now our companion in all our lives,” he said, holding up his smartphone to illustrate the current state of the art. “Until AI is as powerful as Android or iOS, it won’t break out and beat the phone as our companion. For AI so far, all they’ve done is take a slice out of the phone and put it in the robot.”

Using the smartphone and smartwatch combination as an example, he suggested they’re simply not doing enough for us yet. Instead of just being a GPS or basic data tracker for fitness, weight loss etc (a small step towards bringing down obesity levels, for example), it needs to go further in order to be significantly effective. “[There should be an] AI based on what you eat and where you eat and how you’re working, that could get you there. But who owns that data?” he said, returning to one of the key issues surrounding AI, as he sees it. “Shouldn’t you own your health data?”

His opinion is that individuals should have a personal AI analysing their personal data – not a company AI. At the moment, we don’t have personal AI's or a personal cloud. “A few companies retain all the power”, he said, “more power than any religion, any kingdom, any government. Are they going to become more powerful? Or is there going to be a data independence day, a data democracy?”

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