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WEF18: Tech & Data Should Enhance Human Life But Are We On The Right Track?

Analysis. Ethics, privacy, regulation, accountability and the survival of humanity were major issues at this year’s World Economic Forum 2018 in Davos, which ended on Friday, January 26th. It was all about data and the many possibilities, and especially the risks posed by bad use of data and the fact that it ends up being concentrated with states or large companies in stead of the democratic model: That people are in control of their own data. DataEthics has written a report from Davos on these topics.

Hotel Europe’s Piano Bar was the scene for a presentation of Rachel at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos. The android Rachel, as opposed to her predecessor, Sophia, introduced in Dubai a few months ago, is a complete human-like robot. It does nothing to show that it is not a real human being but a machine you are dealing with. We humans in the Piano Bare therefore had feelings for her and we laughed at her bad jokes.

Inventor of the android is the American company Soul Machines, and behind the event were not only Soul Machines but also IBM Watson, Singularity University, MIT and Vimana, working to launch flying cars. These US companies all have data as their most important resource, which is why they launched the Transhuman Code at WEF, which will:

There is now consensus that machines will become as smart as humans by 2029. Between now and then, we will become increasingly transhuman—humans with more and more technological capability.At what point do we, infused with artificial qualities, stop being human? … What do we ultimately want to become? … What will we become if we do nothing?As bionic eyesight and hearing become widely available, will only those impaired have access? If a neural implant could eliminate dementia and Alzheimer’s, who’s to say it shouldn’t be used for ADHD, brain fatigue, or the aspiration to become a smarter person? If a robot can perform a job better than you, are you dispensable? What are the limits of Artificial Intelligence and how should it be governed?

An elite who designs people?
It is probably very smart of big big tech companies to discuss how far to go, because the demand for regulation was high at the World Economic Forum. One of the most amazing talks was the Israeli historian professor Yval Noah Harari, author of the books Homo Sapiens and Homo Deus. He was very direct:

“Within a century or two the earth will be dominated by species as different as man is today to gorillas,” he said. “How they will look, will be decided by those who control data. Data today is the most important asset in the world. And why is data so important? Because you can hack people. When infotech and biotech merge you can hack human beings, “he said.

Big data dictatorships can create the people they want, he continued. It will become the greatest revolution in humanity and biology, which has always only evolved naturally.

“If we don’t regulate data we will see a tiny elite may come to controle the shape of life forms in the future,”  he said, calling for states to regulate data just as states also ended up regulating land ownership and machinery.

Merkel and Soros in the Same Boat

The EU has new strong data regulation (General Data Protection Regulation, GDPR) on its way, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel also emphasized in her talk that data is the new gold, and that Europe may be slow, but that the EU shows the way with a social market economy approach with fair and equal access to data and not as in the United States where data is concentrated in private monopolies.

The billionaire George Soros said something similar.

“Big tech consider themselves as Masters of the Universe,” said Soros. “In the US, regulators are not strong enough. The EU is better at this, and does not house any of the platforms. Europe has much stronger data protection laws. Margrethe Vestager is the champion of the EU approach. And that EU approach has begun to affect the US attitude.”

It was not as if #WEF18 was crowded by data ethical role models. Neither IKEA nor LEGO could provide ethical guidelines for what is ethical and good toys for children. Zurich Insurance Company could, when they participated in a panel on data responsibility:

“Complying with GDPR is for us the minimum. Trust building is much more. Trust issues in insurance is much bigger than any data issues. We have principles and values and differentiate ourselves on this – we act on behalf of these customers. I don’t think industry can regulate itself, “said CEO Mario Greco.

Ruth Eriksson from Volvo in the middle, a formula1 runs at her right and a TechChrunch journalist at her left

Also CEO of Volvo Cars Mobility, Ruth Eriksson, was on a panel discussion under ‘Swedish Lunch’: “At Volvo, your data is private and it is YOUR data. It has always been so – also with Chinese ownership, although it’s a challenge.”

IBM’s chairman and CEO, Ginni Rometty, talked about trust and called for responsible stewardship:Tech is made to enhance humanity. And tech must be transparent. Our customers own their data and you’ve got to have security and ensure that governments don’t have access. No backdoors.”

But according to Rachel Botsman, author of the book Who Can You Trust, transparency is a failure to talk about transparency, as most big tech companies do (often to promote self-regulation):

“Trust and transparency is not synonymous. You’ve essentially given up on trust, if you call for transparency,” she said in a panel on trust in technologies.

True transparency is necesarry though. But even better is a data ethical approach. When android Rachel begins to serve real humans  – like some chatbots do today – an ethically responsible approach would be to always inform the human being, that you’re talking to a machine – and how that human can get in contact with a real person.

One Answer Lies in a New Business Model

At a panel debate at Caspian Week outside the official conference, one man had a one answer to many of the questions posed by Merkel, Harari, and maybe Volvo and IBM. How do we make big data and AI democratic rather than monopolistic or dictatorial?

Professor Ernst Hafen is the founder of the non-profit cooperative It is a part of the MyData movement, where the individual individual can access and control his or her own data (here health data). It’s an opt-in model and true privacy-by-default. It turns the entire business model around, so it’s not Facebook or IBM that sits on our data, but ourselves, and it matches the EU’s visions with GDPR. So my bet is that next year in Davos, Ernst Hafen or one of his colleagues from the MyData movement is on a panel of the official #WEF19.


In between all the speakers and panels  inside and outside the convention center, there were parties and networking. And some people went up the mountain. See this video made by Astrid Haug.