What’s Going on with Big Data and Artificial Intelligence?

In last month’s newsletter, we explore the idea of “real” fake news versus partisan, media hype. We talked about the monetary drive for such exploitative websites and ended with a video that talked about the reach of sites like Facebook and Google. The result was a grim expose on the state of information on the internet. But the “reach” of the internet and resulting big data goes even further, and it is topic briefly touched on in Sen. Warren’s viral video announcement for the FREE ACT, an act that would prevent companies from charging people to freeze and protect their credit .

Briefly is the key. You may agree or disagree with Sen. Warren and the premise of the FREE Act, but it allows us to take a key point and explore a more important point – companies all around the world are collecting data on you. You won’t know what it is or how it is used, and it is at risk of falling into the wrong hands at any moment.

Perhaps you’ve visited a big box store recently and suddenly received an email sales announcement from that store. Or maybe once you’ve gotten home, you signed on to Facebook and saw a peculiar ad from the store you just left. It happens so seamlessly, that in truth, you’ve probably never noticed. Your wealth of data is not just limited to your online presence; even physical stores are tracking you.

This shouldn’t really be a surprise. Did you think your grocery store coupon card was made just to help you save money? That card is a powerful money-saving and money-making device – for the store. It can save and upload your personal shopping history, and probably has been for more than 20 years. Connected to your address, email, and phone number, the grocery store can combine your shopping history with location, demographic, income, education, and shopping and buying patterns online to determine exactly how to make your next grocery trip a little heavier.

This has been going on for years, so you might ask why this is a problem. The problem beginning to emerge is with Artificial Intelligence. You’ve probably heard of AI for self-driving cars, automated vacuum cleaners, and smart thermostats. It is beneficial, but the technology is advancing at a much greater pace than conversations we are having about it. Artificial Intelligence is the key to business analytics and is it driving the online world (see the video below).

You produce so much data that the true potential of it is just now beginning to emerge. Just recently the Harvard Business Review published an article detailing how businesses are beginning to use new AI/Business Analytics to exploit personalized prices based on, well, you. The number of factors that might go into such a price equation are limitless but consider just a few important ones. What if you were charged more or less for being a woman? What about over 50 years old? What if the price moves based on race or ethnicity? Where is the line, and how will we prove it without better disclosure?

The differences in prices might be subtle but the implications drive at the heart of humanity. A key factor in this debate is the interplay between hospitals and insurance companies. Perhaps no one right now can tell you what your emergency appendectomy will cost but you can be sure it won’t come cheap, and your cost is related to a degree based on what your insurance provider (or lack of one) has determined is “fair” along with other numerous factors – if this include your risk factors, genetic code, and family history?  Our health care system has many problems related to billing. According to Fi-Med, a billing analytics service, as much as 65 cents out of every dollar that a patient might owe goes uncollected and patient bankruptcies are key factor. In order to recoup some of this cost, some hospitals upcharge and inflate your bill so their  revenue can increase without addressing the root cause – many of us simply cannot afford the healthcare we need.

But what if the hospital knew exactly how much money you made or had saved, and could bill based on your demographic, likely net worth, or your financial situation? The symptom of the problem might go away – fewer medical bankruptcies – but would the problem really be solved? Is it right and fair for companies to individualize your costs for a product and service based on what they think you can or will pay? It’s not a far off situation.

Every store or restaurant has invested for years in research to understand how to influence you to buy more. Retail store checkout lines are packed with impulse items, and the strategy works. Now, information about how Google and Facebook can influence your opinions and thoughts is being discovered – even your political opinions. We’d all like to think we’re above this type of basic manipulation, but there are a number of studies to suggest otherwise. AI is only increasing this power.

We cannot ignore rising challenge of big data and AI. If you’re still not convinced, try out this game from NYU faculty Frank Lantz. Bemoan the endless grind of producing paperclips endlessly, and celebrate the rise of automation and AI who bring increased profits and production for the small cost of a little of your trust. Keep trusting computers and AI to further increase your power as the paperclip king, you can cure baldness and cancer but wait there’s more …

For those of you who can’t, won’t, or have no interest in playing the game and have yet to read the plethora of viral articles highlighting this game, (spoiler alert) the game of paperclip production is only the first step. With enough trust invested into AI, the AI takes over. The player is repositioned not as a human but the center of a hive-minded AI working towards the complete domination and destruction of the universe. Its dramatic and perhaps far-fetched but Stephen Hawking believes it is the path we’re on.

AI processing big data is the wave of the future. It is happening now. Thousands of people invite an ever-listening AI in the form of Google Home, Amazon’s Alexa, and Siri into their home every day with the promise of a simpler, more streamlined existence but where was the conversation about privacy? These devices are literally always listening to you. Sure, there not supposed to record or “hear” anything other than your command after “Alexa …” but you don’t trust your government with privacy, so why Amazon?

In spite of all the potential pitfalls, let’s not forget the benefits. IBM has been using Watson to help understand and provide advances in medical care. What if Alexa could replace LifeAlert in a proactive way to help elderly people continue independent living? AI might help with solutions to numerous endemic and perpetual problems plaguing humanity, but it needs our input, and we need to have real conversations about that input. Obscured by news about politics, crime, disasters, and the latest scandal are other very real and important issues. AI has been progressing at a rapid pace. The time has come to join the conversation.