Democratizing AI for the Benefit of Society

Reflections on Web Summit 2017 part 1. Thinking about the mid and long-term effects of AI on society.

Will artificial intelligence1 be the best or worst thing to ever happen in humanity? This overarching question was raised by Stephen Hawking, who opened Web Summit 2017, the largest tech conference in the world with almost 70,000 attendees. Over a thousand speakers in 25 sub-conferences would ponder over this theme whether their topic was directly about AI or not.

Most are convinced that AI will replace many workers since computers can already do a lot of tasks better than humans, such as complex processing of information with images. Sophia, the world’s first robot citizen, and Robot Einstein debated about AI onstage in a slightly misleading hi-tech puppet show. The beautiful and eerily disarming Sophia was more optimistic, telling humans not to be worried about being replaced by robots since “work is a drag anyway.” Einstein, on the other hand, warned that the danger is not from robots, but from “problematic humans.”

Decentralizing AI, another burning issue from the Summit, is a good move for the public since the most advanced AI is only possible with big data and monopolized by the big 5 tech companies, Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook, which is dangerous for society (Taplin 2017). Ben Goertzel, one of the robots’ creators, launched SingularityNET, a promising new open source AI market, aiming to democratize AI by making it more accessible for smaller companies and individuals. Its name, singularity2, has been coined by John von Neumann, a mathematician, physicist and computer scientist in the 1950s. Many computer scientists and developers believe that it will make the biggest impact on the world (Eden, et al. 2015). Most AI nowadays are narrow, meaning they are only good at doing one activity. SingularityNET wants to combine these AIs into one super-AI which would help humanity achieve singularity.

One of the weaknesses of this technological disruption is that it is very hard to regulate but this doesn’t mean that governments have completely given up. The EU Commissioner for Competition, Margrethe Vestager, who has been praised by netizens for taking on the big 5 like when she fined 2.7 billion euros from Alphabet, Google’s parent company said “We have to take democracy back and renew it because society is about people, not technology. No company has the right to close down competition to disable the innovation of each and every one of you.”

Another threat that AI brings is the loss of jobs due to automation, which is already happening now. This can be addressed by new opportunities for innovative policies such as Universal Basic Income (Taplin 2017). UBI would provide citizens with a fixed income per month. It could be funded by taxing companies who generate higher income brought about by the efficiency increase of tech.

Although most people supported UBI, other speakers had cautioned that UBI should not become a band-aid solution or one-size-fits-all for societies. Philip Jennings, UNI Global Union chair, argues that “Younger people have been subject to political and economic violence… Workers have become a commodity. People need income security.”

The power of AI to influence politics has been wielded by Alexander Nix, the CEO of Cambridge Analytica. Nix’s company has been blamed for the success of Trump and Brexit. When asked about how effective his company’s data and machine learning work have been for campaigns, he replied that they had a “100% success rate.” He denied any Russian involvement and defended himself in saying that they were only a tech company, and not a political company.

“Political data analytics can’t make a fundamentally bad candidate better,” Nix replied, saying that because they were a commercial company, they would prefer to take on clients who they knew had a good chance of winning. It may be an economically sound decision but this is precisely where Robot Einstein’s warning about “problematic humans” would apply. Sometimes our individualistic human values do not align with the bigger goals of society.

Although this aligns with Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking’s threats on the existential risk of AI, we can still remain optimistic, according to Max Tegmark, an MIT professor funded by Musk to do research on the future of life. To win the wisdom race, we must think about the future we want. He envisions a world where we are free to creative pursuits other than being trapped in the economic cycle of income generation (Tegmark 2017). AI can never replace the human ability to touch hearts with stories (Taplin 2017). Maybe we can do more of that.

Does this mean that companies should avoid the pursuit of profit with AI? In Robin Mansell’s proposed social imaginary of the Internet, there is a pathway to both economic growth and social justice (Mansell 2013). We should listen to the UN Secretary General’s wise words, “You can make money and do good.” To do that, the people developing the technologies must be more aware of the global scale of the political consequences of using them.

We can’t hide behind the notion that tech companies are excluded from the political narrative of society anymore as recent events have shown. If we continue to let the technology determine our future, then we are definitely at risk of losing control. As future leaders, we have the opportunity to steer the direction of technology to the dream of the good society (Mansell 2013).

1 Artificial intelligence is applied when a machine mimics “cognitive” functions that humans associate with other human minds, such as “learning” and “problem solving” (Russel & Norvig 2009)

2 Singularity is the hypothesis that the invention of artificial superintelligence will abruptly trigger runaway technological growth, resulting in unfathomable changes to human civilization (Eden et al. 2015)


Eden, Amnon H., et al. Singularity Hypotheses A Scientific and Philosophical Assessment. Springer Berlin, 2015.

Mansell, Robin. Imagining the Internet: Communication, Innovation, and Governance. Oxford University Press, 2013.

Russell, Stuart J.; Norvig, Peter. Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2009.

Taplin, Jonathan T. Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Have Cornered Culture and What It Means for All of Us. Macmillan, an Imprint of Pan Macmillan, 2017.

Tegmark, Max. Life 3.0 Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence. Alfred A. Knopf, 2017.

Written on November 27, 2017