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TDWI Upside - Where Data Means Business

More Big Databuse

The use and abuse of AI-based chatbots and avatars powered by your own big data may threaten democracy by the 2020 U.S. election far more than this year's fake news.

"If you think this election is insane, wait until 2020. ... Imagine a candidate who now knows everything about you, who can reach you wherever you happen to be looking, and who can use info scraped from social media (and intuited by machine-learning algorithms) to speak directly to you and your interests."

Thus spake the irrepressible Dr. Peter Diamandis, founder and executive chairman of the XPRIZE Foundation and co-founder and executive chairman of Singularity University amongst other organizations, in a blog published the day before the U.S. election. He pointed to exponential advances in five areas of technology that describe and enable something I consider to be far removed from true democracy. All bar one (blockchain and micropayments) rest upon big data to a greater or lesser extent.

First, the exploding social media environment will contain so much personal information that political campaigns will continuously mine its every video, photo, and comment to the last byte in order to understand your wants and needs, thoughts and feelings, friends and foes in the most intimate detail. Supported by extensive artificial intelligence (AI) models, they will "know you" better that you know yourself.

With the addition of almost endless data from the trillion-sensor-strong Internet of Things, campaigns will know where you are and what you're doing. Indeed, they will able to judge your reactions to advertisements on the street or your screen via video facial analysis and adjust their message accordingly.

Together, these two points do no more than reiterate a widespread story in advertising and all the B2C industries that use it. Such detailed -- nearing complete -- knowledge of your personal world will, it is claimed, enable businesses to anticipate all your needs, satisfy them instantly, and thereby transform you into a completely satisfied consumer. Sad indeed, but when the monitoring agencies are political campaigns, one of which will become government, the Big Brother surveillance creep-out factor goes off the scale.

What happens to free speech, political discourse and dissent, and even personal opinion under such surveillance? This digital Panopticon in your home and in your community will invade every private thought, killing creativity, innovation, and, ultimately, democracy. How different is it from China's plan to organize (read control) its people by building a big data system to rate and then reward or punish everyone based on online behavior?

Diamandis' next two predictions build upon the big data explosion above, pointing to its explicit application to persuade you to vote for one candidate, using emerging AI-based technologies. Where China is explicit in cause and effect, Western society uses pervasive, subtle, and increasingly subliminal marketing to achieve its ends.

The first prediction involves AI-powered chatbots, many times better and more realistic than the current crop. These bots will use the extensive data gathered as above to converse with you in a highly realistic manner, incorporating your own ideologies and linguistic nuances, cross-referencing your own previous comments, and linking them to those of people you know or respect. In effect, you could mistake a bot for a friend or like-minded colleague, or even a wise elder whose conclusions seem so reasonable that you cannot but agree.

Add fully programmable and photo-realistic avatars of candidates that can be made to appear to address you personally from your smartphone or from a street billboard. They will be knowledgeable on matters that relate directly to the details of your life, family, and dreams for your future. Diamandis predicts that the 2020 election will, as a result, get very personal indeed. "Fun times ahead," he suggests, offering examples of how candidates will be able to show you how you can benefit financially -- personally, in your community, or in projects you support -- from their election.

A rather cynical observation on democracy, often attributed to Alexander Fraser Tytler, should give any thinking person pause when considering the naked consumerism displayed in Diamandis' approach: "A democracy ... can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves money from the Public Treasury. From that moment on the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the Public Treasury with a result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy." Appealing to the self-interest of the public via marketing has, of course, a long history in the electoral process, but the use of big data and AI takes it to a completely new level.

How can Diamandis (recently named by Fortune as one of the world's 50 greatest leaders, according to his own bio) be so enamored of technology as to miss the meaning of democracy and the purpose of the electoral process? The outcome he so lightly describes actually amounts to a complete subversion of the electoral process via big data and AI.

About the Author

Dr. Barry Devlin is among the foremost authorities on business insight and one of the founders of data warehousing in 1988. With over 40 years of IT experience, including 20 years with IBM as a Distinguished Engineer, he is a widely respected analyst, consultant, lecturer, and author of “Data Warehouse -- from Architecture to Implementation" and "Business unIntelligence--Insight and Innovation beyond Analytics and Big Data" as well as numerous white papers. As founder and principal of 9sight Consulting, Devlin develops new architectural models and provides international, strategic thought leadership from Cornwall. His latest book, "Cloud Data Warehousing, Volume I: Architecting Data Warehouse, Lakehouse, Mesh, and Fabric," is now available.

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