Is Data is the New Uranium?: Examining the Implications of Personal Data and the Rapid Growth of AI
by Grant Webster
What do the massive implications of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Big Data mean for business leaders, practitioners, and industry experts? Are there practical and ethical ways that leaders can leverage these tools to further their mission?
These questions have captivated our community year after year at CEF Global Events. I recently had the opportunity to interview two experts from our community, CEF Members Anders Bjorvand and Becker Polverini, pressing into their perspectives and insights around these topics. These two industry leaders graciously gave an hour of their time to discuss questions we had about the impact that Artificial Intelligence is having on the world and more specifically, how we as Christians should interact with AI and its components for maximum Kingdom impact.
Data: Fueling the Rocket Ship of AI
In conversations about computer science, several terms frequently surface such as Artificial Intelligence, machine learning, and big data. Misconceptions of these words are common; often they are used interchangeably when they should not be. We got some clarity on these terms for the purpose of our discussion.
CEF Member Becker Polverini distinguishes artificial intelligence as “the concept that human work, or human activities, or human cognition, can be so precisely described that you can simulate it.” In other words, he says, artificial intelligence can be synonymous with the term “pattern recognition.”
Machine learning, on the other hand, can be substituted with the word “statistics.” Becker states, “It’s really the science of how do we take lots and lots of data and cluster it and dice it and make meaning out of it. I’ve heard the analogy that if AI and machine learning are like a rocket, data is sort of like the fuel. I think that’s actually a pretty good way to think about it.”
Recent data mishaps have made it clear to the general public that even in good hands, data is sometimes handled casually or inappropriately. If data is the metaphorical fuel that sustains the powerful rocket ship of AI and machine learning, should there be a more appropriate way to treat it as a resource?
The Risk of Poor Data Protection
When asked this question, Becker enthusiastically encouraged a shift in our thinking about data. “We need to stop thinking about data as an asset and we need to start thinking about it as a liability,” he says. He compared our current mindset about data to the way we consider oil as a resource. If a little bit of oil goes missing, it’s unlikely that anyone would lose sleep. Rather, we go out and find more oil. With this mindset, more is better, and we should look for rapid growth in the industry. A 2017 Economist article even refers to data as “the oil of the digital era.” Becker challenged this thinking, saying we should think of data as a valuable and powerful resource like uranium:
“If we start thinking about data as uranium, it’s powerful, and the way that we store it and manage it is very important, otherwise it kills us; I think that’s a much better way to think about data than thinking about it as oil, where we just collect as much of it and try to sell it. I think that’s a very bad analogy for data. If you think of data like the new oil, you’re going to end up with perverse behavior. If you think of it more like uranium, it’s like this very powerful resource that we don’t want too much of and when we transmute it, it needs to be done very carefully.”
Hearing Becker talk about data this way made an impression on me, that if we are the beloved creation of God, data becomes this precious resource that represents pieces of who we really are — and in certain ways, pieces of who God is. Therefore, we should care enormously about what is happening to it.
Getting Christ-followers to the forefront
When we began to discuss ways to increase our effectiveness as Christ-followers when it comes to treating data correctly, CEF member Anders Bjorvand had some specific suggestions:
“[Get] legislation in place; I think that’s an important field for Christians to be salt and light… to really come on the legislative side on the politics side of this and make sure we have good privacy laws in place. I think privacy is one of the things talked about a lot with AI. It does not have really anything to do with AI, but it can be like gasoline thrown on the firing furnace, more or less, when you combine lack of privacy and the analytics power of AI.
In Ander’s view, legislation is the key to a shift in our treatment of data. He claims that this is not just an issue of Artificial Intelligence, but equally an issue of legislation and Big Corporate:
“AI, with the uranium of privacy, is the new capital. Who owns, who controls the AI will have such a headstart on a lot of other industries that it will really shift industries, it will shift even nations. Looking at how one should legislate the increased power that AI is now giving to the 10, 15 largest corporations in the world, should be on every Christian politician’s agenda.”
Won’t we put ourselves at a disadvantage?
We asked our guests if those who handle data with reverence put themselves at a disadvantage. Wouldn’t it give a leg-up to the corporations who are at best irresponsible in their treatment of data and at worst, corrupt? With seemingly unlimited access to data, shouldn’t these entities have a serious advantage to those treating data with integrity and caution? When asked this question, Becker argued the exact opposite:
“When you apply a constraint to your engineering, I think that’s actually when you innovate. If you just give somebody a blank check, it’s actually really hard to innovate in that context. And pretty much any practitioner will tell you that you get your best innovation when they slap on a restriction. And this is something, for example, that I’m actually very thankful for that as a believer, I’ve been able to have that sort of restraint. Because I think it’s allowed, when I think about some of the stuff that I’ve been able to build in my lifetime, I’m really thankful for that constraint of ‘How would God want you to use this technology?’”
As Christ-followers, it’s exciting to think about the possibilities that lie within God’s purposes for data and the ways that we can leverage it for good in our society. Listen to the full recording below to hear some of these possibilities presented by our expert guests.