Beijing wants to be the world leader in artificial intelligence, smart devices, machine learning, robotics and the internet of things
What do the legal battles currently being fought between Big Tech and the world’s regulators tell us about where society needs to go?
Earlier this month, the American Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the majority of the US States lost a Court battle in their attempt to rein in Facebook. At around the same time, Apple won a privacy battle in China, seeing off a coordinated effort by Chinese tech companies to work around Apple’s privacy terms and policies.
While Facebook and Apple appeared to win their respective rounds, both are really just short-term wins. They don’t resolve a more pressing global problem that is unfolding before our eyes – the lack of overarching rules for the seminal technologies that are set to run increasing chunks of our lives.
The world needs a new set of guidelines for big data and big tech. In my view, it should be led by countries such as America and Ireland.
We are right to worry about Big Tech’s influence in the West, just as we are correct to fret about how China’s ruling Communist Party wants to control more of the world’s people in the same oppressive way that it controls its own country.
But here’s the thing – China has a plan. We might not like it, but Beijing has a clear and ambitious technology policy with specific goals and objectives.
The West does not. This is a problem we really need to address sooner rather than later.
Let’s step back and remind ourselves of where we are going and what the stakes are. We are about to enter the fourth industrial revolution. It will be a world where most decisions are made without human intervention; decentralised decisions made in milliseconds.
These decisions need rules. Such rules will need to take into account things like large scale machine-to-machine communications, smart sensors, cognitive computing and artificial intelligence. They’ll have to be strong and sophisticated enough to handle the biggest and deepest real time data exchanges we’ve ever seen.
This isn’t something in the far future, either. The technology to process such huge amounts of data and use it for good (or evil) is already there. But the critical rules around this data – like who owns it and who has access to it – are not yet globally agreed.
So what should we do?
Well, let’s go back to first principles. Imagine what it would mean to be in charge of your own data. Imagine if you could decide who sees it, who uses it, who profits from it and why.
Now also try to imagine a kind of ‘digital object architecture’ (how all of these devices talk to each other) that was open and fair, no matter where you were in the democratic world.
Add to this a set of rules that effectively managed ‘bots’ and trolls attempting to skew our societies’ through election fraud and other disinformation, as well as ranking news and genuine information more successfully than current systems seem able to do.
The democracies of Asia, Europe and the United States have a short window to create together such a new set of rules around interoperability of machines and the rules of data, who owns it, who manipulates it and who profits from it.
This takes global leadership and Ireland must take a front row seat at the table.
The common cause could be just that we need to unite the world and offer an alternative to the closed internet of China.
It has an added benefit of rebuilding global alliances, destroyed by a past president that used misinformation to his personal benefit.
We know China has a plan to be a digital powerhouse, part of its ambition to be self-sufficient in everything from semi-conductors to software. China has a national strategic plan and an industrial policy to back it up; it committed more than $1.4trn (€1.3trn) to its tech plan in the middle of a pandemic.
China’s plan is to be the world leader in artificial intelligence, smart devices, machine learning, robotics and the internet of things.
These are pivotal, crucial technologies. The West needs a clear plan for governing how these devices communicate with each other, how they collect data and how they use that data.
We all know that Facebook’s interests are not necessarily the same as our individual interests, just as China’s plan for people’s data is not the same as ours.
Writing the rules for the future of the Internet needs to be a global task. The West (and democratic Asia) need a plan that allows for innovation, promotes democratic values and encourages conversation over misinformation.
David McCourt is chairman of Granahan McCourt Capital as well as chairman of National Broadband Ireland. Author of best-selling book Total Rethink and an Emmy award-winning TV producer, McCourt is also the inaugural economist in residence at USC’s Annenberg School.