Users of the Internet unite!

by Ashkan Kazemi (PhD candidate, Michigan AI)

Are you an Internet user worried about the rapid advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and its potential impact on your life and work? You are not alone in feeling this way, as the fear of AI replacing human jobs and decision-making processes is slowly becoming reality. However, Internet users may have more control over AI development than science tabloids often portray.

Photo source: Images generated using DALL-E 2 (OpenAI)

The release of a powerful new large language model (LLM) technology called ChatGPT in November 2022 has captured public attention, as it is capable of achieving complex intelligence and language tasks previously thought unattainable. ChatGPT has caused concerns about AI wiping out entire sectors and industries. A 2016 Obama Whitehouse report estimated 9% to 47% job loss in the United States due to automation.  While “… jobs that are threatened by automation are highly concentrated among lower-paid, lower-skilled, and less-educated workers,” per the 2016 report’s findings, the recent emergence of ChatGPT and GPT-4 grade AI has caused panic among white-collar workers, whose jobs previously thought to be safe from automation.

In this blog post I aim to paint a brighter future in which we– the users of the Internet, hold the key to shaping the future of AI and how it affects individuals and society through taking control of our data.

Intelligent agents such as ChatGPT, as well as other large language models, are built on top of neural scaling laws. The scaling laws of neural language models dictate that in order for “ChatGPT-like” agents to become more “intelligent”, LLMs require increasing amounts of training data. The data collection process for training large language models involves scraping large amounts of text data from the Internet. This data was then used to train the model, allowing it to generate text and perform tasks such as translation, summarization, and conversation. However, in order for large language models to continue to improve, they will need to learn from even more data. In other words, AI is addicted to the data generated by Internet users. 

In the book Radical Markets, economists Glen Weyl and Eric Posner argue that data should be considered a form of work, since it generates profits for technology corporations in return for “free” services such as search engines and social media platforms. On paper, as a creator of valuable data, you can have agency and control over how your data is collected and used by third party beneficiaries.

Grassroots organizations, such as data co-operatives, have been emerging in recent years to give Internet users the power to reclaim ownership of our data and its benefits. These organizations allow users to sell our data on our own terms, giving us a voice and a stake in the value created from our work. If we are concerned about the regulation of AI and its impact on society, a grassroots approach to data ownership and control may be a long-term solution. By organizing and taking ownership of our data, we can push back and shield aspects of our life from AI, while simultaneously benefiting from our data contributions to AI. Additionally, such frictions on data collection will slow down the development of AI and buy society more time to responsibly develop and deploy it.

If you are interested in more personal and short-term solutions, here are three impactful actions you can take today to protect and control your personal data:

  1. Block trackers and advertising bots. Trackers and more broadly the Internet advertising infrastructure keep tabs on our online lives and pool data from different sources to create more accurate models of user behavior. This aggregated data can later be used to train AI models such as ChatGPT. You can stop sharing your data by blocking such trackers. While there are numerous tools and applications that provide this service for free, there is one that stands out: Brave Browser. Brave is a chrome-based browser and supports easy migration options for all popular browsers such as Google Chrome, Firefox or Safari that automatically blocks all trackers and ads. They even pay you for watching Brave’s own advertisements, which you can easily opt out of.
  2. Disable tracking across apps on smartphones. You can stop allowing apps on your smartphone to track your activity across applications. This will make it much harder to link and aggregate personal data across different applications, which means less useful free data for AIs to learn from, as well as receiving fewer targeted ads. You can disable tracking on your smartphone by following these instructions.
  3. Opting out of data collection on social media and mobile applications. Your Facebook, Instagram, Google, and LinkedIn accounts all track your activity and collect your data. Coincidentally, these companies use user data to train powerful AI models similar to ChatGPT. Fortunately, most of these companies allow you to opt out of data sharing in your account setting. For example, here is how you can opt out of Google’s data collection for your accounts. 

As an Internet user, you have the power to shape the future of AI and its impact on your life. By joining forces with other users and advocating for data ownership and control, you can help ensure that AI is developed in a responsible and ethical manner.

So, let’s unite and make our voices heard!

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