Humans are amazing creatures. When we are in a calm state we are smart, compassionate, long-term thinking, collaborative, social wizards. However, when the part of our brain responsible for crisis, the amygdala, is hijacked, we revert back to lizard brain and a whole different set of survival mechanisms kick in. We become panicky, irrational emotional monsters and are easily manipulatable, mostly by fear. While these made sense in the savannah to avoid a snake, they are incredibly counterproductive in a modern society where we both have the ability to make globe altering changes while in this state, and more importantly: the snakes know that they can manipulate us.
Whether it is terrorists leveraging mass media coverage to achieve a disproportionate level of influence compared to their actual power, or Facebook and Google manipulating the stream of content you see to provoke a certain behavior that is profitable to a client who is paying them, our tendencies as humans are well documented, and unfortunately easily exploitable. Big data has brought incredible advantages with it, but one of the byproducts has been a huge increase in the data available about us, our decision making tendencies, and how to influence those tendencies. This trend will only grow exponentially as biotech info grows in prevalence and data on our physiological responses to stimulus can be measured directly.
With sufficient training, time and repetition, individuals can learn to overcome these biological responses and respond in a measured, rational way to materials designed to trigger certain behaviours. However two things are working against us; 1) irrationality is a reinforcing cycle where if everyone around you is responding irrationally, the temptation as a social animal grows and grows to join them and b) it is exhausting to constantly be working against your biology. It’s like the first time you drive on the other side of the road and all your instincts are wrong so you need to constantly be consciously considering sub-routines that usually operate in the subconscious. So our options as society in the current state are either to:
- Give-in to these algorithms (or other manipulation techniques) and be swayed along by the whims of whomever is looking to influence our behavior regardless of their intentions, or
- To rely on a great mass of humanity to consciously and consistently make increasingly difficult and unpleasant decisions that are contrary to their biology
These decisions are unpleasant because it feels amazing to go down a Facebook echo chamber of content or to rah rah nationalistically when a government goes yippi-kay-yaying after a terrorist group. Short term dopamine rush 4 lyfe! I mean my word, look at the resources being poured into advancing ways to influence human behaviour via big data as compared to the resources put into psychology, mind-mapping and training individual decision making processes etc. Without a course correction I think we know which of these two options is more likely.
Now this may come across as anti-big data and trust me, I am not that. Data-driven decision making is one of the most important things humans need to aspire to, but it all comes down to who controls that data, who is setting the algorithm that leverages that data to determine decisions and what is the end goal that it is maximizing for. In the current world data-driven decisions are being made all the time, except their being made on your behalf and without your consent by Google, Facebook, mass media, governments, and yes although it is cliché, terrorists. They are leveraging your biological tendencies and lizard brain to execute these decisions and they are certainly not being made to further your own personal well-being directly.
Now Nike is one example where they have the scale to put out a product that sources data directly, but what about for the millions of other product and content creators who want to better understand their audience? Or other, more beneficial AI creators who need data to train their AIs? Currently their answer is to pay exorbitant costs to Google, Amazon and Facebook to learn what Google and Facebook tell them is true about certain human archetypes (or as Facebook dystopically calls them “lookalike audiences”) based on their accumulated reams of data….. or you’re welcome to just build a product powered by Alexa instead? Do you know what your real Google profile looks like? You can download your raw data (after about a thousand steps), but the vast majority of us have no idea what it means, how it’s used, or how to start using it for our own benefit.
Even more powerfully, when data is an open marketplace and controlled by its owners, an AI algorithm creator could post an open bounty to everyone to source (or license) exact data from exactly the type of archetypes it is looking to analyze and create an incredibly diverse set of algorithms maximizing for all kinds of outcomes. Consumers could also do the reverse and post bounties and data packages for algo creators to make algorithms targeted to helping that specific person make better decisions according to preselected criteria. An open data marketplace and data self-sovereignty is absolutely critical to ensuring that the incomprehensible value created by the ongoing and unstoppable revolution in big data, infotech and biotech is spread relatively evenly across the full population.
Can we do this with today’s technology and landscape? Potentially, but we face three critical challenges;
- How to trust that data generated by an individual for their own benefit isn’t faked
- How to make it economically feasible to make repeated small payments for something like real-time data collection as current payment infrastructure doesn’t scale down to this level
This is where blockchain becomes critical to moving this self-sovereign data paradigm forward. Blockchain has the ability to create verified, immutable, “data-passports” consisting of both validated historical off-chain data and ongoing on-chain actions that allow trust in the data without necessarily trusting the individual. Blockchain’s ability to enable direct, global peer to peer value transfer at the click of a button (ok several buttons) and for a few cents also allows this hyper-granular, paid collection of data from both users and from autonomous IOT devices. Finally, the ability to have a validated action occurring within a set of parameters (ie a user watched a full video) directly trigger payment with no human intervention (ie. a smart contract) allows both sides of transactions to fully trust the smart contract instead of each other. Blockchain is not a panacea, it is an important evolution along a scale of what’s possible. It is in early stages and there are numerous valid quibbles with the features listed above, but put simply, blockchain enables things and models that are not possible today.
As the combination of infotech, biotech and big data get more and more advanced and the world grows more complicated, artificial intelligence, algorithms and data-driven decision making will become the only way to operate. All of these are fed by data, and in order to keep free will with people, it is critical that we re-orient that power to work for those who create the best data instead of for those who have merely created the best way to acquire data and seek to make decisions on your behalf. Blockchain isn’t the full answer, but it’s an incredibly important tool to allow the actual economics of this open data-market to make sense.
Personalized AI algorithms don’t exist today, but you still have a meat computer that can be smart, rational and compassionate and can do something immediately: think. Think about why you are seeing a piece of content. Did you search specifically for it or was it suggested by something external to you? Think about what emotion or behavior is trying to be elicited from you and whether you would want to do that in a purely rational state of mind. Think about what’s important to you 5 years from now and whether the rush of dopamine right now helps or hinders that long term goal. Look for services that don’t track your data or allow you to start accruing it yourself even though yes, they will be far less convenient in the short term. No one is asking you to become a meditative mind wizard, but try and make it a habit to activate your human brain vs. your lizard brain at least when it comes to big decisions or soon enough even the decision of how to make decisions may be made for you.
By Alex McDougall, who is the Chief Investment Officer and co-founder of Bicameral Ventures, a venture capital fund focused on catalyzing the vanguard of blockchain. He is an experienced speaker, investor and advisor across the full lifecycle of companies.
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