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Society desperately needs an alternative web

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I see a society that is crumbling. The rampant technology is simultaneously capsizing industries that were previously the bread and butter of economic growth. The working man and woman have felt its effects as wages stagnate and employment opportunities remain fewer amidst a progressively automated economy. Increasing wage inequality and financial vulnerability have given rise to populism, and the domino effects are spreading.

People are angry. They demand fairness and are threatened by policies and outsiders that may endanger their livelihoods. This has caused a greater cultural and racial divide within and between nations. Technology has enabled this anger to spread, influence and manipulate at a much greater speed than ever before resulting in increasing polarization and a sweeping anxiety epidemic.

Globally, we are much more connected – this, to our detriment. We’ve witnessed both government and business leverage technology to spread disinformation for their gains. While regulators struggle to keep pace with these harms, the tech giants continue, unabated, to wield their influence and power to establish footprints that make both consumers and business increasingly dependent on their platforms and technology stacks. We cannot escape them, nor do we want to. Therein lays the concern…

This recent article, “The World is Choking on Data Pollution” offered a profound distillation of what we are witnessing today:

Progress has not been without a price. Like the factories of 200 years ago, digital advances have given rise to a pollution that is reducing the quality of our lives and the strength of our democracy… We are now face-to-face with a system embedded in every structure of our lives and institutions, shaping our society in ways that deeply impact our basic values.

Tim Berners Lee’s Intent for the World Wide Web has Run Off-Course:

Tim Berners Lee had this Pollyannaish view once upon a time that went like this: What if we could develop a web that was free to use for everyone and that would fuel creativity, connection, knowledge and optimism across the globe? He believed the internet to be a basic human right,

…That means guaranteeing affordable access for all, ensuring internet packets are delivered without commercial or political discrimination, and protecting the privacy and freedom of web users regardless of where they live.

Between 1989 and 1991, Tim Berners Lee led the development of the World Wide Web and unleashed the “language HTML (hypertext markup language) to create the webpages HTTP (used to create web pages), HTTP (HyperText Transfer Protocol), and URLs (Universal Resource Locators).”

The now ubiquitous WWW set a movement which has scaled tremendously, reinventing the way we do business, access and consume information, create connections and perpetuating an unrelenting mindset of innovation and optimism.

What has also transpired is a web of unbridled opportunism and exploitation, uncertainty and disparity. We see increasing pockets of silos and echo chambers fueled by anxiety, misplaced trust and confirmation bias. As the mainstream consumer lays witness to these intentions, we notice a growing marginalization that propels more to unplug from these communities and applications to safeguard their mental health. However, the addiction technology has produced cannot be easily remedied. In the meantime, people continue to suffer.

What has been most distressing are the effects of cyberbullying on our children. In 2016, The National Crime Prevention reported 43% of teens were subjects of cyberbullying, an increase of 11% from a decade prior. Some other numbing statistics:

  • “2017 Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting revealed the number of children admitted to hospitals for attempted suicide or expressing suicidal thoughts doubled between 2008 and 2015”
  • “Javelin Research finds that children who are bullied are 9 times more likely to be the victims of identity fraud as well.”
  • “Data from numerous studies also indicate that social media is now the favored medium for cyberbullies”

Big Tech: Too Big to Fail?

As the web evolved throughout the 90s we witnessed the emergence of hefty players like Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and later Facebook and Amazon. As Chris Dixon asserted:

During the second era of the internet, from the mid 2000s to the present, for-profit tech companies — most notably Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon (GAFA) — built software and services that rapidly outpaced the capabilities of open protocols. The explosive growth of smartphones accelerated this trend as mobile apps became the majority of internet use. Eventually users migrated from open services to these more sophisticated, centralized services. Even when users still accessed open protocols like the web, they would typically do so mediated by GAFA software and services.

Today, we appropriately apply a few acronyms to these giants: G-MAFIA (Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, IBM, Apple), or FAANG (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google) and now BAT (Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent). These players have created a progressively centralized internet that has limited competition and has stifled the growth of startups, which are more vulnerable to these tech giants. My discussion with a social network founder (who asked to remain nameless) spoke of one of the large platforms which continuously copied newly released features from their site, and they did so transparently because “they could.” He also witnessed a stall of user engagement and eventual churn. He was unable to compete effectively without the necessary resources and eventually relented, changing his business model and withdrawing to the cryptocurrency community to start anew.

Consider this: These eight players Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Tencent, Baidu, and Alibaba are larger than the “market cap of every listed company in the Eurozone in Emerging Markets and in Japan.” G-MAFIA (excluding IBM) combined posted average returns in 2018 of 45% compared with 19% return among S&P500.  Now add the high degree of consolidation of the tech industry. Together FAANG has acquired 398 companies since 2007. The type of acquisitions has heightened interest from regulators and economists towards anti-trust regulation. Add to this list the highest-ever acquisition in history with IBM’s purchase of Red Hatat a reported $34 billion.

Big tech valuations continue to rise despite the sins illuminated by their technologies. There is this dichotomy that pits what’s good for consumers against what’s good for shareholders. We’ve derived some great experiences from these platforms, but we’ve also seen examples of invisible harms. However unintended, they surface as a result of the business mandate to prioritize user growth and engagement. These performance indicators are what drive employee performance and company objectives. When we think about the impact of big tech, their cloud environments and web hosting servers ensure our emails, our social presence, and our websites are available to everyone on the web. In essence, they control how the internet is run.

Amy Webb, Author of  “The Big Nine: How the Tech Titans and their Thinking Machines could Warp Humanity” refers not only to G-MAFIA but also BAT (the consortium that has led the charge in the highly controversial Social Credit system to create a trust value among its Chinese citizens). She writes:

We stop assuming that the G-MAFIA (Google, Apple, Facebook, IBM, and Amazon) can serve its DC and Wall Street masters equally and that the free markets and our entrepreneurial spirit will produce the best possible outcomes for AI and humanity

These Nine will shape the future of the internet, no doubt. Webb envisions several scenarios where China’s encroaching influence will enable an AGI to control the world much more pervasively than the Social Credit System, and where “democracy will end” in the United States. This is not implausible as we are already seeing signs of BAT’s increased fundingacross gaming, social media, fintech sectors, outpacing the US in investment.

Webb also foresees a future of stifling individual privacy where our personal information is locked in the operating systems of these tech giants, now functioning oligopolies, fueling a “digital caste system,” mimicking a familiar authoritarian system in China.

This future that Webb forecasts is conceivable. Today, beyond Cambridge Analytica and government’s alleged use of Facebook to manipulate voters and seed chaos, the damages, however divergent, are more pervasive and are more connected to one another than we realize. We have seen Amazon’s facial recognition technology used in law enforcement, which has been deemed ineffective and wrought of racial bias.

In the same vein, Buzzfeed reported the use of facial recognition being used in retail systems without the regard for user consent. We believed in Facebook’s initiative to safeguard our security through two-factor authentication, while they used our mobile numbers to target our behavior and weaken our privacy in the process. Both Facebook and Amazon have been known to have experimented with our data to manipulate our emotions. When Tiktok was fined $5.7 million for illegally collecting children’s data, it was only following the lead of its predecessors.

The biggest data breaches of all time have involved some of the largest tech companies like FB, Yahoo! and Uber as well as established corporations like Marriott and Equifax. The downstream effects are yet to be realized as this data is bought and sold on the dark web to the highest bidders. When 23andMe created the Personal Genome Service as an offer to connect people to their roots, it was, instead, exposed as “front for a massive information-gathering operation against an unwitting public.”

This epidemic continues. What is emerging are the hidden intentions behind the algorithms and technology that make it more difficult to trust our peers, our institutions and our government. While employees were up in arms because of Google’s “Dragonfly” censored search engine with China and its Project Maven’s drone surveillance program with DARPA, there exist very few mechanisms to stop these initiatives from taking flight without proper oversight. The tech community argues they are different than Big Pharma or Banking. Regulating them would strangle the internet.

Technology precedes regulation. This new world has created scenarios that are unaddressable under current laws. There is a prevailing legal threat unleashed through the GDPR, however, there are aspects of it that some argue that may indeed stifle innovation. However, it’s a start. In the meantime, we need to progress so systems and governance are in sync, and tech giants are held in check. This is not an easy task.

Who is responsible for the consequences of AI decisions? What mechanisms should be in place to ensure that the industry does not act in ways that go against the public interest? How can practitioners determine whether a system is appropriate for the task and whether it remains appropriate over time? These were the very questions we attempted to answer at the UK/Canada Symposium on Ethics and Artificial Intelligence. There are no clear answers today.

Back to Basics: Can we re-decentralize an increasingly centralized internet?

Here’s a thought! How do we move our increasingly digital world into a place where we all feel safe; where we control our data; where our needs and desires are met without dependence on any one or two institutions to give us that value? The decentralized web is a mindset and a belief in an alternative structure that can address some of the afflictions that have risen from data pollution. This fringe notion is slowly making its way back to mainstream:

A Web designed to resist attempts to centralize its architecture, services, or protocols [so] that no individual, state, or corporation can substantially control its use.

Is it possible to reverse the deterioration we are experiencing today? I spoke with individuals who are working actively within the values of the decentralized web and are building towards this panacea. Andrew Hill and Carson Farmer developed Textile.IO, a digital wallet for photos that are entirely controlled and owned by the user. Textile.io didn’t start out as a decentralized project. As Andrew recalls:

We started this project asking: what was the future of personal data going to look in the future? We didn’t like the answer at all. It seemed like the ubiquity of data with the speed of computing power and increasing complexity of algorithms would lead us to a state that wouldn’t be good for us: easily manipulated, easily tracked and personal lives easily invaded by third parties (government, individuals and companies)

Carson Farmer noted that GMAIL is fundamentally a better user experience because individuals didn’t need to run their own protocols or set up their own servers. This “natural” progression” to centralized technologies has served the Big Nine well.

Since then, it’s been this runaway because of the capitalist value behind data. They are building business models behind it and it will not go away overnight. By putting our blind trust into a handful of corporations who collect our data, we’ve created a run-away effect (some folks call it ‘data network effects’) where those companies now create value from our data, that is orders of magnitude greater than any new entrant into the market is capable of. This means that the ‘greatest’ innovation around our digital data is coming from only a handful of large companies.

However, people, en-masse, don’t understand this imminent threat. Few really understand the implications of cybersecurity breaches, nor the impact to individual welfare or safety from the data they willingly provide these networks. How much of this needs mainstream to care about it to achieve the scalability it requires? Hill argues that few will abandon technologies unless their values are subdued by risk. Hill explained our “signaled intentions actually differ from our intended behaviors.” For example, many would support legislation to reduced speed limits in certain areas to minimize deaths from auto accidents. However, engineering this feature into self-driving cars so they are unable to go faster, would be far more objectionable because it impedes us.

Adoption of a decentralized web cannot play by the old rules. New experiences and interactions that are outside of current norms needs to appeal to individual values, that enable trust and ease of adoption. Pulling users away from convention is not an easy task. However, emerging organizations are starting to build bridges into the old technology in an effort to re-decentralizeMatrix.org has created an open standard for decentralized communications. The Dat Project, largely funded mainly by donations provides a peer to peer file sharing protocol to create a more human-centered internet, without the risk of data being sold. For Textile.io their version of Instagram allows users to add a photo to their mobile application, which exists on your phone, with a privately encrypted copy existing on an IPFS (“a peer-to-peer protocol for sharing hypermedia in distributed file system”) node off your phone. No one sees the encrypted photo version unless you share the private keys to that photo. Textile has no view into the data, nor an intention of processing or keeping it. Handshake.org is a “permissionless and decentralized naming protocol to replace the DNS root file and servers with a public commons”, uncensorable and free of any gatekeeper. The Internet Archive, started by Brewster Kale, is a non-profit library that has cataloged over 400 billion web pages in the last 22 years, also digitizing all-things analog (books, music, movies), with the attempt to save web history and knowledge with free access to anyone.

Wendy Hanamura, Director of the Internet Archive is also the Founder of DWeb, a summit which started in 2016 bringing together builders and non-builders within the 4 levers of change: 1) laws 2) markets 3) norms and values 4) technology to advocate a better web. The intention was to do a moonshot for the internet and create “A web that’s locked open for good.” Why now? Wendy declared,

In the last few years we have woken up to see that the web is failing us. We turn to our screens for information we are getting, instead, deception in fake news, non reliable information, missing data. A lot of us in the sector feel we could do better. Technology is one path to doing better.

The prevailing vision of the Dweb:

A goal in creating a Decentralized Web is to reduce or eliminate such centralized points of control. That way, if any player drops out, the system still works. Such a system could better help protect user privacy, ensure reliable access, and even make it possible for users to buy and sell directly, without having to go through websites that now serve as middlemen, and collect user data in the process.

While it’s still early day, for at least a decade many players have chosen to become part of this movement to fix the issues that increasing centralization has created. From Diaspora to Bit Torrent, a growing list of technologies continue to develop alternatives for the DWeb: for storage, social nets, communication and collaboration apps, database, cryptocurrencies, etc. Carson sees the Dweb evolving and feels the time is ripe for this opportunity:

Decentralization gives us a new way forward: decentralized data storage, encryption based privacy, and P2P networks give us the tools to imagine a world where individuals own and control their personal data. In that future, all technologies can build and contribute to the same data network effect. That is exciting because it means we can create a world with explosive innovation and value generation from our data, as opposed to one limited by the production capacity and imagination of those few companies…

Can the decentralized web fix this? In a world where trust is fleeting, this may be a significant pathway forward but it’s still early day. The DWeb is reawakening. The emergence of its players sees tremendous promise however, the experiences will need to get better. Many things must work in tandem. The public needs to be more informed of the impact on their individual rights and welfare. Business needs to change its mindset. I was reminded by Dr. George Tomko, Expert in Residence at the University of Toronto, that if business can become more human, to be more compassionate

…and have the ability to feel a person’s pain or discomfort and to care enough by collaborating with others in alleviating her pain or discomfort… what emerges is a society of greater empathy, and a culture that yields more success

Regulation has to also be in lock-step with technology but it must be informed and well thought out to encourage competition and minimize costs to the consumer. More importantly, we must encourage more solutions to bring more data control to the user to give him/her the experiences they want out of the web, without fear of repercussions. This was the original promise of the internet.

This originally appeared on Forbes.

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Using innovation and technology for climate change-related challenges

How will tech consumers respond to challenges created by climate change? Ericsson’s report reveals ten trends that show increased reliance on digital innovation.

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Responding to the challenges caused by changes to our climate, people are increasingly turning to technology and innovation for solutions.  

Ericsson’s recent report, 10 Hot Consumer Trends: Life in a Climate-Impacted Future, released on January 16, 2023, shows how consumers are impacted and how they’re responding. 

The report covers ten emerging trends along with statistics, revealing how technology use is shifting because of climate change. 

The Overall Picture

Despite societal changes expected to take place in the next decade, people will continue to go to school, earn incomes, take care of loved ones, and find time to fit in some fun. Increasingly, they will rely on connected digital devices to adapt to coming changes while trying to maintain normalcy in their daily lives.   

Key Statistics

Consulting with 15,145 early adopters of digital assistants, VR (virtual reality), and AR (augmented reality) technology across 30 cities worldwide, Ericsson uncovered these statistics. 

  • 59% believe technological innovation is necessary to solve coming challenges
  • 63% worry about higher costs of living
  • 54% feel global warming will directly impact their day-to-day lives
  • 68% would plan their days based on reducing energy costs
  • 45% would use personalized weather warning systems
  • 72% believe AI will help plan commutes and work tasks to reduce carbon footprints
  • 46% plan to capture clean rainwater with smart water catchers 
  • 65% see energy becoming a form of currency
  • 73% envision using AR glasses to go on virtual trips 

Ten Trends

One: Cutting Costs

As prices for daily necessities rise, consumers will use digital services to cut costs. Personal electricity consumption monitors will help reduce household energy consumption. Digital recipe assistants will monitor food prices and suggest balanced, economical meals. 

Two: Relying on the Internet

Demand for Internet reliance will grow to stay connected with family, friends, school, and work. Consumers will expect secure communications services. The Internet will become vital for accessing information during weather events. 

Three: Optimizing Schedules

Energy availability – not time – will be considered to optimize activity schedules. Energy costs will be prioritized over time efficiency. 

Four: Depending on AI

Using AI for increased safety will become commonplace, with people turning to AI for real-time advice in extreme weather. AI services will be used for green technology investing for financial security. 

Five: Changing Work Routines

Working from home at least part-time will continue, with digital services used to schedule workdays. Flex schedules can distribute energy use across regions to avoid sharp peaks of electricity consumption. 

Six: Using Smart Water Services

To prevent water scarcity and reduce costs, intelligent water catchers on roofs and balconies will capture clean rainwater. Built-in sensors at home will monitor water consumption. 

Seven: Turning Energy into Currency

Consumers will switch to renewable energy sources, and power-saving technologies will grow in demand. Early adopters see opportunities to make money by generating their own electricity. 

Eight: Shopping Digitally

Buying digital products will increase while buying physical goods will decrease. Hobbies, toys, games, and pastimes will go online. AI that questions unnecessary purchases will be used. 

Nine: Travelling Virtually

VR will be used to travel without leaving home. Realistic nature experiences of hiking in a forest or rowing on a lake can be recreated in living rooms.

Ten: Protecting Against Cheaters

Some consumers will try to bypass environmental restrictions by hacking the system and tapping into neighbors’ reserves. People will need to secure their water and electricity supplies to protect themselves from being hacked. 

Read Ericsson’s full report

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OpenAI, creator of ChatGPT, casts spell on Microsoft

OpenAI is the topic of conversation across multiple industries, and Microsoft is betting big on it.

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Greg Brockman, co-founder and chairman of OpenAI, says that a paid version of ChatGPT is in the works
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The hottest startup in Silicon Valley right now is OpenAI, the Microsoft-backed developer of ChatGPT, a much-hyped chatbot that can write a poem, college essay or even a line of software code.

Tesla tycoon Elon Musk was an early investor in OpenAI and Microsoft is reported to be in talks to up an initial investment of $1 billion to $10 billion in a goal to challenge Google’s world-dominating search engine.

If agreed, the cash injection by the Windows-maker would value OpenAI at a whopping $29 billion, making it a rare tech-world success when major players such as Amazon, Meta and Twitter are cutting costs and laying off staff.

“Microsoft is clearly being aggressive on this front and not going to be left behind on what could be a potential game-changing AI investment,” said analyst Dan Ives of Wedbush Securities.

Before the release of ChatGPT, OpenAI had wowed tech geeks with Dall-E 2, a software that creates digital images with a simple instruction.

Microsoft, which makes no secret of its AI ambitions, has integrated Dall-E 2 into several of its applications and now, according to a report in Bloomberg, the tech giant wants to graft ChatGPT to its Bing search engine to take on Google.

Since ChatGPT was introduced in November, the prowess of this chatbot has aroused the curiosity and fascination of internet users.

It is capable of formulating detailed and human-like answers on a wide range of subjects in a few seconds, raising fears that it is vulnerable to misuse by school cheats or for disinformation.

‘Not cheap’

The dizzying success is due in part to OpenAI’s clever marketing strategy in which it made its research accessible to non-experts, said AI specialist Robb Wilson, founder of OneReach.ai, a software company.

“Having this technology available to technologists was one thing. Offering it in a chat user interface and allowing non-developers to start playing with it ignited a conversation,” he said.

Founded in late 2015, OpenAI is led by Sam Altman, a 37-year-old entrepreneur and former president of startup incubator Y Combinator.

The company has counted on the financial support of prestigious contributors from the start, including LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, investor Peter Thiel and Musk.

The multi-billionaire served on OpenAI’s board until 2018, but left to focus on Tesla, the electric vehicle company.

The startup also relies on a team of computer scientists and researchers led by Ilya Sutskever, a former Google executive who specializes in machine learning.

OpenAI, which did not respond to AFP’s inquiries, had about 200 employees by 2021, according to a query made directly on ChatGPT.

For now, despite the excitement generated by ChatGPT, the company has yet to find a path to financial independence.

Founded as a nonprofit, the startup became a “capped for-profit” company in 2019 to attract more investors and this week co-founder Greg Brockman said that a paid version of ChatGPT was in the works.

The search for funding seems necessary for a company with exorbitant expenses.

In a Twitter exchange with Musk in early December, Altman acknowledged that each conversation on ChatGPT costs OpenAI several US cents.

According to estimates by Tom Goldstein, an associate professor in the University of Maryland’s computer science department, the company is shelling out $100,000 a day for its bot, or about $3 million a month.

Partnering with Microsoft, which provides the startup with its remote computing services, could cut costs, but “either way, it’s not cheap,” Goldstein said.

“Some say it’s wasteful to pour these kinds of resources… into a demo,” he added.

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Three stories from Canada’s tech landscape

An event series for Black entrepreneurs, Indigenous innovation, and a Canadian-made, one-of-a-kind EV.

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Ongoing reports of an overall slowdown — including layoffs — in Canada’s tech ecosystem have been happening for much of the latter half of 2022. Funding took a bit of a tumble, amid stock market slumps, inflation, and a looming recession.

That said, there are still plenty of entrepreneurs, tech leaders, and innovators across Canada making serious moves. Here are three such stories.

Celebrating Black founders and tech leaders

Black tech entrepreneurs in Alberta are getting the change to pitch their businesses to investors and connect with fellow founders, thanks to a new events series from Innovate Calgary.

The series, called Black Founders in Tech, started in November out of the University of Calgary’s business incubator, with seven founders making their pitches. Prior to their pitch, participants were matched with a mentor and coach to help with preparation.

As Innovate Calgary’s Jerome Morgan explained to CBC, “We listened to BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of colour] founders, and they said, ‘We want to be celebrated and not just be a corner of the innovation ecosystem.’”

“In [the] industry there aren’t that many colourful faces all in one room and it was pretty cool,” added pitch finalist Sean Hervo. “You could feel the love and energy in there. We were high-fiving and cheering each other on.”

Learn more about the event series from CBC

Canada’s first Indigenous-owned bioenergy facility

NorSask Forest Products, a bioenergy plant owned by The Meadow Lake Tribal Council (comprising nine First Nations in northwestern Saskatchewan), is turning wood waste into heat and power.

After 50 years of the sawmill burning its wood waste — a practice that has largely been abandoned or banned in most of the country — the bioenergy centre works in a closed-loop system. As Tina Rasmussen, chief business officer for MLTC and a member of the Flying Dust First Nation explained to CBC, such a system allows for the use of 100% of the tree. Air pollution control devices help remove particulates and break down pollutants into ash. 

The facility generates 8.3 megawatts of power, able to power approximately 5,000 homes. 

Dig deeper into the story from CBC

Showcasing Canada’s EV and manufacturing potential at CES

The Consumer Electronics Show is one of the biggest tech events in the world, and a unique piece of Canadian tech was on showcase.
Project Arrow is a concept vehicle by The Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association of Canada. It’s made of materials from 50 Canadian parts suppliers, built to show the auto sector’s ability to manufacture EVs and to answer Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s call for zero-emissions by 2050. The Arrow is the first original, full-build, zero-emission concept vehicle.

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