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Professor Genevieve Bell: The future is already here – but are governments ready for it?

28 March 2018

News and media


Genevieve Bell

The future is already here, and governments and individuals need to learn how to deal with the loss of privacy, the rising power of data and algorithms and the growth in robots, says Professor Genevieve Bell.

Professor Bell delivered the keynote address at ANZSOG and the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s Breaking the data silos conference in Canberra on March 27.

She warned that that the rise of data would not necessarily make society more democratic or more equitable unless we consciously redesign social structures, and governments work to ensure people are treated as citizens as well as consumers.

“Every new technology cleaves to the same lines of inequity as the previous one did and often reinforces them unless you choose to intervene,” she said.

Professor Bell quoted science fiction writer William Gibson, as saying: “the future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed”.

“This is a wonderful provocation. The future is not some other country that you can just land in, there are bits of the future all around, we just need to look for them,” Professor Bell said.

She said the future would be messy, and the rise in data, robots and decisions made by algorithms without human intervention would create new challenges and require governments to make conscious choices about the kind of future we wanted.

Data analysis: Are we asking the right questions?

Data would not necessarily solve problems through size alone, we need to ask the right questions and keep human needs at the heart, Professor Bell said.

“People say we can find the patterns in the data and let the algorithms run themselves, we’ll take humans out of the loop because they are messy and complicated. But the truth is that data is also messy and complicated. It’s always partial and retrospective and it is not always true,” Professor Bell said.

“The power of large data sets is that we can find patterns the human eye couldn’t. Finding patterns at sale and applying them meaningfully means that, for example, we can find cancers and drill down and apply treatment.

“The downside is that we live in a world where we believe in the very modern notion that more data equals more truth. But the reality is that more data just equals more data. We need the ability to ask better questions, to be critical of how it was collected, under what circumstance, how it was stored and how it is used.”

Professor Bell has a unique perspective on these issues. She trained as an anthropologist, but spent 18 years working for Intel in Silicon Valley, as she described it “trying to put people back into the story of how we make technology”, before returning to Australia to become Director of the 3A Institute, Florence Violet McKenzie Chair, and Distinguished Professor at the Australian National University.

3A is the Autonomy, Agency and Assurance (3A) Institute,  launched by the ANU in collaboration with CSIRO’s Data61, which has been tasked with building a new applied science around the management of artificial intelligence, data, technology and their impact on humanity. She said that the public’s knowledge, and our legal and ethical systems, were lagging behind the rapid growth in technology.

ANZSOG Dean and CEO Professor Ken Smith discusses data with Professor Genevieve Bell at the Breaking the data silos conference in Canberra.

Data privacy: Are robot vacuum cleaners sharing your secrets?

“Robotic vacuum cleaners are the largest installed base of robots anywhere on the planet. Last July the CEO of the company announced a new plan – the robots will be selling the data they have collected from your homes, and about 20 per cent of them have downward facing cameras. Data is being collected about you but you don’t own that data, know where it is going or have rights around it.”

“The US had court cases ongoing where a person’s smartwatch is being asked to testify against them by showing data about their movements.”

She said that the number of devices that could collect and distribute data would increase hugely in the future, with further implications for privacy.

“Mark Zuckerberg said a few years ago that the privacy genie was out of the bottle, but I think that post-Snowden she has tried to crawl back into the bottle, dragging the cork behind her,” Professor Bell said.

“As humans we still care tremendously about our own privacy. There are a whole tranche of organisations to which we have given data over a long period of time. What were the implicit and explicit social and legal contracts we engaged in when we did that?”

“Younger generations are reimagining privacy practices quite aggressively and have moved off services that many of us use.”

“But it is not just about privacy but about reputation, it’s not about whether they know how old you are, or how much money you make or where you got your education, it’s what meaning gets written on top of that.”

She said that the assumptions behind data were important – particularly when these assumptions are not that benign.

“Algorithms based on your data are being used for credit scores, travel-worthiness. One country that is running a social trustworthiness score that determines whether you can buy plane tickets.

Professor Bell said that policing the interaction of humans and robots would become an increasing challenge, as highlighted by a recent death of a human after being hit by a semi-autonomous car.

“Amazon has the biggest warehouse on the planet in Seattle, with a combination of human and robot workers. To make that work the factory had to be dived into robot and human spaces, separated by yellow lines.”

“The problem is that robots are good at following rules they are given, but humans are not. The clash between humans and robots tends to be a messy one, and a hard one because we can’t get humans out of the system – that is one of the parts of the future that is already here”

Data is being collected about you but you don’t own that data, know where it is going or have rights around it.
Technology and the democratic process

Professor Bell warned that the rise of technology was part of a shift in the relationship between capitalism and democracy that threatened the future of democratic governments.

She said this development made it important to maintain the distinction between citizens and consumers, and continue to talk about the public good and what governments should be doing. “We’re moving out of a long historical cycle where capitalism and democracy have been intertwined and mutually-reinforcing structures. It has become clear that there are now enterprises at scale which are capitalistic in nature, which no longer require democracy to flourish. What happens when capitalism no longer requires democracy, or is going in a completely different direction?

“Consumerism has a very different endpoint to citizenship and there is something about the intermingling of those endpoints those narratives that makes it easier to violate trust.”

She said the biggest challenge would be to make sure that the futures we choose don’t ignore what makes us human, and to ensure that technology doesn’t undermine democracy and reinforce inequity.

“Not all futures have to be about efficiencies and productivity. Technology will be used to make beautiful and wonderful things – how do we look around us and make sure futures are also about the things that make us human?”

The Breaking the data silos conference has featured numerous speakers from across the globe discussing the importance of opening data for better reporting and policy delivery.

Topics have ranged from Indigenous health and welfare, vulnerable families and burden of disease to Singapore’s use of data analytics.

Listen to Genevieve’s speech at the Breaking the data silos conference: