by Maggie Shen King
In my short story, Ardy’s Choice, a young family sets out in its self-driving car for a Saturday outing. It encounters a situation in which it unknowingly cedes full control to its vehicle’s navigational system and, in the process, allows its artificial intelligence to make decisions the family would never have agreed to. This scenario that I’ve imagined is only a few years away.
The list of what we’ve offered up over the years both intentionally and unintentionally, however, is staggering when taken together.
We now enjoy unprecedented levels of convenience and connection. Without leaving our homes, we can attend face-to-face work meetings, pay bills at the touch of a button, navigate bureaucracy, order up food, transportation, and entertainment. We can shop for potential life mates, small everyday goods as well as large ticket items like appliances and cars. We can chat with friends singly or in groups and play games together. With the advent of social media, it has never been easier to connect with friends, with celebrities, with strangers with similar interests, sexual orientations, and ailments who are eager to help. When we do go out, splitting bills and paying friends have never been easier. Virtual assistants guide us to where we wish to go and guard our homes while we are gone. They carry out our voice orders, monitor our physical activities, encourage us to stay active, keep track of our medications, sleep, menstrual cycles, and more. With a few drops of our saliva, we can learn about our ancestry, find relatives, and understand our genetic profiles. So much is possible. If we dream it, we have the ability to make it happen.
For that ease and convenience, it is fair that we trade some measure of privacy and ownership. The list of what we’ve offered up over the years both intentionally and unintentionally, however, is staggering when taken together. The benefits we’ve derived are huge, but did we really mean to share our physical locations, daily travel routes, and purchase patterns; our tastes in food, music, books, and shows; our photographs, private documents, and personal correspondence; our friendship and family histories; our thumb prints, identifying facial features, health data, and genetic code; our bank account numbers; our internet search histories; and more? Physical property that we were once able to pass onto our children—photos, books, and music libraries that define us—are now digital and require effort to bequeath and in some cases, may not be transferable. So much of our physical bodies, our possessions, our conversations, and our thoughts are now also the property of conglomerates.
Data breaches happen daily and make clear that these conglomerates that hold, collect, and even sell our data are all vulnerable. Furthermore, they are answerable to subpoenas should courts demand our records. Enough data already exists online such that psychographical profiles can be tailored to each of us with remarkable specificity, making us easy targets to marketers, political causes, and investigators of all ilk. Ever more worrisome are innovations such as facial recognition software that wrests away our choice in participation. All this when combined with the rising use of artificial intelligence and automated decision-making threaten to expose us to many more perverse outcomes such as the one in Ardy’s Choice.
Technology is an integral part of our society and our everyday lives. In many instances, modern life has become difficult if not impossible to navigate if we do not give up some personal data. So much is already out of our hands, but before we adopt the latest time-saving app or the next cool toy, it is important to consider the sensitivity and long-term ramifications of the information we will inevitably be required to share. We must remember that these benefits are offered by business enterprises with bottom lines. Every offer of convenience is a business exchange. Ultimately, what is our data worth?