9th Dec 2023


No place for dystopianism in digital EU

  • Kenneth Cukier at an event in Brussels in 2016 (Photo: Vodafone Institut)
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What's a credible dystopian nightmare for a leading writer on AI and Big Data?

"There's a scene in [the 2002 US film] Minority Report when police throw down what seem to be pebbles, which expand into spider-like robots, look for people and climb on their faces to scan their retinas," said Kenneth Cukier.

Read and decide

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  • Cukier is deputy editor of The Economist magazine and author of two books (Photo: Vodafone Institut)

"That seems plausible. Only it's going to be the size of a mosquito and it'll be an aerial drone," he added.

"I imagine the skies in our cities and country lanes darkening with drones, deployed on some pretext, such as traffic control. But they have cameras and facial recognition and they're used to ID where everyone is, who they're meeting, how long they talk for, and what they're saying," he said.

Cukier, a 54-year old American journalist, is deputy editor of The Economist magazine in London, as well as author of Big Data: A Revolution that Will Transform How We Work, Live and Think (2013) and Framers: Human Advantage in an Age of Technology and Turmoil (2021).

He wasn't being entirely serious about the nano-drone nightmare.

Cukier is more interested in real science and the way it improves people's lives than he is in science fiction.

He's an advocate of looser regulation on AI and private data in the education and healthcare sectors in the EU's digital economy.

He also believes in getting everyone online, via EU investment to end Europe's digital divide, in which poor countries, rural regions, and elderly people have worse access to broadband internet.

"Access to high-speed connectivity is like access to potable water, or like access to freedom," he told EUobserver.

"We should give people the option to improve their lives with it, even if they just use it for dumb entertainment. If you believe in personal freedom, as I do, we should expand the field of connectivity to everyone," Cukier said.

Use of AI in education is proven to "lead to much better learning, with more fulfilling and satisfying lives for students, and better outcomes for economies," he said.

AI in healthcare can save patients by drastically cutting the time it would take a human doctor to intervene in an emergency, he added.

And it's already making things more comfortable in little ways, such as helping traffic flow smoothly or extending the battery lives of smartphones, Cukier said.

For all his optimism, good fiction, such as Minority Report, still jangles nerves because it shows the dark side of real technological and political trends.

The potential for abuse of Big Data to warp people's behaviour was exposed in the voter-manipulation scandal involving British firm Cambridge Analytica in the 2016 US elections.

US and Chinese social media giants, Facebook and TikTok, already use AI and Big Data to hook users on their apps.

The digital world is awash with behavioural advertising, inflammatory disinformation, hate speech, and invasive sexual content.

The roll-out of AI in government services in some EU countries, such as the Netherlands, has harmed people by blindly cutting off their social-security payments and plunging them into poverty.

And Cukier himself has taken steps to opt out which some tech-lovers might see as Luddite.

"I don't have any social media apps on my phone at all because the temptation is too great to use any moment of free time — waiting in line, waiting for a taxi — to just mindlessly go on my phone and start scrolling inanities," he said.

EU angst

But if unrestrained tech use posed a threat to Europeans' wellbeing, then so did knee-jerk "over-correcting" by EU laws in novel domains, Cukier warned.

He cited existing EU data-privacy laws and its upcoming AI directive as examples.

Patients' medical data was so hard to get, compliance paperwork was so onerous, and potential fines were so steep, that start-up businesses in Big Data healthcare were being abandoned by some of Europe's best scientific talent, Cukier said.

EU data-regulators should have a "dual mandate" to promote innovation and growth, as well as protecting people's privacy, he said.

Meanwhile, the draft AI directive has put education in the highest risk category for regulators, in a move that also threatens to asphyxiate investment.

"It makes no sense," Cukier said.

"Lord knows, Big Tech, Facebook and Twitter, spend billions and billions of dollars to get people to spend an extra minute, 15 minutes, hour on their platform ... It's been engineered to 'optimise engagement'. Why not put the same care into optimising engagement in educational resources?", he said.


Cukier compared public angst around emerging technologies to the way "unscientific" activists effectively halted progress in 'Frankenfood' GMO-farming in the past.

"The green movement has done a terrible thing in demonising GMOs. There are people in Africa who are now less healthy because their crops wither in the sun instead of being more robust," he said.

And even going back to his own dystopian vignette of totalitarian surveillance, he said it would be wrong to demonise drone or facial-recognition technology, instead of guarding against the real danger — the immoral decisions made by individuals and regimes who abused it.

"I spent the first half of my life as a journalist speaking of the benefits of technology. I fear I'm going to spend the second half urging people to use it responsibly," he said.

But "data and technology aren't going to harm us — other people will do that," Cukier added.

"Humanity will perhaps show a new form of barbarism" using novel tech in future, he said, but "those will be choices people will make against other people" and not the fault of the machines.

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