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Data: What do we do with this fuel of the 21st century?

technology

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13 May 2021

Do we advance or do we retreat? As human beings, we’ve often shown that we can continue to find new ways to generate economic value and thus progress as a society. One only has to read a bit of Steven Pinker to understand that “in the last seven decades, human beings have achieved a longer, healthier, safer, richer, freer, fairer, happier and more intelligent life, not just in the West, but all over the world”.

Although we can’t say the same when it comes to sharing this new wealth that has been generated, given the widespread inequalities that continue even after two decades into the 21st century.

We’ve been even less intelligent when it comes to safeguarding our planet, squeezing it dry as if there were no tomorrow, with all the tools we have at hand. So while our capacity for innovation and wealth generation has increased exponentially over the centuries, so has our ability to inflict damage on the planet, although we possess the knowledge to prevent it. From 1950 onwards, there has been a large-scale acceleration of human impact on the planet, which could take us to a point of no return. For all the people in the world to have a lifestyle commensurate with that of Americans, we’d need 5 Earths. The most prestigious business schools have already made the Earth another stakeholder for businesses, governments, and all other organizations, in their teachings.

How many times have we heard that data fuels the 21st century? Just as oil was, and still is, highly important for progress but extremely damaging to the environment, the same could happen to data: it’s one of the main raw materials for innovation and progress. In the manufacturing sector, real-time sensor data improves predictive maintenance, helping to repair industrial machinery before they have a chance to break down and halt production. In the agricultural sector, the analysis of weather and soil moisture data collected by intelligent sensors can optimize irrigation and the use of fertilizers, helping farmers to improve crop production. In science, big data analysis can help to develop better diagnostic tools in medicine and improved models to predict climate change and natural disasters.

But there are risks associated with the use and abuse of personal data. In 2010, Mark Zuckerberg said “Privacy is no longer a social norm”. Some online businesses are using our experiences, transforming our lives into data, and storing away our photos. Shoshana Zuboff has warned us about the biggest risk: the ability of market players to manipulate us and modify our conduct, that is to say, to market future behaviors. One only has to see the film “Brexit: The Uncivil War” or the documentary Las mentiras de Facebook (Facebook Lies) to have an idea.

Recent studies tell us that more than 90% of consumers feel uncomfortable about how their online data is shared. People have begun to understand that when they click or like something, there’s more happening beneath the hood. The documentary “The Social Dilemma” has turned privacy into the beginnings of a dinner table conversation and debates between friends and relatives. It isn’t that data helps to predict the future, rather it designs it.

This doesn’t mean that we should all become technophobes. Technology isn’t the problem. The problem lies in this market dynamic, unimaginable outside the digital world, which permeates technology and uses it for its own purposes. New technologies are being developed to protect data while they are safely processed and analyzed: confidential computing, privacy-aware machine learning or homomorphic encryption allow safe data sharing in unsafe environments.

And what about Artificial Intelligence? Well, you only have to replace the word “data” by “Artificial Intelligence”. One is of little use without the other. Or better said, the synergies between the two are what gives them an exponential potential.

If we understand that correctly using data and technology can be highly beneficial for people, then we must establish (good) mechanisms for governance, regulation and finance, to correctly boost this “data economy”. The European Union is a pioneer in regulating the use of personal data, and although these regulations are applicable only in Europe, businesses all over the world are adopting them in order to access the European market. The EU must take even more steps to develop a competitive, safe, inclusive and ethical digital economy. Our future is at stake.

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