Anti Trust in Tech

If you had just been looking at the headlines from major research organizations, you would see a lack of confidence from the public in big business, technology companies included. For years, poll after poll from around the world has found high levels of distrust in their influence, handling of private data, and new developments.

If these corporations were at all worried about this, they are not much showing it in their products — particularly the A.I. stuff they have been shipping. There has been little attempt at abating last year’s trust crisis. Google decided to launch overconfident summaries for a variety of search queries. Far from helping to sift through all that has ever been published on the web to mash together a representative summary, it was instead an embarrassing mess that made the company look ill prepared for the concept of satire. Microsoft announced a product which will record and interpret everything you do and see on your computer, but as a good thing.

Can any of them see how this looks? If not — if they really are that unaware — why should we turn to them to fill gaps and needs in society? I certainly would not wish to indulge businesses which see themselves as entirely separate from the world.

It is hard to imagine they do not, though. Sundar Pichai, in an interview with Nilay Patel, recognised there were circumstances in which an A.I. summary would be inappropriate, and cautioned that the company still considers it a work in progress. Yet Google still turned it on by default in the U.S. with plans to expand worldwide this year.

Microsoft has responded to criticism by promising Recall will now be a feature users must opt into, rather than something they must turn off after updating Windows. The company also says there are more security protections for Recall data than originally promised but, based on its track record, maybe do not get too excited yet.

These product introductions all look like hubris. Arrogance, really — recognition of the significant power these corporations wield and the lack of competition they face. Google can poison its search engine because where else are most people going to go? How many people would turn off Recall, something which requires foreknowledge of its existence, under Microsoft’s original rollout strategy?

It is more or less an admission they are all comfortable gambling with their customers’ trust to further the perception they are at the forefront of the new hotness.

None of this is a judgement on the usefulness of these features or their social impact. I remain perplexed by the combination of a crisis of trust in new technologies, and the unwillingness of the companies responsible to engage with the public. There seems to be little attempt at persuasion. Instead, we are told to get on board because this rocket ship is taking off with or without us. Concerned? Too bad: the rocket ship is shaped like a giant middle finger.

What I hope we see Monday from Apple — a company which has portrayed itself as more careful and practical than many of its contemporaries — is a recognition of how this feels from outside the industry. Expect “A.I.” to be repeated in the presentation until you are sick of those two letters; investors are going to eat it up. When normal people update their phones in September, though, they should not feel like they are being bullied into accepting our A.I. future.

People need to be given time to adjust and learn. If the polls are representative, very few people trust giant corporations to get this right — understandably — yet these tech companies seem to believe we are as enthusiastic about every change they make as they are. Sorry, we are not, no matter how big a smile a company representative is wearing when they talk about it. Investors may not be patient but many of the rest of us need time.