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How open-source software can save us from Facebook and Google

Personal information isn’t personal when centralized powerhouses like Facebook and Alphabet control it, but adopting open-source digital ecosystems can help us take it back.

The more information Facebook and Google acquire about you, the less you control your personal data.

That’s scary, but not impossible to undo.

The solution lies in adopting more open-source, decentralized digital ecosystems that utilize blockchain technology to give users — all of us — control over our personal information once again.

Alec Shaw

Alec Shaw, co-founder of Euphrates, a blockchain consulting firm, and co-founder and advisor at the Marquette University Blockchain Lab, believes we’re at a pivotal time in the development of the modern, digital society.

“As we build a global digital economy, we are currently doing so by leveraging private platforms that don’t operate well with one another, charge massive fees, and are frequently hacked,” explains Shaw. “By leveraging open-source ecosystems, we can do exciting things like have a digital identity that the consumer owns, provide personal information without a company storing it, and earn cash rewards for using information and watching ads instead of that revenue going to Alphabet [Google’s parent company] or Facebook. We can distribute the value to those who create it or we can continue to use vulnerable systems where the creators reap all of the benefits.”

According to Shaw, the Marquette Blockchain Lab’s mission is to accelerate the adoption of emerging blockchain technologies in Wisconsin, through hosting technology conferences, development workshops, and providing professional education for the Greater Milwaukee area. The group is also launching a consulting arm this summer, to provide further expertise to local entrepreneurs.

“We see blockchain as a global settlement layer, enabling a censorship-resistant digital economy,” notes Shaw. Artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms sit on top of the blockchain on the application layer, interacting with the data on the chain to enable financial automation for a truly frictionless economy.”

Shaw’s interest in artificial intelligence lies in the realm of financial automation using both AI and blockchain. When data exhaust — the data generated as a byproduct of people’s online actions and choices — is captured and analyzed via artificial intelligence, the output is a business function.

“Under current IT infrastructures, the financial aspect of that business action must be executed by a human because it involves a payment,” Shaw says. “When leveraging verified data sets, organizations can extend automation though executing financial transactions based off AI triggers. No more accounting departments to confirm and reconcile transactions, just confirmed transactions posted on the blockchain for relevant parties to audit.”

According to Shaw, transferring control of information, whether financial or other personal data, from centralized powerhouses like Google to an AI system shouldn’t be cause for additional worry.

Chiefly, that’s because the general population misunderstands AI, which is effectively just a field of computer science, and confuses it with the idea of artificial consciousness — as perpetuated by popular media — which is the ability of a man-made machine to become self-aware, exhibit original, independent thoughts and feelings, and exercise free will.

“Artificial intelligence isn’t dangerous like people want to believe,” says Shaw. “The threat is not a malicious, conscious super intelligence, but rather a basic code where the logic written into the algorithms has unforeseen consequences.”

For example, Shaw offers the case of a hypothetical AI robot with personality metrics that dictate physical actions. One metric can be violence, graded 1–100. The programmer wishes to set the violence to 1, implying an extremely calm robot. “Now assume that people were nice to this robot, so the code reduces the violence by two units. As a result, the violence meter goes to -1, which in practice will round the code back to 100, an extremely common mistake. What was supposed to be a friendly robot has just become hyper violent. This wasn’t a result of a malicious robot, but rather it was an honest mistake by the creator.”

To counteract this, Shaw says open-source frameworks can and should be required by a regulatory agency. Such frameworks can ensure that artificial consciousness is built on top of a set of core principles — written in approved code — that the AI bot must always abide by. As a result, AI will be developed at a much quicker rate and will always obey the core principles of the open-source code.

When Shaw takes the stage during the upcoming Disrupt Madison 4.0 on Wednesday, June 5, at the Sylvee, he will discuss how using open-source ecosystems instead of centralized powerhouses like Alphabet or Facebook can ensure a future where AI super intelligence works for humanity instead of against humanity.

“Incumbents in the digital platform space are extremely powerful and reluctant to give up control of their platforms and consumer data,” notes Shaw. “This is the main hurdle for decentralized, automated solutions. When designing these solutions, entrepreneurs must design them to be interoperable with legacy systems only at critical, trust-related stages of the process. This way, companies can remain ‘in control’ without having to deal with the high-risk parts of the interaction.”

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