Should we receive royalties for our data?

October 23, 2017 Patrick Rankine

At present there is a lot of discussion about the future shape of the workforce and economics as a whole, driven by the rapid changes in Artificial Intelligence (AI), machine learning and robotics.

Many sources point out that this change will be unlike any which we have experienced before. History has typically shown that for every profession or industry that has been depreciated, something else takes its place (or many things).

The well trodden example is the automobile and the birth of industries that came from moving away from the horse as a dominant mode of transport. The differentiator this time around however is that technology is at the stage where machines (hardware or software) can not only replace their human counterparts but out perform them and continue to evolve.

One reason this change has been so rapid in recent years is to do with data and specifically, our personal data. If Amazon, for example, is going to give me recommendations on my shopping habits, it cannot do so without my personal information and data driven from not only my own but other peoples behaviour interacting with its website*.

Up until now we have “willingly” signed our data away to obtain a service, for example, Facebook, where we don’t pay for it but in return they use our data to sell advertising. In the initial stages of services such as Google search, Amazon shopping or interacting with our friends on Facebook this data would have predominantly been used for this type of purpose**. The shift has come where there are so many people using these services that the data obtained can now be applied to functions that it was not initially envisaged.

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This ties into technology advancements because there is now such a large set of data that be input into a system to assist its learning capability. Much like if you were only given one book to learn from, or a whole library, the more
data available the greater the propensity for knowledge.

As an example, when Apple first launched Apple Maps, it was ridiculed for sending people the wrong way, missing landmarks, gaps in map coverage etc. and was considered a beta type of application, launched too early. However there is only so much development that an in house team of engineers can achieve. Once the application was live on millions of iPhones the pool of data available increased exponentially and allowed rapid improvement in the application.

This is the kind of data that has been used to a corporation’s advantage, allowing it to generate income that would not have been possible
without our personal input and we have technically paid for that privilege. Pay Apple (or insert company X here) for their product, agree to some Terms and Conditions you didn’t read and your personal data is being captured and used to improve the product (and likely used for other purposes too***) which you will then pay for again at some point. Customer feedback is a good thing so this process alone isn’t inherently a problem, however as we move closer toward autonomous systems supplanting tens of millions of jobs across the globe, we need to be thinking of ways to put value on ourselves that isn’t paid labour.

The most common value proposition that has been widely discussed is in the form of a Universal Basic Income (UBI). Basically a base income paid to each and every person that is enough to cover the basic living essentials****.

Of course, when ever this type of idea comes up the first response is, who will pay for it? One argument is that as more and more jobs are replaced by technology, the “robots” are taxed and this plus other tax revenues would provide a substantial part of funding for the UBI. However is it also unreasonable to place a value on the source of this rapid advancement in the first place?

In the art world if I create something, for example a song and that song is heard by a million people on TV/Radio/Spotify/etc., then I earn a royalty***** for the use of my creation. The more it’s used, the more I earn. This is also the case with Patent and Trademark usage.

As my personal data is unique to me, should I not be compensated for it’s use? If my medical history is uploaded into a system that analyses data to produce medicine that will be sold by a company for a profit, should I not receive a fraction of the sale for my contribution? I’m sure we would be talking a very small amount of income on the whole but if a system could not have been created without this input, would it not be reasonable for those who’s data was used to receive royalties?

Or a more sinister thought occurs, could UBI be conditionally granted based on an individual giving up the right to contest the use of their personal data? I do presume there would be some form of legislation about “acceptable use” if this kind of trade off were to eventuate.

I intend this article to be thought provoking as well as to open a dialog amongst people about the value of their personal data. I know Digital Rights Management (DRM) isn’t very popular but in a sense, that is what we are talking about and people should be a little more aware when it comes to your own data footprint. I also realise that this kind of suggestion could stifle innovation, working out data licensing arrangements with billions of people would be a logistical nightmare, however I think it’s a perspective that has not really been considered and is a factor worth discussion.

* for the sake of simplicity and also the fact that I can’t be 100% certain, I will exclude the topic of cookies and web site tracking here but for a lot of services this will be a factor.

** I have never worked for any of these organisations so this statement is speculative. Perhaps these advanced uses of data were planned all along and I welcome and feedback on this.

*** I’m aware that Apple are quite protective of their customers data so I’m not singling them out. However I’m fairly confident that the data mined from a person’s iPhone is also used for other purposes.

**** I won’t go into much detail here on a Universal Basic Income. There are plenty of articles available that will detail the ideas much better than I can.

  • **** This article is also not a debate about royalty rates or what we should be paid for the use of our information.

Should we receive royalties for our data? was originally published in Machine Learnings on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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