The ethical imperative to identify and address data and intelligence asymmetries

Article by Stefaan Verhulst in AI & Society: “The insight that knowledge, resulting from having access to (privileged) information or data, is power is more relevant today than ever before. The data age has redefined the very notion of knowledge and information (as well as power), leading to a greater reliance on dispersed and decentralized datasets as well as to new forms of innovation and learning, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). As Thomas Piketty (among others) has shown, we live in an increasingly stratified world, and our society’s socio-economic asymmetries are often grafted onto data and information asymmetries. As we have documented elsewhere, data access is fundamentally linked to economic opportunity, improved governance, better science and citizen empowerment. The need to address data and information asymmetries—and their resulting inequalities of political and economic power—is therefore emerging as among the most urgent ethical challenges of our era, yet often not recognized as such.

Even as awareness grows of this imperative, society and policymakers lag in their understanding of the underlying issue. Just what are data asymmetries? How do they emerge, and what form do they take? And how do data asymmetries accelerate information and other asymmetries? What forces and power structures perpetuate or deepen these asymmetries, and vice versa? I argue that it is a mistake to treat this problem as homogenous. In what follows, I suggest the beginning of a taxonomy of asymmetries. Although closely related, each one emerges from a different set of contingencies, and each is likely to require different policy remedies. The focus of this short essay is to start outlining these different types of asymmetries. Further research could deepen and expand the proposed taxonomy as well help define solutions that are contextually appropriate and fit for purpose….(More)”.