We all contribute to AI — should we get paid for that?


AI, startups, hype
Image Credits: Getty Images

In Silicon Valley, some of the brightest minds believe a universal basic income (UBI) that guarantees people unrestricted cash payments will help them to survive and thrive as advanced technologies eliminate more careers as we know them, from white-collar and creative jobs — lawyers, journalists, artists, software engineers — to labor roles. The idea has gained enough traction that dozens of guaranteed income programs have been started in U.S. cities since 2020.

Yet even Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI and one of the highest-profile proponents of UBI, doesn’t believe that it’s a complete solution. As he said during a sit-down earlier this year, “I think it is a little part of the solution. I think it’s great. I think as [advanced artificial intelligence] participates more and more in the economy, we should distribute wealth and resources much more than we have and that will be important over time. But I don’t think that’s going to solve the problem. I don’t think that’s going to give people meaning, I don’t think it means people are going to entirely stop trying to create and do new things and whatever else. So I would consider it an enabling technology, but not a plan for society.”

The question begged is what a plan for society should then look like, and computer scientist Jaron Lanier, a founder in the field of virtual reality, writes in this week’s New Yorker that “data dignity” could be an even bigger part of the solution.

Here’s the basic premise: Right now, we mostly give our data for free in exchange for free services. Lanier argues that in the age of AI, we need to stop doing this, that the powerful models currently working their way into society need instead to “be connected with the humans” who give them so much to ingest and learn from in the first place.

The idea is for people to “get paid for what they create, even when it is filtered and recombined” into something that’s unrecognizable.

The concept isn’t brand new, with Lanier first introducing the notion of data dignity in a 2018 Harvard Business Review piece titled, “A Blueprint for a Better Digital Society.”

As he wrote at the time with co-author and economist Glen Weyl, “[R]hetoric from the tech sector suggests a coming wave of underemployment due to artificial intelligence (AI) and automation.” But the predictions of UBI advocates “leave room for only two outcomes,” and they’re extreme, Lanier and Weyl observed. “Either there will be mass poverty despite technological advances, or much wealth will have to be taken under central, national control through a social wealth fund to provide citizens a universal basic income.”

The problem is that both “hyper-concentrate power and undermine or ignore the value of data creators,” they wrote.

Untangle my mind

Of course, assigning people the right amount of credit for their countless contributions to everything that exists online is not a minor challenge. Lanier acknowledges that even data-dignity researchers can’t agree on how to disentangle everything that AI models have absorbed or how detailed an accounting should be attempted. Still, Lanier thinks that it could be done — gradually.

Alas, even if there is a will, a more immediate challenge — lack of access — is a lot to overcome. Though OpenAI had released some of its training data in previous years, it has since closed the kimono completely, citing competitive and safety concerns. When OpenAI President Greg Brockman described to TechCrunch last month the training data for OpenAI’s latest and most powerful large language model, GPT-4, he said it derived from a “variety of licensed, created, and publicly available data sources, which may include publicly available personal information,” but he declined to offer anything more specific.

Unsurprisingly, regulators are grappling with what to do. OpenAI — whose technology in particular is spreading like wildfire — is already in the crosshairs of a growing number of countries, including the Italian authority, which has blocked the use of its popular ChatGPT chatbot. French, German, Irish and Canadian data regulators are also investigating how it collects and uses data.

Margaret Mitchell, an AI researcher who was formerly Google’s AI ethics co-lead, tells the outlet Technology Review that it might be nearly impossible at this point for all these companies to identify individuals’ data and remove it from their models.

As explained by the outlet: OpenAI would be better off today if it had built in data record-keeping from the start, but it’s standard in the AI industry to build datasets for AI models by scraping the web indiscriminately and then outsourcing some of the clean-up of that data.

How to save a life

If these players have a limited understanding of what’s now in their models, that’s a daunting challenge to the “data dignity” proposal of Lanier.

Whether it renders it impossible is something only time will tell.

Certainly, there is merit in determining some way to give people ownership over their work, even if that work is made outwardly “other” by the time a large language model has chewed through it.

It’s also highly likely that frustration over who owns what will grow as more of the world is reshaped by these new tools. Already, OpenAI and others are facing numerous and wide-ranging copyright infringement lawsuits over whether or not they have the right to scrape the entire internet to feed their algorithms.

Either way, it’s not just about giving credit where it’s due; recognizing people’s contribution to AI systems may be necessary to preserve humans’ sanity over time, suggests Lanier in his New Yorker piece.

He believes that people need agency, and as he sees it, universal basic income “amounts to putting everyone on the dole in order to preserve the idea of black-box artificial intelligence.”

Meanwhile, ending the “black box nature of our current AI models” would make an accounting of people’s contributions easier — which would make them more inclined to stay engaged and continue making contributions.

It might all boil down to establishing a new creative class instead of a new dependent class, he writes. And which would you prefer to be a part of?

More TechCrunch

Copilot, Microsoft’s brand of generative AI, will soon be far more deeply integrated into the Windows 11 experience.

Microsoft Build 2024: All the AI and hardware products Microsoft announced

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch Space. For those who haven’t heard, the first crewed launch of Boeing’s Starliner capsule has been pushed back yet again to no earlier than…

TechCrunch Space: Star(side)liner

When I attended Automate in Chicago a few weeks back, multiple people thanked me for TechCrunch’s semi-regular robotics job report. It’s always edifying to get that feedback in person. While…

These 81 robotics companies are hiring

The top vehicle safety regulator in the U.S. has launched a formal probe into an April crash involving the all-electric VinFast VF8 SUV that claimed the lives of a family…

VinFast crash that killed family of four now under federal investigation

When putting a video portal in a public park in the middle of New York City, some inappropriate behavior will likely occur. The Portal, the vision of Lithuanian artist and…

NYC-Dublin real-time video portal reopens with some fixes to prevent inappropriate behavior

Longtime New York-based seed investor, Contour Venture Partners, is making progress on its latest flagship fund after lowering its target. The firm closed on $42 million, raised from 64 backers,…

Contour Venture Partners, an early investor in Datadog and Movable Ink, lowers the target for its fifth fund

Meta’s Oversight Board has now extended its scope to include the company’s newest platform, Instagram Threads, and has begun hearing cases from Threads.

Meta’s Oversight Board takes its first Threads case

The company says it’s refocusing and prioritizing fewer initiatives that will have the biggest impact on customers and add value to the business.

SeekOut, a recruiting startup last valued at $1.2 billion, lays off 30% of its workforce

The U.K.’s self-proclaimed “world-leading” regulations for self-driving cars are now official, after the Automated Vehicles (AV) Act received royal assent — the final rubber stamp any legislation must go through…

UK’s autonomous vehicle legislation becomes law, paving the way for first driverless cars by 2026

ChatGPT, OpenAI’s text-generating AI chatbot, has taken the world by storm. What started as a tool to hyper-charge productivity through writing essays and code with short text prompts has evolved…

ChatGPT: Everything you need to know about the AI-powered chatbot

SoLo Funds CEO Travis Holoway: “Regulators seem driven by press releases when they should be motivated by true consumer protection and empowering equitable solutions.”

Fintech lender SoLo Funds is being sued again by the government over its lending practices

Hard tech startups generate a lot of buzz, but there’s a growing cohort of companies building digital tools squarely focused on making hard tech development faster, more efficient and —…

Rollup wants to be the hardware engineer’s workhorse

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is not just about groundbreaking innovations, insightful panels, and visionary speakers — it’s also about listening to YOU, the audience, and what you feel is top of…

Disrupt Audience Choice vote closes Friday

Google says the new SDK would help Google expand on its core mission of connecting the right audience to the right content at the right time.

Google is launching a new Android feature to drive users back into their installed apps

Jolla has taken the official wraps off the first version of its personal server-based AI assistant in the making. The reborn startup is building a privacy-focused AI device — aka…

Jolla debuts privacy-focused AI hardware

OpenAI is removing one of the voices used by ChatGPT after users found that it sounded similar to Scarlett Johansson, the company announced on Monday. The voice, called Sky, is…

OpenAI to remove ChatGPT’s Scarlett Johansson-like voice

The ChatGPT mobile app’s net revenue first jumped 22% on the day of the GPT-4o launch and continued to grow in the following days.

ChatGPT’s mobile app revenue saw its biggest spike yet following GPT-4o launch

Dating app maker Bumble has acquired Geneva, an online platform built around forming real-world groups and clubs. The company said that the deal is designed to help it expand its…

Bumble buys community building app Geneva to expand further into friendships

CyberArk — one of the army of larger security companies founded out of Israel — is acquiring Venafi, a specialist in machine identity, for $1.54 billion. 

CyberArk snaps up Venafi for $1.54B to ramp up in machine-to-machine security

Founder-market fit is one of the most crucial factors in a startup’s success, and operators (someone involved in the day-to-day operations of a startup) turned founders have an almost unfair advantage…

OpenseedVC, which backs operators in Africa and Europe starting their companies, reaches first close of $10M fund

A Singapore High Court has effectively approved Pine Labs’ request to shift its operations to India.

Pine Labs gets Singapore court approval to shift base to India

The AI Safety Institute, a U.K. body that aims to assess and address risks in AI platforms, has said it will open a second location in San Francisco. 

UK opens office in San Francisco to tackle AI risk

Companies are always looking for an edge, and searching for ways to encourage their employees to innovate. One way to do that is by running an internal hackathon around a…

Why companies are turning to internal hackathons

Featured Article

I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Women in tech still face a shocking level of mistreatment at work. Melinda French Gates is one of the few working to change that.

1 day ago
I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s  broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Blue Origin has successfully completed its NS-25 mission, resuming crewed flights for the first time in nearly two years. The mission brought six tourist crew members to the edge of…

Blue Origin successfully launches its first crewed mission since 2022

Creative Artists Agency (CAA), one of the top entertainment and sports talent agencies, is hoping to be at the forefront of AI protection services for celebrities in Hollywood. With many…

Hollywood agency CAA aims to help stars manage their own AI likenesses

Expedia says Rathi Murthy and Sreenivas Rachamadugu, respectively its CTO and senior vice president of core services product & engineering, are no longer employed at the travel booking company. In…

Expedia says two execs dismissed after ‘violation of company policy’

Welcome back to TechCrunch’s Week in Review. This week had two major events from OpenAI and Google. OpenAI’s spring update event saw the reveal of its new model, GPT-4o, which…

OpenAI and Google lay out their competing AI visions

When Jeffrey Wang posted to X asking if anyone wanted to go in on an order of fancy-but-affordable office nap pods, he didn’t expect the post to go viral.

With AI startups booming, nap pods and Silicon Valley hustle culture are back

OpenAI’s Superalignment team, responsible for developing ways to govern and steer “superintelligent” AI systems, was promised 20% of the company’s compute resources, according to a person from that team. But…

OpenAI created a team to control ‘superintelligent’ AI — then let it wither, source says