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The digital proletariat

Economists propose a radical solution to the problems posed by artificial intelligence

YOU have multiple jobs, whether you know it or not. Most begin first thing in the morning, when you pick up your phone and begin generating the data that make up Silicon Valley’s most important resource. That, at least, is how we ought to think about the role of data-creation in the economy, according to a fascinating new economics paper. We are all digital labourers, helping make possible the fortunes generated by firms like Google and Facebook, the authors argue. If the economy is to function properly in the future—and if a crisis of technological unemployment is to be avoided—we must take account of this, and change the relationship between big internet companies and their users.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is getting better all the time, and stands poised to transform a host of industries, say the authors (Imanol Arrieta Ibarra and Diego Jiménez Hernández, of Stanford University, Leonard Goff, of Columbia University, and Jaron Lanier and Glen Weyl, of Microsoft). But, in order to learn to drive a car or recognise a face, the algorithms that make clever machines tick must usually be trained on massive amounts of data. Internet firms gather these data from users every time they click on a Google search result, say, or issue a command to Alexa. They also hoover up valuable data from users through the use of tools like reCAPTCHA, which ask visitors to solve problems that are easy for humans but hard for AIs, such as deciphering text from books that machines are unable to parse. That does not just screen out malicious bots, but also helps digitise books. People “pay” for useful free services by providing firms with the data they crave.

These data become part of the firms’ capital, and, as such, a fearsome source of competitive advantage. Would-be startups that might challenge internet giants cannot train their…