Need for transparency is the ultimate sign of lost trust

Davos has kicked off this week in Switzerland and with come a lot of blue-sky thinking ideas, but one hit home for us; transparency is a terrible sign for the industry.

The comment came from Alphabet’s CEO Ruth Porter. “You’ve given up on trust if you need transparency,” and it is a very fair point which should be taken seriously. If you have trust, you don’t ask the wizard if you can peek behind the curtain. As soon as you do, you don’t trust the machine and banner wavers all over the country are calling for transparency. This is the position we are in right now, and it will only get worse.

The organizations who are the subject of the transparency demands are the ones who have built up an army of enemies. Uber is a prime example, having mobilized the entire taxi industry against it. Over the last couple of months we’ve seen numerous example of nefarious business practises and questionable personal behaviour. The trust was lost in Uber, the curtain pulled back and a tsunami of headaches hurled its direction.

Porter was the one pointing out the problem, but perhaps she will be facing some uncomfortable questions in the near future.

One of the big problems we see with the industry right now is education. In years gone, companies who were bringing new products to the market used to take the time to explain what these machines did and what the value was to the life of the consumer. Of course, not all of the details were released but there was an effort to comfort the consumer on why the world was changing. Change scares people after all, and this is why reactions to the evolving environment are so passionate.

Technology companies seem to have forgotten how important it is to take the consumer on a journey. There are of course adverts everywhere demonstrating how the technology can contribute the betterment of mankind, but generally what people don’t understand, they don’t trust. Simply showing the benefits doesn’t work, you have to build the entire picture, not just the glossy finish.

This is the challenge the big internet giants are facing right now. Alphabet/Google, Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, eBay, Microsoft or anyone you can think of. They are all falling into the same trap of trying to wow the consumer not educate them. Artificial intelligence is a prime example of this.

AI is an area of the technology industry which has the power to do great things, but it does also need the permission of the general public to capture, manipulate and pass on personal information in ways which might have been considered an invasion of privacy a decade ago. The information age is all about democratising you. Your personal information is everywhere and everyone knows everything and anything about you. Gradually we have come to accept this is a part of the digital economy, but the sorcery behind the curtain could scare a lot of people.

The internet giants are drip-feeding new AI features into products, so slowly and carefully we don’t realise experience and performance is getting incrementally better. Why not take credit you say? Because we don’t ask questions when we don’t realise what’s going on. And when we don’t ask questions, there is no need for answers. Don’t forget, AI isn’t just about improving our experience, it is about finding new ways to enhance advertising numbers and find new revenue sources.

This is where the internet giants are a bit more clever than Uber. Uber launched this new app on the world and it was revolutionary for the taxi industry. Such a significant change was a wonder for the consumer, but it also led to questions as to how it was possible. Uber has cemented its position in the economy, it isn’t going anywhere and will continue to grow, but you could argue the problems it is facing today were brought on by making such a profound change to the world. Like employees suffering with a Thursday morning hangover, Uber really only has one place to lay the blame.

The internet giants are gradually introducing more AI features into the world without explaining to the consumer fully. They are careful never to push technological advancements too far, as this would scare some, and scared people ask questions. Drip feeding new technology into the world is a sensible way to normalise a technology, but it needs to go hand-in-hand with education. If it doesn’t, the wonders hidden behind the curtain will start to stack up.

Before too long, there will be questions. One of the internet giants will do something wrong, or overreach and an investigation will be launched. The curtain will be drawn, and if the drip-feeding without explanation goes on for too long, the sheer volume of information which pours through the curtain will terrify people.

The average person on the street does not understand artificial intelligence, you could argue the vast majority do not, but it is ignorant Joe Bloggs who is filling the coffers of the internet giants with AI-sourced plunder.

Facebook’s Ruth Porter might point the finger at those who are having transparency demanded of them, but this is a bit hypocritical. More needs to be done to educate the world on what personal information is being stored, how it is being whored out to third-parties and what the benefit to the consumer is. Otherwise, the demons behind the curtain will start to develop very sharp teeth.