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The AI Gold Rush: When Customers Become Collateral Damage in the Search for Data

The AI Gold Rush
The AI Gold Rush

The tech landscape these days is reminiscent of a gold rush, with companies scrambling for a new treasure: customer data.


But in this pursuit, the focus on the customer has shifted.


Companies are increasingly looking to mine (or perhaps exploit) their customer data to feed expanding AI systems. Instead of striving to deliver exceptional goods and services for their customers, companies are viewing customers as a means to an end – fuel for their AI engines, shiny generative models and machine learning.


The question is, how far will they go to acquire data?

This question applies not only to tech giants. Every software company with AI aspirations will face this dilemma.


To secure enough data, vendors are now in a frenzy not unlike the gold rush days. They are revising EULAs (End User License Agreements), updating terms and conditions, and some are scraping as much data as they can get a hold of before regulations possibly close the door shut.


It seems anything goes in the race to acquire enough access to data to build a compelling AI experience.


Let's take a look at some recent examples:


  • Zoom: Their entanglement in an AI privacy controversy raises red flags. (link)

  • Adobe: Their recent terms clarification regarding their updated EULA. (link)

  • Microsoft: The recent backtracking on their "recall feature" after privacy concerns surfaced is another example. (link)


It's important to mention that OpenAI, Microsoft, and Google (to name a few) have already scraped much (if not all) of the internet to train their generative AI models apparently without consent or respect for copyright laws.


And here's the concerning part: with the ubiquity of cloud storage and applications, anything you create or store online within a platform could become fair game for these hungry AI systems. Even content (documents, audio, video, artwork, images, etc.) that is created locally using other tools but stored in these platforms could be used.


While companies may claim access to your data is for a better user experience, there is more that's at stake. It's balancing stakeholder expectations with customer values (social license) and evolving legal rights concerning data privacy and content ownership.


Decisions now being made are more than just technical – they're deeply ethical and increasingly legal in nature. The acquisition of data is creating a slippery ethical slope with customers at risk of becoming collateral damage in the pursuit of an AI advantage.


When customers become a means to an end, you will get that end but not any customers. – The cybernetics law of Inevitable Ethical Inadequacy (paraphrased)

The goals we set are important to achieve success in business and in life, but it is how we achieve these goals that defines who we are and what we become – it defines our character.


When you lose sight of the goal to satisfy customers you may risk not only your integrity and reputation, but also your entire business.


"It is impossible to design a system so perfect that no one needs to be good" – TS Elliot

Let's not fail to be good in all our endeavours.


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