Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 16 December 2019

Apple’s Steve Wozniak laments ‘human’ loss as technology evolves

Internet of Things and the race for personal data is infringing on civil liberties, he told The National

Fast-evolving technology and the drive by companies to collect reams of personal data are a threat to human rights despite its clear commercial value, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak said on Tuesday.

“I have a thought in my head and you aren’t entitled to it. I believe that’s a human right,” Mr Wozniak told The National in Bahrain. “But that’s going away. And I’m scared that technology has made it possible.”

Mr Wozniak, Apple’s chief software architect for the past 40 years who helped found the US technology giant alongside Steve Jobs, said there will “always be data privacy issues”, in terms of how much data can be collected and used by technology companies to shape and market their products, before it infringes on civil liberties.

“There are things I’ve done in my life that I almost regret when it takes us in these directions that I consider worse for people,” he said on the sidelines of Euromoney’s GCC Financial Forum.

“You can’t play a prank or tell a certain joke now as everybody in the world will see it and jump on it. I’m afraid a lot of what is good about being a human is going away.”

Questions over privacy and alleged spying on customers – such as those that are being directed at Chinese company Huawei by the US in an ongoing legal battle – are therefore justified, Mr Wozniak said.

However, he added that digital espionage is mainly done by governments, not tech companies. And the development of artificial intelligence – using accumulated data and machine learning to mimic human thought processes – is unlikely to ever become sophisticated enough to rival the human brain, he said.

Mr Wozniak is one of the founders of US lobby group Electronic Frontier Foundation, which campaigns for and against a range of digital issues including mass surveillance enabled by technology.

“Technology is technology, and the user is a human being, and [companies must decide] what sort of principles they want to [adhere to],” he said. “Are you going to spy on your own kids, are you going to spy on your friends, what sort of a person are you?”

Mr Wozniak named the Internet of Things (the rise of software-embedded devices such as home appliances), electric vehicles and AI as the top most exciting technological innovations for 2019 and beyond.

All three involve the collection and deployment of vast amounts of user information. “Maybe, in future, we’ll look back and say hey, people were different in the past [for caring about personal privacy] – we’re good now and we like our life,” he said.

Blockchain, meanwhile, together with the virtual currencies that use the digital record-keeping technology, “has yet to make its point”.

Apple’s longest-standing employee called for nations to facilitate cross-border transfer of skills to boost innovation in technology, while also nurturing local talent. He urged the US to carefully consider the number of so-called H1B visas awarded to skilled foreign graduates, to maintain US competitiveness.

For years, H1B visas have enabled the temporary immigration of workers in high-growth industries such as technology. The visas have played a key role in building the pool of talent in Silicon Valley and other hubs, and spurred business growth.

At present there is a limit of 65,000 visas awarded each year, but the first 20,000 applications filed for those with a US master’s degree or higher are exempt from the cap. The US government has proposed a more meritorious selection process that could increase the number of foreign workers.

“I don’t have an opinion as to whether there should be more or less – the proper way to decide something like this is to define what the number should be,” Mr Wozniak said. “I saw many cases, even in my own company, where we brought in [an overseas worker who preferred to work in the US than his own country] – he was a capable person, for sure, but I wonder how many people who had been trained in the US could have done the job just as well? So I’m not sure it’s always adhered to in the most ethical of ways.”

That being said, protectionism is generally unhelpful to global commerce, he added, saying he is “a firm believer in immigration” and the importance of “being open” as a country. “That’s what leads to better products and better business.”

Updated: February 28, 2019 03:42 PM