Can big data be used not just for profit, but for good?

Richard Wallace

Every company wants to make a profit – but what’s perhaps rarer, and even more valuable, is the company that also wants to make a difference.

Recently the Elon Musk-backed OpenAI project unveiled – or partially unveiled – a machine-learning platform that can automatically generate news reports and even literary fiction so convincing that the company themselves have refused to make the technology publicly available. In an era of fake news, with platforms like Facebook under increasing scrutiny for the real-world implications of its technology, the potential ramifications of OpenAI’s text-generating platform were deemed simply too dangerous and unpredictable to release into the wrong hands.

Whether or not this act of corporate restraint was a clever stunt, it was enough to make headlines – and raise eyebrows. The fears surrounding new technology is often justified, but the question that was buried beneath all the consternation was that of corporate responsibility. If a large tech venture believes itself to have a responsibility to not release a potentially destabilising piece of technology, does it also have a responsibility to use its tech clout for active good in the world? Should companies like Amazon and Google, which use highly powerful data manipulation to change and encourage our consumption habits and even our emotions, be honour-bound to use that data for more than just profit-generation?

For all the criticism that he receives personally and professionally, Elon Musk would presumably argue that it does. After all, his most well-known ventures – SpaceX, Tesla and The Boring Company – have, at their hearts, big social ambitions and a belief that positive change can come through innovation (and that everyone in America should have an awesome flamethrower.) Google, similarly, has Google X, also dubbed The Moonshot Factory – a secret R&D division that incubates innovative tech solutions for the benefit of mankind. If we soon find ourselves in a world where Wi-Fi enabled hot air balloons rove the lonely skies, allowing those in the most remote climes and communities on the planet—from the Sahara to the ice-deserts of the poles—to access their Kindle Cloud Reader, we may well have Project Loon to thank, and Google for helping get it off the ground.

If a cynical mind could argue that global internet connectivity funded by the world’s biggest internet company might not count as an entirely selfless gesture, they could look beyond Google to Rezatec, which is committed to using data to solve even bigger social problems that might not even occur to profit-driven companies. Just as Facebook has the power to manipulate human emotions through the careful deployment of data, so too does Rezatech believe that data can achieve wholly positive ends through geospatial technology – whether that’s monitoring wildfires from space, working with Bristol Water to manage water catchments, or teaming up with SIAP and the UK Space Agency to help improve crop yields for Mexican farmers.

Unicef, too, now invests in diversified tech portfolios designed to specifically aid children. With an investment focus on infrastructure, products for youth, real-time information, and knowledge products, Unicef has helped fund projects in 38 countries, from Spain’s Dymaxion Labs to Argentina’s Cireha. That means that a key part of Unicef’s development work now funds objectives as diverse as mapping global infrastructure (just like Rezatech) and developing products like the Cboard, a communication interface to help children and adults communicate who do not have the ability to use their voices.

Of course, while Unicef and Rezatech are companies specifically designed to focus on change for good, Google is a company which has found wild success in the commercial consumer space, and are now using some of their vast profits to develop more socially-conscious ventures. The question of what the future of corporate responsibility looks like also has a third option, somewhere in between the two extremes: the company which specifically incorporates both profit-making and social improvement into its offering. No company currently exists which can honestly claim to fit this model, but with every new generation, consumers are putting higher and higher pressure on companies to provide more than convenience or luxury – but to actively contribute more to the world than they take. With climate change a growing – and in some circles, positively seething – concern, and the shortcomings of hyper-capitalism increasingly mainstream as a political ideology, there is a chance that the success stories of tomorrow will need to feel both a moral and a financial imperative in order to win consumer trust.

One way that we’re already seeing that mindset take root in the corporate world is through the B Corporation, a voluntary status that conscientious businesses can apply for. B corps – which include famously progressive ice-cream giants Ben and Jerry’s and crowdfunding platform Kickstarter – are held to higher standards than traditional companies, pledging to minimise their environmental emissions and treat their employees as, well, people. “They are legally required to consider the impact of their decisions on their workers, customers, suppliers, community, and  the environment,” says the official B corp site. Considering the controversy that currently surrounds Amazon’s working conditions – as well as those imposed by gig-economy players like Deliveroo and Uber – this may be a way for companies to differentiate themselves from less scrupulous competitors. The B corp upends the traditional narrative of ruthless profiteering and replaces it with a more harmonious vision, in which big business can learn to leave small footprints. With that in mind, will we eventually see a marketplace in which a more environmentally sustainable company is a more financially sustainable one?

Here’s hoping. If innovation can’t change our lives for the better – if it is simply confined to making some angel speculator richer than Croesus – then what’s the point of it all?

After all, true innovation is step-change, not iteration. If we can’t rethink our relationship with how corporate entities and for-profit organisations interact, or imagine a landscape in which the two might have unified aims, then we’re probably thinking too small. That’s why the proliferation of companies with a drive to help us, rather than hold us back, is immensely heartening. There is saying we keep close to our hearts at Fearlessly Frank, with regards to what a forward-thinking company should look like: Make a profit, not a killing. If every entrepreneur all took a little of that mindset into their next venture, then we’d be writing a more radical future than a prose-generating computer ever could.