March – April 2020 Commentary

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artificial intelligence illustration
Illustration by James Yang

Technology – Mind Your Data

Silicon Valley paired technology and efficiency to revolutionize businesses and bring people closer together — not just in the online world, but in real life, as well. But along the digital highway, something is amiss. Service providers like Google, Facebook, and Amazon have the ability to listen in on customers’ meetings and conversations, and track buying patterns and travel schedules.

Imagine being in a company meeting where your team is planning to roll out a game-changing product or service. If the plans are on Google Docs, if a Google Android phone is in the room, or if Amazon’s Alexa is within earshot, everything shared or sent is being recorded. The right to document such information, and much more, is buried in user agreements.

Facebook, meanwhile, like other digital services, gleans data from smartphones and apps to track user movements. The technology monitors whether people are walking, running, meeting with their accountant, or in a top-secret setting where a new vehicle is being unveiled. Facebook also has facial-recognition software that identifies users, often without their consent.

We can more or less guess what you’re thinking about.

— Eric Schmidt, Former Chairman, Google

That information is then sold to advertisers and third parties. Most everyone has witnessed the power of such surveillance. Search for a powerboat or a new SUV on Google and, for days afterward, powerboat and SUV ads will appear on nearly every website you access. George Orwell, in his groundbreaking novel “1984,” never envisioned how smartphones and computers would contribute to eavesdropping, deception, propaganda, and surveillance.

The health care industry is another arena where technology has come into play. Surgical robots and MRI machines are amazing tools that have saved countless lives. But imagine if an algorithm only approved heart surgeries for those individuals who have suitable insurance or the financial ability to pay up front for the procedure?

Famed tech investor Roger McNamee says he became alarmed about the inherent power of electronic surveillance after learning late last year that Google had partnered with Ascension, the nation’s second-largest health care system. Asked to comment about the potential sharing of private medical records, he told The New Yorker that the development “should trouble everybody.”

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Elon Musk, one of the most well-known technologists on the planet, routinely warns people about the inherent dangers of AI, or artificial intelligence. At one point, he characterized work on AI as “summoning the devil,” and called on government leaders to regulate the technology, as it represents “a fundamental risk to the existence of civilization.”

During an appearance before a National Governors Association meeting in 2017, he didn’t hold back. “I have exposure to the very cutting edge of AI, and I think people should be really concerned about it,” he said. “I keep sounding the alarm bell, but until people see robots going down the street killing people, they don’t know how to react, because it seems so ethereal.”

So how do we keep machines, and the people running them, from monitoring our activities or stealing sensitive data? Musk, McNamee, and others recommend using Apple or Microsoft devices and services, since their respective business models don’t rely on monetizing data. Short of that, government leaders must pass strict privacy laws that ensure personal data belongs exclusively to individuals.


Economic Growth – Lower Taxes

Despite a robust economy, low unemployment, and rising median home values, not to mention stable weather patterns, Michigan is losing population. At the national level, that means less representation and influence in Washington, D.C. — the state is expected to lose another seat in Congress following the 2020 election, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

For Michigan to compete for future jobs and investment on the national and global stages, the state needs to draw more residents — especially highly trained immigrants who, as history has shown, excel at creating dynamic new companies. The state also must reverse key metrics recently identified by the Detroit Regional Chamber, namely falling exports, housing permits, and foreign direct investment.

To boost the state’s economic metrics, it’s time to take a page from Florida’s playbook. The Sunshine State drew more than 1.2 million residents over the last decade, with many of the new arrivals fleeing high-tax states like New York, Illinois, and Michigan. The weather may be one reason for Florida’s population influx, but try enjoying the outdoors there during the muggy summer months.

What’s really driving Florida’s growth is clear: There’s no income tax and property taxes are low in comparison to other states. Southern states like Florida also have an advantage on the infrastructure front, as roads and bridges last much longer in warmer climates. For Michigan to boost its population levels, the state must figure out how to lower taxes to attract more residents and businesses.


Transportation – Airport Engine

For years, Detroit Metropolitan Airport in Romulus has been keeping pace or advancing past its Midwest rivals in terms of overall efficiency, available global connections, and amenities. Now comes a much larger measure of fulfillment, as Detroit Metro was ranked the No. 1 mega airport for customer satisfaction, according to the J.D. Power 2019 North America Airport Satisfaction Study.

The annual report surveys passenger opinions regarding six categories: terminal facilities; airport accessibility; baggage claim; security check; check-in/baggage check; and food, beverage, and retail. The airport ranked highest in terminal facilities and security check. The last time the airport received the J.D. Power award for large airports was in 2010.

In turn, a recent report from Airports Council International recognized DTW as one of the best airports in North America within its size category. The awards bode well for the region and state, as business and community leaders strive to draw more investment and residents. It also signals that the addition of two main terminals, a sixth runway, improved technology, and more stores and eateries over the last two decades has been money well spent.

Last year, Detroit Metro handled 35.2 million passengers, a 1.5-percent increase over the previous year. With one of the nation’s top airports, economic development officials and the Detroit Region Aerotropolis Development Corp. can better tout our overall transportation infrastructure to attract foreign businesses and investment to the region and state.

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