Big Data Isn't the New Big Oil—It's the New Periodic Table

November 16, 2018

The role of big data in competition and innovation was the subject of hearings held by the Federal Trade Commission during the past two weeks, focusing on ethics and common principles related to artificial intelligence, machine learning, predictive analytics, and consumer consent.

The hearings are significant for large employers because actions the FTC ultimately takes will affect the direction of HR software.

Should data be considered a product? This question was woven into the fabric of the hearing.  How can data companies collect on employees and consumers influence competition and impact corporate mergers and acquisitions?  Some companies capture consumer data they don’t use.  If they were to merge with another company that could utilize that information, does this prompt a risk for potential antitrust violations?

People want to control what information is being captured and shared about them, but only a small percentage take steps to protect their information and rarely do consumers look at data protection provisions.

How accurate are the inferences being made from the captured data?  MIT Professor Catherine Tucker presented the findings of her study on the accuracy of data used to create profiles for targeted marketing.  Surprisingly, she found that third-party big data brokers were only about 50 percent accurate when making inferences about people based on search history data and website cookies, information routinely used by HR software vendors.

More data doesn’t simply mean better data.  Thought leaders agreed the focus should be less on the data itself, and more on how that data is being used.  Rumman Chowdhury, Global Lead for Responsible AI at Accenture Applied Intelligence, stated: “I know the analogy is 'data is the new oil.'  But instead, I think of data as the new periodic table.  Why?  Because I can take the same element, hydrogen, and I can use it to make water; something that gives us life.  Or, the hydrogen bomb; something that can cause massive amounts of pain and destruction.”

Outlook: Federal government agencies are looking at the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning in a broad range of applications, including HR software and services.  It is only a matter of time before new policies are implemented.  This activity is a major focus for HR Policy’s Recruiting Software Initiative.