The architect of the world wide web Sir Tim Berners-Lee today talked about some of his concerns for the internet over the coming years, including a nightmarish scenario where artificial intelligence (AI) could become the new 'masters of the universe' by creating and running their own companies.
Masters of the universe is a reference to Tom Wolfe's 1987 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, regarding the men (and they were men) who started racking up multi-million dollar salaries and a great deal of influence from their finance roles on Wall Street and in London during the computerised trading boom pre-Black Monday.
Speaking at the Innovate Finance Global Summit today, Berners-Lee envisioned a world where AI systems start to develop decision-making capabilities and the impact this will have on the fairness of our economic systems.
He laid out the scenario where AI could decide which companies to acquire and took this to its logical conclusion: "So when AI starts to make decisions such as who gets a mortgage, that's a big one. Or which companies to acquire and when AI starts creating its own companies, creating holding companies, generating new versions of itself to run these companies.
"So you have survival of the fittest going on between these AI companies until you reach the point where you wonder if it becomes possible to understand how to ensure they are being fair, and how do you describe to a computer what that means anyway?"
Although it's hard to imagine shedding too many tears over the loss of the decision makers responsible for the 2007 crash, the scenario does threaten to wipe out an entire industry and raises some serious questions about how fair a financial system without any human involvement can be.
This is similar to the fear laid out recently by AI-sceptic Elon Musk to Vanity Fair: "Let's say you create a self-improving AI to pick strawberries and it gets better and better at picking strawberries and picks more and more and it is self-improving, so all it really wants to do is pick strawberries. So then it would have all the world be strawberry fields. Strawberry fields forever." No room for human beings.
Berners-Lee was the recipient of the Association for Computing Machinery's AM Turing award last week, and he has taken the media spotlight to criticise the Trump administration's rollback of net neutrality protections in an interview with The Guardian.
Berners-Lee also recently published a letter on the 28th anniversary of the world wide web, detailing what he views as the three main challenges for the web: loss of control over personal data, the spread of misinformation across the web and the need for transparency with online political advertising.
Speaking in London today he built on these concerns, asking if social networks like Twitter are "net good for the planet" and calling for a rethink of how the internet tends to propagate "nasty ideas" over "constructive" ones.
"So the conclusion is a complete change of strategy," he said. "We need to not leave people to create whatever social networks they like, we have to think about the impact that things have on society and possibly rethink the entire platform."
Speaking in what appears to be a reaction to Donald Trump's election, Berners-Lee also reiterated his concerns over political advertising being heavily targeted. He asked: "Should we introduce a rule that if you're a political organisation, you may not target?"
"I talk about the horror scenario of going to a candidate's webpage and depending on who you were you get a different message and that is just marketing 101 for the political websites out there. So we need to rethink the way we have built society on top of the web."