Watch Out For Those Looming AI Oligopolies, Including For Self-Driving Cars

  • Hannah
  • May 21, 2020
  • Comments Off on Watch Out For Those Looming AI Oligopolies, Including For Self-Driving Cars

Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems are increasingly being deployed into all facets of our existence.

Via the advent of Machine Learning (ML) and Deep Learning (DL), many of these AI applications are intended to adjust on-the-fly and tailor themselves in real-time to the efforts they were designed to meet.

Rather than one size fits all, AI offers the potential for a mantra that says automation ought to always fit the size needed, including at the time of the need and as the need so arises.

The good news is that these newer AI implementations tend to hone in on our needs and can become essential to our daily lives.

It is a bit of a slippery slope, lamentably, involving us wanting AI that can do more for us, and meanwhile, we become perhaps overly addicted and dependent upon such AI systems.

Most of the time, you don’t particularly care who makes the AI and only are focused on whether it provides the value that you are seeking. If the AI was made by a large conglomerate, fine, while if devised by somebody in their comfy pajamas while in their one-bedroom makeshift office, that’s perfectly okay too.

There is a rub though to this ownership and promulgator notion.

Some are concerned that we are going to end up in a situation whereby only a handful of entities will control the AI systems that gradually become an essential and seemingly irreplaceable part of our lives.

Within the hands of a few might become an undue concentration of power.

And as per the immortal words of Sir John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Action in 1887, power tends to corrupt, while absolute power corrupts absolutely.

There is a rising tide of concern that state-of-the-art AI is heading toward a type of oligopoly, meaning that the markets served by AI will be dominated by a small number of firms. This, in turn, portends that those firms might be able to dictate to all of us what the AI does, along with how much we must pay to use the AI, and how and who can benefit from the AI, etc.

If you believe in the economic and societal theories underlying oligopolies, essentially it is a “bad” thing for consumers when a small set of firms dominate a market, partially due to the lack of abject competition and the lopsided power grab enabled by those companies.

Let’s be clear and agree that this does not imply that there will be only a handful of gigantic companies that serve us all of the myriad types of AI systems that are and will continue to emerge.

Instead, imagine that we are heading toward a sea of AI oligopolies, a veritable cabal of distinct oligopolistic instances, each focused on a particular AI aimed niche.

For example, as will be noted shortly, the emergence of AI-based self-driving cars would appear to be a fast-approaching AI oligopoly, and for which few realize the importance and significance this foreshadows.

That being said, oligopolies are not some arcane and infrequent construct.

Most would agree that today’s social media is dominated by a handful of entrenched firms, regardless of any AI-related matters and simply as an evidentiary exemplar of how we already exist in the midst of notable oligopolistic circumstances.

For years and years, the film and television industry has been cited as a form of oligopoly.

There is more, a lot more of such examples.

Few tend to realize that in the wireless carrier marketspace, only four companies amount to nearly 98% of that specific industry, meanwhile consumer rights group clamor and bemoan the fact that there are few other viable choices to select from.

In an ongoing and quite acrimonious debate, there are those that argue that the U.S. domestic airline industry is an oligopoly. You might be shocked to think so, and yet the numbers show that a mere four airlines constitute over 80% of the flights by domestic passengers.

Overall, we today find ourselves surrounded by and enmeshed in a complicated world of innumerable oligopolies.

In that case, perhaps the furor over the soon upon us AI-oligopolies is misplaced since it constitutes presumably nothing extraordinary and perhaps doesn’t deserve any outsized attention or complaint.

Well, just because you happened to wallow in mud before does not ergo mean that you should necessarily accept it in the future, goes the counter-argument. Time to get out of the murk and clean things up.

Furthermore, the AI oligopolies are sneakier, some assert, and we are already foolishly letting the horse out of the barn, or the proverbial genie out of the bottle, all of which could be dealt with now, rather than suffering the repercussions later on and having to solve a problem that should not have festered and been permitted to emerge.

AI oligopolies are predicted to surface in a multitude of areas such as AI in the medical domain, AI in the financial sector, AI in the law, and so on.

Here’s today’s interesting question: Will AI-based true self-driving cars be led and dominated by a handful of firms and thus constitutes a pending formation of an AI oligopoly that is about to arise?

Let’s unpack the matter and see.

The Levels Of Self-Driving Cars

True self-driving cars are ones that the AI drives the car entirely on its own and there isn’t any human assistance during the driving task.

These driverless vehicles are considered a Level 4 and Level 5, while a car that requires a human driver to co-share the driving effort is usually considered at a Level 2 or Level 3. The cars that co-share the driving task are described as being semi-autonomous, and typically contain a variety of automated add-on’s that are referred to as ADAS (Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems).

There is not yet a true self-driving car at Level 5, which we don’t yet even know if this will be possible to achieve, and nor how long it will take to get there.

Meanwhile, the Level 4 efforts are gradually trying to get some traction by undergoing very narrow and selective public roadway trials, though there is controversy over whether this testing should be allowed per se (we are all life-or-death guinea pigs in an experiment taking place on our highways and byways, some point out).

Since semi-autonomous cars require a human driver, the adoption of those types of cars won’t be markedly different than driving conventional vehicles, so there’s not much new per se to cover about them on this topic (though, as you’ll see in a moment, the points next made are generally applicable).

For semi-autonomous cars, it is important that the public needs to be forewarned about a disturbing aspect that’s been arising lately, namely that in spite of those human drivers that keep posting videos of themselves falling asleep at the wheel of a Level 2 or Level 3 car, we all need to avoid being misled into believing that the driver can take away their attention from the driving task while driving a semi-autonomous car.

You are the responsible party for the driving actions of the vehicle, regardless of how much automation might be tossed into a Level 2 or Level 3.

Self-Driving Cars And AI Oligopolies

For Level 4 and Level 5 true self-driving vehicles, there won’t be a human driver involved in the driving task.

All occupants will be passengers.

The AI is doing the driving.

Pundits tend to emphasize that by having AI doing our driving, we are going to hopefully reduce the annual carnage that takes place, which in the United State alone amounts to some 40,000 lives lost in car crashes and an additional 2.3 million people injured via car incidents. The belief is that AI self-driving cars will be safer drivers, mitigating the human foibles of driving such as when driving drunk, distracted driving, and the rest.

What could be wrong with that virtuous desire?

Assuming such a prognostication comes true, it certainly appears to be an unquestionably desirable future.

Recall earlier that I mentioned we oftentimes do not know and nor tend to think about the promulgators of the systems that we use or depend upon?

The same might be said of the emerging field of AI true self-driving cars.

Here’s what some insiders are worried about.

Currently, there are perhaps a dozen to two dozen noteworthy firms that are vying toward making true self-driving cars, meaning that they are devising the AI systems that underlay having a car be able to perform autonomous self-driving acts.

Industry watchers are anticipating that not all of those striving to such a vaunted goal will productively make it to their AI-based self-driving car dreams, and thus many will essentially fall by the wayside during that painstaking and costly journey.

This doesn’t necessarily suggest that those let-downs will all go out of business, though some might, but that they will give up on their AI efforts and aim to deal with self-driving cars when and if they actually emerge.

In the end, there will only be a handful left standing, it is argued, and those such firms will constitute the AI oligopoly of the upcoming self-driving era.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

As pointed out, oligopolies are generally considered economically and societally to be undesirable, and we might sensibly assume the same could apply to the niche of self-driving cars.

What could go awry if there is an AI oligopoly in the AI-based self-driving car arena?

Some worry that the roving eye of self-driving cars is going to become a tremendous privacy nightmare.

I have been referring to the aspect that self-driving cars will be roaming along our streets and 24 x 7 capturing video of whatever they see as a kind of roving eye (see my analysis at this link here).

Ponder for a moment all of the cars that go past your home on a daily basis in your quiet and innocuous neighborhood, or cars that drive along downtown streets nonstop during the light of day and at nighttime, and assume that all of those cars will have a slew of cameras that are incessantly videotaping anything and everything around them.

Now, take all of that eye-popping video, collect it together via the facet that self-driving cars will be likely arranged into fleets, and are able to easily upload their data via OTA (Over-The-Air) electronic communication into the cloud.

You could even have disparate fleets that decide to share their collected info among their clandestine cabal.

Altogether, if you started to stitch that voluminous data into a formative whole, it provides an incredibly Big Brother akin capability, the likes of which we cannot readily today fathom.

And who will decide how that vast trove of data will be used?

Apparently, the AI oligopoly that is controlling the AI-based self-driving cars.

Should the few that are holding those reins be the ones to decide such weighty matters?

That’s one example of a qualm about AI-based self-driving cars.

Take another example, one that deals with access to the use of self-driving cars.

Some proponents of AI-based true self-driving cars are hoping that we will witness a boom in mobility, especially by providing access to those that are today mobility disadvantaged. Our world is currently one of mobility constraints and barriers, while in the future, by embracing self-driving cars, presumably there will be a treasured mobility-for-all existence.

Yet, suppose that the AI self-driving car firms decide that only the wealthy and the well-to-do are going to be permitted to use self-driving cars?

Indeed, some have been wringing their hands that self-driving cars will be solely for the elite and won’t reach others that desperately are in need of mobility (see my assessment at this link here).

All told, there are plentiful nightmare scenarios about the deployment and access of AI-based self-driving cars, and for which an underlying prevailing fear is that an AI oligopoly might rule the day in this realm.

Actions To Consider

Of course, not everyone agrees that we are heading toward a doomsday AI oligopoly scenario, not in self-driving cars and nor in other AI areas that are being pursued.

There are those that say the AI oligopoly is a false boogeyman, and we ought not to be overly reactive whenever the bell is rung about the pitfalls and perils of oligopolies.

In any case, what could be done to either avoid the potential for adverse consequences or possibly deal with any adversity that actually arises from AI oligopolies?

Here are the typical levers and approaches used when coping with an AI oligopoly:

1)     Ignore it, live with it as is

2)     Wait, watch, and see what happens

3)     Monitor stridently, prepare to act

4)     Impose controls

5)     Force diffusion

6)     Break-up altogether

7)     Takeover

The first listed aspect, namely, simply ignore the matter, can happen by default, and we might later on wake-up and regret our having been asleep at the wheel, as it were. On the other hand, it could be that an AI oligopoly is a tempest in a teapot and will not ultimately emerge as a quandary, thus why waste time and energy fretting about it.

Some would vehemently say that we ought to at least be doing the second item on the list and be on our guard, watching, waiting, and sniffing around to make sure that an AI oligopoly doesn’t start to go into a power-mad mode.

The third item on the list is being on our guard with weapons loaded, ready to take action if or when the AI oligopoly goes askew.

The fourth through the seventh item on the list entails taking overt action about the AI oligopoly. As a society, we could impose regulatory controls, or we could force the firms to share their AI source code and try to diffuse the cabal, and if it came down to it there is the option of breaking up the concentrated ownership or even taking the somewhat Draconian act of a takeover of the AI technology.

Any of the aforementioned approaches need to be assessed and adjudged as per the specific AI oligopoly and the situational context thereof.


Yes, the AI oligopolies are on their way.

They will occur in any number of domains and fields.

Some suggest that if we as a society were to take “suppressive” action now, doing so would likely undercut the zeal by those firms pursuing advances in AI. We might shoot our own foot and derail AI tech that would have otherwise blossomed and helped us in untold ways.

Of course, there are AI conspiracists that insist the AI will someday become sentient and reach the point of singularity (see my commentary on such matters here at this link), and go beyond what we as humans intended the AI to do.

One wonders, if that does occur, would the resultant AI be appreciative to the AI oligopolists that spawned their existence, or might the AI decide those cabal landlords ought to be the first to go.

Well, maybe that’s something those AI oligopolists of today might be staying awake at night worrying about and possibly be spurred toward being more charitable and benevolent about their praised AI, now, prior to the day that the AI overlords command all of humanity.

Sleep tight on that dreamy notion.