Who Owns AGI and Who Should Get to Decide?

Michael Anton Dila
4 min readJun 21, 2023

Enclosure is what the practice of privatizing common land was called in England. It began to advance by Acts of Parliament well after it had begun as an informal practice. This came longer still after Conquest claimed for Spain much of what we now call Mexico and South America, not to mention sizable parts of the present day states of California, Texas and New Mexico. The colonial expansion of the Dutch, English, Spanish and Portuguese stand at the beginning of our ideas of property.

In 1754, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote, in his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality: “The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows, “Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.”

People have already begun to raise concerns that the training of Large Language Models involves actionable copyright infringement. Some of these concerns are about livelihood, authorship and the future of certain creative professions, none of which I wold want to trivialize. However, the claim that the mother of all LLMs, GPT 4, has ingested (or will) the sum of human knowledge (let’s for the moment bracket the hyperbole of this claim) raises an entirely different category of worry. If someone builds an artificial intelligence that incorporates all of human knowledge, should they be allowed to claim it as their property? Is, in other words, the project of Artificial General Intelligence bound to involve the enclosure of the entirety of human knowledge?

Nick Hayes startling The Book of Trespass: Crossing the Lines that Divide Us offers a wealth of historical detail and contemporary consequence on the effects of enclosure and the legal creation of property in land. Our ideas of the protections of copyright and patents are part of an intellectual and political history that holds that things become property by some kind of special work or use.

We occasionally recognize that the public good so significantly outweighs private right that either nationalization, regulation or open sourcing is required to fairly and evenly distribute the common wealth. There is more than one way to approach this. The history of making “utilities” public is one such example. Open source software is another. Think about how different the world would be if we had selfishly squandered the technologies of GPS or the Internet.

I don’t think that we should start with regulation, but with conversation. The conversation about the responsible development of AI should not be thought of as something apart from that about our relationship to other powerful and pervasive technologies.

We should be having a conversation about questions like, Who Owns AI and Who Should Get to Decide? Not because we already have a position to defend, but because we care about and recognize the paramount importance of showing each other the respect of caring about each other’s lives. We need to be more careful about how we make decisions about how we live together and share what’s common. We need to be more careful about what kinds of things we allow people to claim as their property.

As the hit show Succession recently came to an end, many journalists, fans and critics collected and celebrated some of their favorite scenes and lines. One of the most often repeated is when Logan Roy says to his children, each and all scrambling to claim the keys to Empire for themselves: “I love you, but you are not serious people.” I feel this way about many the people I hear clamoring for position in the race to AI supremacy. The people who are selling salvation and apocalypse are not serious people, they are not leading us into serious conversation.

At a recent gathering, a friend and colleague observed: “the conversation is the work.” Let’s get serious about the work ahead. Find the serious people and join that conversation.

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Michael Anton Dila

Michael is a Design Insurgent and Chief Unhappiness Officer