The AI Dividend
For four decades, Alaskans have opened their mailboxes to find checks waiting for them, their cut of the black gold beneath their feet. This is Alaska’s Permanent Fund, funded by the state’s oil revenues and paid to every Alaskan each year. We’re now in a different sort of resource rush, with companies peddling bits instead of oil: generative AI.
Everyone is talking about these new AI technologies—like ChatGPT—and AI companies are touting their awesome power. But they aren’t talking about how that power comes from all of us. Without all of our writings and photos that AI companies are using to train their models, they would have nothing to sell. Big Tech companies are currently taking the work of the American people, without our knowledge and consent, without licensing it, and are pocketing the proceeds.
You are owed profits for your data that powers today’s AI, and we have a way to make that happen. We call it the AI Dividend.
Our proposal is simple, and harkens back to the Alaskan plan. When Big Tech companies produce output from generative AI that was trained on public data, they would pay a tiny licensing fee, by the word or pixel or relevant unit of data. Those fees would go into the AI Dividend fund. Every few months, the Commerce Department would send out the entirety of the fund, split equally, to every resident nationwide. That’s it.
There’s no reason to complicate it further. Generative AI needs a wide variety of data, which means all of us are valuable—not just those of us who write professionally, or prolifically, or well. Figuring out who contributed to which words the AIs output would be both challenging and invasive, given that even the companies themselves don’t quite know how their models work. Paying the dividend to people in proportion to the words or images they create would just incentivize them to create endless drivel, or worse, use AI to create that drivel. The bottom line for Big Tech is that if their AI model was created using public data, they have to pay into the fund. If you’re an American, you get paid from the fund.
Under this plan, hobbyists and American small businesses would be exempt from fees. Only Big Tech companies—those with substantial revenue—would be required to pay into the fund. And they would pay at the point of generative AI output, such as from ChatGPT, Bing, Bard, or their embedded use in third-party services via Application Programming Interfaces.
Our proposal also includes a compulsory licensing plan. By agreeing to pay into this fund, AI companies will receive a license that allows them to use public data when training their AI. This won’t supersede normal copyright law, of course. If a model starts producing copyright material beyond fair use, that’s a separate issue.
Using today’s numbers, here’s what it would look like. The licensing fee could be small, starting at $0.001 per word generated by AI. A similar type of fee would be applied to other categories of generative AI outputs, such as images. That’s not a lot, but it adds up. Since most of Big Tech has started integrating generative AI into products, these fees would mean an annual dividend payment of a couple hundred dollars per person.
The idea of paying you for your data isn’t new, and some companies have tried to do it themselves for users who opted in. And the idea of the public being repaid for use of their resources goes back to well before Alaska’s oil fund. But generative AI is different: It uses data from all of us whether we like it or not, it’s ubiquitous, and it’s potentially immensely valuable. It would cost Big Tech companies a fortune to create a synthetic equivalent to our data from scratch, and synthetic data would almost certainly result in worse output. They can’t create good AI without us.
Our plan would apply to generative AI used in the US. It also only issues a dividend to Americans. Other countries can create their own versions, applying a similar fee to AI used within their borders. Just like an American company collects VAT for services sold in Europe, but not here, each country can independently manage their AI policy.
Don’t get us wrong; this isn’t an attempt to strangle this nascent technology. Generative AI has interesting, valuable, and possibly transformative uses, and this policy is aligned with that future. Even with the fees of the AI Dividend, generative AI will be cheap and will only get cheaper as technology improves. There are also risks—both every day and esoteric—posed by AI, and the government may need to develop policies to remedy any harms that arise.
Our plan can’t make sure there are no downsides to the development of AI, but it would ensure that all Americans will share in the upsides—particularly since this new technology isn’t possible without our contribution.
This essay was written with Barath Raghavan, and previously appeared on Politico.com.