Who owns your brain?

By Richard L Dunn August 1, 1998

For years, I’ve thought the concepts of artificial intelligence (AI) and expert systems (ES) were really good ideas — especially in the face of a growing shortage of skilled workers coincident with increasingly complex industrial processes, equipment, and systems. Capturing the brainpower of your most knowledgeable people so that it could be passed along to assist others has always sounded like a good plan.

But lately I’ve been having second thoughts. After all, who really owns that knowledge, and why should it be distributed — usually without compensation.

There are some difficult legal and ethical dilemmas involved here. Presumably, a big part of the reason you have your current job is what you know, what you have learned. The development of AI and ES raises the question of whom that knowledge belongs to. Is it you, or your employer? And if a knowledge engineer shows up at your office, how much should you share with him? If he “drains your brain,” are you more, or less, valuable to your company? Can your company take that intelligence and give it or sell it to others without compensating you?

Certain aspects of intellectual property are well established, of course. Patentable products and copyrightable materials developed in the course of employment are generally considered the property of the employer, for example. And proprietary processes or trade secrets belong to the employer. But there is a whole range of knowledge and experience a company might wish to capture that is open to question.

The lines of demarcation used to be much clearer. A person’s knowledge was (and for the most part, still is) a marketable commodity. But when that knowledge is somehow captured in a retrievable form no longer controlled by you, what happens to your personal “marketable value?” Once your company has stored your knowledge, do they still need to employ you? Could you “download” your knowledge again for another employer?

I must admit that there is a certain appeal to having my knowledge captured as part of an AI/ES program. There’s a hint of immortality about it. At the same time, I don’t like the idea of losing control, of giving away something I worked so hard to develop. How much of my knowledge is “corporate property?” Should I be paid extra by my employer if I share it? If it has been recorded in a corporate archive, can I still use it? Sure, it’s my brain. But who owns the stuff in it?