One Way to Stop the Social Spread of Disinformation

To stop the spread of disinformation on the Internet, do away with the current advertising-driven business model and instead let consumers sell their own data, IEEE Member Siavash Alamouti says. The crux of the problem, the wireless innovator says, is that model: Making money from ads and page views is encouraging people to share false information, which is causing social unrest.

“When you encourage people to spread falsities to get advertising and make money, then this thing kind of builds on itself. It’s a very dangerous situation,” Alamouti warns. “The unfortunate thing is, now there’s more disinformation on the Internet than there is information. This is not a technology problem; it’s a business-model problem.”

Alamouti, who has won this year’s Marconi Prize, says he believes part of the solution is to decentralize the cloud—which would help bring about a more open Internet and eventually allow consumers to choose what data of theirs they want to sell.

A decentralized cloud would minimize the need to use third-party services to manage and store data on people and business enterprises. The decentralized cloud would allow users to keep most or all their data on local devices, cutting out the middlemen now needed for hosting applications and managing transactions over the Internet. It would allow users to monetize their data by sharing it directly, instead of allowing data brokers to steal and sell the information.

Alamouti, cofounder and executive board chairman of Mimik, in Oakland, Calif., helped develop the first hybrid edge cloud computing platform, which enables any smart device to act as a cloud server. The HEC can allow consumers to better control how their data is stored, shared, and monetized, Alamouti says. An article describing how the platform works was published in the September issue of IEEE Communications Magazine.

“If we can get rid of all the unnecessary middlemen and come up with models to help people monetize their data, then we can disincentivize the spread of disinformation,” Alamouti says. “We’re never going to get rid of it, but at least we can minimize it.”

Throughout his career, he has been a proponent of expanding the reach of technology to more people. He probably is best known for creating a type of space-time block code commonly used in wireless cellular communications. The Alamouti code, as it is known, is central to the wireless multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) technique, which uses antennas at the transmitting and receiving ends to create multiple signal paths. This increases the data rate and improves channel reliability. The code is used in billions of devices. It’s built into Wi-Fi and has been included in all wireless cellular standards starting with 3G.

In recognition of his impact on the success of wireless devices and his groundbreaking work to develop technology that impacts humanity, the Marconi Society honored Alamouti with what is considered to be the top honor in communications technology.

“I’m genuinely humbled to have received this prize,” he says. “I never expected it, given that I have often diverged from mainstream technology into economics and policy. I have great respect for the Marconi Society and its mission for digital inclusion and bringing the Internet to everyone on the planet.

“I was delighted that the society acknowledged my contributions, which went beyond science and technology, and to have these visionaries confirm that I wasn’t crazy or paranoid to want a radical change in the way both the architecture and the business model of the Internet will work in the future, with social sustainability at the forefront.”

Addressing the Internet’s business model

Alamouti first noticed the potential for the spread of disinformation on the Internet in 2010, when he began working as group R&D director for Vodafone in London.

His Vodafone team worked on technologies that would limit the use of personal data for advertising and “eyeball-grabbing, because they are very disruptive and can incentivize the spread of disinformation. Disinformation is what demagogues and fascists use to divide people,” he says. “I still don’t think that realization has sunk in,” he adds. “People haven’t understood the massive negative impact that this has had on all aspects of our lives.”

He says the advertising-driven business model is exactly the opposite of what early Internet pioneers set out to accomplish.

Vint Cerf, Tim Berners-Lee, and other technologists who were building chips and devices, like Gordon Moore, myself, and other colleagues who worked on mobile Internet, dedicated our lives to bringing affordable Internet to people,” Alamouti says. “We thought it would significantly improve their lives because access to information is power. We thought we would provide affordable access to the Internet. But it hasn’t been affordable because our data, which is extremely valuable, is being exchanged for that access and then used to manipulate our basic life choices.”

“If we can get rid of all the unnecessary middlemen and come up with models to help people monetize their data, then we can disincentivize the spread of disinformation.”

What’s more, he says, studies have shown that the current ad-driven business model provides a poor user experience and isn’t that effective in selling products. It’s a fake economy with no value for anyone but data brokers, he says.

To Alamouti, data is an asset like other types of financial and physical capital such as cash, stock, and real estate.

“Data is worth a lot of money,” he says, “so a platform is needed to help people monetize their data.”

He’s now focused on how to create a sustainable business model for data monetization and data custodianship, using technologies such as blockchain and smart contracts.

Blockchain technology’s distributed ledgers contain a continuing record of transactions that can verify and time-stamp activity between multiple parties. Blockchain transactions aren’t controlled by a centralized entity. The transactions can be publicly verified, and past transactions cannot be deleted. Only people who hold the correct cryptographic keys can read the records.

Alamouti says tokens, enabled by distributed ledgers, could replace cash as a method of exchange, with low-cost transaction fees. The tokens, along with using smart contracts to reduce legal fees, would make real-time exchange and monetization feasible, he says. People need the help of highly regulated custodians to monetize their data, he adds.

From selling makeup to becoming an engineer

Born in Tehran, Alamouti did not grow up wanting to be an engineer. He was more interested in studying art, literature, and music. Iran’s school system required students who had completed sixth grade to choose between the arts and sciences. Alamouti’s father persuaded him to study mathematics and physics and to pursue humanities as a hobby.

After graduating from high school, he studied math and computer science at the Sharif University of Technology, in Tehran, but following the Islamic Cultural Revolution in 1980, he was expelled from the university for his political views. He worked in bookstores and then started a fashion business with his friends while planning his escape from Iran through Pakistan in 1982. He ended up as a refugee in Madrid. To support himself, he taught English and tutored students, sold cigarettes at concert venues, and sold Avon cosmetics. After Canada accepted him as a political refugee in 1984, he attended the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering while waiting tables and preparing and delivering pizzas.

Wireless innovator

Alamouti began his engineering career as a part-time contract worker designing and building mobile-data protocols for taxi dispatch systems at Mobile Data International, in Vancouver. He then participated in the design of physical and media access layers of cellular digital packet data at MPR Teltech, the research arm of the British Columbia Telephone Co., in Burnaby. He joined McCaw Cellular Communications, which was acquired by AT&T and became AT&T Wireless, based in Redmond, Wash.

He worked on a fixed wireless system, which he says was one of the first orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing MIMO systems. It became known as Project Angel. The secretive project was envisioned to allow AT&T to provide fixed wireless access throughout the United States, Alamouti says. The service used mounted cellular base stations with many antennas to provide high-speed Internet connections for voice and data to homes and small businesses.

It was while working on that project in 1996 that Alamouti came up with the code named after him. He was assigned to figure out how to overcome a challenging propagation environment so that customers could receive their data reliably. His team’s studies showed that to get reliable connections, every home would need at least four active receivers, he says.

“That would completely kill the business model,” he says. “I realized that we could instead put two transmitters on every base station and two receivers in people’s homes to get the four levels of diversity. Adding an RF transmit chain [electronic components and substations] and a bit of signal processing at base stations and remote units was much cheaper and more viable.”

The Alamouti code has been included in 3G, 4G, 5G cellular and Wi-Fi systems to improve signal quality in almost all wireless services today and most likely will continue to be used in 6G, he says.

After AT&T, he helped companies develop chips for 3G and Wi-Fi at Cadence Design Systems, in San Jose, Calif. He then worked for a startup, Vivato, with offices in Spokane, Wash., and San Francisco, initially as its director of R&D and eventually as its chief technology officer. There he helped build Wi-Fi access points with a 2-kilometer range.

He left Vivato to become CTO for Intel’s Mobile Wireless Group. Intel designated him as one of its Fellows. While at the company, he championed Mobile WiMAX and the WiGig Alliance, which later became part of the Wi-Fi Alliance.

He then joined Vodafone as its group R&D director in London. He left the company in 2013, and the next year he became CEO of Mimik, where he stayed for six years.

Alamouti returned briefly to the corporate world in 2020 to develop a data-custodian platform for consumers and enterprises at Wells Fargo in San Francisco, where he was the executive vice president of R&D. He returned to Mimik as executive chairman last year, and he is now working on building technologies for a data custodian platform.

Participation in Wi-Fi standardization projects

Alamouti says he joined IEEE because “it’s an open organization that helps build a better future for all of us.”

He says the organization gave him opportunities to participate in important standardization efforts, including for Wi-Fi, WiGig and Mobile WiMAX, which became known as the IEEE 802.16e and IEEE 802.16m standards.

IEEE also gave Alamouti an opportunity to present his idea for cloud decentralization and new Internet business models, Web3 and decentralization, at this year’s IEEE Vision, Innovation, and Challenges Summit.

He says IEEE was the first to publish his articles. His seminal paper on his code, “A Simple Transmit Diversity Technique for Wireless Communications,” was published in 1998 in the IEEE Journal on Selected Areas in Communications. The paper is the most-cited article published in that journal, according to an analysis conducted this year by the Web of Science database. The article has been cited more than 20,000 times.

“I don’t think I would have ever reached such a large audience and been able to have such an impact if it wasn’t for IEEE,” he says. “I’m forever thankful.”