Peer pressure: An unintended consequence of AI

This article by Fiona J McEvoy (YouTheData.com) was originally posted on All Turtles.

Peer pressure

Last winter, Kylie Jenner tweeted that she stopped using Snapchat, and almost immediately the company’s shares dropped six-percent, losing $1.3 billion in value. Her seemingly innocent comments had led investors to believe that the 20-year-old’s 25 million followers would do the same, and the knock-on effect would seal the social media apps fate as a “has been” among its key demographic of younger women.

This astonishing event demonstrates in technicolor how the notion of influence is evolving, latterly taking on a new significance. In the age of technology, though influence is still associated with power, it is no longer the limited reserve of “the Powerful”—i.e. those in recognized positions of authority, like bankers, lawyers, or politicians.

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Why Can’t We #DeleteFacebook?: 4 Reasons We’re Reluctant

Facebook Addiction

The Cambridge Analytica scandal is still reverberating in the media, garnering almost as much daily coverage as when the story broke in The New York Times on March 17. Facebook’s mishandling of user data has catalyzed a collective public reaction of disgust and indignation, and perhaps the most prominent public manifestation of this is the #DeleteFacebook movement. This vocal campaign is urging us to do exactly what it says: To vote with our feet. To boycott. To not just deactivate our Facebook accounts, but to eliminate them entirely. Continue reading

Curiosity Killers and Finding the Golden Mean of Digital Consumption

YouTheData.com is delighted to feature a guest post by John Gray, the co-founder of MentionMapp Analytics. 

Egyptian cat god Hunefer

Love them or can’t stand them, cats and memes have clawed their way into our cultures. Undoubtedly there’s a hieroglyphic cat meme etched on a wall somewhere in the historical ruins of Egypt. Believing otherwise, is to suggest that ancient peoples were humorless. Amusement, cats and memes aren’t new cultural considerations, just like today’s misinformation problem – popularized as “fake news” – isn’t either.

As William Faulkner said: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” We can’t escape the history of information and communication technologies, but we can choose to blithely ignore it’s evolution and the subsequent cultural, social, and political impact.  Continue reading

Learning to Believe the Unbelievable: Fortifying Ourselves for a VR Future

fairies

The Cottingley Fairies

As humans, we are accustomed to suspending our disbelief. Indeed, we’re known to indulge in it. Each time we dive into a book, a movie, a video game, a TV show – even a spiritual flight-of-fancy – most of us are willing and able to disengage from the pedantry of our everyday judgment, and allow ourselves to be convinced by things that are less-than-absolutely-convincing…

This coaxing is a consensual arrangement. I allow you to present me with the improbable on the proviso that it is entertaining, or educational, or uplifting, or philosophical – i.e. my pay-off is that I am emotionally stimulated in some way. I don’t need to scrutinize a movie in its every detail, what is important when I watch it is that I enjoy it and it makes me happy (or scared, or angry, or sentimental!).  Continue reading

Online choice “nudge” and the convenient encroachment of AI

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The beginnings of the internet seem so long ago to those of us who lived through them. Hours spent trawling through pre-Google search results, which often ranged from the useless to the bizarre. Blindly researching gifts and listening to music, sans intelligently selected recommendations.  Checking social media accounts of our own volition, rather than through prompting from “notifications”.

Then the world began to change.

Under the banner of convenience, clever algorithms started to adapt both to our interests and – critically – the interests of commercial entities. We saw (or rather didn’t see) the covert introduction of the digital “nudges” that now regularly play upon our cognitive blind spots, and work to “guide” our decision-making.  Continue reading

If you aren’t paying, are your kids the product?

There’s a phrase – from where I don’t know – which says: “If you aren’t paying, you’re the product.”  Never has this felt truer than in the context of social media. Particularly Facebook, with its fan-pages and features, games and gizmos, plus never-ending updates and improvements. Who is paying for this, if not you…and what are they getting in return? The answer is actually quite straightforward.

children

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Bots may be determining all our futures

social bots

We’ve all seen the stories and allegations of Russian bots manipulating the Trump-Clinton US election and, most recently, the FCC debate on net neutrality. Yet far from such high stakes arenas, there’s good reason to believe these automated pests are also contaminating data used by firms and governments to understand who we (the humans) are, as well as what we like and need with regard to a broad range of things… Continue reading

Parents beware: subtle dangers on the internet

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These days we are often told what we shouldn’t be afraid of when it comes to technological innovation. Efforts to calm us come from all corners, and we can find a healthy dose of reassurance about any given advancement with a quick google.

Just this week, an excellent article by Oxford professor Luciano Floridi was recirculated on the internet. In it, Floridi argues vociferously against those “Singularitarians” who worry about robot rule, and humans being overthrown by AI in the near-ish future.  At the same time, the Independent wrote in some detail to comfort us with regards to the non-threatening nature of iPhone X’s new facial recognition feature.  This came after a wave of speculation about Apple’s plans to build a mass database of facial information. What’s more, we have also seen an increase in cuddly or moving descriptions of new tech, like this inspiring article which examines how VR can be used to help both deaf and hearing individuals understand the other’s experience of music.

I am not suggesting for a second that we shouldn’t be reassured. I think these articles do very important things, whether it be shooting down unsettling, dystopian predictions, or championing some of the wonderful work that is being done to improve our lived experiences with technology. But it is perhaps because of this recent proliferation of positive tech news (if we set aside the politics of tech firms and focus on the tech itself…) that I was shocked to read this article late yesterday. Not least because it reveals a bogey man that I wasn’t even vaguely aware of…  Continue reading

10 real-world ethical concerns for virtual reality

virtual reality.jpeg

There are lots of emerging ideas about how virtual reality (VR) can be used for the betterment of society – whether it be inspiring social change, or training surgeons for delicate medical procedures.

Nevertheless, as with all new technologies, we should also be alive to any potential ethical concerns that could re-emerge as social problems further down the line. Here I list just a few issues that should undoubtedly be considered before we brazenly forge ahead in optimism.

1.   Vulnerability

When we think of virtual reality, we automatically conjure images of clunky headsets covering the eyes – and often the ears – of users in order to create a fully immersive experience. There are also VR gloves, and a growing range of other accessories and attachments. Though the resultant feel might be hyper-realistic, we should also be concerned for people using these in the home – especially alone. Having limited access to sense data leaves users vulnerable to accidents, home invasions, and any other misfortunes that can come of being totally distracted.

2.   Social isolation

There’s a lot of debate around whether VR is socially isolating. On the one hand, the whole experience takes place within a single user’s field-of-vision, which obviously excludes others from physically participating alongside them. On the other hand, developers like Facebook have been busy inventing communal meeting places like Spaces, which help VR users meet and interact in a virtual social environment. Though – as argued –  the latter could be helpfully utilized by the introverted and lonely (e.g. seniors), there’s also a danger that it could become the lazy and dismissive way of dealing with these issues. At the other end of the spectrum, forums like Spaces may also end-up “detaching” users by leading them to neglect their real-world social connections. Whatever the case, studies show that real face-to-face interactions are a very important factor in maintaining good mental health. Substituting them with VR would be ill-advised.

3.   Desensitization

It is a well-acknowledged danger that being thoroughly and regularly immersed in a virtual reality environment may lead some users to become desensitized in the real-world – particularly if the VR is one in which the user experiences or perpetrates extreme levels of violence. Desensitization means that the user may be unaffected (or less affected) by acts of violence, and could fail to show empathy as a result. Some say that this symptom is already reported amongst gamers who choose to play first person shooters or roleplay games with a high degree of immersion.

4.   Overestimation of abilities

Akin to desensitization, is the problem of users overestimating their ability to perform virtual feats just as well in the real-world. This is especially applicable to children and young people who could take it that their expertise in tightrope walking, parkour, or car driving will transfer seamlessly over to non-virtual environments…

5.   Psychiatric

There could also be more profound and dangerous psychological effects on some users (although clearly there are currently a lot of unknowns). Experts in neuroscience and the human mind have spoken of “depersonalization”, which can result in a user believing their own body is an avatar. There is also a pertinent worry that VR might be swift to expose psychiatric vulnerabilities in some users, and spark psychotic episodes. Needless to say, we must identify the psychological risks and symptoms ahead of market saturation, if that is an inevitability

6.   Unpalatable fantasies

If there’s any industry getting excited about virtual reality, it’s the porn industry (predicted to be the third largest VR sector by 2025, after gaming and NFL-related content). The website Pornhub is already reporting that views of VR content are up 225% since it debuted in 2016. This obviously isn’t an ethical problem in and of itself, but it does become problematic if/when “unpalatable” fantasies become immersive. We have to ask: should there be limitations on uber realistic representations of aggressive, borderline-pedophilic, or other more perverse types of VR erotica? Or outside of the realm of porn, to what extent is it okay to make a game out of the events of 9/11, as is the case with the 08.46 simulator?

7.   Torture/virtual criminality

There’s been some suggestion that VR headsets could be employed by the military as a kind of “ethical” alternative to regular interrogatory torture. Whether this is truth or rumor, it nevertheless establishes a critical need to understand the status of pain, damage, violence, and trauma inflicted by other users in a virtual environment – be it physical or psychological. At what point does virtual behavior constitute a real-world criminal act?

8.   Manipulation

Attempts at corporate manipulation via flashy advertising tricks are not new, but up until now they’ve been 2-dimensional. As such, they’ve had to work hard compete with our distracted focus. Phones ringing, babies crying, traffic, conversations, music, noisy neighbors, interesting reads, and all the rest. With VR, commercial advertisers essentially have access to our entire surrounding environment (which some hold has the power to control our behavior). This ramps up revenue for developers, who now have (literally) whole new worlds of blank space upon which they can sell advertising. Commentators are already warning that this could lead to new and clever tactics involving product placement, brand integration and subliminal advertising.

9.   Appropriate roaming and recreation

One of the most exciting selling points of VR is that it can let us roam the earth from the comfort of our own homes. This is obviously a laudable, liberating experience for those who are unable to travel. As with augmented reality, however, we probably need to have conversations about where it is appropriate to roam and/or recreate as a virtual experience. Is it fine for me to wander through a recreation of my favorite celebrity’s apartment (I can imagine many fans would adore the idea!)? Or peep through windows of homes and businesses in any given city street? The answers to some of these questions may seem obvious to us, but we cannot assume that the ethical parameters of this capability are clear to all who may use or develop.

10.   Privacy and data

Last, but not least, the more we “merge” into a virtual world, the more of ourselves we are likely to give away. This might mean more and greater privacy worries. German researchers have raised the concern that if our online avatars mirror our real-world movements and gestures, these “motor intentions” and the “kinetic fingerprints” of our unique movement signatures can be tracked, read, and exploited by predatory entities. Again, it’s clear that there needs to be an open and consultative dialogue with regards to what is collectable, and what should be off-limits in terms of our virtual activities.

This list is not exhaustive, and some of these concerns will be proven groundless in good time. Regardless, as non-technicians and future users, we are right to demand full and clear explanations as to how these tripwires will be averted or mitigated by VR companies.

Facebook accused of limiting, not championing, human interaction

facebook reactions

Facebook have been in a press a lot this week, and there have been a flurry of articles asking how they might be brought back from the brink. The New York Times asked a panel of experts “How to Fix Facebook?”. Some of the responses around the nature of –and limitations to– our user interactions on the social network struck me as very interesting.

Jonathan Albright, Research Director at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, writes:

“The single most important step Facebook — and its subsidiary Instagram, which I view as equally important in terms of countering misinformation, hate speech and propaganda — can take is to abandon the focus on emotional signaling-as-engagement.

This is a tough proposition, of course, as billions of users have been trained to do exactly this: “react.”

What if there were a “trust emoji”? Or respect-based emojis? If a palette of six emoji-faced angry-love-sad-haha emotional buttons continues to be the way we engage with one another — and how we respond to the news — then it’s going to be an uphill battle.

Negative emotion, click bait and viral outrage are how the platform is “being used to divide.” Given this problem, Facebook needs to help us unite by building new sharing tools based on trust and respect.”

Kate Losse, an early Facebook employee and author of “The Boy Kings: A Journey into the Heart of the Social Network”, suggested:

“It would be interesting if Facebook offered a “vintage Facebook” setting that users could toggle to, without News Feed ads and “like” buttons. (Before “likes,” users wrote comments, which made interactions more unique and memorable.)

A “vintage Facebook” setting not only would be less cluttered, it would refocus the experience of using Facebook on the people using it, and their intentions for communication and interaction.”

According to recent reports, “reactions” are being algorithmically prioritized over “likes”. Why? Well, we might suppose, for the same reason most new features are developed: more and greater insight. Specifically, more insight about our specific emotions pertaining to items in our newsfeed.

Understanding the complexity of something we type in words is difficult. Systems have to understand tone, sarcasm, slang, and other nuances. Instead, “angry”, “sad”, “wow”, “haha”, and “love” make us much easier to interpret. Our truthful reactions are distilled into proxy emojis.

I see two problems with this:

  • The first is that we are misunderstood as users. Distilling all human emotions/reactions into five big nebulous ones is unhelpful. Like many of the old (and largely discredited) psychometric tests questions, these reactions allow us to cut complexity out of our own self-portrayal. This means that, down the line, the data analytics will purport to show more than they actually do. They’ll have a strange and skewed shadow of our feelings about the world. We’ll then, consequently, be fed things that “half match” our preferences and – potentially –change and adapt our preferences to match those offerings. In other words, if we’re already half-misinformed, politically naïve, prejudiced etc., we can go whole hog…
  • The second problem is that discouraging us from communicating our feelings using language, is likely to affect our ability to express ourselves using language. This is more of a worry for those growing up on the social network. If I’m not forced to articulate when I think something is wonderful, or patronizing, or cruel, and instead resort to emojis (“love” or “angry”), then the danger is that I begin to think in terms of mono-emotions. With so many young people spending hours each day on social media, this might not be as far-fetched as it sounds.

If there’s a question-mark over whether social network’s cause behavior change, then it’s fine to be unbothered about these prospects, but given Silicon Valley insiders have recently claimed that the stats are showing our minds “have been hijacked”, then perhaps it’s time to pay some heed to these mechanisms of manipulation.