Should you have sex with an AI?

It might not be a question you’re asking yourself right now, but according to a California-based developer of artificially intelligent sex robots, they will be soon be as popular as porn.

sex robots

This is, at least, the hope of Matt McMullen. He’s the founder of RealDoll, a “love doll” company featured in the documentary, “The Sex Robots Are Coming”.  The film seeks to convince its audience that combining undeniably lifelike dolls like Matt’s with interactive, artificially intelligent features will lead to an explosion in the market for robotic lovers.

But is this okay? Many say that it absolutely isn’t. Continue reading

Online choice “nudge” and the convenient encroachment of AI


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

6 Tech Terms Every Adult Should Learn About To Avoid Being Left Behind


Not for the first time, Apple CEO Tim Cook has spoken out this week about how important it is for children to learn computer code. He’s not alone in believing that this “language of the future” will be critical for kids growing up right now. In a sea of unknowns one thing appears to be certain: technical understanding is a very valuable asset indeed.

It’s interesting then, that in spite of remarkable efforts to equip the adults of tomorrow with such skills, very little is being done to familiarize young adults, middle-aged parents, or retirees (with impressively long-life expectancies!) with the signature terms of the “AI Age”. This seems a like an oversight. Continue reading

Five AI misnomers (probably)

artificial intelligence

Not being an artificial intelligence “expert”, an egghead, or a mad scientist, I can sometimes find the trajectory of AI confusing. In my reading, I’ve come across evidence to convince me in entirely contradictory directions, and there is certainly a lot of tension in the public conversation.

Are we in the run-up to an AI apocalypse? A technological utopia? Or, even with all our computational power, is AI still as dumb as a rock?  Continue reading

Will robots make us more robotic?

robot dalek

Anyone who has taken public transport in San Francisco will tell you: it is not strange and unusual to encounter the strange and unusual. Every day is one of eyebrow-raising discovery. That said, I surprised myself recently when I became slightly transfixed –and perhaps a little perplexed– listening to someone narrate a text message into their smartphone.

The expressionless and toneless girl carefully articulated each word: “I can’t believe she told you”, she said aloud like a Dalek, “LOL”. How odd it seemed to see someone sat, stoney-faced, proclaiming that they were “laughing out loud” when nothing could be further from the truth.

Now, I have a limited background in acting, and I worked in-and-around politics for several years, so believe me when I say I’ve heard people speak robotically without any conviction or inflection before. But those people were reading scripts, or trying to remember their lines-to-take, or trotting out meaningless straplines. They weren’t expressing their own thoughts and feelings to a friend.

Then yesterday, I stumbled across this blog about the evolution of interactions in the age of AI. In a rather sweet anecdote, the author talks about ordering his Alexa to “turn off the lights” and his young son questioning his manners and the absence of “please”. He goes on to ponder the future and how we might incorporate manners and niceties when instructing our digital assistants, lest we inhibit their range by limiting the vocabulary we use with them.

My thoughts went elsewhere. Though AI is developing to understand our expressions and feelings, it feels like we also have some evolving to do before we become used to addressing artificial systems as we would other humans. Moreover, with voice instructions and narrated text, there seems little need for sincerity or emotion. The text itself is either directly indicative – or free – of sentiment.

Where I’m getting to is this: might we humans begin to develop specific a type of robotic tone exclusively for non-social instructive language? For Alexa and co.? We already have a tone and style we reserve for babies, pets and (sometimes) older relatives. Will a whole new style of monosyllabic speech emerge for the purposes of closing garage doors, sending text messages, ordering plane tickets and browsing TV channels? A sort of anti-baby talk?

It’s fun to speculate about these things, and I’m certainly no linguist, but it’s difficult to see that the voice-activated future we’re promised wouldn’t have some implications for modes of speech. Will we flatten our language, or to the contrary, become hyper-expressive? We’re yet to find out, but we can only hope that the beautiful languages of the world aren’t somehow roboticized as we adapt to hands-free technologies and AI assistants.

Life imitating art: China’s “Black Mirror” plans for Social Credit System

social credit system

Yesterday, both Wired and the Washington Post wrote extensively about plans the Chinese government have to use big data to track and rank their citizens. The proposed Social Credit System (SCS) is currently being piloted with a view to a full rollout in 2020. Like a real-life episode of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian Black Mirror series, the new system incentivizes social obedience whilst punishing behaviors which are not deemed becoming of a “good citizen”. Here’s the (terrifying) run down:

  • Each citizen will have a “citizen score” which will indicate their trustworthiness. This score will also be publicly ranked against the entire population, influencing prospects for jobs, loan applications, and even love.
  • Eight commercial partners are involved in the pilot, two of which are data giants with interests in social media and messaging, loans, insurance, payments, transport, and online dating.
  • Though the “complex algorithm” used to generate a score by partner Sesame Credit has not been revealed, we do know there are five factors being taken into account:
    1. Credit history
    2. Ability to fulfil contract obligations
    3. The verification of “personal characteristics” (e.g. phone number, address etc.)
    4. Behavior and preference
    5. Interpersonal relationships
  • “Behavior and preferences” considers patterns of behavior and how they reflect upon the individual. For example, someone who plays ten hours of video games each day would be considered idle, whereas someone who buys lots of diapers would be considered a responsible parent.
  • “Interpersonal relationships” allows assessors to rate interactions between friends and family. Nice messages about the government are likely to help your score, but it can also be negatively affected by things your friends post online.

Black mirror

How do incentives work?

Well, just like the “NoseDive” episode of Black Mirror, there big benefits for model citizens:

  • 600 points: Congrats! Take out a Just Spend loan of up to 5,000 yuan (for use on the scheme’s partner sites).
  • 650 points: Hurrah! You can rent out a car without placing a deposit, experience faster check-ins at hotels and even experience VIP check-in at Beijing Airport.
  • 666 points +: There’s nothing sinister about this threshold! Enjoy! You can take out a loan of up to 50,000 yuan (from a partner organization).
  • 700 points: Yowzers! You can go to Singapore without armfuls of supporting documentation.
  • 750 points: Big dog! You can be fast-tracked in applying for a pan-European Schengen visa.

What about bad citizens?

If you fall short of government expectations, you can expect to know about it. Here’s how they plan to lower your quality of life:

  • Difficulty renting cars
  • Poor employment opportunities (including being forbidden from some jobs)
  • Issues borrowing money from legitimate lenders
  • Slower internet speeds
  • Restricted access to restaurants, nightclubs and golf clubs
  • Less likely to get a date (high points profiles are more prominent on dating websites)
  • Removal of the right to travel freely abroad
  • Problems with securing rental accommodation
  • Restrictions enrolling children in certain schools

You can read more detail and commentary here, but I’ve tried to present the basics.

This system takes no excuses and makes no effort to collect feedback. If, unpreventably, your score suffers a knock, then it is simply “tough luck”. It’s not difficult to see how it will entrench disadvantage and, in all likelihood, create a delineated two-tier society.

If someone you’re connected to (perhaps a relative) reduces your score by behaving “inappropriately” online or over a messenger, this could lead to your being denied a job, which in turn will reduce your chances of gaining credit, getting a rental apartment, a partner…etc etc. It’s difficult to escape the domino effect or imagine how an individual might recover enough to live a decent life in a system where each misdemeanor seems to lead to another compounding circumstance.

We can legitimately speculate that Chinese society, from 2020, will be one in which citizens heavily police each other, disconnect themselves (in every way) from the poor/low-scoring, report indiscretions at the drop of a hat for fear of association and reprisals, and adopt phoney behaviors in order to “game” their way to full state approval. Some have described it as a form of “nudging”, but nudge techniques still leave room for choice. This seems much more coercive.

Finally, some have argued that, although the Chinese SCS system seems extreme, it actually employs techniques that are already being used by internet giants to map our own behaviors as we speak. The Chinese system simply adds a positive or negative valence to these actions and distills them into a single score. Therefore, it is worth considering which elements of SCS we find unpalatable – if any at all – and reflecting upon whether we already assent to, or participate in, similar evaluations already…

Google search figures reveal interest in tech surged by 78% in last 12months

tech interest

I conducted some desk research today which I hoped would either reinforce or eliminate my hunch that general interest in all-things-tech is growing. Anyone who has read Daniel Kahneman’s fantastic book on the role of intuition in such judgments, will know that the only way that I can (possibly!) get away from making bold claims like “the general population are becoming more curious about the mechanisms of tech” is by somehow providing a statistical proof.

Enter Google Trends, and some rough – yet hopefully revealing – investigating on my part. Here’s where I got to:

Google trends

  • The popularity of the search term “what is Big Data” has increased by 54%
  • The popularity of the search term “what is an algorithm” has increased by 56%
  • The popularity of the search term “what is artificial intelligence” has increased by 83%
  • The popularity of the search term “what is machine learning” has increased by 132% (!)
  • The overall popularity of these tech-related search terms increased by 78%.

All the figures are over a 12-month period (Oct 2016 – Oct 2017), and my increases are based on Google Trends’ “interest over time measure” which assigns a value relative to peak popularity. It is also interesting to look at these same search terms over a longer period (see 3-year and 5-year charts) where the same trajectory can also be seen quite neatly.

My methodology, of course, is unashamedly unsophisticated. The list of terms I have used is certainly not exhaustive, and I’m aware that words like “algorithm” are not exclusive to the tech lexicon. I figured that the “what is” prefix would generally denote a novice search, and I would probably defend this as an as-good-as-anything-else, finger-in-the-air way to gauge if searches are from new, enquiring minds. Nevertheless, as discussed, my objective was to find some indication that my original intuition was correct. This is not intended to reflect a rigorous and conclusive study…

So, what does it mean? Well, it seems to confirm something that we all think we already know. Namely, that tech is migrating from the nerdy peripheries to center stage. And if we can reasonably assume these searches imply a quest for knowledge, then we might use this to speculate about a future where tech knowledge is decentralized, and better diffused throughout broader society.

Instinctively, this feels like a good thing. So many ethical discussions about tech focus on worries about privacy, manipulation, and the imbalance of power. When we talk about tech in society, the conversation can often turn to doomsday scenarios. But the upward lines on these charts might tell us something different. An interested and informed general population might help mitigate against ill effects in the next few years.

Furthermore, it’s easy to forget the many, many good things that are happening in tech which – with an increasingly engaged population – could truly benefit the whole of society. Just casually browsing the news this week, two very different stories caught my eye. The first was about 28-year old James Green, who believes his life was saved by his Apple Watch, which alerted him to a sudden and extreme increase in his heart rate and prompted him to seek urgent help for what turned out to be a deadly pulmonary embolism. The second was about Pinchas Gutter, a holocaust survivor and participant in the New Dimensions in Testimony project, which helps keep history alive by allowing (in this case) visitors to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Toronto to interact with an image of Mr. Gutter, and ask questions about his experiences during the Nazi occupation of Poland.

In both cases – but in very different ways – technology, algorithms, data, and machine learning are being employed to save us. To increase our awareness in ways that (I believe) can only be described as positive.  The more we all understand about how these technologies work, the more likely it is that they will survive, thrive and new, similar ideas will evolve to the advantage of all of us.

This is, obviously, an optimistic view. But I think when we’re talking about ethics it can be important not to artificially suppress a well-founded glimmer of hope where it occurs. Only time how will tell how it will all play out.