Comment: We are slaves to algorithms. And now comes AI

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This year, 20 years have passed since the founding of Facebook, which is still at the top of the list of the most widespread social networks. It owes this to its algorithms, which have gradually become part of our everyday life. They work diligently in the background, solving problems, helping with decisions, optimizing, and even saving lives.

However, these technologies also have a dark side that we often overlook. The rise of artificial intelligence can deepen everything – not only the good, but also the bad.

Everything we see, hear and read on the web and social networks is served to us using algorithms. Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok and LinkedIn use advanced algorithms to personalize content. In the same way, talking to Alexa or opening your smartphone with your face works on the basis of algorithms. Modern life would stop if we suddenly stopped using them.

But that obviously won’t happen right away. On the contrary, algorithms will actually penetrate our lives even more, thanks to the relentless development of artificial intelligence, machine learning and deep learning.

Algorithms are not infallible

Leaving aside the indisputable advantages, algorithms can also be approached as not helping us, but rather dictating. They decide what we see on “our” social networks, they decide the type of news we receive, they choose the results of our online searches. It’s up to them whether we’re eligible for a loan or whether they screen a job application before a real person even sees our resume. In short, they predetermine many decisions in our lives, often without our consent and awareness.

However, algorithms are not infallible. They can – and do – make systematic errors and mistakes. They may still have biases based on how they were programmed. It has been confirmed more than once that without the creators intending it, their algorithms have systematically discriminated against certain groups of people.

The consequence of filtering operated by algorithms are also the so-called “bubbles” today, in which, in the name of personalization and convenience, we see things only from a certain angle, while the broader perspective of the story or problem escapes us. Algorithms eliminate randomness, which is, figuratively speaking, the spice of life. Instead, they help spread fake news and disinformation. It is impossible not to notice the extent to which once fringe opinions and conspiracy theories are growing into society today through social networks.

After the boom of digital platforms and social networks, we are now witnessing the next round of the race of powerful technology corporations. Open AI, Google, Microsoft, Meta, Apple and others are racing to launch new tempting products that today have a common denominator – artificial intelligence, AI.

We need to be wary of attractively wrapped novelties with which they seduce us. As the writer and activist Naomi Klein pointed out last year in her commentary for the British newspaper The Guardian, the lofty promises of a better tomorrow are actually Silicon Valley’s power play.

A glimmer of a better tomorrow

Admittedly, tech giants know how to create an attractive product – they come up with cool names and logos, they promote products with impressive demos and neat videos. They proclaim how their new technology will improve the world. They use superlatives and never mention the dark side. Sleek PR shows “big tech” as responsible, customer-focused companies. They design products to be easy to use and give them away “for free”.

They make excuses when the product doesn’t quite work as expected or doesn’t meet initial expectations, it’s just “part of the development process” and then they politely apologize and say they’ll fix the bugs as soon as possible. Regardless, he doesn’t stop for a moment. Because the ultimate goal is the holy grail of even greater profits and market dominance. They wash their hands with glee as they see their competitors drop like flies, one by one. A clear monopoly is the desired outcome. Or, at worst, the creation of a cozy oligopoly. Shareholders and investors are excited.

Once the tech giants have free reign, they introduce targeted ads, new data policies, constant surveillance, new fees, and the like. By that time, we are already so dependent on their products, they have become so much a part of our everyday life that it is almost impossible to regulate, close or stop their activity. The genie is out of the bottle and the world has to live with the consequences. Corporations make billions in the name of human progress. Then they move on to the next “big thing” and the whole game repeats itself.

AI vs. “Humanity”

The American non-profit organization The Center for Humane Technology (CHT), which strives for an ethical approach to technology, in its presentation entitled “The AI ​​Dilemma” pointed out the harmful side effects of technologies using algorithms. The damage comes mainly from technology companies’ obsession with the maximum number of engaged users. According to the analysis, the damages include, among others, information overload, addiction, so-called doomscrolling, influencer culture, sexualization of children, QAnon, shortened attention span, polarization of society, deep fakes, cult factories, fake news, the breakdown of democracy. According to CHT, in short, in the case of AI and algorithms, it is not a panacea, as companies originally promised.

CHT also drew attention to the narrative that companies use to highlight the development of artificial intelligence. They promise a promised land where we will be more efficient thanks to artificial intelligence, we will write word and code faster, we will solve seemingly impossible scientific challenges, even climate change.

But like social media, according to CHT, artificial intelligence will open a Pandora’s box of harmful side effects, such as the collapse of reality and trust in it. This is also related to the weakening of interpersonal relationships. Also, automated loopholes, extortion, automated cyberweapons, automated code abuse, automated lobbying, fraud, and the like.

People who develop algorithms often have a distorted view of reality and are insensitive to their potentially harmful consequences. At the same time, it is essential that companies developing products and services using algorithms are aware of these potential negative impacts, cooperate to solve them and be transparent in their actions. Which, as a number of cases in the recent past have proven, they are usually not.

In my opinion, a certain technological skepticism is appropriate. It is naïve to expect corporations to focus on social good rather than profit. But they should be directly responsible for what they release into the world. We need strong regulatory oversight. Consumers need to be better informed about algorithms and have more control over their use.

Let us recall what Karel Čapek, who was deeply skeptical of utopian ideas about science and technology, stated for The Saturday Review in 1923, a few years after the premiere of the famous RUR: “The product of the human brain has finally slipped out of people’s hands.” A hundred years from now later, Čapka’s critique of mechanization, the rise of robots, and how they can dehumanize people remains remarkably prescient and accurate.

The article is in Czech

Tags: Comment slaves algorithms

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