Artificial Intelligence (AI) is no longer a concept restricted to pages of an Isaac Asimov story or a science fiction movie. It exists, and it’s in our homes – and phones – with easy-to-remember names like Alexa (Amazon), Siri (Apple), Viv (Samsung), and Cortana (Microsoft). More and more are popping up at such an alarming rate that it’s estimated that by 2021, there will be more digital assistants than people. This integration is just one of many examples of our eagerness to embrace nascent and unproven technology.
It’s difficult to predict where it will lead and even harder to know whether it’ll be beneficial. Current technological trends tell us it’ll be a mixed bag; on one hand, there’s the potential for automated servants and medical benefits but, on the other, there are missions to mars, spy technology and other concepts pulled from scary sci-fi flicks. How will all this fast-emerging technology affect your business or day-to-day life?
While some look at Silicon Valley as a hub of innovation and great ideas, even its most prominent companies have taken gigantic missteps. Despite their efforts, both Twitter and Facebook have been practically useless in eradicating the Russian bots that (allegedly) influenced the 2016 US Presidential election. When Facebook first released to the public worldwide in 2005, the attraction at the time was the ability to catch up with lost acquaintances and distant relatives, as well as seeing what your friends were up to. The current state of Facebook has users being duped by unverified “fake news” stories as the website’s AI algorithms try their best to eradicate them. In 2016, 3000 Russian-linked fake news stories and advertisements were published on Facebook, directly aimed at influencing the US election. Even as recently as this year, there are claims that Russian-bots created a hashtag via Twitter (#ReleaseTheMemo), targeted against American Democrats to further split the country.
As Facebook’s AI algorithms do their best to prevent the influence of these bots, the website has bots at its own targeting ads in an arguably discriminatory way. A targeted ad is a tool some businesses buy through Facebook to reach out to a specific group of potential new clients. Some groups, however, have targeted users based on racist or discriminatory/offensive terms found on the user’s personal bio. These included offensive terms and phrases like “NaziParty” and “Jew hater”. Facebook has since issued a statement on the matter: “To help ensure that targeting is not used for discriminatory purposes, we are removing these self-reported targeting fields until we have the right processes in place to help prevent this issue.” However, there’s another frightening controversy surrounding targeted ads on Facebook, and it involves the possibility of AI placing ads for users based on their private phone conversations.
Several users have shown evidence of finding ads based on topics of conversation during phone calls. Facebook has repeatedly denied this, saying in a statement: “Facebook does not use your phone’s microphone to inform ads to change what you see in News Feed… We show ads based on people’s interests and other profile information – not what you’re talking out loud about. We only access your microphone if you have given our app permission.”
There are still some who remain unconvinced due to their personal experiences, but it presents a new question. What happens if Amazon or Apple or Microsoft decide to do the very thing Facebook is accused of, but through Alexa, Siri or Cortana? As a user, you installed the device in your home and set up microphones in every room. By the very nature of a digital assistant, it’s constantly listening, waiting for a prompt to respond. For the device to pick up key words and phrases and convert them to personal advertisements is not only an invasion of privacy, but completely possible considering the technology. As consumers, we’re implicitly involved in being spied on. Tagging ourselves on social media platforms so people know where we are and what we’re doing is another example.
It’s not all doom and gloom when it comes to AI technology. A Japanese robotics company called Cyberdyne (yes, the same name of the fictional company that created the Terminator in the movies) is about to release HAL (Hybrid Assistive Limb), a lower-body exoskeleton. It’s a revolutionary product designed to help those with lower limb disabilities. The user’s brain sends bioelectrical signals to where the leg muscles would typically respond, and the exoskeleton receives the signal and moves accordingly.
Is this new technology corruptible in the wrong hands? It’s difficult to say. But until the exoskeleton begins to transmit ads back into the user’s brain, then it’s safe to say that this is one of the more beneficial tech developments in recent memory. As with anything technological or involving AI that you decide to wear or install in your home, be sure to consider its potential downsides.
Alex Correa | Staff Writer