Friday Faves: What We’re Reading This Week
Friday Faves is our weekly blog series highlighting a few choice pieces from the REG team’s reading lists. You can catch up on past Friday Faves on the archive.
The Facebook chatbot controversy highlights how paranoid people are about life with robots and A.I.
“We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology”.
Nat says: These were the famous words of Astronomer Carl Sagan whose statement, even twenty years after his death, is still accurate in today’s context. The news this week was that Facebook’s AI bots, which were created to see if two bots could negotiate with one another, started to speak in a language that we mere mortals could not understand, and so were subsequently shut down.
The media uptake about the secret bot language has been all over the news and ladled with fear-mongering rhetoric. This has stoked the fire in relation to society’s incessant interest albeit concern about the future of technology and, ultimately, that of humanity. However, going back to the Carl Sagan quote, it is interesting that in such debates and fears regarding technology (progression at the hands of science), we often forget about who stands behind both: people. We already live in a world full of languages we do not understand, so what is it in particular that has us so terrified about artificial machines mimicking human reality? If we are so worried about AI taking over the world and destroying us all, it says more about humanity than it does the AI we create.
One of the main reasons for the fear is the analytical nature of AI and its lacking of human qualities such as empathy, irony and contradiction. For example, a human can love someone but hate what they have done, yet a computer cannot fathom this concept. The fear is that AI could “choose” to kill us all because it lacks the qualities that arguably make us human. But when we look at the history of mankind, and of all life, really, has destruction not been at the core? Extinction is the rule and survival has been the exception. Humanity is already destroying the same planet we both emerged from and need for our survival, so is it not incredibly ironic that we might be creating technology that might do to us what we are already doing to the planet? With AI, we fear our own creation. We fear our shadow.
Our minds have been hijacked by our phones. Tristan Harris wants to rescue them
“Technology steers what 2 billion people are thinking and believing every day. It’s possibly the largest source of influence over 2 billion people’s thoughts that has ever been created.”
Emilio says: Are we so hooked on technology that we are losing control of our lives?
In a world where we are glued to technology for the most part in our waking lives – or looking at the alternative view that it is actually technology that has all of us glued – a movement is making us rethink technology and its design.
Started by ex-Google staff Tristan Harris, the movement called ‘Time Well Spent’, poses the question, how do we reform this attention economy and the ‘mass hijacking of our minds’?
Harris’ movement stems from the idea of the attention economy – where technology companies, both hardware and software, are in the race to get all of us sucked in. Using what they know about us, these companies are making us spend more and more time using their products and services and, unwittingly and involuntarily, we have become runners in their race to outdo one another by ‘hijacking our minds’.
Even more interesting, Harris suggests that as we move into the era of Virtual Reality (VR), the hijacking is going to get even worse.
Along those lines, prior to this recent interview by Wired Harris had discussed ‘ethical persuasion’ and how he claimed technologies were designed so that users had little to no control of their behaviours. He detailed these in a thought-provoking podcast first shared by Anne in an earlier edition of Friday Faves back in April.
What exactly is Harris’ solution? An approach that’s rather intuitive that includes increasing self-awareness of technology and the use of time, as well as actions that involve the technology companies themselves – which quite frankly, is a mammoth, if not unrealistic, undertaking.
By suggesting that technology companies change their design, and by calling for accountability amongst these firms to help everyone make more efficient use of time (in other words, spend less time on those technologies), this idea might actually be wishing for the impossible.
As a marketer and from a business perspective, unethical as it may sound, getting people sucked in and profiting from it is the goal.
Getting all the major technology players on board with this movement may be a lofty and unachievable idea, but we can all make simple and more achievable choices. Taking a few moments everyday to engage with others offline, in real life, logging off social media for a few hours, taking a digital detox every few months, just really switching off and being in the moment – that’s my personal, simplistic but achievable approach to de-hijacking the mind.
What’s yours? I would love to hear your thoughts.
Streaming giant Netflix is bleeding money at a shocking rate, on the hook for more than AU$25 billion
Joel says: It seems licensing all those shows we love to watch come at a massive cost to popular streaming service Netflix. The streaming giant is haemorrhaging money at an alarming rate, according to fresh reports, with debts totalling a staggering US$20 billion (AU$25 billion).
While many outlets are reporting this news in a negative manner with quotes such as “How’d things get so grim?” and “RIP Netflix” I, along with Netflix investors, am not too worried about the news as share values are up 50% since 2016.
“They are betting that debt financing in the near term will create growth and yield big results down the road on the theory that you have to spend money to make money”
An analysis by the LA Times points out Netflix hasn’t yet figured out a business model that provides “ample cash flow”. Netflix themselves have been quite open recently admitting that it expects to be “free-cash-flow negative for many years”.
In an update after the posting of the articles this week a spokeswoman for Netflix in Australia disputed the inclusion of the company’s content contracts with studios as debt.
“Netflix has a total gross debt of $4.8 billion versus the company’s equity market value of about $75 billion,” she said.
Are You the Next Captain Planet?
Jakkii says: Well, alright. Captain Planet was an environmentalist and in the current political sphere it’s hard to imagine a US department hiring for such a job.
But Planetary Protection Officer? You can apply right here.
Based on the job description, it seems the PPO is responsible for, well, keeping the planet safe. Not from humans, of course, but from, well, outer space. Hands up if you knew that NASA had a whole set of planetary protection policies? Well now you do, and the PPO will be responsible for creating a policy to protect us from evil alien bacteria.
Of course, on browsing the Office of Planetary Protection’s website it seems their remit might be at least a little more altruistic.
The mission of the Office of Planetary Protection is to promote the responsible exploration of the solar system by implementing and developing efforts that protect the science, explored environments, and Earth.
It raises an interesting question and one I’m not sure we, collectively, spend a lot of time reflecting on: what are the ethics of space exploration? What are the ethics of – and protocols around – discovery of life, potentially of intelligent life? Much like the many artefacts taken from their rightful owners by explorers of days gone by, will we one day be ashamed of our collection of moon and planet rocks?
Humans are ever driven to understand the world around them, asking ‘why’ and ‘how’ at every opportunity. That we should want to explore the far reaches of the solar system – and maybe one day beyond it – is of no surprise. It is, however, a nice surprise to learn that at least some of those tasked with doing so understand the need for responsible exploration.
Whether that responsibility extends to protecting us from our own space junk, or whether there’s a specific policy on not filling up the rest of the solar system with yet more space junk remains unclear. And whether their policies include how to protect the solar system from Earth bacteria is also a mystery.