Friday Faves is our weekly blog series highlighting a few select pieces from the REG team’s reading lists. You can catch up on past Friday Faves on the archive

How do you tell who’s human online?

Anne says: Do you talk to your devices? Do you have a conversation, knowingly, with a chatbot? Are you sure it’s not human? Have you ever read or passed on a tweet or Facebook story posted by a bot? Are you sure about that?

This week’s article is somewhat disturbing: it explores how readily we – as non-robot beings – have conversations with chatbots, even when we know or suspect it may be a bot. How easily we can be influenced by stories produced by bots (on social media), simply through their use of natural language.

These days we’re not talking about those ghastly voice recognition programmes (that never understand what I’m saying), nor the basic automated chat online customer service tools. Things have become enormously more sophisticated and study after study identify how our detection skills are not picking this up – or we’re choosing to accept it. The examples throughout this article demonstrate concerning behaviours – both of us, as the recipients, but also of the makers of bots.

There’s a fascinating study from the 1960s (yes – chatbots existed that far back) when a professor at MIT created a character called Eliza (after Eliza Dolittle in Pygmalion) who could mimic the tone and manner of an east coast (US) psychotherapist. What surprised him was how quickly people became hooked on telling Eliza their trouble, as if she really was a therapist. Perhaps the movie, Her, was based on these findings? Meanwhile, make sure you read the exchange between his secretary and Eliza!

What these behaviours indicated was how quickly our brains adapted to view all speech as meaningful, even when it came from a fake source, and we were aware of that! It shows how easy it is to trick our brains and how easily we knowingly allow it to happen.

However, the development of a conversational chatbot that can understand the context and identify tonal ambiguities is still a long way off. Short exchanges answering contextual questions are about the limit, to date.

While we’re becoming used to stilted conversations with chatbots, it’s been noted that we start to talk to them like friends. (Watch the YouTube video below if you want to see this type of behaviour potential). But it’s not all ominous – some people working in the field are working on ways to divert propaganda, fake news and hate speech, like trolls.

What’s the message from all this research and development? The disturbing side is our acceptance and engagement, knowingly, with bots programmed to support us (for good), or mislead us (for political or propaganda purposes). What can we do about it? The article suggests it requires regulations and the need for public opinion to influence how this is distributed. Personally, I’d like to see people become more aware of how readily they accept conversations with chatbots as normal chats with friends or colleagues – from the examples outlined in the article, this may not be so easy.

Good luck – and the next time you find yourself chatting to a bot… just remind yourself, it’s just a bot, why am I talking to a bot?


PS. To provide some light entertainment to this subject, you might enjoy this Saturday Night Live YouTube created for elderly people to use Amazon’s Alexa.

Sydney start-up Inventia develops 3D bio-printer to help speed up cancer research

Joel says: The use of 3D printing in the medical industry is nothing new. It’s been used to print replacement body parts for years. But now an Australian innovation in 3D printing could soon help in the fight against cancer.

Sydney based start-up Inventia has built a new 3D bio-printer that it says removes the need for time-consuming manual labour by medical lab workers. Known as Rastrum, the pink printer emulates ink-jet technology to print human cells at a rapid rate – quickly cultivating realistic tumours for testing cancer drugs.

“One of the comments we had from a researcher was he was able to produce more cell models with Rastrum in a few weeks than he previously produced in an entire PhD,” Cameron Ferris, Inventia’s chief operating officer, said.

Scott Farquhar, co-founder of Australian software giant Atlassian, financially backed the start-up via his fund, Skip Capital. He said he invested in Inventia because many drug research laboratories were run like they were in “the dark ages” and needed new technology.

“It’s the next big frontier — if you look at many industries they’ve been digitised already, and healthcare is one of the least digitised areas,” he, said.

“Once we make problems into software problems, things move a lot faster and healthcare, for some reason, has resisted this.”

Super interesting technology! But what do you think about Scott Farquhar’s comments – can any problem be made into a software problem?


Fortnite – what’s the deal?

Helen says: I’m not one for video games but I had to stop on this article in the hope of gaining some insight into the fascination of Fortnite. It has been around for over a year now and I have half expected my 19 year old to tire of it, but so far that hasn’t transpired. The game has over 125 million players, so what’s the appeal?

This article puts Fortnite’s success down to three principles: accessibility, sociality and spectacle.

Up to 100 players can battle it out in an ever shrinking environment to be the last man standing. The concept is simple, the game is free, it can be played on most platforms and the games don’t go for too long. This all adds up to a highly accessible game.

So how do the producers make their millions of dollars? By allowing players to make in-app purchases. These don’t give the player any playing advantage but they allow gamers to express themselves by dress or dance for example. This element not only generates revenue it also adds to the social aspect of the game. Psychology is used in the game design – a player’s identify becomes part of the game, a fake currency is used for in-app purchases making it easier for players to part with their money and notifications are sent when a friend starts a game. This compels that person to join rather than miss out – we all suffer from a bit of FOMO.

The author points out that “Fortnite makes failure a spectator sport” and everyone is welcome. Losers getting to watch their mates or others play out the game and the high spectator appeal often sees games steamed.

With all these elements in play Fortnite, for now, seems set to continue its success. The downside for me is that I’ll be putting up with outbursts from the 19 year old in the next room for some time to come.


The Facebook Issue

Jakkii says: What a year it’s been for Facebook. Back at the start of November 2017, Emilio shared a piece that asked experts their view on “hot fo fix Facebook.” In that same Friday Faves, I shared a Ted Talk about how we’re building a dystopia just to make people click on ads.

In January this year, we discussed the (democracy poisoning) golden age of free speech. In February, we saw Facebook begin its downward spiral and went inside the two years that shook the company. In March, we considered Facebook and the death of privacy, and in the same week also asked whether Facebook (and others) should have to know their customers. And in April, we delved into the struggle to detoxify the internet, then we looked ahead to 2021 and, while satirical, considered how we’d survive a world in which Facebook was banned.

There’s been plenty more news about the technology giants since then, yet even by these standards this week has been an exceptionally big news week when it comes to Facebook.

First up: a piece in The New York Times titled “Delay, deny and deflect: How Facebook’s leaders fought through the crisis.” In it, the Times takes a long and damning look behind the scenes – informed by interviews with more than 50 people, they say – at how Facebook aggressively battled its way through a crisis of its own making, while their public face was rather softer and more apologetic.

While Mr. Zuckerberg has conducted a public apology tour in the last year, Ms. Sandberg has overseen an aggressive lobbying campaign to combat Facebook’s critics, shift public anger toward rival companies and ward off damaging regulation. Facebook employed a Republican opposition-research firm to discredit activist protesters, in part by linking them to the liberal financier George Soros. It also tapped its business relationships, lobbying a Jewish civil rights group to cast some criticism of the company as anti-Semitic.

The next day, another Times piece: “Mark Zuckerberg Defends Facebook as Furor Over Its Tactics Grows.” The article published the day before had stirred up something of a furore, and Zuckerberg was trying to hose down the flames. “Washington pummels Facebook: ‘Big tech can no longer be trusted’” said a Recode piece, which concluded with a rather pessimistic (yet probably realistic) view:

But don’t expect that to happen. If history is any guide, Facebook will keep plowing ahead, Washington will keep slapping it around, and few of the fundamentals will change.

Unsurprisingly, reports followed that morale was poor at Facebook. A few days later, Recode published a summary piece, “From Mark Zuckerberg to George Soros, here’s everything you need to know about Facebook’s latest crisis“, on the story so far. The same day, they also explored the topic of whether the First Amendment should apply to Facebook in their podcast, Recode Decode. It is, of course, complicated, and without easy answers, but the podcast is worth a listen (or there’s a transcript on their website you can read).

So, what comes next (besides yet more scandals and crises)? According to Forbes, how Facebook handles this crisis will be a critical turning point. The Economist thinks Facebook should heed the lessons of internet history, while The Atlantic explores what happens when the tech mythology collapses. In Recode’s summary piece (above), they suggest Facebook execs will once again be called to testify before Congress, as these latest revelations provide more fuel for the push for regulation. While Zuckerberg has made it plain he intends to stay putSheryl Sandberg is in the hot seat – will she be forced to depart? TIME pulls few punches in its piece about the hiring of Definers, the PR firm Facebook used to do opposition research on Facebook’s critics, using the headline to skewer Facebook further by proclaiming the outgoing Facebook Head of Communications is “taking the fall“. One of George Soros’ top people has called on Congress to probe Facebook’s actions. And “the guy behind net neutrality” wants to break up Facebook.

But will Congress – or anyone – really take meaningful action? Putting aside any partisan politics, this story has unfolded over the past year – longer, in fact – without any real action, without, really, any serious discussion beyond platitudes regarding how we’ve all been aggrieved by Facebook’s disregard for people, privacy, and ethics. And to what end? No one seems to know exactly what we should do about Facebook – or the rest of the tech giants – or what regulation, if any, might look like.

I don’t know the answers, either. What I do know is that we all have a vested interest in the subject – yes, even if you don’t use Facebook. It behoves us all to pay close attention to what’s happened and is happening with Facebook – and the rest of the big technology players.


This week in social media

Sydney Business Insights – The Future This Week Podcast

This week: puppets reading news, fake stuff, and Sweden’s out of cash. Sandra Peter (Sydney Business Insights) and Kai Riemer (Digital Disruption Research Group) meet once a week to put their own spin on news that is impacting the future of business in The Future, This Week.

The stories this week:

World’s first “AI” news anchor comes from China’s state news agency Xinhua

BBC newsreader ‘speaks’ languages he can’t

What’s next for Sweden’s cashless society 

Other stories we bring up:

You thought fake news was bad? Deep fakes are where truth goes to die

White House press secretary shared a video of CNN reporter Jim Acosta that appeared to have been edited

Our previous discussion of digital humans

AI news anchor unveiled in China

Digital version of a regular Xinhua news anchor named Qiu Hao

Clip of English speaking digital news anchor

Owl thieves in cashless Sweden

Our previous podcast with Professor Alan Dennis, Mind the fake news




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