By Using Google, Facebook, Amazon, Are We Giving Up Our ‘Freedom’?

“Artificial Intelligence can read our thoughts – and manipulate them,” explains AI expert Viraj Kulkarni.

Updated
Opinion
5 min read
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Individual liberty has been the cornerstone of modern civilization. We choose the clothes we wear, the gender we are identified with, who we date, where we vacation, what we buy and the politics we vote for.

We place great importance in the freedom to choose our beliefs and make our own decisions. In the popular German legend, the protagonist Faust strikes a deal with the Devil and trades his soul for unlimited knowledge and pleasure.

In today’s age of the Internet and artificial intelligence, we have struck an equally dangerous bargain: we have allowed algorithms to invade our privacy, excavate our minds and manipulate our deepest thoughts, even those we may have kept hidden from ourselves, in exchange for free entertainment and social media.

Artificial Intelligence Can Predict Our Politics, Sexual Orientation & Even Who We Will Date

We have mindlessly relinquished our freedom of thought to voyeurist profit-seeking corporations and power-hungry governments. Internet companies like Google and Facebook are attention merchants. They capture our attention by luring us with free content and then sell this attention to advertisers as if it were a commodity.

They stalk us across the web and collect volumes of data about us without our knowledge or consent. This data includes search terms, browsing history, online purchases, social media likes, video playlists, location history, voice queries, calendar events, private emails or messages – the list is nearly endless. Sophisticated machine learning algorithms analyse this data to extract incisive insights about our personality and preferences.

What's alarming is that they can not only deduce our observable behaviour, but they can also infer unobservable facts about us which we ourselves may not be aware of.

Using readily available data, AI can predict our political views, sexual orientation, taste in music and what products we might buy. It can predict who we will date and if we are suitable for a career opportunity.

It can perform psychological profiling to forecast the onset of mental illnesses and the likelihood of committing crimes. Researchers from the University of Cambridge and Stanford University showed in 2015 that AI could judge personality from Facebook likes. With just 10 likes, their algorithm could judge a user's personality as accurately as a co-worker would. With 70 and 150 likes, it was as accurate as friends and family respectively. With 300 likes, the algorithm was more accurate than a spouse.

Snapshot
  • Using readily available data, AI can predict our political views, sexual orientation, taste in music and what products we might buy.
  • By allowing algorithms to control and curate the information we consume, we have already forsaken our right to independent thought.
  • Our data has long been exploited by capitalist profit-seeking companies to reach deeper into our pockets. Now, governments too have tasted blood.

Artificial Intelligence Can Not Only Read Your Thoughts – It Can Manipulate Them

AI can not only read our thoughts but also manipulate them. Without us knowing, algorithms already exert enormous influence on how we discover and consume information. Back in 2013, Google launched a new algorithm named Hummingbird to generate search results by better understanding the intent of the user. Twitter changed the ordering of tweets on their timeline from most-recent to most-important, where an algorithm decides what's important for us. Under the disguise of personalisation, Facebook and Instagram use algorithms to selectively boost content that maximises their ad revenues.

By allowing algorithms to control and curate the information we consume, we have already forsaken our right to independent thought.

Recommendation engines not only use our previous actions and ratings to determine what to show us next, but they also use preferences of other users that are similar to us based on some computational metric of similarity. This leads to the formation of echo chambers where we only see content that reinforces our existing beliefs while divergent views are deemed irrelevant by the algorithm and silently suppressed.

Muting this plurality deprives us of the opportunity to form balanced opinions.

The recommendations are often accurate and match our situation so well that we feel they are our own. We thus remain under the illusion of control without realising that we were literally drip-fed the information that drove us towards the decision.

Our Data Has Long Been Exploited By Profit-Seeking Companies. Govts Too Have Now Tasted Blood

Cambridge Analytica used information drip-feeds to influence voters during the US Presidential Election. Voters were psychologically profiled and then micro-targeted with political advertisements finely customised for their predicted profiles. The scandal made global headlines, but such micro-targeting is a staple routine for Internet advertisers. Next time you decide to purchase something on Amazon, it's likely that their algorithms had already inferred your propensity to want that product and had been serving you relevant ads days or weeks before you made your decision.

Our data has long been exploited by capitalist profit-seeking companies to reach deeper into our pockets. Now, governments too have tasted blood.

Orwellian surveillance is no longer the stuff of fiction; it is already here. In Xinjiang, China, where more than a million Muslim Uighurs have been imprisoned, the Chinese government is taking outrageous steps to surveil its citizens. From marshalling flocks of drones disguised as birds – even their artificial wings flap like real birds – to installing millions of cameras around street corners, facial recognition is deployed on an unprecedented scale to track movement.

Multiple data streams such as social media behaviour, online shopping, location history, financial records, employer feedback etc, are consolidated to assign a social credit score that measures the sincerity of every citizen. This score determines everything: where you would be allowed to live, whether you will be granted a passport, whether you qualify for a job opening and if you should be imprisoned for not being sufficiently trustworthy.

To Preserve Our Freedom, We Must Not Let Anyone Know More About Us Than We Know Ourselves

Israel has converted the occupied West Bank region into a total surveillance regime that harvests thousands of data points about Palestinians and feeds detailed information to security forces about perceived threats. India's Aadhaar program is the world's largest biometric database and has been criticised for being used for purposes unrelated to its stated intent. We should not forget Edward Snowden's chilling revelations about the NSA collecting phone records and the PRISM program giving intelligence agencies access to servers of technology companies including Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Apple.

Democracies favour distribution of information, but artificial intelligence allows data to be centralised like never before.

Peter Thiel has called AI 'literally communist', and historian Yuval Noah Harari has written about how technology favours tyranny.

Just a few years ago, the Internet was hailed for championing democracy and freedom of speech. AI is rapidly changing that, and repurposing technology into becoming the right hand of dictators and autocrats across the globe.

Rather than worrying about AI developing consciousness and rebelling against humanity, we need to fear AI obeying its human masters too un-conscientiously.

Knowledge is power. To preserve our freedom, we must not let anyone know more about us than we know ourselves. By using technology with discretion and raising the bar for privacy, we can thwart attempts by corporations and governments to program our thinking.

(The author has a master's degree in computer science from the University of California, Berkeley, and is currently pursuing a PhD in quantum artificial intelligence. As the principal data scientist at DeepTek, he heads the AI team developing models for diagnosing medical images. He has a decades worth of experience in applying AI and machine-learning to solve real-world problems for Fortune 500 companies like Siemens and organisations like UN, WHO. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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