Science Interviews


Thu, 24th Mar 2016

Artificial intelligence is already here

Professor Christian Sandvig, University of Michigan

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Aritficial intelligence is already here and it's hiding in plain site. But where? Graihagh Jackson chatted to Christian Sandvig about where these secret systems are operating...

Christian - Well, I think most people think about artificial intelligence and they think maybe about some sort of sci-fi movie or something like that but, in fact, it encompasses a long of things that weíd encounter every day.

Graihagh - Christian is an associate professor at Michigan and his research looks at artificially intelligent algorithms principally in media so, Facebook and the like.

Christian - The kinds of things like recommendations for what to watch on Netflix or what you should buy on Amazon or even things like the kinds of things that your friends are doing that show up in the Facebook newsfeed.

Graihagh - How is that artificial intelligence?

Christian - One helpful thing to think about is the difference between algorithm and artificial intelligence. Sometimes we talk about how things are algorithmic but thatís a really old word, it just means that thereís a process or a set of steps for it. So you can see that pretty much anything with a computer is going to involve algorithms and theyíre going to be a set of steps because the computer needs to follow a set of steps in order to know what to do. But then there are these other cases like, for example in the Facebook newsfeed, when you sign on to Facebook and you see what your friends are doing. Here we have a system that, according Facebookís public statements, is extremely complicated and it uses many factors (by one estimate over 150 factors) to determine what it thinks that you will like. It incorporates things that youíve done on the platform before like clicking ďlikeĒ or commenting on other peopleís material and things that you typed when you posted status updates. So I think artificial intelligence is kind of lying around in plain site.

Graihagh - Itís just not all that obvious, because Iím not sure I ever really thought about how Facebook tailors my newsfeed and maybe I thought it actually was an unvarnished truth of maybe a temporal relevance and organisation, but not necessarily picked and ranked.

Christian - Right, that makes sense because we have other platforms like Twitter that emphasise that itís a timeline, which is the word that they use, and so you might think thatís the same for Facebook but thatís not actually what happens. In fact, itís quite a complicated process to decide what to show you.

Graihagh - How they do it though is something of a mystery, people have taken a good old guess but in reality Facebook considers their intelligent algorithm valuable and so they donít share their secrets. But why do they do it in the first place?

Christian - Thereís a simple explanation and thatís that if itís totally unfiltered, it actually doesnít work that well in some circumstances. Maybe if youíve used Twitter, youíve noticed that if a friend of yours is at some sort of event and theyíre really excited about it and they start tweeting a lot, they just flood your twitter stream with their updates and you canít see any of your other friends because theyíve just started posting a lot more. So thereís some weird characteristics of just having everything in real time or in chronological order in the order that it was posted, that might not be ideal. Beyond that I think thereísÖ I donít want to sound like its sinister but thereís an important motive here, right. These are advertising supported companies and itís important for them to mix in advertising into your experience. They have side bar ads, but itís also very important for them to figure out ways to monetise their platform because they started out a free service, theyíre supported by advertising and one of the most important ways that they can do this is by mixing in ads with content and thatís important for a number of reasons. One is that you can potentially get around ad blockers that way and so they have a really big incentive in being able to control your attention to the degree that they can improve the chances that youíre going to look at ads.

Graihagh - Monetising aside itís interesting to hear about how thereís this whole other invisible layer operating that, at least on my part, I was completely unaware of. and itís not just your timeline either, Facebook can now automatically tag your friends in a photo using facial recognition software, something that us mere mortals had to do before. In other words even Facebook is becoming increasingly automated.

Christian - Itís really amazing the degree to which most media interaction today has this additional layer built into it which is a compute making decisions and because some of these decisions can be quite complicated, that means that the extra level of mediation weíre not even sure exactly what the results are. Usually we implement these systems by optimising them for a certain goal like letís design a system that makes people click on this as much as possible. But these systems might optimise for all kinds of other things and we just donít understand the consequences. Unfortunately, I think weíre just at the beginning of this and as we see automation spread into all kinds of aspects of our lives because computers are spreading into all kinds of access to our lives. Weíre going to see this as a really significant change and I donít think weíre ready at all to understand the implications of that.


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