Artificial intelligence is already here

24 March 2016

Interview with

Professor Christian Sandvig, University of Michigan

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 we'd 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 that's a really old word, it just means that there's 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 they're 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 Facebook's 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 you've done on the platform before like clicking "like" or commenting on other people's 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 - It's just not all that obvious, because I'm 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 it's a timeline, which is the word that they use, and so you might think that's the same for Facebook but that's not actually what happens. In fact, it's 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 don't share their secrets. But why do they do it in the first place?

Christian - There's a simple explanation and that's that if it's totally unfiltered, it actually doesn't work that well in some circumstances. Maybe if you've used Twitter, you've noticed that if a friend of yours is at some sort of event and they're really excited about it and they start tweeting a lot, they just flood your twitter stream with their updates and you can't see any of your other friends because they've just started posting a lot more. So there's 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 there's... I don't want to sound like its sinister but there's an important motive here, right. These are advertising supported companies and it's important for them to mix in advertising into your experience. They have side bar ads, but it's also very important for them to figure out ways to monetise their platform because they started out a free service, they're supported by advertising and one of the most important ways that they can do this is by mixing in ads with content and that's 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 you're going to look at ads.

Graihagh - Monetising aside it's interesting to hear about how there's this whole other invisible layer operating that, at least on my part, I was completely unaware of. and it's 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 - It's 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 we're not even sure exactly what the results are. Usually we implement these systems by optimising them for a certain goal like let's 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 don't understand the consequences. Unfortunately, I think we're 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. We're going to see this as a really significant change and I don't think we're ready at all to understand the implications of that.

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