Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Are we living in the digital Truman Show?

As I was walking to the station yesterday, I couldn't help but take a moment to really notice the clouds over Figges Marsh. The were so beautiful yet didn't look real. Maybe it's that they looked hyper-real? My photo does them little justice, but it occurred to me that the sky looked like a painted backdrop from The Truman Show - as if we're in a dome and that it's been painted with clouds and sky and that if I walked to the edge, I would be able to break through to the other side by ripping through the canvas.

It got me thinking, 'What if we were already in a digital version of The Truman Show ourselves?' After all, our devices know more about us and our habits than we do ourselves. The algorithms dictate what adverts and content we get shown on Facebook, Google Now et al. Cars that can park themselves are already here and driverless ones are not far away from being available to general consumers. It seems to me that there are lots of organisations, large and small, governmental and corprorate, who can and do spy on us and are mining data about us continuously and making decisions about us and on our behalf without us having any insight or control over what those decisions are. Who are the directors and puppet-masters? What control (or not) do they have on our lives, the decisions we make, or that are made for us and how that impacts on our daily lives?

This was really useful thinking to prepare me for last night's 'What are we going to do about Artificial Intelligence?' Open Space that I ran with Lloyd Davis at WeWork Southbank. We had a great turnout of people from different disciplines and backgrounds coming together to talk about some of their concerns about Artificial Intelligence.

One of the conversations I participated in was around the responsibility of business leaders in this area. It was really interesting to discuss how complicated these systems are and how they're built in building block style using APIs from a variety of companies and sources. The data travels through different company servers before getting to its destination or deriving its analysis. How do you even notice if something isn't working? And if you do spot it, how can you fix it?

A case in point being online advertising. There is much research to show that online advertising reinforces gender stereotyping in recruitment. Women are less likely to see a senior level job ad than men. From this recent article in Fast Company, "the researchers found that male users were shown high-paying job ads about 1,800 times, compared to female users who saw those ads about 300 times". Whose responsibility is it to either play the algorithms to level the online playing field? And how do you even spot when and how it's happening?

And how about if you keep getting served content and advertising that's geared towards your social status? Does that mean poor people keep seeing ads about payday loans, improving their credit score and playing bingo? And what if that then reinforces the poverty of ambition that individual may already have? Is it anyone's responsibility to do anything about it?

We also talked about a CEO not necessarily having the time or skill set to understand the minutiae of the digital products and services they're offering to customers or using to serve customers. Many AI driven systems, such as analytics and decision making platforms, are slipping in through third parties as SAAS (Software As A Service). The sales people make great claims about their capability. But how do you really know how they work or even how well they work? And if it's your own system that you're building, the chances are you're using third party APIs which you have little or no control over anyway. And what if those companies whose building blocks you've used got bought? And what if their terms of business changed and you weren't aware of it? How many online 'Terms of Service' have you ticked just to get to the next page.

One of the conclusions we came to is that c-level executives do have a moral and ethical responsibility in this area. They (we) need to be talking about it more and sharing experience and ideas with their peers and colleagues and improving their knowledge on the topic. After all, they're the ones who could be sued if something went horribly wrong. They're the ones who are making the big decisions This area is moving very fast indeed and is affecting our daily lives already and is only going to get bigger and probably create as many problems as it solves. One of the conversations I missed was around politics. Now that gets interesting when you're looking at machine based decision making rather than our less-than-tech-savvy politicians.

As part of that, Lloyd and I are keen to run more of these conversations and sessions in London and other towns and cities in the UK and abroad if there's the interest. If you're interested in hosting and sponsoring us to do just that, please get in touch.

In the meantime, do join the session next week where we'll be having conversations about 'What do we do about the Internet of Things?' And if you're coming to Barcelona later this month for mobile shenanigans, let's have a chat at Swedish Beers.

I just liked a new telecoms related page on Facebook. It served up this choice of other suggested pages.

I'm not sure why the algorithms have suggested David Cameron as an option? Could this be a campaign to influence my political choices or is this based on that most other people who liked the page also liked David Cameron? Or is it just a random glitch?

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