Category Archives: social media

How much do your twitter follower numbers matter?

Sunil Malhotra ¬†just asked a question: To what degree is your number of followers an indication of your influence on Twitter? Asking for a friend. ūüėČ

Well, I am ahead of my deadlines today so I have time to respond and it’s a subject most of us have wondered about once in a while.

Answer: a small degree

If you have millions, like Katy Perry, with 100 million, then obviously you would have more influence than a village class pub singer. But her influence is restricted almost entirely to the sort that worship celebs. That’s a big market for sure, but I rather suspect that she doesn’t have much influence in physics circles, or philosophy, or finance, or anything other than fashion, celeb and pop culture. Celebs overestimate their political influence all the time, but recent elections and referenda have shown that they are actually mostly irrelevant.

Many twitter accounts follow huge numbers of people, because they want to get lots of followers, and many accounts automatically follow back, as if it were good manners or something. Many big number accounts that follow me unfollow a few days later because I haven’t followed them back, and other users say the same. I’d say that almost 100% of those followers and accounts are of zero relevance. Nobody can read tweets from more than a few hundred people. If I have a spare few minutes, I can only just keep up with the tweets that come in from the 440 or so that I follow, and some of those have died or must have left twitter, since I haven’t noticed anything from them for ages. Probably only 200 are active.

So if someone follows you who has 100,000 followers, and follows 100,000 people, marketers might say they are valuable because of their retweeting potential, but I’d say they are of very little value because they won’t see anything you tweet. Also, if they are trying to get all those followers, it’s because they are marketing their own material, so are unlikely to engage with yours, and are also more likely to be using social media scheduling apps to tweet regularly, so won’t even be on to see anyone’s tweets, let alone the 1 in 100,000 you wrote. So ignore the ones who follow large numbers of people.

The accounts that are most valuable are those that are very focused, such as industry sector magazines or other aggregators, because they quickly supply tweets that keep you up to date on what’s happening in your field, and that’s why most of us are on Twitter isn’t it? Most have massive numbers of followers but only follow a few accounts. Most people read magazines or papers but few write them, so that’s fair enough.

Next up are the many individuals who notice things of relevance or who say insightful or stimulating or encouraging things, people like Sunil for example. They are the other reason why we are on Twitter apart from keeping up with our sector news. Insight is valuable, stimulation and encouragement are too. Many such people have few followers. That’s not because they don’t matter, it’s because there are simply so many people out there who occasionally say something you would want to hear, but you can only follow a few hundred accounts tops, and many of those will be sector news feeds, so you can only listen to 200 others. Bear in mind that most people don’t use twitter, and most of those that do are professional people who have something worthwhile to say once in a while. Dividing the number of good personal accounts by the large numbers on twitter and multiplying by 200 means that each only gets a few followers.

Some of these people will have obviously have more influence than others. They may say more insightful or stimulating things, so they add more value, so are worth listening to. Those that talk more are heard more too, so numbers of tweets relates to numbers of followers eventually, though you can quickly lose some if you say anything controversial. That’s true in any area of life. But the differences are small. A few thousand followers is quite common, but a few hundred is far more common. There will always be people more popular, louder, more extrovert, more eloquent, more important, funnier, whateverer. That’s life.

Far more important than the number of people who follow is whether they read your tweet, think about it, are engaged by it, and maybe retweet it. Even Twitter understands that and they offer lots of advice on increasing engagement, like tweeting at weekends, including pictures, using careful wording, latching on to current trends.

So it’s quality rather than quantity that matters, as always. But another important factor is that retweeting is not a direct measure of influence. For what it’s worth Sunil, I see a lot of your tweets, and they often make me think, and you will remain one of the valuable accounts I follow for that reason. If I don’t often retweet them, it’s because I try to keep my own account on theme as much as I can, and while I find them good to read, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are best suited to a futures sector account. So it is probably true that influence rides far higher than retweets. Many people will have been made to think, but for any of many reasons, retweeting is inappropriate.

The fact is that most of us know all of these things anyway, and we just tweet our stuff when we feel like it, and if someone engages, great, and if they don’t, so what? Don’t worry about it.

https://www.fastcompany.com/3023067/10-surprising-twitter-statistics-to-help-you-reach-more-followers

OK, Sunil’s question dealt with. What about twitter’s state of health?

Twitter seems to be in a permanent state of voluntary decline. The design and values decisions the company makes often seem to be either invisible or aimed at self-destruction. The change most of us noticed and hated most was the idiotic change to the timeline, which shuffles all the tweets from the accounts you follow, to show the most relevant first apparently. In practice, since I check only now and then, it means I see many tweets several times and many presumably not at all. If I wanted to see only those accounts that Twitter thinks are most relevant, I wouldn’t be following the others, would I? If Twitter thinks it knows best what I should see, why bother letting me choose who to follow at all?

Allowing scheduled tweets has eroded its usefulness enormously. Some that I follow send the same tweets again and again, presumably using some social networking app or other. That means that you quickly get annoyed at them, though not quite enough to unfollow them, you quickly get annoyed at Twitter, though not quite enough to leave, and because their computer is attending twitter instead of them, they probably aren’t even seeing your tweets either, so you wonder whether it is worth bothering with, but not quite enough to stop. So this change alone has dragged twitter to the very edge of the usefulness cliff, and presumably many have already gone over the edge. Its profitability hangs forever in the balance because of idiotic decisions like that.

Allowing photos and auto-playing videos is two-edged. It takes longer to read, and an insightful text tweet is hidden among pages of brain-dead video repeats. On the other hand, it is nice to see the occasional cute kitten or an instantly informative picture or video clip. So I guess that one balances out a bit.

The last bunch of redesigns totally escaped my notice until they were discussed in a newspaper article, and some of the things that had changed, I had never even noticed before. This is a problem common to many industry sectors, and especially in marketing circles, not just a twitter issue. People who think of themselves as the professionals and experts are far more interested in the opinions of their peers than those of their customers. They want to show that they are in their industry elite, bang up to date with the latest fashions in the industry, but often seem to know or care little about what customers care about. So tiny changes in the shape of a bird that most users had never even noticed take on massive significance for the designers.

As for its politicization, I am very aware of it, but I don’t really care. All media seems politicized so I am well used to filtering and un-spinning.

If Twitter stop allowing social media schedulers, allow people to choose how tweets are organised, make it easier to do basic things like copying user IDs and pasting them in, then I for one would find it 10 times more useful and 10 times less annoying. Their user base would increase again, people would use it more, it would be more valuable and their financial woes would end. But they won’t, because they believe they know better, so they are doomed.

The new dark age

dark age 2017coverAs promised, here is a slide-set illustrating the previous blog, just click the link if the slides are not visible.

The new dark age

Utopia scorned: The 21st Century Dark Age

Link to accompanying slides:

https://timeguide.files.wordpress.com/2017/06/the-new-dark-age.pdf

Eating an ice-cream and watching a squirrel on the feeder in our back garden makes me realize what a privileged life I lead. I have to work to pay the bills, but my work is not what my grandfather would have thought of as work, let alone my previous ancestors. Such a life is only possible because of the combined efforts of tens of thousands of preceding generations who struggled to make the world a slightly better place than they found it, meaning that with just a few years more effort, our generation has been able to create today’s world.

I appreciate the efforts of previous generations, rejoice in the start-point they left us, and try to play my small part in making it better still for those who follow. Next generations could continue such gains indefinitely, but that is not a certainty. Any generation can choose not to for whatever reasons. Analyzing the world and the direction of cultural evolution over recent years, I am no longer sure that the progress mankind has made to date is safe.

Futurists talk of weak signals, things that indicate change, but are too weak to be conclusive. The new dark age was a weak signal when I first wrote about it well over a decade ago. My more recent blog is already old: https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2011/05/31/stone-age-culture-returning-in-the-21st-century/

Although it’s a good while since I last wrote about it, recent happenings have made me even more convinced of it. Even as raw data, connectivity and computational power becomes ever more abundant, the quality of what most people believe to be knowledge is falling, with data and facts filtered and modified to fit agendas. Social compliance enforces adherence to strict codes of political correctness, with its high priests ever more powerful as the historical proven foundations of real progress are eroded and discarded. Indoctrination appears to have replaced education, with a generation locked in to an intellectual prison, unable to dare to think outside it, forbidden to deviate from the group-think on pain of exile. As their generation take control, I fear progress won over millennia will back-slide badly. They and their children will miss out on utopia because they are unable to see it, it is hidden from them.

A potentially wonderful future awaits millennials. Superb technology could give them a near utopia, but only if they allow it to happen. They pore scorn on those who have gone before them, and reject their culture and accumulated wisdom replacing it with little more than ideology, putting theoretical models and dogma in place of reality. Castles built on sand will rarely survive. The sheer momentum of modernist thinking¬†ensures that we continue to develop for some time yet, but will gradually approach a peak. After that we will see slowdown of overall progress as scientific development continues, but with the results owned and understood by a tinier and tinier minority of humans and an increasing amount of AI, with the rest of society living in a word they barely understand, following whatever is currently the most fashionable trend on a random walk and gradually replacing modernity with a dark age world of superstition, anti-knowledge and inquisitors. As AI gradually replaces scientists and engineers in professional roles, even the elite will start to become less and less well-informed on reality or how things work, reliant on machines to keep it all going. When the machines fail due to solar flares or more likely, inter-AI tribal conflict, few people will even understand that they have become H G Wells’ Eloi. They will just wonder why things have stopped and look for someone to blame, or wonder if a god may want a sacrifice. Alternatively, future tribes might use advanced technologies they don’t understand to annihilate each other.

It will be a disappointing ending if it goes either route, especially with a wonderful future on offer nearby, if only they’d gone down a different path. Sadly, it is not only possible but increasingly likely. All the wonderful futures I and other futurists have talked about depend on the same thing, that we proceed according to modernist processes that we know work. A generation who has been taught that they are old-fashioned and rejected them will not be able to reap the rewards.

I’ll follow this blog with a slide set that illustrates the problem.

AI Activism Part 2: The libel fields

This follows directly from my previous blog on AI activism, but you can read that later if you haven’t already. Order doesn’t matter.

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2017/05/29/ai-and-activism-a-terminator-sized-threat-targeting-you-soon/

Older readers will remember an emotionally powerful 1984 film called The Killing Fields, set against the backdrop of the Khmer Rouge’s activity in Cambodia, aka the Communist Part of Kampuchea. Under Pol Pot, the Cambodian genocide of 2 to 3 million people was part of a social engineering policy of de-urbanization. People were tortured and murdered (some in the ‘killing fields’ near Phnom Penh) for having connections with former government of foreign governments, for being the wrong race, being ‘economic saboteurs’ or simply for being professionals or¬†intellectuals¬†.

You’re reading this, therefore you fit in at least the last of these groups and probably others, depending on who’s making the lists. Most people don’t read blogs but you do. Sorry, but that makes you a target.

As our social divide increases at an accelerating speed throughout the West, so the choice of weapons is moving from sticks and stones or demonstrations towards social media character assassination, boycotts and forced dismissals.

My last blog showed how various technology trends are coming together to make it easier and faster to destroy someone’s life and reputation. Some of that stuff I was writing about 20 years ago, such as virtual communities lending hardware to cyber-warfare campaigns, other bits have only really become apparent more recently, such as the deliberate use of AI to track personality traits. This is, as I wrote, a lethal combination. I left a couple of threads untied though.

Today, the big AI tools are owned by the big IT companies. They also own the big server farms on which the power to run the AI exists. The first thread I neglected to mention is that Google have made their AI an open source activity. There are lots of good things about that, but for the purposes of this blog, that means that the AI tools required for AI activism will also be largely public, and pressure groups and activist can use them as a start-point for any more advanced tools they want to make, or just use them off-the-shelf.

Secondly, it is fairly easy to link computers together to provide an aggregated computing platform. The SETI project was the first major proof of concept of that ages ago. Today, we take peer to peer networks for granted. When the activist group is ‘the liberal left’ or ‘the far right’, that adds up to a large number of machines so the power available for any campaign is notionally very large. Harnessing it doesn’t need IT skill from contributors. All they’d need to do is click a box on a email or tweet asking for their support for a campaign.

In our new ‘post-fact’, fake news era, all sides are willing and able to use social media and the infamous MSM to damage the other side. Fakes are becoming better. Latest AI can imitate your voice, a chat-bot can decide what it should say after other AI has recognized what someone has said and analysed the opportunities to ruin your relationship with them by spoofing you. Today, that might not be quite credible. Give it a couple more years and you won’t be able to tell. Next generation AI will be able to spoof your face doing the talking too.

AI can (and will) evolve. Deep learning researchers have been looking deeply at how the brain thinks, how to make neural networks learn better and to think better, how to design the next generation to be even smarter than humans could have designed it.

As my friend and robotic psychiatrist Joanne Pransky commented after my first piece, “It seems to me that the real challenge of AI is the human users, their ethics and morals (Their ‘HOS’ – Human Operating System).” Quite! Each group will indoctrinate their AI to believe their ethics and morals are right, and that the other lot are barbarians. Even evolutionary AI is not immune to religious or ideological bias as it evolves. Superhuman AI will be superhuman, but might believe even more strongly in a cause than humans do. You’d better hope the best AI is on your side.

AI can put articles, blogs and tweets out there, pretending to come from you or your friends, colleagues or contacts. They can generate plausible-sounding stories of what you’ve done or said, spoof emails in fake accounts using your ID to prove them.

So we’ll likely see activist AI armies set against each other, running on peer to peer processing clouds, encrypted to hell and back to prevent dismantling. We’ve all thought about cyber-warfare, but we usually only think about viruses or keystroke recorders, or more lately, ransom-ware. These will still be used too as small weapons in future cyber-warfare, but while losing files or a few bucks from an account is a real nuisance, losing your reputation, having it smeared all over the web, with all your contacts being told what you’ve done or said, and shown all the evidence, there is absolutely no way you could possible explain your way convincingly out of every one of those instances. Mud does stick, and if you throw tons of it, even if most is wiped off, much will remain. Trust is everything, and enough doubt cast will eventually erode it.

So, we’ve seen ¬†many times through history the damage people are willing to do to each other in pursuit of their ideology. The Khmer Rouge had their killing fields. As political divide increases and battles become fiercer, the next 10 years will give us The Libel Fields.

You are an intellectual. You are one of the targets.

Oh dear!

 

AI and activism, a Terminator-sized threat targeting you soon

You should be familiar with the Terminator scenario. If you aren’t then you should watch one of the Terminator series of films because you really should be aware of it.¬†But¬†there is another issue related to AI that is arguably as dangerous as the Terminator scenario, far more likely to occur and is¬†a threat in the near term. What’s even more dangerous is that in spite of that, I’ve never read anything about it anywhere yet. It seems to have flown under our collective radar and is already close.

In short, my concern is that AI is likely to become a heavily armed Big Brother. It only requires a few components to come together that are already well in progress. Read this, and if you aren’t scared yet, read it again until you understand it ūüôā

Already, social media companies are experimenting with¬†using AI to identify and delete ‘hate’ speech. Various governments have asked them to do this, and since they also get frequent criticism in the media because some hate speech still exists on their platforms, it seems quite reasonable for them to try to control it. AI clearly offers potential to offset the huge numbers of humans otherwise needed to do the task.

Meanwhile, AI is already used very extensively by the same companies to build personal profiles on each of us, mainly for advertising purposes. These profiles are already alarmingly comprehensive, and increasingly capable of cross-linking between our activities across multiple platforms and devices. Latest efforts by Google attempt to link eventual purchases to clicks on ads. It will be just as easy to use similar AI to link our physical movements and activities and future social connections and communications to all such previous real world or networked activity. (Update: Intel intend their self-driving car technology to be part of a mass surveillance net, again, for all the right reasons: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-4564480/Self-driving-cars-double-security-cameras.html)

Although necessarily secretive about their activities, government also wants personal profiles on its citizens, always justified by crime and terrorism control. If they can’t do this directly, they can do it via legislation and acquisition of social media or ISP data.

Meanwhile, other experiences with AI chat-bots learning to mimic human behaviors have shown how easily AI can be gamed by human activists, hijacking or biasing learning phases for their own agendas. Chat-bots themselves have become ubiquitous on social media and are often difficult to distinguish from humans. Meanwhile, social media is becoming more and more important throughout everyday life, with provably large impacts in political campaigning and throughout all sorts of activism.

Meanwhile, some companies have already started using social media monitoring to police their own staff, in recruitment, during employment, and sometimes in dismissal or other disciplinary action. Other companies have similarly started monitoring social media activity of people making comments about them or their staff. Some claim to do so only to protect their own staff from online abuse, but there are blurred boundaries between abuse, fair criticism, political difference or simple everyday opinion or banter.

Meanwhile, activists increasingly use social media to force companies to sack a member of staff they disapprove of, or drop a client or supplier.

Meanwhile, end to end encryption technology is ubiquitous. Malware creation tools are easily available.

Meanwhile, successful hacks into large company databases become more and more common.

Linking these various elements of progress together, how long will it be before activists are able to develop standalone AI entities and heavily encrypt them before letting them loose on the net? Not long at all I think. ¬†These AIs would search and police social media, spotting people who conflict with the activist agenda. Occasional hacks of corporate databases will provide names, personal details, contacts. Even without hacks, analysis of publicly available data going back years of everyone’s tweets and other social media entries will provide the lists of people who have ever done or said anything the activists disapprove of.

When identified, they would automatically activate armies of chat-bots, fake news engines and automated email campaigns against them, with coordinated malware attacks directly on the person and indirect attacks by communicating with employers, friends, contacts, government agencies customers and suppliers to do as much damage as possible to the interests of that person.

Just look at the everyday news already about alleged hacks and activities during elections and referendums by other regimes, hackers or pressure groups. Scale that up and realize that the cost of running advanced AI is negligible.

With the very many activist groups around, many driven with extremist zeal, very many people will find themselves in the sights of one or more activist groups. AI will be able to monitor everyone, all the time.  AI will be able to target each of them at the same time to destroy each of their lives, anonymously, highly encrypted, hidden, roaming from server to server to avoid detection and annihilation, once released, impossible to retrieve. The ultimate activist weapon, that carries on the fight even if the activist is locked away.

We know for certain the depths and extent of activism, the huge polarization of society, the increasingly fierce conflict between left and right, between sexes, races, ideologies.

We know about all the nice things AI will give us with cures for cancer, better search engines, automation and economic boom. But actually, will the real future of AI be harnessed to activism? Will deliberate destruction of people’s everyday lives via AI be a real problem that is almost as dangerous as Terminator, but far more feasible and achievable far earlier?

Google v Facebook – which contributes most to humanity?

Please don’t take this too seriously, it’s intended as just a bit of fun. All of it is subjective and just my personal opinion of the two companies.

Google’s old motto of ‘do no evil’ has taken quite a battering over the last few years, but my overall feeling towards them remains somewhat positive overall. Facebook’s reputation has also become muddied somewhat, but I’ve never been an active user and always found it supremely irritating when I’ve visited to change privacy preferences or read a post only available there, so I guess I am less positive towards them. I only ever post to Facebook indirectly via this blog and twitter. On the other hand, both companies do a lot of good too. It is impossible to infer good or bad intent because end results arise from a combination of intent and many facets of competence such as quality of insight, planning, competence, maintenance, response to feedback and many others. So I won’t try to differentiate intent from competence and will just stick to casual amateur observation of the result.¬†In order to facilitate score-keeping of the value of their various acts, I’ll use a scale from very¬†harmful¬†to very beneficial, -10 to +10.

Google (I can’t bring myself to discuss Alphabet) gave us all an enormous gift of saved time, improved productivity and better self-fulfilment¬†by effectively replacing a day in the library with a 5 second online search. We can all do far more and live richer lives as a result. They have continued to build on that since, adding extra features and improved scope. It’s far from perfect, but it is a hell of a lot better than we had before. Score: +10

Searches give Google a huge and growing data pool covering the most intimate details of every aspect of our everyday lives. You sort of trust them not to blackmail you or trash your life, but you know they could. The fact remains that they actually haven’t. It is possible that they might be waiting for the right moment to destroy the world, but it seems unlikely. Taking all our intimate data but choosing not to end the world yet: Score +9

On the other hand, they didn’t do either of those things purely through altruism. We all pay a massive price: advertising. Advertising is like a tax. Almost every time you buy something, part of the price you pay goes to advertisers. I say almost because Futurizon has never paid a penny yet for advertising and yet we have sold lots, and I assume that many other organisations can say the same, but most do advertise, and altogether that siphons a huge amount from our economy. Google takes lots of advertising revenue, but if they didn’t take it, other advertisers would, so I can only give a smallish negative for that: Score -3

That isn’t the only cost though. We all spend very significant time getting rid of ads, wasting time by clicking on them, finding, downloading and configuring ad-blockers to stop them, re-configuring them to get entry to sites that try to stop us from using ad-blockers, and often paying per MB for unsolicited ad downloads to our mobiles. I don’t need to quantify that to give all that a score of -9.

They are still 7 in credit so they can’t moan too much.

Tax? They seem quite good at minimizing their tax contributions, while staying within the letter of the law, while also¬†paying good lawyers to argue what the letter of the law actually says. Well, most of us¬†try at least a bit to avoid paying taxes we don’t have to pay. Google claims to be doing us all a huge favor by casting light on the gaping holes in international tax law that let them do it, much like a mugger nicely shows you the consequences of inadequate police coverage by enthusiastically mugging you. Noting the huge economic problems caused across the world by global corporates paying far¬†less¬†tax than would seem reasonable to the average small-business-owner, I can’t honestly see how this could live comfortably with their do-no evil mantra. Score: -8

On the other hand, if they paid all that tax, we all know governments would cheerfully waste most of it. Instead, Google chooses to do some interesting things with it. They gave us Google Earth, which at least morally cancels out their ‘accidental’ uploading of everyone’s wireless data as their street-view cars went past.They have developed self-driving cars. They have bought and helped develop Deep-mind and their quantum computer. They have done quite a bit for renewable energy. They have spent some on high altitude communications planes supposedly to bring internet to the rural parts of the developing world.¬†When I were a lad, I wanted to be a rich bastard so I could do all that. Now, I watch as the wealthy owners of these big companies do it instead. I am fairly happy with that. I get the results and didn’t have to make the effort. We get less tax, but at least we get some nice toys. Almost cancels. Score +6

They are trying to use their AI to analyse massive data pools of medical records to improve medicine. Score +2

They are also building their databases more while doing that but we don’t yet see the downside. We have to take what they are doing on trust until evidence shows otherwise.

Google has tried and failed at¬†many things that were going to change the world and didn’t, but at least they tried. Most of us don’t even try. Score +2

Oh yes, they bought YouTube, so I should factor that in. Mostly harmless and can be fun. Score: +2

Almost forgot Gmail too. Score +3

I’m done. Total Google contribution to humanity: +14

Well done! Could do even better.

I’ve almost certainly overlooked some big pluses and minuses, but I’ll leave it here for now.

Now Facebook.

It’s obviously a good social network site if you want that sort of thing. It lets people keep in touch with each other, find old friends and make new ones. It lets others advertise their products and services, and others to find or spread news. That’s all well and good and even if I and many other people don’t want it, many others do, so it deserves a good score, even if it isn’t as fantastic as Google’s search, that almost everyone uses, all the time. Score +5

Connected, but separate from simply keeping in touch, is the enormous pleasure value people presumably get from socializing. Not me personally, but ‘people’. Score +8

On the downside: Quite a lot of problems result from people, especially teens, spending too much time on Facebook. I won’t reproduce the results of all the proper academic ¬†studies here, but we’ve all seen various negative reports: people get lower grades in their exams, people get bullied, people become socially competitive – boasting about their successes while other people feel insecure or depressed when others seem to be doing better, or are prettier, or have more friends. Keeping in touch is good, but cutting bits off¬†others’ egos to build your own isn’t.¬†It is hard not to conclude that the negative uses of keeping in touch outweigh the positive ones. Long-lived bad-feelings outweigh short-lived ego-boosts. Score: -8

Within a few years of birth, Facebook evolved from a keeping-in-touch platform to a general purpose mini-web. Many people were using Facebook to do almost everything that others would do on the entire web. Being in a broom cupboard is fine for 5 minutes if you’re playing hide and seek, but it is not desirable as a permanent state.¬†Still, it is optional, so isn’t that bad per se: Score: -3

In the last 2 or 3 years, it has evolved further, albeit probably unintentionally, to become a political bubble, as has become very obvious in¬†Brexit and the US Presidential Election, though it was already apparent well before those. Facebook may not have caused the increasing divide we are seeing between left and right, across the whole of the West, but it amplifies it. Again, I am not implying any intent, just observing the result. Most people follow people and media that echoes their own value judgments. They prefer resonance to dissonance. They prefer to have their views reaffirmed than to be disputed. When people find a comfortable bubble where they feel they belong, and stay there, it is easy for tribalism to take root and flourish, with demonization of the other not far behind. We are now seeing that in our bathtub society, with two extremes and a rapidly shallowing in-between that was not long ago the vast majority. Facebook didn’t create human nature; rather, it is a victim of it, but nonetheless it provides a near-monopoly social network that facilitates such political bubbles and their isolation while doing far¬†too little to encourage integration in spite of its plentiful resources. Dangerous and Not Good. Score -10

On building databases of details of our innermost lives, managing not to use the data to destroy our lives but instead only using it to sell ads, they compare with Google. I’ll score that the same total for the same reasons: Net Score -3

Tax? Quantities are different, but eagerness to avoid tax seems similar to Google. Principles matter. So same score: -8

Assorted messaging qualifies as additional to the pure social networking side I think so I’ll generously give them an extra bit for that: Score +2

They occasionally do good things with it like Google though. They also are developing a high altitude internet, and are playing with space exploration. Tiny bit of AI stuff, but not much else has crossed my consciousness. I think it is far less than Google but still positive, so I’ll score: +3

I honestly can’t think of any other significant contributions from Facebook to make the balance more positive, and I tried. I think they want to make a positive contribution, but are too focused on income to tackle the social negatives properly.

Total Facebook contribution to humanity: -14.

Oh dear! Must do better.

Conclusion: We’d be a lot worse off without Google. Even with their faults, they still make a great contribution to humankind. Maybe not quite a ‘do no evil’ rating, but certainly they qualify for ‘do net good’. On the other hand, sadly, I have to say that my analysis suggests we’d be a lot better off without Facebook. As much better off without them as we benefit by having Google.

If I have left something major out, good or bad, for either company please feel free to add your comments. I have deliberately left out their backing of their own political leanings and biases because whether you think they are good or bad depends where you are coming from. They’d only score about +/-3 anyway, which isn’t a game changer.

 

 

Future sex, gender and relationships: how close can you get?

Using robots for gender play

Using robots for gender play

I recently gave a public talk at the British Academy about future sex, gender, and relationship, asking the question “How close can you get?”, considering particularly the impact of robots. The above slide is an example. People will one day (between 2050 and 2065 depending on their budget) be able to use an android body as their own or even¬†swap bodies with another person. Some will do so to be young again, many will do so to swap gender. Lots will do both. I often enjoy playing as a woman in computer games, so why not ‘come back’ and live all over again as a woman for real? Except I’ll be 90 in 2050.

The British Academy kindly uploaded the audio track from my talk at

If you want to see the full presentation, here is the PowerPoint file as a pdf:

sex-and-robots-british-academy

I guess it is theoretically possible to listen to the audio while reading the presentation. Most of the slides are fairly self-explanatory anyway.

Needless to say, the copyright of the presentation belongs to me, so please don’t reproduce it without permission.

Enjoy.

Chat-bots will help reduce loneliness, a bit

Amazon is really pushing its Echo and Dot devices at the moment and some other companies also use Alexa in their own devices. They are starting to gain avatar front ends too. Microsoft has their Cortana transforming into Zo, Apple has Siri’s future under wraps for now. Maybe we’ll see Siri in a Sari soon, who knows. Thanks to rapidly developing AI, chatbots and other bots have also made big strides in recent years, so it’s obvious that the two can easily be combined. The new voice control interfaces could become chatbots to offer a degree of companionship. Obviously that isn’t as good as chatting to real people, but many, very many people don’t have that choice. Loneliness is one of the biggest problems of our time. Sometimes people talk to themselves or to their pet cat, and chatting to a bot would at least get a real response some of the time. It goes further than simple interaction though.

I’m not trying to understate the magnitude of the loneliness problem, and it can’t solve it completely of course, but I think it will be a benefit to at least some lonely people in a few ways. Simply having someone to chat to will already be of some help. People will form emotional relationships with bots that they talk to a lot, especially once they have a visual front end such as an avatar. It will help some to develop and practice social skills if that is their problem, and for many others who feel left out of local activity, it might offer them real-time advice on what is on locally in the next few days that might appeal to them, based on their conversations. Talking through problems with a bot can also help almost as much as doing so with a human. In ancient times when I was a programmer, I’d often solve a bug by trying to explain how my program worked, and in doing so i would see the bug myself. Explaining it to a teddy bear would have been just as effective, the chat was just a vehicle for checking through the logic from a new angle. The same might apply to interactive conversation with a bot. Sometimes lonely people can talk too much about problems when they finally meet people, and that can act as a deterrent to future encounters, so that barrier would also be reduced. All in all, having a bot might make lonely people more able to get and sustain good quality social interactions with real people, and make friends.

Another benefit that has nothing to do with loneliness is that giving a computer voice instructions forces people to think clearly and phrase their requests correctly, just like writing a short computer program. In a society where so many people don’t seem to think very clearly or even if they can, often can’t express what they want clearly, this will give some much needed training.

Chatbots could also offer challenges to people’s thinking, even to help counter extremism. If people make comments that go against acceptable social attitudes or against known facts, a bot could present the alternative viewpoint, probably more patiently than another human who finds such viewpoints frustrating. I’d hate to see this as a means to police¬†political correctness, though it might well be used in such a way by some providers, but it could improve people’s lack of understanding of even the most basic science, technology, culture or even politics, so has educational value. Even if it doesn’t convert people, it might at least help them to understand their own views more clearly and be better practiced at communicating their arguments.

Chat bots could make a significant contribution to society. They are just machines, but those machines are tools for other people and society as a whole to help more effectively.

 

AI presents a new route to attack corporate value

As AI increases in corporate, social, economic and political importance, it is becoming a big target for activists and I think there are too many vulnerabilities. I think we should be seeing a lot more articles than we are about what developers are doing to guard against deliberate misdirection or corruption, and already far too much enthusiasm for make AI open source and thereby giving mischief-makers the means to identify weaknesses.

I’ve written hundreds of times about AI and believe it will be a benefit to humanity if we develop it carefully. Current AI systems are not vulnerable to the terminator scenario, so we don’t have to worry about that happening yet. AI can’t yet go rogue and decide to wipe out humans by itself, though future AI could so¬†we’ll soon need to take care with every step.

AI can be used in multiple ways by humans to attack systems.

First and most obvious, it can be used to enhance malware such as¬†trojans or viruses, or to optimize denial of service attacks. AI enhanced security systems already battle against adaptive malware and AI can probe systems in complex ways to find vulnerabilities that would take longer to discover via manual inspection. As well as AI attacking operating systems, it can also attack AI by providing inputs that bias its learning and decision-making, giving AI ‘fake news’ to use current terminology. We don’t know the full extent of secret military AI.

Computer malware will grow in scope to address AI systems to undermine corporate value or political campaigns.

A new route to attacking corporate AI, and hence the value in that company that relates in some way to it is already starting to appear though. As companies such as Google try out AI-driven cars or others try out pavement/sidewalk delivery drones, so mischievous people are already developing devious ways to misdirect or confuse them. Kids will soon have such activity as hobbies. Deliberate deception of AI is much easier when people know how they work, and although it’s nice for AI companies to put their AI stuff out there into the open source markets for others to use to build theirs, that does rather steer future systems towards a mono-culture of vulnerability types. A trick that works against one future AI in one industry might well be adaptable to another use in another industry with a little devious imagination. Let’s take an example.

If someone builds a robot to deliberately step in front of a self-driving car every time it starts moving again, that might bring traffic to a halt, but police could quickly confiscate the robot, and they are expensive, a strong deterrent even if the pranksters are hiding and can’t be found. Cardboard cutouts might be cheaper though, even ones with hinged arms to look a little more lifelike. A social media orchestrated campaign against a company using such cars might involve thousands of people across a country or city deliberately waiting until the worst time to step out into a road when one of their vehicles comes along, thereby creating a sort of denial of service attack with that company seen as the cause of massive inconvenience for everyone. Corporate value would obviously suffer, and it might not always be very easy to circumvent such campaigns.

Similarly, the wheeled delivery drones we’ve been told to expect delivering packages any time soon will also have cameras to allow them to avoid bumping into objects or little old ladies or other people, or cats or dogs or cardboard cutouts or carefully crafted miniature tank traps or diversions or small roadblocks that people and pets can easily step over but drones can’t, that the local kids have built from a few twigs or cardboard from a design that has become viral that day. A few campaigns like that with the cold pizzas or missing packages that result could severely damage corporate value.

AI behind websites might also be similarly defeated. An early experiment in making a Twitter chat-bot that learns how to tweet by itself was quickly encouraged by mischief-makers to start tweeting offensively. If people have some idea how an AI is making its decisions, they will attempt to corrupt or distort it to their own ends. If it is heavily reliant on¬†open source AI, then many of its decision processes will be known well enough for activists to develop appropriate corruption tactics. It’s not to early to predict that the proposed AI-based attempts by Facebook and Twitter to identify and defeat ‘fake news’ will fall right into the hands of people already working out how to use them to smear opposition campaigns with such labels.

It will be a sort of arms race of course, but I don’t think we’re seeing enough about this in the media. There is a great deal of hype about the various AI capabilities, a lot of doom-mongering about job cuts (and a lot of reasonable warnings about job cuts too) but very little about the fight back against AI systems by attacking them on their own ground using their own weaknesses.

That looks to me awfully like there isn’t enough awareness of how easily they can be defeated by deliberate mischief or activism, and I expect to see some red faces and corporate account damage as a result.

PS

This article appeared yesterday that also talks about the bias I mentioned: https://techcrunch.com/2016/12/10/5-unexpected-sources-of-bias-in-artificial-intelligence/

Since I wrote this blog, I was asked via Linked-In to clarify why I said that Open Source AI systems would have more security risk. Here is my response:

I wasn’t intending to heap fuel on a dying debate (though since current debate looks the same as in early 1990s it is dying slowly). I like and use open source too. I should have explained my reasoning better to facilitate open source checking: In regular (algorithmic) code, programming error rate should be similar so increasing the number of people checking should cancel out the risk from more contributors so there should be no a priori difference between open and closed. However:

In deep learning, obscurity reappears via neural net weightings being less intuitive to humans. That provides a tempting hiding place.

AI foundations are vulnerable to group-think, where team members share similar world models. These prejudices will affect the nature of OS and CS code and result in AI with inherent and subtle judgment biases which will be less easy to spot than bugs and be more visible to people with alternative world models. Those people are more likely to exist in an OS pool than a CS pool and more likely to be opponents so not share their results.

Deep learning may show the equivalent of political (or masculine and feminine). As well as encouraging group-think, that also distorts the distribution of biases and therefore the cancelling out of errors can no longer be assumed.

Human factors in defeating security often work better than exploiting software bugs. Some of the deep learning AI is designed to mimic humans as well as possible in thinking and in interfacing. I suspect that might also make them more vulnerable to meta-human-factor attacks. Again, exposure to different and diverse cultures will show a non-uniform distribution of error/bias spotting/disclosure/exploitation.

Deep learning will become harder for humans to understand as it develops and becomes more machine dependent. That will amplify the above weaknesses. Think of optical illusions that greatly distort human perception and think of similar in advanced AI deep learning. Errors or biases that are discovered will become more valuable to an opponent since they are less likely to be spotted by others, increasing their black market exploitation risk.

I have not been a programmer for over 20 years and am no security expert so my reasoning may be defective, but at least now you know what my reasoning was and can therefore spot errors in it.

The future of loneliness

This is primarily about a UK problem, and I honestly don’t know how much US society suffers from it, but I suspect at least some of it holds true in many areas there too.

I’m fortunate that it doesn’t affect me directly, since my wife is all the company I need to be happy, but loneliness is arguably the biggest problem in modern UK society, certainly one of the biggest. Young people feel lonely, old people feel lonely, new mothers feel lonely, students feel lonely. Many others too. It affects a lot of people.

The British Red Cross in conjunction with The Co-op today released a new report on it saying chronic loneliness is becoming a public health issue: https://www.politicshome.com/news/uk/health-and-care/opinion/british-red-cross/81457/chronic-loneliness-has-become-public-health

&

http://www.redcross.org.uk/What-we-do/Health-and-social-care/Independent-living/Loneliness-and-isolation/Research saying 9 million people in the UK are always or often lonely

Older people are the most obvious group affected.

Some reports say loneliness increases chance of death by 25%: http://www.campaigntoendloneliness.org/loneliness-research/

Another recent report from Age UK already includes some alarming figures for older people. Taking just two examples (read it for far more) 1 in 8 over-65s chronically lonely, and nearly 1 in 14 having no close friends at all:  www.ageuk.org.uk/Documents/EN-GB/Factsheets/Later_Life_UK_factsheet.pdf

Although older people are the main problem group for loneliness, it can affect anyone, with a few other highlight groups. Each year, 1 in 4000 men between 45-59 commit suicide, 5 times as high as the average rate for female suicide.

New mothers can often feel lonely. The good news (according to netmums) is that thanks to smartphone use, the number is down from 60% a decade ago to 28% today, but that still means more than a quarter of new mums feel lonely even today. I’d also note that between 2006 and today, the netmums user base has changed a great deal, so much of that drop may well be attributable to the high proportion of new mums drawn from¬†immigrant communities, which often have different social support characteristics than the rest of the population, so the figures might not be quite so bright for non-immigrant mums.

Students too experience moving away from an established family and friends support base to a totally new environment where often they might not know anyone at first. Not everyone is expert at making new friends quickly, so many students feel lonely too. Student suicides are at an all time high as students are ‘fraught with loneliness and anxiety’ according to Professor Siobhan O’Neill:

http://www.independent.co.uk/student/student-life/health/student-suicides-loneliness-depression-anxiety-stress-mental-health-services-a7092911.html

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/wellbeing/mood-and-mind/not-just-a-problem-for-old-people-why-the-young-are-lonely-too/ discusses ‘the 7 ages on loneliness

The sick, the newly divorced, unhappy singles and recent retirees are other groups particularly vulnerable to loneliness. But enough figures and reports, with so much recent press and public discussion about it, we can’t claim that it is a new or unknown problem, but in spite of a few positives such as from netmums, we can be sure it still remains¬†a huge and persistent problem. The organisations named above are doing their bit to help, as are many others, and still it persists.

It would be lovely to believe that improving social networking will solve it all, but it clearly hasn’t even though we could reasonably say that people are mostly familiar with it, mostly know how to use it and it is pretty mature now. As I mentioned, even the netmums good news could in part be the result of changing demographics rather than the problem actually being solved. Only in part though, as I do believe the net does have a positive impact and does let people find new friends and chat to others even when they can’t get out. It must have some benefit, but the figures still say that its impact is at best only a reduction rather than elimination.

There are other net trends that might make it worse though. One is the increasing division we have in society, and another is the increasing censorship under threat of social and economic exclusion if people say something politically incorrect. This is creating barriers between people, not drawing them together, as I wrote in: https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2015/01/27/increasing-censorship-will-lead-to-increasing-loneliness/. Social networking brings people into more frequent contact with strangers, but the separation and anonymity often involved in that also brings out the worst in some people, and social media have become ideological battlegrounds that so often quickly polarise into group-think camps, increasing isolation rather than reducing it.

More evidence that the net doesn’t solve everything is that¬†the Kindr app that was aimed specifically at helping people to be nice to each other seems to have disappeared or at least become inert after a short life, whereas I had hoped it might bring a part solution to helping people who rarely get affection or praise from others: https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2014/06/30/compliments/

Networking clearly helps some people some of the time, but not for everyone all of the time, and in some cases makes things worse.

Automation of shopping and increased competition from the net forces lower prices but sometimes at the expense of human interaction, and for some people, a brief exchange with a checkout assistant is the only contact they get. If we see more automation of shops with more self service tills, that will directly increase loneliness.

The solution is clearly to restore at least some of the real face to face social contact that has become depleted for many in our modern society. Face to face meeting is emotionally more valuable than net contact, and though nets can put people in touch with others or let them know what is going on, it can’t directly provide that contact. People who go to work every day or have busy social lives may not see a problem or if they do, they may feel they have too little time left in their busy lives to spend providing company to someone else.

We have lost a lot of activity that used to provide rich social contact. Many work from home instead of going to an office. Church attendance has dropped enormously, along with the social gatherings, choir practices, old people dinners and barn dances they used to organise. Communities don’t have to get together to help a farmer bring in the harvest. People with cars walk less, have more geographically distributed friends and meet fewer of their neighbours.

Many activists today seem rather obsessed with tolerance, albeit in an Orwellian doublespeak sort of way. Perhaps they should be obsessed about caring for others instead of polishing their halos on twitter. If they are eager to solve a problem to make themselves feel virtuous, this one is¬†screaming for help. The rest of us need to be more willing to do our part too. It is easy to focus on our own lives and our own needs. Many of us are content with the friends we have and maybe we are not aware of anyone who is lonely, or admitting to it. I don’t even know the names of some of the people in my street, let alone whether they are lonely. If I did know of someone nearby who I thought was feeling left out, I think I’d be happy to¬†meet¬†them for coffee or a chat sometimes. But I don’t, and I don’t make any effort to find them either. So the problem remains, and I have done nothing to help. There must be millions like me, caring in a distant luke-warm sort of way about a theoretical part of society that I have no contact with. Except that it isn’t theoretical, it is a massive diverse chunk of society that feels left out. Hiding unknown, God knows where, apparently almost everywhere.

Maybe most of us we do care and would do more if we knew what, where, when, and how we could help and if it wasn’t too much hassle or too time consuming. Obviously, those last requirements depend on whether we know the person, so it’s clear that we’ve been running in a vicious cycle of lower contact and therefore caring less. By meeting people more, we’ll get to know them better and care for them more, though I can think of exceptions. I used to be involved in The Samaritans, on a phone line or fundraising to keep the lines open. I stopped doing that a long time ago as work got too busy;¬†we often use that excuse not to get involved. ¬†If I think about starting again, I immediately think of the traffic problems getting there, parking issues and so on.¬†I am sure many other people might do more if someone else organised it and it was less hassle. Surely, that’s what activists are for. They organise stuff, motivate people, give them a kick up the pants and tell them to get on with it. With all the social networking and AI out there, this really should be solvable.

Now that we have the prospect of AI and automation promising to improve productivity and everyone is worried about jobs, government should work out how to maintain fair distribution of wealth as machines take over, while taking the windfall of collective spare work force hours to recover some of what we have paid for the rapid economic development to get to this point.

The existence of all these charities and organisations yelling loudly about the problem shows absolutely that a lot of people do care and want to do something about it. If time is the problem, we will soon have more time, collectively at least, and more wealth as the productivity gains hit the economy, so more money to pay for it. That will allow activists and social entrepreneurs and councils to work together to provide human resources to find those who want help, transport to get them to social gatherings of whatever kind is suited to them, and to fund those activities and the places they need. The net may not be intuitive or easy for everyone to use, but plenty of people can work it, and providing access to willing helpers will help many people to find what’s on, who might be there that they are likely to enjoy meeting and making it happen.

Red tape barriers need to be wiped away too. The compensation and box-ticking culture has done huge harm. Lots of village fetes, dances and so on no longer happen  because they mean someone now has to apply for assorted licenses, do risk assessments, buy insurances and jump through endless administrative hoops. Why would anyone want to do that? Once upon a time you rang up the hall administrator, booked it, booked a band, then sold tickets. If someone tripped and sprained an ankle, they should have watched where they were going.

The virtuous circle of increasing contact and caring will¬†work, if we can get it going again. People do care more about people they know than someone who is just a statistic. If people with a small level of even theoretical caring for such a large social need can be dragged or otherwise motivated to join in with social activity in their area that someone else has organised, before long, people will have more friends in that area, and they’ll be happy to work together to organise more events and involve more people. Soon, we’ll be back to a proper working society again.

We have the technology. Soon we will have the time and resources to make it happen, to start a virtuous circle to rebuild missing connection in society that leave so many people out, and fix some of the other social problems we created along the way to today’s UK.