When we think of the impact of AI (artificial intelligence) we know the 21st century is the advent of surveillance capitalism. We know China will be the leader in this as the heir apparent of what Silicon Valley companies like Google and Facebook have created.
I’ve been writing about this for the last 5 years with thousands of articles on Medium which, ironically, are now banned. The new Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma gets into some of the details of why algorithms have created a social infrastructure that has changed humanity for the worse.
With massive social inequality the algorithms are sowing a potential end to democracies around the world. It’s not that we are just the product on social media. It’s that behavior modification at scale is now possible and has been occurring in an organized way — with massive profiling and sociological abuses of weak AI — on such ecosystems as Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, Instagram and many others.
We also know that social media addiction is making GenZ far weaker in terms of mental health and social skills than they should be because the mobile phone has replaced a lot of that in-person interaction. This documentary from Jeff Orlowski explores how addiction and privacy breaches are designed features, not bugs, of social media platforms.
But ultimately it’s also about the role of AI and the lack of regulation. Now it appears ByteDance won’t sell TikTok to a U.S. company, since China knows it has too many AI secrets.
“The Social Dilemma,” streaming on Netflix, looks at the myriad ways our minds are twisted and twirled by social media platforms. But the documentary is also careful to point out the behavior modification at scale that has occurred and how it has been detrimental to human society, democracy, the media, conspiracy theories, two-party state ideological divisions and social unrest.
With Covid-19 likely a manufactured event, the social unrest in the U.S. and in other parts of the world is also likely a product of human engineering in sociological terms by AI.
We think of algos as weak AI that’s not a real form of intelligence. But if even weak algos can create systems of addiction, influence, “rabbit holes” of brain modification, opinion molding and subconscious trigger associations, social media is perhaps more nefarious than we once imagined.
Those who grew up with it have shown an increase in self-harm, suicide, mental health issues, anxiety and self-reports of loneliness. GenZ has been basically the subjects of an experiment in mobile and social media addiction.
A few engineers and profiteers in Silicon Valley created the most efficient means of human influence yet invented, a terrible story of centralization and the abuse of technology. AI is front and center in the debate, but few even realize it.
Surveillance capitalism breeds data harvesting, the profiling of people and how best to influence them at scale, where influence due to the advertising business model is for sale. Behavior modification on an engineered social scale goes to the highest bidder in an auction of human manipulation which humanity has never seen before. All thanks to AI.
With China taking the role of bully and coercive rising superpower we know in their hands this technology will be abused and go far beyond the danger of censorship. The Social Dilemma only touches the surface of how this tech will evolve as social influence is engineered through our mobile behavior.
When profit leads to human manipulation at scale, we haven’t seen a rise just in human manipulation, but also in the breakdown of social cohesion, in an era where regulation of AI is non-existent. China with its censorship is likely ahead of the West in even that.
The social unrest of 2020 has taught us that Facebook Group recommendation can exploit our vulnerabilities and change our values, opinions and behavior at scale. We’ve seen this with WhatsApp in many countries like India and Brazil. We have seen this for years on YouTube, especially with children’s content. Silicon Valley has built a mechanism of AI that, by serving goals of profit, undermines our humanity.
The Social Dilemma is a bit Black Mirror. You can watch it here.
When the West realizes the dangers of surveillance capitalism, it’s already too late. China will in 2021 wield it better and with more efficacy than Silicon Valley did. This is what has led to companies like ByteDance, Tencent and Ant Group, and we are only yet in the infancy of the age of surveillance capitalism. This means AI’s ability to manipulate human behavior will only vastly increase as we have all been modeled by predictive analytics.
When humans invent a new tool, it’s a grave danger. Some have compared AI to the invention of fire as a breakthrough moment. Nobody will force China to regulate AI. As they will become the commercial leaders of AI’s evolution, they will decide how it will be regulated. Silicon Valley failed to regulate itself and the U.S. Government failed to regulate companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon and Microsoft. And that could well lead to a form of AI that will threaten humanity further.
The prediction of our behavior can be used against us, and not just for advertising dollars. The behavior modification at scale of large groups of similar people with shared vulnerability means AI will win against people. The manipulation of human behavior for profit is coded into these companies with Machiavellian precision.
AI is self-learning, with our AI engineers unable to understand exactly how it improves or why it does what it does, even on these weaponized social platforms like Facebook or TikTok.
Since the goals of the AI are engagement, triggering actions on our part on mobile devices, creating auctions for squeezing revenue out of attention, people don’t really matter and the products of these networks are not human beings like former generations. Thousands of hours addicted to Instagram, Twitter or any other network does change you in ways you may not even notice. Technological digital dopamine addiction is real.
As former employees of big tech companies who nurtured this Frankenstein’s monster, the authors of The Social Dilemma try to give a coherent picture of how we are all reverse-engineered as habitual creatures. But how deep does the manipulation go when these platforms can be weaponized by foreign states, the financial elite and other parties? Nobody truly knows but it’s becoming clear the end game could be highly nefarious.
“Never before in history have 50 designers made decisions that would have an impact on two billion people,” says Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google. “It’s ironic to me that many of the people who founded surveillance capitalism 10 or 15 years later regret what it has become.”
But the documentary fails to broach the main danger: how China will leverage surveillance capitalism not just for economic control but for political, ideological and behavior modification at scale. This is how AI is going to be weaponized in the future.
The digital advertising business model is elegant in its profit margins, but what about the dangers to humanity of the AI it has spawned? The potential for abuse far outweighs the benefits. The algorithm is not objective. Its end game has always been to manipulate us to act in specific desired ways. If you are addicted to your mobile device while you read this, know that you have already lost.