The FBI agent behind your screen

Original article was published by Claude Kiseke on Artificial Intelligence on Medium

The FBI agent behind your screen

Tech giants are using your data and likeness to keep you scrolling – should we be concerned?

Modern technology has birthed some of the highest paying jobs, allowed friends and family to stay connected, and even meant we were able to continue working from home during the COVID-19 lockdown period. Smartphones and laptops have truly changed the way we live. For example, you can find and book a movie listing at your nearest cinema online, share the details with your friends, arrange a car to pick you up and drop you to your destination, right before you order your large popcorn and slushie, without ever reaching for your wallet.

Tech giants such as Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Instagram work endlessly to create user experiences that keep us scrolling by using Artificial Intelligence. AI, in a nutshell, is a smart machine that can be taught to act like humans. We can teach them to see, hear, speak, move, and write. You use AI every day, no matter where you work or what you do, whether it’s real-time navigation, autocorrecting your spelling mistakes, or paying via contactless payment methods.

Many of AI’s most impressive capabilities are powered by machine learning, which allows AI systems to make accurate predictions based on large sets of data. This means the machines can learn more about the data (ie. your activities, and online and offline behaviours) and improve the accuracy of their predictions over time. They can then be trained to leverage your behaviours, preferences, beliefs, and interests to personalise experiences.

They know where you’ve been, where you’re planning on going, what you’ve asked your voice assistants, who you’re attracted to, what groups you belong to, what stores you shop at, what you’re most likely to respond to a message, and so much more.

This advanced machine learning makes everyday tasks like shopping and admin so much more convenient for us, keeping us on our phones for longer. Social media platforms know this, and as they make money from advertisers and not the users, they are eager to take advantage of machine learning to get the most leads for advertisers as possible.

After following a friend on Instagram, you‘ll notice a list of suggested accounts to follow. Recommendation engines utilise machine learning to filter information based on a user’s preferences. When you engage with other social media accounts and their posts, the recommendation engine learns from your activity, and interprets patterns in your behaviour to predict a list of new accounts you could potentially interact with. The more accounts you interact with, the more it learns about you and what you like, allowing it to send more suitable sponsored posts for you to click on.

It’s not a coincidence that when watching YouTube videos, you can suddenly find yourself watching more and more videos for the next two hours. In addition to building connections and networking, recommendation engines collect data on the content you engage with, and then they display the material that they anticipate you will enjoy. Even when you go to watch a YouTube video relating to work, notice how your recommenced videos will still contain the same content as the ASMR videos you keep liking and commenting on, on Instagram. Those videos, almost always, have a ton of ads too!

When you post group photos on Facebook, most of the faces in the photo are automatically identified and tagged by the use of facial recognition. Facial recognition uses machine learning to identify the components of an object – in this case, your facial features. Once again, this data is sold to advertisers and AI companies that ‘scrape’ the data to understand our interests through our images.

These companies are competing for your time, and as we know time is money. The more time you spend engaging with content, the more their AI can learn about you and send you ads you’re more likely to be interested in.

As great as it is for them, their cost to our wellbeing is becoming more and more apparent. Studies are beginning to show links between smartphone usage and poor sleep quality, alarming increased levels of anxiety and depression, and increased risks of car injuries and deaths. Many of us are trying to spend less time on our phones but find it incredibly difficult to disconnect.

Although not as intense as line of cocaine, positive social stimuli similarly results in a release of dopamine, reinforcing whatever behavior preceded it. Studies show rewarding social stimuli, such as laughing faces, social validation from our peers, and messages from loved ones, activate the same dopaminergic reward pathways. Smartphones provide a virtually unlimited supply of social stimuli, both positive and negative. Every notification, be it a text message, like on Instagram, or an email notification, has the potential to be a positive social stimulus and dopamine influx. Constantly checking our phones come at little cost, and we end up checking habitually, hence maximising the times spent in this manipulative cycle.

Smartphones and social media platforms aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, so it‘s up to you as the user to decide how much of your time you want to give up. They will continue to do whatever they can to keep you scrolling for as long as possible. And by using AI and machine learning to leverage our dopamine-driven reward circuitry, they have the potential to use the way our minds work against us. Doing things like disabling your notifications for social media apps and limiting your screen time have been proven to help. Most importantly, asking yourself, “Is this really worth my time?” often will help remind you that you actually have things to do. In the real world. Like 30 minutes ago.