SK Babu


Will the coming era of AI be inhuman?

Data may rule in a world where humans become products

I was reading Stephen Hawking’s comment on how AI will eventually replace humans as the dominant species on Earth. Elon Musk has also been sounding off with dire warnings on a similar theme. It’s easy to laugh them off as scaremongers whose fears are highly unlikely to ever become reality.

But what if…

Here’s an interesting video that popped up on my social feed this morning. It was originally published in 2011, but is surprisingly close to reality now.

Credits: Pocket Films

The fact is we are living in an era of rapid change where it’s hard to predict the future. Or for that matter, the present. I mean I was under the impression that I’m caught up in this vicious cycle of consumerism. But lately, it seems that what I want or don’t want is not really the issue. All that matters is my data.

Take Google, for instance.

I have been a fan of the big G from the day it gave me the then humungous 2GB inbox. This while Yahoo was making a big fuss about its 100MB inbox or whatever it was in those pre-Gmail days. Since then, Google has become a constant in my life. Googling is my generic term for search. Google Maps is my whimsical navigator who sometimes gets me to wherever I want to go. Google Photos has a copy of every photo I have ever shot. Google Contacts saves my contacts online and updates them on the go. Google Music has around 5000 songs of mine. YouTube stores all my home videos, and is also my go-to destination for all kinds of videos. Then there’s Google Docs, Google Drive, Google Translate, Google Keep… to say nothing of the Google app itself, a nosey Parker who reads my emails, but once saved me from missing a flight by notifying me my flight was at 5 o’clock in the morning, while I was under the assumption that I was only due to fly at 5 o’clock in the evening.

If I had told anyone 20 years ago that I would get all these services for free, I would most certainly have been locked away in the nearest loony bin. Times have changed. These days, it’s I who wonder if I have been lunatically irresponsible to have given Google so much access to my personal info.

As we all know, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Google has made billions by selling our info to marketers who love the way that Google allows them to precisely target customers who have been searching for their products.

In other words, the product that Google sells is me. Or rather, my personal info. This data is the price we pay for Google’s ‘free’ services. What is worrying me is whether the price is too high.

There are a few angles to this.

The first one is if our data is hacked or manipulated by an outsider. We have just witnessed this when Facebook sold its users’ personal info to the Russians. That was almost certainly responsible for the Americans being saddled with one of the biggest chumps of all times as their President. If Facebook’s systems can be hacked, why not Google? All I can do is hope Google allocates a few of its billions to stay ahead of the hackers.

My second worry is what this post is about. What if the system itself takes over management of the data. Will AI be sensitive to the emotional aspects of data with respect to the humans involved in an interaction with data?

In fact, I have had an interaction with Google which is quite revealing. It started a couple of years ago when Google Maps got the way to my home wrong, directing visitors to a blind alley behind my house. Which means if I call for an Uber cab, I have to circle around the block (around half a kilometre) to get to the cab. I’ve written to Google Maps several times and received acknowledgments. But the map remains uncorrected even though it’s now quite some time since I first complained to Google.

What this tells me is that Google is already in AI mode.

I’m guessing a machine was the one reading my mails. It must have weighed the consequences of not verifying the route to my residence versus the costs of of sending someone to do the job. Being a machine, it would probably have removed emotion from the equation, and arrived at the conclusion that the cost is not worth it for just one complainant. I mean why would a machine worry about a few Uber drivers, couriers, and house owners who are going nuts about a misdirected location in Google Maps.

In short, as of now AI does not seem concerned about the emotions of humans. It will operate solely on a pure cost-benefit angle.

The third angle is when the company that has our data is itself unscrupulous. FaceBook is a prime example of this. Unlike Google, I only use it occasionally like when I need to track down someone or follow some breaking story. But I almost never post anything there. Basically I wanted the advantages of Facebook without its disadvantages.

However Facebook was two steps ahead of me. I thought I was being clever when I changed my phone number without updating it in my Facebook profile. But Facebook managed to get my new number via a sneaky update of the Facebook owned WhatsApp. That update had a hidden feature that synced my phone with Facebook by default and even shared all my phone contacts with Facebook, which was something I had been deliberately avoiding for years.

Ever since, I have been wary of Facebook, and make sure the app is always signed out on my devices. But since WhatsApp is the default messaging service in India, I can’t really turn it off, which sort of leaves my back door open for Facebook to waltz in, and walk out with whatever it covets.

Fortunately, the governments in India and even Europe have become sensitive to these loopholes, and have tightened controls on data sharing without permission from users. However I’m not too optimistic about US government’s control of such data misuse. The incredible lax gun control (a weirdo with a history of violence just used a legally licensed gun to kill 26 people in a church in Texas) is an indicator of how big business calls the shots in the country.

Of course, I do have an option to avoid the services of companies that live and die by users’ data.

Apple is a good example of this. They claim to make money by selling products, not personal data, which is a not so subtle dig at the Googles and Facebooks. As Tim Cook put it, “We don’t build a profile based on your email content or web browsing habits to sell to advertisers. We don’t ‘monetize’ the information you store on your iPhone or in iCloud. And we don’t read your email or your messages to get information to market to you.”

It all sounds good in theory but the con is if Apple won’t sell our data, then it needs to make its money elsewhere. Apple’s solution is an exorbitant pricing strategy. The $1000 iPhone X is the result, and it’s hard for the common man in India to use the platform. That may explain why Apple has just around 3% share of the mobile market in India. (As an aside, 3% of the world’s second largest market for mobiles is still quite a lot of moolah with Apple expecting sales this year of $3 billion or 18,951 crore in India. This success is partly because Apple changed its strategy in India and sells older, low priced iPhones here. A new 32GB iPhone SE can be had for less than 19000 or around $300.)

While Google, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft have been trying to fighting capture customers by focussing on the mobile phone market, a fifth player has stolen a huge lead on the four tech titans by taking a different route.

Like Microsoft, Amazon may have lost the battle for phones as its Fire phone fizzled out after a big launch. But Amazon’s never-say-die leader, Jeff Bezos, believes Amazon can still win the war. His strategy was to avoid phones altogether and open a new battle front on voice search. He may be onto something as Amazon’s Echo range of speakers (driven by Amazon’s voice-powered personal assistant, Alexa) have completely taken over the AI speaker market. Siri, Google, Cortana, and all other early starters have been left far behind and are now trying hard to catch up. The exclamation mark for Amazon is Bezos was just crowned the richest man in the world.

As usual, it’s when you are not expecting anything that life tends to kick you in the teeth.

While I was sitting on the sidelines and admiring Amazon’s sagacity, my Amazon Prime Membership expired. A couple of hours later, without a warning of any sort, Amazon’s AI reached out into my iPad and deleted around four or five movies that I had downloaded. Meanwhile, I renewed my Prime Membership unaware of what had happened. When I found my iPad had been accessed and my files deleted without my permission, I got really upset, sent a stinker to Amazon, and cancelled my Prime membership.

Later on, I cooled down and realized that I was one of the lucky souls to get a preview of a future where AI will ride roughshod over human sensitivities.

For now, humans still rule the world.

Amazon’s rep called me up, apologized for the incident, and soothed my ruffled feathers by giving me a token Amazon Gift Voucher. The whole drama provoked my curiosity about AI and voice search, and I ended up ordering an Amazon Echo Dot (with a free Prime Membership bundled in) a few days ago.

After all, if AI is the future, I had better learn all I can about it.

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