"We are either kings or pawns of men," said Napoleon Bonaparte. In his famous quote, he describes possibly the biggest challenge facing humanity as we move into a world driven by ever smarter, more manipulative technology. Are we truly in control of our destiny or is something else secretly pulling our strings?
As technology advances, we are quickly becoming slaves to it, unaware of our intentional manipulation. It could be a simple post on Facebook only visible to those targeted or an automated response to your political tweet intentionally trying to anger you for the express purpose of affecting your choice to vote for a particular candidate. Are you happy, or sad, it could be very well a series of posts targeting you and only you and the worst part is you never even know it.
In 2014, Facebook admitted that it had manipulated the news feeds of randomly selected users to change the number of positive and negative posts they saw. It was part of a psychological study to explore how emotions are spread on social media. In an academic paper published in conjunction with two university researchers, the company reported that moods were contagious. The people who saw more positive posts responded by writing more positive posts. Similarly, seeing more negative content prompted the viewers to be more negative in their posts.
The appearance of choice and free will are quickly giving way to algorithmic manipulation driven by sophisticated data analytics targeting us in an attempt to take command our beliefs. At the forefront of this trend is a Washington, DC company, Cambridge Analytica. It has developed a model to translate publicly available data into personality profiles used to predict, then ultimately change people's behaviour.
A recent Scout article, "The Rise of the Weaponized AI Propaganda Machine" describes the tactics in great detail.
"In 2013, Dr. Michal Kosinski, then a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Cambridge's Psychometrics Center released a groundbreaking study announcing a new model he and his colleagues had spent years developing. By correlating subjects' Facebook Likes with their OCEAN (personality) scores the team was able to identify an individual's gender, sexuality, political beliefs, and personality traits based only on what they had liked on Facebook."
Psychometrics, the study concerned with the theory and technique of psychological measurement isn't new. As long as there has been marketing and advertising we have tried to understand what motivates people to do something. What is new is the ability for this to be applied alongside artificial intelligence combined with micro-level demographic targeting. Or in other words, a capacity to target individuals in real-time.
Zurich's Das Magazine describes Kosinski technique, "with a mere 10 'likes' as input his model could appraise a person's character better than an average coworker. With 70, it could 'know' a subject better than a friend; with 150 likes, better than their parents. With 300 likes, Kosinski's machine could predict a subject's behaviour better than their partner. With even more likes it could exceed what a person thinks they know about themselves."
If that isn't bad enough, here's the scary part. All this information used to understand you is public. We freely give it away every day on various social media platforms. Each click, each like, each pause to view something, recorded. The more we interact with technology, the better it understand us, not only as a society but as individuals. People capable of being altered in ever so slight ways for the benefit of something or someone else.
So not only can psychological profiles be created from your data, but your data can also be used in reverse to search for specific profiles. Maybe you are looking for all angry introverts, or maybe even all undecided Democrats? A slight push and your undecided Democrat voter is now a no show at election time, just to enough to push a swing state to the Republican or a Brexit voter to leave.
Combining psychometrics and AI can be used to identify and modify people's behaviours. These modifications don't need to be major, a slight uptick in apathy is all that might be required in many cases, especially in elections. It was these small margins in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin that won Trump the election, thanks in part to hyper-targeted advertising from the Trump campaign to particularly disenfranchised groups.
There is no question humanity is quickly changing, our relationship with technology has become symbiotic. Sit in a park or on a train, and you'll see the majority staring aimlessly into their phones. In nature, this is known as a mutually beneficial relationship. But the question that we must ask is; how long does this remain mutually beneficial, and moreover, will we even realize when it is no longer?
As Napoleon Bonaparte noted a few hundred years ago, we either chose our lives to live as kings, taking charge of our own lives and destinies, or we chose to live our lives in accordance with those that lead our lives.