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A Conversation With Klint Finley About AI and Ethics

I spoke with Klint Finley, known to this parish, over at WIRED about Amazon, Facebook, Google, IBM, and Microsoft’s new joint ethics and oversight venture, which they’ve dubbed the “Partnership on Artificial Intelligence to Benefit People and Society.” They held a joint press briefing, yesterday, in which Yann LeCun, Facebook’s director of AI, and Mustafa Suleyman, the head of applied AI at DeepMind discussed what it was that this new group would be doing out in the world.

This isn’t the first time I’ve talked to Klint about the intricate interplay of machine intelligence, ethics, and algorithmic bias; we discussed it earlier just this year, for WIRED’s AI Issue. It’s interesting to see the amount of attention this topic’s drawn in just a few short months, and while I’m trepidatious about the potential implementations, as I note in the piece, I’m really fairly glad that more people are increasingly willing to have this discussion, at all.

To see my comments and read the rest of the article, click through, above.

Mindful Cyborgs: Zeynep Tufekci on the Consequence of Algorithms

This week Zeynep Tufekci, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill*, talks with us about the implications of algorithmically filtering social media feeds.

Download and Show Notes: Mindful Cyborgs: Algorithmic Reverberations on the Feed

For more on the topic, check out Zeynep’s article on Facebook’s algorithms and Ferguson.

*This was recorded a few weeks ago, well before the recent tragedy in Chapel Hill, so we didn’t discuss that.

Data Doppelgängers and the Uncanny Valley of Personalization

Sara Watson writes:

“What is it about my data that suggests I might be a good fit for an anorexia study?” That’s the question my friend Jean asked me after she saw this targeted advertisement on her Facebook profile: […]

She came up with a pretty good hypothesis. Jean is an MIT computer scientist who works on privacy programming languages. Because of her advocacy work on graduate student mental health, her browsing history and status updates are full of links to resources that might suggest she’s looking for help. Maybe Facebook inferred what Jean cares about, but not why.

Days later, I saw a similar ad. Unlike Jean, I didn’t have a good explanation for why I might have been targeted for the ad, which led me to believe that it could be broadly aimed at all women between the ages of 18 and 45 in the greater Boston area. (When I clicked to learn more about the study, this was listed as the target demographic.)

Still, it left us both with the unsettling feeling that something in our data suggests anorexia

Full Story: Data Doppelgängers and the Uncanny Valley of Personalization

See also: Facebook Could Decide an Election Without Anyone Ever Finding Out:
The scary future of digital gerrymandering—and how to prevent it

Cyborgologist Nathan Jurgenson Interviewed On Mindful Cyborgs

Nathan Jurgenson This week cyborgologist Nathan Jurgenson joined Chris Dancy and me on Mindful Cyborgs. Nathan is the co-founder of the site Cyborgology, co-founder of the Theorizing the Web conference, a contributing editor at The New Inquiry and a sociology graduate student at the University of Maryland.

You can download or listen to it on Soundcloud or on iTunes, or just download it directly.

Here are a couple highlights from the transcript:

If you’ve taken a lot of photos, if you’re a photographer and you spend a lot of time with the camera in your hand or up your eye. You develop the thing that is called the “camera eye,” that is even when the camera is not at your eye you start to see the world through the logic of the camera mechanism. You see the world as a potential photo with a framing, lighting, the depth of field and so forth. And that’s called the camera eye and I think social media, especially Facebook, has given us the sort of documentary vision or the Facebook eye where you see the world as a potential Facebook post or tweet or Instagram photo.

That is you see the present as always this potential future past, this sort of nostalgic view of the present. I don’t think it takes us out of the moment. Some people say that, that you’re not experiencing life in the moment because you’re worried about posting it on Facebook. I think that’s just a different experience of the moment. But it’s worth debating whether that’s a better experience or worse experience.

What Eric Schmidt was getting at when he was talking about how using a smartphone is emasculating and you need to have this Google Glass that is somehow more masculine or something like that. It was really, I thought, offensive. And I think the correct reading of that was that the smartphone, now, everybody has a smartphone. How can you look like you’re a rich, powerful man if you have this thing that everybody has?

Well, there’s Google Glass now and again reinforces how what a cellphone used to do. When people see you wearing the Google Glass will say oh, well, you’re an important rich, powerful man. It’s really I think sad in sort of an offensive way to market that product. They’ve done a terrible job marketing Google Glass I think.

More show notes, plus the complete transcript, inside.

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The CIA Using Sentiment Analysis to Gauge Regional Stability

human geopolitical chess

From The Atlantic:

How stable is China? What are people discussing and thinking in Pakistan? To answer these sorts of question, the U.S. government has turned to a rich source: social media.

The Associated Press reports that the CIA maintains a social-media tracking center operated out of an nondescript building in a Virginia industrial park. The intelligence analysts at the agency’s Open Source Center, who other agents refer to as “vengeful librarians,” are tasked with sifting through millions of tweets, Facebook messages, online chat logs, and other public data on the World Wide Web to glean insights into the collective moods of regions or groups abroad. According to the Associated Press, these librarians are tracking up to five million tweets a day from places like China, Pakistan and Egypt.

The Atlantic: How The CIA Uses Social Media to Track How People Feel

See also: Predicting the future with Twitter.

How the Digerati Misread The Social Network

Facebook by _Max-B

I just saw The Social Network and I must admit I’m a little perplexed by some of the reactions to it. I found Zuckerberg to be a sympathetic character in the film. Supposedly, so did most other people my age:

From David Carr’s piece in the New York Times:

“When you talk to people afterward, it was as if they were seeing two different films,” said Scott Rudin, one of the producers. “The older audiences see Zuckerberg as a tragic figure who comes out of the film with less of himself than when he went in, while young people see him as completely enhanced, a rock star, who did what he needed to do to protect the thing that he had created.”

I saw the character as sympathetic, human. He wrote some mean things about his ex-girlfriend online (who said some mean stuff to his face)- while he was drunk, heart broken, angry and 18 years old. He also had to make some hard decisions, and lost a friend in the process. He comes out on top, beating the rich assholes and naysayers who stood in his way – but at a cost. I didn’t see him as completely tragic or as a rock star. Just as a guy living his life. Most of us don’t run companies valued at $25 billion, but I think we’ve all made bad decisions, hurt people we cared about and had to cut someone out of our lives, even if it hurt us. (Or maybe I’m just weird.)

Jose Antonio Vargas (the journalist that Zuckerberg confessed writing compromising IMs to), who self-identifies as a millennial, doesn’t fall in line with our generation either. He, having interviewed Zuckerberg several times, was bothered by how the film potrayed Zuckerberg. That he wasn’t close to the real life Zuckerberg may be true – but I didn’t see him as an “exoticized” other like Vargas and Anil Dash saw him. I saw him as a complex human being.

Vargas was also disappointed that the movie didn’t offer “any real insight about our evolving online reality.” Which is missing the point entirely.

Vargas quotes Jeff Jarvis as saying “This is all about snobbery, about dismissing all this Internet stuff. The filmmakers didn’t give any value to what Zuckerberg made.” This is dead wrong – the movie isn’t dismissive of the Internet. It just isn’t about the Internet, nor was it under any obligation to be.

If you’re hoping to learn anything revelatory about on the Internet or social networking is shaping our lives, you’ll have to look elsewhere. Ultimately, this is more of a coming of age movie than a technology movie.

Lawrence Lessig’s take on the film is equally bizarre:

And indeed, the lawyers are the only truly respectable or honorable characters in the film. When they’re ridiculed or insulted by Zuckerberg, their responses are more mature, and better, than Zuckerberg’s.

I must have seen a different film than Lessig. Because in the movie I saw, the Zuckerberg character completely eviscerates the lawyers several times, arrogantly but certainly not humorlessly – and they often deserve it.

So yeah, I liked it. And I think, if anything, it may have been too sympathetic to Zuckerberg. For example, that now infamous IM conversation about Facebook users’ privacy never comes up. But as a portrait of the trials and tribulations of balancing friendships with career, and of growing up in general, it stands up.

See Also:

The Daily Beast: Mark Zuckerberg at Harvard: The Truth Behind ‘The Social Network’

Previously:

Puketastic interview with Mark Zuckerberg on Facebook privacy

(Photo by _Max-B / CC)

‘LOL is this you?’ spam spreading via Facebook chat

According to Insecurity Complex the imfamous “LOL is this you?” phishing scheme that plagued Twitter a while back (a variant of it even snared Cory Doctorow) is now appearing on Facebook. The outbreak seems pretty minor and Facebook is working hard to quash it.

Why the Web Isn’t Dead – A Few More Points

At the risk of beating a dead horse and becoming bona-fide member of the slow media, I want to make a few more points about that recent Wired cover story. Some of this may seem like semantics or nit-picking, but I think the details here are important for understanding what is and isn’t happening to the web. (My previous thoughts are here).

What are the defining features of the web?

“It’s driven primarily by the rise of the iPhone model of mobile computing, and it’s a world Google can’t crawl, one where HTML doesn’t rule.”

Anderson keeps mentioning HTML, HTTP, and port 80 as the key features of the web. I don’t think that’s the case. Quite a lot of apps for iOS, Android and Adobe AIR are built using HTML and, presumably, access data using HTTP over port 80. Even apps that aren’t just glorified shortcuts to a company’s web site (TweetDeck, feed readers, and Instapaper are good examples of great apps that change how we consume web content) don’t seem far off from the typical web experience – they’re just custom browsers, still using the same old ports and protocols. (I could be wrong about those specific apps, but the tendency remains.) What’s really happening is that the browser is becoming invisible – it’s becoming the OS. Which is what web people have been saying would happen all along.

But what, at its core, is “the web”? To me it’s about hypertext – the ability to link and be linked. Interconnectedness. So apps can either be walled gardens – with no way to link or be linked to – or they can incorporate links. If it’s the former, then they’re no longer part of the web. If it’s the latter – isn’t it still the web?

It might not be this way forever, but the New York Times iOS app (at least as it runs on my iPod Touch) has outbound links (which open within the NYT app), and the ability to e-mail, text, Tweet or copy permalinks to the stories you read in the app (but if you open the links from your e-mail on your iOS device, they open in Safari and not in the NYT app). So even if it’s not using HTML, HTTP and port 80 (and I’m pretty sure it actually is), it’s still providing a rich hypertext experience. It’s still, all in all, the web.

Facebook is searchable by Google

“It’s a world Google can’t crawl, one where HTML doesn’t rule.”

It should also be noted that Facebook is searchable by Google now. So are Twitter, Tumblr, and most other big name social media sites. Mobile and desktop apps aren’t, but again – most of the apps there are still pulling content from or pushing content to the open web, where it’s being crawled by Google. Facebook has been pushing to make profiles public specifically to court more search engine traffic. Certainly there’s a lot of data that Facebook generates that it holds onto itself – all that data that’s going into its Open Graph project. That’s how it generates value. But it’s still an ad-supported system that depends on getting targeted traffic – and search seems to be a part of its strategy.

It may also be worth noting that The New York Times shut down its previous walled garden experiment in order to get more search traffic. The current semi-permeable wall idea is designed in part to encourage search traffic and link sharing.

Of course others, like the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, both of which have had semi-permiable pay-walls, are going the opposite direction. So it remains to be seen which model will win. It seems likely that pay-walls will work for some content but not for others. It’s hard to imagine the Wired article in question getting so much traction and generating so much debate in a world of walled off, stand alone apps with no links.

The link is still the currency of social media

“Facebook became a parallel world to the Web, an experience that was vastly different and arguably more fulfilling and compelling and that consumed the time previously spent idly drifting from site to site.”

I’m not sure this is entirely true either. What exactly do people do on Facebook? A lot of different stuff, but one of those things is sharing links. The same is true on other social media sites. “Giving good link,” as Jay Rosen calls it, is still the best way to be popular on Twitter. Links – whether to articles, videos, or whatever – are still what generate activity on social media sites. True you can do more and more within Facebook without ever having to refer out to any external content, but it’s hard to imagine the value of the link diminishing enough for it to vanish from the social media ecosystem altogether any time soon.

The social graph only goes so far

Social media is a key way to find new links, but it’s not the only way and isn’t always the best way. Some of the “search is dead” sorts of articles that have been floating around about Google lately seem to believe that you can replace search with your “social graph.” You just ask your friends “Hey, where’s a good place to get a smoothie around here?” or “What kind of cell phone should I buy?” and you get your answer.

But that just isn’t the reality of the situation. I recently bought a Samsung Vibrant. If I’d been depending on my “social graph” I’d never have bought it since no one I knew had one. I had to depend on search engines to find reviews. I did an experiment the other day – I asked if anyone had an ASUS UL30A-X5 or knew someone who had one. This laptop wasn’t as new a product as the Vibrant. Also, it was part of the line of laptops Engadget called laptop of the year in 2009. So it seemed plausible that in my network Twitter followers and Facebook friends (over 1,000 people combined), including lots and lots of geeks and tech savvy people, SOMEONE would either have one or know someone who did. But no one did. Or if they did, they didn’t say anything.

And consumer electronics are a relatively un-obscure interest of mine. If I’d asked my social graph if they knew of any essays comparing Giotto’s Allegories of the Vices and the Virtues to the tarot, would anyone have been able to point me towards this essay? Maybe, but sometimes it’s easier to to just fucking Google it.

Don’t get me wrong, I get a lot of answers through my friends via social media. But it’s not a replacement for Google. (And while there might not be much room for Google to grow its search business, it’s far from irrelevant.)

How open has the Internet ever been?

First it was getting listed by Yahoo!, then it was getting a good ranking in Google, now it’s getting into the Apple App Store. In each case, the platform owner benefited more than the person trying to get listed. This is not new. That certain sites – like Facebook at YouTube – have become large platforms is certainly interesting. That Apple, Facebook and Google have a disproportionate say over what gets seen on the Internet is problematic, definitely. But there was never any golden age when the Net was truly open. The physical infrastructure is owned by giant corporations, and ICANN is loosely controlled by the US government. And the biggest threat to openness on the Internet is international agreement that has nothing to do with the shift to apps.

Furthermore, even the App Store is open in a certain sense. It’s important to remember that Apple didn’t invent the app store – or even the mobile app store. They’ve been around for quite a while. I had a plain non-smart phone on Verizon that had access to an app store. Part of what made Apple’s app store successful though is that anyone could buy the SDK and submit apps to it. You didn’t have to be invited, and the cost wasn’t prohibitive. Very few developers could develop apps for that old Verizon store. In that sense, the app store is extremely “open.”

What do we need to do to ensure the app and post-app ecologies are “open”?

Even if we are going to see the end of the Open Web, replaced instead by an app economy or later an object ecosystem, we don’t need to have a closed Internet. Here are some of the keys to an open future:

-Open Data
-Open APIs
-Data Portability
-Net Neutrality
-Disclosure of data collection and usage
-Open-source apps and objects
An independent Internet

Puketastic interview with Mark Zuckerberg on Facebook privacy

Pumpkin Puke

Zuckerberg’s constant refrain about making the world more open place makes me retch. Example:

A lot of times, I run a thought experiment, “If I were not at Facebook, what would I be doing to make the world more open?” Because I think when I got started six years ago, building a social network was the best thing to do. Now, today, I’m not sure that’s the best thing to do. Now we exist and there is a big opportunity to build atop the platform. There are all these awesome, new technologies that didn’t exist back then, like EC2 and S3. […]

So I don’t know, one thing that is personally a bit disheartening…. It bums me out that people immediately go to “You must be doing this to make money.” Because that’s just so different from the ethos of the company. It is so different from how we actually think about stuff that you feel so misunderstood.

Gag me.

Epicenter: Mark Zuckerberg: I Donated to Open Source, Facebook Competitor

See also:

Chris Saad: “Facebook’s Claims About Data Portability Are False”

The Half Truths of Mark Zuckerberg

10 Things You Need To Know About Today’s Facebook Privacy Changes

Facebook

-You Can Opt Out Of Applications
-You Can Hide Your Friends List
-You Can Hide Your Interests
-Much Information Is Still Public By Default
-Instant Personalization Is Still Opt-Out
-You Can Hide Information From The Past
-You Should Review Your Settings
-Privacy Now Only Takes One Click
-There Is Now A Single Directories Settings Page
-Settings Will Be Rolled Out Over The Next Few Weeks

All Facebook: 10 Things You Need To Know About Today’s Facebook Privacy Changes

(via Mediabistro)

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