The Robots Know Who We Really Are

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I’m old enough to remember Facebook before ads, and then the first several years of ads. The most common ads I saw were for Israeli Mossad t-shirts—I have no idea why. After Mossad, I got ads for t-shirts that said, “I’m just a Montana Girl in a Canada World.” Isn’t our AI better than this? I wondered.

I don’t wonder anymore. Now most of my Facebook ads are things I’d actually consider clicking on—high-end bras and fair trade subscription boxes. The other day I Google image searched “mahogany four poster bed” for a short story I’m working on, now my browser is filled with ads for $10,000 beds.

After Cambridge Analytica, a lot of people are concerned about privacy. Can I concede that they understand more about this than I do, but I’m not particularly worried? I didn’t click on anything stupid, I don’t spend my money willy-nilly, I feel like I retain control over my online presence for the most part. I like getting ads that are specific to my interests.

But after reading Dexter Palmer’s Version Control, I’m having a few second thoughts. This literary sci-fi adventure deals extensively with AI avatars and online dating. The book posits that in the near future we will be online dating avatars animated by computers and voiced by actors, deceived into staying on platforms where no one is actually interested in us because we are valuable eyeballs for ad dollars. (Mostly the book is about time travel. It’s probably the best book I’ve read all year, go read it!)

The invasiveness of technology was brought home to me a few weeks ago when I installed the Marco Polo app. My friend, Jessica, recommended it to me as a way to keep in touch. Users send each other video messages, so it acts like a delayed FaceTime. I was impressed and immediately “invited” several friends. One friend texted me a Reddit thread which discussed how the app texts your contacts without your consent. Reddit users suggested boycotting the app and giving it a 1-star rating.

I had noticed the pushy texts. Did my Dad really text me three times to let me know that he’d sent me a video message? No, it was the app. I was annoyed and unnerved, but ultimately not enough to stop using the app. I’ve reconnected with two friends and spoken more to them in the past two weeks than we’d talked in years.

But, as the saying goes, “If you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer, you’re the product.” What is Marco Polo getting out of hours of me looking into a selfie cam and detailing the mundanities of my life to friends across the country? Are the robots learning how to better imitate human speech? (Perhaps we must start inventing strange words to teach them, as a kind of shibboleth.) Are they memorizing the way facial muscles move? Is it bad to say that I don’t know, and for the moment anyway, I don’t really care?