Zeynep Tufekci: We’re Building a Dystopia Just to Make People Click on Ads (Transcript)

Zeynep Tufekci

Here is the full transcript of Techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci’s TED Talk: We’re Building a Dystopia Just to Make People Click on Ads…

Zeynep Tufekci – Techno-sociologist

So when people voice fears of artificial intelligence, very often, they invoke images of humanoid robots run amok. You know? Terminator? You know, that might be something to consider, but that’s a distant threat.

Or, we fret about digital surveillance with metaphors from the past “1984,” George Orwell’s “1984,” it’s hitting the bestseller lists again. It’s a great book, but it’s not the correct dystopia for the 21st century.

What we need to fear most is not what artificial intelligence will do to us on its own, but how the people in power will use artificial intelligence to control us and to manipulate us in novel, sometimes hidden, subtle and unexpected ways. Much of the technology that threatens our freedom and our dignity in the near-term future is being developed by companies in the business of capturing and selling our data and our attention to advertisers and others: Facebook, Google, Amazon, Alibaba, Tencent.

Now, artificial intelligence has started bolstering their business as well. And it may seem like artificial intelligence is just the next thing after online ads. It’s not. It’s a jump in category. It’s a whole different world, and it has great potential.

It could accelerate our understanding of many areas of study and research. But to paraphrase a famous Hollywood philosopher, “With prodigious potential comes prodigious risk”. Now let’s look at a basic fact of our digital lives, online ads. Right? We kind of dismiss them. They seem crude, ineffective.

We’ve all had the experience of being followed on the web by an ad based on something we searched or read. You know, you look up a pair of boots and for a week, those boots are following you around everywhere you go. Even after you succumb and buy them, they’re still following you around. We’re kind of inured to that kind of basic, cheap manipulation. We roll our eyes and we think, “You know what? These things don’t work.” Except, online, the digital technologies are not just ads.

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Now, to understand that, let’s think of a physical world example. You know how, at the checkout counters at supermarkets, near the cashier, there’s candy and gum at the eye level of kids? That’s designed to make them whine at their parents just as the parents are about to sort of check out. Now, that’s a persuasion architecture. It’s not nice, but it kind of works. That’s why you see it in every supermarket.

Now, in the physical world, such persuasion architectures are kind of limited, because you can only put so many things by the cashier. Right? And the candy and gum, it’s the same for everyone, even though it mostly works only for people who have whiny little humans beside them.

In the physical world, we live with those limitations. In the digital world, though, persuasion architectures can be built at the scale of billions and they can target, infer, understand and be deployed at individuals one by one by figuring out your weaknesses, and they can be sent to everyone’s phone private screen, so it’s not visible to us. And that’s different. And that’s just one of the basic things that artificial intelligence can do.

Now, let’s take an example. Let’s say you want to sell plane tickets to Vegas. Right? So in the old world, you could think of some demographics to target based on experience and what you can guess. You might try to advertise to, oh, men between the ages of 25 and 35, or people who have a high limit on their credit card, or retired couples. Right? That’s what you would do in the past.

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