Facebook wants YOU to vote

Before talking about today’s topic, I would like to share with you guys an interesting piece of news I read this weekend – it actually has much to do with last week’s discussion. A group of Japanese engineers aim to develop a flying car. The project is being led by the group “Cart!vator”, founded by the scientist and researcher Tsubasa Nakamura. Their idea is that the car is able to drive through the streets, having the ability to take off and land back on the street. If this project is actually concluded, it will be shown in Toquio’s National Stadium in the opening ceremony of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games!!! (Let’s wait to see if 2020 finally brings us flying cars!)

Moving on, today’s discussion was a really interesting one. It focused on the Internet and the process of voting/elections. This was extremely relevant as US elections will happen soon on the 8th of November (a very exciting time for Americans, I would say!). The readings and the discussion were not only interesting because of the new content I learned, but because I was able to learn more about the voting process in the US. The voting process in Brazil is extremely different to the US. Firstly, voting is compulsory: each and every person has to vote. The discussion about whether voting should be obligatory or not came up several times during the seminar, and, in my opinion, I believe voting should never be obligatory. People should always have the right to vote, but also the right to not vote if they do not want to, or feel they don’t have enough information. In countries like Brazil, where poverty and social inequality are very high, making voting an obligatory process means that many people who might not even know how to read or write, or might have no information on candidates/the government, will be forced to vote. These types of decisions can affect the overall outcome of the election, which will affect how the country is ruled and governed.

Voting in Brazil is also done through machines. There is huge skepticism to voting electronically. I, myself, am skeptic too. How will you ever know what happens to your vote? What if that data could be manipulated to change the whole outcome of the election? As I learned today, the US system employs the form of voting by paper ballots in some states. These paper ballots are, in a way, a method of “proving” your vote, to make sure it is counted right. It is much harder to affect an election where people vote by paper than electronically, were data could be changed and erased.

Our discussion also went along to talk about how Facebook has impacted elections until today. The articles we read showed us how Facebook was able to manipulate elections. Not only did this involve the “I Voted” button, but Facebook also controls what you see on your news feed. They can control what you see by looking at what you usually search for, your likes, your political views, your friends, etc. Even though you might think Facebook “shows you everything”, in reality, Facebook shows you what they want you to see. The paper “A 61-Million-Person Experiment in Social Influence and Political Mobilization”, found that in the last election, about 20 percent of the users who saw that their friends had voted also clicked on the “I Voted” button, compared to 18 percent of the people who didn’t get the “I Voted” message from their friends. That is, positive social pressure caused more people to vote (or at least to tell their friends they were voting). These statistics show how much influence Facebook can have, on such an important event, whose result affects the future of a country. Should we be concerned about this?

The question that was brought up during our conversation that most intrigued me was whether Facebook was showing us a prejudicial feed, or if they were just reflecting our own prejudice. Would there be a way to tell? Facebook has tools that can figure out your preferences, but are these targeted ads based on how you would vote anyway? When I think about people already made decisions about their vote, I would suggest that the ads wouldn’t have such an impact. However, if you think about an undecided/uncommitted person,  these ads could have a much greater influence on deciding their vote. Targeting is, therefore, influential, but would it be a deciding factor in elections?



As my title clearly emphasises, our discussion today was about “THE SINGULARITY”. These two words do, indeed, deserve caps lock as I write about them, because of the largeness and great importance of this event. So, lets start from the beginning: what is the singularity? Many argue that within 30 years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence (yep, that’s right!). What happens is that technological change increases exponentially and the “returns”, such as chip speed and cost-effectiveness, also increase exponentially, and therefore this results in exponential growth in the rate of exponential growth. This means that, within a few decades, machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence, leading to the singularity – “technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history”. When reading such a profound term as “rupture in the fabric of human history”, you may feel a bit scared of this extreme event. Don’t worry – that’s exactly how I felt after reading about the singularity! But discussions in class brought about many different perspectives of what the singularity would be and its possible effects.

Firstly, we talked about Moore’s law. If Moore’s law continues, in 2045 we will be able to have a computer with the processing power of a human brain. This brought about the discussion of what can we characterise as the human brain? Do we, humans, know everything about the human brain? When we say a computer will have the “processing power of a human brain”, does this mean a brain or a human mind? What, then, would be the difference between a brain and a mind? Also, what is intelligence and what makes someone or something intelligent?

There are, in fact, many different types of intelligence. I personally would analyse this situation by separating the types of intelligence. Computers have mathematical intelligence – they are able to solve problems quickly (calculators for example), producing answers to problems that could take us a lot of time to find. However, human beings have practical, social and emotional intelligence. We are able to react to real-world situations, we have empathy, we can socialize and develop our social relations and interactions and we are able to evaluate another’s opinion and argue about different topics. Computers may come up with an answer to a complicated problem, but they may also lack many of these forms of intelligence that humans carry.

Nevertheless, I also have some counter-arguments to what I just said. For many years, people have challenged what computers could do, and were proved wrong. “Computers will never be able to play chess better than humans!” – how many of you play chess and have actually won the computer? (It is actually hard!). “Computers can’t have empathy!” – Eliza was a program created in the 1970’s that you could have a conversation with, a “computer therapist”. It gave responses just like a therapist and people actually enjoyed having a conversation with Eliza, and soon forgot they were talking to a machine. Eliza seemed to have empathy. And for that matter, Eliza made me remember of the movie Her (2013), in which the protagonist Theodore falls in love with a new operation system – it is a great movie, I strongly recommend it!

If we think about a computer nowadays, it still requires human input to some extent, and it is still not capable of resolving all problems by itself. In the case of a natural disaster, for example, a computer can alert us of a disaster but we are the ones responsible for taking actions to protect ourselves with the information the computer gives us. The question is: what will computers have gained when the singularity is reached? If the singularity comes, will we know? Can we predict when it will come? In my opinion, the singularity will not be an exact given moment, it will involve a continuous process. If we think about it, there are already several aspects of our computers nowadays that we do not understand completely – could the singularity have already started, then?

Whether the singularity will not happen (as Paul Allen argues) or whether it will lead to the extinction of humankind (as Vinge argues), I am still not sure, but this whole discussion about the singularity got me really interested in how our future can change in a way that we can’t even picture nowadays!


Some of this week’s reflections…

Hey all! This week’s discussion was mostly based on the Internet of Things, and, once again, I’m actually surprised by many of the things I learned from the conversation.

One of most interesting part of today’s conversation, in my opinion, was comparing the advantages and drawbacks of the Internet of things. Having a personal camera in your house to watch your dog, or a camera in your father’s house to make sure he is okay, or a fridge that orders food, all have their clear advantages. Firstly, it allows us to do less work; it is convenient. Convenience is a huge word to describe the Internet of things, that make our day-to-day lives much easier. Another advantage is it is easier to set up and operate. If we take Apple as an example, it has products that sync and work together – one complements the other and makes communication much easier. Many of our regular daily actions are made automatic, meaning that we, humans, don’t require that much thinking. It is also efficient to save money. Lets say, for example, you forget to turn off your home lights when you travel – this could be done for you! Making operations in your house, work environment, or wherever you are becomes more efficient. We cannot forget, also, that all of this is interesting and “fun to play with” (we all have our child spirits inside of us!!!). Lastly, the argument of safety and security is extremely valid. If you have Onstar in your car, for example, it knows if you are in an accident or a dangerous situation.

However, we can also think about these points through another perspective. This basically comes down to one very powerful word: privacy. When we start adding more and more of the Internet to our lives, we end up losing our privacy. Although the safety argument is valid, how can one guarantee that their data will not be stolen or their equipment infringed? There is no guarantee of how people will (or can) use your information. If someone else gets hold of your nest, this is a huge threat to your safety. Someone could intercept your video footage, get access to your wireless network or even your log in credentials. With this, people could manipulate your data, and end up costing you not only your security, but money as well. Another point that was brought up was regarding human interaction. I believe this point is extremely important: as we get more and more connected to the Internet and technology, we end up giving up our human interaction, our face-to-face conversations. It seems, sometimes, that we could be losing an essential part of our human identity.

I wanted to mention as well two interesting examples of the Internet of Things. The first one, is an application to agriculture. Sensors can see how much water is in the soil and therefore calculate how much water the sprinklers have to shoot on crops. The sprinklers can adapt to the weather forecast for the next day, and GE sensors can also find the optimal mixing process for their various compounds – would you imagine this? It is astonishing to see how so many things can be figured out today to make our jobs and daily lives much more efficient. The second example is of a project called Asthmapolis, which uses a sensor that attaches to an asthma inhaler. It is able to map usage to generate insights into where attacks are likely to occur. Once again, the daily life of someone who suffers from asthma would be extremely facilitated by this, not to mention their health safety as well!

I would like to finish off this week’s remarks by stating that I had no idea that the most common cause of power accidents were squirrels – who would think these little creatures would cause any harm ?!

Well, this is a bit of this week’s reflections and I’ll be back in two weeks with more to share!!!