Oh Facebook.

October 29th, 2016

A couple weeks ago I attended a talk given by a Quora data scientist. He described the ways in which the website would generate suggested content that a user might be interested in. For instance, if user A and user B both like books and poems but dislike movies and music, and Quora knows that user A dislikes videos, it is then less likely to suggest videos to user B. This algorithm seemed incredibly efficient at the time. After all, wouldn’t our feeds be so much nicer if everything was tailored to our interests? However, after our last meeting, I realized that this process skews us towards a certain direction and accelerates our path in that direction. Bringing this in context of politics, if someone starts as a moderate leaning left, as he is exposed more and more to recommended articles or information arguing in favor of liberal platforms, he may become more and more liberal, therefore inducing more suggested content on the left side and creating a snowball effect in the long run. While this may not necessarily be the intent of websites like Quora or Facebook in showing the user similar articles, it is nonetheless a byproduct of the continual domino effect of such automated suggestions.

However, something that troubled me more than suggested content placed by Facebook was its research on the “I Voted” button. As a user of Facebook, I would expect my social media experience to be the same as any other user of the platform. That is, Facebook usage inherently implies to me an assumption of equality across the user experience. I would have access to the same features as John Smith, and I could interact with my friends on Facebook the same ways that John Smith can interact with his. However, the research on the “I Voted” button took away this equality. While some people could see if their friends had voted or have access to a different phrased version of the button, others, specifically those in the control group, had no access or awareness of those features. As this was done for the purpose of data collection for Facebook, it makes me uncomfortable that I could be denied certain parts of the social media experience in order to prove a statistic.

This ties in nicely with another experiment mentioned in the articles where Facebook randomly altered the emotional content for some 700,000 users. Here, it is even more clear that these research experiments disrupt the equality of the user experience. Furthermore, this shows how much control Facebook has over its users, something that perhaps comes as a surprise to users who often assume that they are the more powerful party in the relationship.

The Singularity

October 22nd, 2016

The discussion on singularity this past meeting seemed to draw nice parallels with parts of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. In the novel, although scientist Victor Frankenstein set out to push the boundaries of existing techniques to create something that could be viewed as beneficial to the human race (making revival possible), his creation strayed from this set purpose and instead took the form of something hideous and unexpected. Although a fictional work, the novel conveys a message and in some sense, a warning. Invention, by nature, constitute exploration into certain unknowns. This process of seeking to create or to discover thus includes elements of ambiguity and uncertainty. Specifically because of these elements, there is considerable risk involved in pursuing areas without a clear vision of where the “upper bound” or limitations lie. The concept of singularity is indeed valid, and upon some reflection, I think it is possible for the process to happen in a “sudden” moment.

One could easily find discoveries or products that came from accidental moments in the lab. For example, Wilson Greatbatch, inventor of the pacemaker, did not set out to create a relatively small device that could be used to regulate the pulse of a human heart. Instead, he was working on a heart-rhythm recorder. Due to a mistake, he assembled the recorder using a different resistor than what he intended. As a result, the device took on a much different nature, producing electric pulses rather than recording rhythms. Although this instance and many other similar stories (discovery of x-ray) present favorable representations of the results of accidents in labs, one could sense the magnitude of impacts of these inventions. By extension, if similar “mistakes” are overlooked in the process of building smarter and smarter computers, one could envision a point at which the process becomes sudden and no longer reversible.

One point that especially stuck out to me was the concept of “natural selection.” The concept of computers reproducing to produce a better final product seems nearly unfathomable. As inventors, humans are so used to be in the position of authority to decide the specific components and functions that computers would be capable of. To think of computers as self-directing entities able to select desirable traits based on their own discretions imply a certain autonomy that, for me, is nearly uncomfortable to imagine.

Internet of Things

October 5th, 2016

The discussion at our last meeting reminded me of UniKey, a company that has previously been featured on Shark Tank. UniKey technology allows users to store “keys” on their cell phones, given that appropriate UniKey locking system is already stored inside the lock, so they could unlock the house by simply being in proximity to the lock. In addition, users could send temporary keys to third parties that would expire after a set amount of hours. The purpose of this feature is to restrict the amount of time cleaners and friends would have access to the house.

Interestingly enough, all five sharks placed offers on the table, a scenario rarely seen on the reality TV show. In retrospect, the amount of confidence the sharks had in the product strikes me as a bit unsettling. By offering to invest in the company, the sharks must have believed in the potential of UniKey to become a replacement for traditional keys. It appears as though each necessary steps and tasks in our lives are being dissected and broken down into simpler parts that could be driven by the internet of things rather than human power. Evidently, this trend is clear enough that the sharks, supposedly keen investors, have taken it into consideration. However, is this the direction that we, as a society, are headed in?

To me, this raises the question of who, exactly, are able to take advantage of and participate in the convenience provided by the internet of things. For example, for the UniKey system to work, users must purchase a special lock with appropriate compatibility and must possess a smart phone with access to the UniKey app. Each of these requirements place financial restrictions on who are able to incorporate UniKey into their day to day activities. That is, the users of this technology must weigh the convenience of unlocking doors without a physical lock over the price that they have to pay to install the system. This constraint prevents the UniKey from becoming a common household item accessible to people from different socio-economic backgrounds. That is, the great conveniences provided by the internet of things are often catered to a specific audience, a body with both capital and sufficient knowledge about how these systems work. Given this limitation, is it possible for the internet of things to fully take over the traditional modes of how tasks are completed? Perhaps this may be the case for those who are able to afford the technology, but for those who don’t, all the benefits provided by the internet of things may be out of touch, as least for the immediate future.

Internet and the Economy

October 1st, 2016

An interesting point from last class’s discussion centered around transactions and payment forms that have been made possible by the internet. As my classmates identified the influence that these forms of technology have on their everyday lives, I have noticed that the usage and infusion of these platforms are even more noticeable and engrained in the Chinese society. I want to focus my discussion on two particular giants in these areas: Taobao and WeChat Pay.

Taobao: Taobao was created in 2003 as a website similar to Amazon where consumers can shop from the ease of their homes. The website, however, has evolved beyond its scope as a shopping medium into a favorite cultural pastime. The website itself contains features like “community conversations” where buyers and sellers alike can post blogs to advertise their products or to initiate general conversation. Users of the website refer to each other as “qin,” a term that translates to “sweetheart.” In fact, the internet term “duo shou” evolved from the usage of taobao, referring to the need to chop one’s hands off in order to stop clicking purchase on the website. As a result, many stores such as the Chinese equivalent of Forever 21 have started operating online Taobao stores in hopes of attracting greater consumer attention.

WeChat Pay: Wechat is a Chinese social media platform similar to Facebook and Twitter. Although it’s predominantly used for communicating with friends and sharing posts on timelines, a growing percentage of users have picked up the WeChat Pay feature as a way to send money to friends or to complete transactions in stores and restaurants. For example, it is a tradition during the Lunar New Year for family members to exchange red packets containing money. As opposed to physically preparing cash and red envelopes, a percentage of the younger generation have started to use the WeChat Pay feature to send virtual red packets to friends and family. The app also allows for users to dictate how many people are eligible to claim a part of the money and can randomize the amount each user receives.

This summer while I was in China, I found it nearly impossible to fully integrate into my friend circle if I wasn’t familiar with Taobao or WeChat Pay. These two platforms, the epitome of commercialization of the internet, have asserted themselves as an integral part of comfortable living in China. It’s not to say that these are necessities for every single person, but it gets quite uncomfortable when you’re the only person still pulling out cash when everyone else is busy scanning barcodes in a restaurant line.