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First Contact with AI
The Silent Curator of Our Digital Reality
In the maelstrom of technological advancements that we currently live in AI is emerging as the most influential and somewhat controversial force, redefining the tapestry of human existence and interaction. The technology, while offering unprecedented benefits, from incredible technological development that if properly handled could uplift humanity outside of this era of polycrises into a glorious pathway towards the cosmos. But, it has also steered humanity into an intricate dilemma, instigating debates and discussions around its ethical, social, and psychological ramifications. We need to have these discussions today in small spaces like this newsletter but again in our day-to-day lives in our jobs and the circles of power for the people making these world-changing decisions to be more aware and cautious about the existential risk that AI can represent if not properly aligned with humanity’s wellbeing and goals.
An Alien Intelligence
The dawn of the Internet age heralded an era of boundless information and connectivity, with AI being the silent conductor orchestrating our digital experiences. From the benign recommendations in our social media feed, the “people you may know” and the targeted ads trying to get you to buy that new robot vacuum, AI has insidiously curated our digital world, seamlessly intertwined with our online interactions. However, this free access and personalized experiences that we have “enjoyed” for the past years have come at a palpable cost. The algorithmic prioritization of engagement over everything else has inadvertently fostered an ecosystem that amplifies polarization, erodes democratic values, and undermines institutional trust.
And this is what the Center for Humane Technology has called the “First Contact” of humanity with AI the first experience of our species against this alien intelligence created by our own hands. And let’s just say we can see the devastating effects all around us from our mental health to our political views the effects that this silent curator has had on our society are immense.
As previously mentioned due to the design of most social companies and their business models AI is constantly on a quest to increase engagement, this has led to the perpetuation of biases and it has shaped public opinion. The goal of our Silent Curator is not to show you content in your feed that will teach you or help you with anything, just that it will keep your eyeballs active, and your screen on their app/website.
So these engagement maximizers thrive off strong emotions whether it is showing you the most appalling things that will keep you enraged, or showing you what completely validates your own personal biases which have led to the phenomenon of social media echo chambers, instances where everything and everyone you see on social media is in a very similar political or social perspective and you never get content that might differ from that biased perspective increasing our own biases and eroding the human capacity to tolerate people with a different point of view and skewing our perception of reality (“Oh, of course, MY point of view is the right one EVERYONE around thinks like this too”)
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We can see how humanity’s interactions have been completely altered by the different social media platforms, the digital economy has also shifted and is now engagement, YouTubers, influencers, and other businesses from social media companies are based on making more and more people watch their content and purchase and follow their pipeline or become malleable to the whims of advertisers as well, perpetuating potential biases and eliminating the chance of different ideas.
Even language itself is being affected by AI for example due to censorship on “controversial terms” and the sensibilities of American social media companies, certain words are being shadowbanned (or censored straight up) in video platforms like TikTok and Instagram which forces the content creators to use ridiculous terms like Un-alive instead of mentioning killings or suicide and when a single platform with millions of users and content creators enforces their biases it envelops and spreads to hundreds of millions which might be having real-world effects on how people use language in the future.
Erosion of Democracy
In today’s world politics are run on the basis of the same social media platforms and engagement maximization. Political operatives, parties, and candidates want your attention constantly and whoever manages to grab more eyeballs is most likely to win an election, not the one with better ideas proposals, or solutions to society's problems, so it shifts the conversation away from the ideas and it becomes a competition for engagement who makes the boldest claims, who plays the game of the soundbite or the viral clip better.
We can see the effects it has had globally, the trend of more and more countries falling away from democratic governments, and those that still have democratic governments have seen a growing number of people dissatisfied with their current systems.
Political polarization is also on the highest levels that we’ve ever seen and this could be explained similarly to the phenomenon of echo chambers the recommendation engines in these social media platforms reinforce political biases and surround people with those who think the same and as a group are easier to move by a charismatic leader or a pipeline towards radicalization because of this isolation of people with real humans that have different points of view and engage with them in honest dialog instead we have seen how online discourse is one of vitriol and attacks instead of understanding and solutions.
This pipeline is one that there are clear examples happening because of the engagement maximizers behind our social media a famous case is YouTube a couple of years ago; due to their recommendation engine’s programming for a while, there was a very clear pathway some users were falling and getting radicalized by the far right.
Mental Health Ramifications
The subtle yet profound impact of AI-curated experiences on global mental health is subtle at first but in aggregate we can see the effects and results this has had. The constant dopamine boosts caused by the app designed to catch our attention from the color to the position of the icons have been optimized for (you guessed it) engagement, hundreds of the most brilliant minds in human behavior have been hired by billion-dollar companies to optimize their platforms for engagement.
Humanity’s digital identity is also being affected by these engagement maximizers. The constant barrage of content from people we don’t know showcasing a lavish and sometimes unreal way of living puts your own life as pitiful by comparison. Teenagers experience higher levels of anxiety and depression due to their use of social media, societal pressures are increased and multiplied when put through the lens of these apps. And the constant doom-scrolling of watching curated content for engagement and not for the benefit of the user. But at the end of the day, it is still engagement and that is all that counts for our silent curators.
Fake News and the Death of Human Trust
As we’ve been repeating AI algorithms on social media platforms are primarily designed to maximize user engagement, and they often achieve this by promoting content that is sensational, controversial, or that aligns with a user's existing beliefs and preferences regardless of its factual accuracy, because engagement doesn’t mean real. Misinformation or fake news can spread like wildfire on these platforms, as the algorithms can inadvertently promote these types of content because they tend to attract high levels of user engagement in the form of likes, shares, and comments. This is because fake news are designed for human emotional reaction so the engagement of the users spreads fake news like wildfire with studies claiming fake news can spread up to 6 times faster than real information.
This phenomenon is not only limited to benign false information but also extends to harmful health misinformation, false rumors that can incite violence, and fake news that can manipulate financial markets. We have seen the effects of these in the real world, from the January 6 failed coup by radicalized Trump supporters to anti-vaccine conspiracies spreading during the pandemic. The real-world implications of the spread of misinformation can be dire, impacting public health, safety, and economic stability.
Moreover, it can further entrench societal divisions, and erode people’s trust in their government in the institutions that exist to protect and keep societal order. If you’re in a conspiracy or a political radicalization pipeline on your social media feed most likely you will not feel it directly but slowly and surely the government might be looking more like a threat as an ally for you, policies aimed at helping people might be seen as a way for governments to encroach on people’s freedoms or other political platitudes. The point is that if enough people start mistrusting democracy, their governments, and the institutions that built prosperous societies the only pathway is a complete downfall and erosion of the power of institutions which might lead to societal collapse in the worst of cases.
Results of the First Contact
So, yeah as you can see the first contact humanity had with AI on a massive scale hasn't gone the best so far. One of the most depressing things is that we haven’t solved these issues some are societal others political others are human and we don’t yet have a solution for these problems nor for the underlying engagement maximizers present in our lives to this day. If this was a direct conflict between humanity and AI (which is not) we are losing this battle. Not because AI is a nefarious force but because we don’t yet understand it fully or because there aren’t yet the regulatory, technical, and ethical developments to guide this technology toward the promises that it can provide for us and try to minimize the perils that it represents.
As we progressively delve deeper into the AI-integrated future, the imperative to establish robust ethical frameworks, safeguards, and inclusive dialogues becomes paramount. The balance between leveraging AI’s capabilities and preserving our ethical, social, and psychological well-being is delicate yet much needed. As we move forward toward the future we need to be more proactive at, guiding our collective journey where technology and humanity coexist in synergistic harmony and where the hybrid offsprings of humanity alongside AI are expanding our influence towards the stars uncovering the mysteries of the universe and opening up to new and wonderful possibilities.