By Dr Ian Clarke
I attended a conference by the National Council for Higher Education to launch a programme of research into IT, social media, artificial intelligence and big data. In writing this column I have to put a caveat – I am a dinosaur as far as IT is concerned. I grew up using pen and paper and did not learn keyboard skills until I was forty. For me tablets are what I prescribe to patients, though I have grown to like laptops, since I can now type and don’t have to read my own writing (which in the tradition of doctors is largely illegible).
Having said that, I have no choice but to use the tools of today, such as Google, Facebook and Twitter, so my natural curiosity has led me to read around where these big IT companies are taking us as the human race. It now seems like a long time since Steve Jobs and Bill Gates went head to head for the domination of personal computers, a battle that Bill Gates won, while Steve Jobs was fired from his own company. Bill Gates, by dint of getting his windows program packaged onto IBM computers, came to dominate software for the PC market. Steve Jobs had worked with Steve Wozniac to design the first personal computer (which said Hello), but then Apple’s operating system was marginalized by Microsoft.
Fast forward to when Apple brought Steve Jobs back from the cold and he came up with the i-phone, which took the world by storm, making Apple the most valuable company in the world today. Meantime Jeff Bezos saw the potential of online shopping and beavered away selling books online in a company he named Amazon (which means a strong woman). Along the way he used AI to predict customers needs and robotics to replace a human workforce. Of course Amazon would not have been possible without the advent of the Internet, which changed the world.
During this time a couple of Stanford graduates, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, decided to develop an internet search engine which would trawl all the internet websites, their goal: to organize all the information in the world – not a small task. They were in competition with Microsoft and several other companies, but they were just better and more trusted (‘Do no harm’) and got way ahead of the competition such that their name, Google, has now become a verb for search.
Then came Mark Zuckerberg, with his University site for rating girls, which developed into Facebook, linking billions of people around the world. These are just some of the giants in the age of the Internet, but what does it all mean to you and me? Practically all middle class people now have smart phones, which have become the hardware by which we access the internet, including Google, Facebook, Amazon and other social media such as WhatsApp, Instagram (owned by Facebook), and Twitter.
But are these companies all working for our best interest? The European Union thinks not. Google was just fined over one billion dollars for anti-competitive practices. And Facebook has not fared better: after initial denials, they reluctantly acknowledged that Russian sites had infiltrated the American elections, and they had even paid in rubles (a bit of a giveaway). When Steve Bezos was asked about the future of AI and robotics his response was that the government should be prepared to pay people for doing nothing (his warehouses are now staffed purely by robots).
The bald truth is that these companies are set up to make money for their shareholders, which is not the same thing as doing good for mankind. Companies such as Facebook and Google make money from advertising and thus direct searches towards sites that have paid them more. They also harvest the data on users and through AI understand the pattern of hits and likes so that they can design advertising tailored to the profile of an individual. Google and Facebook know people better than they know themselves and people don’t even realize they are being manipulated in their choices.
The algorithms are also geared to categorize people into groups. For example, if a person expresses views akin to a white supremacist, he will be directed to sites that agree with his existing biases – thus strengthening them. The overall effect is to make the world more polarized, as we have recently witnessed in terms of both American and British politics.
In essence we live in a world, which is being far more manipulated than we realize, and the overall effect is more extremism and increased unemployment. The average person is now seeing his pay packet shrink, or is facing unemployment. And because of this he is becoming more resentful, and more extreme, he may be blaming immigrants on his plight, but missing the point that he has now become simply a consumer of what is being served up to him by these behemoths.