Although technology may have no sense of good or evil, even algorithms always “bear the fingerprints of its creator(s)”, which certainly influences the models of rational analysis and decision-making of the user and therefore creates some contentious ethical challenges, says Louis Fourie, a futurist and technology strategist.  Photo: Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty Images
Although technology may have no sense of good or evil, even algorithms always “bear the fingerprints of its creator(s)”, which certainly influences the models of rational analysis and decision-making of the user and therefore creates some contentious ethical challenges, says Louis Fourie, a futurist and technology strategist. Photo: Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty Images

Tech News: AI is getting under our skin

By Louis Fourie Time of article published Jul 3, 2020

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JOHANNESBURG - Many decades ago, in 1936, Cole Porter wrote a song “I’ve got you under my skin” that would eventually future on many top hit lists all over the world. It was introduced in the same year in the Eleanor Powell musical film Born to Dance by Virginia Bruce and was nominated for the academy award of best original song. It later became a signature song for Frank Sinatra since 1946 and a top 10 hit for the Four Seasons. 

Renditions by many artists followed, such as the hip-hop interpretation in 1990 by the Swedish Rapper, Neneh Cherry, and a romantic version by Carly Simon in 2005.  

In 2008 Jukebox the Ghost released a song called “Under my skin,” playing on the same idiom of “getting under someone’s skin.”

According to my highly regarded dictionaries, “to get under someone’s skin” means to affect someone’s deep feelings. And this is exactly what I would like to write about today: 

How artificial intelligence can be programmed to get under our skin and affect our deepest feelings.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution and the tight and intelligent integration of different technologies, seamlessly combining the spheres of the digital, physical and biological (jointly referred to as “cyber-physical systems”) has indeed brought some amazing changes to make our lives easier, more convenient, safer and healthier. 

Unfortunately, technological artefacts are never morally neutral instruments but affect humans on an existential level. The conception and values of large corporations and designers are encoded into the material and structure of their technology. 

Regrettably, it often happens that organisational leaders interfere with developers and influence prejudice, preferences and bias of the system. Emerging technologies, therefore, often reshape our thinking and behaviour by co-creating our living world. It changes our relationships with one another and forms our moral and institutional values and behaviour.

Technology causes large social disruptions and a frequently a loss of freedom. It reflects a fundamental set of shifts in human identity, culture, society and how we experience the world. Over the years of human existence, technology has permeated the human culture and now touches almost every single aspect of our lives. It influences our ethics, values, decisions and faith. Unfortunately, we often uncritically embrace technology.

In particular the development of autonomous technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, autonomous cars, and military weapons that decide whom to attack, redefine the human-technology relation and its moral dimension. 

Technology can be the engine of economic development and the source of remedies for all kinds of diseases, but it can also be a danger to our natural environment and the cause of even more superficial interpersonal relations. Technology is never free from a cultural, political and hermeneutical context and is at a deeper level thus also not free from preconceived values and rationality. Technology shapes human culture, human consciousness, social and cultural practices.

Technology, and in particular the Fourth Industrial Revolution, also causes a shift in people’s understanding of themselves, other people, space and time and even God. Today technology, not human nature, sets the limits for human living. It is important to remember that technological choices are often really decisions about the kind of society people and their leaders want to build.

One of the technologies currently having a profound influence on the lives of people is artificial intelligence. Since the start of the millennium, artificial intelligence, machine learning and algorithm-based information technology has grown exponentially and has improved the understanding of business operations and the quality of decision-making tremendously. 

Unfortunately, there is also a deleterious and manipulative side to the use of artificial intelligence, algorithms, and big data, which raises serious ethical and other concerns. 

Although technology may have no sense of good or evil, even algorithms always “bear the fingerprints of its creator(s)”, which certainly influences the models of rational analysis and decision-making of the user and therefore creates some contentious ethical challenges. The widely publicised use of big data and algorithms by Cambridge Analytica to influence public opinion, manipulate referenda and elections, also in South Africa, is a good example of misuse. Such use is an erosion of social justice and threatens democracy. 

Another example is stock exchange software and websites using artificial intelligence and powerful algorithms to automate trading based on technical analysis and thus massively influencing the buying and selling decisions of many uninformed people.

A further concern is the use of nudging theory. Nudging is widely used by online companies such as Takealot’s “You might also like…” and Netflix’s “Because you have seen…” and is supposed to assist decision-makers to make better decisions by limiting the number of choices.  Unfortunately, nudging is also used to influence the decision of buyers and often steer them to more expensive services and products.

Despite great progress, artificial intelligence and algorithms are not yet very successful in judging human values, which could lead to a sacrifice of fairness and justice due to an inability to distinguish between good and evil. It is thus possible that in the continuous self-development of algorithms via machine learning, the algorithms become destructive. 

The Search Engine Manipulation Effect (SEME) that entails the manipulation of search engine results by search engine providers based on people’s profiles is also a serious concern. It can easily limit the critical thinking and freedom of choice. It is a well-known fact that dynamic pricing is used by many websites and that prices are increased during browsing according to a person’s profile and perceived income category. Since Apple is seen as a luxury item, Apple users will often receive much higher prices. 

However, what is an even greater concern is that behind the artificial intelligence, algorithms, influencing and manipulation lies the immense power of the large corporates. 

The Big data emanating from Hadoop super-computing clusters, the internet of things, and ubiquitous sensors is so extensive and complex that in most cases it can only be 
processed by large corporations like Facebook and Google. 

Unfortunately, this gives undue power to these large corporations since the controllers of data control people and the world. A careful study of the huge investments made in Fourth Industrial Technologies points to the economic control of the future by a relatively small group of extremely wealthy people and corporations. The authors Gilens and Page (2014) refer to this as “the corporate takeover of humanity”.

When I thus read in the news that Google and Apple trained their Artificial Intelligence voice assistants (Google Assistant and Siri) to give a positive answer regarding the Black Lives Matter Movement and a more negative answer to All Lives Matter questions, I become very concerned about the subtle manipulation by large corporations – whether there is merit in the changes or not. The point is that technology, and in this case artificial intelligence, is not neutral.

There is little doubt that the technology disruptors of the Fourth Industrial Revolution abound and will together with the owners of the technology increasingly influence our lives and the world in the years to come. Especially artificial intelligence will be one of the important game-changers in future. It will certainly get under our skin and effect our deepest emotions and decisions.

We live in a time, where the confluence of real and virtual worlds creates new contexts and ontologies that we are continuously struggling to fully comprehend. Our ethical values, according to which we act and use technology, are constantly put to the test. The problem is that we have often left this debate to the corporates and their developers who often have profit as their main goal.

If we are not careful, this abdication of our ethical responsibility, together with the technological manipulation of individuals and society by large corporations, have the ability to spiral out of control and mobilise people on a massive scale with tragic results. 

This sadly transpired relatively recently in Myanmar when a social media campaign resulted in horrendous violence against members of the Rohingya ethic minority, which led to 
the killing and mutilation of many adults and children. Eventually the violence resulted in hundreds of thousands of refugees.

We will have to guard that artificial intelligence (and technology) does not get under our skin.

Professor Louis C H Fourie is a futurist and technology strategist  [email protected] 

BUSINESS REPORT 

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