Thursday Thoughts

I’ve been thinking about something lately. There’s a quote—you’ve likely heard it—that we’re each a compilation of the five people with whom we spend the most time. It’s an interesting idea—and a powerful incentive to spend time with really cool people. It also prompts a lot of what I call “chicken versus egg” questions. As in, what comes first? Am I spending time with funny people because I’m funny? Or am I funny because I spend time with funny people?

Anyway, none of that is the point of this post.

I’ve been thinking a lot about data-driven online artificial intelligence-powered algorithms lately. (Evidently, some of my five people are nerds.) I watched this really fascinating TED Talk about how companies like Facebook (no surprise), Google, and Amazon are tracking our time online, then feeding that into algorithms that predict behaviors in ways humans have never before been able to predict behavior—the artificial intelligence is smarter than we are.

In the talk she gives a great example of how if you’re trying to sell plane tickets to Vegas, in the past you might have targeted your ads for that to men in the 25-35 age range with high credit card limits. Now, someone’s history of Google searches and Facebook posts can be used to determine how likely they are to buy a plane ticket to Vegas—even if they’ve never once searched for Vegas or plane tickets. Of course, this is used for way crazier stuff—like, these algorithms can predict things like when someone who is bipolar is about to have a manic episode.

And here’s where it gets especially interesting. The algorithms don’t understand mental illness or manic episodes. But they do understand that the individual approaching manic is much more likely to spend money. And so they target ads for Vegas plane tickets straight to them. And, of course, it works.

We think we’re wise enough to recognize online targeting—I click on news about Trump tweeting stupid things, I’ll get more negative Trump news. I click on a pair of shoes I want, those shoes will show up on every site I visit for a week straight. I stalk an ex on Instagram (never happened) and then I have to look at his photos in my feed for a month. We all know this, right?

But it’s so much more than that. And it’s growing so fast. And we’re all spending so much more time in front of our screens.

Which brings me back to the quote about being a compilation of five people. It’s from like 20 years ago. And I think it’s changed. I think maybe we’re a compilation of four people, plus our online self. I’m influenced by the people I spend the most time with, but I’m also heavily influenced by the trail of data I’m leaving and artificial intelligence is following.

There’s a lot to unpack here from societal polarization to privacy issues. But I’m more interested in the psychological effects. And now we’re back to the “chicken versus egg.” Am I the person I am because of my Google searches? Or are my Google searches based on who I am? Am I connecting with some people via social media because of our shared interests? Or do we have shared interests because of social media?

Not to go all 1984 on you, but my hypothesis is that in 2018 even the most self-aware among us are likely being influenced (nice word) or manipulated (less nice word) into subtly changing our personalities—and even our lives—based on artificial intelligence-powered algorithms.

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