WASHINGTON, June 27, 2019 — A Tuesday Senate Commerce Subcommittee hearing, on “Optimizing for Engagement: Understanding the Use of Persuasive Technology on Internet Platforms,” became an open invitation for senators to attack the business model of the technology industry.
At the hearing, Google confronted bipartisan skepticism about its claimed neutrality, and about its power as a company. (See our story, “Bipartisan Group of Senators Stoke Fears About Google’s Neutrality and Influence in 2020 Election.”)
Other witnesses and senators piled on, particularly when the Google witness claimed that the search engine giant does not use “persuasive” technologies.
Instead, said Maggie Stanphill, Google’s user experience director, Google’s products are built with “privacy, security, and control for the user” in an effort to build a “lifelong relationship.”
“I don’t know what any of that meant,” replied Ranking Member Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., also found Stanphill’s assertion “difficult to believe.”
Subcommittee Chairman John Thune, R-S.D., took a darker and more conspiratorial tact: “The powerful mechanisms behind these platforms meant to enhance engagement also have the ability, or at least the potential, to influence the thoughts and behaviors of literally billions of people.”
Thune said that “the use of artificial intelligence and algorithms to optimize engagement can have an unintended and possibly even dangerous downside.”
Using the politically loaded term of ‘persuasive’ technology
Part of the disconnect may be the introduction – in the title of the event – of the politically loaded term “persuasive” technology.
Companies such as Google have a significant business incentive to take as narrow a view as possible of that term, suggested Rashida Richardson, directory of policy research at the AI Now Institute.
Center for Humane Technology Executive Director Tristan Harris argued that, in fact, “persuasive technology is everywhere.”
Social media platforms are carefully designed to be addictive because the business model is reliant on maintaining user engagement, he said. Twitter’s “pull to refresh” has the same addictive qualities of a slot machine, while Instagram’s infinitely scrolling feed gives users no signal of when to stop.
Polarization and the so-called “callout culture” are a direct result of the focus on keeping users’ attention, because moral outrage and succinct statements—in place of logic-based, nuanced arguments—lead to the highest levels of engagement.
However, there’s no easy way to address these issues because the fundamental problem is the business model itself, said Harris.
The power and reach of artificial intelligence algorithms is far more extensive than many people realize. Harris highlighted research showing that AI can predict an individual’s personality traits based on mouse movements and click patterns alone with 80 percent accuracy.
Platforms are using artificial intelligence and machine learning to build increasingly detailed and accurate models of behavior; for example, YouTube uses this to promote the autoplay content that is most likely to keep users watching.
Not only do the platforms make their media as addictive as possible, they actively make it difficult for users to leave. When Facebook users attempt to delete their accounts, the platform shows them the profiles of five users who will supposedly miss them, carefully selected based on past engagement, said Harris.
All of these tactics create what Harris called an “asymmetry of power,” meaning that users believe that they have control when they actually don’t.
Artificial intelligence is having a significant impact on society as well as on individuals. Many companies have attempted to use algorithms to determine who should be hired, released on bail, given loans, and more, oftentimes leading to highly biased and flawed outcomes. These algorithms are primarily developed and deployed by just a few powerful companies, giving them dangerously immense power to shape society, said Richardson.
Harris agreed, comparing human use of these immensely powerful technologies is comparable to “chimpanzees with nukes.”
Senators raise concern about algorithm’s impact on children
Multiple senators expressed especial concern over the impacts of these algorithms on children. Children can inadvertently stumble on extremist material by being drawn to shocking content or using search terms that carry an unknown subtext, said Sen. Tom Udall, D-NM. This can spiral into radicalization.
Harris cited various examples of this phenomenon, such as a video explaining a diet being followed by portrayals of anorexia, or a video about the moon landing being followed by flat earth conspiracy theories.
Not only is this content accidentally found, YouTube may actually be “systemically” serving it to children, said Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who is planning to introduce the “Kids Internet and Safety Act” to stop autoplay and other forms of commercialization that may be targeting children.
Stanphill was adamant in stating that Google had already taken steps to fix the problems under discussion. Her claims were met with skepticism from both senators and other witnesses.
(Photo of Sen. John Thune at the hearing on Tuesday by Emily McPhie.)
Deepfakes Pose National Security Threat, Private Sector Tackles Issue
Content manipulation can include misinformation from authoritarian governments.
WASHINGTON, July 20, 2022 – Content manipulation techniques known as deepfakes are concerning policy makers and forcing the public and private sectors to work together to tackle the problem, a Center for Democracy and Technology event heard on Wednesday.
A deepfake is a technical method of generating synthetic media in which a person’s likeness is inserted into a photograph or video in such a way that creates the illusion that they were actually there. Policymakers are concerned that deepfakes could pose a threat to the country’s national security as the technology is being increasingly offered to the general population.
Deepfake concerns that policymakers have identified, said participants at Wednesday’s event, include misinformation from authoritarian governments, faked compromising and abusive images, and illegal profiting from faked celebrity content.
“We should not and cannot have our guard down in the cyberspace,” said Representative John Katko, R-NY, ranking member of House Committee on homeland security.
Adobe pitches technology to identify deepfakes
Software company Adobe released an open-source toolkit to counter deepfake concerns earlier this month, said Dana Rao, executive vice president of Adobe. The companies’ Content Credentials feature is a technology developed over three years that tracks changes made to images, videos, and audio recordings.
Content Credentials is now an opt-in feature in the company’s photo editing software Photoshop that it says will help establish credibility for creators by adding “robust, tamper-evident provenance data about how a piece of content was produced, edited, and published,” read the announcement.
Adobe’s Connect Authenticity Initiative project is dedicated to addressing problems establishing trust after the damage caused by deepfakes. “Once we stop believing in true things, I don’t know how we are going to be able to function in society,” said Rao. “We have to believe in something.”
As part of its initiative, Adobe is working with the public sector in supporting the Deepfake Task Force Act, which was introduced in August of 2021. If adopted, the bill would establish a National Deepfake and Digital task force comprised of members from the private sector, public sector, and academia to address disinformation.
For now, said Cailin Crockett, senior advisor to the White House Gender Policy Council, it is important to educate the public on the threat of disinformation.
Should the Federal Government Regulate Artificial Intelligence?
Two experts were on opposite sides of the debate about how to mitigate the downsides of AI.
WASHINGTON, July 12, 2022 – Representatives from academia and a nonprofit diverged at a Bipartisan Policy Center event Tuesday about whether the government should step in and minimize problems associated with artificial intelligence, including bias and discrimination in algorithms.
“We really do want actors to help us establish national and international guidelines,” said Miriam Vogel, president, and CEO of EqualAI, a nonprofit that seeks to reduce bias in AI. “We are driving full speed without lanes, without speed limits to manage the expectations.”
While acknowledging the benefits of AI in society today, Vogel said its algorithms present risk that often leads to bias and discrimination. She shared the example of how facial recognition misses certain voices or skin tones.
AI is used in various sectors and powers algorithms that cater services to individuals. Panelists referenced the use of AI algorithms in suspect identification for criminal justice, in disease diagnosis in health care, and for movie and employment recommendations.
Vogel said regulation will establish clear expectations for AI companies to minimize such risks.
Adam Thierer, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, said he is “a little skeptical that we should create a regulatory AI structure” and instead proposed educating workers on how to set best practices for risk management. He called this an “educational institution approach.”
He said that because of how long federal law takes to enact, he wants to reach AI workers directly, such as the computer programmers and AI innovators “of tomorrow” to do a better job of “baking best practices” into AI.
“I think baking best practice principles in by design begins with an educational focus,” said Thierer.
Thierer said he wants to give this job to trusted third parties to suggest pathways forward, including ethical evaluations and consultations with AI companies. He said that when it comes to AI rules across different sectors, “we don’t need one overarching standard to rule them all.”
Thierer added that because of how fast AI is changing, “it can’t go through the same regulatory process.” He argued if regulation is put in place, we will lose AI innovators.
Vogel disagreed with Thierer, saying she doesn’t believe that there is a risk of losing innovators with regulating AI, and instead, said, “I see regulation is the partner to innovation.”
She said that because there is no government regulation for AI, companies are left to do it themselves if they choose, referencing the Badge Program at EqualAI that seeks to help companies navigate risks.
“We need to have a governance system put in place to make sure continual testing is taking place,” said Vogel.
FTC Commissioner Says Agency Report on AI for Online Harms Did Not Consult Outside Experts
The FTC released a report that warned about the dangers of AI’s use to combat online harms.
WASHINGTON, June 22, 2022 – Federal Trade Commissioner Noah Phillips said last week that a report by the commission about the use of artificial intelligence to tackle online harms did not consult outside experts as Congress asked.
The FTC’s “Combatting Online Harms through Innovation” report – approved by a 4-1 vote to send to Congress and released on June 16 – warns against using AI as a policy solution for online problems, as the commission says it contains inherent design flaws, bias and discrimination, and features commercial surveillance concerns. The commission concluded that the potential adoption of AI could increase additional harms.
However, the report found that amid the use of AI by Big Tech platforms to address online harms, “lawmakers should consider focusing on developing legal frameworks that would ensure that AI tools do not cause additional harm.”
The one dissenting opinion on the report was from Phillips, who said the FTC did not do the study that was required by Congress. As part of the 2021 Consolidated Appropriations Act, Congress asked the FTC to conduct a study on how artificial intelligence could address online harms such as fake reviews, hate crimes and harassment and child sexual abuse.
“I do not believe we conducted the requisite study, and I do not think the report on AI issued by the Commission takes sufficient care to answer the questions Congress asked,” Phillips said in his dissenting statement.
Phillips said the report mainly focuses on the technology of AI itself and lacks the outside perspective from individuals and companies who use AI and try to combat the harms of AI online, which he said is “precisely what Congress asked us to evaluate.”
Phillips added that in the 12 months the FTC was given to complete this study, “rather than use this time to solicit input from all relevant stakeholders, the Commission chose to conduct a kind of literature review.
Phillips said in his statement he would have liked to see interviews of market participants or surveys conducted, which allegedly isn’t included in the recent report and adds that he is instead concerned about the “quantity of self-reference” used by the FTC in the report.
“Still, we should at least endeavor to produce a report that reflects the full diversity of experiences and viewpoints on these important issues concerning AI.” Phillips also noted the report doesn’t include a serious cost-benefit analysis of using AI to combat online harms.
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