A harrowing truth about one company’s mission to change your mind.
From Siri to self-driving cars, effects of artificial intelligence (AI) are already being felt worldwide, and this trend is literally only beginning. This new technology is developing exponentially with no signs of showing down, some have even begun to name the upcoming age the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The human brain can only process so much these days and this new disruptive technology being discovered in artificial intelligence is poised to create a new economy unlike humanity has ever seen before. The opportunities are endless and I implore exploring all the potential benefits.
For example in regards to healthcare, it is already far easier for computers equipped with algorithms to predict and diagnose medical issues than doctors of today. These include but are not limited to genetic mutations, cysts, tumors, or even how fast blood flows from the heart. AI can also be paired with smartphones (or smartwatches) to track health in real-time via sensor technology.
Simply put the way this works is giant data sets — consisting of any number of different variables tracked over time — are fed to a computer. The computer calculates the data using complex & self-learning equations, then it produces an answer in mere seconds. This is important to note, because it demonstrates a crucial point about AI, the tech is ours to program.
What happens when artificial intelligence is used for manipulation?
In England there is a conglomerate that specializes in “behavior research and strategic communication” called SCL Group (Strategic Communication Laboratories). The firm was initially started in the 1990’s to study mass behavior influences by media. Results were promising, and it was quickly picked up, privatized, and used by figures in British politics to help promote their campaigns. This was essentially the start of an avalanche. In 2013 an offshoot of the British parent company SCL was created to participate in American politics, this private-held company is named Cambridge Analytica (CA).
The new company was funded and is partly owned by Robert Mercer, an alt-right American hedge-fund managing billionaire that was one of Donald Trump’s earliest and most prevalent campaign donors in the 2016 election. The decision to invest in this British parent company’s technology to be used to influence American democracy was not solely a decision made by Mercer. He was persuaded by a close friend of his … Steve Bannon. They met thanks to Andrew Breitbart (yes, the news outlet is named after him) introduced the two to each other in 2011. After Breitbart died of a heart attack on the street in 2012 Bannon took over the reigns and made the outlet into the platform of hate it is known for today.
Steve Bannon and Robert Mercer, two men who share extremely radically right and authoritarian views are both board members of CA— and their goals and how they go about achieving them are nothing short of terrifying. The company combines data mining and data analysis to predict behavior, then it aims to ultimately change your behavior.
If you have been out of the loop the last 5 years, big data essentially refers to the digital traces of everything we do online. This means every purchase with our cards, every search we type into google, every like, tweet, status update, etc. Have you ever looked up something, say a drum set, then saw ads on Facebook minutes later about the same or similar drum sets? That’s big data. And for a couple years we believed that was about the extent of this data collection, and we could not have been more wrong.
There is an awesome field of psychology called psychometrics and what it entails is attempting to measure the mental capabilities and processes of individuals. All the way back in the 1980’s a team of psychologists developed a model that tried to assess human beings based off five personality traits: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism — more commonly known as the OCEAN test.
Then came the Internet.
In 2008, a student named Michal Kosinski began working on his PhD at the Psychometrics Centre at Cambridge University. He developed a questionaire that he had fellow colleagues and friends fill out. He used a relatively new social platform at the time to do this, Facebook. Using the results from the OCEAN quiz and big data such as what they liked or shared or posted on Facebook allowed the researcher’s predictions to become wildly accurate.
10 likes and the software could know more about you than a coworker, 70 likes would be better than a friend, 150 likes = better than your parents, and with 300 likes the machine could predict behavior better than one’s partner.
Kosinski saw the future, and worried his research would be used for wrong intentions, and that is exactly what happened when Cambridge Analytica got their hands on it. While not much is known due to closed lips, thanks to a Guardian investigation into the firm we have since learned the company utilizes not only the methods of data mining Facebook profiles and quizzes/games logged in through Facebook, but it harvests data on millions of unknowing users through other people’s friends lists. Through tracking, mining, and purchasing data, this private company boasts having information on as much as 220 million Americans already (that’s 2/3 of the country).
Collecting the data and analyzing it allowed CA to create customized, tailored propaganda to influence personal behaviors.
For instance, the algorithms would predict those who liked US manufactured automobiles were more prone to support Trump, so those on the ground going door to door would look to speak with these individuals first. If the test came back as the user being African-American, that user would be targeted with ads about Clinton calling African-Americans “super-predators” in the 90's.
Cambridge Analytica takes credit for helping elect president Trump, securing a win for the BREXIT campaign, and leading Ted Cruz to become the only other contender in the Republican primaries. The company is already looking into other global elections. If you’re hoping I am making this stuff up I’m sorry. Here is the CEO of the company essentially confirming himself what I just wrote.
Also, it gets worse.
If you have wondered why the White House is having talks about contracts to boost Trump policies and expand sales for the Trump Organization, or why Steve Bannon wants to regulate Facebook and Google like utilities, or why this insane push to collect individual’s data because of voter fraud are happening just remember one thing: knowledge is power.
To wrap up, I will concede that this idea of using big data to paint a picture to win elections is not brand new. Cambridge Analytica is not the only company that can pull this off, however I want to stress that it is the most powerful company that exists right now. Understanding this concept and the bigger picture of it all is essential for anydiv trying to understand modern political power, form a movement, or keep from being manipulated by it.
Thanks for reading.