We have already lost privacy, now we have to watch over our spontaneity

31 October, 2018

By Koen Maris,
Chief Technology Officer – Cyber Security at Atos

While the deadline for May 25th – synonym for the start of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) – is long behind us, most companies have welcomed the efforts made and the results achieved. All customers have been informed, in more or less understandable terms, the number of legal cases remain limited, and consumers have the feeling that the safeguarding of their private lives has been successful. However, there is one thing that should worry us much more, and that we have totally ignored so far: it isn’t our privacy which is threatened, but rather our spontaneity.

I never cease to be amazed how we all go along with that hype around the GDPR. Because it really is a “hype”: our privacy isn’t really at stake… we already lost it when we got mobile phones, and even a little more when we activated our Facebook accounts. And when we are googling travel destinations, booking flights online, ordering tickets for festivals, listening to songs suggested by Spotify, or even when we remove a post on Facebook. Almost all of our online life is out there, and a whole industry is desperate to find a solution to safeguard our privacy? Well let’s see…

We would all better worry about how technology will dictate our lives, or better: how it already is. Every time we order a product from Amazon, eBay or any other online retailer, we receive the message: “People who bought this book often also buy that book. This dress has been ordered this many times together with this bracelet.” And the customers are satisfied, because based on their taste similar products are suggested that might interest them too. And the retailer is satisfied, because these satisfied customers buy more when products are proposed to them, compared to when they have to hunt for products on their own, even if they didn’t necessarily intend to purchase these products in the first place. A real win-win. Right?

Self-learning or self-confirming?

And what if it was more of a win-lose? What if we didn’t only lose a few euros, but also an experience? A chance to be surprised? What if we gradually lose our spontaneity, our ability to be open to new things, our willingness to listen to refreshing new opinions? And what does this mean for us personally, and for society in general?

Let me take you back in time about two years, more specifically to March 23, 2016. That day, Microsoft launched its chatbot Tay on Twitter. This was aimed to be an exercise in Artificial Intelligence. The chatbot had to be as human as possible with respect to language use and conversation. It also had to be self-learning, and based on interactions with individuals, learn how to become even more “human”. Flash forward to 16 hours later, when Tay was taken offline due to unacceptable language and provocative messages. So, what happened? Tay mainly got reactions from “trolls” who used racist, sexist and other intolerable language and began to adapt her “own” language accordingly. Result: Tay has attracted more even more such public and her views became even more extreme. In no time it became so bad, Microsoft simply had to put an end to the project.

Of course, this case is extreme, and everyone quickly thought: “Now you can see how limited the learning ability of a machine is: it can’t even make a distinction between acceptable and unacceptable statements.” But aren’t we doing the same thing ourselves?  Don’t we subscribe to those Facebook pages that confirm our way of thinking and don’t we quickly get lost in a range of ideas that are similar to ours, just to make us feel better?

Live or let live?

Think again about those Amazon recommendations, mentioned above. Or about the success story of Netflix. An intelligent engine behind the scenes that can tell you, based on your viewing behavior: “You need to see this.” And you know what? Most of the time, they’re right! But by slavishly following these recommendations, we are actually becoming a slave to those intelligent machines, weak-willed viewers who obediently follow their suggestions. You can see this pattern at Netflix, but also at retailers, who use ever better personalized leaflets. Until we have our entire life determined by what machines have learned about us.

But I do not want that at all. I want to know which series are gluing my neighbor to his screen. I sometimes want to read a historical novel instead of always those smart science fiction stories. I want to look at all the promotions in the supermarket, not just those who are recommended to me. And taste those olives that are offered a little further in the store.

I am therefore much more worried about this: that our spontaneity will decrease year after year until we keep little more consciousness than Tay or any other robot. That impoverishment seems more dangerous to me than the loss of our privacy.

Pay and let pay

How can we avoid this? The answer might surprise you: by enriching us. We should stop just giving our data away. Companies want to know more and more about us, and when we share that data with them, they reward us with even better products, smarter suggestions, … for which they make us pay more. This also is a win-win, but mainly for the company. It is time to let them pay money to get that information. It may help to break the vicious circle of more targeted communications, based on our own preferences.

We must be aware that all the free online services are actually not so free at all. We have paid for years, with insights into who we are, what we like and sometimes even more intimate details. If we want to free ourselves from this, we must learn to pay for some services with money, rather than with data, whether or not it is confidential. My conclusion is simple but hard: those who want a “richer” life will have to pay for it.

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