‘When technology takes control of our information environment, it takes control of humanity’: Center for Humane Tech president

June 24, 2020


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When technology like AI takes control of our information environment, then it takes control of the fate of humanity, according to the president of the Center for Humane Technology.

“AI actually already runs our world” — Tristan Harris

Speaking in a virtual panel of the Summer Nostos Festival, Center for Humane Technology Co-Founder and President Tristan Harris gave a sobering presentation about the subtle ways in which AI has permeated our society and how big tech companies wield tremendous power through their control over the flow of information.

Harris began, as he begins many of his presentations, with the following quote by the father of sociobiology, Edward O. Wilson, which helps explain why we humans are so susceptible to online influences and how AI is programmed to manipulate our behavior.

“The real problem of humanity is the following: We have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology” — Edward O. Wilson

“Most people actually don’t know their own emotions,” said Harris at the SNF. “They don’t know their own minds’ reasoning capacities.”

He added, “There are universal backdoors, universal hacks, universal zero day vulnerabilities to the human mind. And every place that we have one of these vulnerabilities and it’s exploited — that we don’t notice — is a place where we have actually lost choice.”

Humans are indeed hackable. Historian Yuval Harari made the claim at the World Economic Forum that organisms are algorithms, and as such, they can be hacked.

He even came up with a formula to hack humans,  B x C x D = AHH — which means Biological knowledge multiplied by Computing power multiplied by Data equals the Ability to Hack Humans.”

Because big tech has so much computing power, and because big tech continues to collect vast amounts of data on our online behaviors, it may already well know you and I better than we know ourselves — or at least it’s close.

Right now, billions of people are stuck at home using only a handful of platforms to receive all their news and information, and the centralization of the flow of information, along with algorithms that encourage people to engage in polarizing activity, make technology-run platforms a hazard to society in very subtle ways.

“When technology takes control of our information environment, it takes control of humanity,” said Harris.

He added that people don’t even need to be on social media to be affected by the subtle biases, fake news, and polarization that takes place by design on the platforms.

Fake news reports can stir violent uprisings in certain areas while misinformation campaigns have the power to sway elections and these types of events affect everyone — not just those in the digital world.

“Facebook and these services actually already run the world” — Tristan Harris

How about this for subtle election meddling — someone who simply posts “voting lines are long” — could this discourage many people from turning out to vote, regardless of whether it’s true or not?

“Facebook and these services actually already run the world,” Harris declared.

“Because if they run our information systems, they run our voting systems, they run whether people get vaccinated, they run whether there is violence in our streets, how can we keep our humanity at the center when this process is happening?

“We can only do that if we know ourselves well enough. Specifically, if we know ourselves well enough to distinguish between human values and human vulnerabilities,” he added.

In a previous talk, Harris once said that big tech doesn’t distinguish between what people are interested in and what people can’t help but look at.

“They’re holding up a fun house mirror, a distorted mirror that tends to amplify the things that worked for manipulating human vulnerabilities ” — Tristan Harris

We can’t help but look at something grotesque, but it isn’t something we actively seek on a regular basis. We don’t spend our days looking for car crashes, but when we pass by one, we can’t help but slow down and look.

The same thing happens when we are bombarded by social media posts — we can’t help but look at the flashy information that tickles our Paleolithic mind like a virtual car crash.

Tristan told the SNF panel, “Facebook and the other companies will often claim that they’re holding up a neutral mirror to society — ‘You already had those racial divisions in your society,’ ‘You already had those minority groups in your society’ — they’re just holding up a mirror, but they’re not!

“They’re holding up a fun house mirror, a distorted mirror that tends to amplify the things that worked for manipulating human vulnerabilities and preying on the deep, soft underbelly of our hatred, our fear, our anxiety, our emotions instead of actually trying to help us.”

“There are universal backdoors, universal hacks, universal zero day vulnerabilities to the human mind” — Tristan Harris

We’ve reached a point where technology overwhelms human weakness, according to Harris, and this goes back to the quote about having god-like technology but Paleolithic brains. The two are seemingly incompatible.

When technology supersedes our cognitive limits, that’s when we begin to feel information overload. When technology begins to affect our dopamine levels, that’s when we feel the problem of addictive use.

As Harris put it:

When technology crosses our social validation, we feel that as mass narcissism.

When technology crosses our weakness for confirmation bias — that it feels good for our brains to get information that affirms our existing beliefs — we feel that as a problem called fake news.

When technology crosses our outrage and it manipulates our emotions for outrage, we feel that as a problem called political polarization.

And when technology crosses the line for trust — when it hacks the foundations of how our minds figure out what’s true or trustworthy — we feel that as a problem called bots and deepfakes.

Slide from Tristan Harris’s presentation

All of these problems are reflected by one problem — “the checkmate of human control over society,” according to Harris.

“This is what’s running the world right now. Literally, this election, this country will be decided by this force,” he added.

With incredible speed and accuracy, big tech can predict what you will do before you do it — it knows what makes you tick and click — and that makes it all the easier to manipulate you in such subtle ways that you would never believe that you were being manipulated.

In January, Harris testified before the US House Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce during a hearing called “Americans at Risk: Manipulation and Deception in the Digital Age,” where he warned that big tech had created an environment that manipulates and controls almost every aspect of our lives.

Tech products, culture are ‘designed intentionally for mass deception’: Ex-google ethicist testifies

Tech arms race ‘will give corporations, governments the ability to hack human beings’: Yuval Harari at WEF


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