A mere few years ago the idea that artificial intelligence (AI) might be used to analyze and report to law enforcement aberrant human behavior on social media and other online platforms was merely the far out premise of dystopian movies such as Minority Report, but now Facebook proudly brags that it will use AI to “save lives” based on behavior and thought pattern recognition.
What could go wrong?
The latest puff piece in Tech Crunch profiling the apparently innocuous sounding “roll out” of AI (as if a mere modest software update) “to detect suicidal posts before they’re reported” opens with the glowingly optimistic line, “This is software to save lives” – so who could possibly doubt such a wonderful and benign initiative which involves AI evaluating people’s mental health? Tech Crunch’s Josh Cronstine begins:
This is software to save lives. Facebook’s new “proactive detection” artificial intelligence technology will scan all posts for patterns of suicidal thoughts, and when necessary send mental health resources to the user at risk or their friends, or contact local first-responders. By using AI to flag worrisome posts to human moderators instead of waiting for user reports, Facebook can decrease how long it takes to send help.
CEO Mark Zuckerberg has long hinted that his team has been wrestling with ways to prevent what appears to be a disturbingly increased trend of live streamed suicides as well as the much larger social problem of online bullying and harassment. One recent example which gained international media attention was a bizarre incident out of Turkey, where a distraught father shot himself on Facebook Live after announcing that his daughter was getting married without his permission. Though the example actually demonstrates the endlessly complex and unforeseen variables involved in human decision making and the human psyche – in this case notions of rigid Middle East cultural taboos and stigma clearly played a part – Tech Crunch holds it up as something which AI could possibly prevent.
Earlier this year Zuckerberg wrote in a public post that “There have been terribly tragic events – like suicides, some live streamed – that perhaps could have been prevented if someone had realized what was happening and reported them sooner… Artificial intelligence can help provide a better approach.” And in a post yesterday announcing the new AI suicide prevention tool integration, he wrote that “In the future, AI will be able to understand more of the subtle nuances of language, and will be able to identify different issues beyond suicide as well, including quickly spotting more kinds of bullying and hate.”
Naturally, we must ask: what does Mark mean by the eerily ambiguous reference to “we will be able to identify different issues beyond suicide as well..”?
It begins. Facebook rolls out its first AI powered thought crime module. https://t.co/g0aQB9Odo6
— Julian Assange 🔹 (@JulianAssange) November 28, 2017
I've talked to Mark about this. His understanding of the subject is limited.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 25, 2017
With the debate already long raging about how “bullying and hate” gets interpreted and labelled, and with multiple high profile instances of such accusations being used to censor and limit constitutionally protected speech, Zuckerberg now “reassures” us that we can place such sensitive and highly interpretive questions in the hands of machines. Tech Crunch awkwardly tries to preempt such obvious (and horrifying) concerns while ultimately concluding “we have little choice” but to embrace it and “hope Facebook doesn’t go too far”:
The idea of Facebook proactively scanning the content of people’s posts could trigger some dystopian fears about how else the technology could be applied. Facebook didn’t have answers about how it would avoid scanning for political dissent or petty crime, with Rosen merely saying “we have an opportunity to help here so we’re going to invest in that.” There are certainly massive beneficial aspects about the technology, but it’s another space where we have little choice but to hope Facebook doesn’t go too far.
Unembarrassed by such an assertion, author Josh Cronstine further includes the following update: “Facebook’s chief security officer Alex Stamos responded to these concerns with a heartening tweet signaling that Facebook does take seriously responsible use of AI.” And Cronstine follows with some not very “heartening” news – though his agenda is clearly to shove Facebook’s social vision of a future benign AI monitoring technology which regulates and enforces social “norms” down the public’s collective throat. It what itself sounds like a dystopian phrase worthy of Skynet, we are further told “you will not opt out!”:
Unfortunately, after TechCrunch asked if there was a way for users to opt out, of having their posts a Facebook spokesperson responded that users cannot opt out. They noted that the feature is designed to enhance user safety, and that support resources offered by Facebook can be quickly dismissed if a user doesn’t want to see them.
And if this is not enough to turn the public’s stomach, the glowing review ends by again reasserting Facebook’s “responsibility” to implement its AI tools, as “Creating a ubiquitous global communication utility comes with responsibilities beyond those of most tech companies, which Facebook seems to be coming to terms with.” Essentially, the familiar argument goes, the public should just “trust us” as this is for our “safety” and we are benign and humanitarian, says Facebook.
Ironically as Facebook continues to tout its claims of protecting democracy by taking steps to “ensure the integrity of elections” as Zuckerberg has frequently stated, it will now actively and openly pursue an AI regulated future which, as Elon Musk has personally warned Zuckerberg, will likely be the very source of tyranny and ultimate destruction of future humanity.
As Plato predicted nearly 2500 years ago, “We should expect tyranny to result from democracy, the most savage subjection from an excess of liberty” (Republic, Book VIII, 564 a).
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