This isn’t the first time I have written about the dichotomy of technology. We are often caught between convenience and consequences. Some of the consequences are of our own making. But often, there is a lack of understanding on the part of technology companies, especially platforms that have replaced our traditional spaces — Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. They often launch features that are driven by a simple metric: engagement. The higher the engagement, the more attention they can hoard, and the more attention they have, the more advertising dollars they can gather.
None of these companies actually think about the second and third-order impacts of their decisions. Facebook, refused to acknowledge that its platform and its hyper-viral nature was being capitalized by a Russian group to game the American democracy. Twitter, too seems to not understand that a lot of its current problems are a result of willfully ignoring the spam accounts and lax enforcement policies of the past.
Twitter’s leader Jack Dorsey is perhaps one of the more “woke” executives in Silicon Valley. He is a champion of causes that at times are uncomfortable for his peers. But he is not absolved of the fact that his company and his underlinings make decisions driven by the single success metric of engagement. He is not alone, by the way. No one in technology thinks about the consequences of their decisions. We only react to consequences.
Take, for example, the company’s launch of a new Twitter feature — it is giving folks who use Twitter’s app on iOS can now record a tweet, and then instantaneously share it with the world at large. In the past, you had to use a third party audio hosting platform to share an audio file. At first blush, you could literally have a tweet that is heard around the world. Musicians can share audio clips. Podcasts can be divided into tiny bits.
However, if you pause to think about it, you could literally have people shouting at each other. For now, Twitter is not allowing voice replies, which is a good thing. Give it a week, and someone is going to figure out a way to circumvent this. But there is something worse that can happen as a result of the rolling out of this feature. Vice’s Jason Koebler asks the right questions in his piece:
In reality, voice tweets give a platform that has a well-documented, decade-long harassment problem an entirely new, more difficult type of media to moderate. Twitter already doesn’t do a great job of kicking white supremacists and Nazis off the platform, and it has now given them a new mechanism to harass people. Audio is more labor-intensive to moderate than text or photos, because it requires moderators to actually listen to the audio to act on itVice Tech
Important as these content-related issues are, there are some second- and third-order effects of this new feature rollout. You tweet in your voice and it is only a matter of time before Google, Amazon, and others use this to train their algorithms to try and become even more of an ominous presence in your life.
How long before the bad guys start using your own voice to spam the people who are part of your friends and family networks. I mean we have not even fixed the problem of unending spam calls in different languages.
The voice samples from all this “Tweet Talk” could be used to circumvent the “voiceprints as security“ systems being implemented by banks and other institutions. I know as a podcaster and blogger, my words and my digital presence is up for manipulation, but it could be a bigger problem for a hundred million people who are active on Twitter.
And don’t think for a minute that this is going to be difficult — researchers have already shown that with neural networks and relatively limited set of video clips, a lot of data can be inferred and used. Now Twitter is making more samples available. Whether it is these samples or videos and photos (selfies, for example) it is pretty clear that the idea of deep fakes is going to evolve pretty quickly.
WHERE ARE WE GOING NEXT?
All these unintentional contributions to the digital corpus are going to eventually evolve into a new class of products. These products not only sell things to us, but they entertain us and eventually become friends with us. Yes, like that movie Her, you might fall in love with one of these products.
We already know of Lil Miquela, the synthetically produced influencer that is using machine learning and digital exhaust to create a new kind of advertising model. Some believe that the pandemic has already shifted the momentum towards these synthetic influencers who can navigate the reality of the post-COVID world easily.
“They can be available 24/7 and have a personality molded to be exactly what you want. They can literally be whatever you want them to be. These things are massive plus points for brands because they can literally make the perfect ambassador.”Harry Hugo, co-founder of The Goat Agency.
It is very primitive today, but imagine a future with better-trained models and more data available to personalize the products. Now imagine going forward if there were more such synthetic models that were based on real people and their real voices and optimized to sell and market things exclusively to you.
Seriously, if Beyonce asked, “Hey, are you coming to my concert in Fortnite?” — you know you are going. Miquela has already released several singles as a synthetic influencer. The next version would be a variety of performers based on real musicians to be completely artificially generated and sing your favorite songs.
A few years ago, I had a chance to interview KK Barrett, the production designer for the Spike Jonze movie Her. Something he said left a deep impression on me.
I think all of those things are a desire for human connection. Either pay attention to me, or look what I discovered and I would like to share. That is always the human story when sharing is connecting with another person and sharing the connection you’ve had with excitement. And then you know something together, and you’re experiencing it together.
Samantha was the surrogate of a physical presence. But you’re still dealing with the replacement of a human and the difficulty that it’s never the same. Those connections happened through apps that we’re familiar with, but it wasn’t the story of those apps. It was the story of the attempt to be connected with another human.
I was reading this story in the New York Times today about how people are talking to chatbots because they are lonely in the quarantine.
Some experts believe a completely convincing chatbot along the lines of the one voiced by Scarlett Johansson in “Her” in 2013 is still five to 10 years away. But thanks to recent advances inside the world’s leading artificial intelligence labs, chatbots are expected to become more and more convincing. Conversation will get sharper. Voices will sound more human.The New York Times
Today, on Cameo, we pay a few dollars to “talk” to the celebrities. There are other apps that let you video chat your celebrities. We are already being trained in these behaviors. We are engaging with each other on Zoom and Video Chat. Our behaviors are being programmed for that future! As I wrote earlier, the current pandemic may have forced us to work from home, but it really is a beta test for the future where climate change has made living inside the only option.
Is it happening tomorrow? No, but we have seen enough droppings on this highway to a metaverse future. Apps that let you change your voice to a celebrity are on the App Store. We have all played with apps that change how we look or may look in the future. There have been apps that have made us compare ourselves to celebrities.
It is all part of the continuum of change that is all taking us to a future which is going to be very different than we can even imagine. Twitter’s tiny feature launch today, like many of the things that Silicon Valley has unleashed, many unintended consequences.
As I said, it is all so complicated.
June 17, 2020