As March is commonly known as the month of fresh starts with the arrival of spring right around the corner; we decided to commemorate this time of the year by writing a somewhat different and more creative article. While tackling a topic, the author has a more or less clear structure for the column and is aware of the message that needs to be conveyed. Needless to say, we wondered what would happen if we were deprived of said control over the story. Thus, the following piece is actually a succession of paragraphs each written by a different member of the Estimator.
The aforementioned idea turned into an insightful debate on the ethics and efficiency of AI-led consumerism in 21th century society and while the topic and general tone of the article are less humorous than what we had intended, we hope that you will still enjoy our little experiment.
The following is the order of whom each paragraph was written by: Orestis, Aaron, Floris, Giedre, Max, Lala, Begyum, Arnau
Would you trust an algorithm to match you with the “love” of your life? Would you trust an algorithm for your daily news feed? It does not matter what your answer is… the fact is that if you use technology daily then your choices and behaviour are largely influenced and predicted by AI. During an appearance on David Letterman’s show, Barack Obama shared his concern on the role of machine learning and how it affects the democratic process. Essentially, our mind acts like a puppet government, constantly taking orders on how to act, what to covet, and what to concur with. Thus, it brings me great sadness to inform you that the birthday gift you so proudly picked for your partner cannot be credited to you. Next time you plan a dinner alone, maybe consider booking a table for two. Let’s be sensible, algorithms require nutrients in the form of data as well, but when do we draw the line and regard them as greedy and perilous?
I don’t know about you, but I know exactly where I draw that line. Love matchmaker? Nope, AI is rather efficient. Ads spoon-feeding me clothes and gadgets I’ll never use nor probably really like? Fine by me. Alexa recording my voice pattern? Well, at least she doesn’t catch those bathroom serenades. Truth be told, even now we probably don’t vote by our own wits. But a brain chip that has access to all my thoughts? No, sir. That’s the end of all human relationships. Just think about it, how many times haven’t you thought something rather denigrating about someone just because you had had a horrible day or you were just famished. But would you want those thoughts to be translated into action? Not to mention that would mean the absolute end of one’s privacy. And just like that, we would do what Huxley’s imagination couldn’t and build ourselves the smallest, most expensive, intricate, unbreakable jail imaginable. And the irony of it all is that we’ll be paying for that ourselves, maybe even stand in line for a couple of days for them. We’re already rewriting history, constantly running from our emotions and might have chips implanted in our brains by the end of the decade, so what’s next? Maybe we’ll live in the Metaverse as Disney characters by the time we’re 50.
But perhaps we already are characters in our own made-up world. I could remember as a child that I terrorized the play corner to build my own LEGO tower. Or going to a VIP event in the Habbo hotel to take a step up the hierarchy ladder. Nowadays, digital devices are designed to escape from reality. That’s why people would rather look at a diet app than at their belly. Both will achieve the same goal – eating less – but feeling like your effort is getting noticed, whether it is the recognition of an app or a human, is more stimulating. But as useless as sometimes it looks, there are still a lot of benefits. Gaming can improve your productivity (no clickbait) and Tinder can help to find love. On the other hand, a video game can easily become addictive and a dating app is quite efficient for robbing millions of euros. As cosmetic surgery was first invented in the 30s for battered soldiers, I am happily looking forward to seeing that contemporary solutions split up in negative side-effects. Otherwise, we would, quite paradoxically, have to face the end-boss of problems after solving all the other problems: “What is the meaning of life?”
And what is the meaning of life anyway? Is it actually the only question and problem which keeps us, as human beings, progressing? We think we are so unique, so phenomenal and so independent to build our own future, but we can not, whatsoever, answer one simple transcendental question after hundreds and hundreds of years of philosophical study and scientific progress? Or perhaps we are trying to find the answer which doesn’t even exist? Simply to say, technological advancement and all the other progress our supposedly unique and independent mind have come up with, has only shown that our existence revolves around quietly yearning for what we don’t have while dreading losing what we do. For 99.9% of your race, that is the definition of reality, the definition of the meaning: “Desire and fear, baby”. Your ad can make me buy yet another pair of shoes I don’t need, but it can’t tell me how to stay happy after I look at my empty bank account? Wake up at 5 am, take a cold shower, run a mile or ten, make a protein shake with protein powder from Brand A, who just sent me their products and are absolutely a game changer, promise, not sponsored, honest opinion! and here you go, the secret to becoming an amazing, unique and successful individual with a loft in a skyscraper and just enough cash to buy that new overpriced pair of shoes from a “personalised” ad. Gee, good job, sweety, keep going!
But have you ever asked yourself whether ads are even effective anymore? Think of the countless times you’re engrossed on a site, or well trying to remain so, and have ads frustratingly pop up everywhere. The average person is said to be bombarded with 4,000 to 10,000 ads EACH day. I don’t know about you, but these irksome loads of ads only spark a wave of irritation which might even turn into vowing never to purchase from the brand again. That might’ve been a little extreme, but you get it by now. It’s time we start questioning how much money really is poured into these lavish ads that’re only weakly justified for. For instance, let’s look at Facebook’s flawed A/B tests that are used to woo naive businesses by “proving” the effectiveness of their ads. Facebook famously claims that using their platform to advertise will increase the business’ returns. But a quick turn to good old econometrics knowledge can easily cast major doubt on these “findings”. The foundations of the A/B test is based on random assignment of control and treatment groups. However, the very design of the test is simply flawed as the machine learning algorithm isn’t in fact even random. Yet it seems, Facebook still skillfully remains mastering the art of deception.
The truth is that we never do anything we don’t want to do, and this is true by definition. Let me explain. In the previous paragraphs we have talked about “manipulation” by advertisers and social media and how that’s potentially dangerous in a democratic society. However, no one forces anyone’s hand to consume or act on the advertisements that we see. The ultimate boundary is choice. Of course, there are many tricks that exploit the flaws of our biological brains, we find this in addictive substances and also in social media apps. However, this type of conditioning is not restricted to those. Since we are born we are conditioned to act in a certain way, schools teach us literature and sciences, consumerism and individualism; we are taught what is socially acceptable and desirable, how we should behave, think, and talk. All of this happens in a way akin to the way social media apps teach our brains to segregate dopamine when we get a notification. Do well on a test and you will get a star, do not talk during class or you are going to get a warning, etc… Biologically, these function the same way as the notification, or product placement in movies do. As a society, we are the ultimate decider, therefore, we have to decide whether what social media apps condition us in a way that we are going to accept and tolerate or if it’s something that will be frowned upon. Clearly, the balance is tipping to the former option and we will have to live with the consequences.
All things aside, it's not completely true that these targeted ads are a total flop. Although they can be really irritating and most people just try to skip these ads, the firms have a motive behind to keep doing personalised ads. This modern advertisement method is extremely profitable and more effective than we think. Let’s say that a miserable econometrics student is talking about buying a new tote bag to a fellow student as a way of procrastinating. However, they have doubts about the delivery, price and size of the bag. Boom! In less than an hour, they will probably see a tote bag ad, and even in some cases the ad will provide information about details about delivery, a discount and the exact measurements of the product. Basically, these ads appeal to consumers’ feelings. The ethos created by said ads leads people to spend more than they intend to or their bank account can afford. It is definitely not desirable for a student budget, but these darling companies are truly and madly in love with their growing profits. Even though AI sometimes fails to determine the right ads, these ads still suggest a great variety of popular products that broaden the consumers’ choices. Long story short, these annoying ads in fact provide us opportunities to discover more and more.