Rich Crocco

Jaron Lanier: Helping Us Remember to Question What We Know About Tech

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I recently made a conscious decision to integrate myself into the tech world. This meant going back to school for a second Master’s degree (MBA in IS), becoming a participant in social media platforms, and reading and writing about new tech products and fields. I found it quite easy to accept the winners in Tech (companies like Google, Facebook, etc.) and adjust my thinking accordingly. However, whenever I start drinking the cool-aid too much I invariably come across an author named Jargon Lanier. First on the Charlie Rose show, then his book “Who Owns the Future” (which I purchased after seeing the Charlie Rose interview), other articles and most recently an article named “The Myth of AI: A Conversation With Jaron Lanier.”

Jaron Lanier is a computer scientist, author and musician whose career dates back to Atari and who is considered to be one of the pioneers of virtual reality, in other words he is a big player in the tech world. What Lanier represents to me is a Philosopher of Technology. My Bachelor’s degree is in Philosophy so I am no stranger to philosophical arguments and ideas. There is little I enjoy more than listening to a good philosophical lecture. Lanier does it in the tech world. What he is able to do is take ideas we take for granted and turn them on their head. It is interesting to note some of these ideas have only been mainstream for approximately ten years. Amazing how quickly we do drink the cool-aid.

While there are many ideas Lanier confronts, for purposes of this blog post I will touch a few of the ideas presented in the recent article I mentioned above. In this article Lanier presents an argument for the difference between the technical aspects of artificial intelligence (AI) and the mythology surrounding AI. He proposes while the technical aspects of AI can for the most part bring about benefits for mankind, the mythology surrounding AI can be quite harmful.

For purposes of this conversation Lanier equates AI with algorithms. This is of particular interest to me because this word is thrown around all the time and I’m am growing more and more curious about how they actually work. Whatever IS or social media platform we find ourselves talking about, at some point it comes up that the whole thing is run on an algorithm so everything is ok. Who actually knows how this algorithm works? I certainly don’t. Getting back on point, assuming the study of AI is a noble one, Lanier proposes several ideas people ought to know and understand about the mythology surrounding AI.  I will explain the ones I found most interesting.

Recommendation Software
One use of algorithms is recommendation software which tells us what books to buy, what movies to watch, etc. However if what we are reading and watching is based on algorithms then what does that say about the next recommendation the algorithm gives us? Basically the algorithm is giving us recommendations based on its own previous recommendations and this becomes as Lanier calls it ‘nonsense.’ For example, Lanier mentions how a product like Netflix does not actually have much content, however it is good at recommending what content you should watch (he also states this is not a criticism of Netflix, Netflix has proven to be a business model that works). The lack of content on Netflix has always been my complaint and why I hardly use it. You have to buy into their recommendations to really enjoy the product.  What does this say about how well Netflix knows your likes and dislikes?

AI Techniques

Another divergence between myth and fact was also covered in Lanier’s book “Who Owns the Future.” The idea is that while tech companies can create AI programs to do great things, the mythology associated with these products might be quite different than the reality.  His example is a program that can instantly translate text from one language to another by analyzing Big Data.  While the mythology suggests this is a great AI product that can ‘think’ faster than a human, the Big Data techniques used involve analyzing actual translations executed by multitudes of human beings.  This data is ‘scraped’ from the internet and used to produce the translations.  According to Lanier, what you end up with is a product that doesn’t replace human translators but instead depends those translators entirely.

Whether you agree with Lanier or not, the two arguments above give you an idea of how important it is to think about what is actually happening behind the scenes with technology..  I recommend you take a look at the video and article linked to this blog post to get a deeper understanding of what kinds of questions Jargon Lanier asks. It is beneficial to have people like him out there questioning where we are headed in the tech world.

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