NEWS10 March 2020

Jamie Bartlett: Better systems needed to ‘re-establish ground truths’

AI News Public Sector Technology Trends UK

UK – Technology has complicated, confusing implications for the future, so we need to create new systems fit for an online world, according to Jamie Bartlett, former director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

Speaking as a keynote at the Market Research Society’s Impact 2020 conference in London, Bartlett made some predictions on the impact technology could have on the future of society.

Based on a few assumptions – that the cost of creating, storing and sharing data, as well as analysing it, will continue to fall, and that “humans will remain as silly and as irrational as ever”, Bartlett said he expects a more complicated future than that envisaged in Minority Report.

“It’s the vision of Franz Kafka and Philip K. Dick that I worry about for the future – a far more tedious, complicated, confusing world. It’s our job to reduce the confusion and re-establish ground truths about truth and fiction.”

Microtargeting of voters offers one example of how systems designed for and expectations of the offline world do not apply to the possibilities of technology, but there are other technologies that could have implications in future. For example, Bartlett suggested smart fridges could offer politicians data on voters’ dietary profiles. He said: “It sounds slightly ludicrous, but I don’t think any of this sounds weirder than if in 1997 or 2001 someone had tried to explain to you that elections would be won and lost through a social media platform called Facebook – because that would have sounded like science fiction back then.

“For elections, we need to work out how this is going to work. What happens when everyone receives a different ad in their smart fridge based on 20 or 30 years of data? Can we still run elections in a way that is fair? We’ve created all these systems to reduce confusion and understand how things work, and they were all designed for an offline world but are being used in an online world.”

There is also a need to establish new means of explaining technology to those who are not specialists, he said, citing the example of GDPR giving people the right to demand what information companies hold on them. “No single person understands how all this tech works and it is getting more complicated. If you don’t get a job because of a machine learning-based algorithm, you’re going to need ways of finding out why that decision was made, without being a coding expert. I think there’s going to be an increase in figuring out ways of explaining why things work the way they do.”

Humans will continue to make decisions rather than outsourcing them to artificial intelligence, but outsourcing of critical thinking will become more common, he predicted. “The danger is that we lean into what the machine advises us to do – this is a different problem. We’re going to be able to outsource evil decisions to machines because we trust in their authority and assume the machine knows best.”

While society hasn’t caught up with technology, Bartlett, who runs a BBC podcast on the ‘missing Cryptoqueen’ who persuaded millions of people to invest in a bogus currency, said the dark net offers clues for researchers exploring where technology might take us in future, because “criminals are the best early adopters of new tech” and the sophistication of cyber crime means regulators and police forces are left behind.

He said: “The task is to update, upgrade and improve the various social systems we’ve built to help us understand the world – whether it’s the case of insisting that all political ads are stored on a publicly available database so we can make sure everyone sees what everyone else sees. It’s not that difficult – it’s a simple solution but we still haven’t done it.”

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