Frontline Documentary on AI

Below is another forum post from this semester’s class, from the beginning of this month:

On Tuesday night [November 5] I viewed most of an incredibly well-done documentary on AI (I missed the first half hour, since I only stumbled on the show and hadn’t planned on watching it).

The documentary, titled “In the Age of AI,” aired on Frontline on PBS and runs for just under two hours. Though it’s a big time commitment to view the entire documentary, it is a comprehensive look at AI and has great relevance to this class. Here is the official Frontline description of the program:

FRONTLINE investigates the promise and perils of artificial intelligence, from fears about work and privacy to rivalry between the U.S. and China. The documentary traces a new industrial revolution that will reshape and disrupt our lives, our jobs and our world, and allow the emergence of the surveillance society. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/in-the-age-of-ai/

https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/in-the-age-of-ai/

The documentary covers all aspects of AI, from the prospect of self-driving tractor trailers, to robots on factory floors assembling cars, to the sophistication of facial recognition. Most fascinating to me was the discussion of ethics in AI (including a look at how Google changed its initial “do no harm” business model in the wake of the dot com crash of 2000), and also the discussion of what is essentially shaping up to be a new Cold War, but this time a technology Cold War, between China and the United States. Linked in to this ethical discussion was the profound effect that AI has on human beings, from United Auto Workers members (UAW) who have lost their jobs to robots to the persecution of the Chinese Muslim minority, the Uyghur, by the Chinese government via sophisticated AI surveillance. By the end of the documentary, my husband and I were chilled by the impact that AI already has on society, and terrified by how the future of AI could profoundly change our lives, and not necessarily for the better.

As I was watching the documentary, I kept thinking to myself “how does all of this relate to what I do as a librarian?” I knew that I wanted to share this program with the class, but I also wanted to find a way to link it to our chosen career. Ultimately, I feel that as librarians we are the gatekeepers to knowledge, and the professionals that many people seek out to help them navigate the ever-changing world of technology. In that role, we have the ability to educate our patrons about the full spectrum of AI: its positives and also its negatives. If we are well-educated about the potential perils of privacy concerns like facial recognition that can be misused as surveillance, then we can help our patrons understand the implications of using advanced technology. And, as a children’s librarian, I have an additional responsibility to teach the kids I work with about AI in a way that makes them aware of dangers while not frightening them away from technology; these kids have never lived without technology, and they are also the future of technological advances.

I can’t recommend this documentary highly enough – it is well worth the time investment to watch it, and my mind is still processing what I’ve learned from it to the extent that I plan on watching the documentary again this weekend.

The documentary can be accessed here: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/in-the-age-of-ai/

TikTok, Memes, and A.I.: Losing Ourselves in Technology

Well, obviously I haven’t had the time to write blog posts this semester, so I thought I’d share here a couple of posts that I wrote for my class. The class is “Technology for Information Professionals,” and over the course of the semester each student must post on the semester-long forum on “Applying Technology.” Our posts are either supposed to be about a recent technology article, or they are supposed to be about “tech in the wild” – using technology in real life. Our posts are supposed to be no longer than 500 words, which has been a challenge for me to abide by… 🙂

Here is the first post that I wrote for the forum, in early October:

I just finished reading a fascinating article “The Meme Factory: How TikTok holds our attention” by Jia Tolentino in the current issue of The New Yorker. The article begins by discussing the app TikTok, but then expands in an ever-growing circle to discuss current app technology and how it uses A.I. to influence what we see and experience, and, finally and most disturbingly, the article discusses the parent company for TikTok, ByteDance, which is based in China but has influence worldwide. According to Tolentino, there are questions about the information that ByteDance accumulates as it uses A.I. to tailor its apps (TikTok worldwide, Douyin in China) to provide its users with content that they respond to. Tolentino states: “Although TikTok’s algorithm likely relies in part, as other systems do, on user history and video-engagement patterns, the app seems remarkably attuned to a person’s unarticulated interests. Some social algorithms are like bossy waiters: they solicit your preferences and then recommend a menu. TikTok orders you dinner by watching you look at food.” (Tolentino, p. 36)

Though the content on TikTok tends towards mindless, fun, short fifteen second videos created by and enjoyed by mostly teenagers, the fact is that there is a huge amount of money and power lurking behind the fun, and that the A.I. used to tailor the app could potentially be used for nefarious political means. Tolentino questioned a ByteDance representative about the possibility of the Chinese government making use of “the massive trove of facial closeups accumulated on its various platforms,” or “what if a third party got hold of the company’s data?” In other words, a seemingly innocuous app is able to collect facial recognition files as well as “pose estimation” that helps A.I. to learn human body language.

This is an extremely interesting article about a complex topic, and I can’t even begin to touch the surface here of what Tolentino addresses in her piece. Simply put, though, it put chills down my spine as I thought long and hard about the role that technology plays in our daily lives, and how we are gradually becoming immune to privacy worries. In Week One of this class we read the article “Library Tech Trends for 2019” by Jim Lynch which discusses assisting patrons with privacy concerns on social media, and also discusses the ALA’s worry about ethical concerns with facial recognition. As Lynch states, “[facial recognition] technology is already raising ethical concerns that might go against the core values of libraries, including intellectual freedom, privacy, equitable access, and diversity.” As more forms of technology accumulate data on our unique facial characteristics, there is more possibility of such information being misused as it has in China to find and imprison Uighurs (a Muslim minority). Frankly, I’m now a bit terrified about our future, but I’m very grateful to Tolentino for writing this excellent article.

Lynch, J. (2019, January 14). Library Tech Trends for 2019 [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.techsoupforlibraries.org/blog/library-tech-trends-for-2019

Tolentino, J. (2019). The meme factory: How TikTok holds our attention. The New Yorker, XCV(29), 34-41. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/09/30/how-tiktok-holds-our-attention

Also worth checking out: Christoph Niemann’s cover for this issue of The New Yorker (the technology issue): https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cover-story/cover-story-2019-09-30