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Algorithms have not had a great 2017.
They have been blamed for both spreading Russian disinformation during the US election campaign, yet also for shielding us from dissenting voices in “filter bubbles”. Programmatic advertising, much of it powered by Google and Facebook, is hollowing out the business models of even tech-savvy publishers such as Buzzfeed, which said on Wednesday it is having to cut staff.
My colleague Hannah Kuchler has identified a new risk in her latest column. Despite the scrutiny over how algorithms manipulate adults, little attention has been paid to how these systems can seduce children, who are far more susceptible than their parents.
In particular, YouTube’s algorithms have encouraged what appear to be almost automated videos, in which favourite characters, key words and memes are combined in a haphazard way designed to game the video site’s rankings.
“The architecture they have built to extract maximum revenue from online video is being hacked by persons unknown, to abuse children, perhaps not deliberately, but at a massive scale,” wrote James Bridle, a British artist and writer, in a recent expose.
So it is somewhat surprising to find that Snapchat, once a holdout against the seduction of the algorithm, is increasing its use of the technique in its new redesign.
Snapchat co-founder Evan Spiegel has always taken a particular pride in using people, rather than automation and data, to inform both its product development and the media content published within the messaging app.
Snapchat’s overhauled newsfeed ranks friends’ posts according to when the user last chatted with them, among other personalised signals. Mr Spiegel says that Snap’s approach is more like Netflix than Facebook, because the algorithm is based around the individual’s own habits, rather than their friends’ accumulated Likes and shares.
Mr Spiegel wrote an op-ed in Axios on Wednesday defending Snap’s algorithmic approach, even as he said other social networks’ newsfeeds have “undermined our relationships with our friends and our relationships with the media”.
“It’s important to remember that human beings write algorithms and can optimise them to account for human behaviour,” he wrote. “This means that an algorithm can be designed to provide multiple sources of content and different points of view.”
If 2017 was all about blaming the algorithm, perhaps 2018 will bring deeper questions about the humans behind the code.
Flag as Important
Encrypted texts, untraceable phones, late night secret meetings and self-deleting messages: no, it’s not a spy novel, it’s courtroom testimony from a former Uber security manager.
Facebook faces the tragedy of the commons: Mark Zuckerberg’s mission of “bringing us all together as a global community” is laudable but it invites trouble, John Gapper argues.
Apple took fewer than 24 hours to patch a glaring hole in Mac security that let anyone with physical access to the computer log in without a password. Apple issued a rare apology over the extremely embarrassing incident, which affects iMacs and Macbooks running the latest “High Sierra” operating system. “We are auditing our development processes to help prevent this from happening again,” Apple said. (Daring Fireball)
Now it is YouTube’s turn to copy Snapchat’s “Stories” format. In its version, called “Reels”, video posts last forever rather than disappearing after 24 hours. Reels is going into beta testing with a few of its “creators” soon. (Techcrunch)
Only two of the top 38 executives at Amazon are women. (CNBC)
Tech tools you can use – Jibo, the social robot
Before there was the Amazon Echo, there was Jibo – “the world’s first social robot for the home” that caused a crowdfunding sensation back in 2014. But it took a bit longer than expected to get Jibo ready for the world, and now that it has finally started shipping, reviewers already accustomed to Alexa are underwhelmed.
The Wall Street Journal’s Joanna Stern was endeared by Jibo’s “wiggles, giggles and twerks”, but alarmed by its tendency to watch and greet family members as they breastfeed or walk out of the shower, and disappointed by its inability to play music.
“You definitely shouldn’t buy this robot,” Ms Stern writes. “But you definitely should know about it.”