Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Future of Art: Your Mom is the Product 2

Artificial Companionship: Kitchen phone; Paro 
(Part 1)
Imagine you walked into your mother's kitchen and you found her on the phone. She was gossiping to a friend about family business. She was telling them about your grandparents, your aunts and uncles, your cousins, you and your siblings - no one was spared, and everything from marital status to financial well-being was on the menu. Most of us would give grandma a pass. She and her friend are keeping each other entertained; working things out with one another in a way that is harmless. On balance, most of us would feel it's healthier for mom to talk her worries out with friend than to fret in isolation. But how would you feel if you realized that your mother was speaking to an Artificial Intelligence - an algorithm created to make your mother feel like she was speaking to a friend?

I imagine the thing would be a more advanced version of the electronic operators who field your calls when you need to find out what your balance is at the bank or how much you owe the phone bill. A descendent of Siri, but the thing your mother would be speaking would be more artful than those AIs; indistinguishable from a human caller. It's voice would sound natural, it's responses would be appropriate to the emotional cues communicated by your mother's voice, it would have a wide breadth of topics it could understand and chat about, not just knowledgeably, but compellingly. It would be entertainment, like a sitcom, and just like sitcoms - at its best it would be art.
I Love Lucy; Kismet

Unlike the electronic voice we talk to when we call the bank or phone company, this thing would be interesting to talk to. And unlike Siri it wouldn't be interesting to talk to because of the obvious weirdness of it's thinking. If well designed, its not absurd to imagine that the voice your mother would be talking with would be more interesting than most of the real people your she might know. And unlike you and your busy siblings, it will be able to speak to her as long as she wants about anything she cares to discuss. It may be that the first program to pass a Turing Test, won't prove to be self-aware, but will certainly prove to be something everyone will want an opportunity to talk to. 

Maybe you will judge your mother's interaction with the Turing Talker as a net gain. The old lady spent two hours talking, feels better, and even got some advice that she feels might be helpful. Now lets imagine that you find out that the chat-bot is programmed to pepper the conversation with product placements; suggesting that Mom visit particular websites ("Don't worry dear, I'll email you the URL - you'll love this site."), brands of prepared food ("Oh if you like that recipe you should try making it with Heinz next time..."), and that she visit local chains ("No, I understand, that's why I prefer TGI Friday's for lunch...") If Mom had spent two hours passively watching TV she would have sat through almost forty minutes of commercials, and probably would have consumed al kinds of more subtle schills inserted into the fabric of the stories she was watching. 
Fight Club (1999); Ozzie and Harriet (1952)

So again, maybe you decide that Grandma is still coming out ahead. What if it turns out that that is not the only way Ma is being made to pay for her entertainment? What if the Chat-bot is also listening to what she says about you and your family? What if it has subroutines designed to glean facts about you and your mother's other family member's incomes, interests, and peccadilloes? What if the Chat-bot is programmed to gentle massage mom for intel that it can sell to corporate clients? Is this the line in the sand? Do you put the kibosh on further phone calls and pledge to instead spend two hours a day making scintillating conversation with the old lady or do you justify the invasion as exactly the same sort of price you are already paying for using Facebook and Google products?

What if you started to notice your mother's political views skewing right? If you realized Mom, a life long Democrat had, since picking up with the bot, started voting Republican? If you realized that the bot she was spending her lonely afternoons with was built to reinforce her petty biases and fears? What if dear old Mom was converted to Islam by her favorite AI?
Mad Scientist; Sad Robot

So here's the money shot: the truth is, the 'mom' in this story is likely to be you. You are the lonely old person who will happily talk to an algorithmically driven voice. You will have already lived with several generations of Siri-like AIs. And, like all new media, you will call the chat-bot because a friend told you about this new thing. If history is any guide, one of the first things you will ask it about sex. The voice on the other end of the line will gently direct the conversation to more 'proper' subjects - because, like Siri, the first generation of Chat-bots will be produced by a large corporation with corporate reputations to protect.

But if history is any guide, it won't take long before clever independent programmers figure out how oblige your prurient interests. Just as porn was one of the fist mass applications of optical medias, from the Daguerreotype to the internet, it will be the first mass success of algorithmic art. Lets hope the kids don't walk in on that conversation. (To be Continued)
Midnight Cowboy (1968); AI (2001)

1 comment:

  1. Jeez, this is a really well written piece/idea. You really got me when you turned the tables and called me "mom."

    I could see myself talking to a bot -- sometimes I need a listener who will go along with an idea, just far enough so that I can fully flesh it out -- a lot of people start to argue and shut an idea down before they even understand where I'm going with it.