Tag Archives: social

Social Bots Threat to Online Interactions

If you use Facebook, you might have noticed in the last few weeks a number of bizarre posts from an app called What Would I Say. It was implemented by a team of grad-students in a hackathon in Princeton less than three weeks ago, and it’s the latest internet trend to spread like wildfire. What Would I Say is yet another addition to the frugality, non-seriousness, of online social networks. But worse yet, it highlights a technology which might finally undermine the possibility of any genuine online interaction at all: social bots.

What Would I Say is a bot that screens your Facebook posts, builds a probabilistic model for sequences of words, and outputs the most likely sequence. The idea is not new, since there’s an equivalent for Twitter, called That Can Be My Next Tweet. So far these apps have been mainly a source of entertainment — producing ironic sentences such as “we can’t do it,” from Barack Obama’s posts — but there are already attempts to use the technology seriously: according to a BBC article published last week, Google just patented a bot to mimic a person’s behavior in online social networks.

That’s disappointing. While the technology behind social bots do have high scientific value — mainly in the context of Natural Language Processing — attempts to seriously turn these ideas into products are repugnant, not because models to generate text are still in rudimentary stage — which they are — but because it makes the internet a lot less humane than it already is.

In fact, the low audience of attempts to seriously discuss relevant issues with friends online, and the hostility of conversations with strangers in web forums, make it very stressful the effort of getting anything meaningful from online interactions. Knowing that what remains of those interactions might be realized by a computer algorithm will only further erode online conversations, to the point none will be left.

Twenty years ago Peter Steiner published a cartoon on The New Yorker in which a dog says to another: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” It’s unbelievable that some people are taking the statement seriously. Aren’t the automatic birthday messages from local business already annoying enough? How good would you feel to discover that the nice birthday message sent by your crush on Facebook was actually written by a bot?

The faking of one’s feelings towards others is already implemented online by those who display such behavior in the real world. We don’t need bots to create more false expectations on people. Bots are great to find things, and organize data. Having them to mimic our social behavior online will only cause the social aspect of the internet to vanish.

(A version of this article appeared in

The Sociocultural Singularity

There is a theoretical concept in Computer Science called technological singularity. It refers the hypothetical point in time when Artificial Intelligence passes the cognitive capabilities of the human brain, implying radical changes in human nature and society as a whole.

Astro-physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson provides an interesting view for what can possibly happen, in a speech where he discuss the existence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. He argues that the difference in intelligence between chimpanzees and human beings is in just about 1% of DNA. “Imagine another life form that’s one percent different from us in the direction that we are different from the chimp,” he wonders. “Quantum mechanics would be intuitive to their toddlers.” That is, we would probably not even be able to grasp such intelligence.

The prospect of this fascinating — although scary — scenario has received considerable attention by theorists and science fiction authors, notwithstanding the fact that it lies in the future. But there is another type of singularity, much less discussed — at least in the sphere of popular science —, which has already happened, and that is causing rapid changes in human nature and society: the sociocultural singularity.

I use the term “sociocultural” in reference to the research area of sociocultural evolution, which is concerned with how cultures and societies change over time. Although this evolution can relate to Darwinian, genetic evolution, it differs mainly in the fact that it happens in a much faster pace.

Indeed, anatomically modern humans evolved from archaic Homo sapiens about 200,000 years ago, in the Middle Paleolithic, and that species evolved at least 250,000 years ago. Cultural evolutions, on the other hand, happen at a speed that is levels of magnitude faster: the way of life — including alimentation, social structure, values, and means of communication — can change drastically within generation. That is, sociocultural evolution outpace natural evolution.

This fact makes it very remarkable how stable to change our physical and mental systems are. The ability to rapidly adapt to the environment is, after all, what made us the dominant species in this planet. But as cultural revolutions happen at consistently shorter periods of time, one can’t help wondering for how long such stability will persist.

The sociocultural evolution triggered by internet technology is an example of drastic change in the way we interact with each other, and how they can be very harmful. A recent report by researchers at Oxford University, for instance, revealed a number of threats related to internet use, including bullying, self-harm, and how internet forums can increase the risk of suicide.

The human brain and psychology evolved in an environment that hardly matches the modern life, specially in large urban centers. Competition with one or two tribe members is now with hundreds, at global scale. The obvious threat of a rival group, or wild animals, is now the subtle threat of economic instability, of a media that consistently makes us aware of the worst that is happening, and of a culture that forces us to be happy anyway no matter the circumstances. Thus, it’s no surprise that anxiety and depression became such a mainstream problem. In fact, by 2008, for instance, the third most common prescription drug taken in the U.S. was a type of antidepressant.

We should be aware and vigilant with respect to the these changes. That is not to say that we shouldn’t embrace cultural evolution. In fact, modern societies tend to be more inclusive, and ethic. But unfortunately progress is being payed in part with increased burden to the human psychology. There should be more scientific studies, and public discussion about this problem, rather than taboos. Natural evolution assures the survival of the fittest, but since it is too slow in comparison with cultural evolution, we should be careful not to produce a psychologically stressful environment in which none of our decedents will be able to fit.

(A version of this article appeared in Washington Square News.)