AI Changes Everything (but nothing really changes…)


I usually don’t write big long opinion rants, and usually, I stick to more technical focused content. However, recent events are beginning to make my head explode. There is so much misunderstanding about data, privacy, and artificial intelligence. So I decided to write something to help one of the younger members of my family make sense of everything. So please read this – and pass this along to your friends who are not “tech people” if you think it will help them understand and make sense of recent events.

Note: The attempt to make this like the Ryan Tomayko REST article is deliberate. I LOVED that article – it clarified the concept of REST for me and countless others a long time ago. I hope this article is half as effective as that one was. Ryan has since taken the original version of his article down because it was deemed sexist…

The Conversation

Young Person: What is with all of the recent media panic about FaceApp and what happens to your data? Is this just like the Facebook attention focused on user privacy?

Tox : Are you sure that you want to get into this? It gets kind of weird.

Young Person: Sure. How bad could it be? You work with Artificial Intelligence and that AI stuff don’t you? Can’t you just have Watson explain it to me?

Tox : Artificial Intelligence, or AI, isn’t really like that. I can’t just ask Watson to explain it to you. AI isn’t magic, it’s just different from how we traditionally programmed computers and created applications.

Young Person: What is an application?

Tox : An app – those things on your phone. Your phone hasn’t always been smart – phones were pretty dumb for the longest time.

Young Person: I know that, I think I saw a picture of one once. But why is AI different?

Tox : Previously, computer software and applications (or apps) operated as a set of rules. Picture them as big diagrams where you check some data (like age, name, location, etc.), and then do something based on the value of that data. So an auto loan calculator app would take in all of the various things needed to calculate your loan payment (length of the loan, downpayment, interest rate, etc.), and would “do the math” based on your individual situation, and return the answer to you. Most apps are bigger and more complex than my example, but they all work the same way every time. If I enter the same data each time, I can predict what the answers coming back will be. This is because traditional computer apps are essentially “rules engines” – they follow the same rules, every time, no matter what.

Young Person: So software developers are just writing “rules” all day long?

Tox : Yes – at some level, that is what a programming language does. It allows you to write rules about how to calculate things, and how to show things to the human users.

Young Person: So how is AI different?

Tox : Artificial Intelligence works differently. It is primarily based on statistical models. It looks at things and creates statistical models so it can try to “predict”, with some level of confidence, what the next steps should be. So in the case of facial recognition, it takes the pictures that you give to it, and it is able to “look” at the picture and say, “I am 90% confident this is an eye, I am 88% confident that this is hair, I am 93% confident that this is a mouth”. Doing this repeatedly allows it to go through a progression of steps, first it will isolate a person from a picture, then it will isolate the face, then it will isolate individual features in the face, and then it will compare those to specific individuals and may be able to “identify” an individual person.

Young Person: So that’s what those “auto tags” in Facebook do? They just apply statistics to my pictures? That’s AI?

Tox : It’s one aspect of AI – visual recognition and facial recognition.

Young Person: So why do people get so worked up about it?

Tox : Because I can use it to keep tabs on people – to make them do what I want them to. To take away their freedom. Have you heard about the Chinese facial recognition used to help enforce their laws?

Young Person: We talked about it in school, but that kind of stuff could never happen here in Texas. Right?

Tox : We could get into a whole political discussion about that – let’s just stick to the stuff I know. The key thing here is that Artificial Intelligence is not “magic” – it isn’t a small computer brain that we have in a lab somewhere bathed in a solution with electrodes attached. It’s just looking at things from a statistical perspective, instead of the more traditional rules-based perspective.

Young Person: OK – so now I know that AI is different. But why does this stuff matter – statistics vs. rules? It might be important to tech types like you and Uncle Marc, but why does it matter to me?

Tox : Since AI is statistically based, it needs to have a lot of data. Statistics has some interesting things, it’s not as bad as it can seem in school. Did you know that the more samples of something that you have, the more accurate your predictions about future behavior can be. This is called the Law of Large Numbers, and it is a CORE driving concept for AI. Having a large amount of data is essential for this to work properly, so AI solutions require a lot of data – a lot of samples – that help them “learn” about something.

Young Person: OK – so how does that work?

Tox : The best illustration of this might be from the world of sports, using baseball batting averages. Or shooting percentages from other sports. As players perform, a history of performance is built up. Early in the year, a player may do very well, and have a high average (or score of success). Later in the year, they may not do as well, and their average (or score of success) will drop. (For those of you who want to learn more, this is called regression to the mean – another interesting statistical concept).

Looking at these scores later in the year will give a coach (or a casual sports fan) a way to compare the probability of success for two different players. Now here is the key point – it will not predict WHO will be successful, but it will tell you who has a higher probability of success. This is what AI does – it uses statistical models to predict future behavior or make sense of current data.

Young Person: So I could create an AI thing that would predict which stocks will do great in the next year – and then make millions. Right?

Tox : Not really. Remember, AI only gives you the probability of success – it doesn’t predict the future. It tells you what the chances of something happening are. If something happens one time every hundred times, I can tell you that it probably won’t happen – and I would be right 99% of the time.

Young Person: But a lot of AI doesn’t predict anything. It changes things. Like some of the deepfakes that I saw. Some of those were really funny….

Tox : These videos are modified using those statistical models. They get enough examples of one persons face, and they “predict” what it would look like on a different person. What gets done is different, and more complex, but the concept is the same.

At this point we took a break to grab some food off of the grill, play with my dogs, and relax a little bit. Then we picked our conversation back up….

Young Person: OK, so now I understand why AI is different. It’s all statistics, and it’s not magic. Why is this becoming such a big deal now?

Tox : As time and technology progress, the computing power and availability of computing resources allow us to tackle larger and larger problems. Large amounts of data can now be easily collected, stored and processed. You can do this on a cloud platform (like the IBM Cloud) for relatively little money. An individual who has the correct background and knowledge can now build and launch an AI application serving hundreds or even thousands of users for around $100 a month.

Young Person: So you mean that I could be doing deepfake videos on the cloud? Or other stuff?

Tox : Sure. You and anyone else you can think of. The issue is now “What is useful for people?” – and how can I provide some capability that people are willing to pay me for? Right now, most of the business models in this space tend to follow the same path that broadcasting took in the last century. Broadcasters provided service for free, but charged advertisers for the ability to expose a large audience to a particular marketing or advertising message. people couldn’t DVR stuff and blast past the commercials. Today, internet companies use your personal information to allow advertisers to “target” particular populations of people – based on income, interest, location and a variety of other things.

Young Person: So I could be like one of those people that are a billionaire before they are 30?

Tox : Why not? But you need to figure out HOW? Entrepreneurs begin to look at where they can make money – and make an impact on the world. Online companies are attractive because they do not require large amounts of capital (I don’t need a factory, and thousands of workers, just a team of 15 software developers and some laptop computers). They can try to build user groups who will pay for a service with some sort of monthly “subscription” (like Netflix). This model means influencing a LOT of people, and getting a small amount of money from each. The other approach is to focus your attention – get a few BIG users, who will spend a lot of money. This leads to the advertising business models where large corporations are the ultimate target customer (like Facebook) – and the consumer is given something for “free”.

Young Person: Facebook is mostly for older people like you. I spend most of my time in Snapchat or Instagram.

Tox : Those guys use the same type of business model – they provide an audience and information about that audience to advertisers, and the consumer gets something for “free”.

Young Person: What’s wrong with getting something for free. Why should I pay to get these things if I don’t have to?

Tox : When I was younger, there was a saying that my Dad had, and it still holds true today. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. You may not be paying for these services and apps with money, but you ARE paying for them.

Young Person: What’s are you talking about? I’m not paying anyone any money. If they give me ads I don’t have to buy any of the stuff getting advertised. So how am I “paying for it”?

Tox : You may not be paying for these services and apps with money, but you ARE paying for them. You are paying for them with a loss of privacy. People in older generations, and people from areas of the world with repressive governments, know what living in a “police state” or “surveillance state” means for people. That brings us back to politics again – and we said that we weren’t going to get into that.

Young Person: So I guess we pay for everything, just sometimes we pay with things other than money.

Tox : Now you’re getting it. So all of this new technology – AI, minaturization, 5G, and whatever else you can think of – has changed the perception of things in the world. It feels like we are able to do things for “free” – but the reality is that we are paying with other currency. Sometimes it is access to our private data. Sometimes it is access to our movements. Sometimes it is limits on what we can do.

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