March 06, 2014

The Battle for your Mind

It appears that "hacking" is in the news lately. Often. And I mean, big time. The meaning of the word is almost unanimously attached to an act of law-breaking with the clear, malicious intent of stealing someone else's property. But not everyone grants this buzzword a bad meaning, no. The Zuck is famous for turning its meaning around to make it appear something idealistic --grandiose even. "Hacking," he says, is the trade of heroic, altruistic visionaries who are doggedly determined to make the world a better place --for example, by attempting to bring internet to the entire Saharan Africa. Forget about the fact that starving people in poor countries and desolate refuge camps can't sustain on a kilobyte diet. Internet, the wacky technorati elite trumpets, is to become the end-all-be-all of human prosperity.

Hacking, the way I understand it, is gaining access to the inner workings ("the code") of something to be able to manipulate it for our benefit. That "code" are the instructions that tell the thing/product to be certain way, which ultimately makes it desirable for someone. This being a consumer society, being desirable is the most important thing a product can have, with all the moral dilemmas that this construct brings. The fact that someone else considers something desirable or appealing, and is willing to pay for it, is what makes taking control of (or at least copying) the code of something so alluring. It's a property rights issue.

But hacking doesn't always have to be a high-tech break-in. The Japanese hacked English motorcycles so they could develop theirs and could sell them cheaper. The Chinese are well-known for hacking everything there is to hack out there. And Samsung? Well, we know how they've thrived.

So, hacking implies gaining control of the code of something desirable so the person who is willing to pay for it sends his/her money the way of the hacker. He who controls the code, controls the money. It is our perception of desirability towards a product what drives people to spend money on it, which in turn makes controlling its code so tempting for hackers.

But what about perception itself? Do we always know what we want? Are our tastes static or do they shift? We know the answer to this one (they shift). And ultimately, do we have conscious control over what we deem desirable? In other words, is there a "code" that rules our perception of desirability?

What if our mind --the organ that controls desirability by conscientious choice--  is a hackable device?

Well, it turns out it might very well be. Look at these situations described by Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom:
  • College students who fill out a questionnaire about their political opinions when standing next to a dispenser of hand sanitizer become, at least for a moment, more politically conservative than those standing next to an empty wall.
  • Shoppers walking past a bakery are more likely than other shoppers to make change for a stranger.
  • Subjects favor job applicants whose résumés are presented to them on heavy clipboards.
  • Supposedly egalitarian white people who are under time pressure are more likely to misidentify a tool as a gun after being shown a photo of a black male face.
The implications of these patterns are not minor. This means that at some level, we are in fact only "soft machines." It means that we are beings with only the illusion of conscientious choice. If you ask professor Bloom, he'll tell you that we are much more than these quirky behaviors, and that we shouldn't overemphasize their importance on our daily lives. And he may be right about this --we may not be primarily automatons who derive our mood from the color of the wall in front of us. But what this definitely reveals is that, at some level, we are.

This is a major vulnerability in our "operating system", and as such, susceptible to hacking.

And the hacking has begun. Using algorithms applied to big data, consultants out of London are able to gauge the financial feasibility of a movie script (literally, assessing with numbers the likability of art), allowing Hollywood to weed out bad stories. It turns out, Hollywood has nailed down the formula for the perfect script. Every time is the same: the "theme stated," the "catalyst," the "midpoint," the "all-is-lost moment," the "false victory," the "confrontation," and the "resolution." My favorite is Moneyball: an algorithm-based script about the use of algorithms to win in baseball. Beautiful. They definitely know what buttons to press to herd us to the theater. 

The next step, Ray Kurzweil predicts, is not the hacking of our mind, but its takeover. "Google will know the answer to your question before you have asked it", he says. "It will have read every email you've ever written, every document, every idle thought you've ever tapped into a search-engine box. It will know you better than your intimate partner does. Better, perhaps, than even yourself."

The supplanting of the brain's cognitive skills to algorithms represents one of the most frightening aspects brought by the seemingly inexorable arrival of the technological singularity. The battle for your mind is being waged, and apparently not that many people seem to notice. Maybe not all is lost. After all, we have freedom of choice to shield us from the grip of algorithms. We can always consciously decide to unplug and refocus our attention away from technology.

Because, you know, we can. (Or can we?)