How a toilet paper crisis can break AI.


Humans are weird.

This is a good thing.

If you were on the fence about this fact in January, I bet you have a different view on it now. Toilet paper panic alone should do it for you. What I am loving about this though, is how our weirdness has broken many AI systems.


AI powered surveillance capitalism relies on us acting in fairly predictable ways. When you click, your action, your behaviour, is scraped from online systems, linked to other behaviour or demographic indicators of you, then packaged and sold by big tech to other corporations. Your digital vapour trails bottled and sold to the highest bidder intent on influencing your next behaviour. That’s how it all works these days and why Google, Amazon, Apple, Alibaba, Facebook, Tencent, and Microsoft have wealth and power far beyond the boundaries of most nation states. Your ‘privacy’ they seek to own is less about what is in your bank account and more about what stuff you like to buy, watch, share and who you like to be friends with.on us acting in fairly predictable ways. When you click your action, your behaviour is scraped from online systems, linked to other behaviour or demographic indicators of you, packaged and sold by big tech to other corporations.


In this human-machine system of generating data and money, he (and it is usually ‘he’) who owns the data, owns the knowledge, and who owns the knowledge owns the money and the power. When we give information about our behaviours – for free – to tech companies they use high-end AI algorithms to package that behaviour into a saleable commodity.


What is also key to understand about our relationship with the cyberspace of big tech is that it works in a feedback loop. When Netflix tracks your viewing patterns, it then suggests to you other things you might like to watch. Seems like a good use of the human-machine system but you can see how this creates a feedback loop on a very simple level. Thing is, it gets way more complicated, and fast, when you start linking all of these online behaviours together enabling the creation of a digital footprint, or rather a digital avatar, that in some ways knows you better than you know yourself. Hence the targeted ads that follow you around your inter-webby rambles like the faint smell of some dog poo you stepped in several blocks back. Scrapping your digital shoe on the curb as you clear your browsing cache and emptying your pockets of cyber cookies that leave trails of crumbs to track your movements, can only help you so far.


Perhaps the most effective tool in our human arsenal to disrupt this sometimes symbiotic, more oft parasitic, relationship, is to just BE WEIRD.


And that is exactly what we did during the pandemic. Panic buying of toilet paper, jigsaw puzzles, hand sanitizer, and DIY home gardening tools were far beyond what mere algorithms had been trained on. We changed our searches, viewing choices, and even our language we used on posts. All of these were entirely unpredictable to our AI systems. Our weirdness was too much for them to handle and many had a little digitial meltdown. For a moment we had Hal 9000 singing “Daisy” whilst we took back a modicum of control over our human-machine dance. The relationship dynamic was disrupted, the music was off-key, and it required humans to go in and fix it.


In this great little MIT Tech review piece you will find:

“Machine-learning models trained on normal human behavior are now finding that normal has changed, and some are no longer working as they should. . . . What’s clear is that the pandemic has revealed how intertwined our lives are with AI, exposing a delicate codependence in which changes to our behavior change how AI works, and changes to how AI works change our behavior.”


So it looks like the machines are not about to take over anytime soon. Certainly not whilst we maintain our human ability to change and adapt.


Stay Weird Humans 😉


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