Tech Talk: Bill Magee
It’s refreshing to learn that increasingly digital youngsters are not taking as read – or rather heard – everything tech-based voice assistants like Alexa tell them.
What’s depressing is to discover that for a mere €300, information can be so manipulated online as to sidetrack legitimate discussions and polarise public opinion. All for the price of a refurbished Sony Vaio Microsoft 10 laptop. With change.
Two pieces of research highlight the dilemma in working out just who is actually telling the truth in cyberspace. What amounts to a profound difficulty in filtering out the authenticity of one piece of data against another.
One study is from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the other the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Better known as MIT and NATO respectively.
The GenAlphas – those born between 2010 until 2025 and nicknamed “Millennials on steroids” – will represent the first full digital workforce, and we tend to think of them as blindly trusting of whatever information comes their way.
Apparently, this is far from the case, according to the institute’s technology review in a report entitled: “Why kids don’t trust Alexa.” MIT maintains youngsters are more sophisticated about things technological than they’re given credit.
This is especially the case when it comes to the whole concept of VAs, described as “amorphous and hard to grasp” as youngsters try to wrap their heads around not only how it all works but what its knowledge base is in the first place.
MIT claims that hardwired into young brains is a belief in what another person, especially a parent or a teacher, says (even if they don’t necessarily acknowledge this!)
Not so online, with the research going diametrically against claims the younger generation heed the siren call – without questioning – of everything they’re told online.
It says a lot of those digital kids who attempt to resist the likes of Alexa and it’s younger artificial intelligent (AI) companion Echo. In a mere five years Amazon’s leading product has all but taken over their lives.
It all starts innocently enough. Voice interaction from dawn to dusk, music playback on demand, endless to-do lists, streaming podcasts, audio books galore, weather, traffic, every sport under the sun. You name it.
It’s when we get to the “real time” information and news front that things get tricky. Also how Alexa can control other smart devices kicking around.
Here third-party vendors (whoever they are) become freely involved through countless and quite insidious apps. Just who is listening in to what the VA user is saying and doing remains unclear. All I know is Amazon has over 10,000 employees working on Alexa and related products.
Now we come to that €300.
NATO-linked researchers bought 3,530 comments, 25,750 “likes”, 20,000 views and 5,100 followers across various social media platforms.
They were able to easily identify accounts – 18,939 in total – being used to deliver the purchased interactions. This, in turn, allowed them to assess what other pages of inauthentic accounts were interacting online on behalf of clients.
Four weeks after the €300 buy-in 80% of the purchased engagements were still there. A further three weeks on 95% of the fake accounts remained active.
For a body like NATO to expose such online trickery with consummate ease begs the question: why are social media giants not pulling the plug and being more responsible?
Even regulatory fines to make your eyes water, running into billions in the case of Facebook, appear to be no deterrent.
It’s as if such scrutiny is factored in to their daily commercial operations. A price well worth paying as they continue to rake in what’s become known as the social media dollar.
Could it also be they are too closely aligned with the very organisations responsible for such online fakery? It’s certainly all got out of control.
No wonder GenAlphas have started to question just how they’re increasingly being ruled by apps and algorithms.
After all, it is young lives we’re talking about. Their personal intellectual property that carries with it rights that are inviolate. Or should be.
It’s probably too much to hope for that one day, pretty soon, social media platforms turn out to have a cyber shelf life.
Tech tastes can prove fickle. Just ask those retailers which have been left, practically overnight, with thousands of unsold Nintendo 64s, VHS /VCRs, PDAs, and Kodak Instamatics.
Each once a market-leading product destined for the scrapheap or high street charity shop. And that’s a fact.