Artificial Intelligence and Privacy are Incompatible

The Robot Butler has been a trope of science fiction since we could dream of computing. Today, Siri and Alexa serve as disembodied ancestors to the future robotic personal assistants we’ve always dreamed of. And boy do people like them. 43 Million Americans own some form of dedicated virtual assistants. That’s almost 20% of US households.

Besides hands free commands such as setting a timer or checking the weather, some of the fastest growing command categories are recommendations. Things like wine pairings, recipe suggestions and movie suggestions are all easy tasks that can inform your decisions in a friendly and conversational way.

And wouldn’t you know it, the best way to increase the accuracy of personalized recommendations is to give these assistants more information about your wants, likes, needs and behaviors. Doing so helps Amazon or Apple build a better profile that can “learn” from and serve the user better in future interactions, just like human personal assistants do. Everyday, 43 Million Americans are providing Petabytes of this private data to these companies through their personal assistants.

So maybe it’s worth thinking for a moment about what a “personal assistant” is anyway.

Putting the Person in…personal assistant

A personal assistant at their apex is a worker who has a deep understanding of every relevant attribute of their client, in order help the client improve their effectiveness and efficiency. Lets use two fictional examples of personal assistants:

Scene from The Devil Wears Prada Courtesy 20th Century Fox

In the movie The Devil Wears Prada, Andrea (Anne Hathaway) works as a personal assistant for Miranda (Meryl Streep) and spends every waking hour trying to meet her overly demanding needs. The amount of personal, private data that Andrea requires to predict and satisfy the needs and wants of Miranda is nearly equivalent to that of a spouse. Not only does she need to know buying preferences, but also medical needs, allergies, sexual preferences, work and sleep patterns, food likes and dislikes, family composition and personalities, location data, preferred activities, the list goes on and on. Without this information she can’t do her job successfully and the value of the relationship is diminished.

Scene from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air Courtesy Warner Brothers

In the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Jeffrey the butler interacts with each family member in a unique, loving and personalized way because he has developed a personal relationship with each member over years of service. Jeffrey tailors his interactions with each person based on what he knows of them and the situation they find themselves in. He understands and internalizes their individual personalities, histories, even their secrets, and how they will respond to different styles of suggestion to make their lives easier or more productive.

In both cases, the assistant and butler have a deeply intimate relationship with their clients, one that goes well beyond anything that most people would have with anyone other than a family member. They are part of our private life.

If we expect that Amazon’s Alexa or Google’s Assistant will fulfill our personalized needs and desires in the same way a human assistant would, then aren’t we required to build a similarly personal relationship with Amazon or Google? That means sharing our preferences and behaviors with them is a required step to create the feedback loops and deep understanding that is necessary to provide personalized value. Can you trust Amazon or Google with the same information you would give Jeffrey the butler? Should you bring Google into your private life?

You can Trust me

The number one disqualifier when looking for a personal assistant, butler, maid, plumber, babysitter — really any job come to think of it — is a lack of Trust. If you think a housekeeper will steal your jewels or your babysitter will ignore your child, you’re not going to hire them.

It’s not unreasonable to assume that a big part of why Amazon is leading in the smart home market is because Amazon is the second most trusted brand in the US. People trust Amazon already, so it’s easy to build a stronger relationship with them. However this assumes that the users are aware of the data they are giving away, how it is being used, and have made a calculated decision on how much personal information to share based on their level of trust with Amazon. Probably a bad assumption.

It’s unknown to what extent users understand how much data they are giving away everyday, so it’s hard to know if they are wittingly trusting companies with their data or if they are unwitting participants in the data game. How Amazon uses your data is all there if you want to read it, however most people don’t read it. Even if you did read it, it’s not exactly clear what is happening with your data, so most people either go with gut feel, or simply don’t think about it at all.

The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation is taking a hard stance on this with the goal of having companies explicitly show users exactly how their data is being used, but I’m not convinced this will have the effect they intend it to. They want to force the question of trust into the spotlight, and that might work, but just like couples therapy you can only force the conversation so much before one side loses trust.

So trust is really what it comes down to. Can you trust a major company with your most intimate secrets? Chances are you probably already are.

Long term relationship with AI

Whether you know it or not, you are creating this personal private relationship with companies just by virtue of living in the modern world. Just search for “[Company] tracking/spying” and you’ll find hundreds of articles expressing concerns about privacy and how much data a company is collecting from users.

This behavior is not restricted to the “smart” tech corporations by the way. Even if you don’t have a smartphone, your phone carrier knows (generally) where you are at all times, because knowing your location is part of how cell service works. The Safeway/Kroger discount card you use, or the mileage rewards program you enroll in, or any other “loyalty” program you’ve had for two decades, all of these are trying to do one thing:

Predict your preferences and behaviors so that they can put the coupon/sale/product/content that matches your preferences in front of you at the right time and right place.
The Early Days of big data

The difference between now and 20 years ago is that users provide orders of magnitude more specific and persistent data in an easily digestible way. With advances over the last decade with Machine Learning and blended prediction systems, companies can process this data and get more and more accurate behavioral predictions. For example YouTube made their recommendations system magnitudes better using Deep Neural Networks. Amazon published their Destiny engine which uses Deep Neural Networks to build better recommendations from user behaviors. Both of these are in the category of “AI” if you aren’t familiar.

Better tools and predictions create better services for users, more tailored product offerings, more accurate recommendations and more efficient markets that keep you coming back to their services. As more companies use increasingly precise behavioral models to predict user actions with “AI,” the deeper these relationship will get. Organizations will seek to build ever more personal relationships with their users because they want to serve your preferences.

By default the recommendation systems that people are responding positively to require your personal input to be successful. Just like personal assistants do.

Wait, I don’t want to have a relationship with AI!

Actually, you probably do.

Remember those 20% of Americans that literally have an always listening voice based assistant in their home? They don’t keep those because they are forced to, they do so because the assistants really do provide value that people want.

Anytime you check in for your flight on your phone, search for something on google, like a post of facebook, create a board on pinterest, rate a product on amazon or leave a review on yelp, you are dancing with the system, leading with your left and the system is following with their right. You are giving them your private preferences for an increasingly tailored service. Your behavioral data is used to tailor the product to your wants, to personalize your experience, which theoretically keeps you happy and using it — or at least addicted to it, the sinister downside of giving people what they want. This is however what people have been asking for: better personalization. Congratulations, you’re in it.

I will make a prediction of my own: more deeply intertwined AI based services will increase the decision making capabilities for users over the next several decades to such an extent, that it will be considered irresponsible not to use them.

Ok, fine then we’ll do it offline!

I can hear you now: “Well fine, I value my privacy but I also agree that these services are beneficial. So we will just make systems that never touch Amazon, Google or Facebook or whatever mega corporation services. We’ll own our own data and I’ll just keep all my private data locally in my own home and have my open source Smart Speaker totally off the grid. Or maybe just send out relevant data where necessary. I’ll build my own DDPG based Deep Learning systems and teach it everything it needs to know!”

But will you? Will 100 Million Americans put the effort in to tweak and modify their own systems? Will 3 billion users worldwide? Is it feasible to think you can build a “smart” enough network with strictly compartmentalized data just from one person?

The recent lament of how we “lost our way” with the internet, is the latest proof that humans are great at consolidating power, so why would this time be any different? The cyber-utopian fantasy of egalitarian connectivity is in my estimation low probability, and I think it’s irresponsible to move forward with that as a thesis.

Practically speaking, robust information networks don’t work that way, they need to exchange information up and down to become better, faster and more accurate. I’m not just talking IT here, I’m talking about plant root systems, dolphin pods and migratory bird flocks. All nodes share information up the branches to make the system stronger, more responsive and more efficient. Whomever owns the most connected nodes has the power. We should recognize that as a natural law and build our social systems to compensate for that.

So how should we as individuals choose to enter personal relationships with organizations that provide services to us in exchange for our private data?

Who should we trust?

The first step is to recognize what these relationships look like, what data is being shared, how is it being used and how we can mutually benefit from the relationship as both users and creators without blowing the whole thing up.

Second, We should acknowledge that you cannot simultaneously have systems which adapt to users behaviors while also keeping their behaviors out of reach

Third, we need to study the cost vs benefit for these systems. My gut tells me that the tradeoff is net positive, but we need more evidence to show that. This is especially important for engineers and designers as we have a duty to provide value and not just extract value.


Hopefully this serves as a jumping off point for a larger discussion of this topic. I have my own wacky ideas of how we can have a positive outcome by building personal relationships between users and systems but I’m happy to admit that I’m not confident with any answer. I also recognize the risks and dangers inherent in how we’re building these systems which are really collections of human preferences.

I want to have a discussion here because I think it’s a critically important topic, so please send me your thoughts in comments here or elsewhere.