Technology for inequality: how chatbots can help shape an (even more) uneven world

Image by Erin, some rights reserved — Creative Commons 2.0

*this article was originally written in portuguese for the Brazilian Nexo news.

Chatbots are programs whose main function is to replace humans. With the premise that they are even more efficient than a flesh-and-blood assistant, these programs, which have existed since the early algorithms were written, now have the information and processing power to be actually better than people on certain tasks. The Internet, which is further responsible for much of the collection of this information, allows the massive distribution of chatbots and also their extreme personalization.

We are moving towards a world where each person can acquire their intelligent personal assistant at birth, enjoying their services throughout their lives, services that tend to get better and better over time, as the interaction with the “owner” may make the robot even smarter. In this world, access to the Internet will not be the only obstacle to access to knowledge, but also access to the best bots stores, in certain languages, guaranteed by differentiated credentials, or even the version of the operating system installed on a mobile device. In the world of personalized chatbots, the abysmal deepening of social inequality does not happen unless access to science, the Internet and web technology is open and universal, respected as a human right and not only perceived as a competitive differential by few global companies.

The web, the layer that allows humans to have access to what is on the Internet, was invented according to principles of organizing and sharing information. In addition, the web today is also an efficient information semantic storage layer, as dreamed by Tim Berners Lee, the computer scientist who created the structure of the World Wide Web:

I have a dream for the Web, in which computers become capable of analyzing all the data on the Web — the content, links, and transactions between people and computers. A “Semantic Web”, which makes this possible, has yet to emerge, but when it does, the day-to-day mechanisms of trade, bureaucracy and our daily lives will be handled by machines talking to machines. The “intelligent agents” people have touted for ages will finally materialize. [1]

Much of his dream is implemented. The web has become a rich, ever-improving repository of information where machines can identify fragments of information and use them without humans having to interact. All the interactions of people on the web: whether it is a simple search, a like or the upload of a video to a social network is another record in this giant interconnected database. This information also feeds companies that sell services based on strategic data. By combining this data with other types, “well fed” chatbots can help people find the best product, schedule appointments, organize the mailbox, organize the contact list, find the ideal route — or the even the best way to commute. It can help in studies, health, sports… There are endless possibilities.

Considering that we have a data availability never seen before, which is sometimes called “big data,” there is a great movement around whether to use this data in order to generate profit. Thus, techniques associated with artificial intelligence and machine learning gain strength because they can improve the analysis and the use of this available data. According to Douglas Hofstadter, professor of cognitive sciences and author of the book “Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Interlacing of Bright Geniuses,” (considered the bible of artificial intelligence), AI is “attempting to understand the mind or create something similar to a human being”. These techniques give chatbots the ability to learn continuously, as they feed on available data, improving at each moment the ability to perform the tasks for which they were programmed.

Taking advantage of this technique, companies are launching services based on robots. The financial sector, heated by Fintecs fashion, is taking chance that banks are outdated in terms of services directed to the final user, to bake several platforms that depend on chatbots to help people manage their finance. Services that target the millennial generation are the promise of a future where robots help people to manage their financial life.

Photo by Matthew Hurst, some rights reserved (CC 2.0)

Cleo, for example, offers a team of chatbots based on machine learning techniques to help you choose the best investment for small investors. Chip promises to help young people save money daily, such as WithPlum, or Current and Sway, both integrated with the Slack platform.

The fintech is just one example of potential use of chatbots. The scenario, nevertheless, can easily be replicated in several other sectors, including those crucial to the development of the human being. Education and health, for example, are already being explored by companies offering customized services. This supply of intelligent virtual helpers for competition and profit-making, however, can create an even more difficult chasm to bridge in terms of social inequalities. Access to a smart assistant since childhood can determine much of the quality of education for a particular group of children. The access to reliable data to Chatbot, based in science and, maybe, ratified by international organizations can also determine the scope for better solutions for health, or even for non-indebtedness, in the case of Fintecs.

To prevent these technologies from accentuating even more inequality, it is necessary that the digital reality is taken seriously. Governments, which are now experiencing a crisis of representation, may find parts of their reason to exist in efforts to maintain human rights in times of data-driven markets. Open access to open data are a counterpoint to a future that is at risk of becoming a dystopia. Old questions has to be made again, but focusing in science fiction scenarios more than ever.

[1] Berners-Lee, T., Fischetti, M. and Foreword By-Dertouzos, M.L., 2000. Weaving the Web: The original design and ultimate destiny of the World Wide Web by its inventor. HarperInformation