It's Official: The AIs Hear All Our Secrets / by Rob Smith

This week, Stephen Hawking said that self-aware AIs pose a threat to the future of humanity. I'm afraid he's right, but not in the way most people might think.The threat of AI isn't a self-aware movie monster. The evil we should fear is more like that identified by Hannah Arendt: it's not special, it's banal. And it's not in the future, it's right now.Case in point: I was talking to a friend of mine in Seattle this week, and he told me a story about a family conversation over Thanksgiving dinner. He's telling his family about Cafe Juanita, a recently-discovered local eatery that he and his wife enjoy. The name of the restaurant is mentioned a number of times, and my friend's daughter pulls out her new iPhone 6 to look it up.She types in "Cafe...", and immediately Cafe Juanita pops up as the number one item in the search. The family thinks this is weird, so everyone pulls out their (non-iPhone) smartphones. None of them return Cafe Juanita in the top 20 hits.Are you ahead of me here? That's right: Siri was activated on the iPhone, and apparently it was eavesdropping*.Lucky for little Cafe Juanita, you might say, and I'd agree with you. But before we get too complacent, think about what pays for all the AI that is serving us. Remember how gmail is paid for by AdWords? Those annoying posts Facebook sticks in your newsfeed, that look vaguely like they came from your friends? The way Amazon thinks just because you bought Winter Soldier you want offer emails on every comic book movie ever made?(Not to mention that Siri might hear your most private conversations: think of the ad placements that might generate, while you are searching in front of your business associates or your kids. Bet that will make you turn off your phone in the bedroom on date night.)I'd say the threat isn't self-aware AIs listening to our conversations, coldly and jealously plotting against us. That would at least be interesting (in a purely academic way, of course). No, it's that our conversations are just more fuel for simplistic AI engines that feed on banal consumerism.These AIs are listening *now*. And they make a nice little profit. It's the junk mail strategy: sure, most people just throw it away but it's cheap enough, so if 0.01 percent buy,  that's enough to make the monster grow. If you don't believe that commercial entities that prey on our most basic instincts and greatest vulnerabilities will expand and come to dominate, think about the fast food industry, big media, or the major political parties.It's big, it's out there, it's profitable, and we're feeding it with our "big data". And it's not interested in becoming a higher form of intelligence, of evolving consciousness, or even ruling us with a memetic chrome fist. It just wants to sell us crap, based on the simple-minded model of automated "personalization" (read "targeted marketing").And it absolutely will not stop until we buy.At least you can crush the head of The Terminator with an industrial press. How do you destroy a massive network of schlock-peddling AIs that treat us all like profit centre paramecium?There's something to go all John Conner on, Professor H. If you want to take it underground, give me a call. But let's both turn off Siri first. *Side note: I looked into this, and Siri doesn't currently listen all the time, except under very particular circumstances, so this anecdote may be missing some details. But there are a number of such anecdotes out there, and continuous smartphone listening is certainly on the cards.