These remarks were delivered by the chief executive officer of News Corporation, Robert Thomson, during London Tech Week on June 14, 2017.
We are here to pay homage to the almighty algorithm. Algorithmic alchemy is redefining our commercial and social experiences, turning base matter into noble metals. But like the alchemists of old, algorithms are also a charlatan’s charter, allowing claims of pure science when human intervention is clearly doctoring results to suit either commercial imperatives or political agendas.
And there is the enduring contradiction between the claimed sophistication of, say, Google’s ability to target audiences and track tastes for advertisers, and its inability to identify the tasteless, the terroristic, the perverted and the pirated. As the over-alliterative title to this short address suggests, it is profit before provenance and probity. And for journalists, it is penury.
This séance with science is particularly poignant during one of our periodic phases of fascination with AI, artificial intelligence. When is artificial intelligence merely the artifice of intelligence? The most telling recent sign of cerebral superiority was Google’s machine-minded triumph in the board game Go over a Chinese grand master. Chinese call the game weiqi, Japanese call it Go. And so we should turn to the sage Japanese author, Yasunari Kawabata, who presciently wrote The Master of Go sixty-six years ago. He wrote, ”From the Way of Go, the beauty of Japan and the Orient had fled…One conducted the battle only to win, and there was no margin for remembering the dignity and the fragrance of Go as an art.”
Fragrance or odor aside, it would certainly serve humanity if the same effort, the same IT ingenuity was applied to protecting intellectual property and identifying vile videos before they have the opportunity to corrupt and to radicalize.
Acronyms are almost as alluring as alliteration, and so investors are currently focused on FANG: Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google, or FAANG – the extra A of course is for Apple. For the sake of this discussion we will concentrate on a different acronym, GAF: Google Amazon and Facebook. To be fair to the F, we are involved in an advanced discussion with Facebook about the creation of a subscription mechanic that would benefit news organizations and journalists – perhaps generating enough revenue for the industry so that journalists do not become a modern mendicant order.
Anyway, Mark Twain suggested that while facts are stubborn things, statistics are pliable, so I would rather focus on statistics that are viable rather than pliable.
For example, an independent assessment found that in 25,000 random Google searches, ads for Google products appeared in the top slot 91 percent of the time. Fascinatingly, all 1,000 searches for laptops started with an ad for Chromebook…a cool 100 percent of the time – lo and behold, after the results became public, and the embarrassment became palpable, the Google ads occupied 19 percent of the top slots.
What does that tell us about the manipulability, the pliability of algorithms? Clearly they can get any result that they want – and if we here were tweaking the knobs, palpating the parameters, we would fix a prominence that clearly takes advantage of our absolute dominance in search, but is not so obviously outrageous that snooping researchers will rumble us too easily. That is the art of the algorithm.
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Source: Fox News