“What kind of public sphere are we building? What kind of information infrastructure are we building? What kind of world are we building?”
These three simple, yet also complicated questions were the basis of the overarching message delivered by Dr. Zeynep Tufekci, the featured speaker for ASU’s 2017 E. James Holland University Symposium on American Values.
A native of Istanbul, Turkey, and graduate from the University of Texas, Tufekci is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina and contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. In her afternoon presentation, “Machine Intelligence and Humanity: An Alien in Our Midst,” and an evening question-and-answer session, Tufekci discussed the future of technology and its effect on the public information sphere.
Specifically, she talked about machine learning, digital technologies and artificial intelligence.
“We are at a historical inflection point with these technologies,” she said. “It’s not just the smart phones; it’s not just artificial intelligence; it’s not just digital surveillance. There are all these ways in which they are coming together, and they are coming together in powerful ways.”
Using Google and Facebook as examples, Tufekci discussed that digital profiling has switched from group demographics to the individual. Because of this, users do not know how much they are being surveyed digitally. Data is always being collected in order to send targeted ads, and the algorithms being used often incentivize misinformation.
“We went from information scarcity to an information flood,” she said. “We have these platforms that are optimizing basically unhealthy behavior. We’re participating in this, too. It’s not just all their fault.”
“The reason I wanted to come here is because I think some of these conversations just get had in big cities. And I often find there is more interest in places that aren’t as centrally located because people do want to participate, but feel kind of left out of the conversation.”
One of Tufekci’s personal goals is to figure out how to make these systems less complicated so they are understandable to users – not just those in Silicon Valley.
“It can’t just be decisions made by a few places and people,” she explained. “In fact, that’s part of the problem.”
And while these systems and interactions can seem overwhelming and scary, Tufekci noted that there can be benefits to these technological advances if we use them in a positive way and have open discussion.
“Not all of this is a negative thing,” she said. “There are all these great things that can be done, but there are really dangerous paths we could go down. It’s happening very fast and it’s very complicated. This is the most important thing we can be discussing right now in terms of what kind of a public sphere we’re building.”
In addition to her public presentations, Tufekci visited classrooms and spoke to students across campus. She also attended a luncheon with members of the ASU Honors Program.
“The students are engaged,” she explained. “The reason I wanted to come here is because I think some of these conversations just get had in big cities. And I often find there is more interest in places that aren’t as centrally located because people do want to participate, but feel kind of left out of the conversation.”
While Tufekci admits that machine intelligence can be extremely technical and hard to understand, she presses that having some technical competence is not hard to pick up.
“I think being literate in the world requires some level of technical literacy, too,” she said. “I don’t mean everyone should learn to code – that’s not it. But people should kind of learn what these systems can do. How do they work? What is machine learning?”
“I think that’s not beyond any college student’s ability,” she continued. “We can learn.”
And she had a strong message for ASU students.
“They really have to pay attention to this,” Tufekci said. “Even if this isn’t something they’re going to work on as a job, this is going to be their information infrastructure. They’re going to be dealing with this for a long, long time.”