17 Mar 2016

Machine-learner difficulties

Google’s Al might have stuffed the Go champ but youthful instagrammers are sticking it to the machine.

Google’s Al beat the top player of the ancient and complex game, Go, at the DeepMind Challenge, recently. It didn’t so much beat the South Korean champion, Lee Sedol, as wipe the board with him 4 straight wins to 1.

The news has been reported variously as the Fall of the Geek or the Rise of the Machines and there’s been little sympathy for the down-in-the-dumps human, tangled up in it all.

The story has been reported with a fan-boy zeal by Reuters, CNN and the BBC with a mouthwatering message about how machines can learn independently, approximating that ole wives’ favourite, human intuition, by studying  countless historical Go matches and using simulated Go games to perfect an emotionless, unbeatable strategy.

Well, not quite, Lee did beat Al once at least!

It’s significant, according to boffins at Carnegie Mellon University, because of the applications to other areas like health care, scientific research, even the law.

News breaks of Al’s smug victory over a crestfallen ancient board game strategist at the same time that photo share service, Instagram announces it’s going to order our feeds according to a number of dubious machine factors.

The change has come about with the outstanding statistic that instagrammers miss about 70 percent of their chonological feeds because, well, unless you’re a teenage girl, you’re not on it all the time and with 400 million regular visitors that’s a lot of lost content and potential squandered advertising messages.

The new feed will be ordered by machine learnings and a mix of ‘signals’ to determine the photo and video flow.

In Human that means there is a piece of code, an algorithm, that trawls our behaviour and calculates the likelihood of our interest in certain content, the relevance of posts, the relationship between two or more users and what they share in common.

There is a profit motive in play here to get us to spend more time on the app so the machine can serve more ads. It’s understandable but will it work?

You would have thought Instagram would base its non-chron decision on at least some input from users.

E.g. Do you:

a.want Instagram to pre-judge the content we think you’ll like?

b.serve you what your friends and followers want you to see?

But no, all the official blog, presumably not written by a machine, will tell us  is “to improve your experience, your feed will soon be ordered to show the moments we believe you will care about the most.”

The key here is the ‘we believe you will care about the most‘ and to coin my brilliant grandfather, ‘I may not know a lot about art, but I know what I like.’

Anyone who has tried and failed to get traction with a message through social media will know that nuance is everything and it’s much easier to turn off than on.

The wisdom of crowds is a powerful thing, peer pressure, collective sensibility; it’s the reason there aren’t more people picking their noses in public.

So why then is Instagram not picking our brains by engaging us in a, you know, conversation to ask us how we think our social experience could be improved?

They’re doing it to keep us engaged longer so they can squirt more advertising messages into our soon-not-to-be-so-live Instagram feeds.

The risk is that pre-curating our social content will have the opposite effect on engagement and will drive it down, especially in the youth market who can spot a faker from a thousand emojis. Then the dad-dancing Facebook audience overspills into Instagram, clears the room so that all you’ve got left is a 45-year-old MAMIL hand-jiving around a chair, with a robot to Keane.

I’ll leave the last word to a Tumblr blogger, called Maribellum:

Guys, they’re gonna Facebook the shit out of the chronology on Instagram. When will they learn this system is so unnecessary?!? After this there will be no point in posting on Instagram just like there’s no point to Facebook.” #InstagramDon’tBeStupid

@BradCRees