July 2019

Intelligent Algorithms are stupid

This is kind of a follow up to my last blog post about how promoting popularity is insane. I thought more about this and the whole problem goes much deeper, since popularity nowadays is not even decided by humans anymore for the most part, but by machines, that supposedly know better what humans want, than the humans themselves. The algorithms itself may be intelligent, or let us say, they do what they do, the problem is more the human error that made them and the human error that is put into them, which then is turned into more human error by the computer.

It began when I was doing research regarding how I could promote my game or in general what decides what becomes popular on social media and what not. I read a bunch of articles and watched several talks and the gist of all seemed to be that it was all about algorithms that run social media platforms that decide almost everything. For example a game store would be run mostly by algorithms that decide what sells well and since the store wants to make the most money, they would promote what sells best. The problem with that is that you don't really need a good game that really sells well, you only need to make it that way, that the algorithm will think it is. When you made the algorithm think your game is good and sells well, it will get promoted and it will really sell well because of that and because of the fact it sells well, people will really think it is good and it will become popular. This does not work with everything, you need a minimum of potential, but I would say it works with almost anything, if done "right". Alternatively you can just become a copycat and just copy what sells well and because of the popularity it generated, you automatically gain something from it when you copy it.

The same seems to apply for most social media platforms that have some kind of recommendation feature or front pages that promote certain things. How often did I catch myself clicking on some clickbait, just because it was recommended and then becoming angry, because it was total crap and I did not really want to watch it, but because I watched it, the algorithm probably thought "Oh he watched it, so he liked it, lets give him more of the same stuff". So clicking on something I did not want to watch was interpreted by the algorithm, that I liked it and would result in it getting recommended more, which then increases the likeliness that I accidentally click on it again which perpetuates the cycle of insanity. This is of course just one example and some algorithms even may account for that, but I just wanted to give an example where a supposedly intelligent algorithm returns stupid results.

The most obvious way of beating the algorithm is cheating, somehow this is the least obvious way to normal people, since they somehow cannot believe that their favorite companies or gurus really just cheat the system and are not that special. One of the most common ways of cheating the algorithm is by faking view counts, which makes the algorithm think something is popular and recommend it more, which then results in more real viewers. This is also probably one of the best cases where the algorithm is stupid, but humans can spot the fake pretty easily, however this does not matter as the damage has already been done.

Another way of where the algorithms fail is irony, which is very common among people giving reviews on the internet, the algorithm just thinks a positive review is a positive review, but a human can spot pretty quickly in most cases when it is meant seriously or not. Detecting irony is probably one of the cases that will be hardest to learn for machines and this problem will probably prevail long time into the future, while other issues may get fixed relatively soon from now on.

The algorithms themselves may not be that bad or even very intelligent, the problem is more that the developers probably assumed the data that is fed is legitimate. So in an ideal environment without disruptive factors they even may work pretty well, but this of course is not the case in the real world. Some people even do it as a sport to find loopholes in the system and then exploit them. Even in an ideal environment you still have problems of philosophical nature, since it is not clear if humans really make the decisions they do themselves or voluntarily make them or can even want what they want and then do what they want.

Imagine a person with psychological issues who cannot do what he wants, the algorithm will then enforce him in his self deceptive behavior.

Or maybe the algorithm thing is just a scam and on top there is just a human who decides things by hand, or it is just a random generator.

There are so many possibilities and problems and of course I don't deny that modern recommendation algorithms can be really good and help me with what I'm searching for or help extending my horizon by recommending me more of what may interest me, but as said, it also can and often does go wrong. Often I can imagine how the algorithm works and therefore can decide, if I want to engage with it or not, but most people are not high enough in conscious for that and probably never will be.

In the end I probably make my decisions mostly based on recommendations of real people that I deem qualified for that, but I fear that the trend goes to that machines will decide more and more things in our lives, since most people are not high enough in conscious to even realize what is going on. Maybe in the future all humans will turn into mindless robot like creatures stuck in an infinite feedback loop, because the algorithm has no more new data to process, because the only data it has, is what it feed to itself, because why would you need other data if you already determined the most popular data.

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The insanity of promoting popular things

There seems to be a strong and rapidly growing trend in our current society and on many platforms to promote only "popular" things or content. To many people this may seem normal and logical, but if you think about it more it looks more like total insanity.

Most platforms today have some kind of front page, that are in most cases used to advertise "popular" content, like a store that has featured products or a social media website that shows what users have created. This may have always existed to some small degree, but in the past it was more like a secondary feature. Mostly it was about content that was recently created, like a feed that would show the latest additions in a neutral way, just a list, so that every creator had an equal opportunity to gain visibility. So eventually after some time some creators or products tend to be more popular and higher quality than others and of course became more popular. Over the years the platforms became bigger and bigger and because of the amount of content the feed got adjusted because it could no longer grant everyone visibility, since the space was limited. The idea behind that was probably some kind of quality control and to give users what they wanted.

The big issue with manipulating what users see is, that you also manipulate what is perceived as popular and quality content and you end up with an infinite feedback loop, where previously popular things just get more popular, because they are advertised because they were popular. So in the end everything becomes meaningless, it does no longer matter if you are popular or your content is high quality or whatever, since whenever you manage to enter the feedback loop, you will automatically become more popular. Some time ago I read a study regarding that where they tested what content on social media becomes popular and what not and the result was, that it was mostly arbitrary, the biggest factor was only, that after the content was posted it had to be up-voted. Just a few up-votes after it was posted already increased the chance of the content getting more up-votes by around 30%. So imagine even when totally inferior content was posted and somehow managed to get up-votes through luck or cheating or whatever, then it may start a trend that almost cannot be reversed. Even when many people realize they have been fooled, through the big audience the content may have gathered real fanboys that will defend it stubbornly.

Knowing about this psychological effects it may become more clear why it is insane to promote popular things, because you cheat people with it and ultimately also cheat yourself, because you as well no longer know what really is popular and what not. Imagine a store who only promotes certain products, which of course will be more popular because of all the promotion and the store owner will argue "why should we not promote those things, those are the most popular, people buy it and they want more of it, so we give them more". Normally the store owner decides what gets advertised and it is the stuff the store owner wants the people to buy, because it gives him most profit or the product is new and unknown or he simply needs to get rid of the stock, well in our "modern" time, this is often not the case anymore, thanks to "intelligent" algorithms that figure out what people like and advertise to people what people like. So whatever people do, "intelligent" algorithms help enforcing people in their behavior, making no distinction between wrong or right.

The question now is, how you get into the popular recommended lists. Well the first criteria is, you need to be popular. It is a chicken and egg problem and can hardly be solved, probably only through cheating. However there is or was a method you could legitimately become popular and it was the time where there was a neutral feed of new content, where everyone had an equal opportunity to get a roughly equal amount of visitors. After some time of equal opportunity, some would turn out as the winners and become more popular and I believe most popular things today came from that time where there was some kind of equal opportunity and the market was still fresh. However now this selection process is totally undermined, where new content creators get no default visibility anymore, so even if there is better content you could consume, you will never know about it. Of course there are workarounds mainly if you come from another area like mainstream media or industry or just have lots of money to simply bribe people or buy advertising, but these are not available for normal humans.

Promoting popular things is even bad when you don't believe in psychology and market manipulation because you are not intelligent enough to understand those matters, because at some point everything that is promoted is already known by anyone and promoting it further will have no effect other than to make people fed up with it and probably even make people hating it.
If you still cannot understand it, let me make an allegory: Imagine you go into a supermarket and all advertisement you see there is to advertise bread, because some very "genius" manager found out that 90% of people there buy bread, which makes it by far the most popular product. Now he thinks he is very intelligent and says that compared to bread all his other products are kind of irrelevant, so he needs to invest in promoting bread, because it is what most people buy.
I hope this helps you see why this would be not a good idea, because bread is already known by anyone and advertising it will not make it more known and it will also hardly make people buy more of it, since they buy it anyway. What will happen otherwise is, people will get fed up with it and buy less of the products they don't know, because they don't know those products even exist, which applies to new products that only recently got introduced. Maybe people will even buy less bread, because they are so annoyed by it.

This is at least how I think and react to that problem, some people seem to be not normal and are able to consume the same product over and over again and never worry to search for anything else and will always be happy with the same thing, like eating bread only and they will not worry if every advertising will be about selling him bread, since he knows that is what he likes and he does not even question that the sole reason he likes bread so much is because it gets advertised to him every day everywhere he goes. I at least find it extremely annoying to not be able to find the good things, because everything is blocked with advertisements for bread. Some people may argue "but you don't have to consume what is advertised", well even I fall for it sometimes and I would say I know very well that it is manipulative and how the psychological tricks behind it work etc, so I would say this problem affects almost anyone.

Of course there is also the attempt of censorship going on there, since by promoting only things that are already "popular" you make sure, that nobody thinks different, but this is a whole other area and probably deserves it's own article, but however this is still insanity and the perpetrators are also cheating themselves with it as I already explained before.

So it seems people may not realize this problem even exists. Maybe only I realized this problem exists, because I'm an artist and try to "sell" a product to people they don't even know exists. The problem with being an artist is, an artist makes something creative, which means it is something new and unique, then the problem with something new and unique is, nobody knows it exists or if it exists, people cannot even understand what it is and this makes it really hard to advertise to people, especially if there exists no place where you could advertise it, because all advertisement space is already filled with the same non unique things and everything new and unique has no place there.

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