This morning we caught a glimpse of a leaked internal video from Google X called The Selfish Ledger. The head of design at what was called Google X (and is now just “X” under Alphabet) Nick Foster made this video with David Murphy, Google Senior UX Engineer. In the video, they show how learning computers could allow Google to modify human behavior and the future of our Earthbound society.
X Spokesperson Statement
The video was leaked to The Verge, who also got a comment from an unnamed X spokesperson. “We understand if this is disturbing — it is designed to be,” said an X representative. “This is a thought-experiment by the Design team from years ago that uses a technique known as ‘speculative design’ to explore uncomfortable ideas and concepts in order to provoke discussion and debate. It’s not related to any current or future products.”
The idea that the entire video isn’t related to any one product – I believe that. It’d be too blatant to lay it all on the line like this. Much of what’s in the video, however, relates directly to the capabilities of a modern mega-massive organization like Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, etcetera. There’s no escaping that reality – we’re already in it.
One Defense Only
The one and only way this video is defensible as anything BUT a thought exercise is in a willful submission to a new chapter in our ever-evolving human society. The concepts presented in this video suggest Google can modify the behavior of a human being (and all human beings) to fit a set of goals, all aimed at a better future. The overarching goal is the betterment of our human society.
“If X is a religious organization… it’s OK.”
If X registers as a religious organization, they should be in the clear. It shouldn’t matter, at that point, what their ways and means are, just so long as they’re a non-profit organization registered with our government – and all governments – as a religious entity.
It is only once your group is a religion that it’s acceptable to look into our actions, decisions, preferences, movement, and relationships and use that information to modify our behavior for the common good. At the point at which X is a religion, what does it matter that their ways and means include intelligent computers?
Just kidding… ?
I’m being facetious, of course – I’m not currently comfortable with any more data collection or behavior modification than I’m currently the victim of – but really? There’s no escaping the idea that, as a pack of humans, there’s always some form of information collection and behavior modification going on. Without it, we’d still be pre-humanoids living in Africa – or we wouldn’t have evolved into humans at all.
The question I’m considering now is more along the lines of: Is this method of data collection and behavior modification OK with me, as an individual, right here and now? I’d like to have an easy answer to that. But who knows? Maybe the society-shapers at X would be better for us all than the systems we’ve got in place right now? Maybe voting for leaders in government and volunteering to be a leaders in religion is wrong for humans now? Maybe something new is in order?
The video’s going to bring X a bit more trouble if creators like Philip Bloom have anything to say about it. It would appear that a total of 75 seconds of Bloom-filmed video is used in the video without having been licensed properly. “I know they have some claim over my footage as it’s on YT but I thought that is if they want to use it promote YT itself, not carte blanche.”