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Banking On Fear

The book asks the artificial intelligence industry whether it really knows whether humans are really safe from the intelligent machines it has created

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Long before we even had a real obesity epidemic, the idea of a weight problem was conjured from thin air”. The tale, propounded by British investigative journalist Jacques Peretti, in his book Done: The Secret Deals that are Changing Our World goes as follows: In 1945, a statistician at MetLife realised that the premiums paid by people were a factor of their weight. Therefore, he proposed that he could increase the premiums of current customers by simply changing the lowering the threshold for people to be classified as ‘overweight’ and the more health-critical ‘obese’.

In another couple of decades, the diet industry came into being as the result of a lab experiment in Minnesota, which found that people on diets tend to gain weight faster after they broke the diet. This was a gold mine. Now, only 16 per cent of those on diets achieved their weight targets. But the other 84 per cent, they kept coming back. They kept the industry alive, irrespective of the fact that it was actually causing people to get fatter.

Peretti’s book is filled with dozens of such stories, where a small, but influential, group of people were able to disruptively influence the course of generations over the last half a century or so, often to detrimental effect. The stories in this book explain how the vulnerability of customers becomes a source of super-profits for a select few. Sometimes they even change the course of world events. Four companies that controlled 90 per cent of the world supply of wheat created an artificial glut, leading to riots that gave rise to the Arab Spring, which, in turn, led to the toppling of several governments and left much of the Middle East in turmoil.

Written like the breezy conspiracy tales it is aimed at highlighting, the book points its fingers at the drugs industry (for allowing Americans to be exposed to constant pharmaceutical advertisements and subscriptions of medicines they probably don’t need) as the upgrade industry (Barely days after a new iPhone has hit the market, rumours are afloat about the superior features in the next version, making the proud owner crave for the yet to be released model). Advertising legend Rosser Reeves, who was the inspiration for Mad Men’s Don Draper, is quoted as saying that the impulse that really drives a sale is fear.

To make his point, Peretti tells the story of a light bulb in a town near San Francisco that has been working for 116 years. Why do modern bulbs not survive a year? Because they are built that way. In 1932, the five biggest light bulb manufacturers in the world came together and resolved to put anybody out of business who created a light bulb that lasted longer than six months (those were the days before anti-trust laws).

The book asks the Artificial Intelligence industry whether it really knows whether humans are really safe from the intelligent machines it has created. The answers from industry experts aren’t particularly promising. Asked whether machines are ahead of the race with humans, an IBM programmer is quoted as having replied, “Not yet”. Not yet! Done is a book to be read. If not protect us from the machinations of the powerful few, it will at least help us keep an eye out for those who are capable of successfully meddling with our lives.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


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magazine 17 february 2018 artificial intelligence

Abraham C Mathews

The author is an Advocate, practicing in Delhi, and a Chartered Accountant

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