Consent, Bias and Algorithmic Filtering
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Algorithms and Filtering

The Pew Research Center published a survey this month about the rise of Facebook and Twitter as a valid news source for many Americans. 63% of users get their news from those platforms.

Which raises questions about the artificial intelligence system used by these platforms in order to give their users the information they want.

At the moment, the intelligence system is fairly similar across search, news readers and social networks. The user interacts with the system; the system logs certain behavioural tendencies; the system builds up a picture of your behavioural tendencies which mean you will find it easier to exhibit those behavioural tendencies in the future.

Brands then market their services stating it as a method of mapping your ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes’, and this should be a good basis for filtering the information you see online. You can read as much in Facebook’s blog concerning their news feed.

But this is wrong. Behaving in a certain way does not mean that you condone that behaviour. It certainly does not mean you want an intelligence system to remember tendencies and to make it easier to exhibit those tendencies.

In fact, behavioural tendencies (or thoughts) are used privately to test drive how you may act in a certain situation. Many different scenarios are examined before you set on a course of action. We filter our thoughts to get to actions. It is why we should be judged on our actions and not on our thoughts.

As a result, in the current intelligence system, we are logging behavioural tendencies that we may disapprove of. It leaves us out of control.

Given that we are not in charge of this filtering process, it means these processes can be manipulated. In Google search, companies manipulate the results by adhering to SEO best practice. What’s more, Facebook has experimented with changing users moods according to minor tweaks to the algorithm.

What are algorithms and what should they aim to do in filtering?

One definition of AI is it is the process of understanding the way that humans operate, communicate and behave, so that we can replicate that behaviour on a large scale through computing power. This is a conclusion I reached whilst at The Computer History Museum in Mountain View.

This is because getting better at coding computers is like having a greater understanding of the way we logically construct our language. And our language is a good window for understanding the nature of our intelligence.

Eliezer Yudkoskey of the Machine Intelligence Research Institute says something similar: “I keep trying to explain to people that the archetype of intelligence is not Dustin Hoffman in The Rain Man, it is a human being, period.”

I’m arguing that in order to replicate human thought and action, our AI system needs to include some sort of ‘consent’ in the filters we use. The system cannot observe our likes and dislikes, we have to tell the system our likes and dislikes.

In some cases, we are looking for facts. ‘Where is the nearest bank’ or ‘How long does it take to get from Westminster to Kings Cross?’. These are simple statements and simple AI systems can be used to determine the answer.

However, when we are looking for information about contentious subjects like redundancy policy, privacy strategy, global warming, or international relations, it is vitally important that we consent to the filters that are put in place, or else we will be oblivious to systemic bias.

How often do you use a system of artificial intelligence without seriously thinking about the processes through which they have given you information?

The next question following this is; what system is available for intelligent professionals to filter the noise in a transparent way?

[button label=”Start with Cronycle today!” url=”javascript:void(0);” class=”initSignup”]

Read more

What’s all the fuss about content filtering?
Reading Time: 4 minutes

RSS Reader

A colleague of mine asked me this question a while ago when we were discussing the problem of the facebook algorithm. Here’s how it works: facebook shows you the news that it thinks you’re most likely to interact with. After all, if your second cousin posts endless pictures of things you’re not interested in, it makes sense for facebook to dial back on his updates and dial in some more interesting content from your sister, who posts news articles that keep you informed.

The problem is that, although this sounds fine in principle, in practise it creates a very different environment to the one you would expect. Often news is dialed back to make way for easy ‘clickbait’ type content, or videos are prioritised because they’re more engaging.

So, a computer decides what you get to see and what it will hide. And computers – while they can be incredibly smart – are not always going to make the same decisions as humans.

Over on GigaOm this week, Matthew Ingrams discussed the merits of Twitter vs facebook as a source for news. In the wake of the shocking incidents in Ferguson, Missouri, some people were surprised to see facebook almost completely devoid of news. Twitter was filled with live updates, eye-witness reports, photos and videos of events as they unfolded. Facebook: almost nothing. Why so different? While Facebook has a filtering algorithm constantly trying to guess what you’ll respond to, Twitter shows you everything from the people you follow, so you’re going to receive all the updates from people you follow in your timeline, whether you’re likely to retweet them or not. While Facebook is trying to be your personal shopper, hand-picking items it knows you’ll like, Twitter shows you all of the products in the shop.

The Twitter model is great, for a while, and gets around this initial problem of algorithmic filtering. Unfortunately, because you see everything, it can be incredibly difficult to keep track. We humans are, and always have been, fans of filtering and sorting. Even before the internet age, when we were bombarded with data from all sides, we’d rarely seek out everything – choosing instead to curate our sources (by buying a specific newspaper, or watching a particular news channel, for instance). To continue the shopping analogy, Twitter gives you the option of seeing every product, but there are so many on such a fast-moving conveyor belt you barely have time to examine something before twenty other things have gone whizzing past.

Can there be a balance? Well, there are a couple of possible ways to solve this problem. Method one – the one which facebook is trying is to simply make automated filtering better. Facebook tries to improve the algorithms so that they don’t get too one-sided, or churn out too much similar content – their priority is to keep you on the site and get you using it a lot, so ultimately if their algorithm is stopping you from doing that they’ll improve it. Twitter is also tweaking what shows up automatically on the timeline – recent changes to how ‘favourites’ are displayed have met with opposition from users, but it’s one of many experiments to try and make Twitter feel like a more  ‘usable’ place. To engage new users, Twitter is trying to introduce a form of content curation that makes it easier for people to find what they love.

Will either of these techniques work? Possibly. But one of the reasons we started Cronycle is that we think there’s a better option. Not better algorithmic filtering – because it will ultimately always run into the ‘machine’ problem – but applying a layer of human curation to the deluge of content.

Human curation is the solution to algorithmic content filtering

Cronycle takes all of your sources (the RSS feeds you subscribe to, the Twitter accounts you follow) and indexes all of the important content (anything that includes a link or image is pulled through). You can then filter and curate those posts into a collection based on criteria you choose – you can add a filter for the latest breaking news story, for example, filtering in only content from the news teams you really trust. You could have a different collection for updates on a particular area of industry, which gathers articles from expert sources that you’ve chosen yourself.

There’s a certain amount of machine help here, for sure – you’re not creating your own newspaper. Cronycle is useful because it helps you cut through the noise, and prevents you having to scroll through reams of irrelevant content just to get updates on the latest news story or blog post. But the key difference between Cronycle and any algorithmic filtering system is that you won’t run into the ‘facebook problem’ – machines pushing you content based on simplistic models of your behaviour. You choose the sources, you set the filters, and Cronycle indexes that content. Unlike facebook, it won’t ever second guess you.

Published on 21.08.2014 by Marina Cheale

[button label=”Start with Cronycle today!” url=”javascript:void(0);” class=”initSignup”]

Read more

What’s the future of RSS?
Reading Time: 2 minutes

Information Overload

In the wake of Google Reader and the midst of social media’s reign, the RSS feed chugs along

RSS allows publishers to syndicate information automatically, to deliver content right to users’ fingertips.  They no longer have to check their favorite sites to see if new content has been published—technology does it for them.  But these days, that convenience is commonplace.   Social media enables an even larger audience not only to receive content from the sites that interest them, but to become publishers themselves.  Although few are questioning that RSS has a space in the digital content consumption marketplace, many contend that the space may be shrinking—a theory bolstered by the demise of Google Reader.

Google retired its service, which was the most popular RSS reader, on July 1, 2013, explaining, “While the product has a loyal following, over the years usage has declined.”  (However, many believe this decision had more to do with office politics and Google’s plans for its own social network, Google+.)  A host of worthwhile services, including This Old Reader, Feedly and Flipboard, were ready to take in the millions of Google transplants, but although RSS still has a fierce and loyal following, social media is proving a sufficient alternative for the average user.

“We definitely see more publishers using the option for social networks versus the option for RSS,” notes Bruce Ableson, vice president of client solutions at LiveFyre, a tech company that offers a suite of real-time products that allow users to curate content from various sources and host in one place.  “We still use RSS Feeds all the time, though, especially at the smaller publisher level,” he says.

Although there’s still a huge need for RSS, Ableson notes that publishers seem more incentivized to drive readers to follow them on social networks than to subscribe to their RSS feeds.

“It’s perfectly possible that for many, social media is the new RSS,” says Rob Hicks, founder and chief data scientist of Bright North.   “RSS was all about putting alerts in one place, which is exactly what Twitter does because most media sites have at least added, if not replaced, their RSS with Tweets.”

The problem is, there is a lot of noise to get through.  Twitter isn’t only about signifying a new piece of quality content.  It’s a hodgepodge of hashtags and interactions, making it difficult for users to quickly identify what’s worth reading.  “It makes sense that brands and publishers have embraced Twitter, but whether it does as an effective job as a good RSS consuming platform is another story.  I don’t think it does,” Hicks opines.

What Twitter does do well, of course, is the social aspect.  “Social networks give people the ability to recommend stuff and become pseudo-publishers even if they haven’t written the content they’re sharing.  I might follow someone because they are excellent curators,” says Hicks.  “It adds a new level of curation which you could argue is more valuable than the original RSS thing was in the first place.  I’m not sure I would agree, but I see the argument.”

First published 01.05.2014

Read more

Reading Time: 2 minutes

In the wake of Google Reader and the midst of social media’s reign, the RSS feed chugs along

RSS allows publishers to syndicate information automatically, to deliver content right to users’ fingertips.  They no longer have to check their favorite sites to see if new content has been published—technology does it for them.  But these days, that convenience is commonplace.   Social media enables an even larger audience not only to receive content from the sites that interest them, but to become publishers themselves.  Although few are questioning that RSS has a space in the digital content consumption marketplace, many contend that the space may be shrinking—a theory bolstered by the demise of Google Reader.

Google retired its service, which was the most popular RSS reader, on July 1, 2013, explaining, “While the product has a loyal following, over the years usage has declined.”  (However, many believe this decision had more to do with office politics and Google’s plans for its own social network, Google+.)  A host of worthwhile services, including This Old Reader, Feedly and Flipboard, were ready to take in the millions of Google transplants, but although RSS still has a fierce and loyal following, social media is proving a sufficient alternative for the average user.

“We definitely see more publishers using the option for social networks versus the option for RSS,” notes Bruce Ableson, vice president of client solutions at LiveFyre, a tech company that offers a suite of real-time products that allow users to curate content from various sources and host in one place.  “We still use RSS Feeds all the time, though, especially at the smaller publisher level,” he says.

Although there’s still a huge need for RSS, Ableson notes that publishers seem more incentivized to drive readers to follow them on social networks than to subscribe to their RSS feeds.

“It’s perfectly possible that for many, social media is the new RSS,” says Rob Hicks, founder and chief data scientist of Bright North.   “RSS was all about putting alerts in one place, which is exactly what Twitter does because most media sites have at least added, if not replaced, their RSS with Tweets.”

The problem is, there is a lot of noise to get through.  Twitter isn’t only about signifying a new piece of quality content.  It’s a hodgepodge of hashtags and interactions, making it difficult for users to quickly identify what’s worth reading.  “It makes sense that brands and publishers have embraced Twitter, but whether it does as an effective job as a good RSS consuming platform is another story.  I don’t think it does,” Hicks opines.

What Twitter does do well, of course, is the social aspect.  “Social networks give people the ability to recommend stuff and become pseudo-publishers even if they haven’t written the content they’re sharing.  I might follow someone because they are excellent curators,” says Hicks.  “It adds a new level of curation which you could argue is more valuable than the original RSS thing was in the first place.  I’m not sure I would agree, but I see the argument.”

Read more