Sunday, November 18, 2018

Two faces of tomorrow

"May A.I. Help you?":

Darcy happened to be a former computer programmer, so she was able to dream up a very unusual solution to this problem: Woebot, a text-chatbot therapist. Working with a team of psychologists and Andrew Ng, a pioneer in artificial intelligence, Darcy wrote a set of conversational prompts that walks users through the practice of C.B.T. In a chipper style, the bot helps users challenge their “distorted thinking”; it coaxes users to describe their moods more clearly. Since Woebot is just software, it could be made freely available worldwide, and it could, in Silicon Valley terms, “scale” — or converse with thousands of people simultaneously. It could check in and nudge users with superhuman diligence; it would be available at all hours. “Woebot can be there at 2 a.m. if you’re having a panic attack and no therapist can, or should be, in bed with you,” Darcy says.

Woebot does not pretend to be human; it appears as a cartoon robot when it chats with you on Facebook Messenger, and it acknowledges its own artifice (as when it declares, for example, “I’m going to tell you a little bit about how I like to work with humans”). But its personality is otherwise upbeat, its conversations peppered with emoji and animated gifs (like the cheering Minions from “Despicable Me”) to congratulate you for doing psychological work.

In a study with 70 young adults, Darcy found that after two weeks of interacting with the bot, the test subjects had lower incidences of depression and anxiety. They were impressed, and even touched, by the software’s attentiveness. “Woebot felt like a real person that showed concern,” one of them told Darcy’s team. Last spring, when Darcy put Woebot online, free to all, its use immediately exploded; in the first week, more than 50,000 people talked to it. (“Do you realize,” Ng told Darcy, “that Woebot spoke to more people today than a human therapist could in a lifetime?”) Nowadays, Woebot exchanges between one and two million messages a week with users, ranging from divorcĂ©es to the bereaved to young men, a population that rarely seeks treatment. Many tell Darcy that it’s easier to talk to a bot than a human; they don’t feel judged.
"'Nothing on this page is real': How lies become truth in online America":
He had launched his new website on Facebook during the 2016 presidential campaign as a practical joke among friends — a political satire site started by Blair and a few other liberal bloggers who wanted to make fun of what they considered to be extremist ideas spreading throughout the far right. In the last two years on his page, America’s Last Line of Defense, Blair had made up stories about California instituting sharia, former president Bill Clinton becoming a serial killer, undocumented immigrants defacing Mount Rushmore, and former president Barack Obama dodging the Vietnam draft when he was 9. “Share if you’re outraged!” his posts often read, and thousands of people on Facebook had clicked “like” and then “share,” most of whom did not recognize his posts as satire. Instead, Blair’s page had become one of the most popular on Facebook among Trump-supporting conservatives over 55.


For years she had watched network TV news, but increasingly Chapian wondered about the widening gap between what she read online and what she heard on the networks. “What else aren’t they telling us?” she wrote once, on Facebook, and if she believed the mainstream media was becoming insufficient or biased, it was her responsibility to seek out alternatives. She signed up for a dozen conservative newsletters and began to watch Alex Jones on Infowars. One far right Facebook group eventually led her to the next with targeted advertising, and soon Chapian was following more than 2,500 conservative pages, an ideological echo chamber that often trafficked in skepticism. Climate change was a hoax. The mainstream media was censored or scripted. Political Washington was under control of a “deep state.”


Chapian didn’t believe everything she read online, but she was also distrustful of mainstream fact-checkers and reported news. It sometimes felt to her like real facts had become indiscernible — that the truth was often somewhere in between. What she trusted most was her own ability to think critically and discern the truth, and increasingly her instincts aligned with the online community where she spent most of her time. It had been months since she’d gone to a movie. It had been almost a year since she’d made the hour-long trip to Las Vegas. Her number of likes and shares on Facebook increased each year until she was sometimes awakening to check her news feed in the middle of the night, liking and commenting on dozens of posts each day. She felt as if she was being let in on a series of dark revelations about the United States, and it was her responsibility to see and to share them.