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  • Dan Connors

Are we capable of making our own choices anymore?

Through most of recorded history, humans have stumbled along with choices that were ill-informed, random, faulty, and occasionally brilliant. The old way of choosing things was inefficient and subject to biases, but it somehow got us to this place and time in history. Starting in the 21st century, there has been a new way to organize our choices, the recommendation engine. This powerful tool of artificial intelligence knows us better than we know ourselves. AI makes our lives simpler and more efficient, but it also robs of us diversity, growth, and reality.

You've used a recommendation engine if you've used a cell phone or computer. These engines look at your past choices and scour the world to find new choices for you that complement the past ones. The goal is to keep you engaged with your screens and dependent upon them. Once you click a like button on Facebook it tries to find you content that is similar, and recommends them. If you like a video on You Tube, it suggests dozens of other videos just like it. Buy something on Amazon and their engine will remember forever, suggesting products that go with your purchase for you to buy later on. It's almost like having a tiny personal assistant with infinite knowledge of the world following your every move and trying to figure out what you'll like next.

These recommendation engines are good. Too good. They permeate the world of books, movies, travel, restaurants, shopping, politics, religion, and business, making choices easier but less rewarding. Less rewarding? Yes. Finding and discovering things on our own makes them much more rewarding and personal, especially when we have to negotiate some mistaken choices before discovering what we like the best.

Recommendation engines first came about as a response to email. The first ones helped organize email messages into important and unimportant messages, helping users to get to the most important information faster while avoiding spam. Engines were able to utilize feedback from both users and those they corresponded with to figure out what were the important messages and what weren't.

Today, however, we are surrounded by these AI engines in every area of life, and there is a growing danger that the computers are controlling our choices more than we are. Do you buy things now because you need them, or because an email showed you an irresistible feature or price just when it knew you'd want it? Do you hold your political beliefs now because they truly reflect your values, or are you led down multiple rabbit holes of disinformation because AI knows what emotional buttons to push to get and keep your attention? Did a recommendation engine lead you to this blog?

Humans are not always rational, informed actors, but rather emotional creatures that are full of cognitive biases that allow others to easily manipulate us. Recommendation engines are learning new things about us all the time, and getting better at engaging us. In the future they will only get smarter, and we humans will need to learn how to disengage from them at times to make sure that we are the ones in charge.

Our increasing political polarization can be blamed on recommendation engines. Social media will feed you exactly what you want to see in order to keep you engaged, and will recommend sites just like the ones you already visit that will confirm and deepen your views, even if they become extremist. In the real world, data is more complicated, full of contradictions, and a nuanced, balanced approach is what brings the most people together. But Facebook and Twitter aren't the real world. They are an escape from the real world.

So what can you do? The world is way too complex for us to rely on our own information alone to navigate it. There are many more choices and options now than there were even ten years ago. We have to rely on others, and that includes using recommendations from both people (who can often be wrong), and machines (that can be programmed to steer us in the wrong directions). Take every recommendation with a grain of salt and pay attention to the source. Do they have valuable, objectively obtained information that guides their recommendations, or are they just trying to sell you something, keep you addicted, or push your emotional buttons?

Turn off notifications on your cell phone. Take a break from social media every so often. Explore the world more with an open mind, and it will surprise you with things you never thought about. Netflix may recommend good content to you based on your past viewing habits, and that's okay, but once in a while try something in a completely different genre or time period and confuse the hell out of them. None of us wants to be seen as predictable, but we all like predictability. It is that unpredictability that makes us human, and the surprises in life that make things special and produce growth and learning.

Look at the things in your life now that mean the most to you. Where did they come from? Your world wasn't created with a couple of mouse clicks- it came with hard work, trial and error, lessons learned, and a bit of luck. Utilize the tremendous power of artificial intelligence when you need to, (and we all need to), but don't forget that AI is out there watching your every move and click, and regard its recommendations with healthy skepticism.

"Your time on earth is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life" Steve Jobs

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