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Coming Soon: When Robots Lie

September 02, 2014 • 3:13 AM

For years, pundits have worried that the Internet—with its anonymous trolls and self-promoting sock puppets—breeds deceit among its users. But how much does our technology itself deceive us? Every day, your software tells you a variety of lies; some of them are harmless or even helpful deceptions, some are more malicious. Until recently, technologists have been loath to discuss these mistruths. But if computers are indeed to become more and more like humans, they need to learn—as every polite, sensitive human does—how to lie responsibly.

Kate Greene’s Pacific Standard culture essay is available to subscribers—in print or digital formats—now, and will be posted online in full on Wednesday, September 03. Until then, an excerpt:

You’re probably familiar with malevolently deceptive software: the roaming online ads that trick you into clicking on them when all you really want to do is close them so you can read an article; the privacy settings on Facebook that, according to critics, rely on confusing jargon and user interfaces to trick people into sharing more about themselves than they intend. (This has come to be called “Zuckering,” after the company’s founder.) A website called darkpatterns.org is dedicated to tracking these kinds of tricks and abuses.

Pretty much everyone agrees that this sort of thing is rotten, and these malevolent deceptions have been well studied, mainly with an eye toward detecting and policing them. But many other varieties of deceptive design fly below the radar. One relatively benign class of examples occurs when an operating system fails in some way and a piece of software is programmed to cover up the glitch. The misdials of the early phone switching system fall into this category. Similarly, reports Adar, when the servers at Netflix fail or are overwhelmed, the service switches from its personalized recommendation system to a simpler one that just suggests popular movies.

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