Apple CEO sounds warning of algorithms pushing society towards catastrophe

Tim Cook says there will be consequences to having 'rampant disinformation and conspiracy theories juiced by algorithms'.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor
Image: Apple

Apple CEO Tim Cook has said it is time to face the consequences of having algorithms push users towards more engagement at any cost.

Speaking at the Computers, Privacy, and Data Protection conference on Thursday, Cook said too many companies are asking what they can get away with, rather than what happens if they follow through on boosting metrics.

"At a moment of rampant disinformation and conspiracy theories juiced by algorithms, we can no longer turn a blind eye to a theory of technology that says all engagement is good engagement -- the longer the better -- and all with the goal of collecting as much data as possible," he said.

Also: Apple's new privacy tool lets you choose which apps can see and share your data

"What are the consequences of seeing thousands of users join extremist groups, and then perpetuating an algorithm that recommends even more?"

Cook touched on the recent US Capitol riots in Washington, saying the time was over to pretend there are no costs to boosting conspiracy theories and incitements to violence simply because users get engaged.

"It is long past time to stop pretending that this approach doesn't come with a cost -- of polarisation, of lost trust and, yes, of violence," he said.

"A social dilemma cannot be allowed to become a social catastrophe."

The Apple CEO said his company might be naive, but the tech giant believes the best measure of technology is how it improves lives.

"Will the future belong to the innovations that make our lives better, more fulfilled and more human?" Cook queried.

"Or will it belong to those tools that prize our attention to the exclusion of everything else, compounding our fears and aggregating extremism, to serve ever-more-invasively-targeted ads over all other ambitions?"

Earlier on Thursday, Apple released a report that took a swipe at the ad industry and pointed out that apps, on average, have six trackers from other companies that "have the sole purpose of collecting and tracking people and their personal information", and the industry collects $227 billion in revenue each year.

Apple will soon roll out its App Tracking Transparency measures which will prompt users when apps want to access advertising identifiers on Apple's operating systems. Google said this week it is still working out how to handle this change.

"We are working hard to understand and comply with Apple's guidelines for all of our apps in the App Store," the search giant said.

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