Does artificial intelligence make us less so?

Ever visited retail sites which seem to be able to recommend items that are amazingly true to your likes and preferences?Shopping at sites like Amazon.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

Ever visited retail sites which seem to be able to recommend items that are amazingly true to your likes and preferences?

Shopping at sites like Amazon.com used to creep me out when the data analysis and business intelligence tools they have churning in the backend would quite accurately predict other products I might like based on my browsing and buying history.

So, after watching Inception last weekend, I started thinking about the power of suggestion and whether they can, when intertwined with artificial intelligence, make us less intelligent about ourselves.

If you haven't caught it already, the movie--which stars Leonardo DiCaprio--focuses on the use of technology that enables dreams to be manipulated so information can be stolen, or planted, from and into someone's mind.

The plot moves so furiously and weaves through so many layers that the audience is often left wondering what's reality and what's not.

Director Chris Nolan juxtaposes dreams and "real" physical experiences very tightly, probably with the key objective to blur the lines and force the viewer to question whether the reality they believe in is, well, real.

Watching Inception brought me back to my university days when I studied philosophy. One of the most fascinating subjects we touched on was epistemology, specifically, what is knowledge and what is justified belief. We debated whether we could ever know anything for certain and whether we could trust our senses to tell us the truth.

One famous argument originates from philosopher Rene Descartes, who suggested that senses often deceived him, where sometimes what he thought to be so was really something else. And there were also times when he believed he saw or heard something but there was actually nothing to see or hear.

Descartes' views spawned his famous "dream argument", in which he argued that he often dreamed of things that seemed real to him while he slept. In one, he dreamed he was sitting by a fire in his room and he could feel the warmth of the fire just as he felt when he was awake. So, the fact that he felt the fire didn't allow him to distinguish between when he was awake and when he was actually dreaming.

Descartes further hypothesized the existence of an evil genius who is "as clever and deceitful as he is powerful [and] who has directed his entire effort to misleading me". This genius painted a complete illusion of an external world, including people and things that are familiar, and therefore, appealed to Descartes' bodily sensations and lured him into believing that this world exists when in fact, it doesn't.

While his hypothesis sounds absurd and highly unlikely, we cannot completely rule out that possibility. Because if it were indeed true, this evil genius would have also manipulated our minds into believing our world to be true--and therefore, wrongly assume Descartes to be wrong.

Sounds as convoluted as Inception? Nolan must have taken the same Philosophy class when he dreamed up the storyline, pun absolutely intended.

The power of suggestion becomes increasingly effective the more accurate it is and the more intimately it understands the intended recipient.

Imagine a data analysis tool so powerful it is able to assess the information it gathers and very accurately recommends products so close to a user's likes and dislikes that the consumer dutifully "believes" its recommendations to be true and proceeds to buy these items--items that the consumer had not intended to buy in the first place.

Now, imagine if tools like these are implemented beyond just e-commerce sites and begin popping up on billboards and display ads, and at store windows in shopping malls and on trains and buses.

Can business intelligence software and artificial intelligence evolve to a point where they are so powerful and so pervasive that we readily accept suggestions about what we should buy and who we should be? Will artificial intelligence make us know less about who we really are?

So maybe my hypothesis sounds as absurd as Descartes', but I hope it's enough to make some of us go "hmmm".

I've suggested to myself a gazillion times that I will win the S$8 million lottery tonight, so I will, won't I?

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