How to live a shameless life with AI

There is a very old and probably apocryphal story about Gmail technical support receiving a very angry email from one of their customers. This gentleman was incredibly offended by the lewd and lascivious adverts that he had been receiving when he logged into the email service and wanted Google to explain why he was being exposed to such filth. He fell mysteriously silent after being informed that the adverts displayed were based off the sites that he visited.

In this age of private browsing, it is difficult to pretend that shame has no influence over our habits, and as companies endeavour to collect more and more data about their users to provide better tailored services, a whole filter is going to have to be devised so that machine learning processes do not repeatedly offer users services that they are embarrassed to want. Even now one of my colleagues is relentlessly pursued from website to website by a tracking advert for a Pikachu Onesie that I am sure they did not want the whole office to know about.

Illustration by Simon Wood

Illustration by Simon Wood

As we move forward into a more connected age, with wearables tracking our every movement, where will we want the line to be drawn? How are people’s diets going to be affected when all of their dieting friends can see online when they have been visiting McDonalds? How will our social habits evolve when anyone can check their partner’s GPS location at the touch of a button? As the digital and physical worlds blend and omnichannel becomes the new norm, how is shame going to affect the decisions that people make?

One App designer has already struck upon a simple sidestep of the issue. “Nude” is a new app designed to search through any photographs that you have taken, identify the ones in which you are in a state of undress, and then dump all salacious pictures into a sealed online archive so that anyone flicking through the pictures on your phone isn’t going to get to know you far more intimately than you might want them too.

Screenshot of Nude app

Now, in normal circumstances, the idea of someone raking through our photographs and picking out all of the ones where we aren’t wearing clothes would be enough to bring a blush to the cheeks of even the most brazen among us, but “Nude” avoids that embarrassment by having an AI handle all of the searching and filtering.

The idea of another human being observing us seems to be at the root of our embarrassment. So, in a complete reversal on the usual demands made on machine learning, as long as tech companies can guarantee no human oversight, or at least the illusion of no humans being involved, they can hypothetically eliminate the negative effects of shame on their users.

Of course, letting AI run riot without supervision is what led to the embarrassed Gmail gentleman and Pokémon pyjamas chasing our workmates, so we’ll reserve judgement on this latest App. As with most design challenges around AI, the answer is going to be in deep research and nuanced application.

Communications Director

Sutherland Labs
Profile Image - Gemma Wisdom

View other blog posts by Gemma