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On the use of AI for marketing and nudging.

There was a game show in the 50s that was called "What's My Line?" The format involved a panel asking a guest questions (like the game of twenty questions, beginning "Is it bigger than a breadbox?") to help narrow down the field of operation, etc. Guests almost always had an unusual line of work. You can get a more detailed sense of how it went by checking out the YouTube channel with its episodes. That, however, is not what this post is mainly about.

It's about the creation of a new line of work in the past decade, a decade of mass social media, cloud computing, Internet browser tracking (remember cookies?) and so on. It's about massive consumer information sharing and marketing. And, last but not least, something barely hinted at by former Google CEO Eric Emerson Schmidt who described (in an interview with Atlantic editor James Bennet) what they do as going up to a certain line and not crossing it.

If Schmidt were a celebrity guest (by going back in time to the 50s) on "What's My Line?" I can guarantee the panelists would have been stumped.

Was he telling the truth? If he was telling the truth at the time, does his answer still apply today? Can you guess what that line of work is?

Did you know there is a documentary being produced to answer this question?

If you figure this out, will you recognize the connection with a certain philosophy and strategy of political influencing?

Are you aware that this is an example (however creepy) of an ongoing problem of technological innovators failing to recognize the moral, political and sociological consequences of crossing a line? The classic example is the development of the Atom Bomb. Known as the Manhattan Project, the chief scientist and project manager, J. Robert Oppenheimer had a revelation, triggered by his witness the first A-Test, code named Trinity, and the subsequent use of the bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In 1947, Oppenheimer declared

Despite the vision and farseeing wisdom of our wartime heads of state, the physicists have felt the peculiarly intimate responsibility for suggesting, for supporting, and in the end, in large measure, for achieving the realization of atomic weapons. Nor can we forget that these weapons, as they were in fact used, dramatized so mercilessly the inhumanity and evil of modern war. In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.

Alas, not every dangerous innovation inspires principle contributors to repentance. Although I have no way of knowing for certain, the evidence I have seen suggests that Edward Teller had no such compunctions. Similar considerations undoubtedly apply to the development of other weapons of mass destruction.

In 1930, the seventh Anglican Lambeth Conference approved (in resolution 15), under limited circumstances and according to the conscience of the couple, the use of contraception in marriage. ("The London Times of June 30, 1930, predicted that the Lambeth Conference would change the "social and moral life" of humanity. This was done by the Conference's Resolution 15 in which in contradiction to earlier Resolutions (1908 Resolution 41 and 1920 Resolution 66) allowed the use of contraception in marriage.") It wasn't until 1968 that the Catholic Church issued a clear moral judgment on the issue, by which time many of the negative consequences were becoming evident.

Other technologies blithely entered into include in vitro fertilization, embryonic stem cell research, human cloning, designer babies, human-animal hybrids, biological weapons, cyberwarfare, the list goes on…

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