Creepy sociology chat-bots
I met this young man called Luke at an RSA talk by Steve Fuller. Luke had graduated from the sociology department of Warwick, and now worked with two other sociologists on a company that makes chatbots - computer programmes that populate the internet and pretend to be human. He made it sound really clever - they scrape the Wikipedia page of a person, real or fictional, and use that data to create a convincing profile that attracts followers and says interesting things. He said to me, somewhat chillingly, 'you might have a long conversation with someone on Twitter...and actually they're a chat-bot'. It made me wonder - was Luke a chat-bot? How could I tell he was real? He grinned a lot, there was a slightly metallic glint in his eye...by God, I think he was a chat-bot, some strange simulacrum scraped from a Haruki Murakami short-story.
Anyway, I came across him again when he got into a Twitter spat with Jon Ronson. The company he works at had built a Jon Ronson chat-bot, and the real Jon Ronson complained about it and insisted they shut it down. The company refused. Eventually he went to interview them - you can see it below, Luke is the young man sitting on the right, looking a bit uncomfortable. Even he seems a bit dubious about some of his bosses' answers.
What strikes me most about the interview is the two bosses' screwed up morality. They claim to be academics and hide behind all this postmodernist bullshit sociology about 'authenticity' and 'who is the real Jon Ronson' and so forth, and really they're just looking to get paid on someone else's name and reputation. So call it what it is and stop pretending to be deep or clever.
The moral issue is - don't take someone's identity, put words into their mouth, and make money from it. That's immoral. It's immoral if Jon Ronson were to do it (by, for example, faking interviews for his books and articles like Johann Hari did - making people say things they didn't say, putting words into their mouth) and its immoral if sociology academics do it with chat-bots. That's it. Everything else is obfuscation.
Anyway, Luke is only in his early 20s and this is probably his first job, so not really his fault - but the older academics should know better and set a better example.