Feature Image Credit: The Othrs
Be warned: your at-home voice assistant is doing more than just listening.
What if I told you that smart devices such as your iPhone and Google Assistant aren’t just listening to you, but persuading and manipulating your actions as well? Sounds like the plot to a cheesy 1980’s sci-fi movie right? As ridiculous as this may sound, however, there is a bit of truth behind this bold accusation. Computers, voice assistants, smart TVs; all tools utilized on a day-to-day basis by major corporations such as Amazon, Google, and Facebook in order to mine private user data and manipulate consumer behavior.
Brought to us by the directors of Netflix’s THE GREAT HACK, Persuasion Machines aims to a shed light on the many dangers threatening consumer privacy by immersing users in a multi-user VR experience in which players explore a sterile living room environment filled to the brim with various smart devices designed to weaponize our own data against us. We had a chance to check out this immersive experience while at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, and sufficeth to say it left us genuinely unsettled.
Image Credit: The Othrs
The experience began with us standing at the center of a 15 x 15-foot play space complete with a multicolored grid. Projection mapping technology kept track of our movements as well as our heartbeats as we explored the room. This real-world space matched perfectly with the VR environment, allowing us to physically walk throughout the space without the need for artificial locomotion. Once immersed inside the digital living room, a home automated system referred to as EVA introduced us to various smart devices scattered throughout our environment, such as a doorbell, smartphone, thermostat, and other internet-enabled products. This is where we first learned of the underground robot invasion that’s secretly been underway for years.
Upon approach, each object displayed a digital readout providing further explanation into how they were actively collecting user data. During one portion of the experience, a smart thermostat used thermal imaging technology to scan our internal body temperature and then compare that data with the temperature outside. After completing the analysis, EVA decided that our body heat was too high in relation to the temperature outside and automatically cooled the room down to a comfortable 65-degrees.
Image Credit: The Othrs
Even more unsettling was how the futuristic domicile demonstrated modern technologies growing role in determining the type of media we consume. While walking up to the smart TV, for example, we were immediately greeted to a message reminding us that we had been roaming Instagram earlier today and that based on our online activity there’s a particular new show we might enjoy; our digital home assistant was now curating our content, deciding independently what media we should be exposed to based on our search histories and general online activity.
“Our goal was to strike a good balance between the two artistic approaches, which is also representative of the artistic approaches between me and Karim,” said Güvenç Özel, one of the lead artists on Persuasion Machines while speaking to VRScout. “And I think what is also interesting and notable about the entire layout is that the people that are experiencing the VR become a part of this kind of a spectacle. They are onstage. We have live projection mapping and positional tracking on the ground which allows the audience to actually have a feeling of anticipation and creates a conceptual continuity between the message of the VR experience and how the people are the product in this world of data economy.”
As the 12-minute demo progressed, EVA became more involved in our day-to-day lives. Eventually, she asks us to sign off on a lengthy terms-and-conditions list; much like a real software update, we had no choice but to agree. From here, the experience took a sudden dramatic turn. A message appeared warning us that the system had been hacked and soon the voice of Will.i.am was explaining in detail how major corporations have been abusing our private data for monetary gain. The developers don’t hold back naming names either; some of the industries’ worst offenders, including Amazon and Facebook, are thrown into the spotlight as we learn more about how these companies track every inch of our online activities in order to sell our information to others.
As if that weren’t creepy enough, the experience follows up by explaining how all of this information, now organized into individual reports, can be used to fuel multiple disinformation campaigns. For example, say you hop on Google at 4 in the morning and begin searching for more information on the early signs of cardiac arrest. Google may label you as “neurotic” which could, in turn, affect what type of content you’re exposed to in the future.
Put simply, Google and other organizations are placing users into categories based on their preferred content, allowing them to control exactly what type of information they’re exposed to. It’s a dangerous precedent, one that only serves to further damage and isolate online communities.
“I think the notion of surveillance capitalism is a fully global concept,” continues Özel. “If we look at the metrics and the percentage of the population who has Internet access, it is vast and it costs across multiple different demographic, socioeconomic segments of society. So this is not an exclusively Western or developed world problem. “
Thankfully, the developers had a nice little “detox bar” set up where we could relax after our stressful demo and learn a little bit more about how to keep our information out of the hands of greedy corporate fat cats.
For more information on Persuasion Machines, visit here.