When a group of plucky students organized a protest at SXSW against the rising threat of artificial intelligence, they got a ton of attention. Including interviews on NPR and the BBC. A grassroots anti-robot protest seemed almost too good to be true. And it's looking like maybe it was. [Updated!]
Top image via Stop The Robots
The Stop The Robots protest group, with its slick website, nicely printed T-shirts and carefully crafted messaging, certainly looks a lot like a viral marketing stunt. But what for? One strong candidate is Terminator Genisys, the next movie about the killer supercomputer Skynet, coming this summer. Another likely possibility is Ex Machina, a British film about an android that achieves artificial intelligence, coming to the States on April 10.
[Update: A publicist for Ex Machina tells us this group has nothing to do with that movie, whatsoever.]
[Update #2: It's a marketing stunt for a new app. Yup. Scroll down for the details.]
But is it actually viral marketing, or just a really well organized grassroots movement? After we wrote about the Stop The Robots protest earlier today, we started to question the reality of what we'd written about. Everything we found cast doubt on the reality of this organization.
So we did some digging, and here's what we found. The Stop The Robots domain name is registered through an anonymizer in Carlsbad, CA, which seems possibly unusual for a small group of student activists. There's also no record of anything to do with this group prior to last week.
The earliest articles about the movement interviewed a leader named Preston Cone, who was described as "the co-leader of the Austin wing" of the organization, which was based in Washington, DC. Preston Cone appears to be a real person, whose Twitter bio says "Entrepreneurship makes my world go around." (He's been tweeting from SXSW, but hasn't once tweeted about Stop The Robots.)
But by the time the protests actually happened on Saturday, Preston Cone had been replaced as the organization's de facto spokesman — now it was a guy named Adam Mason, a scruffy-looking computer science student at UT Austin. And the organization was no longer based in Washington DC, with an Austin wing — now it was based in Austin, and entirely organized by UT undergraduates.
Except that we checked with the Office of the Registrar at UT Austin, and there's no student by the name of Adam Mason, in computer science or anywhere else. We also called the only Adam Mason in the Austin area, and his mother said her son is not a computer science student and she wishes people would stop calling about this.
The Real Story
We spoke this afternoon to the organization's spokesperson, "Adam Mason," who told us that his real name is Adam Williams, and he's an engineer with a company called TenthBit, which organized this protest to promote a new app.
According to Williams, when they did their Stop The Robots protest on Saturday, they were planning on "leaking" the truth about the movement the next day. But over the 24 hours following the protest, they were shocked to see how much attention it was getting — everyone from Fox News to USA Today covering their rally against A.I. So the marketing team asked Williams to hold off from revealing that it wasn't real, to take advantage of all the buzz. They weren't prepared for how much of a media frenzy their made-up protest organization caused. "It's exploded into this global phenomenon," says Williams. "Marketing is crazy."
"The problem we are getting is we chose a very controversial initial message," says Williams: "'We'll stop the robots. We're going to unplug them.'" He adds that he does believe in the things he said to reporters afterwards about wanting human morality to guide the rise of technology, but "people are just going to pound us," he worries. "We chose a very polarizing title for the movement." At the same time, he says, "it got people talking to us."
So what's the app that they were denouncing our future robot overlords over? "It feels kind of inconsequential now," says Williams. "We're building a dating app." And the main feature of the app, called Quiver, is that it can allow humans to connect each other, rather than a machine algorithm connecting people. It basically helps people play matchmaker — hence, it stops the robots from choosing your next romantic partner for you.
"Maybe we shouldn't have chosen such a polarizing message," Williams tells io9. "But if we didn't, maybe people wouldn't have cared."
— Trudy Le (@2TrudyLe) March 13, 2015
So Stop The Robots isn't for real at all. But it's still a movement worth paying attention to. Anything that gets us talking, in public and amongst ourselves, about the responsible uses of technology, and the potential risks and benefits of machine superintelligence, is a good thing. Even if it does turn out to be something of a astroturf movement, for now. As "Adam Mason" told the BBC:
When you take artificial intelligence and you put it in charge of a system or an entity that is not human, where it can grow and learn, and make decisions, without a moral guideline... humans make mistakes. If we make something that's as smart as a human or smarter, why won't it make mistakes? And furthermore, and how will it be beholden to us?
These aren't bad questions to be asking, both about the intentions and the fallibility of A.I. systems. And the fact that they're raising these concerns at SXSW, where people freak out over the latest privacy-invasive apps and hype a future in which technology basically takes over more and more parts of your life, seems significant too.
Because even if we don't actually get proper A.I. that has agency and makes independent decisions, as depicted in Ex Machina and Terminator, we're letting technology make more and more of our own decisions for us, and it's shaping our worldview in ways that are hard to define in the moment. So anything that gets us talking about those things — anything at all — is a good thing.
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