Fake news is not the problem. Artificial intelligence is.

By Neil Patrick

Today is a bad news day according to the news feed on my smartphone. Just like most other days then. It’s Tuesday 5th September 2017.

Like billions of other people, the news feed on my smartphone has been tailored for me by an algorithm. And my news has been written by junior hacks assembling computer generated information into ‘stories’. Doubtlessly they have been taught by their bosses that bad news and misery is the foundation of maximising readership.

These poor folk have no clue what they are writing about. They are simply painting by numbers.

I tweeted a while back in my #dearrobots series: ‘There’s a reason it’s called artificial intelligence – it’s not the same as real intelligence.’

Artificial intelligence is not just within the machines and IT that business deploys. It is penetrating the very brains of the people we need to trust for our news.

The algorithm which delivers my newsfeed has ‘learned’ what I like to read. Sort of. Because it has no ability to discern quality thought and content from junk.

And it helpfully put up the top three stories it thought would be of most interest to me.

So far so good.

The top three stories were:

Daily Telegraph: ‘Growth in UK services sector falls to 11-month low’

Reuters: ‘UK Car Sales are falling off a cliff’

Sky News: Lego sales drop: 1,400 jobs axed

Bingo! Yes these are all stories I want to know about.

But after this promising start, everything went downhill from there. Three news stories, yet every one was so ignorantly written that they not only told the wrong story, they would actually mislead 99% of readers into believing the wrong ‘facts’.

I am the last to criticise the integrity or quality of any of these three news sources, yet each one had provided me with what can only be described as fake news.

The first two ‘stories’ are not stories at all. They are simply the normal thing which happens every summer - people stop work for a couple of weeks and go on holiday.

This is why most business slumps in August

And if you work in a service business, it’s a very good idea to go on holiday in August, because unless you are a wedding photographer or ice cream vendor, chances are your clients have gone on holiday too and you might as well join them.

It’s nothing to do with Brexit, squeezed incomes, or business confidence. Yet according to the Telegraph writer, ‘This makes last month the weakest since September 2016’.

Wow. That’s almost exactly a full year…in fact the worst since the last time everyone went on their summer hols.

The Reuters writer has fallen into the same trap of not knowing about this mysterious thing called seasonality. In the UK, car sales have always bottomed out in July because new registration plates showing the vehicle registration year (half yearly since 2001) come out in August. They have done this since August 1962.

Of course new vehicle sales slump in July, because no-one in their right mind wants to buy a car which appears to be six months old when they drive it off the forecourt.

Yes the UK car retailing sector is headed for crisis as I have written about here. But sales have slumped in July every year forever for this simple and predictable reason.

This is not a story – it’s a clueless intern churning out words about a subject they care or know zilch about.

Which brings us onto the Lego story.

Everyone loves Lego, including me. So I was sorry to hear that they were in difficulty.

1,400 lay-offs is about 8% of their workforce.

Yet here’s the fascinating thing. Just six months ago, this appeared:

Lego is the world’s most powerful brand according to Forbes and Brand Finance:


Viewed through this lens, this story is huge. The world’s most powerful brand is laying off almost 1 in 10 of its workers because of falling sales in the US and Europe.

When we look at Lego's profit history, the significance of this becomes even more stark:

Perversely, the magnitude of this story is diminished, whereas the non-stories about normal seasonal fluctuations in business stats are blown up to cause alarm to anyone who cannot assess the merit of what they are reading.

Yup fake news is everywhere. But it is AI and low grade journalism which is creating it not some evil masterminds intent on global domination.

The truth is much simpler and less sensational (as it usually is). Artificial intelligence has assumed command of the brains and fingers of the people who write our daily news.

Sure, robots don’t get drunk like old school journos. They don’t hack phones. And they don’t snoop into people’s private lives.

But they can’t write a reliable piece of news either.

Robots aren’t just stealing jobs; they are the creators of their own destruction.

By Neil Patrick

Asimov’s three laws of robotics are often cited in the debate about jobs and the threat of AI.

Isaac Asimov was a gifted and insightful science fiction writer. No more, no less. But his thoughts applied to today are about as helpful as reading Jane Austin is for tackling wealth inequality.

Asimov’s third law stated, ‘A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.’ Most assumed this referred to physical harm. The reality is that that it is economic and social harm which we should be most worried about.

If you read this blog, you’ll know that I have been arguing for over 5 years here that the rise of the machines is unlike any previous technological change in the existence of mankind.

Its scope is so vast and the pace of change so rapid, that people, let alone institutions and government cannot keep up. And it is ordinary people who will pay the price for this.

It has been interesting to watch opinion about this shift. It started as a utopian view that the machines would free us all from the tedious and boring work; we’d all become valued for our creativity, our people skills, our innovation. Unless we didn’t have much of these things to start with…

When the raw economics revealed this was a Disney-like fantasy, then it was argued that this revolution would create a new world of work in which we’d all become freelancers, skipping merrily from assignment to assignment. The gig economy would be our liberator and digital communications would free us so we could all sit on a beach somewhere with a laptop earning our living. What happened instead was that the likes of Uber and zero-hours contracts created hideous exploitative machines of misery for millions.

Yet these were just the growing pains it was argued. Regulation and government interventions would act to calm the beast. Smooth out the inequalities and inequities. Like ensuring that Google and co. paid their fair share of tax…

I didn’t buy any of it. Yet I secretly feared that I was digging my own grave. Which would probably have a headstone including the words ‘reactionary, pessimist and Luddite’.

Then this week an article appeared in the Times by a young man named Raphael Hogarth .

Titled, ‘A life without work is not my idea of fun’, Raphael reports that the evidence from those who know most about these things such as AI entrepreneur Jeremy Howard, despair that “people aren’t scared enough”.

I agree. They are not even a little bit scared enough. This is indeed a monster unleashed. Just not quite the same one as Asimov envisaged.

The tidbits of crack cocaine attached to the monster such as online shopping, ITunes and MyFaceGram have blinded people to the reality that the monster will simultaneously pander to their desires while covertly devouring their ability to earn the money they need to live.

And in so doing, the machines will destroy their own revenue-based raison d’etre.

But to get back to Raphael’s article. What was most interesting to me was that he seemed to accept without much difficulty that his own future employment was under threat from AI. And that assuming the governments of the West manage to create a workable form of universal basic income (which I doubt), then he’d rather not have an idle life.

This is perceptive and admirable. It is also a watershed. It’s the first time I have seen in mainstream media, any commentator resigned to the reality of the AI monster.

And yet again, I find myself saddened by the fact that my own worst fears have come a step closer to being realised.

How happy shiny people can damage your business

By Neil Patrick

Following on from my post here about the connection between fake LinkedIn profiles and online fraud, I was reminded recently of something I’ve been doing almost unconsciously for years. And I suspect we all do it.

How do we make judgements about people and businesses we encounter online? It’s fairly normal to look at their endorsements and recommendations.

Recently I was talking to a client about their website. Like many websites, this one contained real recommendations from real clients. But these clients were shy. They didn’t want their pictures posted despite their glowing praise for my client.

So stock photos were used rather than their real portraits. It was an innocent enough effort to make the page look a bit more polished and attractive.

But this innocent mistake was hurting their credibility.

Because just about anyone can tell what is a stock photo and what is a genuine portrait.

When we see pictures of shiny happy people in beautiful surroundings, unless you are a big brand with big marketing budgets, it sends a subliminal message to all that see it.

That message is not ‘This looks good.’

The message is ‘This looks fake.’

Shiny happy people yesterday. They are pretending. You know it and I know it.

Yes I know good marketing creates aspiration. I know that good business is about enabling dreams and ambitions. And I know that if we want to be taken seriously, we should present our businesses well.

But we live in an age where almost everyone alive has spent their whole lives bombarded by thousands of advertising images almost every day. Consequently, we have developed finely tuned antennae for perceiving what is real and what is fake in marketing and advertising.

It is this evolution of subconscious perceptive skills which demands that we strive more for truth than gloss.

Today, there’s a greater need than ever for us to be authentic. To tell it like it is. Warts and all.

Lying and massaging the truth is right out. So why do so many small businesses attempt to present themselves as big and corporate? Try to convey an impression they are large enterprises when they are not? Owners call themselves CEOs, when the truth is they have few or even no employees?

This really is an own goal because small businesses have a real advantage that big corporates do not. They can provide a highly personal and unique experience to their customers. They can easily go the extra mile. They can make their customers love them much more easily than a big corporation can.

But this demands that we don’t try to gloss things up too much. For a small business authenticity trumps marketing pizzazz every time.

Which is why happy shiny people in stock photos can do untold damage to small business websites.

And this reminds me about the best advertising advice I ever heard; ‘Good advertising is the truth well told’.