Natural Language Processing,
the Real Pandora's Box

Heavy Social Power from
Natural Language Processing

There's a ton of good that's going to come out of Natural Language Processing. The easy call is the facilitation of better communication among people, and between people and machines. There's also going to be a ton of bad, mostly in the form of social hacking via well-tuned, surgically targeted messaging. Before too long we'll all be buying phone apps to check on the persuasive content of a message before we commit to a purchase or a cause.

The Dark Side of NLP

I want to be very dramatic here. NLP is almost like The Force in Star Wars: It has a real dark side. We saw some glimpses of this during the 2016 US Presidential election season. But it hits the news almost daily on the small scale. I can't count the reports on the TV news where some victim says, “How was I supposed to know...” If tech-criminals start connecting AI to NLP, they'll be able to iterate down to an effective message for any target population they want to...or even to just a small number of key individuals.

Messaging Works Both Ways

There's nothing that would prevent the good guys from using the same NLP technologies to fashion better messaging for any context as well. And even apart from marketing applications, educational materials could be refined for increasing effectivenss. Or, in the same way you can turn on spell-check or grammar-check, you could turn on fact-check and save yourself a lot of trouble.

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Natural Language Processing in Washington, DC

For all kinds of reasons, both obvious and obscure, teaching machines to understand human communication has always been a big goal. Understanding the spoken word creates the possibilities of increasingly easy-to-use interfaces. Understanding the written word, along with the application of deep learning techniques, creates the possibility of identifying Russian trolls behind Facebook ads and memes. What kind of response would you give an ad if Facebook marked it with a 93.4% probability that it came from a Moscow troll tank?

Of all of the layers in the Full Stack, natural language processing will have the largest impact on society. Algorithms will micro-tune persuasive messages down to any individual with a digital footprint of any size. These techniques will generate social forces going well beyond anything we currently experience.

May I suggest that many of you get involved in natural language processing to train people in the practices of critical thinking? If people don't know how to evaluate and deal with these kinds of highly targeted messages, they will indeed become sheep led to their own slaughter.


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