The internet has come a long way from the days of dial-up in the early '90s. Anyone who connected to the internet back then can probably still hear the unique dial-up tone the computer would make as you waited to surf the web. Since that time, the internet has evolved to become a place dominated by search and social media platforms. These changes have had some incredibly positive effects on society by providing consumers with entertainment options and educational and informational content, among many other benefits.
However, the powerful mechanisms behind these platforms that are meant to enhance engagement also have the ability – or at least the potential – to influence the thoughts and behaviors of literally billions of people, causing unease among many about the power of these platforms.
The algorithms and artificial intelligence (AI) that are used by these internet platforms have rapidly become an important part of our lives, largely without us even realizing it. As online content continues to grow, large technology companies increasingly rely on AI-powered automation to select and display content that will optimize engagement.
For example, how often have you found yourself clicking on video after video, or scrolling through notifications on your smartphone only to emerge from the rabbit hole wondering how you ended up in a particular obscure corner of the internet? Whether you realized it or not, this happened because these internet platforms have deployed AI to figure out what you’ll likely click on next in order to keep your attention. And it’s not just you. Billions of people are being delivered content that is selected for them by AI making inferences about each person’s data. Needless to say, we need to better understand this development.
In order to learn more about how internet platforms deploy AI to keep consumers engaged on their platforms, I recently convened a hearing before the Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet, which I chair. During the hearing, I questioned a panel of experts, including a representative from Google, about ways to provide far more transparency and explanation into the AI that is selecting the content billions of people see on these platforms. One witness, Dr. Stephen Wolfram, a highly respected scientist and thought-leader regarding AI, offered ideas about what actions internet platforms could take to resolve concerns by consumers about how content ultimately shows up in their newsfeeds or timelines.
I believe consumers should have the option to engage with internet platforms without being manipulated by algorithms powered by their own personal data – especially if those algorithms are opaque to the average user. And it is ultimately my hope that I can work with my colleagues in the Senate to find ways to ensure companies have the freedom to innovate, but in a way that keeps consumers’ interests and well-being at the forefront of their progress.