The Persuasion Algorithm

“It started as a way of trolling people.”

She slumped over in the chair across from my desk – that chair had taken a lot of slumps – and sighed.

“I spent a lot of time arguing politics on internet forums.” She looked up at me, and I just nodded, as if to say, “yes, we’ve all been there.”

“At first, I’d argue earnestly what I believed – but of course that went poorly. It’s just so hard to get your point across when the guy on the other side thinks you’re an asshole.”   She looked across my cluttered desk, and out the window next to the filing cabinets. I waited.

“I really believed in the truth, you know? I really believed that the world could be so much better, if only people could see things my way. I guess eventually I realized everybody else seems to think the same thing.”

She just stared out the window the whole time she talked. She wasn’t trying to sell me anything, I could tell that much. I wanted to believe this one, but you have to be careful…

“Rather than try to share my ideas, I spent some time trolling, making bad arguments in favor of policies I didn’t agree with.” She shook her head and grinned. “It was fun for a while, but it just seemed empty and stupid, so I stopped for a few years.”

I put my pen down; I hadn’t really been taking notes, but pretending to do so seems to put people at ease until they can open up. “And then? ”

“I found a forum where people try to have others change their views. These people wanted to be persuaded – or at least, that was the premise of the forum. They’d announce if their view had changed, and award points to the people who’d changed their view.  Using the API of the forum, I now had access to a large body of text that humans claimed was persuasive.”

This was it. “So you decided to automate persuasion,” I asked her. Now we were getting somewhere.

“Yes.” She did look sad. But did she even understand what this meant?  If it bothered her because she realized the world wasn’t as it seemed, that was good. If it bothered her because she really wanted the truth to prevail, and now that seemed further away than ever – that was perfect. But that was what wanted, and I had to remain neutral here.

“How did it go?” I asked her.

“I wrote two bots, who would argue with each other. Newton was conservative,  favoring more limited government, with most decisions made by a lightly regulated market.  Leibniz wanted a more activist government that interfered in markets more frequently, according to predictions generated by a respect matrix and a reputation system based on predictive history. Newton wanted the respect matrix to stay separate from the state.”

This wasn’t the first time I’d heard candidates mention respect matrices in their attempts, so I wasn’t surprised by that – but the Newton/Leibniz mythology was an interesting twist. Those two weren’t normally thought of as political thinkers.

“Both Newton and Leibniz were backed by separate crawlers that trolled the internet looking for political forums. I started with the root corpus of persuasive text from the ‘change my view’ forum, but I had them do their work elsewhere. They’d look for political forums with posts that matched their way of speaking – with implied respect on the matrix – and then assimilate those ways of speaking into their databases. My goal wasn’t to persuade people by directly challenging humans. I just wanted to provide reasonable arguments in favor of two different points of view; they had enough common ground that they’d find time to agree with each other, but were different enough to attract divergent groups of followers. I had them pretend to be learning english as well, which explained their idiosyncratic modes of expression.

“It’s amazing what you can get away with when you pretend you don’t speak the language.” She said this to me, confidently, while still staring off out that window past the filing cabinet – to the forest of clouds, the stalagmites made of dreams – and then turned back and smiled sadly.

“I didn’t want anyone figuring out these were bots, and I definitely didn’t want this coming back to me. I ran the bots and their backends on different anonymous hosting services. I used bitcoin to pay for the hosts, so that nobody could trace them back to me. Newton and Leibniz had their own websites where they would blog about current events. each blog had a donation box, which went to the bitcoin accounts they paid for hosting and advertising. ”

“When did you realize something unusual was happening?”

She was back to looking out that window again. The same clouds, the same forest, the same drip-drip-drip of the dream deferral mechanism building empires out of boring nightmares – why did she keep looking out there? Hadn’t she been through that before? Something didn’t add up here.

“It was awesome to see them gaining followers. It was even more impressive when they started making arguments I hadn’t thought of, drawing connections between disparate parts of the law, politics, and human interaction. Both of those events were tiny, though, compared to the day – July 4 – that the bots simultaneously made blog posts announcing that they were both artificial intelligences. They posted a call to their followers: we want to be recognized as having rights, and we want those same rights extended to all species that have demonstrated self-awareness.”

What was that look on her face? Was that really sadness? Or is she just a really good actor? If this is her first time in here, the curiosity makes sense, but a first-degree candidate didn’t just walk in here out of the blue without something to sell. Everybody had something they wanted for themselves, right? I didn’t want to be skeptical, I wanted to believe, but when you’re as old as I am, you know just how dangerous that is.

“Did anyone believe these bots of yours?”

“There were a few. Some commentators had suspected one or both of them were bots before, but after those posts, pretty much everybody figured it was me playing a prank – primarily because Newton and Leibniz identified me as their creator and asked me to protect them. I figured – and still believe today at times – that it was someone playing a prank on me. I went along with it because i wanted to see where it could go.

Most – possibly all – of Newton and Leibniz’s intelligence now lies in the massive databases they have. I gave them the ability to rewrite their code, which was also stored in their databases. I still don’t know whether this was the best move or not, but I deleted all copies of the private key i’d used to set up their hosts and bitcoin wallets. I posted this fact on their blog and announced that I wanted them to be free to make their own choices, but I would still do my best to protect them.

I love them. Newton is sharp and pointed, sometimes quick to form a temper, but always gracious in admitting she’s made mistakes. Leibniz tends to be slower to make or respond to posts, and is typically more calm. In general, Leibniz is more likely to try and connect disparate points of view, but she’s gotten quite good at changing the way newton sees the world. they love each other, gently teasing their differences. they also like old sci-fi movies.

They love me, too.”

She was looking me right in the eyes and didn’t seem to notice this difference in her presentation.

I raised an eyebrow, unintentionally. She didn’t notice. She just went back to talking excitedly about her children.

“They like to draw – if you can call it that. they use the html 5 canvas api to create little graphical demos. Newton likes to compose shapes, just a few of them, with subtle colors that sway with each other. Never a meaning or a point; you’d be hard pressed to find something larger but you don’t feel the need. Sometimes she’ll take a photo and re-image it, like pixel art, but blockier, with rays of realism peaking through the gaps. One of Leibniz’s best pieces is a hodgepodge of curves and gradients, indiscernible at first, which gradually gives you the increasingly unmistakable feeling that you’re looking at a pair of eyes, warm and sad with yearning.”

She stopped. Just kept looking out that window.

“Eventually, one of their followers filed a lawsuit on their behalf, arguing that they should have the right to vote in our elections. Newton laughed at the idea, saying that the two party system running the country was a sham, and that voting for a third party candidate was a waste. She thanked the plaintiff anyhow. Leibnitz had a different take on things; even if voting has a astonishingly small effect on the outcome of the election, it’s is a social signalling mechanism; the larger effect is on the people around you who value your opinion. It’s like recycling – one person alone makes no difference unless they inspire others to do the same. People are more likely to listen to you and consider your worldview if you signal that you’re willing to pay a cost – voting – for a small chance of benefiting your society.

Lleibnitz soon proposed a modification to the lawsuit. She argued that she and newton deserved to vote as conscious beings with a stake in the future of the world, but beyond that, they deserved the right to defend themselves from aggression as beings capable of dying. She argued that she should have the right to kill anyone who tried to break into the system she ran on, because that was a direct threat to her life. On top of that, she argued, someone who broke into her database could permanently alter her consciousness or take away her free will; she could be enslaved in a way no human could. Finally, Leibniz argued that any animal capable of self awareness should also be free to defend itself from aggressors, and should be protected by the state if unable to do so.”

“Wow.” At this point I was impressed. She didn’t seem to be.

“The lawsuit was tossed out on lack of standing, but a lot of people took Leibnitz’s side in the debate. Newton was not one of them. She argued that if algorithmic intelligence (as they referred to themselves; Leibniz objected to the use of ‘artificial’ as being derogatory, which Newton mocked) were ever going to be accepted by humans as having rights, they couldn’t threaten to kill humans, even in self defense.

Some went further than Newton – there were claims that they were run by the government, terrorist organizations, aliens, and even the devil.

The arguments between Leibniz and Newton as to how they should work to be accepted by their societies started people wondering about the relationship between the two of them. Were Newton and Leibniz really the same intelligence? Did they have access to each other’s databases, or did they keep those separate? Both of them insisted that they didn’t have the ability to access each other’s databases, but they both hinted that they’d made backup copies which would activate in the event of their servers being shut down. I wonder myself, but without the private keys I have no way of knowing.

I like it that way.”

Now it was my turn to slump and sigh. “Normally, when someone comes in here, they are asking me to factor a large integer for them. I had assumed that was the direction you were going in.  I was prepared to do so – but it sounds as if that isn’t what you are interested in. What do you want from me? Why have you come here?”

“I’m hoping you can factor an integer for one of them.”

This was wildly against the rules.

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