Friday, April 13, 2018

Targeted Content

You must have heard of, or have suspected first-handedly, the famous conspiracy theory that the Facebook app listens to your phone's microphone in order to better target ads that match your current interests. I've had the funniest experience with that myself: a friend in the cosmetics business has told me about this conspiracy, and in the same conversation she mentioned that an advertising agent has called her to offer advertising her business. Later that day, I got a Facebook ad "advertise your cosmetics business". What the heck? What are the odds of that? And I don't even have a Facebook app installed, just the Facebook messenger.

Although Mark Zuckerberg denied this conspiracy theory in his senate hearing, I doubt that people would stop believing it whenever the ads algorithm surprises them. Choosing to believe Zuckerberg that they don't listen to our microphones (yet, I suspect), I'm pretty confident that they, as well as other companies, are using our written content (emails, social media posts, search queries).

Most people are alarmed by these suspicions from the privacy aspect: what data does this company hold about me? how do they use it? who do they share it with? This post will not be about that. Instead, this post will be about the technical aspect, which is what interests me most as an NLP researcher. If we assume that our apps constantly listen to us and that our written content is monitored and analyzed, what does it say about the text understanding capabilities of these companies?

Oh, and expect no answers. This post is all about questions and conspiracy theories!

What is personalized content?
Personalized content doesn't have to come in the form of an ad. It can take the form of recommendations (products to buy based on previous purchases, songs to listen to, as in this post). It can be relevant professional content from LinkedIn, discounts on services you've previously consumed, cheap flights to your planned destinations, and so on. Some of this will be a direct result of the preferences and settings you defined in the website. For example, I've registered in several websites to get updates on concerts of my favorite bands, and I get healthy vegetarian recipes from Yummly. Some of this content will be based on inferences that the system makes, assuming that certain content is relevant for you. Here is one example:

In that case I was amazed by the accuracy of the Quora digest emails I was getting. Specifically, I had a conversation with my husband about the confidence it takes to admit you don't know something, and he mentioned he likes to say something more helpful than "I don't know" to someone who needs help. The next day, I got a personally-tailored Quora digest email that contained an answer to the question "Could you say something nice instead of 'I don't know'?". It wasn't under any of the topics that I follow (computer science related topics and parakeets).

In what follows I will exemplify most of my points using ads.

What we think these algorithms do
OK, so in my case, I have to try to put my knowledge about the limitations of this technology and my skepticism aside for a second and think like the average person. In that case, I think that:
  • If the ad is about a topic that I discussed in a spoken conversation, then there must be a recorder, and a speech-to-text component that converts the speech into written text.
  • Which language did I speak or have written when this happened? In case this happened for more than one language, it's possible that the company has different algorithms (or at least different trained models of the same algorithm) for each language.
  • Written content and transcribed speech are processed to match with the available content/ads.
  • In some cases, it seems that even simple keyword matching leads to nice results. E.g., if you mentioned a vacation in Thailand you will be matched with ads containing the words vacation and Thailand (I will let you know if I get any such ads after writing this post...). It takes no text understanding capabilities to do so, it only requires recognizing that a bunch of words said in the same sentence (or in a short period of time) also appear in some ad. If you insist, it may work with information retrieval (IR) algorithms to recognize the most important words.
  • In other cases, it seems that a deeper understanding of the meaning of my queries and conversations is required in order to match it to the relevant content. A good example is the Quora digest example from above. Based on IR algorithms, searching for common words like I, don't, know, helpful, nice, say, something will not get you as far as searching for more rare content words like vacation and Thailand. So it must be that the algorithm has built some meaning representation to our conversation, and compared it with the one of that Quora answer, which was phrased with slightly different words. On top of everything, our conversation was in Hebrew, so it must have a universal multi-lingual meaning representation mechanism. 

Alternative explanations
Skepticism returns; I can believe that my speech is recorded and transcribed fairly accurately to text when I speak English. It's a bit harder to believe when it happens in other languages (e.g. Hebrew in my case), but I can still find it somewhat reasonable; Automatic speech recognition (ASR), although isn't perfect, still works reasonably well. It's the text understanding component I'm much, much more skeptical about. Despite the constant progress, and although popular media makes it seem like AI is solved and computers completely understand human language, I know it definitely isn't the case yet. So what other explanations can there be for the targeted content we see?

By Chance. None of this actually happens and we're just imagining. Well, OK, not none of this, but in some cases, it's really just chance.

One of the reasons that we're not easily convinced by this "by chance" argument is that we generally tend to pay attention only to the true-positive cases ("hits") in which we talked about something and immediately got an ad about it. It's much harder to notice the "misses": an ad that seems off (false positive) or all the things that we discussed and got no ads about (false negative).

In the end of the day, we're all just common people that share many common interests. Advertisers may reach us because they try to reach a large audience and we happen to fall under the very broad categories they target (e.g. age group). It could be that by chance we see ads exactly for the product or service we need now.

Other Means. Technically speaking, rather than understanding text, it's much easier to consider other parameters such as your location, your declared interests (i.e. pages you've liked on Facebook, search results you clicked on in Google), your location, your age, gender, marital status, and more. If you didn't provide one or more of these details, no worries! Your friends have, and it's likely you share some of these details with them!

Here is one good example:
 
I keep getting babies and pregnancy ads on Facebook. I'm a married woman in her 30s, both information items are available in my Facebook profile, and that alone is enough to assume this topic is relevant for me (personally, it is not, but the percent of women like me is too small to care about the error rate, and I totally accept that). Add to this that many of my Facebook friends are other people in my age who are members of parenting groups, have liked pages of baby-related stuff, etc. I can't ever make this stop, but I guess it will stop naturally when I'm in my late forties.


I'd like to finish with an anecdote about how non-sophisticated targeted content can sometimes be, to the point where you rub your eyes in disbelief and say "how stupid can these algorithms be?". A few days ago I've written to someone in an email "I'll be in Seattle on May 30". Minutes later, I get an email from Booking.com with the title "Vered, Seattle has some last-minute deals!". That would have been smart, unless I've already used Booking.com to book a hotel room in Seattle for exactly these dates.

I may be way off and it may be that these companies have killer AI abilities which are kept very well in secret. In that case, some of my readers who work for these companies must be giggling now. To paraphrase Joseph Heller (or whoever said it first), just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean they're not after you, but hey, there's no way their technology is good enough to do what you think it does, so some of it is just pure chance. Not as catchy as the original quote, I know.

4 comments:

  1. CAREFUL TO ^SATA-N-AZIST^ ASSASSIN BITCH MONICA KOWAL FROM UNM, UNIVERSITY OF MEXICO. SHE USED TO DO PORNFILMS DRINKING CUM OF PIGS, DOGS AND DONKEYS! NOW,TO SURVIVE, NOW, SHE ALWS SUCKS FLACCID, HALF DEATH DICK FROM DONALD TRUMP ALIAS DONAZISTRUMP. WHO IS.......NOT FOR NOTHING..... JUST A MIX OF PIG, DOG AND DONKEY! NOTHING CHANGED FIN HER CRIMINAL LIFE!
    1
    CAREFUL TO ASSASSIN NAZIST MONICA KOWAL OF UNIVERSITY OF NEW MEXICO https://gsefordham.wordpress.com/tag/monica-kowal/
    CAREFUL TO MAFIOSA AND MAFIA MONEY LAUNDERER MONICA KOWAL OF UNIVERSITY OF NEW MEXICO https://gsefordham.wordpress.com/tag/monica-kowal/
    CAREFUL TO RACIST KUKLUKLANIST MONICA KOWAL OF UNIVERSITY OF NEW MEXICO https://gsefordham.wordpress.com/tag/monica-kowal/
    CAREFUL TO HITLERIAN KILLER MONICA KOWAL OF UNIVERSITY OF NEW MEXICO https://gsefordham.wordpress.com/tag/monica-kowal/
    ALIAS NEW ILSE KOCK OF WWW: WORLDWIDE WEB!
    THE REALITY IS ONLY THAT YOU, PORN BITCH DRINKER OF CUM OF PIGS, DOGS AND DONKEYS, MONICA KOWAL, ARE A SHITTY MAFIOSA AND NAZIST ASSASSIN! STINKY SHITTY WHORE MONICA KOWAL OF UNIVERSITY OF NEW MEXICO . WHEN YOU WERE MAKING PORN FILMS, YOU USED TO DRINK CUM OF PIGS, DOGS AND DONKEYS. NOW, TO SURVIVE, YOU DRINK THE URINE ( SINCE THERE IS NOT MORE CUM THERE) FROM NAZIST AND MAFIOSO ASSASSIN LIKE YOU: DONALD "DONAZISTRUMP" TRUMP. WHO IS A MIX OF PIG, DOG AND DONKEY! NOTHING REALLY CHANGED AT ALL! I HAVE NEVER BEEN ANTI AMERICAN IN MY LIFE. IF ANYTHING THE OPPOSITE. BUT THIS BASTARD, HITLERIAN, NAZIST, ACTUALLY, DONAZIST USA OF SHITTY PEDOPHILE DONALD TRUMP ( AND HIS BASTARD MURDERERS WITH TIES OF STINKY, BLOODTHISRTY, DICTATORIAL, CONSPIRING ANTI DEMOCRATIC, EXCLUDING, ANTI MERITOCRATIC, PEDOPHILES OF FREEMASONRY, ROTARY, LIONS CLUBS AND ILLUMINATI "WITH ALL LIGHT BURNT OUT BULBS") REMINDS TOO MUCH, KUKLUKLLANIST AND MACCARTIST ONE. SO, FROM NOW ON, AMERICANS LIKE YOU, I WILL CALL THEM AMERI-CANI!!! FUCK OFF DONAZISTRUMP'S USA, FUCK OFF, FUCK YOU. I HATE THIS KIND OF DONAZISTRUMP'S VERY HITLERIAN USA. I HOPE GOD WILL DISINTEGRATE YOU WITH ANOTHER PROPER IMMENSE METEOR, SHITTY FASCIST, MAFIOSI, KILLING COWBOYS OF THIS BIG, ENORMOUS, EFFICIENT, WINNING, MAKING HISTORY DICK OF MINE!

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  2. 2
    FILTHY ^SATA-N-AZIST^ WHORE MONICA KOWAL FROM UNM UNIVERSITY OF MEXICO
    YOU ARE A STINKY SHITTY KILLING PROSTITUTE OF WELL KNOWN
    - PEDOPHILE DONALD TRUMP http://knowyourmeme.com/photos/1186857-donald-trump
    - MAFIOSO AND MAFIA MONEY LAUNDERER DONALD TRUMP http://time.com/5109253/trump-organization-money-laundering-russians-russia/
    - MEGA COCAINE TAKER DONALD TRUMP https://bullshit.ist/white-house-sources-say-president-trumps-cocaine-habit-is-out-of-control-e2be4fa4da6d
    - NAZIFASCIST DONALD TRUMP https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/aug/15/the-president-of-the-united-states-is-now-a-neo-nazi-sympathiser
    https://newrepublic.com/minutes/124205/yes-donald-trump-fascist
    - RACIST DONALD TRUMP http://www.latimes.com/politics/la-na-trump-racism-remarks-20180111-htmlstory.html
    - KU KLUK KLANIST DONALD TRUMP https://www.thenation.com/article/the-trump-familys-history-with-the-kkk/
    - MEGA LIAR DONALD TRUMP http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/donald-trump-white-house-liar-us-president-dishonest-history-richard-nixon-robert-dallek-oval-offic-a8073036.html
    - IMMENSE CHEATER DONALD TRUMP
    https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2018/jan/30/donald-trump-golf-cheat-suzann-pettersen
    - BLOODTHIRSY ASSASSIN DONALD TRUMP https://edition.cnn.com/2016/01/23/politics/donald-trump-shoot-somebody-support/index.html

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  3. 3
    WHO IS JUST A CHOLERIC SUPER CRIMINAL PHOTOCOPY OF NAZIST ASSASSIN SILVIO BERLUSCONI (PER SEMPRE FUORI DAI COGLIONI)
    http://deverdaddigital.com/articulo/7295/la-ley-fascista-de-berlusconi
    MAFIOSO SILVIO BERLUSCONI (PER SEMPRE FUORI DAI COGLIONI)
    http://www.abc.es/internacional/20140724/abci-berlusconi-sexo-dinero-201407231647.html
    MAFIA MONEY LAUNDERER SILVIO BERLUSCONI (PER SEMPRE FUORI DAI COGLIONI)
    http://www.agoravox.it/PROCESSO-DELL-UTRI-Mio-fratello.html
    MEGA PRINCIPAL OF HOMICIDES AND SLAUGHTERS, MASS MURDERER OF MAGISTRATES, SILVIO BERLUSCONI (PER SEMPRE FUORI DAI COGLIONI)
    https://it-it.facebook.com/FALCONE-E-BORSELLINO-UCCISI-DA-BERLUSCONI-134602469910010/
    BASTARD ALWAYS LIAR SILVIO BERLUSCONI (PER SEMPRE FUORI DAI COGLIONI)
    http://www.romanoprodi.it/comunicati/berlusconi-ancora-una-volta-bugiardo_819.html
    IMMENSE PIECE OF SHIT, MEGA MEGA CHEATER SILVIO BERLUSCONI (PER SEMPRE FUORI DAI COGLIONI)
    http://www.askanews.it/politica/2018/01/19/di-maio-berlusconi-truffatore-politico-fa-stesse-promesse-94-pn_20180119_00060/
    WORST CRIMINAL OF THE WORLD AND OF ALL THE TIMES " WHILE WEARING A TIE", SILVIO BERLUSCONI (PER SEMPRE FUORI DAI COGLIONI)
    http://www.repubblica.it/politica/1998/07/18/news/berlusconi_criminale_un_peso_per_l_italia-24583668/
    PERVERT, DEPRAVED PEDOPHILE SILVIO BERLUSCONI (PER SEMPRE FUORI DAI COGLIONI)
    https://www.huffingtonpost.it/2015/03/26/intervista-gianni-boncompagni_n_6945522.html
    ( WHO IS BRIBING YOU TO TRY TO SCARE US, AS YOU AND "IT", WILL NEVER, NEVER, SUPER STRSA NEVER MANAGE TO... ACTUALLY, THE MORE YOU'LL TRY THAT, THE MORE YOU'LL SEE WHAT KIND OF REACTING METEORS FULL OF EXTREME HOT MEDIATIC FIRE WE WILL BE)
    ARE YOU A NAZIST, MAFIOSA LESBIAN WHO LEAKS THE PUSSY TO THE HITLERIAN GINA HASPEL, NEW ADOLPHINA HITLER OF CIA? I DONT' KNOW BOUT THAT ( BUT I THINK SO, AT.. LETS' SAY... 99,999999999999999999 %). CERTAINLY YOU ARE A STOMACH-TURNING NAZIFASCIST BITCH, SHITTY MONICA KOWAL ( WHO WE WILL MAKE VERY FAMOUS TO BE NEW ILSE KOCK OF THE WEB https://gsefordham.wordpress.com/tag/monica-kowal/ = https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ilse_Koch ). GO TO SUCK POWERLESS DONAZISTRUMP'S COCK, NOW, SHITTY ILSE KOCK OF THE WEB. AND FUCK OFF FOREVER. COME AND KILL US, BASTARD NAZIST NEW ILSE KOCK, ALIAS MONICA KOWAL, BUT NEVER AND EVER THINK TO KILL DEMOCRACY, FREEDOM OF EXPRESSIONS, FIGHTS TO FREE OUR COUNTRY FROM YOUR BASTARD CORRUPTOR: MAFIOSO, MAFIA MONEY LAUNDERER, NAZIFASCIST DICTATOR, LIAR, CHEATER, PEDOPHILE, MEGA MEGA MEGA ASSASSIN SILVIO BERLUSCONI ( PER SEMPRE FUORI DAI COGLIONI)! ALSO ASSASSIN OF OUR RELATIVES AND NEARLY OF OURSELVES TOO ( ANYWAY ASSASSIN OF BIG PART OF OUR LIFES AND JUST CAUSE WE HAVE NEVER ACCEPTED TO BE HIS BRAINLESS SLAVES, LIKE HIS BITCHES, VERY OFTEN UNDER AGE BITCHES, WHO ARE JUST PHOTOCOPY OF YOU, STINKY SHITTY WHORE MONICA KOWAL OF UNM). COME AND KILL US, BASTARD NAZIST NEW ILSE KOCK, ALIAS MONICA KOWAL, BUT NEVER AND EVER THINK TO KILL DEMOCRACY, FREEDOM OF EXPRESSIONS, FIGHTS TO FREE OUR COUNTRY FROM YOUR BASTARD PRINCIPAL OF MURDERS AND SLAUGHTERS SILVIO BERLUSCONI. COME AND KILL US, BASTARD NAZIST NEW ILSE KOCK, ALIAS MONICA KOWAL, BUT NEVER AND EVER THINK TO KILL DEMOCRACY, FREEDOM OF EXPRESSIONS, FIGHTS TO FREE OUR COUNTRY FROM YOUR NAZIST, MAFIOSO, MAFIA MONEY LAUNDERER SILVIO BERLUSCONI! HASTA LA VICTORIA SIEMPRE, STINKY NAZIST AND KILLER MONICA KOWAL. NEW ILSE KOCK OF UNIVERSITY OF NEW MEXICO.

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  4. 4
    SUCKING LOT OF FASCIST AND MAFIOSI COCKS: MONICA KOWAL, BASTARD PINOCHETTIAN HOMICIDE, BITCH, KILLER OF DEMOCRACY AND FREEDOM. FUCK YOOOOOOOOOOOOUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU!
    AND I HAVE NEVER VOTED LEFT. I AM NOT COMMUNIST. BUT WHEN I SEE BASTARD RACIST, HITLERIAN, MANIPULATIVE, DISHONEST, ANTIDEMOCRATIC TONGUES CUTTER LIKE YOU, BE SURE, I USUALLY BRING OUT THE VERY VERY BERY BEST OF ME ALL THE TIMES! AND YOU'LL SEE IT REAL SOON!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! FUCK OF DONAZISTRUM'S USA, FUCK YOU, FUCK OFF, LAND OF NAZISM, I HOPE GOD WILL CANCEL YOU WITH AN ENORMOUS METEOR, FUCK YOUUUUU!
    PS
    YOU BRAY, YOU GRUNT, YOU SQUAWK THAT DONALD TRUMP IS THE NEW DUX OF THE WORLD, IS NEW ADOLPH HITLER ON EARTH, SO CAN USE FBI LIKE A COVEN OF MUPPETS. MANIPULATING EVTG, GTG KILLED WHO DOES NOT STAY UNDER HIS NAZIST AND MAFIOSE SOLES, PROMOTING, INSTEAD, HIS BRAINLESS AND INVERTEBRATE SLAVES AND BITCHES (LIKE YA). YOU DID NOT NEED TO BRAY, GRUNT, SQUAWK THAT AT ALL. NOTHING IS MORE EVIDENT THAN THAT IN THIS WORLD. ALL YOU STINKY NAZIRACIST KUKLUKKLANIST, EITHER HAVE CHIEFS OF FBI, CIA, SEC, WTVR YOU WANT, UNDER YOUR ASSASSIN SHOES, EITHER YOU FIRE THEM.
    https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/donald-trump-control-us-justice-system-hillary-clinton-fair-trial-reminds-me-of-adolf-hitler-nazi-a8059031.html
    http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/this_week_in_trump/2017/05/under_investigation_trump_fired_fbi_chief_james_comey.html
    https://news.sky.com/story/did-trump-fire-fbi-chief-to-cover-up-russia-10870950
    https://www.vox.com/the-big-idea/2017/5/23/15680508/firing-fbi-directors-comey-trump-hoover-sessions
    WOW, WHAT A COINDICENCE: MEGA ASSASSIN DICTATORS LIKE YOU, ALIAS ADOLPH HITER, BENITO MUSSOLINI, ALFREDO STROESSNER, FRANCISCO FRANCO, AUGUSTO PINOCHET, POL POT, NICOLAE CEAUSESCU USED TO DO EXACTLY THE SAME. WOW, WHAT AN INTERESTING COINCIDENCE, WOOOOOOW! FUCK YOU, NAZIST ASSASSIN MONICA KOWAL FROM UNM UNIVERSITY OF NEW MEXICO, YOU ARE NEW ILSE KOCK OF THE WEB. GO TO SUCK DONALD "DONAZISTRUMP" POWERLESS COCK, NEW ILSE COCK OF WEB: MONICA KOWAL FROM UNM, UNIVERSITY OF NEW MEXICO! AND FUCK YOURSLF MUCH MORE TOO, SO YOU MAY RELAX A BIT, KILLING, HITLERIAN, MAFIOSA BITCH OF NEW COSA NOSTRA'S AND NEW GHESTAPO'S OF WEB. WHO DREAMS TO INTIMIDATE US ( YOU MAY INTIMIDATE MEGA BITCH OF YOUR MOTHER, YOU MAY INTIMIDATE MEGA PEDOPHILE OF YOUR FATHER, YOU MAY INTIMIDATE MEGA BITCH OF YOUR DAUGHTER, YOU MAY INTIMIDATE MEGA PEDERAST OF YOUR SON, BUT BE SUPER SUPER SUPER EXTRA SURE: NEVER US AT ALL... AND YOU'LL SEE THAT IMMEDIATELY)!
    PS
    WE DID NOT WANT TO WRITE ANYTHING ANYMORE ABOYT YOU, HAVING ALREADY HEAVILY BEATEN YOU, WON YOU, GIVEN YOU A VERY DUE LESSON OF DEMOCRACY AND FREEDOM OF EXPRESSING AND SHOWING TALENTS. BUT SINCE YOU MOVE YOUR GHESTAPO'S, OVRA'S, DINA'S VICIOUS AGENTS TO PROVOKE US AND TO (TRY TO) INTIMIDATE US ON THE STREETS OF MANY COUNTRIES OF DIFFERENT CONTINENTS OF THE WORLD, NOW YES, WE'LL WRITE BOUTCHAAA DAYS AND NIGHTS, NIGHTS AND DAYS DAYS AND NIGHTS, NIGHTS AND DAYS. " 422 DAYS A YEAR, 35 DAYS A MONTH, 26 HOURS A DAY". WAIT AND SEE, STINKY COCKSUCKER OF MEGA COCAINE TAKER, NAZIST, MAFIOSO, ASSASSIN, PEDOPHILE DONALD TRUMP ALIAS DONAZISTRUMP. STINKY COCKSUCKER OF MEGA COCAINE TAKER, NAZIST, MAFIOSO, ASSASSIN, PEDOPHILE SILVIO BERLUSCONI. MEGA COCAINE TAKER, NAZIST, MAFIOSO, ASSASSIN, PEDERAST, WELL KNOWN CRIMINAL PAOLO BARRAI BORN IN MILAN ON 28.6.1965, FAMOUS ALL OVER THE WORLD AS "THE HOMOSEXUAL PEDOPHILE OF BITCOIN" ( OR MEGA COCAINE TAKER, NAZIST, MAFIOSO, ASSASSIN, PEDERAST, WELL KNOWN CRIMINAL PAOLO PIETRO BARRAI BORN IN MILAN ON 28.6.1965, FAMOUS ALL OVER THE WORLD AS "THE HOMOSEXUAL PEDOPHILE OF BITCOIN")!

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