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ROBO SPACE
How algorithms secretly run the world
By Rob Lever
Washington (AFP) Feb 11, 2017


No sad endings for Japan's virtual romance fans
Tokyo (AFP) Feb 11, 2017 - Japanese book editor Miho Takeshita is having an affair. But the recently married 30-year-old is not worried about getting caught -- her boyfriend only exists on a smartphone.

Takeshita is a fan of romance simulation games, a booming market in Japan that is winning the hearts of women looking for some unconventional loving.

"It's very addictive," Takeshita said.

"Even though the game characters aren't real, you start to develop feelings towards them."

That is the whole point, said Natsuko Asaki, a game producer at Cybird, which created the popular series Ikemen -- a Japanese term for handsome guys.

"The story is most important, as well as the characters, and the twists and turns," Asaki said.

The Ikemen app has been downloaded some 15 million times since its launch about five years ago, and the firm has also released an English version.

Mirroring the smartphone boom, female-targeted virtual romance games have ballooned into a market worth about 15 billion yen ($135 million) annually in Japan, according to the Tokyo-based Yano Research Institute.

Some 80 percent of fans, including a growing number of married women, play just before bed, a Cybird survey found.

The games do not rely on complicated algorithms, but instead offer multiple choice scenarios that let players escape into a world where they create their own love story with digital hunks.

Takeshita does not see anything strange about flirting with her smartphone sweeties.

In fact, she can engage with them whenever she likes -- something real-life spouses do not always provide.

"The games also have sexual overtones but they're expressed less crudely than in simulations made for boys," Cybird's Asaki said.

"It's an ideal love story -- there are no female rivals and no sad endings."

- 'Feed the illusion' -

The success of these games may be partly linked to dating etiquette in Japan, where men are expected to take the lead when it comes to romance.

"A Japanese woman making the first move is not viewed favourably," said Ai Aizawa, a marital relations specialist at the All About website, which offers daily living advice.

And even those women who have found a soulmate are often not satisfied romantically, she added.

"They use these simulations as an outlet, a place where they are not betrayed, and where ideal love and the perfect lover feed the illusion," Aizawa said.

Some smartphone applications such as Tokimeki kareshi (emotion buddy) or Sumakare (smartphone buddy) let users exchange texts with digital boyfriends, making the experience all the more real.

But is there any risk with a bit of smartphone hanky panky?

"Becoming an addict," said one single female fan, who asked to remain anonymous.

"You can even start to feel a little guilty if you do not play regularly -- it's a bit dangerous for teenage girls who are still immature."

Romance games are one of the culprits behind a trend that has seen some young Japanese lose interest in finding a real partner, according to a study last year by the Meiji Yasuda Life Foundation of Health and Welfare.

"The relationship that does not happen in real life happens perfectly in the game -- that can lead some people to give up looking for love, at least for a time," said marriage specialist Aizawa.

While humans can easily love a virtual partner, it is still uncertain whether that feeling could ever be reciprocated, said Hiroshi Ishiguro, a robotics designer at Osaka University.

"A male or female body is no longer the thing that defines a human being," he said.

"It's quite conceivable to really love robots or virtual characters -- there's no doubt about that.

"The question is more whether they will someday be able to love a human."

When you browse online for a new pair of shoes, pick a movie to stream on Netflix or apply for a car loan, an algorithm likely has its word to say on the outcome.

The complex mathematical formulas are playing a growing role in all walks of life: from detecting skin cancers to suggesting new Facebook friends, deciding who gets a job, how police resources are deployed, who gets insurance at what cost, or who is on a "no fly" list.

Algorithms are being used -- experimentally -- to write news articles from raw data, while Donald Trump's presidential campaign was helped by behavioral marketers who used an algorithm to locate the highest concentrations of "persuadable voters."

But while such automated tools can inject a measure of objectivity into erstwhile subjective decisions, fears are rising over the lack of transparency algorithms can entail, with pressure growing to apply standards of ethics or "accountability."

Data scientist Cathy O'Neil cautions about "blindly trusting" formulas to determine a fair outcome.

"Algorithms are not inherently fair, because the person who builds the model defines success," she said.

- Amplifying disadvantages -

O'Neil argues that while some algorithms may be helpful, others can be nefarious. In her 2016 book, "Weapons of Math Destruction," she cites some troubling examples in the United States:

- Public schools in Washington DC in 2010 fired more than 200 teachers -- including several well-respected instructors -- based on scores in an algorithmic formula which evaluated performance.

- A man diagnosed with bipolar disorder was rejected for employment at seven major retailers after a third-party "personality" test deemed him a high risk based on its algorithmic classification.

- Many jurisdictions are using "predictive policing" to shift resources to likely "hot spots." O'Neill says that depending on how data is fed into the system, this could lead to discovery of more minor crimes and a "feedback loop" which stigmatizes poor communities.

- Some courts rely on computer-ranked formulas to determine jail sentences and parole, which may discriminate against minorities by taking into account "risk" factors such as their neighborhoods and friend or family links to crime.

- In the world of finance, brokers "scrape" data from online and other sources in new ways to make decisions on credit or insurance. This too often amplifies prejudice against the disadvantaged, O'Neil argues.

Her findings were echoed in a White House report last year warning that algorithmic systems "are not infallible -- they rely on the imperfect inputs, logic, probability, and people who design them."

The report noted that data systems can ideally help weed out human bias but warned against algorithms "systematically disadvantaging certain groups."

- Digital crumbs -

Zeynep Tufekci, a University of North Carolina professor who studies technology and society, said automated decisions are often based on data collected about people, sometimes without their knowledge.

"These computational systems can infer all sorts of things about you from your digital crumbs," Tufekci said in a recent TED lecture.

"They can infer your sexual orientation, your personality traits, your political leanings. They have predictive power with high levels of accuracy."

Such insights may be useful in certain contexts -- such as helping medical professionals diagnose postpartum depression -- but unfair in others, she said.

Part of the problem, she said, stems from asking computers to answer questions that have no single right answer.

"They are subjective, open-ended and value-laden questions, asking who should the company hire, which update from which friend should you be shown, which convict is more likely to reoffend."

- The EU model? -

Frank Pasquale, a University of Maryland law professor and author of "The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information," shares the same concerns.

He suggests one way to remedy unfair effects may be to enforce existing laws on consumer protection or deceptive practices.

Pasquale points at the European Union's data protection law, set from next year to create a "right of explanation" when consumers are impacted by an algorithmic decision, as a model that could be expanded.

This would "either force transparency or it will stop algorithms from being used in certain contexts," he said.

Alethea Lange, a policy analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technology, said the EU plan "sounds good" but "is really burdensome" and risked proving unworkable in practice.

She believes education and discussion may be more important than enforcement in developing fairer algorithms.

Lange said her organization worked with Facebook, for example, to modify a much-criticized formula that allowed advertisers to use "ethnic affinity" in their targeting.

- Scapegoat -

Others meanwhile caution that algorithms should not be made a scapegoat for societal ills.

"People get angry and they are looking for something to blame," said Daniel Castro, vice president at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

"We are concerned about bias, accountability and ethical decisions but those exist whether you are using algorithms or not."

rl/ec

NETFLIX

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