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Dr. Mary Aiken

Concerned about the amplifying effect of technology, says Mary Aiken

Dr. Mary Aiken is an expert in Forensic Cyberpsychology specializing in the impact of technology on human behaviour. She has written and spoken extensively on issues relating to the intersection between humankind and technology – or as she describes it “where humans and technology collide”.

Her work as a cyberpsychologist inspired the CBS primetime television series ‘CSI:Cyber’. She is a producer of the show. Her recent book The Cyber Effect has been widely reviewed and was selected by the Times as a 2016 ‘book of the year’ in the Thought Category.

Dr. Mary Aiken is an Adjunct Associate Professor at University College Dublin, Academic Advisor to the Europol European Cybercrime Centre (EC3) and the author of The Cyber Effect.

You have worked with government departments and think tanks. Do you believe psychologists need to play a bigger role in policy matters, especially in the domains of education, information technology and state security?

There is a lot of interest in education, communication, connectivity, information technology, privacy, cybersecurity, and the overall construct of cyberspace. Policymakers and government agencies are particularly interested in these areas. Policy needs to informed by expert input, cognitive, social, educational, organisational, personality, clinical and experimental psychologists are all interested in the impact on technology on humankind, however, cyberpsychologists are arguably best placed to deliver insight at the intersection between the human and technology.

Talking about education and given that only now many have started to understand the importance of cyberpsychology, do you think schools and universities need to start including it as a part of their curriculum?

I think it’s vital for any university that offers a degree in psychology to incorporate a Cyberpsychology module into their curriculum. Several universities are now offering a masters degree in Cyberpsychology. Students who qualify with a masters or a doctoral qualification will be eminently employable in a number of different industry sectors.

Internet, in many ways, has helped us discover a different facet of ourselves. You’ve spoken about how the medium helps ‘magnifies’ certain aspects of our behaviour. Can you explain how and why this ‘magnification’ happens?

I have been involved in a dozen different research silos from Cyberchondria (anxiety induced by escalation to review morbid or serious content during health related search) to Cyberstalking, the one thing that I have observed is that whenever technology interfaces with a base human disposition the result tend to be amplified and escalated – in my new book I describe this amplification as an almost predictable mathematical multiplier, the cyber effect, the E = mc2 of this century.

What’s your view on social media-engineered movements or revolutions?

Social media arguably played a key role in the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York, and the so-called Arab Spring movements in northern African countries such as Egypt and Tunisia. Social media also played a key role in the 2016 US Presidential Elections, and in the current French election process. However, there is no hard (or public) evidence to date to say that any of these phenomena were ‘media-engineered’ that is, evidence of a causation model. It would be interesting at some point in time to see full disclosure, data visualisation or case histories regarding these events. Social media companies are probably best informed regarding the intricacies of political movements or indeed revolutions.

Fake news on social media is proving to be a big problem.  How does one tackle the menace and identify the fake from the real ones?

This is a problem for social media companies to sort out – if you want to become a purveyor of news, then a minimum requirement is that the news you disseminate has been thoroughly investigated

One of the biggest issues concerning Internet is the ability it gives a person to easily impose themselves on others, like bullying and trolling. How does a person, especially a young one, tackle it?

Myself and a colleague Barry O Sullivan a Professor of Artificial Intelligence at UCC have been working on a mathematical formula, an algorithm to detect cyberbullying.

Locard’s exchange principle is the basic premise of forensic science, it dictates that every contact leaves a trace, and nowhere is this more true than online. Unlike the playground, where the mean words of a bully disappear instantly into the ether—unless there is an eyewitness—online it is just the opposite. Cyberbullying is nothing but evidence: a permanent digital record. So how did we get to the point where it became more problematic than real-world bullying? My answer is taken from The Usual Suspects, one of my favourite movies, in which Kevin Spacey delivers the immortal line “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

To me, the greatest trick social media and telecom companies ever pulled is trying to convince us that they can do nothing about cyberbullying.

Everyone’s talking jobs and automation. Where do you see this debate in, say, another 10 years? 

I don’t think that jobs and automation are the greatest threat that we face in the near future. I am much more concerned about the amplifying effect of technology and the greater impact on society. In 2016 NATO declared Cyberspace as an official “domain of operations” – a domain of war – we need to pay attention to paradigm shifts in this space.  Just recently Stephen Hawking said  “Without a ‘world government’ technology will destroy us” he argued that human aggression (amplified by technology) may destroy us and that we need to control the inherited instinct of aggression by our logic and reason.

When we talk about technology and artificial intelligence, we are essentially talking reducing the world in terms 0s and 1s or in the form of binaries, isn’t it? Do you think a natural processes can be templatized in such a form? Or, as philosopher Alan Watts puts it, are “we are trying the catch the water of reality using the net of technology”? 

What a great quote! The thing to remember is that technology in itself is not good or bad – it is either used well or poorly by humans, but just because it is new does not mean that it is good. Technology does not always mean progress.

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