TikTok has been continuously hitting the headlines in recent weeks. The platform, which is mainly used by teenagers, suddenly became a symbol of the fight for the dominance in the world between America and China. It is a fight involving sanctions, customs, market access bans, and mutual accusations of the worst things possible. It is easy to get lost, so it is good to know what TikTok is, how important the role artificial intelligence algorithms play is and why it bothers President Donald Trump so much.
When describing TikTok, errors can be made at literally every step. At first glance, it is a social platform consisting in sharing short video films with mostly fun and light content. Essentially, TikTok does not work like the typical social media that we have been getting used to for years. It is not Facebook or Twitter on which we need to “collect” our friends on our own in order to have access to the content they create. On TikTok, you do not have to have any friends, the notion of social graph does not exist at all. You just have to create an account and, from the very beginning you fall into an endless stream of films that the website serves you.
Algorithm-driven entertainment platform
Algorithms are responsible for selecting materials. The company does not share its technology and does not even disclose fragments of its own solutions, but the effectiveness of artificial intelligence supporting the stream of materials can be noticed straight away. TikTok “learns” us quickly and pays attention to every single aspect of the content we have contact with. Each parameter matters. The algorithm knows what we watch, and because it has larger and larger reservoirs of materials from various fields, it checks on us in which direction it is worth going with us and which directions lead to the dead ends of our interests.
Therefore, TikTok is more of an algorithm-made entertainment platform than a social network. AI can experiment on us endlessly, as the film base is growing dynamically. What is more, TikTok does not provide us with materials from popular people only. We do not receive a fixed set of celebrities of various kinds whose accounts are suggested by Instagram or Twitter. On TikTok, even popular users may have completely variable statistics related to their materials. It may happen that the material viewed by millions of people, which will encourage us to follow someone, will be the only such a popular film on a given profile. In such a case, the number of views of others may fluctuate around “merely” several hundred views.
The interface for rating films is intuitive. The content does not compete for our attention, the algorithm offers us just one film at a time. Therefore, it reminds Tinder on the steroids of artificial intelligence. It tries to match us with the best authors of video content possible. The application is intuitive. It is also a considerable advantage of TikTok since the Chinese users it reached have not always been sufficiently familiar with modern technologies to use them without problems. The service had to be easy to handle, since hundreds of millions of users were at stake. Anyone could be an author of content or a recipient thereof. A holder of master’s degree or a courier on a scooter. An IT specialist or a peddler. Those less educated and disadvantaged users were particularly on target, as there are far more of them in China than the rich and those who graduated from universities.
The popularity of TikTok is an resultant of many variables that modern China is or is to consist of in the near future. The authorities have focused on the development of artificial intelligence to become a world leader in this field by 2025. Even before the outbreak of the pandemic, with the exacerbation of the trade conflict with the United States (which started in July 2018), Beijing revised the date for 2030, but the target remained unchanged.
Is AI going to leave us behind?
Artificial intelligence as a core of new generation services is of great importance. An increase in its importance and in the ability to control the planet in the future like in the “Terminator” series has been feared for years, but perhaps the algorithm will not have to wage any war against human beings. At some point, people, as beings with finished cognitive abilities and also as consumers of content capable of assimilating a certain dose of information, will turn out to be an inadequate partner for AI. Bartosz Kuźniarz, Ph.D., a philosopher describing the social dimension of capitalism in his works, claims that in the future people can be replaced by some unspecified creature. Perhaps this will be a being, perhaps a combination of an algorithm with a robot, but this evolution within the current model of capitalism seems inevitable. Capitalism as an economic system was created to maximize profits.
Kuźniarz refers to research into the quality of people’s life, which has been carried out over decades and which shows that higher GDP does not translate into an improvement in humans’ satisfaction from life. For the planet, higher GDP of countries means higher energy expenditure, thus a larger threat to the environment. If, as a result of continuous progress, life does not become better, and human beings, as the creator of such a model, are unable to keep pace with artificial intelligence, perhaps the future will bring new consumers and new producers with even greater opportunities for processing global production.
Kuźniarz, Ph.D. compares the situation with the role of evolution of dogs. Domesticated centuries ago, they became a different animal than they used to be in the past. They are unable to exist in our reality without human supervision. According to the philosopher, this is the future that may be waiting for people who, in an unidentified future, will be taken care of by algorithms or something controlled by them.
The level of understanding the game by the Alpha Go algorithm created several years ago by Google also provokes thoughts. In 2017, the world’s best player, Lee Se-dol from Korea, was unable to beat artificial intelligence. The program played using the style that specialists in this field were unable to predict as if it wanted do demonstrate to the people what could be obtained from it with more processing capacity. Perhaps we should look at the commercial use of algorithms in our daily life from a seemingly still abstract angle. Perhaps it is the speed of TikTok learning our interests that shows that we will soon become unnecessary for the service and we will not be able to keep up with the new pace of reality.