Algorithmic Persuasion

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A black Suburban pulled into the alleyway behind a drab, suburban strip mall. A man in a suit and tie with Aviator sunglasses got out of the passenger seat and opened the back door. The man who got out of the car gazed at his surroundings with a look of utmost contempt as he followed his bodyguard through the door marked Suite 200B. His name was Brian Sengir, he had a net worth of $2.3 Billion, and was the CEO of Black Sun Capital Partners, a venture capital firm with over 50 billion in assets. Though he was 63 years old, his daily regimen of blood transfusions from healthy teenagers and sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber made him look as though he were only 57. Normally, he would have sent one of his subordinates to attend a product demonstration from some little startup, but he found this one particularly interesting.

The room was somewhat of a theater. There were no sources of natural light inside, as the suite had been set up to look from the outside as it was vacant. The walls were soundproofed, and on one side were a series of windows. They were one way mirrors, which provided a view into the suite next door, a small barber shop with only a couple chairs and one barber.

The group inside all smiled nervously and took turns shaking hands with Brian. A tall, rail-thin man in his late 20s with a pale complexion introduces himself as Matt Peterssen, the founder and CEO of Assystiv technologies.

“First of all, Mr. Sengir, all of us at Assystiv thank you for coming in person to view our demonstration. We know how busy you are and we’re all very excited to show you our technology in action.” One of the other members of his team tapped him on the shoulder and whispered in his ear. “Mr. Patel here… our CTO, has informed me that our first subject will be arriving in five minutes, so let me just recap what we discussed in the previous meeting with your partners. We have developed a platform based on the research that myself any many other scientists at MIT conducted, called Grima23, which will integrate with all major social media apps. Using AI, Grima23 can generate synthetic content to the user which, through our gentle persuasion algorithm, can influence their decision making. Of course, this has applications both in advertising and national defense. The user is not aware that the content they are viewing on social media has been altered, but the algorithm will gradually mix in content that leads the user towards making a desired action. That can be purchasing a product, voting a certain way, or as we’ll show you today, something even more extreme. Now, three weeks ago, we sent your team a list of one hundred potential subject for our demonstration and you selected three. Of course, all the subjects agreed to participate when they accepted the terms and conditions for… I think it was an app that shows what you would look like as a robot.”

Brian made himself comfortable and right on time, a young blonde woman walked into the barber shop.

“The purpose of this demonstration is to show you that the test subjects have been guided to do something that they would never decide to do on their own. Each of our test subjects will be, completely on their own volition, asking for a rather drastic haircut today. As I’m sure you know, we have provided your team with each of the subjects’ phone usage data which will show that they have had no contact with anyone affiliated with our company. Our technology is so precise” Matt added “That we were able to guide her to this specific barber shop- which didn’t exist two weeks ago- at this specific time. Subject #1 is Ariel T, 19 years old, college student.”

The girl approached the barber and showed him a picture on her phone. He asked if she could make her hair look like the picture.

“That’s a bit drastic. Are you sure?” the barber asked.

“Yes please. I know what I want and you’re wasting your time if you try to talk me out of it.” she responded, giggling but assertive.

“Very well then, have a seat.”

The barber threw a cape over Ariel’s shoulders and pulled her long hair through, smiling at the mirror knowing he was being watched from the other side. He parted her hair down the middle and separated it into two ponytails. He held his shears at the base of one ponytail and opened the blades around it. He paused, giving her every opportunity to tell him to stop, but she didn’t. The shears closed and the long locks were severed. Not a word of resistance was uttered as he did the same thing to the other side. Next, he disinfected his clippers and popped a guard on, buzzing the hair on the girl’s nape and around her ears to a #1, followed by a #3 on the hair a little higher up. He applied a half-inch guard to the clippers and pushed them through the hair on the top of her scalp. After a couple more changes of guards on the clippers, he had shaped her hair into a short flat top, like something you would expect to see on a drill sergeant.

The girl admired her new short hair in the mirror and enjoyed the sensation of rubbing her scalp. “Thank you so much!” she said to the barber. “I love it!”

Matt addressed the billionaire again. “So as you can see, with the guidance of Grima23, she decided to make drastic changes to her hair. Going back to the start of subject #1’s social media history, she has never had hair above the shoulders or shown any interest in short hair, but in two weeks, she was willing to walk into a barber shop and ask for a short military cut. The technology is so powerful that she actually has not even interacted with Grima23 generated content in the last 24 hours, aside from the technology integrating with Google search and maps to guide her to this particular barber shop, and yet her decision to get such a drastic haircut did not change.”

“Impressive.” Brian nodded. “Now I understand we will have three subjects today. What is the ETA on subject #2?”

One of Matt’s sycophants looked at his phone and spoke up. “Sir, she is actually parking her car right now.”

Sure enough, the next subject walked right into the barber shop. She was tall and thin, with long, ginger curls and a tight, yet professional, dress and blazer that accentuated her ample cleavage.

“Subject #2 is Shannon M, 26 years old, pharmaceutical sales rep.”

Shannon approached the barber.

“What can I do for you today, ma’am?”

She snickered confidently. “I’m going to want something pretty major!”

“How major?” he asked “You know, we normally only do haircuts for men, so I might not be able to do what you have in mind.”

“Oh I’m sure you can” she laughed “I want it all off.” She pointed to the sign above the register that said “Head shave with straight razor: $35”

“Are you sure?” asked the barber “Wouldn’t you rather try something in the middle before you go all the way to a smooth dome?”

“Don’t talk down to me!” she responded rudely. “Also, please try to get it all off in one piece. I’d like to keep the hair as a souvenir.”

“If you say so.” The barber shrugged. She sat down impatiently and he placed the cape over her.

The barber tied Shannon’s perfect ginger locks into a loose ponytail and took the guard off his clippers. He placed them next to her ear.

“Want me to start with the sides in case you change your mind?”

“No thank you, that won’t be necessary. Please start in the middle.”

“Okay.”

He ran the clippers right down the middle of her scalp, leaving almost nothing behind, then widened the gap more and more with each pass until none of the bright red curls were left atop her head and the large red mass hung only by the back. He covered that area too and then held the ponytail up, completely separated from her head. All that remained were a few ginger wisps, which he quickly cleaned up. Next, he spread hot lather over her scalp. She smiled at the sensation and obediently held still as he ran the blade over the last vestiges of her glorious mane. He leaned her head back to rinse it off and then applied aftershave lotion to give it a nice shine. Turning her chair around so Shannon could see herself, he asked “How does it look?”

Shannon smiled as she rubbed her smooth scalp. “I love it! Thank you so much!” She grabbed her former hair off the cabinet and fished through her purse, handing the barber a $100 bill. “Keep the change.”

On the other side of the wall, Brian had an impressed look on his face. “Two for two, not bad. She really seemed determined.”

“Yes” Matt added “And as I said before, she’s a pharmaceutical sales rep, so appearance is very important to her. Our data shows that Subject #2 has not made any attempt to purchase or even shop for a wig or any kind of head covering.”

One of the other members of the Assystiv team chimed in and held up her phone “She’s not hiding it. Already posted on Instagram!” The image on the screen showed the woman standing outside the shop, posing in front of the antique barber pole and holding her old hair like a trophy.

One of the other engineers informed Matt that subject #3 was ten minutes away and he used that time to give his sales pitch to Brian, explaining the potential customers for the technology, assuaging the venture capitalist’s fears of legal ramifications, and justifying his ask for a valuation of the company at $1.5 billion.

“She’s here!”

A woman in a very businesslike pantsuit entered the barber shop. She had long brunette hair that hung well past her shoulders.

“Subject #3” one of the engineers announced “Katherine C, 37 years old, attorney.”

They turned their attention to the barber shop.

Katherine sat down in one of the barber chairs without a word and gestured for the barber to come over. “What can I do for you today, ma’am”

“Yes, hello, I know this may sound a bit unusual, but I would like a head shave with a straight razor please.”

The barber shot a quick glance at the mirror, then played his part. “Are you sure, miss, you’ve got such gorgeous hair. Maybe you want to just get something less drastic?”

“Sir, I do not appreciate your tone. I know what I want and if you don’t wish to give it to me, I will take my business elsewhere.”

“Ok, as you wish.”

He placed the cape over her shoulders and disinfected the clippers. Just like with the last subject, he placed them in the middle of her scalp without a guard.

“Last chance to back out.”

She looked back at him impatiently. “I told you this is what I wanted.”

And with that, the clippers sprung to life and her highlighted brown hair started falling to the floor. Katherine grinned as she watched more and more of her long locks give way to bare scalp.

The observers behind the glass couldn’t help but notice that Katherine had closed her eyes and bit her lip, and despite having a cape over her shoulders, it was obvious where her hand had gone and what it was doing.

One of the engineers chimed in “Yeah we thought this might happen. She purchased a subscription a few days ago to a fetish website with videos of women getting their heads shaved. Watched every video they have over the course of approximately six hours.”

The barber brushed the last of Katherine’s long hair to the floor. As she had asked for, he then spread shaving foam over the stubble and scraped it away with a straight razor.

“Eyebrows too please.” Katherine asked after the last of the foam had been scraped off her scalp. He buzzed those off with the clippers and then removed the last traces with the straight razor.

“Welp, there you go, anything else I can do for you?” The barber asked, knowing what the response would likely be.

“Yes, actually” she added, smiling. “I saw on your website that you carry a product called EverSmooth.”

The barber did his best acting job to seem hesitant “Yeah, we do, but that’s a permanent hair remover. I’ve only used it on men who are already severely balding and just want to stop having to come here to get their head shaved. I hate the stuff, since it makes me lose customers, but it does what it says it does.”

“Yes, I know” She responded sternly “I’ve done my research and would like to have the EverSmooth system applied to my scalp and eyebrows. Please.”

“Ok, will do.” The barber responded.

He put on latex gloves and opened an unmarked bottle. He spread a thick, bright green goo over Katherine’s scalp and eyebrows.

“This’ll take a few minutes, and it might sting a bit” he warned her. He took a blow dryer and blew hot air onto the viscous green liquid for about five minutes, until it had fully hardened, then peeled it off.

Katherine seemed very pleased with the results. She took a few minutes to admire her new permanently hairless scalp in the mirror, then paid and left the barber a substantial tip.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the mirror, the Assystiv team congratulated each other on a successful test run.

“So, what do you think?” Matt asked Brian “Just imagine the possibilities, the ways we could make the world a better place with this technology.”

“Yeah. I gotta say, I’m impressed, but something is off…” He paused as the smiles disappeared from the faces of the Assystiv team “…A couple years ago, I had all the hair on my back and chest permanently removed. Four tedious, painful rounds of laser hair removal treatment. You’re telling me there is a product you can just rub on and blow dry for five minutes that does the same thing? I don’t buy it!”

“Well… uhh… ” Matt paused as he considered how best to calm Brian down “That’s a great observation and you’re absolutely correct. That was just a thermosetting latex with a green pigment added to it. There is not such thing as EverSmooth. The Grima23 algorithm is so robust that it can convince a user to seek out a product that doesn’t even exist. Subject #3’s hair will grow back as normal. I believe you are correct that the only actual way to permanently remove hair is through laser treatment, but since this is just a demonstration I think it’s for the best that we don’t leave any lasting effects on anyone. She might leave a bad yelp review when it starts to grow back but uhh… this place will be gone in a couple days.” he laughed.

“I see. It’s a major red flag to me that you would use smoke and mirrors like that. I don’t think we will be moving forward with this investment.”

“Sir… Mr. Sengir” Matt stammered “I didn’t mean to mislead you. It’s just that the point we were trying to demonstrate was that our technology could be used to influence people to make a life-altering change like that in a very short amount of time. Whether or not Subject #3’s hair grows back is immaterial to the fact that in just two weeks, she was influenced to willingly and enthusiastically ask to be made permanently bald.”

“I understand that.” Brian responded condescendingly “But I don’t think you understand. Every day, we have to look out for con artists, people peddling a product that doesn’t work and never will. Nobody wants to be the guy who lost his clients’ money on the next Theranos. In fact, I’ve had this same technology pitched to me before, and it was a fraud. If you cut corners in one place, how am I to know you didn’t cut corners in more places?”

“Sir, I assure you, this was very real. We can show you the users phone data, showing that none of them have contacted any member of our staff, we can show you their financial data which will prove that they did not receive any money from us. We can show a complete history of every piece of synthetic content they consumed which led them to make this decision. Anything you need us to do to assume you that our technology works.”

“Can you make your test subjects actually go and get their hair permanently removed. You know, with lasers?”

“Uhh… yeah, I don’t see any reason why she couldn’t be influenced to do that, I mean, the technology already made her opt for permanent treatment once. When she sees that it didn’t take… I mean yeah, it would definitely be doable to have the algorithm guide her towards actual permanent hair removal.”

“Okay.” Brian responded. “I think if you can demonstrate that, I will be fully on board with your technology.”

“Great, we’ll adjust some of the parameters and steer her in that direction and we should have her in a laser hair removal studio in a couple weeks. I apologize for the confusion, and I assure you, we have no intention to deceive you or anyone. The technology really works, and moving forward, any demonstrations will be 100% real.” Matt smiled, relieved.

“I believe you. I do. And that’s why I’m willing to offer you funding at a $2.5 billion valuation, a bil more than you asked for, which I’ll sign once each of your test subjects has started to undergo laser hair removal on their scalps.”

“Wait, did you say each? Like all three of them?” Matt asked.

“Yes, that is what I said, do I need to speak slower?” Brian berated Matt “Is that a problem?”

“Uhh… no, we could proba… I mean, we could make that happen.”

“Good. One data point isn’t enough to prove this isn’t a fluke so lets just go ahead and do all three. Might as well. We’ll have the contracts drawn up and ready to sign once all three of your guinea pigs have started laser hair removal treatment on their heads, and the second round of funding will be contingent on each of them seeing it through to completion. There better not be any more funny business.”

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