The 10 Year Challenge: Innocuous Fun or AI Conspiracy?

It isn’t hard to see the immediate appeal of the 10 Year Challenge that Facebook has propagated in the past few weeks. To sit, scrolling through reams of your friends and family, appreciating their transition over the previous decade to now is certainly enthralling.

Perhaps they’ve blossomed, an ugly duckling of the Myspace age turned effervescent Instagrammer. Or, maybe you’ve delighted in observing the unmistakable decline of your once good looking classmates. Skin where there once was hair, hair where there once was skin, and all manner of cellulite and liver spots creeping into the periphery of your once elegant and decadent acquaintances.

But is there something worrisome hidden underneath all this poking and prodding of the past?

The 10 Year Challenge Innocuous Fun or AI Conspiracy

Giving Away Data For More Than Just Fun

Anthropologically the 10 Year Challenge is, of course, a wonderful excuse to unearth just how much damage a decade can do to a poor soul’s features. Despite the personal interest to gawk at our own reflections, the vivisection of people’s bodies in their battle against time isn’t necessarily the most positive way for us to reflect on each other.

However, body-shaming isn’t the worry that tech writer Kate O’Neill pointed out upon further consideration of the trend. What if the meme had been purposely circulated in an attempt at compiling data for facial recognition software?

In her article, O’Neill explained that although the vast majority of the photos used had already been uploaded onto Facebook, it would surely be quite convenient for an AI program to have such clear data sets. Facebook would have a reliable entry on each of its users faces at exactly a decade apart.

Past Examples of Crowdsourcing For AI

The challenge has gone by a few names, first being known as the #HowHardDidAgingHitYou challenge, then #2009vs2019, before it finally settled upon the moniker of the 10 Year Challenge. Whether it was initially started by one of the boffins at Facebook’s headquarters is unknown.

Although Facebook has declined to take ownership, the tactic wouldn’t be without precedent. Microsoft already made an attempt at sweeping the masses for data on their physical appearance and age. Their version was the thinly veiled cash in on users narcissism: Launched in 2015, Microsoft has been transparent about the program’s intention to collect data for facial recognition AI programs on data sets such as age and gender.

Before Microsoft, another AI data compiler you may have come across in your daily surfing exploits will likely have been CAPTCHA. The acronym meaning “completely automated public turing test to tell computers and humans apart” has most likely shown up barring your entry to all manner of online content, swiftly demanding you verify your human qualities through the banal task of copying out some rather obfuscated text.

Using CAPTCHA like systems, computer scientist Luis von Ahn among others developed reCAPTCHA. And while reCAPTCHA’s ostensible use of verification was and is useful, its true purpose is to aid AI programs to read pdf prints of written materials. Through the huge data set that reCAPTCHA compiled, millions of books were seamlessly digitized with a morsel of the man-hours such a task would usually require.

In 2009 reCAPTCHA was bought by Google for an undisclosed sum. Following its success, Luis von Ahn went on to create Duolingo, a free in-browser app teaching people languages through fun challenges. Duolingo was based on a similar principle, except this time the AI was crowdsourcing to translate texts across languages.

Although Duolingo’s business model is no longer based on crowdsourcing, von Ahn’s initiative to give free educational content to the public in exchange for either digitizing printed works or translating them seems like a morally good move.

The Truth Behind The 10 Year Challenge

If the 10 Year Challenge is a marketing ploy by Facebook, and that’s a big capital I ‘if’, then why do they refuse to own up to it? Microsoft was clear about their intentions. von Ahm was transparent from day one about reCAPTCHA and Duolingo. But, in keeping with the pernicious public profile that Zuckerberg’s billion dollar company has established over the past year, Facebook has chosen to claim ignorance.

After a 2018 littered with a litany of litigation, you’d think Zuckerberg would want to dispel further counts of his company spying on and farming data from its users. Of course, maybe the challenge really is just a user created meme. If that is the case though, what a wasted opportunity on the part of Facebook’s programmers.

And if you’ve avoided participating in the meme because you worried about your privacy and protecting your data, that was probably a smart move. Keep in mind though that your information is still at risk if you’re sending it through the open internet.