Robin de Voh
there's never enough stories

Nanoprep 2021 Day 9: The Lyfecycle Algorithm

By Robin de Voh on 2021-10-14

Lyfecycle was the new, happening kid on the block of social media sites. People were sick of facebook, and though instagram was still going strong, their main product was just dying off. Ex-facebook employees had abandoned ship and started Lyfecycle to directly compete with their old employer and every other social media site at the same time. It was time for something new.

Lyfecycle promised better privacy control, better content selection, and just generally a more positive and fair representation of what was actually going on. This had been enough to pull a lot of people in, and independent audits of the code base and the outcomes had shown that Lyfecycle indeed was showing more relevant, balanced content.

In the media, it was said the Lyfecycle had the best algorithm of all the social media sites, and it took away the risk of being stuck in your bubble, being lied to, and generally just fomenting less hatred and distrust than facebook and other social media did.

Jeremy was interviewing at Lyfecycle, because he'd been using it since it launched and loved the product. He'd always wanted to work on a social media site, but something about the way they ran their business just got to him, and it had stopped him from ever trying. He wasn't okay with what facebook, twitter, instagram, all of them, did to the mental health of their users. On purpose, often.

But this one, he trusted more. At least up to this point, and enough to interview there. He knew he had the skills for it, he just needed to land it.

The first part of the interview went well -- it was mostly to gauge his way of working, way of thinking, and whether he'd be a good fit in what already was a rather diverse team. The second part would be after a short tour of the office with an HR partner, Suzy.

"So this is where engineering sits," Suzy said. "It used to be an open office, but we put up some nice walls and plants and stuff because they preferred it to be broken up a bit more."
"Yeah, this is nice," Jeremy said, meaning it.
"And this is the VP of engineering, Brinda, so if you've got any quick questions from an engineering perspective, feel free to ask her."

Brinda stood up and shook his hand with a smile. She then asked him if the interview process was treating him well.

"As well as interviews can, I feel," Jeremy said with a smile.
"Yeah, I get you. So, do you have anything you'd like to know while you're here?"
"Actually, obviously Lyfecycle is known for its algorithm. Is there anything you can tell me about why it's so good?"

Brinda laughed.

"Ah, for that you'll have to wait until you're actually hired. Heavy NDA, can't mention any details about it. All I can say is that the way in which we select the content for our users to read -- outside of their regular timeline, of course -- is much more modern than most would expect. It's exciting technology, that I can already tell you."

Both Suzy and Brinda smiled, and then Suzy motioned for them to continue. Jeremy said bye to Brinda, and Brinda nodded and sat back down at her desk again.

The second part of the interview was more of a technical one, where he had to detail how he'd build a system that could handle millions of users. There were no wrong answers, he was told, since mostly they wanted to know if he understood what that scale would do to a design, and what kind of solutions he'd come up with. Then there were a few technical puzzles he had to solve, which he easily did.

The contract was in his email an hour after he'd left. Next week was going to be his first day, and it would start with a full week of onboarding -- just talking to people, getting to know the culture, the departments, the core values of the company -- and only after that would he start actually building anything.

He was excited, and for the remainder of the week until then, he would remember every so often that he would be a Lyfecyclyst soon. He told everyone in his life how excited he was, and most were at least equally excited for him.

When the Monday of his first week came, he was at the office a little earlier than he was supposed to. He was getting a coffee at the coffee bar they had at the entrance, and sat down in the little reception area. He could hear some of the employees playing ping pong down the hall. He checked what his first meeting was going to be, and it would be mostly HR. But later in the day, the session he was truly interested in: "Introduction to Lyfecycle's Engineering". That was the one that made him get giddy.

It was after lunch, and he'd gotten to know some of his fellow new engineers, and they were starting to get along. They were all looking forward to the engineering session.

When the engineering session started, led by Brinda, they all had to sign an additional NDA. The regular one from the morning was about the basic stuff -- don't talk about company secrets to anyone outside of the company. Made sense to him, and very similar to what he'd signed for most of his jobs.

This extra NDA, however, was more restrictive. It stated clearly that engineering details were not to be shared with anyone outside of the engineering department. They all signed it, of course, because fine, whatever. If Lyfecycle wants to keep its engineering secrets even from their own support, sales and other departments, that wasn't his call to make. He wanted the job, and he especially wanted to know what made their algorithm so good.

Once they'd all signed their NDAs and they were handed in, they were led through a door that was marked only as 'Authorized Engineers Only' and was otherwise aggressively nondescript. It led to a staircase that went down, but then only seemed to lead to an elevator. Brinda called the elevator and when it arrived, they all got in. It was a large enough elevator that the 6 of them didn't feel like they were in a crowded place.

"As you know," Brinda suddenly spoke as the elevator started going down, "social media networks generally have what is usually referred to as an algorithm. Machine learning, clever tricks, neural networks, all that stuff. All in a bid to have something that can predict reliably what you, the user, would like to see next."

She looked around, but everybody, including Jeremy, were just listening intently.

"The purpose of which is obviously to elicit engagement, to keep people on the platform. We try to be better to our users than other social media sites, sure, but we still need to keep our users caring. If they like what they see, they'll rave about us to others, and Lyfecycle grows as a result."

Jeremy suddenly noticed that by now, the elevator was still going, and it seemed they were going rather deep.

"Now, question for the new kids, what's better than a neural network? Machine learning? What would do a better job of choosing for you what you'd next like to see?"
"Uhm, I don't think there's a better option than those," one new engineer immediately said.
"That's what they all said, but I can guarantee you we've got something better. Anyone else want to wager a guess?"

Jeremy thought for a second, as everyone else was quiet, and then decided to just go for it.

"I'm not entirely sure how it would be done, but the best way to get me the content I want is to let me choose it, I guess."

The elevator dinged suddenly, and shuddered to a halt.

"I present to you what Lyfecycle has built to do what algorithms try to do, the next step, the holy grail of content matching," Brinda said as the doors opened. They walked out onto a walkway with a railing, beyond which was a dropped floor.

Jeremy wasn't sure how to mentally parse what he was seeing. A giant open space, bluish-white light everywhere, and people. Lots of people. Dressed in what seemed like thin white gowns, all bald, sitting in rows upon rows as deep as his eyes could see.

"This is just the first of many such levels, but this is the secret of Lyfecycle. We don't let an algorithm choose what you'd like to see next..."

She paused for effect as all of the new visitors were slowly trying to understand what they were seeing.

"We let you choose."

Jeremy wasn't sure if he'd heard it right.

"I'm sorry, Brinda, but what does that mean? Who are these people?"
"Remember what you said? That you'd be the best way to pick your next content?"
"Yes, but..."

He looked around again, and noticed that the bald people in this room didn't seem to be too active. They had a screen in front of them, which was scrolling through things at a pretty fast pace, and every so often they'd smack the screen. They were sitting on small plastic stools, and now that he paid a bit of attention he thought he could smell something off. A combination of body fluids, vague but noticeable.

"What the hell is this," he said. "Who are these people?"

He looked at his fellow engineers, but they remained quiet. Like their minds were too preoccupied by it all.

Brinda looked at Jeremy with a stern look.

"Keep it calm," she said, looking at her list of names for a split second, "Jeremy. These people aren't people. They're clones. Simple clones. Not genetic clones, but neural clones. We made sure they're just about intelligent enough to fulfill their tasks and nothing more."
"What?!" he said loudly.
"Before I continue, I'll remind you that you signed an NDA specific to this, because for some reason I feel like for you, it's necessary to say that again. But it's simple."

Brinda walked forwards, down the stairs that connected the walkway to the floor full of what evidently were clones. The rest followed, including Jeremy, though he did so hesitantly.

"Simply put, using family trees, those heritage sites where you can get your DNA tested, we're generally able to figure out most of what genetic make-up someone consists of. With most of that in place, we can simply imprint the clones we make based on that with a neural imprint based on what... Well, they won't like it but it is what it is, it's based on what our competitors have stored about everyone over the past few decades. And then from that point they start learning from your activities on Lyfecycle instead."
"Wait, so for every Lyfecycle user there's a clone here?" Jeremy said.
"Basically. You'll have a clone in here somewhere, and he's the one who's been making your Lyfecycle experience so -- let's call it relevant. He knows what you like, after all. And I do mean that 'you' as plural."

Jeremy nearly retched. The smell was worse down here, but that wasn't why. The idea that not only were they using human clones, barely lucid, to perform an algorithm's job, but they actually based it on all of the bullshit data he was so against.

Nothing here was okay. This wasn't okay. This was against nature.

"I... I think I should go," Jeremy said.

Brinda smiled an emotionless smile.

"You're free to leave. But check the wording of your NDA before you go. It's a perpetual NDA, and you did sign it. And if you look under the section that handles damages upon breach of the NDA, you'll find that perhaps you might not be willing to open up to anyone about this. We'll make sure of it."

Jeremy stuck his hand in his pocket and hit a few buttons on his phone. He hoped he had hit the right ones.

She looked around to the other engineers.

"Anyone else feel squeamish?" she asked.

They all shook their heads. They were either too scared or actually fine with it. But Jeremy couldn't do this.

"I'll check the NDA. But I'm going now. This is wrong. This is fucked up."
"This is the future, my naive summer child, and you're unwilling to accept this is where it would always have led. Machine learning will never approach the human mind. The only way to beat our competitors' algorithms is to simply use human clones to jump over that gap and not just approach human intelligence -- really have and leverage it. And if it helps, they can't even feel anything, or think for themselves, we bred that out of them."
"Because you can doesn't mea--" Jeremy started.
Brinda scoffed, "Just don't. Go. Leave. Don't throw your cliches at me. Next you'll throw Spiderman's 'with great power' bullshit at me. You don't like the deal, walk away. And I strongly suggest you keep silent."

Jeremy got angry but decided there was nothing to win here at this point.

He nodded to Brinda, and turned around to get on the elevator, which dutifully returned him to the floor they'd left from. Before getting to the staircase up, he felt sick to his stomach and had to vomit. After he'd wiped his mouth and smeared some of it on the wall in an act of defiance, he went up the staircase and out of the building.

Then he checked his phone. The audio recording had worked. He hit the right buttons.

He knew what the NDA said. And it didn't matter to him. He'd just be a whistleblower.

What had just been imprinted on his retinas, his brain, was enough to break something in him. He was willing to let his own life go to hell to put a stop to this.

He was too angry. He couldn't sit on this.

This was taking it way too far.