My Facebook and Instagram accounts got hacked the other week. It was my fault, I wasn’t paying attention. Someone I knew sent me a text asking me to vote for them in a talent contest. It wasn’t him, his account had been taken over by someone else. I should have known better: the contest was in Dubai, and it seemed full of Bollywood types, but I was hungover, and at a birthday lunch, and I clicked on the link and then immediately said to myself “what am I doing?” and stopped. It was too late. Nothing much happened in the next day or two, but on the Monday the fun started.
My opinions go before me. When my hackers used my account to promote Bitcoin – sending a story that I had made US$ 20,000 – my friends immediately alerted me, as they knew I would never advertise the fact that I had just made money, and of course I would never invest in let alone promote Bitcoin. Getting back Facebook was not a big problem, but Instagram is harder, and I have still to gain control of my old account. Initially my hackers – based in Nigeria – tried to contact me, by text and phone, I guess so I would pay up to get my old account back, but I studiously ignored them. I don’t deal with blackmailers, let them do their worst. In any case, I took the position that they were welcome to it, much good it would do them. And I had learned a lesson. There is no fool like an old fool.
One way of retrieving my Instagram account was by using facial recognition. I would take a selfie, and they would compare it with photos on my account. But I had no selfies on my Instagram posts – an unusual position of modesty for me – so that was unsuccessful. Every once in a while I try other ways, but I get bored, and in any case this led me to reconsider – once again – my social media policy. I have set up a new account, but I am not being as proactive or as frequent a poster as I was. The lesson I learned – once again – was that life needs to be lived, not posted, or texted. And, if I am honest, I felt a little liberated by my forced separation from Meta, at least for a while. But if I am also honest, there will always be a part of me that wants to show off and, well, tell my story of how I perceive myself and what I think to a world that reacts, sometimes. It’s part of being human I guess, the need to connect and engage, or at the very least observe, but on our terms.
But the landscape is changing. Filters and photo editing have always been a part of the game, and landscapes, views, and people can be altered and manipulated to show we are better looking, cooler, and in the most amazing places than we actually are. Towards the end of my last Instagram tenure, I started putting words to the pictures – making sure that I didn’t manipulate the pictures too much – the idea being that the place or the situation stimulated a thought, or a memory, or a feeling expressed in words, my own or others. Pretentious maybe, but also a little less vacuous.
But with Artificial Intelligence – or whatever it is – I have been seeing pictures that are not only manipulated or doctored but completely made up. The most impressive – from a technical point of view – was the widely circulated pictures (I can’t call them photos) of Trump and Biden as a sweet gay couple preparing for a camp Christmas. There are others I guess, but I haven’t seen them, or perhaps I just haven’t noticed that they are fakes.
I don’t really pay much attention to Artificial Intelligence if I am honest. There is no real place for it in shipbroking, at least the deal making part of it, because the terms of a contract need to be scrutinised and agreed in detail, and surely no-one would be stupid enough to rely on AI to draft an offer, let alone use it to negotiate when there is so much at stake. It is rife in education I know, or at least its use to write essays and coursework and so on. But at the Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers we insist on old-fashioned handwritten exams, invigilated by human beings so even if a student has used AI in their studies, they may find it of little use when it comes to writing down what they know under examination conditions. I am also told that there is anti-Chatbot software that can tell when it has been used.
So all is safe in my world? Well maybe not, as I realised when suddenly stopped short in the middle of a lesson on Friday night. I was teaching one of my favourite lessons, going through the clauses NSF 2012, the standard contract form used in most secondhand ship sales. I was explaining that the vessel should be delivered in the same condition on delivery as it was during inspection (fair wear and tear excepted of course) but the burden of proof was on the buyers, i.e. that the buyers had to prove that the vessel’s condition had deteriorated beyond what could be seen as reasonable. And how do they prove that? By photos.
Which got me thinking. Not that buyers wouldn’t attempt to fake photographs – I have known that to happen way before even I first started using Facebook – but that in the case of a dispute the arbitrators would have to decide, through the use of expert witnesses no doubt, whether the condition of the vessel had visibly and fundamentally changed from inspection until delivery. How would they decide if it was unclear whether photographic evidence was fake or manipulated?
This is not just a matter of a few thousand dollars off to make the problem go away. These disputes get serious and legal when the market has altered drastically, and either one or the other of the party wants to walk away from the contract – the price – that they previously agreed to. The courts can only decide on legal points, so it is up to the arbitrators to decide on the evidence. How can they decide if they are unsure of the evidence before their own eyes? And if this could happen, how can the parties avoid the possibility of such a dispute in the first place?
So, despite my own scepticism about independent inspection reports being commissioned by the sellers but used (and paid for) by the buyers, in such a case it would be very difficult for the sellers to question the evidence when they themselves had appointed the surveyors. Another solution could be for inspection reports (and the photos) to be signed off by the representatives of both the sellers and buyers, although this goes against current sale and purchase practice, where the buyers accept the vessel, whether or not they have inspected it. I suppose that there must be some software somewhere that can analyse and decide whether a photo is artificially generated or altered, but it would still leave in doubt what the original photo showed, especially if it no longer existed.
I am currently in the UK spending some time with my family, and in particular with my two nieces. They navigate a world of real and artificial images, and some of the animations they watch on TV or computers are increasingly life-like. The younger one in particular (she’s eight years old), seemed to know immediately what was real and what wasn’t when I asked her. But this should be no surprise: as a species we have been making pictures to record the world around us as soon as we could pick up a burnt stick or stone, to mark the walls of the caves we dwelt in. We like pictures. Photographs are just another tool available to us to make them. Films regularly use CGI a a matter of course. But beyond the world of stories and the wilful suspension of disbelief, there should be a point when seeing is believing.
The acceptance of a vessel is an important step in the purchase of a vessel because it is then that the buyers decide that their due diligence is done, and they are then ready to buy the ship at a price and on terms that they eventually agree with the sellers. This due diligence is based on evidence, including photos, whether from the sellers, the buyers or a third party. And even if the buyer themselves personally went to see the ship in person, would they be necessarily the appropriate person to spot the potential problems that exist?
This goes back to old-fashioned ideas of trust, integrity, truth and honesty – who do we trust to tell us what we need to know, even when we don’t want to know it? – but it also means that we have to be ever more vigilant, if not outright cynical about people’s intentions and motives. I find truth easier to live in – whatever the consequences – than cynicism. But there’s no fool like an old fool. As I get older, whilst sometimes my innocence – or naivety – can sometimes gets me into trouble, when I do meet people that I can trust, that I value, I want to engage with them and keep them in my life. It is true of my business life too. I may be wrong in the short run, and lose out, in life and in business. But artificial intelligence will always be just that, artificial, and real intelligence, however flawed and misguided the decisions it arrives at will nonetheless remain real. In the long run the truth is always the better option, but of course – as Keynes said – in the long run we are all dead anyway. I just find it better, in the meantime, to live within an uncertain reality than within a fake fantasy. And actually, by the way, it also happens to be more fun.