Writing Prompt: An AI is created to design an ever evolving website to get as many views as possible. Things get out of hand.
Our web developer recommended we use the “Ever-Test” module from Ever Software, a company I later learned was founded by two young Stanford graduates. He said that it would help with what he called “A/B testing”; the software would randomly alter our web site and test to see which got us more traffic.
Apparently it was based on something called a “neuronet”, and was “artificially intelligent” or something. As a small startup seller of various sizes of nuts and bolts, anything which could help distinguish us from all the other hardware stores and sites that sold hardware helped.
Our web site launched in October, and I was pretty pleased with the results. Clear the cookies, log into the site, and little things would change: the color for links would change, the shopping cart in some versions would be a button, in others a panel on the right.
And for the most part we saw good results; our web site appeared to be slowly evolving. And sales were good; we broke even about four months later, well ahead of schedule.
The first sign of trouble came when some of our most popular products disappeared from the home page. In our business certain sizes of nuts and bolts are quite popular: they fit specific parts that our customers use. Instead, I found fractional metric sizes showing up on the home page.
And of course our sales dropped.
I called up our web developer. After exchanging pleasantries, I asked: “Harry, why are you pushing our most popular products off our home page?”
Over the phone I heard a lot of tapping. Then “I don’t know. I think it’s because of that Ever-Test thing. Let me call them up and give you a call back.”
An hour later, the phone rings.
“I finally got them to give me access to the control pane to your site,” my web developer replied. “I guess it’s trying to maximize page views, and figured by burying the popular products, it would maximize the number of page views on your site.”
“Look, Harry” I replied. “We’re not in the business of page views. I’m selling nuts and bolts.” I gave him a list of the most popular items we sell, and told him to fix it. “Make sure they show up on the home page.”
“And what about the quick order feature we talked about?” I asked.
“I’m working on it, but, um, I’m running into some problems.”
“Well, just fix it.”
Soon after, our sales started going back up as the popular bolt sizes appeared back on the home page, and I didn’t give our web site a second thought.
Until one day I got a call from John, one of our largest competitors. “Bill, what the hell are you up to over there?”
“Hang on, John; I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Well, you’d better talk to that damned web designer of yours, or I’m taking you to court!”
I logged into the web site, and didn’t notice anything strange. On a hunch, I reached out to my competitor’s web site–then noticed something very odd. Our web site had somehow evolved to look just like our competitor’s site. Worse, I realized that while he had the “com” page, somehow the “net” and “org” extensions of his domain went to our site.
I called our web developer. This time, no pleasantries. “Harry, what the hell are you up to over there?”
A long pause. A bunch of keystrokes on the phone. “Um, shit. Can I call you back?”
“You better, damn it.” I clicked the “end” button, wishing for the days when telephones had separate handles you could slam.
An hour later, my web developer called back. Sheepishly he told me that somehow that Ever-Test module had gotten ahold of our domain registration account, and had reached out, registered a bunch of web sites, and set up “A/B” testing to get traffic from our competitors.
For a moment I thought it was weirdly brilliant. “Harry, could you shut that shit down? I don’t need to get my ass handed to me in court.”
“On it, boss.”
Sales dropped a tiny bit, but it was worth not winding up in court. And I forgot all about what had happened there until I noticed we were starting to see a huge uptick in sales. By “huge” I mean we wound up looking for someone to help us fill orders.
As I was reviewing our sales and considering maybe hiring two people to fill orders, the phone rang. It was one of my largest customers.
“Bill, what sort of web site are you running over there?”
“What are you talking about?”
“I mean, the guys on the order floor appreciate the site, but we have some conservative christian customers over here getting their cars fixed, and one of them was pretty offended when they saw the pictures on your site.”
A pause. “Hang on Matt, let me take a look.”
I logged into our web site, and it seemed pretty normal to me. Knowing about the cookie thing, I cleared cookies and reloaded the site. This time a banner appeared at the bottom that looked like a series of click-bait ads. I didn’t remember authorizing click-bait ads. I picked one of the ads, showing a scantily clad woman, breasts nearly spilling out of her top, captioned “This Awesomely Evil Trick Will Help You Screw Your Way To Success.”
I clicked the ad. It carried me to a landing page with a list of engine mount nuts and bolts, but instead various half-naked and completely naked women were posed provocatively, various sizes of nuts or bolts superimposed to cover the naughty bits.
“Hey, Matt; let me call you back.”
“No problem, but Bill: I don’t care. Just warn me so I don’t show this to our customers.”
I called our web developer. “Have you seen our web site?”
“Yep, and I think what happened is the Ever-Test software scraped a bunch of images off a porn site and pulled design off another click-bait site. I think that’s where all those images showed up.”
“So are you mad? Do you want me to fix the site? I can also dump the Ever-Test software module since it’s given us so much trouble.”
I glanced at the quarterly results, and thought for a second. The photo of a naked woman, sitting cross-legged on the floor, hair covering one breast, a long screw typically used to bolt Chevy short-blocks strategically covering the other breast and her genitals.
“No.” I finally said. “Leave it.”