Last Friday, I overslept, ran to class late, and as per usual, had to compensate with caffeine.
As I hastily flipped through my textbook, trying to catch up with my professor before it was too late, I elbowed my coffee and tipped it so perfectly that it spilled all over my white shirt.
It's only the first month of school, so I'm still missing a few things here and there - stain remover being one of them. I didn't tell anyone about my predicament, nor did I touch my phone until I got back to my dorm. All I did was throw on a hoodie and shamefully scavenge my roommates' drawers for some sort of remover. After surrendering to the mediocre combination of hand soap and cold water, I sat on my bed and began to scroll through Instagram.
What did I see? An ad for stain remover.
This freakish occurrence was not unique to last Friday, nor was it unique to me. I have heard countless stories from people who feel like artificial intelligence (AI) is eavesdropping on their conversations or straight up reading their mind.
In fact, the New York Times tells of a time that Target figured out a girl was pregnant before her parents did - that is, until they received coupons for maternity wear in the mail.
At first, I hypothesized that our phones must be listening to us. It only makes sense.
But then my phone started reading my mind, watching me go through my day-to-day life as if it could understand the intention behind every movement I made. Except, it doesn't do either.
During a congressional hearing, Mark Zuckerberg claimed that there is no such "wiretapping" and that our devices do not observe us in any way when they are not in use.
However, AI has become so advanced that it puts wiretapping to shame. Complex algorithms gather information from any and every button we click on our devices in order to collate the ads most relevant to us.
When it comes to mind reading, no, AI can't read our minds (yet).
This being said, there may be an explanation for how my phone knew I needed stain remover right after my accident: it didn't.
I simply noticed that advertisement because my mind had already been alerted to the item. This is called the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, which essentially is when something we recently learned of, paid close attention to, or experienced, starts popping up everywhere when, in fact, it was there the whole time - we just didn't realize it before.
It's probably safe to say that my phone was not in fact watching me when I spilled my coffee, or that our conversations are not being spied on by the FBI. It comes down to a riveting synthesis of technology and psychology.
Those ads for stain remover were probably there the day before I spilled my coffee too. I just didn't pay attention to them until, well, I needed stain remover.