# The algorithms.

I am not a mathematician. Not even close. My son is a bit of a wiz when it comes to math but not the kind of math you do in your head. His particular mathematical gift only works when he sees the equations. Still, I’d take that. Calculators give me fits. So the idea that I might decipher or write a functioning algorithm (the kind a computer could use) is tantamount to me turning water into wine.

Algorithms are all the buzz these days because they are the functioning math behind artificial intelligence (AI). How is this? I will turn to Merriam-Webster online.

“: a procedure for solving a mathematical problem (as of finding the greatest common divisor) in a finite number of steps that frequently involves repetition of an operation; broadly: a step-by-step procedure for solving a problem or accomplishing some end especially by a computer a search algorithm.”

I’ll throw away the first part of that definition because I don’t understand it. The second part is more my speed: a step-by-step procedure for solving a problem. I get that. As a designer, I do that all the time. Visiting the HowStuffWorks website is even better for explaining the purpose of algorithms. Essentially, it is a way for a computer to do something. Of course, there are, as in most problems, more than one way to get from point A to point B, so computer programmers choose the best algorithm for the task.

What does an algorithm look like? Think of a flow chart or a decision tree. When you turn that into code (the language of computers) then it might look like the image below.

You may already know all this, but I didn’t. Not really. I use the term algorithm all the time to describe the technology and process behind AI, but it always helps me to break these ideas down to their parts.

With all that out of the way, this week on the Futurism.com website, there was an article that discussed Ray Kurzweil’s theory that our brains contain a master algorithm inside our neocortex. It is that algorithm that enables us to handle pattern recognition and all the vastly complex nuance that our brains process every day. Referencing Kurzweil, Futurism stated that,

“… the brain’s neocortex — that part of the brain that’s responsible for intelligent behavior — consists of roughly 300 million modules that recognize patterns. These modules are self-organized into hierarchies that turn simple patterns into complex concepts. Despite neuroscience advancing by leaps and bounds over the years, we still haven’t quite figured out how the neocortex works.”

But, according to Kurzweil, “these multiple modules ‘all have the same algorithm,’”

Presumably, when we figure that out, we will be able to create an AI that thinks like a human, or better than a human. Hold that thought.

On another part of the web was a story from FastCoDesign that asked the question, “What’s The Next Great Art Movement? Ask This Neural Network.” FastCo interviewed Ahmed Elgammal a researcher at Rutgers University who it is getting AI (using algorithms) to create masterpieces after studying all the major art movements through history and how they evolve. His objective is to have the AI come up with the next major art movement. The art is, well, not good art. How do I know? I create art, I’ve studied art, and I’ve even sold art, so I know more about art than I do, say math. The art that Elgammal’s AI generates is intriguing, but it lacks that certain something that tells you it’s art. I think it might be a human thing. It is still something you can recognize.

So if you are still holding on to that earlier thought about algorithms and how we are working to perfect them, we could make the leap that a better functioning AI might fool us at some point and we wouldn’t be able to tell human art from the AI variety. There are a lot of people working on these types of things, and there are billions of dollars going toward the research.

Now I’m going to ask a stupid question. Why do we need an AI to tell us what the next movement in art is or should be? Are humans defective in this area? Couldn’t we just wait and see or are we just too impatient? Perhaps we have grown tired of creating art. If you know, please share.

Not to take anything away from Ray Kurzweil, but I guess I could ask the same question of AI. I assume that we could use AI that is so far above our thinking that it can help us solve problems better than we could on our own. But, if that AI is thinking so far beyond us, I’m not sure whether it would help us create better solutions or whether we would simply abdicate thinking to the AI. There’s a real danger of that you know. Maybe thinking is overrated.

The question keeps coming up. Do we make things to help us flourish or do we make things because we can?

Ray Kurzweil: There’s a Blueprint for the Master Algorithm in Our Brains

# Are you listening to the Internet of Things? Someone is.

As usual, it is a toss up for what I should write about this week. Is it, WIRED’s article on the artificial womb, FastCo’s article on design thinking, the design fiction world of the movie The Circle, or WIRED’s warning about apps using your phone’s microphone to listen for ultrasonic marketing ‘beacons’ that you can’t hear? Tough call, but I decided on a different WIRED post that talked about the vision of Zuckerberg’s future at F8. Actually, the F8 future is a bit like The Circle anyway so I might be killing two birds with one stone.

At first, I thought the article titled, “Look to Zuck’s F8, Not Trump’s 100 Days, to See the Shape of the Future,” would be just another Trump bashing opportunity, (which I sometimes think WIRED prefers more than writing about tech) but not so. It was about tech, mostly.

The article, written by Zachary Karabell starts out with this quote,

“While the fate of the Trump administration certainly matters, it may shape the world much less decisively in the long-term than the tectonic changes rapidly altering the digital landscape.”

I believe this statement is dead-on, but I would include the entire “technological” landscape. The stage is becoming increasingly “set,” as the article continues,

“At the end of March, both the Senate and the House voted to roll back broadband privacy regulations that had been passed by the Federal Communications Commission in 2016. Those would have required internet service providers to seek customers’ explicit permission before selling or sharing their browsing history.”

Combine that with,

“Facebook[s] vision of 24/7 augmented reality with sensors, camera, and chips embedded in clothing, everyday objects, and eventually the human body…”

and the looming possibility of ending net neutrality, we could be setting ourselves up for the real Circle future.

“A world where data and experiences are concentrated in a handful of companies with what will soon be trillion dollar capitalizations risks being one where freedom gives way to control.”

To add kindling to this thicket, there is the Quantified Self movement (QS). According to their website,

“Our mission is to support new discoveries about ourselves and our communities that are grounded in accurate observation and enlivened by a spirit of friendship.”

Huh? Ok. But they want to do this using “self-tracking tools.” This means sensors. They could be in wearables or implantables or ingestibles. Essentially, they track you. Presumably, this is all so that we become more self-aware, and more knowledgeable about our selves and our behaviors. Health, wellness, anxiety, depression, concentration; the list goes on. Like many emerging movements that are linked to technologies, we open the door through health care or longevity, because it is an easy argument that being healty or fit is better than sick and out of shape. But that is all too simple. QS says that that we gain “self knowledge through numbers,” and in the digital age that means data. In a climate that is increasingly less regulatory about what data can be shared and with whom, this could be the beginings of the perfect storm.

As usual, I hope I’m wrong.

# Of autonomous machines.

Last week we talked about how converging technologies can sometimes yield unpredictable results. One of the most influential players in the development of new technology is DARPA and the defense industry. There is a lot of technological convergence going on in the world of defense. Let’s combine robotics, artificial intelligence, machine learning, bio-engineering, ubiquitous surveillance, social media, and predictive algorithms for starters. All of these technologies are advancing at an exponential pace. It’s difficult to take a snapshot of any one of them at a moment in time and predict where they might be tomorrow. When you start blending them the possibilities become downright chaotic. With each step, it is prudent to ask if there is any meaningful review. What are the ramifications for error as well as success? What are the possibilities for misuse? Who is minding the store? We can hope that there are answers to these questions that go beyond platitudes like, “Don’t stand in the way of progress.”, “Time is of the essence.”, or “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

I bring this up after having seen some unclassified documents on Human Systems, and Autonomous Defense Systems (AKA autonomous weapons). (See a previous blog on this topic.) Links to these documents came from a crowd-funded “investigative journalist” Nafeez Ahmed, publishing on a website called INSURGE intelligence.

One of the documents entitled Human Systems Roadmap is a slide presentation given to the National Defense Industry Association (NDIA) conference last year. The list of agencies involved in that conference and the rest of the documents cited reads like an alphabet soup of military and defense organizations which most of us have never heard of. There are multiple components to the pitch, but one that stands out is “Autonomous Weapons Systems that can take action when needed.” Autonomous weapons are those that are capable of making the kill decision without human intervention. There is also, apparently some focused inquiry into “Social Network Research on New Threats… Text Analytics for Context and Event Prediction…” and “full spectrum social media analysis.” We could get all up in arms about this last feature, but recent incidents in places such as, Benghazi, Egypt, and Turkey had a social networking component that enabled extreme behavior to be quickly mobilized. In most cases, the result was a tragic loss of life. In addition to sharing photos of puppies, social media, it seems, is also good at organizing lynch mobs. We shouldn’t be surprised that governments would want to know how to predict such events in advance. The bigger question is how we should intercede and whether that decision should be made by a human being or a machine.

There are lots of other aspects and lots more documents cited in Ahmed’s lengthy albeit activistic report, but the idea here is that rapidly advancing technology is enabling considerations which were previously held to be science fiction or just impossible. Will we reach the point where these systems are fully operational before we reach the point where we know they are totally safe? It’s a problem when technology grows faster that policy, ethics or meaningful review. And it seems to me that it is always a problem when the race to make something work is more important than the understanding the ramifications if it does.

To be clear, I’m not one of those people who thinks that anything and everything that the military can conceive of is automatically wrong. We will never know how many catastrophes that our national defense services have averted by their vigilance and technological prowess. It should go without saying that the bad guys will get more sophisticated in their methods and tactics, and if we are unable to stay ahead of the game, then we will need to get used to the idea of catastrophe. When push comes to shove, I want the government to be there to protect me. That being said, I’m not convinced that the defense infrastructure (or any part of the tech sector for that matter) is as diligent to anticipate the repercussions of their creations as they are to get them functioning. Only individuals can insist on meaningful review.

Thoughts?

# Future proof.

There is no such thing as future proof anything, of course, so I use the term to refer to evidence that a current idea is becoming more and more probable of something we will see in the future. The evidence I am talking about surfaced in a FastCo article this week about biohacking and the new frontier of digital implants. Biohacking has a loose definition and can reference using genetic material without regard to ethical procedures, to DIY biology, to pseudo-bioluminescent tattoos, to body modification for functional enhancement—see transhumanism. Last year, my students investigated this and determined that a society willing to accept internal implants was not a near-future scenario. Nevertheless, according to FastCo author Steven Melendez,

“a survey released by Visa last year that found that 25% of Australians are ‘at least slightly interested’ in paying for purchases through a chip implanted in their bodies.”

Melendez goes on to describe a wide variety of implants already in use for medical, artistic and personal efficiency and interviews Tim Shank, president of a futurist group called TwinCities+. Shank says,

“[For] people with Android phones, I can just tap their phone with my hand, right over the chip, and it will send that information to their phone..”

The popularity of body piercings and tattoos— also once considered as invasive procedures—has skyrocketed. Implantable technology, especially as it becomes more functionally relevant could follow a similar curve.

I saw this coming some years ago when writing The Lightstream Chronicles. The story, as many of you know, takes place in the far future where implantable technology is mundane and part of everyday life. People regulate their body chemistry access the Lightstream (the evolved Internet) and make “calls” using their fingertips embedded with Luminous Implants. These future implants talk directly to implants in the brain, and other systemic body centers to make adjustments or provide information.

# When the stakes are low, mistakes are beneficial. In more weighty pursuits, not so much.

I’m from the old school. I suppose, that sentence alone makes me seem like a codger. Let’s call it the eighties. Part of the art of problem solving was to work toward a solution and get it as tight as we possibly could before we committed to implementation. It was called the design process and today it’s called “design thinking.” So it was heresy to me when I found myself, some years ago now, in a high-tech corporation where this was a doctrine ignored. I recall a top-secret, new product meeting in which the owner and chief technology officer said, “We’re going to make some mistakes on this, so let’s hurry up and make them.” He was not speaking about iterative design, which is part and parcel of the design process, he was talking about going to market with the product and letting the users illuminate what we should fix. Of course, the product was safe and met all the legal standards, but it was far from polished. The idea was that mass consumer trial-by-fire would provide us with an exponentially higher data return than if we tested all the possible permutations in a lab at headquarters. He was, apparently, ahead of his time.

In a recent FastCo article on Facebook’s race to be the leader in AI, author Daniel Terdiman cites some of Mark Zuckerberg’s mantras: “‘Move fast and break things,’ or ‘Done is better than perfect.’” We can debate this philosophically or maybe even ethically, but it is clearly today’s standard procedure for new technologies, new science and the incessant race to be first. Here is a quote from that article:

“Artificial intelligence has become a vital part of scaling Facebook. It’s already being used to recognize the faces of your friends in photographs, and curate your newsfeed. DeepText, an engine for reading text that was unveiled last week, can understand “with near-human accuracy” the content in thousands of posts per second, in more than 20 different languages. Soon, the text will be translated into a dozen different languages, automatically. Facebook is working on recognizing your voice and identifying people inside of videos so that you can fast forward to the moment when your friend walks into view.”

The story goes on to say that Facebook, though it is pouring tons of money into AI, is behind the curve, having begun only three or so years ago. Aside from the fact that FB’s accomplishments seem fairly impressive (at least to me), people like Google and Microsoft are apparently way ahead. In the case of Microsoft, the effort began more than twenty years ago.

Today, the hurry up is accelerated by open sourcingWikipedia explains the benefits of open sourcing as:

“The open-source model, or collaborative development from multiple independent sources, generates an increasingly more diverse scope of design perspective than any one company is capable of developing and sustaining long term.”

The idea behind open sourcing is that the mistakes will happen even faster along with the advancements. It is becoming the de facto approach to breakthrough technologies. If fast is the primary, maybe even the only goal, it is a smart strategy. Or is it a touch short sighted? As we know, not everyone who can play with the code that a company has given them has that company’s best interests in mind. As for the best interests of society, I’m not sure those are even on the list.

To examine our motivations and the ripples that emanate from them, of course, is my mission with design fiction and speculative futures. Whether we like it or not, a by-product of technological development—aside from utopia—is human behavior. There are repercussions from the things we make and the systems that evolve from them. When your mantra is “Move fast and break things,” that’s what you’ll get. But there is certainly no time the move-fast loop to consider the repercussions of your actions, or the unexpected consequences. Consequences will appear all by themselves.

The technologists tell us that when we reach the holy grail of AI (whatever that is), we will be better people and solve the world’s most challenging problems. But in reality, it’s not that simple. With the nuances of AI, there are potential problems, or mistakes, that could be difficult to fix; new predicaments that humans might not be able to solve and AI may not be inclined to resolve on our behalf.

In the rush to make mistakes, how grave will they be? And, who is responsible?

# How we made the future in the past.

Decisions. Decisions. Today’s blog was a toss up between another drone update (probably next week) and some optimistic technology news (for a change). Instead, I decided to go another route entirely. This week FastCo blurbed a piece on the “new” limited edition book collection, “The Making of Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. It’s no so new, the 4 volume set that sold for \$1000 sold out in no time, but the story is a compelling one. The \$70, second printing is on my Christmas list. There are a dozen fascinating angles to the 2001 production story. FastCo’s article, “The Amazingly Accurate Futurism of 2001: A Space Odyssey“, focuses on the film’s “attention to the technical and design details that made the film such an enduring paragon almost 50 years after its release.” I could not agree more. This latest book’s author, Piers Bizony wrote a predecessor back in 1994 entitled “2001: filming the future.” This book is currently out of print, but I managed to snag a copy for my library. It’s a captivating story, but like FastCo, I am in awe of Kubrick’s brilliance in the team he brought together to build the sets and design the props.

“He assembled a skunkworks team of astronomical artists, aeronautics specialists, and production designers. Aerospace engineers—not prop makers—designed switch panels, display systems, and communications devices for the spacecraft interiors.”

The objective was realism and total believability. It worked. I remember seeing it in the theater on the BIG screen (I was five years old). There was nothing else like it — ever— a testimony to the fact that we still marvel at its accuracy nearly fifty years later.

Clearly Kubrick was a visionary, but what might be more impressive is how they made it look so real. Today, we watch tidal waves take out New York City, and 20 story robots transform into sports cars. It has almost become ho-hum. To capture the effects that Kubrick did it required an inspiring level of ingenuity. Much of this goes to his production designers and the genius of Douglas Trumbull. These special effects, people walking on walls, floating in weightlessness, or believable spacecraft gliding through the cosmos were analog creations. Take for example the gracefully revolving centrifuge: they built it. Or the spacewalking scenes that I believe are every bit as good as 2013’s Gravity. The film was full of artifacts from the future and a tribute to design and engineering problem solving that was and is most rare.

I could rave about this movie all day, but I can’t sign off until I rave a bit about the film itself. By this, I mean the story. First released in 1968, at the crux of this narrative is an Artificial Intelligence that becomes self-aware. It is so freaking convincing that I leave with this clip. You can also get a taste of how truly visual this film was.

# The Robo-Apocalypse. Part 2.

Last week I talked about how the South Koreans have developed a 50 caliber toting, nearly autonomous weapon system and have sold a few dozen around the world. This week I feel obligated to finish up on my promise of the drone with a pistol. I discovered this from a WIRED article. It was a little tongue-in-cheek piece that analyzed a YouTube video and concluded that pistol-packing drone is probably real. I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t believe that this is a really bad idea, including the author of the piece. Nevertheless, if we were to make a list of unintended consequences of DIY drone technology, (just some simple brainstorming) the list, after a few minutes, would be a long one.

This week FastCo reported that  NASA held a little get-together with about 1,000 invited guests from the drone industry to talk about a plan to manage the traffic when, as the agency believes, “every home will have a drone, and every home will serve as an airport at some point in the future”. NASA’s plan takes things slowly. Still the agency predicts that we will be able to get our packages from Amazon and borrow a cup of sugar from Aunt Gladys down the street, even in populated areas, by 2019.

Someone taking action is good news as we work to fix another poorly conceived technology that quickly went rogue. Unfortunately, it does nothing about the guy who wants to shoot down the Amazon drone for sport (or anyone/anything else for that matter).

On the topic of bad ideas, this week The Future Of Life Institute, a research organization out of Boston issued an open letter warning the world that autonomous weapons powered by artificial intelligence (AI) were imminent. The reasonable concern here is that a computer will do the kill-or-not-kill, bomb-or-not-bomb thinking, without the human fail-safe. Here’s an excerpt from the letter:

“Unlike nuclear weapons, they require no costly or hard-to-obtain raw materials, so they will become ubiquitous and cheap for all significant military powers to mass-produce. It will only be a matter of time until they appear on the black market and in the hands of terrorists, dictators wishing to better control their populace, warlords wishing to perpetrate ethnic cleansing, etc. Autonomous weapons are ideal for tasks such as assassinations, destabilizing nations, subduing populations and selectively killing a particular ethnic group. We therefore believe that a military AI arms race would not be beneficial for humanity. There are many ways in which AI can make battlefields safer for humans, especially civilians, without creating new tools for killing people.” [Emphasis mine.]

The letter is short. You should read it. For once we have and example of those smart people I alluded to last week, the ones with compassion and vision. For virtually every “promising” new technology—from the seemingly good to the undeniably dangerous) we need people who can foresee the unintended consequences of one-sided promises. Designers, scientists, and engineers are prime candidates to look into the future and wave these red flags. Then the rest of the world needs to pay attention.

Once again, however, the technology is here and whether it is legal or illegal, banned or not banned the cat is out of the bag. It is kind of like a nuclear explosion. Some things you just can’t take back.