Watching and listening.

 

Pay no attention to Alexa, she’s an AI.

There was a flurry of reports from dozens of news sources (including CNN) last week that an Amazon Echo, (Alexa), called the police during a New Mexico incident of domestic violence. The alleged call began a SWAT standoff, and the victim’s boyfriend was eventually arrested. Interesting story, but after a fact-check, that could not be what happened. Several sources including the New York Times and WIRED debunked the story with details on how Alexa calling 911 is technologically impossible, at least for now. And although the Bernalillo, New Mexico County Sheriff’s Department swears to it, according to WIRED,

“Someone called the police that day. It just wasn’t Alexa..”

Even Amazon agrees from a spokesperson email,

“The receiving end would also need to have an Echo device or the Alexa app connected to Wi-Fi or mobile data, and they would need to have Alexa calling/messaging set up,”1

So it didn’t happen, but most agree, while it may be technologically impossible today, it probably won’t be for very long. The provocative side of the WIRED article proposed this thought:

“The Bernalillo County incident almost certainly had nothing to do with Alexa. But it presents an opportunity to think about issues and abilities that will become real sooner than you might think.”

On the upside, some see benefits from the ability of Alexa to intervene in a domestic dispute that could turn lethal, but they fear something called “false positives.” Could an off handed comment prompt Alexa to make a call to the police? And if it did would you feel as though Alexa had overstepped her bounds?

Others see the potential in suicide prevention. Alexa could calm you down or make suggestions for ways to move beyond the urge to die.

But as we contemplate opening this door, we need to acknowledge that we’re letting these devices listen to us 24/7 and giving them the permission to make decisions on our behalf whether we want them to or not. The WIRED article also included a comment from Evan Selinger of RIT (whom I’ve quoted before).

“Cyberservants will exhibit mission creep over time. They’ll take on more and more functions. And they’ll habituate us to become increasingly comfortable with always-on environments listening to our intimate spaces.”

These technologies start out as warm and fuzzy (see the video below) but as they become part of our lives, they can change us and not always for the good. This idea is something I contemplated a couple of years ago with my Ubiquitous Surveillance future. In this case, the invasion was not as a listening device but with a camera (already part of Amazon’s Echo Look). You can check that out and do your own provocation by visiting the link.

I’m glad that there are people like Susan Liautaud (who I wrote about last week) and Evan Selinger who are thinking about the effects of technology on society, but I still fear most of us take the stance of Dan Reidenberg, who is also quoted in the WIRED piece.

“‘I don’t think we can avoid this. This is where it is going to go. It is really about us adapting to that,” he says.’”

 

Nonsense! That’s like getting in the car with a drunk driver and then doing your best to adapt. Nobody is putting a gun to your head to get into the car. There are decisions to be made here, and they don’t have to be made after the technology has created seemingly insurmountable problems or intrusions in our lives. The companies that make them should be having these discussions now, and we should be invited to share our opinions.

What do you think?

 

  1. http://wccftech.com/alexa-echo-calling-911/
Bookmark and Share

Ethical tech.

Though I tinge most of my blogs with ethical questions, the last time I brought up this topic specifically on this was back in 2015. I guess I am ready to give it another go. Ethics is a tough topic. If we deal with this purely superficially, ethics would seem natural, like common sense, or the right thing to do. But if that’s the case, why do so many people do the wrong thing? Things get even more complicated if we move into institutionally complex issues like banking, or governing, technology, genetics, health care or national defense, just to name a few.

The last time I wrote about this, I highlighted Michael Sandel Professor of Philosophy and Government at Harvard’s Law School, where he teaches a wildly popular course called “Justice.” Then, I was glad to see that the big questions were still being addressed in in places like Harvard. Some of his questions then, which came from a FastCo article, were:

“Is it right to take from the rich and give to the poor? Is it right to legislate personal safety? Can torture ever be justified? Should we try to live forever? Buy our way to the head of the line? Create perfect children?”

These are undoubtedly important and prescient questions to ask, especially as we are beginning to confront technologies that make things which were formerly inconceivable or plain impossible, not only possible but likely.

So I was pleased to see last month, an op-ed piece in WIRED by Susan Liautaud founder of The Ethics Incubator. Susan is about as closely aligned to my tech concerns as anyone I have read. And she brings solid thinking to the issues.

“Technology is approaching the man-machine and man-animal
boundaries. And with this, society may be leaping into humanity defining innovation without the equivalent of a constitutional convention to decide who should have the authority to decide whether, when, and how these innovations are released into society. What are the ethical ramifications? What checks and balances might be important?”

Her comments are right in line with my research and co-research into Humane Technologies. Liataud continues:

“Increasingly, the people and companies with the technological or scientific ability to create new products or innovations are de facto making policy decisions that affect human safety and society. But these decisions are often based on the creator’s intent for the product, and they don’t always take into account its potential risks and unforeseen uses. What if gene-editing is diverted for terrorist ends? What if human-pig chimeras mate? What if citizens prefer to see birds rather than flying cars when they look out a window? (Apparently, this is a real risk. Uber plans to offer flight-hailing apps by 2020.) What if Echo Look leads to mental health issues for teenagers? Who bears responsibility for the consequences?”

For me, the answer to that last question is all of us. We should not rely on business and industry to make these decisions, nor expect our government to do it. We have to become involved in these issues at the public level.

Michael Sandel believes that the public is hungry for these issues, but we tend to shy away from them. They can be confrontational and divisive, and no one wants to make waves or be politically incorrect. That’s a mistake.

An image from the future. A student design fiction project that examined ubiquitous AR.

So while the last thing I want is a politician or CEO making these decisions, these two constituencies could do the responsible thing and create forums for these discussions so that the public can weigh in on them. To do anything less, borders on arrogance.

Ultimately we will have to demand this level of thought, beginning with ourselves. This responsibility should start with anticipatory methodologies that examine the social, cultural and behavioral ramifications, and unintended consequences of what we create.

But we should not fight this alone. Corporations and governments concerned with appearing sensitive and proactive toward the environment and social justice need to add a new pillar to their edifice as responsible global citizens: humane technology.

 

Bookmark and Share

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.

Turning an algorithm into code.

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

 

Bookmark and Share

An example of impending convergence.

 

The IBM Research Alliance and partners have announced this week that they have developed “…an industry-first process to build silicon nanosheet transistors that will enable 5 nanometer (nm) chips – achieving a scale of 30 billion switches on a fingernail-sized chip that will deliver significant power and performance enhancements over today’s state-of-the-art 10nm chips.”

Silicon nanosheet transistors at 5nm

Along with this new development there, of course, come promises that the technology

“…can deliver 40 percent performance enhancement at fixed power, or 75 percent power savings at matched performance. This improvement enables a significant boost to meeting the future demands of artificial intelligence (AI) systems, virtual reality and mobile devices.”

That’s a lot of tech-speech, but essentially it means your computing will happen faster, your devices will be more powerful and use less battery life.

In a previous blog, I discussed the nanometer idea.

“A nanometer is very small. Nanotech concerns itself with creations that exist in the 100nm range and below, roughly 7,500 times smaller than a human hair. In the Moore’s Law race, nanothings are the next frontier in cramming data onto a computer chip, or implanting them into our brains or living cells.”

Right now, IBM and their partners see this new development as a big plus to the future of their cognitive systems. What are cognitive systems?

IBM can answer that:

“Humans are on the cusp of augmenting their lives in extraordinary ways with AI. At IBM Research Labs around the globe, we envision and develop next-generation systems that work side-by-side with humans, accelerating our ability to create, learn, make decisions and think. We also architect the future of Watson, which has evolved from an IBM Research project to the world’s first and most-advanced AI platform.”

So it’s Watson and lots of other AI that may see the biggest benefits as a result of this new tech. With smaller, faster, more efficient chips AI can live a more robust life inside your phone or another device. But thinking phone is probably thinking way too big. Think of something much smaller but just as powerful.

Of course, every new technology comes with promises.

“Whether exploring new technical capabilities, collaborating on ethical practices or applying Watson technology to cancer research, financial decision-making, oil exploration or educational toys, IBM Research is shaping the future of AI.”

It’s all about AI and how we can augment “our lives in extraordinary ways.” Assuming that everyone plays nice, this is another example of technology poised for great things for humankind. Undoubtedly, micro-sized AI can be used for all sorts of nefarious purposes so let’s hope that the “ethical practices” part of their research is getting equal weight.

The question we have yet to ask is whether a faster, smaller, more powerful, all-knowing, steadily accelerating AI is something we truly need. This is a debate worth having. In the meantime, a 5 nm chip breakthrough is an excellent example of how a new, breakthrough technology awaits application by others for a myriad of purposes, advancing them all, in particular ways, by leaps and bounds. Who are these others? And what will they do next?

The right thing to do. Remember that idea?

Bookmark and Share

On utopia and dystopia. Part 2.

From now on we paint only pretty pictures. Get it?

A couple of blarticles (blog-like articles) caught my eye this week. Interestingly, the two blarticles reference the same work. There was a big brew-haha a couple of years ago about how dystopian science fiction and design fiction with dystopian themes were somehow bad for us and that people were getting sick of it. Based on the most recent lists of bestselling books and films, that no longer seems to be the case. Nevertheless, some science fiction writers like Cory Doctorow (a fine author and Hugo winner) think that possibly more utopian futures would be better at influencing public policy. As he wrote in Boing Boing earlier this month,

“Science fiction writers have a long history of intervening/meddling in policy, but historically this has been in the form of right-wing science fiction writers…”

Frankly, I have no idea what this has to do with politics as there must certainly be more left handed authors and filmmakers in Hollywood than their right-sided counterparts. He continues:

“But a new, progressive wing of design fiction practicioners [sic] are increasingly involved in policy questions…”

Doctorow’s article cites a long piece for Slate, by the New America Foundation’s Kevin Bankston. Bankston says,

“…a stellar selection of 64 bestselling sci-fi writers and visionary filmmakers, has tasked itself with imagining realistic, possible, positive futures that we might actually want to live in—and figuring out we can get from here to there.”

That’s great, because, as I said, I am all about making alternative futures legible for people to consider and contemplate. In the process, however, I don’t think we should give dystopia short shrift. The problem with utopias is that they tend to be prescriptive, in other words, ”This is a better future because I say so.”

The futures I conjure up are neither utopian nor dystopian, but I do try to surface real concerns so that people can decide for themselves, kind of like a democracy. History has proven that regardless of our utopian ideals we more often than not mess things up. I don’t want it to be progressive, liberal, conservative or right wing, and I don’t think it should be the objective of science fiction or entertainment to help shape these policies especially when there is an obvious political purpose. It’s one thing to make alternative futures legible, another to shove them at us.

As long as it’s fiction and entertaining utopias are great but let’s not kid ourselves. Utopia and to some extent dystopia are individual perspectives. Frankly, I don’t want someone telling me that one future is better for me than another. In fact, that almost borders on dystopia in my thinking.

I’m not sure whether Bruce Sterling was answering Cory Doctorow’s piece, but Sterling’s stance on the issue is sharper and more insightful. Sterling is acutely aware that today is the focus. We look at futures, and we realize there are steps we need to take today to make tomorrow better. I recommend his post. Here are a couple of choice clips:

“*The “better future” thing is jam-tomorrow and jam-yesterday talk, so it tends to become the enemy of jam today. You’re better off reading history, and realizing that public aspirations that do seem great, and that even meet with tremendous innovative success, can change the tenor of society and easily become curses a generation later. Not because they were ever bad ideas or bad things to aspire to or do, but because that’s the nature of historical causality. Tomorrow composts today.”

“*If you like doing incredible things, because you’re of a science fictional temperament, then you should frankly admit your fondness for the way-out and the wondrous, and not disingenuously pretend that it’s somehow bound to improve the lot of the mundanes.”

Prettier pictures are not going to save us. Most of the world needs a wake-up call, not another dream.

In my humble opinion.

 

How science fiction writers’ “design fiction” is playing a greater role in policy debates

Various sci-fi projects allegedly creating a better future

Bookmark and Share

On utopia and dystopia. Part 1.

A couple of interesting articles cropped up in that past week or so coming out of the WIRED Business Conference. The first was an interview with Jennifer Doudna, a pioneer of Crispr/Cas9 the gene editing technique that makes editing DNA nearly as simple as splicing a movie together. That is if you’re a geneticist. According to the interview, most of this technology is at use in crop design, for things like longer lasting potatoes or wheat that doesn’t mildew. But Doudna knows that this is a potential Pandora’s Box.

“In 2015, Doudna was part of a broad coalition of leading biologists who agreed to a worldwide moratorium on gene editing to the “germ line,” which is to say, edits that get passed along to subsequent generations. But it’s legally non-binding, and scientists in China have already begun experiments that involve editing the genome of human embryos.”

Crispr May Cure All Genetic Disease—One Day

Super-babies are just one of the potential ways to misuse Crispr. I blogged a longer and more diabolical list a couple of years ago.

Meddling with the primal forces of nature.

In Doudna’s recent interview, though she focused on the more positive effects on farming, things like rice and tomatoes.

You may not immediately see the connection, but there was a related story from the same conference where WIRED interviewed Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy co-creators of the HBO series Westworld. If you haven’t seen Westworld, I recommend it if only for Anthony Hopkins’ performance. As far as I’m concerned Anthony Hopkins could read the phone book, and I would be spellbound.

At any rate, the article quotes:

“The first season of Westworld wasted no time in going from “hey cool, robots!” to “well, that was bleak.” Death, destruction, android torture—it’s all been there from the pilot onward.”

Which pretty much sums it up. According to Nolan,
“We’re inventing cautionary tales for ourselves…”

“And Joy sees Westworld, and sci-fi in general, as an opportunity to talk about what humanity could or should do if things start to go wrong, especially now that advancements in artificial intelligence technologies are making things like androids seem far more plausible than before. “We’re leaping into the age of the unfathomable, the time when machines [can do things we can’t],”

Joy said.

Westworld’s Creators Know Why Sci-Fi Is So Dystopian

To me, this sounds familiar. It is the essence of my particular brand of design fiction. I don’t always set out to make it dystopian but if we look at the way things seem to naturally evolve, virtually every technology once envisioned as a benefit to humankind ends up with someone misusing it. To look at any potentially transformative tech and not ask, “Transform into what?” is simply irresponsible. We love to sell our ideas on their promise of curing disease, saving lives, and ending suffering, but the technologies that we are designing today have epic downsides that many technologists do not even understand. Misuse happens so often that I’ve begun to see us a reckless if we don’t anticipate these repercussions in advance. It’s the subject of a new paper that I’m working toward.

In the meantime, it’s important that we pay attention and demand that others do, too.

There’s more from the science fiction world on utopias vs. dystopias, and I’ll cover that next week.

 

 

Bookmark and Share

An AI as President?

 

Back on May 19th, before I went on holiday, I promised to comment on an article that appeared that week advocating that we would better off with artificial intelligence (AI) as President of the United States. Joshua Davis authored the piece: Hear me out: Let’s Elect
An AI As President, for the business section of WIRED  online. Let’s start out with a few quotes.

“An artificially intelligent president could be trained to
maximize happiness for the most people without infringing on civil liberties.”

“Within a decade, tens of thousands of people will entrust their daily commute—and their safety—to an algorithm, and they’ll do it happily…The increase in human productivity and happiness will be enormous.”

Let’s start with the word happiness. What is that anyway? I’ve seen it around in several discourses about the future, that somehow we have to start focusing on human happiness above all things, but what makes me happy and what makes you happy may very well be different things. Then there is the frightening idea that it is the job of government to make us happy! There are a lot of folks out there that the government should give us a guaranteed income, pay for our healthcare, and now, apparently, it should also make us happy. If you haven’t noticed from my previous blogs, I am not a progressive. If you believe that government should undertake the happy challenge, you had better hope that their idea of happiness coincides with your own. Gerd Leonhard, a futurist whose work I respect, says that there are two types of happiness: first is hedonic (pleasure) which tends to be temporary, and the other is a eudaimonic happiness which he defines as human flourishing.1 I prefer the latter as it is likely to be more meaningful. Meaning is rather crucial to well-being and purpose in life. I believe that we should be responsible for our happiness. God help us if we leave it up to a machine.

This brings me to my next issue with this insane idea. Davis suggests that by simply not driving, there will be an enormous increase in human productivity and happiness. According to the website overflow data,

“Of the 139,786,639 working individuals in the US, 7,000,722, or about 5.01%, use public transit to get to work according to the 2013 American Communities Survey.”

Are those 7 million working individuals who don’t drive happier and more productive? The survey should have asked, but I’m betting the answer is no. Davis also assumes that everyone will be able to afford an autonomous vehicle. Maybe providing every American with an autonomous vehicle is also the job of the government.

Where I agree with Davis is that we will probably abdicate our daily commute to an algorithm and do it happily. Maybe this is the most disturbing part of his argument. As I am fond of saying, we are sponges for technology, and we often adopt new technology without so much as a thought toward the broader ramifications of what it means to our humanity.

There are sober people out there advocating that we must start to abdicate our decision-making to algorithms because we have too many decisions to make. They are concerned that the current state of affairs is simply too painful for humankind. If you dig into the rationale that these experts are using, many of them are motivated by commerce. Already Google and Facebook and the algorithms of a dozen different apps are telling you what you should buy, where you should eat, who you should “friend” and, in some cases, what you should think. They give you news (real or fake), and they tell you this is what will make you happy. Is it working? Agendas are everywhere, but very few of them have you in the center.

As part of his rationale, Davis cites the proven ability for AI to beat the world’s Go champions over and over and over again, and that it can find melanomas better than board-certified dermatologists.

“It won’t be long before an AI is sophisticated enough to
implement a core set of beliefs in ways that reflect changes in the world. In other words, the time is coming when AIs will have better judgment than most politicians.”

That seems like grounds to elect one as President, right? In fact, it is just another way for us to take our eye off the ball, to subordinate our autonomy to more powerful forces in the belief that technology will save us and make us happier.

Back to my previous point, that’s what is so frightening. It is precisely the kind of argument that people buy into. What if the new AI President decides that we will all be happier if we’re sedated, and then using executive powers makes it law? Forget checks and balances, since who else in government could win an argument against an all-knowing AI? How much power will the new AI President give to other algorithms, bots, and machines?

If we are willing to give up the process of purposeful work to make a living wage in exchange for a guaranteed income, to subordinate our decision-making to have “less to think about,” to abandon reality for a “good enough” simulation, and believe that this new AI will be free of the special interests who think they control it, then get ready for the future.

1. Leonhard, Gerd. Technology vs. Humanity: The Coming Clash between Man and Machine. p112, United Kingdom: Fast Future, 2016. Print.

Bookmark and Share

Power sharing?

Just to keep you up to speed, everything is on schedule or ahead of schedule.

In the race toward a superintelligence or ubiquitous AI. If you read this blog or you are paying attention at any level, then you know the fundamentals of AI. But for those of you who don’t here are the basics. Artificial Intelligence comes from processing and analyzing data. Big data. Then programmers feed a gazillion linked-up computers (CPUs) with algorithms that can sort this data and make predictions. This process is what is at work when the Google search engine makes suggestions concerning what you are about to key into the search field. These are called predictive algorithms. If you want to look at pictures of cats, then someone has to task the CPUs with learning what a cat looks like as opposed to a hamster, then scour the Internet for pictures of cats and deliver them to your search. The process of teaching the machine what a cat looks like is called machine learning. There is also an algorithm that watches your online behavior. That’s why, after checking out sunglasses online, you start to see a plethora of ads for sunglasses on just about every page you visit. Similar algorithms can predict where you will drive to today, and when you are likely to return home. There is AI that knows your exercise habits and a ton of other physiological data about you, especially when you’re sharing your Fitbit or other wearable data with the Cloud. Insurance companies extremely interested in this data, so that it can give discounts to “healthy” people and penalize the not so healthy. Someday they might also monitor other “behaviors” that they deem to be not in your best interests (or theirs). Someday, especially if we have a “single-payer” health care system (aka government healthcare), this data may be required before you are insured. Before we go too far into the dark side (which is vast and deep), AI can also search all the cells in your body and identify which ones are dangerous, and target them for elimination. AI can analyze a whole host of things that humans could overlook. It can put together predictions that could save your life.

Googles chips stacked up and ready to go. Photo from WIRED.

Now, with all that AI background behind us, this past week something called Google I/O went down. WIRED calls it Google’s annual State-of-the-Union address. There, Sundar Pichai unveiled something called TPU 2.0 or Cloud TPU. This is something of a breakthrough, because, in the past, the AI process that I just described, even though lighting fast and almost transparent, required all those CPUs, a ton of space (server farms), and gobs of electricity. Now, Google (and others) are packing this processing into chips. These are proprietary to Google. According to WIRED,

“This new processor is a unique creation designed to both train and execute deep neural networks—machine learning systems behind the rapid evolution of everything from image and speech recognition to automated translation to robotics…

…says Chris Nicholson, the CEO, and founder of a deep learning startup called Skymind. “Google is trying to do something better than Amazon—and I hope it really is better. That will mean the whole market will start moving faster.”

Funny, I was just thinking that the market is not moving fast enough. I can hardly wait until we have a Skymind.

“Along those lines, Google has already said that it will offer free access to researchers willing to share their research with the world at large. That’s good for the world’s AI researchers. And it’s good for Google.”

Is it good for us?

Note:
This sets up another discussion (in 3 weeks) about a rather absurd opinion piece in WIRED about why we should have an AI as President. These things start out as absurd, but sometimes don’t stay that way.

Bookmark and Share

Humanity is not always pretty.

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary among several options gives this definition for human: “[…]representative of or susceptible to the sympathies and frailties of human nature human kindness a human weakness.”

Then there is humanity which can either confer either the collective of humans, or “[…]the fact or condition of being human; human nature,” or benevolence as in compassion and understanding. For the latter, it seems that we are the eternal optimists when it comes to describing ourselves. Hence, we often refer to the humanity of man as one of our most redeeming traits. At the same time, if we query human nature we can get, “[…]ordinary human behavior, esp considered as less than perfect.” This is a diplomatic way of acknowledging that flaws are a characteristic of our nature. When we talk about our humanity, we presumptively leave out our propensity for greed, pride, and the other deadly sins. We like to think of ourselves as basically good.

If we are honest with ourselves, however, we know this is not always the case and if we push the issue we would have to acknowledge that this not even the case most of the time. Humanity is primarily driven by the kinds of things we don’t like to see in others but rarely see in ourselves. But this is supposed to be a blog about design and tech, isn’t it? So I should get to the point.

A recent article on the blog site QUARTZ, Sarah Kessler’s article, “Algorithms are failing Facebook. Can humanity save it?” poses an interesting question and one that I’ve raised in the past. We like to think that technology will resolve all of our basic human failings—somehow. Recognizing this, back in 1968 Stewart Brand introduced the first Whole Earth Catalog with,

“We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”

After almost 50 years it seems justified to ask whether we’ve made any improvements whatsoever. The question is pertinent in light of Kessler’s article on the advent of Facebook Live. In this particular FB feature, you stream whatever video you want, and it goes out to the whole world instantly. Of course, we need this, right? And we need this now, right? Of course we do.

Like most of these wiz bang technologies they are designed to attract millennials with, “Wow! Cool.” But it is not a simple task. How would a company like Facebook police the potentially billions of feeds coming into the system? The answer is (as is becoming more the case) AI. Artificial Intelligence. Algorithms will recognize and determine what is and is not acceptable to go streaming out to the world. And apparently, Zuck and company were pretty confident that they could pull this off.

Let’s get this thing online. [Photo: http://wersm.com]

Maybe not. Kessler notes that,

“According to a Wall Street Journal tally, more than 50 acts of violence, including murders, suicides, and sexual assault, have been broadcast over Facebook Live since the feature launched 13 months ago.”

Both articles tell how Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg put a team on “lockdown” to rush the feature to market. What was the hurry, one might ask? And Kessler does ask.

“Let’s make sure there’s a humanitarian angle. Millennials like that.” [Photo: http://variety.com]

After these 13 months of spurious events, the tipping point came with a particularly heinous act that ended up circulating on FB Live for nearly 24 hours. It involved a 20-year-old Thai man named Wuttisan Wongtalay, who filmed himself flinging his 11-month-old daughter off the side of a building with a noose around her neck. Then, off-camera, he killed himself.

“In a status update on his personal Facebook profile, CEO Mark Zuckerberg, himself the father of a young girl, pledged that the company would, among other things, add 3,000 people to the team that reviews Facebook content for violations of the company’s policies.”

Note that the answer is not to remove the feature until things could be sorted out or to admit that the algorithms are not ready for prime time. The somewhat surprising answer is more humans.

Kessler, quoting the Wall Street Journal article states,

“Facebook, in a civic mindset, could have put a plan in place for monitoring Facebook Live for violence, or waited to launch Facebook Live until the company was confident it could quickly respond to abuse. It could have hired the additional 3,000 human content reviewers in advance.

But Facebook ‘didn’t grasp the gravity of the medium,’ an anonymous source familiar with Facebook’s Live’s development told the Wall Street Journal.”

Algorithms are code that helps machines learn. They look at a lot of data, say pictures of guns, and then they learn to identify what a gun is. They are not particularly good at context. They don’t know, for example, whether your video is, “Hey, look at my new gun?” or “Die, scumbag.”

So in addition to algorithms, Zuck has decided that he will put 3,000 humans on the case. Nevertheless, writes Kessler,

“[…]they can’t solve Facebook’s problems on their own. Facebook’s active users comprise about a quarter of the world’s population and outnumber the combined populations of the US and China. Adding another 3,000 workers to the mix to monitor content simply isn’t going to make a meaningful difference. As Zuckerberg put it during a phone call with investors, “No matter how many people we have on the team, we’ll never be able to look at everything.”[Emphasis mine.]

So, I go back to my original question: We need this, right?

There are two things going on here. First is the matter of Facebook not grasping the gravity of the medium (which I see as inexcusable), and the second is how the whole thing came around full circle. Algorithms are supposed to replace humans. Instead we added 3,000 more jobs. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the plan. But it could have been.

Algorithms are undoubtedly here to stay, but not necessarily for every application and humans are still better at interpreting human intent than machines are. All of this underscores my position from previous blogs, that most companies when the issue is whether they get to or stay on top, will not police themselves. They’ll wait until it breaks and then fix it, or try to. The problem is that as algorithms get increasingly more complicated fixing them gets just as tricky.

People are working on this so that designers can see what went wrong, but the technology is not there yet.

And it is not just so that we can determine the difference between porn and breastfeeding. Algorithms are starting to make a lot of high stakes decisions, like autonomous vehicles, autonomous drones, or autonomous (fill in the blank). Until the people who are literally racing each other to be the first step back and ask the tougher questions, these types of unanticipated consequences will be commonplace, especially when the prudent actions like stop and assess are rarely considered. No one wants to stop and assess.

Kessler says it well,

“The combination may be fleeting—the technology will catch up eventually—but it’s also quite fitting given that so many of the problems Facebook is now confronting, from revenge porn to fake news to Facebook Live murders, are themselves the result of humanity mixing with algorithms.” [Emphasis mine.]

We can’t get past that humanity thing.

 

Bookmark and Share

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.

 

 

 

Bookmark and Share

a blog about design and the story that connects