Tag Archives: future

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.”

No comment.

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?

 

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“At a certain point…”

 

A few weeks ago Brian Barrett of WIRED magazine reported on an “NEW SURVEILLANCE SYSTEM MAY LET COPS USE ALL OF THE CAMERAS.” According to the article,

“Computer scientists have created a way of letting law enforcement tap any camera that isn’t password protected so they can determine where to send help or how to respond to a crime.”

Barrett suggests that America has 30 million surveillance cameras out there. The above sentence, for me, is loaded. First of all, as with most technological advancements, they are always couched in the most benevolent form. These scientists are going to help law enforcement send help or respond to crimes. This is also the argument that the FBI used to try to force Apple to provide a backdoor to the iPhone. It was for the common good.

If you are like me, you immediately see a giant red flag waving to warn us of the gaping possibility for abuse. However, we can take heart to some extent. The sentence mentioned above also limits law enforcement access to, “any camera that isn’t password protected.” Now the question is: What percentage of the 30 million cameras are password protected? Does it include, for example, more than kennel cams or random weather cams? Does it include the local ATM, traffic, and other security cameras? The system is called CAM2.

“…CAM2 reveals the location and orientation of public network cameras, like the one outside your apartment.”

It can aggregate the cameras in a given area and allow law enforcement to access them. Hmm.

Last week I teased that some of the developments that I reserved for 25, 50 or even further into the future, through my graphic novel The Lightstream Chronicles, are showing signs of life in the next two or three years. A universal “cam” system like this is one of them; the idea of ubiquitous surveillance or the mesh only gets stronger with more cameras. Hence the idea behind my ubiquitous surveillance blog. If there is a system that can identify all of the “public network” cams, how far are we from identifying all of the “private network” cams? How long before these systems are hacked? Or, in the name of national security, how might these systems be appropriated? You may think this is the stuff of sci-fi, but it is also the stuff of design-fi, and design-fi, as I explained last week, is intended to make us think; about how these things play out.

In closing, WIRED’s Barrett raised the issue of the potential for abusing systems such as CAM2 with Gautam Hans, policy counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology. And, of course, we got the standard response:

“It’s not the best use of our time to rail against its existence. At a certain point, we need to figure out how to use it effectively, or at least with extensive oversight.”

Unfortunately, history has shown that that certain point usually arrives after something goes egregiously wrong. Then someone asks, “How could something like this happen?”

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A paralyzing electro magnetic laser: future possibility or sheer fantasy?

In episode 134, the Techman is paralyzed, lifted off the ground and thumped back to the floor. Whether it’s electrostatic, electromagnetic or superconductor electricity reduced to a hand-held device, the concept seems valid, especially 144 years from now. Part of my challenge is to make this design fiction logical by pulling threads of current research and technology to extrapolate possible futures. Mind you, it’s not a prediction, but a possibility. Here is my thinking:

Keiji’s weapon assumes that at least four technologies come together sometime in the next 14 decades. Safe bet? To start with the beam has to penetrate the door and significantly stun the subject. This idea is not that far-fetched. Weapons like this are already on the drawing board. For instance, the military is currently working on something called laser-guided directed-energy weapons. They work like “artificial lightning” to disable human targets. According to Defense Update,

Laser-Induced Plasma Channel (LIPC) technology was developed by Ionatron to channel electrical energy through the air at the target. The interaction of the air and laser light at specific wavelength, causes light to break into filaments, which form a plasma channel that conducts the energy like a virtual wire. This technology can be adjusted for non-lethal or lethal use. “

The imaginative leap here is that the beam can penetrate the wall to find it’s target. Given the other advancements, I feel reasonably safe stretching on this one.

LIPC at work.
LIPC at work.

Next, you have to get the subject off the ground. Lifting a 200-pound human would require at least two technologies assisted by a third. First is a levitating superconductor. A levitating superconductor uses electric current from a superconductor to produce magnetic forces that could counter the force of gravity. According to physics.org:

“Like frogs, humans are about two-thirds water, so if you had a big enough Bitter electromagnet, there’s no reason why a human couldn’t be levitated diamagnetically. None of the frogs that have taken part in the diamagnetic levitation experiments have experienced any adverse effects, which bodes well for any future human guinea pigs.”

The other ingredient is a highly powerful magnet. If we had a superconductor with a few decades of refinement and miniaturization, it’s conceivable that it could produce magnetic forces counter to the force of gravity. 1

The final component would be the power source small enough to fit inside the weapon and carrying enough juice to generate the plasma, and magnetic field for at least fifteen seconds. Today, you can buy a million-volt stun device on Amazon.com for around $50 and thyristor semiconductor technology could help ramp up the power surge necessary to sustain the arc.  Obviously, I’m not an engineer, but if you are, please feel free to chime in.

1. http://helios.gsfc.nasa.gov/qa_gp_elm.html

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What could happen.

1.  about last week

I’ll be the first to acknowledge that my blog last week was a bit depressing. However, if I thought, the situation was hopeless, I wouldn’t be doing this in the first place. I believe we have to acknowledge our uncanny ability to foul things up and, as best we can, design the gates and barriers into new technology to help prevent its abuse. And even though it may seem that way sometimes, I am not a technology pessimist or purely dystopian futurist. In truth, I’m tremendously excited about a plethora of new technologies and what they promise for the future.

2.  see the future

Also last week (by way of asiaone.com) Dr. Michio Kaku spoke in Singapore served up this future within the next 50 years.

“Imagine buying things just by blinking. Imagine doctors making an artificial heart for you within 20 hours. Imagine a world where garbage costs more than computer chips.”

Personally, I believe he’s too conservative. I see it happening much sooner. Kaku is a one of a handful of famous futurists, and his “predictions” have a lot of science behind them. So who am I to argue with him? He’s a brilliant scientist, prolific author, and educator. Most futurists or forecasters will be the first to tell you that their futures are not predictions but rather possible futures. According to forecaster Paul Saffo, “The goal of forecasting is not to predict the future but to tell you what you need to know to take meaningful action in the present.”1

According to Saffo “… little is certain, nothing is preordained, and what we do in the present affects how events unfold, often in significant, unexpected ways.”

Though my work is design fiction, I agree with Saffo. We both look at the future the same way. The objective behind my fictions is to jar us into thinking about the future so that it doesn’t surprise us. The more that our global citizenry thinks about the future and how it may impact them, the more likely that they will get involved. At least that is my hope. Hence, it is why I look for design fictions that will break out of the academy or the gallery show and seep into popular culture. The future needs to be an inclusive conversation.

Of course, the future is a broad topic: it impacts everything and everyone. So much of what we take for granted today could be entirely different—possibly even unrecognizable—tomorrow. Food, medicine, commerce, communication, privacy, security, entertainment, transportation, education, and jobs are just a few of the enormously important areas for potentially radical change. Saffo and Kaku don’t know what the future will bring any more than I do. We just look at what it could bring. I tend to approach it from the perspective of “What could go wrong?” Others take a more balanced view, and some look only at the positives. It is these perspectives that create the dialog and debate, which is what they are supposed to do. We also have to be careful that we don’t see these opinions as fact. Ray Kurzweil sees the equivalent of 20,000 years of change packed into the 21st century. Kaku (from the article mentioned above) sees computers being relegated to the

“‘dull, dangerous and dirty’ jobs that are repetitive, such as punching in data, assembling cars and any activity involving middlemen who do not contribute insights, analyses or gossip.’ To be employable, he stresses, you now have to excel in two areas: common sense and pattern recognition. Professionals such as doctors, lawyers and engineers who make value judgments will continue to thrive, as will gardeners, policemen, construction workers and garbage collectors.”

Looks like Michio and I disagree again. The whole idea behind artificial intelligence is in the area of predictive algorithms that use big data to learn. Machine learning programs detect patterns in data and adjust program actions accordingly.2 The idea of diagnosing illnesses, advising humans on potential human behaviors,  analyzing soil, site conditions and limitations, or even collecting trash are will within the realm of artificial intelligence. I see these jobs every bit as vulnerable as those of assembly line workers.

That, of course, is all part of the discussion—that we need to have.

 

1 Harvard Business Review | July–August 2007 | hbr.org
2. http://www.machinelearningalgorithms.com
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The ultimate wild card.

 

One of the things that futurists do when they imagine what might happen down the road is to factor in the wild card. Short of the sports or movie references a wild card is defined by dictionary.com as: “… of, being, or including an unpredictable or unproven element, person, item, etc.” One might use this term to say, “Barring a wild card event like a meteor strike, global thermonuclear war, or a massive earthquake, we can expect Earth’s population to grow by (x) percent.”

The thing about wild card events is that they do happen. 9/11 could be considered a wild card. Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Katrina would also fall into this category. At the core, they are unpredictable, and their effects are widespread. There are think tanks that work on the probabilities of these occurrences and then play with scenarios for addressing them.

I’m not sure what to call something that would be entirely predictable but that we still choose to ignore. Here I will go with a quote:

“The depravity of man is at once the most empirically verifiable reality but at the same time the most intellectually resisted fact.”

― Malcolm Muggeridge

Some will discount this automatically because the depravity of man refers to the Christian theology that without God, our nature is hopeless. Or as Jeremiah would say, our heart is “deceitful and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9).

If you don’t believe in that, then maybe you are willing to accept a more secular notion that man can be desperately stupid. To me, humanity’s uncanny ability to foul things up is the recurring (not-so) wild card. It makes all new science as much a potential disaster as it might be a panacea. We don’t consider it often enough. If we look back through my previous blogs from Transhumanism to genetic design, this threat looms large. You can call me a pessimist if you want, but the video link below stands as a perfect example of my point. It is a compilation of all the nuclear tests, atmospheric, underground, and underwater, since 1945. Some of you might think that after a few tests and the big bombs during WWII we decided to keep a lid on the insanity. Nope.

If you can watch the whole thing without sinking into total depression and reaching for the Clorox, you’re stronger than I am. And, sadly it continues. We might ask how we have survived this long.

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Enter the flaw.

 

I promised a drone update this week, but by now, it is probably already old news. It is a safe bet there are probably a few thousand more drones than last week. Hence, I’m going to shift to a topic that I think is moving even faster than our clogged airspace.

And now for an AI update. I’ve blogged previously about Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns, but the evidence is mounting every day that he’s probably right.  The rate at which artificial intelligence is advancing is beginning to match nicely with his curve. A recent article on the Txchnologist website demonstrates how an AI system called Kulitta, is composing jazz, classical, new age and eclectic mixes that are difficult to tell from human compositions. You can listen to an example here. Not bad actually. Sophisticated AI creations like this underscore the realization that we can no longer think of robotics as the clunky mechanized brutes. AI can create. Even though it’s studying an archive of man-made creations the resulting work is unique.

First it learns from a corpus of existing compositions. Then it generates an abstract musical structure. Next it populates this structure with chords. Finally, it massages the structure and notes into a specific musical framework. In just a few seconds, out pops a musical piece that nobody has ever heard before.

The creator of Kulitta, Donya Quick says that this will not put composers out of a job, it will help them do their job better. She doesn’t say how exactly.

If even trained ears can’t always tell the difference, what does that mean for the masses? When we can load the “universal composer” app onto our phone and have a symphony written for ourselves, how will this serve the interests of musicians and authors?

The article continues:

Kulitta joins a growing list of programs that can produce artistic works. Such projects have reached a critical mass–last month Dartmouth College computational scientists announced they would hold a series of contests. They have put a call out seeking artificial intelligence algorithms that produce “human-quality” short stories, sonnets and dance music. These will be pitted against compositions made by humans to see if people can tell the difference.

The larger question to me is this: “When it all sounds wonderful or reads like poetry, will it make any difference to us who created it?”

Sadly, I think not. The sweat and blood that composers and artists pour into their compositions could be a thing of the past. If we see this in the fine arts, then it seems an inevitable consequence for design as well. Once the AI learns the characters, behaviors and personalities of the characters in The Lightstream Chronicles, it can create new episodes without me. Taking characters and setting that already exist as CG constructs, it’s not a stretch that it will be able to generate the wireframes, render the images, and layout the panels.

Would this app help me in my work? It could probably do it in a fraction of the time that it would take me, but could I honestly say it’s mine?

When art and music are all so easily reconstructed and perfect, I wonder if we will miss the flaw. Will we miss that human scratch on the surface of perfection, the thing that reminds us that we are human?

There is probably an algorithm for that, too. Just go to settings > humanness and use the slider.

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Meddling with the primal forces of nature.

 

 

One of the more ominous articles of recent weeks came from WIRED magazine in an article about the proliferation of DNA editing. The story is rich with technical talk and it gets bogged down in places but essentially it is about a group of scientists who are concerned about the Pandora’s Box they may have created with something called Crispr-Cas9, or Crispr for short. Foreseeing this as far back as 1975, the group thought that establishing “guidelines” for what biologists could and could not do; things like creating pathogens and mutations that could be passed on from generation to generation — maybe even in humans — were on the list of concerns. It all seemed very far off back in the 70’s, but not anymore. According to WIRED writer Amy Maxmen,

“Crispr-Cas9 makes it easy, cheap, and fast to move genes around—any genes, in any living thing, from bacteria to people.”

Maxmen states that startups are launching with Crispr as their focus. Two quotes that I have used excessively come to mind. First, Tobias Revell: “Someone, somewhere in a lab is playing with your future.”1. Next, from a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis: “We don’t write laws to protect against impossible things, so when the impossible becomes possible, we shouldn’t be surprised that the law doesn’t protect against it…” 2.

And so, we play catch-up. From the WIRED article:

“It could at last allow genetics researchers to conjure everything anyone has ever worried they would—designer babies, invasive mutants, species-specific bioweapons, and a dozen other apocalyptic sci-fi tropes. It brings with it all-new rules for the practice of research in the life sciences. But no one knows what the rules are—or who will be the first to break them.”

The most disconcerting part of all this, to me, is that now, before the rules exist that even the smallest breach in protocol could unleash repercussions of Biblical proportions. Everything from killer mosquitoes and flying spiders, horrific mutations and pandemics are up for grabs.

We’re not even close to ready for this. Don’t tell me that it could eradicate AIDS or Huntington’s disease. That is the coat that is paraded out whenever a new technology peers its head over the horizon.

“Now, with less than $100, an ordinary arachnologist can snip the wing gene out of a spider embryo and see what happens when that spider matures.”

Splice-movie-baby-Dren
From the movie “Splice”. Sometimes bad movies can be the most prophetic.

It is time to get the public involved in these issues whether through grass-roots efforts or persistence with their elected officials to spearhead some legislation.

“…straight-out editing of a human embryo sets off all sorts of alarms, both in terms of ethics and legality. It contravenes the policies of the US National Institutes of Health, and in spirit at least runs counter to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights. (Of course, when the US government said it wouldn’t fund research on human embryonic stem cells, private entities raised millions of dollars to do it themselves.) Engineered humans are a ways off—but nobody thinks they’re science fiction anymore.”

Maxmen interviewed Harvard geneticist George Church. In a closer to the article,

“When I ask Church for his most nightmarish Crispr scenario, he mutters something about weapons and then stops short. He says he hopes to take the specifics of the idea, whatever it is, to his grave. But thousands of other scientists are working on Crispr. Not all of them will be as cautious. “You can’t stop science from progressing,” Jinek says. “Science is what it is.” He’s right. Science gives people power. And power is unpredictable.”

Who do you trust?

 

 

1. Critical Exploits. Performed by Tobias Revell. YouTube. January 28, 2014. Accessed February 14, 2014. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jlpq9M1VELU#t=364.
2. Farivar, Cyrus. “DOJ Calls for Drone Privacy Policy 7 Years after FBI’s First Drone Launched.” Ars Technica. September 27, 2013. Accessed March 13, 2014. http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2013/09/doj-calls-for-drone-privacy-policy-7-years-after-fbis-first-drone-launched/.
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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.

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The robo-apocalypse. Part 1.

Talk of robot takeovers is all the rage right now.

I’m good with this because the evidence is out there that robots will continue to get smarter and smarter but the human condition, being what it is, we will continue to do stupid s**t. Here are some examples from the news this week.

1. The BBC reported this week that South Korea has deployed something called The Super aEgis II, a 50-caliber robotic machine gun that knows who is an enemy and who isn’t. At least that’s the plan. The company that built and sells the Super aEgis is DoDAAM. Maybe that is short for do damage. The BBC astutely notes,

“Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov’s First Law of Robotics, that ‘a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm’, looks like it will soon be broken.”

Asimov was more than a great science-fiction writer, he was a Class A futurist. He clearly saw the potential for us to create robots that were smarter and more powerful than we are. He figured there should be some rules. Asimov used the kind of foresight that responsible scientists, technologists and designers should be using for everything we create. As the article continues, Simon Parkin of the BBC quotes Yangchan Song, DoDAAM’s managing director of strategy planning.

“Automated weapons will be the future. We were right. The evolution has been quick. We’ve already moved from remote control combat devices, to what we are approaching now: smart devices that are able to make their own decisions.”

Or in the words of songwriter Donald Fagen,

“A just machine to make big decisions
Programmed by fellows with compassion and vision…1

Relax. The world is full of these fellows. Right now the weapon/robot is linked to a human who gives the OK to fire, and all customers who purchased the 30 units thus far have opted for the human/robot interface. But the company admits,

“If someone came to us wanting a turret that did not have the current safeguards we would, of course, advise them otherwise, and highlight the potential issues,” says Park. “But they will ultimately decide what they want. And we develop to customer specification.”

A 50 caliber round. Heavy damage.
A 50 caliber round. Heavy damage.

They are currently working on the technology that will help their machine make the right decision on its own., but the article cites several academics and researchers who see red flags waving. Most concur that teaching a robot right from wrong is no easy task. Compound the complexity because the fellows who are doing the programming don’t always agree on these issues.

Last week I wrote about Google’s self-driving car. Of course, this robot has to make tough decisions too. It may one day have to decide whether to hit the suddenly appearing baby carriage, the kid on the bike, or just crash the vehicle. In fact, Parkin’s article brings Google into the picture as well, quoting Colin Allen,

“Google admits that one of the hardest problems for their programming is how an automated car should behave at a four-way stop sign…”

Humans don’t do such a good job at that either. And there is my problem with all of this. If the humans who are programming these machines are still wrestling with what is ethically right or wrong, can a robot be expected to do better. Some think so. Over at DoDAMM,

“Ultimately, we would probably like a machine with a very sound basis to be able to learn for itself, and maybe even exceed our abilities to reason morally.”

Based on what?

Next week: Drones with pistols.

 

1. Donald Fagen, IGY From the Night Fly album. 1982
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Promises. Promises.

Throughout the course of the week, usually on a daily basis, I collect articles, news blurbs and what I call “signs from the future.” Mostly they fall into categories such as design fiction, technology, society, future, theology, and philosophy. I use this content sometimes for this blog, possibly for a lecture but most often for additional research as part of scholarly papers and presentations that are a matter of course as a professor. I have to weigh what goes into the blog because most of these topics could easily become full-blown papers.  Of course, the thing with scholarly writing is that most publications demand exclusivity on publishing your ideas. Essentially, that means that it becomes difficult to repurpose anything I write here for something with more gravitas.  One of the subjects that are of growing interest to me is Google. Not the search engine, per se, rather the technological mega-corp. It has the potential to be just such a paper, so even though there is a lot to say, I’m going to land on only a few key points.

A ubiquitous giant in the world of the Internet, Google has some of the most powerful algorithms, stores your most personal information, and is working on many of the most advanced technologies in the world. They try very hard to be soft-spoken, and low-key, but it belies their enormous power.

Most of us would agree that technology has provided some marvelous benefits to society especially in the realms of medicine, safety, education and other socially beneficial applications. Things like artificial knees, cochlear implants, air bags (when they don’t accidentally kill you), and instantaneous access to the world’s libraries have made life-changing improvements. Needless to say, especially if you have read my blog for any amount of time, technology also can have a downside. We may see greater yields from our agricultural efforts, but technological advancements also pump needless hormones into the populace, create sketchy GMO foodstuffs and manipulate farmers into planting them. We all know the problems associated with automobile emissions, atomic energy, chemotherapy and texting while driving. These problems are the obvious stuff. What is perhaps more sinister are the technologies we adopt that work quietly in the background to change us. Most of them we are unaware of until, one day, we are almost surprised to see how we have changed, and maybe we don’t like it. Google strikes me as a potential contributor in this latter arena. A recent article from The Guardian, entitled “Where is Google Taking Us?” looks at some of their most altruistic technologies (the ones they allowed the author to see). The author, Tim Adams, brought forward some interesting quotes from key players at Google. When discussing how Google would spend some $62 million in cash that it had amassed, Larry Page, one of the company’s co-founders asked,

“How do we use all these resources… and have a much more positive impact on the world?”

There’s nothing wrong with that question. It’s the kind of question that you would want a billionaire asking. My question is, “What does positive mean, and who decides what is and what isn’t?” In this case, it’s Google. The next quote comes from Sundar Pichai. With so many possibilities that this kind of wealth affords, Adams asked how they stay focused on what to do next.

“’Focus on the user and all else follows…We call it the toothbrush test,’ Pichai says, ‘we want to concentrate our efforts on things that billions of people use on a daily basis.’”

The statement sounds like savvy marketing. He is also talking about the most innate aspects of our everyday behavior. And so that I don’t turn this into an academic paper, here is one more quote. This time the author is talking to Dmitri Dolgov, principal engineer for Google Self-Driving Cars. For the whole idea to work, that is, the car reacting like a human would, only better, it has to think.

“Our maps have information stored and as the car drives around it builds up another local map with its sensors and aligns one to the other – that gives us a location accuracy of a centimetre or two. Beyond that, we are making huge numbers of probabilistic calculations every second.”

Mapping everything down to the centimeter.
Mapping everything down to the centimeter.

It’s the last line that we might want to ponder. Predictive algorithms are what artificial intelligence is all about, the kind of technology that plugs-in to a whole host of different applications from predicting your behavior to your abilities. If we don’t want to have to remember to check the oil, there is a light that reminds us. If we don’t want to have to remember somebody’s name, there is a facial recognition algorithm to remember for us. If my wearable detects that I am stressed, it can remind me to take a deep breath. If I am out for a walk, maybe something should mention all the things I could buy while I’m out (as well as what I am out of). 

Here’s what I think about. It seems to me that we are amassing two lists: the things we don’t want to think about, and the things we do. Folks like Google are adding things to Column A, and it seems to be getting longer all the time. My concern is whether we will have anything left in Column B.

 

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