Friday, November 28, 2014

The path to cyborg weirdness is paved with novel gadgets

I need better hobbies.

Hobbies that won't make me feel all worrying about where things are going.  Hobbies that won't make me long for the simpler days of, oh, even five years ago.  Well, ok, any hobby other than the one that takes up all my life, it seems--the hobby of reading and thinking!

I had a wonderful Thanksgiving meal, hearty laughs and conversations, and I could have called it a day with all that.  If only I didn't have that nasty hobby!  So, stupid is as stupid does and I ended up reading this piece on how algorithms are messing with our lives.  Like I really needed to be reminded about this when I have blogged enough about this already, including only a week ago!
A single human showing explicit bias can only ever affect a finite number of people. An algorithm, on the other hand, has the potential to impact the lives of exponentially more.
Reading those two sentences, you probably think, "meh!" and move on.  If you did not worry about it, well, you ain't thinkin' enough.
we “trust algorithms, because we think of them as objective, whereas the reality is that humans craft those algorithms and can embed in them all sorts of biases and perspectives.” To put it another way, a computer algorithm might be unbiased in its execution, but, as noted, this does not mean that there is not bias encoded within it.
We humans write those programs, yes.  The programs are then used not merely to calculate the totals at cash registers but in a gazillion ways that we don't even pause to think about:
Consider the story of black Harvard University Ph.D. Latanya Sweeney, for instance. Searching on Google one day, Sweeney was shocked to notice that her search results were accompanied by ads asking, “Have you ever been arrested?” These ads did not appear for her white colleagues. Sweeney began a study that ultimately demonstrated that the machine-learning tools behind Google’s search were being inadvertently racist, by linking names more commonly given to black people to ads relating to arrest records.
Yes, humans wrote that program that was targeting her with those nasty ads.  And this was at the crème de la crème of the computing world.  Now you can begin to imagine how awful biases might creep up really lower down the computing food chain, right?  Are you beginning to worry now?
“We are all so scared of human bias and inconsistency,” says Danielle Citron, professor of law at the University of Maryland. “At the same time, we are overconfident about what it is that computers can do.”
You want more examples so that you, too, can begin to worry about algorithms (software agents is the phrase that I prefer) taking over our lives?
an algorithm may falsely profile an individual as a terrorist: a fate that befalls roughly 1,500 unlucky airline travelers each week.
Imagine the plight of a regular Joe Schmuck who, thanks to big data mined from various sources, is incorrectly identified as a terrorist.  Now, the burden is on that poor Schmuch to prove that he is not a terrorist.   I don't want to be that Joe Schmuck.

As if all that weren't enough, I then read another that covers a lot of the issues related to artificial intelligence that I have gone over even in my blog posts.  The essay ends with this from Peter Diamandis, who is the "co-founder of Singularity University and founder and chairman of the X Prize Foundation":
Peter Diamandis is right that we’re at the beginning of “a transformation in what it means to be human and how society works and thinks,” maybe even “a rapid evolution of our species as machines begin to become parts of our prefrontal cortex.” But, he asked me, “Do people want to hear that? No.”
A lot do want to hear that, I told him—that’s why you guys have bestselling books and sellout conferences and an oversubscribed university built on NASA property and sponsored by Google and G.E. It’s just that a cyborg near future also weirds us out.
He nodded. He shook his head. “Why does it weird us out?”
It "weirds" out some of us, while a few others can't seem to wait for that weirdness to be here already, with a vast, overwhelming majority ignorant and apathetic about the whole damn thing because they love one novelty after another in the path that we are on towards ultimate weirdness!

If only shopping on Black Friday were my hobby--I would have never read those essays then and, instead, would have been in the line to buy the latest gadget!


Anne in Salem said...

On the radio this morning, I heard a story about stores connecting a shopper's online history with his presence in the store, allowing the store to send targeted ads to the shopper's phone. Frightening.

There is an alternative. I do not have a smart phone (or tablet), I rarely shop online, I don't have twitter or instagram. I cannot arm my security system or turn on the heat or spy on my kids from my phone. I regularly clear my browser history and delete my cookies. To a degree, some algorithms require users to allow the software access to our lives. If we do not partake, neither can they.

Ramesh said...

@Sriram - Reading those two sentences, I thought, "meh!" and moved on :)

@Anne - I do a lot of what you do; including using software that hides my ID online, blocks all ads, stores nothing on my PC, etc etc . I do shop online extensively, but haven't bought a single thing because some stupid software made a recommendation - in fact on some sites I have figured a way to block recommendations as well. Much as "Big Brother" will intrude, we can defend ourselves and choose not to partake , as you say.

Sriram Khé said...

As I mentioned before, you can run but you can't hide. Those cyborgs are coming.
My hypothesis is that some "analog" communities might develop. And these communities might get pretty darn aggressive as well. Too bad I will be dead before then to witness such resistance. Oh, wait, these were depicted in The Matrix ;)

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