Learning To Live With Learning Machines

In my recent talk, OK Computer, I briefly mention the importance of privacy in systems powered by machine learning, and hint at potential difficulties facing Hello Barbie, the new AI-powered doll from Mattel when the wider world becomes aware that third parties could—or, will—be listening to what children say to it. Well, the wider world has become aware.

Hell No Barbie is a consumer campaign to raise awareness about Hello Barbie, and to prevent parents from buying it. They give eight reasons why Hello Barbie is bad, ranging from the right to private conversations, to the right to be free from being advertised to.

I’m not unsympathetic to these arguments. I agree with most of them (to varying degrees). And it certainly looks as though there are very valid concerns around the security of Hello Barbie, with it reportedly being open to hacking.

But I think an outright dismissal, a refusal to engage with AI-powered toys, misses out on the opportunities that they can bring. Cognitoys Dino is another toy for children, but with a sharper focus on education. And I know from personal experience how much my young nieces and nephews like asking questions to Google Voice Search. In the case of these interfaces, the children are gaining knowledge; but each has the same implications of privacy and security as Hello Barbie.

I think we need to not reject AI toys for children, but to engage with them on better terms. We need to ask the questions necessary to create an ethical framework to accept AI into our homes. On Mediamocracy.org, in the article A Toy That Wants to Phone Home, they suggest some questions that we might want to start with, around data, privacy, commercialisation, and social implications.

This is the approach that I endorse: learning to live with new technology; understanding it, controlling it, and making it work to our benefit.


Blogging The Highlights: Sapiens [Part One]

Earlier this year I read Yuval Noah Harari’s book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. It is, without a doubt, one of the most amazing, eye-opening, mind-expanding books I’ve ever read. I’ve wanted for some time to write a review of it, but have been slightly daunted by the thought of trying to do it justice. Even using quotes from the book to illustrate the themes, as I’ve done before, faces me with a problem: I’ve highlighted so many passages, even editing them to a manageable length would be a job in itself.

But I can prevaricate no longer, so I’m going to attempt a loose review, based around quotes from the book, broken into multiple posts. I’ll theme them loosely around happiness, consumerism, and the agricultural revolution; and, in this first part, around fictions.

Sapiens is a book about humankind, but not a hard history; it’s about culture, about the systems we’ve evolved to create this amazing, powerful, terrifying global race. Above all, it’s about fictions: the stories that we all choose to believe in that define and make possible society and its achievements.

Telling effective stories is not easy. The difficulty lies not in telling the story, but in convincing everyone else to believe it. Much of history revolves around this question: how does one convince millions of people to believe particular stories about gods, or nations, or limited liability companies? Yet when it succeeds, it gives Sapiens immense power, because it enables millions of strangers to cooperate and work towards common goals. Just try to imagine how difficult it would have been to create states, or churches, or legal systems if we could speak only about things that really exist, such as rivers, trees and lions.

As time has passed, these fictions have taken on more importance:

Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google.

These fictions extend even to our laws and rights; biologically speaking, we are not all born equal:

If we do not believe in the Christian myths about God, creation and souls, what does it mean that all people are ‘equal’? Evolution is based on difference, not on equality.

However, we choose to believe in natural equality because it promotes stability and social order:

We believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society.

Belief is what enables fictions, and fictions enable orders:

An imagined order can be maintained only if large segments of the population – and in particular large segments of the elite and the security forces – truly believe in it. Christianity would not have lasted 2,000 years if the majority of bishops and priests failed to believe in Christ. The modern economic system would not have lasted a single day if the majority of investors and bankers failed to believe in capitalism.

The fictions shared between groups of people are passed on through legends: myths and stories, laws and rules. People in different societies created different legends.

Myths and fictions accustomed people, nearly from the moment of birth, to think in certain ways, to behave in accordance with certain standards, to want certain things, and to observe certain rules. They thereby created artificial instincts that enabled millions of strangers to cooperate effectively. This network of artificial instincts is called ‘culture’.

Aside: I saw Scott Berkun sum this up with a neat formula: culture = some ideas > other ideas. But back to Harari. He says that what drives culture is the contradictions of society: for example, trying to reconcile personal freedom with the desire for everyone to be equal.

The modern world fails to square liberty with equality. But this is no defect. Such contradictions are an inseparable part of every human culture. In fact, they are culture’s engines, responsible for the creativity and dynamism of our species.

To propagate culture we had to make it possible to store memories beyond our genes; this could be in simple shared ideas passed down through generations:

Human teenagers have no genes for football. They can nevertheless play the game with complete strangers because they have all learned an identical set of ideas about football. These ideas are entirely imaginary, but if everyone shares them, we can all play the game.

The problem with imaginary ideas is that you need to actively enforce them:

Hives can be very complex social structures, containing many different kinds of workers, such as harvesters, nurses and cleaners. But so far researchers have failed to locate lawyer bees. Bees don’t need lawyers, because there is no danger that they might forget or violate the hive constitution.

But written laws and constitutions have had an impact on us:

The most important impact of script on human history is precisely this: it has gradually changed the way humans think and view the world. Free association and holistic thought have given way to compartmentalisation and bureaucracy.

This is why the study of history, and books like Sapiens, are so vital:

We study history not to know the future but to widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine.

As I said at the start, I’m going to write a few more posts about Sapiens—but honestly, just save yourself the trouble of reading them and buy a copy of the book instead. I highly doubt that you’ll regret it.

Universe Within: how the internet unites the world

The Candadian Film Board’s interactive piece, Universe Within, is wonderful. It’s well-made, and it’s fascinating.

Universe Within is a digital documentary that reveals the hidden digital lives of highrise residents around the world. From intimate whispers on Skype, to explosive political uses of WhatsApp in neighbourhoods under siege, this story takes us inside the hearts, minds and computers of vertical citizens around the world: from Guangzhou to Mumbai to New York and beyond.

And what makes me love it is because it challenges the common narrative that the internet has somehow lessened humanity. Watching people empowered by digital technology, listening to their stories from around the world while I sit at a desk in London… I see that the internet has changed everything, but I just don’t see all that change as for the worse.

Dex Torricke-Barton wrote a great piece recently, How the internet is uniting the world. In it he says:

The history of humanity is a story of people coming together in new and different ways. We began as bands of hunter gatherers. But one day we came out of the plains of Africa to make the world our own. Our communities have never stopped growing in size and complexity. Now technology gives us the chance to take the next big step — to build one great human community.

He goes on to say—and I agree—that we must not pretend this will be a utopia. There will be clashes and divisions and power struggles, the diminishing of local culture… but I look at stories like those of Ummai, using social media to organise a workers union for migrant workers in Singapore, and I can’t help but feel that we have an incredible force for good at our disposal.

They Burn Witches Here

… and then they upload the photos to social media. A fascinating article about Papua New Guinea, and what happens when you try to impose a modern capitalist system on a country where some people were living paleolithic lifestyles as recently as 80 years ago.

The question as to whether this wide [cultural] gulf could ever have been slowly bridged is moot; this gulf is being forcibly, abruptly sutured shut. In the span of little more than a century, the people here have had to shift from stone to steel to silicon. In some spots, they have jumped directly from hunter-gatherer existence to devotional pictures of Jesus on their iPhones.