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.