Monday, August 25, 2008

Rampant Paranoia: Singularity Edition


I was dancing around the edge of a web black hole last night. You know, a collection of sites, which sucks you in deeper and deeper until you look up at the clock and see 43 hours have gone by. It started when I saw a Wired article for Neal Stephenson's new book, Anathem. I, like most people who play games, have been a fan since Snow Crash. After Snow Crash I went back and read Zodiac - even he says he is not so fond of it, but I liked it - and followed through Diamond Age, Cryptonomicon and almost made it through the Baroque Cycle. The meaning of each individual word grows with each book he writes. There are a lot of words on the page, and none are superfluous. It's written like an impressionist painting, with meaningful, heavy strokes. The books are works of fiction, but based on a foundation of fact. The links from the article led to his source "companions." It is not really material, as much as a collection of some of the most articulate and vocal thinkers of our time. People who populate, the Long Now organization and The Edge. People who are concerned about what how technology impacts society as well as preserving elements of humanity for whomever or whatever may find it in the future.

As I started to read these things by minds like Kurzweil, Hillis, Ventner and Pesce, I started to think about a video Craig Allen showed me in which Aubrey DeGray discussed the Singularity. He proposed computers, in the ordinary course, would get to a point where they are smarter than humans. Once there, they may not like us. In his words "That would be a bad thing." I think there is something worse. Some professor at UCLA told us the opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference. If the computers hate us, they are concerned about our existence. If they are indifferent, we don't stand a chance. Today, not only are we ceding control of our lives to the bots, they just don't care.

Some people identify the Singularity as the point computers become more intelligent than humans. But intelligence is relative. By trusting the bots as we do, we are making ourselves less intelligent, less independent and more reliant on the machines. My grandfather ran a drug store in Detroit. He could take a stack of numbers as long as his arm, run his finger down them like a blind man reading braille, and add them up faster than anyone could punch them into an adding machine. Later on, he would stand next to my dad with a stack of number and add them up while my dad punched them into the calculator. My dad never got the answer any faster than my grandfather, and my grandfather never trusted the calculator. I couldn't add a stack of numbers as long as my little finger if you lit a fire under my ass. I rely on calculators to do it. The portion of the brain my grandfather developed so well, completely atrophied on me. More significantly, the distrust of the bots atrophied as well.

We've all encountered the person on the other end of the phone who tells us we are wrong because the computer says so. I did the other day with my Xbox, and I am sure you heard it when you tried to book airline reservations, found out your credit card payment was not applied to the last statement, had your cable television cancelled or any of the other calls handled by US prisoners or Indian customer support farms. The answer is always, "There is nothing I can do, the computer says . . . " The person in front of the machine will not question the computer. They do not believe it can be wrong. We ceded control to the bots.

We make conscious decisions for the bots to manage our lives ever day. We opt in with our finances by signing up to bill payment services. Auto-pay, pay on line, paypal, all make it convenient for us to move money to the right places. We make semi conscious decisions to allow the bots to track us. Opting into Amazon's service lets Amazon suggest things we may like. Ebay sends us list of favorites. If we want to protect our identity, we enlist the services of another bot to track financial transactions in our name. Joining a social network identifies our friends and who we do business with. We give somewhat less conscious consent to Google to track our every move on the web and tie it to our searches to know which ads to best serve us. Most significantly, we consent as citizens of the countries in which we live to be tracked by the government at its will. In the UK, they do it with facial recognition cameras. In the US they used to use Carnivore to track email and phone calls, now there is something else we don't know about. If something suspect happens, more information is sought through each one of the bots we authorized to make our life easier. Because each bot is part of a network, each connections grows the network, and therefore computing power, exponentially, until something much more powerful than us, is mixing, matching, dissecting, connecting, analyzing and organizing every piece of data about us. And the thing doing it, really doesn't care.

The network has no empathy and its decisions are all black and white. One day you are hit by a truck on the way to work and good samaritan delivers you to an emergency room. The hospital won't admit you without insurance, no problem, Obama was elected and we have national health care. The administrator will punch in your social security number and your coverage will appear and you will be sent right into a doctor's care. The administrator looks up from the machine with a look of dismay.

"I am sorry, you have no insurance."
"That's impossible" you gurgle."

When the administrator typed in your social security number it initiated the claims process. At initiation, the claims process checks the network, your network, to make sure all statements on your application remain valid. They would not want to pay on a claim they do not owe. It seems you identified yourself as a non-smoker, but there is a charge every week for the past six months for a carton of cigarettes on your debit card. When checked against the cameras with facial recognition the network confirms you walked into the same store, once a week, and purchased a carton of cigarettes. Your internet records show you searched for the lowest price on cigarettes, and the review of of the google index of your hard drive shows you downloaded coupons to buy the cigarettes. Based on this information, the computer indicates you falsified your application and your insurance is suspended.
"But I don't smoke."
"The computer says you do."
"I buy cigarettes for my grandmother. She is old, and can't leave the house. It is her only pleasure, and I sneak them into her so she can smoke behind the nurse's back."
"The computer says you smoke."
"I understand that, but it's not true, you can test me."
"I can't test you, the computer won't allow it."

This is the last thing you hear before you are rolled out to the street.

If you think this sounds implausible, talk to a victim of identity theft, or someone with a mistake on their credit report. How about someone who shares a common name with someone on the do not fly list? The computers don't weigh evidence and don't distinguish between things you did and things someone who said they were you did. It doesn't distinguish between stealing the loaf of bread to feed your children, and stealing the loaf of bread for the thrill of it.

The singularity is getting closer, but it is not because computers are getting smarter, it is because we are getting dumber.

Remember . . Klaatu Barada Nikto




1 comment:

dwood said...

Your grandfather sounds pretty sharp, but I doubt he put much bandwidth to concepts such as the singularity - as the state of being human changes, so do our actions and energies.
I think your hospital example is insightful and probably accurate, but is it a problem of infrastructure or social structure? Is the person being controlled by the robot, or is the person acting as a robot?
'With great power comes great responsibility,' and those of us lucky enough to be empowered through the devices and data woven into our days need only be mindful of who is the master that makes the grass green. (oh yes, and keep that EMP handy)

You are Gort and Klaatu!