Wednesday, October 12, 2011

It's N-uanced

I read in the New York Times today that a U.S. Intelligence entity called the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, or Iarpa, wants to launch a satellite that will automatically suck-up "big data," from various digital streams; things like "Web search queries, blog entries, Internet traffic flow, financial market indicators, traffic webcams and changes in Wikipedia entries" in order to, well, essentially predict the future.  From this avalanche of data they will, I suppose, get a heads-up on impending wars, revolutions, traffic jams in LA, and the Super Bowl winner.

Now I am always delighted to add a new follower to my blog, even if it is only an automated satellite. But that seems about the only positive piece to this puzzle.  The rest has a really creepy feel to it.  The article does begin with a nod to the "Psychohistory" of Isaac Asimov's Foundation novels.  Psychohistory was the fictional social science that was supposed to be able to predict human behavior to the "99-umtyith" decimal point, a level of confidence that was apparently "good enough for government work" when it came to running the galaxy.  But this Iarpa project is unfolding in what we are swiftly coming to understand as "real life."

Supposedly this super-data-sucker-satellite would allow Iarpa to compute and massage the global data stream in a way that "would not be limited to political and economic events, but would also explore the ability to predict pandemics and other types of widespread contagion."  I wonder if it has a built-in mirror in case it needs to catch a reflection of itself as an indication of "widespread contagion."  Still, I suppose there is some value to having a well-nigh perfect example of hubris floating around up there for all of us to see, but did the folks over at Iarpa also read Asimov? Did they not finish the book?

What happens is that all the efforts at predicting the future and dominating the galaxy get knocked into a cocked hat by the arrival of "The Mule."  The mule is not a raging Democrat hell-bent on whupping up on the Republicans whom he feels are protecting the super-rich of the galaxy.  He is rather a mutant, and, as such, behaves at odds with the predictions of "psychohistory."  Well, duh.  Has it ever been any other way?  Is history not the recording of the exceptional, the unexpected?  Were it not for the exceptional efforts and the unpredictable behavior of "aberrant" individuals, huge swathes of history would read "nothing much happened today."

What rankles me about Iarpa's creep-in-the-clouds project is that it presumes our predictability. That strikes me as either naive or childish - in much the same way that Facebook's "It's Complicated" status indicator is naive.  To assume it is ever anything but complicated asserts a level of predicability that is alien to human nature.  Human nature is, I contend, the least predictable and most nuanced variable floating around the galaxy.  Just about everything else seems to at least approximate the laws of physics.  We, on the other hand, are nuanced - we often act in ways that the data would indicate are contrary to our apparent best interests.  Peasants march off to war to defend the royalty who keep them in servitude, working class people vote to protect the rights of the wealthy who repress them, those born into great wealth lead movements to overthrow their own heritage.  As the bard put it, "O, brave new world, that has such creatures in it."

Here's the thing, we are each of us an N of one, the only subject in that ongoing experiment that is our life.  As individuals we are utterly unique.  You can gather all the data you want, you can run regression equations until a week from doomsday, and it will all fall apart when confronted by the behavior of that subtle, nuanced, extraordinary thing called a single human being.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Reflections of an Armchair Luddite

First we must remember that the Luddites were not opposed to technology that made people’s lives better; they were opposed to the implementation of technology that bruised the lives of human beings. The conflict that lent their name to history occurred in the early 1800s, when they demonstrated a disturbing tendency to burn down the factories housing the mechanized looms that, they asserted, were stealing their jobs and hence degrading the quality of human life.

And now Apple has introduced the iPhone 4S. The S stands, I assume, for Siri – the artificial intelligence-like “assistant” that allows you to talk to your phone, a function not to be confused with using your phone to actually talk to other human beings. In the cool video on Apple’s home page, [] Siri does the communicating to distant others:

Jogging Guy speaks: “Siri, read me my messages.”
Siri replys: “Great news, we got the go ahead on the project. Can you meet at 10?”
Jogging Guy: “You bet! See you there.”
Siri: Sent.
Jogging Guy: “Siri, text my wife. Tell her I’m going to be thirty minutes late.
Siri: I’m sorry Dave, I can’t do that.

All right, I made that last part up. Unlike Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Siri seems quite compliant. But you can probably see where I am going with this. Actually, I’m headed in two directions. First is that potentially “Hal-ish” path that asks that we at least reflect on the notion of technological dependency. Consider the fact that we no longer know anyone’s phone number. To call them we just hit speed dial, or touch their picture on the screen, or select their name from a list. We forget that the “code” that Skynet recognizes is a string of numbers. That is, we forget it until we let our cell phone battery run down and we are forced to use another phone, one without our “contacts." We stare at the strange grid of numbers and wonder which ones to push.  And then, of course, there is GPS.   I drove around Chicago last week as if I had lived there for years; a task I could not repeat sans GPS for all the money in the world. Recalculating, recalculating.

I believe those technologies to be helpful. They free up grey matter for more complex tasks; for those issues at the top of the “thought pyramid,” if you will. If I don’t have to worry about the base of the pyramid – phone numbers, addresses, my library card number etc., I can devote my attention to upper level issues; my lecture for this afternoon, an idea for a painting, or wondering about the nature of dark energy. I like that. What does concern me is the extent to which Siri, and his/her even more powerful kin over on the Android platform, are creeping up the pyramid, sucking up more and more “helpful tasks.” Apple’s video goes on to demonstrate:

“Will I need an umbrella?”
“What the weather like in San Francisco?”
“Should be nice, highs in the mid-sixties.”
“How many ounces in a cup?”
“Let me think, 8 ounces.”
“Set my timer for 30 minutes.”
“Thirty minutes and counting.”

I worry about what happens if Siri’s battery runs down after we have given it responsibility for much of the seemingly trivial portions of the thought pyramid:

“Siri, where do I keep my shoes?”
“Siri, how do I turn on the cable system?”
“Siri, what is my credit card number?”
“Siri, what was the make of my first car?”
“Siri, where is the hospital?”

I worry that “If we don’t use it, we will lose it.” And we are talking about our minds. Lurking in the back of my non-Siri mind is what Eric Schmidt of Google once said: "More and more searches are done on your behalf without you needing to type. I actually think most people don't want Google to answer their questions. They want Google to tell them what they should be doing next.”

“Siri, I’m bored – what do I want to do?”
“I’m sorry, Dave, I don’t know.”

My second concern is less dark, but more likely. The Apple videos show Jogging Man wearing ear buds and the other Siri users chatting away with Siri in the privacy of their own homes. Somehow I don’t see it working out that way.   Jogging Man will join the growing legions of Bluetooth users who spew their self-important conversations, Tourette-like, into the air; toxic vapors vented into the sphere of public silence. And can you imagine sitting in your favorite coffee shop surrounded by hordes of “Siri speakers”? Will the phones get confused if they “overhear” other “masters” talking to their “Siris”? Will people have to name their Siris to avoid confusion? Can you imagine how that will work in our celebrity-obsessed world?

“Leonardo, turn on the microwave.”
“Beyonce, put more starch in my shirts.”
“Mr. President, text my mother, tell her I’ll be late for dinner.”

Don’t get me wrong – I like my technology for the most part. Much of my life would be far more difficult – at times impossible - without it. But I would remind us that technology has a way of drifting into spaces either unintended, or at least unheralded, by its creators. I remember, in much the same hazy way I remember watching The Mickey Mouse Club, a time when parents assumed that if their children were using the computer they were doing their homework, because it was, after all, just a computer.