The dream of augmentation

This morning’s Observer column:

Engelbart was a visionary who believed that the most effective way to solve problems was to augment human abilities and develop ways of building collective intelligence. Computers, in his view, were “power steering for the mind” – tools for augmenting human capabilities – and this idea of augmentation has been the backbone of the optimistic narrative of the tech industry ever since.

The dream has become a bit tarnished in the last few years, as we’ve learned how data vampires use the technology to exploit us at the same time as they provide free tools for our supposed “augmentation”…

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Tech companies’ greatest asset

This morning’s Observer column:

Arthur C Clarke’s adage that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” may or may not be true, but what is definitely true is that computer software has magical properties. It’s pure “thought stuff”: a programmer has an idea; they encapsulate it as a string of symbols that are then fed into an inanimate machine. And then the machine executes the instructions encoded in the symbols. And it obeys those instructions faithfully, unquestioningly and without tiring. Which is why being a programmer is a bit like being Napoleon – except that, unlike Bonaparte, the programmer doesn’t have to worry about victualling the troops.

As with any other line of work, there’s a spectrum of ability in programming that runs from barely competent to genius. At the top end are people who are not just 10 or 20 times better than the average, but a million times smarter. So to call them programmers is like calling Christian Dior a dressmaker…

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Apple, the App Store and monopoly

This morning’s Observer column:

Because Apple has always specialised in control freakery and doesn’t allow anybody else to use its iOS platform without prior approval, the App Store was from the beginning owned and controlled by Apple. If you wanted to create an app for the iPhone (and later the iPad), it had to be approved by Apple and sold on the App Store. And if a developer wanted to charge for the app, then Apple took a 30% cut on the price.

So, in relation to the App Store, Apple is definitely a monopolist. The question underlying the supreme court hearing was: is it an abusive monopolist? And if so, are customers of the App Store entitled to damages? Does the operation of the store give rise to consumer harm and thereby trigger redress under US antitrust law?

The case goes back to 2011…

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We already know what it’s like to live under Artificial Intelligences

This morning’s Observer column:

In 1965, the mathematician I J “Jack” Good, one of Alan Turing’s code-breaking colleagues during the second world war, started to think about the implications of what he called an “ultra-intelligent” machine – ie “a machine that can surpass all the intellectual activities of any man, however clever”. If we were able to create such a machine, he mused, it would be “the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control”.

Note the proviso. Good’s speculation has lingered long in our collective subconscious, occasionally giving rise to outbreaks of fevered speculation. These generally focus on two questions. How long will it take us to create superintelligent machines? And what will it be like for humans to live with – or under – such machines? Will they rapidly conclude that people are a waste of space? Does the superintelligent machine pose an existential risk for humanity?

The answer to the first question can be summarised as “longer than you think”. And as for the second question, well, nobody really knows. How could they? Surely we’d need to build the machines first and then we’d find out. Actually, that’s not quite right. It just so happens that history has provided us with some useful insights into what it’s like to live with – and under – superintelligent machines.

They’re called corporations, and they’ve been around for a very long time – since about 1600, in fact…

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Are humans smarter than frogs?

This morning’s Observer column:

And then the penny dropped (I am slow on the uptake). I realised that what I had been doing was adding to a dataset for training the machine-learning software that guides self-driving cars – probably those designed and operated by Waymo, the autonomous vehicle project owned by Alphabet Inc (which also happens to own Google). So, to gain access to an automated service that will benefit financially from my input, I first have to do some unpaid labour to help improve the performance of Waymo’s vehicles (which, incidentally, will be publicly available for hire in Phoenix, Arizona, by the end of this year).

Neat, eh? But note also the delicious additional irony that the Captcha is described as an “automated Turing test”. The Turing test was conceived, you may recall, as a way of enabling humans to determine whether a machine could respond in such a way that one couldn’t tell whether it was a human or a robot. So we have wandered into a topsy-turvy world in which machines make us jump through hoops to prove that we are humans!

The strangest aspect of this epochal shift is how under-discussed it has been…

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Sheryl Sandberg: now visible in her true colours

Seems that I’m not the only one who’s been thinking about Sheryl Sandberg’s malign role in Facebook’s cynical campaign to evade responsibility for the damage the company is doing. The NYT investigation of Facebook’s campaign to escape the consequences of its actions (and of its business model) highlighted the aggressive role she played in that. Here’s an interesting take on Sandberg from Jessica Crispin in today’s Guardian:

Whether those problems are caused by Russians who sought to sway the 2016 election in favor of Donald Trump or the Myanmar military seeking to cleanse its state of the Rohingya people, Facebook has stubbornly delayed examining its role in geopolitical shifts all over the world. But people have been writing articles about the misdeeds of social media platforms for years, and little oversight, internal reform, or mass exodus of users ever follows.

The newest piece did reveal one thing, however: the vital role COO Sheryl Sandberg played in all of this. This is not the story, however, of the one woman bravely speaking truth to power. Nor is it the ethical influence a celebrated feminist leader had on a company concerned primarily with protecting its economic well being and that of its shareholders. Rather, Sandberg yelled at her employee, Facebook’s security chief, for daring to investigate these issues, and then tried to cover up all he had found. Sandberg also played a pivotal role in lobbying top lawmakers in Washington DC to limit unwanted regulation and scrutiny.

Sandberg, of course, became an aspirational heroine among mainstream, self-empowerment feminists with her 2013 book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead

In January 2015, when the Davos elite-fest was in full swing, I wrote an Observer column ridiculing the fatuous ‘reports’ Facebook used to issue round that time, asserting that the company’s impact on jobs and prosperity was substantial and very positive. It was all hooey, of course. But on the Sunday morning when the piece was published, Sandberg came up to a friend of mine who is a senior figure in the World Economic Forum (the outfit that runs the Davos event) at breakfast and asked him plaintively: “Why does John Naughton hate us?”

Looks like I was ahead of the pack — for once.

What makes this doubly interesting is that Sandberg reportedly was at one time fantasising about running for President (of the US).

Our new bi-polar world

This morning’s Observer column:

What the Chinese have discovered, in other words, is that digital technology – which we once naively believed would be a force for democratisation – is also a perfect tool for social control. It’s the operating system for networked authoritarianism. Last month, James O’Malley, a British journalist, was travelling on the Beijing-Shanghai bullet train when his reverie was interrupted by this announcement: “Dear passengers, people who travel without a ticket, or behave disorderly, or smoke in public areas, will be punished according to regulations and the behaviour will be recorded in individual credit information system. To avoid a negative record of personal credit please follow the relevant regulations and help with the orders on the train and at the station.” Makes you nostalgic for those announcements about “arriving at King’s Cross, where this train terminates”, doesn’t it?

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Conspiracist thinking and social media

This morning’s Observer column:

The prevalence of conspiracy theories online explains why they tend to crop up whenever we track the cognitive path of someone who, like the alleged Pittsburgh killer, commits or attempts to commit an atrocity. A case in point is Dylann Roof, a South Carolina teenager who one day came across the term “black on white crime” on Wikipedia, entered that phrase into Google and wound up at a deeply racist website inviting him to wake up to a “reality” that he had never considered, from which it was but a short step into a vortex of conspiracy theories portraying white people as victims. On 17 June 2015, Roof joined a group of African American churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, before opening fire on them, killing nine.

We find a similar sequence in the case of Cesar Sayoc, the man accused of sending mail bombs to prominent Democrats. Until 2016, his Facebook postings looked innocuous: decadent meals, gym workouts, scantily clad women and sports games – what the New York Times described as “the stereotypical trappings of middle-age masculinity”.

But then something changed. He opened a Twitter account posting links to fabricated rightwing stories and attacking Hillary Clinton. And his Facebook posts began to overflow with pro-Trump images, news stories about Muslims and Isis, ludicrous conspiracy theories and clips from Fox News…

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A picture is worth a trillion operations

This morning’s Observer column:

If you’re a keen photographer (which this columnist is) one of the things you prize most is a strange property called bokeh. It’s the aesthetic quality of the blur produced in the parts of an image that are not of central interest – the way a lens renders out-of-focus points of light. You often see it in great portraits: the subject’s eyes are razor-sharp but the – potentially distracting – background is fuzzy.

In the era when all photography was analogue, the only way to get good bokeh was to use lenses that produced narrow depth of field at wide apertures. Since the optical performance of most lenses decreased at such apertures, that meant that serious photographers faced a trade-off: their lust for bokeh involved compromising on overall image quality. And the only way round that was to spend money on lenses of complex design and exceedingly high optical quality. Neither of these came cheap: a photo-buff of my acquaintance, for example, recently laid out a small fortune for a Leica Noctilux f0.95 aspherical lens, which, its manufacturer claims, provides “unique bokeh”. (At a retail price of £9,100 it jolly well ought to.)

Enter Apple, which was once a struggling computer company…

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Tech determinism and its consequences

This morning’s Observer column:

The polite term for the delusions that grip the lords of Silicon Valley (and their fans elsewhere) is technological determinism: the belief that technology is what really drives history and that they are on the right side of that history. It may also explain why they have manifested such blithe indifference to the malign effects that their machines are having on society. After all, if technology is the remorseless bulldozer that flattens everything in its path, then why waste time and energy fretting about it or imagining that it might be controlled?

Determinism, in that sense, removes human agency from the picture. The role assigned to people is essentially that of passive or active consumers of whatever wonders the tech industry chooses to lay before them. It also removes politics from the frame, because politics is about how societies make collective choices and determinism holds that there are no choices to be made. One of the infuriating tragedies of our time is how so many of our ruling elites seem to have swallowed this snake oil and how long it has then taken them to wake up to what’s going on…

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