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Posts Tagged ‘AI

“Surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action”*…

 

Facial recognition

China’s facial recognition technology identifies visitors in a display at the Digital China Exhibition in Fuzhou, Fujian province, earlier this year

 

Collective wisdom is that China is becoming a kind of all-efficient Technocratic Leviathan thanks to the combination of machine learning and authoritarianism. Authoritarianism has always been plagued with problems of gathering and collating information and of being sufficiently responsive to its citizens’ needs to remain stable. Now, the story goes, a combination of massive data gathering and machine learning will solve the basic authoritarian dilemma. When every transaction that a citizen engages in is recorded by tiny automatons riding on the devices they carry in their hip pockets, when cameras on every corner collect data on who is going where, who is talking to whom, and uses facial recognition technology to distinguish ethnicity and identify enemies of the state, a new and far more powerful form of authoritarianism will emerge. Authoritarianism then, can emerge as a more efficient competitor that can beat democracy at its home game (some fear this; some welcome it).

The theory behind this is one of strength reinforcing strength – the strengths of ubiquitous data gathering and analysis reinforcing the strengths of authoritarian repression to create an unstoppable juggernaut of nearly perfectly efficient oppression. Yet there is another story to be told – of weakness reinforcing weakness. Authoritarian states were always particularly prone to the deficiencies identified in James Scott’s Seeing Like a State – the desire to make citizens and their doings legible to the state, by standardizing and categorizing them, and reorganizing collective life in simplified ways, for example by remaking cities so that they were not organic structures that emerged from the doings of their citizens, but instead grand chessboards with ordered squares and boulevards, reducing all complexities to a square of planed wood. The grand state bureaucracies that were built to carry out these operations were responsible for multitudes of horrors, but also for the crumbling of the Stalinist state into a Brezhnevian desuetude, where everyone pretended to be carrying on as normal because everyone else was carrying on too. The deficiencies of state action, and its need to reduce the world into something simpler that it could comprehend and act upon created a kind of feedback loop, in which imperfections of vision and action repeatedly reinforced each other.

So what might a similar analysis say about the marriage of authoritarianism and machine learning? Something like the following, I think. There are two notable problems with machine learning. One – that while it can do many extraordinary things, it is not nearly as universally effective as the mythology suggests. The other is that it can serve as a magnifier for already existing biases in the data. The patterns that it identifies may be the product of the problematic data that goes in, which is (to the extent that it is accurate) often the product of biased social processes. When this data is then used to make decisions that may plausibly reinforce those processes (by singling e.g. particular groups that are regarded as problematic out for particular police attention, leading them to be more liable to be arrested and so on), the bias may feed upon itself.

This is a substantial problem in democratic societies, but it is a problem where there are at least some counteracting tendencies. The great advantage of democracy is its openness to contrary opinions and divergent perspectives. This opens up democracy to a specific set of destabilizing attacks but it also means that there are countervailing tendencies to self-reinforcing biases. When there are groups that are victimized by such biases, they may mobilize against it (although they will find it harder to mobilize against algorithms than overt discrimination). When there are obvious inefficiencies or social, political or economic problems that result from biases, then there will be ways for people to point out these inefficiencies or problems.

These correction tendencies will be weaker in authoritarian societies; in extreme versions of authoritarianism, they may barely even exist…

In short, there is a very plausible set of mechanisms under which machine learning and related techniques may turn out to be a disaster for authoritarianism, reinforcing its weaknesses rather than its strengths, by increasing its tendency to bad decision making, and reducing further the possibility of negative feedback that could help correct against errors. This disaster would unfold in two ways. The first will involve enormous human costs: self-reinforcing bias will likely increase discrimination against out-groups, of the sort that we are seeing against the Uighur today. The second will involve more ordinary self-ramifying errors, that may lead to widespread planning disasters, which will differ from those described in Scott’s account of High Modernism in that they are not as immediately visible, but that may also be more pernicious, and more damaging to the political health and viability of the regime for just that reason.

So in short, this conjecture would suggest that  the conjunction of AI and authoritarianism (has someone coined the term ‘aithoritarianism’ yet? I’d really prefer not to take the blame), will have more or less the opposite effects of what people expect. It will not be Singapore writ large, and perhaps more brutal. Instead, it will be both more radically monstrous and more radically unstable…

Henry Farrell (@henryfarrell) makes that case that the “automation of authoritarianism” may backfire on China (and on the regimes to which it is exporting it’s surveillance technology): “Seeing Like a Finite State Machine.”

See also: “China Government Spreads Uyghur Analytics Across China.”

* Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison

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As we ponder privacy, we might recall that it was on this date in 1769 that the first patent was issued (in London, to John Bevan) for Venetian blinds.  Invented centuries before in Persia, then brought back to Venice through trade, they became popular in Europe, then the U.S. as both a manager of outside light and as an early privacy technology.

venetian blinds source

 

Written by LW

December 11, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Not with a bang, but a whimper”*…

 

automation

 

What actually happens to workers when a company deploys automation? The common assumption seems to be that the employee simply disappears wholesale, replaced one-for-one with an AI interface or an array of mechanized arms.

Yet given the extensive punditeering, handwringing, and stump-speeching around the “robots are coming for our jobs” phenomenon—which I will never miss an opportunity to point out is falsely represented—research into what happens to the individual worker remains relatively thin. Studies have attempted to monitor the impact of automation on wages on aggregate or to correlate employment to levels of robotization.

But few in-depth investigations have been made into what happens to each worker after their companies roll out automation initiatives. Earlier this year, though, a paper authored by economists James Bessen, Maarten Goos, Anna Salomons, and Wiljan Van den Berge set out to do exactly that…

What emerges is a portrait of workplace automation that is ominous in a less dramatic manner than we’re typically made to understand. For one thing, there is no ‘robot apocalypse’, even after a major corporate automation event. Unlike mass layoffs, automation does not appear to immediately and directly send workers packing en masse.

Instead, automation increases the likelihood that workers will be driven away from their previous jobs at the companies—whether they’re fired, or moved to less rewarding tasks, or quit—and causes a long-term loss of wages for the employee.

The report finds that “firm-level automation increases the probability of workers separating from their employers and decreases days worked, leading to a 5-year cumulative wage income loss of 11 percent of one year’s earnings.” That’s a pretty significant loss.

Worse still, the study found that even in the Netherlands, which has a comparatively generous social safety net to, say, the United States, workers were only able to offset a fraction of those losses with benefits provided by the state. Older workers, meanwhile, were more likely to retire early—deprived of years of income they may have been counting on.

Interestingly, the effects of automation were felt similarly through all manner of company—small, large, industrial, services-oriented, and so on. The study covered all non-finance sector firms, and found that worker separation and income loss were “quite pervasive across worker types, firm sizes and sectors.”

Automation, in other words, forces a more pervasive, slower-acting and much less visible phenomenon than the robots-are-eating-our-jobs talk is preparing us for…

The result, Bessen says, is an added strain on the social safety net that it is currently woefully unprepared to handle. As more and more firms join the automation goldrush—a 2018 McKinsey survey of 1,300 companies worldwide found that three-quarters of them had either begun to automate business processes or planned to do so next year—the number of workers forced out of firms seems likely to tick up, or at least hold steady. What is unlikely to happen, per this research, is an automation-driven mass exodus of jobs.

This is a double-edged sword: While it’s obviously good that thousands of workers are unlikely to be fired in one fell swoop when a process is automated at a corporation, it also means the pain of automation is distributed in smaller, more personalized doses, and thus less likely to prompt any sort of urgent public response. If an entire Amazon warehouse were suddenly automated, it might spur policymakers to try to address the issue; if automation has been slowly hurting us for years, it’s harder to rally support for stemming the pain…

Brian Merchant on the ironic challenge of addressing the slow-motion, trickle-down social, economic, and cultural threats of automation– that they will accrue gradually, like erosion, not catastrophically… making it harder to generate a sense of urgency around creating a response: “There’s an Automation Crisis Underway Right Now, It’s Just Mostly Invisible.”

* T. S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men”

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As we think systemically, we might recall that it was on this date in 1994 that Ken McCarthy, Marc Andreessen, and Mark Graham held the first conference to focus on the commercial potential of the World Wide Web.

 

 

Written by LW

November 5, 2019 at 1:01 am

“O brave new world”*…

 

law and AI

 

With the arrival of autonomous weapons systems (AWS)[1] on the 21st century battlefield, the nature of warfare is poised for dramatic change.[2] Overseen by artificial intelligence (AI), fueled by terabytes of data and operating at lightning-fast speed, AWS will be the decisive feature of future military conflicts.[3] Nonetheless, under the American way of war, AWS will operate within existing legal and policy guidelines that establish conditions and criteria for the application of force.[4] Even as the Department of Defense (DoD) places limitations on when and how AWS may take action,[5] the pace of new conflicts and adoption of AWS by peer competitors will ultimately push military leaders to empower AI-enabled weapons to make decisions with less and less human input.[6] As such, timely, accurate, and context-specific legal advice during the planning and operation of AWS missions will be essential. In the face of digital-decision-making, mere human legal advisors will be challenged to keep up!

Fortunately, at the same time that AI is changing warfare, the practice of law is undergoing a similar AI-driven transformation.[7]

From The Judge Advocate General’s CorpsThe Reporter: “Autonomous Weapons Need Autonomous Lawyers.”

As I finish drafting this post [on October 5], I’ve discovered that none of the links are available any longer; the piece (and the referenced articles within it, also from The Reporter) were apparently removed from public view while I was drafting this– from a Reporter web page that, obviously, opened for me earlier.  You will find other references to (and excerpts from/comments on) the article here, here, and here.  I’m leaving the original links in, in case they become active again…

* Shakespeare, The Tempest

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As we wonder if this can end well, we might recall that it was on this date in 1983 that Ameritech executive Bob Barnett made a phone call from a car parked near Soldier Field in Chicago, officially launching the first cellular network in the United States.

barnett-300x165

Barnett (foreground, in the car) and his audience

 

Written by LW

October 13, 2019 at 1:01 am

“How about a little magic?”*…

 

sorcerers apprentice

 

Once upon a time (bear with me if you’ve heard this one), there was a company which made a significant advance in artificial intelligence. Given their incredibly sophisticated new system, they started to put it to ever-wider uses, asking it to optimize their business for everything from the lofty to the mundane.

And one day, the CEO wanted to grab a paperclip to hold some papers together, and found there weren’t any in the tray by the printer. “Alice!” he cried (for Alice was the name of his machine learning lead) “Can you tell the damned AI to make sure we don’t run out of paperclips again?”…

What could possibly go wrong?

[As you’ll read in the full and fascinating article, a great deal…]

Computer scientists tell the story of the Paperclip Maximizer as a sort of cross between the Sorcerer’s Apprentice and the Matrix; a reminder of why it’s crucially important to tell your system not just what its goals are, but how it should balance those goals against costs. It frequently comes with a warning that it’s easy to forget a cost somewhere, and so you should always check your models carefully to make sure they aren’t accidentally turning in to Paperclip Maximizers…

But this parable is not just about computer science. Replace the paper clips in the story above with money, and you will see the rise of finance…

Yonatan Zunger tells a powerful story that’s not (only) about AI: “The Parable of the Paperclip Maximizer.”

* Mickey Mouse, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

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As we’re careful what we wish for (and how we wish for it), we might recall that it was on this date in 1631 that the Puritans in the recently-chartered Massachusetts Bay Colony issued a General Court Ordinance that banned gambling: “whatsoever that have cards, dice or tables in their houses, shall make away with them before the next court under pain of punishment.”

Mass gambling source

 

Written by LW

March 22, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Outward show is a wonderful perverter of the reason”*…

 

facial analysis

Humans have long hungered for a short-hand to help in understanding and managing other humans.  From phrenology to the Myers-Briggs Test, we’ve tried dozens of short-cuts… and tended to find that at best they weren’t actually very helpful; at worst, they were reinforcing of stereotypes that were inaccurate, and so led to results that were unfair and ineffective.  Still, the quest continues– these days powered by artificial intelligence.  What could go wrong?…

Could a program detect potential terrorists by reading their facial expressions and behavior? This was the hypothesis put to the test by the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in 2003, as it began testing a new surveillance program called the Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques program, or Spot for short.

While developing the program, they consulted Paul Ekman, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of California, San Francisco. Decades earlier, Ekman had developed a method to identify minute facial expressions and map them on to corresponding emotions. This method was used to train “behavior detection officers” to scan faces for signs of deception.

But when the program was rolled out in 2007, it was beset with problems. Officers were referring passengers for interrogation more or less at random, and the small number of arrests that came about were on charges unrelated to terrorism. Even more concerning was the fact that the program was allegedly used to justify racial profiling.

Ekman tried to distance himself from Spot, claiming his method was being misapplied. But others suggested that the program’s failure was due to an outdated scientific theory that underpinned Ekman’s method; namely, that emotions can be deduced objectively through analysis of the face.

In recent years, technology companies have started using Ekman’s method to train algorithms to detect emotion from facial expressions. Some developers claim that automatic emotion detection systems will not only be better than humans at discovering true emotions by analyzing the face, but that these algorithms will become attuned to our innermost feelings, vastly improving interaction with our devices.

But many experts studying the science of emotion are concerned that these algorithms will fail once again, making high-stakes decisions about our lives based on faulty science…

“Emotion detection” has grown from a research project to a $20bn industry; learn more about why that’s a cause for concern: “Don’t look now: why you should be worried about machines reading your emotions.”

* Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

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As we insist on the individual, we might recall that it was on this date in 1989 that Tim Berners-Lee submitted a proposal to CERN for developing a new way of linking and sharing information over the Internet.

It was the first time Berners-Lee proposed a system that would ultimately become the World Wide Web; but his proposal was basically a relatively vague request to research the details and feasibility of such a system.  He later submitted a proposal on November 12, 1990 that much more directly detailed the actual implementation of the World Wide Web.

web25-significant-white-300x248 source

 

“By far, the greatest danger of Artificial Intelligence is that people conclude too early that they understand it”*…

 

robit writer

 

Recently, OpenAI announced its latest breakthrough, GPT-2, a language model that can write essays to a prompt, answer questions, and summarize longer works… sufficiently successfully that OpenAI has said that it’s too dangerous to release the code (lest it result in “deepfake news” or other misleading mischief).

Scott Alexander contemplates the results.  His conclusion:

a brain running at 5% capacity is about as good as the best AI that the brightest geniuses working in the best-equipped laboratories in the greatest country in the world are able to produce in 2019. But:

We believe this project is the first step in the direction of developing large NLP systems without task-specific training data. That is, we are developing a machine language system in the generative style with no explicit rules for producing text. We hope for future collaborations between computer scientists, linguists, and machine learning researchers.

A boring sentiment from an interesting source: the AI wrote that when asked to describe itself. We live in interesting times.

His complete post, eminently worthy of reading in full: “Do Neural Nets Dream of Electric Hobbits?

[image above, and another account of OpenAI’s creation: “OpenAI says its new robo-writer is too dangerous for public release“]

* Eliezer Yudkowsky

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As we take the Turing Test, we might send elegantly-designed birthday greetings to Steve Jobs; he was born on this date in 1955.  While he is surely well-known to every reader here, let us note for the record that he was was instrumental in developing the Macintosh, the computer that took Apple to unprecedented levels of success.  After leaving the company he started with Steve Wozniak, Jobs continued his personal computer development at his NeXT Inc.  In 1997, Jobs returned to Apple to lead the company into a new era based on NeXT technologies and consumer electronics.  Some of Jobs’ achievements in this new era include the iMac, the iPhone, the iTunes music store, the iPod, and the iPad.  Under Jobs’ leadership Apple was at one time the world’s most valuable company. (And, of course, he bought Pixar from George Lucas, and oversaw both its rise to animation dominance and its sale to Disney– as a product of which Jobs became Disney’s largest single shareholder.)

Jobs source

 

Written by LW

February 24, 2019 at 1:01 am

“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge”*…

 

40990080740_17170c03ec_z

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, East German citizens were offered the chance to read the files kept on them by the Stasi, the much-feared Communist-era secret police service. To date, it is estimated that only 10 percent have taken the opportunity.

In 2007, James Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, asked that he not be given any information about his APOE gene, one allele of which is a known risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease.

Most people tell pollsters that, given the choice, they would prefer not to know the date of their own death—or even the future dates of happy events.

Each of these is an example of willful ignorance. Socrates may have made the case that the unexamined life is not worth living, and Hobbes may have argued that curiosity is mankind’s primary passion, but many of our oldest stories actually describe the dangers of knowing too much. From Adam and Eve and the tree of knowledge to Prometheus stealing the secret of fire, they teach us that real-life decisions need to strike a delicate balance between choosing to know, and choosing not to.

But what if a technology came along that shifted this balance unpredictably, complicating how we make decisions about when to remain ignorant? That technology is here: It’s called artificial intelligence.

AI can find patterns and make inferences using relatively little data. Only a handful of Facebook likes are necessary to predict your personality, race, and gender, for example. Another computer algorithm claims it can distinguish between homosexual and heterosexual men with 81 percent accuracy, and homosexual and heterosexual women with 71 percent accuracy, based on their picture alone. An algorithm named COMPAS (Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions) can predict criminal recidivism from data like juvenile arrests, criminal records in the family, education, social isolation, and leisure activities with 65 percent accuracy…

Knowledge can sometimes corrupt judgment, and we often choose to remain deliberately ignorant in response.  But in an age of all-knowing algorithms, how do we choose not to know?  Two scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development argue that “We Need to Save Ignorance From AI.”

* Daniel J. Boorstin

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As we consider closing our eyes, we might send discoverable birthday greetings to Tim Bray; he was born on this date in 1955.  A seminal software developer and entrepreneur, he is probably best known as the co-author of the original specifications for the XML and XML namespace, open standards that fueled the growth of the internet (by setting down simple rules for encoding documents in a format that is both human-readable and machine-readable), and as the co-founder of the Open Text Corporation, which released the Open Text Index, one of the first popular commercial web search engines.

40990080840_2a593e7046_o source

 

Written by LW

June 21, 2018 at 1:01 am

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