Rise of the machines: Links & comments 8/19/14

The Internet’s Original Sin by Ethan Zuckerman for The Atlantic.

The basic problem with the commercial Internet, according to this writer, is the use of advertising to finance Internet services.

Because an individual advertisement on the Internet has little impact, the value of advertising is based on the ability of the firm to target individuals who are interested in this particular product.  And the only way to do this is to gather data and use it to profile individuals.

Invasion of privacy is not a bug.  It is a necessary feature.  The reason it is necessary is that most people would rather give up their privacy than pay for Internet services.

Zuckerman thinks this is the reason that NSA surveillance is no big deal for most Americans.  We’re already accustomed to giving up our privacy.

He doesn’t have a good answer as to what to do about all this, and neither do I.

How We Imprison the Poor for Crimes That Haven’t Happened Yet by Hamilton Nolan for Gawker.

The science-fiction movie Minority Report imagined a world in which it was possible to predict when people would commit crimes and to arrest them before the crime occurred.  A predictive science of human behavior does not exist, but that does not stop people in authority from acting as if it did.

American courts are increasingly using what’s called “evidence-based sentencing” on which the severity of the sentence is based on a computer algorithm’s determination of the likelihood that the person will commit another crime.

In practice, what this means that that poor youth who grew up in a family without a father will get a worse sentence than a middle-class youth with access to psychiatrists and good job opportunities.

This is contrary to the basic principle of equal justice under law.   If you commit a crime, you should be punished for what you did, not for what somebody thinks you may do.

Chinese scientists develop mini-camera to scan crowds for potential suicide bombers by Stephen Chen for South China Morning Post.

Scientists in China have developed a scanning system for detecting the level of blood oxygenation in an individual’s face.  This would be a sign of stress, which might be a tip-off that the person is a potential terrorist.

The problem with this is that there are many reasons why an individual might be stressed besides being on the verge of committing a crime and that, on the other hand, sociopaths and psychopaths lack the emotional responses of a normal person.

Can an algorithm be a fiduciary? by Suzanne Barlyn for Reuters.

This article reminds me of another science-fiction novel, Accelerando, in which artificial intelligences achieved legal personhood by incorporating themselves.  Some firms are not only using computer algorithms to help make investment decisions, but turning over the whole management of certain funds to “robo-advisers”.

The problem as I see it is much the same as with airline pilots who get so used to flying on automatic pilot that they lose their piloting skills.  Allow computer algorithms to make decisions for you long enough, and you lose the ability to judge things for yourself.

The problem is not that machines may become too powerful.  The problem is that human beings may abdicate their responsibility to make decisions, and nobody will be in charge.

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