Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

The forward march of artificial intelligence

August 28, 2021

OpenAI is an artificial intelligence research company.  Its Open AI Codex is an artificial intelligence that translates natural language into code.  That is, you can use plain language to tell it what to do.  The video is a demonstration of what can be done with it. 

This is really something, but I imagine I’d have to be a programmer to appreciate how great an accomplishment this is.

Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution calls it “the most impressive AI demonstration I have ever seen,”  while Ben Dickson of VentureBeat pointed out its limitations.

For what it’s worth, I think the world is light-years away from the strong AI that some people fear.  I think the danger of AI is not that machines will become intelligent, but that people will rely on them as if they really were intelligent.

Boston Dynamics’ robots Atlas and Handle

August 21, 2021

I find these robots’ antics highly impressive, sort-of amusing and vaguely ominous.  How long until such machines will be directing traffic, waiting on tables in restaurants or leading high school students in calisthenics?

Leaps, Bounds and Backflips by Calvin Hennick for Boston Dynamics.  Hat tip to kottke.org.

Church organ music on a Commodore 64

April 3, 2021

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Linus Akesson web page.

The sixtyforgan by Linus Akesson.

Simulating Church Organ Music on a Commodore 64 by Jason Kottke for kottke.org.

The freedom of speech dilemma

January 29, 2021

The new documentary movie, “The Social Dilemma,” is about social media companies whose business plan is addiction.   We discussed it in the drop-in discussion group of First Universalist Church of Rochester, N.Y., last Tuesday.

This is a real problem I’ve written about myself, and little of what was presented is new to me.

The Internet itself has inherent addictive aspects, to begin with.  Social media companies use artificial intelligence and behavioral psychology to make their offerings more addictive. 

They combine AI and psychological expertise with surveillance technology to target individuals who are susceptible to certain types of advertising and propaganda.

Since their aim is “engagement,” it is more profitable to generate fear and anger than contentment because the negative emotions have more impact.  For the same reason, it often is more profitable to steer people to sensational fake news than dull but accurate news.

All this is generally understood[Update 1/30/2021. Then again, the movie itself may be an example of what it complains of.]

So why are there so many calls for the social media companies to take on the role of Internet censors?  If Facebook and Google are the sources of the problem, what qualifies their employees to decide which news sites I should see and which I shouldn’t?

It is not as if they have given up on a business model in which profits are made by enabling propaganda by exploiting surveillance and addiction.

What the social media companies seem to be doing is cracking down on everybody—right, left or off the spectrum—who dissents from the official view.

Experts quoted in the film say that, because of the social media companies, there is no agreement on what is true and what isn’t, and they also say the very concept of objective truth is disappearing. 

But these are two very different things.  It is not only possible, but very common, to have agreement based on lies or false beliefs. 

There was an official consensus in 2002, supported by, among others, the New York Times, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. 

As a result of those lies, thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of people in the Middle East lost their lives; millions became homeless refugees. 

Popular journalists who questioned the WMD lies, such as Phil Donahue, were canceled.  They have never been rehabilitated. 

Those who went along with the lies flourished.  They have paid no penalty, even in reputation.

The consequences of the WMD lie were many times greater than the Pizzagate conspiracy theory lie.  Spreading the Pizzagate story endangered innocent lives, I’m not trying to justify it, but, in fact, nobody died as a result.

More recently the so-called mainstream media spread baseless claims that Donald Trump is a secret agent of Vladimir Putin.  Trump is many bad things, but that charge was absurd.  The media also spread baseless claims to smear Julian Assange.

Maybe you doubt the Russiagate and Assange claims were fake news.  Fair enough.  But how can you be sure if you don’t have access to the arguments on the other side?

What most critics of the social media companies, including the producers of the movie, don’t get is that there is one thing worse than producing competing versions of reality that nobody can agree on.

The worse thing is the social media companies working hand-in-hand with government to produce a common propaganda version of reality based on official lies.  This is what is going on right now.

If liberals or progressives think a government and corporate crackdown on “fake news” is going to be limited to actual white supremacists or neo-Nazis, they are very naive.

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A 25-year-old bet that tech would wreck society

January 9, 2021

Some 25 years ago, Kirkpatrick Sale, author of Rebels Against the Future, a book in praise of the 19th century anti-machinery Luddite movement, bet Kevin Kelly, a top editor of the techno-utopian magazine Wired, that technology would wreck society by 2020.

The bet was for $1,000.  They agreed that William Patrick, a book editor who’d worked with both of them, would judge who’d won.

Sale predicted an economic disaster that would render the dollar worthless, causing a depression worse than the one in 1930; a rebellion of the poor against the rich; and a series of environmental disasters.

Patrick’s verdict was as follows:

Global Environmental Disaster. Environmental problems have far more to do with old school, industrial technology (slowly being retired) than with information technology (which may well be the only hope for a solution). Even so, with fires, floods, and rising seas displacing populations; bugs and diseases heading north, ice caps melting and polar bears with no place to go; as well as the worst hurricane season and the warmest year on record, it’s hard to dispute that we are at least “close to” global environmental disaster. Round goes to Kirk.

Economic Collapse. Not much contest here. Even with a pandemic, unemployment is a problem, but nowhere near a crisis—at least not in the closing days of 2020. (Stay tuned.) The Dow recently hit 30,000, and the leading currencies are cruising along. (Bitcoin, an entirely new form of currency unimaginable in 1995, is soaring—nearing $20,000 when I last checked.) So, Kirk’s dire prediction was way off. Round goes to Kevin.

War between rich and poor, both within and among nations. This is a toughie. Kirk’s apocalyptic forecast is especially problematic when you factor in huge economic gains in China and India, driven in large part by tech. On the other hand, how heavily do you weigh economic unrest as a factor in spawning the terrorism that triggered “forever wars” in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia? And the economic dislocation among blue collar workers that allowed Trump’s faux populism to win them over? Meanwhile, anger at police abuses has led to massive protests from the left and bloody riots in the U.S. and Europe. It’s hard to say that “the poor rising up in rebellion” accurately characterizes the current state of the world (especially with that rising middle class in Asia) but it’s also hard to say, when you consider the unrest in the Islamic world and Trump supporters waving automatic weapons, that we’re “nowhere close.” Round is a toss-up, with an edge to Kirk.

Source: The Technium

However, the bet was not a draw.  Sale’s bet was that all three predictions would happen, and so he lost.

Sale doesn’t accept that he lost.  He thinks all three of his predictions will yet come true.  I think there’s a good chance they might.

LINK

A 25-Year-Old Bet Comes Due: Has Tech Destroyed Society? by Steven Levy for Wired.  Hat tip to Steve from Texas.

Concluding Our 25-Year Bet by Kevin Kelly for The Technium.

Is Society Collapsing? by Kirkpatrick Sale for Counterpunch.

Four new laws of robotics

December 3, 2020

When “automation” first became a word back in the 1950s and 1960s, some of us had a hopeful vision of machines during all the dirty, backbreaking work, while human beings monitor and command the machines.

Nobody that I know of imagined places like customer service call centers or the Amazon warehouses or , where human beings are still doing high-stress and backbreaking work, and the supervision is done by machine intelligences.

Technology is not an autonomous force.  It is created to serve human purposes.  The question is which humans and which purposes.

I read an interesting interview with a writer named Frank Pasquale, author of a book called New Laws of Robotics.  He says the robots and artificial intelligences in our lives serve the interests of people with wealth and power.  It is time to take back control and make sure they serve us and not them.

He proposed new laws of robotics as follows.

  1.  Robotics should complement professionals, not replace them.  As a general rule, management should not use technology to eliminate jobs or to reduce the need for skilled labor.  The purpose of technology should to add value to labor.
  2. Robots and AI should not counterfeit humanity.  If robots send automated messages on social media, or evaluate your credit score or medical record, we have a right to know what they are and who owns them.
  3. Robots and AI should not contribute to zero-sum arms races.  It isn’t just robotic warfare.  It is the construction of an $800 million fiber optics able between Chicago and New York so that speculators in Chicago can get in orders to the New York Stock Exchange a few fractions of a second earlier and thereby gain a competitive advantage.  There is a lack of money for crucial infrastructure, but seemingly unlimited funds to gain small marketing or financial advantages.
  4. Any person or control group that puts a machine or AI into operation should be legally liable for the consequences of what it does.  AI algorithms can eliminate the human factor.  It is just pushed into the background.

Asking whether technology is good or bad is meaningless, because every society, including those we regard as primitive, has some technology.  The important question is always how a particular technology works, how controls it and whose interests it serves. 

Computer algorithms may be good or bad, just as laws can be good or bad, but both are products of human judgment.  Those judgments should be open to discussion and accountability.

LINKS

New Laws of Robotics with Frank Pasquale, an interview for Monthly Review Online.  The interview is long, but rich and thought-provoking.  I barely skimmed the surface of it in this post.  I ordered Pasquale’s book and plan to review it.

A Short Comment on a Big Danger by Jack Rasmus.

Ivan Illich on what’s wrong with the world

October 16, 2020

Ivan Illich (1926-2002) was a Catholic priest and philosopher famous in the 1970s for his criticisms of modern institutions, including compulsory education. modern medicine and most technology.

I read his Tools for Conviviality when it first came out in 1973.  He thought technology should be limited to what he called tools—devices such as sewing machines (my example, not his) that served the needs of households, rather than textile machinery in factories, to which human beings had to adapt themselves’  I thought his ideas interesting but impractical.

Now it seems that our high-tech civilization may not be sustainable, due to global warming, exhaustion of natural resources, and the fragility of complex supply chains, not to mention war and revolution.  So maybe Maybe Illich’s ideas are worth a second look.

On the recommendation of e-mail pen pals, I recently read THE RIVERS NORTH OF THE FUTURE: The Testament of Ivan Illich as told to David Cayley.  It contains a short biography of Illich and a series of interviews by Cayley, a writer and broadcaster for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., in 1997 and 1999.

This is deep stuff, and I don’t think I fully understand it.  What follows is what I got out of the book, not a summary of what’s in the book.

Illich’s contention was that the modern world is a product of the corruption of Christianity.  The basic ideas of secular liberalism, such as the equal dignity and worth of all persons and the duty of the strong to protect the weak, originated in Christianity, but have become distorted by being torn from their Christian context.

Jesus taught that the two great commandments were to love God with all your heart, soul and mind and your neighbor as yourself, Illich wrote.  To illustrate what he meant, he told the story of the Good Samaritan.

A member of a despised group, like a Palestinian Arab in Israel today, helped a stranger, a Jew, who had been beaten, robbed and left by the roadside.  Nobody would have said that the Samaritan was obligated to help. Two high-status members of the Jew’s own community had passed by on the other side.  But the stranger acted as his neighbor.

It was the custom among early Christians to set extra place at the table in case a hungry stranger came by in need of food and shelter.  The stranger could be Jesus–who showed us that God in the form of human flesh. 

Over time Christian villagers set aside separate buildings for the poor.  And then the church came to set rules about giving, such as tithing.  And now we have the modern, impersonal welfare bureaucracy.

So charity has become a matter of following rules and helping organizations.  There are individuals who would do what the Good Samaritan in the parable did, but they are rare and generally regarded as eccentric.

Illich said the corruption of Christianity was in the “criminalization of sin.”  Sin is a breaking of the relationship between a human and God, including the image of God manifested in another human being, he wrote.  But the church came to define sin as a breaking of certain rules.

But given human nature as it is, what would you expect?

Jesus told the people that Moses gave them laws “because of your hardness of heart”—meaning they were not capable of being guided by the law of love.  But are people today any different from what they were 2000 years ago?

Consider what Jesus expected of his Apostles.  Quit your job.  Leave your family.  Give away all your possessions to the poor. Don’t plan for the future; God will take care of you.

Love God with all your heart, mind and soul and your neighbor as yourself.  Love even your enemies.  Criticize yourself, not other people.  And if you pretty much do all these things, don’t pat yourself on the back.  Any repentant sinner is just as good as you are.

It is really something that the first generations of Christians were actually able to live at that level of intensity.

It’s not surprising to me that later generations developed a dialed-down version that ordinary people, even people as weak and selfish as I am, could accept.  Even so, in every century, there was a St Francis of Assisi or Dorothy Day who tried to live out the original teaching/

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William Tell Overture performed on Tesla Coils

August 15, 2020

For those who did not understand what is going on this video, here’s a brief explanation from the Franzoli Electronics YouTube Page: The main loud music really comes from the Tesla coil sparks. They are literally playing the music due to the programmed phase, pulse width and firing frequency! So, there are no speakers, no audio / video special effects. It looks even better in person and sounds almost the same, just without the beat / percussion backing track.

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A high-resolution look at Mars

August 5, 2020

This panorama was created by combining hundreds of still photographs.  For details, click on Gorgeous 4K Video of Mars by Jason Kottke for kottke.org.

A high-tech look at da Vinci’s The Last Supper

July 19, 2020

A copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. Double click to expand

I think the world is in a bad state.   But most weekends, I try to find things to post that are pleasant, funny, beautiful, inspiring or positive in some other way.

I came across a post on Jason Kottke’s kottje.org about how the Royal Academy of Arts teamed up to make a high-resolution, zoomable copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, so that you can examine the painting in detail in a way that wasn’t possible before.

There are two things to feel good about – the genius of Leonardo da Vinci, who could make such a painting, and today’s high technology, which enables us to appreciate da Vinci’s achievement without leaving home.

Leonardo da Vinci painted The Last Supper on the wall of the Santa Maria della Grazie monastery in Milan, Italy, starting in 1495.  Most painters of that period used frescos, mixing paint with wet plaster.  Da Vinci used an experimental technique, painting on dry plaster, which did not work well.  The painting started to flake soon after it was finished.

Monks made a door in the wall, cutting off Jesus’ feet.  Napoleon stabled his horses in the monastery.  It was bombed during World War Two.  Devoted art lovers did their best to restore it, but critics say little of the original remains.

Fortunately three of da Vinci’s students made copies.  The one made by Giampietrino is now in London’s Royal Academy of the Arts, and that is the one that Google scanned.

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Kirkpatrick Sale’s bet on the world of 2020

June 11, 2020

The Luddites in action

Back in 1995, Kevin Kelly, the editor of Wired magazine, made a bet with Kirkpatrick Sale, the critic of technology.  The bet was that, by the year 2020, technology would have produced a much better world.

Kevin Kelly believed then and still believes that technological progress will automatically produce a better world.  Kirkpatrick Sale believed the opposite.  He thought then and still believes that the world has been on the wrong course since Columbus’s voyages in 1492.

My old friend in Texas called my attention to a 2019 article, in which Sale described the bet and told how he foresaw the world going wrong:

First, an economic collapse. I posited that it might take the form of a worldwide currency devaluation, in which the dollar loses its standing as the world’s reserve currency and becomes effectively worthless even in this country, and a global stock-market crash and depression.

Second, a political collapse, with upheavals both within nation-states and between. I saw the collapsed economy leading to maybe the bottom fifth of society in the developed world, no longer bought off with alcohol and drugs and celebrity and consumerism, rising up in rebellion and creating havoc and disarray throughout; at the same time a similar rebellion of the poor nations, no longer content to take the crumbs from the table of the rich, and simultaneously fighting violent guerrilla wars and flooding into the developed nations to escape their misery.

And finally, perhaps over-arching, an environmental collapse, in which global warming and ozone depletion, for example, made some areas like Australia and Africa unlivable and caused ice packs to melt, and old diseases, released from melting ice and deforested swamplands, mixed with new and spread deadly infections to all continents.

Source: CounterPunch.org

Kirkpatrick Sale’s predictions haven’t come true, at least not completely, but they seem much more probable than Kevin Kelly’s faith in inevitable technological progress.

I have to say, though, that, in 1995, I would have bet on Kelly’s side.

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Is green technology a mirage?

June 9, 2020

If a problem cannot be solved, it may not be a problem, but a fact.  [Attributed to Donald Rumsfeld]

It is possible to ignore reality, but it is not possible to ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.  [Attributed to Ayn Rand]

A new Michael Moore movie, “Planet of the Humans,” is an attack on the renewable energy movement.  Environmentalists by and large are outraged, and some demanded the movie be suppressed.

It actually was taken down from YouTube for 11 days, but it’s back up now.  If it is taken down again, you can view it on the Planet of the Humans Home page.

It runs for 100 minutes, which is a long time to watch something on a computer screen.  But it held my interest, and maybe it would hold yours, too.

In the first part of the movie, director Jeff Gibbs shows that solar panels and windmills are built through energy-intensive industrial processes and that they are made of materials such as high-grade quartz and rare earths that are scarce and non-renewable.

Solar panels and windmills wear out and have to be replaced.  In one scene, he visits Daggett, California, which pioneered in the development of solar and wind energy.  He sees a wasteland of dilapidated panels and windmills, because the pioneers couldn’t afford to keep them up.

And they don’t even fully replace fossil fuels.  Because of variability of sun and wind, backup electrical generators have to keep spinning, and the ones that aren’t hydroelectric use coal, gas and nuclear fuel.

In the second part, he looks at the environmental destruction caused by biomass energy.  There is no gain from freeing yourself from dependence on coal companies and embracing logging companies.

He makes a big point of pointing out the corporate ties of environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club and of environmentalists such as Al Gore, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Richard Branson and even Bill McKibben.

He questions the whole premise, promoted by advocates such as Al Gore, that it is possible for middle-class Americans to enjoy our current material standard of living simply by adopting a new technology.

Fossil fuels made possible a world with an exponentially increasing population with the average individual using an ever-increasing amount of fuel and raw materials, Gibbs said.  Such a world isn’t sustainable, he said.

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The whole GRU phishing story seems fishy

January 16, 2020

Area 1 Security, a California-based cybersecurity firm, claimed that Russian military intelligence successfully hacked Burisma Holdings for dirt on Joe Biden’s son.

The GRU allegedly used what’s known as phishing—tricking people into revealing passwords and other information needed to penetrate a secure computer system.

Area 1 Security claims to have the capability of a little junior National Security Agency.  Here’s what the New York Times reported.

“The attacks were successful,” said Oren Falkowitz, a co-founder of Area 1, who previously served at the National Security Agency.  Mr. Falkowitz’s firm maintains a network of sensors on web servers around the globe — many known to be used by state-sponsored hackers — which gives the firm a front-row seat to phishing attacks, and allows them to block attacks on their customers.

Source: The New York Times.

But the company’s services are limited to giving really, really good protection against phishing attacks.  I would not think a company with such superpowers would limit itself like this.

Interestingly, in the original announcement and press release, Area 1 did not claim to know that Burisma Holdings security had been breached—only that the GRU was attempting to penetrate its security through phishing.

That is probably true.  The GRU is no doubt trying to penetrate all the major corporations and government agencies in Ukraine.  But why wouldn’t Area 1 put the stronger claim in its press release?  It makes the claim that the GRU was successful seem like an afterthought..

I think the purpose of the announcement is to make Burisma Holdings, the corrupt former employer of Joe Biden’s son Hunter, off limits for discussion in the coming election campaign.  Anybody who raises this issue will be called a Russian asset.

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The global future of the surveillance states

December 6, 2019

Knowledge is power.  If I know everything there is to know about you, and you know nothing about me, I have power over you.

That power takes two forms.  One is the power of blackmail.  You would be highly unusual if you not only had never done anything bad, but had never done anything that could be made to look bad.

The other is the power of manipulation.  If I know everything about you, I have an idea of what psychological buttons to push to get you to do what I want.

Edward Snowden, in PERMANENT RECORD, told of how U.S. intelligence agencies are collecting information about the whole American population based on their electronic records and Internet activities.

We know that intelligence agencies use blackmail.  And we know from Shoshana Zuboff’s THE AGE OF SURVEILLANCE CAPITALISM that corporations such as Google, Facebook and Cambridge Analytica use data about individuals to help advertisers and win election campaigns.

But surveillance is not just American.  if U.S. intelligence agencies are gathering data about foreigners, foreign intelligence agencies must surely be gathering information about Americans.  And if they don’t yet have the technical capability to equal the American effort, it is only a matter of time until they do.

The government of China, for example, has financial and technological power equal to the USA, and the Chinese have an attitude that anything Americans or other Westerners can do, they can out-do.

They already carry surveillance of their own citizens to terrifying lengths, and there is no reason to think they would limit surveillance to their own citizens.

Snowden’s solution is strong encryption of electronic communication.  Individuals may or may not be able to bring their governments under control, he wrote, but they can take action to protect themselves.

There are problems with this.  One is persuading companies such as Google and Facebook to go along with it or persuading individuals to go without the convenience of using Google and Facebook.  After all, the Google and Facebook business model is based on collecting data from their users.

Another is whether they can be any encryption that is truly unbreakable.  Snowdon in his book gives examples of the Tor system of encryption and explains why it is not mathematically and technologically feasible to break it.

I don’t know enough about cryptography to contradict him.  But I do know the history of code-making and code-breaking has been a back-and-forth struggle.

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Algorithms, democracy and political correctness

June 3, 2019

Matthew B. Crawford, author of The World Beyond Your Head, wrote an about why using computer algorithms to detect hate speech is in conflict with the idea of democracy and self-government

Decisions made by algorithm are often not explainable, even by those who wrote the algorithm, and for that reason cannot win rational assent.  This is the more fundamental problem posed by mechanized decision-making, as it touches on the basis of political legitimacy in any liberal regime.  [snip]

Among those ensconced in powerful institutions, the view seems to be that the breakdown of trust in establishment voices is caused by the proliferation of unauthorized voices on the Internet.

But the causal arrow surely goes the other way as well: our highly fragmented casting-about for alternative narratives that can make better sense of the world as we experience it is a response to the felt lack of fit between experience and what we are offered by the official organs, and a corollary lack of trust in them.

For progressives to now seek to police discourse from behind an algorithm is to double down on the political epistemology that has gotten us to this point. The algorithm’s role is to preserve the appearance of liberal proceduralism, that austerely fair-minded ideal, the spirit of which is long dead.

Such a project reveals a lack of confidence in one’s arguments—or a conviction about the impotence of argument in politics, due to the irrationality of one’s opponents.  In that case we have a simple contest for power, to be won and held onto by whatever means necessary.

LINK

Algorithmic Governance and Political Legitimacy by Matthew B. Crawford for American Affairs Journal.  The article is a little abstract, but well worth reading.

The new age of surveillance capitalism

May 13, 2019

There are two categories of Americans who are under constant surveillance.  One consists of paroled convicts and criminal defendants on bail who are under court order to wear electronic ankle bracelets.  The other consists of everybody.

That is what I took away from reading THE AGE OF SURVEILLANCE CAPITALISM: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power by Shoshana Zuboff, which came out earlier this year.

It’s about the prevalence of the new business of collecting information about people, usually without their knowledge, and using that information to shape their behavior.

If you have a Roomba robot vacuum cleaner, it’s making floor plans of your house.  If you have an OnStar GPS system in your car, it’s taking notes on your driving habits.  If you have a Next thermostat, it’s recording your energy use patterns.  If your children play with Genesis toys, they’re recording your children’s behavior.

Technical experts in Canada, France and the Netherlands found that the Google Street View trucks were not only taking photographs, but using Wi-Fi to collect telephone numbers, credit information, passwords, e-mails, records of on-line dating, pornography, browsing behavior, medical information and video and audio files.

All this information has economic value.  In fact, according to Zuboff, it often has more value to the provider than the fee for the service itself.  What she calls “market capitalism,” where a business makes money by selling a product or a service, is being replaced by what she calls “surveillance capitalism,” where a business makes money by collecting, processing and using data to shape human behavior.

It’s been said that people who use social media and other Internet services, especially free ones, are the product, not the customer.  Zuboff said that, in fact, the users are not even the product; they are the raw material.   The product is the model of their behavior  derived from the data they provide.

Click to enlarge.

The frontier of surveillance capitalism is gathering up seemingly meaningless information—what is called “data exhaust” or “digital breadcrumbs”—and using machine intelligence to correlate this information with human emotion and behavior.

Machine intelligences are not sentient, they have no understanding of the human mind.  They don’t need to. All they need to be able to do is look for correlations, and test them.  They are using the behavioristic psychology developed by B.F. Skinner.  He taught that it isn’t necessary to understand how individual people think and feel.  All that is necessary is to know what stimulus evokes what response.

How often you click on a “like” button on Facebook, how hard you step on the gas when accelerating your car, your willingness to answer questions about your politics and religion—all these things can be used to create a model of your behavior, which then can be tested.

Who would want such a model?  Advertisers,  Insurance companies.  Employers.  Lenders.  Credit rating companies.  Landlords.  And, of course, politicians.

Jaron Lanier wrote about some of these issues in Ten Reasons for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now,  His explanations were more brief, more readable and more clear than Zuboff’s 525-page tome (plus 124 pages of end notes).

But Lanier thought that the problem is limited to two companies, Google and Facebook, and could be easily fixed by changing their business models from advertising to fee-for-service.  If you read Zuboff’s book, you will understand that Google, Facebook and their imitators can no more give up collecting, processing and selling personal information than Starbucks can give up brewing strong coffee.  It is is not an aberration.  It is the core of their business model.

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The ultimate threat to Wikileaks

April 25, 2019

The ultimate threat to Wikileaks is not that Julian Assange may be executed or imprisoned for life.  The ultimate threat is that the NSA, GCHQ, FSB or some other intelligence agency will crack the Wikileaks code.

If a government can commit crimes in secret, and can make it a crime to reveal that secret, there is no barrier to dictatorship and tyranny.

The greatness of Julian Assange was to create a program whereby whistleblowers could divulge secrets without revealing their identity, even to Wikileaks itself.

Assange is the founder and public face of Wikileaks, but there are other members who help keep it up and running, and who will continue even if Assange is put away.  If Wikileaks is shut down, the architecture of the system is available to anyone who wants to use it.  Most important news organizations have a Wikileaks-like system for receiving confidential information.

But this is not an achievement that will stand for once and for all.

I have no doubt that governments and corporations are working night and day to find ways to hack the Wikileaks system, and unmask the leakers and truth-tellers.  If and when they do, they will not announce it.

In 2010, Pvt Chelsea (then Bradley) Manning was caught sending unauthorized information to Wikileaks because she unwisely talked to an informer.  But now prosecutors have actual transcripts showing Manning conversed with Assange.

I wonder whether the authorities had these transcripts all along, or whether Assange and Manning used a secure communication system that the government only recently was able to crack.

I hope that the people who believe in disclosure are working just as hard to strengthen and protect the system as the government is to crack it.  This is a race that will not end until either all dissent is crushed or the veil of secrecy is removed from the crimes of governments—I say “governments” plural because it is not just the U.S. government that Wikileaks threatens.

LINKS

WIKILEAKS.

WIKILEAKS DEFENSE FUND

A fly-through of the International Space Station

December 15, 2018

This is a great relaxation video.

The dangerous new cold war in cyberspace

November 28, 2018

When President Barack Obama was pondering what to do about Russian interference in the 2016 elections, his intelligence chiefs, according to New York Times reporter David Sanger,  considered the following possibilities for retaliation:

  • Reveal the secret tax haven accounts of Vladimir Putin and his oligarch friends.
  • Shut show the servers of Guccifer 2.0, DCLeaks and WikiLeaks, the web sites that disseminated confidential Democratic National Committee e-mails
  • Attack the computer systems of the GRU, the Russian military intelligence system.
  • Cut off the Russian banking system’s connection with SWIFT, the international clearinghouse for banking transactions.

Those are the kinds of things that are now possible.

None of these options were acted upon or even brought officially to the President’s notice.  The reason is that American computer systems would be virtually defenseless against retaliation.

It would be a new form of mutually assured destruction, less lethal than nuclear weapons, but still capable of destroying an industrial society’s ability to function.

For that reason President Obama chose to use economic and diplomatic sanctions instead.

Sanger in his new book, THE PERFECT WEAPON: War, Sabotage and Fear in the Cyber Age, described this new ongoing cold war and arms race in cyber weapons.

Nations are developing the capability to use the Internet to shut down each others’ electric power grids, financial institutions and other vital public services, as well as engage in espionage and political subversion.

Each country’s cyberwar aims are somewhat different, Sanger wrote.   Russia uses the Internet to spread propaganda and disinformation, but it also has “embeds” in the U.S. electrical grids and voter registration systems.

China’s interest is in electronic espionage to acquire U.S. intellectual property and trade secrets for its high tech industry.  North Korea and Iran just retaliate against U.S. economic sanctions.

He reported that the United States Cyber Command has the most powerful offensive cyber weapons, yet the United States is vulnerable to cyber retaliation from even as backward a country as North Korea.

One way to defend against this would be to strengthen defenses, by encouraging all American institutions to protect their data by means of secure cryptography.

Sanger reported that the FBI, CIA and NSA are reluctant to do this because they want access to private computer and communications systems themselves.

Cyber surveillance is, as he said, a powerful means to track spies, terrorists and criminals and, I would add, dissidents and protesters.

So we Americans are more vulnerable than we know to cyber attacks, and our government isn’t telling us about our vulnerability.

∞∞∞

The first major act of cyberwarfare, according to Sanger, was the unleashing of the Stuxnet virus against Iran’s nuclear development program in 2010.

The attack, according to Sanger, was planned by the National Security Agency and Israel’s Unit 8300 military cyber unit in order to appease Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, so that he would not order a bombing attack on Iran.

The operation, called Olympic Games, took out about 1,000 of Iran’s 6,000 or so centrifuges, and caused the Iranians to shut down many more out of fear, he wrote.

But a year later, Iran had 18,000 centrifuges in operation.  At best, its nuclear development program was delayed for a year, not stopped permanently.

The Iranians might never have been completely sure what hit them, except the the Stuxnet virus spread beyond Iran into industrial computer systems all over the world.  Computer scientists analyzed the virus and figured out its purpose.

He said the United States developed another plan, called Nitro Zeus, a cyber attack that, in case of war, would shut down all of Iran’s electrical and electronic systems.

 The significance, Sanger pointed out, was that it set a precedent, like the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

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Jaron Lanier on addictive social media

September 21, 2018

View at Medium.com

These are notes for a presentation to the drop-in discussion group at First Universalist Church of Rochester, 150 S. Clinton Ave., Rochester, N.Y. at 9:15 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 23.

Free market capitalism + technological change = addictiveness.

Free market capitalism + technological change + artificial intelligence + behavioral psychology + advertising-based social media = maximum addictiveness.

In 2010, a venture capitalist named Paul Graham wrote an essay entitled “The Acceleration of Addictiveness.”  He said that in a free market, the most addictive products would be the most successful, and technological progress would accelerate addictiveness.

He didn’t have a good answer for this, because he didn’t want to give up the benefits of either the free market or technology, except for individuals to understand this process and shield themselves from it.

This has happened in social media. Addiction is a business model.  Research centers, such as the Stanford University Persuasive Technology Laboratory, perfected ways to use technology to modify behavior. Companies use behavioral psychology—positive and negative reinforcement—to make video games and social networks compulsive. 

Jaron Lanier in Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now explains that Internet addiction is a real thing.  It is by design.

A vast amount of data is collected about you, moment to moment, including your facial expressions, the way your body moves, who you know, what you read, where you goes, what you eat, and your likely susceptibility to assorted attempts at persuasion.  This data is then used by algorithms to create feeds of stimuli – both paid ads and unpaid posts – that are designed to boost your “engagement” and increase the effectiveness of “advertisements.”  (The honest terms would be “addiction” and “behavior modification stimuli.” Indeed, Facebook executives have written that they deliberately incorporated addictive techniques into their service.) 

Advertising was previously a mostly one-way street; the advertiser sent forth the ad and hoped for the best.  But now you are closely monitored to measure the effect of what is called an ad so that a personalized stream of stimuli can be incrementally adjusted until the person’s behavior is finally altered.  Most of you are now living in automated virtual Skinner Boxes.

Everyone is susceptible of being influenced on the biochemical level by positive and negative stimuli.

On social media, positive stimuli conveyed might include being retweeted, friended, or made momentarily viral.  Negative stimuli include the familiar occurrences of being made to feel unappreciated, unnoticed, or ridiculed.  Unfortunately, positive and negative online stimuli are pitted against each other in an unfair fight. 

Positive and negative emotions have comparable ultimate power over us, but they exhibit crucially different timing.  Positive emotions typically take longer to build and can be lost quickly, while negative ones can come on faster and dissipate more slowly.  It takes longer to build trust than to lose it.  One can become scared or angry quickly, but it takes longer for the feelings to fade. 

Those who use social media to exert influence – whether human or algorithm – are a little like high frequency traders, constantly watching results and adjusting.  The feedback loop is tight and fast. 

The sour and lousy consequence, which no one foresaw, is that the negative emotions are the most often emphasized, because positive ones take too long to show up in the feedback loop that influences how paying customers and dark actors use these services to manipulate ordinary users and society.

Whatever divisions exist in society are likely to be widened by social media.  The Internet can be a means of bringing people together, but anger, paranoia, xenophobia and conspiracy theories are more engaging.

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A mock Bugatti Chiron built of Lego parts

September 8, 2018

Lego engineers built a driveable duplicate of a $2.6 million Bugatti Chiron sports car, using more than 1 million Lego parts.

It uses real Bugatti wheels and tires, a steel frame and batteries for power, but more than 90 percent of the car is Lego parts, including 2,300 Lego Technic Power Function motors and 4,632 Lego Technic gear wheels.

It has a fully functional steering wheel, brakes (but no accelerator), headlights, tail lights, speedometer and doors that open and close.  No glue was used in putting the parts together.

A real Bugatti Chiron is made of about 1,800 parts.  It has a 1,500 horsepower motor and a top speed of 261 miles per hour.  The Lego version has a 5.3 HP motor and a theoretical top speed of 18 miles per hour.

But it works!  I bet it was a lot of fun to work on.

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Electronic voting machines are easy to hack

August 21, 2018

Source: XKCD

Electronic voting systems have long been vulnerable to tampering and hacking.  This has been known for more than 10 years, but little or nothing has been done about it.

Having a vulnerable system is like leaving your door unlocked or the keys in the ignition of your car.  Eventually somebody is going to take advantage of you.

If we Americans want to protect our voting systems from tampering, it doesn’t matter if the suspected tamperers are Russians, Republicans or somebody else.  We need written ballots that are hand-counted in public.

That’s only one of many problems.   Our election system is increasingly rigged to favor Republicans by discouraging or disqualifying voting by poor people, young people and people of color.

LINKS

How They Could Steal the Election This Time by Ronnie Dugger for The Nation (2004)

It’s Magic! by Greg Palast (2012)

How They’re Stealing Ohio: Vote machines audit function turned off—and worse by Greg Palast  (2016)

Justice Department Warns It Might Not Be Able to Prosecute Voting Machine Hackers by Kim Zetter for Motherboard [Added 9/31/2018]

How to Fight Voter Suppression in 2018 by Edward Burmila for Dissent Magazine.  Twelve ways in which voting procedures are rigged against poor people, young people and people of color, and what to do about them.

Addiction as a successful business model

August 2, 2018

The problem is not just pornography.   Promoting addictiveness is a widespread business model.

A venture capitalist named Paul Graham, writing in 2010, said it is the nature of free market capitalism to make products addictive.

He wasn’t speaking of pornography in particular, but of everything from tobacco to gambling to compulsive viewing of the Internet.

The logic of the marketplace is that the person who makes the most addictive product wins the largest market share.

More recent Jaron Lanier, a famous virtual reality pioneer, wrote a book giving 10 Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, which is about addictive social media companies.  The business model for companies such as Facebook is behavior modification, he wrote; they cannot give that model up and stay in business.

Their artificial intelligence systems use personal information, social science information and psychology to create “engagement” — which laymen would call “addiction” — by means of advertising and propaganda.  The systems are constantly at work to increase the power of their algorithms.

Stanford University has a Persuasive Technology Laboratory, which learns how to design interactive technology to alter human thoughts and behavior in the interests of advertisers and politicians, not the individuals targeted.

Richard Freed wrote about B.J. Fogg, the head of the laboratory, and how psychological research is used not to liberate people from addictive and compulsive behavior, but the opposite.

Click to enlarge

The “Fogg Behavior Model” is a well-tested method to change behavior and, in its simplified form, involves three primary factors: motivation, ability, and triggers.

Describing how his formula is effective at getting people to use a social network, the psychologist says in an academic paper that a key motivator is users’ desire for “social acceptance,” although he says an even more powerful motivator is the desire “to avoid being socially rejected.”

Regarding ability, Fogg suggests that digital products should be made so that users don’t have to “think hard.”  Hence, social networks are designed for ease of use.

Finally, Fogg says that potential users need to be triggered to use a site.  This is accomplished by a myriad of digital tricks, including the sending of incessant notifications urging users to view friends’ pictures, telling them they are missing out while not on the social network, or suggesting that they check — yet again — to see if anyone liked their post or photo.

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Douglas Rushkoff on survival of the richest

July 9, 2018

Douglas Rushkoff

Futurist Douglas Rushkoff was offered half a year’s salary to give a talk on the future of technology.  To his surprise, he found his audience consisted of five persons from “the upper echelon of the hedge fund world.”  Their real interest was in Rushkoff’s thoughts on how to survive the coming collapse of civilization.

The CEO of a brokerage house explained that he had nearly completed building his own underground bunker system and asked, “How do I maintain authority over my security force after the event?”

For all their wealth and power, they don’t believe they can affect the future. The Event.  That was their euphemism for the environmental collapse, social unrest, nuclear explosion, unstoppable virus, or Mr. Robot hack that takes everything down.

This single question occupied us for the rest of the hour. They knew armed guards would be required to protect their compounds from the angry mobs. But how would they pay the guards once money was worthless? What would stop the guards from choosing their own leader?

The billionaires considered using special combination locks on the food supply that only they knew.  Or making guards wear disciplinary collars of some kind in return for their survival.  Or maybe building robots to serve as guards and workers — if that technology could be developed in time.

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How social media try to manipulate your mind

June 28, 2018

Click to enlarge

Any time you log on to Google, Facebook, Twitter or other “free” social media, information on every keystroke is being fed into powerful computers somewhere.

Algorithms in these computers correlate this data.  They compare you with other people with similar profiles,  The algorithms—”intelligent,” but blind—experiment with ways to use this information to modify your behavior so you will do what they want.

What they usually want is for you to respond for an ad for a particular product or service.  But they can be trying to influence you to vote—or not to vote.

Jaron Lanier, a scientist and entrepreneur who pioneered virtual reality, wrote about this in his new book, TEN ARGUMENTS FOR DELETING YOUR SOCIAL MEDIA ACCOUNTS RIGHT NOW (2018)

He thinks this is sinister.  Your social media may not be influencing you a lot, but it is almost certain to have some influence, and that influence is operating on you below your level of awareness.

Social media feeds you stuff that is intended to stimulate your emotion, and it is easier to stimulate feelings of anger, fear and resentment than it is feelings of joy, affection and security.

I know this from my newspaper experience.  Back in the 1990s, my old newspaper made a big effort to discover what kind of news our readers wanted.  In surveys and focus groups, they said that wanted positive news—articles about people accomplishing good things.  But the article they remember the best was a horrible story about a dead baby being found in a Dumpster.

The people who answered the survey weren’t hypocrites.  Not at all.  It is just that we human beings react in ways we don’t choose, and this leaves us open to manipulation.

Another effect of feedback from social media is to reinforce whatever it is you happen to be—liberal, conservative, pro-gun, anti-war—and to diminish you ability to understand people who think differently from you.

I was shocked when I read about Cambridge Analytica, the campaign consultant that worked for the Trump presidential campaign, and its claim that it could manipulate voter behavior on an individual basis.  But I later came to realize that this was the standard Facebook service, and could have been available to the Clinton campaign.

Lanier takes the charges of Vladimir Putin’s interference in the campaign more seriously than I did.  The Russian ads seemed amateurish to me (unless they were decoys to divert attention from the real influence campaign) and most of them were posted after election day.

But effectiveness of the 2016 ads is beside the point.  If the combination of Big Data, artificial intelligence and behavior modification algorithms can influence voting behavior, Putin is sure to use it, and he doesn’t, some other foreign government or institution will.  Not to mention our own NSA and CIA.

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