11/30 – Student Presentations I

This week we do part I of student presentations. Blog comments may address one or more of the excerpts assigned. The schedule of presented readings is as follows:

7:15 Julian Assange, When Google Met Wikileaks

7:35 Robert McChesney, Blowing the Roof Off the 21st Century [excerpt is p. 221 onward]

7:55 Jeremy Rifkin, The Zero Marginal Cost Society

8:15 Martin Ford, Rise of the Robots

8:35 BREAK

8:40 Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey [excerpt is chapters 24-28 (pages 55-67)]

9:00 Christine L. Borgman, Big Data, Little Data, No Data

9:20 Reading and video about artificial impersonation

9:40 WRAP-UP I

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14 responses to “11/30 – Student Presentations I

  1. What was most notable to me was the Black Mirror rendition of a futuristic world. In this world, death is handled by created a creepily accurate A.I. of the deceased. The creepiness intensifies, moving from chat to phone call, finally to a human-like figure created in a bathtub that looks and nearly acts like Ash.

    After seeing this world materialized on screen, it struck me how strange it is for something like this to be legal — exploitation of the grieving, essentially. From what we’ve read and seen, the law lags when it comes to addressing problems that arise from technological innovation. If this sort of thing were created in the real world, would there be no legal repercussions to the company? Imagine the strangeness — of being able to type in anyone’s name and get a semi-accurate artificially intelligent version of themselves to converse with freely. And even be able to attain a nearly real-life version, with enough money, to do with whatever one pleases!

    It’s an interesting example of our concerns for privacy — how can we continue protecting an individual’s rights, as we continue to become further and further connected (Rifkin p. 76)? And given how innovation has impacted and transformed our society, and many predict that innovations will only quicken as costs decrease and our algorithms and understanding of data increases, how can we spur on innovations within our government and our legal systems to keep up and account for these technological changes and their impact on society?

  2. 2001, A Space Odyssey provides an interesting dialogue on Artificial Intelligence following our classes’ reading of Superintelligence. The excerpt shows the dangerous powers that an AI can have, such as the power to kill. The question that arises from this is: Can the benefits of AI outweigh the potential harmful effects?
    The argument between Dave and Hal in this excerpt is noteworthy because Hal illustrates his inability as an AI to be ‘wrong.’ When Dave says, “he felt like adding “and please forget the whole matter.” But that, of course, was the one thing that Hal could never do” (57), it shows a key difference that comes between humans and AI; AI can never forget. Another key difference is that an AI’s ‘life’ is unhindered by emotion: “Since consciousness had first dawned, in that laboratory so many millions of miles Sunward, all Hal’s powers and skills had been directed toward one end. The fulfillment of his assigned program was more than an obsession; it was the only reason for his existence. Un-distracted by the lusts and passions of organic life, he had pursued that goal with absolute single-mindedness of purpose.” Because the sole driving force is the mission the AI was programmed to do, it cannot care for human life the way another empathetic human can. I would argue that this excerpt provides a warning for the potential harmful effects of AI because of these key differences from humans. Dave eventually must switch to manual control and disassemble Hal in order to save himself, at least suggesting the difficulty for humans and AI to coexist on a shared mission.

  3. Through artificial intelligence topics this week, we get two juxtaposed situations in which AI assumes the abilities and tendencies of a human in such a way that humans cannot effectively communicate with or control the intelligence. In 2001: A Space Odyssey and the episode of Black Mirror that Sam distributed, we see AI in forms that act in human ways (some more monstrously than others)—but the skill of the AI does not comprise the focus of the art. Rather, emphasis is placed on the human reaction to and interaction with the AI, demonstrating that a possibly more thought-provoking train of thought than “how much can AI act like a human?” would be, instead, “how will we interact with a non-human entity that behaves exactly like a human?” The terror of the crew in 2001 lies in the inability to process how a calculation could produce a murder—there is an inconsistency shown here, though, between the process of creating AI (in which the hope is to endow as much sentience as possible to create as human an experience as possible) and the result (in which “innately human” things, like the capacity for murder and uprising, would theoretically lie outside the capacities of the AI). If HAL can act like a human, at what point is the human response geared to that sort of human, rather than a machine? In Black Mirror, the widow seeks precisely what the artificial husband has to offer (memories, comfort, household help), yet tosses him aside because he lacks a specific, ambiguous quality of her human husband. Are our responses to extremely human AI simply due to our projections of what we think they should serve, which are distorted by what we personally want to gain? What if they are, mathematically, “more human”?

  4. acamperi

    Sam’s presentation addresses many of the same issues that I am planning on talking about in my presentation regarding artificial intelligence.

    In his story “Nirvana”, Adam Johnson portrays a man who uses holographic technology to create a projection of a president who had an untimely death. This hologram somehow uses natural language processing to understand what people say to it, and then draws from a corpus of phrases that the president had uttered to craft a response, which the holograph then utters through a built-in microphone of some sort.

    This, for me, raises the issue of what actually qualifies as artificial intelligence. This software would most likely pass the Turing test, but can it be said to be actually intelligent? It merely processes the input it receives and then crawls through its corpus of possible phrases and selects the one that is most appropriate.

    This software would be similar to what Bostrom calls an oracle, as it does not control anything but responds to questions posed to it. However, would machines like this be truly generally intelligent? Bostrom seems to think so, but I am not convinced. It is capable of language recognition and interpretation, because it is able to understand questions posed to it, but then it is the manner in which is composes its response that would determine its intelligence for me. In this story, it is implied that it simply uses probabilistic analysis to figure out what response most people would give to the given question, and then finds the phrase at its disposal that most resembles that response, and provides that. To me, this does not qualify as general intelligence because there is no real reasoning happening beneath the surface.

  5. Response on “Nirvana” by Adam Johnson

    Wow. Several things interest me about this article but perhaps the greatest is how similar the universe where the story is based to the current period we live in now in Silicon Valley and where we are heading. I found it hilarious how names of the major tech companies were being thrown around in the conversation between the main character and Sanjay – Mozilla, Craiglist, Mozilla etc. And they didn’t even seem that surprised to find a drone spying on them or the fact that it was from Google.
    Perhaps this means that the big tech companies are going to get bigger and murkier – all trying to compete for the next big technology. The nonchalant way of how our hero comes across this spying drone, or the car that was following him or even the secret service implies that people live in a greater state of constant surveillance but are ok with it – whether it be from companies or governments.
    And all of this spying is just to get to the algorithm that creates a virtual version of oneself out of everything that is on the Internet about that person. I guess this is the biggest statement of the extent of surveillance and the Internet – that it is possible to create an entire lifelike being based off the information of them online. I am also not sure if we should be worried or not – the characters in the story don’t seem to be particularly alarmed. Perhaps we should be afraid of the way information about someone can be manipulated e.g. getting the President to say “I could go for a Pepsi” or defending dodgy lawyers at the Reputation Center. It seems likely this is the world we are fast heading to.

  6. For my reading response this week I selected 2001, A Space Odyssey. While I only read the 15-page snippet selected by Andres, I found it to be extremely interesting. Thus far in this class, we have only ventured to discuss artificial intelligence within the bounds of non-fiction. As such, seeing how AI is portrayed in a fictitious setting that was imagined many decades ago was fascinating. However, many parallels remain; specifically, the fact that authors seem to approach the issue of artificial intelligence from a cautionary stance. In both, 2001 and Superintelligence the authors seem to suggest that the power of artificial intelligence is something that, at some point, humans will not be able to control. This tipping point generally is portrayed, at least in the writings we have studied, as something negative to the human race.

    This brings me to my overall point. In Superintelligence, Bostrom warns us of approaching the subject of artificial intelligence from an anthropocentric perspective as it may lead to fallacies in thought. With that being said, I find that both 2001 and Superintelligence root their cautionary tales in precisely an anthropocentric origin: the human sentiment regarding the fear of the unknown. Potentially, this may lead us to view the topic of AI from a fallacious perspective where we give more importance to the negative than the positive. As such, we fail to give fair importance to the fact that an AI might save the world. Perhaps, an AI such as Hal could save humanity from an incoming asteroid or something of that sort. All in all, I just find myself wondering whether there is another story like 2001 where Hal is a hero and not evil and whether our natural inclination to antagonize AI affects the way we approach the problem?

  7. Jamison Elizabeth Searles

    In Ford’s chapter “White-Collar Jobs at Risk,” he raises concerns about the automation of knowledge-based labor and the implications for workers, employers, and consumers. He cites an example we saw in The Black Box Society in which Target inadvertently revealed a teenager’s pregnancy to her father by sending offers for pregnancy-related products to her home because of her purchasing activity. Ford calls this story “creepy” and warns that it “is only the beginning and that big data will increasingly be used to generate predictions that potentially violate privacy and perhaps even freedom” (88). The issues I have with this are the same issues I had with some of Pasquale’s opinions on data use. While this particular story is unsettling, I don’t agree that it violates privacy or freedom. When consumers use a service such as Target or a social media site like Facebook, they are knowingly providing data to the provider of the service. And, as Ford acknowledges, businesses have a lot to gain from using big data to arrive develop these insights and improve profitability and efficiency. To me, this is similar to a university checking an applicant’s social media profile to fact check and gain more insight into their character. Users of these sites and products offer their information as data by publicly publishing this information to networks like Facebook or purchasing items through a registered user name. In essence, I find nothing surprising or immoral about businesses and institutions using data in strategic processes.

  8. Betsy Alegria

    I’m going to focus on the episode of Black Mirror. Specifically on the impact such technologies could have on the mental health of people as well as question whether such a software could actually mimic how someone naturally speaks.

    My first point is that such technologies that can be branded as “helping you grieve easier” can actually have such a detrimental impact on your mental health/stability. We see signs of this in the episode, such as when Martha, the woman who lost her husband, drops her phone while calling her fake husband and then starts having what seems like a panic/anxiety attack. Natural steps of the grieving process are completely avoided or change because of this software. Instead of seeking support, she becomes attached to her phone. It’d be very interesting to read on how the rise of technology is impacting mental health. With so many books about how it’s impacting jobs, society, economy, I wonder if there is as much research on mental health changes as well.

    Secondly, I wanted to push a bit on the idea that collecting public online information that we type/write online would give a software enough accurate information to then mimic how we speak. First off, there are very logistical things that might prohibit that from being true. Online platforms sometimes max your word/character count (ie. Twitter), therefore constraining thought/speech and forcing us to review what we type online. Secondly, speech online might not actually be how we speak given the excessive use of abbreviations, hashtags, and funnier words/phrases that you probably wouldn’t say in person. Imagine if Ash, in the show, started saying ‘lol’ or ‘yooooooo’ because those were phrases he would use online a lot but never in person – might be a bit strange!

  9. ccibils

    What stood out to me about Mac’s (Stephen’s) excerpt is how, besides the language of the author, bipartisan the author’s policy proposals should be. Quoting sources ranging from Milton Friedman to Pope Francis, he illustrates very clearly how favoring information asymmetry and business bigger than government jeopardizes our individual freedom, and subjects us to what he calls a ‘secret tyranny’.
    The author’s language is clearly unapologetic about how his policy proposals are left-leaning. Quite frankly, he is militant. Yet, I think this works against the author because his points are extremely reasonable and if presented right, it could (and should) ring a bell with the right as well, instead of alienating it.
    McChesney’s point is that we are subjected to the rule of the entities that control the information we consume, from journalism, to ISPs, to general media. He describes example after example of cases where protection of information distribution has been a success, and cases where the deregulation of media has been a disaster. His solutions are not at all unreasonable, although it’s hard to see such regulations in place because of the current state of affairs in the Hill.
    Overall, McChesney’s argument that the current state of democracy is deplorable – I believe – is unquestionable. What I find extremely satisfying is that his solutions are tangible and doable, and have been known to work in the past.

  10. Jack Cook

    Nirvana captured the spirit of Silicon Valley and its relationship to the world better than any other medium I have seen to date. Sadly, I think a lot of the subtleties will be lost on anybody who has not spent a lot of time in Silicon Valley – the seamless adoption and adaption of abundant technology into our lives is something I think is unique to the Valley. The protagonist’s nonchalance over drone technology and simulated people – topics which would ignite ferocious policy debates in other parts of the country – are rationalized and contextualized by the monoliths they represent. The drone is quickly identified as a Google drone, he is followed by the Secret Service, and his hologram system impersonates two of the most pop-culture influential people of recent decades.

    I feel like the author is trying to make the point that we care less and less about the ethical and moral qualms behind a piece of technology. The monolithic name brands that accompany each piece of intrusive technology justify its existence, as if the fact that we have name-brand recognition excuses the ethical pitfalls the technology represents. We do this already: Google as a company raises enormous and unprecedented privacy concerns, but we are happy to ignore those and continue using its wide range of products and services. We are well aware of the breadth and illegality of the federal government’s spying operations, but routinely turn a blind eye. I think it was most telling that Obama was the protagonist’s character of comfort, a president who has maintained a powerful name brand among both the youth demographic and Silicon Valley, but has one of the most questionable track records on privacy and surveillance to date.

  11. I’d like to respond to the excerpt from McChesney’s Blowing the Roof Off the 21st Century. It seems strange to me that the goal of his proposals are to encourage and inspire activists and make the political-economic environment less discouraging to citizens though each of the proposals seem to be very daunting challenges.

    The first proposal does seem like a worthwhile pursuit, as it mostly entails asking people to demand more out of ISP regulation than Net Neutrality, which for most people is the upper-limit on realistic regulation. The second proposal seems awfully unattainable in an already-discouraging environment, considering it requires tearing apart the monopolies that themselves run the game. Obviously this isn’t impossible, as it has happened in the past, but I’m not sure public morale is anywhere near high enough to accomplish it. In fact, it could be a disservice to consumers to push for legislation to break these companies apart and then fail miserably.

    The Third proposal, I think, would need to be fueled by an already-increasing demand for journalism, which I don’t think exists. Journalism was a dominant form of entertainment in its pre-advertising prime that McChesney discusses, but I don’t see how it could compete today with less intelligent forms of entertainment that are already saturating the media. That is, even if there were substantial government subsidies for journalistic endeavors, I don’t think people would pay attention to the most important issues. Similarly, he and Nichols’ proposal seems risky to me as I can’t imagine too many people responsibly searching for the right nonprofit to fund. I think each of these proposals would have a much greater chance to succeed if activist morale were first boosted by other victories.

  12. Of the three proposals for media reform McChesney outlines in Chapter 12 of Blowing the Roof Off, the third–“Treat Journalism like a Public Good”–seems the most direct and complete solution to the problem of an underfunded and imbalanced media. The idea of a voucher system for supporting intellectual and creative work, developed by Dean Baker and mentioned in the context of artistic work in The Black Box Society, is at once egalitarian, democratic in nature, democratizing in practice, and ensures individual freedom. It allows all citizens an equal say in what content gets produced, and distributes that content freely to all citizens (and non-citizens with internet access). It would introduce a system of positive free speech, where all viewpoints have the same access to proving their worth, rather than our current system of negative free speech, which only (theoretically) ensures that our speech is free of censorship. If such a system were applied to political media, influence would function by the appeal of the content rather than economic forces of power, and ideas that make sense would become popular. People with marginal opinions will have access to content that supports those opinions. If the opinions are appealing to others, those others will support that content in the next round, and the opinions will become less and less marginal. If people align with a marginal opinion and they support journalists with that opinion, and then they’re exposed to things they think make more sense, they’ll transfer their support to those new things. It would be a true marketplace of ideas, where ideas that would be popular if everyone were exposed to them win out, and ideas that would be marginal if everyone were exposed to the same ideas would lose. That’s democracy, and it should be implemented.

  13. sgussman

    (In response to Blowing the Roof off the Twenty-First Century)

    In the excerpt, McChesney (MC) sounds more like he is delivering a campaign stump-speech than a serious policy proposal. He makes assertions like “the election system has been rendered largely ineffective as a means for citizens to engage in self-government” and without providing any evidence (like statistics on voter turnout, satisfaction, or apathy). MC’s proposals continue in this manner, and I’ve chosen to focus my response on his first proposal.

    MC’s first proposal is for individual communities to create municipally owned ISPs. This is an interesting idea that superficially provides a solution for the high-cost and low-quality of traditional “ISP cartels.” MC proudly points to Google, which successfully launch its own ISP in Kansas City, as a proof-of-concept. There are, however, numerous issues surrounding this. First: Google is a bad proof-of-concept. The difference in technical ability between the engineering team at Google and the IT Department of generic county USA is staggering. I’d argue municipal ISPs are unfeasible because most municipalities simply lack the technical ability to setup and maintain them. Poor and rural communities, furthermore, are unlikely to be able to afford the upfront infrastructure costs. This leaves only affluent communities with the public option, forcing people in poor communities to still contend with the “cartels”. Obviously this is completely averse to MC’s original goals. And given our capitalist environment, it’s likely that companies would emerge that specialize in setting up and maintaining ISPs for municipalities. This model would work because the relative size and the specialization of these third-parties would enable them to reduce their costs, giving them a comparative advantage over local governments that is necessary for this type of public-private partnership to succeed. While this would enable the proliferation of municipal ISPs to poorer communities, it’s a far cry from the socialist solution called for by MC.

  14. McChesney argues for radical media reform with the ultimate goal of a more informed public. His argument covers many aspects of media creation and distribution, and his wholesale solution to the three key problems he identifies (namely – monopolies among US ISPs, monopolies among large internet companies, and a breakdown in funding for high-quality journalism) all boil down to targeted government subsidies and pro-competitive regulatory intervention and nationalization.

    Although the points raised are valid and merit thoughtful discussion, McChesney’s solutions do not seem to hold muster.

    The most visible contradiction in terms comes from his notion that government is in the hands of both ISPs (due to their immense lobbying power) as well as internet behemoths (also due to their immense lobbying power). McChesney fails to mention that both groups have radically different agendas. While ISPs are, broadly speaking, against Net Neutrality, Internet giants are strongly in support of it. (Specifically, McChesnwy writes that “Internet giants control all policy debates that affect them”, and also that ISPs have the “comparative advantage… [of] world-class lobbying”). The fact that there are two groups with competing interests lobbying the same lawmakers is healthy and encourages slow and deliberate policy-making, which is part of the reason it has taken such time for the FCC to take its stance on Net Neutrality. Indeed, these two groups that McChesney portrays as the joint keepers of the keys in terms of media policy have begun competing in core business areas – Google Fiber pilfers business from ISPs, Skype chips away at Verizon’s voice minutes.

    McChesney’s proposed solution is to essentially nationalize ISPs as a public utility, and to propose “what is in fact a nationalization of ‘monopolized internet services’ so that they can be guided by open-source protocol.” This seems radical, unjustified, and ultimately misguided.

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