The New Generation of Internet

The Internet was designed by humans for humans…or so we thought. To the extent that we have used the Internet in our daily lives, there has always been the expectation that what we saw was human-generated. That is, the information, the articles, the comments, etc. were all written by real people for other people to consume. Yet, we are moving to an age where computer-generated content is becoming a larger and larger percentage of what people see online.

Already, there are fake social media accounts which artificially inflate the popularity of some users on these sites. On Instagram, for example, people buy these bots to increase their follower count and the number of likes the receive on their posts. Similarly, we see computer-generated likes on Reddit and Youtube. It is this latter case which can be worrying. To a large degree, it undermines the legitimacy of the approval and disapproval system, since there is no longer the concept of one user-one vote. At least in my experience, there is an inherent trust that comments with hundreds/thousands of likes and up-votes are actually popular. Rarely would I stop to consider that those numbers were fake.

Yet, it would appear that, especially with the rapid development of machine learning and AI, a lot more content on the Internet will be computer-generated. Indeed, some companies actually seem to be embracing this trend. Already, simple news stories are written by programs fed with facts and set to write based off some template. At a recent Quora tech talk which I had the chance to attend, CEO Adam D’Angelo also was receptive to the idea of machine-generated content. He noted that while the technology is still premature, he could easily envision questions on his site being written by AI. Again, he was a bit more hesitant about the idea of computer programs answering questions, since in his opinion, that requires human experiences. But, it still indicates that the online community is positive about the role of AI.

I, however, remain skeptical about the potential dilution of the Internet resulting from a plethora of computers generating and posting content. It’s already hard enough to sift through the pile of content posted by people on social media. Imagine trying to decipher the truth and/or the relevant information when you don’t even know whether it was written by a human…

Open Government

Although I didn’t have the chance to stay for the entirety of this week’s seminar, it was very interesting to hear David Eaves’s perspective on how the Internet is and will affect government. In particular, I find the idea of open government quite interesting, especially as we move deeper into an age of Big Data. There is no doubt that the government holds, and will continue to amass, vast quantities of data. A significant portion of our Internet dealings, from the emails we send to the purchases we make on Amazon, end up in the databanks of the NSA. We’re far removed from the era of targeted wiretaps. Data collection is easier and broader than ever before.

With that much data comes a great amount of power. The government could, compiling data from a variety of sources, generate very detailed, accurate profiles on pretty much anyone in the U.S. — maybe even the world. It very likely knows more about us than our closest friends and family. Imagine if it used that knowledge to blackmail citizens….

To an extent, the transparency characteristic of an open government should serve to mitigate that power dynamic. If the dealings of the government are available for all to see, theoretically with greater and greater frequency, as documents and the like shift from paper to digital formats, there is an inherent check on what it does. However, it is important to note that the government still requires some deal of secrecy to function. If all our strategies were out on the Internet, the U.S. would be vulnerable to attacks of all kinds from foreign agents. Furthermore, if everyone knew what the government was looking at, it would be easier to skirt around the law.

Already, there are some initiatives to establish a bit of openness in the government (c.f. data.gov), but as we know from events such as the Snowden leaks, there is still as vast amount of secrecy. It will be interesting to see how involved the populous will be in pushing the government towards a more open approach and by extension to what extent the government will actually reciprocate and be straightforward about their dealings.

 

The Future of AI

As we move into consideration of where technology will take us, it becomes more and more of a game of speculation. This week’s discussion of AI and the ideas behind the singularity felt deeply in the realm of sci-fi writers and directors. It’s amazing to think that in this day and age — where to be frank, Siri can barely understand basic queries — we are already starting to worry about the creation of a real-life Skynet.

I’m skeptical about the idea that something which stems from the human mind could possibly surpass any conceptions of intelligence. Almost anything created by humans, especially something on the scale that would kick-off the singularity, tends to be flawed in some way. And, I highly doubt that the program would be smart enough to fix itself…So, even if we somehow got to the cycle of self-iteration characteristic of the singularity, wouldn’t there always be some backdoor in the superintelligence, giving humans the chance to shut it down? I’m not sure that, within the limitations of the physical word, there could ever even be an all-powerful AI.

Perhaps more attainable is the idea of an AI that can mimic a human. Here too, I am hung up on the concept that there is inherently something special about the neurochemical reactions that drive human life. It’s really difficult to believe, though it may be true, that something as complex and powerful as the human mind could be replicated by a (very complex) circuit, provided the model were taught well. Given the limitations of current computing, for example the constraints of the number of bits in memory, it seems especially farfetched. Indeed, most everything in tech that attempts to reproduce real life is a mere approximation — e.g. images are represented by pixels in a limited colorspace.

Then again, maybe it’s possible, just beyond the limitations of our current technologies. This gets back to the idea I discussed in my last blog post, that it is difficult for humans to recognize the potential of what’s in front of them, even just in terms of “smart” consumer items. There really is no telling where we are heading in the future with tech, let alone something as complicated and exciting as AI. Right now, we’re left speculating.

 

Skeptics and Visionaries

The “Internet of Things.” Never in my – relatively short – amount of time here on Earth did I imagine that my fridge would talk to my phone, or Netflix, or just about anything on the Internet. And, actually, the one I have doesn’t. For now, I just my put my food in there and take it out when I’m hungry, hoping it’s not spoiled by the time I get to it. But, I honestly wouldn’t mind having my fridge tell me when I’m running out of milk or let me play Angry Birds while I wait for the microwave to finish. In fact, it might be kind of nice. Sure, I really don’t need this kind of functionality from a refrigerator. Yet, if it is capable of making my life easier, even by a tad bit, is a smart fridge really that bad?

A lot of people are skeptical of the trend towards interconnectedness. To an extent, I understand the worry; it is a little weird to think that Google could hold all my thermostat data by way of Nest. And, I certainly get the fear that a hacker could screw with my car while I’m driving down the highway, putting me in a perilous situation. Privacy and, especially, security are serious concerns that always arise with technological advancements — often for good reason. In fact, a little skepticism here and there might be a good thing. It could force companies to put a little more care into their encryption algorithms and general security practices, if consumers show some hesitation or hold out entirely on buying a product.

I think too often, though, we as consumers — especially, those who tend to be skeptic — struggle, and often fail to see the potential of some technologies and products. After all, it is more or less a cost-benefit analysis that causes people to either approve or steer clear of some advancements. A fridge that costs more, collects data about your food choices and quite frankly, probably everything it hears, doesn’t sound so good if all you’re getting in return is essentially a big tablet embedded in your fridge. Might as well just tape an iPad to your fridge door. But, the idea of a smart fridge is so much more. Envision a fridge that knows your grocery list and orders things for you when you’re running low on a particular item. Envision a fridge that can more finely and more efficiently control its temperature, saving energy and allowing food to last longer.

Sometimes when products are put out in their infancy, they get crushed in the market. Consumers don’t really and, to be fair, shouldn’t necessarily have to see products for their potential, when they are spending so much money on them. So shout out to the visionaries who can see far enough into the future to know where their (seemingly minute) technological advancements of today will lead them in 5, 10, or however many years. And, props, too, to the people who share the same foresight, buying not into the tangible product of today, but the very intangible but realizable ideas of tomorrow (a cliche example, but seriously c.f. Elon Musk and all the people who bought the original Model S and Roadster).