Think about it, Then Solve it

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The final post for an amazing seminar.  I remember when I first applied, the reason I said that I wanted to be a part of this seminar was so that I can “connect to the entity that connects us all.”  Through our discussions, I feel as if my connection with the Internet has not only been stronger, but more aware and thoughtful.  

Before diving deeper into the takeaways from this class, I want to reflect upon our discussion in class, which was about cryptocurrency and blockchain technology.  It was great to clear up the mystery behind blockchain technology because I was getting sick of hearing the word “blockchain” whenever I attended a career fair.  It is one of those buzzwords that get thrown around so much that it begin to look more like a joke rather than something revolutionary.  Even during the class, I was still piecing together what the technology is because even though I learned about it before the class, it was difficult to wrap my mind about the exact workings of it.  Maybe that will be a side project, implementing a simple blockchain app.

*By the way, some other tech buzzwords that I find sickening and being carelessly thrown around are, but not limited, to the following: machine learning, AI, API, data science, VR, AR, and startup.  

Generally, there are many great things about blockchain technology.  Overall, it has the ability to decentralize, make secure, and make transparent information that was originally not any of the three things above.  It relies on the idea that computing power can’t be centralized, or if so, it requires a tremendous amount that it is ‘impossible’ for one entity to take over the entire chain.  On a side note, it was really interesting to learn that information is deemed ‘secure’ by the time it is six blocks down the chain.  

However, let’s take a turn and analyze the downsides of blockchain.  Surprisingly, it is quite difficult to find the cons of blockchain because wherever you go, the general consensus is that blockchain will revolutionize the internet and has no faults.  Today’s class revealed the problems of the technology that I would not have even known, and because of that new information, I am becoming more cautious about blockchain itself.  

The general issue with blockchain is that it hopes that no one entity will ever able to amass the large amounts of computing power required to take over the network.  It would take so much time and electricity to verify the transactions that it would be impractical on a CPU or even GPU.  It is because of this philosophy that Blockchain is said to be “decentralized.”  However, Dean Smith commented in one of my earlier posts, the pendulum of centralization-decentralization swings back and forth in time.  Almost everyone has some form of access to some sort of computing device, but not everyone owns a Bitcoin mining rig.  The inequality in today’s society is seeping into the digital world.  Even if the hashing algorithm was to be written in a way that makes the computation easier for any device, as Dean Smith and Professor Waldo said “we can build the hardware to make it run faster.  If it runs on an algorithm, we can build something that runs it better.”  This is troubling because it reveals that there is truly no way to easily equalize computational power, unless we suddenly adopt a communistic approach to computing, which frankly, will be practically impossible with the Internet.  

So why would someone spend millions trying to monopolize computing power and develop specialized hardware?  There is money behind cryptocurrency.  Unlike TCP/IP, there is real money at stake behind every cryptocurrency.  As long as humans are humans, there will always be someone who want to take control of the money supply.  

Another problem with blockchain is that anybody can contribute to it without any oversight.  The theft of $31 million of Ethereum revealed the problem with blockchain technology itself: it is almost impossible to go back and fix the code because of the tremendous amount of computing power to do so.  Usually, the only way to take care of this is by doing a hard fork, or split from the current chain.  This is completely different from the Internet, where if something breaks, we can easily git push the debugged code.

A possible solution to this is by adopting the Linux bureaucracy model, with an entity having the status of benevolent dictator.  This way, code could be checked and tested extensively to ensure that there are minimal to zero exploits possible.  However, this defeats the entire purpose of blockchain because we have a central authority that oversees the entire network.  Unless the technology behind blockchain can be improved in a way that allows bugs to fixed without redoing the whole chain, we need to proceed carefully as we continue to adopt this technology.

We are near the end of the post, but I would like to reflect on the deeper ideas that these discussions have taught me.  

The first is that computers and the Internet are not perfect.  It was not made by a God or gods but by very human but very smart computer engineers, computer scientists, and programmers. Computers and especially the Internet have revolutionized our lives, but there will always be some shortcomings, bugs, and hacks that is possible with every system.  It is not perfect, but it is enough to change the course of humanity.  

The second is trust.  Throughout our discussions, we keep coming back to the theme of centralization and decentralization, and in general, keep mentioning that decentralization is a good thing.  However, I learned that having no central authority is something that won’t remain forever, and that the pendulum will at some point swing to the other side.  And when it does, it is difficult to shift it to the other side.  When it does, we are placing a huge amount of trust on these entities.  We trust Google to give us reliable information that we want to look for.  We trust Amazon to send and ship quality goods in a timely manner.  We trust software engineers and security specialists that that the code protecting our personal identities is secure (shout out to Equifax).  Why do we have to trust?  Because we simply don’t know or cannot know everything.  

The third is that there is no easy solutions.  We did a lot of philosophy in this class, and the main thing that bothered me was the circular nature of it.  There is no black or white, but only shades of grey in this world.  Solutions are not easy to come by, and if there is a clear one, it is not easy to arrive at.  Asking ourselves these questions by looking at the future will help us become aware of the potential consequences.

The final note that I would like to leave at is that despite everything being circular and complex, we cannot just stare at whiteboards or have discussions. There will be a point in time that we need to release that code to the world.  Problems will always be a common thing in our lives, but we should not let it stop us from marching onwards towards progress. We thought about it, we know about it, we are aware of the consequences.  Now let us solve it.

Looking to the Future to Solve Problems of the Present

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Looking back at today and the past topics that were presented, it seems that we touched on philosophy a lot more than science or even public policy.  Until taking this class, I never had been exposed to philosophy or had to think as critically as I had to about the unintended consequences of an action.  

Compared to the past discussions, Professor Sweeney’s one takes the cake when it comes to the “somewhat-unsolvable-problems” of the Internet.  And it is the most frustrating because it is so difficult to come up with any sort of solution that fits every situation.  There is just so much nuance and unique cases that come with the Internet.  It is as if that if there was any law that needs to be passed, it would only apply to a super-specific case.  

Today’s post will touch base on some more philosophy and some observations and thoughts that I had about the Internet.  First, we will cover some philosophy about truth on the Internet.  Finally, we will talk about some observations about the prevalence of technology in our lives and the trends in communication.

When Professor Sweeney talked about the fake Facebook ad that Cher is dead, it reminded me of the time when my friends mom announced that Jackie Chan was dead.  Where she got that information was Facebook, and none of us bothered to check whether or not Jackie Chan really did pass away.  At the time, I did not really care that he passed, but as I watched more of his movies with my dad and my sisters, I began to feel sad that such a great actor passed away.  No one would be able to see any of his movies.  Fortunately, I was wrong because I saw a movie that featured him, and to add on to this, he even visited Saipan one time to check out the newly casino.  

Although I’m glad that I was wrong about Jackie Chan being dead, looking back I am not happy about the fact that I was deceived and did not bother to corroborate information that I heard from someone else who heard it from Facebook.  My friend’s mom did not mean any harm, but we were all victims of misinformation.  However, it did not matter whether or not we learned the truth later on.  What mattered was the fact that a lie could have the power to make us reconsider the truth.  Corroboration of sources helps us purge doubt about the truth of a statement, but the Internet cannot really help us with the corroboration because it could return more information that support the lie.  The Internet is a place where we have access to information, but as far as we know, there is no tool that can fact-check every piece of information that goes online.  We can propose AI or machine learning, but what would be their standards, and who get to decide what standards are being programmed?  It is not an easy question to answer or a straightforward problem to solve, but it is better to create some sort of solution that attempts to reduce the risk of fake news rather than do nothing about it, and I think that AI could help us with that.  

Expanding on the idea about how technology could help us determine the truth, technology has been ever present in our lives.  Although it is quite obvious, it is quite frightening to see how integrated in our lives it has been.  I grew up without much technology or an Internet connection, but now, if I do not have Wifi, it feels as if the electricity has gone out.  It is so weird and scary to have that feeling.  And this is not limited to me.  There are many others who feel as if an Internet connection is one of the most fundamental needs of humans.  And the rate at which people are using technology is not changing within generations, but rather siblings.  My first two younger sisters and I, who were born around the turn of the 21st century, grew up with the idea that screen time could be limited, but my youngest sister, who was born in 2011, lived in a time where everyone had access to a screen.  I’m glad that my mom limits my baby sister’s screen time not because I am jealous of her, but because she is trying to make her remember that there is a real world out there.  This problem would only get worse as technology evolves, and technology is not evolving linearly, but rather exponentially.  The generation before me know of a time when there was no Internet.  My generation was born at the turning point of the Internet.  My baby sister was born into the Internet.  This difference is going to create a really interesting dynamic between generations/siblings as technology progresses.

Touching on the last point, I would like to circle back to the later part of the first point I made.  The Internet is basically a tool that helps us obtain information, whether it is in the form of an article, a YouTube video, or a Snapchat post.  This is not the first time that a tool has revolutionized the way we obtained information.  First it was the development of human language.  Next it was writing.  Then it was the printing press, then the telegraph, then the telephone, then radio, then television, and then the Internet.  I might have missed other technologies, but what I want to point out is the rate that these technologies appeared.  Majority of them were developed within 200 years past of today, which is not a every long time considering the timeline of humanity.  Our access to information has been exponential.  However, what is also interesting to point out is the speed that we receive this information.  It too is exponential.  Writing takes time to disperse, and television and radio are not widely accessible as a smartphone with an Internet connection.  It appears that the faster we obtain information, the more radical changes are appearing in society.  And further tying this to the first point, the easier it is to spread doubt about the truth.  Writing has the risk of preserving lies.  TV and radio are ways to spread those lies quickly.  The Internet combines the worst of both words.  Access to information may have brought us to where we are in the technology tree, but it does not appear that our biology and psychology can handle this much information.  

There is no clear-cut solution to any of this, and these problems are only going to get bigger and much worse.  However, what Dean Smith said about looking to the future for solutions to the present appears to be the best way to solve these issues.  We cannot look back into the past because the past has never experienced a problem at this scale.  Looking ahead would be the best solution because by predicting unintended consequences early on, we have the ability to minimize that damage that it could cause.  

Viruses and Caring about Code

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The discussion led by Professor Michael in class was a lot more about politics than I expected.  Nonetheless, it was a very insightful discussion about the flaws of our government when it comes to dealing with issues involving technology.  Although the momentum was slow in the beginning, it started to really pick up in the middle as we began to talk more about the potential threat of cyber warfare.

Today’s post will not be long, but it will be focused on two things: viruses and how politics is an impediment to progress.  Both will be informative, but will lean more towards a small rant.  

For some reason, computer viruses really interest me.  I have not programmed any viruses nor lost any computers to one, but the fact that lines of code can be created to conduct some activity without immediate commands from the creator is fascinating.  It reminds me a lot of the viruses we have in the real world.  They are just protein shells that have RNA stored inside them, which makes us question whether or not to classify them as a lifeforms.  Despite their simplicity, they are extremely effective at taking over a cell to create more of themselves.  Taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture, one can begin to see how much in common biology is with computers.  Our habits are like if-else conditions.  We view our routines as loops, and we represent ideas through language, just like variables represent data.  It is both fascinating and frightening to think that a human can be modeled by binary bits.  This makes me think that when we are able to fully utilize quantum computers, there is a huge possibility that we could simulate nature perfectly, considering the fact that nature is basically quantum mechanics at its fundamental level.

Moving on to the discussion about politics, most of the time, I view it as an impediment to progress.  A lot of people will disagree with me, but politics has hindered the development of the sciences and technology.  Take a look at the Trump administration.  Frankly, it is a shame that the head of the EPA is a climate change skeptic.  Even for the sake of the greater good, they refuse to cast of their “facts.”  They turn the facts of science into opinions, all to benefit themselves and their benefactors.

How can we trust government that does not know about technology to protect us in a technological manner?  We might be advanced with what we have, but it appears that we are not using it to it’s fullest extent.  It was really frustrating to hear from Professor Michael that despite multiple pleas to Congress to improve the security of critical infrastructure, such as emergency services and power production, Congress did not do anything to improve it, simply because they did not see the profits.  

However, this reveals a greater issue with caring about technology.  How do we get people to actually care about technology and the potential issues?  To be fair, it is hard to care about something that you know little to nothing about and you do not feel its immediate impact on your life.  The workings of modern technology is complicated and one does not physically feel the impacts of lines of code.  Nonetheless, we need to be aware of the fact that software is to society as oxygen is to us humans.  Software is becoming so embedded into our lives that is becoming impossible to live without it.  Google is a part of our vernacular, and according to the UN, having Internet access is a universal human right.  If our infrastructure is so reliant on software is not well-secured, society is digging it’s own grave.  

The Internet is Freedom

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The discussion with Professor Jonathan was one that was both intriguing and overwhelming.  It was intriguing in the sense that my attention was captured to record every detail of his story, but is was also overwhelming because I was trying to process those details.  Nonetheless, it was great to hear from him.  Instead of seeing the development of the Internet as a development of computer science, he told it in a way that was like a story, with ‘protagonists’ like Jon Postel and ‘antagonists’ such as Network Solutions, Inc (NSI).  Overall, it was a great class.

Today’s post is not going to be long, but it is going to be centered around the main topic of the class: who runs the Internet?  It is such a powerful and omnipresent tool that whoever has control over it, they could be both extremely wealthy and powerful.  They would have the ability to control all our transactions online and what information gets to us.  Essentially, they can control how we live since almost everything is connected to the Internet in some sense.  

It is this fear of control that makes me happy to hear that the Internet is owned by no single entity.  It does make things difficult to repair and sue, but that is the beauty of it.  We all have the capability of contributing to it, putting up any content that we please.  Like Professor Jonathan said, it is “really really weird that the Internet is not owned.”  I argue that it is this weirdness that makes the Internet so powerful to the people.  However, this power appears to be fading.

It was upsetting to hear that we are moving from decentralization to centralization.  Unfortunately, that seems to be the trend in ideas that first started out as “open source.”  Let us take a look at Bitcoin.  It started out decentralized, where no one can truly own the network because it will be competing against others and their computing power.  However, it is starting to get more centralized, where entities with massive amounts of computing power have the capability of exerting a huge amount of influence on the network.  

This can also be seen with the way that we are starting to interact with the web.  Apps make it easy for us to utilize the Internet, but the content that we see on them is limited compared to a browser, where we can search for what we please.  In this case, the central authority is the creator of the app because they decide what information gets shown to us in their app.  We may have the physical freedom to break from it, but not the intellectual freedom to search for what we want.  Facebook has the ability to show us certain news from certain media stations.  This might appear good on the surface, but the implication of this is that what we get to see is “filtered.”  

Overall, it is great to hear that the Internet is still owned by no one, but it is upsetting that we are moving away from that idea.  Companies and individuals are starting to have power over the Internet because of the services they provide to us. I am not in a position to state a full opinion on this because I do not truly understand the nuances of Internet governance, but I would argue for the ‘net neutrality’ of all content of the Internet.  I am aware that this would let in malicious information such as ISIS recruiting and black markets, but it is this freedom of content that makes the Internet so powerful.  As a curiosophile, the Internet is the tool that I use to answer my questions and attempt to provide a nuanced understanding of the topic.  I want to be able to search for what I want and know what I want, not what programmer feeds me.  

Veritas, Politicus, et Internet

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The topic discussed yesterday was interesting compared to previous discussions.  Although we did discuss about the topics of voting and politics in the Internet Age, it was interesting that we moved towards the ideas of truth and trust, and the philosophy behind them.  Today, we will be talking about voting, politics in the Internet, trust, and truth.

Before beginning, I would just like to express my disappointment that there was no clear solutions to the issues that were discussed.  We were able to identify the problems, but unfortunately we were not able to come to an agreement about about a solution.  Nuance makes everything complicated.

 

VOTING

Voting on the Internet would bring in so many benefits to government, yet the risks are substantial enough that for once sticking to the old methods is best (Scott, 2014).  For one thing, it is fast and efficient.  It would save thousands of dollars and hours of time because we would not have to pay hundreds of people to count ballots.  Recounting would not be an issue because we can just feed the ballots to the machine, and it will simply count it again without complaint.  

Another benefit it would bring is access to voting for eligible voters.  People would not need to drive to voting stations, or skip work just to vote.  Registration would not be an issue because a database of eligible voters could easily be created, and people could be verified quickly.  We would suddenly see a rise in voter turnout.  

However, the risks that we could suffer is so substantial that if things go wrong, it could literally destroy a country’s government.  The issue with voting on the Internet is the fact that nothing digital is perfectly secure.  Everyone on the Internet is open to hacking, even with the level of encryption we have today.  What makes an election so appealing to hackers is the level of power they have.  Elections decide leaders, and if leaders don’t do what’s best for nation, it damages and destroys it.  If our 2016 election was done through the Internet, we would probably see more Russian hacking than we saw.  Blockchain technology could potentially make electronic voting possible, but more research and development would need to be done, which it should (Barnes, Brake, & Perry, n.d).  

 

POLITICS IN THE WEB

If you want to save time, the gist is that it becomes dirtier online.  One might think that because we now have so much access to information that everyone can have a nuanced perspective, but the truth is that does not happen unless you actively do it.  Searching for opposing point of views is not psychologically in our favor because we get agitated and even angered when we see something that conflicts with our personal views.  Thus, echo chambers become our intellectual safe havens, and it is in here that our views only grow more radical.  Social media will almost not do anything about this because it is against their financial interest to show things that a user does not like.  Governments would not do anything about this because it benefits them so much to have people believe in their platform, and makes it easier to target those who don’t.  

Political parties make this game dirtier.  I’m not sure who said it in class, but the motto that the parties have adopted seem to be “Vote for me or don’t vote at all.”  Fact check me if I am wrong, but that could be the case with Bernie Sanders and why he did not win the Democratic primaries.  

This ties back to last week’s seminar with Professor Eaves.  Hopefully things will get better and government gets smarter, but honestly, 1984 appears to be our new world in the future.

 

TRUST AND TRUTH

The question Professor Smith asked about trust was an important one.  To be honest, I tend to trust people who have more experience or people whose viewpoints are different from the norm, which can be found in Quora.  However, what Jacob said about trusting the stock market is an interesting one that I should take a look at more.  Overall, though, I would make sure to have a little doubt or question one’s credibility because it is really hard to trust anyone fully, despite how much they say they have good intentions.  Corroborating this is the safer way to go because it somehow leads to some form of the truth.  

What Matty said in class really struck me: “Journalism is perspectives, not facts.”  My friends would trash me for this, but there is truth to that statement.  Journalism is done by humans, and humans have bias within them.  Even if we were to program an AI that could do objective journalism, the fact is that the data it is being fed could contain some bias.  Corroborating our sources is the best method to minimize bias, but it would take work and effort that takes time and our energy.  Maybe humans are innately biased.  After all, our senses are limited and our minds could only perceive so much before we tire out.  We can’t perceive the entire universe to see the truth, but with machines and the Internet, we could get closer to that.  

 

*These links point to resources about external voting.  The first one a video that talks about risks of electronic voting.  The second is an article that discusses how blockchain technology could make e-voting feasible.  

Barnes, A., Brake, C., & Perry, T. (n.d.). Digital Voting with the use of Blockchain Technology[PDF]. Plymouth University. Retrived from https://www.economist.com/sites/default/…

Scott, T [Computerphile]. (2014, December 18).  Why electronic voting is a BAD idea. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w3_0x6oa…  

Between Xanadu and 1984

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To be honest, I did not expect to be so engaged by the topic of Digital Citizenship.  By just reading the sources given to us, it appeared that there was not too much to talk about how the Internet will affect the government.  On the surface, it appeared to be optimizing things left and right, but after having this session with Professor Eaves, my views of the Internet started to change to be less optimistic and hopeful about it.

The one analogy that I cannot forget from this discussion was the one Professor Eaves made about how the printing press and the Internet are very similar in their effects.  Both made access to information easier, which in turn, has caused revolutions from the national-level to the individual level.  The effect on individuals is quite clear: increased access to information has broadened our knowledge of the world, enabled us to dig into the diverse past, and peer into what the future can potentially be.  It is really empowering for individuals, but according to Professor Eaves, not as empowering as it was for governments.  He gave the example of Napoleon and how without the printing press, would have not been able to organize an army of a million to invade Russia.  The printing press enabled standardization to occur, which in turn helped created nationalism.  A common identity, history, and language is shared easily because of this invention, and it is this unity that enables governments to become stronger.  Professor Eaves argues that we are now in the age where the Internet is going to help the state, which might not be as sunshine and daisies was we expect.

Let us look at the Snowden leaks, which frankly deserves its own chapter in human history.  Snowden exposed to the world that a government has the capability of spying upon its own people.  He believes that although they might use it for the sake of national security, the fact that they have this ability to invade the privacy of millions is something that we should have a conversation about. This level of surveillance could have not happened if it was not for the rise of the Internet.  From this, one could see that we are at the point in time that the government has the potential to radically change the way it rules over the people.  Dystopias where government surveillance is omnipresent, such as that of 1984, is now possible in the foreseeable future.  

However, the caveat is how fast can a government adapt to this change.  Just as Jeff Bezos has said to HBS, large, established organizations have a hard time changing itself.  Physical retail stores never caught up to using the Internet the way Amazon has because they did not catch on quickly enough.  Usually, I facepalm at the thought of slow progress, whether it is in business or government, but this is the time where I start to think that a slow government is something worthwhile to have.  It gives us time to think and to come up with a solution to the problems that could arise.  

Before I end, I want to cover two more things, identity and the law, both of which are at stake when it comes to the rise of Digital citizenship.  Governments want to keep track of who is a citizen of their country, both for good purposes and not-so-seemingly good purposes.  For example, they want to know who will pay taxes or who receives welfare, which is good for the people, but they also want to know what are we searching or looking at online for the sake of “national security,” which is not so good.  Digital citizenship can pave the way for instantaneous passport renewal, but it can also pave the way for increased surveillance.  

Before leaving, I asked Professor Eaves what would be a potential solution to the possibility of 1984 happening, and his answer was surprising.  “It’s the law, not technology, that would protect us.”  Being a technophile, I find this disappointing, but thinking about it, it really is the law that would enable us to live in a world with an uncorrupt, efficient government that does not trample upon our privacy.  Laws enable us to take the nuanced choice rather than a binary one.  One might be worried that governments are the ones who make the laws and are in control, but if you live in a democracy, laws are made for the people and by the people.  Laws might appear to chain us from progress, but they could be what prevents us from jumping into an abyss.  

Sometimes we think that outcomes are black and white, but we forget about the shades of grey that occur in between.  Almost nothing in this world is binary, and that is what makes the Internet both beautiful and complex.  

Redefining Humanity

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Having a discussion about artificial intelligence at the level we had in class today would have been unimaginable a decade ago.  If a spectator who did not know much about science fiction and the development of technology were to walk into class and observe us have our discussion, they would have thought that we were trying to write the next sci-fi hit that would oust 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Terminator.  Putting this into perspective, we were talking about an issue that appears so deeply science fiction as if it were science.  Unfortunately (fortunately for the technophiles), artificial intelligence and the Singularity is science.  It is happening every day.  It might appear crazy to have these conversations, but it is these conversations that we must have because at the rate technology is developing, we are eventually going to face the issue of super intelligent machines that would replace humanity.  Today, we are going to discuss about multiple topics in AI.  It won’t be as nicely structured, but a discussion about AI will help us slowly structure our humanity for the future to come.

There are multiple theories about AI and the Singularity, but one thing that often gets ignored in sci-fi is the fact that right now, AI is in the control of companies like Google or Facebook.  These are the most sophisticated AI that we humanity possess, and it is in control in the hands of the few and wealthy.  This should raise huge red flags because if the predictions about the development of AI turn out to be correct, the AI of the future won’t be some independent god-like entity.  Rather, it will be a tool of a company, and that company and it’s leaders will be the gods.  Google might not be intending to be worshipped, but it is placing itself in the position to do so.  Dean Smith stated that these companies want to develop “pervasive, ambient AI” because they want to give their customers a great experience with their product.  We must not be fooled by this because what we get in luxury is what we lose in privacy and control in our lives.  The kind of AI that these companies want are AI that are literally your shadow, following everywhere you go, omnipresent and omniscient in your life.  With the sophistication of data-mining technology, we are ‘freely’ giving out our information.  As Professor Waldo stated in class, how much data should we give to these companies?  Unintentionally, we are placing ourselves in the position of being the subordinates.  Being aware and thinking of the proper action to take is crucial at this point before it is too late.  

I believe it was Professor Waldo and Amanda who nicely put three potential futures for humanity if the Singularity does occur.

  1. The Singularity enables us to create a “Heaven-on-Earth” scenario, where people are allowed to pursue higher levels of work and enjoy the pleasures of life.
  2. A dystopian future results from this, where are subjugated and living life as a sentient being is miserable.
  3. We coexist with the AI, but it just ignores us.  It pursues greater things, while we sometimes use it for our humanistic pursuits.

Although I am a techno-optimist and I am looking forward to a future where we have a superintelligent machine, I find myself siding with Option #2.  AI might not necessarily eradicate us, but it would heavily change our answer to the question: what is the purpose of life?  Careers would be meaningless because AI would be able to do it for us.  Sure we might have more time available to us to focus on higher level thought, like creativity and theory, but at the Singularity level, AI can already do those things better and faster than us.  It is like the logic of going to the store rather than raising your own food.  Why should I spend my time farming crops and raising livestock when I know that there is food that is cheaply produced in the store that would take me a lot less time to buy?  One might argue that you are producing food for the ‘fun’ of it, but this is different.  AI makes life a lot easier for us, and we as humans are hardwired to accept the easy way.  I don’t need to grow food because I can buy it at a store, I don’t need to calculate all the values of sine because a calculator can do it for me, and I do not need to search for new YouTube content because YouTube can suggest to me what I should watch based on my previous content.  

Ultimately, we would be facing an existential crisis because if there is nothing to do when things are done so efficiently for us, then what is the purpose of living?  It is hard to say it, but we live for the struggle of life.  Biology is centered around the theory of evolution, and what drives evolution is the struggle to live.  Whether it is putting food on the table to debugging our code, there is a struggle in life that intrinsically drives us.  The Singularity has the potential to remove this struggle.  It seems that I am touching on point #1 because a Heaven-on-Earth would be created, but what point #1 subtly implies is that we will not be aware that life has a greater purpose.  For instance, in George Orwell’s book 1984, everyone is taught the principles of Ingsoc, where everyone lives to obey and serve Big Brother and the Party.  The protagonist Winston is able to see that this is not what life is because he was born in a time before the Party existed.  It is this knowledge that ultimately caused his demised.  He pushed to attain such a life and was willing to go through the struggle and risk is life because he knows that there was a greater purpose than serving Big Brother.  It was being free to live how he wants.  The Singularity can put us in a situation like in 1984; however, we do not necessarily need to be serving an all powerful entity.  We will lose our humanity, our desire to know, to search, and to fight for what we want and believe in because all of that is unnecessary in this world of the Singularity.  I argue that if we were to live in such a world, we need to redefine what it means to be human and what life is in order to live peacefully in such a world.  

As Professor Waldo has pointed out, what is interesting is that talks about AI are often more philosophical rather than technical.  For every discussion we had about AI, we were running on the assumption that either AI will eventually develop to the high level of super intelligence we may or may not want or just imagine that if this were to exist.  It might not seem that we have the technology to reach this level, but I would argue that we already do, especially with the advent of quantum computing.  For one thing, if we define the singularity as something that has near limitless computing power, than quantum computers offer that.  With just about a few hundred qubits, we will have more computing power than there are atoms in the universe.  This level of computing power already fulfills one of the requirements of being labelled the Singularity (By the way, the other assumptions of being a singularity are that it builds on itself and that it does not need input from humans).  

Ok, so what if we don’t define the Singularity to be like that, but rather define it has surpassing our human minds.  If we look deep down, we are all made of atoms that behave in the laws of quantum physics.  Every reaction in our body is the result of quantum systems interacting with one another.  In essence, we are just a large scale quantum system, and our mind is no exception to this.  And what are quantum computers?  A computer that can simulate quantum systems.  Basically, quantum computers can simulate how our minds work, and because they are so efficient in the way they run, it has the potential to exceed what our minds are capable of.  

There is a lot more that I want to talk about AI, but I believe that these are the key things we need to think about.  AI has so much potential to move humanity up on the ladder of existence, but it also runs the risk of destroying our reason to exist.  Maybe not only should we program it to be smart, but also how to be human.  It is a complicated topic that has no right answers, but it something to look forward to thinking about and developing.  

 

*PS, I would highly recommend watching the movie Ex Machina and CGP Grey’s video Humans Need not Apply (link in the description).  It may not be explicit, but the themes that are covered were covered here could somewhat be seen.  AI is my favorite food for thought, and these works are a few of the best choices in the menu to start dining on this topic.  

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Pq-S557XQU

A Tailor that Customizes Your Life…And Tracks it, too.

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The Internet of Things (IoT) is a game-changer for society today.  Never before had we been able to collect vast amount of data from people and their actions.  Before going more into depth about the issues and implications of IoT, we must first understand what data is.  To be honest, I thought that it was just numbers that relate to item usage and sales.  It is much more than that; it is the lifeblood that makes drives the IoT.  Data is numbers, but it is a way to quantify everything you do, from the amount of sugar and cream you put into your morning coffee to your Google search queries.  

So what is significant about this?  I argue that this enables you to have a personal tailor, one that customizes the world around you.  With this tailor, you will not only have clothes that fit you properly, but coffee made just the way you like it.  It is possible to have a refrigerator that sends a shopping list to your phone when your fridge is starting to look empty, or even a bed that automatically adjusts to your body.  It might not be robots cleaning your house our ovens that bake cookies when the kids come home, but it is a start.  What I find hard to believe is how companies are able to collect all of this data so subtly (sometimes).  These sensors are omnipresent, hidden in our phones and software, yet we feel as if they are not present.  

This level of customization and optimization is not limited to the individual.  For instance, manufacturing companies have a lot to gain from this.  The amount of raw materials wasted and used will decrease; errors in production will be minimized or even gone.  Let’s scale this up to cities.  From your phone’s Internet connection, you can know about a traffic jam even before seeing one.  Potentially, even traffic jams will be nonexistent with the level of optimization that the IoT can bring.  

It might sound all great, but there is a caveat to having this personal tailor: it constantly follows you around, measuring you and your every action.  A great quote was brought up in class that goes something on the lines of “scares of privacy loss will be forgotten as we indulge in the pleasures of convenience.”  Have you ever visited a website, and suddenly you saw ads that you actually like?  For me, I always see ones about watches because that is what I have been trying to shop for.  And those are the watches that I would actually buy.  It seems cool, but it actually shows that Google or some other data aggregation company is tracking your every search and action, using all that data to gain a profit.  And companies are not the only entities indulging in the data cake.  Governments are trying, or have already, taken a large slice out of this data cake to keep track of its people.  

With all this data mining, it raises the question: is there truly anything that we can hide?  And in regards to the data collected, who is keeping it secure, and how secure is it?  Individually, one person’s data about their shopping habits is somewhat worthless, but to an online retailer, this is what differentiates between a sale and a bust.   Multiply this by millions of people, and you got a multibillion dollar industry underway.  Data is the diamonds of the IoT.  However, unlike diamonds, there are real people with real lives behind those numbers.  If the data is not secure, anyone can access this kind of information.  In class there was a discussion about how there was safety in numbers, arguing that because there is so much information, it is extremely difficult to trace you and that you are not important enough.  However, the issue is not that your information is buried among others; it is the fact that it is there and it is easy to access.  How much data is enough data, and how much are we investing into keeping it secure?

When I was younger, my parents made me not use a calculator when I was doing any arithmetic assignment.  They wanted me to learn how to add, subtract, multiply, divide, and know the formulas of basic shapes.  I was able to do mental math fairly quickly in my head.  However, when I started my junior year of high school, I started to become more dependent on my calculator.  A calculator ensures that all your answers are correct, but it does not promise that you understand how to calculate an integral.  The Internet of Things is just like a calculator, it promises to make life great, but makes us forget and not understand what makes life great in the first place.

PS.  Since we often talk about tech dystopias, I would suggest the TV series Black Mirror.  The topics they cover are not exactly happening, but with the rapid development of technology, the events that occur could happen.  Some episodes, especially the first one, can get dark and messed up pretty quickly, so choose which one wisely.  

Know Thyself and Thy Internet Economics

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Before getting deeper in today’s blog, I would like to share a video made by CGP Grey.  It is called “Humans Need not Apply,” and it is a deep-dive into how automation is impacting or world.  Link is right here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Pq-S557XQU

There were many interesting topics discussed in class, and as Prof. Smith said, there is no right or wrong answers when discussing the future of the Internet.  Not all the topics will be covered, but the ones that were intriguing were M-Pesa, Chinese monitoring, Amazon, and data mining.  

After Tito told me about M-Pesa, I ran a quick search and read up about it.  It is a really well-developed e-banking system that reduces the need for a bank.  Furthermore, it reduces time and cost in obtaining the physical cash required for transactions or distribution.  For instance, according to the Economist, M-Pesa was used by city workers to send money back to their families in rural areas.  Hopefully, a system like this could be spread to more countries, such as the Philippines, where many people would benefit from such a system.

Another really interesting yet chilling topic is Chinese surveillance.  Researching this a little more in depth, China really has invested in their Internet-control-and-censorship technology.  If a person who is connected to the network tries to search for instance “Tiananmen Square,” they would get no search results.  And according to this New York Times article, even words that are somehow connected to sex will be filtered.  However, what is the most chilling part is the how much monitoring they are doing.  Frankly, it is unreal to think that my computer needs to be wiped completely clean to ensure that a network won’t be monitored or hacked.  Although this is frightening, it is also interesting how sophisticated software can be.  

Right now, Amazon is disrupting the economy.  How can a retailer that does not even have a retail store make billions?  What started from books eventually became food delivery, which is fascinating when one takes a step back and looks at it.  Although Amazon is making it easier for us to shop, it’s economic power must be one to take note of.  A company that facilitates one of the most basic of human behaviors, transactions, must have immense power.  This will only continue to grow.

And last but certainly not the least, data mining.  Hearing the story about targeted advertising and how the father found out about her daughter’s pregnancy appears like a crazy story, but machine learning and data mining algorithms are out there silently collecting your personal data.  These kinds of data are what I like to call ‘subconscious data.’  We are not aware that they are being collected, but they are.  Every Google search, YouTube video watched, item purchased or music listened to has some information about your unique taste and self.  It is hard to imagine and even crazy to say, but a computer that does not live like you or even care about you knows more about you than anybody or you will even know more about yourself.  Looks like this give Socrates’ quote ‘know thyself’ a whole new meaning.  

 

-PS. If anyone has suggestions about how I can learn more about data mining or machine learning, I would be interested to hear about it.

-PSS. Here are the websites that I used for my quick research.

https://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2013/05/economist-explains-18

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/24/world/asia/china-internet-censorship.html?mcubz=1

Centralization, Hidden Networks, and Society Change

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The discussion about scaling brought up an interesting argument between centralization and progress.  Typically, centralization prevents progress from taking place.  Look at the telephone companies during the 1960s; they refused to take part helping build ARPANET.  To be fair, it would compete against their established phone lines, but this was the opportunity for them to improve their communications technology.  They had the mindset “this was the way things have always been done.”  However, not all centralized entities have this mindset.  Take Apple for instance.  They are the sole distributers and users of iOS, and their technology is closed source.  However, whatever new technology they make, from the Macbook Pro to the iPhone X, it always appears innovative.  Furthermore, because they design both the hardware and the software, the performance of their technology is phenomenal.  At this point, the importance of progressive centralization must be made known.  Centralization is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can keep us in the past if it refuses to move with the times.  In regards to the Internet, it was the best decision ever made.  It will definitely not have been at the scale it is today without decentralization.  It makes me question the motives of people who argue for a centralized, ‘stronger’ network (Ted Nelson, I believe).

I am not sure if it was Professor Smith or Professor Waldo who commented that “the World Wide Web is a small part of the Internet.”  Nonetheless, as I heard this statement, I could not help but think about all the other networks that the Internet connected, networks that we are not able to easily access.  It seems that the professors were alluding to the entity called the “Deep Web.”  Before leaving Saipan, I was having a great conversation with a friend about the Deep Web.  He talked about all the things you can find there, from illegal drugs to aircraft blueprints.  Although I never had the time nor the courage to explore this realm, it has not stopped my sister and I from learning about it.  However, it makes me think about the scale of the Internet.  What are these networks?  How did they get started, and what is being circulated around there?

The discussion about the iPhone backdoor and cryptocurrency was intriguing.  Although they are two separate technology issues, they are both representative of how technology, most notably cryptography technology, is redefining the way we live.  

Let us take a look at the iPhone backdoor incident.  Although the government was able to get into the attacker’s phone, they do not have the capability of unlocking all iPhones.  Even Apple, surprisingly, is not able to unlock all of its iPhones.  However, it could do this by installing some backdoor to all its future models, which it is hopefully never going to do.  If we think about it, phones are the extension of our minds and of ourselves.  While our lives might not be so private from the government anymore, our minds are still, and it should be kept this way.*  

Finally, let us take a look at cryptocurrency.  Before discussing about it, it must be noted that James Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase, was the one who called Bitcoin a fraud.  Sure he may be an expert economist, but he is a leader of a bank, which makes us question if he has a conflict of interest.  Simple and hopefully obvious answer, yes.  After all, the whole idea of cryptocurrency is starting to undermine the centralized banking system.  Why would he not try to call out fraud on the currency that would ruin his bank?  However, it must be noted that whether Bitcoin is great or not, the fact is that our monetary system needs to change.  Recall what happened back in 2008.  It was not the fault of the people who bought houses they could not afford.  It was the fault of the banks for giving out all those subprime loans to people who definitely could not have afforded it.  Bitcoin was created in response to this.  And what did the banks have to suffer for punishment?  Nothing.  Instead, the Federal Reserve dubiously bailed out the banks using about $700 billion under the TARP (Troubled Assets Relief Program).  The Dodd-Frank bill was passed to control the financial institutions under the government, but the call to repeal it raises doubts about whether or not the centralized money system has truly reformed.    

 

* The ideas that were expressed here were by CGP Grey’s Youtube video “Should all locks have keys?  Phones, castles, encryption, and You.”  His ideas have made me rethink about security in the digital age.  He has other great videos that are related to the class.  A link to is video is posted below:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VPBH1eW28mo

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