Beyond the Cusp

May 6, 2014

Can We Trust Future Technology?

Whether you call it Artificial Intelligence, the Singularity, Future Tech or any of probably a few hundred specific areas or identifiers of what future challenges are approaching faster than we are preparing safeguards or educating people to facilitate acceptance, and will acceptance even be desirable? Some of the recent big news stories have dealt with data mining and the use of massive amounts of data in predictive technologies. But there are other uses of these exact technologies which we do not appear to be anywhere near as concerned about other sources using these exact same technologies and very likely with less oversight such as charge card companies and retailers. Then there is the eerie side of the education system known best as Common Core which includes large amounts of data mining on the children as a part of their educational experience presumably to be better able to tailor the education system to each child’s predetermined preferences and likely path in life as determined by the data. One of the fears is this information could also be utilized to spy on and make determinations about the student’s home life and might be applied by the government to make determinations which families might be at risk for undesirable behaviors or activities. If you do not think that any of this is a fast approaching problem then try to explain why whenever you do a search for some retail item or make a few purchases online that your computer begins to display advertisements of related and similar items in the pop-up advertisements. This is accomplished through very similar technologies to what the NSA (National Security Agency) and other government law enforcement and spying agencies were accused of applying to the data mining information that caused such an outrage recently. Somehow the fact that Google, Target, Amazon, Wal-Mart and who knows who else including technology companies and advertising agencies are increasingly using to better mold their advertisements and sales promotions in order to increase their revenues by better targeting trends and potential approaching markets. The one truth we all are facing is that as technologies advance and are refined and improved our privacy becomes more threatened to the point where many of us have probably already redefined personal informational privacy downward lowering expectations of remaining anonymous.

 

There are those among us who have already altered our lives to attempt to forestall the onset of completely and totally compromised personal privacy. Some refuse to use Google when they search for items, but is Google actually contributing to the search engine you use instead and thus you still are feeding the Google data mining which they have admitted to using in their research to produce a better Artificial Intelligence software and predictive analysis algorithms all presumably to better serve us in the future. But are their intentions really all that altruistic or could there exist deeper and darker motivations in their use of our search terms and other on-line activities. With Google we are almost completely defenseless against their attempts to gather the data about us as they continue to swallow up new technologies and smaller companies to the point they are almost omnipresent in everybody’s on-line lives. Then there are so many possibilities for character data mining and experimentation which can be incorporated within the plethora of on-line games and interactive on-line experiences and sharing services such as Twitter, Facebook, StumbleUpon, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Instagram, Flickr, MySpace and other social networking sites even including the one no one admits to ever using any longer, AOL, you know who you are, and so do the data miners. The one good side to using AOL is that the data miners likely refuse to store data on you. Many have probably forgotten but there was a time when AOL was the Google of on-line social interactive media and search engines but that was another time and almost seems like another reality and so innocent and almost primitive compared to Google and the rest of today’s on-line media and social activities. Still, these interactive social media and life sharing sites we provide so much telling information about ourselves that we really do not appear to really be concerned with the amount of information and personal data we provide or how it can and will be used and not necessarily in ways which we would be completely comfortable about. So, where should we draw the line and claim no further intrusions and should these lines apply to private industries and companies or solely apply to government agencies and departments which are presumably restricted from many of these type encroachments into our lives and information by the Constitution. Amendment IV states, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” The question will pivot on the definition of what is unreasonable and how invasive would we define an acceptable level of gathering data on us and recording our communications on open networks and public forums. The younger generations appear generally to be less concerned as their lives have been lived with the all-pervasive technology and universal data sharing and personal on-line presence which is openly available to almost any and everybody while those of us who were raised during the ultra-high-tech Etch-A-Sketch era probably fear these technological advances and intrusions far more.

 

The next concern, or at least it should be, is how far will these technologies go and what can we expect future society to resemble. Will we have precogs facilitating the arrest of people for future crime as in Minority Report or will we have to have a special law enforcement department to hunt down artificial humanoid life forms as in Blade Runner or will the future resemble the horrors and enslavement of humankind depicted in the 1927 futurist movie Metropolis. The decisions of how far is too far and what qualifies as unreasonable or too invasive is something which society needs to address and define now and not wait until the technology creates a situation where the consequences are so abhorrent and unacceptable that the decisions made subsequent to this almost predictable coming disastrous circumstance that many beneficial technological applications are made illegal or restricted causing a new problem where avoidable problems are not revealed as a result of the overreaction to the initial misuse of technology. The consequences of upcoming technologies will be astounding even to the most techno-savvy amongst us and quite probably horrifying to those of us less comfortable and acquainted with the possibilities and influences which are coming into existence spawned as a result to the power of information technologies. This will be an even more worrisome situation with the IRS now will not only hold a complete financial inventory of virtually every American citizen but will also have universal access to the health records of the vast majority of American citizens and all should Obamacare actually fulfill its objectives of instituting a single payer government provided healthcare system. Adding this level of data availability across the departments of the Federal Government to the potential metadata collected by the NSA and with the storage and retrievability capabilities of the new data storage complex built on a two-hundred-forty-acre site near Camp Williams outside Bluffdale, Utah, the ability to profile not only every single American citizen but also every individual holding positions of power in every national government in the world along with a sizeable percentage of people simply deemed of interest and you have an incalculable potential for evil pursuits beyond imagination. The coming technological society will be something so beyond anything we can imagine, as the people developing these technologies are far more imaginative than the average person and even if they have only the milk of loving kindness in their hearts, the potential for somebody with nefarious intentions within the companies at the leading edge of these abilities cannot be ruled out, or at least should not be ruled out. The future has the potential to make life enjoyable and promising beyond belief but with such ability it can also turn in a completely opposite direction, and since the government is partnering with these efforts and underwriting much of the research, can we trust the government which includes among their members the most hated politician of your choosing. Imagine the worst example of humanity from the White House or Congress and imagine their having their fingers on every piece of information about everybody and the ability to predict future actions with a believably high level of accuracy and try to find what would be considered off-limits to these politicians. If that does not scare you then you either live the most pure lives ever lived or have no reason as nobody is without sin when it comes to political expediency. I, for one, wish and hope that the future will be all flowers and sweet music but in order to make that so, I also will expect the worst from those with whom we place our trust to make the laws and run the nation and even the world. Watch, verify and constrict government for as George Washington quipped, “Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.”

 

Beyond the Cusp

 

April 6, 2014

Are Privacy Rights Even Possible Today?

The United States Constitution stipulates a carefully constructed and balanced governance with opposing interests and powers separated and posed as checks against the usurpation of excessive power over time by any one branch, individual or small group of individuals. Still, the Founding Fathers were challenged by the representatives of the various states and the people to give stated recognition and formalized structure to the protections of the individual from the power and infringement by the government which resulted in the first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights. This set of Amendments placed defined limitations on the government and its related institutions as well as defined unabridged rights awarded the people by an authority which superseded the government and any individual, group, corporation or entity. Initially there were a dozen proposed Amendments which were to constitute the Bill of Rights but only ten survived the ratification process. The first of the two Amendments which were not ratified pertained to the number of representatives and the maximum number of citizens they would be permitted to represent all in a sliding scale that increased the ratio as the number of representatives in the House of Representatives is increased as the total passed each hundred. It is easier to read the proposal than explain, so, it reads, “After the first enumeration required by the first article of the Constitution, there shall be one Representative for every thirty thousand, until the number shall amount to one hundred, after which the proportion shall be so regulated by Congress, that there shall be not less than one hundred Representatives, nor less than one Representative for every forty thousand persons, until the number of Representatives shall amount to two hundred; after which the proportion shall be so regulated by Congress, that there shall not be less than two hundred Representatives, nor more than one Representative for every fifty thousand persons.” The other rejected Amendment concerned the rate of payment for members of the House of Representatives and read, “No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.”

 

All that may be interesting but it also has as much relevance to the modern world as do those definitions for the number of citizens each House of Representatives member has in their districts as today that number is in excess of seven hundreds of thousands, not the tens of thousands as was originally thought to be a fair ratio. The idea of personal anonymity and the safeguarding of each person from excessive government intrusion and inspection were considered sacrosanct at the writing and founding of the United States. This was a unique concept whose origins were a recent concept then and now is either a concept that has never been addressed for much of the world and becoming a quaint and dated concept where it originated in the political parlors and by the political philosophers and thinkers leading up to the founding of the United States and the explosion of representative governance in Europe and America. The current debate has taken some twists and turns especially since the revelations introduced into the public conscience through the release of classified information by Edward Snowden about the extent of spying on individual citizens by the United States government. Of course his releases told of what many thought to be excessive intrusions by the NSA and other data gathering government agencies and were perceived as being something relatively new as such unprecedented ability for gathering data, especially electronic data, was thought to be a recently acquired ability for government. The reality is even more frightening than what was revealed by Mr. Snowden as the NSA has been capable of recording virtually every bit of electronic data generated in the United States since somewhere back in the 1970s. This ability has been supplemented and expanded repeatedly going through different names, one of the more memorable being the Echelon System used in the 1980 -90s which also was capable of recording huge amounts of data comparable to the total electronic data output of the United States. It is apparent that the NSA has increased their abilities in, at a minimum, direct correlation to the amount of electronic data capable of being produced by the United States, no small feat. Recent revelation have told of the United States actually recording every e-mail and electronic communication of any one nation in the world in addition to its abilities to monitor the United States electronic output and some have spoken of the ability to record to some extent and level all the electronic communications and generated data of the entire planet. What possibility for privacy remains when measured against such unfathomable abilities?

 

Those who specialize in knowing the extent and depth of the abilities to gather data on an individual often are quoted, though almost always as an anonymous source, telling of borderline or even absolutely mind-boggling abilities possessed by the government spying and law enforcement agencies. There have been cases claiming they have the ability to listen to a conversation in a closed room from as much as a quarter or half mile distant simply by pointing a specialized laser at a window pane and interpreting the changes in the vibration of the glass molecules as long as the window is not covered by a thick, sound dampening set of curtains. There are claims that they can locate people using thermal imaging through walls of almost any building. Many have heard that the spy satellites optics are capable of reading a newspaper that somebody is reading sitting on a park bench. The Soviet Union demanded that their government employees never carry any classified documents outside of buildings unless they were safely contained in a briefcase. Many of the tactics used in the biggest Hollywood films such as listening in on conversations from a distance utilizing parabolic microphones and other such routine spy thriller capabilities are likely outdated by the time we see them in movies. There was a recent report that some government agency was researching some form of determining through observable and easily collected data who would be most likely to commit crimes, what those crimes would be, whom they would target and when the crime would be committed with some degree of dependable accuracy. What is the obligation of the government if they are capable of predicting future criminal events in preventing any harm resulting from such acts and how close are we to replacing the precogs lying in a pool and seeing events referred to as precrimes as in the movie Minority Report except using instruments, computers and software programs to predict such possibilities. Between the abilities of governments for data collection, computing of metadata, and making accurate predictions and profiling individuals, what possibility does anybody have of escaping with even the slightest shred of privacy intact? And what can be done to prevent governments from misusing such data, and even more important, what limits should be placed on private companies when it comes to sharing personal data and forming profiles on individuals which can and are used in targeted advertising and other such abilities. And even if such limitations were to be incorporated into regulations or criminal codes, how would they even be enforced or even could they be enforced and if enforced, what other problems would result from government attempting to gather the proof of such crimes being committed? It becomes mind-boggling just playing out the ever-expanding web resulting from data collection and manipulation.

 

The final area that also is providing insights which may be an even bigger threat is in the area of AI, artificial intelligence. Google and Microsoft are working with the United States government and who knows who else to utilize the data they are able to collect using buying patterns and search terminology used when searching the internet and many other data inputs to formulate a program or set of programs that will be able to predict future trends and reason and think in a manner close to that of a human being. They claim such research is being used to better serve the public and to be able to design robots in the future that will be better enabled to interact with people. What threats to our privacy exist as a result of such research and is there any way we can protect ourselves from such intrusions? The result of everything we are experiencing and that are being reported is that there is no longer anything that even resembles the privacy that the Founding Fathers attempted to give the people guarantees would be held sacred by government. That is looking less and less likely with every revelation. Now the United States is implementing a healthcare system which will posit all the healthcare information into the computers of the IRS, Internal Revenue Service, the tax people. How much power will the government have when the IRS has complete records of your healthcare and your financial situation? How will government use such data and will the government now determine the level of healthcare a person will be entitled to be provided conditional on their financial worth to the society as a whole? This could easily enter an area which at its worst could result in some form of euthanasia and a form of means testing to qualify for healthcare treatments at the least. Thinking too long and too hard on the completeness of the government’s ability to gather every iota of personal information on each and every individual, especially realizing that each of us are potentially ourselves, and to utilize this data to predict our future actions and results of everything in our lives such that they can literally know before we ourselves are aware of what tomorrow holds for each of us and use this ability for nefarious purposes which will compromise every shred of our privacy and most know our most intimate thoughts before we even have them, can any government or person be trusted with such knowledge and the power it imparts. Some of the items which were restricted to the areas of futurist political science fiction such as in Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World are now becoming within the grasp of government and companies making these stories warnings of what is coming soon to our worlds and it will make for many horrifying prognostications on what our lives will become. Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely and ultimate power corrupts beyond imagination and what is coming is beyond even that.

 

Beyond the Cusp

 

January 23, 2014

Politics Teaches All About Language and Statistics

Many commentators decry the state of political debate complaining about the polarization and the ever increasing gap between the right and the left. They tend to see nothing to be gained as gridlock and harsh discourse is all they are able to see but there are lessons if not in the actual debates, then in the way the arguments and validations are fashioned. Language is probably most defined by the position of the user’s politics more than any dictionary could ever intimate. There are key words whose meaning is in doubt until one realizes whether the user is arguing from the right or the left of the political spectrum. One such word which is brutalized by both sides is equality, especially when applied to the economy and the consequences of the different degrees of wealth as well as opportunity. Where one side using equality it means that the result after everything has been said and done and the government has acted will result in near equality in levels of wealth while the other side defines equality as everybody working in the same system under the same rules on a level playing field thus having the same opportunity and any difference is determined by many factors of which they will stress the extent of effort and natural abilities. One side believes that equality means leveling out the inequities resultant from the disparate outcomes while the other believes that at birth we all start with the same potentials for the most part and any differences result mostly from efforts and being able to grasp opportunities and that government should not be there to take from the successful to give to the less successful.

 

Another word which has unique definitions is charity. One position is that charity should be left to the individuals or to religious and private organizations and should never be a consideration of government as government enforcing charitable giving through taxes and redistribution is simply a form of theft. The other definition claims that the inequities are too great and that many are too greedy and selfish resulting in the necessity for government to enforce some degree of charity otherwise the needy would end up neglected. The definition of a fair tax is another area of disagreement where one side would claim that a fair tax would levy the same percentage in taxation on every citizen while the other side holds that a fair tax would levy the percentage in such a way that those with more wealth and income would pay at a higher rate while those below a predetermined level of income would be left untaxed. Experiencing the uses of words in the political domain constantly provides examples of how varied and opposing words can be used in supporting opposing ideas and ideals. Probably the most mangled words are those used as the names of the sides in the political arguments. Somebody who is called a liberal no longer means that they are a libertine who believes in individual independence with minimal interference by the governing bodies. A conservative does not necessarily hold views which demand that things remain exactly as they are or desires a return to how they were in the recent past. Those claiming to be independent voters often have a voting record which would rival the most ardent party member of any of the parties and simply claim to be independent in order to avoid having to explain or defend the party which they actually support almost without exception. Another term which has been completely coopted to mean, in many cases, whatever position you desire to support is choice. Those who support the Second Amendment adamantly claim that people should be free to have the choice of whether or not they wish to own a firearm and that as long as the individual accepts all the responsibilities and consequences of carrying a concealed weapon, they should be free to exercise that choice. There is the pro-choice position which most are familiar with where it allows for women to have the option available to terminate a pregnancy. Many libertarians claim that people should be allowed to have the choice to use drugs and claim that the War on Drugs interferes with personal choice and freedoms. Libertarians actually are very liberal when it comes to choice as they support personal independence almost to a fault. The one place where choice is often restricted to the point of absurdity is within the walls of government where they seem determined to pass laws which restrict people’s lives to the point where there will be no opportunity for choice as they will all have been legislated out of existence.

 

The one place where words are most often twisted and manipulated in order to produce a predetermined and defined desired result is in polls. Many polls which are commissioned by PACs, organizations, political parties and virtually any other source one can determine what the end expected result is simply by inspecting the phrasing of the questions. Politics is a place where words are tortured and polls are where they are executed. Even the time of day chosen to take the samples or the location where the polling is taken also will determine the results. Often polls will use emotional phrases which engender a certain reaction early in the poll in order to skew the rest of the answers to the poll questions. This is not to say that there are no polls which are crafted fairly with great attention paid to using unbiased wording and phrasing and avoiding hot topic words which might skew results, but these types are usually commissioned by businesses and not political entities. Polls can be slanted by having qualifying questions which limit those who are questioned and included in the tabulations, often this is done by age though whether one is employed or regularly votes are other qualifiers often implemented.

 

The other thing which is often related to polling that is mutilated and twisted in order to portray a particular political position is statistics. As the old saying goes, “There are lies, damn lies and statistics.” Statistics when utilized in politics is the precise science of massaging numbers to produce a predetermined result. One easy to understand example is the wealth gap. If one takes the statistics of those who are in the top ten percent of income earners and those in the bottom ten percent of income earners over a period of years the result will currently show that the income gap is growing significantly. But if instead one takes the people in the initial year who were in the top ten percent and those in the bottom ten percent and followed these individuals over the same time period the income gap will be shown to have shrunk. The reason for the disparity is simple, the people in the top and bottom ten percent change from year to year and those initially in either extreme will both slide towards the median income over time while other people take their place at the extremes. Thus, if one wished to exaggerate the income inequality they would use the first set of statistics while if instead one desires an accurate description of the fluctuations in income and the constant flux with people changing their income potentials as they move through life and their opportunities and conditions change, then the second set of statistics will serve you better. Another way of misrepresenting numbers but not necessarily statistics is by comparing apples to oranges, as the adage states. An example was the claim that Warren Buffet’s secretary paid greater amount in taxes than her boss. There is a very logical reason but the emotional response to this truth is being played for all it is worth when this unequal and unfair comparison was used. The taxes they were referring to were payroll taxes which are levied on one’s salary, not one’s wealth. Where Warren Buffet has great wealth and most of his wealth comes from investments, he thus has little salary per se but has wealth which would be taxed under capital gains while the secretary does have a salary and pays income based taxes but she likely pays negligible if any capital gains taxes compared to her boss. Language, statistics, numbers, emotions and truth all take a back seat in the political arena if not a total vacation. The real lesson is we need to take care and carefully inspect anything we are presented with which has political implications as when politics is in play the truth takes a well-deserved holiday.

 

Beyond the Cusp

 

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