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October 31, 2008

Machine dreams

Just how smart are humans anyway? Last week's Singularity Summit spent a lot of time talking about the exact point at which computer processing power would match that of the human brain, but that's only the first step. There's the software to make the hardware do stuff, and then there's the whole question of consciousness. At that point, you've strayed from computer science into philosophy and you might as well be arguing about angels on the heads of pins. Of course everyone hopes they'll be alive to see these questions settled, but in the meantime all we have is speculation and the snide observation that it's typical that a roomful of smart people would think that all problems can be solved by more intelligence.

So I've been trying to come up with benchmarks for what constitutes artificial intelligence, and the first thing I think is that the Turing test is probably too limited. In it, a judge has to determine which of two typing correspondents is the machine and which the human, That's fine as far as it goes, but one of the consistent threads that un through all this is a noticeable disdain for human bodies.

While our brain power is largely centralized, it still seems to me likely that both its grey matter and the rest of our bodies are an important part of the substrate. How we move through space, how our bodies react and feed our brains is part and parcel of how our minds work, however much we may wish to transcend biology. The fact that we can watch films of bonobos and chimpanzees and recognise our own behaviour in their interactions should show us that we're a lot closer to most animal species than we think - and a lot further from most machines.

For that sort of reason, the Turing test seems limited. A computer passes that test if, when paired against a human, the judge can't tell which is which. At the moment, it seems clear the winner is going to be spambots - some spam messages are already devised cleverly enough to fool even Net-savvy individuals into opening them sometimes. But they're hardly smart - they're just programmed that way. And a lot depends on the capability of the judge - some people even find Eliza convincing, though it's incredibly easy to send off-course into responses that are clearly those of a machine. Find a judge who wants to believe and you're into the sort of game that self-styled psychics like to play.

Nor can we judge a superhuman intelligence by the intractable problems it solves. One of the more evangelist speakers last weekend talked about being able to instantly create tall buildings via nanotechnology. (I was, I'm afraid, irresistibly reminded of that Bugs Bunny cartoon where Marvin pours water on beans to produce instant Martians to get rid of Bugs.) This is clearly just silly: you're talking about building a gigantic building out of molecules. I don't care how many billions of nanobots you have, the sheer scale means it's going to take time. And, as Kevin Kelly has written, no matter how smart a machine is, figuring out how to cure cancer or roll back aging won't be immediate either because you can't really speed up the necessary experiments. Biology takes time.

Instead, one indicator might be variability of response; that is, that feeding several machines the same input - or giving the same machine the same input at different times - produces different, equally valid interpretations. If, for example, you give a 10th grade class Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice to read and report on, different students might with equal legitimacy describe it as a historical account of the economic forces affecting 18th century women, a love story, the template for romantic comedy, or even the story of the plain sister in a large family whose talents were consistently overlooked until her sisters got married.

In The Singularity Is Near, Ray Kurzweil laments that each human must read a text separately and that knowledge can't be quickly transferred from one to another the way a speech recognition program can be loaded into a new machine in seconds - but that's the point. Our strength is that our intelligences are all different, and we aren't empty vessels into which information is poured but stews in which new information causes varying chemical reactions.

You might argue that search engines can already do this, in that you don't get the same list of hits if you type the same keywords into Google versus Yahoo! versus Ask.com, and if you come back tomorrow you may get a different response from any one of them. That's true. It isn't the kind of input I had in mind, but fair enough.

The other benchmark that's occurred to me so far is that machines will be getting really smart when they get bored.

ZDNet UK editor Rupert Goodwins has a variant on this from when he worked at Sinclair Research. "If it went out one evening, drank too much, said the next morning, 'never again' and repeated the exercise immediately. Truly human." But see? There again: a definition of human intelligence that requires a body.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).

October 24, 2008

Living by numbers

"I call it tracking," said a young woman. She had healthy classic-length hair, a startling sheaf of varyingly painful medical problems, and an eager, frequent smile. She spends some minutes every day noting down as many as 40 different bits of information about herself: temperature, hormone levels, moods, the state of the various medical problems, the foods she eats, the amount and quality of sleep she gets. Every so often, she studies the data looking for unsuspected patterns that might help her defeat a problem. By this means, she says she's greatly reduced the frequency of two of them and was working on a third. Her doctors aren't terribly interested, but the data helps her decide which of their recommendations are worth following.

And she runs little experiments on herself. Change a bunch of variables, track for a month, review the results. If something's changed, go back and look at each variable individually to find the one that's making the difference. And so on.

Of course, everyone with the kind of medical problem - diabetes, infertility, allergies, cramps, migraines, fatigue - that medicine can't really solve - has done something like this for generations. Diabetics in particularly have long had to track and control their blood sugar levels. What's different is the intensity - and the computers. She currently tracks everything in an Excel spreadsheet, but what she's longing for is good tools to help her with data analysis.

From what Gary Wolf, the organizer of this group, Quantified Self, says - about 30 people are here for its second meeting, after hours at Palo Alto's Institute for the Future to swap notes and techniques on personal tracking - getting out of the Excel spreadsheet is a key stage in every tracker's life. Each stage of improvement thereafter gets much harder.

Is this a trend? Co-founder Kevin Kelley thinks so, and so does the Washington Post, which covered this group's first meeting. You may not think you will ever reach the stage of obsession that would lead you to go to a meeting about it, but in fact, if the interviews I did with new-style health companies in the past year is any guide, we're going to be seeing a lot of this in the health side of things. Home blood pressure monitors, glucose tests, cholesterol tests, hormone tests - these days you can buy these things in Wal-Mart.

The key question is clearly going to be: who owns your health data? Most of the medical devices in development assume that your doctor or medical supplier will be the one doing the monitoring; the dozens of Web sites highlighted in that Washington Post article hope there's a business in helping people self-track everything from menstrual cycles to time management. But the group in Palo Alto are more interested in self-help: in finding and creating tools everyone can use, and in interoperability. One meeting member shows off a set of consumer-oriented prototypes - bathroom scale, pedometer, blood pressure monitor, that send their data to software on your computer to display and, prospectively, to a subscription Web site. But if you're going to look at those things together - charting the impact of how much you walk on your weight and blood pressure - wouldn't you also want to be able to put in the foods you eat? There could hardly be an area where open data formats will be more important.

All of that makes sense. I was less clear on the usefulness of an idea another meeting member has - he's doing a start-up to create it - a tiny, lightweight recording camera that can clip to the outside of a pocket. Of course, this kind of thing already has a grand, old man in the form of Steve Mann, who has been recording his life with an increasingly small sheaf of devices for a couple of decades now. He was tired, this guy said, of cameras that are too difficult to use and too big and heavy; they get left at home and rarely used. This camera they're working on will have a wide-angle lens ("I don't know why no one's done this") and take two to five pictures a second. "That would be so great," breathes the guy sitting next to me.

Instantly, I flash on the memory of Steve Mann dogging me with flash photography at Computers, Freedom, and Privacy 2005. What happens when the police subpoenas your camera? How long before insurance companies and marketing companies offer discounts as inducements to people to wear cameras and send them the footage unedited so they can study behavior they currently can't reach?

And then he said, "The 10,000 greatest minutes of your life that your grandchildren have to see," and all you can think is, those poor kids.

There is a certain inevitable logic to all this. If retailers, manufacturers, marketers, governments, and security services are all convinced they can learn from data mining us why shouldn't we be able to gain insights by doing it ourselves?

At the moment, this all seems to be for personal use. But consider the benefits of merging it with Web 2.0 and social networks. At last you'll be able to answer the age-old question: why do we have sex less often than the Joneses?

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).

October 17, 2008

Mind the gap

"Everyone in my office is either 50 or 25," said my neighbor, who is clearly not 25. "We call them 'knowledge-free'. I blame the Internet."

Well, the Internet is a handy thing to blame; it's there and today's generation of 20-somethings grew up with the Web - if you're 25 today you were 12 when Netscape went public. My parents, who were born in 1906 and 1913, would have blamed comic books; my older siblings, born between 1938 and 1943, might blame TV.

What are they "knowledge-free" about? The way she tells it, pretty much everything. They have grown up in a world where indoor temperature is the same year-round. Where bananas and peaches are native, year-round fruit that grows on supermarket shelves. Where World War II might as well be World of Warcraft II. Where dryers know when the clothes are dry, and anything worth seeing on TV will show up as a handily edited clip on YouTube. And where probably the biggest association with books is waiting for JK Rowling's next installment of Harry Potter.

Of course, every 50-something generation is always convinced that the day's 20-somethings are inadequate; it's a way of denying you were ever that empty-headed yourself. My generation - today's 50-somethings - and the decade or so ahead of us absolutely terrified our parents: let those dope-smoking, draft-dodging, "Never trust anyone over 30", free-lovers run things?

It's also true that she seems to know a different class of 20-somethings than I do; my 20-plus friends are all smart, funny, thoughtful, well educated, and interested in everything, even if they are curiously lacking in detailed knowledge of early 1970s movies. They read history books. They study science. They worry about the economy. They think about their carbon production and how much fossil fuels they consume. Whereas, the 20-odds in her office write and think about climate change and energy use apparently without ever connecting those global topics with the actual individual fact that they personally expect to wear the same clothes year-round in an indoor environment controlled to a constant temperature.

Just as computers helped facilitate but didn't cause the current financial crisis, the Internet has notthe problem - if anything it ought to be the antidote. What causes this kind of disconnect is simply what happens when you grow up in a certain way; you think the conditions you grew up with are normal. When you're 25, 50 years is an impossibly long time to think about. When you're 55, centuries become graspable notions. All of which has something to do with the way the current economic crisis has developed.

If you compare - as the Washington Post and the Financial Times have - the current mess to the Great Depression, there's a certain logic to thinking that 80 years is just about exactly the right length of time for a given culture to recreate its past mistakes. That's four generations. The first lived through the original crisis; the second heard their parents talk about it; the third heard their grandparents talk about it; the fourth has no memory and hubris sets in.

In this case, part of the hubris that set in was the idea that the Glass-Steagall Act, enacted in 1933 to control the banks after the Great Depression, was no longer needed. The banking industry had of course been trying to get rid of the separation of deposit-taking banks and investment banks for years, and they finally succeeded in 1999. Clinton had no choice but to sign it into law in 1999; the margin by which it passed both Houses was too large. There is no point in blaming only him, as Republicans trying to get McCain into office seem bent on doing.

That year was of course the year of maximum hubris anyway. The Internet bubble was at its height and so was the level of denial in the financial markets that it was a bubble. You can go on to blame the housing bubble brought about by easier access to mortgage money, cheap credit, credit default swaps, and all the other hideous weapons of financial mass destruction, but for me the repeal of Glass-Steagall is where it started. It was a clear sign that the foxes had won the chance to wreck the henhouse again. And fox - or human - or scorpion - nature being what it is, it was quite right to think that they would take it. As Benjamin Graham observed many years ago in The Intelligent Investor, bright young men have offered to work miracles - usually with other people's money - since time immemorial.

At that, maybe we're lucky if the 20-somethings in my neighbor's office are unconscious. Imagine if they were conscious. They would look at today's 50- and 60-somethings and say: you wrecked the environment, you will leave me no energy sources, social security, or health insurance in my old age, you have bankrupted the economy so I will never be able to own a house, and you got to have sex without worrying about dying from it. They'd be like the baby boomers were in the 1960s: mad as hell.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).

October 10, 2008

Data mining snake oil

The basic complaints we've been making for years about law enforcement's and government's desire to collect masses of data have primarily focused on the obvious set of civil liberties issues: the chilling effect of surveillance, the right of individuals to private lives, the risk of abuse of power by those in charge of all that data. On top of that we've worried about the security risks inherent in creating such large targets from which data will, inevitably, leak sometimes.

This week, along came the National Research Council to offer a new trouble with dataveillance: it doesn't actually work to prevent terrorism. Even if it did work, the tradeoff of the loss of personal liberties against the security allegedly offered by policies that involve tracking everything everyone does from cradle to grave was hard to justify. But if it doesn't work - if all surveillance all the time won't make us actually safer - then the discussion really ought to be over.

The NAS report, Protecting Individual Privacy in the Struggle Against Terrorists: A Framework for Assessment, makes its conclusions clear: "Modern data collection and analysis techniques have had remarkable success in solving information-related problems in the commercial sector... But such highly automated tools and techniques cannot be easily applied to the much more difficult problem of detecting and preempting a terrorist attack, and success in doing so may not be possible at all."

Actually, the many of us who have had our cards stopped for no better reason than that the issuing bank didn't like the color of the Web site we were buying from, might question how successful these tools have been in the commercial sector. At the very least, it has become obvious to everyone how much trouble is being caused by false positives. If a similar approach is taken to all parts of everyone's lives instead of just their financial transactions, think how much more difficult it's going to be to get through life without being arrested several times a year.

The report again: "Even in well-managed programs such tools are likely to return significant rates of false positives, especially if the tools are highly automated." Given the masses of data we're talking about - the UK wants to store all of the nation's communications data for years in a giant shed, and a similar effort in the US would have to be many times as big - the tools will have to be highly automated. And - the report yet again - the difficulty of detecting terrorist activity "through their communications, transactions, and behaviors is hugely complicated by the ubiquity and enormoity of electronic databases maintained by both government agencies and private-sector corporations." The bigger the haystack, the harder it is to find the needle.

In a recent interview, David Porter, CEO of Detica, who has spent his entire career thinking about fraud prevention, said much the same thing. Porter's proposed solution - the basis of the systems Detica sells -is to vastly shrink the amount of data to be analyzed by throwing out everything we know is not fraud (or, as his colleague, Tom Black, said at the Homeland and Border Security conference in July, terrorist activity). To catch your hare, first shrink your haystack.

This report, as the title suggests, focuses particularly on balancing personal privacy against the needs of anti-terrorist efforts. (Although, any terrorist watching the financial markets the last couple of weeks would be justified in feeling his life's work had been wasted, since we can do all the damage that's needed without his help.) The threat from terrorists is real, the authors say - but so is the threat to privacy. Personal information in databases cannot be fully anonymized; the loss of privacy is real damage; and data varies substantially in quality. "Data derived by linking high-quality data with data of lesser quality will tend to be low-quality data." If you throw a load of silly string into your haystack, you wind up with a big mess that's pretty much useless to everyone and will be a pain in the neck to clean up.

As a result, the report recommends requiring systematic and periodic evaluation of every information-based government program against core values and proposes a framework for carrying that out. There should be "robust, independent oversight". Research and development of such programs should be carried out with synthetic data, not real data "anonymized"; real data should only be used once a program meets the proposed criteria for deployment and even then only phased in at a small number of sites and tested thoroughly. Congress should review privacy laws and consider how best to protect privacy in the context of such programs.

These things seem so obvious; but to get to this the point it's taken three years of rigorous documentation and study by a 21-person committee of unimpeachable senior scientists and review by members of a host of top universities, telephone companies, and top technology companies. We have to think the report's sponsors, who include the the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Homeland Security, will take the results seriously. Writing for Cnet, Declan McCullagh notes that the similar 1996 NRC CRISIS report on encryption was followed by decontrol of the export and use of strong cryptography two years later. We can but hope.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).

October 3, 2008

Deprave and corrupt

It's one of the curiosities of being a free speech advocate that you find yourself defending people for saying things you'd never say yourself.

I noticed this last week when a friend, after delivering an impassioned defense of the rights of bloggers to blog about the world around them - say, recounting the Nazi costumes people were wearing to the across-the-street neighbor's party last weekened or detailing the purchases your friend made in the drugstore - and then turned around and said she didn't know why she was defending it because she wouldn't actually put things like that in her blog. (Unless, I suppose, her neighbor was John McCain.)

Probably most bloggers have struggled at one point or another with the collision these tell-the-world-your-private-thoughts technologies create between freedom of speech and privacy. Usually, though, invading your own privacy is reasonably safe, even if that invasion takes the form of revealing your innermost fantasies. Yes, there's a lot of personal information in them thar hills, and the enterprising data miner could certainly find out a lot about me by going through my 17-year online history via Google searches and intelligent matching. But that's nothing to the situation Newcastle civil servant Darryn Walker finds himself in after allegedly posting a 12-page kidnap, torture, and murder fantasy about the pop group Girls Aloud.

As unwise postings go, this one sounds like a real winner. It was (reports say) on a porn site; it named a real pop group (making it likely to pop up in searches by the group's fans); and identified as the author was a real, findable person - a civil servant, no less. A member of the public reported the story to the Internet Watch Foundation, who reported it to the police, who arrested Walker under the Obscene Publications Act.

The IWF's mission in life is to get illegal content off the Net. To this end, it operates a public hotline to which anyone can report any material they think might be illegal. The IWF's staff sift through the reports - 31,776 in 2006, the last year their Web site shows statistics for - and determines whether the material is "potentially illegal". If it is, the IWF reports it to the police and also recommends to the many ISPs who subscribe to its service that the material be removed from their servers. The IWF so far has focused on clearly illegal material, largely pornographic images, both photographic and composited, of children. Since 2003, less than 1 percent of illegal images involving children is hosted in the UK.
As a cloistered folksinger I had never heard of the very successful group Girls Aloud; apparently they were created like synthetic gemstones in 2002 by the TV show Popstars: the Rivals. According to their Wikipedia entries, they're aged 22 to 26 - hardly children, no matter how unpleasant it is to be the heroines of such a violent fantasy.

So the case poses the question: is posting such a story illegal? That is, in the words of the Obscene Publications Act, is it likely to "deprave and corrupt"? And does it matter that the site to which it was posted is not based in the UK?

It is now several decades since any text work was prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act, and much longer since any such prosecution succeeded. The last such court case, the 1976 prosecution against the publishers of Inside Linda Lovelace apparently left the Metropolitan Police believing they couldn't win . In 1977, a committee recommended excluding novels from the Act. Novels, not blog postings.

Succeeding in this case would therefore potentially extend the IWF's - and the Obscene Publications Unit's - remit by creating a new and extremely large class of illegal material. The IWF prefers to use the term "child abuse images" rather than "child pornography"; in the case of actual photographs of real incidents this is clearly correct. The argument for outlawing composited or wholly created images as well as photographs of actual children is that pedophiles can use them to "groom" their targets - that is, to encourage their participation in child abuse by convincing them that these are activities that other children have engaged in and showing them how. Outlawing text descriptions of real events could block child abuse victims from publishing their own personal stories; outlawing fiction, however disgusting seems a wholly ineffectual way of preventing child abuse. Bad things happen to good fictional characters all the time.

So, as a human being I have to say that I not only wouldn't write this piece, I don't even want to have to read it. But as a free speech advocate I also have to say that the money spent tracking down and prosecuting its writer would have been more effectively spent on...well, almost anything. The one thing the situation has done is widely publicize a story that otherwise hardly anyone knew existed. Suppressing material just isn't as easy as it used to be when all you had to do was tell the publisher to get it off the shelves.

Of course, for Walker none of this matters. The most likely outcome for him in today's environment is a ruined life.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).