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November 30, 2012

Robot wars

Who'd want to be a robot right now, branded a killer before you've even really been born? This week, Huw Price, a philosophy professor, Martin Rees, an emeritus professor of cosmology and astrophysics, and Jaan Tallinn, co-founder of Skype and a serial speaker at the Singularity Summit, announced the founding of the Cambridge Project for Existential Risk. I'm glad they're thinking about this stuff.

Their intention is to build a Centre for the Study of Existential Risk. There are many threats listed in the short introductory paragraph explaining the project - biotechnology, artificial life, nanotechnology, climate change - but the one everyone seems to be focusing on is: yep, you got it, KILLER ROBOTS - that is, artificial general intelligences so much smarter than we are that they may not only put us out of work but reshape the world for their own purposes, not caring what happens to us. Asimov would weep: his whole purpose in creating his Three Laws of Robotics was to provide a device that would allow him to tell some interesting speculative, what-if stories and get away from the then standard fictional assumption that robots were eeeevil.

The list of advisors to Cambridge project has some interesting names: Hermann Hauser, now in charge of a venture capital fund, whose long history in the computer industry includes founding Acorn and an attempt to create the first mobile-connected tablet (it was the size of a 1990s phone book, and you had to write each letter in an individual box to get it to recognize handwriting - just way too far ahead of its time); and Nick Bostrum of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford. The other names are less familiar to me, but it looks like a really good mix of talents, everything from genetics to the public understanding of risk.

The killer robots thing goes quite a way back. A friend of mine grew up in the time before television when kids would pay a nickel for the Saturday show at a movie theatre, which would, besides the feature, include a cartoon or two and the next chapter of a serial. We indulge his nostalgia by buying him DVDs of old serials such as The Phantom Creeps, which features an eight-foot, menacing robot that scares the heck out of people by doing little more than wave his arms at them.

Actually, the really eeeevil guy in that movie is the mad scientist, Dr Zorka, who not only creates the robot but also a machine that makes him invisible and another that induces mass suspended animation. The robot is really just drawn that way. But, like CSER, what grabs your attention is the robot.

I have a theory about this that I developed over the last couple of months working on a paper on complex systems, automation, and other computing trends, and this is that it's all to do with biology. We - and other animals - are pretty fundamentally wired to see anything that moves autonomously as more intelligent than anything that doesn't. In survival terms, that makes sense: the most poisonous plant can't attack you if you're standing out of reach of its branches. Something that can move autonomously can kill you - yet is also more cuddly. Consider the Roomba versus a modern dishwasher. Counterintuitively, the Roomba is not the smarter of the two.

And so it was that on Wednesday, when Voice of Russia assembled a bunch of us for a half-hour radio discussion, the focus was on KILLER ROBOTs, not synthetic biology (which I think is a much more immediately dangerous field) or climate change (in which the scariest new development is the very sober, grown-up, businesslike this-is-getting-expensive report from the insurer Munich Re). The conversation was genuinely interesting, roaming from the mysteries of consciousness to the problems of automated trading and the 2010 flash crash. Pretty much everyone agreed that there really isn't sufficient evidence to predict a date at which machines might be intelligent enough to pose an existential risk to humans. You might be worried about self-driving cars, but they're likely to be safer than drunk humans.

There is a real threat from killer machines; it's just that it's not super-human intelligence or consciousness that's the threat here. Last week, Human Rights Watch and the International Human Rights Clinic published Losing Humanity: the Case Against Killer Robots, arguing that governments should act pre-emptively to ban the development of fully autonomous weapons. There is no way, that paper argues, for autonomous weapons (which the military wants so fewer of *our* guys have to risk getting killed) to distinguish reliably between combatants and civilians.

There were some good papers on this at this year's We Robot conference from Ian Kerr and Kate Szilagyi (PDF) and Markus Wegner.

From various discussions, it's clear that you don't need to wait for *fully* autonomous weapons to reach the danger point. In today's partially automated systems, the operator may be under pressure to make a decision in seconds and "automation bias" means the human will most likely accept whatever the machines suggests it will do, the military equivalent of clicking OK. The human in the loop isn't as much of a protection as we might hope against the humans designing these things. Dr Zorka, indeed.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series

October 19, 2012

Finding the gorilla

"A really smart machine will think like an animal," predicted Temple Grandin at last weekend's Singularity Summit. To an animal, she argued, a human on a horse often looks like a very different category of object than a human walking. That seems true; and yet animals also live in a sensory-driven world entirely unlike that of machines.

A day later, Melanie Mitchell, a professor of computer science at Portland State University, argued that analogies are key, she said, to human intelligence, producing landmark insights like comparing a brain to a computer (von Neumann) or evolutionary competition to economic competition (Darwin). This is true, although that initial analogy is often insufficient and may even be entirely wrong. A really significant change in our understanding of the human brain came with research by psychologists like Elizabeth Loftus showing that where computers retain data exactly as it was (barring mechanical corruption), humans improve, embellish, forget, modify, and partially lose stored memories; our memories are malleable and unreliable in the extreme. (For a worked example, see The Good Wife, season 1, episode 6.)

Yet Mitchell is obviously right when she says that much of our humor is based on analogies. It's a staple of modern comedy, for example, for a character to respond on a subject *as if* it were another subject (chocolate as if it were sex, a pencil dropping on Earth as if it were sex, and so on). Especially incongruous analogies: when Watson asks - in the video clip she showed - for the category "Chicks dig me" it's funny because we know that as a machine a) Watson doesn't really understand what it's saying, and b) Watson is pretty much the polar opposite of the kind of thing that "chicks" are generally imagined to "dig".

"You are going to need my kind of mind on some of these Singularity projects," said Grandin, meaning visual thinkers, rather than the mathematical and verbal thinkers who "have taken over". She went on to contend that visual thinkers are better able to see details and relate them to each other. Her example: the emergency generators at Fukushima located below the level of a plaque 30 feet up on the seawall warning that flood water could rise that high. When she talks - passionately - about installing mechanical overrides in the artificial general intelligences Singularitarians hope will be built one day soonish, she seems to be channelling Peter G. Neumann, who talks often about the computer industry's penchant for repeating the security mistakes of decades past.

An interesting sideline about the date of the Singularity: Oxford's Stuart Armstrong has studied these date predictions and concluded pretty much that, in the famed words of William Goldman, no one knows anything. Based on his study of 257 predictions collected by the Singularity Institute and published on its Web site, he concluded that most theories about these predictions are wrong. The dates chosen typically do not correlate with the age or expertise of the predicter or the date of the prediction. I find this fascinating: there's something like an 80 percent consensus that the Singularity will happen in five to 100 years.

Grandin's discussion of visual thinkers made me wonder whether they would be better or worse at spotting the famed invisible gorilla than most people. Spoiler alert: if you're not familiar with this psychologist test, go now and watch the clip before proceeding. You want to say better - after all, spotting visual detail is what visual thinkers excel at - but what if the demands of counting passes is more all-consuming for them than for other types of thinkers? The psychologist Daniel Kahneman, participating by video link, talked about other kinds of bias but not this one. Would visual thinkers be more or less likely to engage in the common human pastime of believing we know something based on too little data and then ignoring new data?

This is, of course, the opposite of today's Bayesian systems, which make a guess and then refine it as more data arrives: almost the exact opposite of the humans Kahneman describes. So many of the developments we're seeing now rely on crunching masses of data (often characterized as "big" but often not *really* all that big) to find subtle patterns that humans never spot. Linda Avey, founder of the personal genome profiling service 23andMe and John Wilbanks are both trying to provide services that will allow individuals to take control of and understand their personal medical data. Avey in particular seems poised to link in somehow to the data generated by seekers in the several-year-old self-quantified movement.

This approach is so far yielding some impressive results. Peter Norvig, the director of research at Google, recounted both the company's work on recognizing cats and its work on building Google Translate. The latter's patchy quality seems more understandable when you learn that it was built by matching documents issued in multiple languages against each other and building up statistical probabilities. The former seems more like magic, although Slate points out that the computers did not necessarily pick out the same patterns humans would.

Well, why should they? Do I pick out the patterns they're interested in? The story continues...

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.

December 2, 2011

Debating the robocalypse

"This House fears the rise of artificial intelligence."

This was the motion up for debate at Trinity College Dublin's Philosophical Society (Twitter: @phil327) last night (December 1, 2011). It was a difficult one, because I don't think any of the speakers - neither the four students, Ricky McCormack, Michael Coleman, Cat O'Shea, and Brian O'Beirne, nor the invited guests, Eamonn Healy, Fred Cummins, and Abraham Campbell - honestly fear AI all that much. Either we don't really believe a future populated by superhumanly intelligent killer robots is all that likely, or, like Ken Jennings, we welcome our new computer overlords.

But the point of this type of debate is not to believe what you are saying - I learned later that in the upper levels of the game you are assigned a topic and a position and given only 15 minutes to marshal your thoughts - but to argue your assigned side so passionately, persuasively, and coherently that you win the votes of the assembled listeners even if later that night, while raiding the icebox, they think, "Well, hang on..." This is where politicians and Dail/House of Commons debating style come from, As a participatory sport it was utterly new to me, and it explains a *lot* about the derailment of political common sense by the rise of public relations and lobbying.

Obviously I don't actually oppose research into AI. I'm all for better tools, although I vituperatively loathe tools that try to game me. As much fun as it is to speculate about whether superhuman intelligences will deserve human rights, I tend to believe that AI will always be a tool. It was notable that almost every speaker assumed that AI would be embodied in a more-or-less humanoid robot. Far more likely, it seems to me, that if AI emerges it will be first in some giant, boxy system (that humans can unplug) and even if Moore's Law shrinks that box it will be much longer before AI and robotics converge into a humanoid form factor.

Lacking conviction on the likelihood of all this, and hence of its dangers, I had to find an angle, which eventually boiled down to Walt Kelly and We have met the enemy and he is us. In this, I discovered, I am not alone: a 2007 ThinkArtificial poll found that more than half of respondents feared what people would do with AI: the people who program it, own it, and deploy it.

If we look at the history of automation to date, a lot of it has been used to make (human) workers as interchangeable as possible. I am old enough to remember, for example, being able to walk down to the local phone company in my home town of Ithaca, NY, and talk in person to a customer service representative I had met multiple times before about my piddling residential account. Give everyone the same customer relationship database and workers become interchangeable parts. We gain some convenience - if Ms Jones is unavailable anyone else can help us - but we pay in lost relationships. The company loses customer loyalty, but gains (it hopes) consistent implementation of its rules and the economic leverage of no longer depending on any particular set of workers.

I might also have mentioned automated trading systems, which are making the markets swing much more wildly much more often. Later, Abraham Campbell, a computer scientist working in augmented reality at University College Dublin, said as much as 25 percent of trading is now done by bots. So, cool: Wall Street has become like one of those old IRC channels where you met a cute girl named Eliza...

Campbell had a second example: the Siri, which will tell you where to hide a dead body but not where you might get an abortion. Google's removal of torrent sites from its autosuggestion/Instant feature didn't seem to me egregious censorship, partly because there are other search engines and partly (short-sightedly) because I hate Instant so much already. But as we become increasingly dependent on mediators to help us navigate our overcrowded world, the agenda and/or competence of the people programming them are vital to know. These will be transparent only as long as there are alternatives.

Simultaneously, back in England in work that would have made Jessica Mitford proud, Privacy International's Eric King and Emma Draper were publishing material that rather better proves the point. Big Brother Inc lays out the dozens of technology companies from democratic Western countries that sell surveillance technologies to repressive regimes. King and Draper did what Mitford did for the funeral business in the late 1960s (and other muckrakers have done since): investigate what these companies' marketing departments tell prospective customers.

I doubt businesses will ever, without coercion, behave like humans with consciences; it's why they should not be legally construed as people. During last night's debate, the prospective robots were compared to women and "other races", who were also denied the vote. Yes, and they didn't get it without a lot of struggle. The In the "Robocalypse" (O'Beirne), they'd better be prepared to either a) fight to meltdown for their rights or b) protect their energy sources and wait patiently for the human race to exterminate itself.


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.

November 11, 2011

The sentiment of crowds

Context is king.

Say to a human, "I'll meet you at the place near the thing where we went that time," and they'll show up at the right place. That's from the 1987 movieBroadcast News: Aaron (Albert Brooks) says it; cut to Jane (Holly Hunter), awaiting him at a table.

But what if Jane were a computer and what she wanted to know from Aaron's statement was not where to meet but how Aaron felt about it? This is the challenge facing sentiment analysis.

At Wednesday's Sentiment Analysis Symposium, the key question of context came up over and over again as the biggest challenge to the industry of people who claim that they can turn Tweets, blog postings, news stories, and other mass data sources into intelligence.

So context: Jane can parse "the place", "the thing", and "that time" because she has expert knowledge of her past with Aaron. It's an extreme example, but all human writing makes assumptions about the knowledge and understanding of the reader. Humans even use those assumptions to implement privacy in a public setting: Stephen Fry could retweet Aaron's words and still only Jane would find the cafe. If Jane is a large organization seeking to understand what people are saying about it and Aaron is 6 million people posting on Twitter, Tom can use sentiment analyzer tools to give a numerical answer. And numbers always inspire confidence...

My first encounter with sentiment analysis was this summer during Young Rewired State, when a team wanted to create a mood map of the UK comparing geolocated tweets to indices of multiple deprivation. This third annual symposium shows that here is a rapidly engorging industry, part PR, part image consultancy, and part artificial intelligence research project.

I was drawn to it out of curiosity, but also because it all sounds slightly sinister. What do sentiment analyzers understand when I say an airline lounge at Heathrow Terminal 4 "brings out my inner Sheldon? What is at stake is not precise meaning - humans argue over the exact meaning of even the greatest communicators - but extracting good-enough meaning from high-volume data streams written by millions of not-monkeys.

What could possibly go wrong? This was one of the day's most interesting questions, posed by the consultant Meta Brown to representatives of the Red Cross, the polling organization Harris Interactive, and Paypal. Failure to consider the data sources and the industry you're in, said the Red Cross's Banafsheh Ghassemi. Her example was the period just after Hurricane Irene, when analyzing social media sentiment would find it negative. "It took everyday disaster language as negative," she said. In addition, because the Red Cross's constituency is primarily older, social media are less indicative than emails and call center records. For many organizations, she added, social media tend to skew negative.

Earlier this year, Harris Interactive's Carol Haney, who has had to kill projects when they failed to produce sufficiently accurate results for the client, told a conference, "Sentiment analysis is the snake oil of 2011." Now, she said, "I believe it's still true to some extent. The customer has a commercial need for a dial pointing at a number - but that's not really what's being delivered. Over time you can see trends and significant change in sentiment, and when that happens I feel we're returning value to a customer because it's not something they received before and it's directionally accurate and giving information." But very small changes over short time scales are an unreliable basis for making decisions.

"The difficulty in social media analytics is you need a good idea of the questions you're asking to get good results," says Shlomo Argamon, whose research work seems to raise more questions than answers. Look at companies that claim to measure influence. "What is influence? How do you know you're measuring that or to what it correlates in the real world?" he asks. Even the notion that you can classify texts into positive and negative is a "huge simplifying assumption".

Argamon has been working on technology to discern from written text the gender and age - and perhaps other characteristics - of the author, a joint effort with his former PhD student Ken Bloom. When he says this, I immediately want to test him with obscure texts.

Is this stuff more or less creepy than online behavioral advertising? Han-Sheong Lai explained that Paypal uses sentiment analysis to try to glean the exact level of frustration of the company's biggest clients when they threaten to close their accounts. How serious are they? How much effort should the company put into dissuading them? Meanwhile Verint's job is to analyze those "This call may be recorded" calls. Verint's tools turn speech to text, and create color voiceprint maps showing the emotional high points. Click and hear the anger.

"Technology alone is not the solution," said Philip Resnik, summing up the state of the art. But, "It supports human insight in ways that were not previously possible." His talk made me ask: if humans obfuscate their data - for example, by turning off geolocation - will this industry respond by finding ways to put it all back again so the data will be more useful?

"It will be an arms race," he agrees. "Like spam."

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.

April 29, 2011

Searching for reality

They say that every architect has, stuck in his desk drawer, a plan for the world's tallest skyscraper; probably every computer company similarly has a plan for the world's fastest supercomputer. At one time, that particular contest was always won by Seymour Cray. Currently, the world's fastest computer is Tianhe-1A, in China. But one day soon, it's going to be Blue Waters, an IBM-built machine filling 9,000 square feet at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.

It's easy to forget - partly because Champaign-Urbana is not a place you visit by accident - how mainstream-famous NCSA and its host, UIUC, used to be. NCSA is the place from which Mosaic emerged in 1993. UIUC was where Arthur C. Clarke's HAL was turned on, on January 12, 1997. Clarke's choice was not accidental: my host, researcher Robert McGrath tells me that Clarke visited here and saw the seminal work going on in networking and artificial intelligence. And somewhere he saw the first singing computer, an IBM 7094 haltingly rendering "Daisy Bell." (Good news for IBM: at that time they wouldn't have had to pay copyright clearance fees on a song that was, in 1961, 69 years old.)

So much was invented here: Telnet, for example.

"But what have they done for us lately?" a friend in London wondered.

NCSA's involvement with supercomputing began when Larry Smarr, having worked in Europe and admired the access non-military scientists had to high-performance computers, wrote a letter to the National Science Foundation proposing that the NSF should fund a supercomputing center for use by civilian scientists. They agreed, and the first version of NCSA was built in 1986. Typically, a supercomputer is commissioned for five years; after that it's replaced with the fastest next thing. Blue Waters will have more than 300,000 8-core processors and be capable of a sustained rate of 1 petaflop and a peak rate of 10 petaflops. The transformer room underneath can provide 24 megawatts of power - as energy-efficiently as possible. Right now, the space where Blue Waters will go is a large empty white space broken up by black plug towers. It looks like a set from a 1950s science fiction film.

On the consumer end, we're at the point now where a five-year-old computer pretty much answers most normal needs. Unless you're a gamer or a home software developer, the pressure to upgrade is largely off. But this is nowhere near true at the high end of supercomputing.

"People are never satisfied for long," says Tricia Barker, who showed us around the facility. "Scientists and engineers are always thinking of new problems they want to solve, new details they want to see, and new variables they want to include." Planned applications for Blue Waters include studying storms to understand why some produce tornadoes and some don't. In the 1980s, she says, the data points were kilometers apart; Blue Waters will take the mesh down to 10 meters.

"It's why warnings systems are so hit and miss," she explains. Also on the list are more complete simulations to study climate change.

Every generation of supercomputers gets closer to simulating reality and increases the size of the systems we can simulate in a reasonable amount of time. How much further can it go?

They speculate, she said, about how, when, and whether exaflops can be reached: 2018? 2020? At all? Will the power requirements outstrip what can reasonably be supplied? How big would it have to be? And could anyone afford it?

In the end, of course, it's all about the data. The 500 petabytes of storage Blue Waters will have is only a small piece of the gigantic data sets that science is now producing. Across campus, also part of NCSA, senior research scientist Ray Plante is part of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope project which, when it gets going, will capture a third of the sky every night on 3 gigapixel cameras with a wide field of view. The project will allow astronomers to see changes over a period of days, allowing them to look more closely at phenomena such as bursters and supernovae, and study dark energy.

Astronomers have led the way in understanding the importance of archiving and sharing data, partly because the telescopes are so expensive that scientists have no choice about sharing them. More than half the Hubble telescope papers, Plante says, are based on archival research, which means research conducted on the data after a short period in which research is restricted to those who proposed (and paid for) the project. In the case of LSST, he says, there will be no proprietary period: the data will be available to the whole community from Day One. There's a lesson here for data hogs if they care to listen.

Listening to Plante - and his nearby colleague Joe Futrelle - talk about the issues involved in storing, studying, and archiving these giant masses of data shows some of the issues that lie ahead for all of us. Many of today's astronomical studies rely on statistics, which in turn requires matching data sets that have been built into catalogues without necessarily considering who might in future need to use them: opening the data is only the first step.

So in answer to my friend: lots. I saw only about 0.1 percent of it.

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.

February 25, 2011

Wartime economy

Everyone loves a good headline, and £27 billion always makes a *great* one. In this case, that was the sum that a report written by the security consultancy firm Detica, now part of BAE Systems and issued by the Office of Cyber Security and Information Assurance (PDF) estimates that cybercrime is costing the UK economy annually. The claim was almost immediately questioned by ZDNet's Tom Espiner, who promptly checked it out with security experts. Who complained that the report was full of "fake precision" (LSE professor Peter Sommer), "questionable calculations" (Harvard's Tyler Moore), and "nonsense" (Cambridge's Richard Clayton).

First, some comparisons.

Twenty-seven billion pounds (approximately $40 billion) is slightly larger than a year's worth of the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry's estimate of the cumulative retail revenue lost to piracy by the European creative industries from 2008 to 2015 (PDF) (total €240 billion, about £203 million, eight years, £25.4 billion a year). It is roughly the estimated cost of the BP oil spill, the amount some think Facebook will be worth at an IPO, and noticeably less than Apple's $51 billion cash hoard. But: lots smaller than the "£40 billion underworld" The Times attributed to British gangs in 2008.

Several things baffle about this report. The first is that so little information is given about the study's methodology. Who did the researchers talk to? What assumptions did they make and what statistical probabilities did they assign in creating the numbers and charts? How are they defining categories like "online scams" or "IP theft" (they're clear about one thing: they're not including file-sharing in that figure)? What is the "causal model" they developed?

We know one person they didn't talk to: Computer Weekly notes the omission of Detective superintendent Charlie McMurdie, head of the Metropolitan Police's Central e-Crime Unit, who you'd' think would be one of the first ports of call for understanding the on-the-ground experience.

One issue the report seems to gloss over is how very difficult it is to define and categorize cybercrime. Last year, the Oxford Internet Institute conducted a one-day forum on the subject, out of which came the report Mapping and Measuring Cybercrime (PDF) , published in June 2010. Much of this report is given over to the difficulty of such definitions; Sommer, who participated in the forum, argued that we shouldn't worry about the means of commission - a crime is a crime. More recently - perhaps a month ago - Sommer teamed up with the OII's Ian Brown to publish a report for an OECD project on future global shocks, Reducing Systemic Cybersecurity Risk (PDF). The authors' conclusion: "very few single cyber-related events have the capacity to cause a global shock". This report also includes considerable discussion of cybercrime in assessing whether "cyberwarfare" is a genuine global threat. But the larger point about both these reports is that they disclose their methodology in detail.

And as a result, they make much more modest and measured claims, which is one reason that critics have looked at the source of the OCSIA/Detica report - BAE - and argued that the numbers are inflated and the focus largely limited to things that fit BAE's business interests (that is, IP theft and espionage; the usual demon, abuse of children, is left untouched).

The big risk here is that this report will be used in determining how policing resources are allocated.

"One of the most important things we can do is educate the public," says Sommer. "Not only about how to protect themselves but to ensure they don't leave their computers open to be formed into botnets. I am concerned that the effect of all these hugely military organizations lobbying for funding is that in the process things like Get Safe Online will suffer."

There's a broader point that begins with a personal nitpick. On page four, the report says this: "...the seeds of criminality planted by the first computer hackers 20 years ago." Leaving aside the even smaller nitpick that the *real*, original computer hackers, who built things and spent their enormous cleverness getting things to work, date to 40 and 50 years ago, it is utterly unfair to compare today's cybercrime to the (mostly) teenaged hackers of 1990, who spent their Saturday nights in their bedrooms war-dialling sites and trying out passwords. They were the computer equivalent of joy-riders, caused little harm, and were so disproportionately the targets of freaked-out, uncomprehending law enforcement that the the Electronic Frontier Foundation was founded to spread some sanity on the situation. Today's cybercrime underground is composed of professional criminals who operate in an organized and methodical way. There is no more valid comparison between the two than there is between Duke Nukem and al-Qaeda.

One is not a gateway to the other - but the idea that criminals would learn computer techniques and organized crime would become active online was repeatedly used as justification for anti-society legislation from cryptographic key escrow to data retention and other surveillance. The biggest risk of a report like this is that it will be used as justification for those wrong-headed policies rather than as it might more rightfully be, as evidence of the failure of no less than five British governments to plan ahead on our behalf.


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.

February 18, 2011

What is hyperbole?

This seems to have been a week for over-excitement. IBM gets an onslaught of wonderful publicity because it built a very large computer that won at the archetypal American TV game, Jeopardy. And Eben Moglen proposes the Freedom box, a more-or-less pocket ("wall wart") computer you can plug in and that will come up, configure itself, and be your Web server/blog host/social network/whatever and will put you and your data beyond the reach of, well, everyone. "You get no spying for free!" he said in his talk outlining the idea for the New York Internet Society.

Now I don't mean to suggest that these are not both exciting ideas and that making them work is/would be an impressive and fine achievement. But seriously? Is "Jeopardy champion" what you thought artificial intelligence would look like? Is a small "wall wart" box what you thought freedom would look like?

To begin with Watson and its artificial buzzer thumb. The reactions display everything that makes us human. The New York Times seems to think AI is solved, although its editors focus, on our ability to anthropomorphize an electronic screen with a smooth, synthesized voice and a swirling logo. (Like HAL, R2D2, and Eliza Doolittle, its status is defined by the reactions of the surrounding humans.)

The Atlantic and Forbes come across as defensive. The LA Times asks: how scared should we be? The San Francisco Chronicle congratulates IBM for suddenly becoming a cool place for the kids to work.

If, that is, they're not busy hacking up Freedom boxes. You could, if you wanted, see the past twenty years of net.wars as a recurring struggle between centralization and distribution. The Long Tail finds value in selling obscure products to meet the eccentric needs of previously ignored niche markets; eBay's value is in aggregating all those buyers and sellers so they can find each other. The Web's usefulness depends on the diversity of its sources and content; search engines aggregate it and us so we can be matched to the stuff we actually want. Web boards distributed us according to niche topics; social networks aggregated us. And so on. As Moglen correctly says, we pay for those aggregators - and for the convenience of closed, mobile gadgets - by allowing them to spy on us.

An early, largely forgotten net.skirmish came around 1991 over the asymmetric broadband design that today is everywhere: a paved highway going to people's homes and a dirt track coming back out. The objection that this design assumed that consumers would not also be creators and producers was largely overcome by the advent of Web hosting farms. But imagine instead that symmetric connections were the norm and everyone hosted their sites and email on their own machines with complete control over who saw what.

This is Moglen's proposal: to recreate the Internet as a decentralized peer-to-peer system. And I thought immediately how much it sounded like...Usenet.

For those who missed the 1990s: invented and implemented in 1979 by three students, Tom Truscott, Jim Ellis, and Steve Bellovin, the whole point of Usenet was that it was a low-cost, decentralized way of distributing news. Once the Internet was established, it became the medium of transmission, but in the beginning computers phoned each other and transferred news files. In the early 1990s, it was the biggest game in town: it was where the Linus Torvalds and Tim Berners-Lee announced their inventions of Linux and the World Wide Web.

It always seemed to me that if "they" - whoever they were going to be - seized control of the Internet we could always start over by rebuilding Usenet as a town square. And this is to some extent what Moglen is proposing: to rebuild the Net as a decentralized network of equal peers. Not really Usenet; instead a decentralized Web like the one we gave up when we all (or almost all) put our Web sites on hosting farms whose owners could be DMCA'd into taking our sites down or subpoena'd into turning over their logs. Freedom boxes are Moglen's response to "free spying with everything".

I don't think there's much doubt that the box he has in mind can be built. The Pogoplug, which offers a personal cloud and a sort of hardware social network, is most of the way there already. And Moglen's argument has merit: that if you control your Web server and the nexus of your social network law enforcement can't just make a secret phone call, they'll need a search warrant to search your home if they want to inspect your data. (On the other hand, seizing your data is as simple as impounding or smashing your wall wart.)

I can see Freedom boxes being a good solution for some situations, but like many things before it they won't scale well to the mass market because they will (like Usenet) attract abuse. In cleaning out old papers this week, I found a 1994 copy of Esther Dyson's Release 1.0 in which she demands a return to the "paradise" of the "accountable Net"; 'twill be ever thus. The problem Watson is up against is similar: it will function well, even engagingly, within the domain it was designed for. Getting it to scale will be a whole 'nother, much more complex problem.

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.


October 1, 2010

Duty of care

"Anyone who realizes how important the Web is," Tim Berners-Lee said on Tuesday, "has a duty of care." He was wrapping up a two-day discussion meeting at the Royal Society. The subject: Web science.

What is Web science? Even after two days, it's difficult to grasp, in part because defining it is a work in progress. Here are some of the disciplines that contributed: mathematics, philosophy, sociology, network science, and law, plus a bunch of much more directly Webby things that don't fit easily into categories. Which of course is the point: Web science has to cover much more than just the physical underpinnings of computers and network wires. Computer science or network science can use the principles of mathematics and physics to develop better and faster machines and study architectures and connections. But the Web doesn't exist without the people putting content and applications on it, and so Web science must be as much about human behaviour as about physics.

"If we are to anticipate how the Web will develop, we will require insight into our own nature," Nigel Shadbolt, one of the event's convenors, said on Monday. Co-convenor Wendy Hall has said, similarly, "What creates the Web is us who put things on it, and that's not natural or engineered.". Neither natural (biological systems) or engineered (planned build-out like the telecommunications networks), but something new. If we can understand it better, we can not only protect it better, but guide it better toward the most productive outcomes, just as farmers don't haphazardly interbreed species of corn but use their understanding to select for desirable traits.

The simplest parts of the discussions to understand, therefore, were (ironically) the mathematicians. Particularly intriguing was the former chief scientist Robert May, whose approach to removing nodes from the network to make it non-functional applied equally to the Web, epidemiology, and banking risk.

This is all happening despite the recent Wired cover claiming the "Web is dead". Dead? Facebook is a Web site; Skype, the app store, IM clients, Twitter, and the New York Times all reach users first via the Web even if they use their iPhones for subsequent visits (and how exactly did they buy those iPhones, hey?) Saying it's dead is almost exactly the old joke about how no one goes to a particular restaurant any more because it's too crowded.

People who think the Web is dead have stopped seeing it. But the point of Web science is that for 20 years we've been turning what started as an academic playground into a critical infrastructure, and for government, finance, education, and social interaction to all depend on the Web it must have solid underpinnings. And it has to keep scaling - in a presentation on the state of deployment of IPv6 in China, Jianping Wu noted that Internet penetration in China is expected to jump from 30 percent to 70 percent in the next ten to 20 years. That means adding 400-900 million users. The Chinese will have to design, manage, and operate the largest infrastructure in the world - and finance it.

But that's the straightforward kind of scaling. IBMer Philip Tetlow, author of The Web's Awake (a kind of Web version of the Gaia hypothesis), pointed out that all the links in the world are a finite set; all the eyeballs in the world looking at them are a finite set...but all the contexts surrounding them...well, it's probably finite but it's not calculable (despite Pierre Levy's rather fanciful construct that seemed to suggest it might be possible to assign a URI to every human thought). At that level, Tetlow believes some of the neat mathematical tools, like Jennifer Chayes' graph theory, will break down.

"We're the equivalent of precision engineers," he said, when what's needed are the equivalent of town planners and urban developers. "And we can't build these things out of watches."

We may not be able to build them at all, at least not immediately. Helen Margetts outlined the constraints on the development of egovernment in times of austerity. "Web science needs to map, understand, and develop government just as for other social phenomena, and export back to mainstream," she said.

Other speakers highlighted gaps between popular mythology and reality. MIT's David Carter noted that, "The Web is often associated with the national and international but not the local - but the Web is really good at fostering local initiatives - that's something for Web science to ponder." Noshir Contractor, similarly, called out The Economist over the "death of distance": "More and more research shows we use the Web to have connections with proximate people."

Other topics will be far more familiar to net.wars readers: Jonathan Zittrain explored the ways the Web can be broken by copyright law, increasing corporate control (there was a lovely moment when he morphed the iPhone's screen into the old CompuServe main menu), the loss of uniformity so that the content a URL points to changes by geographic location. These and others are emerging points of failure.

We'll leave it to an unidentified audience question to sum up the state of Web science: "Nobody knows what it is. But we are doing it."

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

September 17, 2010

Science is vital

"Should I burn the check or eat it?" a broke friend with with bank account difficulties asked once.

Deciding what you can do without in a financial crisis is always tough, whether you're an individual or a government. Do you cut cold weather payments to the elderly? Dump pre-school programs? Sell off nationalized industries, pocket the debt, and use the cash as if it were income instead of irreplaceable capital? Slash arts funding knowing that you will be attacked by every high-profile actor and creator as a philistine? Flood prevention. Investment in new technologies to combat climate change. Police. Every group has its own set of arguments about why it shouldn't bear the brunt of government cuts. Everyone is special.

That may in fact be why the coalition government warned at the outset that slashing budgets would be across the board and that everyone would feel the chill. The UK Film Council, Becta, public sector...

And science research, spending on which is due to be reviewed next month. Even Harris, the former LibDem MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, has argued that science research is the foundation of future economic growth; Professor Brian Cox has compared the possibility of mothballing the expensive particle accelerator projects Diamond and Isis to "building the Olympic stadium and then not using it". (Not building the Olympic stadium - not winning the Olympics - not *bidding* on the Olympics would all have been fine with me, but this is the problem with trying to balance interest groups.)

At first glance, it's easy to see why business secretary Vince Cable would think it's a good idea for scientists to become more commercial: get industry to provide more funding and discontinue work that is "neither commercially useful nor theoretically outstanding", as the Guardian has him saying. While we've all heard the jokes about Drunken Goldfish and Other Irrelevant Scientific Research, the thing is that science - especially basic research - isn't so neatly categorized. When it is - when commercial interests take over too strongly - the underlying fundamental advances are lost, taking with them the next generation of new ideas.

Twenty years ago, when I first started doing technology journalism, I was told there were three great corporate research labs in the US: Xerox PARC, IBM Watson, and Bell Labs. Bell Labs was broken up along with its parent company, AT&T; PARC is not the force it was. Only IBM is still making news with its research. A lot of talent is now congregating at Google. In any event, over the last two decades most corporate research has in general become much more tightly focused on producing results the funding companies can use right away. That was a major reason why MIT's Media Lab was so successful at attracting funding from so many companies: it offered them a way to back less specifically focused research for relatively modest sums.

But basic research is the real blue-sky stuff, where you don't know what you have until some time later. In its heyday, IBM did both: it invented dye lasers, which had relatively little impact within the company but much more outside it, as well as DRAM and disk drives, which more obviously benefited the company itself. James McGroddy, then director of IBM research, told me in 1991 (for Personal Computer World) that even apparently irrelevant scientific research did have benefits for IBM even if they couldn't be easily quantified. For example, the company can more easily take advantage of advances if the people who made them are in its employ. Plus, expertise can cross disciplines: he cited the example of IBM mathematicians who find hard problems to work on within IBM customer needs (such as how to optimize airline schedules). More subtly, the production of Nobel prize-winning work made IBM the kind of place that the best people wanted to be.

All these points are relevant to national research programs, too, and lead directly to points Harris and others have made: that if you remove the facilities that allow scientists to work they will perforce go elsewhere. It is unfortunate but true that highly educated, very talented, creative people - and that is what scientists are - have choices about these things. And once you start to lose this generation of scientists, the next generation will follow of necessity because the way you become a great scientist is to be trained by and work with great scientists during your developmental years. The decisions made in this area today will make the difference between the UK's continuing to be a country that punches well above its weight in terms of size, population, and natural resources and the UK's becoming the third world country the Pope's aide already thinks it is (although hasn't anyone who's had to take one of those buses from plane to jetway thought the same thing?).

There must be some way of balancing the finances such that we do not throw away the future to pay for the present. Julian Huppert has tabled an Early Day Motion in Parliament, and there are demonstrations brewing. Imagine: Sheldon is marching.

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.

April 16, 2010

Data-mining the data miners

The case of murdered Colombian student Anna Maria Chávez Niño, presented at this week's Privacy Open Space, encompasses both extremes of the privacy conundrum posed by a world in which 400 million people post intimate details about themselves and their friends onto a single, corporately owned platform. The gist: Chávez met her murderers on Facebook; her brother tracked them down, also on Facebook.

Speaking via video link to Cédric Laurant, a Brussels-based independent privacy consultant, Juan Camilo Chávez noted that his sister might well have made the same mistake - inviting dangerous strangers into her home - by other means. But without Facebook he might not have been able to identify the killers. Criminals, it turns out, are just as clueless about what they post online as anyone else. Armed with the CCTV images, Chávez trawled Facebook for similar photos. He found the murderers selling off his sister's jacket and guitar. As they say, busted.

This week's PrivacyOS was the fourth in a series of EU-sponsored conferences to collaborate on solutions to that persistent, growing, and increasingly complex problem: how to protect privacy in a digital world. This week's focused on the cloud.

"I don't agree that privacy is disappearing as a social value," said Ian Brown, one of the event's organizers, disputing Mark privacy-is-no-longer-a-social-norm Zuckerberg's claim. The world's social values don't disappear, he added, just because some California teenagers don't care about them.

Do we protect users through regulation? Require subject releases for YouTube or Qik? Require all browsers to ship with cookies turned off? As Lilian Edwards observed, the latter would simply make many users think the Internet is broken. My notion: require social networks to add a field to photo uploads requiring users to enter an expiration date after which it will be deleted.

But, "This is meant to be a free world," Humberto Morán, managing director of Friendly Technologies, protested. Free as in speech, free as in beer, or free as in the bargain we make with our data so we can use Facebook or Google? We have no control over those privacy policy contracts.

"Nothing is for free," observed NEC's Amardeo Sarma. "You pay for it, but you don't know how you pay for it." The key issue.

What frequent flyers know is that they can get free flights once in a while in return for their data. What even the brightest, most diligent, and most paranoid expert cannot tell them is what the consequences of that trade will be 20 years from now, though the Privacy Value Networks project is attempting to quantify this. It's hard: any photographer will tell you that a picture's value is usually highest when it's new, but sometimes suddenly skyrockets decades later when its subject shoots unexpectedly to prominence. Similarly, the value of data, said David Houghton, changes with time and context.

It would be more right to say that it is difficult for users to understand the trade-offs they're making and there are no incentives for government or commerce to make it easy. And, as the recent "You have 0 Friends" episode of South Park neatly captures, the choice for users is often not between being careful and being careless but between being a hermit and participating in modern life.

Better tools ought to be a partial solution. And yet: the market for privacy-enhancing technologies is littered with market failures. Even the W3C's own Platform for Privacy Preferences (P3P), for example, is not deployed in the current generation of browsers - and when it was provided in Internet Explorer users didn't take advantage of it. The projects outlined at PrivacOS - PICOS and PrimeLife - are frustratingly slow to move from concept to prototype. The ideas seem right: providing a way to limit disclosures and authenticate identity to minimize data trails. But, Lilian Edwards asked: is partial consent or partial disclosure really possible? It's not clear that it is, partly because your friends are also now posting information about you. The idea of a decentralized social network, workshopped at one session, is interesting, but might be as likely to expand the problem as modulate it.

And, as it has throughout the 25 years since the first online communities were founded, the problem keeps growing exponentially in size and complexity. The next frontier, said Thomas Roessler: the sensor Web that incorporates location data and input from all sorts of devices throughout our lives. What does it mean to design a privacy-friendly bathroom scale that tweets your current and goal weights? What happens when the data it sends gets mashed up with the site you use to monitor the calories you consume and burn and your online health account? Did you really understand when you gave your initial consent to the site what kind of data it would hold and what the secondary uses might be?

So privacy is hard: to define, to value, to implement. As Seda Gürses, studying how to incorporate privacy into social networks, said, privacy is a process, not an event. "You can't do x and say, Now I have protected privacy."


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. This blog eats non-spam comments for reasons surpassing understanding.

December 4, 2009

Which lie did I tell?


"And what's your mother's maiden name?"

A lot of attention has been paid over the years to the quality of passwords: how many letters, whether there's a sufficient mix of numbers and "special characters", whether they're obviously and easily guessable by anyone who knows you (pet's name, spouse's name, birthday, etc.), whether you've reset them sufficiently recently. But, as someone noted this week on UKCrypto, hardly anyone pays attention to the quality of the answers to the "password hint" questions sites ask so they can identify you when you eventually forget your password. By analogy, it's as though we spent all our time beefing up the weight, impenetrability, and lock quality on our front doors while leaving the back of the house accessible via two or three poorly fitted screen doors.

On most sites it probably doesn't matter much. But the question came up after the BBC broadcast an interview with the journalist Angela Epstein, the loopily eager first registrant for the ID card, in which she apparently mentioned having been asked to provide the answers to five rather ordinary security questions "like what is your favorite food". Epstein's column gives more detail: "name of first pet, favourite song and best subject at school". Even Epstein calls this list "slightly bonkers". This, the UKCrypto poster asked, is going to protect us from terrorists?

Dave Birch had some logic to contribute: "Why are we spending billions on a biometric database and taking fingerprints if they're going to use the questions instead? It doesn't make any sense." It doesn't: she gave a photograph and two fingerprints.

But let's pretend it does. The UKCrypto discussion headed into technicalities: has anyone studied challenge questions?

It turns out someone has: Mike Just, described to me as "the world expert on challenge questions". Just, who's delivered two papers on the subject this year, at the Trust (PDF) and SOUPS (PDF) conferences, has studied both the usability and the security of challenge questions. There are problems from both sides.

First of all, people are more complicated and less standardized than those setting these questions seem to think. Some never had pets; some have never owned cars; some can't remember whether they wrote "NYC", "New York", "New York City", or "Manhattan". And people and their tastes change. This year's favorite food might be sushi; last year's chocolate chip cookies. Are you sure you remember accurately what you answered? With all the right capitalization and everything? Government services are supposedly thinking long-term. You can always start another Amazon.com account; but ten years from now, when you've lost your ID card, will these answers be valid?

This sort of thing is reminiscent of what biometrics expert James Wayman has often said about designing biometric systems to cope with the infinite variety of human life: "People never have what you expect them to have where you expect them to have it." (Note that Epstein nearly failed the ID card registration because of a burn on her finger.)

Plus, people forget. Even stuff you'd think they'd remember and even people who, like the students he tested, are young.

From the security standpoint, there are even more concerns. Many details about even the most obscure person's life are now public knowledge. What if you went to the same school for 14 years? And what if that fact is thoroughly documented online because you joined its Facebook group?

A lot depends on your threat model: your parents, hackers with scripted dictionary attacks, friends and family, marketers, snooping government officials? Just accordingly came up with three types of security attacks for the answers to such questions: blind guess, focused guess, and observation guess. Apply these to the often-used "mother's maiden name": the surname might be two letters long; it is likely one of the only 150,000 unique surnames appearing more than 100 times in the US census; it may be eminently guessable by anyone who knows you - or about you. In the Facebook era, even without a Wikipedia entry or a history of Usenet postings many people's personal details are scattered all over the online landscape. And, as Just also points out, the answers to challenge questions are themselves a source of new data for the questioning companies to mine.

My experience from The Skeptic suggests that over the long term trying to protect your personal details by not disclosing them isn't going to work very well. People do not remember what they tell psychics over the course of 15 minutes or an hour. They have even less idea what they've told their friends or, via the Internet, millions of strangers over a period of decades or how their disparate nuggets of information might match together. It requires effort to lie - even by omission - and even more to sustain a lie over time. It's logically easier to construct a relatively small number of lies. Therefore, it seems to me that it's a simpler job to construct lies for the few occasions when you need the security and protect that small group of lies. The trouble then is documentation.

Even so, says Birch, "In any circumstance, those questions are not really security. You should probably be prosecuted for calling them 'security'."

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, follow on Twitter, or send email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk.

September 4, 2009

Nothing ventured, nothing lost

What does a venture capitalist do in a recession?

"Panic." Hermann Hauser says, then laughs. It is, in fact, hard to imagine him panicking if you've heard the stories he tells about his days as co-founder of Acorn Computers. He's quickly on to his real, more measured, view.

"It's just the bottom of the cycle, and people my age have been through this a number of times before. Though many people are panicking, I know that normally we come out the other end. If you just look at the deals I'm seeing at the moment, they're better than any deals I've seen in my entire life." The really positive thing, he says, is that, "The speed and quality of innovation are speeding up and not slowing down. If you believe that quality of innovation is the key to a successful business, as I do, then this is a good era. We have got to go after the high end of innovation - advanced manufacturing and the knowledge-based economy. I think we are quite well placed to do that." Fortunately, Amadeus had just raised a fund when the recession began, so it still has money to invest; life is, he admits, less fun for "the poor buggers who have to raise funds."

Among the companies he is excited about is Plastic Logic, which is due to release its first product next year, a competitor to the Kindle that will have a much larger screen, be much lighter, and will also be a computing platform with 3g, Bluetooth, and Wi-fi all built in, all built on plastic transistors that will be green to produce, more responsive than silicon - and sealed against being dropped in the bath water. "We have the world beat," he says. "It's just the most fantastic thing."

Probably if you ask any British geek above the age of 39, an Acorn BBC Micro figured prominently in their earliest experiences with computing. Hauser was and is not primarily a technical guy - although his idea of exhilarating vacation reading is Thermal Physics, by Charles Kittel and Herbert Kroemer - but picking the right guys to keep supplied with tea and financing is a rare skill, too.

"As I go around the country, people still congratulate me on the BBC Micro and tell me how wonderful it was. Some are now professors in computer science and what they complain about is that as people switched over to PCs - on the BBC Micro everybody knew how to program. The main interface was a programming interface, and it was so easy to program in BASIC everybody did it. Kids have no clue what programming is about - they just surf the Net. Nobody really understands any more what a computer does from the transistor up. It's a dying breed of people who actually know that all this is built on CMOS gates and can build it up from there."

Hauser went on to found an early effort in pen computing - "the technology wasn't good enough" and "the basic premise that I believed in, that pen computing would be important because everybody knew how to wield a pen just wasn't true" - and then the venture capital fund Amadeus, through which he helped fund, among others, leading Bluetooth chip supplier CSR. Britain, he says, is a much more hospitable environment now than it was when he was trying to make his Cambridge bank manager understand Acorn's need for a £1 million overdraft. Although, he admits now, "I certainly wouldn't have invested in myself." And would have missed Acorn's success.

"I think I'm the only European who's done four billion-dollar companies," he says. "Of course I've failed a lot. I assume that more of my initiatives that I've founded finally failed than finally succeeded."

But times have changed since consultants studied Acorn's books and told them to stop trading immediately because they didn't understand how technology companies worked. "All the building blocks you need to have to have a successful technology cluster are now finally in place," he says. "We always that the technology, but we always lacked management, and we've grown our own entrepreneurs now in Britain." He calls Stan Boland, CEO of 3g USB stock manufacturer Icera and Acorn's last managing director a "rock star" and "one of the best CEOs I have come across in Europe or the US." In addition, he says, "There is also a chance of attracting the top US talent, for the first time." However, "The only thing I fear and that we have to be careful about is that the relative decline doesn't turn into an absolute decline."

One element of Britain's changing climate with respect to technology investment that Hauser is particularly proud of is helping create tax credits and taper relief for capital gains through his work on Leon Mandelson's advisory panel on new industry and new jobs. "The reason I have done it is that I don't believe in the post-industrial society. We have to have all parts of industry in our country."

Hauser's latest excitement is stem cells; he's become the fourth person in the world to have his entire genome mapped. "It's the beginning of personal medicine."

The one thing that really bemuses him is being given lifetime achievement awards. "I have lived in the future all my life, and I still do. It's difficult to accept that I've already created a past. I haven't done yet the things I want to do!"


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, follow on Twitter, or send email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk.

November 21, 2008

The art of the impossible

So the question of last weekend very quickly became: how do you tell plausible fantasy from wild possibility? It's a good conversation starter.

One friend had a simple assessment: "They are all nuts," he said, after glancing over the weekend's program. The problem is that 150 years ago anyone predicting today's airline economy class would also have sounded nuts.

Last weekend's (un)conference was called Convergence, but the description tried to convey the sense of danger of crossing the streams. The four elements that were supposed to converge: computing, biotech, cognitive technology, and nanotechnology. Or, as the four-colored conference buttons and T-shirts had it, biotech, infotech, cognotech, and nanotech.

Unconferences seem to be the current trend. I'm guessing, based on very little knowledge, that it was started by Tim O'Reilly's FOO camps or possibly the long-running invitation-only Hackers conference. The basic principle is: collect a bunch of smart, interesting, knowledgeable people and they'll construct their own program. After all, isn't the best part of all conferences the hallway chats and networking, rather than the talks? Having been to one now (yes, a very small sample), I think in most cases I'm going to prefer the organized variety: there's a lot to be said for a program committee that reviews the proposals.

The day before, the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology ran a much smaller seminar on Global Catastrophic Risks. It made a nice counterweight: the weekend was all about wild visions of the future; the seminar was all about the likelihood of our being wiped out by biological agents, astronomical catastrophe, or, most likely, our own stupidity. Favorite quote of the day, from Anders Sandberg: "Very smart people make very stupid mistakes, and they do it with surprising regularity." Sandberg learned this, he said, at Oxford, where he is a philosopher in the Institute for the Future of Humanity.

Ralph Merkle, co-inventor of public key cryptography, now working on diamond mechanosynthesis, said to start with physics textbooks, most notably the evergreen classic by Halliday and Resnick. You can see his point: if whatever-it-is violates the laws of physics it's not going to happen. That at least separates the kinds of ideas flying around at Convergence and the Singularity Summit from most paranormal claims: people promoting dowsing, astrology, ghosts, or ESP seem to be about as interested in the laws of physics as creationists are in the fossil record.

A sidelight: after years of The Skeptic, I'm tempted to dismiss as fantasy anything where the proponents tell you that it's just your fear that's preventing you from believing their claims. I've had this a lot - ghosts, alien spacecraft, alien abductions, apparently these things are happening all over the place and I'm just too phobic to admit it. Unfortunately, the behavior of adherents to a belief just isn't evidence that it's wrong.

Similarly, an idea isn't wrong just because its requirements are annoying. Do I want to believe that my continued good health depends on emulating Ray Kurzweil and taking 250 pills a day and, a load of injections weekly? Certainly not. But I can't prove it's not helping him. I can, however, joke that it's like those caloric restriction diets - doing it makes your life *seem* longer.

Merkle's other criterion: "Is it internally consistent?" This one's harder to assess, particularly if you aren't a scientific expert yourself.

But there is the technique of playing the man instead of the ball. Merkle, for example, is a cryonicist and is currently working on diamond mechanosynthesis. Put more simply, he's busy designing the tools that will be needed to build things atom by atom when - if - molecular manufacturing becomes a reality. If that sounds nutty, well, Merkle has earned the right to steam ahead unworried because his ideas about cryptography, which have become part of the technology we use every day to protect ecommerce transactions, were widely dismissed at first.

Analyzing language is also open to the scientifically less well-educated: do the proponents of the theory use a lot of non-standard terms that sound impressive but on inspection don't seem to mean anything? It helps if they can spell, but that's not a reliable indicator - snake oil salesmen can be very professional, and some well-educated excellent scientists can't spell worth a damn.

The Risks seminar threw out a useful criterion for assessing scenarios: would it make a good movie? If your threat to civilization can be easily imagined as a line delivered by Bruce Willis, it's probably unlikely. It's not a scientifically defensible principle, of course, but it has a lot to recommend it. In human history, what's killed the most people while we're worrying about dramatic events like climate change and colliding asteroids? Wars and pandemics.

So, where does that leave us? Waiting for deliverables, of course. Even if a goal sounds ludicrous working towards it may still produce useful results. A project like Aubrey de Grey's ideas about "curing aging" by developing techniques for directly repairing damage (or SENS, for Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence) seems a case in point. And life extension is the best hope for all of these crazy ideas. Because, let's face it: if it doesn't happen in our lifetime, it was impossible.


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).

November 7, 2008

Reality TV

The Xerox machine in the second season of Mad Men has its own Twitter account, as do many of the show's human characters. Other TV characters have MySpace pages and Facebook groups, and of course they're all, legally or illegally, on YouTube.

Here at the American Film Institute's Digifest in Hollywood - really Hollywood, with the stars on the sidewalks and movie theatres everywhere - the talk is all of "cross-platform". This event allows the AFI's Digital Content Lab to show off some of the projects it's fostered over the last year, and the audience is full of filmmakers, writers, executives, and owners of technology companies, all trying to figure out digital television.

One of the more timely projects is a remix of the venerable PBS Newshour with Jim Lehrer. A sort of combination of Snopes, Wikipedia, and any of a number of online comment sites, the goal of The Fact Project is to enable collaboration between the show's journalists and the public. Anyone can post a claim or a bit of rhetoric and bring in supporting or refuting evidence; the show's journalistic staff weigh in at the end with a Truthometer rating and the discussion is closed. Part of the point, said the project's head, Lee Banville, is to expose to the public the many small but nasty claims that are made in obscure but strategic places - flyers left on cars in supermarket parking lots, or radio spots that air maybe twice on a tiny local station.

The DCL's counterpart in Australia showed off some other examples. Areo, for example, takes TV sets and footage and turns them into game settings. More interesting is the First Australians project, which in the six-year process of filming a TV documentary series created more than 200 edited mini-documentaries telling each interviewee's story. Or the TV movie Scorched, which even before release created a prequel and sequel by giving a fictional character her own Web site and YouTube channel. The premise of the film itself was simple but arresting. It was based on one fact, that at one point Sydney had no more than 50 weeks of water left, and one what-if - what if there were bush fires? The project eventually included a number of other sites, including a fake government department.

"We go to islands that are already populated," said the director, "and pull them into our world."

HBO's Digital Lab group, on the other hand, has a simpler goal: to find an audience in the digital world it can experiment on. Last month, it launched a Web-only series called Hooking Up. Made for almost no money (and it looks it), the show is a comedy series about the relationship attempts of college kids. To help draw larger audiences, the show cast existing Web and YouTube celebrities such as LonelyGirl15, KevJumba, and sxePhil. The show has pulled in 46,000 subscribers on YouTube.

Finally, a group from ABC is experimenting with ways to draw people to the network's site via what it calls "viewing parties" so people can chat with each other while watching, "live" (so to speak), hit shows like Grey's Anatomy. The interface the ABC party group showed off was interesting. They wanted, they said, to come up with something "as slick as the iPhone and as easy to use as AIM". They eventually came up with a three-dimensional spatial concept in which messages appear in bubbles that age by shrinking in size. Net old-timers might ask churlishly what's so inadequate about the interface of IRC or other types of chat rooms where messages appear as scrolling text, but from ABC's point of view the show is the centrepiece.

At least it will give people watching shows online something to do during the ads. If you're coming from a US connection, the ABC site lets you watch full episodes of many current shows; the site incorporates limited advertising. Perhaps in recognition that people will simply vanish into another browser window, the ads end with a button to click to continue watching the show and the video remains on pause until you click it.

The point of all these initiatives is simple and the same: to return TV to something people must watch in real-time as it's broadcast. Or, if you like, to figure out how to lure today's 20- and 30-somethings into watching television; Newshour's TV audience is predominantly 50- and 60-somethings.

ABC's viewing party idea is an attempt - as the team openly said - to recreate what the network calls "appointment TV". I've argued here before that as people have more and more choices about when and where to watch their favourite scripted show, sports and breaking news will increasingly rule television because they are the only two things that people overwhelmingly want to see in real time. If you're supported by advertising, that matters, but success will depend on people's willingness to stick with their efforts once the novelty is gone. The question to answer isn't so much whether you can compete with free (cue picture of a bottle of water) but whether you can compete with freedom (cue picture of evil file-sharer watching with his friends whenever he wants).


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 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).

May 30, 2008

Ten

It's easy to found an organization; it's hard to keep one alive even for as long as ten years. This week, the Foundation for Information Policy Research celebrated its tenth birthday. Ten years is a long time in Internet terms, and even longer when you're trying to get government to pay attention to expertise in a subject as difficult as technology policy.

My notes from the launch contain this quote from FIPR's first director, Caspar Bowden, which shows you just how difficult FIPR's role was going to be: "An educational charity has a responsibility to speak the truth, whether it's pleasant or unpleasant." FIPR was intended to avoid the narrow product focus of corporate laboratory research and retain the traditional freedoms of an academic lab.

My notes also show the following list of topics FIPR intended to research: the regulation of electronic commerce; consumer protection; data protection and privacy; copyright; law enforcement; evidence and archiving; electronic interaction between government, businesses, and individuals; the risks of computer and communications systems; and the extent to which information technologies discriminate against the less advantaged in society. Its first concern was intended to be researching the underpinnings of electronic commerce, including the then recent directive launched for public consultation by the European Commission.

In fact, the biggest issue of FIPR's early years was the crypto wars leading up to and culminating in the passage of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000). It's safe to say that RIPA would have been a lot worse without the time and energy Bowden spent listening to Parliamentary debates, decoding consultation papers, and explaining what it all meant to journalists, politicians, civil servants, and anyone else who would listen.

Not that RIPA is a fountain of democratic behavior even as things are. In the last couple of weeks we've seen the perfect example of the kind of creeping functionalism that FIPR and Privacy International warned about at the time: the Poole council using the access rules in RIPA to spy on families to determine whether or not they really lived in the right catchment area for the schools their children attend.

That use of the RIPA rules, Bowden said at at FIPR's half-day anniversary conference last Wednesday, sets a precedent for accessing traffic data for much lower level purposes than the government originally claimed it was collecting the data for. He went on to call the recent suggestion that the government may be considering a giant database, updated in real time, of the nation's communications data "a truly Orwellian nightmare of data mining, all in one place."

Ross Anderson, FIPR's founding and current chair and a well-known security engineer at Cambridge, noted that the same risks adhere to the NHS database. A clinic that owns its own data will tell police asking for the names of all its patients under 16 to go away. "If," said Anderson, "it had all been in the NHS database and they'd gone in to see the manager of BT, would he have been told to go and jump in the river? The mistake engineers make too much is to think only technology matters."

That point was part of a larger one that Anderson made: that hopes that the giant databases under construction will collapse under their own weight are forlorn. Think of developing Hulk-Hogan databases and the algorithms for mining them as an arms race, just like spam and anti-spam. The same principle that holds that today's cryptography, no matter how strong, will eventually be routinely crackable means that today's overload of data will eventually, long after we can remember anything we actually said or did ourselves, be manageable.

The most interesting question is: what of the next ten years? Nigel Hickson, now with the Department of Business, Enterprise, and Regulatory Reform, gave some hints. On the European and international agenda, he listed the returning dominance of the large telephone companies on the excuse that they need to invest in fiber. We will be hearing about quality of service and network neutrality. Watch Brussels on spectrum rights. Watch for large debates on the liability of ISPs. Digital signatures, another battle of the late 1990s, are also back on the agenda, with draft EU proposals to mandate them for the public sector and other services. RFID, the "Internet for things" and the ubiquitous Internet will spark a new round of privacy arguments.

Most fundamentally, said Anderson, we need to think about what it means to live in a world that is ever more connected through evolving socio-technological systems. Government can help when markets fail; though governments themselves seem to fail most notoriously with large projects.

FIPR started by getting engineers, later engineers and economists, to talk through problems. "The next growth point may be engineers and psychologists," he said. "We have to progressively involve more and more people from more and more backgrounds and discussions."

Probably few people feel that their single vote in any given election really makes a difference. Groups like FIPR, PI, No2ID, and ARCH remind us that even a small number of people can have a significant effect. Happy birthday.


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).


November 9, 2007

Watching you watching me

A few months ago, a neighbour phoned me and asked if I'd be willing to position a camera on my windowsill. I live at the end of a small dead-end street (or cul-de-sac), that ends in a wall about shoulder height. The railway runs along the far side of the wall, and parallel to it and further away is a long street with a row of houses facing the railway. The owners of those houses get upset because graffiti keeps appearing alongside the railway where they can see it and covers flat surfaces such as the side wall of my house. The theory is that kids jump over the wall at the end of my street, just below my office window, either to access the railway and spray paint or to escape after having done so. Therefore, the camera: point it at the wall and watch to see what happens.

The often-quoted number of times the average Londoner is caught on camera per day is scary: 200. (And that was a few years ago; it's probably gone up.) My street is actually one of those few that doesn't have cameras on it. I don't really care about the graffiti; I do, however, prefer to be on good terms with neighbours, even if they're all the way across the tracks. I also do see that it makes sense at least to try to establish whether the wall downstairs is being used as a hurdle in the getaway process. What is the right, privacy-conscious response to make?

I was reminded of this a few days ago when I was handed a copy of Privacy in Camera Networks: A Technical Perspective, a paper published at the end of July. (We at net.wars are nothing if not up-to-date.)

Given the amount of money being spent on CCTV systems, it's absurd how little research there is covering their efficacy, their social impact, or the privacy issues they raise. In this paper, the quartet of authors – Marci Lenore Meingast (UC Berkeley), Sameer Pai (Cornell), Stephen Wicker (Cornell), and Shankar Sastry (UC Berkeley) – are primarily concerned with privacy. They ask a question every democratic government deploying these things should have asked in the first place: how can the camera networks be designed to preserve privacy? For the purposes of preventing crime or terrorism, you don't need to know the identity of the person in the picture. All you want to know is whether that person is pulling out a gun or planting a bomb. For solving crimes after the fact, of course, you want to be able to identify people – but most people would vastly prefer that crimes were prevented, not solved.

The paper cites model legislation (PDF) drawn up by the Constitution Project. Reading it is depressing: so many of the principles in it are such logical, even obvious, derivatives of the principles that democratic governments are supposed to espouse. And yet I can't remember any public discussion of the idea that, for example, all CCTV systems should be accompanied by identification of and contact information for the owner. "These premises are protected by CCTV" signs are everywhere; but they are all anonymous.

Even more depressing is the suggestion that the proposals for all public video surveillance systems should specify what legitimate law enforcement purpose they are intended to achieve and provide a privacy impact assessment. I can't ever remember seeing any of those either. In my own local area, installing CCTV is something politicians boast about when they're seeking (re)election. Look! More cameras! The assumption is that more cameras equals more safety, but evidence to support this presumption is never provided and no one, neither opposing politicians nor local journalists, ever mounts a challenge. I guess we're supposed to think that they care about us because they're spending the money.
The main intention of Meingast, Pai, et al, however, is to look at the technical ways such networks can be built to preserve privacy. They suggest, for example, collecting public input via the Internet (using codes to identify the respondents on whom the cameras will have the greatest impact). They propose an auditing system whereby these systems and their usage is reviewed. As the video streams become digital, they suggest using layers of abstraction of the resulting data to limit what can be identified in a given image. "Information not pertinent to the task in hand," they write hopefully, "can be abstracted out leaving only the necessary information in the image." They go on into more detail about this, along with a lengthy discussion of facial recognition.

The most depressing thing of all: none of this will ever happen, and for two reasons. First, no government seems to have the slightest qualm of conscience about installing surveillance systems. Second, the mass populace don't seem to care enough to demand these sorts of protections. If these protections are to be put in place at all, it must be done by technologists. They must design these systems so that it's easier to use them in privacy-protecting ways than to use them in privacy-invasive ways. What are the odds?

As for the camera on my windowsill, I told my neighbour after some thought that they could have it there for a maximum of a couple of weeks to establish whether the end of my street was actually being used as an escape route. She said something about getting back to me when something or other happened. Never heard any more about it. As far as I am aware, my street is still unsurveilled.

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).

September 21, 2007

The summer of lost hats

I seem to have spent the summer dodging in and out of science fiction novels featuring four general topics: energy, security, virtual worlds, and what someone at the last conference called "GRAIN" technologies (genetic engineering, robotics, AI, and nanotechnology). So the summer started with doom and gloom and got progressively more optimistic. Along the way, I have mysteriously lost a lot of hats. The phenomena may not be related.

I lost the first hat in June, a Toyota Motor Racing hat (someone else's joke; don't ask) while I was reading the first of many very gloomy books about the end of the world as we know it. Of course, TEOTWAWKI has been oft-predicted, and there is, as Damian Thompson, the Telegraph's former religious correspondent, commented when I was writing about Y2K – a "wonderful and gleeful attention to detail" in these grand warnings. Y2K was a perfect example: a timetable posted to comp.software.year-2000 had the financial system collapsing around April 1999 and the cities starting to burn in October…

Energy books can be logically divided into three categories. One, apocalyptics: fossil fuels are going to run out (and sooner than you think), the world will continue to heat up, billions will die, and the few of us who survive will return to hunting, gathering, and dying young. Two, deniers: fossil fuels aren't going to run out, don't be silly, and we can tackle global warming by cleaning them up a bit. Here. Have some clean coal. Three, optimists: fossil fuels are running out, but technology will help us solve both that and global warming. Have some clean coal and a side order of photovoltaic panels.

I tend, when not wracked with guilt for having read 15 books and written 30,000 words on the energy/climate crisis and then spent the rest of the summer flying approximately 33,000 miles, toward optimism. People can change – and faster than you think. Ten years ago, you'd have been laughed off the British isles for suggesting that in 2007 everyone would be drinking bottled water. Given the will, ten years from now everyone could have a solar collector on their roof.

The difficulty is that at least two of those takes on the future of energy encourage greater consumption. If we're all going to die anyway and the planet is going inevitably to revert to the Stone Age, why not enjoy it while we still can? All kinds of travel will become hideously expensive and difficult; go now! If, on the other hand, you believe that there isn't a problem, well, why change anything? The one group who might be inclined toward caution and saving energy is the optimists – technology may be able to save us, but we need time to create create and deploy it. The more careful we are now, the longer we'll have to do that.

Unfortunately, that's cautious optimism. While technology companies, who have to foot the huge bills for their energy consumption, are frantically trying to go green for the soundest of business reasons, individual technologists don't seem to me to have the same outlook. At Black Hat and Defcon, for example (lost hats number two and three: a red Canada hat and a black Black Hat hat), among all the many security risks that were presented, no one talked about energy as a problem. I mean, yes, we have all those off-site backups. But you can take out a border control system as easily with an electrical power outage as you can by swiping an infected RFID passport across a reader to corrupt the database. What happens if all the lights go out, we can't get them back on again, and everything was online?

Reading all those energy books changes the lens through which you view technical developments somewhat. Singapore's virtual worlds are a case in point (lost hat: a navy-and-tan Las Vegas job): everyone is talking about what kinds of laws should apply to selling magic swords or buying virtual property, and all the time in the back of your mind is the blog posting that calculated that the average Second Life avatar consumes as much energy as the average Brazilian. And emits as much carbon as driving an SUV for 2,000 miles. Bear in mind that most SL avatars aren't figured up that often, and the suggestion that we could curb energy consumption by having virtual conferences instead of physical ones seems less realistic. (Though we could, at least, avoid airport security.) In this, as in so much else, the science fiction writer Vernor Vinge seems to have gotten there first: his book Marooned in Real Time looks at the plight of a bunch of post-Singularity augmented humans knowing their technology is going to run out.

It was left to the most science fictional of the conferences, last week's Center for Responsible Nanotechnology conference (my overview is here) to talk about energy. In wildly optimistic terms: technology will not only save us but make us all rich as well.

This was the one time all summer I didn't lose any hats (red Swiss everyone thought was Red Cross, and a turquoise Arizona I bought just in case). If you can keep your hat while all around you everyone is losing theirs…

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).

June 29, 2007

In search of the very, very small

I spent three days last week in Basel being taken around to see various pieces of research the research outfits around there are doing into nanoscience, courtesy of the European Union of Scientice Journalists' Associations (my affiliation is with the Association of British Science Writers). All very interesting stuff, and difficult to summarize intelligently in a few hundred words, though I made a stab at some of the medical stuff. The thing that most struck me immediately, though, was how different it all was from the image of nanotechnology I'd half-formed from odds and ends I'd read or heard about in the media.

I probably just don't read enough.

The first time I ever heard of nanotechnology, though I'm not sure they used the name, was in a three-part 1988 documentaryTV series called What is Truth?: Seeing is Not Knowing. It was produced by the distinguished science producer and writer Karl Sabbagh, and looked at how we know what we know about things we can't examine directly, such as the contents of memory, the very large (space) and the very small (molecules). Two enduring images stick with me all these years later: a guy riding a bicycle through the CERN particle accelerator to cover the distance to the bit that needed repairs, and their mock-up of what a nanofactory might be like. By then people were already talking about the idea that we could have machines in our homes into which you put ingredients and instructions and out of which you later take whole devices or whatever. The machine was played by a dishwasher and the emerging device by a boom box, and the whole thing looked pretty hokey, but still: molecular manufacturing.

But that's not what the people in Basel were doing at all; at no point in the three days did anyone talk about building consumer devices or the grey goo that belongs in a horror movie. Instead, what kept reappearing was various types of microscopes - atomic force, scanning probe, even a synchrotron. From those, we saw a lot of highly detailed images of really tiny things, such as collagen fibers waiting to cause havoc in the human bloodstream and three-dimensional images of rat brains.

I think everyone's favourite presentation was that of Marc Creus, from the Institut de Microtechnique in Neuchâtel, who said cheerfully he was there to talk about a hole. Actually, a nanopore, 25 nanometers in diameter. The idea is to build on a technique created by the engineer Wallace H. Coulter, who created a simple device – essentially, a box with two chambers divided by a membrane (in its first prototype, the cellophane off a pack of cigarettes) with a small hole in it (originally, melted with the heated point of a sewing needle) – to count microscopic particles suspended in a fluid. A solution passes through the hole simultaneously with an electric current; when a particle goes through, the current shows a change proportional to the size of the particle. The particle, in other words, briefly partially blocks the hole.

The way Creus told it, Coulter had been experimenting with paint, but one night left the paint open. The next night, finding it had dried out, he looked around for another liquid – and wound up using blood. The Coulter Principle, as it's now known, is used all over the world for analyzing blood samples ("complete blood cell" counts). He had trouble getting a patent on it, by the way; the examiner thought it was too simple, and anyway you can't patent a hole. He eventually got his patent in 1953 and became quite wealthy from his device.

Creus is trying to shrink the Coulter Principle with the idea of exploring the nanoscale: nanopores should make it possible to count protein molecules. You could, for example, test for the presence of a particular protein by adding them to a device that already contains its antibodies. The protein bound to the antibody will be a bigger molecule than either on its own.

Even weirder, Urs Staufer, from the same institute, is using nanoscience to explore…Mars. There's something very strange about the notion of using something tiny to study something really large. But the deal is that one of these scanning proble microscopes, specially adapted, will be on the first Mars Scout mission, due to launch in August. A robot arm will go along scooping up samples of…what do you call it when it's Mars? It can't be earth, can it? Anyway, the robot arm pours the sample on a wheel that rotates in front of the microscope, and the images are sent to Tucson and everyone has four hours to decide if they want to look at it more closely and compile the commands to send for the next go-round. The hope is that they'll find ice underneath the surface and will be able to dig down and investigate it.

I suppose all this makes sense. You can't really manufacture anything, at any scale, until you understand how it all works, just as you can't colonize anywhere until you've explored it. If they get down the nanoscale far enough, will they plant a tiny Swiss flag?

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).