By Lalith Gunaratne, CACOR member.
I am disappointed and dismayed of our modern world after reading two interesting and scary books back to back – Yuval Noah Hariri’s Homo Deus and Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction.
Is this where we have come to after all these years of scientific and technological development?.
Greed and expedience seems to thrive in the world of big data taking advantage of the unsuspecting – and many of those are not wealthy, many are minorities, many stuck in a cycle of poverty, incarceration and hopelessness – trapping them for pay day loans, mortgages they cannot afford, high insurance policies, cycling them through an unfair justice system – all this is doing is to widen the gap between the have’s and have not’s.
Is this what we call progress? Is this the enlightened world of evolved minds of the 21st century?.
Dataists who now follow the new religion of Dataism believe that the invisible hand is in the dataflow and not the market anymore – never mind, ethics, values, meaning and purpose to life.
Hariri’s 462 pages of Homo Deus is a mix of prediction and prophesy – exciting on one hand and scary as hell on the other.
Hariri says “…in the 21st century human, feelings are no longer the best algorithm in the world”.
I did not realize my emotions were an algorithm. All this time I thought emotions arise through a complex biochemical communications process – an interaction between our endocrine, nervous and immune systems – acting or reacting in a deterministic or a random way, based on my nature and nurture. There must be an algorithm there, but I would think that would be quite complicated to decipher.
Apparently not, as Google and Facebook algorithms know exactly how I feel. Even more mysterious, they also know a myriad of other things that I hardly know about myself.
Well, that’s nice. Can I know some of those things I hardly know?.
No again, as it is theirs, whoever they are – their opaque formula of the algorithm of me. So there is me, who I think I am and then there is me – who they think I am.
Then, what about the millions of years of wisdom I gained from my ancestors that make up my emotions, feelings and thoughts, to inform me of the complex me?.
Does that mean I do not have to pay attention to them, as computers get to know the mysteries of my consciousness and the sub-conscious and define who I am to predict what I will do based on my daily clicks on Google?.
Preposterous as it seems, that horse seems to have bolted already through the Internet-of-all Things for the privilege of being connected.
They say my new religion is Dataism, where blind faith in data science is making it into a ‘science’ or is it pseudoscience?. Faith, is the intelligence in spirit for the human, no less important in scientific quests – is that all redundant now?.
Speaking of faith, Cathy O’Neil says “Machine learning and artificial intelligence algorithms do not have an embedded model of the world that can reliably distinguish between truth and lies“. How can I have faith in that?.
What seems to be happening is, we are fed and influenced day and night and even followed and targeted via the new marketing of customized promotions, so the ad that pops up in my computer may be different to what my wife gets for the same product or service, as they know to differentiate my wife from me to that extent.
Google at my Fingertips
Then again how wonderful Google is – I do not have to look for my Thesaurus – I left if on this shelf last time I used it and now it is missing – who took it, where has it gone? – What a waste of time to look for it.
Now it is simple – just Google it – from synonyms, train schedules, coffee shop locations, news, about politics, book tickets to a play, buy train fare, look for a car, find a date – what don’t I do with Google at my finger tips.
Just that every time I click Google, the machine is watching me, getting to know me more, defining me, profiling me even to a level of subtle nuances that I may not know, had never known – Google is finding me out in ways I had no idea about myself.
Add to that Facebook – the harmless Likes, Loves, Wows are being watched by the machine at speeds no human mind can traverse, adding to who I am ….and if it ends there, that would be ok.
Who ‘I am’ is then sold to those who want to sell me things, want my vote, so depending on who they think I am, I am targeted and advertised to and manipulated to make a decision.
All the while I am thinking this is me, my decision – not realizing the subliminal coaxing that happens when an advertisement, a message pops up to sway me – whoever has paid for the ad, want me to do – as they know my emotions are part of an open looped system affected and influenced by what I see, hear and feel.
If that is scary, what about information people have collected on me and how it impacts on me – that traffic ticket I got, the neighbourhood I live in – yes, postal code matters – the credit card payment I missed when I was overseas – all that information is permanent on Internet of All Things. So, when I show up at the bank for my mortgage, it will decide whether I get it or not, as the bank has rated me, judged me before I say a word.
What about James Smith born on the same day, as the other James Smith, the convicted felon – the opaqueness of the way you, James, have been judged in the algorithm – so you are stopped at borders, lose out before even a job interview – where and who do you turn to?.
If you think, we can control all this with legislation, it seems the horse has bolted, there is so much data out there that it is just too large for any one person, army of people or the government to take control – the horse has bolted indeed and nowhere to be seen.
I have no answers except to say, be mindful of what you look for on Google, what you say on Facebook, what kind of friends you associate with on line and even where you live and for heaven’s sake don’t get into any trouble with the law as that will stick to you all your life on the Internet of All Things.
According to Cathy O’Neil, this data about you and I are privately owned, privately used for private ends of profit and influence, and we the people are shut out of the process and told to behave well and trust the algorithm.
What more can I say, except read Yuval Hariri’s Homo Deus – at least the first and the last chapters for those busy with life and e mail and Cathy O’Neil’s well researched Weapons of Math Destruction and become aware, reflect, think critically and decide for yourself.
Bertrand Russel in his wisdom said, “Learn not to be credulous, apply constructive doubt in order to test unexamined beliefs, and resist the notion that some authority, a great philosopher perhaps, has captured the whole truth”.
The horse may have bolted, yet we still have our minds to think, reason and reflect. Don’t ever think the new religion of Dataism has or can capture the ‘whole truth’ about anything.
Talk to each other, have conversations to figure out what we can do to reclaim and differentiate the algorithm they have of ‘me’ from that ‘complex me’ who’s aspiration is to have some meaning and purpose in life – to be happy, to be useful, to live and love well.