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Sometimes I Wish That It Would Rain Here

Thursday, December 21, 2006

rights for robots? yeah, right

so, who thinks that in, say, the next 20 to 50 years, robots will be sufficiently advanced to merit rights and responsibilities as citizens, rights such as voting and "health" care (which in this case I suppose would mean regular maintenance), and responsibilities such as paying taxes and compulsory military service? not me. however, a recent paper (via BBC) assembled by the Horizon Scanning Centre for the UK's Office of Science claims that robots could develop to a point sufficient to merit being treated as citizens within 20 to 50 years. remember the first AI conference 50 years ago when McCarthy coined the term and people thought we'd have machines smarter than people in, oh, maybe 20 years? or maybe 50 years? or maybe more like 100? or, hey, maybe never...?

machines are already far intellectually superior to humans in many regards. machines don't get fatigued (bitrot notwithstanding), machines are (generally) deterministic, machines don't make numerical errors (or errors of any sort) that aren't the result of some human error or mechanical breakdown. a machine can analyze huge textual corpora to extract all sorts of interesting and useful information. machines can perform the thousands and millions of calculations per second necessary to render 3D graphics. machines can navigate through a 3D physical environment, sometimes in the dark. machines can do all sorts of things humans can't do. why is it that we keep trying to make machines do things that humans can do? I know there are arguments about replacing the unskilled labor force and dangerous jobs with robot laborers (e.g., Kapek's R.U.R.), and so on and so forth. however, I doubt there would be a cry from the public to grant robotic laborers rights as citizens. for that, such machines would need to have certain elements of human experience. I don't know what subset of human experience makes one merit citizenship. are any researchers (aside from the vociferous Minsky) working on such goals? not that I'm incredibly well-read in AI at large, but most of the stuff I see in the field is aimed at weak AI, not the type of AI that would merit citizenship.

furthermore, how did this end up in a government report? I understand that the whole goal of this project was to see things that might be coming down the pike in the next 20 to 50 years, and robots with rights is certainly a possibility. I also think it doesn't hurt to consider these things well in advance so that, should the time come to make such a decision, we are not blind-sided. maybe I'm just out of touch, but I mean really, c'mon, you can't be serious. does anyone actually think that (a) significant research is being done in this direction with the goal of making machines that would be publicly considered sentient, and (b) that this research will produce such a machine with the half-century timeline? anyone?

Saturday, December 09, 2006

transitioning from a police state to policing the police

by now, most folks know that the UCLA police tasered a student about a month ago. I particularly liked danah’s remark, “Welcome to a police state.” if you don't know what I’m talking about, just google "ucla taser" and prepare to be appalled. really rather disturbing stuff. however, I saw something in the LA Times recently that might be subtly more disturbing.

civil rights activists have asked that the LAPD install surveillance cameras in their own stations and cruisers, the idea being that knowledge of constant monitoring would discourage further incidents like that above, or the Rodney King violence, or so many others like them that about which we don’t hear, as well as to properly punish those who carry out such acts when they are committed. interestingly, the LAPD seems to be going along with this plan, although so far not as a full and complete camera deployment. at least, not yet.

this proposal highlights in an interesting way the assumption in our culture that the camera creates a veridical representation of reality. actually, the camera can distort just as much as any personal testimony, but in different ways. a camera can show you images and sound, but it cannot directly capture the thoughts, feelings, and motivations, the subjective experience, of those involved in the acts recorded. obviously, one would want to use video footage in conjunction with personal testimony, but there is a possibility to listen more to the tape than to the witness, since it is assumed that the camera is an “objective” viewer, and objectivism is so highly prized in our society.

moreover, though, I find this troubling because of the Foucauldian overtones of panopticonism. except that rather than having the invisible government in the center, constantly monitoring its citizens, we have something more of an omni-opticon (thanks to meta for this term), where in everyone watches everyone else, and behavioral and social control are exercised by the ever-present gaze of the public on itself.

what I want to know is, who is watching the people who watch the police to make sure that they are not hood-winked into ignoring abuse of police power? are the police being watched by other police? if everyone is watching each other, is anyone watching themselves? what are the consequences of a state of omni-opticonism?

mind you, I’m not arguing that we should not take such measures of oversight in matters of the police. the fact that these cameras were so recently installed and an officer was already, on December 8, arrested for assaulting a hand-cuffed 16-year old boy. unchecked power will grow unchecked until it becomes absolute, and we know what that leads to. my question is, what is the right mechanism of oversight? by virtue of the word “oversight,” are we implying the need for some sort of surveillance? in the LA Times article cited above, one councilman stated that “strong leadership” would be even better at controlling corruption, even though the arrest he gave as an example of strong leadership occurred due to the use of the recently installed cameras. it may be that the most effective mechanism in controlling corruption is such surveillance equipment. however, I then have to ask what the broader consequences and implications are of such moves. what happens when people become accustomed to such constant surveillance in almost every aspect of their lives?

who will protect us from our protectors? who will protect us from ourselves?

Thursday, December 07, 2006

virtual memories

ars recently had a post about a study indicating that people are more likely to have false memories about products that they interact with virtual than about products of which they see only static images and text. this is interesting for a few reasons, not the least of which are the implications it might have for virtual worlds like Second Life or World of Warcraft. these experiments (pdf) focused on virtual objects. how much of the tendency for false memories would transfer to social situations? my other question is how these false memories compare to the memories that would be formed from interacting with the physical product itself. is my memory both more inclusive (I get less false negatives) and more discerning (I get less false positives)? what about print media vs tv vs radio vs actual object vs virtual object? what about objects vs events vs social interactions? how about interactions w/ strangers vs interactions w/ friends vs common interactions vs uncommon interactions. I know there's a bunch of psych research on false memories, e.g. Beth Loftus, but it would be really interesting, in light of this recent study, to see how much of it and what sorts transfer to virtual experiences. I think this is a really interesting line or research and there's a heck of a lot to be explored here.


for a moment, ignore the content of this BBC article and scroll down to the second image.

check out the text on the bottom of that sign. "www.playboy.go.to_hell!" I tried, but there's not apparently a site by that name. what does this mean? is there confusion happening about why people are putting dots in their sentences? I could see if this guy doesn't have internet access there could be confusion about why people were putting dots in between words instead of spaces. however, I think this sort of confusion may be slightly more wide spread.

I recently heard about the work of Eszter Hargittai study "average people" (i.e., not in the technology profession) using search tools. apparently, there's not a clear distinction between the understanding of the long rectangular space into which you type your Google queries and the long rectangular space in the browser where you type web addresses. a common pattern was people typing things like "lactose.intolerant.brownie.recipe" into the address bar. it's not that people can't tell the two apart, because they know that spaces in one place are OK but in the other spaces are no good. there's just a disconnect as to the meaning and function, or perhaps it's a matter of mental models. at any rate, the digital divide, she says, is not about access to technology but understanding of how to use it. the sign depicted above, I think, may be a case of this sort of digital divide.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

who approved the "kids from hell"?

I was at the gym this morning, and on the large and annoyingly loud HD TV that I usually try to ignore was a news story, I believe it was on ABC, and badly behaved kids in a restaurant. I know, urgent breaking news, right? apparently, the station had hired two child actors to be obnoxiously loud and annoying children in a restaurant, as well as hiring an actor to play the father who ignored them and talked on his cell phone the whole time. they showed clips from hidden cameras in the restaurant in which the kids were banging on the plates and silverware, singing loudly, chasing around, diving under tables, etc. I think the purpose was to see how far they could go before someone would do something. a number of people tried to talk to the father, who just acted confused. "what do you mean my kids are out of control?" others tried to stop the kids, who either ignored them or got more annoying. when the restaurant manager came out, the kids hid under a table. why this is news is beyond me, but there's something even more troubling here.

through what process did this station have to go to get this segment approved? clearly, there are specific legal processes through which one must go to show a recording of some random person on TV. did they do a "gotcha" thing where they came out and had everyone sign forms? even beyond the legal questions, these people's dinners were almost completely ruined. and for what? for our entertainment on the morning news? if I wanted to do a similar social-behavior experiment, I would have to get it approved by my university's Institutional Review Board (IRB). the IRB would want to know what to see written informed consent from all participants (or an explanation of why written informed consent was neither necessary nor practical), would want assurances that all possible lengths were gone to in order to minimize risk and discomfort to participants, why it was important to gather personally identifiable information (people's faces that link them to the recordings about them), how the recordings would be used, and a justification of why this was an important experiment to carry out. did the news station do any of these things? is there any knowledge to be gained from this? or did they ruin dozens of people's evenings out for the sake of entertaining some early morning viewers?

it sort of reminds me of another discussion I had of why the IRB seems like a slightly flawed enterprise. I need IRB approval any time that I want to collect data about human subjects and disseminate or publish those data or findings derived from them. however, it was suggested, what if I am a theatre critic and I go to a play. I am collecting and disseminating "data" about the performance, which is put on by humans, and the audience, which is composed of humans. if I write something like "the audience seemed to appreciate the director's handling of act 3, scene 2," do I need IRB approval because I have collected and disseminated data about human beings? I really don't understand why this would not fall under the IRBs purview, but something like observing people at the mall (pdf) would.

clearly, IRBs are an important aspect of research, c.f. Stanford prison experiment and Milgram's studies in obedience and authority. however, where do we draw the line, how do we determine what needs IRB oversight and what does not, and when does regulation by an authority like the IRB change from protecting subjects to inhibiting the progress of important research and contributions to knowledge?

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

trans fats on the go

new york city recently passed legislation to ban trans fats in all NYC restaurants. this is pretty cool, but, as the BBC article points out, is going to be very difficult to accomplish, especially considering all the McDonald's-esque establishments in the city. overall, it's certainly an improvement. I have to wonder about a few things, though.

first, will other cities, and perhaps even other states, follow this trend? the article mentions that Chicago is already considering such legislation.

second, will lawmakers consider including prepared foods in such future legislation? granted, with prepared foods (by which I mean grocery-store bought foods with an FDA-approved label), one can check the label and be sure the food does not contain any trans fats, in a way that it's not as easy to check the label in a restaurant. I guess it's a question of whether people are capable of taking care of their own health or whether the state should make sure their food doesn't have as much crap in it. granted, I would wager that most people don't know or aren't fully aware of the detrements surrounding trans fats, but I suspect that's a slightly different problem.

third, will such legislation be extended to other similar compounds and chemical found in, or added to, food products? the BBC article notes that trans fats "have no nutritional benefit." the same could be said about virtually any dye or flavoring added to a food product. afaik, most herbs and spices have some nutritional benefit, e.g. ginger is good for digestion, garlic is beneficial to the immune system, chicken is a natural decongestant, and just about any hot-n-spicy food can help clear the sinuses. even increddibly fatty foods like bacon still have some positive nutritional value to them. however, I'm not certain about the nutritional value of "natural" or "artificial" flavors. what about preservatives? I'm pretty sure, like trans fats, they can extend shelf life, but they add no nutritional value. will governmental bodies start banning the use of preservatives in restaurant-prepared food or even pre-packaged store-bought food?

it's an interesting prospect, and it certainly raises questions about big government. on the one end of the spectrum, there's The Jungle, along with its modern corollary, Fast Food Nation. at the other end is, I don't know, something like Soylent Green, but perhaps slightly less cannibalistic? the extremes are pretty clear, it's that funky grey line somewhere in between that's a littel more fuzzy.

so the question is, just how far should the government go in regulating the contents of the food we buy and consume, and at what point does it become the responsibility of the consumer (or customer or end-user or what have you) to be aware of the content of the food, and in general the products, that they consume (or buy or use)?

Monday, December 04, 2006

...to the moon!

so NASA is apparently going to build a moonbase. yes, a base on the moon. hopefully, this will be a little more successful than the problem-plagued international space station. combined with the winning of the Ansari X Prize two years ago could mean some very interesting collaborations between the government and private sector. also, since this seems to be a NASA operation and not international, it will be interesting to see how things play out.

on the amusing side, it's interesting to note that "the permanent base will be built near one of the two poles," even though "we don't know as much about the polar regions." lovely.

20061205 - Update

it turns out that, according to the LA Times, "Australia, Canada, China, Europe, Japan, India, and Russia have extpressed interest in participating" in the moonbase project. why "Europe" is listed next to other countries, I'm not sure, unelss perhaps Europe has a unified, international space program, and each of the other countries has their own.