Inaugural Lord Renwick Memorial Lecture w/ Vint Cerf

From Humanist I learned about the Inaugural Lord Renwick Memorial Lecture w/ Vint Cerf : Digital Policy Alliance : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive. This lecture is available also in a text transcript here (PDF). Vint Cerf is one of the pioneers of the Internet and in this lecture he talks about the “five alligators of the Internet. They are 1) Technology, 2) Regulation, 3) Institutions, 4) the Digital Divide, and 5) Digital Preservation.

Under Technology he traces a succinct history of the internet as technology pointing out how important the ALOHAnet project was to the eventual design of the Internet. Under regulation he talked about different levels of regulation and the pros and cons of regulation. Later there are some questions about the issue of anonymity and civil discourse. All said, the talk does a great job of covering the issues facing the internet today.

Here is his answer to a question about  how to put more humanity into the Internet.

The first observation I would make is that civility is a social decision that we either choose or don’t. Creating norms is very important. I think norms are not necessarily backed up by, you know, law enforcement for example, they’re considered societal values, and I fear that openness in the Internet has led to a, let’s say, a diminution, erosion, of civil discourse. I would suggest to you, however, that it’s possibly understandable in the following analog. Those of you who drive cars may, like I do, say things to the other drivers, or about the other drivers, that I would never say face to face, but there’s this windshield separating me from the other drivers, and I feel free to express myself, in ways that I would not if I were face to face. Sometimes I think the computer screen acts a little bit like the windshield of the car and allows us to behave in ways that we wouldn’t otherwise if we were right there with the target of our comments. Somehow we have to infuse back into society the value of civil discourse, and the only way to do that I think is to start very early on in school to introduce children, and their parents, and adults, to the value of civility in terms of making progress in coming together, finding common ground, finding solutions to things, as opposed to simply firing our 45 caliber Internet packets at each other. I really hope that the person asking the question has some ideas for introducing incentives for exactly that behavioral change. I will point out that seatbelts and smoking has possibly some lessons to teach, where we incorporated not only advice but we also said, by the way, if we catch you smoking in this building, there will be consequences, because we said you shouldn’t do it. So, maybe we have to have some kind of social consequence for bad behavior. (p. 13-4)

Later on he talks about license plates following the same analogy of how we behave when driving. Your car gives you some anonymity, but the license plate can be used to identify you if you go too far.

Conspiracy Theories

Big Valley Creation Science Museum

A couple of weeks ago we traveled around Southern Alberta visiting out of the way museums, including the Creation Science Museum in Big Valley. To visit we had to book over the phone and we were given an intense and argumentative tour of the small museum. There is much to be said about the arguments I had with the guide, who was well informed, experienced at arguing, and passionate about his beliefs. One of the things that struck me was how his belief system was a network of interlocking and supporting conspiracy theories including:

  • A belief that the universe was created by God about 7,000 to 10,000 years ago as set out by Genesis. Much of the museum was dedicated to debunking evolutionary science as speculation in order to set up the “truth.”
  • There is a group of Illuminati who control the world. I think this is connected to the New World Order, but I wasn’t following the argument.
  • Noah’s Arc is on mount Ararat in Turkey, but the Turkish government is preventing access.
  • The apocalypse is coming soon.
  • Aliens are actually demons visiting earth.

I probably didn’t get all the network of theories right. There was a final exhibit that traced the Windsors back to Adam and Eve which was supposed to mean something. What interested me after the encounter was the passion of conspiracy. What is it that is so attractive about these theories? Why do they go together? There is a lot of good stuff out there including 7 Insights From Interviewing Conspiracy Theory Believers and Understanding Conspiracy Theories. To summarize,

  • Believing in conspiracies provides community and empowerment. If you are serious enough about them it can also provide an identity.
  • Conspiracies explain the world more thoroughly and simply. They often present simple answers – ie. that there is a small hidden group running things. Such answers are more satisfying than “its complicated.”
  • Conspiracies present themselves are truth in a postmodern age that makes it difficult to know what to believe. They are also imaginative and often remarkably thorough.
  • The theories have similar patterns of ideas which makes them fit well with each other. If you have “researched” one then you will probably
  • Believing in a conspiracy makes you an alternative type of expert who is “woke” to the truth about the world. Such expertise is a short cut around the expertise that comes from getting an education which can be rather time consuming.
  • Most conspiracies include explanations about why the theory is not believed by experts. As an added bonus, there is also a story of persecution that lets you take on the identity of noble victim.
  • To know a truth that most others don’t confers power and exceptionalism on you. You understand where others don’t. It also is a sign of rugged freedom of thought as you have not been lulled into following the herd.
  • Most of these theories do not call for immediate action, after all, there is nothing you can do when the world is controlled by the Illuminati. In some cases they relieve one of the need to act; no need to worry about climate change if it is fake news. That said, some conspiracies do motivate some people to terrible acts (think about how incel theory has inspired some) and they do provide theories of agency.

By contrast, the theories I believe in are tentative, dependent on trusting others, without heroic opportunities, incomplete and often contradictory. They do, however, call for action, even solidarity, but with humility.

A New Way to Inoculate People Against Misinformation

A new set of online games holds promise for helping identify and prevent harmful misinformation from going viral.

Instead of fighting misinformation after it’s already spread, some researchers have shifted their strategy: they’re trying to prevent it from going viral in the first place, an approach known as “prebunking.” Prebunking attempts to explain how people can resist persuasion by misinformation. Grounded in inoculation theory, the approach uses the analogy of biological immunization. Just as weakened exposure to a pathogen triggers antibody production, inoculation theory posits that pre-emptively exposing people to a weakened persuasive argument builds people’s resistance against future manipulation.

Prebunking is being touted as A New Way to Inoculate People Against Misinformation. The idea is that one can inoculate people against the manipulation of misinformation. This strikes me as similar to how we were taught to “read” advertising in order to inoculate us to corporate manipulation. Did it work?

The Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab has developed some games like the Bad News Game to build psychological resistance to misinformation.

That viruses and inoculation can be metaphors for patterns of psychological influence is worrisome. It suggests a lack of agency or reflection among people. How are memes not like viruses?

The Lab has been collaborating with Google’s Jigsaw on Inoculation Science which has developed the games and videos to explain misinformation.

Apple will scan iPhones for child pornography

Apple unveiled new software Thursday that scans photos and messages on iPhones for child pornography and explicit messages sent to minors in a major new effort to prevent sexual predators from using Apple’s services.

The Washington Post and other news venues are reporting that Apple will scan iPhones for child pornography. As the subtitle to the article puts it “Apple is prying into iPhones to find sexual predators, but privacy activists worry governments could weaponize the feature.” Child porn is the go-to case when organizations want to defend surveillance.

The software will scan without our knowledge or consent which raises privacy issues. What are the chances of false positives? What if the tool is adapted to catch other types of images? Edward Snowden and the EFF have criticized this move. It seems inconsistent with Apple’s firm position on privacy and refusal to even unlock

It strikes me that there is a great case study here.

The ethics of regulating AI: When too much may be bad

By trying to put prior restraints on the release of algorithms, we will make the same mistake Milton’s censors were making in trying to restrict books before their publication. We will stifle the myriad possibilities inherent in an evolving new technology and the unintended effects that it will foster among new communities who can extend its reach into novel and previously unimaginable avenues. In many ways it will defeat our very goals for new technology, which is its ability to evolve, change and transform the world for the better.

3 Quarks Daily has another nice essay on ethics and AI by Ashutosh Jogalekar. This one is about The ethics of regulating AI: When too much may be bad. The argument is that we need to careful about regulating algorithms preemptively. As quote above makes clear he makes three related points:

  • We need to be careful censoring algorithms before they are tried.
  • One reason is that it is very difficult to predict negative or positive outcomes of new technologies. Innovative technologies almost always have unanticipated effects and censoring them would limit our ability to learn about the effects and benefit from them.
  • Instead we should manage the effects as they emerge.

I can imagine some responses to this argument:

  • Unanticipated effects are exactly what we should be worried about. The reason for censoring preemptively is precisely to control for unanticipated effects. Why not encourage better anticipation of effects.
  • Unanticipated effects, especially network effects, often only manifest themselves when the technology is used at scale. By then it can be difficult to roll back the technology. Precisely when there is a problem is when we can’t easily change the way the technology is used.
  • One person’s unanticipated effect is another’s business or another’s freedom. There is rarely consensus about the effect of effects.

I also note how Jogalekar talks about the technology as if it had agency. He talks about the technologies ability to evolve. Strictly speaking the technology doesn’t evolve, but our uses do. When it comes to innovation we have to be careful not to ascribe agency to technology as if it was some impersonal force we can resist.

Embracing econferences: a step toward limiting the negative effects of conference culture | University Affairs

How the traditional conference format has been reimagined in the wake of COVID-19 lockdowns.

University Affairs recently published a short article we wrote on Embracing econferences: a step toward limiting the negative effects of conference culture. The article came out of our work on a collection titled Right Research: Modelling Sustainable Research Practices in the Anthropocene

The article talks about the carbon cost of flying and the advantages of econferencing, that we have all learned about in this pandemic. It asks about after the pandemic.

As we move into the post-pandemic future, we find ourselves at a crossroads. Once travel restrictions are lifted, will we return to face-to-face conferences and double-down on travel requirements? Or will we continue to explore more sustainable, virtual alternatives, like econferences?

 

Right Research: Modelling Sustainable Research Practices in the Anthropocene – Open Book Publishers

This timely volume responds to an increased demand for environmentally sustainable research, and is outstanding not only in its interdisciplinarity, but its embrace of non-traditional formats, spanning academic articles, creative acts, personal reflections and dialogues.

Open Book Publishers has just published the book I helped edit, Right Research: Modelling Sustainable Research Practices in the Anthropocene. The book gathers essays that came out of the last Around the World Conference that the Kule Institute for Advanced Research ran on Sustainable Research.

The Around the  World econferences we ran were experiments in trying to find a more sustainable way to meet and exchange ideas that involved less flying. It is good to see this book out in print.

Psychology, Misinformation, and the Public Square

Computational propaganda is ubiquitous, researchers say. But the field of psychology aims to help.

Undark has a fascinating article by Teresa Carr about using games to inoculate people against trolling and mininformation, Psychology, Misinformation, and the Public Square (May 3, 2021). The game is Breaking Harmony Square and the idea is to troll a community.

What’s the game like? The game feels like a branching, choose-your-own-adventure under the hood where a manager walks you through what might do or not and then complements you when you are a good troll. There is a ticker so you can see the news about Harmony Square. It feels a bit pedantic when the managerial/editorial voice says things like “Kudos for paying attention to buzzwords. You ignored the stuff that isn’t emotionally manipulative.” Still, the point is to understand what can be done to manipulate a community so that you are inoculated against it.

An important point made by the article is that games, education and other interventions are not enough. Drvier’s education is only part of safe roads. Laws and infrastructure are also important.

I can’t help feeling that we are repeating a pattern of panic and then literacy proposals in the face of new media politics. McLuhan drew our attention to manipulation by media and advertising and I remember well intentioned classes on reading advertising like this more current one. Did they work? Will misinformation literacy work now? Or, is the situation more complex with people like Trump willing to perform convenient untruths?

Whatever the effectiveness of games or literacy training, it is interesting how “truth” has made a comeback. At the very moment when we seem to be witnessing the social and political construction of knowledge, we are hearing calls for truth.

AI Dungeon and the Ethics of Text Generation

> You talk to yourself.

Hi I’m Rameau. You probably don’t know me, but since you’re reading this I’m going to assume you do indeed exist.

> You [ask why] i’m wondering what consciousness is.

I have no idea. But it’s fun to think about.Is this a person? No, because it’s conscious. Is it alive? No, because it doesn’t respond to external stimuli.

> You [ask] why does a person have to respond to external stimuli.

Because then we can interact with it!!!!!But isn’t consciousness an internal phenomenon? Then how would the person interact with anything else? Oh wait, that’s right. We’re not limited by our perception of reality.

I’ve been trying Latitude’s text generation game AI Dungeon. The game is built on Open AI’s GPT-3. You can see a bit of conversation I had with it in a cyberpunk world.

Latitude has gotten into trouble with Open AI because it seems that the game was generating erotic content featuring children. A number of people turned to AI Dungeon precisely because it could be used to explore adult themes, and that would seem to be a good thing, but then some may have gone too far. See the Wired story It Began as an AI-Fueled Dungeon Game. It Got Much Darker. This raises interesting ethical issues about:

  • Why do so many players use it to generate erotic content?
  • Who is responsible for the erotic content? Open AI, Latitude, or the players?
  • Whether there are ethical reasons to generate erotic content featuring children? Do we forbid people from writing novels like Lolita?
  • How to prevent inappropriate content without crippling the AI? Are filters enough?

The problem of AIs generating toxic language is nicely shown by this web page on Evaluating Neural Toxic Degeneration in Language Models. The interactives and graphs on the page let you see how toxic language can be generated by many of the popular language generation AIs. The problem seems to be the data sets used to train the machines like those that include scrapes of Reddit.

This exploratory tool illustrates research reported on in a paper titled RealToxicityPrompts: Evaluating Neural Toxic Degeneration in Language Models. You can see a neat visualization of the connected papers here.

What Sky Bet, The Gambling App, Knows About You

Sky Bet, the most popular one in Britain, compiled extensive records about a user, tracking him in ways he never imagined.

The New York Times has a good story about What Sky Bet, The Gambling App, Knows About You. It talks about the profile that Sky Bet in the UK built on a customer who had an addiction problem with gambling.

The company, or one of the data providers it had hired to collect information about users, had access to banking records, mortgage details, location coordinates, and an intimate portrait of his habits wagering on slots and soccer matches.

We tend to focus on what the big guys have and forget all the lesser known information aggregators and middlemen who buy and sell data. This story also provides an example of how valuable data can be to a business like online gambling that wants to attract the clients who are likely to get addicted to gambling.