Futuronymity: Keeping Our Privacy from Our Grandchildren

History is a story that will never be told fully. So much of the information is lost to the past. So much – almost all – the information is gone, or has never been recorded. We can barely make sense of the present, in which information about the events and the people behind them keeps being released every day. What chance do we have, then, at fully deciphering the complex stories underlying history – the betrayals, the upheavals, the personal stories of the individuals who shaped events?

The answer has to be that we have no way of reaching any certainty about the stories we tell ourselves about our past.

But we do make some efforts.

Medical doctors and historians are trying to make sense of biographies and ancient skeletons, in order to retro-diagnose ancient kings and queens. Occasionally they identify diseases and disorders that were unknown and misunderstood at the time those individuals actually lived. Mummies of ancient pharaohs are x-rayed, and we suddenly have a better understanding of a story that unfolded more than two thousand years ago and realize that the pharaoh Ramesses II suffered from a degenerative spinal condition.

Similarly, geneticists and microbiologists use DNA evidence to end mysteries and find conclusive endings to some historical stories. DNA evidence from bones has allowed us to put to rest the rumors, for example, that the two children of Czar Nicholas II survived the 1918 revolution in Russia.

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The Russian czar Nicholas II with his family. DNA evidence now shows conclusively that Anastasia, the youngest daughter, did not survive the mass execution of the family in 1918. Source: Wikipedia

The above examples have something in common: they all require hard work by human experts. The experts need to pore over ancient histories, analyze the data and the evidence, and at the same time have good understanding of the science and medicine of the present.

What happens, though, when we let a computer perform similar analyses in an automatic fashion? How many stories about the past could we resolve then?

We are rapidly making progress towards such achievements. Recently, three authors from Waseda University in Japan have published a new paper showing they can use a computer to colorize old black & white photos. They rely on convolutional neural networks, which are in effect a simulation of certain structures of a biological brain. Convolutional neural networks have a strong capacity for learning, and can thus be trained to perform certain cognitive tasks – like adding color to old photos. While computerized coloring has been developed and used before, the authors’ methodology seems to achieve better results than others before them, with 92.6 percent of the colored images looking natural to users.

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Colorized black & white pictures from the past. AI engine was used to add color – essentially new information – to these hints from our past. Source: paper by Iizuka, Simo-Serra and Ishikawa

This is essentially an expert system, an AI engine operating in a way similar to that of the human brain. It studies thousands of thousands of pictures, and then applies its insights to new pictures. Moreover, the system can now go autonomously over every picture ever taken, and add a new layer of information to it.

There are boundaries to the method, of course. Even the best AI engine can miss its mark in cases where the existing information is not sufficient to produce a reliable insight. In the examples below you can see that the AI colored the tent orange rather than blue, since it had no way of knowing what color it was originally.

But will that stay the case forever?

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Colorized black & white picture that was colored incorrectly since no information existed about the tent from other sources. Source: paper by Iizuka, Simo-Serra and Ishikawa

As I previously discussed in the Failures of Foresight series of posts on this blog, the Failure of Segregation is making it difficult for us to forecast the future because we’re trying to look at each trend and each piece of evidence on its own. Let’s try to work past that failure, and instead consider what happens when an AI expert coloring system is combined with an AI system that recognizes items like tents and associates them with certain brands, and can even analyze how many tents of each color of that brand were sold on every year – or at least what was the most favorite tent color for people at that time.

When you combine all of those AI engines together, you get a machine that can tell you a highly nuanced story about the past. Much of it is guesswork, obviously, but those are quite educated guesses.

 

The Artificial Exploration of the Past

In the near future, we’ll use many different kinds of AI expert systems to explore the stories of the past. Some artificial historians will discover cycles in history – princes assassinating their kingly fathers, for example – that have a higher probability to occur, and will analyze ancient stories accordingly. Other artificial historians will compare genealogies, while yet others will analyze ancient scriptures and identify different patterns of writing. In fact, such an algorithm had already been applied to the Bible, revealing that the Torah has been written by several different authors and distinguishing between them.

The artificial exploration of the past is going to add many fascinating details to stories which we’ve long thought were settled and concluded. But it also raises an important question: when our children and children’s children look back at our present and try to derive meaning from it – what will they find out? How complete will their stories of their past and our present be?

I suspect the stories – the actual knowledge and understanding of the order between events – will be even more complete than what we who dwell in the present know about.

 

Past-Future

In the not-so-far-away future, machines will be used to analyze all of the world’s data from the early 21st century. This is a massive amount of data: 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created daily, which would fill ten million blu-ray discs altogether. It is astounding to realize that 90 percent of the world’s data today has been created just in the last two years. Human researchers would not be able to make much sense of it, but advanced AI algorithms – a super-intelligence, in some ways – could actually have the tools to crosslink many different pieces of information together to obtain the story of the present: to find out what movies families had watched on a specific day, in which hotel the President of the United States stayed during a recent visit to France and what snacks he ordered on room service, and many other paraphernalia.

Are those details useless? They may seem so to our limited human comprehension, but they will form the basis for the AI engines to better understand the past, and produce better stories of it. When the people of the future will try to understand how World War 3 broke out, their AI historians may actually conclude that it all began with a presidential case of indigestion which happened at a certain French hotel, and which annoyed the American president so much that it had prevented him from making the most rational choices in the next couple of days. An hypothetical scenario, obviously.

 

Futuronymity – Maintaining Our Privacy from the Future

We are gaining improved tools to explore the past with, and to derive insights and new knowledge even where information is missing. These tools will be improved further in the future, and will be used to analyze our current times – the early 21st century – as well.

What does it mean for you and me?

Most importantly, we should realize that almost every action you take in the virtual world will be scrutinized by your children’s children, probably after your death. Your actions in the virtual world are recorded all the time, and if the documentation survives into the future, then the next generations are going to know all about your browsing habits in the middle of the night. Yes, even though you turned incognito mode on.

This means we need to develop a new concept for privacy: futuronymity (derived from Future and Anonymity) which will obscure our lives from the eyes of future generations. Politicians are always concerned about this kind of privacy, since they know their critical decisions will be considered and analyzed by historians. In the future, common people will find themselves under similar scrutiny by their progenies. If our current hobby is going to psychologists to understand just how our parents ruined us, then the hobby of our grandchildren will be to go to the computer to find out the same.

Do we even have the right to futuronymity? Should we hide from next generations the truth about how their future was formed, and who was responsible?

That question is no longer in the hands of individuals. In the past, private people could’ve just incinerated their hard drives with all the information on them. Today, most of the information is in the hands of corporations and governments. If we want them to dispose of it – if we want any say in which parts they’ll preserve and which will be deleted – we should speak up now.

 

 

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The Activated World: from Solar Power to Food

 

Solar panels are undergoing rapid evolution in the last ten years. I’ve written about this in previous posts in the blog (see for example the forecast that we’ll have flying cars by 2035, which is largely dependent on the sun providing us with an abundance of electricity). The graph below is pretty much saying it all: the cost for producing just one watt of solar energy has gone down to somewhere between 1 percent and 0.5 percent of what it used to be just forty years ago.

At the same time that prices go down, we see more installations of solar panels worldwide, roughly doubling every 2-3 years. Worldwide solar capacity in 2014 has been 53 times higher than in 2005, and global solar photovoltaic installations grew 34% in 2015 according to GTM Research.

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Source: GTM Research

It should come as no surprise that regulators are beginning to take note of the solar trend. Indeed, two small California cities – Lancastar and Sebastopol – passed laws in 2013 requiring new houses to include solar panels on their roofs. And now, finally, San Francisco joins the fray as the first large city in the world to require solar panels on every new building.

San Francisco has a lofty goal: meeting all of its energy demands by 2025, using renewable sources only. The new law seems to be one more step towards that achievement. But more than that, the law is part of a larger principle, which encompasses the Internet of Things as well: the Activation of Everything.

 

The Activation of Everything

To understand the concept of the Activation of Everything, we need to consider another promising legislation that will be introduced soon in San Francisco by Supervisor Scott Wiener. Supervisor Wiener is allowing solar roofs to be replaced with living roofs – roofs that are covered with soil and vegetation. According to a 2005 study, living roofs reduce cooling loads by 50-90 percent, and reduce stormwater waste and runoff to the sewage. They retain much of the rainwater, which later goes back to the atmosphere through evaporation. They enhance biodiversity, sequester carbon and even capture pollution. Of course, not every plant can be grown efficiently on such roofs – particularly not in dry California – but there’s little doubt that optimized living roofs can contribute to the city’s environment.

Supervisor Wiener explains the reasons behind the solar power legislation in the following words –

“This legislation will activate our roofs, which are an under-utilized urban resource, to make our City more sustainable and our air cleaner. In a dense, urban environment, we need to be smart and efficient about how we maximize the use of our space to achieve goals like promoting renewable energy and improving our environment.”

Pay attention to the “activate our roofs” part. Supervisor Wiener is absolutely right in that the roofs are an under-utilized urban resource. Whether you want to use those roofs to harvest solar power or to grow plants and improve the environment, the idea is clear. We need to activate – in any means possible – our resources, so that we maximize their use.

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A living roof in lower Manhattan. Source: Alyson Hurt, Flickr

That is what the Activation of Everything principle means: activate everything, whether by allowing surfaces and items to harvest power or resources, or to have sensing and communication capabilities. In a way, activation can also mean convergence: take two functions or services that were performed separately in the past, and allow them to be performed together. In that way, a roof is no longer just a means to provide shade and protection from the weather, but can also harvest energy and improve the environment.

The Internet of Things is a spectacular example for implementing the Activation of Everything principle. In the Internet of Things world, everything will be connected: every roof, every wall, every bridge and shirt and shoe. Every item will be activated to have added purposes. Our shirts will communicate our respiration rate to our physicians. Bricks in walls will report on their structural integrity to engineers. Bridges will let us know that they’re close to maximum capacity, and so on.

The Internet of Things largely relies on sophisticated electronic technologies, but the Activation of Everything principle is more general than that. The Activation of Everything can also mean creating solar or living roofs, or even creating walls that include limestone-secreting bacteria that can fix cracks as soon as they form.

Where else can we implement the Activation of Everything principle in the future?

 

The Activation of Cars

There have been many ideas to create roads that can harvest energy from cars’ movements. Unfortunately, the Laws of Thermodynamics reveal that such roads will in fact ‘steal’ that energy from passing cars, by making it more difficult for them to travel along the road. Not a good idea. The activation of roofs works well specifically because it has a good ROI (Return on Investment), with a relatively low energetic investment and large returns. Not so with energy-stealing roads.

But there’s another unutilized resource in cars – the roof. We can use the Activation principle to derive insights about the future of car roofs: hybrid cars will be covered with solar panels, which will be used to harvest energy when they’re sitting in the parking lot, and store it for the ride home.

Don’t get the math wrong: cars with solar roofs won’t be able to drive endlessly. In fact, if they rely only on solar power, they’ll barely even crawl. However, they will be able to power the electrical devices in the car, and trucks may even use solar energy on long journeys, to cool the wares they carry. If the cost of solar panel installation continues to go down, these uses could be viable within the decade.

 

The Activation of Farmlands

Farmlands are being activated today in many different ways: from sensors all over the field, and sometimes in every tree trunk, to farmers supplementing their livelihood by deploying solar panels and ‘farming electricity’. Some are combining both solar panels and crop and animal farming by spreading solar panels at a few meters height above the field, and growing plants that can make the most of the limited sunlight that gets to them.

 

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Anna Freund run the Open View Farm. Source: VPR

The Activation of the Air

Even the air around us can be activated. Aerial drones may be considered an initial attempt to activate the sky by filling them with flying sensors, but they are large, cumbersome and interfere with aerial traffic and with the view. However, we’ll be able to activate air in various other ways in the future, such as smart dust – extremely small sensors with limited wireless connectivity that will transmit data about their whereabouts and the conditions there.

 

The Activation of Food

Food is one of the only things that have barely been activated so far. Food today serves only two goals: to please by tasting great, and to nourish the body. According to the principle of Activation, however, food will soon serve several other purposes. Food items could be used to deliver therapeutics or sensors into the body, or possibly be produced with built-in biocompatible electronics and LEDs to make the food look better on the plate.

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Activated food: a banana with an edible food sensor, developed by researchers at Tufts University. Source: factcoexist.com

Conclusions

As human beings, we’ve always searched for ways to optimize efficiency and to make the best use of the limited resources we have. One of those limited resources is space, which is why we try to activate – add functions – to every surface and item today.

It’s fascinating to consider how the Activation of Everything will shape our world in the next few decades. We will have sensors everywhere, solar panels everywhere, batteries and electronics everywhere. It will be a world where nothing is as it seems at first glance anymore. An activated world – a living world indeed.

 

Rejecting Nature – and Breastfeeding

Far away into the future, when people look back at the 20th century, they’ll say that it was the century when mankind has truly begun rejecting Nature.

What is “Nature”? That term, which some of us regard so highly today, is simply the current products of an ongoing evolutionary process – just the same as us. Human beings are a similar product of an evolutionary process which has left us with physical, hormonal and mental characteristics that have served us well in the prehistorical past, but are far from beneficial in our present society.

The most impressive way in which we’ve rejected Nature in the 20th century is probably with the invention and proliferation of use of birth control measures.

The 20th century has seen women reject Nature with the establishment of the first permanent birth-control clinic in 1921, where women were taught how to use a cervical cap, in a time when distribution of birth control information was illegal by law in the United States. In 1957, the FDA approved the first contraceptive pill to be taken orally, but only “for severe menstrual disorders,” which has led to an unusually large number of women suddenly reporting severe menstrual disorders. Those women were desperate to escape the decrees of Nature which have been enforced on their bodies without their willingness or consent. Just how much do they want that? According to a series of 2012 surveys in developing countries, the number of women who want to avoid pregnancy has reached 867 million out of 1520 million, or 57%. Many of those women want to promote their careers or expand their education before having a child. In short, they want to fulfill their potential as human beings instead of plodding blindly along the path evolution has set for them. They want to choose for themselves.

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The first birth control clinic in the United States. Source: Everett Collection, as posted in Time

Society, of course, has been trying to hold them back in the meantime. While it is no longer illegal to use contraceptives, the clergy is still speaking harshly against such practices. Even the currently reigning Pope Francis has not authorized the use of contraceptives, and Pope Pius XII explained in 1951 that the teaching against contraceptives –

“is in full force today, as it was in the past, and so will be in the future also, and always, because it is not a simple human whim, but the expression of a natural and divine law

 

Natural Breastfeeding?

Society keeps on holding people to the standards of that ‘natural and divine law’, even if those human beings aren’t catholic. Breastfeeding, for example, has been promoted in recent decades as contributing to the baby’s health, wellbeing and development. Now new evidence begins to appear that contradicts some of these claims. Specifically, it seems studies from the last 25 years that have compared between breastfed babies and non-breastfed ones, have not ruled out some important economic, social and cultural confounding factors. When those factors are taken into account, it turns out that breastfeeding is marginally better, at best, for babies.

Does that mean women shouldn’t breastfeed? Of course not. There are plenty of studies out there showing that breastfeeding has benefits for mothers as well as for babies. But we shouldn’t forget that it has its share of issues as well: for many it’s a painful, stressful and time-consuming exercise, making it difficult for women to continue advancing their careers, education and yes, their sex lives too. This is a noble sacrifice many mothers make – but what if it’s not needed after all? What if our technology has already improved formulas enough to replace breastfeeding with no damage to babies?

I fear that even in that case, many people will remain convinced that “breast is best”. Why? They will say that it’s natural, that it’s just the way Nature designed us. And they won’t consider that just a hundred years ago, it was deemed unnatural and illegal for women to use contraceptives, and that two hundred years ago life-saving vaccines were considered unnatural too.

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“Breast is Best” ad by PETA

This all means that we need to be more suspicious towards arguments that advocate for the ‘natural means’. The scientific evidence for ‘breast is best’ for babies seems to have been shaky right from the outset, and I suspect that had it not resonated so well with our natural fallacy and bias, the scientific and medical establishment would not have accepted them as easily.

 

Conclusions

There is a widespread perception that Nature is an infallible and benevolent mistress. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Nature is that semi-random evolutionary process which has shaped us in ways that would’ve been beneficial (occasionally) ten-thousand years ago, but which now come into conflict with our modern values and ways of life. Every aspect of our biology and psych that is considered ‘natural’ should (and will) be scrutinized carefully in the 21st century, and if it does not fit our modern values – it should be reconsidered.

Does that mean we should tell women not to give birth to children, or to avoid breastfeeding them? Of course not. We should, however, give them the choice over their bodies.

Even though, you know, that sort of thinking would’ve been considered unnatural a hundred years ago.

 

The New Age of Conspiracies

Last week, the most famous monster in the world has finally been discovered: Nessie, the Loch Ness monster, has been found. It is nine meters long, with a long and truly monstrous neck. The abomination currently resides some 200 meters below the surface of the water, where it is waiting for no one in particular. Because, you see, it’s a film prop.

The prop was built for a Sherlock Holmes movie back in 1969, and unfortunately sunk below the surface and never came back up. It has now been discovered by an underwater drone equipped with sonar imaging, operated by Norwegian company Kongsberg Maritime.

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Nessie, underwater. Source: Kongsberg Maritime

This is an amusing story, of course, but it holds tantalizing hints to the future of conspiracies in a world that is rapidly becoming transparent. In a not-so-distant future, we are going to have drones and satellites mapping out every piece of land on Earth, whether it be at the North Pole, in the deepest Amazonian jungles, or on the bottom of the ocean. We are going to be better acquainted with the Earth than ever before.

Robotic drones will not be the only ones to watch over the Earth. We will take part in that venture, too.

In the past, if you would’ve observed a UFO in the sky, or an Abominable Snowman with big feet, or a vampire draining its victim’s blood, you would’ve needed to run away swiftly to get your bulky camera and obtain a proof for the thing you saw. Today, everyone has a smartphone with a high-quality camera in their pockets. Citizens document police brutality, gang wars, and random acts of kindness using these devices. And yet, despite the fact that suddenly everyone can record anything they see, no reliable evidence for the existence of UFOs, yetis or (living) Loch Ness monsters has come up.

The lack of evidence, in an age when everything becomes known, does not seem to bother the general public. A 2012 survey revealed that 36 percent of the American population believe that UFOs are real, which is approximately the same number as uncovered in a Canadian 2008 survey. This is hardly surprising: we’ve only had smartphones for nine years now, and society has not yet reshaped its myths around the idea that anything that happens in the corporeal world is bound to be recorded and analyzed.

In the long term, however, cryptozoology – the search for mythical creatures – will become obsolete and subject to ridicule, even more than it is today.

But conspiracy theories will live on. In fact, they may even become more powerful than they currently are.

 

The Future of Conspiracies

Conspiracy theories have no formal definition accepted by all, but for the purpose of this post we can accept Sunstein and Vermeule’s definition that they are –

“…an effort to explain some event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people, who have also managed to conceal their role.”

Conspiracies are often used by human beings to explain why bad things happen. We are, after all, rational animals, and we look for reasons for everything that happens around us. We search for patterns and for stories that fit those patterns. For example, we have a tendency towards proportionality bias – our automatic belief that big events, like the JFK assassination, must be related to big causes and can’t be the result of a work of a single madman.

Conspiracy theorists also rely on cherry picking – taking a large volume of information and picking out of it the pieces which support a certain pattern while ignoring the rest.

In the future, we will have an abundance of data. However, data does not lead automatically to insights, knowledge and understanding. These rely on careful analysis of the data, usually performed by experts who understand how to suggest and falsify hypotheses and how to differentiate between authentic readings and noise. The plethora in data, therefore, will lead to plenty of ‘evidence’ which conspiracy theorists will use to support their ideas.

 

Why Should You Be Concerned?

Why should this development concern you? Because conspiracy theories can proliferate rapidly in the online world and on social networks. If you’re a business or a government agency that releases data to the public, you should be aware that some conspiracy theorists will mine that data someday. When they do – they will find some correlations there that they could use to support their ideas. And when they find those and post them online, you can expect twitstorm, a Facebook massively shared post, or a viral Youtube clip – all of which will severely damage the reputation of your organization.

To counter that threat, businesses and government agencies should start developing a new role: an anti-conspiracy officer. It is not enough to rely on the new-media experts to calm a twitstorm – they know how to use the medium, but they don’t have the necessary understanding of the content. Anti-conspiracy officers will need to work together with the new-media experts to counter new conspiracy theories by providing correct analyses of the existing data, and presenting them in a way that everyone can understand.

Today, we have public intellectuals – calling themselves Skeptics – as such anti-conspiracy officers acting on behalf of the public. These include Steven Novella, Neil deGrasse Tyson, PZ Myers, and many others. As far as I’m aware, they do not receive compensation for companies or from governments for their time and effort handling conspiracy theories on social networks in real-time.

Maybe it’s time to start funding these skeptical exercises in a more organized way.

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The Skeptic Trumps. Source: The Reason Stick

Conclusions

We gain better and more powerful tools to record and document everything that’s going on in the world, but most of humanity still does not have the necessary thinking tools and methods to derive valuable and truthful insights out of the collected data. Conspiracies will likely thrive in this environment, but we can hinder their proliferation and growth on the internet by educating the public.

Don’t Tell Me Not To Make Love with My Robot

Pepper is one of the most sophisticated household robots in existence today. It has a body shape that reminds one of a prepubescent child, only reaching a height of 120 centimeters, and with a tablet on its chest. It constantly analyzes its owner’s emotions according to their speech, facial expressions and gestures, and responds accordingly. It also learns – for example, by analyzing which modes of behavior it can enact in order to make its owner feel better. It can even use its hands to hug people.

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Pepper the Robot. Source: The Monitor Daily.

No wonder that when the first 1,000 Pepper units were offered for sale in Japan for $1,600, they were all sold in one minute. Pepper is now the most famous household robot in the world.

Pepper is probably also the only robot you’re not allowed to have sex with.

According to the contract, written in Japanese legal speak and translated to English, users are not allowed to perform –

“(4) Acts for the purpose of sexual or indecent behavior, or for the purpose of associating with unacquainted persons of the opposite sex.”

What does this development mean? Here is the summary, in just three short points.

 

First Point: Is Pepper Being Used for Surveillance?

First, one has to wonder just how SoftBank, the robot’s distributors in Japan, is going to keep tabs on whether the robot has been sexually used or not. Since Pepper’s price includes a $200 monthly “data and insurance fee”, it’s a safe bet that every Pepper unit is transmitting some of its data back to SoftBank’s servers. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: as I’ve written in Four Robot Myths it’s Time We Let Go of, robots can no longer be seen as individual units. Instead, they are a form of a hive brain, relying on each other’s experience and insights to guide their behavior. In order to do that, they must be connected to the cloud.

This is obviously a form of surveillance. Pepper is sophisticated enough to analyze its owner’s emotions and responses, and can thus deliver a plethora of information to SoftBank, advertisers and even government authorities. The owners could probably activate a privacy mode (if there’s not a privacy mode now, it will almost certainly be added in the near future by common demand), but the rest of the time their behavior will be under close scrutiny. Not necessarily because SoftBank is actually interested in what you’re doing in your houses, but simply because it wants to improve the robots.

And, well, also because it may not want you to have sex with them.

This is where things get bizarre. It is almost certainly the case that if SoftBank wished to, it could set up a sex alarm to blare up autonomously if Pepper is repeatedly exposed to sexual acts. There doesn’t even have to be a human in the loop – just train the AI engine behind Pepper on a large enough number of porn and erotic movies, and pretty soon the robot will be able to tell by itself just what the owner is dangling in front of its cameras.

The rest of the tale is obvious: the robot will complain to SoftBank via the cloud, but will do so without sharing any pictures or videos it’s taken. In other words, it won’t share information but only its insights and understandings of what’s been going on in that house. SoftBank might issue a soft warning to the owner, asking it to act more coyly around Pepper. If such chastity alerts keep coming up, though, SoftBank might have to retrieve Pepper from that house. And almost certainly, it will not allow other Pepper units to learn from the one that has been exposed to sexual acts.

And here’s the rub: if SoftBank wants to keep on developing its robots, they must learn from each other, and thus they must be connected to the cloud. But as long as SoftBank doesn’t want them to learn how to engage in sexual acts, it will have to set some kind of a filter – meaning that the robots will have to learn to recognize sexual acts, and refuse to talk about them with other robots. And silence, in the case of an always-operational robot, is as good as any testimony.

So yes, SoftBank will know when you’re having sex with Pepper.

I’ve written extensively in the past about the meaning of private property being changed, as everything are being connected to the cloud. Tesla are selling you a car, but they still control some parts of it. Google are selling you devices for controlling your smart house – which they then can (and do) shut down from a distance. And yes, SoftBank is selling you a robot which becomes your private property – as long as you don’t do anything with it that SoftBank doesn’t like you to.

And that was only the first point.

 

Second Point: Is Sex the Answer, or the Question?

There’s been some public outrage recently about sex with robots, with an actual campaign against using robots as sex objects. I sent the leaders of the campaign, Kathleen Richardson and Erik Brilling, several questions to understand the nature of their issues with the robots. They have not answered my questions, but according to their campaign website it seems that they equate ‘robot prostitution’ with human prostitution.

“But robots don’t feel anything.” You might say now. “They don’t have feelings, or dignity of their own. Do they?”

Let’s set things straight: sexual abuse is among the most horrible things any human can do to another. The abuser is causing both temporary and permanent injury to the victim’s body and mind. That’s why we call it an abuse. But if there are no laws to protect a robot’s body, and no mind to speak of, why should we care whether someone uses a robot in a sexual way?

Richardson’s and Brilling basically claim that it doesn’t matter whether the robots are actually experiencing the joys of coitus or suffering the ignominy of prostitution. The mere fact that people will use robots in the shape of children or women for sexual release will serve to perpetuate our current society model in which women and children are being sexually abused.

Let’s approach the issue from another point of view, though. Could sex with robots actually prevent some cases of sexual abuse?

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… Or lovers? Source: Redsilverj

Assuming that robots can provide a high-quality sexual experience to human beings, it seems reasonable that some pent-up sexual tensions can be relieved using sex robots. There are arguments that porn might actually deter sexual violence, and while the debate is nowhere near to conclusion on that point, it’s interesting to ask: if robots can actually relieve human sexual tensions, and thus deter sexual violence against other human beings – should we allow that to happen, even though it objectifies robots, any by association, women and children as well?

I would wait for more data to come in on this subject before I actually advocate for sex with robots, but in the meantime we should probably refrain from making judgement on people who have sex with robots. Who knows? It might actually serve a useful purpose even in the near future. Which brings me to the third point –

 

Third Point: Don’t You Tell Me Not to have Sex with MY Robot

And really, that’s all there is to it.

 

When Reality Changes More Quickly than Science Fiction

Brandon Sanderson is one of my favorite fantasy and science fiction authors. He is producing new books in an incredible pace, and his writing quality does not seem to suffer for it. The first book in his recent sci-fi trilogy, Steelheart from The Reckoners series, was published in September 2013. Calamity, the third and last book in the same series was published in February 2016. So just three years passed between the first and the last book in the series.

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The Reckoners trilogy. Source: Brittany Zelkovich

The books themselves describe a post-apocalyptic future, around ten years away from us. In the first book, the hero lives in the most technologically advanced cities in the world, with electricity, smartphones, and sophisticated technology at his disposal. Sanderson describes sophisticated weapons used by the police forces in the city, including laser weapons and even mechanized war suits. By the third book, our hero reaches another technologically-advanced outpost of humanity, and suddenly is surrounded by weaponized aerial drones.

You may say that the first city chose not to use aerial drones, but that explanation is a bit sketchy, as anyone who has read the books can testify. Instead, it seems to me that in the three years that passed since the original book was published, aerial drones finally made a large enough impact on the general mindset, that Sanderson could no longer ignore them in his vision of a future. He realized that his readers would look askance at any vision of the future that does not include mention of aerial drones of some kind. In effect, the drones have become part of the way we think about the future. We find it difficult to imagine a future without them.

Usually, our visions of the future change relatively slowly and gradually. In the case of the drones, it seems that within three years they’ve moved from an obscure technological item to a common myth the public shares about the future.

Science fiction, then, can show us what people in the present expect the future to look like. And therein lies its downfall.

 

Where Science Fiction Fails

Science fiction can be used to help us explore alternative futures, and it does so admirably well. However, best-selling books must reach a wide audience, and to resonate with many on several different levels. In order to do that, the most popular science fiction authors cannot stray too far from our current notions. They cannot let go of our natural intuitions and core feelings: love, hate, the appreciation we have for individuality, and many others. They can explore themes in which the anti-hero, or The Enemy, defy these commonalities that we share in the present. However, if the author wants to write a really popular book, he or she will take care not to forego completely the reality we know.

Of course, many science fiction book are meant for ‘in-house’ audience: for the hard-core sci-fi audience who is eager to think beyond the box of the present. Alastair Reynolds in his Revelation Space series, for example, succeeds in writing sci-fi literature for this audience exactly. He’s writing stories that in many aspects transcend notions of individuality, love and humanity. And he’s paying the price for this transgression as his books (to the best of my knowledge) have yet to appear on the New York Times Best Seller list. Why? As one disgruntled reviewer writes about Reynolds’ book Chasm City

“I prefer reading a story where I root for the protagonist. After about a third of the way in, I was pretty disturbed by the behavior of pretty much everyone.”

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Highly popular sci-fi literature is thus forced to never let go completely of present paradigms, which sadly limits its use as a tool to developing and analyzing far-away futures. On the other hand, it’s conceivable that an annual analysis of the most popular sci-fi books could provide us with an understanding of the public state-of-mind regarding the future.

Of course, there are much easier ways to determine how much hype certain technologies receive in the public sphere. It’s likely that by running data mining algorithms on the content of technological blogs and websites, we would reach better conclusions. Such algorithms can also be run practically every hours of every day. So yeah, that’s probably a more efficient route to figuring out how the public views the future of technology.

But if you’re looking for an excuse to read science fiction novels for a purely academic reason, just remember you found it in this blog post.

 

 

Sorry, We’re Going to Shut down Your Smart House – Forever

Imagine that Microsoft announces tomorrow that it’s going to terminate the Windows brand. No more Windows, but at least no more Blue Screen of Death, too. The kill-command will be sent in one month from now, good luck with your life and we’re sorry for the inconvenience. Oh, and we can do that because the one-year warranty on the product has expired.

Does that seem legal to you? Or even more important: does it look like an ethical behavior? Do we, as a society, want companies to behave that way towards their customers?

Well, that is exactly what Google is doing right now: tapping into people’s houses and shutting down a certain piece of hardware which they acquired some time ago. The hardware in case is the Revolv smart home hub – a device used to control the house’s doors, lights, speakers and any other connected elements that exist in smart homes. The Revolv used to cost $299, with the price including the Revolv Hub, Revolv App, and a lifetime subscription. However, about 1.5 years ago Revolv was bought by Nest, which itself was bought by Google. Now, Google / Nest are terminating Revolv permanently.

I guess lifetimes just don’t last as much as they used to, nowadays.

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Revolv. Source: Gizmodo

To be clear, Google is not just terminating support for Revolv, or taking down the Revolv App. I could potentially accept that, even though it’s somewhat of a shaky ground. But Google is taking it one step further. Here’s what they write in their press release

“…we’re pouring all our energy into Works with Nest and are incredibly excited about what we’re making. Unfortunately, that means we can’t allocate resources to Revolv anymore and we have to shut down the service. As of May 15, 2016, your Revolv hub and app will no longer work.”

Notice the highlighted “your” Revolv hub. Can it really be called “your” device anymore, when Google can simply reach inside anytime and shut it down?

The press release includes a specific reference to warranty issues, claiming that

“…Our one-year warranty against defects in materials or workmanship has expired for all Revolv products.”

I’m going to hazard a guess that Google’s lawyers have looked into the contract, the terms and conditions and all the rest of the legalese talk needed for this decision to become public. In other words, there’s a good chance that the law allows this kind of behavior. It seems absurd – the general use of the term warranty says nothing about intentional sabotage of the device by the people in charge maintaining it – but maybe it’s legal. Maybe.

But it can’t possibly be ethical.

Of course, ethics are dictated by the norms of society. If Google’s behavior is tolerated, that means the norms of society themselves are changing.

In fact, that’s exactly what’s happening.

As I mentioned in a previous post in this blog, remote updates and cloud services lead us into a new kind of economy, where firms no longer sell their products but actually lease them to the customers without saying that outright. Tesla sells us a computer in the shape of a car, but can then update and make alterations to the software controlling the vehicle. Microsoft sells you a Windows operating system, and can badger you for eternity when the time comes for you to update into a new model. And yes, one company can sell you a piece of hardware, and two years later send a kill-command to the device in your home.

 

Why Is This Bad for You?

Why is this kind of behavior bad for the consumer? Actually, it’s not that harmful as long as firms are under legal obligation to take care of the devices they sell, unlike what Google is doing now. However, even in that case there could be an added complication. In the new winner takes all digital economy, there are usually only one or two big winners in every field. Facebook, for example, has no competitors in the social media world in English. Likewise, eighty percent of internet users rely on Google as their primary search engine. Amazon and Alibaba are competing with each other with 304 and 350 million customers respectively, and no real competition other than each other.

What happens, then, when one of these major service providers decides to shut down the lights on one of their projects? Or if hackers gain control over one of those globe-spanning services, due to the centralized nature of the service providers? There is no real and immediate alternative for many of the winner takes all digital services. The users will find themselves stranded without the products they’ve become reliant on.

You may say that the free market will make sure that companies won’t vanquish winning services. You may be right, but just realizing that companies have the power to do that should make you think. Google can, hypothetically, shut down Gmail tomorrow, or at least by the end of the year. How do we make sure that in a decade from now, Google won’t be able to also shut down your smart house, or your smart car?

 

Conclusion

We’re heading into a new economy with new rules for big firms. At this time of change, it is inevitable that some companies – including Google – will test the new surroundings to find out just how much they can get away with. A line needs to be drawn between releasing firms from their past commitment to certain apps and services, and between negatively reprogramming user end-devices.

And since the big firms are just getting larger and more influential every year, we should probably start drawing it today,

 

Lessons from the Panama Papers

Welcome to the world without secrets.

We’ve all known for decades that politicians have used tax shelters for money laundering purposes, to avoid paying tax in their countries, and to avoid being identified with companies they were affiliated with in the past. Now the cat is out of the sack, with a new leak called The Panama Papers.

The Panama Papers contain about 11.5 million highly confidential documents that have detailed information about the dealings of more than 214,000 offshore companies. Such companies are most often used for money laundering and for obscuring connections between assets and their owners. Offshore companies are particularly useful to politicians, many of whom are required to declare their interests and investments in companies, and are usually required by law to forego any such relations in order to prevent corruption.

It doesn’t look like that law is working too well.

BBC News covered the initial revealings from the Panama Papers in the following words –

“The documents show 12 current or former heads of state and at least 60 people linked to current or former world leaders in the data. They include the Icelandic Prime Minister, Sigmundur Gunnlaugson, who had an undeclared interest linked to his wife’s wealth and is now facing calls for his resignation. The files also reveal a suspected billion-dollar money laundering ring involving close associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin.”

According to Aamna Mohdin, the Panama Papers event is the largest leak to date by a fair margin. The source, whoever that is, sent more than 2.6 terabytes of information from the Panama based company Mossack Fonseca.

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Source: Atlas.

 

What lessons can we derive from the Panama Papers event?

 

Journalism vs. Government

The leaked documents have been passed directly to one of Germany’s leading newspapers, Süddeutsche Zeitung, which shared them with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). Altogether, 109 media organizations in 76 countries have been analyzing the documents over the last year.

This state of affairs begs the question: why weren’t national and international police forces involved in the investigation? The answer seems obvious: the ICIJ had good reason to believe that suspected heads of states would nip such investigation in the bud, and also alert Mossack Fonseca and its clients to the existence of the leak. In other words, journalists in 76 countries worked in secrecy under the noses of their governments, despite the fact that those very governments were supposed to help prevent international tax crimes.

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Artificial Intelligence can Help Fight Corruption

The amount of leaked documents is massive. No other word for it. As Wikipedia details –

The leak comprises 4,804,618 emails, 3,047,306 database format files, 2,154,264 PDFs, 1,117,026 images, 320,166 text files, and 2,242 files in other formats.

All of this data had to be indexed so that human beings could go through it and make sense of it. To do that, the documents were processed using optical character recognition systems that made the data machine-readable. Once the texts were searchable, the indexing was essentially performed automatically, with cross-matching of important persons with the relevant data.

Could this investigative act have been performed without having state of the art computers and optical character recognition systems? Probably, but it would’ve required a small army of analysts and investigators, and would’ve made the challenge practically impossible for anything less than a governmental authority to look into the matter. The advance in computer sciences has opened the road for the public (in this case spearheaded by the International Journalists Consortium) to investigate the rich and the powerful.

 

Where’s the Missing Information?

So far, there has been no mention of any American politician with offshore connections to Mossack Fonseca. Does that mean the American politicians are all pure and incorruptible? That doesn’t seem very likely. An alternative hypothesis, proposed on EoinHiggins.com, is that certain geopolitical conditions have made it difficult for Americans to use Panama as a tax shelter. But don’t you worry, folks: other financial firms in several countries are working diligently to provide tax shelters for Americans too.

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These tax shelters have always drawn some of the ire of the public, but never in a major way. The public in many countries has never realized just how much of its tax money was being robbed away for the benefit of those who could afford to pay for such services. As things become clearer now and public outrage begins to erupt, it is quite possible that governmental investigators will have to focus more of their attention on other tax shelter businesses. If that happens, we’ll probably see further revelations on many, many other politicians in upcoming years.

Which leads us to the last lesson learned: we’re going into…

 

A World without Secrets

Wikileaks has demonstrated that there can no longer be secrets in any dealings between diplomats. The Panama Papers show that financial dealings are just as vulnerable. The nature of the problem is simple: when information was stored on paper, leaks were limited in size according to the amount of physical documents that could be whisked away. In the digital world, however, terabytes of information containing millions of documents can be carried in a single external hard drive hidden in one’s pocket, or uploaded online in a matter of hours. Therefore, just one disgruntled employee out of thousands can leak away all of a company’s information.

Can any information be kept secret under these conditions?

The issue becomes even more complicated when you realize that the Mossack Fonseca leaker seems to have acted without any monetary incentive. Maybe he just wanted the information to reach the public, or to take revenge on Mossack Fonseca. Either way, consider how many others will do the same for money or because they’re being blackmailed by other countries. Can you actually believe that the Chinese have no spies in the American Department of Defense, or vice versa? Do you really think that the leaks we’ve heard about are the only ones that have happened?

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Conclusions

The world is rapidly being shaken free of secrets. The Panama Papers event is just one more link in the chain that leads from a world where almost everything was kept in the dark, to a world where everything is known to everyone.

If you think this statement is an exaggeration, consider that in the last five years alone, data breaches at Sony, Anthem, and eBay resulted in the information of more than 300 million customers being exposed to the world. When most of us hear about data breaches like these ones, we’re only concerned about whether our passwords have found their way into hackers’ hands. We tend to forget that the hackers – and anyone who buys the information from them for a dime – also obtain our names, family relations, places of residence, and details about our lives in general and what makes us tick. If you still believe that any information you have online (and maybe on your computer as well) can be kept secret for long, you’re almost certainly fooling yourself.

As the Panama Papers incident shows, this forced transparency does not necessarily have to be a bad thing. It helps us see things for what they are, and understand how the rich and powerful operate. Now the choice is left to us: will we try to go back to a world where everything is hidden away, and tell ourselves beautiful stories about our honest leaders – or will we accept reality and create and enforce better laws to combat tax shelters?

 

The Citizens Who Solve the World’s Problems

It’s always nice when news items that support each other and indicate a certain future appear in the same week, especially when each of them is exciting on its own. Last week we’ve seen this happening with three different news items:

  1. A scientific finding that a single bacteria type grows 60 percent better in space than on Earth. The germs used in the experiment were collected by the public;
  2. A new Kickstarter project for the creation of a DNA laboratory for everyone;
  3. A new project proposed on a crowdfunding platform, requesting public support for developing the means for rapid detection of Zika virus without the need for a laboratory in Brazil.

Let’s go over each to see how they all come together.

 

Space Microbes

Between the years 2012 and 2014, citizens throughout the United States collected bacteria samples from their environment using cotton swabs, and mailed them to the University of California Davis. Out of the large number of samples that arrived at the lab, 48 strains of germs were isolated and selected to be sent to space, on board the International Space Station (ISS). Most of the bacterial strains behaved similarly on Earth and in space. One strain, however, surpassed all expectations and proliferated rapidly, growing 60% better in space.

Does this mean that the bacteria, going by the name of Bacillus safensis, is better adapted for life in space? I would stay wary of such assertions. We don’t know yet whether the improved growth was a result of the micro-gravity conditions in the space stations, or of some other unquantified factor. It is entirely possible that the levels of humidity, oxygen concentrations, or the quality of the medium were somehow altered or changed on the space station. The result, in short, could easily be a fluke rather than an indicator that some bacteria can grow better in micro-gravity. We’ll have to wait for further evidence before reaching a final conclusion on this issue.

The most exciting thing for me here is that the bacteria in question was collected by the public, in a demonstration of the power of citizen science. People from all over America took part in the project, and as a result of their combined effort, the scientists ended up with a large number of strains, some of which they probably would not have thought to use in the first place. This is one of the main strengths of citizen science: providing many samples of research material for the scientists to analyze and experiment on.

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Study author Darlene Cavalier swabs the crack of the Liberty Bell to collect bacterial samples. Credit: CC by 4.0

DNA Labs for Everyone

Have you always wanted to check your own DNA? To find out whether you have a certain variant of a gene, or identify the animals whose meat appears in your hamburger? Well, now you can do that easily by ordering the Bento Lab: “A DNA laboratory for everyone”.

The laptop-sized lab includes a centrifuge for the extraction of DNA from biological samples, a PCR thermocycler to target specific DNA sequences, and an illuminated gel unit to visualize the results and ascertain whether or not the sample contains the DNA sequence you were looking after. All that, for the price of less than one thousand dollars. This is ridiculously cheap, particularly when you understand that similar lab equipment easily have cost tens of thousands of dollars just twenty years ago.

The Bento Lab - Citizen Science for DNA analysis
The Bento Lab

The Kickstarter project has already gained support from 395 backers, pledging nearly $150,000 to the cause, and surpassing the goal by 250% in just ten days. That’s an amazing progress for a project that’s really only suitable for hard-core makers and bio-hackers.

Why is the Bento Lab so exciting? Because it gives power to the people. The current model is very limited, but the next versions of mobile labs will contain better equipment and provide better capabilities to the bio-hackers who purchase them. You don’t have to be a futurist to say that – already there are other projects attempting to bring CRISPR technology for highly-efficient gene editing to the masses.

This, then, is a great example for the ways citizen science is going to keep on evolving: people won’t just collect bacterial samples in the streets and send them to distinguished scientists. Instead, private people – joes shmoes like you and me – will be able to experiment on these bacteria in their homes and garages.

Should you be scared? Obviously, yeah. The power to re-engineer biology is nothing to scoff at, and we will need to think up ways to regulate public bio-engineering. However, the public could also use this kind of power to contribute to scientific projects around the world, to conduct DNA sequencing of one’s own genetics, and eventually to create biological therapeutics in one’s own house.

Which brings us to the last news item I wanted to write about in this post: citizens developing means for rapid detection of Zika virus.

 

Entrepreneurs against Viruses

The Zika virus has begun spreading rapidly in Brazil, with devastating consequences. The virus can spread from pregnant women to their fetuses, and has been linked to a serious birth defect of the brain called microcephaly in babies. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the virus likely will continue to spread to new areas.

Despite the fact that the World Health Organization declared Zika virus a public health emergency merely two months ago, citizen scientists are already working diligently to develop new ways to detect the virus. A UK-IL-BR team has sprung up, with young biotech entrepreneurs leading and doing research to create a better system for rapid detection of the virus in human beings and mosquitos. The group is now requesting the public to chip in and back the project, and has already gathered nearly $6,000.

This initiative is a result of the movement that brings the capabilities to do science to everyone. When every citizen armed with an undergraduate degree in biology can do science in his or her home, we shouldn’t be surprised when new methods for the detection of viruses crop up in distant places around the world. We’re basically decentralizing the scientific community – and as a result can have many more people working on strange and wonderful ideas, some of which will actually bear fruit to the benefit of all.

 

Conclusions

As scientific devices and appliances become cheaper and make their way to the hands of individuals around the world, citizen science becomes more popular and provides ever greater impact. Today we see the uprising of the citizen scientists – those that are not supported by universities or research centers, but instead start conducting experiments in their homes.

In a decade from now, we will see at least one therapeutic being manufactured by citizen scientists in an easy and cheap manner that will undermine the expensive prices demanded by pharma companies for their drugs. Heck, even kids would be able to deliver that kind of science in garage labs. Less than a decade later, we will witness citizen scientists actually conducting medical research on their own, by running analysis over medical records of hundreds – maybe millions – of people to uncover how new or existing therapeutics can be used to treat certain medical conditions. Many of these research projects will not be supported by the government or big pharma with the intent to make money, but will instead be supported by the public itself on crowdfunding sites.

Of course, for all that to happen we need to support citizen scientists today. So go ahead – contribute to the campaign against Zika, or purchase a Bento Lab for your kitchen, or find a citizen science projects or games for kids you can join in SciStarter. We all can take part in improving science, together.

 

Visit other posts in my blog about crowdfunding projects, such as Robit: A new contender in the field of house robots; or read my analysis Why crowdfunding scams are good for society.