Increasing Understanding of Technology and Communication

The Horrific Future When Robots Rule Earth

When-Robots-Rule

Robin Hanson’s strange, very serious, book predicts what will happen in a Matrix-like world when computers have software emulations of human brains and our bodies are destroyed.

In the future, or so some people think, it will become possible to upload your consciousness into a computer. Software emulations of human brains – ems, for short – will then take over the economy and world. This sort of thing happens quite a lot in science fiction, but The Age of Em is a fanatically serious attempt, by an economist and scholar at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, to use economic and social science to forecast in fine detail how this world (if it is even possible) will actually work. The future it portrays is very strange and, in the end, quite horrific for everyone involved.

It is an eschatological vision worthy of Hieronymus Bosch. Trillions of ems live in tall, liquid-cooled skyscrapers in extremely hot cities. Most of them are “very able focused workaholics”, who “respect and trust each other more” than we do.

Some ems will have robotic bodies; others will just live in virtual reality all the time. (Ems who are office workers won’t need bodies.) Some ems will run a thousand times faster than human brains, so having a subjective experience of much-expanded time. (Their bodies will need to be very small: “At this scale, an industry-era city population of a million kilo-ems could fit in an ordinary bottle.”)

Others might run very slowly, to save money. Ems will congregate in related “clans” and use “decision markets” to make important commercial and political choices. Ems will work nearly all the time but choose to remember an existence that is nearly all leisure. Some ems will be “open-source lovers”; all will be markedly more religious and also swear more often. The em economy will double every month, and competition will drive nearly all wages down to subsistence levels. Surveillance will be total. Fun, huh?

This hellish cyberworld is quite cool to think about in a dystopian Matrixy way, although the book is much drier than fiction. Hanson says it reads more like an encyclopedia. But if it’s an encyclopedia, what are its sources? The physicist Niels Bohr was quoting an earlier Danish wit when he said: “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.” But Hanson’s book is, in part, a defense of prediction.

“Today,” he complains, “we take far more effort to study the past than the future, even though we can’t change the past.” Yes, you might respond: that is because we literally cannot “study” the future – because either it doesn’t exist or (in the block-universe model of time) it does exist but is completely inaccessible to us. Given that, the book’s confidence in its own brilliantly weird extrapolations is both impressive and quite peculiar.

Hanson describes his approach as that of “using basic social theory, in addition to common sense and trend projection, to forecast future societies”. The casual use of “common sense” there should, as always, ring alarm bells. And a lot of the book’s sense is arguably quite uncommon. The governing tone is strikingly misanthropic, despairing of current humans’ “maladaptation” to the environment (the low birth rate in rich countries, and our excessive consumption of TV and even music apparently prove this), and there is an un-argued assumption throughout that social patterns and institutions are more likely to revert to pre-industrial norms in the future.

The major difficulty in the analysis, though, lies with Hanson’s vision of how ems will think of copies of themselves. If an em decides to terminate itself and have a saved copy of an earlier brain-state reawakened, is that archived version still the same person? Will a briefly lived “spur” copy of an em be happy to be terminated after it finishes the task it was created for? Hanson assumes there is no big problem about the continuity of identity among such copies, and therefore erects a large edifice of sociological speculation on how the liberal use of em copies and backups will change attitudes to sex, law, death and pretty much everything else.

But there is plausibly a show-stopping problem here. If someone announces they will upload my consciousness into a robot and then destroy my existing body, I will take this as a threat of murder. The robot running an exact copy of my consciousness won’t actually be “me”. (Such issues are richly analyzed in the philosophical literature stemming from Derek Parfit’s thought experiments about teleportation and the like in the 1980s.)

So ems – the first of whom are, by definition, going to have minds identical to those of humans – may very well exhibit the same kind of reaction, in which case a lot of Hanson’s more thrillingly bizarre social developments will not happen. But then, the rather underwhelming upshot of this project is that fast-living and super-clever ems will probably crack the problem of proper AI – actual intelligent machines – within a year or so of ordinary human time. And then the age of em will be over and the Singularity will be upon us, and what comes next is anyone’s guess.

What about, you know, us? Early on, Hanson cheerfully says: “This book mostly ignores humans.” If meat people survive in the em era, he says, they will probably live far from the cities on low pensions. Given that this future is so gloomy for just about everyone, one does end up wondering why Hanson wants to wake up in it – he reveals in the book that he has arranged to be cryogenically frozen on his death. I suppose it is at least possible that, one day, he could open his eyes and have the last laugh, as he surveys the appalling future he foresaw so long ago.

Read Article (Steven Poole | theguardian.com | 06/15/2016)

There seems to be fewer science fiction books based on current technological and scientific real-world discoveries. Something that is at least, possible.

Internet availability and access is important without a doubt, but knowing how to fully utilize the constantly evolving devices that connect to it and the Internet itself, is an issue just as important if not more.  Our instructional webinars are the long-term solution for addressing device usage, and we need your support.

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Broadband Internet Providers Lose to Net Neutrality

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WASHINGTON — In a long-awaited decision, a federal appeals court on Tuesday upheld the Federal Communications Commission’s net neutrality rules, dealing a punishing blow to telecom and cable companies that have sought to overturn the regulations.

Characterizing the government’s net neutrality effort as an “attempt to achieve internet openness” and “the principle that broadband providers must treat all internet traffic the same regardless of source,” the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit concluded that the rules are authorized under current law.

The FCC rules — which the Obama administration has strongly supported — prevent internet service providers, or ISPs, from charging content producers for faster or more reliable service, a practice known as “paid prioritization.” The rules also ban blocking and purposefully slowing the traffic of lawful services, and apply to both mobile and fixed broadband service.

Taking each of these proposals in turn, the appeals court looked at how they fit within the legal framework that Congress has given the FCC to set the rules for internet service — from dial-up to DSL to cable modem service — and determined that the agency has the power to reclassify broadband service in its various forms as a “telecommunications service” for regulatory purposes.

Tom Wheeler, the chairman of the FCC, praised the ruling in a statement. “Today’s ruling is a victory for consumers and innovators who deserve unfettered access to the entire web, and it ensures the internet remains a platform for unparalleled innovation, free expression and economic growth.”

For years, activists, businesses, politicians and regulators have debated how ISPs should be treated. The ISPs want less regulation so they have more freedom to choose how they manage their services. President Barack Obama and major tech companies have argued that ISPs should be treated more like the legacy phone companies, which cannot unjustly discriminate when providing services.

The current legal spat is an extension of that dispute. Last year, the FCC voted 3-2 to reclassify broadband internet service as a utility under a 1934 law called the Communications Act, which originally aimed to ensure that customers would have access to universal radio and wire service at a reasonable price.

This didn’t mean ISPs would be treated the same as old-school utility companies — they have their own unique rules — but defining them this way gave the FCC broader powers to regulate them. The agency used this authority to enact the net neutrality rules.

AT&T and cable and wireless trade groups sued the agency last year, arguing that the FCC had overstepped. They argued that the Communications Act, which provided legal backing for the new rules, is an outdated framework that was never intended to be used this way. Providers have repeatedly said that they support net neutrality, but believe it can be accomplished under a lighter regulatory regime.

But the FCC already tried using a lighter touch with net neutrality rules. In 2010, it adopted an order that drew authority from a section of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, a law meant to promote investment and competition. Verizon sued the FCC in 2011 to overturn the rules, and the same appeals court agreed that the FCC did not have solid legal footing, even as it upheld the commission’s power to promulgate open internet rules.

The agency went back to the drawing board and — after receiving more than 4 million comments from the public, activists and business — came up with its new approach, which is how broadband providers ended up with rules they disliked even more. (Verizon is now the parent company of The Huffington Post.)

Though the ruling is a victory for the government and consumer advocates, other big winners include “edge providers” — companies such as Netflix and Google that depend on third parties’ broadband services to drive their product offerings.

In a prior ruling, one of three touching on the legality of regulating broadband services, the D.C. Circuit said these businesses are part of the “virtuous circle” that leads to increased innovation and investment. They, too, were giddy with Tuesday’s watershed result.

“The third time was the charm,” Pantelis Michalopoulos, a lawyer who argued in favor of the net neutrality rules on behalf of Netflix and other intervenors, said in a statement. “The open Internet rules are here to stay.”

Read Article (Liebelson & Farias | huffingtonpost.com | 06/14/2016)

In plain words, ISP’s have distributed Internet service as if “They Owned It!” Yes, some people have forgotten that the Internet belongs to us, the public. We built it and paid for it, we only need ISP’s to access what we own. Hopefully, this will finally put them in their place.

As owners of the Internet, don’t you think you should know how to fully take advantage of it and any device that connects to it? That’s what our campaign is all about.

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Why Smart Homes Are Still a Dumb Idea

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In the wake of the resignation of Tony Faddell, the founder of smart thermostat maker Nest, the future is looking cloudy not only for the smart thermostat maker, but the broader smart home business as well.

Nest, after all, was supposed to be the trailblazer that led us to the smart home revolution. When Google put down $3.2 billion to buy it in 2014, it appeared to make sense -- Google was already running much of our online lives, and this would give the company a way to run our offline lives as well. (Or, I suppose more accurately, make our offline lives become part of our online lives.) The charismatic Fadell seemed to be the right pioneer, given his product experience at Apple, which he could apply to Google’s more open computing vision.

But Nest proved to be a less-than-ideal poster child.

It was slow to put out products. When it did, it wasn’t always a success. The company’s Nest Protect smoke alarm hit early problems that required the company to disable its most innovative feature -- the ability to wave your hand under the detector to stop the alarm. (It was a particularly attractive feature for bad or at least smoke-heavy cooks.)

The company also fielded very public complaints about faulty software that, as the New York Times reported, literally left people in the cold. Then, earlier this year, Nest announced that it would stop supporting the Revolv, a smart home hub that it acquired along with a smart appliance firm of the same name in 2014.

All of these developments served, in some capacity, to highlight problems consumers are having with the smart home market. It sounds pretty great to have thermostats, light bulbs, ovens and security systems that anticipate our every move. The reality has been something less wonderful -- a fractured market of occasionally buggy appliances that work with some, but not all, of the systems out there.

And, perhaps most tellingly, despite the public problems Nest was facing, no single company has positioned itself as an alternative.

So beyond the early adopters, consumers right now are having some trouble getting aboard the smart home express. For people who don’t have the time to sort out whether their light bulb will talk to their smart speaker -- and to come up with passwords for all those accounts -- the smart home still seems to be part of a fictional "Jetsons"-esque future.

A survey from the consulting firm Accenture found early this year that some people had actually abandoned their smart home appliances. Many said they were worried about what implications having smart devices held for their privacy and security. They added they were particularly worried about getting hacked -- an understandable concern if you’re trusting, say, a smart security camera with your safety.

Others had a much more prosaic, but no less troubling concern: they found the set-up process too complicated. For most people, having to find out if your lightbulb will work when you hit your digital switch is too much of a hassle -- particularly when you have a reliable low-tech alternative. Add in the worry that any device you bought could become a paperweight two years later because the company’s no longer supporting it? That makes it seem hardly worth it to invest in the system at all.

The smart home market is certainly still promising -- but that, by definition, means it’s an area with its fullest potential ahead of it. Amazon’s Echo, the forthcoming Google Home, and the rumored “Siri-in-a-box” are all appealing because of what they could do down the line -- act as the personal concierge that can follow you from your home to your car to your workplace.

But right now, these home hubs feel like a novelty rather than an essential part of our lives. And without firms such as Nest pushing those developments, hubs lose a great deal of appeal. Even the greatest hub needs spokes.

That’s particularly true if the intelligent voice assistants that power those hubs make their way into our smartphones. If Siri-in-a-box can do everything Siri-in-my-smartphone can do, there’s no real reason to buy it. Sure, maybe Google Home can buy me movie tickets, but I’m not going to buy a separate appliance if my smartphone -- which is also sitting on my kitchen counter -- can do the same. The added appeal of the home hub, at least for me, is as a way to set up and control my appliances and not have to clutter my phone up with an app for every single appliance.

Nest and Google had a shared vision of making not just an innovative product, but an innovative network that could support a number of appliances to make our lives better. That’s an appealing vision. But, right now, it’s one in need of a new banner carrier.

Read Article (Hayley Tsukayama | domain | 06/06/2016)

Unfortunately, visions of the Smart Home that media has shown us seems to be great in theory but not so much in reality. At least not for the near future.

But that does not mean society shouldn’t prepare for it. Less than half our population is tech savvy enough to benefit from such a home. But that time is coming and we should help one-another gain the skills to benefit from new technology. Please support our efforts to do just that.

Our instructional webinars are the long-term solution for addressing device usage, and we need your support.

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Facebook Outreach Blatantly Ignores “Black Lives Matter”

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When Facebook launched a new system in January to help news outlets and other groups target posts to particular audiences, a representative of the New York Times said it had the potential to kindle “vibrant discussions” within “niche Facebook communities” that might otherwise get lost amid the social network’s 1.6 billion users. And indeed, in the system’s first several months, software algorithms have generated hundreds of thousands of special tags for connecting to even the most obscure groups, including 7,800 Facebook users who are interested in “Water motorsports at the 1908 Summer Olympics.”

But there’s one set of people who can’t be reached via Facebook’s system: those interested in Black Lives Matter, the nationwide grassroots movement protesting police violence against black people.

Facebook’s targeting mechanism, designed to route articles and videos from Facebook Pages into users’ news feeds, will gladly help reach other protest communities. For example, publishers can target people interested in the conservative Tea Party or in its largely forgotten liberal response, the “Coffee Party,” as well as those enthusiastic about the “Fight for $15” labor movement and the “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement” around Israeli mistreatment of Palestinians, all by attaching to their posts selectors known as Preferred Audience interest tags.

That there’s no such tag for Black Lives Matter is particularly baffling given that BLM began on Facebook in 2013 and has dominated headlines ever since.

Facebook tells The Intercept that the omission does not reflect its own stance toward the movement and blamed the lack of a Black Lives Matter targeting tag on the software that automatically generates the tags.

But BLM’s absence from Facebook’s targeting program looks all the more stark in the wake of high-profile revelations from a Facebook news curator who told Gizmodo that he and his colleagues had to “inject” Black Lives Matter into Facebook’s “Trending News” section because it was having a difficult time gaining traction.

It also hearkens back to a controversial moment in 2014, when protests in Ferguson, Missouri, over the police killing of Michael Brown blanketed Twitter feeds. Facebook feeds were instead saturated with posts about the “ice bucket challenge,” a boisterous viral campaign to raise awareness for the brain disease ALS. The success of that effort, which according to the ALS Association raised $115 million — nearly six times the group’s annual budget — shows what a favorable algorithm ranking can do for a campaign.

On the other hand, algorithms can also have a potentially crushing effect on social and political movements, which increasingly rely on social media and journalism to grow and sustain their support bases. By providing a tag to target a particular group, Facebook encourages the production of content for that group. And good reporting strengthens political movements and shapes public discourse.

Social media teams, including ours at The Intercept, use interest tags to promote their journalism and expand their reach. If said journalism isn’t reaching its intended audience — and if a publication’s traffic reflects that — outlets are disincentivized from investing limited resources into covering the movement and the issues its followers care about.

According to Christian Sandvig, an associate professor at the University of Michigan who studies the cultural consequences of algorithmic systems, groups like Black Lives Matter may be missing from the system because Facebook’s programmers wrote a “machine-learning” algorithm — based on artificial intelligence — that produces results even Facebook does not understand.

“Machine learning writes its own software. [It] writes its own rules,” he said. “The reason that a particular item or content is selected or not selected may not be recoverable.”

Lending credence to this theory, Facebook said there is no way to know with any certainty why any specific interest tag is included or missing from its list. “We’re committed to and working on improving our system to generate a more comprehensive list of interests that are relevant for people and useful for publishers,” said a Facebook spokesperson.

Companies that write software like the Preferred Audience system often act like “there’s no human intervention — as though writing software wasn’t human,” said Sandvig. “If you ran a business that did something like that you wouldn’t necessarily have this defense.”

Part of the problem may actually be that Facebook is eager to create pleasant user experiences. Its News Feed algorithm brings people content they’re expected to like and hides content that might make them unhappy. So if a lot of users block or hide posts related to Black Lives Matter because they find the violent or controversial nature of the issue objectionable, that can affect how visible other Black Lives Matter content is.

“Because we learn about the world through the social media algorithm, in the future we might be learning about a new kind of world,” said Sandvig. “One that reflects certain decisions — made by internet platforms — about what kind of mood they want us to be in or what feeling they want us to have while using them.”

“The computer and the user coproduce relevance,” said Sandvig. “You’re training the algorithm and it’s training you.”

Read Article (Travis Mannon | theintercept.com | 06/09/2016)

When software engineers are contracted to develop and algorithm, this is done from a standpoint that provides “Plausible Denial” for the entity issuing the contract.

Just as businesses are well aware of any finger-pointing that may arise from their projects in the digital era, all consumers should hone their digital skills as much as possible. We are striving to help individuals in this endeavor. #socialcitynet

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Facebook & Google Battle Latest FBI Challenge

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Now the FBI wants access to your web browsing history as they continue efforts to expand surveillance. The FBI and Silicon Valley are in a fight over whether web browsing records are the same as telephone bill records.

The latest surveillance battle gripping the technology industry is focused on a rewrite of US surveillance law that would mean the justice department would be able to access a citizen’s web browsing history, location data and some email records without approval from a judge using a so-called “national security letters” (NSLs).

The FBI contends that such data is covered implicitly under current statute, which was written years ago and only explicitly covers data normally associated with telephone records.

Director James Comey now is lobbying Congress to make clear it also applies to the digital equivalent.

Late on Monday, major technology companies including Google, Facebook and Yahoo sent a letter warning Congress that they would oppose any efforts to rewrite law in the FBI’s favor.

“This expansion of the NSL statute has been characterized by some government officials as merely fixing a ‘typo’ in the law,” the companies wrote. “In reality, however, it would dramatically expand the ability of the FBI to get sensitive information about users’ online activities without court oversight.”

It marks another battle over a small clause in federal law that could dramatically affect how the US conducts terrorism investigations. For years, the bureau has relied on the controversial national security letters to obtain certain types of data quickly from technology companies. These letters don’t require a warrant and often come with a gag order prohibiting the recipients from discussing them. Technology companies complain the FBI has become too reliant on them, but the FBI complains that cases are getting slowed down because some companies have stopped cooperating.

It’s not so much that technology companies don’t want to give any user data to the government. Rather, their legal teams have problems with the growth of national security letters because the accompanying gag orders prevent companies from telling users much about how they help the government. This can create mistrust and, as happened after the Edward Snowden leaks, eventual embarrassment if the details are disclosed.

Companies also argue NSLs are problematic because of the lack of judicial oversight. They give too much power to one branch of government, they argue, and make it hard to predict what the government may ask for next.

Comey has said expanding NSL rules is one of his agencies top legislative priorities. US senators are exploring multiple ways to pass the law tweak this year.

Technology and legal experts also dispute Comey’s argument that he effectively is asking Congress to correct a typo. In 2008, the justice department’s office of legal counsel said explicitly that the agency can only issue national security letters for “name, address, length of service, and local and long distance toll billing records”.

At the time, the government had asked DoJ’s lawyer if those four types of data are “exhaustive or merely illustrative of the information that the FBI may request and a provider may turn over”.

To which the office of legal counsel responded: “We conclude that the list ... is exhaustive.”

Read Article (Danny Yadron | theguardian.com | 06/07/2016)

How important is your browsing history to the law? Federal Prosecutors have Claimed that Clearing Browser History is an Obstruction of Justice. Negligent Mom’s Browser History Admissible in court.

Knowing how to fully utilize the constantly evolving devices that connect to it and the Internet itself, is an issue just as important as Internet access if not more.  Our instructional webinars are the long-term solution for addressing device usage, and we need your support.

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