Month: November 2019

Writing 08: Artificial Intelligence

There’s been a lot of hype in recent years over the buzzwords “AI” and “automation”, but while the two are often used synonymously, they refer to two entirely different concepts. AI, in short, is automated intelligence, and is the broader of the two categories as it generically refers to any “artificial” being, most commonly computers programs, possessing “intelligence”, i.e. having the ability to think like a human. Automation, on the other hand, refers to the replacing of manual/human tasks and jobs with automated systems. Thus, while AI can be applied to automation, it refers to a far broader category. When we talk about whether to embrace or fear AI then, we have consider its impacts in a variety of fields, not just automation, though AIĀ  in automation is an extremely important talking point and where we will begin.

With regards to automation, whether you are against or for it, there is an air of inevitability. In the US, the most expensive component of production is human capital. Since automation in the long run will likely be cheaper then human labor, businesses will (if they are smart and want to remain competitive) invest in automation. Thus, at some point certain jobs, particularly low-skill jobs, will be replaced with automation whether we like it or not. I would argue then that we should just embrace it instead of futilely fighting against it, which would only serve to prolong and complicate the transition process. We need to embrace automation and accept its impacts so that we can properly compensate (such as Andrew Yang’s freedom dividend idea) those who will lose their jobs. AI in automation then is at least something we should embrace.

Now to consider AI in other aspects. First, we need to decide what counts. Consider AlphaGO (the go-playing super AI) or Watson. Are either “AI” or are they just software who can do a s,pecific subset of things very well? Watson, for example, is essentially a search engine with enhanced language interpretation abilities. Thus, even though Watson may be able to “understand” a sentence, it doesn’t necessary have “knowledge” to answer. Just because Watson can search up solutions to questions that can interpret doesn’t necessarily make it capable of “thinking”, which would logically seem to be a basic requirement for “AI.” It is somewhat clear then that proper AI needs to think at a higher level, but what exactly does that constitute and is a non-living being capable of achieving that level of thought? Regardless, let us consider a theoretical situation where we create a software “AI” that can think like a human does. Since this AI is a software, we could theoretically create near-infinite copies, thus creating infinitely many “humans”. Who is responsible for these humans? What can we “do” with these humans? Is it ethical to force them into slave labor to accomplish certain tasks? AI at that level then has so many ethical dilemmas that depend on the specifics of the implementation that it becomes difficult to understand how best to manage and regulate an AI future. Of course, this is all hypothetical, as it may be impossible to create software capable of actual “thinking” but I think that we need to treat AI with a healthy combination of excitement and fear. AI has a lot of potential, but lots of danger as well, and in some ways is inevitable. We should accept that AI is coming, and prepare appropriately for that future.

Writing 07: Censorship

After going through all the discussions and readings on censorship, the only thing that is clear is that there is no easy answer. There are too many questions regarding what forms censorship, if we are to censor at all, should take. Where should we censor? Who should be in charge of deciding what to censor? To what extent should we censor and how can we ensure that censorship does not become too authoritarian? How do we ensure that we protect freedom of speech while also protecting society against online threats?

Before tackling some of the more nuanced questions, it is worth discussing what exactly freedom of speech is and where it should and can be applied. It is clear that the idea of freedom of speech, which in simplified terms means the freedom to say whatever you want, applies to both spoken and written language, be it human speech or newspaper publications. Thus it makes sense to also apply “freedom of speech” to the internet. However, the state and reach of the internet is far different from that of normal speech and writing. Because everyone has access to the internet, ideas spread much more quickly then they used to in the past. While this can be a very good things as it facilitates productive discourse online, it also means that really bad ideas get spread quite easily as well. Consider the anti-vaccination movement, which utilizes private facebook groups online to spread misleading information, which can force families into dangerous situations, or consider false political ads on facebook that everyone can easily see, which has led to increased “mudslinging” among political candidates. It is important I think to recognize the dangers of free speech on the internet and to recognize that free speech requires special rules that other forms of speech do not need. Normal speaking, for example, only affects people in the vicinity, and relying on speaking face to face is 1) more difficult to arrange, and 2) requires the association of a face with an idea, which by nature suppresses many of the more outrageous opinions. Written speech, on the other hand, in the form of newspapers and publications either are vetted by editors and come from more professional sources which can be held accountable for misleading statements, or come from sources that people have to actively seek out, instead of simply seeing it everywhere you go like it is on the internet. Freedom of speech on the internet then could warrant greater regulation and censorship, as scary as the latter term sounds.

Aside from the spread of misleading ideas, there is are other benefits from online censorship. One big one is that we can potentially detect terrorist threats before they happen, which can help save lives. Another is to prevent the spread of dangerous ideas, such as the El Paso shooter’s Manifesto. Thus online censorship and regulation is more important than people often give it credit for, I think.

There are many dangers however to online censorship, particularly as we dive into the details. The first detail is who should be censoring and who has the right to censor? There are two primary answers to this. One obvious answer is the government, but another idea is that companies should be self-regulating and restrict their platforms. The government, I think, is the more natural answer to this problem, but at the end of the day not everyone trusts the government enough to properly censor the internet. Additionally, there is the danger of giving the government too much power, which can lead to a more authoritarian regime that threatens the spirit of democracy. The government, for example, could limit speech coming from the opposite party, thus allowing one party to win elections year after year and limit the spread of dissenting ideas. Thus, the government may be a simpler, more logical answer than companies, but the government is ultimately not 100% objective.

Conversely, it is not clear that companies should be in charge of censorship either because companies ultimately are private entities. It is weird then to give companies the power to dictate how society should think. More importantly is that without a central body dictating what can and can’t be said, different platforms will take different stances. Twitter, for example, completely bans political ads, preferring not to mess at all with the problem of fact-checking political statements. Facebook, on the other hand, chooses to not mess with the problem at all either by taking the opposite stance: they allow any political ad on their site and will not remove misleading ads. It is clear then that putting the decision of internet censorship into the hands of private entities will just lead to a complex mess of differing standards and will only muddle what is or isn’t considered a misuse of free speech. On the other hand, one of the tenets of american society is “voting with the dollar.” Theoretically, if a company like facebook takes a “bad” stance on censorship that the public disagrees with, the company should take a negative financial hit from boycotts or negative press. While this may or may not work in practice, it is at least some limitation on what companies can do.

Online censorship then is a necessary evil. It is fairly evident that some sort of regulation is needed, but there are too many questions that need to be resolved before we can properly implement it. Still, it is better to do a little bit of something, then nothing at all, and the government should be stepping in and implementing some sort of regulations which will at least give us a starting point to either pull back from or moving forwards with. It is a slippery slope, but a necessary step in order to keep society safe.


Writing 06: Corporate Conscience

One of the primary purposes of a government and its laws is to protect and promote the individual, but the reason why we protect the individual is because we believe in the ability of an individual to do good. Let’s consider free speech for example. Free speech, in every shape in form is fine until it becomes used for nefarious purposes, such as lying in the court of law or words that incite violence, because even if we may disagree with what a person is saying, we still believe that they have the right to express their opinions. This is important because what a person says reflects their moral values and believes, and the preservation of free speech is to allow individuals to speak out according to their moral guidelines. Thus, free speech is inherently tied to morality and ethics, as we protect free speech as a way of protecting and respecting different moral values and systems.

The protection of corporate free speech then is a bit of a strange idea. Corporations also receive many of the free speech protections that individuals do, but it seems strange to expect a corporation to have the same moral considerations an individual would. After all, a corporation ultimately is about making money, and if there is money to be made, the morality and ethics associated are a secondary consideration, as exemplified by IBM and Coca Cola working with Nazi Germany or Apple’s conflicting application of privacy values in China vs America. Why then should we be protecting corporations as individuals if we do not hold them to the same moral standards and have them face the same punishments as an individual would? Consider the Sony rootfile which essentially behaved like a virus that was extremely possible to remove and had dangerous access to any computer it was installed on. An individual would likely face jail time or fines in the hundreds of thousands for the damage they’ve done. To an individual, a fine of a couple hundred thousand is at least 2 or 3 years worth of salary, usually more once you consider taxes and the likes, while jail time also leads to loss salary, hardship while in jail, and a black mark on the individual’s record. Thus, the punishment for an individual hacker is extremely harsh, consisting of both jail time and large fines. When Sony essentially infected millions of computers with their rootfile, on the other hand, the only punishment they received was a promise to replace the cd’s, a small fine (small relative to the size of the company), and free “digital downloads” for each customer, something that essentially costed them nothing while also promoting one of their other products. Essentially, Sony got fined close to nothing, while also using the “opportunity” to advertise. How does that make sense? Why should the individual face harsh punishments from law when Sony, who has similar protections under the law, can get away with a small slap on the wrist? If we are to give Sony a similar punishment, if we are to treat corporations like individuals, we should fine them at least a year’s revenue, which would replicate the financial blow an individual would face, while also having those responsible for the decision face jail time.

It is up to the government to begin taking these steps towards equitable treatment, in particular the FTC who’s job it is to protect individual consumers from the larger, more powerful, corporations. If the government is going to give companies personhood, then they should also be responsible for enforcing the punishments a corporate person should receive. Until that happens, companies can get away with gray practices, and are less likely to credit moral and ethical issues in their business, which leads to damaging practices that ultimately will hurt the consumer.