Month: November 2019

Writing08: Artificial Intelligence

I believe that artificial intelligence is just like every new technology that emerges, it is a tool. It is neither good or bad, rather it is how we humans choose to use it. That being said, some technologies lend themselves more easily to negative consequences than others. Artificial intelligence is one that has large gains on both sides. As has been seen with AI machines like AlphaGo or IBM’s Watson, artificial intelligence is not simply a gimmick, it has real potential and applications. If AI can beat top players of Chess, Jeopardy, or Go it is clear that AI can edge out human ability, at least if sufficiently specialized. Some of the most promising applications for artificial intelligence are in the medical field. A faster, more accurate diagnostic tool is pretty hard technology to vilify. However, AI also has applications that have murkier morality. If you can specialize AI to do anything, why not specialize it to kill? One use for AI that the military seems particularly interested in is facial recognition, which would allow for easier identification and termination of enemy combatants. But when stateside, how about using facial recognition to identify criminals? Sounds promising, until you realize that current AI is very flawed. Bias entering the system, whether by design or by poor implementation, is a problem that is not close to being fixed. Artificial Intelligence is still in an incubation stage, yet some people worry about robots taking over now. AI is nowhere near what people could potentially consider sentient; it is evident that there must be improvements on the order of leaps and bounds within the field before that question is even relevant. But it is plain to see that even with Artificial Intelligence being in an early stage, it is still powerful enough that we must take care not to misuse its current capabilities.

Those applications of AI are more software based and abstract, but what about the increasing automation of every industry? There are obvious pros and cons to each side. On the negative side, jobs that formerly belonged to human workers are being taken by machines. Not just blue collar factory jobs, but also jobs in other industries are being displaced by increased automation. Ever walk into a McDonald’s and order at the kiosk? One less person the corporation has to pay. The most concerning thing about this is that a job that used to formerly be done by thousands of people, can now be handled by a machine and a handful of humans to maintain and surveil it. At a certain point you have to consider that a more productive world does not guarantee a better world for people. However, it cannot be denied that automation has plenty of upside as well. Automation allows for cheaper products for consumers. When people first hear that, some tend to think more about non-essential products like toys or snacks, but the creation of essential life-saving medicine can also be automated and made cheaply accessible to people. The virtue of automation requiring so few people is also its vice, removing those jobs from the economy. Once again, we must take care to properly use this technology wisely, and properly aid those who are affected by automation.

Writing 07: Censorship

In the first class this week, we discussed the pros and cons of Net Neutrality. For the most part, we students seemed to believe that Net Neutrality is ultimately a good, and I stand by that. I personally feel that the Internet is as essential to modern life as water or electricity, and hence should be treated as a public utility. There are so few service providers available to most Americans; about 40% only have access to one or none, and a majority have access only to 1 or 2. With such cornered markets, you have to logically fear monopolies gouging customers and restricting access to certain sites. If your Internet Service Provider makes a deal with the New York Times and throttles (or outright blocks) the Washington Post, that is a gentle form of censorship. Additionally, we have to worry about the bundling that is occurring between Internet Service Providers and online services. While free bundling seems nice, it allows a company to select which platforms win or lose (like picking Hulu over Netflix), rather than the market deciding based on each platform’s merit. I know some people spoke about how that was unfair due to the current pricing model, where there is a flat fee and some use more internet than others. But I contend that people truly feel that the current system is so disastrous, then moving to a system where you pay for what you use would be fair in those eyes, and still congruent with the ideals of Net Neutrality. We have to have barriers against monopolistic control and market manipulation, as access to the Internet has become a basic right.

But that was speaking about censorship on the order of providing access to the Internet, what about censoring its content? I personally believe that those who own websites fall into a strange gray area between a content medium and a publishing authority. Obviously, a company should not be penalized for one rogue user simply posting a terrorism manifesto. But if that type of content is allowed to stay up and proliferate, if they do not take it down, then a larger issue arises. Online censorship is a necessary evil. I have distaste for the idea that a corporation will decide what is and is not appropriate.. Censorship harms not only those who are being hateful and divisive, but also those who simply fall outside the norm of acceptability. But I understand that when individuals with harmful goals are given a platform that allows them to carry it out, we must take action, so there must be some moderation of content online. I believe that most of the responsibility for this should lie with the individual actually posting the content, that they should be held accountable for their dangerous/hateful ideas, but I think some responsibility also falls to the forum that hosts such ideas. Leaving up harmful content like hate speech or other immoral content implicitly approves of (or at least tolerates) it, and sends a message that such things are okay. Obviously in real life if someone started yelling racial slurs in their company building they would not allow it. So why allow it online?

Writing06: Corporate Conscience

The notion that a corporation should be understood as a person, having the same rights as one in the eyes of the law, has both valid merit and fault. The reality is that it should be treated partially as a person, but not given the full extent of rights extended to actual people. Luckily, the United States understands this at least somewhat, with companies not possessing fifth amendment rights while having the right to make and enforce contracts held with individuals or other companies. However, the notion to which companies are extended personhood is absurd, especially when they are not held accountable for their actions to the same extent that actual humans are. Whenever a company makes a large mistake to which they must be held accountable, like negligence of safety regulations, they are slapped with a fine rather than fully prosecuted as a citizen would be. This double standard allows employees of the company to be treated as collective and avoid true justice for their actions, hiding behind the veil of the company name and offloading any moral responsibility. This is an egregious breach of justice, but there will never be any accountability until we properly trace the company’s actions back to individuals.

So corporations should not be afforded all the rights of a person, that is fair enough. But should companies be allowed to grow as large as they can possibly become? The United States found an answer to this quandary slightly over a century ago, notably since Standard Oil was broken due to it being found to have a monopoly on the oil industry. The government recognized that when one company has a stranglehold on a specific part of the economy, they will do everything they can to crush competition, exploit consumers, and will not be motivated to innovate due to the fact that they are the only one that consumers have the ability to purchase from. This does not breed the competition we consider the hallmark of our capitalist system, so the government rightfully decided that when a single company grows too large, it must be broken up to encourage competition. This is not an archaic issue reserved for the industrial revolution, however. My father has told me stories of how AT&T used to gouge him as a consumer in the seventies and early eighties before there was any company that could compete in telecom. However, it seems in recent years we have forgotten this lesson. Microsoft was allowed to systematically steamroll companies so that they could not compete with them, notably Netscape, without any real consequence. A breakup of the company was ordered, until it was rolled back. In the end they escaped relatively unscathed, setting the precedent for several companies to get away with monopolistic practices, and to my eyes it seems this is a keen problem especially among software companies. Companies like Facebook or Google, they are concerningly large and utilize anti-competitive practices, but face no consequences. I am not saying that they must be broken up, but they must be held accountable for their monopolistic practices.