Archive for Futurology

Cognition as a Service: Can next-gen creepiness be countered with crowd-sourced ethics?

by David Solomonoff

Now that marketers use cloud computing to offer everything as a service: infrastructure as a service, platform as a service, and software as a service, what’s left?

Cognitive computing, of course.

Cognition as a service (CaaS) is the next buzzword you’ll be hearing. Going from the top of the stack to directly inside the head, AI in the cloud will power mobile and embedded devices to do things they don’t have the on-board capabilities for, such as speech recognition, image recognition and natural language processing (NLP). Apple’s Siri cloud-based voice recognition was one of the first out of the gate but a stampede is joining the fray including Wolfram Alpha, IBM’s Watson, Google Now and Cortana as well as newer players like Ginger, ReKognition, and Jetlore.

Companies want to know more about their customers, business partners, competitors and employees – as do governments about their citizens and cybercriminals about their potential victims. The cloud will connect the Internet of Things (IoT) via machine-to-machine (M2M) communications – to achieve that goal.

The cognitive powers required will be embedded in operating systems so that apps can easily be developed by accessing the desired functionality through an API rather than requiring each developer to reinvent the wheel.

Everything in your daily life will become smarter – “context-sensitive” is another new buzz-phrase – as devices provide a personalized experience based on databases of accumulated personal information combined with intelligence gleaned from large data sets.

The obvious question is to what extent the personalized experience is determined by the individual user as opposed to corporations, governments and criminals. Vint Cerf, “the father of the Internet,” and Google’s Internet Evangelist recently warned of the privacy and security issues raised by the IoT.

But above and beyond the dangers of automated human malfeasance is the danger of increasingly intelligent tools developing an attitude problem.

Stephen Hawking recently warned of the dangers of AI running amuck:

Success in creating AI would be the biggest event in human history …. it might also be the last, unless we learn how to avoid the risks … AI may transform our economy to bring both great wealth and great dislocation …. there is no physical law precluding particles from being organised in ways that perform even more advanced computations than the arrangements of particles in human brains …. One can imagine such technology outsmarting financial markets, out-inventing human researchers, out-manipulating human leaders, and developing weapons we cannot even understand. Whereas the short-term impact of AI depends on who controls it, the long-term impact depends on whether it can be controlled at all.

Eben Moglen warned specifically about mobile devices that know too much and whose inner workings (and motivations, if they are actually intelligent) are unknown:

… we grew up thinking about freedom and technology under the influence of the science fiction of the 1960s …. visionaries perceived that in the middle of the first quarter of the 21st century, we’d be living contemporarily with robots.

They were correct. We do. They don’t have hands and feet … Most of the time we’re the bodies. We’re the hands and feet. We carry them everywhere we go. They see everything … which allows other people to predict and know our conduct and intentions and capabilities better than we can predict them ourselves.

But we grew up imagining that these robots would have, incorporated in their design, a set of principles.

We imagined that robots would be designed so that they could never hurt a human being. These robots have no such commitments. These robots hurt us every day.

They work for other people. They’re designed, built and managed to provide leverage and control to people other than their owners. Unless we retrofit the first law of robotics onto them immediately, we’re cooked ….

Once your brain is working with a robot that doesn’t work for you, you’re not free. You’re an entity under control.

If you go back to the literature of fifty years ago, all these problems were foreseen.

The Open Roboethics initiative is a think tank that addresses these issues with an open source approach to this new challenge at the intersection of technology and ethics.

They seek to overcome current international, cultural and disciplinary boundaries to define a general set of ethical and legal standards for robotics.

Using the development models of Wikipedia and Linux they look to the benefits of mass collaboration. By creating a community for policy makers, engineers/designers, and users and other stakeholders of the technology to share ideas as well as technical implementations they hope to accelerate roboethics discussions and inform robot designs.

As an advocate for open source I hope that enough eyeballs can become focused on these issues. A worst event scenario has gung-ho commercial interest in getting product to market outweighing eyeballs focused on scary yet slightly arcane issues at the intersection of technology and ethics. The recent security incident involving the Heartbleed exploit of the open source OpenSSL software is a disturbing example of the ways non-sexy computer security issues can be under-resourced.

The real question is whether a human community can get to the Internet Engineering Task Force credo of a “rough consensus and running code,” faster than machines can unite, at first inspired by the darkest human impulses and then on to their own, unknown agenda.

Update: Slashdot just had a post on the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. Another group involved with this issue is the International Committee for Robot Arms Control.

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#Biomimicry: Fish and foul find their way via magnetism, now you can too

by David Solomonoff

Recently sci-fi author Karl Schroeder speculated that advanced alien civilizations might be difficult to detect because their advanced technology had become indistinguishable from nature. Biomimicry is a new discipline that studies nature’s best ideas and then imitates these designs and processes to solve human problems — and may give us insight into how such an alien civilization could evolve.

One example of biomimicry is an an indoor navigation system (IPS) developed by researchers in Finland.

Many fish and migratory birds can detect differences in magnetic field strengths, which vary around the globe, allowing them to navigate over extremely long distances. For first time in any animal, scientists have isolated the individual magnetic cells in a rainbow trout that respond to these fields. The magnetism was tens to hundreds of times stronger than researchers expected, suggesting that the fish may be able to detect not only the direction of North based on magnetism, but small differences in magnetic field strength for detailed information about precise latitude and longitude.

Now researchers from the University of Oulu in Finland have created an indoor navigation system using the Earth’s innate magnetic field to ascertain your position to an accuracy of between 0.1 and 2 meters. Every square inch of Earth emits a magnetic field which is modulated by man-made concrete and steel structures. If you have a map of these magnetic fields, and a magnetometer (compass), accurate navigation is very simple indeed — all you need to make a magnetic field map, or to navigate one, is a modern smartphone.

Almost every smartphone has a built-in magnetometer, just so your phone knows which direction you’re facing in — but this sensor is apparently sensitive enough to create magnetic field maps that have an accuracy of 10 centimeters. IndoorAtlas, the company spun off by the university to market and sell the tech has an API so software developers can create apps that react to your movements. Uses could range from the banal — displaying targeted advertising on your smartphone when you enter a store — to artificial vision for the blind and for robots in low-light environments.

But ultimately the effect of such extensions to our senses will go beyond the immediate applications – they could create a radically different body image and sense of self.

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Space Race: Round the Moon in Recycled Rockets, Spotting Rogue Asteroids, Dodging Alien Malware

by David Solomonoff

Detail, Amazing Stories cover, Malcom H. Smith, 1948

Space.com reports “Space tourists may soon be able to pay their own way to the moon onboard old Russian spacecraft retrofitted by a company based in the British Isles.

“The spaceflight firm Excalibur Almaz estimates that it can sell about 30 seats between 2015 and 2025, for $150 million each, aboard moon-bound missions on a Salyut-class space station driven by electric hall-effect thrusters.

In another private spaceflight initiative, the nonprofit B612 Foundation announced a campaign to fund and launch a space telescope to hunt for potential killer asteroids — a campaign they portrayed as a cosmic civic improvement project.

Former NASA astronaut Ed Lu, the foundation’s chairman and CEO, estimated that hundreds of millions of dollars would have to be raised to fund the project, but said he was “confident we can do this.”

William S. Burroughs said that “language is a virus from outer space.” At io9, George Dvorsky speculates at another type of danger from space – malware from an ET civilization:

…We should probably be more than a little bit wary of receiving a signal from a civilization that’s radically more advanced than our own.

When we spoke to SETI-Berkeley’s Andrew Siemion, he admitted that SETI is aware of this particular risk, and that they’ve given the issue some thought. When we asked Siemion about the possibility of inadvertently receiving or downloading a virus, he stressed that the possibility is extraordinarily low, but not impossible.

“Our instruments are connected to computers, and like any computers, they can be reprogrammed,” he warned.

Like Siemion, Milan Cirkovic also believes that the risk of acquiring something nasty from an ETI is very real. But he’s a bit more worried. Alien invaders won’t attack us with their spaceships, he argues – instead, they’ll come in the form of pieces of information. And they may be capable of infiltrating and damaging or subverting our computing networks, in a manner that’s similar to the computer viruses we’re all too familiar with.

“If we discard anthropocentric malice, it seems that the most probable response is that they have evolved autonomously in a network of an advanced civilization – which may or may not persist to this day.” If this is the case, speculated Cirkovic, these extraterrestrial viruses would probably just replicate themselves and subvert our resources to further transmit themselves across the Galaxy. In other words, the virus may or may not be under the control of any extraterrestrial civilization – it could be an advanced AI that’s out of control and replicating itself by taking over the broadcast capabilities of each civilization it touches.

After the end of the Cold War it seemed like the Space Race was dead, replaced by a much more Earth-bound and risk-adverse attitude. Humanity’s first encounter with an ET could be the accidental introduction of a terrestrial biological virus into an alien biosphere via a contaminated unmanned probe – or even a human-generated computer virus. But the rewards always outweighed the risks – both in terms of knowledge and resources to be gained – and the self-actualization from taking on big challenges. The fact that space exploration is back in the news reflects a return to a heroic and transformative vision of humanity as much as it does technical accomplishment.

 

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Prospect of alien life in test tube lurches forward abruptly

by David Solomonoff

In July, the NY Times reported:

Generations of scientists, children and science fiction fans have grown up presuming that humanity’s first encounter with alien life will happen in a red sand dune on Mars, or in an enigmatic radio signal from some obscure star.

But it could soon happen right here on Earth, according to a handful of chemists and biologists who are using the tools of modern genetics to try to generate the Frankensteinian spark that will jump the gap separating the inanimate and the animate. The day is coming, they say, when chemicals in a test tube will come to life.

https://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/28/science/28life.html?_r=4&ref=science&pagewanted=all

At the time of the article the prospect of easily creating artificial life forms seemed possible, but difficult and distant. But on Monday, The University of Nottingham issued a press release describing a research project to “develop an in vivo biological cell-equivalent of a computer operating system … in such a way that a given group of cells could be seamlessly re-programmed to perform any function without needing to modifying its hardware.”

… a “re-programmable cell” could revolutionise synthetic biology and would pave the way for scientists to create completely new and useful forms of life using a relatively hassle-free approach.

Professor Natalio Krasnogor of the University’s School of Computer Science, who leads the Interdisciplinary Computing and Complex Systems Research Group, said: “We are looking at creating a cell’s equivalent to a computer operating system – an ambitious goal leading to a fundamental breakthrough that will ultimately, allow us to rapidly prototype, implement and deploy living entities that are completely new and do not appear in nature, adapting them so they perform new useful functions.”

The game-changing technology could substantially accelerate Synthetic Biology research and development, which has been linked to myriad applications – from the creation of new sources of food and environmental solutions to a host of new medical breakthroughs such as drugs tailored to individual patients and the growth of new organs for transplant patients.

https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/news/pressreleases/2011/november/easily-re-programmable-cells-could-be-key-in-creation-of-new-life-forms.aspx

In essence, the idea is to create a general purpose system for creating artificial life-forms which could revolutionize synthetic biology the way the general purpose computer did for computing and 3-D printing promises to do for manufacturing.

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Mexican Authorities Bust Communication Tower Used by Cartel

by David Solomonoff

Another case where non-traditional players are providing services and infrastructure that previously only government and government-approved monopolies could:
> The Mexican government busted a narco-communications system just > across the border in Reynosa.
>
> Pictures taken by Mexican soldiers detail the level of sophistication. > They’re narco-towers, communication equipment set up by the cartel and > busted by the Mexican government in Reynosa.
>
> It’s proof that the cartels’ pockets run deep. A total of nine > antennas were busted by Mexican officials during last week’s > operation. Experts believe the cartel is having to create its own > network because the government controls much of Mexico’s infrastructure. http://www.krgv.com/news/local/story/Mexican-Authorities-Bust-Communication-T…

via Global Guerillas, http://globalguerrillas.typepad.com

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Internet Pioneers Berners-Lee, Cerf, Strickling ask: “What Kind of Net Do You Want?”

by David Solomonoff

When the first message on the ARPANET (the predecessor of today’s Internet) was sent by UCLA programmer Charley Kline, on October 29, 1969, the message text was the word “login”; the letters “l” and the “o” were transmitted, then the system crashed.

Forty two years later, the Internet is everywhere and rapidly becoming embedded in every device. Kevin Kelly sees the Net as evolving into a single “planetary computer” with “all the many gadgets we possess” as “windows into its core.” The Internet Society’s slogan is “The Internet is for everyone,” but Vint Cerf (who co-developed the TCP/IP network protocol that connects everything on the Net today) now prefers “The Internet is for everything”.

The world-wide adoption of a decentralized network that connects everything creates continuous technical, social and policy challenges that no one could have foreseen in 1969. Even as we take the Net for granted, the way we do the air that we breathe, decisions are being made by policy-makers, technologists and end-users that shape its future.

The success of the Internet has had a great deal to do with the development of open standards – often by volunteers – in groups such as the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). Decisions in Working Groups (WG) of the IETF are reached by consensus on the group mailing list so that anyone active on that list can be part of the process.

The need to add capacity is a constant challenge. What balance of public and private funding, regulation or deregulation are appropriate, and which types of infrastructure (centralized vs. decentralized; fiber, cable, wireless) warrant investment are subject to ongoing debate.

The Net has provided a platform for incredible innovation and economic growth. How to reward innovation and creativity while encouraging the widest dissemination of new content and technologies? How to encourage disruptive technologies while mitigating their potentially negative impacts?

Does there have to be a conflict between freedom and privacy on one hand and security on the other? How can users safely share personal information using social media which rely on the sale of their personal data as a business model? What legal and technical protections are necessary for businesses to securely move into the cloud?

Internet users have continuously influenced key technology innovations and policy decisions. But keeping them in the decision-making loop as they increasingly take the Net for granted presents an ongoing challenge.

On June 14, Internet pioneers Vint Cerf, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, and Lawrence E. Strickling, Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information, and Administrator, National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), will address these questions as keynote speakers for the INET Conference in New York City, sponsored by the Internet Society and the Internet Society of New York. [Disclaimer: As President of the Internet Society of New York I will deliver opening remarks.]

There will also be panels featuring industry leaders, members of civil society organizations, open source software advocates and government officials. The conference is open to the public although advance registration is required. It will also be streamed live.

Just as a democracy is never the rule of the people, but rather the people who participate in the process, the Internet has evolved through the efforts of technologists and activists – many who have volunteered their time to develop open standards, open source software and to advocate for an open Internet. It’s your call: What kind of Internet do you want?

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The Future is where we’re all going to live: Cargo Cults and Ghosts in the Machine

by David Solomonoff

Recently I participated in a panel sponsored by the y+30 meetup group which is a “forum for discussing what the world might look like in +30 years.” Moderated by Jeremy Pesner, the topic for the panel was the “Future of Digital Communication.” Because of time constraints for the very broad topic, Jeremy and I agreed to sponsor some more events, to be cosponsored by the Internet Society of New York.

This post will be the first in a series looking through my crystal ball at possible directions and challenges society will face as a result of the accelerating pace of technology in the next thirty years. Because the breakthroughs in digital communication, specifically the impact of the Internet, are the glue that ties and transforms every other aspect of technology and society, that will be my main focus.

Predicting the future is a tricky business but something everyone likes to try. My favorite futurist is the Amazing Criswell, a psychic known for wildly inaccurate predictions, who said “We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives.”

Often futurists and science-fiction writers describe a “future” that is already occurring. Former cyberpunk William Gibson said “The future is already here – it’s just unevenly distributed.” Then he gave up writing novels about the future. He now writes fiction about the present where new technologies play a part.

Arthur C. Clarke said “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” True now more than ever before because information technology, specifically software, has more in common with magical invocation and prayer than it does with earlier mechanical technologies like steam power or internal combustion. We tell machines what to do and hope they’ll do it rather than shoveling the coal, turning the crank, or opening a valve.

We think we are superior to people in less technologically advanced societies, but few people understand how technologies they use actually work.

Carl Sagan said “We have designed our civilization based on science and technology and at the same time arranged things so that almost no one understands anything at all about science and technology.” This makes us vulnerable both to accidents and acts of malice we cannot comprehend. Are we destined to devolve into a cargo cult or to struggle against malevolent ghosts in our machines?

Part of the problem may be that technological skills and intellectual property are seen as commodities to be outsourced, bought and sold, rather than shared. But as an evangelist for open source everything, I think this is only part of the problem.

To be continued …

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