From Pandemic to Panopticon: Are We Habituating Aggressive Surveillance?

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In Shoshana Zuboff’s 2019 book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, she recalls the response to the launch of Google Glass in 2012. Zuboff describes public horror, as well as loud protestations from privacy advocates who were deeply concerned that the product’s undetectable recording of people and places threatened to eliminate “a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy and/or anonymity.” 

Zuboff describes the product:

Google Glass combined computation, communication, photography, GPS tracking, data retrieval, and audio and video recording capabilities in a wearable format patterned on eyeglasses. The data it gathered — location, audio, video, photos, and other personal information — moved from the device to Google’s servers.

At the time, campaigners warned of a potential chilling effect on the population if Google Glass were to be married with new facial recognition technology, and in 2013 a congressional privacy caucus asked then Google CEO Larry Page for assurances on privacy safeguards for the product. 

Eventually, after visceral public rejection, Google parked Glass in 2015 with a short blog announcing that they would be working on future versions. And although we never saw the relaunch of a follow-up consumer Glass, the product didn’t disappear into the sunset as some had predicted. Instead, Google took the opportunity to regroup and redirect, unwilling to turn its back on the chance of harvesting valuable swathes of what Zuboff terms “behavioral surplus data”, or cede this wearables turf to a rival. 

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Six Technologies Getting us Through the Pandemic

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With COVID-19 lockdown restrictions issued across the globe, millions of us have been forced to hunker down “in place”, or severely limit our movements outside of the home. On learning this, most will have reached reflexively for the nearest device — if we didn’t learn it from that device to begin with. Yet mostly we are cinched in a love-hate relationship with the presiding artefacts of our time; and often we resent tech’s power over us

Nevertheless, new circumstances can breed new attitudes. Despite having spent the last few years debating whether or not technology will destroy us, March 2020 could be the month that at least partially redeems our faith in technology by demonstrating how fortunate we are to have some incredibly sophisticated tools in our homes.

For many, they are currently the sole portal to the outside world. 

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The Evolution of Human-Centered Tech @ Last Month’s CES 2020

An edited version of this article appeared on the H+K Strategies website earlier this month. File:Ces-consumer-electronics-show-las-vegas-greg-bulla.jpg

The dust has now settled after the madness of the world’s biggest annual tech fest, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, NV. Since the show’s kick-off in early January, a parade of weird and wonderful new devices have dominated tech news and bylines; from lab produced pork to RollBot, Charmin’s robotic savior for those “stranded on the commode without a roll.”

The event itself really isn’t for the faint-hearted. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of companies vying to embed their (often ridiculous) tech gadgetry into our lives – both at work and at play. There is, of course, lots of money to be made from finding that elusive sweet spot; the point at which problem-solving, convenience, and affordability converge.

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If Virtual Reality is Reality, is Virtual Abuse Just Abuse?

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“If you’ve got something that is independent of your mind, which has causal powers, which you can perceive in all these ways, to me you’re a long way toward being real”, the philosopher David Chalmers recently told Prashanth Ramakrishna in an interview for the New York Times. Chalmers invoked remarks by fellow Australian philosopher Samuel Alexander who said that: “To be real is to have causal powers”, and science fiction writer Philip K. Dick who said that, “a real thing is something that doesn’t go away when you stop believing in it.” 

Professor Chalmers’ comments were made in reference to the new and increasingly sophisticated world of virtual reality; something he believes has the status of a “subreality” (or similar) within our known physical reality. A place that still exists independent of our imaginations, where actions have consequences.

Chalmers draws parallels with our trusted physical reality, which is already so illusory on many levels. After all, the brain has no direct contact with the world and is reliant upon the mediation of our senses. As the mathematician-turned-philosopher points out, science tells us that vivid experiences like color are “just a bunch of wavelengths arising from the physical reflectance properties of objects that produce a certain kind of experience in us.” 

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Eurobots: Regulation rules in the European AI scene

The following is a guest post by Erin Green, PhD, a Brussels-based AI ethics and public engagement specialist. For more on the European scene, check out my recent interview with Hill + Knowlton Strategies “Creating Ethical Rules for AI.”

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When it comes to the global AI stage, China and the US consistently grab headlines as their so-called arms race heats up, while countries like Japan and South Korea lead the way in innovation and social receptivity. Europe, though, is taking a slightly different approach – partly by choice, partly by design.

The 28 countries (Brexit pending) that make up the economic and political bloc of the European Union each have a stake in the AI game. Bigger, richer players like the UK (pledging 1000 places for PhDs in AI) and Germany (€3 billion invested in the coming years) are sinking eye-widening resources into keeping up with the proverbial Joneses. Smaller nations, like Malta and its not-quite 500,000 people, are turning to foreign investment and partnerships to guarantee a spot in the major leagues.

Somewhat independent of these interests, the EU itself is trying to carve out space in terms of regulatory prowess and in bringing coherence to a rather chaotic European AI scene. Think this is a bureaucratic exercise with not much reach or consequence beyond the Berlaymont? Just remember all those GDPR emails that clogged up your inbox sometime around May 25, 2018. The EU has real regulatory reach.

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Silicon Valley’s Brain-Meddling: A New Frontier For Tech Gadgetry

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Introducing his students to the study of the human brain Jeff Lichtman, a Harvard Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology, once asked: “If understanding everything you need to know about the brain was a mile, how far have we walked?”. He received answers like ‘three-quarters of a mile’, ‘half a mile’, and ‘a quarter of a mile’.

The professor’s response?: “I think about three inches.” 

Last month, Lichtman’s quip made it into the pages of a new report by the Royal Society which examines the prospects for neural (or “brain-computer”) interfaces, a hot research area that has seen billions of dollars of funding plunged into it over the last few years, and not without cause. It is projected that the worldwide market for neurotech products – defined as “the application of electronics and engineering to the human nervous system” – will reach as much as $13.3 billion by 2022

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Sure, AI can be creative, but it will never possess genius

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Sarah Bernhardt plays Hamlet, London 1899

“What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, 
That he should weep for her?” 

The close of Act II Scene ii, and Hamlet questions how the performers in a play about the siege of Troy are able to convey such emotion – feel such empathy – for the stranger queen of an ancient city. 

The construct here is complex. A play within a play, sparking a key moment of introspection, and ultimately self doubt. It is no coincidence that in this same work we find perhaps the earliest use of the term “my mind’s eye,” heralding a shift in theatrical focus from traditions of enacted disputes, lovers passions, and farce, to more a more nuanced kind of drama that issues from psychological turmoil.

Hamlet is generally considered to be a work of creative genius. For many laboring in the creative arts, works like this and those in its broader category serve as aspirational benchmarks. Indelible reminders of the brilliant outlands of human creativity. 

Now, for the first time in our history, humans have a rival in deliberate acts of aesthetic creation. In the midst of the avalanche of artificial intelligence hype comes a new promise – creative AI; here to relieve us of burdensome tasks including musical, literary, and artistic composition.  

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Why Ethical Responsibility For Tech Should Extend to Non-Users

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Last month, Oscar Schwartz wrote a byline for OneZero with a familiarly provocative headline: “What If an Algorithm Could Predict Your Unborn Child’s Intelligence?”. The piece described the work of Genomic Prediction, a US company using machine learning to pick through the genetic data of embryos to establish the risk of health conditions. Given the title of the article, the upshot won’t surprise you. Prospective parents can now use this technology to expand their domain over the “design” of new offspring – and “cognitive ability” is among the features up for selection. 

Setting aside the contention over whether intelligence is even inheritable, the ethical debate around this sort of pre-screening is hardly new. Gender selection has been a live issue for years now. Way back in 2001, Oxford University bioethicist Julian Savulescu caused controversy by proposing a principle of “Procreative Beneficence” stating that “couples (or single reproducers) should select the child, of the possible children they could have, who is expected to have the best life, or at least as good a life as the others, based on the relevant, available information.” (Opponents to procreative beneficence vociferously pointed out that  – regrettably – Savulescu’s principle would likely lead to populations dominated by tall, pale males…). 

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Will Every Kid Get an Equal Shot at an ‘A’ In the Era of New Tech & AI?

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“One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.”

These are the inspirational words of activist Malala Yousafzai, best known as “the girl who was shot by the Taliban” for championing female education in her home country of Pakistan. This modest, pared-down idea of schooling is cherished by many. There is something noble about it, perhaps because harkens back to the very roots of intellectual enquiry. No tools and no distractions; just ideas and conversation. 

Traditionalists may be reminded of the largely bygone “chalk and talk” methods of teaching, rooted in the belief that students need little more than firm, directed pedagogical instruction to prepare them for the world. Many still reminisce about these relatively uncomplicated teaching techniques, but we should be careful not to misread Yousafzai’s words as prescribing simplicity as the optimal conditions for education. 

On the contrary, her comments describe a baseline. 

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