What snakes are growing in the Gardens of Technological Eden?

Two emerging technologies are revolutionizing industries, and will soon have big impacts on our health, jobs, entertainment, and entire lives. They are Artificial Intelligence, and Big Data. Of course, these have already had big effects in certain applications, but I expect that they will become even more important as they improve. My colleague Dr. James Short is putting together a conference called Data West at the San Diego Supercomputer Center, and I came up with a list of fears that might disrupt their emergence.

1) If we continue to learn that ALL large data repositories will be hacked from time to time (Experian; National Security Agency), what blowback will that create against data collection? Perhaps none in the US, but in some other countries, it will cause less willingness to allow companies to collect consumer data.

2) Consensual reality is unraveling, mainly as a result of deliberate, sophisticated, distributed, attacks. That should concern all of us as citizens. Should it also worry us as data users, or will chaos in public venues not leak over into formal data? For example, if information portals (YouTube, Facebook, etc.) are forced to take a more active role in censoring content, will advertisers care? Again, Europe may be very different. We can presume that any countermeasures will only be partly effective – the problem probably does not have a good technical solution.

3) Malware, extortion, etc. aimed at companies. Will this “poison the well” in general?

4) Malware, extortion, doxing, etc. aimed at Internet of Things users, such as household thermostats, security cameras, cars. Will this cause a backlash against sellers of these systems, or will people accept it as the “new normal.” So far, people have seemed willing to bet that it won’t affect them personally, but will that change. For example, what will happen when auto accidents are caused by deliberate but unknown parties who advertise their success? When someone records all conversations within reach of the Alexa box in the living room?

Each of these scenarios has at least a 20% chance of becoming common. At a minimum, they will require more spending on defenses. Will any become large enough to suppress entire applications of these new technologies?

I have not said anything about employment and income distribution. They may change for the worse over the next 20 years, but the causes and solutions won’t be simple, and I doubt that political pressure will become strong enough to alter technology evolution.

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Reality versus belief, and the American right

Warning: this post is entirely opinion about American politics.

Bret Stephens had an interesting op-ed in the NY Times recently. On first reading, it was great. Then I went through the comments, and realized it was quite one-sided. (He is a conservative, over from the WS Journal.) So I wrote the following letter to the editor.

In his column of Sept. 24 Mr Stephens sharp eye noticed, and sharp tongue castigated, only the left’s fundamental error in today’s discussions: judging arguments based on the speaker’s identity. But even more destructive is the fundamental error found primarily on the right: judging arguments based on the desire to believe them. That Congressman R believes something, no matter how strongly, does not make it true, nor a valid basis for setting policy.

I  am at a university that emphasizes science and engineering, and teaches little about Mr. Stephens’ Great Books. But we  teach our students that objective reality exists, and that it matters.  We base our arguments on empirical evidence. And if evidence is insufficient, we look for more.

Here are a few examples of facts that are somehow viewed as controversial: making contraception and information more available to teenagers reduces unwanted pregnancies, and abortions. (See Colorado for a large-scale proof.) Vaccinations reduce disease. Cutting income taxes of the rich will do little to stimulate the economy when the economy is near full employment. Pumping gases into the atmosphere creates a “greenhouse effect.” There is room to disagree about what actions to take as a result of these facts, but not about the facts themselves.

I have elsewhere argued that America (and other parts of the world) are retreating from Reason back to Faith, reversing the Enlightenment of the 1600s. If this continues, the consequences for our country will be dire. But that is a longer discussion.