Algorithm Problem

United Airlines has been having it’s problems since recently ejecting a passenger to facilitate crew members getting to their next flight.  As the Wall St. Journal article points out this is a result (in part) of employees following a fairly strict rule book — i.e. an algorithm.  In many areas from safety to passenger relations United has rules to follow, and employee (i.e. human) discretion  is reduced or eliminated.   It is somewhat ironic that the employees who made the decisions that lead up to this debacle could have been fired for not taking this course of action.  But how does this relate to Technology and Society?

There are two immediate technology considerations that become apparent.  First is the automated reporting systems.  No doubt the disposition of every seat, passenger and ticket is tracked, along with who made what decisions.  This means that employees not following the algorithm will be recorded, ,may be detected/reported.  In the good old days a supervisor could give a wink and smile to an employee who broke the ‘rules’ but did the right thing.  Now-a-days, the technology is watching and increasingly, the technology is comparing the data with history, rule books and other data.

The second aspect of this is “gate attendant 2.0” — when we automate these humans out of their jobs, or into less responsible “face-keepers”. (i.e. persons present only to provide a human face to the customer while all of the actual work/decisions are automated, akin to the term “place-keeper”.)  Obviously if there is a “rule book”, this will be asserted in the requirements for the system, and exact execution of the rules can be accomplished. It is possible that passengers will respond differently if a computerized voice/system is informing them of their potential removal — realizing there is no “appeal”. However it is also possible that an AI system spanning all of an airlines operations, aware of all flight situations, and past debacles like this one may have more informed responses.  The airline might go beyond the simple check-in, frequent flyer and TSA passenger profile to their Facebook, credit-score and other data in making the decisions on who to “bump”.  One can envision bumping passengers with lower credit ratings, or who’s Facebook psychological profiles indicate that they are mild-mannered reporters, or shall we say “meek”.

The ethics programmed into gate-attendant 2.0 are fairly important.  They will reflect the personality of the company, the prejudices of the developers, the wisdom of the deep-learning processes, and the cultural narratives of all of the above.

AI Apocalypse (not)

Presumably we will reach a tipping point when Intelligent Devices surpass humans in many key areas, quite possibly without our ability to understand what has just happened, a variation of this is called “the singularity” (coined by Vernor Vinge, and heralded by Ray Kurzweil)  How would we know we have reached such a point?  One indicator might be an increased awareness, concern and discussion about the social impact of AI’s.  There has been a significant increase in this activity in the last year, and even in the last few months.  Here are some examples for those trying to track the trend (of course Watson, Siri, Google Home, Alexa, Cortana and their colleagues already know this.)

A significant point made by Harari is that Artificial Intelligence does not require Artificial Consciousness. A range of purpose built AI systems can individually have significant impact on society without reflecting what the IEEE Ethics project recognizes to as “Artificial Generalized Intelligence”.  This means that jobs, elections, advertising, online/phone service centers, weapons systems, vehicles, book/movie recommendations, news feeds, search results, online dating connections, and so much more will be (or are being) influenced or directed by combinations of big data, personalization and AI.

What concerns/opportunities do you see in this, ‘brave new world’?


Alexa called as witness?

“Alexa, tell me, in your own words, what happened on the night in question.” … actually the request is more like “Alexa, please replay the dialog that was recorded at 9:05PM for the jury”.  The case is in Bentonville Arkansas, and the charge is murder. Since an Echo unit was present, Amazon has been asked to disclose whatever information might have been captured at the time of the crime.

Amazon indicates that “Echo” keeps less than sixty seconds of recorded sound, it may not have that level of details, but presumably a larger database exists of requests and responses for the night in question as well.  Amazon has provided some data about purchase history, but is waiting for a formal court document to release any additional information.

Which begs the issue of how they might respond to apparent sounds of a crime in progress. “Alexa call 911!” is pretty clear, but “Don’t Shoot!” (or other phrases that might be ‘real’ or ‘overheard’ from a movie in the background …)  An interesting future awaits us.

Big Brother/Data 2016

The power of big data, AI/analytics, and subtle data collection are converging to a future only hinted at in Orwell’s 1984.  With the rapid developments on many fronts, it is not surprising that those of us who are only moderately paranoid have not been tracking it all. So here’s an update on some of the recent information on who is watching you and why:

Facebook (no surprise here) has been running personality quizzes that evaluate how your OCEAN score lines up.  That is Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism.  These “Free” evaluations are provided by Cambridge Analytica. The applications of this data to political election influence is documented by the NY Times (subscription required) and quoted in part by others.  The short take is that your Facebook profile (name, etc.) is combined with your personality data, and “onboarding” data from other sources such as age, income, debt, purchases, health concerns, car, gun  and home ownership and more.  Cambridge Analytica is reported to have records with 3 to 5 thousand data points on each of 230 million adult Americans. — which is most of us.

How to they use this data?  Psycho-graphic micro-targeted advertising is the recent target, seeking to influence voting in the U.S. Election.  They only support Republican candidates, so other parties will have to develop their own doomsday books.  There is no requirement that the use of the quizzes be disclosed, nor that the “ads” be identified as political or approved by any candidate.  The ads might not appear to have any specific political agenda, they might just point out news (or fake news) stories that play to your specific personality and have been test-marketed to validate the influence they will have on the targeted voter(s).  This may inspire you to get out and vote, or to stay-home and not bother — depending on what candidate(s) you support (based on social media streams, or more generalize characteristics if you personally have not declared your preferences.)  — Impact — quite possibly the U.S. Presidency.

But wait, that’s not all.

The U.K is expanding their surveillance powers, requiring Internet Companies to retain interactions/transactions for a year, including every web site you have accessed. This apparently is partially in response to the assertions by France that similar powers had foiled an ISIS attack in France. The range of use (abuse) that might be applied by the UK government and their allies remains to be seen (or more likely will remain hidden.)

But, consider what China is doing to encourage residents to be “sincere”. [Here is a serious limitation of my linguistic and cultural skills — no doubt there is a Mandarin word that is being used and translated to “sincere”, and that it carries cultural implications that may not be evident in translation.]  Data collected to determine your “social credibility rating”. includes: tax, loan, bill, and other payments (on time?), adherence to traffic rules, family planning limits, academic record, purchasing, online interactions, nature of information you post online, volunteer activity, and even “filial piety” (respect for elders/ancestors). And the applications of such data?  So far 4.9 million airline tickets have been refused. Your promotion, or even job opportunities can be limited with “sensitive” jobs being subject to review — judges, teachers, accountants, etc. A high score will open doors — possible faster access to government services.  By letting citizens see their score, they can be encouraged to ‘behave themselves better’.  By not disclosing all of the data collected, nor all of the implications the state can bully citizens into far greater sincerity than they might adopt if they were just trying to not break the law.

Your comments, thoughts and responses are encouraged, but remember — they are being recorded by others for reasons you may never know.  … Sincerely yours, Jim

Humans, Machines, and the Future of Work

De Lange Conference X on Humans, Machines, and the Future of Work
December 5-6, 2016 at Rice University, Houston, TX
For details, registration, etc. See


  • What advances in artificial intelligence, robotics and automation are expected over the Next 25 years?
  • What will be the impact of these advances on job creation, job destruction and wages in the labor market?
  • What skills are required for the job market of the future?
  • Can education prepare workers for that job market?
  • What educational changes are needed?
  • What economic and social policies are required to integrate people who are left out of future labor markets?
  • How can we preserve and increase social mobility in such an environment?


AI Ethics

A growing area reflecting the impact of technology on society is ethics and AI.  This has a few variations… one is what is ethical in terms of developing or applying AI, the second is what is ethical for AI’s.  (Presumably for an AI to select an ethical vs unethical course of action either it must be programmed that way, or it must learn what is ethical as part of it’s education/awareness.)

Folks playing in the AI Ethics domain include a recent consortia of industry players (IBM, Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft), the IEEE Standards folks, and the White House (with a recent white paper).

This is a great opportunity for learning about the issues in the classroom, to develop deep background for policy and press folks — concerns will emerge here — consider self driving cars, robots in warfare or police work, etc.  and of course the general public where misconceptions and misinformation are likely.  We see many movies where evil technology is a key plot device, and get many marketing messages on the advantages of progress.  Long term challenges for informed evolution in this area will require less simplistic perspectives of the opportunities and risks.

There is a one day event in Brussels, Nov. 15, 2016 that will provide a current view on some of the issues, and discussions.


Robot Friends

The Wall St. Journal has a piece “Your Next Friend Could Be a Robot“, which is talking about a device in your home, not a disembodied associate on Facebook. The initial example is “embodied” as a speaker/microphone in Amazon’s Echo Dot, but also includes similar devices from Google, cell phones and even Toyota.  So what?

Folks, the article focuses on a 69 year old woman living alone, have a relationship with the devices.  These are 24/7 connected to the Internet, with a back end AI voice recognition/response system. (The article asserts it’s not AI because it’s not conscious, which is a different consideration.) … Apparently “double digit” percentages of interactions with Alexa (Amazon’s non-AI personality) are “non-utilitarian” presumably not triggering orders for Amazon products.

The good news: folks feel less lonely, more connected, and have “someone” there 24/7 — and responding to queries (with pre-programed answers) such as “what are the laws of robotics” — see Reddit’s list of fun questions.  … but

The bad news — it’s not clear what happens when you tell Alexa to call 911, or that you have fallen down and can’t get up, etc.  While there are “wakeup” and “sleep” words you can use, just the fact that a wakeup word can be recognized indicates that a level of 24/7 monitoring is in place.  No doubt this can be hacked, and tapped, and otherwise abused.

What is Amazon’s liability if you tell Alexa you need help and no effective response occurs?  No doubt time and lawsuits will tell.

Ethics of Killing with Robots

The recent murder of police officers in Dallas, finally terminated by the lethal use of a robot to kill the shooter has triggered an awareness of related ethical issues. First, it must be understood that the robot was under human control during it’s entire mission, so in this particular case it reflects a sophisticated “projection of power” with no autonomous capability. The device might have been a drone controlled remotely and simply paralleled the current use of drones (and no doubt other devices) as weapons.

We already have examples of “autonomous” devices as well. Mines, both land and ocean (and eventually space) all reflect devices “programmed to kill” that operate with no human at the trigger. If anything, a lethal frustration with these devices is that they are too dumb, killing long after their intended use.

I saw a comment in one online discussion implying that robots are or would be programed with Asimov’s first law: “Do not harm humans”. But of course this is neither viable at this time (it takes an AI to evaluate that concept) nor is it a directive that is likely to be implemented in actual systems. Military and police applications are among the most likely for robotic systems of this kind, and harming humans may be a key objective.

Projecting lethal force at a distance may be one of the few remaining characteristics of humans (since we have found animals innovating tools, using language and so forth). Ever since Homo Whomever (pre Sapians as I understand it), tossed a rock to get dinner we have been on this slippery slope. The ability to kill a target from a ‘position of safety’ is essentially the basic design criteria for many weapon systems.  Homo Whomever may have also crossed the autonomous Rubicon with the first snare or pit-fall trap.

Our challenge is to make sure our systems designers and those acquiring the systems have some serious ethical training with practical application.  Building in the safeguards, expiration dates, decision criteria, etc. should be essential aspects of lethal autonomous systems design. “Should” is unfortunately the case, it is unlikely in many scenarios.

Teaching Computers to Lie

A recent article on the limitations of computer “players” in online games is that they don’t know about lying.   No doubt this is true.  Both the detection of lies (which means anticipating them, and in some sense understanding the value of mis-representation to the other party) and the ability to use this capability are factors in ‘gaming’.  This can be both entertainment games, and ‘gaming the system’ — in sales, tax evasion, excusing failures, whatever.

So here is a simple question: Should we teach computers to lie?
(unfortunately, I don’t expect responses to this question will alter the likely path of game creators, or others who might see value in computers that can lie.)   I will also differentiate this from using computers to lie.  I can program a computer so that it overstates sales, understates losses, and many other forms of fraud.  But in this case it is my ethical/legal lapse, not a “decision” on the part of the computer.

It’s 10PM do you know what your model is doing?

“Customers like you have also …”  This concept appears explicitly, or implicitly at many points in the web-of-our-lives, aka the Internet. Specific corporations, and aggregate operations are building increasingly sophisticated models of individuals.  Not just “like you”, but “you”! Prof. Pedro Domingos at UW  in his book “The Master Algorithm: How the Quest for the Ultimate Learning Machine Will Remake Our World” suggests this model of you may become a key factor of your ‘public‘ interactions.

Examples include having Linked-in add a “find me a job” button that will conduct interviews with relevant open positions and provide you a list of the best.  Or perhaps locating a house, a car, a spouse, …well, maybe somethings are better done face-2-face.

Apparently a Asian firm, “Deep Knowledge” has appointed a virtual director to their Board. In this case it is a construct designed to detect trends that the human directors might miss.  However, one suspects that Apple might want a model of Steve Jobs around for occasional consultation, if not back in control again.