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In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king

Aug 1, 2017 | Information Technology

Politics is a tough job, and politicians are a strange bunch. Douglas Adams put it best:

To summarize: it is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it. To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.”

It gets worse when politicians with a poor understanding of technology create bad legislation which causes all sorts of problems. Currently the FCC in the USA is attempting to dismantle net neutrality. If they succeed, the internet will be divided into fast lanes and slow lanes, with the former going to the high bidders. Many, many individuals and big businesses are not happy about this. But it’s the tip of the iceberg. We’re at a tipping point, where a number of key technologies are maturing. All of them need legislation and governance, and this will be implemented by people who don’t really understand it .Here are some of the technologies we need to think about:

Artificial Intelligence

I’ve already written quite some time ago about the disruption that AI will bring. Many jobs will be made redundant by AI. This means many people will need another job, or an alternative source of income. Since I wrote the article, I’ve seen many others write along similar lines, suggesting that big business needs to divert at least some of the savings made from AI to a universal basic income fund. The problem is that these businesses work for their shareholders, and their shareholders won’t take kindly to the idea of giving up profits. Given that big business lobbyists essentially dictate government policy, we’re going to need a lot of powerful philantropists to advocate for a basic universal income.

And what about self-driving cars? Should the car protect its passengers at the expense of others, in a situation where a collision is inevitable? How should a car react to the trolley problem? For general robotics and AI, we know that the 3 rules of robotics which Isaac Asimov formulated for his fiction are far too simplistic and ambiguous to be applied in the real world. A lot of legislation will be needed…

Quantum Computing

Quantum computing is approaching the point where it moves from a research project to having commercial viability. In traditional computing a bit can hold 2 values (0 or 1), 2 bits can hold 4, 3 bits 8, and n bits can hold 2 to the power of n states or values at a time. A quantum machine representing an n bit value can hold 2 to the power of n values at the same time, using quantum superposition. While the technology is not inherently suitable for certain tasks, it will be an excellent platform for breaking traditional cryptography, and it may take less than 15 years to get to the point where we need new cryptographic technologies. If we haven’t migrated to post-quantum cryptography before this happens, those with the resources will have a skeleton key to all encrypted systems.

Cryptocurrency

Today, I can meet a stranger, give them some Euros and receive Bitcoins or other cryptocurrencies to my digital wallet. The transaction is visible for all to see, but nobody knows the identity of the seller or the buyer. I can then buy a pizza, drugs, guns, or even an assassination, and so long as I take reasonable precautions, and nobody can follow the money to convict me. I can make illegal purchases. I can dodge taxes. If I’m clever, I can steal a fortune in bitcoins and never get caught. How do we balance the right to use a decentralized currency with anonymity baked in, against the criminality  it facilitates? I’ve yet to hear a realistic solution.

Privacy

Do we have the right to privacy online? Probably not. Many online platforms demand as a condition of membership that we give them the right to use all content we put on the platform, for any purpose they want, anywhere they want, in perpetuity. Most companies leverage data mining to aggregate data on their users, and use the habits of individuals to sell to them. They even use tracking cookies to follow them around the internet, gathering more data so that they can get better information, to sell you stuff, or to sell data about you to others. That Angry Birds clone that asked you for access to your phone’s microphone? Why does it need it? What’s it doing with it?

We’re very trusting online, and we shouldn’t be. If a website has data on you and the government asks for it, they’ll usually get it, even across borders. What law affects my data? The law of the country in which I reside? Or the country where the company that stores my data is registered? Or the country with the servers that hold my data? What about all the countries that my data crossed en route from my browser to the server? There isn’t an answer, because we need global concensus to come up with a workable rule set. Governments constantly argue that they need backdoors into everything to fight terrorism. It’s a weak argument, but it works, and many companies have been forced to hand over vast swathes of data against their will.

Accountability

It’s pretty easy to create social media accounts on many platforms under an assumed name, and to spread terrorism propaganda and hate speech. Where is the line between freedom of speech and criminality? Does creating a cartoon of a deity justify murder? When does a joke stop being funny and turn into bullying?

Security

Are the companies who store your data doing enough to safeguard it? Large hacks seem to occur on an almost weekly basis. Many of these hacks reveal that the passwords are stored in plaintext rather than being encrypted, meaning that those who reuse passwords are effectively open to theft on any system where they use that password. The internet of things is a disaster when it comes to security, Many of these devices are computers running on Linux. They are built cheaply, meaning they often use old versions of Linux with exploitable security holes. It’s also very common for them to come with default passwords, and these devices are on the internet. Already we’ve seen armies of webcams taken over, to spy on their owners and to run denial of service attacks on websites. It’s not a stretch to imagine that these security weaknesses will eventually cost lives.

Conclusion

These are just a few areas where emerging technology raises very serious concerns. Before we resort to tinfoil hats, we owe it to ourselves and our children to ask questions of ourselves, of our government and of our legal system. Technology enriches our lives, but also has the capacity to destroy them.

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