On empathizing with machines.

On empathizing with machines.

When I turn on my computer, I don’t consider what my computer wants.  It seems relatively empty of desire.  I click on an icon to open a text document and begin to type: letters appear on the screen.

If anything, the computer seems completely servile.  It wants to be of service!  I type, and it rearranges little magnets to mirror my desires.

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When our family travels and turns on the GPS, though, we discuss the system’s wants more readily.

“It wants you to turn left here,” K says.

“Pfft,” I say.  “That road looks bland.”  I keep driving straight and the machine starts flashing make the next available u-turn until eventually it gives in and calculates a new route to accommodate my whim.

The GPS wants our car to travel along the fastest available route.  I want to look at pretty leaves and avoid those hilly median-less highways where death seems imminent at every crest.  Sometimes the machine’s desires and mine align, sometimes they do not.

The GPS is relatively powerless, though.  It can only accomplish its goals by persuading me to follow its advice.  If it says turn left and I feel wary, we go straight.

facebook-257829_640Other machines get their way more often.  For instance, the program that chooses what to display on people’s Facebook pages.  This program wants to make money.  To do this, it must choose which advertisers receive screen time, and to curate an audience that will look at those screens often.  It wants for the people looking at advertisements to enjoy their experience.

Luckily for this program, it receives a huge amount of feedback on how well it’s doing.  When it makes a mistake, it will realize promptly and correct itself.  For instance, it gathers data on how much time the target audience spends looking at the site.  It knows how often advertisements are clicked on by someone curious to learn more about whatever is being shilled.  It knows how often those clicks lead to sales for the companies giving it money (which will make those companies more eager to give it money in the future).

Of course, this program’s desire for money doesn’t always coincide with my desires.  I want to live in a country with a broadly informed citizenry.  I want people to engage with nuanced political and philosophical discourse.  I want people to spend less time staring at their telephones and more time engaging with the world around them.  I want people to spend less money.

But we, as a people, have given this program more power than a GPS.  If you look at Facebook, it controls what you see – and few people seem upset enough to stop looking at Facebook.

With enough power, does a machine become a moral actor?  The program choosing what to display on Facebook doesn’t seem to consider the ethics of its decisions … but should it?

From Burt Helm’s recent New York Times Magazine article, “How Facebook’s Oracular Algorithm Determines the Fates of Start-Ups”:

Bad human actors don’t pose the only problem; a machine-learning algorithm, left unchecked, can misbehave and compound inequality on its own, no help from humans needed.  The same mechanism that decides that 30-something women who like yoga disproportionately buy Lululemon tights – and shows them ads for more yoga wear – would also show more junk-food ads to impoverished populations rife with diabetes and obesity.

If a machine designed to want money becomes sufficiently powerful, it will do things that we humans find unpleasant.  (This isn’t solely a problem with machines – consider the ethical decisions of the Koch brothers, for instance – but contemporary machines tend to be much more single-minded than any human.)

I would argue that even if a programmer tried to include ethical precepts into a machine’s goals, problems would arise.  If a sufficiently powerful machine had the mandate “end human suffering,” for instance, it might decide to simultaneously snuff all Homo sapiens from the planet.

Which is a problem that game designer Frank Lantz wanted to help us understand.

One virtue of video games over other art forms is how well games can create empathy.  It’s easy to read about Guantanamo prison guards torturing inmates and think, I would never do that.  The game Grand Theft Auto 5 does something more subtle.  It asks players – after they have sunk a significant time investment into the game – to torture.  You, the player, become like a prison guard, having put years of your life toward a career.  You’re asked to do something immoral.  Will you do it?

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Most players do.  Put into that position, we lapse.

In Frank Lantz’s game, Paperclips, players are helped to empathize with a machine.  Just like the program choosing what to display on people’s Facebook pages, players are given several controls to tweak in order to maximize a resource.  That program wanted money; you, in the game, want paperclips.  Click a button to cut some wire and, voila, you’ve made one!

But what if there were more?

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A machine designed to make as many paperclips as possible (for which it needs money, which it gets by selling paperclips) would want more.  While playing the game (surprisingly compelling given that it’s a text-only window filled with flickering numbers), we become that machine.  And we slip into folly.  Oops.  Goodbye, Earth.

There are dangers inherent in giving too much power to anyone or anything with such clearly articulated wants.  A machine might destroy us.  But: we would probably do it, too.

On photographs not taken.

On photographs not taken.

Most likely, you are being watched. If you spend any time in urban areas, you surely pass by numerous surveillance cameras each day. Recent advances in computational image analysis allow the movements of every person in a crowd to be tracked.

Big Brother has hungry, hungry eyes.

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Worse, you’re probably collaborating with the invasion of your own privacy. If you carry a smartphone with a GPS device, you have – according to U.S. legal precedent – consented to be monitored. Your every movement traced, the rhythms of your life documented in exquisite detail. When you sleep, when you eat, where you shop…

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In the U.S., many people assume that the police cannot spy on them without probable cause. This is the gist of the Fourth Amendment, after all. We are ostensibly shielded from search and seizure.

Thankfully, my local library bought a copy of Barry Friedman’s excellent Unwarranted: Policing Without Permission, and I learned that this assumption is wrong. Since the beginning of the War on Drugs, our courts have issued ruling after ruling that erode Fourth Amendment protections.

If the police are allowed to stop and search people at will, they can apprehend more criminals. As a corollary, huge numbers of innocent people will be treated like criminals. In Friedman’s words:

51gDp2lcbEL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_It is plain from what is happening on the nation’s streets, and in its airports, that Terry’s elimination of the probable cause standard has set the police loose on the rest of us. Not just to stop us, but to place their hands on our bodies and possessions. The police still ostensibly need articulable suspicion to forcibly stop people – that much is clear – but what counts as articulable suspicion is deeply suspect, and the Supreme Court has done virtually nothing to rein in this sort of conduct. The stops occur, the frisks follow almost automatically, and the bodily integrity of millions of people is violated without good cause.

Our courts have ruled in favor of Fourth Amendment violations so many times because they only hear cases in which criminals – or dudes carrying drugs, at least – were caught via illegal police behavior. The “penalty” that courts are supposed to impose on the police in these instances is referred to as the “exclusionary rule.” When the police violate the Fourth Amendment, any evidence they gather is supposed to be ignored during a trial.

But it feels bad to ignore evidence. When somebody has clearly violated the law, judges want to throw that person in jail. No, not the police officer. Violating constitutional law does not merit jail time. But if a person had drugs, and the police found them? Our judges want to put that person in jail.

Do we really want to let drug users or dealers back onto our streets?

(Hint: the correct answer is almost assuredly “yes.” Without even considering the ethical implications of what we’ve been doing, it’s pretty clear that imprisoning them endangers us all. But most judges disagree.)

And so, case by case, our judges have decided that this time, the police did not actually violate the Fourth Amendment. Our judges excel at rhetorical gymnastics. As long as a judge can argue that a particular search was constitutional, then the cops are in the clear. No evidence need be discarded. Another criminal can be locked away. Everyone is happy.

Almost everyone.

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Almost all the rich white people are kept happy, at least. Everyone who counts.

These rulings have been issued by judges considering only a single case at a time, one instance when a police officer’s illegal search found evidence of a crime. Because the “exclusionary rule” is the only penalty the courts are willing to impose on police officers – i.e., it’s exceedingly rare for police officers to be fined for their illegal activities on the job – people who were illegally searched but had not committed a crime have no chance for redress. If you’re already innocent, what good is the exclusionary rule? You don’t need any illegally-obtained evidence to be ignored.

And so it’s worth considering how often innocent people are searched. From Friedman:

… Judge Pratt got a specific answer to Judge Arnold’s question: How often do agents stop suspects and hassle them like this, only to come up with nothing? The agents in the case before him testified they “spend their days approaching potential drug suspects at the Greater Buffalo International Airport.” In 1989 “they detained 600 suspects … yet their hunches that year resulted in only ten arrests.” Ten hits out of six hundred people harassed. Less than a 2 percent hit rate. Judge Pratt concluded, “It appears that they have sacrificed the fourth amendment by detaining 590 innocent people in order to arrest ten who are not – all in the name of the ‘war on drugs.’ “ In other words, it could be you.

That was three decades ago – since then, the situation has gotten worse. Despite the Fourth Amendment, police officers can stop and search you at almost any time, for almost any reason. Especially if you’re driving a car, in which case you’re almost assuredly breaking some law. No matter how minor the infraction, at that point searches become legal.

Most of us should be aware by now that the burden of innocent people being treated like criminals does not fall upon all people equally. Our nation’s poor, as well as anybody with above-average concentrations of skin pigment, are routinely abused. Wealthy white people are free to assume that our constitutional rights are still intact.

The minor consolation? The teensy benefit of all those life-endangering stops and searches? At least people know they’re being searched.

The courts have also ruled that you do not have Fourth Amendment protections when your behavior is visible in public. If a police officer glances at you, notices you’re carrying a jay, and busts you, the officer has done nothing wrong. Which seems sensible enough. But the police are also allowed to augment their natural senses using any tools “commonly available” to the public.

If you have a fenced-in backyard, for instance, the police are allowed to fly over it in a helicopter and take high-resolution photographs with a telephoto lens. After all, any member of the public could’ve done so – lots of people have copters and telephoto spy cameras. Right? So you should have no expectation of privacy. Or, if you’re in your house, the police are allowed to watch you using heat-sensing devices. They can aim infrared cameras at the walls and watch you move from room to room. After all, infrared devices are “commonly available” as well. Many smartphones have some semblance of this functionality.

Of course, anyone who carries a smartphone is even more exposed. You have “voluntarily” given data about your location at every moment of the day to a third party. Whenever you have shared information with others, the police need only present a “reasonable suspicion” to silently siphon it from that third party. They can obtain all your data with a subpoena (a privilege explicitly granted by the 2001 Patriot Act, but already in line with court precedent), and these are invariably granted.

And the world grows spookier. Recently our legislators decided that internet service providers should be allowed to collect data on everything we do online and sell that data to whomever they want, including the government. Again, this agrees with court precedent – we’ve shared this information with third parties, and Google and Facebook were doing it already.

At least the recent bill caused more people to notice how little privacy we have.

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I collect pictures of fire hydrants. I travel a fair bit, and walk around a lot when I do, so I have seen many interesting ones.

 

But I don’t always have a camera with me. So I thought that today’s essay should be a brief paean to three lovely photographs I didn’t take.

1.) Shortly after I arrived in California, I was walking from Menlo Park to Stanford’s campus. It was, as ever, a gorgeous, sunny day. And then, just after passing the shopping mall, in front of a sparkling green field and a wooden fence, I saw a young woman and her mother standing still ahead of me. The young woman had a camera aimed at a yellow hydrant.

Later, after they’d walked on, I stopped and inspected the hydrant. There was a small anthill in the dirt nearby – presumably this was not visible in the young woman’s picture. There was an ocher stain on the hood where some paint had flaked away, but most of the yellow coat was smooth. It had the same shape and size as the vast majority on campus.

Ah! To have documentation of strangers also collecting fire hydrant photographs!

2.) Between my home and the university library, cattycorner to the bus stop where many music students wait to be ferried to the practice halls, there were two hydrants within two feet of each other for about a week. One was painted a light shade of green, the other gray. The ground around them was patchy with bare earth and course gravel. They were on a slope, the green hydrant slightly above the gray.

I had plenty of time to return home, grab a camera, and hike back to take a photograph. It was splendorous, and mirrored a dream I’d had during college, of hiking through Chicago on a fire hydrant safari and finding a street corner with four hydrants visible together, one at each vertex of the intersection.

But I grew complacent. I thought those hydrants would be paired forever! Each time I saw them, I said to myself tomorrow I’ll remember to bring a camera.

And then, one day, the gray hydrant was gone. I’ve taken people to that intersection to tell them, once, there were two hydrants together. The other was right here, right where I am standing.

If I had a photograph, people would believe me.

3.) Last week, I was driving my spouse home from work amidst a clamorous thunderstorm. It was slightly after eleven a.m. – K left work early for a doctor’s appointment. Four blocks from our house, she spotted a hydrant – with a long metal stem attached – lain supine in the grass.

I circled back so we could see it again. And said, as soon as the rain stops, I’ll jog here with a camera!

The rain stopped during our kids’ nap. K was at the doctor’s. I stayed home, reading while they slept, until she returned.

By then, two hours had passed. I ran to that spot with Uncle Max (our dog) and a camera. But the fallen hydrant was gone, the nearby hole covered up, the metallic corpse carted away.

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If I carried a smartphone, I wouldn’t have this problem. Most newer models have excellent built-in cameras. Whenever I saw a catchy hydrant, I could take a brief break from twiddling with my twitter and snap a photo. (As long as my device left me sufficiently attentive to notice hydrants.)

Instead, I have a seven-year-old flip-phone. Camera-less, text-message-less, often turned off. (And, unlike a smartphone, it actually does turn off.)

I’ve missed a few great hydrant photos. But I’ve spent less money. I’ve contributed a little less to our species’ destruction of the environment. And – though obviously I too am being watched – those hungry, spying eyes get less from me.