This is really difficult for me to say since optimism about technology making our future better is what has kept me going all my adult life. It’s why after a degree in mechanical engineering and an MBA , I chose to be a programmer . It’s also why despite multiple leadership opportunities on sales and general management, I continue to be a hands on technologist .
It’s not that I have become pessimistic suddenly about technology’s power to transform society today – nothing could be farther from truth . It’s just that I have a lot more pessimism about the humans who use and control the technologies that will impact us .
I have been quite an active participant on social media – especially thanks to the easy access via my iPhone . Between Twitter , LinkedIn and Facebook – I have more than twenty three thousand or so connections (including some duplication for sure). On twitter – I only follow about 150 people, mostly because I can’t keep up with a larger feed . I strongly believed that this network has given me mostly net goodness.
I have thought a lot about what is my primary principle for social media . I think the honest answer is convenience !
I do 90% or more of all my social media activities on the apps on my phone . At some point, I started accepting vast majority of connection requests without too much due diligence – clearly not a smart idea and I am slowly cleaning it up now. I haven’t fiddled with ALL the privacy controls on each platform . It’s not that I was fully ignorant of what these platforms did with my data – just that I didn’t think of it more than as a nuisance with a bunch of merchants trying to sell me stuff non stop . I have often discussed with friends from my line of work how some of these targeting algorithms could be optimized to make it less annoying .
Then this Cambridge Analytica thing came out ( and the continuing conversations about the Russian influence on elections) , and yesterday night I read Zuckerberg’s response on Facebook . It’s extremely depressing to say the least .
The irony is that yesterday night is when I reinstalled the FB app back on my phone after a month away from it – and the first thing I noticed was Mark Z response ! I did go and tighten privacy controls as soon as I read it !
I work in analytics and AI – and have a special interest in getting insights from unstructured data . That means I do know how easy it is for FB and others to gain a very deep level of understanding of our lives . I also don’t think that privacy controls by themselves are of significant benefit . When you have a lot of data from a lot of people – you don’t need every last bit from every individual to get the deep insights. I will spare the tech aspects here – but suffice to say , these platforms have disproportionate power even if we assume they are all angels . We also know by now that they and the people they give access to our data are not exactly angel like .
I do value the ability to stay connected with friends and family . I also enjoy the vacation pictures and puppy videos . So the only solution I can think of is to significantly reduce what I discuss on FB etc. I didn’t miss Facebook when I stayed away for a month . So I also wonder if I could just get out of it for good and be done with it . I know I am not alone on these thoughts .
There is an interesting cross cultural aspect to consider too . I have spent a lot of time in Europe thanks to my work . There is no comparison between US and EU when it comes to privacy . If I lived in Europe for longer , I seriously wonder if I would have traded privacy for convenience . Plus the government wouldn’t have allowed a lot of what FB etc has gotten away with in US . Given its global reach , I do expect FB to get hauled up in EU at some point soon .
Then there was the poor woman cyclist who was killed by an autonomous Uber car in Tempe , AZ . It’s not very far from where I live – so this hit home harder than usual . Tempe police has released a preliminary report and video (Its disturbing – so not linking it here) . I really wish the lady was way more careful about crossing the road at night . Such a tragic end ! I am not at all a legal expert – but it’s quite possible in my view that law might blame the lady and not hold Uber responsible for this accident .
I have a big interest in the topic of man and machine working together, and have written and spoken about it a lot . A critical question here is whether a machine should be held to a significantly higher standard than a human in similar situation . Several of my friends think a machine should be held only to the same standards as humans.
For at least two reasons , I actually think machines should be held to significantly higher standards than humans
1. A machine is more efficient than humans and can keep getting even more efficient in lesser time than humans by comparison . So the flaws in those machines are also amplified several fold more thanks to mass production of machines . We can’t risk the world being full of half baked machines , irrespective of benefits in cost and convenience . No price is too high when it comes to protecting human life
2. A Machine can make faster decisions than humans and use more sources of information than a human can to make those decisions . At the same poor visibility , a human driver probably will have made the same mistake the autonomous car did – and that’s a fair argument. But vision is not the only sensory option for the car – motion detection , heat detection etc are all options and there are plenty of sensors/actuators/radar/lidar on such cars. And the cost is also declining pretty fast. So I think it’s a false equivalency to say a human driver would have made the same error and hence the machine should get a pass .
And in the video – it looks like the driver sitting there didn’t notice anything till last second , arguably because of the trust in the machine to do a good job . This trust is what worries me . In the situation where there is a passenger in front of car is straightforward – the car should break . It could get much worse in cases where the decision is a choice between two bad options like hitting one person or hitting another via swerving. If the straightforward option itself is not reliable , how would we expect the machine to react in more complex situations ?
I think Uber did the responsible thing by pulling the self driving cars off the street . They are also apparently fully cooperating with the investigation . I also think AZ authorities are correct in not making any snap judgements on tightening regulations.
This should wake us all up – testing autonomous systems is quite hard to begin with . And it needs a lot of inter disciplinary research investment to get better and more consistent . We are not exactly short on money or talent to get it done – we just need to put safety as a bigger priority than it is now . I love capitalism as much as the next person – but commercial greed just cannot be allowed to over rule safety under the branding of capitalism
I absolutely think our future is still about technology doing good things to improve our quality of life, including social media and self driving vehicles . But it’s high time we took a long and hard look at what are the top priorities in our quest to get there . Better , faster , cheaper is not enough – we need to add SAFER as a first rate citizen into the value proposition and it should not be negotiable !
(Cross-posted @ Vijay's thoughts on all things big and small)