Wise Guys on WHO Radio - February 20, 2016
Please note: These show notes may be in various stages of completion -- ranging from brainstormed notes through to well-polished monologues. Please excuse anything that may seem rough around the edges, as it may only be a first draft of a thought and not be fully representative of what was said on the air.
In the news this week
They're installing a bunch of solar panels and customers are buying shares to cover the installation price in exchange for credits on their power bills
And there aren't any jobs, especially now that oil prices are crashing and the government is running out of ways to subsidize employment. This is potentially a nightmare scenario for extremism -- nothing is more destabilizing than lots of young people with nothing worthwhile to do. The Saudi government may very well find itself extinguished by the curse of oil wealth. Resource bonanzas are a terrible thing if they aren't managed wisely in the boom years.
People who try to over-simplify the case are going to do harm to our public policies -- it requires nuance to address privacy issues like whether a phone-maker should let police agencies get a back-door skeleton key to the data stored on those phones. Regrettably, media attention is gravitating towards the reaction of one simplistic, reductionist, un-curious bozo running for the Presidency, and that's turning the debate over the issue into a disaster.
They're setting up an independent committee to figure out what to do next
People who got the glass on their iPhones fixed by non-Apple technicians got something called "Error 53". Apple says it was intended to prevent people from bypassing the fingerprint lock, but now they're changing the software to keep the repairs from bricking the phones. The threat of a class-action lawsuit probably didn't hurt.
Apple and the FBI went toe-to-toe this week as the tech company rebuffed the agency's request for assistance breaking past the security on the phone belonging to one of the two perpetrators of the terrorist attacks in San Bernardino. Unsurprisingly, people who don't appreciate or comprehend the complexity of this kind of circumstance rushed in to rebuke Apple for its decision. And, also unsurprisingly, some people rushed to Apple's defense without fully acknowledging or appreciating the consequences of the decision.
In the end, I do think it's appropriate for Apple and other companies to resist pressure from the government for special access to people's data, even when it belongs to people whom nobody would defend. The rule that I think applies here is to ask whether it's OK to give the government powers that you would be comfortable with the government having if your opponents were in power. In this case, I think the best metaphor for what the FBI has been trying to do was put like this: The FBI has the equivalent of a warrant to get into a house, but it's encountered a safe inside the house and is demanding that the manufacturer of the safe build a skeleton key that they can use to get into that safe as well as any other. That is not only potentially beyond the scope of the original warrant, but also one that would utterly undermine the nature of building safes in the first place.
Imagine, for instance, that smartphones had existed in the 1950s or 1960s, and that the FBI had successfully gotten a warrant forcing Apple to give them a way to crack the iPhones belonging to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Nobody would have wanted to defend Communist spies, of course. But once the FBI would have been in possession of the "skeleton key" to break through the encryption on the Rosenbergs' phones, it could have later used that same power to crack the security on the phones of people like, for instance, Martin Luther King, Jr. It's not far-fetched to think that the J. Edgar Hoover FBI would have done it: They spied on King, tapped his phones, and even sent him a letter suggesting that he should kill himself. The FBI's harassment of Dr. King is a reminder that even a free country runs the risk of behaving like a police state.
When the hammer of government power is wielded by an arm outside the control of adequate civilian oversight, bad things are likely to happen to innocent people. So in today's circumstances, it's probably the FBI's job to try to get access to the phone. But it's probably also Apple's job to resist.
We shouldn't be naive: There's a good chance that doing the right thing for privacy -- preserving the encryption on the terrorist's phone (and on other phones) -- will let criminals and terrorists get away with causing harm to innocent people. It may even enable future attacks to take place that could have been prevented. But we have to soundly weigh that power against the harm that clearly can be done when government has too many tools to tear apart privacy and to intrude into our lives. This shouldn't be a simplistic, banner-waving issue: It's complex, and there's no avoiding the ultimate result -- that bad things will happen no matter what ultimately is decided by the law. But in the end, if we truly believe in civilian oversight of our government -- government by, of, and for the people -- then we just can't allow government to have the tools of power that we wouldn't want them to have when a future authority figure wants to go too far. When we say "freedom isn't free", it's time we stop thinking that the price will only be paid by people in the military on the battlefield. Sometimes that price will be paid by innocent civilians living their ordinary lives. And, by extension, as we are in the process of picking our next President, we need to run hard and fast in the opposite direction of any candidate who doesn't appreciate the complexity of the situation. This is the legal equivalent of calculus, and it can't be solved by a Presidential candidate who refuses to think past basic addition and subtraction.
Your role in cyberwar
Cyberwarfare is everywhere
Street-smart social media
The skilled wordsmith and popular actor finds the environment just too hostile to continue engaging with it
Gadget of the week
You ought to follow...
IBM has really stepped up its game with "Chef Watson". If you're looking for something new to prepare in the kitchen, you cannot get more "new" than Chef Watson. Using a database built on the recipes in Bon Appetit magazine, IBM applies artificial intelligence from its Watson supercomputer to create original recipes. The first iterations of Chef Watson were creative, but limited. You entered the items that were in your refrigerator and it would give you two or three choices. Today's Chef Watson is much more open-ended, suggesting items that you can include or exclude and permitting you to specify a particular style of cooking or meal course. It's a wonderful tool when you're looking for something new...and far more creative than most of us non-professional chefs could ever be on our own. Three cheers for the use of computing to augment our thinking.
Dispatches from the flying-car future
Vertical farms are the next logical step -- but only if the cost of transportation rises or the cost of electricity falls. Those are the most likely triggers for making vertical farming economically feasible on a large scale.
Brian's Big Picture
As creators of art, which makes it interesting. Some humans will complain that computer-generated art lacks something about the soul, and they could be right about that. But there's so very much bad art already in the world, created by human beings, and we can hardly be sad about it if that crappy art gets driven out of the market by comparably better computer-generated art. On balance, isn't that a good thing for human civilization? Wouldn't a world in which computer-generated art and good human art both flourish be a more beautiful world?
A test of a civilization's health is how it treats the most vulnerable. Veterans calling a suicide hotline really couldn't be much more vulnerable.
Note: At first glance, these two stories don't appear to have much in common with one another. But if you look a little deeper, you can see that the story about art is a case where artificial intelligence is already being applied to do something to use computers to influence human emotions. Sure, it's in a simple, two-dimensional way, but that's ultimately the point of art: To engage us emotionally with the sensory world. In the VA hotline story, we find a case where -- for whatever reason -- human beings are being let down by other human beings who should be looking out for them. In the end, of course our objective should be to have immediate, personal attention for anyone who is contemplating any form of self-harm. That's just the reaction of a humane society. But if there are reasons we somehow cannot fully accommodate those people with trained human responses 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, then someone needs to get a government contract first thing Monday morning to develop an artificial-intelligence system capable of handling the overflow when there aren't enough human operators to answer. Don't dismiss the idea out of hand: People reported getting calls two years ago from a telemarketing bot with artificial-intelligence capabilities good enough to make it past the opening phases of an elementary Turing test. If someone can find the time, inclination, and funding to put artificial intelligence to work in placing telemarketing calls, then there is no excuse for that same technology not to be used to save the lives of people in distress.
Turing test: If a live human subject engages with two other "people" via written message and the subject can't tell which of the other "people" is a live person and which one is a computer, then the computer has passed the test and is effectively "intelligent".
Politics of technology
Psychographics meet politics
Sue: I am retired and researching for a smart phone. A lot of good technology in the marketplace. My needs are simple. I have a reader, so I am looking for companies who can provide excellent service in a phone. long lasting removable battery (?) good browsing - including interntl Gps avoid dead zones upload Apps Pics - easy download to computer email android vs I phone (?) occasional updates good security good cost for good tech can be repaired (?) I like my Samsung 4G by Tracphone. Quewrty is not supported. Can U assist me in a few names that will meet my basic needs? I have avoided monthly costs by purchasing Tracphone prepay cards.
Listen again on-demand
- Podcast of this episode - segment 1 (Should Apple give FBI a backdoor to a dead terrorist's cell phone? The answers aren't as obvious as we might wish.)
- Podcast of this episode - segment 2 (Spice up your kitchen with the help of a computer)
- Podcast of this episode - segment 3 (Solar power becomes a community project in Cedar Falls)
- Podcast of this episode - segment 4 (If artificial intelligence is good enough for telemarketing, it's good enough to provide backup to humans working on suicide hotlines)