Should fully automated AI be allowed?

A computer scientist called Dr Ben Shneiderman argues against fully automated AI, suggesting it could absolve humans of ethical responsibility.

He said:

We're replacing humans in certain places with systems that are robotic and artificially intelligent. And the designers need to make ethical decisions about what they imbue the software and the robots with. It's becoming a big deal for society.

He goes on to cite examples of where fully automated AI is undesirable, such as the Boeing 737's MCAS flight control system, nuclear reactors or lethal military robots and drones.

However, he seems to be generalising too much for my liking.

I believe there are indeed situations where human input is needed. Until AI can cope with nuance and context, human input is necessary for many tasks. But there are plenty of situations where a robot can act autonomously, such as on assembly lines or when vacuuming a floor. As AI gets cleverer then the number of tasks suitable for a robot with fully automated AI will increase.

Therefore the particular caution I'd urge is that AI is not given complete power over tasks too soon and that, I'd suggest, is what went wrong with the MCAS system.

We must also remember that humans are particularly bad at making decisions themselves, of which there's ample evidence on daily news bulletins.

I tend to agree with the counter argument presented by Missy Cummings, director of Duke University’s Humans and Autonomy Laboratory:

The degree of collaboration should be driven by the amount of uncertainty in the system and the criticality of outcomes.

Nuclear reactors are highly automated for a reason: Humans often do not have fast enough reaction times to push the rods in if the reactor goes critical.

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Prospect theory still holds

If you had the following two choices:

  1. definitely gaining £3,000, or
  2. an 80% chance of gaining £4,000.

You'd choose option 1 and take the certain £3,000.

However, if you had a choice between:

  1. definitely losing £3,000, or
  2. an 80% chance of losing £4,000.

You'd do the opposite and take the 80% chance of losing £4,000.

Or at least that's what most people would do according to research.

This apparently demonstrates how we view losses in a different way to gains. It's all part of something called Prospect Theory and it won someone the Nobel Prize for a paper they published in 1979. Recent research shows it's still true.

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Zuckerberg claims to be ready to prevent electoral interference

Mark Zuckerberg says Facebook is ready for the job of preventing electoral interference on its platform:

Countries are going to continue to try and interfere and we are going to see issues like that but we have learnt a lot since 2016 and I feel pretty confident that we are going to be able to protect the integrity of the upcoming election.

Although the report goes on to say that Facebook will be less strict with coronavirus misinformation:

On the coronavirus pandemic, Mr Zuckerberg said that while Facebook had and would remove any content that would likely result in "immediate harm" to users it would not stop groups alleging that the infection was state sponsored or connected to the launch of the new digital 5G network.

Instead, they will add a warning label to such nonsense. Although they did recently remove David Icke for the repeated offence of posting unmitigated bullshit.

The thing that baffles me is that anyone takes anything posted on social media seriously. You just have to look at why people post on those platforms in the first place to realise that accuracy and truthfulness are not primary motivations.

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Hafthor Bjornsson deadlifts 501kg

Hafthor Bjornsson broke Eddie Hall's 500kg deadlift record. He added 1kg to the record, taking it up to 501kg or 1,104lb, which is an astonishing amount of weight.

The 6ft9in, 205kg Icelandic behemoth and Game of Thrones actor won World's Strongest Man in 2018 and also has three second and four third placings in the competition.

He looked like he lifted it fairly comfortably too. I reckon he had 510kg+ in him.

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Birds of Prey (2020) movie review — I could live without it

I watched Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) during the week and wasn't particularly enamoured with it, although it's not a complete loss.

Read this post in full.

Ryanair and social distancing

I neither "moo" nor "baa" so I generally dislike Ryanair, but I tend to agree that the government's plans for social distancing on an aeroplane are crap.

The government is suggesting the middle seat on planes should be left vacant, but that still leaves you just a few feet from your neighbour. Let's not forget that cattle-class on a plane can only comfortably seat hobbits at the best of times. I'm pretty sure you have to check your legs into luggage to fly Ryanair these days.

Two metres is what has been touted as optimal distancing, which would probably mean a row to yourself and nobody in either the row in front or behind. It would be delightful but I doubt any airline could run a profit while instigating proper social distancing.

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Bullshit tracking and computer misuse

The bullshit web is something I rail against at length myself and Nick Heer's article sums up a lot of my own thoughts.

Violations of users’ intent are nothing new. Ad tech companies like Criteo and AdRoll created workarounds specifically to track Safari users without their explicit consent; Google was penalized by the FTC for ignoring Safari users’ preferences. These techniques are arrogant and unethical. If a user has set their browser preferences to make tracking difficult or impossible, that decision should be respected. Likewise, if a browser has preferences that are not favourable to tracking, it is not the prerogative of ad tech companies to ignore or work around those defaults.

Well, quite. In my opinion this sort of thing qualifies as hacking. It could even fall under the UK's Computer Misuse Act under Section 3. I'd argue they are trying to impair the operation of my computer, specifically its browser, and they certainly aren't authorised by me to do that.

I don't care if a website rejects me if I don't accept them tracking me, but I want to know. I don't want them to let me in and then track me by subverting my browser preferences without my knowledge. Just give me a clear choice. And no, putting up the standard sort of cookie confirmation or privacy agreement is not a clear choice.

As I said in a previous article, the default way in which I should enter any site should be with only (truly) essential cookies active and none of those should have anything to do with tracking or advertising. If I access a site without any intervention, that's the way it should be. If a site won't accept me on that basis it should intervene and tell me clearly that I can only continue if I allow it to track me. Give me the choice. They won't, though, because they probably figure that would scare me away (and they're right in a lot of cases).

I don't mind sites advertising to me or even tracking me (to a certain degree, anyway) and there are many I would give approval to. The thing is, I want complete, clear, up-front knowledge that I'm doing so.

The only way we'll achieve any control over this sort of thing is via legislation, and not the sort of half-arsed thinking that gave us cookie confirmation pop-ups.

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ICANN under pressure over the sale of the .org top-level domain

The .org top-level domain is controlled by the Public Interest Registry (PIR), a non-profit organisation. The Public Interest Registry is itself a subsidiary of the Internet Society (ISOC), another non-profit organisation.

The Internet Society has plans to sell the Public Interest Registry — and the .org domain with it — to a company called Ethos Capital, which nobody knows much about. Ethos plan to buy the PIR for $1.1 billion via a leveraged buyout using the PIR's assets as part of its leverage, which would meant the PIR would end up with a $300m debt as a result.

This all has to be approved by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) who oversee the domain name system for the entire internet.

ICANN seemed inclined to grant approval but they've met with some bitter opposition to the transaction, including from California Attorney General Xavier Becerra. This is significant because ICANN is incorporated in California and Becerra is therefore responsible for making sure ICANN lives up to its articles of incorporation, one of which states it operates for the benefit of the Internet community as a whole.

Several former ICANN officials are involved in the Ethos Capital transaction, which stinks mightily.

There are 10m+ .org registrations and the worry for users is that the price of domains could be increased if the deal where to complete. Ethos Capital are definitely not non-profit and they could significantly increase prices to take advantage of those who want to hang on to their established .org domains.

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The UK coronavirus tracking app

NHSX, the digital innovation wing of the NHS, is going to leverage an API (Application Programming Interface) from Apple and Google to introduce smartphone tracking for coronavirus.

The basic idea is as follows:

  1. You download the smartphone app to your phone and switch bluetooth on. Other people do likewise.
  2. When you're out somewhere, your phone will exchange anonymous keys over Bluetooth with any other phone in range (that has the app installed).
  3. If you self-diagnose as having coronavirus, you flag yourself as such in the smartphone app and an anonymous code will be uploaded to a government database. This will flag you as a yellow alert.
  4. If you subsequently get tested and are confirmed as having coronavirus, you'll be upgraded to a red alert.
  5. Other users will now get notified if they were in range of you, thus letting them know they've been in contact with someone who may have coronavirus (yellow alert) or someone who definitely has coronavirus (red alert).

This is intended to cover contact with asymptomatic virus carriers because of course if you suspect you have coronavirus you should be self-isolating. It is therefore very much after the fact.

There are problems with this setup of course. It relies on people installing the app, reporting on it accurately, it is subject to the limitations of bluetooth and it probably needs 50%+ of the population using it to be truly effective. It would also be far more effective if mass testing was available because the yellow alerts could easily be misdiagnoses.

It has protections in place via the anonymity of its data, so hopefully no vigilantes will be inclined to beat you up in the turnip aisle of Tescos because they think you might have given them coronavirus.

Some security researchers still have reservations, but maybe this is the best we can hope for.

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The useful people

The current situation has taught us many things but perhaps one of the most prominent is who the useful people in society are. The people who really make a difference when the chips are down.

It's not your actors, singers, sportspeople, celebrities or pointless social media influencers. It's your doctors, nurses, paramedics, pharmacists, scientists, shop workers, delivery workers, postal workers and the others who've been trying to save our lives or keep essential services running during the pandemic. Many of those people have done that at great personal risk too.

Yet when we look at society's typical reward system, it seems upside-down. The people who are useless in an emergency are the ones we generally give wads of money to and the genuinely useful people are often the lowest paid.

This of course has always been the case and I'm not naive enough to expect society to be particularly fair, but it would be nice if we learnt a lesson out of this and started backing up our current gratitude for these essential workers with a better reward system in the long term.

I've had a few discussions with people about whether this pandemic will change our society for the better and some people think it will. I hope it will too but I'm a devoted pessimist and rather suspect people will just revert to type after this and society will go back to business as usual.

I would at least hope, though, that we'll be better prepared for future pandemics because they will most certainly occur. As soon as this pandemic passes, we should be equipping our medical services — and society in general — for a pandemic that's twice as bad.

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TSB's error message

I note TSB has had some problems with their website, but the bit that interested me was that users were met with an Unexpected Error and I have to wonder if there's any other sort of error. Would you release software that's full of expected errors? I could just imagine an error along the lines of: Expected error, we just couldn't be arsed to fix it.

It reminds me of a bit of mainframe software I used to work on called JES2. It used to have an error that simply said Something Wrong, which is hardly a great start when it comes to debugging the error.

Error messages should at least point the user to a potential cause. It doesn't necessarily mean the user can fix it but it might hint at something they could try.

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The jury is still out about the sterile neutrino being a dark matter candidate

The universe has short-changed us. Less than 5% of it is made up of the stuff we know, the stuff that makes up planets, coffee tables, cars, otters and people. 95% of it is something else entirely and nobody's really sure what that is. About 70% of the universe is postulated to be dark energy and 25% of it is dark matter and it's the latter I'm interested in today.

We know dark matter exists because galaxies and clusters of galaxies simply wouldn't behave the way they do if it didn't. Galaxies would just fly apart is there wasn't something else contributing to their gravity and holding them together. The thing is, gravity is the only force dark matter seems to interact with and that makes it difficult to study. Gravity makes it obvious it's there but it offers up little about what its constituent properties might be.

There is a class of particles called leptons and if those particles were on social media, the electron would have the most followers. It's the only lepton most people have heard of but there are actually six of them. There are two more electron-like particles called the muon and tau and each of these has a corresponding neutrino.

Neutrinos wouldn't be on social media at all because they really don't like to interact with anything. Millions of the things pass through you each day and you just don't notice it. So neutrinos are something that are definitely there but they're hard to spot. That sounds a bit like dark matter and it is logical that scientists might think neutrinos are a good candidate for dark matter.

Some experiments have hinted there might be a fourth neutrino and it has been dubbed the sterile neutrino. Other experiments — observations, really — have detected x-rays coming from distant galaxies and nobody could explain the source of these. Scientists, using no imagination whatsoever, just called this the unidentified x-ray line. Other scientists put two and two together, worked out a way the sterile neutrino might produce the unidentified x-ray line and pitched it as a dark matter candidate.

It all sounds plausible so far but there's a problem. If dark matter is made up of sterile neutrinos and sterile neutrinos produce the unidentified x-ray line, then we should see such a line in our own galaxy. Alas, a recent experiment suggests it's not there. However, some scientists have said this recent experiment is a load of old tosh. Staplers were hurled across rooms in frustration, striking equation-riddled whiteboards. It has caused a bit of a furore.

More observations of this unidentified x-ray line are needed and a satellite launching in 2022 should provide them. Until then, all bets are off and the sterile neutrino may or may not be a candidate for dark matter.

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Chickens and eggs

In 2011, there were about 6 billion egg-laying chickens in the world and they laid about 1.2 trillion eggs, which is about 3.2 billion eggs a day. That's roughly one egg every other day for everyone in the world.

Let's assume that has all scaled up proportionately to the present day.

Some people don't eat eggs and I wouldn't be surprised if the ratio works out at an egg a day for everyone who's interested in consuming the things (and two a day for me of course).

So why have we got an egg shortage at the moment?

Apparently a chicken will only lay an egg on two out of every three days on average, which is just lazy. How hard can it be? I'm sure with the right encouragement — a stick, perhaps — chickens can lay an egg a day.

So there's really no excuse for an egg shortage is there?

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44 vaccines being developed and tested for coronavirus

44 vaccines are currently being developed and tested to see if they will work against coronavirus and Wired gives us a nice summary of them.

Perhaps the most sobering part of it is:

The Covid-19 pandemic is accelerating the slow, safe vaccine development process, but even the most aggressive predictions don't see us getting protective jabs until next year at the earliest.

The WHO are running global trials of four of these potential vaccines and some people think Remdesivir is the most promising candidate. Remdesivir introduces errors into the virus's replication process and it was originally developed as a treatment for Ebola.

Rather depressingly, we probably shouldn't pin our hopes on any sort of speedy solution.

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