CBC's mailmobile in 1977
A Mailmobile in use, 1977 at the CBC Archive image via atlasobscura.com

I can't keep up

I'm the worst blogger. Too much happens between the time I think I may want to write about something and when I actually get around to doing it, and my attention span is also a wreck. Micro-post formats like Twitter and Mastodon are more my thing. I have more enthusiasm to relaunch the site on a new platform than I do to actually write anything on it. It's more of just a presence. An address. A place to let the world know I'm still tenuously interested in contact. Now, here are some things...

Book

in book news, I've just finished 'The New Breed', by Kate Darling. In it, Kate looks at how we talk about robots and to a lesser extent but very related, machine learning and artificial intelligence, as robotic machines become... smarter. The idea is that humans think about it wrong. We anthropomorphise the machines and look at them as some kind of emerging other human, either as a companion, competitor, villain or tragic hero. In fact they're tools that move around. And humans have a history of these, namely, animals and our relationship with them. If we wanted to make better analogies, we should look at the history of humans partnering with animals with both positive and less desirable outcomes.

Thoroughly enjoyed this book and recommend it. Most of my nonfiction tech reading looks like the source material for an episode of Black Mirror. Even this site's domain is inspired by the more darker side of technology's potential. I'm more often a Debbie Downer: How will it go wrong? How will it be weaponised? What stupid applications will capitalist industry make of something that could be revolutionary in better hands? You may even get to thinking that for someone who self-applies the job title "technologist" this guy doesn't really like it that much. And that would be wrong. In fact, I like a lot of the things that society is most afraid of. I love the big data, the algorithms, the AI, and machine learning models. I'm even okay reading a blockchain white paper, even if it's to once again see how it's a rubbish solution for a problem that may not even exist. And I enjoy a good robot. I even like those BostonDynamics robot dogs that freak people out. I draw the line at necrobotic spiders, though.

The issue with autonomous machines are the same as with any technology. It's the humans. Scare stories about robotic doom land about weekly. Recently there was the news about the chess-playing robot that broke the finger of its seven-year-old human opponent. "Moscow incident occurred because child ‘violated’ safety rules by taking turn too quickly, says official" the article's subheading read. This is of course, ridiculous, but it's not far unlike the story that appears in 'The New Breed' about the worker killed by a robot arm when he went into the space the robot arm operated, and isn't unlike the stories of Amazon's robot  workers (who are meant to mix with human work environments) that occasionally injure one of the humans working alongside them. What's interesting in these stories is that at some point, someone will say the worker, or child chess player, broke a rule (and so suffered the consequences). In the zeal to deflect liability, you end up with corporate hacks who sounds robotic themselves. In fact, it's a failure of design and appropriate use case. The point is, we've been around autonomous non-human workers, companions, for our entire history: animals, and arguably already more sentient and intelligent than even the most sophisticated AI running today. 

It's important to think about now. We should define the tools around us before they're defined for us. It's not difficult to imagine how wrong that can go without thinking of The Terminator or the Matrix or boo-scary scenarios that imagine robot brains operating roughly like human brains do: meaning they want to fuck everything up asap. We currently have policymakers that don't even understand the basics of internet security and yet make annual attempts to break it. The world is moving fast, and things are breaking. I can't keep up.

Web Browser plugin

We all hate those GDPR-mandated "consent" pop-ups that plague the web, even if many of us can appreciate the idea that we should get to opt-in/out of pervasive tracking. A number of web platforms have gone the passive-aggressive route that complies with the letter of the law, while making the decisions and controls as opaque or complicated as possible, unless you just want to quickly select "yes" and ignore what you've agreed to. Most people do that. Anyone surfing the web has not time for that madness, and if you're doing actual work, these consent forms are adding on hours. The open source project, Consent-O-Matic aims to address that.

Works on Chrome, Firefox and Safari browsers. You can install it, set your preferences in the plugin settings, and then it fills out those forms in seconds when you visit the websites. It doesn't work on every one, but most larger sites use common 3rd party GDPR-consent form providers or a framework the plugin is designed to recognise. And you get the joy of watching it quickly fill out everything in a small window and disappear while you get on with reading your article. This is a reasonable hack until websites just start designing their cookies to not be intrusive and just respect privacy by default (and then not need GDPR opt-in forms).

Shows

Caught Channel 4's 'The Undeclared War' and found it to be a mixed bag, attempting to do too much in not enough episodes. Essentially set in GCHQ it follows a series of cyber attacks between Russia and UK with a sort of "grounded-in-reality" approach. I don't think a work placement person would see this much action, really. Also, in trying to ground itself in reality it dates itself too quickly, taking place after the show's fictitious prime minister ousts Boris Johnson in a leadership contest. All the attacks are plausible, but not nearly at this rate. And adding some family drama and a go-nowhere unresolved romance just muddled it further. There is still a good cyber war film or show to be made, and this one isn't quite it.