Google, the internet and freedom. It’s good to have these guys on our side.
Some of the moral and ethical implications of robotics. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.
If somebody had asked you, yesterday, to name the top ten must-have items that your bachelor pad simply had to have, a rubber band machine gun probably wouldn’t have been on that list. Why? Because you didn’t know it existed. Now you’re going to regret laminating that wish-list, because your trusty Wingman is going to show you exactly why it needs changing.
Ingeniously designed and crafted by Alex Shpetniy & Brian Dinh, this fast-charging, easy-reload, 16-barrel, automatic machine gun is a certified fan favourite, with its Kickstarter campaign almost quadrupling its pledge aim of $5,000 with almost an entire month left to run.
Using a small electric engine, powered by just 5 AA batteries, whether your target is your arch nemesis or just a few cans lined up along a wall, the huge 672 rubber band capacity allows you to fire off 14 shots per second, at a range of up to 26 feet.
With plenty of time left to pledge – should you be unable to fight the desire to get your hands on one of your very own rubber band machine guns – the eleven different pledge options, and three stunning variations of gun design, should leave no home rubber-band-machine-gun-less this Christmas.
Splashing water on his face, he looked up over the marble sink at the haggard face and sunken eyes staring back at him in the mirror. Tie loose around his neck, exhausted but too tense to think about sleeping, he wondered what he was going to do. Tens of thousands of lives and billions of dollars depended on what he decided. If he picked wrongly, people would die. However, if he picked correctly people would still die.
It was a catch-22. A delicate web of international treaties and deceptions held the balance of power in check. If he acted forcefully he could upset that balance and potentially create international repercussions that would affect generations of humanity, setting off chain reactions of diplomatic decisions that could change the geopolitical face of Earth. However if he did nothing, he would sit with blood on his hands, the blood of innocent people, and fail to protect his country’s interests. History would judge him a coward, a failure or worse, wouldn’t remember him at all.
He would be crucified in the press no matter what he did. The pressure from the kingmakers who helped place him on this throne was the defining factor always, a thread through everything he did. He sometimes wondered whether or not he was even Commander In Chief. In the end it was, of course, his decision, but at what price? Such decisions really were already made for him. And if he did step out of line and do the hard thing would it even matter? Because there wasn’t a truly right answer it would be a Pyrrhic victory even if he did stand for principle instead of profit.
This wasn’t how it was supposed to go! He was supposed to be able to make a change. He was supposed to make an impact. In college and his early political career he had it all planned out. It just seemed so different then. And to make matters worse, even if he did magically get through this unscathed, there would be a new potential cataclysm even worse than this right around the corner. The diplomatic scene deteriorating, the economy refusing to resuscitate…regardless of what legislation was enacted the noose just drew tighter.
Welcome to the office of the President of the United States of America.
Every four years Americans gather in schools, libraries and community buildings to select the next Commander In Chief of the U.S. Armed Forces and Chief Executive of the most powerful nation the Earth has ever seen. With a military comprising nearly a million and a half active-duty troops stationed in over 130 nations and with 900 military installations across the planet, the United States is the only truly global superpower in Earth’s history. At $14 trillion, the U.S. Gross Domestic Product comprises over 20% of the total for the world and is fully double the size of its nearest competitor. Inevitably, any move the U.S. makes has sweeping international ramifications.
Overseeing these complex systems of economics, government, communications, commerce and military power is the chief administrator of the United States government—the President. Every four years, after the campaign trail is over and the November election results are in, the new President now has the responsibility of directing the most complex and powerful group the Earth has ever seen. His decisions, and those of his cabinet and advisers, directly affect billions of people—literally a life-or-death situation.
And yet, what does this new Commander In Chief, Senior Economist and Chief Executive know about running such a group? What background or training does he have to prepare him for something like this? Was he trained in administration and organization? Perhaps he was an expert in management, with years of experience running multi-national corporations? Hopefully he at least went to school for military strategy and diplomacy, considering the fact that he is now going to have to direct the most powerful military on the planet….
Alas, only very rarely has that ever been the case. Usually he is trained in law or was a mildly successful business person. Prior to becoming the President he was a professional politician and before that maybe ran a law firm if he was lucky. And the same goes for his most trusted advisers. These usually got their positions by being expert at one thing: being elected or appointed to office. Yet these are the leaders of the nation and thus, by extension, the world. They have to handle the most complex organizational situations ever faced by humanity. Are they equipped for it?
A mechanic learns to fix cars before he works in a garage; a surgeon studies for decades in order to pick up a scalpel. What training do our world leaders have? Yet their mistakes cost far more in terms of money and human lives than a mechanic or a surgeon, who at the most can only negatively affect one person at a time.
Why is it that we have strict malpractice laws for medicine and create stringent licensing bodies to ensure proper practice of fields such as accounting or real estate, yet with reckless negligence we turn over the reins of our very lives to people who have little more training in the subjects of leadership or administration than we do?
Read on for the solution.
Interesting article from The Economist on the reliability of our scientific system. Apparently the system is constructed in a way that encourages sloppy work to some degree, and discourages replication of reported research. And peer review is not all it’s cracked up to be. Enough lazy or incompetent researchers—combined with lazy or incompetent peer reviewers and nobody trying to reproduce the results—adds up to bad science.
I find it interesting the most of the unreliable research cited is in the fields of psychology and pharmaceuticals.
An interesting take on the dynamics of the internet (and other new technologies) in conferring power. New technology begins by empowering those who can move fast and take advantage of it, then gradually empowers slower-moving institutions, and the power balance eventually returns to the Establishment. Of course, it’s not that cut and dry. I find his analogy of the eventual result as a “feudal” system—with governments and corporations acting as “lords,” technically savvy individuals as “vassals” and the remaining poor souls as “peasants”—particularly apt. And the solution? A new “Magna Carta.”
The truth is that technology magnifies power in general, but rates of adoption are different. The unorganized, the distributed, the marginal, the dissidents, the powerless, the criminal: They can make use of new technologies very quickly. And when those groups discovered the Internet, suddenly they had power. But later, when the already-powerful big institutions finally figured out how to harness the Internet, they had more power to magnify. That’s the difference: The distributed were more nimble and were faster to make use of their new power, while the institutional were slower but were able to use their power more effectively.
So while the Syrian dissidents used Facebook to organize, the Syrian government used Facebook to identify dissidents to arrest.
All isn’t lost for distributed power, though. For institutional power, the Internet is a change in degree, but for distributed power it’s a qualitative one. The Internet gives decentralized groups — for the first time — the ability to coordinate. This can have incredible ramifications, as we saw in the SOPA/PIPA debate, Gezi, Brazil, and the rising use of crowdfunding. It can invert power dynamics, even in the presence of surveillance censorship and use control. But aside from political coordination, the Internet allows for social coordination as well to unite, for example, ethnic diasporas, gender minorities, sufferers of rare diseases, and people with obscure interests.
This isn’t static: Technological advances continue to provide advantage to the nimble. I discussed this trend in my book Liars and Outliers. If you think of security as an arms race between attackers and defenders, any technological advance gives one side or the other a temporary advantage. But most of the time, a new technology benefits the nimble first. They are not hindered by bureaucracy — and sometimes not by laws or ethics either. They can evolve faster.
We saw it with the Internet. As soon as the Internet started being used for commerce, a new breed of cybercriminal emerged, immediately able to take advantage of the new technology. It took police a decade to catch up. And we saw it on social media, as political dissidents made use of its organizational powers before totalitarian regimes did.
This delay is what I call a “security gap.” It’s greater when there’s more technology, and in times of rapid technological change. Basically, if there are more innovations to exploit, there will be more damage resulting from society’s inability to keep up with exploiters of all of them. And since our world is one in which there’s more technology than ever before, and a faster rate of technological change than ever before, we should expect to see a greater security gap than ever before. In other words, there will be an increasing time period during which nimble distributed powers can make use of new technologies before slow institutional powers can make better use of those technologies.
This is the battle: quick vs. strong. To return to medieval metaphors, you can think of a nimble distributed power — whether marginal, dissident, or criminal — as Robin Hood; and ponderous institutional powers — both government and corporate — as the feudal lords.
So who wins? Which type of power dominates in the coming decades?
Right now, it looks like traditional power. Ubiquitous surveillance means that it’s easier for the government to identify dissidents than it is for the dissidents to remain anonymous. Data monitoring means easier for the Great Firewall of China to block data than it is for people to circumvent it. The way we all use the Internet makes it much easier for the NSA to spy on everyone than it is for anyone to maintain privacy. And even though it is easy to circumvent digital copy protection, most users still can’t do it.
The problem is that leveraging Internet power requires technical expertise. Those with sufficient ability will be able to stay ahead of institutional powers. Whether it’s setting up your own e-mail server, effectively using encryption and anonymity tools, or breaking copy protection, there will always be technologies that can evade institutional powers. This is why cybercrime is still pervasive, even as police savvy increases; why technically capable whistleblowers can do so much damage; and why organizations like Anonymous are still a viable social and political force. Assuming technology continues to advance — and there’s no reason to believe it won’t — there will always be a security gap in which technically advanced Robin Hoods can operate.
Most people, though, are stuck in the middle. These are people who don’t have the technical ability to evade either the large governments and corporations, avoid the criminal and hacker groups who prey on us, or join any resistance or dissident movements. These are the people who accept default configuration options, arbitrary terms of service, NSA-installed back doors, and the occasional complete loss of their data. These are the people who get increasingly isolated as government and corporate power align. In the feudal world, these are the hapless peasants. And it’s even worse when the feudal lords — or any powers — fight each other. As anyone watching Game of Thrones knows, peasants get trampled when powers fight: when Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon fight it out in the market; when the US, EU, China, and Russia fight it out in geopolitics; or when it’s the US vs. “the terrorists” or China vs. its dissidents.
The abuse will only get worse as technology continues to advance. In the battle between institutional power and distributed power, more technology means more damage. We’ve already seen this: Cybercriminals can rob more people more quickly than criminals who have to physically visit everyone they rob. Digital pirates can make more copies of more things much more quickly than their analog forebears. And we’ll see it in the future: 3D printers mean that the computer restriction debate will soon involves guns, not movies. Big data will mean that more companies will be able to identify and track you more easily. It’s the same problem as the “weapons of mass destruction” fear: terrorists with nuclear or biological weapons can do a lot more damage than terrorists with conventional explosives. And by the same token, terrorists with large-scale cyberweapons can potentially do more damage than terrorists with those same bombs.
It’s a numbers game. Very broadly, because of the way humans behave as a species and as a society, every society is going to have a certain amount of crime. And there’s a particular crime rate society is willing to tolerate. With historically inefficient criminals, we were willing to live with some percentage of criminals in our society. As technology makes each individual criminal more powerful, the percentage we can tolerate decreases. Again, remember the “weapons of mass destruction” debate: As the amount of damage each individual terrorist can do increases, we need to do increasingly more to prevent even a single terrorist from succeeding.
The more destabilizing the technologies, the greater the rhetoric of fear, and the stronger institutional powers will get. This means increasingly repressive security measures, even if the security gap means that such measures become increasingly ineffective. And it will squeeze the peasants in the middle even more.
Without the protection of his own feudal lord, the peasant was subject to abuse both by criminals and other feudal lords. But both corporations and the government — and often the two in cahoots — are using their power to their own advantage, trampling on our rights in the process. And without the technical savvy to become Robin Hoods ourselves, we have no recourse but to submit to whatever the ruling institutional power wants.
So what happens as technology increases? Is a police state the only effective way to control distributed power and keep our society safe? Or do the fringe elements inevitably destroy society as technology increases their power? Probably neither doomsday scenario will come to pass, but figuring out a stable middle ground is hard. These questions are complicated, and dependent on future technological advances that we cannot predict. But they are primarily political questions, and any solutions will be political.
In the short term, we need more transparency and oversight. The more we know of what institutional powers are doing, the more we can trust that they are not abusing their authority. We have long known this to be true in government, but we have increasingly ignored it in our fear of terrorism and other modern threats. This is also true for corporate power. Unfortunately, market dynamics will not necessarily force corporations to be transparent; we need laws to do that. The same is true for decentralized power; transparency is how we’ll differentiate political dissidents from criminal organizations.
Oversight is also critically important, and is another long-understood mechanism for checking power. This can be a combination of things: courts that act as third-party advocates for the rule of law rather than rubber-stamp organizations, legislatures that understand the technologies and how they affect power balances, and vibrant public-sector press and watchdog groups that analyze and debate the actions of those wielding power.
Transparency and oversight give us the confidence to trust institutional powers to fight the bad side of distributed power, while still allowing the good side to flourish. For if we’re going to entrust our security to institutional powers, we need to know they will act in our interests and not abuse that power. Otherwise, democracy fails.
In the longer term, we need to work to reduce power differences. The key to all of this is access to data. On the Internet, data is power. To the extent the powerless have access to it, they gain in power. To the extent that the already powerful have access to it, they further consolidate their power. As we look to reducing power imbalances, we have to look at data: data privacy for individuals, mandatory disclosure laws for corporations, and open government laws.
Medieval feudalism evolved into a more balanced relationship in which lords had responsibilities as well as rights. Today’s Internet feudalism is both ad-hoc and one-sided. Those in power have a lot of rights, but increasingly few responsibilities or limits. We need to rebalance this relationship. In medieval Europe, the rise of the centralized state and the rule of law provided the stability that feudalism lacked. The Magna Carta first forced responsibilities on governments and put humans on the long road toward government by the people and for the people. In addition to re-reigning in government power, we need similar restrictions on corporate power: a new Magna Carta focused on the institutions that abuse power in the 21st century.
If universal surveillance were the answer, lots of us would have moved to former East Germany. If surveillance cameras were the answer, camera-happy London, with something like 500,000 of them at a cost of $700 million, would be the safest city on the planet. We didn’t and it isn’t, because surveillance and surveillance cameras don’t make us safer. The money spent on cameras in London, and in cities across America, could be much better spent on actual policing.
Terrorism isn’t a crime against people or property. It’s a crime against our minds, using the death of innocents and destruction of property to make us fearful. Terrorists use the media to magnify their actions and further spread fear. And when we react out of fear, when we change our policy to make our country less open, the terrorists succeed — even if their attacks fail. But when we refuse to be terrorized, when we’re indomitable in the face of terror, the terrorists fail — even if their attacks succeed.