Luddites, Trumpism and Change: A crossroads for libraries

“Globalization is a proxy for technology-powered capitalism, which tends to reward fewer and fewer members of society.”
– Om Malik

Corner someone and they will react. We may be seeing this across the world as change, globalization, technology and economic dislocation force more and more people into the corner of benefit-nots. They are reacting out of desperation. It’s not rational. It’s not pretty. But it shouldn’t be surprising.

Years ago at a library conference, one of the keynote speakers forecast that there would be a return to the analog (sorry my Twitter-based memory does not identify the person). The rapidity of digitization would be met by a reaction. People would scurry back to the familiar, he said. They always do.

Fast forward to 2016, where the decades-long trends toward globalization, borderless labor markets, denationalization, exponential technological change and corresponding social revolutions has hit the wall of public reaction. Brexit. Global Trumpism. Call it what you will. We’re in a change moment. The reaction is here.

Reacting to the Reaction

People in the Blue Zones, the Technorati, the beneficiaries of cheap foreign labor, free trade and technological innovation are scratching their heads. For all their algorithms and AI, they didn’t see this coming. Everything looked good on their feeds. No danger could possibly burst their self-assured bubble of inevitability. All was quiet. It was like a clear blue, September 2001, morning in New York City. It was like the boardroom in the Federal Reserve in 2006. The serenity was over in an instant.

Since Brexit, and then Trump’s election, the Glittery Digitarians have initiated a period of introspection. They’re looking up from their stock tickers and gold-plated smart watches to find a grim reality: the world is crowded with people that have lost much ground at the expense of the global maelstrom that has elevated a very small, lucky few to greatness. They are now seeing, as for the first time, the shuttered towns. The empty retail stores. The displaced and homeless.

Suddenly their confident talk of personal AI assistants has turned from technolust to terror. Their success suddenly looks short-sighted.

Om Malik wrote in his recent New Yorker op-ed, that Silicon Valley may soon find itself equated with the super villains on Wall Street. He posits that a new business model needs to account for the public good…or else.

I recently read Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity by Douglas Rushkoff. If you haven’t read it, now would be a good time. Like Bernie Sanders and others, Rushkoff has been warning of this kind of reaction for awhile. The system is not designed for the public good, but only around a narrow set of shareholder requirements. All other considerations do not compute.

My Reaction

Let me put this in personal perspective.

In my work, I engage the public in “the heart of Silicon Valley” on what they want from their community and what’s missing. What I hear is concern about the loss of quiet, of connection to others, of a pace of life that is not 24/7 always a click away. This is consistent. People feel overwhelmed.

As one of the chief technologists for my library, this puts me in a strange place. And I’ve been grappling with it for the past few months.

On the one hand, people are curious. They’re happy to try the next big thing. But you also hear the frustration.

Meanwhile, the burden of the Tech Industry is more than inflated rents and traffic. There’s a very obvious divide between long-time residents and newcomers. There’s a sense that something has been lost. There’s anger too, even here in the shadow of Google and Facebook.

The Library as a Philosophy

The other day, I was visited by a Eurpean Library Director who wanted to talk about VR. He asked me where I thought we’d be in ten years.

I hesitated. My thoughts immediately went back to the words of despair that I’d been hearing from the public lately.

Of course, the genie’s out of the bottle. We can’t stop the digital era. VR interface revolutions will likely emerge. The robots will come.

But we can harness this change to our benefit. We can add rules to heal it to our collective needs.

This is where the Library comes in. We have a sharing culture. A model that values bridging divides, pooling resources and re-distributing knowledge. It’s a model that is practically unique to the library if you think about it.

As I read Rushkoff, I kept coming back to the Librarian’s philosophy on sharing. In his book, he contends that we need to re-imagine (re-code) our economy to work for people. He recalls technologies like HTTP and RSS which were invented and then given away to the world to share and re-use. This sounded very ‘librarian’ to me.

We share knowledge in the form of access to technology, after all. We host training on new maker gear, coding, robotics, virtual reality.

Perhaps we need to double-down on this philosophy. Perhaps, we can be more than just a bridge. Maybe we can be the engine driving our communities to the other side. We can not just advocate, but do. Have a hackathon? Build a public alternative to the Airbnb app to be used by people in your town.

Know the Future

In the end, libraires, technologists and digitarians need to tell a better story. We need to get outside our bubbles and tell that story with words that resonate with the benefit-nots. And more, we need that story to be backed up with real-world benefits.

It starts with asking the community what kind of world they want to live it? What obstacles keep them from living that way? And then how the library and technology can help make change.

We have the philosophy, we have the spaces and we have public permission. Let’s get to work.

AI First

Looking to the future, the next big step will be for the very concept of the “device” to fade away. Over time, the computer itself—whatever its form factor—will be an intelligent assistant helping you through your day. We will move from mobile first to an AI first world.

Google Founder’s Letter, April 2016

My Library recently finalized a Vision Document for our virtual library presence. Happily, our vision was aligned with the long-term direction of technology as understood by movers and shakers like Google.

As I’ve written previously, the Library Website will disappear. But this is because the Internet (as we currently understand it) will also disappear.

In its place, a new mode of information retrieval and creation will move us away from the paper-based metaphor of web pages. Information will be more ubiquitous. It will be more free-form, more adaptable, more contextualized, more interactive.

Part of this is already underway. For example, people are becoming a data set. And other apps are learning about you and changing how they work based on who you are. Your personal data set contains location data, patterns in speech and movement around the world, consumer history, keywords particular to your interests, associations based on your social networks, etc.

AI Emerging

All of this information makes it possible for emerging AI systems like Siri and Cortana to better serve you. Soon, it will allow AI to control the flow of information based on your mood and other factors to help you be more productive. And like a good friend that knows you very, very well, AI will even be able to alert you to serendipitous events or inconveniences so that you can navigate life more happily.

People’s expectations are already being set for this kind of experience. Perhaps you’ve noticed yourself getting annoyed when your personal assistant just fetches a Wikipedia article when you ask it something. You’re left wanting. What we want is that kernel of gold we asked about. But what we get right now, is something too general to be useful.

But soon, that will all change. Nascent AI will soon be able to provide exactly the piece of information that you really want rather than a generalized web page. This is what Google means when they make statements like “AI First” or “the Web will die.” They’re talking about a world where information is not only presented as article-like web pages, but broken down into actual kernels of information that are both discrete and yet interconnected.

AI First in the Library

Library discussions often focus on building better web pages or navigation menus or providing responsive websites. But the conversation we need to have is about pulling our data out of siloed systems and websites and making it available to all modes like AI, apps and basic data harvesters.

You hear this conversation in bits and pieces. The ongoing linked data project is part of this long-term strategy. So too with next-gen OPACs. But on the ground, in our local strategy meetings, we need to tie every big project we do to this emerging reality where web browsers are increasingly no longer relevant.

We need to think AI First.

Google Analytics and Privacy

Collecting web usage data through services like Google Analytics is a top priority for any library. But what about user privacy?

Most libraries (and websites for that matter) lean on Google Analytics to measure website usage and learn about how people access their online content. It’s a great tool. You can learn about where people are coming from (the geolocation of their IP addresses anyway), what devices, browsers and operating systems they are using. You can learn about how big their screen is. You can identify your top pages and much much more.

Google Analytics is really indispensable for any organization with an online presence.

But then there’s the privacy issue.

Is Google Analytics a Privacy Concern?

The question is often asked, what personal information is Google Analytics actually collecting? And then, how does this data collection jive with our organization’s privacy policies.

It turns out, as a user of Google Analytics, you’ve already agreed to publish a privacy document on your site outlining the why and what of your analytics program. So if you haven’t done so, you probably should if only for the sake of transparency.

Personally Identifiable Data

Fact is, if someone really wanted to learn about a particular person, it’s not entirely outside the realm of possibility that they could glean a limited set of personal attributes from the generally anonymized data Google Analytics collects. IP addresses can be loosely linked to people. If you wanted to, you could set up filters in Google Analytics that look at a single IP.

Of course, on the Google side, any user that is logged into their Gmail, YouTube or other Google account, is already being tracked and identified by Google. This is a broadly underappreciated fact. And it’s a critical one when it comes to how approach the question of dealing with the privacy issue.

In both the case of what your organization collects with Google Analytics and what all those web trackers, including Google’s trackers, collect, the onus falls entirely on the user.

The Internet is Public

Over the years, the Internet has become a public space and users of the Web should understand it as such. Everything you do, is recorded and seen. Companies like Google, Facebook, Mircosoft, Yahoo! and many, many others are all in the data mining business. Carriers and Internet Service Providers are also in this game. They deploy technologies in websites that identify you and then sell what your interests, shopping habits, web searches and other activities are to companies interested in selling to you. They’ve made billions on selling your data.

Ever done a search on Google and then seen ads all over the Web trying to sell you that thing you searched last week? That’s the tracking at work.

Only You Can Prevent Data Fires

The good news is that with little effort, individuals can stop most (but not all) of the data collection. Browsers like Chrome and Firefox have plugins like Ghostery, Avast and many others that will block trackers.

Google Analytics can be stopped cold by these plugins. But it won’t solve all the problems. Users also need to set up their browsers to delete cookies websites save to their browsers. And moving off of accounts provided from data mining companies “for free” like Facebook accounts, Gmail and can also help.

But you’ll never be completely anonymous. Super cookies are a thing and are very difficult to stop without breaking websites. And some trackers are required in order to load content. So sometimes you need to pay with your data to play.

Policies for Privacy Conscious Libraries

All of this means that libraries wishing to be transparent and honest about their data collection, need to also contextualize the information in the broader data mining debate.

First and foremost, we need to educate our users on what it means to go online. We need to let them know its their responsibility alone to control their own data. And we need to provide instructions on doing so.

Unfortunately, this isn’t an opt-in model. That’s too bad. It actually would be great if the world worked that way. But don’t expect the moneyed interests involved in data mining to allow the US Congress to pass anything that cuts into their bottom line. This ain’t Germany, after all.

There are ways with a little javascript to create a temporary opt-in/opt-out feature to your site. This will toggle tags added by Google Tag Manager on and off with a single click. But let’s be honest. Most people will ignore it. And if they do opt-out, it will be very easy for them to overlook everytime without a much more robust opt-in/opt-out functionality baked in to your site. But for most sites and users, this is asking alot. Meanwhile, it diverts attention from the real solution: users concerned about privacy need to protect themselves and not take a given websites word for it.

We actually do our users a service by going with the opt-out model. This underlines the larger privacy problems on the Wild Wild Web, which our sites are a part of.

Rewrite of the Jedi

swHi all, please indulge my inner geek as I take a little break from the normal discussion and have some fun re-imagining Star Wars.

If you’re like me, you’ve been thinking a lot about Star Wars as the new film debuts this weekend. Perhaps you even sat down and started watching the old films in preparation for the next installment.

Did you feel Lucas and Co. called it in with Return of the Jedi?

While not the galactic-scale train wreck of the Prequels, ROTJ always felt like a poor way to wrap up the Skywalker family tragedy.

Here’s my take on what was wrong and how I’d fix Return of the Jedi…and I’m not talking cosmetic fixes. I think to really do justice to Episodes IV and V, a new story line with whole new reveals and twists would have been in order.

What needs fixing

  • Leia should not have been Luke’s sister. We all agree: the suggestions (and actual acts) of romantic intrigue between Luke and Leia should have disqualified this plot twist from the start.
  • Ewoks were some of the least interesting, and one of the most annoying alien species of the entire story line.
  • The Han Rescue Mission was overly complicated, took up too much of the film and did nothing to move the story along
  • A New Death Star was a boring setting. Seriously, they couldn’t think of anything else?

Rewriting Jedi

There are two cliff hangers that need resolving in ROTJ left over from Empire:
1.    Han needs rescuing
2.    Luke needs to verify if Vader is truly his father or not

But before we handle Han’s rescue, since this obviously needs to get resolved so we can get back to the Skywalker family story, we need to set up the finale of the film with an opening scene. In the new opening crawl, we learn that Vader has been granted his wish to pursue his son, while the Emperor focuses on a new super weapon that will spell certain peril for the Rebellion. We also learn about how the Rebellion plans to retrieve Solo so that they can get back to fighting the Empire.

The story opens with the Emperor arriving on his personal Star Destroyer, scaring the crap out of everyone on board. He announces to the captain, “We have a new weapon that will be housed aboard this ship. Your crew will be expected to follow strict protocols of secrecy. Any deviation from them will call for extreme disciplinary action, captain.”

“As you command, my Lord.” Gulp!

dagobahWe then transition to Luke back on Dagobah confronting Yoda and Obi Wan over the reveal from Empire that Vader is his father. As in the original, Yoda will be dying and confirm Vader is Luke’s father and finishes his last breath with: “There is another Skywalker.” Only this time, he adds: “Heed the lesson in the cave…” Also as in the original film Obi Wan’s ghost explains the reasons for withholding the information and explains that the other Skywalker was Luke’s twin sister. But Obi Wan does not know who she is or where she is since, for security reasons, that information was not provided to him, but he felt that she was likely raised on Alderaan. So she may be dead.

After Yoda passes, Luke darkly departs for the Han Rescue operation.

And now on to Han’s rescue. First off, if you’re Leia and in command of a kickass Rebel Alliance who owes much to Han Solo, you certainly aren’t going to waste time with a ragtag, risky, undersized rescue effort. You’re gonna use an army to get your man.

And, of course, the Empire is gonna know this is what you’re going to do. Ah, the plot thickens.

So, in my revision, the rescue effort quickly returns us to the Rebel vs. Empire battle but also shows off how far Luke has come in his training (and then some). The plan goes as follows: Luke, Lando and Chewbacca will lead a ninja-like raid into Jabba’s palace with massive backup led by Leia poised to support him if things go south. Luke leads the stealth incursion into the palace, past a sleeping Jabba, neutralizes Jabba’s palace guard and locates Solo (who is no longer encased in carbonite but in prison and perfectly ready to fight his way out with Luke’s help). Solo quips something incredulous like: “Kid, this ain’t no Imperial base. You think you can just waltz in and waltz out?” Luke: “I’ve learned a few new tricks.”

Luke, Lando and Chewie nearly free Han, but then at the last minute as they’re nearing the exit, out walks Vader, Boba Fett and a battalion of storm troopers. Vader is holding Jabba’s head in his hands and flings it into the room: “You forgot to bid farewell to your host.”

Outside, Leia is realizing something is wrong just as Imperial troops engage the rebel position outside the palace.

Back inside, Luke and Vader duel while they continue their conversation about that little Father thingy Vader dropped last time they met.

Meanwhile, Chewie is badly wounded by Boba Fett. Lando and Han do a good job fighting back against the storm troopers but Lando is cut off from Han and Luke when Han blasts the door blocking off the storm troopers. “Sorry, old buddy,” Han says comically. Han then goes after Boba Fett. The two tussle hand-to-hand with Boba pulling out all kinds of nasty surprises from his suit. But Han anticipates them all: “Boba, don’t you have nothin’ I didn’t teach you first?” Eventually, Han kills Boba and then checks on Chewie who is bad off but alive. They call Leia and let her know Vader is inside the palace.

The Rebels are now aware that they have an opportunity to kill Vader and move aggressively to cut off the palace.

Back in the fight, Vader then shows us the power of the Dark Side once more and uses his strangulation technique on Han with one hand, while fighting off Luke with the other. “Only through the Dark Side can you save him,” Vader insists. Luke is enraged as Chewie cries out for Han. Vader snaps Han’s neck and lets his body fall to the floor. Luke begins to let his anger take control.

Leia’s forces sweep into Jabba’s palace, but are quickly matched by the Imperial forces hiding within. It’s a pitched battle and in the end, Leia is also captured and Vader threatens to kill her too if Luke does not surrender to him.

Defeatedly: “Very well, but I will never turn,” he says to Vader.

“Perhaps you already have,” Vader asserts.

There is a tense standoff as Luke and Vader leave the planet, leaving Chewie and Leia to mourn over Han’s body.

Back among the main Rebel fleet, Leia interrogates captured Imperial officers from the fight on Tattoine and learns about some ominous new weapon the Emperor is prepping in orbit above Couroscant. They fear a new Death Star is in the works and decide that an all out attack on the Emperor is their only hope. Leia is accused of letting her anger cloud her judgement and that perhaps she is putting her personal friendships before wise strategy. But in the end, she convinces the rebels that it’s all or nothing.

Aboard Vader’s Star Destroyer, Luke communes with Obi Wan and Yoda. They warn him that the Emperor should not be underestimated. Luke must remember his training and resist. Luke says: “The Dark Side seems impossible to resist,” To this Yoda says: “Your friends. Remember the strength of the bonds you have to them. You will not find such bonds on the Dark Side. Only servitude and sorrow. Remember this, you must!”

The rebel fleet prepares for their final assault. A wounded Chewbacca with a robotic leg growls angrily as Leia details the plan. The Rebels have learned that the Emperor himself is overseeing the construction of the super weapon, which their intelligence tells them is housed on a specially outfitted Star Destroyer to avoid detection. They have also learned that Luke Skywalker is being held aboard that ship.

The goal is to attack the Emperor’s palace on the Capital to divert Imperial forces from their real target: the super weapon on the Star Destroyer. Leia and a smaller force will take two large cruisers, one attached to the other piggyback fashion. The lower cruiser will collide into the Star Destroyer and begin driving it into the atmosphere. X-wing fighters will take out any escape pods that might hold the Emperor. When the Star Destroyer is hopelessly falling into the atmosphere, the reard Rebel Cruiser will detach from the other and take the rebel crew to safety. During this, Leia has a secret mission with the droids, Chewbacca, Lando and herself to get Luke. If they fail in time, they will perish with the Star Destroyer.

The Emperor finally makes an appearance as Vader brings Luke to the throne room of the Star Destroyer. We are treated to much the same dialogue of the original script. But this is interrupted when it is announced that a Rebel fleet has just come out of hyperspace above the Capital.

battleThe rebel fleet bursts just above the atmosphere and begins firing large ion cannon weapons onto the surface while also engaging Star Destroyers and (what the hell) orbital battle stations that look like miniature Death Stars intended for taking out large spacecraft.

The Emperor mocks the attack as “pitiful” (with a little spittle shooting out of his maw) and cackles in delight. “Soon, you will turn and join us in executing the final destruction of the Rebel Alliance.”

Luke replies: “The only thing I will destroy is you, your Highness!” and uses the Force to retrieve his light saber from the Emperor’s chair. As in the original film, Vader and Luke then go at it. I really liked this part of the film and I wouldn’t change much here. Except as Luke grows angrier and angrier and ultimately defeats Vader, he turns on the Emperor.

The Emperor: “You foolish boy. Nothing can stop the inevitable rise of the Dark Side over the Galaxy. Your friends’ assault on the capital is misguided as is your faith in them. And yourself.” The Emperor rises from his chair menacingly. “The Empire is now in possession of the ultimate power in the Universe and I intend to use it to wipe out the Rebel Alliance in short order.” A door opens and out walks a young woman in black Sith clothes.

“Darth Tera, meet your brother.”

The two fight in a dead even match with the Emperor clearly enjoying the fight. Luke does his best to convince Tera to join him and destroy the Emperor, talking about how the Dark Side nearly seduced him too. But that it doesn’t have to be that way. “There is good in our family. I can feel it.”

Tera is clearly troubled by this, but these mixed feelings just make her go wild with rage.

Vader, at the Emperor’s feet is clearly surprised. “You never told me there was another.”

“You have failed, Lord Vader. Now observe the true power of the Dark Side as it conquers the Light.”

teraSuddenly, an alarm sounds and the ship rocks as Leia’s ship strikes dead center into the Star Destroyer, it’s engine blasting the ship into the atmosphere.

Leia, Lando, Chewie and the droids blast their way between the ships and begin their rescue mission of Luke.

Luke senses this and begins using telepathy with Leia like he did on Cloud City in Episode V. She follows his directions, fighting their way against impossible odds. Fortunately, most of the crew are abandoning ship in life pods and shuttles which are picked off by the Rebel fighters.

Now knowing that Leia and the others are on the way, Luke’s confidence grows. “I can save you,” he says to Tera. And then to Vader: “I can save both of you. You can be free of the Emperor. You can return as Jedi.” This clearly has an effect on the Sith Skywalkers.

The ship growns as it begins hitting the atmosphere. The Emperor has had enough.

“You are both pathetic,” he scorns. Then, he goes after Luke with his lightning power lecturing all of them on the power of the Dark Side.

Vader is the first to rise up to Luke’s defense. At first Tera tries to stop her father, but Vader pushes her aside and she hesitates. The emperor blasts Vader and they tumble together over the precipice in a more revealing struggle that is terribly violent and makes you sympathetic for Vader. We do see them crash on the floor of the tunnel, with Luke and Tera looking over the side at their bodies.

Leia and company blast their way into the room with Luke and Tera standing over the precipice. “Luke!” she screams. “There’s still time to escape! Come on!”

Luke looks at Tera. “Come with me.”

“It’s too late for me.”

“That is the Dark Side speaking. But the Light offers hope.”

The heroes all run out of the room and make their escape to the rebel ship, which detaches from the front cruiser and joins the rebel forces at their rendezvous point. There is discussion about the victory over the Emperor and hints that Planets are putting their fear aside to join the alliance. “We will build a New Republic,” Luke says.

“It is time for the Galaxy to heal,” he adds, turning to his sister, now in white robes.


Your Job Has Been Robot-sourced


“People are racing against the machine, and many of them are losing that race…Instead of racing against the machine, we need to learn to race with the machine.”

– Erik Brynjolfsson, Innovation Researcher

Libraries are busy making lots of metadata and data networks. But who are we making this for anyway? Answer: The Machines

I spent the last week catching up on what the TED Conference has to say on robots, artificial intelligence and what these portend for the future of humans…all with an eye on the impact on my own profession: librarians.

A digest of the various talks would go as follows:

    • Machine learning and AI capabilities are advancing at an exponential rate, just as forecast
    • Robots are getting smarter and more ubiquitous by the year (Roomba, Siri, Google self-driving cars, drone strikes)

Machines are replacing humans at an increasing rate and impacting unemployment rates

The experts are personally torn on the rise of the machines, noting that there are huge benefits to society, but that we are facing a future where almost every job will be at risk of being taken by a machine. Jeremy Howard used words like “wonderful” and “terrifying” in his talk about how quickly machines are getting smarter (quicker than you think!). Erik Brynjolfsson (quoted above) shared a mixed optimism about the prospects this robotification holds for us, saying that a major retooling of the workforce and even the way society shares wealth is inevitable.

Personally, I’m thinking this is going to be more disruptive than the Industrial Revolution, which stirred up some serious feelings as you may recall: Unionization, Urbanization, Anarchism, Bolshevikism…but also some nice stuff (once we got through the riots, revolutions and Pinkertons): like the majority of the world not having to shovel animal manure and live in sod houses on the prairie. But what a ride!

This got me thinking about the end game the speakers were loosely describing and how it relates to libraries. In their estimation, we will see many, many jobs disappear in our lifetimes, including lots of knowledge worker jobs. Brynjolfsson says the way we need to react is to integrate new human roles into the work of the machines. For example, having AI partners that act as consultants to human workers. In this scenario (already happening in healthcare with IBM Watson), machines scour huge datasets and then give their advice/prognosis to a human, who still gets to make the final call. That might work for some jobs, but I don’t think it’s hard to imagine that being a little redundant at some point, especially when you’re talking about machines that may even be smarter than their human partner.

But still, let’s take the typical public-facing librarian, already under threat by the likes of an ever-improving Google. As I discussed briefly in Rise of the Machines, services like Google, IBM Watson, Siri and the like are only getting better and will likely, and possibly very soon, put the reference aspect of librarianship out of business altogether. In fact, because these automated information services exist on mobile/online environments with no library required, they will likely exacerbate the library relevance issue, at least as far as traditional library models are concerned.

Of course, we’re quickly re-inventing ourselves (read how in my post Tomorrow’s Tool Library on Steroids), but one thing is clear, the library as the community’s warehouse and service center for information will be replaced by machines. In fact, a more likely model would be one where libraries pool community resources to provide access to cutting-edge AI services with access to expensive data resources, if proprietary data even exists in the future (a big if, IMO).

What is ironic, is that technical service librarians are actually laying the groundwork for this transformation of the library profession. Every time technical service librarians work out a new metadata schema, mark up digital content with micro-data, write a line of RDF, enhance SEO of their collections or connect a record to linked data, they are really setting the stage for machines to not only index knowledge, but understand its semantic and ontological relationships. That is, they’re building the infrastructure for the robot-infused future. Funny that.

As Brynjolfsson suggests, we will have to create new roles where we work side-by-side with the machines, if we are to stay employed.

On this point, I’d add that we very well could see that human creativity still trumps machine logic. It might be that this particular aspect of humanity doesn’t translate into code all that well. So maybe the robots will be a great liberation and we all get to be artists and designers!

Or maybe we’ll all lose our jobs, unite in anguish with the rest of the unemployed 99% and decide it’s time the other 1% share the wealth so we can all, live off the work of our robots, bliss-out in virtual reality and plan our next vacations to Mars.

Or, as Ray Kurzweil would say, we’ll just merge with the machines and trump the whole question of unemployment, let alone mortality.

Or we could just outlaw AI altogether and hold back the tide permanently, like they did in Dune. Somehow that doesn’t seem likely…and the machines probably won’t allow it. LOL

Anyway, food for thought. As Yoda said: “Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future.”

Meanwhile, speaking of movies…

If this subject intrigues you, Hollywood is also jumping into this intellectual meme, pushing out several robot and AI films over the last couple years. If you’re interested, here’s my list of the ones I’ve watched, ordered by my rating (good to less good).

  1. Her: Wow! Spike Jonze gives his quirky, moody, emotion-driven interpretation of the AI question. Thought provoking and compelling in every regard.
  2. Black Mirror, S02E01 – Be Right Back: Creepy to the max and coming to a bedroom near you soon!
  3. Automata: Bleak but interesting. Be sure NOT to read the expository intro text at the beginning. I kept thinking this was unnecessary to the film and ruined the mystery of the story. But still pretty good.
  4. Transcendence: A play on Ray Kurzwell’s singularity concept, but done with explosions and Hollywood formulas.
  5. The Machine: You can skip it.

Two more are on my must watch list: Chappie and Ex Machina, both of which look like they’ll be quality films that explore human-robot relations. They may be machines, but I love when we dress them up with emotions…I guess that’s what you should expect from a human being. 🙂

The People Wide Web

The debate around Net Neutrality has taken an interesting spin of late. Just as foes to Net Neutrality have gotten closer to their goal of setting up tollways and traffic controls on the information superhighway, some drivers are beginning to build their own transportation system altogether.

Net Neutrality is a concept that has been the norm on the Internet since its inception: the idea that every website gets equal treatment by Internet Service Providers (ISPs). But of course, media companies and the ISPs could conceivably benefit greatly if surcharges for access to higher bandwidth were allowed on the Net. For example, let’s say that Cable Company A offers priority bandwidth to Media Company X, allowing it to serve super high-def streaming video to users at lightning speed. However, Startup Company Z will then be obligated to compete against Media Company X for that bandwidth in order to provide the same quality service. Same goes for Blogger Y.

Fat chance of that. Indeed, given the pace at which media consolidation continues to go unchecked by regulators, were Net Neutrality abandoned, the Internet would quickly resemble something akin to how Network Television dominated communication in the years before high-speed Internet arrived.

And this is what concerns many people since a free, open web has so clearly promoted innovation. So far, the battle is not lost and Net Neutrality is still the norm. Nevertheless, some are creating back up plans.

This past week, BitTorrent, the people behind the popular torrent app uTorrent, announced they are exploring the creation of a new Internet which takes back control of the web and distributes access to websites across peer-to-peer networks.

Called Project Maelstrom, this torrent-based Internet would be powered by a new browser which would effectively rework the Internet into a much freer network with pretty much no gatekeepers.

Details are sparse at the moment, but essentially access to websites would be served as torrents, and thus not served from a single server. Instead, the sites would exist across the peer-to-peer network, in small, redundant bits living on people’s computers. Essentially, its the same technique used for torrent-based file sharing. When you try to access a site, your computer queries the torrent network and dozens of computers begin sending you the packets you need to rebuild the web page in question on your browser. And even as the web page is partially assembled, your computer then begins sharing what it already has with other people trying to access the site.

The result could likely be a much faster Internet, with much greater assurances of privacy. But technical questions remain and this does sound like it could take some time. But wow, what a revolution it would be.

Of course, this could get tricky to pull off. As you may have heard this week, the infamous torrent website Pirate Bay was taken down by authorities in Sweden this week. Pirate Bay serves up links to torrents allowing people to download everything from freeware applications to Hollywood movies that haven’t even been released yet and so has been targeted by law enforcement for years now. Even on today’s Internet, Pirate Bay could conceivably come back online at any time. But if the BitTorrent’s peer-to-peer Internet were realized, Pirate Bay would be back up instantaneously. Indeed, it would probably never come down in the first place. Same goes for Dark Net sites that sell everything from drugs to human beings, which have also been recently taken offline.

Bottom line is: Project Maelstrom is another example of how a free and open Internet is unlikely to ever go away. Question is, how much freedom is a good thing?

My own personal take is that taking back control of the Internet from media companies and ISPs would, on balance, be a great thing. Bad people do bad things in the physical world and that’s why we have never defeated crime 100%. As long as there is an Internet, there will be those that abuse it.

But even more importantly, innovation, freedom of speech and freedom to access information are core to advancing society. So I welcome Project Maelstrom.

So here’s a toast to the People-wide Web!

Is Apple Pay Really Private?

Apply Pay, the new payment system unveiled by Apple yesterday was an intriguing alternative to using Debit and Credit Cards. But how private, and how secure, is this new payment system going to really be?

Tim Cook, Apple CEO, made it very clear that Apple intends to never collect data on you or what you purchase via Apple Pay. The service, in fact, adds a few new layers of security to transactions. But you have to wonder.

A typical model for data collection business models is to promise robust privacy assurances in their service agreements and marketing even though the long-term strategy is to leverage that data for profit. Anyone who was with Facebook early on knows how quickly these terms can change.

So, when we’re assured that our purchases will remain wholly private and marketing firms will never have access to them, how can we really be confident that this will always remain the case? We can’t. So, as users, we should approach such services with skepticism.

As with anything related to personal data, we should assume that enterprising hackers or government agents can and will figure out a way to access and exploit our information. Just last week, celebrities using Apple’s iCloud had their accounts compromised and embarrassing photos were made public. And while Apple has done a pretty good job at securing Apple Pay, it’s still possible someone could figure out a way in…and then you’re not just dealing with incriminating photos, you’ve got your financial history exposed.

So ask yourself:

  1. Can you think of things you buy that could prove embarrassing or might give people with malign intent a way to blackmail or do financial damage to me?
  2. If my most embarrassing purchases were to become permanently public, can I live with that?
  3. How would such public exposure impact my reputation, professionally and personally?
  4. Does the convenience of purchasing something with my phone outweigh the risks to my financial security?

Depending on how you answer this, you may want to stick with your credit card.

Or just go the analog route and use the most anonymous medium of exchange: cash.