Friday, March 23, 2007

Mind Reading Computer Interfaces

I was reading this Pandagon post by Roxanne about the integration of computers with human consciousness, based on this Wired story.

The military is working on a plan to:

figure out how to monitor brain activity while it was happening -- and then have that affect a computer's display of information.

Roxanne characterizes this as “mind-fuck research”. And, let us be fair, when something is being funded by DARPA it isn't because someone wants to do happy warm fuzzies. Those DARPA boys are thinking about improved interfaces for killing machines:

So much of what’s done today in the military involves staring at a computer screen — parsing an intelligence report, keeping track of fellow soldiers, flying a drone airplane — that it can quickly lead to information overload.

This research is about war.

Roxanne asks, “Can you think of any commercial applications?” I can, easily, in everything from surgery to fast-food. A computer interface that adapts, automatically, to my needs even as I conceive them? Yes, there will be commercial applications in just about anything where a person needs to manipulate a large amount of data quickly. This will have some predictable effects that aren't much better than the military applications – it will destroy jobs. As businesses become more streamlined, they'll need fewer and fewer people to do them. It is part of the process that will cause us, some day, to have to confront the post-labor society – very few people will be needed to do a great number of things, and, soon, perhaps none at all.

It will also have truly wide-ranging law enforcement and privacy concerns, as are already happening with brain fingerprinting. A machine that reads a person's mind very obviously has tremendous potential for abuse, but also tremendous potential to stop abuse. No more lying on the stand, right? Hook someone into an augmented cognition device and power it up. It has the potential for effective and certain lie detection.

Hooked up to unwilling participants, it probably also has tremendous use as an interrogation tool – not only in the legitimate sense of catching murderers and the like, but in the illegitimate sense of tracking down enemies of the state or things that are “wrong” but not illegal (such as extra-marital affairs).

Or psychology! A machine that can give real insight into what a person thinks and feels. The ability to look into a person's mind – even partially – will be of great use to psychologists and psychiatrists and could easily lead to very real advances in those fields. Human minds won't be opaque, or at least not as opaque, where the only way “in” is through the clumsy medium of language, often when a person is being hindered in honesty by the same trauma that brings them to a psychologist or psychiatrist in the first place.

On top of that, the huge privacy concerns. There will be this machine and it will be reading your mind. Data theft is an issue with computers now. A machine that can honestly figure out pieces of your consciousness, and manipulates them, will be learning an awful lot about you. Just how much is uncertain, but in the fashion of technological progress it will tend to rapidly increase. After all, the more the computer knows about your wants and needs (even those you keep from yourself) the better it will serve you. The computer will learn things about you that no one else knows, in order to serve you better. To properly adapt will require accurate and useful information about you in all sorts of ways that, initially, we might find creepy. F'rex, what if a person works best while sexually aroused?

For me, the more exciting implications are in consciousness expansion. The computer will know things about us, real things, and personal ones. That data could be shared and studied. After long association with a person that has had a lot of trauma, there will be data about what a traumatized person wants and needs. That data could be shown to others, who then might take understanding about trauma from it.

It will, I think, also show us a lot of trauma that is now hidden. Those conservative fundie Christian workaholic cheerleaders for global corporate imperialism – we'll have access to what motivates them, too. Which will help everyone understand what is going on. Very exciting stuff.

Additionally, if I haven't gone on long enough about this subject, one of the key barriers to a society of consent and not violence is clear and concise data about relevant issues in a person's life. That's the whole point behind enhanced cognition as DARPA envisions it. We are overloaded with data. This is not, precisely, unknown to netizens. This sort of data interface would allow people to get concise information based on their wants and needs, handled in a way that maximizes the efficiency of communication between the computer and the user. And, of course, that computer is connected to the world through the Internet, so it becomes an increasingly efficient interface between users on the Internet. We will be able to share, amongst ourselves, information of increasing complexity and precision more efficiently than ever before. Blogs, newspapers, television will seem ridiculously crude in comparison to this ever updated, every personalized, ever concise and efficient data stream.

And because the more a person uses the system the more it adapts to them in a very personal way, and because these systems are connected, we will gain increasingly large insights into the people who use them. It isn't just that research groups will be able to study this data and talk about what is in our minds, or psychologists use it for therapy, or police for interrogations, but we will be able to use this information to see very personal, very private things about each other – if we are sufficiently brave. (F'rex, do you want your significant other to know that you work best sexually aroused? To know that working makes you sexually aroused?) These systems will, in some ways, mirror our consciousness (at least as when we use them) and that data can be experienced by others – through the same systems.

(Can you imagine what instant messaging would be with something like this? Where the system would try to express your real intentions to the person you're messaging in an adaptive way that increases the depth of conversation? That, to some extent, the enhanced cognition will help them feel what you are feeling? And that the system will know when it has succeeded? Can you imagine a world of increasing certainty in conversation? Where people can feel as you feel?)

People might think I'm being pretty over-the-top with this sort of thing. I don't think so. Sure, initially, it's just going to be a handless interface used in jet fighters or killer robots. But the plans are far more ambitious and we're far closer to realizing them than, I think, most people want to admit. Because what is being discussed is an adaptive control interface that is almost directly between our brain and a computer. To do this, the computer will become a practical learning tool about the consciousness of it's users, connecting us to each other with greater precision and efficiency than ever before. To use this sort of thing on weapons is callow and crude, much like the use of the Internet for weapons was callow and crude and has come to the front as a system of interpersonal communications – people talking horizontally to each other, rather than vertically through tightly hierarchical systems. This will not only expand our horizons, but the depths of communication in magnificent ways. If they succeed – and, eventually, they will – the military will lose control of this almost instantly.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Condotierri and Anarcho-Capitalism

The book I wrote before Simon Peter is Condotierri. “Condotierri” is an Italian term for mercenary, generally with a deeply negative connotation. Nowadays, we don't get the absolute insult calling someone a mercenary was in earlier days – as people who profited off of war, they were regarded as total scum. But Condotierri sounds cooler than “mercenary”. This refers to the protagonist, Caesar Mailleux, who is a corporate police officer in a futuristic metropolis. He is deeply corrupt – or, another way, he's a mercenary.

In the book, itself, I take an almost retro look at the technological end of science-fiction. I find futurism to be difficult – not to consider, but to write about without become preachy. I mean, hell, I've got a blog to be preachy. I don't need to put it in my novels. And by retro, I mean that the technological infrastructure is basically the stuff we have today, just better. I don't, for instance, go far down the roads of transhumanism, or explore the significance of artificial intelligence.

However, socially, it's a little more up-to-date. I won't give away the mystery, but I will talk a little about where the background comes from.

David Friedman wrote a book, Machinery of Freedom, and I haven't read the whole thing but I did read Chapter 29, the text of which is online. I stumbled upon this by accident. I don't even remember what I was looking for but this excerpt really got to me. I continue to be absorbed by it, because it's so . . . stupid. I'm not even talking run of the mill stupid, but so deeply and profoundly stupid that it beggars the imagination. Go on, read it, if you want, but I'll break it down for you.

In this chapter, he proposes, seriously proposes, that there should be no state run law enforcement, or state criminal laws. Instead, what we'll have is security corporations. Law will be replaced by the policy of the security corporations. Courts will be replaced with non-binding arbitration between those corporations.

Think about that for a couple of minutes. I can wait.

Wow, right?

I read this and several things occurred to me. The first was, “What about the poor?” Then I thought, “Fuck, what about the rich?” Lastly, “What about . . . corruption?”

The official anarcho-capitalist line, touted out by Friedman, is that corporations are honest brokers because dishonestly leads to decreased profits. Which is a proposition so absolutely stupid, contrary to facts and bizarre that I have trouble wrapping my head around it. Of course, in a world without laws, it took me a while to figure out what corruption would be – for employees of the security firm, it would be violation of corporate policy. But without a (theoretically) transparent government looking at corporations, well, wouldn't corporate policy be nothing but a PR trick? Corporations, with no transparency whatsoever, not beholden to anyone whatsoever, would internalize corruption. We don't have to imagine this. Just think of the big scandals in Enron and Chase Manhattan to get an idea of how this might work – but take away the possibility of them being caught (because there would be no one to catch them) or being penalized if they were caught (because there wouldn't be anyone to enforce anything). Getting freaked out, yet? I did when I started coming on this point.

And what about the poor? Let's face it. They're fucked. In our system, which gives at least lip service to the idea of equal rights, the amount of justice a person has is largely determined by their wealth. However, there are still limits. This sort of system would remove those limits. Poor people would be fair game for rich ones – why not? Even if they could afford police coverage, their coverage would be much weaker than a rich person's. Crudely, let's say I'm a billionaire and I get drunk, wander into the poor part of town and shoot a person with no coverage. No coverage, no crime, even if it was caught on camera and there were a hundred reputable witnesses and they had the gun that did the deed with my fingerprints all over it.

But what if they have less coverage? A lot less? Well, economically, how much effort is a corporation put into pressing a case against someone who can afford to stretch out the process for years and years? What they'd do is a risk assessment. They'd weigh the costs of the litigation process against the money lost through bad advertising and whatever – and if the cost of the litigation is more than the losses, fuck 'em. Rich people could even have, y'know, “murder insurance” clauses – they murder someone, the insurance kicks in and makes sure the process is dragged out, or resolved through other means (such as corruption, or finding a patsy for PR purposes – remember, there's no one checking these guys, who's to say what really happened?).

Let's get tricky, now. What if the victim and the murderer have the same insurance corporation. With whom does the security company arbitrate? Itself? I submit that how that goes – a living rich policy holder vs. a dead poor one – is pretty obvious.

Trickier, still. What's to prevent a rich person from having several policies? That way, the security corporation persecuting the case will always be the same one defending it, too.

Even tricker, yet. What does a rich person even need a security corporation for in the first place? Why not just make a little fortress. Let them try and come and get you. The risk analysis becomes much easier if to get the perp you've got to fight a mercenary army, especially if victory isn't assured.

The short answer: the rich can get away with murder.

Right now, of course, the state controls this by maintaining a monopoly on violence. Not even Bill Gates can afford to do battle with the US government. Not even General Motors. The government would stop them from developing the military infrastructure to fight the government long before it occurred. So, even if the people over at GM wanted to, they couldn't just . . . level a neighborhood regardless of who's in it because they know that the police insurance firms for poor people aren't capable much less willing to try to fight the GM security force.

The anarcho-capitalist answer is that, y'know, they wouldn't fight like that because it isn't profitable. Because we know that corporations haven't encouraged and fought wars before, or something. Let's face it, war is profitable if you can win it.

In Condotierri, the premise is that society has moved very far towards an anarcho-capitalist society in this fashion, and it explores the idea of corruption in such a society.

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