A Call to Action

Digital technologies for learning, health, politics, and commerce have enriched the world.  Digital heroes like Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Batya Friedman, Alan Kay, JCR Licklider, and Joe Weizenbaum have blazed trails.  Yet there is trouble.  We depend upon software that nobody totally understands. We are vulnerable to cyberterrorism.  Privacy is overrun by surveillance capitalism. Totalitarian control advances.  Daily internet news matching our beliefs makes it hard to tell true from false. People are addicted to devices. Jobs disappear without social safety nets. Digital leviathans threaten to control all commerce. Our values are threatened. 

There are risks of premature use of AI in domains such as health, criminal justice, senior care, and warfare. Much current AI is unreliable, without common sense, deceptive in hiding that it’s an algorithm, unable to explain decisions, unjust, neither accountable nor responsible, and untrustworthy.  

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What Society Must Require from AI

AI and in particular machine learning has made great progress in the last decade. Yet I am deeply concerned about the hype associated with AI, and the risks to society stemming from premature use of the software. We are particularly vulnerable in domains such as medical diagnosis, criminal justice, seniors care, driving, and warfare. Here AI applications have begun or are imminent. Yet much current AIs are unreliable and inconsistent, without common sense; deceptive in hiding that they are algorithms and not people; mute and unable to explain decisions and actions; unfair and unjust; free from accountability and responsibility; and used but not trusted. 

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Does Tech Hasten an Environmental Apocalypse?

Recent increases in hurricanes, flooding, heat waves, fires, and drought are signs that the world is coming closer to irreversible damage. For example, scientists recently predicted that an Antarctic ice shelf holding up the huge Thwaites Glacier could collapse within 3 to 10 years, leading to the glacier sliding into the ocean and raising sea levels worldwide by more than 2 feet. 

What is digital technology’s contribution to the environmental apocalypse? Energy is used in three ways: (1) to manufacture digital technologies; (2) to operate them; and (3) to dispose of and replace them with newer versions. 

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I Do Not Want Mark’s Metaverse

In a blog posted two days ago, I highlighted phrases and sentences from Mark Zuckerberg’s recent keynote speech sketching his vision of Meta’s intended metaverse. Here are thoughts triggered by his words: 

1. “ you’re going to be able to do almost anything you can imagine … “This isn’t about spending more time on screens … [include] communities whose perspectives have often been overlooked … consider everyone …” 

No, Mark, be honest. This is about getting more people into Meta, and about getting them to spend more time in the metaverse, because that’s the only way you can sustain the growth your shareholders expect, and the only way you can withstand the onslaught of firms like Tiktok that now have greater appeal to the next generation of users. 

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What is Zuckerberg’s Metaverse, and Do We Want It?

In a recent blog, I suggested that we have finally lost patience with Facebook after new revelations by whistleblower Frances Haugen and the Wall Street Journal. Leaked documents show that FB knows that almost six million VIPs are given special dispensation to violate their content standards; criminals use FB to recruit women, incite violence against ethnic minorities, and support government action against political dissent; Instagram is toxic to many young girls, contributing to poor self-image, mental health, and suicidal thoughts; the firm relaxed its safeguards too soon after the U.S. election, contributing to the January 6 riot; and FB is incapable of suppressing election and vaccine misinformation. 

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Senior Care Homes Aren’t Ready for the Second Wave

Contributed by Ron Baecker and Gary Feldman

Ron Baecker is an Emeritus Professor of Computer Science at the University of Toronto and author of Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives (OUP, 2019). Gary Feldman, MD, FAAP, FABMG, is a retired physician who was the Public Health Officer of Ventura County and Riverside County in California for 14 years. They are two of the co-authors of The COVID-19 Solutions Guide.

The COVID-19 Solutions Guide, published in mid-June, described the effects of the first wave of the virus on senior care in North America as follows:

As of early June, over one-third of the known COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. have been to residents and staff living and working in nursing and long-term care homes. As of early May, a shocking 82% of the known virus deaths in Canada have been to those in long-term care. A Canadian Forces report commissioned by the province on Ontario, released in late May, reported numerous incidents of poor infection control, residents being denied food or being fed improperly, residents being treated roughly, and staffing problems. A flurry of lawsuits is expected. In Ontario, a $50 million suit was filed on May 1, 2020, alleging that one of Canada’s largest operators of senior residences and long-term care facilities lacked “proper sanitation protocols and adequate testing to prevent the spread of COVID-19”. In the United States, nursing homes have sought emergency protection from lawsuits alleging improper care.”

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COVID-19: Computer scientists and CS students can act proactively for good

Contributed by Ronald Baecker, who is an Emeritus Professor of Computer Science at the University of Toronto, co-author of The COVID-19 Solutions Guide and author of Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives (OUP, 2019).

Readers of my blog will recall what I describe as digital dreams and digital nightmares.

Our world has been enriched by digital technologies used for collaboration, learning, health, politics, and commerce. Digital pioneers imagined giving humanity greater control over the universe; augmenting knowledge and creativity; replacing difficult and dangerous physical labour with robot efforts; improving our life span with computationally supported medicine; supporting free speech with enhanced internet reason and dialogue; and developing innovative, convenient, and ideally safe products and services.  Online apps and resources are proving very valuable, even essential, in the era of COVID-19.

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Social credit

Nosedive was the first episode of the third season of the British science fiction television anthology Black Mirror.  In this episode, everyone has a mobile phone which, when pointed at another person, reveals his or her name and rating. Everyone has a rating, which ranges from 0 to 5. The following happens continually as you are walking down a street or along the corridor of a building. You give a ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’ to each person you pass, based on your instantaneous impression of that person and the nature of the encounter, no matter how trivial or quick the encounter is. A ‘thumps up’ raises that person’s rating a tiny bit; a ‘thumbs down’ lowers it. The other person concurrently rates you. Ratings determine one’s status in life, and the ability to get perks such as housing and travel. Therefore, people are on a never-ending, stressful, and soul-destroying quest to raise their online ratings for real-life rewards. Heroine Lacie desires a better apartment; she has a meltdown as she deals with unsurmountable pressure in the context of her childhood best friend’s wedding.

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Intelligent tutors

In this column, in my textbook, and in a speech “What Society Must Require from AI” I am currently giving around the world, I document some of the hype, exaggerated claims, and unrealistic predictions that workers in the field of artificial intelligence (AI) have been making for over 50 years.  Here are some examples.  Herb Simon, an AI pioneer at Carnegie-Mellon University (CMU), who later won a Novel Prize in Economics, predicted in 1958 that a program would be the world’s best champion by 1967.   Marvin Minsky of MIT, and Ray Kurzweil, both AI pioneers, made absurd predictions (in 1967 and 2005) that AI would achieve general human intelligence by 1980 and by 2045.  John Anderson, discussed below, made the absurd prediction in 1985 that it was already feasible to build computer systems “as effective as intelligent human tutors”.   IBM has recently made numerous false claims about the effectiveness of its Watson technology for domains as diverse as customer support, tax filing, and oncology.

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The age of surveillance capitalism

There is still time to buy a substantive book for the thoughtful techie or concerned citizen in your life.  Allow me to recommend two choices that were published in 2019.  One good option is my wide-ranging textbook Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives, enough said ….  But an unbiased choice is Shoshana Zuboff’s monumental The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.  The author signals her intentions with the book’s subtitle: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power.

Zuboff, the Charles Edward Wilson Professor Emerita, Harvard Business School, defines and describes surveillance capitalism (p. 8):

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