Biometric Data And The Rise Of Digital Dictatorship
Is humanity doomed? Are we one of the last generations of homo sapiens —soon to be supplanted by engineered cyber-beings, with a distant semblance to their creators (us)?
On Jan. 24, historian and international best-selling author Yuval Hararipresented his view of the future at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Harari wrote Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and also Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.
In a riveting 25-minute presentation, Harari painted a very gloomy — but possible — view of the future, based on his thesis that we are now in our third grand revolution, the control of data, following the control of land (Agrarian Revolution) and the control of machinery (Industrial Revolution). The point of no return, Harari contends, will happen when technology will be able to extract high-precision biometric data from people, and report back to a centralized decision-making control system, owned by governments or by corporations — or both. By biometric, he means your pulse, pressure, sweat composition, dilation of your pupils, etc: Kind of a lie-detector on steroids.
For example, Harari said, if the North Korean government forces its citizens to wear a bracelet that transmits biometric data to government data centers, the government will be able to monitor how people feel about their leader and about pretty much everything else in their lives. They may know more about you than you do, given that we are often unaware of what’s really going on with us.
Harari’s vision echoes Ray Kurzweil‘s “singularity,” without Kurzweil’s somewhat romantic expectation that technology will bring us immortality. (Not really “us,” but our essence captured as digital data.) The interested reader can watch Transcendent Man, a documentary about Kurzweil and his vision.
The main idea is that we are close to being able to hack life itself: Thinking of organisms as algorithms, it is just a matter of computing power and enough biometric data before we are able to engineer any kind of creature from scratch. After all, if life is like a computer program (the software) running on biochemistry (the hardware) all we have to do is collect all the information we can to write our own algorithms of other living things. That, coupled with the rise of machine learning and AI will seal our doom as a species; or, in another way to see this, it will put the future of evolution in our hands and not on the random leashes of natural selection.
The main question, then, asks Harari, is: Who is going to have control over this data? How is this wealth going to be regulated? We have laws that regulate land and machines. What are the laws that regulate data and the privacy of individuals? Are people willingly going to give away their privacy, their biometric info, to a centralized data processing unit? Possibly, argues Harari, if your health depends on it. Or if you live in a dictatorship and have no option. Or if you exchange that data for services offered by corporations, something that is already beginning to happen. (“Get your deliveries and other offers for free if you allow us to monitor your smart-watch data.”)
When asked when this is going to happen, Harari is vague, as he should be. Decades, possibly a century. But in his view, as in Kurzweil’s, this future is pretty much a done deal.
Of course, no one can predict the future. What we can do is look at current trends and extrapolate the best way we can. There is no question that computer power will continue to increase, and that our knowledge of genetics and bio-engineering will as well. Data science, which mostly serves the interests of governments and corporations, will also become savvier as machine learning progresses. Market forces and investor greed will keep on steamrolling the data revolution forward. Are there no balancing forces to this onslaught?
I think there are.
First, we can mention the rise of corporate ethics. A growing number of companies are realizing that if they don’t align their values with that of their clients, they will lose them. A current example is the boycott of the NRA by many companies, from Delta Airlines to Best Western. Corporations that are reluctant are being pressured by their clients to change. Consumers have power — and they can be heard when mobilized. Corporations or institutions that are perceived to have low ethical standards may be forced to change or close doors.
Another point is that there is only so much information we can gather about any natural system, including ourselves. This sort of extremely precise and complete mapping of all human metabolic functions and brain activity is a dream. Science cannot be omniscient. That’s reserved for supernatural gods. There are limits to what technology can do. Every machine has a precision range and is blind to what goes on beyond what it can probe. To monitor the activity of about 85 billion neurons and the flowing of neurotransmitters through trillions of synapses seems highly implausible, even if I wear my science-fiction nerd hat. What we can achieve (and will) is an incomplete mapping of the human brain and body.
In being so definitive about our doomed future, Harari seems to be confusing the map with the territory. The map (how science describes reality) is not the territory (reality in its totality). We have no way of knowing what reality in its totality even means, given how our scientific narrative depends on our limited experience of reality. Humans perceive and describe the world in a uniquely human way. Science cannot eradicate doubt. Quite the opposite: As science learns more about the world, it also opens new questions we couldn’t have anticipated.
Granted, governments and corporations may not need this level of fantastic detail about our bodies and brains to do a lot of damage. That, to me, is a more realistic outlook. I do agree with Harari that we need to start a conversation as soon as possible about our collective future — and that this conversation cannot be relegated exclusively to politicians. Who will control the ownership of data? What limits and safeguards should be imposed so that there is no rise of data dictatorships?
To tackle the upcoming changes, we need a plurality of views: Scientists, humanists, and business and community leaders must be part of it. The real danger is that we do nothing. Taking a hint from history, trouble has started whenever the ownership of land or of machinery has been concentrated in the hands of too few. With data, we face the same issue with a more challenging and fluid commodity.
Meanwhile, be aware of how much biometric data from your Fitbit or smart watch you share on the web.
Tesla made a significant change to its electric motor strategy with the introduction of the Model 3, switching from an AC induction motor to a permanent magnet motor.
Now, Tesla’s principal motor designer, Konstantinos Laskaris, explains the logic behind the move.
We recently reported on Laskaris because he went to school at the National Technical University of Athens in Greece, like several other top motor designers at Tesla. The automaker recently confirmed that they are building an electric motor R&D group in Greece to tap into strong local electrical engineering talent.
At the Coil Winding, Insulation & Electrical Manufacturing Exhibition (CWIEME) in Chicago, Laskaris made a rare comment about Tesla’s decision to use a permanent magnet motor in the Model 3 instead ofan AC induction motor, like in Model S and Model X.
He said (via Charged):
“It’s well known that permanent magnet machines have the benefit of pre-excitation from the magnets, and therefore you have some efficiency benefit for that. Induction machines have perfect flux regulation and therefore you can optimize your efficiency. Both make sense for variable-speed drive single-gear transmission as the drive units of the cars.
So, as you know, our Model 3 has a permanent magnet machine now. This is because for the specification of the performance and efficiency, the permanent magnet machine better solved our cost minimization function, and it was optimal for the range and performance target.
Quantitatively, the difference is what drives the future of the machine, and it’s a tradeoff between motor cost, range and battery cost that is determining which technology will be used in the future.”
It sounds like the decision was driven by efficiency and costs. Tesla is still far from reaching its cost target for the Model 3, but they can say ‘mission accomplished’ for efficiency since the Model 3 is one of the most efficient vehicles on the market, according to the EPA.
One of the main concerns with permanent magnet motors is that they often use rare-earth materials, which are controversial because of health risks and geopolitical issues. But not much is known about the design of the Model 3 motor at the moment.
A recent look at the motor (linked below) suggests that Tesla refers to it as ‘PMSRM’, which could mean ‘Permanent Magnet Switched Reluctance Motor’, a new type of motor with thin permanent magnets, but it’s unclear at this point:
Electric-assist trike pilot program rolls out across UBC campus
‘It’s as though a car and a bike had a baby,’ says Veemo project manager
By Rafferty Baker, CBC News Posted: Feb 28, 2018 8:55 AM PT Last Updated: Feb 28, 2018 8:55 AM PT
The University of British Columbia campus is serving as a testing ground for a small fleet of rentable electric-assist pedal tricycles.
The single-person vehicles have been deployed as a pilot program by the Vancouver-based company VeloMetro. The company calls the machines and the associated app Veemo.
“It’s as though a car and a bike had a baby,” said Tanya Paz, the project manager for the UBC Veemo pilot program.
“It’s covered, so eventually you won’t need a helmet and on a [rainy] day like today, you’re not messing with your coif,” said Paz.
The system works like many car services, including Car2Go and Evo; you access the enclosed vehicle by activating it with the phone app. It bills the user by the minute, and Paz says it costs about two-thirds as much as one-way car services.
The controls for the vehicles, which weigh about 120 kilograms, are similar to any bicycle — there are pedals and a handlebar with brakes.
But it has a touch-screen interface to toggle controls like windshield wipers, pedal speed, and how much boost you get from the batteries. There are buttons on the handlebar to signal your turns.
There are currently five available vehicles to use within a limited section of the UBC campus, says Paz.
She said the company is looking for investments from venture capitalists and hopes to expand the fleet to as many as 50 vehicles in the next few months, and then perhaps extend the zone beyond campus later this year.
While VeloMetro uses the pilot to drum up investment, gain users and improve its vehicles, a team at UBC is using Veemo data to carry out research.
Alex Bigazzi is an assistant professor in the civil engineering department. He and some grad students are interested in how electric vehicles like these displace other modes of transportation.
“Ideally we want to get people out of private cars, for the most part, so we want to look at how many of these Veemos are displacing auto trips, instead of walking and cycling trips,” said Bigazzi — though he admits that in the limited pilot, few of the trips would have otherwise been taken in cars.
“We could still look at the characteristics of those trips and extrapolate to the broader travel patterns of Vancouver,” he said. “They’re recording a lot of data, second by second characteristics of the trips.”
The team is also designing Veemo user surveys to get additional information.
Bigazzi and his team have already been part of the Veemo beta test, so they’ve had the chance to pedal the machines around campus for a bit.
“It’s great, it’s actually quite a lot of fun to ride, it’s fun to get that boost when you’re pedalling,” he said.
“If I want to hop over to the grocery store and get some snacks or lunch whatever, it also serves well for those trips.”
Both Bigazzi and Paz hope the five pilot vehicles don’t get damaged, or misused by the student population, especially after something like a late night at the pub.
“It’s not like clowns: ‘let’s see how many we could get in there,'” said Paz. “This is for one clown and all his clown toys.”
Being diagnosed with a disease such as Parkinson’s makes you question everything. For some those questions disappear into the background within a few months, though for others they constantly fill their days. In truth how could it be otherwise; always making its presence known when you don’t want it to. At times lulling you into a false sense of security immediately upon which you actually believe that it isn’t really true.
“Lesley, we will probably be here having the very same conversation in five years time,” said the PD nurse as she explaining that Parkinson’s is a slow developing disease. How does a slow disease progress? I asked myself. How long will it take before it impacts my life to such a degree that I have to change things? 10, 20, 30 years? Part of me felt it was a waste of time asking (what I considered to be) irrelevant questions. After all if that’s the case I will be in my 60′s before it progresses further – as though one minute in seven years, like a bolt of lightening, it will suddenly get worse!
Technology is an advantageous way to acquire information – but assessing what applies to yourself is not easy. Day-after-day your head is filled with a myriad of details about this condition. Not only are there physical symptoms, others are of the ‘non-motor’ kind; anxiety, depression, memory problems, sleeplessness. Then the more you look the more confusing it is. They can be part of the disease or side effects of medication. Once the obsession that initially takes hold is put to one side, the reality is that it’s still only a tremor. Like fellow sufferers, there is also the pain and bradykinesia (slowness of movement in affected parts) but my life is not severely affected. I’m not going to die! I will just gradually develop more disabling effects of the disease. There is no handbook that says ‘you will get this and then in so many years this will happen.’ For every person Parkinson’s develops at a different rate and affects varied areas of their body.
If that isn’t enough, our minds have an abundance of creative potential and now it begins to see PD in past symptoms. Scanning the internet feeds this process until it almost becomes a paranoia. This only feeds the feelings of anxiety that are part of the disease. Once diagnosed with such an insidious disease, modern technology can bolster the need to believe that all those undiagnosed peculiarities you had been experiencing are part of Parkinson’s. The list becomes longer and longer. In truth many of us suffer with other medical conditions as well, which exacerbate or run along side. Talking with a specialist nurse or the neurologist can be a far more effective way of finding out what is part of this condition – striving together to piece all the Parkinson’s jigsaw of symptoms. Some areas of the country have more specialised nurses than others. They are trained in a specialist field such as Parkinson’s and are a vital link between us ‘Parki’s’ and the neurologist.
Attending the ‘Newly Diagnosed Clinic’ run by a PD nurse, did answer most of the queries lurking in my mind; dismissing others as though they had never existed. Like myself there was little, if any, indication that other sufferers sitting around the table had Parkinson’s. It doesn’t stand out like a label telling everyone. Most astounding is how many people are diagnosed with Parkinson’s every month. Three of us out of a total of eight had our diagnosis in the same month. According to the official statistics, every hour two people in the UK are told they have Parkinson’s, so that makes roughly 1440 people in one year.
That’s why most of us know someone with this disease. Some speak out about having it, helping to raise its profile while others find feel the need to keep the diagnosis to themselves. Personally, as you have certainly guessed by now, my way of coping is to talk about it, as well as researching as much as possible. I wouldn’t say I have come to terms with the fact yet, but I am getting there.
Emotional Bond Between Humans and Dogs Dates Back 14,000 Years
Researchers discovered that a dog found in a grave dating to the start of the last century had been sick for a long time and had been cared for
Prehistoric people may well have had an emotional bond with domesticated dogs much earlier than we thought. Leiden University PhD candidate and vet Luc Janssens discovered that a dog found at the start of the last century in a grave dating back 14,000 years had been sick for a long time and had been cared for.
PHOTO SOURCE: PÜTZ MARTIN, JÜRGEN VOGEL, RALF SCHMITZ (LVR-LANDESMUSEUM BONN)
Humans and dogs in shared grave
The grave itself, including the remains of a man, a woman, and two dogs, was discovered by chance in 1914 by a group of workers not far from Bonn. Recent research shows that the remains date from the Paleolithic era, making them 14,000 years old. This is the oldest known grave where humans and dogs were buried together, and it is among the earliest evidence of the domestication of dogs. It now appears that not only were the dogs domesticated, they were probably also intensively cared for.
The younger dog in the grave must have been 27 or 28 weeks old when it died. Luc Janssens examined the remains of the animal’s teeth. Based on his findings, he concluded that the dog was probably suffering from a serious infection of the morbilli virus (also known as canine distemper). It is not possible to make a definitive diagnosis because the genetic material of the virus has perished. The characteristic damage to the dog’s teeth leads Janssens to believe that the animal contracted the illness as a puppy (at around 3 to 4 months). After this the dog may have had two or possibly even three periods of serious illness lasting 5 to 6 weeks.
‘Without adequate care, a dog with a serious case of distemper will die in less than three weeks,’ Janssens explains. This dog was clearly seriously ill but it survived a further eight weeks, which would only be possible if it had been well cared for. ‘That would mean keeping it warm and clean and giving it food and water, even though, while it was sick, the dog would not have been of any practical use as a working animal. This, together with the fact that the dogs were buried with people who we may assume were their owners, suggests that there was a unique relationship of care between humans and dogs as long as 14,000 years ago.’
The article by Luc Janssens, entitled ‘A new look at an old dog: Bonn-Oberkassel reconsidered’ was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.
Using Your Phone At Dinner Isn’t Just Rude. It Also Makes You Unhappy
Elizabeth Dunn and Ryan Dwyer, two researchers from the University of British Columbia in Canada, couldn’t help but notice a trend.
“You see people in restaurants all the time who are sitting across the table from each other, and instead of staring at each other, they’re staring at their phones,” says Dwyer, a doctoral candidate in psychology. “We were really curious: Is it having an impact on people’s social interactions, how much they’re enjoying the time they’re spending with other people?”
The short answer, they found, is yes — and not for the better.
Phone use during a meal led to a modest but noticeable decrease in diners’ enjoyment, according to their research, which was published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology and will be presented at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology’s annual convention on Friday. Technology at the table caused people to feel more distracted and less socially engaged, leading to a drop in enjoyment equivalent to half a point on a seven-point scale, explains Dunn, a professor of psychology and the study’s senior author.
“[Phones] do make a difference,” Dunn says. “But it’s a small enough difference that you could easily overlook it and not even necessarily realize how phones are altering your experience in subtle ways during social interactions.”
The researchers asked 300 people to go out to dinner with friends or family, with the intention of studying how phone use affected the experience. But the researchers did not want people in the study to be aware of that goal.
To disguise the study’s intent, the researchers told half the group that they’d receive a study-related question by text at some point during the meal, so they should keep their devices on the table. The other half thought they’d answer the question on paper during the meal, and were told to put their phones away as part of a longer list of study directions.
Afterward, both groups answered questions about their enjoyment, phone use and overall dining experience. Their responses showed a clear dip in pleasure among the phone users — who, just by virtue of having their phones on the table, ended up using them for an average of 11% of the meal.
The effect appears to transcend dinnertime, too. In a second experiment, the researchers texted survey questions to more than 100 people five times a day for a week. Each time, people were asked about their emotional state and what they’d been doing in the last 15 minutes. If they had been on their phone while having a face-to-face interaction, they enjoyed the interaction less than people who had been face-to-face with another person without a phone, the researchers found.
Kicking a tech addiction can be tough; even after conducting the study, Dunn says she still finds herself tempted to respond to a text or two at the table. But the results emphasize how important it is to unplug around friends and family, Dwyer says.
“Phone use can be a bit of a habit. You’re used to pulling your phone out and looking for new notifications,” he says. “Have a rule that if you’re going to go out to dinner with some friends or family members, you’ll put your phone on silent and leave it off the table. Try to stick to these rules so you can form new habits.”
If you can resist the lure of your device, Dunn says, you may actually enhance your experience in a few ways.
“Phone use may be contagious. People are more likely to use their phones when others around them are also using their phones, so that suggests there may be this sort of domino effect,” she explains. “By putting your own phone away, you might be creating a positive domino effect.”