Runaway Algorithms

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By Ron Steinman

Recently, Spain, a member of the European Union that has strict privacy laws, told Google to stop cataloging information about 90 of its citizens who filed complaints against the search engine giant. These 90 people are suing Google for what they call an invasion of privacy. Why is this important? It is only 90 people, you say. These people say, and Spain agrees, that individuals have “the right to be forgotten on the Web.” Google is facing suits in Switzerland, the Czech republic and Germany. These countries are also upset with Google for its Street View feature where its cameras roam cities and photograph every street the camera sees. According to recent polls in Europe, most people want their privacy protected. In the United States, Web sites are springing up that will enable users, for a fee, to wipe out as best they can personal information individuals want kept secret. For Europeans that is not enough. Factions on all sides of the fight at home and abroad are taking up strong positions to combat or to protect what each believes is its right to privacy or freedom of information. There are no easy answers until someone, a person or beyond that, an institution gets hurt. Google as usual is not going away without a fight.

In response, Google says collecting much of its information is out of its hands. That is hard to believe. It comes down to this: Google thinks, and here I quote The New York Times, “ that search engines are not responsible for the information they corral from the Web.” Pause. Please read that again to get the full effect of that quote. Google is saying that similar to a vacuum cleaner, its algorithms pick up everything in their path indiscriminately and let the chips fall where they may. It is one thing to create algorithms. It is another to refuse to take reasonability for your creation. We mostly must now watch with amusement as Google dissembles its way out of taking responsibility for what it collects willy-nilly when its search engines surf the Web. Is Google dishonest? I do not know. But I think that Google is hostage to its own science, and the giant it is revels in it.

Google has been skirmishing for years with The European Union because that august body believes that Google engages in some practices that are invasions of privacy. Keep in mind that countries in Europe have a take and a history different from ours in the States about what privacy means to the individual. Europeans are far more protective of their right to privacy than we are. Individual countries in Europe have longer histories of repression than they do of democracy. As these histories recede, I can understand why they do not want outsiders invading their public and private lives.

This, then, is about Google and responsibility. It is also about A.I, artificial intelligence. More about that in a moment. I do not know if Google really wants to take over and ultimately rule the world, or at least the Internet, but what I am about to relate has to do with algorithms and how sometimes they have a mind of their own – at least according to the folks in Mountainview. We are no longer in the land of the unthinkable. We try to have reason play a role in how we live, but, it, too, is more often than not, an illusion. Take this as a warning.

I am sure we are familiar with the saying, “The Dog Ate My Homework,” the age-old excuse people use to blame outside forces for a personal failure. It is not my job, boys will be boys, and one excuse is as good as another are variations on the theme of refusing to take responsibility for one’s actions. This time, out of the mouth of the monolith known as Google, I can add a new saying to the growing lexicon of excuses — the algorithm did it. Using this excuse will now absolve all of us from future errors and failures. We can now blame a man-made tool for doing the unexpected.

A.I. or artificial intelligence is one of the great playthings of science fiction. Writers take the idea of making a manufactured robot into a “being” that has a self-aware mind. More than self-awareness, fantasists imbue these man-made creatures with the ability to make decisions selectively. Usually these are humanoid figures cybernetically enhanced to think and act on their own. If true in real life, we would end up with a new slave class or be enslaved ourselves. The dangers are blatant. But give credit where credit is due. It takes a vivid imagination to create scenarios, usually in the future, whether near or far, where we as humans craft beings who can duplicate how we think, how we laugh and cry, basically how our emotions function without the prodding of complicated software. Imaginative or speculative fiction has become a serious part of our consciousness. Everywhere I turn these days there is another creative attempt to make A.I. a reality but it is always just a dream. Isaac Asimov’s robot novels. Robert Heinlein’s speculations. William Gibson’s near future fantasies, to name just a few of many in the wide-ranging genre. There are a host of other writers, producers, directors, filmmakers too numerous to list. Everyone has a favorite. Novels. Short stories. TV. Movies. Video games. Star Wars. Droids, everywhere droids. 2001: A Space Odyssey. Star Trek. Alien. Avatar. Battlestar Galactica. Transformers. The Matrix. I Robot. Dr. Who. Dune. And my favorite group think creation from Star Trek, The Borg, a trope that is a mainstay of Star Trek:The Next Generation and Star Trek:Voyager.

More importantly, smart scientists in major labs are spending a lot of money and time in an effort to replicate how the human mind works. When I say replicate, I really mean how the mind functions and grows ultimately on its own. Humanoids need not apply. Despite what Google says about its independent algorithm and how it injudiciously collects information, I do not believe A.I is possible, no matter how many highly intelligent minds are at work trying to make it happen. Even a hard-nosed skeptic like myself does not believe that such a surprise will shock us awake in the real world.

The real world demands that we have rules governing our right to wipe out what we want about us on the Web. By the fall, we may discover that Europe is leading the way. This does not mean similar ideas will follow here in America, but I will be waiting anyway, even if impatiently. 

 Editor’s Note: Ron Steinman is executive editor and a columnist for The Digital Journalist and The Digital Filmmaker. An award-winning producer for NBC News and NBC’s Today Show, he served as bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam war, and later as bureau chief in Hong Kong and London. At ABC News Productions, he produced documentaries for A&E, TLC, the History Channel and Discovery. He is currently an independent documentary producer, director and writer through his company Douglas/Steinman Productions. He is the author of eight books, including “Inside Television First War: A Saigon Journal”, that details how NBC News covered the war in Vietnam.


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