Category Archives: Digital disruption

ELLIS as the CERN for AI

I an open letter (PDF) a range of institutions call upon their respective European governments to create ELLIS, the European Lab for Learning and Intelligent Systems. It’s an effort to fortify against brain drain, and instead attract top talent to Europe. It points to the currently weak position in AI of Europe between what is happening in the USA and in China, adding a geo-political dimension. The letter calls not so much for an institution with a large headcount, but for commitment to long term funding to attract and keep the right people. These are similar reasons that led to the founding of CERN, now a global center for physics (and a key driver of things like open access to research and open research data), and more recently the European Molecular Biology Laboratory.

At the core the signatories see France and Germany as most likely to act to start this intra-governmental initiative. It seems this nicely builds upon the announcement by French president Macron late March to invest heavily in AI, and keep / attract the right people for it. He too definitely sees the European dimension to this, even puts European and enlightenment values at the core of it, although he acted within his primary scope of agency, France itself.

(via this Guardian article)

Time for an RSS Revival

Wired is calling for an RSS revival.

RSS is the most important piece of internet plumbing for following new content from a wide range of sources. It allows you to download new updates from your favourite sites automatically and read them at your leisure. Dave Winer, forever dedicated to the open web, created it.

I used to be a very heavy RSS user. I tracked hundreds of sources on a daily basis. Not as news but as a way to stay informed about the activities and thoughts of people I was interested in. At some point, that stopped working. Popular RSS readers were discontinued, most notably Google’s RSS reader, many people migrated to the Facebook timeline, platforms like Twitter stopped providing RSS feeds to make you visit their platform, and many people stopped blogging. But with FB in the spotlight, there is some interest in refocusing on the open web, and with it on RSS.

Currently I am repopulating from scratch my RSS reading ‘antenna’, following around 100 people again.

Wired in its call for an RSS revival suggests a few RSS readers. I, as I always have, use a desktop RSS reader, which currently is ReadKit. The FB timeline presents stuff to you based on their algorithmic decisions. As mentioned I definitely would like to have smarter ways of shaping my own information diet, but then with me in control and not the one being commoditised.

So it’s good to read that RSS Reader builders are looking at precisely that.
“Machines can have a big role in helping understand the information, so algorithms can be very useful, but for that they have to be transparent and the user has to feel in control. What’s missing today with the black-box algorithms is where they look over your shoulder, and don’t trust you to be able to tell what’s right.”,says Edwin Khodabakchian cofounder and CEO of RSS reader Feedly (which currently has 14 million users). That is more or less precisely my reasoning as well.

Backdoors and Futile Stamping

Russia is trying to block Telegram, an end-to-end encrypted messaging app. The reason for blocking is that Telegram refused to provide keys to the authorities with which messages can be decrypted. Not for a specific case, but for listening into general traffic.

Asking for keys (even if technologically possible), to have a general backdoor is a very bad idea. It will always be misused by others. And yes, you do have something to hide. Your internet banking is encrypted, your VPN connection from home to your work computer is too. You use passwords on websites, mail accounts and your wifi. If you don’t have anything to hide, please leave your Facebook login details along with your banking details in the comments. I promise I won’t use them. The point isn’t whether I or government keep our promises (and I or government might not), it’s that others definitely won’t.

As a result of Telegram not providing the keys, Russia is now trying to block people from using it. This results in millions of IP addresses now being blocked, more than 1 IP address per the around 14 million users of Telegram in Russia. (Telegram reports about 200 million users globally per month). Because the service partly runs on servers of Amazon and Google data centers, and those are getting blocked. This impacts other services as well, who use the same data centers to flexibly scale their computing needs. The blocking attempts aren’t working though.

It shows how fully distributed systems are hard to stamp out, it will merely pop up somewhere else. The internet routes around damages, it is what it was designed to do.

Let’s see if actions will now be taken by Russian authorities against persons and assets of Telegram, as that really is the only (potential, not garantueed,) way to stamp out something: dismantling it. In the case of Telegram, a private company, there are indeed people and assets one could target. And Telegram is pledging to deploy those assets in resisting. Yet dismantling Telegram, even if successful and disregarding other costs and consequences for a government, defeats the original purpose of wanting to listen in to message traffic. Traffic will easily move into other encrypted tools, like Signal, while new even more distributed applications will also emerge in response.

Summary:

  • General backdoors, bad idea, regardless of whether you can trust the one you give back door access to.
  • Blocking is hard to do with distributed systems.
  • If you don’t accept attempts to do either from data driven authoritarian governments, you need to accept the same objections to general back door access apply to other situations where you think the stated aim has more merit.
  • Do use an encrypted messaging app, like Signal, as much as possible

Macron’s 1.5 Billion for Values, Data and AI

Data, especially lots of it, is the feedstock of machine learning and algorithms. And there’s a race on for who will lead in these fields. This gives it a geopolitical dimension, and makes data a key strategic resource of nations. In between the vast data lakes in corporate silos in the US and the national data spaces geared towards data driven authoritarianism like in China, what is the European answer, what is the proposition Europe can make the world? Ethics based AI. “Enlightenment Inside”.

French President Macron announced spending 1.5 billion in the coming years on AI last month. Wired published an interview with Macron. Below is an extended quote of I think key statements.

AI will raise a lot of issues in ethics, in politics, it will question our democracy and our collective preferences……It could totally dismantle our national cohesion and the way we live together. This leads me to the conclusion that this huge technological revolution is in fact a political revolution…..Europe has not exactly the same collective preferences as US or China. If we want to defend our way to deal with privacy, our collective preference for individual freedom versus technological progress, integrity of human beings and human DNA, if you want to manage your own choice of society, your choice of civilization, you have to be able to be an acting part of this AI revolution . That’s the condition of having a say in designing and defining the rules of AI. That is one of the main reasons why I want to be part of this revolution and even to be one of its leaders. I want to frame the discussion at a global scale….The key driver should not only be technological progress, but human progress. This is a huge issue. I do believe that Europe is a place where we are able to assert collective preferences and articulate them with universal values.

Macron’s actions are largely based on the report by French MP and Fields Medal winning mathematician Cédric Villani, For a Meaningful Artificial Intelligence (PDF)

Ethics by Design

My current thinking about what to bring to my open data and data governance work, as well as to technology development, especially in the context of networked agency, can be summarised under the moniker ‘ethics by design’. In a practical sense this means setting non-functional requirements at the start of a design or development process, or when tweaking or altering existing systems and processes. Non-functional requirements that reflect the values you want to safeguard or ensure, or potential negative consequences you want to mitigate. Privacy, power asymmetries, individual autonomy, equality, and democratic control are examples of this.

Today I attended the ‘Big Data Festival’ in The Hague, organised by the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management. Here several government organisations presented themselves and the work they do using data as an intensive resource. Stuff that speaks to the technologist in me. In parallel there were various presentations and workshops, and there I was most interested in what was said about ethical issues around data.

Author and interviewer Bas Heijne set the scene at the start by pointing to the contrast between the technology optimism concerning digitisation of years back and the more dystopian discussion (triggered by things like the Cambridge Analytica scandal and cyberwars), and sought the balance in the middle. I think that contrast is largely due to the difference in assumptions underneath the utopian and dystopian views. The techno-optimist perspective, at least in the webscene I frequented in the late 90’s and early 00’s assumed the tools would be in the hands of individuals, who would independently weave the world wide web, smart at the edges and dumb at the center. The dystopian views, including those of early criticaster like Aron Lanier, assumed, and were proven at least partly right, a centralisation into walled gardens where individuals are mere passive users or an object, and no longer a subject with autonomy. This introduces wildly different development paths concerning power distribution, equality and agency.

In the afternoon a session with professor Jeroen van den Hoven, of Delft University, focused on making the ethical challenges more tangible as well as pointed to the beginnings of practical ways to address them. It was the second time I heard him present in a month. A few weeks ago I attended an Ethics and Internet of Things workshop at University of Twente, organised by UNESCO World Commission on the Ethics of Science and Technology (COMEST). There he gave a very worthwile presentation as well.


Van den Hoven “if we don’t design for our values…”

What I call ethics by design, a term I first heard from prof Valerie Frissen, Van den Hoven calls value sensitive design. That term sounds more pragmatic but I feel conveys the point less strongly. This time he also incorporated the geopolitical aspects of data governance, which echoed what Rob van Kranenburg (IoT Council, Next Generation Internet) presented at that workshop last month (and which I really should write down separately). It was good to hear it reinforced for today’s audience of mainly civil servants, as currently there is a certain level of naivety involved in how (mainly local governments) collaborate with commercial partners around data collection and e.g. sensors in the public space.

(Malfunctioning) billboard at Utrecht Central Station a few days ago, with not thought through camera in a public space (to measure engagement with adverts). Civic resistance taped over the camera.

Value sensitive design, said Van den Hoven, should seek to combine the power of technology with the ethical values, into services and products. Instead of treating it as a dilemma with an either/or choice, which is the usual way it is framed: Social networking OR privacy, security OR privacy, surveillance capitalism OR personal autonomy, smart cities OR human messiness and serendipity. In value sensitive design it is about ensuring the individual is still a subject in the philosophical sense, and not merely the object on which data based services feed. By addressing both values and technological benefits as the same design challenge (security AND privacy, etc.), one creates a path for responsible innovation.

The audience saw both responsibilities for individual citizens as well as governments in building that path, and none thought turning one’s back on technology to fictitious simpler times would work, although some were doubtful if there was still room to stem the tide.

Algorithms That Work For Me, Not Commodotise Me

Stephanie Booth, a long time blogging connection, has been writing about reducing her Facebook usage and increasing her blogging. She says at one point

As the current “delete Facebook” wave hits, I wonder if there will be any kind of rolling back, at any time, to a less algorithmic way to access information, and people. Algorithms came to help us deal with scale. I’ve long said that the advantage of communication and connection in the digital world is scale. But how much is too much?

I very much still believe there’s no such thing as information overload, and fully agree with Stephanie that the possible scale of networks and connections is one of the key affordances of our digital world. My rss-based filtering, as described in 2005, worked better when dealing with more information, than with less. Our information strategies need to reflect and be part of the underlying complexity of our lives.

Algorithms can help us with that scale, just not the algorithms that FB uses around us. For algorithms to help, like any tool, they need to be ‘smaller’ than us, as I wrote in my networked agency manifesto. We need to be able to control its settings, tinker with it, deploy it and stop it as we see fit. The current application of algorithms, as they usually need lots of data to perform, sort of demands a centralised platform like FB to work. The algorithms that really will be helping us scale will be the ones we can use for our own particular scaling needs. For that the creation, maintenance and usage of algorithms needs to have a much lower threshold than now. I placed it in my ‘agency map‘ because of it.

Going back to a less algorithmic way of dealing with information isn’t an option, nor something to desire I think. But we do need algorithms that really serve us, perform to our information needs. We need less algorithms that purport to aid us in dealing with the daily river of newsy stuff, but really commodotise us at the back-end.

The Things Have Arrived

A little over 2 years ago I backed a Kickstarter project The Things Network. It’s an order of magnitude cheaper version of a gateway for a LoRa (long range) network, for internet of things sensors etc. The fascinating thing about this The Things Network gateway is that it provides an infrastructure for very little money. With just 2 or 3 of these your entire city becomes your sandbox for IoT experiments. Usually it’s the other way around: you have cheap prototypes but to scale you need expensive infrastructure (a prototype car is fun, but also having to roll out a road system isn’t.) Now you are just as easy rolling out the infrastructure, as well as your prototypes.

It took a long time to arrive. The original team I think learned the hard way that setting up production and supply chains for hardware from scratch has a quite different dynamic compared to software development. This is not a new lesson for Kickstarter projects either. So the hardware which should have been delivered in June 2016 took until January 2018, some 18 months of delay. But now it’s here.

In the mean time I’ve co-initiated an IoT community in Enschede (community site here), before moving house to Amersfoort where another group is active. Here in Amersfoort I participated in the Measure Your City project, by placing a IoT sensor hub in my garden. With the hardware now arrived, I can’t wait to start experimenting. My gateway will come on-line as soon as I have run up a Cat 6 cable to our attic space, and can then help support the Measure Your City network, and any other projects that might take place in the vicinity.


The Things Network goodies arriving today: a gateway (shown), 4 uno’s (sensor platforms) and 2 nodes (prototyping platforms)

Crap Detection is a Critical Digital Literacy

Abraham Lincoln famously said in the 1860’s “Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.“, and he’s right of course. George Washington already warned us a century earlier that “the greatest thing about Facebook is that you can quote something and totally make up the source.” Add to it the filter bubbles that algorithms create around you on Facebook, fake news and the influencing that third parties try to do, and you can be certain that the trustworthiness of internet is now even worse than it was in the 19th or 18th century.

Sidewalk Stencil: Abraham Lincoln
“Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.”, Abraham Lincoln hit the nail on the head in 1864 already.

Dealing with crap on the internet however sometimes seems something only for professionals. Facebook should filter better, or be more transparent. Online forensic research like Bellingcat does is the only way to disprove online deception. The problem is that it absolves you and me way too easily of our own responsibility in detecting crap. If something seems too funny, coincidental or too conveniently fitting into your own believe framework, it should trigger us into taking a step back. To take time to determine for ourselves whether Lincoln really said that, whether a picture was really taken where and when it is claimed, and if a source really exists or can be determined as trustworthy.

To be able to detect crap on the internet, you need crap detection tools. My Brainstorms-friend Howard Rheingold and others have put together a useful list of crap detection tools (of which I very often use the reverse image search tools like Tineye, to verify the actual origin of a photo). The list is well maintained and growing. The listed tools help you quickly check-up on things before you share something and reinforce a vicious cycle making more and more social media platforms toxic.

Not spreading dubious material is a civic duty, just like cleaning up after yourself in a public space. This makes crap detection a critical digital information skill. Download or bookmark the list of crap detection tools, add some of the mentioned tools as plugins to your browser, and use it to your advantage.

fake-news-detail-2

Unexpected Great Feedback

Earlier this year I worked closely with the Frisian Library Service to create the project ‘Impact through connection, at school‘ together. At the core was my model of agency and a process I designed to guide a group towards exploring using both technology and methods to address a local issue. Today I had a conversation with Jeroen de Boer, of the FryskLab team, who had involved me in putting my idea to practice, at a primary school with a group of 10 year olds. We talked about what came after the project that took place in January to March.

Group photo with the class
The class and our team in front of the Frysklab truck last March

That’s when I received some awesome feedback.

“Your experimental process has basically become the way we work now during workshops and with groups”.

He also had heard from the teacher of the class we worked with that “the pupils said it was the best thing in the entire school year”.

The project was partly financed by the Dutch Royal Library and they indicated it was “one of the most inspiring projects they helped finance this year”.

That sounds like a great starting point to explore what else we can do together next year.

The blockchain links I read this week

Cryptocurrency Art Gallery
Cryptocurrency Art Gallery

I am interested in blockchain as a distributed way of organizing things through software. I have questions that center around in which situations that distributedness, having a public ledger, and having a permanent ledger is actually useful. Also in general for any defined user group, available blockchains are all global by nature. This takes away any agency that group has concerning ensuring the availability and soundness of the technology they use. This is a threat to a group’s resilience basically (e.g. when a group in northern Poland runs their transactions on something that is dominated by opaque Chinese computing clusters). So I am interested in how to deploy blockchain for a specific group (that can then run their own nodes for the needed calculations.) The potential to subvert a blockchain in such a situation is theoretically bigger, but at the same time it is also more strongly embedded in existing social relationships which provides its own robustness.

Here’s a number of links concerning blockchain I came across and read the past few days:

Explaining blockchain

  • A good read, ‘A Letter to Jamie Dimon‘, which takes as perspective that the distributedness is less effective than centralized solutions but also the key aspect for the intended user groups, as this is the only way to avail themselves of specific affordances. Distributedness is a tool to increase resistance to censorship (also read as ‘access’), and blockchain allows creating fully distributed applications.
  • A talk by Richard Bartlett at Re:Publica Dublin, on whether a blockchain is decentralizing power or not.

The ICO hype is unfolding
ICO, initial coin offerings are campaigns to sell tokens for your specific blockchain application. You can buy them usually only with Bitcoin or Ethereum. What amazes me is how much money (millions) are getting invested in short times (the term vaporware comes to mind), and that minimum investments are often in the 5.000 or 10.000 Euro range.

Examples