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Tuesday, 19 September 2017

BigTech Must Reassure Us It's Human

Recent issues concerning the purchase of lethal materials online, "fake news" and secure messaging highlight a growing tension between artificial intelligence and human safety. To continue their unbridled growth, the tech giants will have to reassure society that they are human, solving human problems, rather than machines solving their own problems at humans' expense. While innovation necessarily moves ahead of the law and regulation, developments in artificial intelligence should be shaped more by humane and ethical considerations, rather than outsourcing these to government or treating them as secondary considerations.

In the latest demonstration of this concern, Channel 4 researchers were able to assemble a 'shopping basket' of potentially lethal bomb ingredients on Amazon, partly relying on Amazon's own suggestion features or 'algorithms' ("Frequently bought together” and “Customers who bought this item also bought...”), which even suggested adding ball-bearings. This follows the phenomenon that emerged during the Brexit referendum and US Presidential election whereby purveyors of 'fake news' received advertising revenue from Facebook while targeting gullible voters.

Neither business is keen to proactively monitor or police its services for fear of conceding an obligation to do so and rendering itself liable for not doing so where the monitoring fails.

Channel 4 quoted Amazon as merely saying that:
"all products must adhere to their selling guidelines and all UK laws. [We] will work closely with police and law enforcement agencies should they need [us] to assist investigations." [update 20.09.17: Amazon is reported to have responded the next day to say that it is reviewing its website to ensure the products “are presented in an appropriate manner”.]
Amazon makes a valid point. After all, the same products can be bought off-line, yet unlike an offline cash purchase in a walk-in store, if they are bought on Amazon there is likely to be a digital 'audit trail' showing who bought what and where it was delivered. Indeed, it's conceivable that Amazon had alerted the authorities to the nature of the items in Channel 4 researchers' shopping basket and the authorities may have allowed the session to run as part of a potential 'sting' operation. It is perhaps understandable that neither Amazon nor the authorities would want to explain that publicly, but it would be comforting to know this is the case. Channel 4 is also somewhat disingenuous in suggesting this is an Amazon problem, when less well-resourced services or other areas of the Internet (the 'dark web') may well offer easier opportunities to purchase the relevant products with less opportunity for detection.

At any rate, the main difference, of course, is that no one from an offline store is likely to help you find missing ingredients to make a potentially lethal device (unless they're already part of a terror cell or perhaps an undercover operative) - and this is the key to Amazon's enormous success as a retail platform. It's possible, however, that a helpful employee might unwittingly show a terrorist where things are, and Amazon might equally argue that its algorithms don't "know" what they are suggesting. But whether it's because of the 'promise' of the algorithms themselves, there is a sense that the algorithm should not be vulnerable to abuse in this way.

Similarly, in the case of Facebook, the social network service has become a raging success because it is specifically designed to facilitate the exchange of information that generates passionate connections amongst like-minded people far more readily than, say, the owner of a bar or other social hang-out or a newspaper or other form of traditional media. Equally, however, Facebook might argue that the helpful algorithms aren't actually "aware" of the content that is being shared, despite use of key words etc. Meanwhile, WhatsApp seems to have declined to provide a terrorist's final message because it could not 'read' it (although the authorities seem to have magically accessed it anyway...).

Just as we and the online platform owners have derived enormous benefit from the added dimensions to their services, however, we are beginning to consider that those dimensions should bring some additional responsibilities - whether merely moral or legal - possibly on both users and service providers/developers.

In many ways the so-called 'tech giants' - Apple, Amazon, Alphabet (Google), Facebook and others - still seem like challengers who need protection. That's why they received early tax breaks and exemptions from liability similar to those for public telecommunications carriers who can't actually "see" or "hear" the content in the data they carry. 

But while it's right that the law should follow commerce, intervening only when necessary and in a proportionate way to the size and scale of the problem, the size and reach of these platforms and the sheer pace of innovation is making it very hard for policymakers and legislators to catch up - especially as they tend to have wider responsibilities and get distracted by changes in government and issues like Brexit.  The technological waves seem to be coming faster and colliding more and more with the 'real world' through drones and driverless cars, for example. 

The question is whether these innovations are creating consequences that the service providers themselves should actively address, or at least help address, rather than ignore as 'externalities' that government, other service providers or society must simply cope with.

The tech giants are themselves struggling to understand and manage the scale and consequences of their success, and the relentless competition to attract the best talent and the race to push the boundaries of 'artificial intelligence' sometimes presents as a declaration of war on the human race. Even the government/university endowed Alan Turing Institute seems to consider the law and ethics as somehow separate from the practice of data science. Maybe algorithms should be developed and tested further before being released, or be coded to report suspicious activity (to the extent they might not already).  Perhaps more thought and planning should be devoted to retraining commercial van and truck drivers before driverless vehicles do to them what the sudden closure of British coal mines did to the miners and their communities (and what the closure of steel mills has done since!).

In any event, the current approach to governance of algorithms and other technological leaps forward has to change if the 'bigtech' service providers are to retain their mantle as 'facilitators' who help us solve our problems, rather than 'institutions' who just solve their own problems at their customers' expense. They and their data scientists have to remember that they are human, solving human problems, not machines solving their own problems at humans' expense.

[update 20.09.17 - It was very encouraging to see Channel 4 report last night that Amazon had promptly responded more positively to researchers' discovery that automated suggestion features were suggesting potentially lethal combinations of products; and is working to ensure that products are "presented in an appropriate manner". The challenge, however, is to be proactive. After all, they have control over the data and the algorithms. What they might lack is data on why certain combinations of products might be harmful in a wider context or scenario.]


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