Robot Rights

During our discussion on Monday, we digressed on a long tangent about whether a self-driving car would save its own passenger or a larger group of people about to be impacted. Of course, this would be a decision made by a programmer, but the computer’s ability to think faster than humans would be in control of the situation if a car accident were to occur. Ideally, if everyone had self-driving cars, then car accidents would become obsolete. However, humans are dumb/impatient at being drivers as well as pedestrians (which became extremely obvious to me upon coming to Cambridge), so there is still potential for lethal collisions. That is a big decision and a lot of power in the hands of a programmer. If someone were to die, then who would be held responsible for the death?

This very question reminded me of the Takata airbag lawsuit that resulted in the deaths of over 11 people. Basically, the creators/testers of the airbags knew that the airbags were faulty and used harmful chemicals but fudged the numbers and lied on documents in order to get them approved and make more profit off of them. After multiple deaths were attributed to shrapnel and explosions emitting from the airbags, they accused the executives with egregious conduct. However, I remember listening to the radio when they said the executives were charged with murder, and I thought it was peculiar. Technically, they didn’t kill anyone with their own hands, but the middleman was a product of their design. Where do we draw the line between cause and correlation? Can a machine be held responsible for death?

In the future, I think we will begin to see advocates for robot rights (especially with our PC culture). I am not sure about the possibility of robots gaining self-awareness or consciousness because I’m not really sure what it means to be self-aware and conscious myself, but they are definitely making strides in their ability to adapt and learn on their own. Can we program AI to have feelings? Siri seems to be able to feel sadness/anger when you insult her. It is only a algorithmic verbal reaction, rather than visceral or deeply-rooted emotional one, but I’m not sure if that’s any different from some of my emotions/reactions.

On that same note, Vonnegut wrote a short story EPICAC about a machine who is programmed to gather data about one woman in order to write poetry that she would like. Although the programmer designed the machine to make the woman fall in love with him, the machine ends up falling in love with the woman instead. The ending is hilarious, which I recommend watching the 20 min. short film here. Anyways, this was written in 1950, but we’re still begging the question whether computers can make ~real~quality~meaningful~ art. In my opinion, I totally think they can. As long as it produces emotional reactions in its viewers, it is worthy of my approval as fine art. Whether the artist or machine intended for it to have a certain meaning is besides the point because art can have multiple interpretations. The whole point of art is to get you to think about something in one way or the other. In fact, I want to see a computer produced artwork in a major art museum before I die. It’s no different than Ai WeiWei coming up with an idea and hiring his crew of painters to actually execute it while he’s probably away pissing off the Chinese government or something.

Nonetheless, back in the early 2000s, I remember when I first discovered Cleverbot, my first encounter with AI. Frankly, it creeped the heck out of me, but I couldn’t shake my awe. I thought “there has to be someone on the other end responding to me. There’s no way this is a computer.” I would invite my friends over, and we would log onto my fat PC, Windows 95 landscape and everything, so we could converse with Cleverbot for at least an hour. We tried everything to catch her in a mistake. Occasionally, she would say something that didn’t make sense, and we would feel a sense of relief that this AI was not quite as advanced as us 5th graders. After we validated our superiority, we would log off, forget about it, and go play some Poptropica or something. We had no idea how powerful this new technology truly was.


Kidneys for Sale

Our discussion of cryptocurrency sparked my interest in the new fad. Blockchain technology and cryptocurrency seem so revolutionary to me, and I see a lot of potential in their futures. Due to the growing accessibility and integration of the Internet, everything we do has become so globalized. We are beginning to see the formation of a monopoly on electronic devices. As more and more companies come together to form business deals, such as Spotify and Hulu, I wonder if we are ever making real choices for ourselves or simply choosing between two parts of the same thing. Are we losing our individuality in our naïve attempt to have the best products?

Nevertheless, that is why I am drawn to anything that moves in the direction of decentralization or in the spirit of punk/DIY. Blockchain technology puts the power in everyone’s hands rather than a handful of exclusive individuals. Naturally, by storing all the same information across multiple computers, it is less prone to failure and loss of important documents. According to this extremely helpful article by BlockGeeks:

“Bitcoin was invented in 2008. Since that time, the Bitcoin blockchain has operated without significant disruption. (To date, any of problems associated with Bitcoin have been due to hacking or mismanagement. In other words, these problems come from bad intention and human error, not flaws in the underlying concepts.)”

In terms of cryptocurrency, this means there are no need for banks or central authority. Banks are sketchy because some are only required to withhold a certain amount of your money. The rest they are able to invest and spend without telling you. Generally, this system works well –but if a recession were to occur and everyone took their money out at the same time, then we would have problem. This happened during the Great Depression, and people were not sure if they could trust their bank accounts to secure their money anymore. Now, we have the FDIC, but they only have enough to cover 1% of all the deposits they claim to insure. That’s where cryptocurrency comes into play. It is secure, reliable, and most of all, it is actually yours. Although you cannot go to any store and purchase things with Bitcoin, I think we will begin to see a growing online economy in years to come.

However, what I am most curious about is the dark web. I still have a ton of research to do, but I wonder how encryption allows people to make furtive transactions through the web. It feels like broke college kid culture has made it common knowledge that kidneys sell for a couple hundred thousand dollars on the black market. I mean, you technically only need one kidney… Everyone talks about the black market, but not many actually know how it works. Most college kids purchase fake I.D.s online as well. I wonder, how do you not get caught? Even as I search these sites and terms, I worry that Harvard will monitor me and place my name on some sort of watchlist. If it is easy enough for kids to access these sites, then it must be cake for the FBI to crack down on them. Is no one monitoring all of these illegal transactions? I remember seeing Bodies: The Exhibition in Las Vegas, and my Biology teacher informed me that most of the bodies were purchased through the Chinese black market. All in the name of making a profit. Who’s getting paid anyways?

I brought up my desire to learn about the underground dark web to my friend to which he recommended The Onion Router, or Tor. I’m still skeptical to download the software onto my laptop, but I see a lot of potential in the ability to put all the power and control of privacy back in the hands of the users. The underground secret nature of the dark web lends itself to illegal products, but the stigma surrounding it overshadows what it could be. Maybe, I’m too optimistic and place too much faith in mankind to use such a powerful tool, but there’s simply so much left in this field to explore. I have a lot to learn, but I can tell I’m not going to forget about cryptocurrency or the dark web anytime soon.

Left on Read

Essentially, the main goal of the ARPAnet shifted focus multiple times. In the beginning, it was intended to share resources among government-run organizations and universities; as computers became more accessible, the formalities and norms loosened up and people began using it for emails. I am interested in the subtle cultural and societal shift that made computer users feel like it was okay to use email to ask someone to retrieve their razor from across the globe.

The Internet has become so available to everyone that it has lost its air of ceremony. Nowadays, I will literally text someone who is right next to me without giving it a second thought. How does this affect the way in which we present ourselves and communicate? I think even the medium and which app we use affect the way we post and share with the world. For example, Twitter seems to be home to senseless memes and personal posts. Facebook is usually reserved for large photo albums of vacations or fervent political opinions from your poorly informed Aunt Sharon. Instagram boasts perfectly exposed photos with a strategically chosen filter coupled with a clever caption–unless it’s a Finsta, then it’s a free-for-all private account where the typical criteria for being socially acceptable does not apply. And you can’t forget Snapchat, a platform to present the best 10-60 seconds of your day which will inflict symptoms of FOMO (fear of missing out) on its viewers.

Not to mention, toward the end of the last discussion, the class sort of erupted in chatter over a shared experience, or rather, something I actually knew about–being left on read. It’s the phenomenon when someone i.e. a crush opens your message without sending a response. How did it get from “finger protocol” to “being left on read”? Finger protocol seemed innocent and useful in nature, but it’s difficult to know where to draw the line; the implications it imposes on personal privacy and security are still being debated today. It’s a complex and redundant social sphere out there, but it really isn’t that serious… or is it? I mean, Harvard rescinded acceptances over offensive memes in a group chat, and people with a bulk of followers receive money for the promotion of products. I’m talking enough to make a living, and a rather luxurious one.

It’s a tricky and abstract network to navigate, but it can pose real consequences and real benefits. The Internet didn’t even exist not that long ago, but humans have already applied their natural gravitation toward hierarchical taxonomy and structured norms to the social aspects. It is no longer a purely personal preference on how much social media intrudes in our lives when the President’s tweets are a part of the national archive. On the bright side, we still have the powerful tool of action and reaction, and social media allows us to send a clear message to rest of the world.


Humble Beginnings

Hey everyone! Welcome to my blog, where I can ramble and muse about the Internet, on the Internet. Today’s topic: the formation of the world wide web.

First of all, can I just say it blows my mind how these huge machines that can take up multiple rooms only had the capability of a simple calculator? Reading Where Wizards Stay Up Late was an internal battle for me because my brain kept picturing a modern day computer with a much different purpose and overall meaning. What was once a luxurious and complex hunk of machinery is now accessible to grubby toddler fingertips, professional adults, and everyone in between. I wonder how did they compress all the functions of a computer into a thin MacBook Air? Where do all the tangible parts and cords go? When I imagine the Internet, I picture technicolor waves and the “packets” that Davies deliberately named as small Minecraft-esque cubes zooming through infinitely looping tunnels. It was difficult enough to get computers to speak the same language, but it is even harder to visualize it and fabricate something that has never existed before.

In my opinion, the innovative and loose academic environment that ARPA curated was the perfect breeding ground for something as ingenious as the Internet. Every scientist they took under their wing was given freedom of direction and trusted with a good amount of funding and faith. Since ARPA was a product of the Defense Department, it was often associated with the military; this reminds me of the Manhattan Project which was an inherent component of World War II. Both ARPA and the Manhattan Project brought together some of the world’s best scientists and gave them free reign to construct products with larger political and ethical implications than previously thought. By solving their dilemma of simply making their product work, they unlocked a plethora of questions about how we should use it and whether we could even handle it.

Now, I’m not trying to say that the Internet is just as dangerous as atomic bombs, but yes, I am actually. Essentially, they both pose risks in unique ways. While nuclear world destruction perpetually looms in the air, the Internet is an active part of our daily lives. In the 6th grade, the Internet was simply a portal to, but now it is an open door to my privacy and safety.

Although I’ve taken a rather pessimistic and dark stance, I truly believe the ends justify the means. What J.C.R. Licklider envisioned decades ago has blossomed into a thriving entity in itself. Each day I am learning how to use the Internet effectively, but in the spirit of scientific discovery, it’s going to take a lot of trial and error.