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November 28th, 2017

Blockchain is the new wave of recording information in a way that is unchangeable and permanent. A popular use for blockchain recently has been to exchange things of value online in a decentralized manner using cryptocurrency. The issues that have arisen so far with this system is the fact that since it is open sourced, people who aren’t the most knowledgeable about coding these complex systems have access to changing the code and it isn’t as secure as it could be if there had been a few people that orchestrated the whole thing. Additionally, by having a few people responsible for the creation of the system, there is a sense of accountability that isn’t inherent when there are many people who had a role in the creation. If you take a closer look at the way the blockchain system is designed to stay decentralized, it lies upon the idea that at least 51% of people are well intentioned and paying attention to make sure things aren’t going wrong. It was this way of thinking and running things that allowed for the robbery of millions of dollars of ether, a virtual currency, in 2016. Since there were so many people involved with writing the code, there was ease in which a bug was found and exploited. By the time someone noticed that there was money at risk due to this bug, ironically on line 666, it was too late. The money was stolen in plain sight and there was nothing that anyone could do except feel sad that they hadn’t caught the bug in time. While blockchain seems promising, there are some fundamental issues that could be the crack in the foundation that causes the whole building to crumble over time.

Oh no, it’s FOMO

November 20th, 2017

As time goes on, the generations are getting shorter and shorter. The kids that are in middle school now seem like they’re living in a whole different world from those of us who were in their shoes less than a decade ago. A big factor in this is social media. When my peers and I were in middle school and at such an impressionable time in our lives, we didn’t have the constant influence of social media. Most of my friends, and myself included didn’t even have smart phones until we got to high school. Nowadays, kids get smart phones much sooner in life, and it’s usually justified in the name of safety. The issue is how the uber connectedness of everyone is affecting the mental health of people. It’s becoming harder to distinguish whether or not social media is helping or hindering people as a whole. With complete connectivity with the help of social media, there is never an opportunity to unplug or truly step away from knowing about everything going on all the time. This has created a whole new set of problems. When we fixed the problems of not being able to contact people, we created a new one. The ability to know what is going on with people you know, or don’t, fosters a culture of jealousy and the feelings that we’re potentially missing out. The prevalence of this feeling was so pertinent that a phrase was coined, “FOMO”, which stands for “Fear Of Missing Out.” The psychological effects of seeing the perfectly curated lives of everyone around you also leads to a sense of loneliness. This even extends into interactions we have with each other in person. As we become more and more dependant on our phones to provide us with something to do, at any horizon of discomfort or potential social awkwardness in any situation, people will pull out their phones. People end up being physically together in the same place, but worlds apart. In a Ted Talk by Sherry Turkle, she discussed the idea that we see loneliness as a problem to be solved. However, maybe the problem doesn’t lie in the times when we are alone, possibly rather in how being pseudo connected through social media leads to the feelings of loneliness.

Cyber Plague

November 20th, 2017

Around 7th grade, I realized I couldn’t go any longer without a laptop. My mom told me if I wanted one I could buy one, so I looked online for the best deal and found a package deal that included a decent laptop, a mouse, a case and free spyware protection. Little did I know that the spyware was one of the spies. A young and more naive version of myself had no idea that Kaspersky was a Russian multinational cyber security company that was known for doing more than simply protecting computers. As of now, they are just allegations, but it’s hard to trust a company with the task of ensuring your privacy with even the seed of doubt in their integrity. These days we all have to worry about cyber mischief. There was a game that was extremely popular a few years ago called Plague that involved trying to spread a disease as far as you could without being detected in order to wipe out the whole world. Cyber attacks work in a similar manner. The name of the game is to spread a virus without being detected so that when you activate it, its effects are harder to stop. A lot of people have the misconception that the US government doesn’t really know what goes on online, but they likely know more than they let on; after all, you can’t win a game by showing the opponent your cards.

The biggest difference between espionage, crime and war is whether or not we want the adversary to know who is attacking them. When you’re trying to spy and commit cyber crimes, anonymity is key. In the most recent US presidential election, Russia didn’t try to be covert in their involvement in creating conflict. They didn’t care that we knew what they were up to or about having decent tradecraft because it still had its destructive effect. In an overt intelligence operation, you are doing the opposite of being secretive or covert. In order to have quality cyber command, it is just important to defend the military works and to figure out how to effectively exploit the resources of the adversary.

Property of the Government

November 13th, 2017

Looking at the role of governance when talking about the Internet is an interesting question looking into the future. The Internet started off in the hands of the government, but became a public commodity. But the question is, what would it look like if certain up and coming technology that uses the Internet to function had the government running their agenda? Our guest speaker and Harvard professor, Jonathan Zittrain, gave us an idea of what this could look like. One example he used had to do with automatic cars. Zittrain urged us to think about what it would look like if the cars could drive you quickly to the hospital in an emergency, like an ambulance would. Or if the police were after you and the doors locked and drove you automatically to the closest police station. These are a few ideas that show the crossroads between the Internet and how the jurisdiction and governance of it is important in forming the limitations of the government and what it can and can’t do.

Some other implications to consider when thinking about the jurisdiction and governance of the Internet is the fact that there is so much going on all the time that it would be nearly impossible to realistically govern certain things online. Also, with the ever changing nature of the internet and how fast people figure out ways around barriers, it’d be a constant tug of war between the government trying to take control and people trying to figure out ways out of it. As we move towards more control out of the hands of the people, it will be interesting to see how far the government jurisdiction will go.

In an age where you can’t trust anyone, how can you know where to turn? This is the problem a lot of people face today. We could see in the last US Presidential election that the circulation of fake news was extremely prevalent in a wide variety of sources from social media sites, to news stations to newspapers. As time has gone on, people have started to realize that they are being fed a lot of misinformation. Social media is one platform where it is painfully noticeable that individual feeds are becoming echo chambers where opposing opinions from the user’s own go to die. An echo chamber is essentially a place where the same ideas are amplified or agreed upon and the opposing views aren’t displayed. The effects of something like this could be, for example, if someone is only seeing facebook posts that are in line with what they believe and then they get the idea that most, if not all, of their friends agree with what they’re saying. One idea that has been floating around in attempts to ease this situation of a fake news epidemic is to have all political ads be labeled with the organization that is paying for it. The idea behind this is that although people tend to be influenced heavily by what they see even when they don’t realize that if the people know who is influencing them they can be more discerning in what they believe versus what they don’t.

Even with more transparency with advertisements, we have a long way to go in terms of consumer manipulation. It is hard to be trusting of the news that is delivered when things like fake news, subtle advertising, and psychological manipulation exist. Something that struck me was an advertising tactic that involves using a person’s face and morphing it with someone else’s face to trick the consumer into trusting the information delivered. This causes them to feel a familiarity with the new face, but not to recognize who it is. It is a sneaky method of advertising that sounds like a wave of the future, but that is already upon us. It is one thing for companies that are trying to get ahead and get consumers’ attention, but it is over the line when campaigners start to use the same methods in order to gain votes in a republic. It takes away the value of having people vote for someone whose values align their own and turns the whole thing into a game. As Bruce Schneier of the Guardian well put it, “You want to vote for the candidates you think are best for the country; not the ones with the most effective psychological tricks.”

So if you can’t turn to social media to get the cold hard facts, where can you go? There are big name sources, like the New York Times or the Washington Journal. Additionally, there are the multiple user information corroboration sites, like Reddit, Quora, or Wikipedia. They bring information in different ways. While big name journals have biases based on the authors and editors who bring all of the content together, the websites that use algorithms to decide which posts to show based on popular opinion can be equally as biased. The main idea is that these days when it comes to news, you have to receive information with a grain of salt. It takes a careful hand to sift through and cross reference information to come to the truth. It would be so wonderful and utopianistic if everything we all read online was true, but that unfortunately isn’t the reality. The first step towards getting to the truth is acknowledging that there is fake news out there- and a lot of it.

ID Please

October 25th, 2017

The conversation that I brought to the dinner table this week was quite an interesting one. “Where will we be in 20 years in terms of identification?” This was the question I posed to my friends as they leaned in to ponder the quandary. The logical response that I got was, “Well, what do you mean?” I continued on to explain what I meant. In the last few weeks there’ve been recent events surrounding Equifax and their large data spill. With huge amounts of personal data open to the public, it is becoming increasingly less reasonable to expect something like a Social Security Number to uniquely identify a person. Imagine how easy it would be to learn someone’s Social Security Number and use it to impersonate them. Which begs the question, “What should we use to identify people?” In India they think they have it figured out. Scans of a person’s fingerprints and iris are hashed together to uniquely connect each person to an ID number. There is no way to look up the person in coordination with their name, but they can trace a face and connect it to an ID number. This shows things like whether or not someone is a citizen or if they’ve already signed up for a program. A portion of the iris is saved and pieces of each of the 10 fingerprints are spliced together; it’s almost like taking a fingerprint of a fingerprint. This way they don’t have to try and make the data that they obtain completely secure. Rather, the government can decrease the value someone would gain in obtaining access to the information. The question is never if someone will hack into a database but when. Knowing this to be true, it is wise to decrease incentive of hacking into the database. In the future of America, there will likely be companies that fight for the opportunity to be the unique identifying force. If you have that status, you basically control a big part of the economy. No one will be able to identify people apart from through your company.* Some companies already seem to be on their way to this reality. A lot of information is necessary in order to recognize faces. The facial recognition software that is been becoming increasingly more popular could also play into this idea. The race is on for companies trying to become the means of identification for people in America.

It is an important part of a government to know their constituents and to be able to identify who their citizens are. Some governments that are smaller and can’t afford to do it themselves will outsource identification methods, but this could go very wrong if a war were to break out and the country that had all of the identities in a database were to withhold the information from the country who used them as a resource. Countries like America would prefer to do it themselves, but that doesn’t mean that they would likely keep this type of job within the realm of the state. In the future, we could very possibly see companies forming a monopolies or even duopolies to take over the game of identification. Who knows how we’ll be filling out our government forms in the year 2050. Surely someone is out there right now trying to figure that out.

*Ideas based on seminar discussion with David Eaves

This sentence is a lie.

October 17th, 2017

In our philosophy discussion (oh wait- we were supposed to be discussing technology and artificial intelligence, weren’t we). Well, in our discussion in class about AI, the conversation naturally shifted toward philosophy, as it often does in dialogue about an ever approaching concept- the singularity. This is the idea that eventually at some point in the foreseeable future, humans will be taken over by artificial intelligence. With the way technology is moving faster and faster, it is becoming less of a concept in the realm of science fiction and more along the lines of future reality. At some point, when computers are able to create their own successors, humans will not even be involved in the process of technological advancement and artificial intelligence will be more advanced than the human mind. Some of the philosophical implications of whether or not we should keep trying to make AI better and better in order to benefit ourselves are the reasons for continued discussions. However, no matter what conclusions are drawn about whether or not we would even want to have AI that is so advanced, if it can be done, someone will try. That shifts the conversation away from “if” to “when?” And let’s say that when we have AI that is sentient that can help us carry out our daily tasks, would it be slavery at that point? If AI is sentient, would people be able to fall in love with it? Furthermore, could a child have an AI best friend? Lastly, if you were to copy the neural net of a human brain, and put it into AI that could live past the lifespan of the human it made the copy of, would it truly still be the person’s consciousness that lived on?

These are not questions that are easily answered as there are many different ways to think about the answers as well as a bunch of answers we can never know the answers to. How can you know if something else is sentient? We have all heard the common philosophical phrase, “I think therefore I am,” but that applies to oneself. We can look to the way other people or living things act and behave in order to try to understand their level of consciousness or whether or not they’re sentient, but apart from actually being them, we’d never truly know. This can be analogized with Theseus’s paradox. If we want to know whether or not a sentient AI with the same neural connections as the person that it’s replicating can carry on forever as the person’s consciousness, we have to decide what we believe to be true as a solution to Theseus’s paradox. The main idea of the paradox is that if you sail a ship and over time take out one plank at a time and replace it with a different plank as the ship sails across the sea and then construct a boat out of the planks that you switched out in a separate location, when the ship that originally left returns, but has all new planks, which ship is the real Ship of Theseus? Is the real one the one that sailed across the sea, but changed over time or the one that has all of the pieces from the original ship that sailed, but never touch the water? These kinds of questions launch technological conversations into deep conversations about philosophy. There is no way to stop this train now; technology is advancing whether we like it or not. It’s like a row of standing dominoes and ever since the first domino fell, there’s been no going back; the conversation will continue…

In a world where everything is connected, it will be interesting to see what is next. “The Internet of Things” is what it’s being called and we’re already more connected than you may even realize. Imagine a world where your fridge can tell you what foods are running low and need to be replenished, or where a salt shaker measures out the portion size so that you make sure you are getting the right amount of sodium with your meal! It shouldn’t take too much strain to your imagination to do so seeing as we live in this world today! Now we can turn on the A/C in our homes from work, find out where we parked our car in the lot at the end of the work day and see how long it will take us to get where we’re going in current traffic conditions. It sounds like some kind of cool futuristic world that I’m describing, but this is truly where we are already at as a society.

One thing that has extremely impacted me is the way that technology has changed the way I check up on traffic conditions in order to maximize my efficiency on my commute. Back in highschool, I had to travel around 30 miles to get to school. I was always heading out to school at time when the rest of the world was on their way to work so the traffic was dense- guaranteed. I will never forget the times when I would be getting ready and my mom would turn the news up and ask my brother and I to quiet down when the traffic came on. She had to hear the traffic report so that she knew the best route to take to avoid the ever present accidents on I-696. The news would show a video of a helicopter fly by of the accidents and they would guesstimate how long of a detour most commuters would experience. As I got older and began driving myself to school, I would never wake up early enough to watch the traffic report and luckily for me I didn’t have to. Google was doing it for me. When 6:30 would roll around, my phone would ping me a notification about how heavy or light traffic was if I went X route and that I would need to leave at a specific time in order to arrive on time. If I was running behind, I would open Maps and see where the accidents were on my way to school and think about various routes I could take to avoid the traffic. It was amazing how precise Google was about the traffic and its density. I would sometimes turn on Google Maps to see how long it would take me to get to school. I would have been late countless times if not for the assistance of Google in showing me where the traffic was so that I could avoid it. This isn’t what people probably typically use the app for- I assume it’s more of an assist in how to get where you’re going and less of how can you carve off every single second of the  commute- even though it functions as so as well. As I continued to enjoy the convenience of the app, I couldn’t help but wonder every once in a while how Google knew what the traffic was like before the drivers or the news.

How did Google know that an accident had occurred just moments after the incident? I later found out that it was because Google could compile their users’ location data in order to see how fast people are going and where to get an idea of the traffic conditions. This struck me as genius! No road sensors needed to be installed, no added infrastructure. The mobile devices that we all use work together to give us info that was used to make commuting easier. Things like this are emerging all over the world as technology is moving to make lives more convenient. This convenience isn’t free; it costs our privacy. A lot of people don’t realize the extent to which data is collected on them. But then again, convenience is convenient and ignorance is bliss.

TOP HITS… for you…

September 26th, 2017

We all go on them: tangents. When we share stories, when we teach lessons, when we talk about the latest news, tangents are an integral part of daily life and flow of conversations. Someone was paying attention in economics class when they decided that it may be a good idea to use this same principle and apply it to a business model that encourages people to explore items they may be interested in based on something else they enjoyed. This ranges from music to movies to online shopping and more. Now, there are numerous companies reaping enormous profit from this concept. From our reading, we discovered that this genius idea has a name: the long tail. When you go onto Netflix and get “Recommendations For You” this is an example of the long tail at work. On Spotify, it’s the same thing with “Your Daily Mix” which gives you songs they personally think you’d enjoy based on what you’ve previously listened to and on Amazon this model is employed when you see “Items You May Like”. It is wild to see how the stored data that is collected on personal users is used to make personalized experiences for people when they interact with websites. Have you ever noticed that the ads on google always seem to be something that you might either be interested in or at some point or another have even searched for? It all comes back to data collection. This can be good in a lot of ways, but as is the nature of many things that sound too good to be true, it has its pitfalls. One major place where this personalized experience is a problem is when it comes to politics. In the most recent election, many people looked to social media to get their news and information. The problem with this was that sites, like Facebook, use algorithms that filtered the content that viewers saw on their walls so that people ended up seeing a lot of information and views that agreed with them and helped them to feel more correct in their own opinions. This wasn’t good because it polarized a lot of views that people held and resulted in a messy election season. Sometimes it is best for people to see opinions other than their own so that they can get a better understanding of how other people are thinking. This can help ease a lot of tensions and reduce the effects of the “echo chamber” that results from everyone hearing their own point of views strengthened by others.

The personalized experience of everything online has started to revolutionize the economy. When you are showed the things you want rather than the things that are most popular, more is sold and the implementation of this idea has driven many companies to more success as well as more low-key artists and vendor. The long tail concept has had a big influence on how we buy and look at things online today. The new music I listen to on Spotify, obscure movies and TV shows I see on Netflix, and random purchases I make on Amazon can all vouch for this.

Happy Birthday WWW!

September 20th, 2017

Last month, I heard about bitcoin for the first time in my life. I was awestruck by the idea of a currency that was completely online and never passed the threshold into a physical currency that a person could hold in their hands. It was interesting to talk about how bitcoin works and how money is minted and then to also discuss how blockchain works. The way that I understood it is that blockchain is a way of trading things, but the item itself records what it has been traded for and leaves a trace of what transactions have occurred in order to keep its credibility. This is an interesting form of currency, cryptocurrency, that is gaining popularity day by day.

In one of the articles that we read, “Three Challenges for the web, according to its inventor”, it discussed how the world wide web began 28 years ago, and how in many ways it was living up to its purpose of being a place to share information and collaborate. It did raise a few points of improvement which I found intriguing and personally relatable. The main points were that we don’t have control of our personal data, misinformation spreads like wildfire on the web and lastly, that there needs to be some type of change in political advertising that doesn’t give users such one sided information. I can relate to the first point because I know that whenever I accept a hundreds long page of terms and conditions I am giving up some degree of privacy in terms of my data being shared. It’s not like I can decide what to share. Just as the idea of “all or none” suggests, I can either give up my privacy rights or not use the application at all. It is hard to give up the opportunity to use an application in the name of security, and most people don’t, but the option to do so would be nice. To the second point, the lack of true information that circulates the internet is so common that people commonly talk about it by saying, “Don’t trust everything you hear on the Internet.” Also, the concept of “Fake News” is very prevalent in society today. So many people have the power of publication in their hands and it changes everything. No longer is information that is put out there expected to be truthful. This makes it harder to know whether you’re getting good information or being lied to. Nowadays, when writing papers and finding sources, there are specific websites that check out the credibility of certain sources before students trustingly add them to their papers. Finally on the political front, a lot of people get their political information from social media, and now with so much polarization of information, voters tend to only see extremely polarized messages and it isn’t the best when it comes to helping voters to be educated about who and what issues they are voting for. I can see this in my life when talking to friends who are new voters and when I hear about some of the things they have heard in their news, it doesn’t always match up with what I’ve heard. These kind of discrepancies and campaigning online that twist stories to make a stronger point is not the best way to keep society educated and ready to vote on the important issues. Now that the basics of the Internet are well established, we can all set out to make the Internet a better place.