Archive for the 'risk' Category

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Let Our Robots Fill Out Your Forms…

Bankers are making use of new technology to determine whether you’re creditworthy. According to the NY Times:

“…they may look to see if potential customers use only capital letters when filling out forms, or at the amount of time they spend online reading terms and conditions–and not so much at credit history.”

They say that “no single signal is definitive, but each is a piece in a mosaic, a predictive picture, compiled by collecting an array of information from diverse sources.”

Fortunately for you, our new firm, HONESTLY, has a whole cloud full of robots standing by to fill out your loan forms for you.

HONESTLY has hacked into all the major banks and new technology providers. When our robots fill out your forms for you, you’ll hit all the right notes for their algorithms. This kind of service has previously only been available to the very rich, but thanks to the marvels of modern cloud-based technology, we can offer robot-driven loan application filling for a low $9.95.

The banks and other loan providers have said that they’ll continually change their matrix of criteria to create better risk assessments. Since we’ve hacked into their systems, have paid off their programmers, and created strong predictive profiles of their key executives, we can anticipate their every move. In fact, sometimes their new criteria comes directly from us, which saves us programming time. That’s a saving we pass on directly to you.

HONESTLY, I can’t think of a reason not to have robots fill out your next loan application.

 

Architecture: Ruptures in the Standing Reserve

 
 
I first noticed it a couple of years ago. There had never been squirrels in our back garden, suddenly there were. We peacefully coexisted with them until our yearly planting of tulip bulbs. You probably know this, I didn't, squirrels are quite fond of tulip bulbs. Daffodils they'll leave alone, but tulips are too delicious to resist. In this inter-species conflict, the squirrels were victorious. We no longer plant tulips.
 

As drought conditions continue year after year in California, the humans who live here attempt to maximize their supply of water. We need more fresh water for the continually growing population of the state. Our intense focus tends to obscure the need other creatures and habitats have for water. We're continually surprised when the animals follow the water into the cities.

Those of us in urban areas tend to view nature as something over there. A place you get in your car and drive to; a series of beautiful scenic postcards viewed through the windshield as we wind our way through the nature reserve. When it comes to preserving nature, it's a question of leaving undeveloped what is currently undeveloped. From the point of view of our global industrial economy, “nature” is unfulfilled potential; a state we allow to persist as a form of charity. A gift we give to ourselves and our posterity.

Meanwhile, ravens and raccoons have become residents of the urban landscape. The garbage we generate on a daily basis provides sustenance for an ever growing population. Squirrels and deer seek food and water in our gardens. Mountain lions follow their prey into suburban neighborhoods. Coyotes establish a presence in Golden Gate Park and humans walking their dogs are warned of the potential danger.

When our perception of the order of things is ruptured by an animal that intrudes on human space, our impulse is to set things right. Our moral standard is a judgement on whether or not the intruder is a clear and present danger to humans. Mountain lions are killed or captured. For the time being, coyotes are are allowed to live in the park. Deer, ravens, raccoons and squirrels are all tolerated with the proviso that they really shouldn't be here. We do not contemplate a path to citizenship.

Our futurists tell us that big and bigger cities are the answer to the efficient use of our diminishing natural resources. Our search is for a solution that allows more and more humans to subsist on the earth. Optimization requires a concentration of resources; global supply chains will connect a small number of very large urban hubs with the requisite resources. Every inch of the globe will be assessed based on its contribution to maintaining the network of mega-urban hubs. Of course, this kind of concentration increases the risk of catastrophic events. They used to call this kind of thing, “putting all your eggs in one basket.”

As we think about the design and architecture of these mega-urban spaces, we may believe that we act ecologically merely by virtue of moving toward “concentrated urban” over “broadly distributed rural.” The clever reversal is that “getting back to nature” now means getting much more densely packed and urban.

While there's some truth in this approach, it's not fully ecological because it's vision is limited to human social space. Does it take the deer, raccoons and ravens into account? Do they have a place in this new urban environment? What about coyotes, will they be welcome in the mega-urban future? Whether we plan for them or not, they're already citizens of our urban landscape. And as global warming continues to materially change the zones we've designated as “nature,” more species will cross the border into the urban zone in search of relief and a new life.

Today we have an architecture that is unable to anticipate that its buildings will have to coexist with pigeons in the shared urban landscape. Tomorrow (or rather today) we'll need to learn to coexist with a growing and increasingly diverse population of urban wildlife. And our questions may have to go beyond how coyotes and humans will coexist to how red tailed hawks and ravens will interact within our built mega urban enclosure.

 

Who is the Space Traveler?

It's the hero, the astronaut. He's the man who defies all odds and travels in a tin can into the most inhospitable environment humans could imagine. There's no life there; it's empty, lifeless and dead. The tin can contains an abbreviated biosphere capable of supporting human life for a limited amount of time.

With the exception of the moon walk, there's not really been any human exploration of space. The experience is always highly mediated by the technology required to sustain human life. In the past (on earth), explorers had sensual experiences that involved direct interaction with the explored environment. Space exploration has mostly been a visual and interior experience. A more direct immersion in “space” would result in the instant death of the explorer.

The “I” who decides to on embarkation and narrates the story of space travel appears to be a cartesian subject. The astronaut must put his unconscious into abeyance for the duration. The unconscious must remain unconscious, only the trained ego of the astronaut flies, all internal demons are locked up. It's the pre-Freudian human who travels in space.

A little more difficult is the issue of the microbiome. We humans contain multitudes. We are both humans and a cooperative life form that requires a functioning of a vast internal ecology. When the human travels in space so do the hundred trillion microorganisms that live in his intestines. We do the best we can by scrubbing off the bacteria and crustaceans that live on the outside of our skin, but the creatures on the inside have to go along for the ride.

It's quite conceivable that the first life forms from earth to colonize mars will be bacteria that have hitched a ride on our rockets. Those bacteria will be the evolutionary seed that may start a whole new chain of events in a radically different biosphere. Martians will evolve to survive on mars. It's not that they'll be specifically adapted or “tooled up” to the martian environment. Evolution doesn't work that way, it's not an optimization algorithm looking for a single best solution. Multiple correct solutions can and will coexist. There are millions of right answers to the question of what a martian looks like.

Our scientists want to eliminate the possibility of “contaminating” Mars because it will complicate our search for life there. In this too we want to eliminate our unconscious. Somehow every aspect of ourselves and our voyage must be conscious and accounted for. Scientists are very good at this kind of self delusion. Once they fail at non-contamination, we'll hear about how they can keep track the natives versus the aliens.

Of course from a slightly different angle one could see human bodies as the space ships created by bacteria for transport to mars. Humans have been selected because they're quite clever with machines. Bacteria have survived in space and could easily flourish on mars. Except as transport, humans aren't very well adapted to the task.

 

Computers Augmenting Humans: Humans Augmenting Computers

Technology writer and venture capitalist Om Malik opens a recent blog post on big data and big responsibility with the following paragraph:

“You should presume that someday, we will be able to make machines that can reason, think and do things better than we can,” Google co-founder Sergey Brin said in a conversation with Khosla Ventures founder Vinod Khosla. To someone as smart as Brin, that comment is as normal as sipping on his super-green juice, but to someone who is not from this landmass we call Silicon Valley or part of the tech-set, that comment is about the futility of their future.

Malik goes on to explore the idea that, aside from some half-baked libertarian ideology, the big technologists don't really have a moral vision of the future. He doesn't come out and say it, but the powerful technology that will have a profound influence on what you see and buy is under the control of 13-year-old boys (in the bodies of adults). This technology may very well create the boundaries of your imagination and make you its plaything within them. Malik is too timid to speak truth to power, he makes vague gestures about how somebody oughta do something or some sorta bad thing might happen. He deserves some credit for bringing the issue up, but none of the titans of technology are going to lose a wink of sleep over his blog post. In the old days, we'd call his post tomorrow's fish wrap.

Imagine instead someone a hundred years in the future looking back on this moment. Think of it as a moral thought experiment. That future that Brin spoke of, a dominant Orwellian consumer-oriented big data cultural hegemony, has become the air we breathe. It's our everyday prison house.

We often talk about what we would do if given access to a time machine. A typical response has been a plan to go back in time and kill Adolf Hitler prior to his rise in Germany, thus changing the course of history, and possibly saving millions of lives.

Looking back on our day from the future, at the moment when Sergey Brin talks about the global networked computing machines that Google is in the process of building, do we think: we should have stopped it right then and there. Malik seems to think Brin and Page are “really smart guys,” but they aren't smart enough to pull the emergency break and take a good hard look at what they're doing.

 

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