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– Google political targeting

Google’s Polical Ad. Targeting, Democracy and Randomness

Google announced on Wednesday (20/11/19) that it was no longer going to allow political candidates to target their advertisements to individuals. Instead Google will restrict the targeting to age, gender and location.

But does this go far enough? During the 1990s I worked on software for modelling user characteristics and using these to determine the content that was delivered to them. This was primarily for computer-assisted learning. The models would identify the level of knowledge a student had in a particular subject and then deliver material appropriate to that level. Some of these programs were even considered by the space industry to guide and train astronauts on the space station.

However, while there might be arguments that these systems are useful in education, it is far more questionable as to whether they contribute anything to the political process. It seems to me that in a democratic society, everybody should have access to exactly the same information and that it should not even be targeted by age, gender or even location. What are the arguments for this?

If information is targeted on the basis of my demographic characteristics, then I am leaving it to the politicians to decide what I should hear and not my own judgement about what is important to attend to. All targeting takes away my right to see what other people might be concerned about. It confines me to my own information bubble. It restricts my knowledge of what is going on in other parts of the community, and puts me at a disadvantage in being able to interact with a diversity of opinion. It compromises my autonomy.

I believe that we all have the right to not only consider our own situations but to make political decisions that relate to others. I may be well healed but still concerned for the plight of the poor, or I may be at a disadvantage in society and still concerned about how the better advantaged manage their affairs. I may be female but still have opinions about men. I may be a child but still have opinions about the way adults are dealing with climate change, for example. I may live in London and still be concerned about what is happening in the north. If information is targeted on the basis of my demographic characteristics, then I am leaving it to the politicians to decide what I should hear and not my own judgement about what is important to attend to.

As somebody once said, ‘in a world where everything is connected to everything else, it is difficult to see what matters’. Targeting restricts my view of a complicated information ecosystem and restricts me to acting locally on the basis of limited information. It takes away my capacity to see the bigger picture.

Much the same argument can be applied to the way that Parliament is currently constituted. The so-called ‘representative democracy’ is a system in which only certain people have access to the political decision-making process. These people are either self selected or selected by their parties. One way or another, they are in no way representative of the population at large. A truly representative system would select 650 MPs at random from the entire UK population. These people would then truly reflect a widely varying set of circumstances and concerns amongst the people at large. I am not necessarily saying that this is a good idea. There are many snags and it would be necessary to provide high levels of training and support (e.g. in the issues of the day and in the political process) for such a system to be effective. What I am saying is that it would be more representative and more democratic.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I tend to have faith in random processes. Would it not be fairer for all kinds of selection to be random. For example, in job selection, is it really necessary to do any vetting beyond having qualifications for the job. If having established that baseline capability, all vacancies were filled at random, then there would be far greater equality of opportunity, diversity and social mobility. It would also save a lot of time in managing the selection process and then correcting it with processes to avoid discrimination.

Selection is partly a process in which new power relations and obligations are created between those that select and those that are selected. However, somehow one doubts that the individuals that currently hold the power, would be prepared to give it up.

I tend to discount arguments that those that currently hold power are there because they deserve it. Some do, there is no doubt. But many don’t and that is divisive for the whole system. We are all aware that opportunity favours the circumstances of birth. I suppose we could argue that this itself is something of a random process, and perhaps that is why we do not question the status quo. However it is only random at a single point in time and from that point a person’s birth circumstance has an overwhelming influence.

So, I would argue against the power to target messages to anybody in particular. If there has to be any basis for selection at all (e.g. on the grounds of costs), I would argue for the random scattering of identical messages amongst the population.

A policy not to ‘fact-check’ what politicians say in their advertisements is another matter. I am not sure why the advertising standards authority principles cannot apply to politicians in the same way as it applies to the advertising of products and services. Google’s policies, are at least, going in the right direction. They say they will identify ‘clear violations’ by putting in place checks on blatantly fake news and ‘deep fakes’. They also promise transparency with respect to who is placing and seeing advertisements. Really, we might be better continuing our scrutiny of Facebook who, until very recently, have not thought it necessary to put significant controls on either targeting or the fact checking of content.

I do have some sympathy for the argument that we should not leave it to commercial companies to be making editorial decisions. Indeed, they are political decisions that need to be taken at the level of society generally. However while society and its regulatory controls are so slow to act, we are dependent on these companies to exercise controls that we hope will, in retrospect, withstand public scrutiny.

Google ad targeting policy
Facebook ad targeting policy

– Sex Robots

A Brief Summary by Eleanor Hancock


Sex robots have been making the headlines recently. We have been told they have the power to endanger humans or fulfil our every sexual fantasy and desire. Despite the obvious media hype and sensationalism, there are many reasons for us to be concerned about sex robots in society.

Considering the huge impact that sexbots may have in the realms of philosophy, psychology and human intimacy, it is hard to pinpoint the primary ethical dilemmas surrounding the production and adoption of sex robots in society, as well as considering who stands to be affected the most.

This article covers the main social and ethical deliberations that currently surround the use of sex robots and what we might expect in the next decade.

What companies are involved in the design and sale of sex robots?

One of the largest and most well-known retailers of sex dolls and sex robots is Realbotix in San Francisco. They designed and produced ‘Realdolls’ for years but in 2016 they released their sex robot Harmony, which also has a corresponding phone application that allows you to ‘customise’ your robotic companion. Spanish developer Sergi also released Samantha the sexbot, who is a life-sized gynoid which can talk and interact with users. When sex robots become more sophisticated and can gather intimate and personal user data from us, we may have more reason to be concerned about who is designing and manufacturing sex robots – and what they are doing with our sexual data.

What will sex robots look like?

The current state of sex dolls and robots has largely commodified the human body, with the female human body appearing to be more popular in the consumer sphere amongst most sex robot and doll retailers. With that in mind, male sex robots appear to be increasing in popularity and two female journalists have documented their experiences with male sex dolls. Furthermore, there are also instances of look-a-like sex dolls who replicate and mimic celebrities. To this effect, sex robot manufacturers have had to make online statements about their refusal to replicate people, without the explicit permission of that person or their estate. The industry is proving hard to regulate and the issue of copyright in sex robots may be a real ethical and social dilemma for policy makers in the future. However, there have also been examples of sex robots and dolls that do not resemble human form, such as the anime and alien-style dolls.

Will sex robots impact gender boundaries?

Sex robots will always be genderless artifice. However, allowing sex robots to enter the human sexual arena may allow humans to broaden their sexual fantasies. Sex robots may even be able to replicate both genders through customisation and add-on parts. As mentioned previously, the introduction of genderless artifice who do not resemble humans may positively impact human sexual relations by broadening sexual and intimate boundaries.

Who will use sex robots?

There has been variation between the research results studying whether people would use sex robots. The fluctuations in research results mean it is difficult to pinpoint who exactly would use a sex robot and why. Intensive research about the motivations to use sex robots has highlighted the complexities behind such choice that mirror our own human sexual relationships. However, most research studies have been consistent when reporting which gender is most likely to have sex with a robot, with most studies suggesting males would always be more likely than females to have sex with a robot and purchase a sex robot.

Can sex robots be used to help those with physical or mental challenges access sexual pleasure?

Sex robots may allow people to practice sexual acts or receive sexual acts that they are otherwise unable to obtain due to serious disabilities. The ethics behind such a practice have been divisive between radical feminists who deny sex is a human-right, and critics who think it could be medically beneficial and therapeutic.

Will sex robots replace human lovers?

There has not been enough empirical research on the effects of sexual relations with robots and to what extent they are able to reciprocate the same qualities in a human relationship. However, it is inferable that some humans will form genuine sexual or/and intimate relationships with sex robots, which may impede their desire to bother or desire human relationships anymore. The Youtube sensation ‘Davecat’ highlights how a man and his wife have been able to incorporate sex dolls into their married life comfortably. In a similar episode, Arran Lee Wright displayed his sexbot on British daytime television and was supportive of the use of sexbots between couples.

Will sex robots lead to social isolation and exclusion?

There are many academics who already warn us against the isolating impact technology has on our real-life relationships. Smartphones and social media have increased our awareness about online and virtual relationships and some academics believe sex robots signal a sad reflection of humanity. There is a risk that some people may become more isolated as they chose robotic lovers over humans but there is not enough empirical research to deliver a conclusion at this stage.

Will sex robot prostitutes replace human sex workers?

As much as there have been examples of robot and doll brothels and rent-a-doll escort agencies, it is difficult to tell whether sex robots will ever be able to replace human sex workers completely. Some believe there are benefits from adopting robots as sex workers and a 2012 paper suggested that by 2050, the Red Light District in Amsterdam would only facilitate sex robot prostitution. Escort agency owners and brothel owners have spoken about the reduction in management and time costs that using dolls or robots would deliver. However, sociological research from the sex industry suggests sex robots will have a tough time replacing all sex workers, and specifically escorts who need a high range of cognitive skills in order to complete their job and successfully manipulative a highly saturated and competitive industry.

How could sex robots be dangerous?

It seems at this stage, there is not enough research about sex robots to jump to any conclusions. Nonetheless, it seems that most roboticists and ethicists consider how humans interact and behave towards robots as a key factor in assessing the dangers of sex robots. It is more about how we will treat sex robots than the dangers they can evoke on humans.

Is it wrong to hurt a Sex Robot?

Sex robots will allow humans to explore sexual boundaries and avenues that they may not have previously been able to practice with humans. However, this could also mean that people choose to use sex robots as ways to enact violent acts, such as rape and assault. Although some would argue robots cannot feel so violence towards them is less morally corrupt than humans, the violent act may still have implications through the reinforcement of such behaviours in society. If we enact violence on a machine that looks human, we may still associate our human counterparts with such artifice. Will negative behaviour we practice on sex robots became more acceptable to reciprocate on humans? Will the fantasy of violence on robots make it commonplace in wider society? Roboticists and ethicists have been concerned about these issues when considering sex robots but there is simply not enough empirical research yet. Although, Kate Darling still believes there is enough reason to consider extending legal protection towards social robots (see footnote).



References

Jason Lee – Sex Robots and the Future of Desire
https://campaignagainstsexrobots.org/about/

Robots, men and sex tourism, Ian Yeoman and Michelle Mars, Futures, Volume 44, Issue 4, May 2012, Pages 365-371
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0016328711002850?via%3Dihub

Extending Legal Protection to Social Robots: The Effects of Anthropomorphism, Empathy, and Violent Behavior Towards Robotic Objects, Robot Law, Calo, Froomkin, Kerr eds., Edward Elgar 2016, We Robot Conference 2012, University of Miami
http://gunkelweb.com/coms647/texts/darling_robot_rights.pdf

Attitudes on ‘Sex Robots will liberate the next generation of women
https://www.kialo.com/will-sex-robots-liberate-the-next-generation-of-women-4214?path=4214.0~4214.1

Footnotes

Extending Legal Protection to Social Robots: The Effects of Anthropomorphism, Empathy, and Violent Behavior Towards Robotic Objects, Robot Law, Calo, Froomkin, Kerr eds., Edward Elgar 2016, We Robot Conference 2012, University of Miami

– It’s All Too Creepy

As concern about privacy and use of personal data grows, solutions are starting to emerge.

This week I attended an excellent symposium on ‘The Digital Person’ at Wolfson College Cambridge, organised by HATLAB.

The HATLAB consortium have developed a platform where users can store their personal data securely. They can then license others to use selected parts of it (e.g. for website registration, identity verification or social media) on terms that they, the user, is in control of.

The Digital Person
The Digital Person
This turns the table on organisations like Facebook and Google who have given users little choice about the rights over their own data, or how it might be used or passed on to third parties. GDPR is changing this through regulation. HATLAB promises to change it through giving users full legal rights to their data – an approach that very much aligns with the trend towards decentralisation and the empowerment of individuals. The HATLAB consortium, led by Irene Ng, is doing a brilliant job in teasing out the various issues and finding ways of putting the user back in control of their own data.

Highlights

Every talk at this symposium was interesting and informative. Some highlights include:


  • Misinformation and Business Models: Professor Jon Crowcroft
  • Taking back control of Personal Data: Professor Max van Kleek
  • Ethics-Theatre in Machine Learning: Professor John Naughton
  • Stop being creepy: Getting Personalisation and Recommendation right: Irene Ng

There was also some excellent discussion amongst the delegates who were well informed about the issues.

See the Slides

Fortunately I don’t have to go into great detail about these talks because thanks to the good organisation of the event the speakers slide sets are all available at:

https://www.hat-lab.org/wolfsonhat-symposium-2019

I would highly recommend taking a look at them and supporting the HATLAB project in any way you can.

– Making Algorithms Trustworthy

Algorithms can determine whether you get a loan, predict what diseases you might get and even assess how long you might live.  It’s kind of important we can trust them!

David Spiegelhalter is the Winton Professor for the Public Understanding of Risk in the Statistical Laboratory, Centre for Mathematical Sciences at the University of Cambridge. As part of the Cambridge Science Festival he was talking (21st of March 2019) on the subject of making algorithms trustworthy.

I’ve heard David speak on many occasions and he is always informative and entertaining. This was no exception.



Algorithms now regularly advise on book and film recommendations. They work out the routes on your satnav. They control how much you pay for a plane ticket and, annoyingly, they show you advertisements that seem to know far too much about you.

But more importantly they can affect life and death situations. The results of an algorithmic assessment of what disease you might have could be highly influential, affecting your treatment, your well-being and on your future behaviour.

David is a fan of Onora O’Neill who suggests that organisations should not be aiming to increase trust but should aim to demonstrate trustworthiness. False claims about the accuracy of algorithms are as bad as defects in the algorithms themselves.


The pharmaceutical industry has long used a phased approach assessing the effectiveness, safety and side-effects of drugs. This includes the use of randomly controlled trials, and long-term surveillance after a drug comes onto the market, to spot rare side-effects.

The same sorts of procedures should be applied to algorithms. However, currently only the first phase of testing on new data is common. Sometimes algorithms are tested against the decisions that human experts make. Rarely will randomly controlled trials be conducted, or the algorithm in use be subject to long-term monitoring.


As an aside, David entertained us by reporting on how the machine learning community have become obsessed with training algorithms to assess the characteristics of who did or did not survive the Titanic.   Unsurprisingly, being a woman or a child helped a lot. David used this example to present a statistically derived decision tree.  The point he was making was that the decision tree could (at least sometimes) be used as an explanation, whereas machine learning algorithms are generally black boxes (i.e. you can't inspect the algorithm itself).  

Algorithms should be transparent. They should be able to explain their decisions as well as to provide them. But transparency is not enough. O’Neill uses the term 'intelligent openness’ to describe what is required. Explanations need to be accessible, intelligible, usable, and assessable. 

Algorithms need to be both globally and locally explainable. Global explainability relates to the validity of the algorithm in general, while local explainability relates to how the algorithm arrived at a particular decision. One important way of being able to test an algorithm, even when it’s a black box, is to be able to play with inputting different parameters and seeing the result.

Deep Mind (owned by Google) is looking at how explanations can be generated from intermediate stages of the operation of machine learning algorithms.

Explanation can be provided at many levels. At the top level this might be a simple verbal summary. At the next level it might be having access to a range of graphical and numerical representations with the ability to run 'what if' queries. At a deeper level, text and tables might show the procedures that the algorithm used.  Deeper still, would be the mathematics underlying the algorithm. Lastly, the code that runs the algorithm should be inspectable.  I would say that a good explanation is dependent on understanding what the user wants to know - in other words, it is not just a function of the decision making process but also a function of the user’s actual and desired state of knowledge.


Without these types of explanation, algorithms such as the one used by the US company Compas to predict rates of  recidivism, are difficult to trust. 

It is easy to feel that an algorithm is unfair or can’t be trusted. If it cannot provide sufficiently  good explanations, and claims about it are not scientifically substantiated, then it is right to be sceptical about its decisions. 

Most of David’s points apply more broadly than to artificial intelligence and robots.  They are general principles applying to the transparency, accountabilityand user acceptance of any system.  Trust and trustworthiness are everything.

See more of David’s work on his personal webpage at http://www.statslab.cam.ac.uk/Dept/People/Spiegelhalter/davids.html ,      . And read his new book “The Art of Statistics: Learning from Data”, available shortly.

David Spiegelhalter

– Can we trust blockchain in an era of post truth?

Post Truth and Trust

The term ‘post truth’ implies that there was once a time when the ‘truth’ was apparent or easy to establish. We can question whether such a time ever existed, and indeed the ‘truth’, even in science, is constantly changing as new discoveries are made. ‘Truth’, ‘Reality’ and ‘History’, it seems, are constantly being re-constructed to meet the needs of the moment. Philosophers have written extensively about the nature of truth and this is an entire branch of philosophy called ‘epistemology’. Indeed my own series of blogs starts with a posting called ‘It’s Like This’ that considers the foundation of our beliefs.

Nevertheless there is something behind the notion of ‘post truth’. It arises out of the large-scale manufacture and distribution of false news and information made possible by the internet and facilitated by the widespread use of social media. This combines with a disillusionment in relation to almost all types of authority including politicians, media, doctors, pharmaceutical companies, lawyers and the operation of law generally, global corporations, and almost any other centralised institution you care to think of. In a volatile, uncertain, changing and ambiguous world who or what is left that we can trust?

YouTube Video, Astroturf and manipulation of media messages | Sharyl Attkisson | TEDxUniversityofNevada, TEDx Talks, February 2015, 10:26 minutes

All this may have contributed to the popularism that has led to Brexit and Trump and can be said to threaten our systems of democracy. However, to paraphrase Churchill’s famous remark ‘democracy is the worst form of Government, except for all the others’. But, does the new generation of distributed and decentralising technologies provide a new model in which any citizen can transact with any other citizen, on any terms of their choosing, bypassing all systems of state regulation, whether they be democratic or not. Will democracy become redundant once power is fully devolved to the individual and individuals become fully accountable for their every action?

Trust is the crucial notion that underlies belief. We believe who we trust and we put our trust in the things we believe in. However, in a world where we experience so many differing and conflicting viewpoints, and we no longer unquestioningly accept any one authority, it becomes increasingly difficult to know what to trust and what to believe.

To trust something is to put your faith in it without necessarily having good evidence that it is worthy of trust. If I could be sure that you could deliver on a promise then I would not need to trust you. In religion, you put your trust in God on faith alone. You forsake the need for evidence altogether, or at least, your appeal is not to the sort of evidence that would stand up to scientific scrutiny or in a court of law.

Blockchain to the rescue

Blockchain is a decentralised technology for recording and validating transactions. It relies on computer networks to widely duplicate and cross-validate records. Records are visible to everybody providing total transparency. Like the internet it is highly distributed and resilient. It is a disruptive technology that has the potential to decentralise almost every transactional aspect of everyday life and replace third parties and central authorities.

YouTube Video, Block chain technology, GO-Science, January 2016, 5:14 minutes

Blockchain is often described as a ‘technology of trust’, but its relationship to trust is more subtle than first appears. Whilst Blockchain promises to solve the problem of trust, in a twist of irony, it does this by creating a kind of guarantee, and by creating the guarantee you no longer have to be concerned about trusting another party to a transaction because what you can trust is the Blockchain record of what you agreed. You can trust this record, because, once you understand how it works, it becomes apparent that the record is secure and cannot be changed, corrupted, denied or mis-represented.

Youtube Video, Blockchain 101 – A Visual Demo, Anders Brownworth, November 2016, 17:49 minutes

It has been argued that Blockchain is the next revolution in the internet, and indeed, is what the internet should have been based on all along. If, for example, we could trace the providence of every posting on Facebook, then, in principle, we would be able to determine its true source. There would no longer be doubt about whether or not the Russian’s hacked into the Democratic party computer systems because all access would be held in a publicly available, widely distributed, indelible record.

However, the words ‘in principle’ are crucial and gloss over the reality that Blockchain is just one of many building-blocks towards the guarantee of trustworthiness. What if the Russians paid a third-party in untraceable cash to hack into records or to create false news stories? What if A and B carry out a transaction but unknowing to A, B has stolen C’s identity? What if there are some transactions that are off the Blockchain record (e.g. the subsequent sale of an asset) – how do they get reconciled with what is on the record? What if somebody one day creates a method of bringing all computers to a halt or erasing all electronic records? What if somebody creates a method by which the provenance captured in a Blockchain record were so convoluted, complex and circular that it was impossible to resolve however much computing power was thrown at it?

I am not saying that Blockchain is no good. It seems to be an essential underlying component in the complicated world of trusting relationships. It can form the basis on which almost every aspect of life from communication, to finance, to law and to production can be distributed, potentially creating a fairer and more equitable world.

YouTube Video, The four pillars of a decentralized society | Johann Gevers | TEDxZug, TEDx Talks, July 2014, 16:12 minutes

Also, many organisations are working hard to try and validate what politicians and others say in public. These are worthy organisations and deserve our support. Here are just a couple:

Full Fact is an independent charity that, for example, checks the facts behind what politicians and other say on TV programmes like BBC Question Time. See: https://fullfact.org. You can donate to the charity at: https://fullfact.org/donate/

More or Less is a BBC Radio programme (over 300 episodes) that checks behind purported facts of all sorts (from political claims to ‘facts’ that we all take for granted without questioning them). http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00msxfl/episodes/player

However, even if ‘the facts’ can be reasonably established, there are two perspectives that undermine what may seem like a definitive answer to the question of trust. These are the perspectives of constructivism and intent.

Constructivism, intent, and the question of trust

From a constructivist perspective it is impossible to put a definitive meaning on any data. Meaning will always be an interpretation. You only need to look at what happens in a court of law to understand this. Whatever the evidence, however robust it is, it is always possible to argue that it can be interpreted in a different way. There is always another ‘take’ on it. The prosecution and the defence may present an entirely different interpretation of much the same evidence. As Tony Benn once said, ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’. It all depends on the perspective you take. Even a financial transaction can be read a different ways. While it’s existence may not be in dispute, it may be claimed that it took place as a result of coercion or error rather than freely entered into. The meaning of the data is not an attribute of the data itself. It is at least, in part, at attribute of the perceiver.

Furthermore, whatever is recorded in the data, it is impossible to be sure of the intent of the parties. Intent is subjective. It is sealed in the minds of the actors and inevitably has to be taken on trust. I may transfer the ownership of something to you knowing that it will harm you (for example a house or a car that, unknown to you, is unsafe or has unsustainable running costs). On the face of it the act may look benevolent whereas, in fact, the intent is to do harm (or vice versa).

Whilst for the most part we can take transactions at their face value, and it hardly makes sense to do anything else, the trust between the parties extends beyond the raw existence of the record of the transaction, and always will. This is not necessarily any different when an authority or intermediary is involved, although the presence of a third-party may have subtle effects on the nature of the trust between the parties.

Lastly, there is the pragmatic matter of adjudication and enforcement in the case of breaches to a contract. For instantaneous financial transactions there may be little possibility of breach in terms of delivery (i.e. the electronic payments are effected immediately and irrevocably). For other forms of contract though, the situation is not very different from non-Blockchain transactions. Although we may be able to put anything we like in a Blockchain contract – we could, for example, appoint a mutual friend as the adjudicator over a relationship contract, and empower family members to enforce it, we will still need the system of appeals and an enforcer of last resort.

I am not saying is that Blockchain is unnecessarily or unworkable, but I am saying that it is not the whole story and we need to maintain a healthy scepticism about everything. Nothing is certain.


Further Viewing

Psychological experiments in Trust. Trust is more situational than we normally think. Whether we trust somebody often depends on situational cues such as appearance and mannerisms. Some cues are to do with how similar one persona feels to another. Cues can be used to ascribe moral intent to robots and other artificial agents.

YouTube Video, David DeSteno: “The Truth About Trust” | Talks at Google, Talks at Google, February 2014, 54:36 minutes


Trust is a dynamic process involving vulnerability and forgiveness and sometimes needs to be re-built.

YouTube Video, The Psychology of Trust | Anne Böckler-Raettig | TEDxFrankfurt, TEDx Talks, January 2017, 14:26 minutes


More than half the world lives in societies that document identity, financial transactions and asset ownership, but about 3 billion people do not have the advantages that the ability to prove identity and asset ownership confers. Blockchain and other distributed technologies can provide mechanisms that can directly service the documentation, reputational, transactional and contractual needs of everybody, without the intervention of nation states or other third parties.

YouTube Video, The future will be decentralized | Charles Hoskinson | TEDxBermuda, TEDx Talks, December 2014, 13:35 minutes