Monday 22 July 2019

I am second generation - and you’re not even first

A bold claim, but I would wager, in the majority of cases, an accurate one.

I refer, of course, to doorbells.  Wireless, internet enabled, internet-of-things doorbells.  Not those simple press-a-button, hit-a-bell arrangements.  Or a Neanderthal, one-moving-part door knocker. 

Oh no, a proper lights-up-your-smartphone twenty-first century visitor-alerter.  Space age, if the space age wasn’t all gas guzzlers with phallic fins and gills, buzzcuts and pork pie hats, church burnings and lynchings.

Buy cheap, buy twice, as the saying goes.  Which is exactly what I did, hence the need to buy my second whizzy doorbell.  The first was a £70 or so Amazon purchase.  The instructions appeared to have been translated via Martian and needed to be pondered over like deep poetry to extract meaning.  It worked well initially, even if speaking to visitors was somewhat fiddly – by the time you’d worked out what to press and whether to keep it pressed when talking or listening (still can’t remember) they’d invariably have gone, leaving you with a summons to the sorting office.  I did manage a conversation whilst wandering around a harbour with a person looking to buy the car parked outside my house.  Which wasn’t my car.  I was happy to negotiate, nonetheless.

But it drained our batteries, and at some point the ability to converse fell off; when it rang we’d simply go to the front door rather than ‘answer’ it on our phones.  When we were out we rarely had the app on.  It had evolved back into a simple press-and-it-rings doorbell.  And then, after our teenaged IT department decided to unilaterally reset our router (or do I mean hub? how are they different? or are they the same thing?) it stopped working altogether.

I did a lot of research into a replacement.  There are a few more providers out there than previously.  My doorbell, which appeared in almost identical guise under a number of different names, is no longer on the market.  Nest and Ring dominate, as they did before, but I didn’t like the need to subscribe to services to get full functionality out to them last time and nothing had changed on that front as far as I was concerned.  The one genuinely new bell or whistle out there seemed to be facial recognition software.

Let’s just pause and unpack that for a moment.  Facial recognition software.  Your doorbell’s pressed and your smartphone rings and shows you the view from a camera at your doorstep.  And at the same time, it uses software to measure distances between eyes, mouth, nose, whatever, to tell you who’s at the door.  Even though you’re looking at the image that it’s seeing as well.  Even though you’ve evolved over aeons to be able to recognise faces.  It’s something the average human is stunningly good at.

I don’t think it tells you who it is if you don’t know them; it’s not plugged into Langley or the Pentagon or anything.  That could be genuinely useful.   Neither does it pop the locks when it recognises your phizog, though that would be a small step away.  As would be getting cleared out by that twin that you fell out with and no longer talk to.

My understanding is that it uses your previous visitors, who you have to tag or identify somehow, presumably, to tell you who’s here, now.  Even though we can tell just by looking.  It’s like a dog standing on its hind legs.  Why do we need it?

I've come to a number of alternative conclusions.  One is that it's not about Langley telling you who's at the door, but you telling Langley.  Facial recognition is the facet of the informational revolution that people are only whispering about.  You've heard of Facebook, but have you heard of DeepFace?  The Chinese government plans to be able to identify “anyone, anytime, anywhere in China within three seconds”.  Think about it, your own private property is where they can't scan your face.  Unless you do it for them.

But, perhaps, even more fundamentally for the species there’s a working assumption that we’re all going to give up recognising faces.  Yes, it’s a skill that we’re so adept at that we’ve virtually forgotten how great we are at it.  But, hey, there’s an app for that, so free up some bandwidth and hand over the responsibility for facial recognition to Apple, Google, Huawei or whoever.  I know that I’ve written on the theme of outsourcing mental abilities if not common sense to the machines in our hands, on our laps, on our desks before.  But this is plain silly.  We’ve arrived at a genuine, full–on reductio ad absurdum.

I’m willing to concede that the view from the top of a slippery slope is likely to be magnificent.  And the journey may be initially pleasant before the speed builds up and you see yourself hurtling towards the edge of the abyss.  Hold on tight, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.


Tuesday 9 July 2019

It's the end of the world as I'm genetically incapable of knowing, and I feel fine

Two things happened in the last few weeks that even the most tin foil hat-wearing conspiracy theorist will find hard to link.

Elon Musk caused an alien invasion panic after launching 60 mini satellites to give us better access to porn.  Sorry, I mean the internet.  And I finished reading Daniel Kahneman's book, Thinking Fast and Slow.

Kahneman's book is not new, and elements have been well covered elsewhere; various pop science documentaries spring to mind.  But, even so, you really should read it if you haven't already.  It covers a great deal of ground in breadth and depth, and shouldn't be mistaken for a Malcolm Gladwell-style thinking person's beach read.  It's denser than that, and a modicum drier as a result.  Which makes it sound overbaked Dundee cake.  Without marzipan and icing.  Or a plastic reindeer on top.

But it isn't like that at all.  Think more of a quality bakewell, or a cheesecake, but not one of those foamy ones.  A real cheesecake, with some density to it.  Raspberries.  Maybe clotted cream on the side.

I may have wandered off topic.  Sorry.

One of Kahneman's opening plays is the idea of your brain having a System 1 and a System 2.  These aren't separate parallel processing units, like the petrol and electric motors in a hybrid car; this is your brain employing two separate strategies simultaneously on the same wetware.

(His book also covers loss aversion, which tallies with what I was stumbling towards in my proposal for an anti-bezzle, but enough of that).

Don't think these are options at your disposal; they're not.  You can't help triggering System 1, it's innate; whereas System 2 is the 'If you think about it' bit of your brain.  And you need both.  System 1 is constantly seeing a tiger in the shadows, because one day there will be one, and only by seeing the tiger all the time do you get to live to tell the tale.  System 2 plays chess, but it's System 1 that jumps when a spider drops from the ceiling and lands on the board.

It's System 1 that people are employing when they see aliens in the, admittedly alien, sight of SpaceX's 60 Starlink satellite's entering orbit.  (Except in the case of those with the tin foil hats, who verify it to themselves through complex conspiracies involving the lizard people who really rule us, who have also employed System 2 in their thinking.  I'm not going to take the piss too much; may turn out that they've been right all along). 

My point is this.  The idea of alien invasion is relatively new, at least in evolutionary time.  We're well past the point of seeing tigers in the shadows.  We've tamed the world.  System 1 should have become redundant, the information-processing equivalent of the appendix.  But, no: we're simply applying System 1 to new paradigms.  It's hardwired in.  

We're bright enough to design the world we want, but not to spot the unintended consequences.  We're bright enough to invent plastics and the internal combustion engine and derivatives, but not to map out the rabbit holes down which they could take us before it's too late and we're falling down them.

This is one of the ignored aspects of Mankind's re-engineering of the world, that threats are no longer predominantly blink-and-you-miss-it.  Our influence is long term and strategic.  And, with it, the risks, personal and species-wide, move from here-and-now, claws-out and screaming, to silent, creeping and glacial in pace.  Yes, there are still in-the-moment threats against which System 1 protects us.  They still get us as individuals.  But it'll be the biggies that we need System 2 to combat that'll get us as a species in the end.

The greatest threat to humanity (let's stop saying 'to the planet'; the planet will recover) is global warming and the various flavours of eco-disaster that'll come with it.  That's not news, but it was never newsworthy, because it's System 1 that decrees newsworthyness.  It's not a spider dropping from the ceiling or a tiger in the shadows - or, it's modern equivalent, aliens in the sky.  We don't jump.  And, because we don't jump, we think the biggest threat to humanity is the Chinese, or the Americans, or Islam, or terrorism, or the stock market crashing.

And because it doesn't make us jump, we won't do anything until Attenborough tells us that the bees have all gone.  And, even then, what we'll consider first is the lack of bloody honey for breakfast.

Most days I think this is everybody's fault.  But, today, with Kahneman's ideas front and centre in my mind, I'm inclined to think the whole thing is inevitable.  We've simply evolved to a point at which our physiology cannot keep up.  We're trying to run Grand Theft Auto 6 on an Apollo Guidance Computer, blindsided to the fact that we're sub-optimal by all the smart things we can do (like land on the Moon in the case of the AGC, or, for us, invent plastics and the internal combustion engine and derivatives).  We don't know the level we're failing to operate at, because if we could think in those terms we wouldn't be failing.

This may be the end point of evolution.  We've hit our limit.  And it's our operating system that makes it a self-limiting point.  What protected us from tigers in the shadows will bring our ultimate destruction, because we're watching the skies for aliens instead of recognising the scale of the real threat.

Time to give the insects a chance, methinks.  In the meantime, could I suggest a book to read?