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Month: August 2016 (page 1 of 2)

Unconvincing Androids

Kids called them Hollow Heads. When the androids hit the market, the term “Bunnies” almost caught on instead, inspired by the ear-like antenna prongs, but the alliteration of “Hollow Heads” was more appealing to the first generation who interacted with the machines.

Artwork by NicoTag.

Artwork by NicoTag.

Besides, the increasingly powerful House Rabbit Society lobbied against the trend conflating their beloved pets with humanoid robots. After dogs died out in the 2030s, rabbits got a lot more popular, and their owners weren’t keen on having their endearments coopted.

One of the original engineers admitted on a virtustream that his design riffed off of an old film, back when screens were dominant. He said it was called Chappie. No one else seemed to remember this movie and soon the engineer disappeared from spokesmanship.

The other big innovation, besides the distinctive “ears” (which didn’t actually have any audio-processing capabilities), was to make the androids slightly insectoid. Just a little something in their structure. Babies found them unsettling, and this was judged to be good. Faces without heads — you could relate to them, but you’d never mistake them for human.

At first the market responded better to realistic androids. Boutiques liked them, as did hotels. But after a couple of high-profile impersonations splashed all over the virtustreams, along with that one abduction, the Bureau of Consumer Protection pushed Congress to regulate the new machines. They codified the Hollow Head design, and soon a thousand variations were being imported from China.

It wasn’t that the androids had been going rogue. Their owners programmed them for nefarious purposes. The nice thing about the Hollow Heads is that they really stood out, so you wouldn’t have them going around signing contracts without being detected.

Of course, the US Empire’s sphere of influence was only so big. Plenty of factories in Russia kept churning out androids with full craniums, some also featuring convincingly visible pores.

The Strategic Subjects List

Detail of a satirical magazine cover for All Cops Are Beautiful, created by Krzysztof Nowak.

Detail of a satirical magazine cover created by Krzysztof Nowak.

United States policing is full of newspeak, the euphemistic language that governments use to reframe their control of citizens. Take “officer-involved shooting”, a much-maligned term that police departments and then news organizations use to flatten legitimate self-defense and extrajudicial executions into the same type of incident.

And now, in the age of algorithms, we have Chicago’s “Strategic Subjects List”:

Spearheaded by the Chicago Police Department in collaboration with the Illinois Institute of Technology, the pilot project uses an algorithm to rank and identify people most likely to be perpetrators or victims of gun violence based on data points like prior narcotics arrests, gang affiliation and age at the time of last arrest. An experiment in what is known as “predictive policing,” the algorithm initially identified 426 people whom police say they’ve targeted with preventative social services. […]

A recently published study by the RAND Corporation, a think tank that focuses on defense, found that using the list didn’t help the Chicago Police Department keep its subjects away from violent crime. Neither were they more likely to receive social services. The only noticeable difference it made was that people on the list ended up arrested more often.

WOW, WHAT A WEIRD COINCIDENCE! The “strategic subjects” on the list were subjected, strategically, to increased police attention, and I’m sure they were all thrilled by the Chicago Police Department’s interest in their welfare.

Less than fifty years ago, the Chicago Police Department literally tortured black men in order to coerce “confessions”. None of that is euphemism. A cattle prod to the genitals — but maybe it ought to be called “officer-involved agony”?

I get so worked up about language because language itself can function as a predictive model. The words people use shape how they think, and thoughts have some kind of impact on actions. Naturally, the CPD officers who carried out the torture called their victims the N-word.

I wonder what proportion of the Strategic Subjects List is black? Given “data points like prior narcotics arrests [and] gang affiliation”, an algorithm can spit out the legacy of 245 years of legal slavery more efficiently than a human. But torture in Chicago is still handcrafted by red-blooded American men. Trump would be proud.

Guillotineplex

Are you familiar with the killing machine? It does what it sounds like. And unfortunately the machine is indiscriminate — the humans who operate and maintain it choose the machine’s targets, but they don’t always do a good job. So the machine terminates murderers, but even more often its victims are innocent.

Such is the way of a killing machine. It’s just a machine. Objects — or assemblages of objects — can’t be responsible or culpable for their “actions”.

Photo by mel.

Photo by mel.

I could be talking about a few different machines. I could be talking about US drones in the Middle East, or about the United States Armed Forces as a larger whole. I could be talking about lethal injection setups, or about our entire criminal “justice” system.

In a literal sense machines are different from bureaucracies. But regarding human organizations as machines can be a useful mental model. When we zoom out to that perspective, becomes obvious how little the good intentions of the participants matter.

A cog in a machine can be very well-made and run smoothly, interacting admirably with the parts next to it. But if the overarching design of the machine is to enable corrupt operators to execute their enemies, well…

Program or Be Programmed; UX or Be UX’d

Artwork by GLAS-8.

Artwork by GLAS-8.

Aboniks posted this blockbuster comment on artificial consciousness in the Cyberpunk Futurism chat group:

Pondering how the digital brain-in-a-jar might practice good mental hygiene.

You’d need a hardwired system of I/O and R/W restrictions in place to protect the core data that made up the “youness”. A “youness ROM”, perhaps. If that analogy holds up, then maybe my grandmother’s case is akin to a software overlay suddenly failing. Firmware crash. But I’m not convinced brains are so amenable to simple analogy. The processing and the storage that goes on in our heads doesn’t seem to be modular in the same sense that our digital tools are.

Anyway, if your software and hardware (however they’re arranged and designed) are capable of perfect simulation then they are equally capable of perfect deception. There may be a difference between simulation and deception, but I can’t think of a way to put it that doesn’t seem… forced.

So, for the rest of your “life”, your entire experience is UX, in the tech-bro sense of the word.

“Program or be programmed,” as Rushkoff would say. If you’re not the UX designer, you’re hopelessly vulnerable. Who are the UX designers, then? Who decides where the experience stops and the “youness” starts? Who defines that border to protect you? Another Zuckerberg running a perpetual game of three-card Monte with the privacy policy?

Maybe not an individual, but something more monolithic, ending in “SA” or “Inc”? Will there be an equivalent of Snowden or Assange to expose their profit-driven compromises in our storage facility fail-safes and leak news of government interference in the development process of our gullibility drivers?

Will we be allowed to believe them?

(Lightly edited for readability.)


She wondered where the expression “surf the net” came from. Of course Sarah knew what surfing was, but why “net”? Did it used to have something to do with catching fish?

She was fourteen and relatively popular. Her classmates though she was nice and mildly funny. Sarah knew because of the survey reports.

Harry, the troublemaker, would shoot caustic messages into their class channel. “Who surveys the surveyors?” he asked.

Finally Allison answered — Allison was more popular than Sarah, so she looked up to her — “You are so fucking boring. Get off your history kick and live in the real world, Harry. Like the rest of us. No one cares what the surveyors think. We saw them for like five minutes.”

He shot back, “You know those surveys determine your job trajectory, right?”

Allison told him she thought the test-writers knew what they were doing. Harry called her a regime sycophant. Then the teacher stepped in and reminded them that hostility was inappropriate for this venue.

Four years later, at eighteen, Sarah wondered what ended up happening to Harry. But only for a couple of minutes. Then she went back to work.

Pyongyang Is Totes Awesome, Bro

This is a superlative cyberpunk headline if I ever saw one: “YouTube Stars Are Now Being Used for North Korean Propaganda”. A vlogger named Louis Cole uploaded a series of videos in which he gallivanted around the DPRK, with nary a mention of the country’s atrocious human rights record.

Per the article: “Cole has, so far, not really made mention of any of that, choosing instead to go for a light tone, oohing and ahhing over abundant food in a country ravaged by hunger.” I mean, to be fair, famine is a bummer, right? What brand would want to sponsor a vlogger who talks about that stuff?

Louis Cole on Twitter, @funforlouis. Glad you're enjoying yourself, buddy.

Louis Cole on Twitter, @funforlouis. Glad you’re enjoying yourself, buddy.

The "beautiful military guide at the war museum", praised by Louis Cole on Instagram.

The “beautiful military guide at the war museum”, praised by Louis Cole on Instagram.

In the article, Richard Lawson wrote incisively:

The more you watch Cole’s videos from North Korea, the more you wonder if he’s plainly ignorant to the plight of many people in the country, or if he’s willingly doing an alarmingly thorough job of carrying water for Kim Jong Un’s regime — not really caring what the implications are, because, hey, cool trip.

Or maybe it’s something else. Maybe this is a surreal extreme of the unthinking, vacuous new-niceness that occupies a large amount of YouTube territory, content creators so determined to deliver an upbeat, brand-friendly message that the uncomfortable truths of the world — personal and political — go mind-bogglingly, witlessly ignored.

Louis Cole’s manager insisted that he wasn’t being paid by the DPRK and didn’t intend to “gloss over or dismiss any negative issues that plague the country”. Like Lawson, I believe that.

I don’t think this vlogger was gleefully pressing “upload” and thinking, “Haha, now’s my chance to bolster the image of an oppressive dictator!” On his Twitter account — which he appears to run himself — Cole said, “its a tiny step & gesture of peace. waving a finger & isolating the country even more fuels division” [sic].

Here’s the thing, though — Cole may be goodhearted and he may mean all the best, but it doesn’t make a difference. It doesn’t change the fact that he was shilling for the carefully curated trip that a brutal regime presented to him. And it doesn’t change the incentives that he and his professional brethren are responding to.

I’ve spent a lot of time reading about the new “influencer economy”, as it’s being called — for instance, Elspeth Reeves’ fascinating article on teen lip-syncing sensations — because I’m a media geek and that’s a substantial portion of the future of media. So I follow a lot of these people on social media.

The “influencers” who are raking in cash are relentlessly positive. Big companies are risk-averse — they don’t want to be associated with anything negative — and big companies are the ones cutting checks to YouTube stars, Instagram stars, etc. Interpersonal drama pops up now and then, but any political questions are avoided.

Who can blame them? Gotta make a buck and late capitalism only offers so many options…

(I still blame them.)

Expansive Transhumanism, Already in Practice

As his $10 Patreon reward, Jeremy Southard asked me to write about transhumanism. So that’s been in the back of my mind for a few days. The trendy H+ story this week is DuoSkin, hyped by MIT Media Lab:

“DuoSkin draws from the aesthetics found in metallic jewelry-like temporary tattoos to create on-skin devices which resemble jewelry. DuoSkin devices enable users to control their mobile devices, display information, and store information on their skin while serving as a statement of personal style.”

DuoSkin is pretty and I would love a pink version, but I can’t get excited about the technology. I’m sure there are useful applications — a clandestine version could add to the espionage toolkit — but this cosmetic rendition seems a little gimmicky.

If you look at past Exolymph dispatches on transhumanism, you’ll notice that I’m more drawn to examinations of ways that we already augment our bodies than to speculative developments. Here’s why: I have zero interest in gadgets — what fascinates me is the sociology, the power relationships, the humanness of how we react to new tools. (This is not to say that there’s anything wrong with liking tech for its own sake.)

The most important transhumanist technology to emerge in the past fifty years is the internet, or more specifically networked computers. It’s a bit boring, since we’re all so used to living with it now, but the ability to store and access information at this scale is unprecedented.

I guess people don’t think of the internet as transhumanist because it’s not physically integrated, but to me that just seems like an implementation detail. For example, I store 90% of what I read online so I can reference it later. Effortlessly. My archive is quite literally a personal memory backup that I can keyword-search.

But I’m a power user. You can argue that instead of localized, individual-specific augmentations (whether targeting the body or the mind), the future is about massive crowdsourced extensions. Think Wikipedia.

Pokémon Go also loosely fits into this category — is your fitness assistant an app personalized for you, or a clever game featuring beloved childhood characters that your whole social circle uses? Which sounds more 2016?

Actually, I’m calling it now — augmented reality and transhumanism will merge beyond sensical separation within fifty years. Or maybe I just have a particularly expansive notion of what counts as transhumanism?

But consider this: Pokémon Go, widely lauded as the first consumer-focused augmented-reality success, would not be possible if most people didn’t already have smartphones in their pockets. Now imagine the mini computer is embedded in your hand, or your retina, or what-have-you. In what meaningful way would augmented reality be separate from transhumanism?

It may seem like pure semantics, but language reflects and shaped how we think about things. Our bodies are already less discrete than we think they are.

Reflecting on Dystopian San Francisco Again

One of the reasons I started Exolymph is that I live in the Bay Area. San Francisco is the hottest local metropolis, so I visit occasionally, both for work and pleasure. The city is a parallel mixture of luxe yuppie haven and downtrodden slum:

“He pointed out the animated software ads wrapped around bus shelters and glowing on the sides of buildings. He reminded me that the streets smelled of urine and we were passing homeless people wrapped in rags. Sleeping on the damp sidewalk. Meanwhile, money churned in and out of Silicon Valley’s sister city.”

I’ve written about this before, as have others, so please forgive me for flogging a dead horse. But it never ceases to astound me: in this place of economic and technological abundance, you walk by people subsisting on garbage. Maybe if I’d worked in the city full-time for more than three months, I would be desensitized.

San Francisco as a floating prison colony. Artwork by Silvio Bertonati.

Artwork by Silvio Bertonati.

It’s bizarre how normal it feels to live in a dystopia. That is one of my central premises — a lot of the frightening themes of classic cyberpunk fiction have come true in one way or another, but daily life is still mundane. You and I are side characters or NPCs, not the protagonists, so all the depraved systems aren’t exciting. They’re just exhausting.

And I do feel exhausted. I feel exhausted by the constant deluge of bad news — certainly not the first to say so — and I feel exhausted by the pressure to react to each new development, to perform outrage or heartsickness for a drive-by audience.

I feel exhausted by pointing out, again and again, that while technology does “change the world” just by virtue of existing, sometimes it allocates power in scary ways. The ever-accelerating ~innovation~ will knock some of us down.

There’s no solution here. This is just how the world works. Bad things happen. New media happens. Tech businesses happen. Maybe I’d feel better about it if I were more personally laissez-faire.

The Olympics and Posthumanity

Today’s dispatch was contributed by Webster Wade, who you can find on Twitter and Wattpad.

A cyborg athlete. Artwork by Ben Jamie.

Artwork by Ben Jamie.

Watching the Olympics this week, I have many thoughts related to upcoming posthuman achievements. In more than one extended talk by a geneticist, doctor, biomedicine specialist, or similarly qualified professional, I’ve heard the idea that it is entirely possible and “easy” to make a superhuman. The only hurdle is the ethical quandaries — of why, of doing it on a first batch of humans, of how to push for egalitarianism in a wildly unequal world, and more.

In Olympic-level sports, there is this crazy insistence that the athletes not take any substances that would enhance their performance. And yet an athlete like Michael Phelps is remarkable because of his abnormal physique. He has hypocritically spoken out fervently against allowing drug-supported athletes to compete.

There is a significant amount of targeted sexism, seeking to single out female athletes with heightened testosterone and related intersex conditions. As far as I know, this standard is not applied to male athletes. They are only screened for very high doping levels, not “naturally high” levels.

It seems weird to me that the “fun” of the Olympics is observing people leverage their unusual bodies to do great feats, but we are picky about what unusual traits are permitted. The ability for a body to respond well under a super-stacked doping regime is arguably just as impressive as harnessing any other natural talent.

In bodybuilding, competition is divided between “natural” and “anything goes”.

Based on current ideals, in a near future where you can design the ideal gymnast body, the uber-Phelps clone, the perfect runner who will quash all prior records, such meddling will no doubt be disallowed. It will be dismissed as “unnatural”, “unsportsmanlike”, and “anti-competitive” for a few decades — until it becomes so typical and otherwise inserted into sports that it will be considered okay.

Even though the athletes that break records today are able to do so because they have innate advantages, advantages we condone because they are gifted by chance.


More of Webster Wade’s work is available on Twitter and Wattpad.

Bot-Writer for Hire

Courtney Stanton is one of the cofounders of Feel Train, a small bespoke creative studio. (Longtime readers may remember that I interviewed the other half of Feel Train, Darius Kazemi, back in December.) This week Stanton and I spoke on the phone for about an hour, discussing their background and current work.

A brief introduction to Feel Train: their clients have marketing goals, but the kind of advertising that Feel Train facilitates is much more participatory and experimental than, say, a billboard or a branded hashtag. Feel Train publishes projects like a fortune-telling bot and a book-concept generator. The company is also a worker-owned co-op, with bylaws stating that it can never expand beyond eight members.

So why is this cyberpunk? Feel Train’s work is actually kind of the optimistic flip-side of cyberpunk — they represent a NewCo world in which small-scale entrepreneurs can leverage technology to make a living while playing to their strengths and sticking to their principles.

For example, Feel Train turned down a client because the client’s company policy required background checks. Stanton explained, “We believe everyone has the right to work” and background checks serve as an impediment to that. “The thing I can change is the place I work at, which is what I have done and what Darius has done.”

Photo by Robin Zebrowski.

Photo by Robin Zebrowski.

So, on a conceptual level, what ties together Feel Train’s work? Stanton used an interesting metaphor: “I like creating sort of temporary spaces where people can explore questions or role-play.” They added, “The internet is fantastic for that.”

So how does that actually work? “When I talk to clients I talk about the ‘velvet rope’ strategy. You set up a little space and let people invite themselves in.” This differs from the way “traditional marketing and advertising tends to bombard you”. By contrast, Feel Train’s projects are supposed to be “something that’s actually genuinely interested to individuals, and… cool.”

Stanton explained, “The response I’m looking for is much lower-key. The ‘hmm’ response as opposed to like, ‘Oh, I can’t wait to retweet that Cheetos tweet.'” They told me, “I’m always thinking about the fifty-fifty person who’s a little curious” rather than rabidly fanatical.

Feel Train’s bots are bounded experiences. “Some of it is time-based — it’ll only [tweet] like once a day. You’re only getting so much interaction with it. That’s […] the little pocket of play, your window of participation for the day.” Of course, “A lot of our design is based on not violating Twitter’s guidelines, because you don’t want to get the content shut down.”

The bots are also closed systems in terms of what they say. “They don’t go off script; they don’t break character.” Stanton explained, “They have guidelines in terms of what they’re going to talk about. They’re never going to leave the narrative area.”

This is the result of painstaking research, writing, and testing. “Especially in the early design phases, I take in a lot of information about the world, like the narrative world” of the project. Again, “the bot’s never going to deviate from what we put in our spreadsheet.”

How does it feel to put together a bot corpus? “Really different [from other kinds of writing]. It took me back to high school, when you’re doing sentence-diagramming.” The process isn’t linear. Rather, “You’re mentally composing a hundred different sentences,” questioning, “Would this word sound good next to all of these ones?”

And then there’s QA. Does the output fit expectations and meet Feel Train’s standards? Stanton told me they generate hundreds of samples and read through each and every one, looking for patterns, noting which templates feel repetitive or awkward.

“It’s still the process of rough draft, and then you do polish passes and polish passes. It’s just that instead of editing a normal manuscript, it’s slightly more disjointed.” Stanton compared testing and editing a bot corpus to grinding in a video game — “You do the same level over and over again.”

At the end you have something like @staywokebot, a Feel Train collaboration with activist DeRay Mckesson that tweets inspirational messages to its followers, grounded in Black American history.

Remember what Courtney Stanton does the next time someone tries to convince you that a cogent bot runs on magical AI rather than crafted human planning 😉


Follow @feeltraincoop and @q0rtz to keep up with the company and Stanton themself.