Tuesday, July 12, 2016

How the Internet May Evolve

The Pew Research Center is inviting a select group of people to participate in a survey that asks people to answer five questions about how internet may evolve – about the tone of social discourse online, education innovation for future skills, the opportunities and challenges of the Internet of Things and algorithm-based everything, and trust in online interaction. If you would like to share your knowledge, please access the survey here:


Here are my responses:

In the next decade, will public discourse online become more or less shaped by bad actors, harassment, trolls, and an overall tone of griping, distrust, and disgust?

       Online communication becomes LESS shaped by negative activities
       Online communication becomes MORE shaped by negative activities
X     I expect no major change in the tone of online interaction

I think it's important to understand that our perception of public discourse is shaped by two major sources: first, our own experience of online public discourse, and second, media reports (sometimes also online) concerning the nature of public discourse.

From both sources we have evidence that there is a lot of influence from bad actors, harassment, trolls, and an overall tone of griping, distrust, and disgust, as suggested in the question.

But a great deal of public online discourse consists of what we and others don't see. For example, you don't see the discussions I have on my Facebook feed or on Twitter with interesting and informed participants. Indeed, I am even sometimes inclined to think of it as private discourse, because of course it doesn't take place on some troll-magnet like YouTube, but it is nonetheless public discourse.

So a couple of things are happening. First, I'm biasing my own perception by taking a particular stance on the meaning of 'public' (as equivalent to 'mass'), and second, I'm receiving a confirmation bias because the main thing mass media says is that it is dominated by bad actors, harassment, trolls, and an overall tone of griping, distrust, and disgust.

I expect people, because of these biases, to project that there is more and more of this sort of behaviour, even though the rate remains steady. It's a lot like people's perception of crime rates when they are informed by mass media. And because media says (incorrectly) that this sort of behaviour is then norm, I expect a certain level of it to continue.

Hence I project no real change.

In the next ten years, do you think we will see the emergence of new educational and training programs that can successfully train large numbers of workers in the skills they will need to perform the jobs of the future?

X    Yes

I think we will see educational and training programs that can successfully train large numbers of workers because for the most part mechanisms will be in place that enable them to train themselves. Within ten years, we should be beginning to see that the idea of 'providing' training education or training is misguided, because it's overly expensive and less effective than self-managed learning.

I find it interesting, even, that the question itself presumes that stills must be 'taught'. "Which of these skills can be taught effectively via online systems?" It's not that the skills are taught, per se, but rather than the skills are learned. A wide range of activities may enable skills to be learned - especially multidisciplinary skills, such as critical thinking or social interaction - without specifically teaching those skills.

There are very few skills that require specific and personal instruction from an expert to learn - frankly, I can't think of any - which means that within ten years we should at least be able to countenance the possibility that all, or nearly all, educational programs may be automated. Or course, they will continue to require the time and participation of the individual learner, and in many cases, social interaction with other learners, but the labour-intensive learning industry we have developed to this point will not be required.

I see two major objectives to this argument:

- first, it may be argumed that personal interaction is required in order to get to know a student, and therefore anticipate what they need.

However, in ten years it will be arguable (and probably demonstrable) that your own computer networks will know you better than any individual instructor could, even an instructor who worked with you your entire life. Sure, there are disasters like the Facebook news stream, but people are already amazed at how much Google knows about them. And we know that with enough data analytics can outperform humans even in complex tasks..

- second, it may be argued that personal interactyion is required in order to evaluate a student's level of achievement.

Most actual assessment (not to be confused with multiple-choice tests) in school or professional programs is based on expert recognition. The submitted behaviour (an essay, performance in surgery, piloting an aircrafdt in a simulation) is not assessed according to whether a set of indicators is achieved (this would possibly be a necessary, but never a sufficient, condition). The expert looks at the overall behaviour and assesses whether that competency has been met.

The expert is serving as a proxy for the community at large. With modern communications technology, this proxy is no longer required. Through the course of any given day, as a person goes through various activities, they interact with dozens of other people, either in person, or through online interaction. Each person responds to them in some way, not by testing them, but by (for example) engaging them in conversation, asking questions, following advice, etc.These responses, over time, form a comprehensive (and constantly changing) assessment of the person.

Will the net overall effect of algorithms be positive for individuals and society or negative for individuals and society?

X    Positives outweigh negatives
       Negatives outweigh positives
       The overall impact will be about 50-50

The sort of discrimination, social engineering and  other societal impacts we have today often have a negative impact because they are based on crude stereotypes and result in inappropriate measures. Their impacts are magnified when deployed by social systems causing harm to individuals based on these crude measures.

But new algorithms will have profoundly beneficial effects because they will:
- provide a person an accurate picture of themselves, and not a negative self-image reinforced by media messaging and stereotypes
- prevent other individuals from basing their assessments of us on unreliable intuition, incomplete or inaccurate data, or bias and prejudice

The negative expectations that exist - for example, fears of loss of employment, termination of health insurance, discrimination in housing opportunities, unfair denial of credit, media 'bubbles' and tunnel-vision, government surveillance and control, etc., are all reflective of *today's* reality. They are not properties inherent in the new technologies, they are things that are done to people every day today, and which new technologies will make less and less likely.

Some examples:

Banks - today backs provide loans based on very incomplete data; It is truie that many people who today qualify for loads would not get them in the future. However many  people - and arguably many more people - will be able to obtain loans in the future, as banks turn away from using such factors as race, socio-economic background, postal code, and the like to assess fit. Moreover, with more data (and with a more interactive relationship between bank and client) banks can reduce their risk, thus providing more loads, while at the same time providing a range of services individually directed to actually help a person's financial state.

Health care providers - health care is a significant and growing expense not because people are becoming less healthy (in fact, society-wide, the opposite is true) but because of the significant overhead required to support increasingly complex systems, including prescriptions, insurance, facilities, and more. New technologies will enable health providers to sift a significant percentage of that load to the individual, who will (with the aid of personal support systems) manage their health better, coordinate and manage their own care, and create less of a burden on the system. As the overall cost of health care declines, it becomes increasingly feasible to provide single-payer health insurance for the entire population, which has known beneficial health outcomes and efficiencies.

Retailers - Alvin Toffler predicted an era of mass custom production, where a good is not manufactured until it is ordered. We are on the cusp of providing this today, from sourcing of raw materials on a real-time basis through production and deliver via automated vehicles or drones. Additionally, software provide efficiencies in many industrial systems, from energy production to storage, distribution and use, resulting in a more environmentally friendly economy.

Governments - a significant proportion of government is based on regulation and monitoring, which will no longer be required with the deployment of automated production and transportation systems, along with sensor networks. This includes many of the daily (and often unpleasant) interactions have with government today, from traffic offenses, manifestation of civil discontent,unfair treatment in commercial and legal processes, and the like. A simple example: one of the most persistent political problems in the United States is the gerrymandering of political boundaries to benefit incumbents. Electoral divisions created by an algorithm to a large degree eliminate gerrymandering (and when open and debatable, can be modified to improve on that result).

Will people’s trust in their online interactions, their work, shopping, social connections, pursuit of knowledge and other activities, be strengthened or diminished over the next 10 years?

       Trust will be DIMINISHED
X    Trust will be STRENGTHENED
       Trust will stay about the same

This is a very similar question to the first question. We experience many reasons to distrust our interactions, and traditional media are reporting numerous cases where they should be distrusted, so we think rising distrust is the norm, and yet on a personal basis, as time goes by, we are more and more trusting.

People who did not even know people in other countries, much less trust them, now travel half way around the world to participate in conferences, rent and live in their homes, meet on a date, participate in events, and more. Sure, things like catfishing are problems. But the exception is a problem only in the light of the trust that is the rule (Wittgenstein: a rule is shown by its exceptions) 

People who did not trust online retail a decade ago now purchases games, music and media on a regular basis (they're still a bit wary of deliveries from China, but they're coming around to it).

People who did not trust online banking a decade ago now find it a much more convenient and inexpensive way to pay their bills. They also like the idea that their credit cards are now protected.

People who were sceptical of online learning a decade ago now like in an era when, in some programs, some online learning is required, and where there is no real distinction (and no way to distinguish) between an online or offline degree (and meanwhile, millions of people flood in to take MOOCs).

We can see where this trend is heading by looking at a few edge cases. For example: what would we say of a pilot that never trained in a simulator? What would we say of a lawyer who did not rely on data search, indexing and retrieval services? We trust them more in the future because they are taking advantage of advanced technology to support their work.

It seems like less trust, but it's more trust.

When we hear only one voice, we trust that voice. When we hear many voices, we trust that one voice less. As we should. And it feels like less trust, But we trust all of those voices, and the overall dolidity of our information, more. Feels like less, but is actually more.

As automobiles, medical devices, smart TVs, manufacturing equipment and other tools and infrastructure are networked, is it likely that attacks, hacks, or ransomware concerns in the next decade will cause significant numbers of people to decide to disconnect, or will the trend towards greater connectivity of objects and people continue unabated?

X    Most people will move more deeply into connected life
       Significant numbers will disconnect

It is truie that attacks, hacks, or ransomware concerns impact our enjoym,ent of modern technology. But it's important to note that what they impact is almost exclusively our enjoyment of modern technology.

A person choosing to disconnect from modern technology suffers the same fate as the person who has been hacked. They lose the enjoyment of modern technology. So disconnecting from technology isn't a viable response to attacks, hacks and the rest.

People won't be looking to withdraw from modern techn ology, they will be looking for better and more secure modern technology (to a point; as people's choices of passwords such as '123456' show, they are willing to sacrifice a certain amount of security for a certain amount of convenience - ondeed, if anything forces people off new technology, it will be the security measures, not the crimes).


Your comments will be moderated. Sorry, but it's not a nice world out there.