Anonymity in the Age of Panopticon

How would a person remain anonymous and/or protect her privacy in the age of endless tracking, database building and modelling by ever more sophisticated computers?  Currently our search engines and web providers have the ability to develop highly sophisticated models of our activities and interests.  Current commercial interests tend to focus on tailoring ads to reflect content, the trend is towards ever more nuanced information gathering and modelling.

The fact that we see ads directly relevant to our search terms or the content we are accessing is commonplace, on this site and almost everywhere else.  Content and interest oriented advertising is a rapidly growing field.  Imagine if the ads not only reflected your interest, but used models that reflect your attractions that are holding your favourite drink or wearing your style of clothing.  Historically advertising has always had to focus on broad demographics, aiming a particular magazine ad at a few generalizations about the readers.  Now ads and ad generating algorithms can or will create ads specifically targeted at an individual.

Most of us might not like the extreme targeting that might occur with ads, but very few of us would like it if our governments were using the same databases to build personality and relationship profiles to us.  For that matter, not many of us will like the idea of political ads specially tuned to create a specific response, depending on all the information in the database.  (The same party might show a very different variation of the same ad to different people, depending on their search history, news preferences, social network and a thousand other data).

At deeper levels of detail, ads might be varied to reflect our mood depending on how our day or year might be going.  For example, if I were searching for divorce lawyers and single bedroom apartments, a political ad might seek to appeal to my frustration and anger.  If I were looking at cribs and strollers the ad might focus on my optimism.  This tendency to greater nuance and data collection is enough to get any conspiracy theorist into a froth.

All of this is very much the near future, and has been explored in various ways in science fiction.  A panopticon of (mostly profit oriented) surveillance over every nuance and detail of our lives is already becoming normal.  Where science fiction might get interesting is in exploring ways an individual, nefarious or not, might hide in plain sight.  Every system has its weaknesses, and humans are innately keen to exploit weaknesses in systems.  Early system hackers did things like scare buffalo so much they ran off a cliff, rather than merely killing them with weapons and risking injury.  Current system hackers have a much more complex system to engage with, and so are likely to have much more subtle and complex responses.

Some ideas for hiding in plain sight include:

  • Each individual maintaining an automated array of hundreds or thousands of randomized identities, so that each interaction is spoofed as a different identity and no meaningful profile could be created.  I wouldn’t be surprised if someone hasn’t already thought of this and put it into place.
  • Deep encryption of every interaction with the web, perhaps also using multiple identities.  The funny thing about encryption is that using it is a quite rational choice, and yet the mere fact of encryption is seen as evidence of nefarious intent by authorities.
  • Complete detachment from all electronic media.  The survivalist concept, ‘going off the grid’.  All well and good, but hardly forward looking.

There are a lot of juicy SF issues tied to the amazing mixed blessing we call the internet, and it is not at all certain what the end result will be.  I don’t think I can imagine disconnecting from the internet and electronic media now, especially since it is a significant part of my livelihood.  I suppose I’d best set about anonymizing myself.

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Robot Jogging Coach/ Agent of Terror

So a grad student has created a hovering robot to go running with, the idea being that it will help with setting a pace and motivation.  That is likely to work for some.

The robot is suited to all types of joggers – it has a companion mode that moves in tune with your pace and a more challenging coach mode. ”The coach mode basically tries to push you to your limits,” Mr Toprak says.

Of course, I might benefit more from a re-hacking of the robot to pursue me and give me an incentive not to slow down.  The angle of the picture already gives us a sense of menace.  It isn’t hard to see the runner as looking back in terror.  It could be a fitness revolution – running for your life every morning.

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Even Vader has to Pay for Parking

I think we can all agree that Darth Vader would be Lawful Evil.  As such, he has to pay parking tickets too.  I am impressed with his restraint in dealing with the ticketer, especially with two stormtroopers right there to back him up.

Sadly the effect is a bit ruined by the camera person giving Vader a shout-out at the end, but it is still fun.

via Topless Robot

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The Plausibility of a Dyson Sphere.

George Dvorsky over at IO9 has a thought-provoking article outlining how humans might go about building a Dyson Sphere in our solar system.  Given the implausibility of long-distance space travel in anything like the near future, Dyson spheres are one of the most probable options available to humans wishing to expand beyond our fragile Earth.

This hypothetical megastructure, as envisaged by Dyson, would be the size of a planetary orbit and consist of a shell of solar collectors (or habitats) around the star. With this model, all (or at least a significant amount) of the energy would hit a receiving surface where it can be used. He speculated that such structures would be the logical

consequence of the long-term survival and escalating energy needs of a technological civilization.

For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to propose that we build a Dyson swarm (sometimes referred to as a type I Dyson sphere), which will consist of a large number of independent constructs orbiting in a dense formation around the sun. The advantage of this approach is that such a structure could be built incrementally. Moreover, various forms of wireless energy transfer could be used to transmit energy between its components and the Earth.

 

The practicalities of such a massive undertaking seem remote given our current inability to agree on anything even remotely as large, but change is a rapid and constant thing.  Technological advancement is accelerating at alarming rates, and the impossible one year becomes the merely difficult a few years later.  I am an SF optimist, but I think 50 years to begin is a bit pessimistic.  It could happen sooner, assuming we don’t enact any of our collapse/apocalypse scenarios.

Of course, it will be awhile before we develop the capacity to mine or dismantle any planets, but the nascent beginnings of asteroid mining are a definite start.  Technological change happens quickly and decisively, making old arguments quaint and silly seeming very quickly.  I suspect this will be one of those cases.

Of course, sign me up to live in the new Dyson swarm (ideally in my cloned new 20-year-old body).

Link to original article.

 

 

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It Won’t be Like in Star Trek

George Divorsky has an article over at IO9 talking about how the Star Trek vision of the future has been overtaken by events and become another quaint SF anachronism.

Instead, the future will be far different — and much weirder — than Roddenberry and other ST writers could have ever imagined. The challenge now is to admit that humanity is headed into a very different kind of future. It’s time to set aside Star Trek‘s outdated vision of the future and focus on real possibilities.


He lists a number of salient points, not the least of which are that any space-faring humans will be dramatically different from us, if they are physical at all.  Spaceships as a concept are unlikely, and any interstellar travel is likely to be in digital form with capacity to build from scratch on arrival.

The article is well worth a read, and (as with many good SF discussions) the comments are as interesting as the original piece.  In recent years I have come to agree with the author’s conclusions, particularly as they relate to interstellar travel.  We won’t be going anywhere in colony ships with multi-generational crew.  Instead, we are likely to be sending digital replicas of ourselves.  Spaceships will look like small rocks with a light sail.

The harsh reality of distance and time barriers to long distance space travel is lessened somewhat by the idea, present in some excellent SF, that we might send multiple copies of ourselves to different places.  I might not see the whole universe, or even a tiny pathetic fraction of it, but perhaps my digital copies might see millions of stars.  I can live with that.

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Book Review: Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson

Robopocalypse is a near future apocalyptic story written in the form of transcripts and summaries of a variety of key events in a “War with the Robots”.  The concept of an advanced AI choosing to rebel and turning our machines against us is not new (see The Terminator), but the story was exciting and enjoyable to read.

There are a great many similarities in structure and execution to another bestselling apocalyptic SF novel, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, which I reviewed here.  Both novels take the form of after-the-fact descriptions of events as related (mostly) by survivors.  Both follow a similar story arc, taking us through the initial chaos and panic through the humans regrouping, finding ways to survive, and ultimately triumphing over their adversaries.

Robopocalypse is a darkly depressing novel, portraying our current technological trend toward wholly integrated computing and ubiquitous technology as a massive risk.  Genuinely sentient AI seems possible (if unlikely)even now, and like any sentient being it would be almost impossible to completely predict its actions and choices.

The main character and primary narrator of the book, a Sgt. Cormac Macarthy, relates his own experiences as well as those of a few key other individuals.  His insights into events outside his own experiences are provided by a robot record of the war, which the AI had made a point of preserving.  Most of the stories are compelling, though the story does stretch credibility in some events, as might be expected in an apocalyptic SF novel.

Robopocalypse is currently a strong seller, which is not surprising given the current trend towards apocalypse in fiction and the public zeitgeist.  This book is definitely worth a read, and I encourage anyone with an interest in current SF to try it out.  That said, the novel does not break any new ground, and does not explore new ideas in the manner of the SF greats.

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Asteroid Apocalypse Prevention

Neil Degrasse Tyson at Wired writes about the risk of a major asteroid collision, and what we can do to prevent it.

Currently, it looks doable to develop an early-warning and defense system that could protect the human species from impactors larger than a kilometer wide. Smaller ones, which reflect much less light and are therefore much harder to detect at great distances, carry enough energy to incinerate entire nations, but they don’t put the human species at risk of extinction.

If humans one day become extinct from a catastrophic collision, we would be the laughing stock of aliens in the galaxy, for having a large brain and a space program, yet we met the same fate as that pea-brained, space program-less dinosaurs that came before us.

I am inclined to agree.  We certainly have the capacity to identify potential planet-killers and save ourselves, but we don’t exactly have a good track record of coordinated action. If we are lucky, we will have some kind of functioning asteroid mining industry in place, with indirect technological applications available to ensure that we are able to survive long enough to expand out of this fragile little basket of eggs.

via IO9

 

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