MATTSPLAINED  MSP88  Stop the Tech-Rot (Tech Rulers of Tomorrow)
MATTSPLAINED  MSP88  Stop the Tech-Rot (Tech Rulers of Tomorrow)
Say hello to our future rulers. The people who want to control our access to money and tell us where to live, where to work, and most critically, what to think.
Produced by Jeff Sandhu for BFM89.9
Bespoke currencies. Housing developments. Shared ownership. Brain implants. It seems like Big Tech has concrete plans for our future. On today’s show we try to combine the worlds of hard news and science fiction figure out if the future will be a world of benign tech assistance or a surveillance capitalism nightmare.
I know the brain implant thing has gotten you thinking…
I kinda went into this area - not entirely intentionally - on last week’s A Bit of Culture.
Which is of course still available in the BFM archive.
And we covered the story on last week’s Geeks Squawk
You mean Neuralink?
Yes. I’m not going to repeat that episode, you can go and listen to it.
Jeff gives a really good explanation of how neural implant tech works and the different companies that are currently working in this space.
Both in terms of surgical implants and non-invasive brain wave tech.
One area we didn’t have time to get into so much was the likelihood of it actually happening.
Because most of the coverage was concentrated on the tech itself?
This comes back to the way that technology is often covered in the media.
This breathless rush to herald the latest development.
And I think the specialist tech press has become a lot more grown up in the way it covers technology over the last few years.
In what sense?
When you go to sites like The Verge, Wired, Engadget, Motherboard and the tech sections of the big news sites.
If you went back 10 or 15 years, you’d mostly see gadget reviews, how to guides, life hacks and maybe the occasional piece about text thumb to spice things up.
Now, when you go to those same sites you’ll find a press that is a lot more critical in its approach.
By which I don’t mean negative. It’s more that the pieces don’t read like press releases anymore.
The writers aren’t falling for the spin anymore.
And, something this show would be very different without, you see a lot more investigative reporting on the tech sector.
It wasn’t there before?
With a lot of the specialist sites, sure.
Because they had a much broader focus.
Partly it’s because tech is mainstream news now.
So you have much more of an editorial spotlight on the sector, so that means people who cover political lobbying, the environment, financial news and, of course, there are big juicy investigative stories there.
We’re referencing content like the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica documentary, The Great Hack?
In a way. But on a much larger scale. In recent years we’ve also had companies like Theranos rise and fall.
In terms of FB and CA:
One of the journalists whose work was critical in exposing that data scandal was a British Observer and Guardian reporter called Carole Cadwalladr.
If you read some of the pieces about her, or see the amazing talk she gave at TED earlier this year…
…one of the most incredible things she says is that she had to teach herself to become an investigative journalist.
She knew there was a story there, but she had to teach herself a new skillset to bring it out.
To have the forensic attention to detail that investigative journalists need.
How does that connect us to Neuralink?
Because it almost seems like there are two parallel sets of reporting.
In the more lifestyle press you’re seeing all the hyperbole.
It’s all - isn’t it amazing that we’re able to do this.
It doesn’t touch so much on the implications.
Whereas the tech and scientific press is more measured.
Because, for us, this kind of development was inevitable.
A lot of people are working on it: it’s literally waiting for the first to be past the post.
And that coverage is much more implication focused.
And that brings us back to the likelihood of it happening?
Exactly. I think Elon Musk mentioned in the various reports that he wanted the procedure to implant the devises to be as safe and ubiquitous as LASIK.
But there are plenty of pieces in the scientific press that speak to doctors and scientists in the neural field who are much more cautious.
Even if they are broadly champions for this technology.
And they point out that however you present this, it is an operation.
And all surgical procedures carry risk?
Precisely. And though the percentage of people who have had complication from LASIK - similar to the risk with other minor surgeries - is tiny…
The effects can be life changing. Permanently blurred or restricted vision or damage to the lens of the eye.
You might not be able to continue in your job. Live in the same place. Drive a car.
The thousands of tiny and major changes that come about as the result of a life changing accident.
That’s just your eyes.
We’re talking about brain surgery here. Even if the procedure itself is minor, the implications
You’re going to be hearing that word a lot today…
…are enormous. We’re not robots or computers.
If you damage our CPU you can’t swap it out for a new one.
So you think we’ll see these implants more for therapeutic rather than enhancement?
For the time being, I think so.
Musk puts forward the case of combining healthy brains with the power of AI and essentially boosting people’s intelligence.
But with the technology at its current levels, it doesn’t see that the risk reward is balanced in its favour.
I guess your next point is: why would anyone let Elon Musk put a chip in your head?
There has certainly been a lot of that kind of comment in the wake of the story.
Mentioning Tesla’s reputation at production and build quality.
But that’s not where I want to go.
In fact, in terms of tech evangelists wanting to put a chip in my brain, I think Elon would be one of the more benign.
I would certainly have more concern about Facebook or Google or even Apple wanting to do the same thing.
In fact, one of the issues Musk raised was using this kind of blended technology - human and AI - as a way to mitigate the risks of AI by introducing a human element into what the machines do.
I don’t really follow his logic there tbh.
But then I don’t see AI as the same kind of threat he seems to.
So, your problem is with the chip rather than chipper?
It comes back to something we’ve covered on the show probably way too many times.
Which is: who owns the technology.
And that’s pretty much the root of the topic for today.
One of the things that we’ve thought experimented here is what happens if you have a sentient AI in your head?
Are you one individual or two?
What if that AI is part of a larger neural network, and you’re effectively borrowing a part of it?
I imagine you have a complicated set of questions to answer…
Yes, which is why we talk about the need for machine rights on the show.
At least if that AI is regarded as an individual, then you have to make that distinction between two legally declared people.
Whereas a non-sentient AI is likely to be owned by a third party?
Which is why I find Elon Musk’s scenario more unsettling.
Because the chances are that the AI on that chip would be owned by a third party company.
Probably not even by neuralink. I can foresee them becoming more of a hardware provider that taps you into the worlds of Google or Amazon or Facebook.
Or if you have a really short attention span, Twitter.
So, who owns what?
What implications - that word again - does that have for ownership of your thoughts and memories?
I’ll be honest, I’m much more scared about that part of the process than the implantation of the chip.
That’s where the greatest risk lies.
Because someone might hack your brain?
For most of us, buy us a few beers and you can hack most of the stuff you’d want in a couple of hours.
No, I’m more worried about weakness and greed.
The weakness that might allow a personality test to scrape data out of your mind.
Or the greed of a company that wants to commercialise your thoughts and memories.
Or even plant information in there, directly.
Isn’t that kind of a stretch, even for you?
So. This is going out at just after 11am.
If you’re listening live, you’ve had your breakfast.
It’s Friday, you’re looking forward to a long lunch and trying to get out of the office as early as possible.
How many of you have started thinking about food just because I’ve reminded you that lunch time and the weekend are coming up?
Those kinds of prompts and nudges don’t have to be overt.
They can be very subtle. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t effective.
Aren’t people mature and sophisticated enough to be able to separate out ?
yes, but look at the medium. This is radio. Or podcast depending on how you’re listening.
I haven’t made you hungry, I’ve made you aware of your hunger.
Now, a certain person who is very close to me and has made a living in worlds connected to marketing and advertising, has been watching reruns of the Big Bang Theory.
Where one of the lead characters, Penny, works at a restaurant chain called Cheesecake Factory.
And that same person bugged me for days to get her cheesecake, knowing full well that the desire for it came from the show.
But knowing the source doesn’t eliminate the desire. If anything it makes it more annoying.
When we talk about a neural chip, how does that effect the medium?
When I watch something on TV or I’m listening to it, I’m aware that that nudge is coming from an external source.
What happens when that nudge comes from inside my own head?
I’m not talking about a clip playing or a banner ad floating in front of my eyes.
What if my stomach sends that hunger signal to my brain, the chip reads it and heads to an ad server, where it suggests that what I really want to eat is a Dodo burger at Kultur Labs, my future cell cultured fast food chain?
How does my brain know where that ‘desire’ came from?
And that’s just lunch. Imagine the potential for, say, deciding that you dislike someone based on a database of undesirable people or that this particular politician is untrustworthy.
We’re a long way from having the framework of laws, regulations, ethics and codes of behaviour that will make this kind of technology safe for anyone that doesn’t have a therapeutic need for it.
After the break, could today’s tech companies be the nation states of tomorrow?
Today on MSP we’re talking about Tech-Rot, or the Tech Rulers of Tomorrow. I have to say Matt, I think you’re going to have to work harder on the meme generation stuff…
I know it’s not my strongest area but I think the idea of Tech-rot could set in.
Did you see what I did there?
You let the rot set in…
Positive reinforcement. Maybe I’m better at this mind-shaping stuff than you think.
Which is why we’re all glad you don’t run a tech company…
You’re probably right. Though it would be nice to be a billionaire.
I’d rather be worrying about which port to get my yacht refitted in rather than whether I can get an appointment to get the car serviced.
I’m probably not helping my chances of working for Big Tech with these shows, either.
Before the break we were talking about brain chips.
That’s the thing with all this technology, it’s the convergence that takes us by surprise.
And that goes back to what I was saying about tech media earlier.
We’re seeing more coverage that joins the threads together.
That looks at what happens if this technology and that technology work together.
So, it becomes about control of the different facets of our life.
Yes. We still have access to lots of information sources, but a lot of us are surrendering those choices to the algorithms of companies like Facebook, Google, YouTube.
I’d imagine quite a few of our listeners are regular listeners of the Reply All podcast.
Hello Najman. That means you.
On a recent episode, entitled Louder, the team talks about the ways that algorithms on social sharing services tend to amplify extremist content.
And they make the point that on YouTube the recommendation engine, that box that prompts you with what to watch next.
That recommendation engine is not a feature of YT. It is the product.
It’s the mechanism that hooks us and keeps us watching.
It’s the mechanism that drives both data and revenue.
And that’s hard for most of us to get our head around.
The product isn’t the service itself, or the videos, it’s the algorithm that selects content for us.
So, the tech companies have the news sewn up?
As I said, you are perfectly free to opt into other ways to get your news.
But a lot of us don’t bother.
That’s happening on a scale that I think has even taken some of the tech titans by surprise.
I think Mark Zuckerberg was genuinely shocked by how his platform was used to shift public and political opinion in various elections.
That’s understandable, this is new technology, it’s a new media framework and the people designing those platforms aren’t always aware of the power they have, the role they play or the influence they wield.
At least, not initially.
The real point is what you do after you come to that realization.
Launch your own currency?
Yeah. Not my first choice, but hey.
This is where the science fiction part of today’s show comes in.
I do want to make it clear that I’m not alleging that any particular tech company is planning to do this.
It’s all merely hypothetical, and it’s similarity to real world events is probably no more than a coincidence.
So I was reading a review of a new novel called Zed by Joanna Kavanna.
And, though I haven’t read the book yet…
Although, the text to speech on my Kindle is getting better so I might try that.
Which is ironic as I rely on a tech megacorp to read a book is about a tech megacorp called Beetle that has its own currency, and is ungoverned.
That review kind of kicked me off along the path of today’s show.
Along side older works like The Circle by Dave Eggers which has more of a surveillance capitalism focus.
The currency part is especially interesting.
Like the Karl Marx quote: A society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer?
We often say that this kind of cloud and digital technology is a bit like magic.
And that’s what sorcery is, although one that casts in a more negative light.
One step to successful surveillance capitalism is certainly controlling your own money supply.
It’s like the ultimate Bond villain fantasy.
I want to have my own Kulturpop currency, which I would call the Okult, of course.
And the O would be a zero as it would have no value other than to make me rich.
But the idea of having your own money supply is being mirrored in the real world.
Mark Zuckerberg is betting that Facebook’s newly announced cryptocurrency Libra will be the preferred medium of exchange in the future.
And you think Facebook wants it as a means of control?
On a purely pragmatic level, there are huge swaths of the world where people are more likely to have a WA account than a bank account.
Blockchain is a great way to extend financial services to those in casual occupations or countries where regular banking is either for the middle classes or distributed too unequally to be useful.
So that puts Facebook firmly in the centre of this new economic model.
As we’ve mentioned before, ewallets are eating into Facebook’s territory, adding social media type services to their offerings.
And transactions are something we make all the time, so there’s a hard incentive to use those apps.
Whereas Facebook has to keep coming up with new incentives and enticements to keep us engaged and posting.
But a currency is a major step beyond an ewallet…
That depends on your vantage point.
If you’re a fintech startup, you grab the portion of the money supply you have access to.
You’ll probably start in one country and expand your network of services and retail points as you scale.
But what if a quarter of the world’s population are already your customers?
You have virtually unlimited resources.
And walled garden ecosystems are your company’s speciality?
Then a currency seems to make sense, and, given the sophistication of blockchain technology, it might actually look surprisingly doable.
What would your concern be? Market power?
This is where I want to extend the analogy, and where I’m borrowing from sci-fi.
I also want to make it clear that there is nothing to imagine or suggest that this is a path that Facebook is intending to walk down.
As I said, I’ve adapted some of this from the review of Joanna Kavenna’s Zed.
Imagine that a company controls the currency that most of the world is using.
It would grant that company enormous power.
Yes. That would be critical.
If you were frozen out of that company’s framework - for transgressive posts, unwanted political views.
That company could effectively freeze you out of society.
You wouldn’t be able to use their currency or financial transfer systems.
You wouldn’t be able to get paid. So you could potentially lose your job.
Or your company would fail.
All it would take is a message to your employer from the currency overseer that you were no longer eligible to use the network, forcing them to terminate you.
So it becomes a very effective means of control.
And presumably that also applies to society at large?
How do you get healthcare? Insurance? Pay your rent? Education and higher education?
You could be frozen out. Effectively declared a non-citizen by a company.
And have no right of appeal or legal status.
For governments it would be just as much pf a nightmare.
The company would probably register itself in a no-tax location and no central government would have the power of oversight over transactions as it uses a currency it controls itself.
So the company’s income would effectively be invisible and completely internalised.
No market oversight, or public scrutiny.
So the kind of data scandals we’ve seen over the past few years simply would never come to light.
Because there would be no paper trail.
The company has effectively declared itself as a virtual sovereign state.
Can we really get to this place from neural chips and money?
I’ve pretty much run myself out of time. So I’ll have to summarise a lot of the other developments.
We’re seeing Google moving into property development and transport.
We mentioned a big quayside development in Canada by one of Alphabet’s offshoots recently.
We know that Amazon is moving into healthcare. Not to mention dominating pretty much everything to do with retail.
To go back to the Dave Eggers novel, that’s The Circle.
It’s easy to imagine every part of your life - housing, transport, work, entertainment, education, health, retail - controlled by a massive corporation or corporations who may or may not have any great regard for the laws of the countries they operate in.
Companies who can afford to pay whatever fines regulators throw at them and keep barrelling towards their preferred endpoint.
Is there any reason to suggest that your Tech-rot won’t happen? That these people are not our future rulers?
For one thing, there’s nothing to suggest that there is any consensus amongst the leaders and owners of these firms.
As their business models expand and become more octopus like they are increasingly becoming each other’s competitors in multiple markets.
And that’s without mentioning any of the equally huge and powerful potential competitors mostly sitting behind China’s Great Firewall.
So, they have to beat each other out before they can really start to cement any plans for world domination.
And that’s assuming that they have them.
So your silver lining is: us? As usual…
Yes. Don’t take my word for it.
Go out and look into this for yourself.
As I said, the tech and science media are rising to these challenges to give balanced and nuanced coverage.
Read and watch some of the sci-fi content out there and imagine how today’s technology could be used in those settings.
Don’t rely on 30 second primers, or 7 reasons to type posts that get shared, promoted and fed to you on the same media platforms that we’re talking about as the ones creating these dangers.
bypass those reinforcement mechanisms and engines.
Stop listening when they tell you how hungry you are and what you’re hungry for.
You can still watch that stuff for entertainment, but try and look a bit deeper.
Ignore anything that has an exclamation mark or all caps in the headline.
Make up your own mind and don’t listen to so-called expert pundits telling you about lizards.
Unless it’s David Attenborough, and he really is telling you about lizards.