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Podcast: Why it is not possible to regulate robots

Here's a reading (MP3) of a my recent Guardian column, Why it is not possible to regulate robots, which discusses where and how robots can be regulated, and whether there is any sensible ground for "robot law" as distinct from "computer law."

One thing that is glaringly absent from both the Heinleinian and Asimovian brain is the idea of software as an immaterial, infinitely reproducible nugget at the core of the system. Here, in the second decade of the 21st century, it seems to me that the most important fact about a robot – whether it is self-aware or merely autonomous – is the operating system, configuration, and code running on it.

If you accept that robots are just machines – no different in principle from sewing machines, cars, or shotguns – and that the thing that makes them "robot" is the software that runs on a general-purpose computer that controls them, then all the legislative and regulatory and normative problems of robots start to become a subset of the problems of networks and computers.

If you're a regular reader, you'll know that I believe two things about computers: first, that they are the most significant functional element of most modern artifacts, from cars to houses to hearing aids; and second, that we have dramatically failed to come to grips with this fact. We keep talking about whether 3D printers should be "allowed" to print guns, or whether computers should be "allowed" to make infringing copies, or whether your iPhone should be "allowed" to run software that Apple hasn't approved and put in its App Store.

Practically speaking, though, these all amount to the same question: how do we keep computers from executing certain instructions, even if the people who own those computers want to execute them? And the practical answer is, we can't.

Mastering by John Taylor Williams: wryneckstudio@gmail.com

John Taylor Williams is a audiovisual and multimedia producer based in Washington, DC and the co-host of the Living Proof Brew Cast. Hear him wax poetic over a pint or two of beer by visiting livingproofbrewcast.com. In his free time he makes "Beer Jewelry" and "Odd Musical Furniture." He often "meditates while reading cookbooks."

MP3

Against the instrumental argument for surveillance


In my latest Guardian column, 'Cybersecurity' begins with integrity, not surveillance, I try to make sense of the argument against surveillance. Is mass surveillance bad because it doesn't catch "bad guys" or because it is immoral? There's a parallel to torture -- even if you can find places where torture would work to get you some useful information, it would still be immoral. Likewise, I've come to realize that the "it doesn't work" argument isn't one that I want to support anymore, because even if mass surveillance did work, it would still be bad.

One thing that parenting has taught me is that surveillance and experimentation are hard to reconcile. My daughter is learning, and learning often consists of making mistakes constructively. There are times when she is working right at the limits of her abilities – drawing or dancing or writing or singing or building – and she catches me watching her and gets this look of mingled embarrassment and exasperation, and then she changes back to some task where she has more mastery. No one – not even a small child – likes to look foolish in front of other people.

Putting whole populations – the whole human species – under continuous, total surveillance is a profoundly immoral act, no matter whether it works or not. There no longer is a meaningful distinction between the digital world and the physical world. Your public transit rides, your love notes, your working notes and your letters home from your journeys are now part of the global mesh of electronic communications. The inability to live and love, to experiment and err, without oversight, is wrong because it's wrong, not because it doesn't catch bad guys.

Everyone from Orwell to Trotsky recognised that control over information means control over society. On the eve of the November Revolution, Trotsky ordered the Red Guard to seize control over the post and telegraph offices. I mentioned this to Jacob Appelbaum, who also works on many spy-resistant information security tools, like Tor (The Onion Router, a privacy and anonymity tool for browsing the web), and he said, "A revolutionary act today is making sure that no one can ever seize control over the network."

'Cybersecurity' begins with integrity, not surveillance

2014 Locus Award finalists, including Homeland


The finalists for the 2014 Locus Awards have been announced and I'm incredibly honored to see that my novel Homeland made the final five in the Young Adult category. The competition in that category is remarkably good company: Zombie Baseball Beatdown by Paolo Bacigalupi; Holly Black's Coldest Girl in Coldtown, Cat Valente's The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two (part of her wonderful Fairyland series) and The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson.

As always, the Locus list is a great guide to the best sf/f published in the previous year. On this year's list are some books I really enjoyed (like Stross's Neptune's Brood) and others I've got in my high-priority to-be-read pile, like Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

My sincere thanks to everyone who nominated Homeland for the prize; I couldn't be more delighted!

2014 Locus Awards Finalists

How to Talk to Your Children About Mass Surveillance



In my latest Locus column, How to Talk to Your Children About Mass Surveillance, I tell the story of how I explained the Snowden leaks to my six-year-old, and the surprising interest and comprehension she showed during our talk and afterwards. Kids, it seems, intuitively understand what it's like to be constantly monitored by unaccountable, self-appointed authority figures!

So I explained to my daughter that there was a man who was a spy, who discovered that the spies he worked for were breaking the law and spying on everyone, capturing all their e-mails and texts and video-chats and web-clicks. My daughter has figured out how to use a laptop, phone, or tablet to peck out a message to her grandparents (autocomplete and spell-check actually make typing into an educational experience for kids, who can choose their words from drop-down lists that get better as they key in letters); she’s also used to videoconferencing with relatives around the world. So when I told her that the spies were spying on everything, she had some context for it.

Right away, we were off to the races. ‘‘How can they listen to everyone at once?’’ ‘‘How can they read all those messages?’’ ‘‘How many spies are there?’’ I told her about submarine fiber-optic taps, prismatic beam-splitters, and mass databases. Again, she had a surprising amount of context for this, having encountered digital devices whose capacity was full – as when we couldn’t load more videos onto a tablet – and whose capacities could be expanded with additional storage.


How to Talk to Your Children About Mass Surveillance

Podcast: Internet service providers charging for premium access hold us all to ransom

Here's a reading (MP3) of a my latest Guardian column, Internet service providers charging for premium access hold us all to ransom, which tries to make sense of the disastrous news that the Federal Communications Commission is contemplating rules to allow ISPs to demand bribes from publishers in exchange for letting you see the webpages you ask for.

There's a useful analogy to the phone company that I've written about here before: you pay for your phone service every month. The pizza place on the corner also pays for its phone service every month. When you want to order a pizza from Joe's Corner Pizzeria, you call their number. If their phone isn't engaged, it rings and you get to place your order. If they get more orders than they can handle on one line, they buy a second line, a third, even 10 lines to take their orders. Provided one of those lines is free, your call goes through to someone when you ring.

But what if your phone company decided that the way to bring in higher profits was to go around to all the pizza places and shake them down for "premium" access to "their" customers? If Joe's Corner Pizzeria turned them down, your call to Joe's might get a busy signal, even if there were plenty of free lines at Joe's place. Meanwhile, an order to the monied, tasteless sultan of global cardboard pizza-ite, that is, the company who has plenty of money for "premium" access – is easy to reach, because your phone company has promised them that every call will be put through.

The thing is, Joe's is paying for its lines. You're paying for your line. The phone company exists solely to connect people to the numbers they dial. But because there are "natural monopolies" in phone service (because there are only so many mobile frequencies and underground cable space), they can abuse their position to extort additional payments from the services you want to talk to. And the more popular a service is, the better it is, the more the ISP stands to profit from this racket.

Mastering by John Taylor Williams: wryneckstudio@gmail.com

John Taylor Williams is a audiovisual and multimedia producer based in Washington, DC and the co-host of the Living Proof Brew Cast. Hear him wax poetic over a pint or two of beer by visiting livingproofbrewcast.com. In his free time he makes "Beer Jewelry" and "Odd Musical Furniture." He often "meditates while reading cookbooks."

MP3

Gutting Net Neutrality also guts innovation, fairness and democracy


My latest Guardian column, Internet service providers charging for premium access hold us all to ransom, explains what's at stake now that the FCC is prepared to let ISPs charge services for "premium" access to its subscribers. It's pretty much the worst Internet policy imaginable, an anti-innovation, anti-democratic, anti-justice hand-grenade lobbed by telcos who shout "free market" while they are the beneficiaries of the most extreme industrial government handouts imaginable.

The FCC promised a fix, and here it is: FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, an Obama appointee and former cable lobbyist, has drawn up rules to allow ISPs to decide which communications you can see in a timely, best-effort fashion and which services will be also-ran laggards. In so doing, Chairman Wheeler sets the stage for a further magnification of the distorting influence of money and incumbency on our wider society. Political candidates whose message is popular, but who lack the budget to bribe every ISP to deliver it in a timely fashion, will be less equipped to reach voters than their better-financed rivals. A recent study looked at 20 years' worth of US policy outcomes and found that they exclusively responded to the needs of the richest 10% of Americans. Now the FCC is proposing to cook the process further, so that the ability of the ignored 90% to talk to one another, network and organise and support organisations that support their interests will be contingent on their ability to out-compete the already advantaged elite interests in the race to bribe carriers for "premium" coverage.

If you think of a business idea that's better than any that have come before – if you're ready to do to Google what Google did to Altavista; if you're ready to do to the iPod what the iPod did to the Walkman; if you're ready to do to Netflix what Netflix did to cable TV – you have to start out with a bribery warchest that beats out the firms that clawed their way to the top back when there was a fairer playing-field.

The FCC and its apologists will shrug and say that the ISPs are businesses and they own their lines and can do what they want with them. They'll say that we can't expect the carriers to invest in next-generation networks if they can't maximise their profits from them.

But this is nonsense. The big US carriers are already deriving bumper profits from their ISP business, while their shareholder disclosures show that they're making only the most cursory investment in new network infrastructure (Americans have been waiting for fast "fiber-to-the-kerb" connectivity for decades, mostly what they're getting is "fiber-to-the-press-release" puff pieces from ISPs who gull uncritical reporters into repeating their empty promises of fast networks, just around the corner).

Internet service providers charging for premium access hold us all to ransom [Cory Doctorow/The Guardian]

(Image: Evidence A: The Ransom Note, Jared and Corin, CC-BY)

Video: Bart Gellman and me opening for Ed Snowden at SXSW

Last month, Barton Gellman and I opened for Edward Snowden's first-ever public appearance, at the SXSW conference in Austin. The kind folks at SXSW have put the video online (the Snowden video itself was already up). I think we did a good job of framing the big questions raised by the Snowden leaks.

My “Futuristic Tales of the Here and Now” in Vodo’s indie science fiction bundle: comics, movies, novels, and more!


Jamie from Vodo writes, "We've launched Otherworlds, our first indie sci-fi bundle! This pay-what-you-want, crossmedia collection includes the graphic novel collecting Cory's own 'Futuristic Tales of the Here and Now', Jim Munroe's micro-budget sci-fi satire 'Ghosts With Shit Jobs', Robert Venditti's New York Times Bestselling graphic novel 'The Surrogates', and Amber Benson/Adam Busch's alien office farce, 'Drones'. Check out the whole bundle and choose your own price 5% of earnings go to the Electronic Frontier Foundation!"

I love Vodo -- they produce gorgeous, high-quality science fiction shows that are CC licensed; each episode is released once donors have pitched in to pay for it. It's a business-model that lets them make good art based on generosity, trust and working with the Internet, instead of stamping their feet and insisting that it change to suit their needs.

Otherworlds

Homeland audiobook, read by Wil Wheaton, is back on downpour.com


For those of you who missed the audiobook in which Wil Wheaton reads my novel Homeland in the Humble Ebook Bundle, despair no longer! You can buy it DRM-free on the excellent Downpour.com, a site with many DRM-free audio titles.


Homeland (audiobook)

Why I don’t believe in robots


My new Guardian column is "Why it is not possible to regulate robots," which discusses where and how robots can be regulated, and whether there is any sensible ground for "robot law" as distinct from "computer law."


One thing that is glaringly absent from both the Heinleinian and Asimovian brain is the idea of software as an immaterial, infinitely reproducible nugget at the core of the system. Here, in the second decade of the 21st century, it seems to me that the most important fact about a robot – whether it is self-aware or merely autonomous – is the operating system, configuration, and code running on it.

If you accept that robots are just machines – no different in principle from sewing machines, cars, or shotguns – and that the thing that makes them "robot" is the software that runs on a general-purpose computer that controls them, then all the legislative and regulatory and normative problems of robots start to become a subset of the problems of networks and computers.

If you're a regular reader, you'll know that I believe two things about computers: first, that they are the most significant functional element of most modern artifacts, from cars to houses to hearing aids; and second, that we have dramatically failed to come to grips with this fact. We keep talking about whether 3D printers should be "allowed" to print guns, or whether computers should be "allowed" to make infringing copies, or whether your iPhone should be "allowed" to run software that Apple hasn't approved and put in its App Store.

Practically speaking, though, these all amount to the same question: how do we keep computers from executing certain instructions, even if the people who own those computers want to execute them? And the practical answer is, we can't.

Why it is not possible to regulate robots

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