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Thu, 27 Oct 2005

Flawed reasoning

I said (last week) I'd dissect Dave's responses to my comments on biometric payments. Having had time to digest them, I'm not sure such a dissection is necessary. Rather, I'd like to make some observations:

Firstly, Dave is right in one key observation -- that Visa, Mastercard, and the other card issuing agencies screw the merchants with their fees and the public with their interest rates. (Here in the UK, Barclaycard, one of the most respectable -- and biggest -- card issuers, charges as standard an APR of around 19% on outstanding balances on their credit cards. This is in the context of a bank base rate almost 14% power. Such interest rate gouging is normally associated with loan sharks, and their treatment of small merchants is little better.)

Moreover, the credit/debit card infrastructure is an improvised Heath-Robinson lashup. What originated as a modest voucher-payment system aimed at business travellers in the 1950s has sprouted into a monstrous half-assed identity verification system using a combination of cards and passwords (your PIN) that provide access to the banking system for virtually everyone. Additional features have been bolted on top of the original specifications, compromising the security and integrity of the system. Nobody in their right mind would have designed a system like this, but nobody in their right mind did so -- it just sort of grew, and replacing it is, on the face of things, a good idea.

However, replacing the existing infrastructure purely because the proposed replacement is cheaper is not the right reason.

One of the things I picked up during my time inside Datacash is that the business of banking is not, at heart, about lending money: it's about managing risk. If you extend credit to people, and in return they refund the loans and pay you fees or interest, your profits depend not only on the interest rate, but on the proportion of borrowers who default on their payments. It also depends on the degree to which you are exposed to fraud. Identity theft is the current fashionable form of fraud carried out by individuals and small groups of criminals, because flaws in the existing banking and credit infrastructure make it relatively easy to perpetrate.

Now, biometric systems in general do not prevent fraud. All they can achieve is to verify that an individual possessing certain physical characteristics was involved in one or more transactions. (Furthermore, the error rate is sufficiently high in most systems that you may not even be able to prove that much.) If you can obtain biometrically authenticated identification tokens using, say, a stolen birth certificate or the birth certificate of a baby who died at the age of 18 months in a foreign country (and who has therefore not had a death certificate filed in their country of birth) you can quite easily masquerade as someone else -- and because biometric ID is being mis-sold as a tool for providing proof of identity, rather than as a mechanism for confirming continuity of identity a successful identity thief who has equipped themselves with valid biometrics is in a position to manipulate the trust we place in these supposedly infallible markers (as the biometrics companies would like us to believe in them).

If I have a beef with the deployment of biometrics, it's not so much with micropayment systems such as BioPay's -- where the amount at stake is low -- but with the systematic misrepresentation by government agencies of an intrusive government identity registry as a security feature. Rather than going into it at length here I'd just like to refer interested readers to comments by Microsot UK's National Technology Officer, Jerry Fishenden, who warns that the UK ID card scheme will trigger massive identity fraud, to Barry Kefauver of the International Civil Aviation Organization who says that biometric passports alone won't counter terrorism threats, and to Bruce Schneier who points out that biometric identification systems are no stronger than the protocol used to register a new user on the system (which is to say, they're as weak as the weakest acceptable documentation required to obtain an ID).

Biometrics are only really useful when there's a trusted path from the reader to the verifier, and when new identities on the system are confirmed with a high degree of precision. If there's a loose link in the chain -- for example, if fingerprint data are sent over a data network for authentication using weak encryption, or if documents are mailed via fraud-riddled postal services where they can be intercepted by criminals, they offer no additional margin of security over existing practices -- and indeed, may make things much worse because of the widespread perception that biometrics prove identity rather than indicating continuity.

[Discuss criminal futures]

posted at: 14:02 | path: /sing | permanent link to this entry

Fri, 21 Oct 2005

Speaking of authentication ...

Here's how the British clearing banks nearly collapsed during the 1990s due to ATM fraud.

(If you were wondering why the Chip and PIN system was rolled out -- at vast expense -- so abruptly, here's why, in a nutshell.)

Incidentally, if you think the moral of that story is that PINs are no good, you're wrong -- the real issues it exposes are that (a) banks are horribly exposed these days, and (b) any central database that is responsible for the transfer of money is a target for attacks on its authentication mechanism. (Moving to biometrics, in my view, merely creates a central authentication database full of authentication tokens that will attract criminals like a honeypot. And unlike a PIN, your bank can't issue you a new set of fingerprints or iris patterns if your biometrics are compromised.)

[link][Discuss criminal futures]

posted at: 12:57 | path: /sing | permanent link to this entry

More on Imaginary Crimes

I've been away for a week (and recovering from a flu bug before that). While I was away, Dave Edelman emailed me a couple of responses to the article on biometrics I posted on the 8th (right below this one). Dave works for BioPay (although he does not speak for them in an official capacity), so you can take his comments as representative of -- but not an official response from -- folks who work in the biometric authentication/payment business.

I normally run this blog as my own personal soapbox (or bully pulpit, if you want to be uncharitable) but I think Dave's comments deserve to be heard, so with his permission, I reproduce them here. I'll post my own thoughts on his responses later.

(Full disclosure also requires me to state that, when it comes to talking about the credit card clearing system, I was lead programmer at Datacash from approximately two weeks before the company was formed, leaving shortly after its' IPO. However, (a) I left some five years ago, and (b) the British credit card settlement system operates rather differently from the American one.)

Over to Dave:

A couple of quick responses. (And yes, I work for BioPay, but I don't speak for them in an official capacity.)

1 - While it's probably feasible to forge someone else's fingerprint, it's *extremely* easy to swipe someone's credit card number or print out fake checks in their name. Obviously.

2 - Finger scanning is just phase 1. As soon as other biometric technologies (iris, face, etc.) get quick and cheap enough to use at point-of-sale, we'll probably be moving on, or using a combination of biometric verification.

3 - You're right that the selling point for the merchant is that it's cheaper. WAY cheaper. Right now Visa screws small merchants by taking a 2% cut off every purchase. Banks do the same with debit. BP transactions cost as little as 10 cents. Unless you're Starbucks or Walmart and can negotiate low credit card transaction rates, the difference in transaction fee can literally make the difference between making a profit and losing money -- we're talking thousands of dollars every month. Just one more way the small merchant gets fucked out of business.

4 - Right now (and for the next few years, at least) all of the vendors using BP and PBT are selling small-ticket items. You can't buy a car or a Powerbook with biometrics. If someone goes through all the hassle of forging a fingerprint, all they'll get out of it right now is a few cups of coffee and a trip to the grocery store. If someone steals your checkbook, they could walk away with a Lexus.

5 - Biometric verification isn't perfect. But it's here today, you can use it, it's cheap. The fraud protection systems protecting checks and credit cards -- which are accepted everywhere -- are laughable.

So, there you have a first grab-bag of general objections to the anti-biometrics position. I'm probably not giving anything away if I say that Dave's comments haven't changed my position, but they demand a response, and I'll give it shortly.

(Meanwhile, go read Dave's book when it comes out.)

[Discuss criminal futures]

posted at: 12:34 | path: /sing | permanent link to this entry

Sat, 08 Oct 2005

Imaginary crimes

Predicting the future isn't actually the core of an SF writer's job, although it's what everybody seems to expect us to try -- and fail -- to do.

On the other hand, it's a fun hobby and sometimes you get one right. And the flipside of it is, it's often easier to spot an on-coming clusterfuck than a successful new technology.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a serious down on national identity cards and biometric authentication technologies. One of my reasons for disliking these technologies (besides the obvious one that biometrics all assume human beings are invariant over time -- we aren't, we're squishy things that change shape -- and mechanising identity recognition in this way is merely going to replace one category of recognition error with a range of new and exciting new ones) is that the deployment of biometrically authenticated ID by the state, backed by (presumably) the best systems they can afford, will legitimize biometric ID in the public perception, leading to all sorts of other abuses.

If you wonder what this has to do with you, let me give you an example of an inappropriate use of biometric ID, and a form of identity fraud that doesn't exist yet but that could wipe out your bank account in five years' time.

American corporations have a touching faith in better living through technology, and Pay By Touch Solutions and their rivals Biopay are no exceptions. As The Register explains, these companies want you to register your fingerprints and bank account details with them. You will then be able to purchase goods from stores participating in their network by simply typing in your bank account number and using your fingerprint to authenticate that you are, really and truly, the account holder.

As the director of Pay by Touch told The Register, "the primary reason consumers sign up is for convenience," ... "They don't need a wallet or purse. When it become more ubiquitous, consumers won't have to carry cards around."

Note that the fingerprint authentication companies don't actually send a snapshot of your fingerprint from the finger reading terminal to the corporate database for checking: they digitize it, create a set of forty variables that are defined by your print, and compare them to the database contents. But they keep your fingerprints on file all the same.

Now, there are some minor obvious flaws with any fingerprint reading system, starting with: don't use it when you've just been swimming. (Your skin swells up, obscuring your prints.) Don't use it if you've got eczema (I've got it, and it periodically wipes 20-30% of my fingerprints for a period of months or years). Don't burn your fingertip on the cooking range or you won't be able to buy any plasters. Wash your hands after every payment (after all, you don't think the shops will wipe down their readers every minute, do you? And the guy before you was probably scratching his ass right before he paid.) You'll have no joy using it if you're an amputee either ... but I digress.

One huge problem with this system is that if a criminal entrepreneur can figure out a way of faking out fingerprint readers, and can get their hands on a copy of your fingerprints and your bank account info, you are in a world of hurt.

Think it's impossible? Think again. A couple of enterprising students at Yokohama National University demonstrated, a couple of years ago, that it's trivially easy -- a kitchen worktop job, basically -- to cook up a "fake finger" that will fool a biometric scanner. Here's their paper on faking fingerprint readers.

A number of refinements to their techniques suggest themselves immediately. Suppose you are the criminal entrepreneur I mentioned earlier, and thanks to some discreet blackmail you've gotten hold of a backup DVD containing a database of fingerprint photographs and their associated bank account numbers. What can you do with it?

First you buy a gizmo called a 3D printer. 3D printers are tools for manufacturing three dimensional models out of resin, wax, sintered metal, or other substances; here's an overview of current desktop rapid prototyping tools, priced from US $7500 to $50,000. (Don't worry about the cost, your victims are the ones who'll pay for it.) I'd probably look into the Roland MDX-15/20 if I was doing this. The requirement is simple: you want a machine that you can feed a CAD diagram to, and which will then mill you a small metal mold -- the MDX-15 and MDX-20 are sold as "ideal for jewelry and model making", which I guess this job qualifies as.

Second, you or your accomplices in crime figure out a way of importing the fingerprint images into a CAD application. You're going to need to put some programming effort into this because what you want to do is to make a mold suitable for casting latex or silicone finger cots (dyed flesh-tone, naturally) engraved with a negative of the fingerprint.

Finally, you need a scheme that will allow you to deploy your fingerprint-reader-fooling bank fraud profitably. Because I don't want to encourage criminality I'm not going to give you one, but I can think of two right off the top of my head that drastically reduce the risk of being caught while maximizing the revenue stream. Hint: if you can turn the printed finger cots out on a production-line basis and package them, you've got something the size and shape of a sealed condom that you can sell for a thousand dollars a pop.

Now, it so happens that the Matsumoto dude's paper did not go unnoticed back in 2002. Everyone who's serious about fingerprints as a biometric is now looking at the next step: verifying that the fingerprint is attached to a finger. (Wax dummies need not apply.) But the main techniques -- an infrared camera to check that the finger is at body temperature, with bone and blood vessels -- won't work against a molded finger cot. You'd also need to check that the surface in contact with the scanner is skin. Which leads to the next logical escallation: fingerprint-modification.

It's not hard to modify your fingerprints temporarily. Just put your hand in a bowl of warm (or cold: warm is more comfortable) water for half an hour, then look at your pinky. It's wrinkled, right? After a period of immersion your skin absorbs water and swells. Now, I'd like you to imagine that rather than immersing your hand in water, you've immersed your pinky in a finger-cot molded with someone else's fingerprints -- with an irritant or inflammatory in the grooves but not on the ridges (possibly some formulation containing a small amount of a mustard agent). Your fingertip will become sore -- but the swelling will not be evenly distributed: it will follow the pattern of someone else's fingerprint.

This latter step is more speculative, but I see no reason why it can't be done. And short of going way beyond simple fingerprinting, to include iris recognition or DNA scanning or whatever, there's no easy way of preventing it.

There are two selling points in fingerprints-for-paying-for-groceries. One selling point is to you, the public: it's convenient. And the dirty little secret they won't tell you is that the selling point for the grocery stores is, it's cheap. Cheaper than credit card readers, faster, or simply packs more customers in because of the perceived convenience factor. Security is not a selling point for biometrics, other than in the most tenuous magical-thinking manner. And you can bet that those global databases of fingerprints and account numbers are going to be a huge target for every hacker on the planet, simply because of their value.

Security god Bruce Schneier said, "a decade ago, no one really knew what use a database of a million credit card numbers would be - turns out you can do a lot of things with it." ... "Right now, we are not at the point that there are obvious uses of fingerprint, but 'I don't know' is not a good response when discussing security threats." Personally, I think Bruce is an optimist. You can walk into a WalMart today, drop a thousand pounds, and walk out with a computer, scanner, and software that would allow you to forge any US banknote in circulation back in the 1980s with minimal risk of trivial detection. Another few years and you'll be able to buy a computer that can crack 1999's 60-bit SSL encrypted credit card transactions in minutes or hours.

The pace of change is accelerating in biometrics: I reckon the gap between payment mechanisms coming on the scene and powerful tools for cracking them reaching consumer-level prices may be as little as five to ten years. It's reasonable to suppose that the current arms race between police and thieves will continue: after all, the more trust we place in any identification technology, the more valuable an exploit that invalidates it will become. And yesterday's centralized biometric database is tomorrow's criminal identity hacking accessory.

Final note. It is getting one hell of a lot too easy to pick up fingerprints. Here's an educational latent fingerprint kit you can buy online, with enough material to take twenty sets of prints; here's where the cops buy theirs. If I were you, I'd take to wearing gloves whenever I go out in public! In fact, I think that might just be one of the whacky social changes I throw into my next SF novel, ten years hence: all the banking IT geeks will have added silk gloves to their work wardrobe. Ten years after that they'll all be into ceramic terylene bourkas to reduce the risk of DNA leakage -- but that's another story.

[Discuss criminal futures]

posted at: 13:27 | path: /sing | permanent link to this entry

Mon, 06 Jun 2005

The future arrives!

Forget food pills or flying cars, researchers at IBM have announced their intention of building a gigantic robot brain! The temptation to take the piss is unavoidable: "I, for one, welcome our new IBM-branded robotic brain overlords." But on reading the article in New Scientist one comes down to earth with a bump:

The Blue Brain project, a collaboration between IBM and a Swiss university team, will involve building a custom-made supercomputer based on IBM's Blue Gene design.

It will be the first time humans will be able to observe the electrical code our brains use to represent the world, and to do so in real time, says Henry Markram, director of Brain and Mind Institute at the Ecole Polytecnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Switzerland.

It may also help in understanding how certain malfunctions of the brain's microcircuits could cause psychiatric disorders such as autism, schizophrenia and depression, he says.

For over a decade Markram and his colleagues have been building a database of the neural architecture of the neocortex, the largest and most complex part of mammalian brains.

Using pioneering techniques, they have studied precisely how individual neurons behave electrically and built up a set of rules for how different types of neurons connect to one another.

Very thin slices of mouse brain were kept alive under a microscope and probed electrically before being stained to reveal the synaptic, or nerve, connections. "We have the largest database in the world of single neurons that have been recorded and stained," says Markram.

Using this database the initial phase of Blue Brain will model the electrical structure of neocortical columns - neural circuits that are repeated throughout the brain.

"These are the network units of the brain," says Markram. Measuring just 0.5 millimetres by 2 mm, these units contain between 10 and 70,000 neurons, depending upon the species.

Once this is complete, the behaviour of columns can be mapped and modelled before moving into the second phase of the project.

Two new models will be built, one a molecular model of the neurons involved. The other will clone the behavioural model of columns thousands of times to produce a complete neocortex, and eventually the rest of the brain.

The end product, which will take at least a decade to achieve, can then be stimulated and observed to see how different parts of the brain behave. For example, visual information can be inputted to the visual cortex, while Blue Brain's response is observed.

No, actually, this isn't very piss-worthy at all. If anything, it's a sign of just how bloody fast computational neurology is coming along. If it succeeds, look for the next logical step: the development of brain implants containing emulators for chunks of the neocortex and microelectrodes to connect to areas of the recipient's brain, as prostheses to replace damaged or malfunctioning components. They're approaching the mind-uploading problem from the opposite direction.

[link] [Discuss singularity]

posted at: 12:14 | path: /sing | permanent link to this entry

Fri, 03 Jun 2005

More impending signs of the rapture of the nerds

Just as I was poking around with my arms up to the elbows in the guts of a small web publishing system I'm bolting together for "Accelerando", I had to stumble across Acceleration Watch -- a web clearinghouse for futurists trying to understand and manage accelerating change.

I thought I was writing a novel, not a goddamn documentary!

Seriously, Acceleration Watch is full of good stuff. "As Historian J.D. Bury reminds us (The Idea of Progress, 1920), the idea of progress in any human domain other than spiritual (e.g., social, intellectual, technical), versus stasis, moral decline, or cyclic fluctuation, has been a quite recent emergence in human history." And PowerPoint slides on the nature of post-singularity economics. Oh my, I wish I'd had this around back in 1999!

[Link] [Discuss singularity]

posted at: 21:10 | path: /sing | permanent link to this entry

Tue, 24 May 2005

Singularity! A Tough Guide to the Rapture of the Nerds


In the run-up to the publication of my next novel, "Accelerando", it has come to my attention that some of you may be unclear about the true nature of the Singularity. In order to dispel confusion, educate the ineluctably perplexed, and channel my inner fifteen year old, I have therefore compiled a brief hypertextual guide to this topic.

[Continue reading: Singularity! A Tough Guide to the Rapture of the Nerds]

[Discuss singularity]

posted at: 18:27 | path: /sing | permanent link to this entry

Fri, 30 Jan 2004

Bruce Schneier on Big Brother

Bruce Schneier is not an amateur paranoid -- he's a professional cryptographer and CTO of a major security company. Rather than barking at shadows he tends to restrict his writings on the subject to what he knows about. So when he writes an article like this one it's time to sit up and take notice.

Last week the Supreme Court let stand the Justice Department's right to secretly arrest noncitizen residents.

Combined with the government's power to designate foreign prisoners of war as "enemy combatants" in order to ignore international treaties regulating their incarceration, and their power to indefinitely detain U.S. citizens without charge or access to an attorney, the United States is looking more and more like a police state.


... the Department of Justice, fueled by a strong police mentality inside the administration, is directing our nation's political changes in response to Sept. 11. And it's making trade-offs from its own subjective perspective--trade-offs that benefit it even if they are to the detriment of others.

From the point of view of the Justice Department, judicial oversight is unnecessary and unwarranted; doing away with it is a better trade-off. They think collecting information on everyone is a good idea because they are less concerned with the loss of privacy and liberty. Expensive surveillance and data-mining systems are a good trade-off for them because more budget means even more power. And from their perspective, secrecy is better than openness; if the police are absolutely trustworthy, then there's nothing to be gained from a public process.

When you put the police in charge of security, the trade-offs they make result in measures that resemble a police state.

Seriously, I'm not sure which I find more frightening: the fears expressed in the article, or the identity of the author expressing them. Bruce Schneier is not a wide-eyed paranoid or a political radical of any type, but one of the world's leading experts on security. What he's articulating here meshes neatly with my own fears about organizational dynamics giving rise to policies which are not in the interests of their own members, never mind those of the public at large. Nobody has ever seen a real computer-assisted police state before. If the prospect doesn't scare you shitless, you haven't thought about it hard enough.

[Link] [Discuss singularity]

posted at: 14:03 | path: /sing | permanent link to this entry

Thu, 29 Jan 2004

Panopticon Singularities: some feedback

Paul Hughes has posted a piece giving his reasons for believing a panopticon singularity is impossible. (I disagree with some of his reasoning -- and I'll try to find the energy to explain why later -- but I hope he's right.) My main objection is that we're already seeing a trend towards automated law enforcement -- I defy anyone to look at this case and conclude that a human being actually looked at the court summons before it was issued. Secondly, law enforcement and the penal system is a profit centre -- there's money to be made in locking people up, for construction, security services, and all the various ancilliary industries that have sprung up: see, for example, the WikiPedia entry for Wackenhut Corporation. As corporate political lobbying becomes ever-more influential in securing the election of politicians, and as profits can be made in this sector, I can see the formation of a very strong business lobby who seek to profit through deploying ubiquitous law enforcement tools piecemeal, without any of their employees being in a position to stand up and say "hey, wait a moment!" But then, as Jason Kottke noted recently, corporations are psychotic (if you evaluate their social behaviour using the DSM IV psychiatric diagnostic criteria).

It bears repeating that superorganisms composed of humans working together can exhibit bizarre behavioural patterns that are pathologically at odds with the individual best interests of their members: and that members of such organisations may be reluctant or unable to speak out against such behaviour. The consequences of dissent range from loss of employment privileges (in a western corporation) all the way up to torture and death (in a political party within a dictatorship, such as the former Iraqi Ba'ath Party). Thus, legal/penal policy is not set by individual human beings, but by a legislative superorganism which may have profoundly inhumane goals and organisational motivations. (For an existence proof of this reluctance to speak out against irrational or painful behaviour that's closer to home, consider cannabis and the willingness of politicians -- who in some cases have publicly admitted using and liking the stuff -- to advocate full legalisation.)

Meanwhile, the idea got noticed by MetaFilter, and among the peanut gallery there are some useful comments. Yes, Moore's Law is not a law of nature, it's just a temporary scaling effect: and yes, RFID chips are vulnerable to static. (So were early digital watches and pocket calculators -- this goes with the territory when evaluating IC based applications in their early phases.) These two objections do not, in and of themselves, invalidate the whole argument. Yes, there is an arms race between new surveillance technologies and technologies for evasion. But every iteration of this cycle raises the barrier to entry, making it harder for outsiders to get into the game. For example: if you're worried about drive-by RFID probing and teraherz radar, sure you can turn your apartment into a Faraday cage lined with lead. However, firstly this is not cost-free, secondly you need to learn enough about these technologies to do it properly, and thirdly, human nature suggests that most people won't bother -- thus marking out people who do bother as targets who are clearly trying to hide something.

I could go on: thanks for the feedback, everybody. As I think I said elsewhere, the essay was written for Whole Earth Review, who prefer brief overviews to academic papers -- they edited the version they were going to publish down to around half the length of this version -- and at some point I need to come back and address all the issues in minute detail. But not today ...

[thesis][antithesis][peanut gallery]

posted at: 13:02 | path: /sing | permanent link to this entry

Tue, 27 Jan 2004

Singularities considered harmful

The article I wrote for Whole Earth Review is now online on my website. You can find it here: The Panopticon Singularity.

I wrote it in a spirit of contrarianism after seeing who else was on the list of contributors; I'm not a Bill Joy style singularity-phobe, but I do worry that we might be on course for one of these. (Quick, somebody reassure me!)

[Discuss singularity]

posted at: 12:05 | path: /sing | permanent link to this entry

Sat, 10 May 2003

On ultraintelligent machines

Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultra-intelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an "intelligence explosion," and the intelligence of man would be left far behind (see for example refs. [22], [34], [44]). Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control. It is curious that this point is made so seldom outside of science fiction.

From Speculations Concerning the First Ultraintelligent Machine, a paper by Irving John Good, then at Trinity College, Oxford. England and Atlas Computer Laboratory, Chilton, Berkshire, England. This paper was based on talks given in a Conference on the Conceptual Aspects of Biocommunications, Neuropsychiatric Institute, University of California, Los Angeles, October 1962; and in the Artificial Intelligence Sessions of the Winter General Meetings of the IEEE, January 1963

(This may be the first paper to actually note the singular consequences of developing ultraintelligent machines, and some of its conclusions don't look that far out even today, forty years later: "The first ultraintelligent machine will need to be ultraparallel, and is likely to be achieved with the help of a very large artificial neural net. The required high degree of connectivity might be attained with the help of microminiature radio transmitters and receivers. The machine will have a multimillion dollar computer and information-retrieval system under its direct control. The design of the machine will be partly suggested by analogy with several aspects of the human brain and intellect. In particular, the machine will have high linguistic ability ...")

[ Link ] [ Discuss singularity ]

posted at: 11:23 | path: /sing | permanent link to this entry

Mon, 06 Jan 2003

Vernor Vinge in The Guardian

(Well okay, The Observer is the Sunday edition of The Guardian. Still worth reading ...)

[ Link ] [ Discuss singularity ]

posted at: 23:17 | path: /sing | permanent link to this entry

Fri, 22 Nov 2002

Man the Lifeboats!

The Lifeboat Foundation believes that disaster is nigh: "advanced technologies thought to be available by about 2020 may enable one evil or simply clumsy person to destroy all life on earth. Our goal is to develop an 'insurance policy' in case of such a disaster. We believe that the entire world of nature, including human life, is deserving of such protection." In other words, as becomes more obvious if you read their background material, they're afraid of a hard take-off singularity with negative externalities.

So they want to build a starship and go live somewhere else where the runaway intelligence excursion can't eat their brains! (Booga booga!)

I admire their spirit, but I think they're pissing in the wind. We have met the singularity, and the singularity is us: even if they can run away (and the energy budget it would take to do so is enormous: to shift just 1 kilogram from here to Alpha Centauri in roughly ten years takes the equivalent of a 20 megaton H-bomb), they'll have to fundamentally change the way human beings think if they want to prevent their descendants from going down the same road.

Moreover, they assume that running serves some useful purpose. Me, I'm not so sure. (They might be right, if the bandwidth hypothesis is correct -- that posthumans will want to stay as close as possible to the point of maximum informational density -- but there's no guarantee of that; an examinationg of most interstellar scenarios suggests that post- singularity seed AIs travelling on tiny relativistic starwhisps could easily outpace any lumbering human exodus, converting the target star systems into a seething mass of nanomachines long before the exiles could hope to arrive.) Space is a more hostile environment to life that has evolved at the bottom of an oxygen-saturated gravity well than it is to software intelligences living in clusters of radiation-hardened nanocomputers.

Maybe their efforts would be better spent ensuring that any singularity is the kind that we can live with ...

[ Link ] [ Discuss singularity ]

posted at: 12:34 | path: /sing | permanent link to this entry

Thu, 07 Nov 2002

More singularitarianism

Whole Earth Review are putting together a special issue, 100% devoted to discussing the Singularity -- "what do folks who understand the implications of exponential technological change, and are generally optimistic about technology's possiblities, think we ought to be watching out for? If the Singularity, or at least small-s singularities, are on their way, how can we make responsible, careful, forward-thinking, just and democratic choices about how they unfold?"

Expect it to surface next year. Should be indispensible reading ...

[Discuss singularity ]

posted at: 11:44 | path: /sing | permanent link to this entry

Mon, 28 Oct 2002

Computing with Time Machines

Here's the abstract for this paper, by Todd Brun of the Institute for Advanced Study:

A computer which has access to a closed timelike curve, and can thereby send the results of calculations into its own past, can exploit this to solve difficult computational problems efficiently. I give a specific demonstration of this for the problem of factoring large numbers, and argue that a similar approach can solve NP-complete and PSPACE-complete problems. I discuss the potential impact of quantum effects on this result.

It seems to be a somewhat more rigorous treatment of this article by Hans Moravec, pointing out that access to wormholes linking two disjoint locations in spacetime -- note the "space" syllable -- can use the grandfather paradox (in time travel) to collapse complex iterated calculations into a single step.

The really interesting insight Todd Brun contributes is that it's not only NP-complete problems but also PSPACE-complete ones that can succumb to timelike computing attacks. PSPACE-complete problems are those where the amount of storage required to process the results of the computation increases as some polynomial function of the input data. (I think it's reasonable to say that most complex what-if simulations fall within the scope of this problem domain -- i.e. they're at most PSPACE-complete, if not easier to solve. Any takers?)

Science fiction authors should take note: as general relativity tells us that time travel is barely distinguishable from faster-than-light travel, it follows that if FTL is possible, these computational tricks should also be possible. That is: a universe that has faster-than-light starships is also likely to be the home of vastly superhuman intelligences and entities with access to privileged information about the future -- oracles.

(And yes, I read the Moravec essay before I wrote my novel "Singularity Sky", which is due out in August next year and attempts to take these issues seriously.)

[ Link ] [ Discuss singularity ]

posted at: 11:56 | path: /sing | permanent link to this entry

Wed, 02 Oct 2002

Transhumanism and its enemies

While I was at the worldcon, I got chatting with Karl Schroeder, author of "Permanence" and "Ventus" among other things. I've been getting a lot of hype for my short stories lately, and Karl had picked up on it. However, he'd drawn some rather odd conclusions about me, namely that I was a hardcore transhumanist, some kind of extropian extremist. ("Compulsory mind uploading! Dismantle the moon! Immortality today and forevermore!")

We got past the ideological misunderstanding fairly quickly: but it set me thinking. Just why does the whole posthumanist agenda put some people's backs up? One might think that the idea of transcending human limitations imposed by nature -- such as old age and death, our fundamental lack of intelligence, and any other constraint that's a function of random chance rather than intelligent choice -- was a good idea. And how could anyone possibly object to other people being allowed to persue such goals? It's not as if it would ever be compulsory, after all ...

Well, maybe. As Karl pointed out, technologies change the world; once the cat's out of the bag, it's very hard to stuff it back inside. And it's a very important, very big, cat. The idea of being able to fundamentally change human nature is the most interesting and important one to have come out of the science fiction field and into the public regard in the past decade. I'm working in a desultory manner towards a paper on transhumanism and its malcontents, and here's my first stab at identifying people who will probably come out in opposition to the whole idea when it surfaces in the public zeitgeist:

  1. Suppose you're a religious conservative living in a world where those pesky transhumanists are getting into immortalism in public. You may well consider you have a moral obligation to prevent them from using technology that lets them prolong their lives -- because if they do so, they're putting off the time when they get to die and go to meet their Father in Heaven.
  2. Even if you're a religious conservative who doesn't believe in interfering in the neighbours' business, there are arguments against transhumanism. The transhumanist philosophy emphasizes "jam today, no need to wait until tomorrow". This approach is seductive and can mislead the young who the old and wise have a duty of care towards. (This is a variant on the religious conservative argument, emphasizing an obligation of responsibility towards the group. Non-stasist ideologies are deeply subversive to a patriarchal stasist society.) Moreover, just by existing, the transhumanists are a threat to religious conservatives. Transhumanism explicity denies the validity of the human limits that such lifestyles affirm as existing through divine providence. By doing so, transhumanism is implicitly in denial of religious doctrine. (And I don't see any way to make this contradiction go away.)
  3. All new technologies offer new opportunities for abuse, as well as benefits. Anyone can come up with a list of horrors that nanotechnology and full control over the genome could unleash upon us. It is easier to try to deal with these problems by simply banning the entire technology than by thinking about it and working out how to use different components of it to regulate the threatening ones. People who like easy solutions therefore have a constant temptation to go for the total ban. Democratically elected politicians within the current international regime in particular need to be seen "doing something" to justify re-election to their voters, but there's very little they can do to the economy for example that has a substantial effect. Hence the slide towards gesture laws such as the USA's Communications Decency Act, Children's Online Protection Act, the UK's Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, and so on.
  4. Mohammed Atta and friends would have found it much harder to slaughter thousands if airliners didn't exist. Barbarians will adopt new technologies for destructive ends, and they won't hold off perverting them to their ends simply because it's illegal. (This is support for argument [3] above.)
  5. About 10% of any population of humans will resist change in the workplace, whether or not it's going to make their job easier or more fun or better rewarded, simply because they have difficulty understanding what's going on. When you have a technological revolution, it tends to put people out of work. (See "rust belt".) Transhumanists propose the full-on maximum-speed adoption of technologies that will at a mimimum cause adaptation problems for those people who don't want to learn how to do their job better, much less bolt a supercomputer into their brain and re-arrange their personality to accomodate the job. (There are sound reasons rooted in evolutionary biology for human beings being instinctively conservative about change. In the natural state, if you change too fast you risk dying. Even if there is no immutable "human nature" at work -- and in spite of the fact that humans are the most behaviourally plastic primate species we know of -- it's still a powerful tendency, and transhumanists are working in direct opposition to it.)
  6. Riffing off of [5] above, most political philosophies adopt one of two competing axioms about human 'nature' -- that it is static, that you can't change people, that they're born the way they are and never change, or that they're infinitely adaptable and you can not only breed a better starting point but you can turn a Cockney shopkeeper into a duchess. I'm going to label these the "nature" and "nurture" axioms.
    These two viewpoints are not automatically correlated with "conservative" and "progressive" ideologies. It's true that the Soviet communist planners were strongly on the "nurture" side (to the extent of adopting Lysenkoism during the Stalin era), but the converse (capitalists are "nature" ideologues) isn't true. However, there is a political tendency that believes the "nature" axiom whole-heartedly -- monarchism -- and it isn't extinct even in the USA. Americans talk jokingly about blue- bloods and Boston Brahmins and political dynasties like the Kennedys and the Bushes, but these groups genuinely have a reason to promote the hardcore "nature" argument -- because it serves as justification for their own position in the currently-extant power structure. It stops being an arbitrary positional accident of birth and inherited wealth and becomes a law of nature (as opposed to a divine right granted by God).
    Given that folks with this kind of privileged background are disproportionately represented in politics in the West, I do not believe we can rule out the opposition of aristocracy to the transhumanist agenda. The USA may have no truck with "titles of nobility" in principle, but GWB just abolished inheritance tax and there are already jokes about how long it'll be before Chelsea Clinton runs for President; less self-consciously egalitarian societies have even more entrenched elites. The transhumanist agenda is deeply threatening to people who are already at the top of a social hierarchy because it suggests to them that their position is an accident and they can be leap-frogged easily.
  7. The aristocracy argument ([6] above) also goes for the leaders of developing nations, and their populations. It does them no good to develop to late 20th century industrial status if the developed world has whizzed off into some posthuman demolish-the-moon-we-need- the-computronium transhuman condition. Poverty is both absolute and relative. Absolute poverty is the absence of physically vital materials -- water, food, shelter, clothing (in that order). Relative poverty is the absence of socially necessary materials -- being unable to play a role in civil society due to not having a TV set and therefore not knowing what's going on, not having an internet feed, having a cheap wreck of a car when all your neighbours have Mercedes, and so on. We'll always have relative poverty -- it's our shadow -- although we can strive to minimize its impact by reducing inequities in the distribution of wealth.
    However, the relative-poor (not the absolute-poor, they're too busy trying to keep from starving) will see transhumanism as a gap-widening ideology. And indeed it is; when mind backups in case of accident become available to the rich, they become an additional hurdle for the relatively poor to cross before they cease to be excluded. The gap has just widened, and it is now harder for them to catch up than it was before. (See [3] above.)

This is my list as it currently stands. It is not a complete list by any means, but it's a formidable one. Unless proponents of transhumanism can develop specific arguments for each of the resistant groups on the list, and until they can explain ourselves in sound- bites that give such groups the warm fuzzies, they're going to be viewed as dangerous neophiliacs (at best) and as clear and present dangers (at worst) by a large segment of the population.

Can you spot any groups I've missed? (And for extra bonus points, how would you going to frame an argument for transhumanism that both a billionaire heiress from Boston and a Bible-believing trailer trash from Detroit can understand?)

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posted at: 18:16 | path: /sing | permanent link to this entry


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