You do not want to be an edge case [The True Skynet: Your Homogenized Future]

You do not want to be an edge case.

John D. Cook writes:

Hilary Mason made an important observation on Twitter a few days ago:

You do not want to be an edge case in this future we are building.

Systems run by algorithms can be more efficient on average, but make life harder on the edge cases, people who are exceptions to the system developers’ expectations.

Algorithms, whether encoded in software or in rigid bureaucratic processes, can unwittingly discriminate against minorities. The problem isn’t recognized minorities, such as racial minorities or the disabled, but unrecognized minorities, people who were overlooked.

For example, two twins were recently prevented from getting their drivers licenses because DMV software couldn’t tell their photos apart. Surely the people who wrote the software harbored no malice toward twins. They just didn’t anticipate that two drivers licence applicants could have indistinguishable photos.

I imagine most people reading this have had difficulty with software (or bureaucratic procedures) that didn’t anticipate something about them; everyone is an edge case in some context. Maybe you don’t have a middle name, but a form insists you cannot leave the middle name field blank. Maybe there are more letters in your name or more children in your family than a programmer anticipated. Maybe you choose not to use some technology that “everybody” uses. Maybe you happen to have a social security number that hashes to a value that causes a program to crash.

When software routinely fails, there obviously has to have a human override. But as software improves for most people, there’s less apparent need to make provision for the exceptional cases. So things could get harder for edge cases as they get better for more people.

Recent advances in machine learning have led reputable thinkers (Steven Hawking for example) to envision a future where an artificial intelligence will arise to dispense with humanity.

If you think you have heard that theme before, you have, most recently as Skynet, an entirely fictional creation in the Terminator science fiction series.

Given that no one knows how the human brain works, much less how intelligence arises, despite such alarmist claims making good press, the risk is less than a rogue black hole or a gamma-ray burst. I don’t lose sleep over either one of those, do you?

The greater “Skynet” threat to people and their cultures is the enforced homogenization of language and culture.

John mentions lacking a middle name but consider the complexities of Japanese names. Due to the creeping infection of Western culture and computer-based standardization, many Japanese list their names in Western order, given name, family name, instead of the Japanese order of family name, given name.

Even languages can start the slide to being “edge cases,” as you will see from the erosion of Hangul (Korean alphabet) from public signs in Seoul.

Computers could be preserving languages and cultural traditions, they have the capacity and infinite patience.

But they are not being used for that purpose.

Cellphones, for example, are linking humanity into a seething mass of impoverished social interaction. Impoverished social interaction that is creating more homogenized languages, not preserving diverse ones.

Not only should you be an edge case but you should push back against the homogenizing impact of computers. The diversity we lose could well be your own.

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