Friday 29 January 2016

The AI Goblin and the coming Internet of Trust

There's been a lot of talk about AI recently - which always makes me suspect that things are about to change drastically in technology. The 'AI Goblin' is a herald of change - but the change is always something other than AI! In the late 80s and early 90s, there was similar talk: "the future is in expert systems, AI, data processing!" was the cry. Only more thoughtful people like Fernando Flores (plus quite a few other cyberneticians at the time) knew this was nonsense. The future of technology, they said (in 1986), was communication. By 1993 with the launch of the World Wide Web, we knew that they were right.

This is not to say that there haven't been advances in AI, and clearly "big data" is a big - if conceptually confused - thing. But Google translate and speech recognition remain the most impressive examples - hardly the kind of "wicked problems" that human intelligence is required to sort out. More modest data analysis and visualisations (for example, Danny Dorling or Hans Rosling) is far more powerful than any amount of automated sentiment analysis, topic modelling, and so on. Where to from here? Intelligent x, y, and z - we are told. But to what purpose? In whose interests?

But just as the 1990's AI goblin heralded a drastic technological change, so it does now - and just as in 1993, it's got little to do with AI.

We have learnt that the communicative internet has many wonderful properties, and it has led to us all becoming wired into the network. We've also learnt that it is possible to lie to people within this complex communication network and (very often) get away with it. Sometimes the lies are very big and very expensive: lies about economic performance particularly. Transparency on today's internet is just a mask: underneath the mask everything can be changed by powerful people, and nobody would be any the wiser. But there is more to communication than exchanging text messages and documents. Where the communicative internet has failed is in establishing trust.

This is why Bitcoin is likely to be seen by future historians (if not economists) as the real revolutionary technology of the age. Because in order to have a functioning currency people have to trust the authority that backs up the currency. We trust the Bank of England when they write on bits of paper "I promise to pay the bearer" and so the currency has value. We also trust the bank and national governments to manage the money supply so that the bits of paper (which are really IOUs) are sufficiently scarce (but not too scarce) to maintain the value of the currency and keep the social mechanisms of exchange going. But Bitcoin has no bank and no central authority. There is no single person who declares "I promise to pay the bearer", there is no authority to control the money supply. There is a distributed ledger which everyone can see, and a mechanism for managing the money supply linked on the activity to verify the contents of the ledger. So what we have here is a technology of trust: a radically different way of establishing faith in something without putting some social institution or individual in a position of authority.

Key to it is the way the ledger works and this - the Blockchain - is the thing that has got technologists excited.

There is no reason why the internet should work in the way that it does. We have servers and domain names because of a particular set of historical conditions and design decisions which led to the World Wide Web. But it has many drawbacks: it's centralised, it's impermanent, it exposes everyone to surveillance which is mostly used for trying to sell us things. The blockchain represents a different way of organising the internet which is decentralised (it's peer-to-peer), permanent (every file, every version of a file, web page and so on is stored), and whilst it provides a transparent audit of every single transaction on  the web, the actual contents of those transactions remain private - so the web doesn't simply become a vehicle for selling you things, whilst illicit activities would technically be flagged-up more readily.

Of course, the banks are interested because they have been in the firing line of breaches of trust which have exploited the internet thus far. National governments are interested because they don't trust each others' economic data. Radicals are interested because they believe the internet can be a better place than a giant panopticon. Educationalists should be interested because a better way of organising technology allows us to rethink the relationship between technology, education and society. 

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