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SXSW highlights bright and dark tech futures

Lamont Wood | March 16, 2016
Visions of the future clashed during South By Southwest (SXSW) Interactive in Austin, as some experts saw an uncertain future, some saw an unbounded future and some were frustrated by the present.

Visions of the future clashed during South By Southwest (SXSW) Interactive in Austin, as some experts saw an uncertain future, some saw an unbounded future and some were frustrated by the present.

As for uncertainty, the worlds of big data, artificial intelligence and government are just beginning to collide, and public policy decisions made now will cast shadows far into the future, panelists agreed at a session titled, Data Ethics in the Age of the Quantified Society.

"We are at an inflection point," said Nicole Wong, former White House policy adviser. "We are paving the roads for what the future will look like. Will it be a dystopian world like The Hunger Games, or a different world, with health care for millions, precision medicine and equitable distribution of benefits? But how do we build the underlying roads?"

Meanwhile, "The landscape is rapidly changing, we don't know what to regulate, we don't know how to regulate it, regulation may not be the best tool, we don't know our end goals and we have no mandate," she added.

Existing regulations that let consumers opt in or out of data collection has no impact on big data, which is largely based on inferences, said freelance researcher Ashkan Soltani. "They can ask you a benign question about your favorite ice cream and derive sensitive data," he said.

Examples of inferences given by panelists included systems that can determine the general location of any picture; systems that can infer a person's credit score by analyzing their circle of friends; search engines that would show higher-paying jobs when asked for jobs for men than when asked for jobs for women; and search engines that handled searches for the name of one presidential candidate differently than searches for the name of another.

"Firms attest that they have tested their sites for security. In the future they may need to say they have tested their site to assure that a person's race, gender and age does not influence outcomes unfairly," Soltani suggested.

Kate Crawford, principal researcher at Microsoft Research, said that as professions (such as doctors and lawyers) rose to positions of power in a society they adopted codes of ethics. "Technology now has such power that it might be time to think about a code of practice," she said.

"A Hippocratic Oath for programmers might be good -- and then there is malpractice," agreed Julia Angwin, a reporter for ProPublica.

"Data trails are hard to trace and you may never know why you didn't get that job any more than you can say that your cancer was caused by that power plant. But for the latter we passed the Clean Air Act," said Angwin. "Do we need a Clean Air Act here? But the rivers are not on fire yet."

 

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