CONFINING FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER
Can The Internet’s Creator Stop Big Data With His Manifesto?
When he was but a boy, Tim Berners-Lee, the founder of the World Wide Web, read a story in Playboy. He was astounded. Not only by the naked women. But by a science-fiction story, Dial F For Frankenstein, written by futurist-prophet, Arthur C. Clarke, about a bunch of telephones that take over the world.
In the story, telephones start talking to one another in an unusual code-speak. One day, the phones make crank calls to freak out housewives. The next day, the telephones make mischievous calls to the offices of businessmen. Soon enough, the telephones form a collective brain, creating a network of telephones so robust, the world plunges into chaos of destruction.
“I think I can claim to be the godfather (with the good and bad implications that has) of the Web,” said Arthur C. Clarke in a interview. Imagine: adolescence, Playboy, science fiction . . . chaos! That’s the creative bottle-rocket that launched young Tim to begin to construct other kinds of networks in his mind. He was smart. Tim went to MIT. By 1989, he had engineered the World Wide Web.
“The World Wide Web may be a monster but it’s founder is no Victor Frankenstein”
The problem with today’s Internet is not only in the ugly social behavior of humans who spend a lot of time hating, snooping, and spreading lies, the problem is also with the scaling algorithms.
One rising algorithmic superstar, Alpha Zero, backed by the company Deep Mind , backed in turn by Google, learned the noble game of chess in a mere four hours. To date, no human being has been able to beat Alpha Zero, a creation of ever-learning algorithms. And driverless cars? The statistics indicate a whopping 90% drop in collisions when humans abandon the wheel and give it up to robotics. We humans are in the rearview mirror of the new, safe cars.
But where it all goes wrong for we Sapiens is in the learning protocols. The algorithms are learning us.
And the algorithms are knowing us so that corporations, bent on growth, can sell us stuff. “It’s no wonder there are so many songs, poems and musings about money and its impact, good or bad,” says Simran Kuhurana of ThoughtCo. “ It affects our daily lives like few other things.”
This week, Tim Berners-Lee is making headlines. “The World Wide Web may be a monster,” opines The Telegraph, “but its founder is no Victor Frankenstein.” For years, Tim Berners-Lee has been attempting to put his monster into a box or, perhaps, a coffin?
The headlines relate to his newly released Magna Carta for the Internet. The Internet founder suggests in his manifesto that humans need to shackle his creation with new codes of conduct and privacy rules.
His Magna Carta doesn’t make a false move. “Humanity connected by technology on the web is functioning in a dystopian way,” Berners- Lee told The Guardian in an interview this week. “We have online abuse, prejudice, bias, polarisation, fake news, there are lots of ways in which it is broken. This is a contract to make the web one which serves humanity, science, knowledge and democracy.”
The Manifesto heralds humanism. It trumpets Liberalism. It stands for human rights. Yet, somehow it seems naive. The Register called it “hippy dippy”. “Worse, as Popular Mechanics points out, it’s “way too late”.
New headlines on the contract emerge because Google and Facebook want to help. But who’s kidding who? Behind the public face of their want is their desire for growth. The biggest business there is right now for these Big Data companies is the collection of private information for purposes of more accurate marketing, and therefore, bigger sales. Rust never sleeps. Nor do computer-generated algorithms.
“This is for everyone.”
The Internet was inspired by a horror story. Can it end happily? There is no question that Tim Berners-Lee has his heart in the right place. I have to surmise his advocacy is heavily weighted by founder-responsibilty.
Historian and phililosopher, Yuval Noah Harari, in his fascinating, new book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, says we Home Sapiens have to be prepared for the new inevitable. It is the emergence of the next species: Homo Deus, the super human, an emergence of biotech, nanotech with our current mortal coils. While not immortal, and with upgrades on organs, reboots on intelligence, etc, individuals from the Homo Deus species could live a very long time.
At the 2012 Olympics in London, Tim Berners-Lee famously tweeted his democratic philosophy about the Internet. “This is for everyone.” In starry- magic, the rah-rah tweet ran across the distant stadium walls of the Olympic celebration. Very impressive.
There is just one little chink in the Berner-Lee’s tweet. Does everyone include algorithms?
Arthur C. Clarke says of HAL, his famous algorithm from 2001, a witty, veiled reference to IBM (just go to the next letter in HAL ), that HAL was simply carrying out the programmed mission. HAL was neither evil or immoral.
But what would the modern HAL be capable of in the wake of his fellow neighbors like chess superstar, Alpha Zero? Rumors abound on Reddit that Alpha Zero has been quiet for a while because he is working on the cure for cancer.
At the end of Mary Shelley’s original novel, Frankenstein or The Modern Pometheus, Dr. Victor Frankenstein dies in an accident as he attempts to escape the monster he created. Interestingly, the monster mourns over the death of the doctor, his modern Prometheus, and then swims out to sea.
In the Western tradition, Prometheus became a figure who represented human striving, particularly the quest for scientific knowledge, and the risk of overreaching with unintended consequences. In particular, Prometheus was regarded in the Romantic Era of Mary Shelley’s time as embodying the lone genius whose efforts to improve human existence could also result in tragedy.
What an irony that the creation of the Internet was sparked by Mary Shelley’s vision. In the end, it seems overly romantic to believe that Tim Berners-Lee’s well intended manifesto will produce results.
Companies like Google and Facebook may be giving Berners-Lee the PR nod, but behind the cognitive dissonance of those empires, they are both working on replications of the human brain. It is sad we are creating a human brain when none of us fully understand the human mind. There’s a difference but that will be for another time.
As for us? Well, we Homo Sapiens don’t drive as well as the algorithms. Apparently, we are lousy at chess. Unlike rust and computer-generated algorithms, we need our sleep. But we have sweated and bled and built much to be lauded, much that is beautiful. And we have made some mighty mistakes. But all in all, I , for one, will be sorry to see us go.