Cheering on the End of the World
On May 28th — 29th, 2015, Google gave the world another Google I/O. We were presented with a few novelties, and some of the things I’ve seen make me worried for the safety of humanity. This is a rant about those things, AI, and Google in general.
Those who know me will think “What? You’ve always been advocating the digitalization of everything, more augmented reality, more tracking. What changed?” and I’d say “Nothing, really. But this isn’t about that.”
These days, Google as an innovating company is a mere shadow of what it once was, with quality seldom seen in its products, and therein, partly, lies the reason of why I think we’re cheering on the end of the world.
On April 1st 2004, in what seemed like a joke to most people, Google launched Gmail.
Gmail started out as this amazing thing, an inbox of 1000 MB of free storage in a world where most providers offered up to 50. Currently, all Google storage is shared across apps, and I have thousands of high res photos backed up, thousands of documents in Drive, and an 11 year old Gmail inbox which I’ve scarcely ever cleaned. The total of my data is, 11 years in, barely over 12 GB. So in 2004 1000 MB was, for all intents and purposes unlimited. How could they possibly finance this? Look at the fourth item on the list in the screensnap above — ads. Google knew exactly where they were going with Gmail from day one, and this hasn’t changed since. This is essentially the only thing that changed in Google’s launches from 2004 until today, and it’s what will inevitably destroy our world.
Failed launches (Wave, Glass) and discontinued important but unprofitable products (Reader, Google Adwords Keyword Tool) aside, Google lost its way many times, as is to be expected with a company that innovates and iterates as rapidly as they do.
Google+, a colossal many-times-over-mistake is still a living testament to this. Having been a very active user of + for a long time, I removed it from daily use completely in 2014.
Google Chrome, a browser that Google made because other browsers were slow, is now a parody of its former self, dickmeasuring with other browsers for features no one needs, ignoring bugs that have been open for almost seven years. It broke original promises:
… and made many new ones it couldn’t keep. Chrome’s memory usage is now so bad it’s a meme, and dozens of extensions exist trying to keep excessive consumption in check, to no avail.
Blogger, an ancient Google acquisition, hasn’t budged in years. The features are as awful as ever, performance is dreadful (opening my blog takes over 3 minutes of loading time if I’m signed into my Google account), customization next to none.
Waze, a relatively recent acquisition has yet to be given any love — the app is unstable and unreliable (and useless without connectivity, which is a given when you’re traveling!), emphasizing baby graphics over quality. Two years in, and it hasn’t even gotten a “Sign in with Google” option, but linking to Facebook sure still is there.
Hangouts, an instant messaging app that showed great promise at first, builds up to 3 GB of RAM just because it fails to optimize message history and stacks up millions of DOM nodes in a single little window.
It’s like Google went from a “polish now, ship later” to a “ship now, polish later” approach, but they build so many new things so often, they never get to the polishing part. I’m not the only one noticing their repeated failings, though admittedly, the entire web is kind of falling apart with awful fire-and-forget apps and rushes to market.
But none of this matters, concretely. What I want to show through these Google product rants is how much Google lost its way, and how little it’s capable of keeping up with itself. And that is precisely the foundation of my worries for the future of mankind.
Ads are good
On this year’s Google I/O, Google launched Photos as a standalone app. What was once Picasa, arguably the best photo sharing application on the web, turned into Google+ Photos when Plus launched. Somewhere along the line, it was decided that Google+ was too centralized and features that people wanted to use without having to wait seven weeks for Google+ to load deserved their own context. This was a good decision. They way it was carried out — with hype and fanfare rather than blunt honesty and a business model that scales— was what was bad.
Like many of their modern day products, Google launches things like TV series writers write out scripts. A couple of episodes at a time, and if it sticks, we’ll go along with it. Google has the same approach with apps — and if they break continuity down the line, they either “kill the show” or jump the shark and turn it into something unrecognizable (see Chrome).
Gmail started out as unlimited email, but financed by ads. Photos claims unlimited video and photo backups — no mention of ads. I would bet my firstborn that Photos will eventually parse your photos and use them to serve you ads — either in Gmail, or in the Photos app directly. Scruffy jeans? Suggestions for new ones. Walking the dog? Suggestions for dog products. Your picture’s meta data says you used lens X? Why not consider the next model? It’s available in stores — today!
I don’t have a problem with ads that are based on companies’ data of me. I’ve said many, many times that I fully endorse Google’s tracking of my web and personal life if it can influence the world around me to become more relevant. If, on random websites I or, better yet, my child can see ads for “IoT enabled servo motors for window roller shades” instead of for “Single girls around Zagreb looking for fun”, that’s a win. When augmented reality comes around properly, if I can have billboards say “Diffbot — use AI and ML to parse your websites, leave custom cUrling behind!” rather than “Big Brother — Mudfight edition. Watch these lesbians, priests, metalheads and cosplayers wrestle to victory! Fridays, at 8pm!”, I am 100% up for that. So yes — I’m definitely interested in ads relevant to my interests.
What I do have a problem with is that they aren’t forward about it. They either didn’t anticipate what they’ll need to do or weren’t forward about it — a pattern that seems to repeat itself across a throng of Google’s new products. Read the (ever-flexible) ToS, people will say. “I will most definitely not, unless someone translates those.”, I will respond. Which brings us to…
Cool tech, right? I mean, holy shit — gestures without interfaces? Radar tracking for precision? So awesome! It’s like a Theremin for your computer, a next gen Leap motion!
But think of the implication of them giving it out. They’ve developed something that constantly tracks your precise movement across an arbitrary distance.
This can be both awesome or terrifying. Here’s a scenario of each:
It’s a new era. Everyone has at least some smart wearable, whether it be smart pants or a smartwatch, everything will have Soli embedded — even walls and digital poster ads. Touching a device to use it? So passé! What are we, neanderthals? Google’s central server, Gatsby, is responsible for processing and directing most of the world’s data. It’s everywhere.
It’s a crowded day at Central Station. Shoulder to shoulder, you almost can’t feel the winter cold. Everyone in coats, everyone brushing up against each other. Everyone is nervous and itching to get to their destination, but everyone is in each other’s way.
This is the third consecutive week Angela has had to endure this chaos. A cashier in Walmart, she’s on the verge of losing her job to a self-operating cash register that’s more efficient and far cheaper in the long run. She tries to petition and complain, but the internet keeps telling her she should have evolved, trained to become skilled in another area rather than allowing obsolescence.
To take a pay cut and keep her job, she sold her car for a pittance and opted for public transport.
“Central Station. Central fucking Station. Hell.”
She’s lonely, and blames herself as much as she blames everyone else around her. She feels unwanted, unimportant — with no family to speak of and her friends all emigrating to more economically stable countries than the now volatile USA, she endures day after day of prodding and pushing on the subway. Of being groped by homeless people, poked by defunct ticketbots, shouted at by teenagers.
“Fat cow! Gee tee eff oh, el oh el!” they say, and she isn’t even fat. Underfed, if anything.
For weeks, feelings of rage had been bottling up inside her. She had tried to ignore it all for so long, but life has been an uphill battle and there’s no descent in sight. She figured she’d had enough. Putting her crucifix on, she took her father’s old gun. You know, the type that didn’t have biometric locks or Gatsby verification installed. She set foot towards Central Station and decided to take some of them with her. The pests. The tumors. The whistlers, gropers, old people who are too slow, young people who are too fast. She’ll end their hell too, they won’t know it then, but they’ll thank her. In Heaven, they will.
Standing there in the center of the big compass drawn on the marble floor of Central Station, surrounded tightly by at least a hundred people wandering aimlessly, pushing each other out of the way, she reached for the gun tucked in behind her back. A sharp pain.
When she woke up, she was in a hospital bed, handcuffed to the railing. The detective would be there soon, now that she was awake…
In this story, like Batman or Nathan, Google’s Gatsby monitors all the world’s movement at all times. The multitude of radar sensors constantly transmitting data through “Google Movement Services” on everyone’s Central Smartlife Unit — a tiny computer core commandeering all of a user’s gadgets — provides a never ending stream of people’s gestures, poses, body language. Often, people have it built into various trinkets that never leave their side — like necklaces or bracelets.
When Angela entered central station, Gatsby had already known she had a firearm behind her back, but given the USA’s open-arms policy (the law that any citizen at any time may carry any kind of weapon, concealed or otherwise, as long as they identify as Christian by means of sworn statement and a symbol visible at all times) it didn’t act on it. A yellow alert was issued to the Central Station guard, however, to be on standby, because Gatsby knew Angela had been frustrated and on existential edge for a while.
The guard was close to her at all times, and once Gatsby confirmed her intent to grab the pistol via her posture and movement, a red alert flared up on his lens and he took her out. It took a fraction of a second for Angela to trigger Gatsby’s alarm because the entire technologically advanced portion of the world is now being monitored for movements and gestures 24/7 — even those that don’t wear Soli devices: they’re measured by everyone else’s and those randomly scattered around the world. Their minuscule size makes them unnoticeable.
Everyone has at least some smart wearable, whether it be smart pants or a smartwatch, everything will have Soli embedded — even walls and digital poster ads.
Jessica and her posse decided they had had enough of it. Homosexuality had no place in the world, and needed to be rooted out. For years they had been meeting in an abandoned church near her house, renovating it as they could, spreading the good word, accepting new souls into their flock. True Christians they called themselves, and they stood for the real word of God, not that commercialized fakery they sell in stores and give out in hotels.
Jessica, a Hebrew specialist, translated the original Bible text into English. Some parts needed to be removed, of course (“Like, no one ever does slavery any more, duh”), but most of the word of God was true. “Those fucking faggots — the pest of the planet, ruining everything for everyone, always”.
Jess would often get asked about her group’s stances. When asked why she supports incestuous marriage (her cousin had, in fact, married her sister — and then divorced her to marry her twin years later) she said that two adults being in love should be able to get married no matter what. When asked the same about gay people, she would reply that gay people weren’t mature adults and shouldn’t be allowed to make such decisions for themselves. Besides, there’s lots of incest in the Bible and it’s perfectly fine, but homosexuality — never. “Even God said so! Look!”, she would say, pointing to passages in her translated version.
It was a Tuesday when the Trues (a nickname they gave themselves) decided it was time to end this plague — and what better way to do it than during Pride week’s parade. Not only would they cleanse the world, but also show everyone they’re doing it. It would be perfect. It took months of planning, funding, premeditation.
Hacking the Soliloquy (Soli’s frequency range for transmitting movement data even without internet connection) with the help of an underground hacktivist group, they were able to determine the highest human density of the crowd in the parade along with the lowest presence of the police force. Cross referencing these points with the city’s map of fire hydrants, it was just a matter of being there and doing the deed.
Sunday, July 27th 2018, was hell. When the molotov cocktails flew, no one realized what was going on until the smell of burnt flesh reached them. Then, panic. Frenzy. The intrinsic selfishness of the human being brought to light, friends stepping on friends, fires crackling in one direction, skulls cracking in the other. Platforms caught fire and the costume styrofoam mixed with alcohol and juice burned like napalm. Odor so foul people collapsed and burned to death due to excessive gagging.
When the chaos subsided, the total death toll was 239. A perfect execution. The absence of fire hydrants in the immediate vicinity prevented even those fire trucks that arrived through the denseness of the parade from being effective, and the relative absence of a police force allowed Trues to continue throwing flame bombs long after the calamity began. As she was being dragged into a SWAT vehicle, Jess shouted “See? We’re doing good! If God didn’t want us to do this, we wouldn’t have succeeded!”
Nearby, a Soli-powered digital poster changed screen to say “Sensodyne — for painless brushing of those pearly whites”. Officer Sheperd had been having some teeth sensitivity issues.
Okay. Both stories are a bit far fetched. But are the implications of a world that’s voluntarily carrying radar-powered motion trackers everywhere really something we can ignore? And that’s when humans use Soli to its extent. But what when it all goes beyond humans?
AI we can’t not fear
Finally, we get to the point of artificial intelligence.
Before we dive into what really worries me, please see either Wait But Why’s post on this topic, or the below talk by Nick Bostrom, the author of SuperIntelligence.
There is no other company more qualified to make an AI than Google. Almost comically widespread, they have the best talent, the largest set of both general and user preference data in human history, and the most projects under their belt that directly or indirectly help systems learn. Add to that:
- Your email and your search history, knowing all your preferences, ever.
- Your movement history via Maps and Google Location Services on your smartphone.
- Your health and sleeping data via Google Fit (as awful an app as it is) and other fitness trackers the data of which you’ll inevitably upload to Google for analysis.
- Self driving cars — their AI reads roads and organizes transport much better than any human ever could.
- Scans of facial features in the new Photos app, allowing the app to identify you across your baby pics.
- Soli for constant monitoring of all movement on Earth, everywhere where there is technology.
- Jacquard Smart clothing and body sensors you’ll actually wear
- Vault for all your security
The above points are but a fraction of the terrifying technologies we’ve already developed which, if seized by an AI we have no control over, would allow for unprecedented and unchallenged control of all human life in an instant.
This is not science fiction. This is today.
And this, particularly the phrase AI we have no control over in the text above, is why Google’s foray into sci-fi tech scares the shit out of me. We need to fix AI before we break it. Google went from a ninja throwing a knife to a child sucking on a grenade, and when it blows up it’s going to make a hell of a lot more damage than just taking out the annoying, disobedient, all-too-curious kid.
We need to fix AI before we break it.
By collectively losing our shit over the Soli, Photos, and other Google announcements, by believing Google is doing this because it knows what it’s doing and that they have a plan for everything, I believe we’re cheering on dystopia and disaster.
You might ask “But why don’t you fear the potential AI of Facebook or Apple, even IBM?”. For Facebook, baby pics and ex-stalking is a poor machine learning dataset, and any AI to come out of FB would likely be a bickering idiot. Apple’s AI would build itself a hardware case and keep staring in the mirror thinking of ways to make it cheaper to produce, more expensive to sell, and prettier. No worries there, but it’d probably get along with Facebook’s. IBM has a real shot with Watson — they just might get to general AI in the next 10 years or so — but no company in the world has technology that receives a stream of user-entered sporadic data as constant and reliable as Google.
I believe we’re putting too much faith into a chaotic organization that has lost touch with reality and knows nothing about the outside world (outside of San Fran, that is). What we’re dealing with here is a single point of failure, and that one point is Google. Only… that point seems well on its way to failure already.