[The following commentary is authored by A. Michael Noll, and posted with the permission of the author. It illustrates the disagreement among experts on the social implications of new technologies, such as robotics, AI, cloud computing, and the Internet, demonstrating the value of continued research on the actual implications across different contexts and applications.]
The article “Rein In The Robots” by Kate Crawford (TIME, Vol.198, Nos.7-8, Aug.23-30, 2001, p.95) advocates “protection against the unchecked growth of artificial intelligence.” There is nothing new in her position. There have always been those who oppose any new technology or medium.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is decades old, and today has become a buzzword wrapping itself around such old concepts as computerization, pattern recognition, automation, robotics, and machine learning. It is hard to know what to fear when AI seems to encompass nearly everything.
Robots are machines. Robots do not have feelings, and thus it is tempting to attack them with headlines like “Rein In The Robots.” Actually, robots perform the heavy and tiresome work that humans are not equipped to perform. Robots clean floors tirelessly. Robots help the elderly overcome isolation. Robots entertain children. But they also scare us, such as the robot in the classic movie “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”
People fear what they do not understand. I made sure that my students understood the process of converting a signal to a digital representation. That way my students did not fear the digital revolution – they understood digitization and were not prey to all the hype. AI is a lot of hype – and that leads to fear and misunderstanding – and conspiracy theories.
Crawford mentions a “small, homogenous group of very wealthy people based in a handful of cities without any real accountability” as those driving the growth of AI. In expressing her conspiracy theory, she fails to accept that she, as an employee of Microsoft, is one of those people.
The real threat, in my opinion, is to computer security and our privacy from information stored centrally in computerized files – what today is called “the cloud.” Unknowingly, and willingly, all the information on our smart phones and computers is stored in the cloud, where it has the risk of being accessed and analyzed without our knowledge or approval and used against us by governments and others.
John R. Pierce (the father of communication satellites) liked to espouse that he was more concerned, not with artificial intelligence, but the natural stupidity of humans! Indeed, it is the latter we need to fear.
Way back in 1961, my article “Electronic Computer – Friend or Foe” expressed the dangers that might occur when “the computer is used to make logical decisions.” I suggested caution “before the axe and sledgehammer” becomes the only remedy. I guess little has changed – be ready to pull the plug!
August 16, 2021
A. Michael Noll is Professor Emeritus at USC Annenberg. John R. Pierce and he are the authors of SIGNALS: The Science of Telecommunication.
A recent news story (Sunday Times 6 June 2021) highlighted the potential for Sweden to lead the way to a ‘cashless’ future. Not surprising in the context of so many observable trends moving in this direction. However, it reminded me of the early forecasts of a cashless society that were debated in the 1970s, and sense, particularly to the work of my former colleague and pioneer of social informatics, the late-Rob Kling, who died in 2003.
PPRO Colleagues 1979
Early in my research on the social aspects of information and communication technologies, I had the opportunity to collaborate with Professor Rob Kling at UC Irvine, when we were both involved with the Public Policy Research Organization (PPRO), directed by Professor Kenneth Kraemer. I joined this team that also included John Leslie King, Jim Danziger, Alana Northrup, and others, in 1974 to work on the URBIS Project. Supported by the US National Science Foundation, URBIS was one of the first systematic evaluations of the role and impact of computing in American governments.
In 1976, Rob published one of his early critiques of what were then called ‘electronic funds transfer systems’ that pioneered in raising some of the social and ethical issues for society, namely around privacy. Here is the abstract of this piece, entitled ‘Passing the Digital Buck: Unresolved Social and Technical Issues in Electronic Funds Transfer Systems’:
“Over the last decade, plans for using computer-based systems to automate the transfer of debits and credits have moved from a technologist’s pipe dream to an emerging reality. During the last few years, several components of this technology have been developed in prototype form and have begun to be implemented on a large scale. While such systems promise financial benefits for the institutions that exploit them, they also raise significant social, legal, and technical questions that must be resolved if full-scale Electronic Funds Transfer Systems (EFTS) are not to cause more problems for the larger public than they solve. Few of these problems have been systematically articulated. This paper describes the mechanics of EFTS, and the benefits it should provide its promoters. But it emphasizes a variety of the problems that EFTS raises and places them in context.”
Like many others, I’ve followed the development of electronic payment systems over the decades. Three simple but notable reflections repeatedly come to mind from this work.
One is the degree to which some thoughtful thinkers really can provide valuable forecasts of future developments. I most often find myself marveling at how wrong forecasting can be, but yes, there are some clear examples of individuals, like James Martin, clarifying the social and technical dynamics of likely trends and their future development. Rob’s discussion of the social and value tradeoffs of EFTS is one that we are seeing played out today – 4 decades later. The trick is to sort out the forecasts that are truly prescient as they have a sound empirical basis in the history and underlying dynamics of their development from those that are silly, simply technologically deterministic extrapolations, or based on a limited and possibly misleading example. Of course, even the best of forecasts need to be understood as problematic given the many factors shaping the use and impacts of technical innovations.
The second is that everyone needs to be skeptical of forecasts as long-range expectations about the future are most often overly optimistic or pessimistic. Even forecasts that are on target are often a decade or two further in the future than originally forecast. Video telephony was forecasted in the 1960s and marketed in the early 1970s but is only recently flourishing.
The third is the unpredictable fluctuations in these trends. It is not just a straightforward linear, non-linear or slower curve of development, but often entail major perturbations over time. For example, in the case of digital payments, the automated teller machines were an early development that seemed to be a gift that enable a return to privacy. Rather than paying for everything electronically, people tended to get cash from distributed teller machines and therefore be able to make a larger proportion of their purchases privately – using cash. So, surprise – digital systems were enhancing privacy – but only for a time.
Of course, it became clear that cash withdrawals could be so well tracked that individuals could be followed with considerable accuracy. And today, given the many ways payments and clicks are analyzed online for marketing and advertising, the concept of ‘surveillance capitalism’ has become widely accepted. Moreover, in the context of the global pandemic, individuals have been incentivized to use electronic payments for everything and not to use cash. That brings us full speed ahead into a more truly cashless society with all of the social and political tradeoffs that Rob warned us about in the 1970s. While even Rob could not have foreseen the pandemic and its pressure on moving to a cashless society, his forecasts of the value tradeoffs remain valuable to this day. However, far more empirical research needs to be conducted on the actual development and impacts of our cashless society.
Rob Kling, ‘The Social and Institutional Meanings of Electrnonic Funds Transfer Systems’, Chapter 15 (pp. 183-195) in Kent Colton and Kenneth Kraemer (eds), Computers and Banking. New York: Plenum Press, 1980.
 This research was reported widely, but captured in two books, including Kraemer, K. L., Dutton, W. H., and Northrop, A. (1981), The Management of Information Systems, New York: Columbia University Press, and Danziger, J. N., Dutton, W. H., Kling, R., and Kraemer, K. L. (1982; 1983 paperback), Computers and Politics: High Technology in American Local Governments, New York: Columbia University Press.
In 1994, I helped organize a forum for the Programme on Information and Communication Technologies (PICT) on what we called ‘ICT disasters’. We described and compared three cases, including the shooting down of Iran Air Flight 655 by the USS Vincennes, a US warship patrolling the Persian Gulf, killing all 290 people on the plane. It was incorrectly identified as an Iranian F-14 fighter descending towards the ship, when in fact it was a civilian flight that was ascending. We concluded it was an information disaster in that available information was not correctly communicated, interpreted and acted on in time to prevent this accident and developed explanations for how this was able to occur.
I dare not suggest whether or not the downing of Ukrainian Flight #PS752 is comparable to the disaster of Iran Flight 655 or other civilian flight disasters. The dynamics leading to these two events are undoubtedly very different indeed. However, I do believe this latest disaster in Iran is a case that is worthy of study in ways that will go well beyond assigning blame to particular nations or actors.
There is a need to understand the social, organizational, and technological dynamics of these disasters as a means for improving policy and practice in the specific areas in which they are embedded, but also to learn lessons that could be informative for areas far removed from airline safety and defense. For example, our case study of Iran Flight 655 was studied along with two other case studies in entirely different areas, one involving London ambulance dispatching, and another the London Stock Exchange. The common denominator was the extreme circumstances that were involved in each incident that led them to be perceived as disasters.
By studying extreme cases of information disasters, it might be possible to provide new insights and lessons that are applicable to more routine information failures that occur in organizations and society. Such disasters might help shape safer digital socio-technical outcomes.
If you are interested, let me suggest these readings on the Flight 655 disaster case study and how such cases can be explored for broader lessons, include:
Rochlin, G. I (1991), ‘Iran Flight 655 and the USS Vincennes: Complex, Large-Scale Military Systems and the Failure of Control’, pp. 99-125 in La Porte, T. (ed.), Social Responses to Large Technical Systems (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers).
Dutton, W. H., MacKenzie, D., Shapiro, S., and Peltu, M. (1995), Computer Power and Human Limits: Learning from IT and Telecommunications Disasters. Policy Research Paper No. 33 (Uxbridge: PICT, Brunel University).
Peltu, M., MacKenzie, D., Shapiro, S., and Dutton, W. H. (1996), Computer Power and Human Limits, pp. 177-95 in Dutton, W. H. (ed.), Information and Communication Technologies — Visions and Realities. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
With the academic year fast approaching, we are hoping that the book will be useful for many courses around Internet studies, new media, and media and society. If you are teaching in this area, Mark and I hope you might consider this reader for your courses, and let your colleagues know about its availability. Authors of our chapters range from senior luminaries in our field, such as Professor Manuel Castels, who has written a brilliant foreword, to some promising graduate students.
Society and the Internet 2nd Edition.
How is society being reshaped by the continued diffusion and increasing centrality of the Internet in everyday life and work? Society and the Internet provides key readings for students, scholars, and those interested in understanding the interactions of the Internet and society. This multidisciplinary collection of theoretically and empirically anchored chapters addresses the big questions about one of the most significant technological transformations of this century, through a diversity of data, methods, theories, and approaches.
Drawing from a range of disciplinary perspectives, Internet research can address core questions about equality, voice, knowledge, participation, and power. By learning from the past and continuing to look toward the future, it can provide a better understanding of what the ever-changing configurations of technology and society mean, both for the everyday life of individuals and for the continued development of society at large.
This second edition presents new and original contributions examining the escalating concerns around social media, disinformation, big data, and privacy. Following a foreword by Manual Castells, the editors introduce some of the key issues in Internet Studies. The chapters then offer the latest research in five focused sections: The Internet in Everyday Life; Digital Rights and Human Rights; Networked Ideas, Politics, and Governance; Networked Businesses, Industries, and Economics; and Technological and Regulatory Histories and Futures. This book will be a valuable resource not only for students and researchers, but for anyone seeking a critical examination of the economic, social, and political factors shaping the Internet and its impact on society.
Evidence is only beginning to develop about what led to the disaster that beset Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 over the Eastern Ukraine. However, it is likely to be compared with other military and large technical system disasters, such as when the USS Vincennes accidentally shot down a domestic Iranian Airline, Iran Flight 655 on 3 July 1987. These have been called ‘information disasters’ by myself and colleagues, who have looked at studies of this and other related cases. See our chapter: Peltu, M., MacKenzie, D., Shapiro, S., and Dutton, W. H. (1996), ‘Computer Power and Human Limits,’ in Dutton. W. H. (ed.), Information and Communication Technologies – Visions and Realities, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 177-195. Specific treatment of the USS Vincennes is provided by Rochlin, G. (1991), ‘Iran Air Flight 655 and the USS Vincennes: Complex, Large-Scale Military Systems and the Failure of Control’, pp. 99-125 in La Porte, T. (ed.), Social Responses to Large Technical Systems. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
In the case of MH17, there seems to be mounting evidence that it was shot down by mistake. A domestic airliner was not the intended target. However, debate is huge over who shot the plane down, and who supplied the weapons. Needless to say, the analysis of such cases often deals with more than the specific information disaster – the mistake, such as in the earlier case: Why did the domestic Iran Flight 655 come to be perceived as a military aircraft descending toward the USS Vincennes, when it was actually climbing? In this respect, such studies do not always deal adequately with the broader political and military issues over responsibility. These broader questions have been the primary and immediate focus of debate over MH17. Rather than understand why MH17 was shot down, people worldwide are wondering who was responsible for putting particular weapons into the hands of the Russian separatists who are widely suspected of firing the missile that took down MH17.* But academics can and should devote their own talents to see if lessons can be learned from such disasters at any level of analysis.
Modernizing and Inspiring a “Startup Mentality” in Legacy Information Technology Organizations
Speakers: David A. Bray, Oxford Martin Associate and CIO of the U.S. FCC, Yorick Wilks, and Greg Taylor
19 June 2014 from 4-5 pm
OII Seminar Room, 1 St Giles’, Oxford
By some estimates, 70% of IT organization budgets are spent on maintaining legacy systems. These costs delays needed transitions to newer technologies. Moreover, this cost estimate only captures those legacy processes automated by IT; several paper-based, manual processes exist and result in additional hidden, human-intensive costs that could benefit from modern IT automation.
This interactive discussion will discuss the opportunities and challenges with inspiring a “startup mentality” in legacy information technology organizations. Dr. David Bray, will discuss his own experiences with inspiring a “startup mentality” in legacy IT organizations as well as future directions for legacy organizations confronted with modernization requirements. The discussion will be chaired by OII’s Dr. Greg Taylor, and Yorick Wilks, an OII Research Associate, and Professor of Artificial Intelligence in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Sheffield, will offer his comments and responses to David’s ideas before opening the discussion to participation from the audience.
The 6th ACM Web Science Conference will be held 23-26 June 2014 on the beautiful campus of Indiana University, Bloomington. Web Science continues to focus on the study of information networks, social communities, organizations, applications, and policies that shape and are shaped by the Web.
The WebSci14 program includes 29 paper presentations, 35 posters with lightening talks, a documentary, and keynotes by Dame Wendy Hall (U. of Southampton), JP Rangaswami (Salesforce.com), Laura DeNardis (American University) and Daniel Tunkelang (LinkedIn). Several workshops will be held in conjunction with the conference on topics such as Altmetrics, computational approaches to social modeling, the complex dynamics of the Web, the Web of scientific knowledge, interdisciplinary coups to calamities, Web Science education, Web observatories, and Cybercrime and Cyberwar. Conference attendees will have an opportunity to enjoy the exhibit Places & Spaces: Mapping Science, meant to inspire cross-disciplinary discussion on how to track and communicate human activity and scientific progress on a global scale. Finally, we will award prizes for the most innovative visualizations of Web data. For this data challenge, we are providing four large datasets that will remain publicly available to Web
I have agreed to co-chair the next Web Science Conference, Web Science 2014, which will be held in 2014 at Indiana University. The lead chairs are Fil Menczer and his group at Indiana University, and Jim Hendler at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and one of the originators of the Semantic Web. The dates are 23-26 June 2014.
My mission is to help bring social scientists and humanities scholars to this conference to ensure that it is truly multi-disciplinary, and also to help encourage a more global set of participants, attracting academics from Europe but also worldwide.
For those who are not quite sure of the scope and methods of Web Science, let me recommend a chapter in my handbook by Kieron O’Hara and Wendy Hall, entitled ‘Web Science’, pp. 48-68 in Dutton, W. H. (2013) (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Internet Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.The core of the Web Science community sometimes view this as a field or discipline on its own, while I would define it as a topic or focus within a broader, multdisciplinary field of Internet Studies.
In any case, I will be adding to this blog over the coming months as the conference planning progresses, but please consider participating. Information about the conference is posted at: http://websci14.org/#
Professor & Presidential Chair in Information Studies
University of California, Los Angeles
Oliver Smithies Visiting Fellow and Lecturer
Balliol College, University of Oxford
Scholars are expected to publish the results of their work in journals, books, and other venues. Now they are being asked to publish their data as well, which marks a fundamental transition in scholarly communication. Data are not shiny objects that are easily exchanged. Rather, they are fuzzy and poorly bounded entities. The enthusiasm for “big data” is obscuring the complexity and diversity of data and of data practices across the disciplines. Data flows are uneven – abundant in some areas and sparse in others, easily or rarely shared. Open access and open data are contested concepts that are often conflated. Data are a lens to observe the rapidly changing landscape of scholarly practice. This talk is based on an Oxford-based book project to open up the black box of “data,” peering inside to explore behavior, technology, and policy issues.
Our journal, Information Communication and Society (iCS), has had a step-jump in its readership and role in the field over the last several years. The editor, Brian Loader, and I were recalling our first meeting in the late 1990s, when Brian first proposed the journal. We are in the midst of the 16th volume with subscriptions continuing to rise, particularly online, indexed in 18 abstracting and indexing services, including the Social Science Citation Index, up to 10 issues per year, but with a healthy backlog, and with an increasing number of articles winning prizes and other forms of recognition.
The two most outstanding aspects of the journal to me, as one of the editors, are first, its international – global – reach. We have contributors and readers worldwide. For example, we received submissions of articles from authors in 38 countries from 2010-12. This was always an aim of the journal, but it has become a clear reality.
Secondly, the title remains broad and contemporary – it is not being overtaken by the pace of technical change and is as relevant today as when it was first proposed. I sometimes worry about the potential fragmentation of my field of Internet Studies, given the number of increasingly specialized journals, but iCS remains broad enough to encompass all aspects of my field and more, providing one mechanism for integrating work across a wider field of research.
iCS was Brian Loader’s idea, so let me thank him, but also my associate Barry Wellman, our Editorial Board, and many contributors and readers, as well as Routledge Taylor & Francis for helping us realize Brian’s vision. It is great to see this journal develop.