Artificial Intelligences and Responsibility.

AI-NYC_2017-1218MIT Technology Review has a meandering article, “A.I Can Be Made Legally Responsible for It’s Decisions“. In it’s own way, it tries to chart the territories of trade secrets and corporations, threading a needle that we may actually need to change to adapt to using Artificial Intelligence (AI).

One of the things that surprises me in such writing and conversations is not that it revolves around protecting trade secrets – I’m sorry, if you put your self-changing code out there and are willing to take the risk, I see that as part of it – is that it focuses on the decision process. Almost all bad decisions in code I have encountered have come about because the developers were hidden in a silo behind a process that isolated them… sort of like what happens with an AI, only two-fold.

If the decision process is flawed, the first thing to be looked at is the source data for the decisions – and in an AI, this can be a daunting task as it builds learning algorithms based on… data. And so, you have to delve into whether the data used to build those algorithms was corrupt or complete – the former is an issue we get better at minimizing, the latter cannot be solved if only because we as individuals and more so as a society are terrible at identifying what we don’t know.

So, when it comes to legal responsibility of code on a server, AI or not, who is responsible? The publishing company, of course, though if you look at software licensing over the decades you’ll find that software companies have become pretty good at divesting themselves of responsibility. “If you use our software we are not responsible for anything”, is a good short read that most end user license agreements and software licenses have in there, and by clicking through the OK, you’re basically indemnifying the publisher. That, you see, is the crux of of the problem when we speak of AI and responsibility.

In the legal frameworks, camped Armies of Lawyers wait on retainer for anything to happen so that they can defend their well paying client who by simply pointing at a contract that puts all responsibility on the user. Lawyers can argue that point, but they get paid to and I don’t. I’m sure there are some loopholes. I’m sure that when pushed into a corner by another company with similar or better legal resources, ‘settle’ becomes a word used more frequently.

So, if companies can’t be held responsible for their non-AI code, how can they be held responsible for their AI code?

Free Software and Open Source software advocates such as myself have made these points more often than not in so many ways – but this AI discussion extends into data as well, which pulls the Open Data Initiative into the spotlight as well.

The system is flawed in this regard, so to discuss whether an AI can be responsible for it’s decisions is silly. The AI won’t pay a fine, the AI won’t go to jail (what does ‘life’ mean for an AI, anyway?). Largely, it’s the court of public opinion that guides things – and that narrative is easily changed by PR people who have a side door to the legal department.

So let’s not discuss AI and responsibility. Let’s discuss code, data and responsibility – let’s go back to where the root of the problem exists. I’m not an MIT graduate, but I do understand Garbage In, Garbage Out (GIGO).

The Chromebook That Will Not Die.

ChromebookI can’t recall when exactly I got it – I think it was in 2013 – but the Acer Chromebook Model Q1VC I have will not die. Right now, as I type this, I’m on a beach in Trinidad – it has been a staple on trips anywhere. Small, light, and handles things like writing, as I am doing now, email, etc.

And it will not die. It’s dual booted with Linux if I want to get a little dirty in Python or, heaven forbid, PHP. It does just about everything I need it to – it’s scratched cover testament to my increasing abuses.

It’s not a machine I love, though. The right click using Alt is kludgy, the chicklet-style plastic keyboard is springy but hard for me to beat out all the words per minute I would like. It’s tinny internal speakers make Netflix something that requires headphones, and the ChromeOS means I can’t Skype – a throwover from Google’s attempt to break in with Google Groups, and maybe it does by now.

It will not die. And that makes it something special – in an age where technology has become as disposable as our ecosystems, the two tied together around the world by landfills, this simple little machine chugs along. It gets bogged down, it gets grumpy now and then with too many tabs open, but it… keeps going. And that, you see, is something that reviews of technology just don’t cater for.

Lasting. After all, what good is buying something that you have to replace every year? And why is it that, despite having looked at new Chromebooks and so forth, that I have not upgraded? Why don’t reviews say, “This will do you for at least 2 years, maybe more? Simply because we don’t know until enough time passes – we can’t chart what new and improved technologies will make what we purchase an antique. That’s part of the problem.

I recall when it was just geeks that got bragging rights for new tech. The gamers came along, demanding more of their machines, squeezing every last fps out of a system. Mobile phones came out and suddenly it wasn’t necessarily about ability as much as it did about status (Yes, I’m taking to you, iPeople).

But things that last? Like a pair of comfortable shoes, broken in just right, ugly, unfashionable… unfashionable. 

I’ll tell you what. My $199 US lasting 4 years is a marvel to me in an age where people spend 3 to 4 times as much to upgrade their phones annually.

Now, if you excuse me, I’m going to get back to torturing this little device.

The Flooding Saga Of Mosquito Creek

Will They Ever Finish The Goodineaux Bridge Repairs?Mosquito Creek, in Southwestern Trinidad, could be a comedy of errors committed by a confederacy of dunces over decades. To locals who have to trek through it daily, it is much the same without the comedy. It has moved from drama to the mundane, a tribute to how things do not get done in Trinidad and Tobago.

And recently, the flooding. In fact, I’m tired of writing about this over the years – the picture is from 2010, which is by no means when this all started – I just happened to have the picture. And the reason I write this? A video that I have been tagged in on Facebook so many times that I tire of responding to it.

The video proffers a solution to flooding on Mosquito Creek that is not expedient, that is flawed in that it doesn’t actually resolve anything other than adding a few man-made reefs to the equation. That it is so popular is a testament, I suppose, to the cultural inertia regarding projects done by any government: Plans cannot be changed.

But plans need to change. The roadway exists between marsh and sea, with the Godineaux river entering the Gulf of Paria. And flooding, dear reader, is about flow rates.

We’ve all experienced a clogged drain – where water enters by faucet faster than it can exit the drain. The sink floods. It’s this level of thinking that has people coming up with things that they think are solutions, but they don’t seem to understand the greater issues involved.

First and foremost, the road is not a natural addition. Use over the decades has compacted soil underneath, which means that water cannot naturally flow between the marsh and the sea. When it does, we call it flooding only because we built an easy road for expediency that has increasingly become more painful to use and maintain.

The right answer is to do an overpass there and allow the water to do what it does: enter and leave the mangrove. Why is this important? Because the Godineaux River cannot always push water out – it’s a clogged drain – and for those of you with a fairly modern sink, you might find under your faucet the overflow. The mangrove to sea path is the natural overflow. This is just basic science applied with common sense, something that the Environmental Management Agency and Ministry of Works and Transport should have on tap through at least one person that is listened to. Lo, this is not the case.

So what happens when we get heavy rains in poorly developed areas (they are) that tries to get out to sea in that path? Blocked by the road, the water has no choice but to go onto the road. Thus, flooding.

Plus, too often do we forget that drainage in Wet Season has to be balanced by water retention during dry season. Streamlining waterways will make for drier soil during dry season, and this turns to dust and dust blows away. Soil erosion by wind, and farmers have less water for their crops.

As Trinidad and Tobago has developed haphazardly, where Town and Country operate at a pace that snails laugh at, people do their own development without thought to the bigger picture. Even with approvals, some suspected to be assisted by a bit of grease to the wheel, you’d think that the EMA and Town and Country would require retention ponds to balanced reclaimed land. One would think.

So while we complain about a major artery of traffic for South West Trinidad, the real problem is much more complex. The solutions are simple.

Sufficient retention ponds along waterways to accommodate flooding. The road on Mosquito Creek Creek should either be rerouted or made into an overpass to let things flow more naturally below the road – not that we’re particularly good at building and maintaining roads in Trinidad and Tobago. And what does this require?

It requires people with common sense and a working knowledge of science to be in the right places, focused on the greater good instead of the personal good or expedient. Ultimately, that seems to be the real failure.

Techno-Rant 2017; Trinidad and Tobago

FreedomHow Trinidad and Tobago adapts technology successfully to its betterment is interconnected throughout the private sector and public sector in ways that most people don’t seem to realize.

Standing in a bookstore, searching for original minds on the latest ideas and thoughts, I noted the books on ‘Right Brain/Left Brain’ that have been made antiques by the neuroplasticity. The brain isn’t as left or right as people thought decades ago, and even now, and common knowledge still hasn’t picked up on it. The books I see that catch my eye are old; published in 2008 and earlier.

Readers are subjected to old ideas this way, and in a globally interconnected age, these are antiquated ideas.

The Internet propelled a global revolution in communications and business which is accelerating. Truth be told, our technology has trumped our ability to communicate. In Trinidad and Tobago, rather than embracing it’s changes, we adapt as slowly as allowing for bank card payments in Licensing Offices – 30 years late, maybe more.

Social media echoed journalists and opinions about Miss Universe and Trinidad and Tobago’s place on it- and then not long after, to mock Miss Trinidad and Tobago’s dress. Meanwhile, flooding from poor land management and poor planning has been forgotten after raking the ODPM over the coals – and now leptospirosis information makes it’s way around with 13 cases in less than a month. Articles sometimes tell only one side of a story, a testament to what readers want as opposed to what readers need to make informed decisions – the role of the fourth estate.

A video that was shared with myself and countless others on WhatsApp mentioned that we don’t have sufficient data related to agriculture. I’m not sure that we have sufficient data about anything, really, and it’s something that I’ve griped about for decades – about how we should have good data to make more informed decisions. And this takes us back to the bookstore, and back to the Internet.

We have not adapted to the world of technology as much as we have bent it to our whims in Trinidad and Tobago. This is not a complaint. It’s a statement. Change is coming, for good and bad. In the U.S., the brick and mortar retail businesses are in a last ditch effort to stay relevant to their market: Why wander a bookstore looking for the latest actual releases (as opposed to the last shipment) in the hope you will find one when you can pre-order on a website like Amazon.com? The same applies to almost anything someone wants or needs to buy.

Government Ministries have incompatible systems, and while the National ICT plan mentions open data, Data.tt doesn’t house much in the way of open data, and as far as useful data, we might be better off inspecting the bottom of tall boots after a flood. Retail prices for certain products are being watched – something I do welcome- but released in PDF, they’re hardly useful (CSV would be nice).

Did I mention that while payments at Licensing Offices will be more convenient – we can forget the last 30 years or so when we could have been doing it – but a visit still requires people to take hours, if not a day, away from their work? Computers purchased a decade and more ago might sit in back offices still, collecting dust as the customers do as well. Where they are is actually immaterial; it’s where those computers are not is the most telling. People stand in line waiting, victims of a bureaucracy that grinds the humanity out of us – nothing new in government offices.

We wonder what’s wrong. Where are the opportunities for the youth of today? Dr. Eric Williams once said that the future of Trinidad and Tobago was in the book bags of students; I wonder what he would say about mobile phones (or laptops, for that matter).

We have opportunities to leapfrog ahead, learning from the mistakes of others who have adapted or failed to adapt technology to better their societies – removing corruption by using technology to erode bureaucracy, enabling better journalism if only we would buy it rather than the social media echo chambers we live in. The odds are good that if we bought good journalism, we’d encourage it.

We look for solutions to purchase abroad when our most damaging export is our brain drain – where the youth of today, passionate and wanting to change things meet every reason why they cannot.


 

It’s Not Being Popular, It’s Why.

1970′s inventions that changed our way of lifePopularity: Does it matter? Research says it does‘ is a dangerous and, to a degree, an irresponsible article by Time magazine – little more than an advertorial by Mitch Prinstein, who is of course selling his book.

Good for him, I suppose. After all, it supports what many people believe, so it fits the criteria of confirmation bias. Being popular is important. But being popular for what?

Everything in the image above was popular – which is a bit unfair since those are instantiations of technology while we are discussing human interaction, but since popularity is a human thing, it demonstrates that being popular works as long as something more popular doesn’t go along. That’s a major factor in human interactions that may well be in the author’s book, but it certainly doesn’t bleed through the article.

All I see bleeding out of that article is confirmation bias.

And what does it mean to be popular, anyway? You can be popular with your peers and unpopular with management, and vice versa. Being popular with both is a balancing act that few can attain. Factor in the culture of wherever you work, being popular doesn’t mean anything at all if you’re popular in a culture that isn’t producing things of value.

And that gets down to a culture of value, and what that actually means. So, certainly, being popular is good for you and it may even be good for a company you work for. Certainly, being nice to other people is a major factor in office politics – did we really need a research study and a book to say that?

Unfortunately, yes. I’ve personally been in many environments where people were popular with management, had management’s ear – even drinking with management to continue their course, and bypassing peer review in the office. Who you’re popular with determines only how what you do is received; it does not determine the value of your work. Your peers, in a strong value culture, will not think you popular at all if the your work is of low value.

If you fail to understand that simply not being a jerk is a good thing and you need a book to tell you that, you should probably buy a book. Empathy is pretty straightforward for most people.

And, ultimately, if you are producing things of value and you’re not popular because of it – it’s not you. It’s them. Move on.

So Many Pies.

pies-9People tend to categorize things by how many ‘hats’ one wears, or how many fingers you have in pies.

In a world of specialization, I have specialized in not being a specialist – which, unfortunately, confuses people. Asked recently what I do for a living, I was caught off guard. Should I speak of having made a living from Software Engineering? Should I go with writing? What about land management? Real estate? Connecting people who need to be connected outside of the cultural ruts that exist in Trinidad and Tobago? Agriculture? Photography? Even recently, someone got stuck on the fact that I had been in the military even though my service and reserve service ended around 2006 (I think).

So my response was, “I think for a living.” That’s consistent, but it brought more confusion. I wonder how other polymaths deal with this?

It wasn’t a solid answer to the person asking, and I was revisited again by the demons of a society that defines you by where you were born (doesn’t work for me), by where you live (pick a place, I may have been there), by what you do for a living (see above), who you’re related to, what ‘race‘ you are, what religion you are, etc.

I don’t fall into categories as much as people attempt to shove me into them. I suppose part of the problem is that I gave up on categories somewhere in my 20s. It started before then, because even then I didn’t really fit – but I was not yet tired of being uncomfortable in my explanations.

All of this came to mind as I renewed this domain, where I’m uncertain where to write what. My technically related writing with a more local (Trinidad and Tobago) twist ends up on TechNewsTT.com. My more personal writing goes on RealityFragments.com.

And I suppose now, everything else goes here – as I have done historically, as you might see had there not been losses of data over the decades of my owning this domain name.

A strange world you live in.

The Study Of What Others Do.

Taran Rampersad
Courtesy Mark Lyndersay, LyndersayDigital

I hate having my picture taken. Over the years, I have found the best defense from cameras is to hold one. This has weakened in a day and age where every phone has a camera, and everyone wants to be seen with someone – but Mark Lyndersay needed a picture of me for TechNewsTT, where the majority of my writing has been published this year outside of my own websites.

In going to his studio, it was a rare glimpse for me into the world of professional photography. It was clear to me almost immediately, this amateur photographer, that it would take me at least a decade to do the editing I watched Mark do quickly, about how he managed his photos, and about why he did the things he did  – a matter of simple experience that cannot be replaced with meetings and requirements discovery.

You see, I had been thinking of writing my own photo management software in Python – something to automate a lot of things. I had briefly considered this when I had begun selling some of my prints in Florida, and it was latent in my mind as a project to ‘get to’. In conversation with Sarita Rampersad, another professional photographer (unrelated), I had asked her what she used last year and why. It was clear that it would take more than a passing effort on my part to build something more useful than the tools she was using. The visit to Mark’s studio underlined this.

The Roots.

Reflecting on this on the way home, I went back to the very core of how I started working with technology. From an early age, I was encouraged – by rote and by whip, as it were – to observe what was being done to understand how it was being done. This was the root of the family business, the now gone Rampersad’s Electrical Engineering, a company that was built on fixing industrial electro-mechanical equipment with clients ranging from the U.S. Navy to someone who just needed their water pump repaired (Even WASA).

This background served me well over the years, and understandably frustrated managers and CEOs. Knowing the context of how things were used allowed for for useful processes and code; it allowed for things to become more efficient and allowed things to be written to last instead of a constant evolution of, “Wouldn’t it be nice if?”. In a world of agile processes, the closest thing to this is the DevOps iteration of Agile which even people who practice Agile haven’t heard of (because they are soundly in the Agile Cave).

DevOps is a form of Agile where every stakeholder is directly involved. And that, to me, is also a problem because of the implicit hierarchies and office (if only office) politics is involved. It’s a bleeding mess of tissue to sew together to form a frankensystem, but at least that frankensystem is closer to what people actually need. Assuming, of course, they understand what they need.

To me, it boils down to studying what other people do.

Observe, Analyze, Communicate, Build.

When I started as an ‘apprentice’ programmer, this was drilled into me by an Uncle who was a Systems Analyst, and ‘allowed’ me to write the code for projects that he was working on. He didn’t boil it down to observe, analyze, communicate and build; I refined that myself over the course of the years.

No matter the process, it all boils down to someone able to bridge how people work/play to get something done to understand what is needed, and how to make their lives easier through automation and information structure. Observing people do their jobs is important, analyzing it secondary, but the most important part is the one thing that an AI cannot yet do: Communicate, the process of listening, speaking (or writing, or…), and then feedback. This process is most important. In priority of importance, software engineering and I believe any form of process or structural engineering is:

  1. Communication
  2. Observation
  3. Analysis
  4. Build

This is not the order in which things are done, of course, but the emphasis that is most important in understanding how present systems work and how future systems should work.

So often over the years, I’ve seen software engineers relegated to the role of code monkeys with emphasis only on ‘Build’, when the most important parts are about ‘building what is needed’. This is where business analysts got introduced somewhere along the way, but they too are put into silos. This is underlined by HR departments focusing only on the ability to ‘build’, where analysts are expected to be a different sort of role. When these roles were split, I cannot say, but to be both is something that is too large and round to fit in small square holes of the modern enterprise.

It is lost, eroded, and there is a part of me that wonders if this is a good thing. Studying what other people do has allowed me to do so many things within and without technology, and it worries me that in a future where AI will be taking over the ‘Build’ that software engineers aren’t being required to focus more on the soft skills that they will need in the coming years.

Sure, the AI can build it – but is ‘it’ what needs to be built?