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May 15, 2017

[liveblog][AI] AI and education lightning talks

Sara Watson, a BKC affiliate and a technology critic, is moderating a discussion at the Berkman Klein/Media Lab AI Advance.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Karthik Dinakar at the Media Lab points out what we see in the night sky is in fact distorted by the way gravity bends light, which Einstein called a “gravity lens.” Same for AI: The distortion is often in the data itself. Karthik works on how to help researchers recognize that distortion. He gives an example of how to capture both cardiologist and patient lenses to better to diagnose women’s heart disease.

Chris Bavitz is the head of BKC’s Cyberlaw Clinic. To help Law students understand AI and tech, the Clinic encourages interdisciplinarity. They also help students think critically about the roles of the lawyer and the technologist. The clinic prefers early relationships among them, although thinking too hard about law early on can diminish innovation.

He points to two problems that represent two poles. First, IP and AI: running AI against protected data. Second, issues of fairness, rights, etc.

Leah Plunkett, is a professor at Univ. New Hampshire Law School and is a BKC affiliate. Her topic: How can we use AI to teach? She points out that if Tom Sawyer were real and alive today, he’d be arrested for what he does just in the first chapter. Yet we teach the book as a classic. We think we love a little mischief in our lives, but we apparently don’t like it in our kids. We kick them out of schools. E.g., of 49M students in public schools in 20-11, 3.45M were suspended, and 130,000 students were expelled. These disproportionately affect children from marginalized segments.

Get rid of the BS safety justification and the govt ought to be teaching all our children without exception. So, maybe have AI teach them?

Sarah: So, what can we do?

Chris: We’re thinking about how we can educate state attorneys general, for example.

Karthik: We are so far from getting users, experts, and machine learning folks together.

Leah: Some of it comes down to buy-in and translation across vocabularies and normative frameworks. It helps to build trust to make these translations better.

[I missed the QA from this point on.]

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[liveblog][AI] Perspectives on community and AI

Chelsea Barabas is moderating a set of lightning talks at the AI Advance, aat Berkman Klein and MIT Media Lab.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Lionel Brossi recounts growing up in Argentina and the assumption that all boys care about football. He moved to Chile which is split between people who do and do not watch football. “Humans are inherently biased.” So, our AI systems are likely to be biased. Cognitive science has shown that the participants in their studies tend to be WEIRD: western, educated, industrialized, rich and developed. Also straight and white. He references Kate Crawford‘s “AI’s White Guy Problem.” We need not only diverse teams of developers, but also to think about how data can be more representative. We also need to think about the users. One approach is work on goal centered design.

If we ever get to unbiased AI, Borges‘ statement, “The original is unfaithful to the translation” may apply.

Chelsea: What is an inclusive way to think of cross-border countries?

Lionel: We need to co-design with more people.

Madeline Elish is at Data and Society and an anthropology of technology grad student at Columbia. She’s met designers who thought it might be a good to make a phone run faster if you yell at it. But this would train children to yell at things. What’s the context in which such designers work? She and Tim Hwang set about to build bridges between academics and businesses. They asked what designers see as their responsibility for the social implications of their work. They found four core challenges:

1. Assuring users perceive good intentions
2. Protecting privacy
3. Long term adoption
4. Accuracy and reliability

She and Tim wrote An AI Pattern Language [pdf] about the frameworks that guide design. She notes that none of them were thinking about social justice. The book argues that there’s a way to translate between the social justice framework and, for example, the accuracy framework.

Ethan Zuckerman: How much of the language you’re seeing feels familiar from other hype cycles?

Madeline: Tim and I looked at the history of autopilot litigation to see what might happen with autonomous cars. We should be looking at Big Data as the prior hype cycle.

Yarden Katz is at the BKC and at the Dept. of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School. He talks about the history of AI, starting with 1958 claim about translation machine. 1966: Minsky Then there was an AI funding winter, but now it’s big again. “Until recently, AI was a dirty word.”

Today we use it schizophrenically: for Deep Learning or in a totally diluted sense as something done by a computer. “AI” now seems to be a branding strategy used by Silicon Valley.

“AI’s history is diverse, messy, and philosophical.” If complexit is embraced, “AI” might not be a useful caregory for policy. So we should go basvk to the politics of technology:

1. who controls the code/frameworks/data
2. Is the system inspectable/open?
3. Who sets the metrics? Who benefits from them?

The media are not going to be the watchdogs because they’re caught up in the hype. So who will be?

Q: There’s a qualitative difference in the sort of tasks now being turned over to computers. We’re entrusting machines with tasks we used to only trust to humans with good judgment.

Yarden: We already do that with systems that are not labeled AI, like “risk assessment” programs used by insurance companies.

Madeline: Before AI got popular again, there were expert systems. We are reconfiguring our understanding, moving it from a cognition frame to a behavioral one.

Chelsea: I’ve been involved in co-design projects that have backfired. These projects have sometimes been somewhat extractive: going in, getting lots of data, etc. How do we do co-design that are not extractive but that also aren’t prohibitively expensive?

Nathan: To what degree does AI change the dimensions of questions about explanation, inspectability, etc.

Yarden: The promoters of the Deep Learning narrative want us to believe you just need to feed in lots and lots of data. DL is less inspectable than other methods. DL is not learning from nothing. There are open questions about their inductive power.

Amy Zhang and Ryan Budish give a pre-alpha demo of the AI Compass being built at BKC. It’s designed to help people find resources exploring topics related to the ethics and governance of AI.

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[liveblog] AI Advance opening: Jonathan Zittrain and lightning talks

I’m at a day-long conference/meet-up put on by the Berkman Klein Center‘s and MIT Media Lab‘s “AI for the Common Good” project.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Jonathan Zittrain gives an opening talk. Since we’re meeting at Harvard Law, JZ begins by recalling the origins of what has been called “cyber law,” which has roots here. Back then, the lawyers got to the topic first, and thought that they could just think their way to policy. We are now at another signal moment as we are in a frenzy of building new tech. This time we want instead to involve more groups and think this through. [I am wildly paraphrasing.]

JZ asks: What is it that we intuitively love about human judgment, and are we willing to insist on human judgments that are worse than what a machine would come up with? Suppose for utilitarian reasons we can cede autonomy to our machines — e.g., autonomous cars — shouldn’t we? And what do we do about maintaining local norms? E.g., “You are now entering Texas where your autonomous car will not brake for pedestrians.”

“Should I insist on being misjudged by a human judge because that’s somehow artesinal?” when, ex hypothesis, an AI system might be fairer.

Autonomous systems are not entirely new. They’re bringing to the fore questions that have always been with us. E.g., we grant a sense of discrete intelligence to corporations. E.g., “McDonald’s is upset and may want to sue someone.”

[This is a particularly bad representation of JZ’s talk. Not only is it wildly incomplete, but it misses the through-line and JZ’s wit. Sorry.]

Lightning Talks

Finale Doshi-Velez is particularly interested in interpretable machine learning (ML) models. E.g., suppose you have ten different classifiers that give equally predictive results. Should you provide the most understandable, all of them…?

Why is interpretability so “in vogue”? Suppose non-interpretable AI can do something better? In most cases we don’t know what “better” means. E.g., someone might want to control her glucose level, but perhaps also to control her weight, or other outcomes? Human physicians can still see things that are not coded into the model, and that will be the case for a long time. Also, we want systems that are fair. This means we want interpretable AI systems.

How do we formalize these notions of interpretability? How do we do so for science and beyond? E.g., what is a legal “right to explanation
” mean? She is working with Sam Greshman on how to more formally ground AI interpretability in the cognitive science of explanation.

Vikash Mansinghka leads the eight-person Probabilistic Computing project at MIT. They want to build computing systems that can be our partners, not our replacements. We have assumed that the measure of success of AI is that it beats us at our own game, e.g., AlphaGo, Deep Blue, Watson playing Jeopardy! But games have clearly measurable winners.

His lab is working on augmented intelligence that gives partial solutions, guidelines and hints that help us solve problems that neither system could solve on their own. The need for these systems are most obvious in large-scale human interest projects, e.g., epidemiology, economics, etc. E.g., should a successful nutrition program in SE Asia be tested in Africa too? There are many variables (including cost). BayesDB, developed by his lab, is “augmented intelligence for public interest data science.”

Traditional computer science, computing systems are built up from circuits to algorithms. Engineers can trade off performance for interpretability. Probabilisitic systems have some of the same considerations. [Sorry, I didn’t get that last point. My fault!]

John Palfrey is a former Exec. Dir. of BKC, chair of the Knight Foundation (a funder of this project) and many other things. Where can we, BKC and the Media Lab, be most effective as a research organization? First, we’ve had the most success when we merge theory and practice. And building things. And communicating. Second, we have not yet defined the research question sufficiently. “We’re close to something that clearly relates to AI, ethics and government” but we don’t yet have the well-defined research questions.

The Knight Foundation thinks this area is a big deal. AI could be a tool for the public good, but it also might not be. “We’re queasy” about it, as well as excited.

Nadya Peek is at the Media Lab and has been researching “macines that make machines.” She points to the first computer-controlled machine (“Teaching Power Tools to Run Themselves“) where the aim was precision. People controlled these CCMs: programmers, CAD/CAM folks, etc. That’s still the case but it looks different. Now the old jobs are being done by far fewer people. But the spaces between doesn’t always work so well. E.g., Apple can define an automatiable workflow for milling components, but if you’re student doing a one-off project, it can be very difficult to get all the integrations right. The student doesn’t much care about a repeatable workflow.

Who has access to an Apple-like infrastructure? How can we make precision-based one-offs easier to create? (She teaches a course at MIT called “How to create a machine that can create almost anything.”)

Nathan Mathias, MIT grad student with a newly-minted Ph.D. (congrats, Nathan!), and BKC community member, is facilitating the discussion. He asks how we conceptualize the range of questions that these talks have raised. And, what are the tools we need to create? What are the social processes behind that? How can we communicate what we want to machines and understand what they “think” they’re doing? Who can do what, where that raises questions about literacy, policy, and legal issues? Finally, how can we get to the questions we need to ask, how to answer them, and how to organize people, institutions, and automated systems? Scholarly inquiry, organizing people socially and politically, creating policies, etc.? How do we get there? How can we build AI systems that are “generative” in JZ’s sense: systems that we can all contribute to on relatively equal terms and share them with others.

Nathan: Vikash, what do you do when people disagree?

Vikash: When you include the sources, you can provide probabilistic responses.

Finale: When a system can’t provide a single answer, it ought to provide multiple answers. We need humans to give systems clear values. AI things are not moral, ethical things. That’s us.

Vikash: We’ve made great strides in systems that can deal with what may or may not be true, but not in terms of preference.

Nathan: An audience member wants to know what we have to do to prevent AI from repeating human bias.

Nadya: We need to include the people affected in the conversations about these systems. There are assumptions about the independence of values that just aren’t true.

Nathan: How can people not close to these systems be heard?

JP: Ethan Zuckerman, can you respond?

Ethan: One of my colleagues, Joy Buolamwini, is working on what she calls the Algorithmic Justice League, looking at computer vision algorithms that don’t work on people of color. In part this is because the tests use to train cv systems are 70% white male faces. So she’s generating new sets of facial data that we can retest on. Overall, it’d be good to use test data that represents the real world, and to make sure a representation of humanity is working on these systems. So here’s my question: We find co-design works well: bringing in the affected populations to talk with the system designers?

[Damn, I missed Yochai Benkler‘s comment.]

Finale: We should also enable people to interrogate AI when the results seem questionable or unfair. We need to be thinking about the proccesses for resolving such questions.

Nadya: It’s never “people” in general who are affected. It’s always particular people with agendas, from places and institutions, etc.

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March 1, 2017

[liveblog] Five global challenges and the role of the university

Juan Carlos De Martin is giving a lunchtime talk called “Five global challenges and the role of the university,” with Charles Nesson. These are two of my favorite people. Juan Carlos is here to talk about his new book (in Italian), Università Futura – Tra Democrazia e Bit.

Charlie introduces Juan Carlos by describing his first meeting with him at a conference in Torino at which the idea of the Nexa Center of Internet and Society
, which is now a reality.

Juan Carlos begins by tracing the book’s traIn the book and here he will talk about five global challenges. Why five? Because that’s how we he sees it, but it’s subjective.

  1. Democracy. It’s in crisis.

  2. Environment. For example, you may have heard about this global warming thing. It’s hard for us to think about such large systems.

  3. Technology. E.g., bio tech, AI, nanotech, neuro-cognition. The benefits of these are important, but the problems they raise are very difficult.

  4. Economy. Growth is slowing. Trade is slowing. How do we ensure a decent livelihood to all?

  5. Geopolitics. The world order seems to be undergoing constant change. How do we preserve the peace?

We are in uncharted waters, he says: high risk and high unpredictability. ““I don’t want to sound apocalyptic, because I’m not, but we have to face the dangers”I don’t want to sound apocalyptic, because I’m not, but we have to face the dangers.”
Juan Carlos makes three observations:

First, we are going to need lots of knowledge, more than ever before.

Second, we’ll need people capable of interpreting, using, and producing such knowledge, more than ever before.

Third, in democracies we need the knowledge to get to as many people as possible, and as many people as possible have to become better critical thinkers. “There’s a clear rejection of experts which we, as people in universities, need to take seriously…What did we do wrong to lose the trust of people?”

These three observations lead to the idea that universities should play an important role. So, what is the current state of the university?

First, for the past forty years, universities have pursued knowledge useful to the economy.

Second, there has been an emphasis on training workers, which makes sense, but has meant less emphasis on educating people as full humans and citizens.

Third, the university has been a normative organization (like non-profits and churches) that has been pushed to become more of a utilitarian organization (like businesses). This shows itself in, for example, the excessive use of quantitative metrics for promotion, an insane emphasis on publishing for its own sake, and a hyper-disciplinarity because it’s easier to publish within a smaller slice.

These mean that the historically multi-dimensional mission of the university has been flattened, and the spirit has gone from normative to utilitarian. “All of this represents a problem if we want the university to help society face … 21st century problems.” (Juan Carlos says that he wrote the book in Italian [his English is perfect] because when he began in 2008, Italian universities were beginning a seven year contraction of 20%.)

We need all kinds of knowledge — not just what looks useful right now — because we don’t know what will be useful. We need interdisciplinarity because so many societal challenges — including all the ones he began the talk with — are interdisciplinary. But the incentives are not currently in that direction. And we need “effective interaction with the general public.” This is not just about communicating or transferring knowledge; it has to be genuinely interactive.

We need, he says, the university to speak the truth.

His proposal is that we “rediscover the roots of the university” and update them to present times. There is a solution in those roots, he says.

At the root, education is a personal relationship among human beings. ““Education is not mere information transfer”Education is not mere information transfer.” This means educating human beings and citizens, not just workers.

Everyone agrees we need critical thinking, but we need to work on how to teach it and what it means. We need critical thinkers because we need people who can handle unexpected situations.

We need universities to be institutions that can take the long view, can go slowly, value silence, that enable concentration. These were characteristics of universities for a thousand years.
What universities can do:

1. To achieve inter-disciplinarity, we cannot abolish disciplines; they play an important role. But we need to avoid walls between them. “Maybe a little short fence” that people can easily cross.

2. We need to strongly encourage heterodox thinking. Some disciplines need this urgently; Juan Carlos calls out economics as an example.

3. The university should itself be a “trustee of the unborn,” i.e., of the generation to come. “The university has always had the role of bridging the dead and the unborn.” In Europe this has been a role of the state, but they’re doing it less and less.

A side effect is that the university should be the conscience and critic of society. He quotes Pres. Drew Faust on whether universities are doing this enough.

4. Universities need to engage with the public, listening to their concerns. That doesn’t mean pandering to them. Only dialogue will help people learn.

5. Universities need to actively employ the Internet to achieve its objectives. Juan Carlos’ research on this topic began with the Internet, but it flipped, focusing first on the university.

Overall, he says, “we need new ideas, critical thinking, and character”we need new ideas, critical thinking, and character. By that last he means moral commitment. Universities can move in that direction by rediscovering their roots, and updating them.

Charlie now leads a session in which we begin by posting questions to . I cannot keep up with the conversation. The session is being webcast and the recording will be posted. (Charlie is a celebrated teacher with a special skill in engaging groups like this.)

I agree with everything Juan Carlos says, and especially am heartened by the idea that the university as an institution can help to re-moor us. But I then find myself thinking that it took enormous forces to knock universities off their 1,000 year mission. Those same forces are implacable. Can universities deny the fusion of powers that put them in this position in the first place?

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December 3, 2016

[liveblog] Stephanie Mendoza: Web VR

Stephanie Mendoza [twitter:@_liooil] [Github: SAM-liooil] is giving a talk at the Web 1.0 conference. She’s a Unity developer.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

WebVR— a 3D in-browser standard— is at 1.0 these days, she says.. It’s cross platform which is amazing because it’s hard to build for Web, Android, and Vive. It’s “uncharted territory” where “everything is an experiment.” You need Chromium
, an experimental version of Chrome, to run it. She uses A-Frame to create in-browser 3D environments.

“We’re trying to figure out the limit of things we can simulate.” It’s going to follow us out into the real world. E.g., she’s found that “Simulating fearful situations ) can lessen fear of those situations in the real world”simulating fearful situations (e.g., heights) can lessen fear of those situations in the real world.

This crosses into Meinong’s jungle: a repository of non-existent entities in Alexius Meinong‘s philosophy.

The tool they’re using is A-Frame, which is an abstraction layer on top of WebGL
, Three.js, and VRML. (VRML was an HTML standard that didn’t get taken up much because the browsers didn’t run it very well. [I was once on the board of a VRML company which also didn’t do very well.]) WebVR works on Vibe, High Fidelity, Janus, the Unity Web player, and Youtube 360, under different definitions of “works.” A-Frame is open source.

Now she takes us through how to build a VR Web page. You can scavenge for 3D assets or create your own. E.g., you can go to Thingiverse and convert the files to the appropriate format for A-Frame.

Then you begin a “scene” in A-Frame, which lives between <a-scene> tags in HTML. You can create graphic objects (spheres, planes, etc.) You can interactively work on the 3D elements within your browser. [This link will take you to a page that displays the 3D scene Stephanie is working with, but you need Chromium to get to the interactive menus.]

She goes a bit deeper into the A-Frame HTML for assets, light maps, height maps, specular maps, all of which are mapped back to much lower-count polygons. Entities consist of geometry, light, mesh, material, position, and raycaster, and your extensions. [I am not attempting to record the details, which Stephanie is spelling out clearly. ]

She talks about the HTC Vive. “The controllers are really cool. “They’re like claws. I use them to climb virtual trees and then jump out”They’re like claws. I use them to climb virtual trees and then jump out because it’s fun.” Your brain simulates gravity when there is none, she observes. She shows the A-Frame tags for configuring the controls, including gabbing, colliding, and teleporting.

She recommends some sites, including NormalMap, which maps images and lets you download the results.


Q: Platforms are making their own non-interoperable VR frameworks, which is concerning.

A: It went from art to industry very quickly.

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[liveblog] Paul Frazee on the Beaker Browser

At the Web 1.0 conference, Paul Frazee
is talking about a browser — a Chrome fork — he’s been writing to browse the distributed Web.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

The distributed Web is the Web with ideas from BitTorrent integrated into it. Beaker
uses IPFS and DAT

  • This means:

  1. Anyone can be a server at any time.

  2. There’s no binding between a specific computer and a site; the content lives independently.

  3. There’s no back end.

This lets Beaker provide some unusual features:

  1. A “fork button” is built into the browser itself so you can modify the site you’re browsing. “People can hack socially” by forking a site and sharing those changes.

  2. Independent publishing: The site owner can’t change your stuff. You can allocate new domains cheaply.

  3. With Beaker, you can write your site locally first, and then post into the distributed Web.

  4. Secure distribution

  5. Versioned URLs

He takes us through a demo. Beaker’s directory looks a bit like Github in terms of style. He shows how to create a new site using an integrated terminal tool. The init command creates a dat.json file with some core metadata. Then he creates an index.html file and publishes it. Then anyone using the browser can see the site and ask to see the files behind it…and fork them. As with GitHub, you can see the path of forks. If you own the site, you can write to the site, with the browser. [This fulfills Tim Berners’-Lee’s original vision of Web browsers.]


Q: Any DNS support?

A: Yes.

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[liveblog] Amber Case on making the Web fun again

I’m at the Web 1.0 conference, at the MIT Media Lab, organized by Amber Case [@caseorganic]. It’s a celebration of sites that can be built by a single person, she explains.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

The subtitle of Amber’s opening talk is “Where did my data go?” She talks about hosting sites that folded and took all the home pages with them. After AOL Hometown got angry comments about this, it AOL Hometown “solved” the problem by turning off comments“solved” the problem by turning off comments. Other bad things can happen to sites you build on other people’s sites. They can change your UI. And things other than Web sites can be shut down — including household items in the Internet of Things.

She shows the Maslow Hierarchy for Social Network Supermarkets from Chris Messina. So, what happened to owning your identity? At early Web conferences, you’d write your domain name on your ID tag. Your domain was your identity. RSS and Atom allowed for distributed reading. But then in the early 2000s social networks took over.

We started writing on third party platforms such as Medium and Wikia, but their terms of service make it difficult to own and transfer one’s own content.

The people who could have created the tools that would let us share our blogs went to work for the social networking sites. In 2010 there was a Federated Web movement that resulted in a movement towards this. E.g., it came up with Publish on your own Site and Syndicate Elsewhere (POSSE

Why do we need an independent Web? To avoid losing our content, so businesses can’t to fold and take it with it, for a friendlier UX, and for freedom. “Independent Websites can help provide the future of the Web.”

If we don’t do this, the Web gets serious, she says: People go to a tiny handful of sites. They’re not building as many quirky, niche, weird Web sites. “”We need a weird Web””“We need a weird Web because it allows us to play at the edges and to meet others.” But if you know how to build and archive your own things, you have a home for your data, for self-expression, and with links out to the rest of the Web.

Make static websites, she urges…possibly with the conference sponsor, Neocities.


Bob Frankston: How can you own a domain name?

Amber: You can’t, not really.

Bob: And that’s a big, big problem.

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November 22, 2016

[liveblog][bkc] Scott Bradner: IANA: Important, but not for what they do"

I’m at a Berkman Klein [twitter: BKCHarvard] talk by Scott Bradner about IANA, the Internet Assigned Names Authority. Scott is one of the people responsible for giving us the Internet. So, thanks for that, Scott!

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Scott begins by pointing to the “absurdity” of Ted Cruz’s campaign
to prevent the “Internet giveaway.”“ The idea that “Obama gave away the Internet” is “hooey,”” The idea that “Obama gave away the Internet” is “hooey,” says Scott.

IANA started with a need to coordinate information, not to control it, he says. It began with the Network Working Group in 1968. Then Requests for Comments (RFC) in 1969. . The name “IANA” showed up in 1988, although the function had begun in 1972 with coordinating socket numbers. The Domain Name System made IP addresses easier to use, including the hierarchical clustering under .com, .org, etc.

Back to the beginning, computers were too expensive for every gov’t department to have one. So, ARPA wanted to share large and expensive computers among users. It created a packet-based network, which broke info up into packets that were then transmitted. Packet networking was the idea of Paul Baran at RAND who wanted a system that would survive a nuclear strike, but the aim of that network was to share computers. The packets had enough info to make it to their destinations, but the packet design made “no assumptions about the underlying transport network.” No service guarantees about packets making it through were offered. The Internet is the interconnection of the different networks, including the commercial networks that began showing up in the 1990s.

No one cared about the Net for decades. To the traditional telecom and corporate networking people, it was just a toy—”No quality of service, no guarantees, no security, no one in charge.” IBM thought you couldn’t build a network out of this because their definition of a network — the minimal requirements — was different. “That was great because it meant the regulators ignored us.”

The IANA function went into steady state 1984-1995. It did some allocating of addresses. (When Scott asked Jon Postel for addresses for Harvard, Postel sent him some; Postel was the one-person domain allocation shop.) IANA ran it for the top level domains.

“The Internet has few needs,” Scott says. It’s almost all done through collaboration and agreement. There are no requirements except at a very simple level. The only centralized functions: 1. We have to agree on what the protocol parameters are. Machines have to understand how to read the packet headers. 2. We have to allocate blocks of IP addresses and ASN‘s. 3. We have to have a single DNS, at least for now. IANA handles those three. “Everything else is distributed.” Everything else is collaboration.

In 1993, Network Solutions was given permission to start selling domain names. A domain cost $100 for 2 yrs. There were were about 100M names at that point, which added up to real money. Some countries even started selling off their TLD’s (top level domains), e.g., .tv

IANA dealt with three topics, but DNS was the only one of interest to most people. There was pressure to create new TLDs, which Scott thinks doesn’t solve any real problems. That power was given to ISOC, which set up the International Ad-Hoc Committee in 1996. It set up 7 new TLDs, one of which (.web) caused Image Online Design to sue Postel because they said Postel had promised it to them. The Dept. of Commerce saw that it needed to do something. So they put out an RFC and got 400+ comments. Meanwhile, Postel worked on a plan for institutionalizing the IANA function, which culminated in a conference in Jan 1998. Postel couldn’t go, so Scott presented in his stead.

Shortly after that the Dept of Commerce proposed having a private non-profit coordinate and manage the allocation of the blocks to the registries, manage the file that determines TLDs, and decide which TLDs should exist…the functions of IANA. “There’s no Internet governance here, simply what IANA did.”

There were meetings around the world to discuss this, including one sponsored by the Berkman Center. Many of the people attending were there to discuss Internet governance, which was not the point of the meetings. One person said, “Why are we wasting time talking about TLDs when the Internet is going to destroy countries?” “Most of us thought that was a well-needed vacuum,” says Scott. We didn’t need Internet governance. We were better off without it.

Jon Postel submitted a proposal for an Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). He died of a heart attack shortly thereafter. The Dept. of Commerce accepted the proposal. In Oct 1998 ICANN had its first board meeting. It was a closed meeting “which anticipated much of what’s wrong with ICANN.”

The Dept of Commerce had oversight over ICANN but its only power was to say yes or no to the file that lists the TLDs and the IP addresses of the nameservers for each of the TLDs.” “That’s the entirety of the control the US govt had over ICANN. “In theory, the Dept of Commerce could have said ‘Take Cuba out of that file,’ but that’s the most ridiculous thing they could have done and most of the world could have ignored them.” The Dept of Commerce never said no to ICANN.

ICANN institutionalizes the IANA. But it also has to deal with trademark issues coming out of domain name registrations, and consults on DNS security issues. “ICANN was formed as a little organization to replace Jon Postel.”

It didn’t stay little. ICANN’s budget went from a few million bucks to over $100M.“ “That’s a lot of money to replace a few competent geeks.”” “That’s a lot of money to replace a few competent geeks.” It’s also approved hundreds of TLDs. The bylaws went from 7,000 words to 37,000 words. “If you need 37,000 words to say what you’re doing, there’s something wrong.”

The world started to change. Many govts see the Net as an intrinsic threat.

  • In Sept. 2001, India, Brazil, and South Africa proposed that the UN undertake governance of the Internet.

  • Oct 2013: After Snowden, the Montevideo Statement on the Future of Internet Cooperation proposing moving away from US govt’s oversight of IANA.

  • Apr. 2014: NetMundial Initiative. “Self-appointed 25-member council to perform internet governance.”

  • Mar. 2014: NTIA announces its intent to transition key domain name functions.

The NTIA proposal was supposed to involve all the stakeholders. But it also said that ICANN should continue to maintain the openness of the Internet…a function that ICANN never had. Openness arises from the technical nature of the Net. NTIA said it wouldn’t accept an inter-governmental solution (like the ITU) because it has to involve all the stakeholders.

So who holds ICANN accountable? They created a community process that is “incredibly strong.” It can change the bylaws, and remove ICAN directors or the entire board.

Meanwhile, the US Congress got bent out of shape because the US is “giving away the Internet.” It blocked the NTIA from acting until Sept. 2016. On Oct. 1 IANA became independent and is under the control of the community. “This cannot be undone.” “If the transition had not happened, forces in the UN would likely have taken over” governance of the Internet. This would have been much more likely if the NTIA had not let it go. “The IANA performs coordination functions, not governance. There is no Internet governance.”

How can there be no governance? “Because nobody cared for long enough that it got away from them,” Scott says. “But is this a problem we have to fix?”

He leaves the answer hanging. [SPOILER: The answer is NO]


Q: Under whom do the IRI‘s [Internationalized Resource Identifier] operate?

A: Some Europeans offered to take over European domain names from Jon Postel. It’s an open question whether they have authority to do what they’re doing Every one has its own policy development process.

Q: Where’s research being done to make a more distributed Internet?

A: There have been many proposals ever since ICANN was formed to have some sort of distributed maintenance of the TLDs. But it always comes down to you seeing the same .com site as I do — the same address pointing to the same site for all Internet users. You still have to centralize or at least distribute the mapping. Some people are looking at geographic addressing, although it doesn’t scale.

Q: Do you think Trump could make the US more like China in terms of the Internet?

A: Trump signed on to Cruz’s position on IANA. The security issue is a big one, very real. The gut reaction to recent DDOS
attacks is to fix that rather than to look at the root cause, which was crappy devices. The Chinese government controls the Net in China by making everyone go through a central, national connection. Most countries don’t do that. OTOH, England is imposing very strict content

rules that all ISPs have to obey. We may be moving to a telephony model, which is a Westphalian
idea of national Internets.

Q: The Net seems to need other things internationally controlled, e.g. buffer bloat. Peer pressure seems to be the only way: you throw people off who disagree.

A: IANA doesn’t have agreements with service providers. Buffer bloat is a real issue but it only affects the people who have it, unlike the IoT DDOS attack that affected us all. Are you going to kick off people who’s home security cameras are insecure?

Q: Russia seems to be taking the opposite approach. It has lots of connections coming into it, perhaps for fear that someone would cut them off. Terrorist groups are cutting cables, botnets, etc.

A: Great question. It’s not clear there’s an answer.

Q: With IPv6 there are many more address spaces to give out. How does that change things?

A: The DNS is an amazing success story. It scales extremely well … although there are scaling issues with the backbone routing systems, which are big and expensive. “That’s one of the issues we wanted to address when we did IPv6.”

Q: You said that ICANN has a spotty history of transparency. What role do you think ICANN is going to play going forward? Can it improve on its track record?

A: I’m not sure that it’s relevant. IANA’s functions are not a governance function. The only thing like a governance issue are the TLDs and ICANN has already blown that.

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November 1, 2016

[liveblog][bkc] Paola Villarreal on Public Interest in Data Science

I’m at a Berkman Klein Center lunch time talk by Paola Villarreal [twitter: paw], a BKC fellow, on “Public Interest in Data Science.” (Paola points to a github page for her project info.)

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Public interest, she says, is the effecting of changes in social policies in the interest of the public, especially for the underdog. Data science extracts knowledge and insight from data in various forms, using math, statistics, research, info science and computer science. “What happens if you put data and tech in the hands of civil liberties orgs, human rights activists, media outlets”What happens if you put data and tech in the hands of civil liberties orgs, human rights activists, media outlets, and governments? How might this effect liberty, justice, equality, and transparency and accountability?

She is going to talk about the Data for Justice project, which is supported by the Ford Foundation, the ACLU, and the Mozilla Foundation. The aim is to empower lawyers and advocates to make data-supported cases for improving justice in their communities.

The process: get the data, normalize it, process it, analyze it, visualize it … and then socialize it, inform change, and make it last! She cautions that it is crucial to make sure that you’ve identified the affected communities and that they’re involved in generating a solution. All the stakeholders should be involved in co-designing the solution.

Paola talks about the Annie Dookhan case. Dookhan was a chemist at a Massachusetts crime lab, who falsified evidence, possibly affecting 24,000 cases. Paola shows a table of data: the percentage of adults and juveniles convicted in drug cases and those whose evidence went through Dookhan. It’s a very high number: in some counties, over 25% of the drug convictions used possibly falsified data from Dookhan.

She shows a map of Boston that shows that marijuana-related police interactions occur mainly where people of color live. She plays a clip from marijuana,

She lists her toolkit, which includes R, Stata, PostGIS, Ant (Augmented Narrative Toolkit),
and Tableau

But what counts is having an impact, she says. That means reaching out to journalists, community organizers, authorities, and lawmakers.

She concludes that data and tech do not do anything by themselves, and data scientists are only one part of a team with a common goal. The intersection of law and data is important. She concludes: Data and tech in the hands of people working with and for the public interest can have an impact on people’s lives.


Q: Why are communities not more often involved?

A: It’s hard. It’s expensive. And data scientists are often pretty far removed from community organizing.

Q: Much of the data you’re referring to are private. How do you manage privacy when sharing the data?

A: In the Dookhan case, the data was impounded, and I used security measures. The Boston maps showing where incidents occurred smudged the info across a grid of about half a mile.

A: Kate Crawford talks about how important Paola’s research was in the Dookhan case. “It’s really valuable for the ACLU to have a scientist working on data like this.”

Q: What happened to the people who were tried with Dookhan evidence?

A: [ann] Special magistrates and special hearings were set up…

Q: [charlie nesson] A MOOC is considering Yes on 4 (marijuana legalization ballot question) and someone asked if there is a relationship between cannabis reform and Black Lives Matter. And you’ve answered that question. It’s remarkable that BLM hasn’t cottoned on to cannabis reform as a sister issue.

Q: I’ve been reading Cathy O’Neil‘s Weapons of Math Destruction [me too!] and I’m wondering if you could talk about your passion for social justice as a data scientist.

A: I’m Mexican. I learned to code when I was 12 because I had access to the Internet. I started working as a web developer at 15, and a few years later I was director of IT for the president’s office. I reflected on how I got that opportunity, and the answer was that it was thanks to open source. That inspired me.

Q: We are not looking at what happens to black women. They get criminalized even more often than black men. Also, has anyone looked at questions of environmental justice?

Q: How can we tell if a visualization is valid or is propaganda? Are there organizations doing this?

A: Great question, and I don’t know how to answer it. We publish the code, but of course not everyone can understand it. I’m not using AI or Deep Learning; I’m keeping it simple.

Q: What’s the next big data set you’re going to work on?

A: (She shows a visualization tool she developed that explores police budgets.)

Q: How do you work with journalists? Do you bring them in early?

A: We haven’t had that much interaction with them yet.

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October 25, 2016

[liveblog] Tim Wu

Tim Wu [Twitter: superwuster] is giving a talk jointly sponsored by the Shorenstein Center and the Berkman Klein Center. His new book is The Attention Merchants.  He is introduced by Erie Meyer, a Shorenstein fellow this year.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Tim begins by noting that he was at the Berkman Center at its beginning, when it was pretty much just Charlie Nesson and Jonathan Zittrain.

He says that his new book is the “history of a business model”: the re-sale of human attention. This model has “long anchored the media,” but now has “exploded into all parts of our lives.” It’s part of many business models these days. Even the national parks are selling naming rights to trails.

“Maybe a thousand times a day, something tries to get us to spend maybe a micro-second” to notice something. “The deepest ambition of the book is to say that this is having an effect on the human condition.” He points to the casino effect where you get distracted by links and an hour later you say, “What just happened?” He’s concerned about a model that has us taking our attention away from people and our surroundings and into a commercial space.

The book is a history, he says. “”Newspapers once upon a time were not a mass media.” In 1830 NY’s biggest paper’s circulation was 2,000.”“Newspapers once upon a time were not a mass media.” In 1830 NY’s biggest paper’s circulation was 2,000. Papers were expensive. So, Benjamin Day — “the first attention merchant” — lowered the price of his paper to a penny, and covered a broader range of topics, “human interest stories for a mass audience.”. E.g., the first story in his paper, The NY Sun, was about tragic lovers. He was selling his audience to the advertisers.

“We’re in a time when we’re almost addicted to free stuff — free content, free services.” But people have begun to realize that we are then the product. “What’s being resold is something very scarce: human attention.” And as food, shelter, clothing, etc., are abundant, so the scarce things become even more valuable. We have 168 hours in a week, and that is one of the last scarce resources. “The models of free are scrambling to get at that resource.”

ERIE: You say in the book that trash-talking grabs our attention.

TIM: Many of the current techniques are quite old. E.g., Trolls. The NY Sun attracted competitors, including the NY Tribune. The Trib got attention by picking fights with other newspaper editors. He was the first troll. It worked. “We’ve seen recently that you can run an entire campaign just by insulting people.” The Sun fought back with even more salacious stories. E.g., “it reported that a scientist had discovered life on the moon, including trees, horse-like animals, and man-bats. They never retracted it.”it reported that a scientist had discovered life on the moon, including trees, horse-like animals, and man-bats. They never retracted it.

ERIE: As you point out, one of them grabbed attention by being pro-Abolition, which caused the others to become rabidly anti-Abolition.

TIM: The book doesn’t totally condemn that attention-seeking model, but it warns about its tendency to run to the most lurid content. This makes for constant ethical problems.

ERIE: You talk about the Oprah model…

TIM: “Orpah Winfrey is one of the great innovators in this area.” She was a fully integrated celebrity, production company, advertising company, and a tv network, all in one. She created product endorsements that drove a lot of advertising. She also married the appeal of ministry (salvation, forgiveness, transcendence) and commercialism. By 1995, she was making more money in entertainment than anyone else and gave rise to celebrities who are themselves attention merchants. E.g., Martha Stewart, Donald Trump: the celebrity builds her/his own media empire. Tim expects this to be the future.

One of the subtexts of the book, Tim says, is that the value of human attention was not widely recognized until the 20th century, except for organized religion. The entities interested in what you spent your time doing, before the 20th century, were organized religions that wanted you praying, and going to church, and in various ways to keep God on your mind.” In some ways, Tim says, the story of the book is the story of government and business figuring out that this is valuable resource. The govt realizes it when they see they can raise an army through govt propaganda. Industry, after govt, realizes they can sell products if they have public attention.

ERIE: Can you talk about micro-celebrities?

TIM: There’s a fascinating change in celebrity. (Tim name-checks me for the line “In the future, everyone will be famous to 15 people.”) And reality tv offers the lottery of fame to anyone. This has some consistency with the American dream: Everyone can have their own land and be sort of wealthy. “We have this idea that everyone can be famous.” The negative side of this is that in fact the disparities remain: it’s extremely hard to become famous, and the pursuit of it leads to empty lives. “It’s not like you write something and people read it.” The main reason is biological: ““The default setting of our brain is to ignore everything.”The default setting of our brain is to ignore everything.”

You can control attention to some degree, but it’s always darting around, and you can really only attend to one thing at once.

ERIE: You say the first ad blocker was a remote control…

TIM: In the 1920s, Zenith was a maverick company. The head of it (“The Commodore”) thought commercials had ruined radio. He had his engineers work on ad-blocking software for TV. They came up with the remote control. Originally it was a gun so you could shoot out the commercials. There have been other revolts. In Paris, there was a revolt against posters. In Paris, advertising is still restricted to certain areas. We may be in another such period now. (He mentions the Brave browserthat blocks ads from the gitgo.) “I believe in the power and legitimacy of results.”

ERIE: “You’ve said that if you have a mission in life, it’s to fight bullies.” What should aspiring entrepreneurs do?

TIM: I struggle with this. “A lot of people who have gone into tech have been very idealistic people.” The pay-for-content models haven’t worked so well. One chapter tells the story of decision-making at Google. At one point, it was bleeding money and didn’t know what to do, so they thought about advertising. But in 1996 Larry Page had written a manifesto that declared that advertising-funded search engines will always be biased and will never serve the interests of people. But Google thought it could square the circle with Adwords: a form of advertising that made the product better and didn’t bother people. That was true at the beginning. If an ad showed up, which usually didn’t happen, it’d be useful to you.

But the demands of the ad-based model have increased. The longer it gets, the worse it gets. They’ve increasingly blurred the lines between the organic results and the ads. Google Maps shows us things and it sometimes unclear why. Most of the major platforms haven’t gotten much better for consumers over the past few years, but have gotten better for advertisers. A developer said, ““The best minds of our generation have gone to getting people to click on ads.”The best minds of our generation have gone to getting people to click on ads.”

Tech is a key driver these days, he says. “Which has changed your life more? Government or tech?” I wish Google had considered a different kind of corporate form or model. “I give Wikipedia a lot of credit for going non-commercial. I give even more to the original creators of the Internet who just built it and put it out there.” E.g., the creator of email didn’t look for a business model. Likewise for the creators of the Internet Protocol or the Web.

ERIE: Have you ever clicked on an ad on purpose?

TIM: I think yes. I think I wanted to buy those razors.

Q & A

Q: Two positive examples: FB put out the call to register to vote. Services raise money for worthy causes.

A: Yes. Gathering up attention for some purpose isn’t inherently good or evil. The book argues for carving out quiet spaces, but I believe in the Habermasian public sphere.

Q: Platforms can abandon ads but show us content based on who pays them. How can we rebel against what we can’t see?

A: Ad-blockers are not the most sustainable form of rebellion. I’ve decided that my attitude that I should never pay for anything on the Web came from my adolescent years. You have to support the content you like. “”There’s a difference between buying and supporting.””“There’s a difference between buying and supporting.”

Q: How about “Society as Spectacle“? And Kevin Kelly’s True Fan theory?

A: Paid models support a much broader variety of content. Ad models require the underlying content to more generally be mass content. That’s one of the reason that TV has gotten better over the past fifteen years. Ad supported TV drove to the middle. TV now gets 50% of its revenue from non-advertising.

Q: What’s been your hardest struggle to regain control of your attention?

A: All books probably come from a personal place. Control of attention is a struggle for me. One of the places I decided I needed to write this book was during a 10-day solo trip in the Utah desert. Time seemed to pass in very different ways. An hour could feel like a week. I felt like the modern regime was having me lose control. I like the Web, but I found I didn’t like the way I’d spent my time. I wish I’d spent time on activities I’d consciously chosen. I like JS Mills’ Chapter 3: Life is a matter of autonomy and self-development, and you need to make decisions that are yours.

Q: Is your a book is a manifesto for policy change, or a self-help book?

A: Can I have a third option?

Q: Are there policy implications?

A: I struggled with how much to make this legally prescriptive. Should I end the book with policy proposals? I decided not to, for a number of reasons. One had to do with craft: those last chapters of policy prescriptions, after a book covering 200 years, are usually pathetic. It’s very hard to regulate well. A lot of it has to do with how people conduct their lives. Policies aren’t sensitive to individual situations. I have complex feelings about it and didn’t want to cram into the book. And then people focus on those prescriptions at the expense of the rest of the book.

“If you get down to it, there is room for a new era of consumer protection” that tries to protect attention. Especially when it’s not consensual. E.g., the back of a taxi cab where you’re forced to be exposed to ads. “Non-consensual things reaching you…in law we call that ‘battery’.”

Q: Is commerce in attention span part of a democracy? People have to learn things they would not willingly learn.

A: If we perfect our filters, we may live in worlds where we learn only what we want to learn. I have complicated ideas about this. The penny press did a good job of creating the sense of a public and public opinion. But I resist the idea that to be a democracy we have to all attend to the same sources of information. “In the 19th century, America was a flourishing democracy and there was no national media”In the 19th century, America was a flourishing democracy and there was no national media, and lived in geographically defined filter bubbles. I don’t pine for the 1950s when everyone watched the same news broadcasts. Building one’s character means making your own information environment.

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