Exit, Pursued by a Bot

I love writing; telling stories, expressing opinions, sending a cri de Coeur or even just delivering a simple “I love you”.  There is a permanence to words.  We keep old letters and cards.  Books become acquaintances, some become best friends.  In a few special cases that friendship is life long, as we return to the texts of our childhood with the regularity of a planetary orbit. 

A series of books that hold a special place for many people, young and old, is the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling.  My twelve year old niece has devoured the lot, including the script for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.  My eldest daughter, seven, arrived back from a recent birthday party clutching a copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone replete in the yellow of Hufflepuff, an appropriate house for such a kind and thoughtful girl.  It will be her special holiday reading.

A new chapter in the Harry Potter saga was recently released.   Harry Potter and the Portrait of What Looked Like a Large Pile of Ash.  It is unlikely to be included in the canon of text that make up the “Potterverse”, if only because, I assume, J.K. Rowling had no role in its creation.  The author was an Artificial Intelligence predictive writing algorithm called Botnik.   Created by feeding the seven canonical books into a Machine Learning engine.  The resulting chapter is surprising readable, if, to put it mildly, a tad bonkers, in a rather dark and poetic way.  But, hey, the same could be argued about some of the best FanFic out there too.  Here is an excerpt:

“The sky outside was a great black ceiling, which was full of blood.  The only sounds drifting from Hagrid’s hut were the disdainful shrieks of his own furniture.”  

Artificial Intelligence appliances such as Botnik are becoming increasingly ubiquitous.  Without thinking, we use them every day: We question via Alexa or Siri.  We read articles created by Bots.  A.I. powers a lot of our fun.  It has serious applications too.  It powers sensors, analytics and diagnostic apparatus used by Governments, hospitals, power stations and corporations.  All are web-based, the data processed remotely by vast computing centers.  We’ve abandoned the personal in personal computing, like we’ve abandoned the village water pump or a localized generator, long replaced by utility offerings.  Today our computing power comes from the cloud delivered by Internet Service Providers (ISPs).  Technology in 2017 is a distributed system.  In the words of John Gage, former VP at Sun Computing, “The network is the computer.”

Like many of the socialites of old, our phone isn’t smart, it’s just well connected.

It is this change that makes the recent FCC decision to wipe out established Net Neutrality rules so dangerous.  Ajit Pai, the Trump appointed Chair of the FCC, recently pushed through changes to Internet regulations accompanied by a patronizing video.  He urged the removal of safeguards put in place by Barack Obama’s team, safeguards that aimed to treat the internet like a utility. Essential, like water or power. 

In simple terms, the new FCC approved regulatory framework frees up the Internet Service Providers (the plumbers) ability charge more for certain site/service access or to stifle certain content in its entirety.  The playing field, currently level, will be skewed to the big corporate advantage.  Since most of the big tech companies (the creators), who oppose this change, are based in the US, these changes could, or more likely will, have a global effect, since traffic from those services will likely run through some of that ISP plumbing.

A lot of the focus has rightly been on the effects on rural communities currently suffering from poor access, but there are some other effects which are not being talked about:  There are many ways we use the web, without fully realizing we are using the web.  Not all access is via a browser, most modern technology reaches back to some remote data centre to function, and all is visible to the ISPs. 

To use an analogy, the Obama rules are like power company surge charging for usage at peak times of demand.  The surge charge is a known and fair commodity, we can do our laundry at night, if we choose.

Now, imagine if a power company knew what you used their product, electricity, for.  Imagine if they could see whether it powered a clothes dryer or, say, a kidney dialysis machine.  Imagine if that power company was both monopolistic and unscrupulous and there was just light regulation in place.  The unscrupulous power company might be tempted to charge you extra, a lot extra, to use that dialysis machine, regardless of time of day.

Think they won’t?  Think again.   Remember the outrage over Pharma and the price gouging allowed under current federal regulation?  The extortionate jump in the price of AIDs medication or Epi-Pens for no logical reason, other than greed.  Or remember the $640 toilet seat bought be the Pentagon, where the size of the procurement allows “small” charges like that to be lost in the millions or billions of dollars.

But, I hear you cry, it’s only Netflix, or Meme’s or Cat Videos, not dialysis.  Well, that’s the hidden power of the internet.  Hospital Specialists use the web for Medical diagnostics via IBM Watson.  Government agencies use remote sensors to monitor water or air quality.  Police and Intelligence agencies use it to exchange information.  They all rely on the web.  The ISPs, the internet utility providers, know the sites, the addresses, the content and can then charge, stifle and block accordingly, and would we even know it?  News and information can be affected too, think about the last U.S. Presidential election.  So, I’m not worried about Netflix, or Memes or Cat Videos.  I’m worried about the cost of the health, safety and security implications across the internet.  The cost to all of us.