Articles by Sam Hammond

Sam HammondSamuel is an MA Fellow at the Mercatus Center at GMU. He has a Master's in Economics from Carleton University, in Ottawa, Canada. Opinions are his own.

Smart Device Paranoia

by on October 5, 2015 · 0 comments

The idea that the world needs further dumbing down was really the last thing on my mind. Yet this is exactly what Jay Stanley argues for in a recent post on Free Future, the ACLU tech blog.

Specifically, Stanley is concerned by the proliferation of “smart devices,” from smart homes to smart watches, and the enigmatic algorithms that power them. Exhibit A: The Volkswagen “smart control devices” designed to deliberately mis-measure diesel emissions. Far from an isolated case, Stanley extrapolates the Volkswagen scandal into a parable about the dangers of smart devices more generally, and calls for the recognition of “the virtue of dumbness”:

When we flip a coin, its dumbness is crucial. It doesn’t know that the visiting team is the massive underdog, that the captain’s sister just died of cancer, and that the coach is at risk of losing his job. It’s the coin’s very dumbness that makes everyone turn to it as a decider. … But imagine the referee has replaced it with a computer programmed to perform a virtual coin flip. There’s a reason we recoil at that idea. If we were ever to trust a computer with such a task, it would only be after a thorough examination of the computer’s code, mainly to find out whether the computer’s decision is based on “knowledge” of some kind, or whether it is blind as it should be.

While recoiling is a bit melodramatic, it’s clear from this that “dumbness” is not even the key issue at stake. What Stanley is really concerned about is biasedness or partiality (what he dubs “neutrality anxiety”), which is not unique to “dumb” devices like coins, nor is the opacity. A physical coin can be biased, a programmed coin can be fair, and at first glance the fairness of a physical coin is not really anymore obvious.

Yet this is the argument Stanley uses to justify his proposed requirement that all smart device code be open to the public for scrutiny going forward. Based on a knee-jerk commitment to transparency, he gives zero weight to the social benefit of allowing software creators a level of trade secrecy, especially as a potential substitute to patent and copyright protections. This is all the more ironic, given that Volkswagen used existing copyright law to hide its own malfeasance.

More importantly, the idea that the only way to check a virtual coin is to look at the source code is a serious non-sequitur. After all, in-use testing was how Volkswagen was actually caught in the end. What matters, in other words, is how the coin behaves in large and varied samples. In either the virtual or physical case, the best and least intrusive way to check a coin is to simply do thousands of flips. But what takes hours with a dumb coin takes a fraction of a second with a virtual coin. So I know which I prefer.

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