Let’s start with a story. This might be my favorite story in all the annals of geekdom, which is saying something for someone whose literal job is “purveyor of geeky stories.” On March 1, 1990, in AG’s beloved hometown of Austin, Texas, the United States Secret Service raided a “suspected ring of hackers.”
It was a full-on, TV level bust: armed agents broke locks, tore up files, carted off computers, even did that “simultaneous raid so the masterminds can’t get word to their button men” thing at the home of one of the people involved. Hooray! The cops beat the bad guys! Not so much.
Right reason, wrong time
Three years and a court decision later, the Secret Service had to fess up: they’d raided a game company. A tabletop game company. As in paper and dice, neither noted for being connected to the Internet. They weren’t hackers. At all. They’d written a game about hackers, and in the grim darkness of 1990, the Secret Service was fuzzy on the difference. That poor guy who got his very own private raid? He wrote their cyberpunk setting, and had dared to do research on the subject.
That’s as close as anyone there got to l33t h4x0r doings, and it turned out to be close enough for armed cops in a private citizen’s living room without an invitation.
There’s a halfway happy ending to that story, involving money paid to the company, an epic tonguelashing from a circuit court judge, and the founding of the leading advocacy organization for digital privacy rights, but the point is the Secret Service. Their actions weren’t malicious. Stupid, yes. Hilarious in hindsight, absolutely. Catastrophic to a small business innocent of any wrongdoing, big time. But they thought they were doing the right thing. They just Did It Wrong.
Doing It Wrong
As AI saturates our lives, I reflect, as I often do, on Doing It Wrong. Fundamentally, that ridiculous case came down to a misunderstanding of context. The Secret Service didn’t have the background or expertise to differentiate between hacking and a game about hacking. That’s absurd, that’s their job, but they didn’t.
Hacking, at least most hacking, is still a bad thing.
As simultaneously hilarious and horrible as it is to pull the equivalent of yanking a guy off his couch and charging him with murder for shooting someone in “Call of Duty,” shooting people is generally undesirable outside a fictional context.
Does AI know that?
Can AI make the distinction between “die, [expletive here]” in your favorite combat simulator and “die, [expletive here]” when an unpleasant person attempts to end the pizza guy with a fork? Because the Secret Service couldn’t, and they were human. Humans are pre-built for context. Computers have to be made that way, and it’s usually really hard. That’s a shade worrisome, what with AI growing like kudzu and the data it collects being used for everything from market analysis to, yes, murder investigations.
So consider this a gentle reminder that even the smartest computer is still fundamentally a box of switches.
Zero and one, off and on, puts certain limitations on a binary system’s ability to comprehend the complex, subjective, frankly weird human condition. Getting AI to understand context is a top priority for some of the best minds in computer science, but while they’re working we h. sapiens will have to double down on patience and nuance, because one of our most pervasive tools won’t be very good at either. They may never be as good at it as we are, though three years ago I’d have said that about go.
Mind your audience
For at least the next few years, everyone from multinational corporations and national governments down to the data junkies and media consumers reading this article will need to exercise some extra caution when it comes to AI and its assessment of people and their doings.AI doesn’t understand us quite yet.
[clickToTweet tweet=”AI still lacks the ability to know context when listening to human conversation.” quote=”It is, if not blind, at least a little nearsighted when it comes to context, which is basically the most important human thing.”]
We’re going to have to keep doing that part ourselves. Fail in this, and you risk becoming your own hilarious Doing It Wrong cautionary tale. Nobody wants that.
This story originally ran on July 26, 2017.