From the Big Bang Theory: as Sheldon fails to recognize that Penny is speaking to him sarcastically, Leonard holds up a sign

That didn’t take long. Since last week’s fret about AI startups ignoring the robots.txt convention, Thomas Claburn has reported at The Register that Cloudflare has developed a scraping prevention tool that identifies and blocks “content extraction” bots attempting to crawl sites at scale.

It’s a stopgap, not a solution. As Cloudflare’s announcement makes clear, the company knows there will be pushback; given these companies’ lack of interest in following existing norms, blocking tools versus scraping bots is basically the latest arms race (previously on this plotline: spam). Also, obviously, the tool only works on sites that are Cloudflare customers. Although these include many of the web’s largest sites, there are hundreds of millions more that won’t, don’t, or can’t pay for its services. If we want to return control to site owners, we’re going to need a more permanent and accesible solution.

In his 1999 book Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, Lawrence Lessig finds four forms of regulation: norms, law, markets, and architecture. Norms are failing. Markets will just mean prolonged arms races. We’re going to need law and architecture.


We appear to be reaching peak “AI” hype, defined by (as in the peak of app hype) the increasing absurdity of things venture capitalists seem willing to fund. I recall reading the comment that at the peak of app silliness a lot of startups were really just putting a technological gloss on services that young men will previously have had supplied by their mothers. The AI bubble seems to be even less productive of long-term value, calling things “AI” that are not at all novel, and proposing “AI” to patch problems that call for real change.

As an example of the first of those, my new washing machine has a setting called “AI patterns”. The manual explains: it reorders the preset programs on the machine’s dial so the ones you use most appear first. It’s not stupid (although I’ve turned it off anyway, along with the wifi and “smart” features I would rather not pay for), but let’s call it what it is: customizing a menu.

As an example of the second…at Gizmodo, Maxwell Zeff reports that Softbank is claiming to have developed an “emotion canceling” AI that “alters angry voices into calm ones”. The use Softbank envisages is to lessen the stress for call center employees by softening the voices of angry customers without changing their actual words. There are, as people pointed out on Mastodon after the article was posted there, a lot smarter alternatives to reducing those individuals’ stress. Like giving them better employment conditions, or – and here’s a really radical thought – designing your services and products so your customers aren’t so frustrated and angry. What this software does is just falsify the sound. My guess is that if there is a result it will be to make customers even more angry and frustrated. More anger in the world. Great.


Oh! Sarcasm, even if only slight! At the Guardian, Ned Carter Miles reports on “emotional AI” (can we say “oxymoron”?). Among his examples is a team at the University of Groningen that is teaching an AI to recognize sarcasm using scenes from US sitcoms such as Friends and The Big Bang Theory. Even absurd-sounding research can be a good thing. I’m still not sure how good a guide sitcoms are for identifying emotions in real-world context even apart from the usual issues of algorithmic bias. After all, actors are given carefully crafted words and work harder to communicate their emotional content than ordinary people normally do.


Finally, again in the category of peak-AI-hype is this: at the New York Times Cade Metz is reporting that Ilya Sutskever, a co-founder and former chief scientist at OpenAI, has a new startup whose goal is to create a “safe superintelligence”.

Even if you, unlike me, believe that a “superintelligence” is an imminent possibility, what does “safe” mean, especially in an industry that still treats security and accessibility as add-ons? “Safe” is, like “secure”, meaningless without context and a threat model. Safe from what? Safe for what? To do what? Operated by whom? Owned by whom? With what motives? For how long? We create new intelligent humans all the time. Do we have any ability to ensure they’re “safe” technology? If an AGI is going to be smarter than a human, how can anyone possibly promise it will be, in the industry parlance, “aligned” with our goals? And for what value of “our”? Beware the people who want to build the Torment Nexus!

It’s nonsense. Safety can’t be programmed into a superintelligence any more than Isaac Asimov’s Laws of Robotics.

Sutskever’s own comments are equivocal. In a video clip at the Guardian, Sutsekver confusingly says both that “AI will solve all our problems” and that it will make fake news, cyber attacks, and weapons much worse and “has the potential to create infinitely stable dictatorships”. Then he adds, “I feel that technology is a force of nature.” Which is exactly the opposite of what technology is…but it suits the industry to push the inevitability narrative that technological progress cannot be stopped.

Cue Douglas Adams: “This is obviously some strange use of the word ‘safe’ I wasn’t previously aware of.”

Illustrations: The Big Bang Theory‘s Leonard (Johnny Galecki) teaching Sheldon (Jim Parsons) about sarcasm (Season 1, episode 2, “The Big Bran Hypothesis”).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon.

Author: Wendy M. Grossman

Covering computers, freedom, and privacy since 1991.

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