Friday 26 July 2013

Computable numbers, computable humans?


Does Amazon know more about you than most of your friends do? Probably much more.  Also Visa, Mastercard, eBay, Google and Prism. When doing my tax returns I found that I often visited the same petrol station at the same time of the month, putting in almost the same amount of fuel. What seemed to me a random act was known by my credit card company to be a predictable act, valuable to a hit man or a car salesman (whichever bid the higher price for the knowledge).

Despite the concerns, most of this is good news. The commercial providers can offer us exciting new books and products. (Every time I open a webpage the ads dutifully reflect my latest sales enquiries). The spooks may help us by catching evil people who are trying to blow us up. (Not using a credit card on a Friday is a dead giveaway). I am grateful. They may also catch me having dangerous thoughts. I am less grateful, and somewhat resentful. However, I will trade a little intrusion for a little more safety. Problem is, I do not know how much intrusion for how much safety.

George Dyson has written a most interesting essay in Edge, a site which generally provides a good read. The whole thing is here:

Dyson argues, with reference to Turing’s essay “On Computable Numbers” that you can never know what a system can do without running it to find out, that is, you cannot determine all the consequences of a code by analysing the code, it must be allowed to operate a bit.

Turing’s paper is readable by those like me who lack sufficient maths to understand the specific mathematical problem he was dealing with, but have sufficient knowledge of old-style programming to understand that this is the dawn of the computer age. It is charming to see him setting out how a computer would solve his problem, and much of it seems familiar, though it was being written for the first time.

At Bletchley Park I saw an exhibition about Turing which included a letter from his Sherborne schoolteacher, describing him as “one of the two brightest boys I have taught”. Given that the schoolboy Turing was able to read Einstein’s 1905 relativity paper and work out a new implication from it, one is tempted to dig up the schoolteacher’s grave, or at least his collected papers to ask “what the hell happened to the other boy?”

Dyson continues: “The ultimate goal of signals intelligence and analysis is to learn not only what is being said, and what is being done, but what is being thought. With the proliferation of search engines that directly track the links between individual human minds and the words, images, and ideas that both characterize and increasingly constitute their thoughts, this goal appears within reach at last. "But, how can the machine know what I think?" you ask. It does not need to know what you think—no more than one person ever really knows what another person thinks. A reasonable guess at what you are thinking is good enough.”

So, the Government knows lots about us, about our thoughts, and as a consequence about our likely behaviours. Big data is a boon to Big Government. They can probably spot (within the boundaries of a reasonable guess) exactly when I totally lose patience with the intrusions of an over-bearing State, and decide to take malevolent actions against them.

Dyson cautions: “Any formal system that is granted (or assumes) the absolute power to protect itself against dangerous ideas will of necessity also be defensive against original and creative thoughts.”

He argues that there is nothing wrong with a State trying to protect its citizens, except the very fact of not being honest about it. He commends the UK for having many public surveillance cameras, but open discussion about them, and a legal framework determining how they can be utilised.

Dyson does not mention that this Mephistophelian bargain (high security to protect secrets reduces the freedom to communicate ideas) was rejected by Edward Teller, the “father” of the H bomb, who said that the cost of security was always too high, and the the US should drop all secrecy, including nuclear weapons secrets, and make everything known, because the explosion of talent would ensure that it was always well ahead of closed, secretive regimes. (Like many others, I think Teller knifed Oppenheimer in the back on the issue of his security clearance, but a good idea is a good idea, whoever propounds it).

Anyway, I hope these summer thoughts get read by a Government official somewhere, who will thus change my classification from “Harmless” to “Relatively Harmless”.


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