Unboxing Google’s 7 new principles on Artificial Intelligence

How many times have you heard that Artificial Intelligence (AI) is humanity’s biggest threat? Some people think that Google brought us a step closer to a dark future when Duplex was announced last month, a new capability of Google’s digital Assistant that enables it to make phone calls on your behalf to book appointments with small businesses. You can see it in action here:

The root of the controversy lied on the fact that the Assistant successfully pretended to be a real human, never disclosing its true identity to the other side of the call. Many tech experts wondered if this is an ethical practice or if it’s necessary to hide the digital nature of the voice.

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Google was also criticized last month by another sensitive topic: the company’s involvement in a Pentagon program that uses AI to interpret video imagery and could be used to improve the targeting of drone strikes. Thousands of employees signed a letter protesting the program and asking for change:

“We believe that Google should not be in the business of war. Therefore we ask that Project Maven be cancelled, and that Google draft, publicize and enforce a clear policy stating that neither Google nor its contractors will ever build warfare technology.”

A “clear policy” around AI is a bold ask because none of the big players have ever done it before, and for good reasons. It is such a new and powerful technology that it’s still unclear how many areas of our life will we dare to infuse with it, and it’s difficult to set rules around the unknown. Google Duplex is a good example of this, it’s a technological development that we would have considered “magical” 10 years ago, that today scares many people.

Regardless, Sundar Pichai not only complied with the request, but took it a step further by creating 7 principles that the company will promote and enforce as one of the industry drivers of AI. Here are some remarks on each of them:

1. Be socially beneficial

For years, we have dealt with comfortable boundaries, creating increasingly intelligent entities in very focused areas. AI is now getting the ability to switch between different domain areas in a transparent way for the user. For example, having an AI that knows your habits at home is very convenient, especially when your home appliances are connected to the same network. When that same AI also knows your habits outside home, like your favorite restaurants, your friends, your calendar, etc., its influence in your life can become scary. It’s precisely this convenience that is pushing us out of our comfort zone.

This principle is the most important one since it bows to “respect cultural, social, and legal norms”. It’s a broad principle, but it’s intended to ease that uncomfortable feeling by adapting AI to our times and letting it evolve at the same pace as our social conventions do.

2. Avoid creating or reinforcing unfair bias

AI can become racist if we allow it. A good example of this happened in March 2016, when Microsoft unveiled an AI with a Twitter interface and in less than a day people taught it the worst aspects of our humanity. AI learns by example, so ensuring that safeguards are in place to avoid this type of situations is critical. Our kids are going to grow in a world increasingly assisted by AI, so we need to educate the system before it’s exposed to internet trolls and other bad players.

3. Be built and tested for safety

This point goes hand in hand with the previous one. In fact, Microsoft’s response to the Tai fiasco was to take it down and admit an oversight on the type of scenarios that the AI was tested against. Safety should always be one of the first considerations when designing an AI.

4. Be accountable to people

The biggest criticism Google Duplex received was whether or not it was ethical to mimic a real human without letting other humans know. I’m glad that this principle just states that “technologies will be subject to appropriate human direction and control”, since it doesn’t discount the possibility of building human-like AIs in the future.

An AI that makes a phone call on our behalf must sound as human as possible, since it’s the best way of ensuring a smooth interaction with the person on the other side. Human-like AIs shall be designed with respect, patience and empathy in mind, but also with human monitoring and control capabilities.

5. Incorporate privacy design principles

When the convenience created by AI intersects with our personal feelings or private data, a new concern is revealed: our personal data can be used against us. Cambridge Analytica’s incident, where personal data was shared with unauthorized third parties, magnified the problem by jeopardizing user’s trust in technology.

Google didn’t use many words on this principle, probably because it’s the most difficult one to clarify without directly impacting their business model. However, it represents the biggest tech challenge of the decade, to find the balance between giving up your privacy and getting a reasonable benefit in return. Providing “appropriate transparency and control over the use of data” is the right mitigation, but it won’t make us less uncomfortable when an AI knows the most intimate details about our lives.

6. Uphold high standards of scientific excellence

An open approach to building the AI systems of tomorrow is the best way of keeping any company honest. Providing access to “educational materials, best practices, and research that enable more people to develop useful AI applications” is a great commitment because it can expose problems faster and help find solutions sooner.

7. Be made available for uses that accord with these principles

It’s not an accident that this last principle is the predecessor of a section that outlines the applications that Google promises not to pursue. Many people fear AI just because they imagine what could go wrong if a faulty and uncontrollable system had the capability to make judgement calls on human behavior.

Google promises not to build AIs that can cause physical harm, promote surveillance that “violates internationally accepted norms” or any type of law/human right violation.

These principles are an invaluable start and a commendable attempt to establish the rules that will drive us towards the future. But they are not enough, proper regulation should be there to protect consumers. We are on the verge of a long journey involving AI that will change us, and we need to push forward and ensure that the proper guidelines are in place. Self-regulation cannot be the only type of control we see on AI. We need to push the tech industry towards the highest standards, for our future’s sake.

You can read Google’s principles here.


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Fixing Facebook’s privacy problem

Facebook has been receiving criticism once again for how they handled users’ personal data. Here is a quick summary: in 2013, a 3rd party developer acquired large amounts of data from about 50 million users through an old platform capability (which was removed by Facebook itself one year later to prevent abuse); this data was then used to target US voters during the 2016 Presidential Election. The issue is complex in depth and it highlights a bigger underlying problem: users’ privacy expectations are not aligned with the commitment from most tech companies.

Zuckerberg said in a recent interview with Wired, “early on […] we had this very idealistic vision around how data portability would allow all these different new experiences, and I think the feedback that we’ve gotten from our community and from the world is that privacy and having the data locked down is more important to people.”

Regardless, Facebook never committed to fully lock down users’ data, and their business model was in fact built around the value that data can have for advertisers through interest relevance and demographic targeting. Google and Facebook accounted for 73% of all US digital ad revenue in the second quarter of FY18, up from 63% two years before.

I can nonetheless relate to that idealistic vision between privacy and technology. The more information the Google Assistant knows about the music I like, the better it can personalize my listening experience. Richer actions become available too, like allowing me to control the Nest thermostat or the lights by voice. At the end of the day, I’m trusting Google with my music taste and the devices installed in my house, and I get the benefit of convenience in return.

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Would you give up your privacy for unlimited movies? interview with René Sánchez from CineSinFronteras.com

MoviePass is a subscription-based service that allows users to watch almost any movie in theaters for a flat monthly rate. In August, the company announced a surprisingly low price of $9.95, leaving many scratching their heads. I interviewed René Sánchez, cinema expert and movie critic at CineSinFronteras.com, and we discussed the privacy implications and the potential impact to the online streaming industry.

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Even though I’ve been using it for a month already, it still feels too good to be true. Were you surprised by the MoviePass announcement?

Yes, I was surprised by their announcement to reduce the monthly subscription price to just $9.95. It is such an amazing deal, especially when you consider that a regular, 2D movie here in the Seattle metro area costs between $12-15. So even if you only watch one movie every month, you will be saving some dollars with MoviePass! What shocked me the most was to know that the major exhibitors and theater chains were onboard with this change. I expected a lot of pushback from them, considering their old-school ways to operate. So far, only AMC has tried (and failed) to restrict the use of MoviePass in their theaters.

What’s the problem that MoviePass is trying to solve?

People don’t go to the movie theaters anymore. Studios and exhibitors keep blaming Netflix and other rival streaming platforms for their audience loss, instead of recognizing the real root cause: the movie-going experience has become very expensive and obsolete. Ticket prices rise every year (the same goes for concessions), studios keep releasing sequels and remakes no one asked for, and most multiplexes scream for renovations (uncomfortable seats, run-down interiors, and poor image and sound quality). To top it off, patrons can sometimes be rude and annoying.

Again, it’s really not Netflix’s fault that people want to stay at home, rather than going out to watch a movie. Who wants to pay more than $60 (including tickets, food and parking/Uber) to enjoy a mediocre movie in a rickety auditorium, while everyone else is either talking or staring at their phones?

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Why did you stop posting on Facebook?

Many of my friends have stopped posting on Facebook. Some have uninstalled the app and others even deleted their accounts.

They are not posting on Twitter either, and the more ephemeral Snapchat hasn’t reached critical mass among my closest friends.

Instagram is the only place where I still get a glimpse of the most intimate side of the people I love the most, but I’d say only 20% of my online friends actively use it.

What causes someone to stop sharing on social media? Is it a natural part of being over 30? Or is there an actual problem with the platform? Talking to 12 of these friends, I learned that there are several groups.

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Apple vs FBI, who’s right?

You might think that this case is an easy one, that Apple wants to protect its customers’ privacy and the government doesn’t, that Apple is right and the FBI is not. Well, it’s not that simple.

First, let me provide a little bit of context:

  1. On December 2, 2015, Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife Tafsheen Malik shot and killed 14 people and injured 22 others at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California.
  2. The FBI recovered an iPhone 5c, issued by Farook’s employer, which “may contain critical communications and data prior to and around the time of the shooting“.
  3. The FBI obtained a warrant to search the iPhone, and the owner of the iPhone gave the FBI its consent.
  4. The iPhone is locked and the FBI asked Apple to help execute the search warrant.

Apple refused on a very long letter written by CEO Tim Cook (full text here). Here’s a little extract:

Specifically, the FBI wants us to make a new version of the iPhone operating system, circumventing several important security features, and install it on an iPhone recovered during the investigation. In the wrong hands, this software — which does not exist today — would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession.

The FBI may use different words to describe this tool, but make no mistake: Building a version of iOS that bypasses security in this way would undeniably create a backdoor. And while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control.

After reading that letter, I concluded that Apple was right, but after a discussion with a good friend, I realized that my conclusion was too simplistic.

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About the Sony hack and ‘The Interview’

2014 has been a year filled with privacy issues, hacks and data leaks. Some of the most memorable cases include the Snapchat hacks (which leaked around 4.6 million usernames and phone numbers in January, and about 100k images from users in October), the iCloud photo leaks (releasing about 500 private pictures of celebrities in August) and more recently, the infamous Sony hack (leaking personal data, emails, movie scripts and even copies of unreleased films from Sony Pictures Entertainment).

This last hack is still unfolding, and it’s not only impacting Hollywood’s world: last week, Snapchat’s business plans were disclosed through leaked emails from Sony Pictures Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton, who also happens to be on Snapchat’s board.

The saddened memo sent after that by Evan Spiegel left me thinking once more about the power of secrets, especially this sentence:

We keep secrets because we get to do our work free from judgment – until we’re ready to share it. We keep secrets because keeping secrets gives you space to change your mind until you’re really sure that you’re right.

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Would you sell your driving privacy for a potential discount?

I attended a presentation by Kevin Mitnick several years ago where he claimed that he could get a person’s account password by offering them a pen, by the end of the presentation he was able to get several. In reality people do give up their information for a benefit, Google gives you free search results, Facebook keeps you connected with friends for free, Nielsen pays you to know your TV habits and even the government with their NSA programs provides security (although this has been controversial to say the least).

I first heard about Progressive from my marketing professor, who raved about them. He really loved this company due to their offerings and their great marketing. He also talked about their Snapshot program where Progressive sends a customer a device that tracks their driving habits and provides a discount to do so. At the time, I was very happy with my car insurance but started noticing the advertisement around this program. I found it very intriguing and was curious about it. Last August when I bought a new car my insurance company dropped the ball and I decided to give Progressive a try.

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