Monday, May 28, 2018

Memorial Day Thoughts: No New Civil War

Suddenly everyone on them Twitters is talking about a coming civil war, based primarily on this expert assessment that is umm... meaningless.

Memorial Day was, of course, started to honor the dead of the Civil War. It was established in great part due to the efforts of John Logan, a truly great American. He was a citizen-soldier, a war hero, and an accomplished politician. He founded the Grand Army of the Republic, a veterans group, after the Civil War and as a politician tirelessly advocated for the rights for freed slaves. I work near Logan Circle, where his Washington home stands and where there is an impressive monument to him. (He also ran for vice president.)

The deaths in the Civil War are hard for us to comprehend. Fully half of all of the Americans killed in war where in that conflict. Over 600,000 Americans died, from a population base one-tenth of todays. A new Civil War on such a scale would take six million lives. It would bring unfathomable horrors.

It was faced with the aftermath of these enormous losses, that Memorial Day (originally Decoration Day) was established.

We are nowhere near this. Not even close. (There are political scientists who specialize in Civil War who could, undoubtedly explain through comparative analysis why the U.S. is not heading into Civil War.)

The Civil War occurred because there was a massive, unconscionable crime that was irreconcilable with the core values of the American people. There were also powerful vested interests that would not compromise on the issue. The economy of the South relied on slavery - at least for the region's elites.

Things feel and in many ways are awful now. But not Civil War awful. This is not to lessen the cruelties that are currently pervasive in our society. The monstrous policies towards migrants, the continuing institutional racism, and the growing income inequality leading to mass immiseration. But how is a Civil War appropriate or necessary to rectify this? Against and between whom?

One of the things that spurred this talk of Civil War was the August 2017 neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, VA. It was, of course, distressing and terrible to see Nazis marching in mass and the president's mealy mouthed response only contributed to the feeling that our nation might break. But what has happened since? Many alt-right groups - under law enforcement pressure - began to implode and their leader is now begging for funds - without much success. 

None of this is to say that things are going swimmingly in these here United States. By all means we should exert every effort to try to right ourselves as a nation. But the clear and vast injustice simply does not exist.

Political Violence in a Period of Creedal Passion
Interestingly, the original post that sparked this conversation specifically said, that they weren't really thinking about a full on war. The post author wrote:
Definition: By “civil war,” I don’t necessarily mean set-piece battles and Pickett’s Charge. I do mean widespread political violence with parallel (though not necessarily connected) efforts to reject current political authority in certain legal domains or physical spaces.
That is another story entirely and yes, that is going to happen. We are in a period of creedal passion, in which we try to remake ourselves in line with out values. Outlined by Samuel Huntington, periods of Creedal Passion are characterized by broad questioning of authority, in which privilege and hierarchy comes under attack, and even potential violation of norms comes under attack.

The last round was the 1960s, which had a bit of political violence.

There are numerous communities within the U.S. which feel that the nation is headed the wrong way and might turn to violence. We've seen it from the "alt-right" and there is certainly potential from the truly massive sovereign citizens movement. I would not discount the potential of violence from other vectors as well. The emotions stirred up in periods of creedal passion are powerful, and when that happens the disturbed radicals may feel that the wind is at their back.

Also, I believe that new gun control measures are coming. The NRA has won politically for a long time. But nothing is permanent. When those measures come, the vast majority of American gun owners will accept them. A few won't.

None of this is a true Civil War, and frankly all of this violence in total will be a fraction of the appalling level of criminal violence our society already tolerates. But of course political violence, particularly if it has a spectacular element, has a way of resonating in the public imagination.

And therein lies the danger, not of secession. But rather that low-level violence further degrades trust, perhaps on a scale that it cannot be repaired.

Perhaps in the context Memorial Day is more important than ever as we focus on our deepest beliefs and how much so many have sacrificed for them.

Update: I just want to clarify this civil war thing. What if President Donny Two-Scoops is impeached. What then? Could that trigger a civil war? Seriously, Alabama (yea, I'm talking to you) would you secede for this guy? Would that make sense? 

I remember during the 2000 election imbroglio reading the Egyptian press. They were convinced the U.S. was on the verge of a Civil War. But really, who would strap on weapons for Al Gore or George W. Bush. I think now is the same.

Political violence, sadly, yes. Civil war, no.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Technology, Risk and Facebook's Dating Service

Facebook, thanks for providing the perfect demonstration of my recent paper on risk communication and technology, presented at WeRobot2018. In starting a new dating service, Facebook shows exactly the cluelessness that I worried tech world had about public attitudes.

Full disclosure, I really like Facebook. I enjoy it immensely and there is a decent chance readers will find this post through Facebook. Further, on the whole I am a fan of new technology, we've seen great things happen in recent decades. My paper is a bit of a cri de coeur to tech world urging them to consider public perceptions so that when they do something ill-advised they don't face backlash that stymies innovation.

Let me start from the beginning.

Communicating Risk
Robots, that is, in the words of the inestimable Laurel Riek, are: physically embodied systems capable of enacting physical change in the world. This change, either locomotion or manipulation, means this systems will be able to do harm. The paper includes an in-depth taxonomy of vectors of harm robots may do. Further, many, although not all, robots are directed by non-deterministic algorithms, which means that they may act in unpredictable ways. (The tragic Uber self-driving vehicle accident is an example.) On the whole, these systems have enormous potential to bring benefits, but that must be balanced against the potential for harm.

To make informed decisions about using and interacting with robots, people need essential information. Ensuring people have this information is the role of risk communication.

The paper begins with a summary of risk communication, a well developed field. There has been extensive research on risk communication and public health and environmental issues, as well as the subfield of crisis communications. There has been extensive research about how to best communicate probabilities, what type of language to use, and what mechanisms are most effective for reaching audiences. This is not to say it is a settled science, much of the work is intuitive and every issue and situation will require new approaches.

Further - and this is big - people vastly overestimate how well they understand others and how well they are understood. This, from my cursory reading, is central to communications theory and makes all of this really hard. A communicator might think they did a bang-up job, but the key points recalled by the recipient were not what was intended.

The obvious conclusion is that the robotics industry should start studying this field and figure out how to apply it. But there's more (and I'm coming back to Facebook - even though they aren't building robots.)

Risk Perception
But there's more. A lot more. The risk communication process described above is a rational cost benefit analysis process. But that is not how people make decisions. Certain types of risks and benefits loom large in people's minds out of proportion to their probability. The classic case is terrorism, which your TerrorWonk will readily point out is much less likely to kill someone in the U.S. than a car accident. But this offers little comfort, people understand car accidents and feel they have some control. Terrorism is poorly understood, uncontrolled, and potentially catastrophic. Terrorism, in particular, inspires dread because there is an active adversary behind it.

It would be easy to dismiss these concerns as irrational, but also unwise. Paul Slovic, one of the giants of this field, wrote:
Perhaps the most important message from this research is that there is wisdom as well as error in public attitudes and perceptions. Lay people sometimes lack certain information about hazards. However, their basic conceptualizations of risk is much richer than that of experts and reflects legitimate concerns that are typically omitted from expert risk assessments.
Donald MacGregor, of MacGregor-Bates Applied Decision Concepts, put it more bluntly, telling me:
Familiarity with the technical risk analysis can breed contempt for those who don't share the same views of risk. 
This is where businesses, industries, and governments can get into trouble, when they do not consider these perceptions of risk a failure can lead to a "signal" event that triggers public concern of catastrophic impact. The classic case is the nuclear power industry. They did not consider seriously the potential of an accident, did not engage in serious risk communication, and when Three Mile Island occurred the public was frightened. Even though the accident did no real damage, the public perception shifted quickly and nuclear power development was effectively halted in the United States.

In the paper I discussed how robots, because they are perceived as having agency and because their actions may not be well understood may trigger high levels of perceived risk and could trigger a signal event. I'll go farther and say that tech world more broadly is not immune to this possibility.

A Matter of Trust
Effective risk communication relies on trust. If the communicator has trust, the audiences will hear their message and bear some risks. Trust however is very hard to build, requiring extensive two-way communication. It is also very, very easy to lose.

My concern is that tech world is assuming a high level of public trust. Facebook (remember them) has the famous slogan: move fast and break things.

Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt told an audience at MIT: Instead of spending all day worrying, why don't you wait until there's a near miss... Let's not translate that worry into premature constraints on the innovators....

In tech world the belief appears to be that when inevitable failures occur, the public will understand. But this reservoir may not exist and when signal events occur, there will be broad regulatory and public backlash.

Back to Facebook
That brings us back to Facebook's dating service (I don't doubt, by the way, the company's ability to do some effective analytics on this). After the Cambridge Analytica imbroglio, the company is under increasing scrutiny. That scrutiny is not going to be limited to the issues around the 2016 election, it will extend more broadly into what Facebook does with the data it gathers. They are, to their credit, making some moves to better meet privacy concerns.

Given this situation is now a good time to consider a bold new endeavor that leverages very personal information? Further, there are going to be incidents of violence and harassment linked to this dating service - this is a matter of percentages, given the unfortunate and terrible reality of violence against women. Even if Facebook does a masterful job and is incredibly effective at screening out those with violent tendencies (and this is very hard to do), their algorithm will not be perfect.

When this happens Facebook is very likely to be held responsible. Their arguments that they have done everything possible to protect the participants in their dating site will not sway and angry public. When they appeal to the public on the basis of the good they've done, Facebook may find that it has few friends.