Daniel Suarez And Bot-mediated Reality

Over the break a friend linked me to a tremendous speech given at the Long Now Foundation by IT security consultant-turned author Daniel Suarez. Here’s the video, it’s an hour plus questions. I’ll give my summary and take on it below.

Well you sure watched that quickly! For those who are busy and those who skimmed, Suarez’s argument breaks down roughly like this:

Our world is full of robots. They’re not machine assembly line robots, nor are they wheeling around shouting “Danger Will Robinson.” Instead, they’re small bits of software that each do one thing, and do it very well. The history of computing has taught us that thinking machines are good at doing things quickly and doing them over and over, and that’s generally what these bots (short for robots) do; they perform their tasks relentlessly and single-mindedly.

At first, these bots were used to augment the abilities of humans and allow them to have greater responsibility and reach, but increasingly they are replacing people themselves, often in positions that typically made decisions that affect other people. An example that Suarez uses is bots that review credit history data to decide whether or not a given person is approved for a loan: some time ago some person made the decision that people fitting x criteria would be approved, while people meeting y criteria would not. The bot then implements this decision across all records that are sent its way, and in many cases, the repercussions of its decision  has livelihood-impacting results on the lives of the credit applicant.

Bots thrive on the Internet, as they’re not penalized for not having physical, motile bodies online. As more and more of our society has machines embedded in it, there will be more and more information generated for these bots to scour and analyze. In 2010 here at nGenera Insight, two of our main research topics–Pervasive Personal Identity and the Digital Identity Revolution, and Managing in the Age of Unbounded data–are issues that can exist only because of the efforts of software robots. It’s a big issue in our minds, but for Suarez it’s even bigger, and we need to have a serious discussion about the role that these automated, unflinching, and increasingly empowered pieces of software have in our lives and society.

It’s been a couple of days now since I first watched the video, and I’ve been rolling the argument back and forth a bit looking for problems with it: I haven’t come up with much at all. There’s great potential for good to be done with the information collected by these bots, and from the analysis and distillations they perform, but as it stands, the design of the world’s information infrastructure (that is, the internet and the devices that are constantly added to it) give end users/consumers/citizens very little control over their own information and the information collected about them. Suarez is right that we need to have an open and frank discussion about these elements, but I think first we need to really define the space and make sure we’re all on the same page.