Let the Machines Decide

The GPS device in my car knows the speed limit for the road I’m driving on, and displays that information for me on its screen. Nice. Nobody needs another speeding ticket. But what if my ‘smart car’ refused to go over that limit, even if I wanted it to? You know, the wife shouting from the backseat, about to give birth, the hospital four blocks away, that sort of thing.

David Hilowitz photo
David Hilowitz photo

It’s a scenario not far removed from reality. Google’s robotic car has inspired many futurists to imagine a computer that controls not only the speed of your car, but also where it goes, diverting your car away from congestion points toward alternate routes to your destination. Evgeny Morozov is among these futurists, and in a recent article in The Observer, he suggests that computers may soon be in a position to usurp many functions that we have traditionally assigned to government. “Algorithmic regulation,” he calls it. We can imagine government bureaucrats joining the unemployment line to fill out a form that will allow a computer to judge whether they are worthy of benefits or no.

Examples of machines making decisions previously assigned to humans are already easily found. If the ebook downloaded to my Kobo has a hold placed on it, the Vancouver Public Library’s computer will unceremoniously retrieve it from my e-reader upon its due date, regardless of whether I have just 10 more pages to read, and would be willing to pay the overdue fine in order to do so.

But Morozov’s cautionary critique is about a wider phenomenon, and it’s largely the ‘internet of things’ which is fuelling his concern. The internet of things is most pointedly about the process which will see digital chips migrate out of electronic devices, into those things which we have until now tended to consider inanimate, non-electronic objects, things like your door, or your mattress. It may well be that in future a computer somewhere will be informed about it when you don’t spend the night at home.

Maybe you spent the night on a friend’s couch, after one too many. Maybe you ate some greasy fast food that night too. And maybe you haven’t worked out at your club’s gym for more than six months now. The data gathering upshot of this at least arguably unhealthy behavior is that you may be considered higher risk by a life insurance company, and so proffered a higher premium.

Presumably there is a human being at the end of this theoretical decision-making chain, but I think we’ve all learned that it’s never safe to assume that digital tech won’t take over any particular role, and certainly whatever the imagined final decision taken as to your insurance risk, certainly it will be informed by data collection done by digital machines.

The most chilling note struck in Morozov’s piece comes, for me, when he quotes Tim O’Reilly, technology publisher and venture capitalist, referring to precisely this industry: “I think that insurance is going to be the native business model for the internet of things.”

Now isn’t that heartening. Corporate insurance as the business model of the near future.

The gist of what is alarming about the prospect of digital machines taking increasing control of our lives is that it suggests that the ‘depersonalization’ we have all been living through for the last three-plus decades is only the beginning. It’s “day one,” as Jeff Bezos likes to say about the digital revolution. It suggests that we can look forward to feeling like a true speck of dust in the infinite cosmic universe of corporate society, with absolutely no living being to talk to should we ever wish to take an unnecessary risk, diverge from the chosen route, or pay the fine instead.

For all the libertarian noise that folks from Silicon Valley make about efficiency and disruption, let no one be fooled: the slick algorithmic regulation that replaces decisions made by people, whether government bureaucrats or not, may be more objective, but it will not bring greater freedom.

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