Comment: Why AI is a threat to democracy—and what we can do to stop it

The developmental track of AI is a problem, and every one of us has a stake. You, me, my dad, my next-door neighbor, the guy at the Starbucks that I’m walking past right now. So what should everyday people do? Be more aware of who’s using your data and how. Take a few minutes to read work written by smart people and spend a couple minutes to figure out what it is we’re really talking about. Before you sign your life away and start sharing photos of your children, do that in an informed manner. If you’re okay with what it implies and what it could mean later on, fine, but at least have that knowledge first.

Hao, K. (2019). Why AI is a threat to democracy—and what we can do to stop it. MIT Technology Review.

I agree that we all have a stake in the outcomes of the introduction of AI-based systems, which means that we all have a responsibility in helping to shape it. While most of us can’t be involved in writing code for these systems, we can all be more intentional about what data we provide to companies working on artificial intelligence and how they use that data (on a related note, have you ever wondered just how much data is being collected by Google, for example?). Here are some of the choices I’ve made about the software that I use most frequently:

  • Mobile operating system: I run LineageOS on my phone and tablet, which is based on Android but is modified so that the data on the phone stays on the phone i.e. is not reported back to Google.
  • Desktop/laptop operating system: I’ve used various Ubuntu Linux distributions since 2004, not only because Linux really is a better OS (faster, cheaper, more secure, etc.) but because open-source software is more trustworthy.
  • Browser: I switched from Chrome to Firefox with the release of Quantum, which saw Firefox catch up in performance metrics. With privacy as the default design consideration, it was an easy move to make. You should just switch to Firefox.
  • Email: I’ve looked around – a lot – and can’t find an email provider to replace Gmail. I use various front-ends to manage my email on different devices but that doesn’t get me away from the fact that Google still processes all of my emails on the back-end. I could pay for my email service provider – and there do seem to be good options – but then I’d be paying for email.
  • Search engine: I moved from Google Search to DuckDuckGo about a year ago and can’t say that I miss Google Search all that much. Every now and again I do find that I have to go to Google, especially for images.
  • Photo storage: Again, I’ve looked around for alternatives but the combination of the free service, convenience (automatic upload of photos taken on my phone), unlimited storage (for lower res copies) and the image recognition features built into Google Photos make this very difficult to move away from.
  • To do list: I’ve used Todoist and Any.do on and off for years but eventually moved to Todo.txt because I wanted to have more control over the things that I use on a daily basis. I like the fact that my work is stored in a text file and will be backwards compatible forever.
  • Note taking: I use a combination of Simplenote and Qownnotes for my notes. Simplenote is the equivalent of sticky notes (short-term notes that I make on my phone and delete after acting on them), and Qownnotes is for long-form note-taking and writing that stores notes as text files. Again, I want to control my data and these apps give me that control along with all of the features that I care about.
  • Maps: Google Maps is without equal and is so far ahead of anyone else that it’s very difficult to move away from. However, I’ve also used Here We Go on and off and it’s not bad for simple directions.

From the list above you can see that I pay attention to how my data is stored, shared and used, and that privacy is important to me. I’m not unsophisticated in my use of technology and I still can’t get away from Google for email, photos, and maps, arguably the most important data gathering services that the company provides. Maybe there’s something that I’m missing out but companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft are so entangled in everything that we care about, I really don’t see a way to avoid using their products. The suggestion that users should be more careful about what data they share, and who they share it with, is a useful thought experiment but the practical reality is that it would very difficult indeed to avoid these companies altogether.

Google isn’t only problem. See what Facebook knows about you.

Publish or perish: A nifty little research tool

Publish or perish” is a great little research tool that retrieves and analyses your citations. It uses Google Scholar for the raw data and is then able to calculate the following:

  • Total number of papers and total number of citations
  • Average citations per paper, citations per author, papers per author, and citations per year
  • Hirsch’s h-index and related parameters
  • Egghe’s g-index
  • The contemporary h-index
  • Three variations of individual h-indices
  • The average annual increase in the individual h-index
  • The age-weighted citation rate
  • An analysis of the number of authors per paper

I’d be lying if I said I knew what most of the items in the above list mean but they sound quite impressive. I was only interested in the first 3 points on the list but the others are explained in a little bit of detail here.

There is also a “guide to effective and responsible citation analysis”, which is available online and in a variety of other formats. Publish or perish may give you some additional insight into the impact that your papers are having, and if nothing else, will take up at least an hour of your time as you explore the data.

Managing content 2.0

The past year or so has seen a move towards more sophisticated uses of the so-called “Web 2.0” technologies, a term that’s thrown around a lot these days and a formal definition of which is proving elusive. Rather than trying to define and structure it, I prefer to think of “Web 2.0” as an organic approach to computing…a merging of the traditional desktop application and online services. At some point I think there’ll be no difference between “online” and “offline” and indeed the boundaries are already increasingly difficult to make out. Google Gears, Adobe’s Integrated Runtime (AIR) and Mozilla’s Prism project are all looking to further blur the lines between the Internet and your personal computer.

Two good examples of the integration between desktop application and a user’s online experience are Zotero and Scrapbook. Both are Firefox extensions that are easily installed and have a shallow learning curve.

Zotero is fully integrated with Firefox and is described as a “next-generation research tool” that allows a user to capture relevant data from sources while browsing and storing that information in a local database for offline use. It “recognises” the structure of content and “knows” where to store information like title, author, publication and other bibliographic data. With academics and researchers spending more time finding their sources online, a tool that facilitates the process of managing content is most certainly welcome.

Articles discussing Zotero:

Scrapbook is another Firefox extension that adds a significantly enhanced note-taking feature to the browser. Users are able to capture sections of webpages (or entire sites) while browsing, edit text, make notes and add comments. Again, this content is stored locally for offline use.

Both of these extensions are examples of how new technologies are blurring the lines between “online” and “offline” and creating tools that take advantage of new approaches to content management. With the huge volume of information available today, a new approach to the managment of that content is necessary. Gone are the days when renaming a document is enough. Together with desktop search and tagging, tools like Zotero and Scrapbook are essential for anyone with a vested interest in managing a large volume of content.

Edit (07/07/08): I can’t believe I left out PDF Download, another Firefox extension that makes managing PDF documents within the browser a lot easier and more flexible.  Up until the latest release, my main use of it was the option to automatically download any PDF document, rather than open it in the browser, a process that’s really time consuming.  With the newest version, PDF Download also offers the option of converting any webpage you’re reading into a PDF, which I find really useful as I prefer working with PDF’s instead of saved webpages.

Open source alternatives to proprietary applications

I thought I’d take a moment to briefly mention a few open source alternatives to popular computer applications. The following programmes are all:
  • Open source – the source code is freely available, which usually means more stable and more secure.
  • Free – as in no cost and free from restriction.
  • Cross-platform – they run on multiple operating systems, including Linux and Windows.
  • As good as, if not better than, their proprietary counterparts.

So, here goes (by the way, this list is by no means complete):

Firefox – A very popular web browser that offers a more secure, more intuitive and faster alternative to Internet Explorer.

OpenOffice.org – An entire office suite of applications for word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, databases and drawing. It uses the OpenDocument format by default and as such, it’s use is encouraged, especially in academia and governments.

Thunderbird – An email client that is a fast, secure and stable replacement for Outlook and Outlook Express, especially if you just need something light to manage your email.

Pidgin – An single instant messaging client that allows you to use all of your IM accounts at once, including IRC, MSN, Groupwise, AIM and ICQ.

Miro – An Internet TV application to subscribe to RSS feeds of free content from a host of providers, including TED, National Geographic and the Discovery Channel.

GIMP – The Gnu Image Manipulation Program. A free alternative to Photoshop that, while lacking some high end, professional features, does more than enough for most of us.

Flock – Social web browser…if you use Facebook, Flickr, Digg, or any other social networking service, this is for you.

Ubuntu – Not a software application but an entire operating system, Ubuntu is a Linux distribution based on Debian. Click here for the Wikipedia article.

Another great application to run, although once it’s set up you’ll hardly ever notice it, is BOINC (click here for the Wikipedia article). After installing the software, register with various projects and join millions of other users who donate their computer’s idle time to solving complex medical, scientific and mathematical problems. I can suggest the World Community Grid to begin with.

And while I’m at it, here’s a link to a post that discusses some of the problems with using Microsoft Word. I personally don’t mind receiving Word documents and understand that many institutions don’t give their employees a choice, but the first step is realising that you actually have a choice.