The History of Rules

Interview with Lorraine Daston: “The rules book began with an everyday observation of the dazzling variety and ubiquity of rules. Every culture has rules, but they’re all different.

I eventually settled on three major meanings of rules: rules as laws, rules as algorithms, and finally, rules as models. The latter meaning was predominant in the Western tradition until the end of the 18th century, and I set out to trace what happened to rules as models, but also the rise of algorithmic rules. It’s hard to imagine now, but the word algorithm didn’t even have an entry in the most comprehensive mathematical encyclopedias of the late 19th century.

To get at these changes over time, I cast my nets very wide. I looked at cookbooks, I looked at the rules of warfare. I looked at rules of games. I looked at rules of monastic orders and traffic regulations, sumptuary regulations, spelling rules, and of course algorithms for how to calculate. And if there’s one take-home message from the book, it is a distinction between thick and thin rules.

Thick rules are rules that come upholstered with all manner of qualifications, examples, caveats, and exceptions. They are rules that are braced to confront a world in which recalcitrant particulars refuse to conform to universals—as opposed to thin rules, of which algorithms are perhaps the best prototype: thin rules are formulated without attention to circumstances. Thin rules brook no quarter, they offer no sense of a variable world. Many bureaucratic rules, especially bureaucratic rules in their Kafkaesque exaggeration, also fit this description.

The arc of the book is not to describe how thick rules became thin rules (because we still have thick and thin rules around us all the time), but rather to determine the point at which thick rules become necessary—when you must anticipate high variability and therefore must tweak your rule to fit circumstances—as opposed to the stable, predictable settings in which we turn to thin rules.

In some historically exceptional cases, thin rules can actually get a job done because the context can be standardized and stabilized…(More)”.

Filling Africa’s Data Gap

Article by Jendayi Frazer and Peter Blair Henry: “Every few years, the U.S. government launches a new initiative to boost economic growth in Africa. In bold letters and with bolder promises, the White House announces that public-private partnerships hold the key to growth on the continent. It pledges to make these partnerships a cornerstone of its Africa policy, but time and again it fails to deliver.

A decade after U.S. President Barack Obama rolled out Power Africa—his attempt to solve Africa’s energy crisis by mobilizing private capital—half of the continent’s sub-Saharan population remains without access to electricity. In 2018, the Trump administration proclaimed that its Prosper Africa initiative would counter China’s debt-trap diplomacy and “expand African access to business finance.” Five years on, Chad, Ethiopia, Ghana, and Zambia are in financial distress and pleading for debt relief from Beijing and other creditors. Yet the Biden administration is once more touting the potential of public-private investment in Africa, organizing high-profile visits and holding leadership summits to prove that this time, the United States is “all in” on the continent.

There is a reason these efforts have yielded so little: goodwill tours, clever slogans, and a portfolio of G-7 pet projects in Africa do not amount to a sound investment pitch. Potential investors, public and private, need to know which projects in which countries are economically and financially worthwhile. Above all, that requires current and comprehensive data on the expected returns that investment in infrastructure in the developing world can yield. At present, investors lack this information, so they pass. If the United States wants to “build back better” in Africa—to expand access to business finance and encourage countries on the continent to choose sustainable and high-quality foreign investment over predatory lending from China and Russia—it needs to give investors access to better data…(More)”.

How Would You Defend the Planet From Asteroids? 

Article by Mahmud Farooque, Jason L. Kessler: “On September 26, 2022, NASA successfully smashed a spacecraft into a tiny asteroid named Dimorphos, altering its orbit. Although it was 6.8 million miles from Earth, the Double Asteroid Redirect Test (DART) was broadcast in real time, turning the impact into a rare pan-planetary moment accessible from smartphones around the world. 

For most people, the DART mission was the first glimmer—outside of the movies—that NASA was seriously exploring how to protect Earth from asteroids. Rightly famous for its technological prowess, NASA is less recognized for its social innovations. But nearly a decade before DART, the agency had launched the Asteroid Grand Challenge. In a pioneering approach to public engagement, the challenge brought citizens together to weigh in on how the taxpayer-funded agency might approach some technical decisions involving asteroids. 

The following account of how citizens came to engage with strategies for planetary defense—and the unexpected conclusions they reached—is based on the experiences of NASA employees, members of the Expert and Citizen Assessment of Science and Technology (ECAST) network, and forum participants…(More)”.

The Metaverse and Homeland Security

Report by Timothy Marler, Zara Fatima Abdurahaman, Benjamin Boudreaux, and Timothy R. Gulden: “The metaverse is an emerging concept and capability supported by multiple underlying emerging technologies, but its meaning and key characteristics can be unclear and will likely change over time. Thus, its relevance to some organizations, such as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), can be unclear. This lack of clarity can lead to unmitigated threats and missed opportunities. It can also inhibit healthy public discourse and effective technology management generally. To help address these issues, this Perspective provides an initial review of the metaverse concept and how it might be relevant to DHS. As a critical first step with the analysis of any emerging technology, the authors review current definitions and identify key practical characteristics. Often, regardless of a precise definition, it is the fundamental capabilities that are central to discussion and management. Then, given a foundational understanding of what a metaverse entails, the authors summarize primary goals and relevant needs for DHS. Ultimately, in order to be relevant, technologies must align with actual needs for various organizations or users. By cross-walking exemplary DHS needs that stem from a variety of mission sets with pervasive characteristics of metaverses, the authors demonstrate that metaverses are, in fact, relevant to DHS. Finally, the authors identify specific threats and opportunities that DHS could proactively manage. Although this work focuses the discussion of threats and opportunities on DHS, it has broad implications. This work provides a foundation on which further discussions and research can build, minimizing disparities and discoordination in development and policy…(More)”.

Yes, No, Maybe? Legal & Ethical Considerations for Informed Consent in Data Sharing and Integration

Report by Deja Kemp, Amy Hawn Nelson, & Della Jenkins: “Data sharing and integration are increasingly commonplace at every level of government, as cross-program and cross-sector data provide valuable insights to inform resource allocation, guide program implementation, and evaluate policies. Data sharing, while routine, is not without risks, and clear legal frameworks for data sharing are essential to mitigate those risks, protect privacy, and guide responsible data use. In some cases, federal privacy laws offer clear consent requirements and outline explicit exceptions where consent is not required to share data. In other cases, the law is unclear or silent regarding whether consent is needed for data sharing. Importantly, consent can present both ethical and logistical challenges, particularly when integrating cross-sector data. This brief will frame out key concepts related to consent; explore major federal laws governing the sharing of administrative data, including individually identifiable information; and examine important ethical implications of consent, particularly in cases when the law is silent or unclear. Finally, this brief will outline the foundational role of strong governance and consent frameworks in ensuring ethical data use and offer technical alternatives to consent that may be appropriate for certain data uses….(More)”.

Technological Obsolescence

Essay by Jonathan Coopersmith: “In addition to killing over a million Americans, Covid-19 revealed embarrassing failures of local, state, and national public health systems to accurately and effectively collect, transmit, and process information. To some critics and reporters, the visible and easily understood face of those failures was the continued use of fax machines.

In reality, the critics were attacking the symptom, not the problem. Instead of “why were people still using fax machines?,” the better question was “what factors made fax machines more attractive than more capable technologies?” Those answers provide a better window into the complex, evolving world of technological obsolescence, a key component of our modern world—and on a smaller scale, provide a template to decide whether the NAE and other organizations should retain their fax machines.

The marketing dictionary of Monash University Business School defines technological obsolescence as “when a technical product or service is no longer needed or wanted even though it could still be in working order.” Significantly, the source is a business school, which implies strong economic and social factors in decision making about technology.  

Determining technological obsolescence depends not just on creators and promoters of new technologies but also on users, providers, funders, accountants, managers, standards setters—and, most importantly, competing needs and options. In short, it’s complicated.  

Like most aspects of technology, perspectives on obsolescence depend on your position. If existing technology meets your needs, upgrading may not seem worth the resources needed (e.g., for purchase and training). If, on the other hand, your firm or organization depends on income from providing, installing, servicing, training, advising, or otherwise benefiting from a new technology, not upgrading could jeopardize your future, especially in a very competitive market. And if you cannot find the resources to upgrade, you—and your users—may incur both visible and invisible costs…(More)”.

Model evaluation for extreme risks

Paper by Toby Shevlane et al: “Current approaches to building general-purpose AI systems tend to produce systems with both beneficial and harmful capabilities. Further progress in AI development could lead to capabilities that pose extreme risks, such as offensive cyber capabilities or strong manipulation skills. We explain why model evaluation is critical for addressing extreme risks. Developers must be able to identify dangerous capabilities (through “dangerous capability evaluations”) and the propensity of models to apply their capabilities for harm (through “alignment evaluations”). These evaluations will become critical for keeping policymakers and other stakeholders informed, and for making responsible decisions about model training, deployment, and security.

Figure 1 | The theory of change for model evaluations for extreme risk. Evaluations for dangerous capabilities and alignment inform risk assessments, and are in turn embedded into important governance processes…(More)”.

How to decode modern conflicts with cutting-edge technologies

Blog by Mykola Blyzniuk: “In modern warfare, new technologies are increasingly being used to manipulate information and perceptions on the battlefield. This includes the use of deep fakes, or the malicious use of ICT (Information and Communication Technologies).

Likewise, emerging tech can be instrumental in documenting human rights violationstracking the movement of troops and weaponsmonitoring public sentiments and the effects of conflict on civilians and exposing propaganda and disinformation.

The dual use of new technologies in modern warfare highlights the need for further investigation. Here are two examples how the can be used to advance politial analysis and situational awareness…

The world of Natural Language Processing (NLP) technology took a leap with a recent study on the Russia-Ukraine conflict by Uddagiri Sirisha and Bolem Sai Chandana of the School of Computer Science and Engineering at Vellore Institute of Technology Andhra Pradesh ( VIT-AP) University in Amaravathi Andhra Pradesh, India.

The researchers developed a novel artificial intelligence model to analyze whether a piece of text is positive, negative or neutral in tone. This new model referred to as “ABSA-based ROBERTa-LSTM”, looks at not just the overall sentiment of a piece of text but also the sentiment towards specific aspects or entities mentioned in the text. The study took a pre-processed dataset of 484,221 tweets collected during April — May 2022 related to the Russia-Ukraine conflict and applied the model, resulting in a sentiment analysis accuracy of 94.7%, outperforming current techniques….(More)”.

Imagining AI: How the World Sees Intelligent Machines

Book edited by Stephen Cave and Kanta Dihal: “AI is now a global phenomenon. Yet Hollywood narratives dominate perceptions of AI in the English-speaking West and beyond, and much of the technology itself is shaped by a disproportionately white, male, US-based elite. However, different cultures have been imagining intelligent machines since long before we could build them, in visions that vary greatly across religious, philosophical, literary and cinematic traditions. This book aims to spotlight these alternative visions.

Imagining AI draws attention to the range and variety of visions of a future with intelligent machines and their potential significance for the research, regulation, and implementation of AI. The book is structured geographically, with each chapter presenting insights into how a specific region or culture imagines intelligent machines. The contributors, leading experts from academia and the arts, explore how the encounters between local narratives, digital technologies, and mainstream Western narratives create new imaginaries and insights in different contexts across the globe. The narratives they analyse range from ancient philosophy to contemporary science fiction, and visual art to policy discourse.

The book sheds new light on some of the most important themes in AI ethics, from the differences between Chinese and American visions of AI, to digital neo-colonialism. It is an essential work for anyone wishing to understand how different cultural contexts interplay with the most significant technology of our time…(More)”.

Citizens’ juries can help fix democracy

Article by Martin Wolf: “…our democratic processes do not work very well. Adding referendums to elections does not solve the problem. But adding citizens’ assemblies might.

In his farewell address, George Washington warned against the spirit of faction. He argued that the “alternate domination of one faction over another . . . is itself a frightful despotism. But . . . The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual”. If one looks at the US today, that peril is evident. In current electoral politics, manipulation of the emotions of a rationally ill-informed electorate is the path to power. The outcome is likely to be rule by those with the greatest talent for demagogy.

Elections are necessary. But unbridled majoritarianism is a disaster. A successful liberal democracy requires constraining institutions: independent oversight over elections, an independent judiciary and an independent bureaucracy. But are they enough? No. In my book, The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism, I follow the Australian economist Nicholas Gruen in arguing for the addition of citizens’ assemblies or citizens’ juries. These would insert an important element of ancient Greek democracy into the parliamentary tradition.

There are two arguments for introducing sortition (lottery) into the political process. First, these assemblies would be more representative than professional politicians can ever be. Second, it would temper the impact of political campaigning, nowadays made more distorting by the arts of advertising and the algorithms of social media…(More)”.