The brain is going digital, and consciousness is too

Joaquin Zenteno Hopp

A whole mouse brain has been digitally reconstructed with an unprecedented level of biological detail. It is part of the Human Brain Project, one of the largest scientific initiatives ever funded by the European Union, and probably the most ambitions. Their simulation is based on an algorithm that enables to predict how neurons connect with each other. It is all based on a new research field named connectomics, the science of figuring out a brain’s complete wiring diagram. The objective is to reconstruct and simulate a biologically digital human brain made of 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion synapses.

The project’s leaders are quite optimistic. They believe that they will soon be able to replicate cognitive, emotional and behavioral experiments. Simulate how animal’s sensory organs capture and encode information, and how their brain can generate a motoric response. Nonetheless, and even more exciting, they also believe that these advancements will soon lead to the digital reproduction of consciousness.

How conscious can it be? Is it not that consciousness is just an emergent property of brain activity? Maybe not, but if computers would be able to construct and simulate minds and not only brains, what kind of reality would we be envisioning? Popular media has already provided lots of crazy ideas: Slave brains, brain-body replantation, brain post-life continuation, multi-brain cloud creations, multi-human brain expansions, etc., but, what kind of issues are really worth to analyze without losing it into naive fantasy? Incredibly, several high-top scientists have begun to take some of these ideas seriously.

In early 2018, researchers from Yale University were able to preserve several pig brains for over 36 hours outside their bodies. They claim that the brains were not conscious, but they do acknowledge that their achievement is a step towards it. Researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have begun a startup that aims to uploaded human brains into the cloud by 2024, and they do not deny the idea that one day they could become conscious. Wow, but what does that mean? Would such a conscience suffer something like a mental-sensory deprivation of eternal solitary confinement… without ears, mouth or eyes, something like living inside an black eerie spaced lacuna? Would it wonder where it is, what it is, or how it came to be? Would it be tormented by an unstoppable, undefinable and unimaginable existential despair, or would it just flow in a sort of, let us say, nirvana?

How conscious should we be? The most important question probably is about our society’s responsibility, both because of the great risks but also the immense potentials. If a person’s consciousness is reproduced, would that consciousness have legal rights? Who would own its knowledge, memories, or ideas? What if it is manipulated, unfairly treated or even abused? The Science Journal Nature, in its April 2018 edition, published an editorial arguing that experiments on human brain simulations need special protections. Written by 17 recognized neuroscientists and bioethicists, the letter suggests a variety of interesting ethical safety measures, but they do not necessarily provide a sense of easiness. Suggestions such as “the need to drug brains so they can stay in a comatose-like state when being manipulated” are not so appealing. Furthermore, how can we regulate or even understand issues that depend entirely on ad hoc practices? The most extreme is if virtual consciousness could experience pain. Is it not precisely pain considered as the first sign of the body’s consciousness? Yes, but these consciences would not have bodies, or could they? Is it not that a virtual reproduction of a conscious brain is per definition “virtually” exposed to any virtual risk?

“Science of new quality. Quality not only of new advancements, but mostly on defining moral standards”

The digitalization of consciousness shows how science and technology have come to a point of being so close to each other that they have become one. A conscious computer is not just a pure technological artefact, but also science itself. This implies that science might be entering into a whole new level. Science of new quality. Quality not only in the sense of advancements, but mostly on defining high quality moral standards. We know that standardization of scientific and technological practices is a risky process that evolves dependent to social-contextual forces. Our society’s responsibility relies on defining those moral guiding standards, despite that they can become the main reason for misleading future advancements. We need to know, for example, how are we to relate emotionally to digitally conscious things. How could we otherwise cope with falling in love with a digital being? Or could we never expect digital-reciprocal love? Anyhow, we need to take the best possible information and be conscious of the happenings of our time. It is our responsibility to build a society capable to thrive, or at least coexist, with these new strange conscious things.

Digital learning identity

Issue #16 Digital Citizen

Frans Joakim Titulaer

Let’s all give a warm round of applause to Feide (Felles Elektronisk IDEntitet)! The student ID has no doubt served us well as a federated identity management system among the many education institutions and services that we all (the educated and educating alike) use everyday. It is almost a national pride, seeing how it extends from elementary school to the very top of higher education. The Telenor or Tine of our time. It is surely a tedious work to keep track of all usernames and passwords among numerous tiny little corners of the internet, so a federation is no bad idea indeed.

Now give a warm welcome to Feide 2.0! The future is now. The 2.0 offers us a ‘single-sign on’ system (SSO) that allows the user [will make it largely unnecessary] to log on anywhere in the education services using the same ID (authentication key) after having first logged on in any one of them. This means that the ‘ecosystem’ of services is able to match those of the Google suite and well crafted Microsoft cloud-environments. It also makes it possible to extend the number of services as education institutions, faculties, centers or persons can choose among add-ons. The experience will be hopefully seamless.

Now let’s simplify and expand this view of our near future. Feide 2.0 includes a service called ‘Dataporten’ that enables the creation and the access to groups and keeps track of the interactions of each individual. In other words, the 2.0 integrates the many benefits of social media, the original Web 2.0. It even allows you to connect with services like Facebook, Twitter, etc. so that activities can be shared across these platforms. You might very well ask whether this truly is a benefit, but what we are witnessing is the government moving into a field that up until now has been reserved for the ‘new democracies of the Internet’.

However, there is risk. A lot of it. Therefore you could say that the government approaches these technologies quite differently. Not readily willing to take on the same social cost, seeing that it also pays (a part of) the bill. Yet, there is also a sense of a threat posed by the disruptive effects of Big Data capital. Governments could soon find themselves competing with private actors to offer legitimate forms of certification. Within education the name of the game is learning analytics. It promises adaptive learning systems and early warning catered to the needs of the individual learner.

The technology revolution betrayed

Joar Kvamsås

Frans Joakim Titulaer

After Lenin’s death in 1924, the Soviet leadership scrambled to keep together their young country, recently ravaged by civil war. As the Bolshevik elite strove to safeguard their revolution, they found themselves balancing two evils. First, there was the threat of factionalism, which Lenin had outlawed after the devastating Kronstadt rebellion of 1921. Secondly, the Bolsheviks feared Bonapartism: The historical precedent of a revolution being corrupted by a military strongman from within ranks of the newly formed government. As Marxists, the Bolsheviks believed in the cyclical nature of history, and opponents of Trotsky were particularly eager to compare him to Napoleon. After his subsequent exile, Trotsky would write in The Revolution Betrayed (1937) that it was in fact Stalin who had turned out to be the Bonapartist (the latter made sure to have Trotsky assassinated some three years later.)

Today’s techno-revolutionaries share some notable parallels to the revolutionaries from a century ago: Both see technological change as the impetus for rebuilding the socio-political system. Blockchain technologies often seem oddly abstract and difficult to understand because much of its potential lies in social change. Its distributed characteristics is supposed to bring about decentralized control, detached from the rotten legal and economic structures of conventional liberal democracies. Blockchain’s most prominent application, cryptocurrencies, evade the slow grind of national and international legal systems, including (but not limited to) tax codes. Cryptocurrencies are smart contracts: Computer protocols intended to digitally facilitate, verify, and/or enforce the negotiation and performance of a contract. Smart contracts allow the performance of credible transactions without third parties. Like the communist movements of the early 20th century, these semi-organizations largely define themselves in opposition to the prevailing power constellations. Moreover, these forms of organization continue to be haunted by the fear of irrational dedication to the strongest actor in the new power structure.

Given these parallels, the droves of people currently putting their faith and their savings into cryptocurrencies would do well to take a leaf out of the Bolshevik playbook, and look at the pitfalls that befell previous techno-revolutions. The fledgling Blockchain revolution seems to bear many of the characteristics of the technological revolution we saw some twenty years ago: The dawn of the modern internet. For many, blockchain has come to represent what the Internet once was hoped to become; in fact, some observers go so far as to call it the real Internet. Like current blockchain technologies, the infrastructure of the 90’s internet was supposed to be built and run by many small actors with a decentralised power structure, a democratising force that would foster free exchange of information as well as goods.

However, the dispersed structure of the early internet also made it hopelessly fractioned. Without good search engines, people surfed the web by going from site to site – these were the days when websites would often include a separate page dedicated to collections of links. As the technology matured, both trade and communication were consolidated by big platforms such as Amazon, Youtube and Facebook, while navigation was left to giants such as Google and Yahoo. This streamlined services, but also monopolised them and created unassailable empires. The Internet 2.0 became the Bonapartism of the Internet revolution.

The betrayal of the Bolshevik revolution did not arise from the animosity between Trotsky and Stalin, but was rather a reflection of the internal contradictions of the political technologies available to the Soviet leadership at the time. Soviet rule was founded on an idea of democratic centralism, in which the leaders of the revolutionary working class of Russia were all recruited from a major organization consisting primarily of workers under a democratic internal hierarchy. Like under Napoleonic rule, the party hoped to ensure a technocratic form of representation by radically extending knowledge production through innovations in accounting systems and bookkeeping. Their claim to legitimacy however also came to depend upon the promises that had interested so many. Rather than withering away to give room for new social structures, the state became an oppressive monolith.

Likewise, there are certain internal contradictions to Blockchain technologies that mirror those of the early Internet. Just like Google and Facebook, cryptocurrencies are democratic in that these technologies can be created and used by anyone, but monolithic in that they depend on massive user bases to function. The euphoric belief in the unknown potential of a new technology fuelled the dot-com bubble of in 1990’s, and is causing massive speculation in the cryptocurrency markets today. The profitability of web services in the 90’s were vastly overestimated, and the lion’s share of the net was gobbled up by a few actors who today wield powers of Orwellian proportions. The population of different cryptocurrencies increases by the day, and while most will soon enough be relegated to the dustbin of history, it remains to be seen if a new Bonapartes will emerge from among them, and what it will do to the Blockchain revolution.

Critical thoughts on critical thinking

Siv Helen Egelund Gjerstad

What does a porn star and a 13-hour teaching program have in common? They both have the potential of reducing the chance of Trump being re elected as president.

You may be disappointed, but it’s the teaching program and not the porn star that is the star of this show. A Norwegian study has recently managed to show great potential in a teaching program on critical thinking for children. Reflection and understanding of the logical reasoning behind information is important for the choices we make. The trend of false information being widely spread through the internet, and episodes of world leaders openly downgrading scientific research, make these findings highly relevant. We know that humans in general tend to struggle with critical thinking tests, and that the lack of ability to evaluate information may have fatal consequences. This raises the question of how effectively we can learn critical thinking, and what we can do to reduce the impact of illogical reasoning and false information.

Rejecting scientific knowledge
Donald Trump, the president of USA, has been the centre of the fake news debate with his ongoing accusations of his critics as messengers of fake news. Assertions like these, in combination with actual spreading of misleading information, have blurred the lines between fact an fabrication. We have also seen the Trump administration’s tendency to decline science and expert advice in favour of their own ‘common sense’ perceptions in several cases. The repudiation of climate change being may be the most startling. The American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also reported that the Trump administration prohibited them to use the words ‘evidence-based’ and ‘science-based’. Without comparison in general, we have seen examples of both politicians and other actors in Norwegian public debates declining scientific research in favour of ‘common sense’ perceptions as a basis of arguments. The trend of undermining scientifi facts is indeed alarming.

Detecting false information
Truth versus false information is not an issue exclusive to political discourse. The ordinary citizen’s troubles of steering clear of false information has become an even greater problem as the expanded use of the internet and social media has made spreading of information very easy. It is somewhat paradoxical that the broadened access to the internet that has provided people with nearly limitless access to all kinds of information is also an essential part of the false information problem. An article with false information may be published with the intention of misleading people for financial or political purposes, or simply for gaining click revenue and online sharing numbers. Further sharing by convinced readers will increase the reach even more, and may also contribute to the legitimation of the content. The problem seems also to be related to the increasing choice of channels available for receiving information, making it easy t seek out information consistent with the readers’ own views, and disregard other sources.

Because the things we believe to be true have a great impact on the choices we make in our lives, the ability to make critical evaluations of information we are presented with is of great importance. Choices that influence our health and wellbeing are particularly critical in this regard. ‘Facts’ about our health are among those that are plentiful, especially online. Some health advice is practically harmless, like ‘eating carrots makes your eyesight better’, or ‘face creams with e-vitamins reduce wrinkles’. Other health related claims presented as facts are riskier, like ‘herbs can cure cancer’ or ‘STDs are not contagious if you shower after sex’. One of the more alarming health beliefs are those of antivaccination. In Norway we have seen smaller groups of vaccine opponents contributing to the periodic outbreaks of measles over the last decades. The same has happened in other countries, like Italy and Sweden. Measles are one of the most severe childhood diseases we know,and also one of the most contagious. And yet, there are widespread doubts as to the benefits of the vaccine.

The problem is initially that we struggle, not only to detect a claim made on false premises, but to make individual evaluations of lines of reasoning that are presented to us.

Teaching critical thinking
In 2017 the Norwegian institute of public health (Folkehelseinstituttet) conducted a study on the topic of critical thinking presented in two articles published in The Lancet. The study was a cluster-randomised controlled trial, including primary school children in Uganda aged between ten and twelve. The objective was to teach the children how to critically evaluate health related claims through a 13-hour teaching program conducted over three months. They found that in the schools where the children had been taking part in the program, almost 50 percent more of the children passed the critical thinking test compared to the control group. These are highly significant results with large effect size, showing a strong effect of the critical thinking programs.

Education to the rescue
The results from the study illustrates how even young children can learn critical thinking, and that a relatively short teaching program can be very effective, even in schools with scarce resources and low density of teachers. The fact that teaching programs like this one can have an impact on the ability to make critical evaluations on health information, can suggest that it may also be the case for other types of information. Giving people tools to make independent and critical judgements on the facts they are presented with is important from both a health perspective and a broader political perspective. Discovering the learning mechanisms is an important step in the direction of fighting the impact false claims and fake news have on society.

We know the possible consequences of relying on false information, and thus the benefits of critical evaluation skills. With increased knowledge also on the ability to learn it from an early age, the choice of implementing it as a school subject should not be a very hard one.

Get ready for the VARld Cup!

Helge Helguson Neumann

Technologies and innovations spur out from a need or a problem. In football, one such problem has been the game-deciding human errors of the referees. New and available technology could resolve this problem and make the game more just. So why is it so difficult to embrace for the fans, coaches, and players?

What is football about? Ask any fan and they’ll tell you about the glorious victories, the bitter defeats, the passion of the supporters. What they are really saying is that football is all about emotions. The players are referred to as artists, even Gods, creating what is known as “the beautiful game”. We think of the magnificent goals, the ingenious pass, and the outstanding tackle. But just as often, it is a game of mistakes. The goalkeeper who fumbled the ball, the defender who scored an own goal, or the striker who missed the open goal. Even the referee, the representative of justice and fairness on the field, occasionally make mistakes, calling a wrong penalty that decides the outcome of the match and causing an uproar by disappointed supporters. There is nothing more painful and upsetting for the fans than having the “ref” decide the outcome of the game. Now, recent technological advances have made it possible to reduce these human errors, but at what cost for the art of the sport?

Like the rest of society, the age of digitalization has hit football. Within the last couple of years, fans have been introduced to goal-line technology (to settle whether the ball was really over the line), big data statistics (to see whether the players are actually playing well) and video-assisted refereeing, or VAR, as it is abbreviated. VAR gives the referee, or an assistant, the opportunity to look at replays to make critical decisions during a game and is already being introduced in several leagues and tournaments around the world. The intention behind it is naturally to make the game fairer, and the policy-makers has the statistics to back it up. In all three major leagues which has introduced VAR, the MLS (USA), Bundesliga (Germany), and Serie A (Italy), the result has been more correct decisions and less fouls as players know they are being watched. With these promising results, the international football confederation decided in March this year to introduce VAR in the upcoming 2018 World Cup in Russia. One month later the biggest VAR-scandal so far happened.

The scandal takes place at Opel Arena, where the home team Mainz welcomes opponents Freiburg. Both teams are struggling to avoid relegations and with a victory Mainz can move ahead of Freiburg on the table and out of the relegation zone. After 45 minutes of play, a shot hits Freiburg defender Marc Oliver Kempf in the arm. The Mainz players are screaming for a penalty, their fans even more. Referee Guido Winkmann waves play on and soon after blows the whistle for half time. Then it happens. VAR has seen a foul. Six minutes into the half-time break, while fans are filling up on drinks and snacks, Winkmann bring the players back onto the pitch to award Mainz the penalty. Mainz score and eventually win the game. The Mainz players are relieved, their fans happy, the Freiburg fans are furious, but the footballing society is most of all confused. What the VAR happened?!

Football and technology doesn’t always go hand in hand, and there are two recurring problems with VAR which both touches upon the emotions of the fans. The first is the time it takes time to review all the decisions. As Juventus-coach Massimiliano Allegri put it: “It’s turning into baseball. You see some action every quarter of an hour”. And there is nothing more frightening for Europeans than having their “beautiful game” turning into an American sport. In Australia’s A league it took four minutes for the referee to award a penalty. Fans are getting bored and they don’t want to wait an extra six minutes into the half-time to see whether the referee will call a penalty. The spontaneity goes away when players and fans must wait a couple of minutes to see if they can celebrate a goal.

The other problem goes deeper. It touches upon the very nature of the sport, why fans are referring to it as “the beautiful game” and to the players as artists or magicians. After a controversial cup-game in England, former captain for Norwegian men’s football team, Brede Hangeland, tweeted that “VAR will destroy football as we know it”. Similarly, one of the most recognized goalkeepers of all time, Gianluigi Buffon worries it makes the game inhuman. The beauty lies in the potential mistakes. By adding chance into the game, anyone can win it. Football is supposed to be spontaneous, dramatic and emotional. It is not supposed to be flawless, and technology challenges this.

As with the rest of society, football will not be unaffected by technology. The game that the pioneers invented in the late 19th century looks miles away from what is being played today. In the end it all comes down to the integration of technology within the game. This summer, VAR will take on its biggest challenge during the World Cup. For one month, the event will gather over 3 billion viewers worldwide. A flawless championship might lead the footballing world to embrace VAR, but a scandal like that of the Bundesliga might set back the integration of VAR. And it doesn’t matter whether the actual decisions are correct or not because the game is about emotions, not rationality.

Universal Basic Income: Into the age of abundance?

Katie Coughlin

Google executive and AI futurist Ray Kurzweil predicted at the 2018 TED conference that ”In the early 2030s, we’ll have universal basic income in the developed world, and worldwide by the end of the 2030s. You’ll be able to live very well on that.”

Universal Basic Income (UBI) is defined as a regular and unconditional payment to every citizen of a country, regardless of other income. With supporters such as Richard Branson, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg,
UBI is gaining interest for its potential to counter the negative economic effects of job displacement and income disparity from workplace automation.

Current studies predict that anywhere from 20-40% of jobs will be lost to automation. Economist John Maynard Keynes termed this displacement technological unemployment already in 1930. Further troubling is the
unclear outlook for job creation. What do we do when, by an unreachable margin, there are not enough jobs to go around? What would this do to today´s already growing income disparity?

Kurzweil believes that UBI would offer a safety net and flexibility that could optimize the labour force, give better working conditions, reduce inequalities and end extreme financial poverty. He envisions an “age of abundance” where workers could opt to reduce their working hours and devote more time to other interests without sacrificing their basic income.

The concept of UBI is not new and the idea can be traced back to the early 16th century in Thomas More´s Utopia (1516) and Johannes Ludovicus Vives´ On assistance to the poor (1526). In his 1930 essay Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren, Keynes envisioned 100 years into the future that we would reach an age of leisure, a “destination of economic bliss”, in which we would have most of our material needs met and could
enjoy 3-hour workdays and more leisure time. In the 2008 book, Revisiting Keynes, however, economists claim that Keynes failed to account for problems of income distribution and inequality. Perhaps UBI could be the
instrument to smooth out income disparity and open the door for Keynes´ predictions to be realized?

As of yet, there are no successful implementations of UBI, only speculation
and fragmented trials around the world, such as in Finland, the Netherlands, Kenya and Scotland, with various solutions being tested among various population groups. Finland´s trial was recently cut short after just one year with no published results. One economist I spoke with pointed out that only controlled random trials will give an accurate indication of effectiveness. Finnish participants, on the other hand, were drawn from a select pool of unemployed persons.

Variations of UBI could be geographic as in a rural basic income in which only rural area residents would receive a payment. Other suggestions include negative income tax schemes and basic capital grants.

A 2017 European Social Survey (ESS) found wide support for UBI across Europe, particularly with youth. With so much interest, one may wonder who opposes the idea. Some worry that UBI would lessen the motivation to work. Surprisingly, the country with the lowest support for Universal Basic
Income in the ESS study was… can you guess? Norway! This may be due to the already high level of public support available.

Kurzweil contends that the primary concern under UBI would be to ensure life meaning and purpose. Can the freedom of leisure also be destructive to society? Classic dystopian novels such as Brave New World, Anthem and Fahrenheit 451 give imagined glimpses of post-technology states where authoritarian governments have taken control of populations, because individual freedom in a technology age caused too much disruption.

UBI and an age of abundance can sound too good to be true. What would you do if you had a guaranteed income for life? The question evokes interest but also thoughts of lottery winners who go bankrupt. Could we trust people to put guaranteed income to good use? Predicting the future is anyone’s guess, but for today’s youth who are overwhelmed with messages of despair about their future, UBI gives hope.

What we do when we do things with words

Hannah Monsrud Sandvik

 

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice,”whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.”

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There

 

A foundational insight STS departs from is that concepts are not innocent. The words, theories and categories we use to describe and organize objects, events and people are, in addition to being tools for communication and science, also affecting the world. Think, for example, of gender and borders. Think also of economics, or laws. These are all cases of societal infrastructures that started to exist as the result of how some people started organizing sexuality and identity, territory and trade, composing new concepts and discourses to go along with them. The point is that concepts structure how we perceive and understand reality. Words are, in a word, performative.

This is important for STS because it shows that while science and technologies explain reality by investigating phenomena and systematizing our knowledge of the world, it also in a certain sense constructs the world by doing so. STSers have used this argument to show that science is not a linear process whereby knowledge is accumulated by confronting the world through a systematic method. Scientists also bring something to the table, and this something is theories, presuppositions, interests and ontologically loaded language.

If language is filled with underlying assumptions about the world, then language itself should be closely examined. How do the words we use come into being?

For a word to be meaningful in conversation, it needs to be used by a significant amount of people over a longer period of time. It also needs to be taken to mean the same thing by the group of people using it. An example is Gretchen in the movie Mean Girls, who tries, futilely, to introduce the term “fetch” to describe things or states of affairs that are “very cool”. As long as she is the only one using it, it’s never going to have any conversational authority and people will probably respond with confusion and ask her what she means.

The point is that words gain meaning through the way in which they are used. While this may sound blatantly obvious, it sent shock waves through the philosophical scene when Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote about it in the 1950s. For Wittgenstein, there is no separate logic to the world independently of observation, rather, the world we see is defined and given a meaning to through the words we use. A concept doesn’t designate something that is already given – it tries to articulate and systematize certain aspects of the world.

Words, then, have the power to shape how a certain issue is understood, and even to make something into an issue in the first place. One place where this comes to fore is in politics. The very purpose of political speech is to shape how people see the world and steer development towards a desired direction. To achieve this, politicians often create concepts to coin and describe new policy approaches. Examples that should be familiar are “responsible innovation”, “green growth”, and “sustainable development”. Such politically vogue words are often referred to as buzzwords. They are used by science policy makers, by scientists in their research proposals, by journalists and by academics. They convey a set of values: the importance of relations between science and the public, responsibility for the environment and avoiding risks, for example. How do these words function, and how to they shape the issues they address?

We can approach this question by considering an example: Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) is a concept that has taken a hold in science policy and governance over the past years. Generally put, the term describes research and innovation that is ethically acceptable and socially desirable. RRI is a politicization of the effort to make science more ethical and responsible. Among other things, this means that in grant applications, researchers will have to include a section that explains how their research engage with the wider public sphere and discuss potential impacts on society and the environment. But what kind of concept is RRI? It is just filled with empty buzz, or can it be a useful tool for reforming modern science policy?

Buzzwords are often dismissed on account of being empty and misleading, but this doesn’t mean that they can’t be powerful. In her article “The politics of buzzwords at the interface of technoscience, market and society”, Bensaude Vincent demonstrates how buzzwords shape the technoscientific landscape. The power of these words lies in the fact that they urge towards a desirable future, creating expectations that mobilize the future into the present. RRI is an example of this: by establishing a moral basis for science, innovation can be controlled in order to secure the right kind of impact.

What exactly is meant by the term is hard to pin down, however. There are a variety of definitions of RRI, each putting emphasis on different aspects of the general idea. This is a characteristic of buzzwords: they are fuzzy enough to contain a variety of meanings and are often difficult to use as roadmaps. While they successfully point to a matter of concern, they often fail to suggest how we should deal with it.

The fuzziness of buzzwords can make it easy to conceal conflicts between opposing values. Take, for example, of “sustainable development”. Here, the idea of sustainability is put together with the idea of economic growth. The notions of change and permanence put together seems to imply a contradiction, but, as Bensaude Vincent point out, the performativity of the concept rests on this inconsistency. The promise of the concept is that the conflict between two opposing values can be overcome, but how, exactly?

All of this goes to show that the concepts we use are inherently political and ideological and that we should approach and use them with care and analytical consideration. For STSers, this means that we should pay attention to their context of emergence and investigate the epistemic and societal values that go into creating them. Understanding how a concept comes into being and what forces determines how it’s understood, we can critically engage with its content, and perhaps be a force on our own in the creation of better wor(l)ds.

Travelling the Internet Map

Joar Kvamsås

 

Mapping the Internet is an unforgiving task. While many attempts exist to map out the complex interconnections of information that makes out the Internet, most of these result in a mishmash of overlapping links in various colours. They give an idea of complexity, but offer little in the way of actually navigating that complexity – essentially, they aren’t very good as maps.

My favorite visualisation of the Internet is Russian data scientist Ruslan Enikeev’s The Internet Map (www.internet-map.net) from 2012. In this interactive network graph, a set of 350 000 websites are represented as dots, where the sites popularity is given by a dot’s size, and the nation where it is most used is represented by its colour. You can either search for a given website or browse the entire map by scrolling and zooming across its various continents. Just like with a geographical map you can get lost tracing its paths, borders and intersections, going country-by-country or website-by-website.

The first thing you notice when looking at the Internet Map are the major coloured continents. In the centre you find the Anglosphere, a vast continent that takes up a good third of the map itself. It is closely flanked by a rainbow-mix of European websites to the East, while a green India partially overlaps it in the West. Three major continents are isolated from it, existing in spheres of their own: China in yellow in the South-West; purple Japan in the South-East; and the Runet, the Russian language internet, in the North, appropriately coloured red. Smack down in the centre of the map you will see google.com, next to other giants such as Yahoo, Facebook and YouTube.

The centre of most national clusters can be found by looking up the nation-specific google site; for example, the UK, Australian and Nigerian clusters can be located inside the Anglosphere by looking up google.co.uk, google.com.au, or google.com.ng respectively. This is not true for all, however. The Chinese cluster is dominated by the search engines Baidu and qq.com; in the Runet, google is superseded by both the search engine Yandex and the social media site vkontakte; and in Japan, yahoo.com.jp still rules supreme.

Looking at the distributions of the internet clusters can often be an enlightening experience. If you look at the Runet cluster, for example, you will find Belarusian sites clustered in the centre of the Russophone continent, between vkontakte and Yandex.

Ukraine is also central in the Runet, though a bit closer to the western site google.ru, while Azerbaijan can be found at the margin of the continent, surrounded by major Russian money transfer sites. Interestingly, certain web services have been adopted by national clusters – livejournal. com can be found on the outskirts of the Runet, with Russians as the most important user base. Blogspot.com is surrounded by a massive cluster of Iranian blogging sites; blogging became an important news source in the country after a state crack-down on official media outlets in the early 2000’s.

Meanwhile, the Scandinavian countries all cluster around Wikipedia, together with Poland, Germany and the Netherlands, the popularity of the platform probably due its combination of English and native language content in these largely bilingual countries. Youtube.com is closely flanked by a series of Greek news sites, a testament to Greek online news media’s affinity for the platform.

In the South of the map, you can find a large Anglophone peninsula about the size of the Runet shooting off from the rest of the Anglosphere. This is the pornography continent, surrounded and overlapping with European, South-American and Asian sites of all colours. It is also the only part of the Anglosphere that borders directly with Japan, the border itself populated by a series of Japanese and American porn sites. Meanwhile, the pornography peninsula is separated from the mainstream Anglosphere by a series of video streaming sites of questionable legal status. Border areas can be interesting objects of investigation in their own right – the Runet, for example, is separated from the Anglosphere by a series of English language dictionaries and translation sites. Oftentimes border areas are populated by web hosting services that span several national markets.

In the North-western corner of the map, two major websites are floating freely in the void, in splendid isolation from the rest of the Internet. The larger of the two is wordpress. com, a major provider of website design and management services. The other is Go.com, Disney’s official web portal, where children can go to play games and find other Disneyrelated entertainment. What the two sites have in common is that they are both usually accessed directly and in isolation, as opposed to in a surfing session across several sites.

The true value of Ruslan’s Internet Map is that it allows us to explore and discover. Whether we want to look at the particular position and connection of a certain site, or if we are looking to see how different countries and languages interact in cyberspace, a well-designed map such as this can be an invaluable resource to internet ethnographers and big data scientists alike when doing exploratory research. Like when perusing a geographical world map, it lets us discover connections and details that changes our view of the world in an instant. And if nothing else, it certainly is a good way to waste an afternoon.

A matter of control

Jelmer Kingma

 

It is sunny outside, Lena is heading to the beach with some friends in her self-driving car. She only has to say the address to the dashboard computer and the car does the rest. On their way to the beach they play a game of cards, not paying any attention to the traffic around them at all.

Koen is crossing the street and is paying more attention to his phone than to the traffic around him. Lena’s self-driving car is approaching him at a high speed and collision seems unavoidable. Surprisingly, Koen is not harmed in this situation. The autonomous car spotted him several meters down the road. The safest solution to the situation was calculated by the car within a microsecond and could therefore easily come to a halt, avoiding danger. The scenario with Lena and Koen is just one of many that could be seen in a future where autonomous vehicles are used. It all depends, however, in what form we will see this technology in the future and what pathways we have chosen for the implementation of self-driving cars.

The goal for self-driving cars is to run on a complicated system of cameras, software and sensors. The machine scans its complete surroundings multiple times every second and is always aware of the location of other cars due to a connectivity cloud. Based on the maps constructed by technology in the selfdriving car and the connectivity network, in combination with complex algorithms and carefully calculated protocols, the car can drive in public. Currently, the technological capability allows for semi-autonomous cars, meaning the chauffeur still pays attention to the road at all times, and takes over the wheel when needed. Should we give such a technology with the capacity to harm humans the authority to make its own decisions in public? However, one could also ask: should we give inconsistent, careless and disinterested humans that same control over automobiles in traffic? Currently the answer to the latter is ‘yes’, humans chauffeurs are in control over driving their cars. This fact results in 95% of traffic accidents being caused by human errors. This rate is expected to reduce to almost zero when self-driving cars are implemented in traffic and it could saving many lives.

There are four predicted future scenarios and possibilities of self-driving cars analysed by the Dutch Knowledge Institute for Mobility. The first scenario, called “mobility as a service: any time, any place”, is based on public transport. Self-driving busses can be easily ordered via a smartphone application and show up anytime and anywhere you want it to be. Users of this service would just have to pay for the time they used the service, and that’s it. Less people will own a car since self-driving busses offer the same benefits and take away the disadvantages. The drawbacks of owning a car such as the cost for car maintenance, paying your monthly insurance fee or the need to always find a parking space will be eliminated.

Another scenario is the “fully automated private luxury” option. If you don’t have to drive anymore, everybody in the car has the freedom to do whatever they want during the journey. People`s cars are their own luxurious palaces which can serve them in every need. Therefore, making it highly appealing to own your own car, since it literally offers limitless opportunities for its inner design. Private car ownership is highly valued in society.

In the “Letting go on highways” scenario people still have to drive manually in busy cities because the infrastructure and selfdriving car technology is not advanced enough yet. Furthermore, people are not ready yet to fully let go of driving control. However, only on the highways, they do lift their hands of the steering wheel and let the car take over. They trust the self-driving technology because it’s easier for an automated vehicle to maneuverer on a highway than in a busy city. Owning a car is also still highly valued in society.

Finally, the “Multimodal and shared automation” scenario has the same level of trust towards the automated vehicle and technological advancement as the “letting go on highways” option. Only, instead of owning a car, the sharing of one vehicle with multiple people has become the new value in society. People can divide all car related costs, and with the help of smart cloud scheduling software, can still use the car whenever they want.

All the scenarios mentioned above will make traffic much safer than the current situation on our roads. The “fully automated private luxury”, however, will be the safest since all traffic will be self-driving. Combining this with the new option to create your own pleasure palace inside your car make it sound even better. An almost 100% safe traffic situation were every car is completely customized to the needs of each individual in which one can do whatever he wants. Doesn’t that sound great? Unfortunately, before this can be realized, we need to be ready to outsource driving control to a cold and heartless machine. Currently we have not reached this point yet, but I think eventually the pros of self-driving cars will overcome the cons.

Mobility as a service

Nora Vilde Aagaard

 

– Do we have to choose between privacy and sustainability?

Imagine you are waking up on a normal Tuesday. You pick up your phone to check the news as usual. A notification is blinking, and you learn that your train to work has been cancelled. You know that you can take the bus, but you also know that the bus takes 30 minutes longer and will make you late. Luckily, your mobility app tells you that a cab is nearby, ready to pick you up. And guess what? The cab is free!

What might sound like a dream is in fact reality. There must be a downside to this free cab, you may think, and not surprisingly, there is. In order to receive the free cab, you must give your mobility app access to your calendar and permission to save information about the trip you are about to take. Perhaps this does not sound alarming to you, but what if you knew that from the second you agreed to the “terms and conditions”, which nobody really reads, that you had actually agreed to let your mobility app collect and sell every piece of data about where you travel.

Our current mobility system, characterized by automobility, has allowed our whereabouts to be anonymous for decades. We get in our cars and drive without anyone having to know where we are going. Now, with the mobility system changing, what changes prevails and how these will affect our everyday lives is still unknown. The current tendency is characterized by a more centralized, shared transport, especially in cities.

The Finnish company, Mobility as a Service (MaaS), got the brilliant idea to combine different modes of mobility in the Whim app. Citizens of Helsinki now only need one app to use city bikes, public transport and carsharing services. MaaS´ goal is to become a global mobility provider, starting by expanding to the UK. By first glance, the Whim app appears genius. One single app to get access to public transport, city bikes, cabs and carsharing services. Also, the monthly price of the Whim services are lower than buying a monthly bus pass from the municipal public transport provider in Helsinki, HSL. This is possible due to the investors of MaaS, Toyota among them.

In order to use the Whim app, you need to give up a lot of your personal information. For the app to work properly, you have to allow the app access to your phone calendar and your current position (which also stores GPS information when the app is not in use). Also, Whim stores all information about your trips, ranging from mode of transport to where you are travelling from and where you are travelling to, and what date and what time of day you are travelling. Whim uses this information not only to plan your next trip, but also to target advertisements based on your whereabouts. Most of us have been accustomed to targeted advertisements and location storage from using other apps such as Facebook and searching Google. However, how and where we travel have up to now been our own business.

Putting the privacy issues a side for a moment, services such as MaaS can be seen as positive from a sustainability perspective. There is a broad consensus that our current modes of mobility are unsustainable. According to the Norwegian Environmental Agency, the transport sector is accountable for 14 percent of greenhouse gas emissions globally. In Norway, the numbers are significantly higher. The transport sector is the largest emission source nationally, accountable for over 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Road transport, with carbon based private car use as the spearhead, is mostly to blame. One way to reduce emission levels from the mobility sector is to decentralize our system, thus reducing automobility and relying more on other modes of transport, such as biking, public transport and car sharing. Apps such as Whim who combine several modes of transport, planning our trips for us can make it easier to leave the car at home when we are going somewhere. But is what we have to give up worth it? In Norway, local companies are in charge of the public transport, owned by the local authority. In Oslo, Ruter, who I suppose most people in Oslo and Akershus are familiar with, are in charge of public transport. One solution could be to give them responsibility for other modes of transportation as well, such as the city bikes.

Are we located at a crossroad, where we have to choose between a sustainable transport sector and our privacy? Does a decentralized mobility system necessarily imply giving up our freedom to move anonymous? It is too early to tell. While our policymakers discuss who should be in charge of our future travels, MaaS continue to grow. Who gets hold of our mobility data in the future is too early to say, but the decisions are being made now.