Friday, June 14, 2024

Do I know you?

| September 12, 2023 1:00 AM

When prescient science fiction and reality start to blend, it really makes you think.

Take "Star Trek" (and bear with me). From Captain Kirk’s awe-inspiring automatic doors to those plastic-looking computer tablets and universal translators of TNG, sci-fi literally inspired actual invention.

It’s so cool when that happens.

So imagine my excitement and alarm when, less than a day after watching the 2018 film “Anon,” my news app fed me a New York Times article about Meta/Facebook suppressing the same technology more than six years before that movie was made. If I had an inner Alexa — which is coming, I’m sure — I’d accuse it of reading my mind.

Case in point: A world without strangers. We’re closer than you think.

In the dystopian film (starring Clive Owen and Amanda Seyfried) everyone has some kind of augmented reality displaying instant information on everything the eye sees. Pass a stranger on the street and a popup flashes their name, age, occupation and more. Glance at a glass bowl on a table and an instant search result provides its composition, purpose and the history of glass blowing. On the outside, things look as they do now. All the while, everyone is getting text display vision.

A world with no mystery. No privacy. No “just looking.” That’s great for solving crimes, but it makes sitting in peace impossible and getting to know someone rather pointless.

One day, technology will find a way to see our thoughts — something I’d have thought was crazy a few years ago, but now know is actually being explored (Nature Neuroscience, May 1, 2023). As I pondered these implications and the mixed blessing that is man’s continual search for more, I knew I wouldn’t want that. The process of thinking and our ability to concentrate and analyze is already eroding as more is done for us by the machines we invent.

Do we want it all done for us? The mind is like a muscle; the more you use it, the stronger it gets. The closer it gets to full potential.

But that’s not why Meta suppressed the Anon-like technology developed more than a decade ago (two decades, if you count the steps getting there). If you have a Facebook account, you may have noticed Meta got rid of the face recognition tool for photo tagging. After they introduced it some cried privacy-foul, Facebook was sued in 2015, and they pulled it.

Engineers and techies at Meta and AI and AR firms in the U.S. and elsewhere developed face and object recognition technologies for gadgets years ago but conscientious experts are concerned about where it might lead and how it could be used. Smart phones now have face-recognition features (for photos and security) and startups such as Clearview AI and PimEyes are working on Anon-like products. They have software and AR eyeglasses that match faces to a database of more than 20 billion images on the internet. Match results appear as text on the lens screen.

They already exist.

There’s nothing sinister going on; we all put that data on the web, oblivious about privacy while posting and sharing in a vast worldwide web. With the exception of certain criminal activity, it was voluntary. All that data; all those photos and diary-like posts about our likes and lives are out there. Unlike paper mail, the digital world is not recipient-only. Nor completely in our control.

That ship has sailed.

What hasn’t yet happened is wide availability. Clearview’s AI glasses and similar inventions aren’t for public sale, yet. Face recognition software is being used by businesses, but in limited ways, as features of other software. We aren’t yet non-Anon (anonymous), but it is in sight.

The most interesting bit is that this remnant of anonymity is intentional. Some of the big AI and AR folks are holding back, talking about ethics, encouraging society to do the same. We don’t want to dump technology; it does a lot of good, provides conveniences and can literally save lives (plus it’s nice to avoid embarrassment when you just can’t remember that name at a party). We can, however, keep it reined in a bit.

With any invention that so massively impacts society, there must be careful consideration of not just how it can be used, but how it should be used. That requires three things: identifying its benefits and drawbacks without fear, a thorough discussion of ethics and regulations to control it so profit and personal interest don’t do that for us.

One person’s freedom ends where it erodes another’s.

• • •

Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Email