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Citizenfour and the Singularity

CitizenFourWow, it’s been a long time since I’ve actually written about the Singularity here at the Singularity Watch blog. When I started this here gossip column it was with the intention of documenting the progress of the Technological Singularity. Eventually I got bored with the subject. I found myself attracted by newer, shinier objects like the Higgs Boson, vampire squids, and Italy.

Suddenly though, The Singularity is back in my thoughts, creeping in as I digest the movie Citizenfour. Which is sort of scary because Citizenfour is not a science fiction movie at all. It’s a documentary of Edward Snowden during the moments he was delivering his information to The Guardian.

It’s a powerful film for a number of reasons. Watching the incident unfold not as a reenactment but as footage of the actual events is thrilling. It’s reality TV in the extreme.

Further, Snowden explaining what he was handing over and why makes clear just what it was he was doing. Suddenly we understand not only what he did, but the consequences if he didn’t take the action. We didn’t comprehend all that when we first read about it in the paper. We were muddled then. Was he giving state secrets away to our enemies? His accusers would have us believe he was as wicked as the Rosenbergs. And yet it is clear from this film he’s a true patriot. And what he did was important.

Most of all the film depicts the bravery it took Snowden to do what he did. He gave up his entire life and his personal relationships to spill his guts. He didn’t do it for money or fame. He did it because he could no longer live with himself knowing what he knew.

The movie is about Edward Snowden, and Edward Snowden is about privacy. I never worried over privacy much before. After this story came out in 2013, I envisioned millions of gigatons of emails, texts, phone calls, and other boring communications collected by our ISPs and handed over to our government. I imagined some poor slob in the basement of a government building in Virginia or Maryland sifting through it for 10 hours a day, six days a week, hoping to uncover a communist/terrorist plot, or maybe get noticed by a superior with the result being a glamorous reassignment to the mailroom.

Who could worry about such a scenario? Certainly reading our thoughts is wrong, but who cares, they’re not interesting enough for anyone to pay attention. And the effort never made sense. How would anybody ever discover the next terrorist/communist/North Korean meltdown as they sifted through the tonnage of pornography the average American downloads and passes around?

Unfortunately it’s not as simple as that. It’s a digital world, after all, and the NSA has a new tool: the algorithm. They have super high-octane servers supplied with the algorithm with which they analyze that tonnage of porn at the rate of about a gazillion baud. Our little kernals of communication are analyzed, sorted, filed, interpreted, and saved at mind-blowing speeds. The algorithm connects all dots and when something even remotely strange comes up, over at the other end of the mainframe there’ll be a little card spit out. On that card will be a dirty little secret. Here’s a good example of what might constitute a dirty little secret worthy of NSA harassment:

“Sue Lange frequently passes the corner of Fifth and Penn Street in Reading Pennsylvania. On March 13, 1945 there was a communist meeting at 511 N. 8th Street, in Reading, PA, three blocks from Fifth and Penn Street. Ergo, Sue Lange is a communist.”

Everyone knows the digital mind is logical to a fault, so laugh if you want to, this nightmare can happen.

All right, maybe it leans toward the absurd, but the truth is computers are analyzing our behavior and determining which of us are worthy and which of us are terrorists. Do you really want to trust computer logic to separate the sheep from the goats?

That’s not even the scary part. The scary part involves, you guessed it, The Technological Singularity. As we learned in Citizenfour, there are ways to communicate without anyone being able to read, record, analyze, interpret, etc. your words. If you don’t want your computer, cell phone, table lamp, Hello Kitty lunch box, etc. recording your conversation in order to feed it to the algorithm, the best thing to do is go to some off-the-grid location. The movie suggested a parking garage. Maybe that would work. In 1984 (the book, not the actual year), they went to a hillside somewhere away from telephone wires.

That might work too, except for one thing: The Singularity.

The Singularians can’t wait for the day when every living and dead thing—every leaf, cow, streetlamp—is filled with nanobots that can solve every problem, cure every disease, make everything work right. There are whole teams of brainy people funded by wealthy Singularity fanatics working to make this happen.

Imagine those ubiquitous nanobots planted in every entity on the planet feeding information into the algorithm. Considering the vicissitudes of digital logic, how many of us sheep aren’t going to be incorrectly identified as goats?

You don’t think this is going to happen? Just keep your eye on IoT: Internet of Things.

It’s coming people. Welcome to the future.

Sue Lange

P.S. For the gazillionth time, The Technological Singularity is the moment artificial intelligence bypasses biological intelligence. Experts are divided as to whether or not this could possibly happen. They also don’t agree on what the ramifications will be if it can indeed happen. Check out my typical cynical explanation in a previous blog post.

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One thought on “Citizenfour and the Singularity

  1. V-e-r-y interesting. (Yes, in an Artie Johnson-Nazi-voice, to keep with the fascistic subject matter.) Just curious, how is “intelligence” defined, vis a vis “biological” vs. “artificial”? Especially since you’ve noted potentially “unrealistic” conclusions drawn by theoretically “logical,” but actually “stoopid” algorithms. As in: I always suspected you were really a Red Diaper Baby. Now that you’ve been found to frequent 5th & Penn Sts., your secret is revealed!!

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