Sunday, May 18, 2014

Algorithms as cash, now algorithms in company board of directors

The world is getting into a trend of using software and hardware in places traditionally reserved for humans or "real life" applications. An extraordinary example of this, something that I consider way ahead of its time, is the creation of Bitcoins. You see, money is supposed to be an abstraction of wealth, but wealth, for all intents and purposes, is determined by some material such as gold or gems. It was the previous layer of abstraction, right after people would do commerce using sheep and goats and women: they used something they mined from under the earth to equate value of real things. Enter Bitcoin, something that you "mine" using processing power, using an algorithm, having weight of value determined only by the computation and strength of encryption used. After all, gold in itself had no value either when it was used as currency: it only had weight of value by the effort of getting out of the ground and its rarity.

I didn't write about Bitcoins until now because frankly I don't get how it works. I get the gist of it, but I would like to understand the algorithm behind, which relies heavily on encryption. I am terrible at any type of cryptography, though. However, the story that prompted me to write a blog entry today is, in a way, even weirder than Bitcoins. A BBC article entitled "Algorithm appointed board director" describes that venture capital firm Vital assigned an automated algorithm a vote in the decision to invest or not in a company. Of course, this has been done before, but indirectly. Some guy would use a computer in some basement of the office building, trying to determine if a company is viable or not using computer programs. He would then pass the information to some manager, who would pass it on to his manager until it got to some member of the board who voted in the council. This story, though, describes a complete removal of middlemen. Of course, there is still some techie that takes care of the IT department. He probably could sway the algorithm to vote for a company he personally likes, if he wanted too, but the techies are always subsumed in the concept of "machine", perhaps until they learn to service each other. The article says the same thing, really, but fails to recognize the importance of the removal of that chain of middle manager who's jobs are only to filter information from downstairs and decisions from upstairs. It is akin to Blake's 7, where the seventh was a machine.

I started this blog entry talking about a trend and I've just described two applications, but there are really a lot more. A trend is also powered by public perception, which is powered by media outlets. So I am not only talking about the self driving cars, the killing drones, the self landing probes, the algorithmic news aggregators and even writers, but also about the TV series and movies that are spreading the seed of this idea of cyber-revolution: Intelligence, Transcendence, The Machine, Robocop, even Silicon Valley, if you've seen the episode where the self driving car abducts someone. All of these are released this year, as well.

Of course, there has always been some sort of golem like creature in human fantasy, but it was always about creatures/machines trying to gain unrestricted power, power that belongs to humans only or maybe only to gods (in essence, something that should not be had). Some of them, like Star Trek's Data, were benign, always trying to achieve the "humanity" evident in his colleagues, but even in that story there was always the underlying idea that if he managed to reach his goal, then Data would become an immortal creature of human ability, but also a lot more than that: a superhuman. In this decade we see the rise of transhumanism, something I wholly support, the self-evolution of the human being, but also of the singularity, the self-evolution of machines to the point where we are left behind. This very familiar notion of competition between memes makes it accessible, in that "us or them" kind of way that every human, no matter how idiotic, resonates with, but also interesting because of the commonality found in the two concepts: it's either the machines overtaking the evolution rate of the human animal or the humans accelerating the evolution of the human animal. It's all about overcoming that beast that exists in us and that we think of as "not me", but that guides most of our existence. I hope no amount of adolescent fantasies and "emotion over matter" garbage will be able to undo this. And I am terribly excited because I believe that by the end of my life I will see (if not become) one or the other happening.