Algorithms Without Empathy

I’m depressed.  I know this because there are days where it take all my energy just to get out of the house.  I know this by the way everything can feel so distant, like it’s happening to someone else.  And I know this because my phone is telling me so.  Not because I have a fancy mood tracking app. A couple weeks ago my phone autocompleted the entire phrase “I’m not doing so well,” which, for someone like me who struggles with talking about depression, translates to something between “I’m having a really bad day” and “I’m about to fall apart.” It was not a good feeling.

Part of having depression (for me, anyway) is having a little voice in the back of your head that hijacks your internal monologue in a way that distorts reality.  There’s a story that’s a bit of an Internet Classic which explains the inherent tradeoffs involved in living with physical disability by way of an analogy: you start the day with a certain number of spoons and everything you do (getting dressed, going to the doctor, work, having fun, etc.) has a “cost” in spoons.  In order to do everything you need to do (and maybe some things you just want to do) you have to plan your day around the number of spoons you have left.  I’ve found it to be an apt analogy for living with depression as well.  I strongly encourage you to read it, but if you haven’t, trust me when I say that dealing with depression is often a give and take between short and long term self care.  Case in point: I am absolutely convinced that talking about my depression is important for my long term mental health, but very often I make the decision not to talk about it.  Sometimes for better reasons than others, but almost always at least in part because I think it’s the best way to take care of myself — at least in the short term.  Watching my phone autocomplete that phrase was just the opening that voice needed to let me know how bad of a job I’m doing, not just at taking care of myself, but at pretty much everything else as well.  Being outed as a liar, no, a self-destructive liar, no, no, a lying failure by my phone is a peculiarity of two algorithms: the machine learning algorithms in the autocorrect software and the biochemical one running in my messed up head.

I’m sure the programmers and machine learning experts that made my autocorrect software never intended to ruin my day. Just as they never intended to enable the creation of those surreal artistic pieces that are autocorrect poems. As a species we’ve yet to find a tool we couldn’t abuse in some way its creators never expected.   (I guess that’s the flipside to the old saying “when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”)

I don’t know what those programmers could have done to prevent a situation like mine.  I don’t know if they even should have. I do know that it hurt to see those words repeated back to me. It kicked off another wave of depression that engulfed me for the rest of the day. It also made me realize how bad I am at talking about my depression, even to myself. I’m sure that’s not something they ever intended. I get notifications regularly congratulating me on saving another ten thousand keystrokes — not once have I gotten one for speaking honestly. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that good intentions aren’t enough.  Take, for instance, this story from the end of 2014.  The designers and engineers of Facebook’s new “year-in-review” feature blithely assumed that people only share happy things on Facebook, and that the only kind of year one can have is a good one.  Instead of respecting Eric Meyer’s choice not to make a year-in-review, Facebook pushed a picture of his dead daughter surrounded by partying cartoon figures exhorting him to share his wonderful year with others.  In an example slightly closer to home, my mother-in-law, who died in 2013, still appears in my wife’s feed no matter how what settings she selects on her mom’s account.  These algorithms aren’t just cute pieces of code that make our lives easier. They have real effects on real people’s lives.  They are pieces of ourselves distributed across platforms and devices and it’s time that we as engineers and designers take that responsibility seriously.

These algorithms are becoming increasingly complex and sophisticated in anticipating our desires — in emulating us. As we walk down this road with our algorithmic simulacra, it is urgently important that we consider empathy in their design. For better or worse we are slowly, painstakingly creating software in our own image.  In doing so, it would be a terrible shame to let a belief that these algorithms are somehow neutral to guide us towards removing our own humanity.

Thanks to Deana Rutherford and Peter Raleigh for reading drafts of this essay.

Books Read in September and October

The Peripheral (9/8) – William Gibson’s latest sci-fi novel was a total blast.  Like many Gibson novels it includes mind bending new ideas and well-crafted characters.  I had trouble putting it down.  The ending was a bit abrupt and neatly tied off in a way I didn’t really expect from him, but it’s definitely worth reading.

Dead Pig Collector (9/10) – This wonderful little short story is about love and hit men. Fun and quite weird.

Storm Warning, Storm Rising, Storm Breaking (10/17, 10/21, 10/29) – When I’m feeling stressed or depressed I lean on the collection of sci-fi and fantasy I’ve had since childhood. Some of these books I’ve read five or ten times (I didn’t get new books very often as a child so I did a lot of rereading). The books in this series are like that. Call it escapism if you want, I call it comfort food.  I read the last one on my Kindle since I managed to lose my paper copy somehow.  Reading it in a different format robbed it of some of it’s nostalgia value but it still felt good to revisit these old friends.

Naked Statistics: Stripping the Dread from Data (10/31) – It’s been a while since I took a statistics class and since it’s become an important part of my job it seemed a good idea to brush up on it.  Before diving into something rigorous and math-heavy I figured I would benefit from something aimed at a more general audience that might help improve my statistical numeracy before I get bogged down in something more textbook-like.  This book delivered.  The voice is friendly, if a bit too self-deprecating for my tastes, and the examples are easy to reason about.  A significant amount of time, and rightly so, is spent pointing out common flaws and abuses of statistics.  A good read for anyone who doesn’t use stats on a daily basis already.

Books Read in August

The Wall Street Journal Guide to Information Graphics (8) – This slim book is a must for anyone regularly involved in the creation of charts and graphs. The text is clear and direct, with many pages of do’s and don’ts sitting side by side so you can see both how to do it and how not to. Highly recommended and a super quick read.
Ironskin (11) – I picked this up after reading a chapter from the third novel in this series in Women Destroy Fantasy. This was a thoroughly enjoyable read that felt like a cross between a Jane Austen novel and faerie tales. Connolly does a frighteningly good job at writing the inner dialogue of depression, self loathing and anger.
Atomic Size Matters (13) – Dr. Veronica Berns turned a chapter of her chemistry thesis into a lovely little comic. I backed the KickStarter. It’s an interesting look at some the tools of modern chemistry and a quick read.
Artificial Intelligence for Humans, Volume 1: Fundamental Algorithms (15) – This first volume of author Jeff Heaton’s ongoing series of AI texts was KickStarted in 2013.  Its promise, an intro to AI concepts and algorithms that wouldn’t require advanced maths, was appealing.  That, plus an ambitious end goal of six interconnected volumes and ample example code available through GitHub, convinced me to back the project.  Heaton stayed true to his goal and explains many of the fundamental algorithms (Euclidean distance, k-means clustering, and simulated annealing) without the need for complicated math.  With that said, there were still a couple of sections where I felt I would have benefited from either a better math background or a more in-depth explanation of the math involved.  In particular the section on RBF functions and the RBF network model left me wanting more. Still, I’d recommend this book to any programmer interested in AI whose math may be rusty (like mine is), but whose still comfortable with mathematical notation (i.e. “f(x)”, “Σ“, etc.).  I’ve already backed the second and third volumes in the series and I look forward to working my way through all six volumes.  For those still intimidated by the math, it may be best to wait for the last volume (a prequel “volume zero”) which is an intro to the math of AI.
The Internet of Garbage (16) – Sarah Jeong, the co-author of Five Useful Articles, a comedic copyright newsletter, writes a clear and crisp description of the issues surrounding online harassment in this short e-book.  Likening our current situation to the early days of dealing with spam, she shows how we can learn from that history to build tools that can help foster safe online spaces.  A quick and interesting read.
Elektrograd: Rusted Blood (20) – The second of Warren Ellis’ self-published e-book shorts.  This one’s a sci-fi noir detective story set in “a strange dream of a possible city.  A science fiction mystery about theoretical architecture, AI and vintage robotics.”  It has the feel of a graphic novel and was a fun and interesting read.  I especially enjoyed the way it hinted at a larger world (one that Ellis has indicated we might see more of in future shorts).
The BreakBeat Poets (26) – This collection of poetry was put together by a trio of Chicago poets, including Kevin Coval, founder of Louder Than a Bomb.  I’m still fairly new to reading poetry so getting through this took me quite some time.  I thought I was into hip hop, but the sheer number of references that went over my head made it clear that I’ve still got a lot to learn about the genre.  With all that said, I still found this collection full of powerful poems and l dog eared many a page.  Many of the poets involved are from and write about Chicago which is always a plus in my book.

Books read in July

Freakangels (1) – I recently remembered that Warren Ellis’ Freakangels comic was available online in its entirety for free. So of course I went ahead and devoured it immediately. It was a great comics binge. It’s a coming of age story and a tale of arrested development for a group of super human psychics living in the flooded husk of London. I wanted it to last forever, but like any good coming of age story it had to end sometime. Paul Duffield’s art is fantastic and the writing is both playful and grim. If you’re reading it online in its original format you’ll be treated to the webcomics standard of skip week explanations and the occasional con report. Kind of interesting in a historical way but really skippable if you want to.

Women Destroy Fantasy! Special Issue (19) – This special issue of Fantasy magazine was the result of reaching a stretch goal on Lightspeed’s Women Destroy Science Fiction! KickStarter (which I backed). This issue is filled with short stories that ranged from good to great (including an excellent retelling of the Cinderella story by T. Kingfisher) and so-so interviews. There’s also a super useful section of women writing fantasy compiled by the contributors. I had mixed feelings about that section because on the one hand I hadn’t read or heard of many of the recommended authors and books and felt like that makes me part of the problem; but on the other hand, here were a bunch of highly recommended fantasy books I hadn’t read yet*!

*At least one of these books is already on it’s way to my house :)

Books read in May and June

The Wisdom of Insecurity (5/6) – This was a surprisingly difficult read for so slim of a book. Very powerful though. I found the discourse on the difference between faith and belief very helpful in dealing with my own depression and anxiety. He spends a lot of time attempting to reconcile his views of the infinite with classical religious texts which wasn’t super interesting to me (although probably a large point of the book). I could have done without them but the concept of “us as all” is so difficult to wrap your head around that I won’t complain about the repetitions.

Drones (5/22) – This is the first book of Adam Rothstein’s that I’ve read. I’m a big fan of his writing (both short fiction and journalistic), so I had high expectations for this book. Unfortunately, I’m not really the target audience. If you have even a semi active interest in drones and are familiar with the basics of how historical narratives are written you may find yourself bored at times. There’s some really interesting history, and the chapter on the esthetics of the drone is great, but in between there’s a lot more History 101 than I was expecting.

I read this at the same time as Charlie Stross’s Accelerando and I highly recommend that pairing. The history in Drones reaches back as far as the industrial revolution and you start to get a sense of the acceleration of technological advances as you progress. Accelerando takes that acceleration and straps on rocket skis, giving you the sense that Drones is a sort of historical prequel.

Accelerando (5/28) – One of the problems with writing about the Singularity is that, by definition, the post-Singularity world is fundamentally a different one than ours. Stross handles this beautifully by sidestepping the issue and asking what happens to those left behind. What if you don’t want your consciousness used as a currency by sentient corporations?

I found the “exo cortex” construction a really interesting take on what the technology between here and full brain upload might look like. It got me thinking how something like that could be built right now. The closest thing we have right now are smartphones and the nascent AR/VR kit blooming off them. I’m thinking about products like Google Glass, Pebble and iWatch, and research into gestural and neural interfaces. One thing that really stood out for me is the stark difference between Manfred’s exocortex and today’s smartphones when it comes to ownership. Manfred’s exocortex is a part of his body. He owns it in much the same way you own your kidneys.  We don’t really own our smart devices the same way way.

Blindsight (6/3) – The aliens in this book really felt alien. Beautiful bizarre weirdness. The e-book formatting wasn’t very good so I’d recommend getting an actual book.

Cunning Plans (6/17) – Pop music and magic, technology and British hedge shaman, haunted machines and the state of science fiction. If any of that sounds appealing to you, this book is well worth your time and dollar.  This is the first of Warren Ellis’ new short e-books (he was trying to produce a new one each month but has an Unidentified Neurological Event and put that on hold) and a collection of his recent talks.  I’ve been eagerly awaiting this collection since I generally prefer reading transcripts over watching videos and can’t afford to actually go to all the conferences he speaks at.  I was not disappointed. I don’t totally get the economics behind this only costing 99 cents, but you should all go buy it before they wise up and raise the price.  Some of the talks share themes and subject matter (as Ellis readily admits) but it felt more like reinforcement than recycling.

Books read in April

Difficult Conversations (1st) – A quick read full of the kind of good advice that will be difficult to put into practice.  Like Getting Things Done, it feels like the way to get the most out of this book is to try out their techniques and then read it again.  Experience putting their recommendations into action will help bring out some of the nuance that gets glossed over in a first reading.  Come to think of it this is probably true of most self help books.

Equal Rites (17th) – Another Discworld novel. I know I’m coming to these late but I’m really enjoying them. I read one of this book’s sequels first (Lords and Ladies) so it was kind of interesting to go backwards in the development of the characters and setting. Like all of the Discworld books I’ve read so far it was a ton of fun and a quick read.

Design for the Real World (23rd) – I picked this up based on a Mike Monteiro talk from Webstock ’13 called “How Designers Destroyed the World“.  Who could ignore a talk with a title like that?  I’m really glad I did.  Papanek skewers (in, at times excruciating, detail) the entire design profession.  The thesis is pretty straightforward.  Designers have an outsized effect on the world we live in and to use it for anything but the greater good is an abuse of the skills required to be a designer.  He provides an interesting framework for evaluating whether a design is “good” enough and there are some great examples of good design as well as some hilarious and/or terrifying examples of bad design.  All in all though, there are probably just too many examples and there are some sections that feel pretty dated (the second edition was written in the 80’s).  (There are also some mind blowingly prescient parts too.)  If you’re involved at all in the design of anything (and that includes you, software people), I highly recommend this book, but don’t be afraid to skim sections that feel like a parade of design examples or product ideas. Probably the best book I’ve read this year.

Note: As of this post I’ll be using Amazon affiliate links.  If that bugs you, it’s pretty easy to circumvent.  I promise it’s not going to effect the content here.

Books read in March

I’m trying out something new. I’m going to try recording the books I’ve read each month. I’m hoping it will help read more.

These are the books I read in March (and the date I finished them):

How Google Works (17th) – Smug and self serving. I give them extra points for having fun with the footnotes, though. A solid meh.

Cold as Ice (21st) – Hard science fiction.  Feels a bit noir in places, especially the ending. Interesting to see what older sci fi thought the future of media would look like.



November 2015
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