If its claims are true, Clearview AI has quietly blown right past privacy norms to become the nightmare many have been fearing.
- Recent reporting has revealed the existence of a company that has probably scraped your personal data for its facial recognition database.
- Though social platforms forbid it, the company has nonetheless collected personal data from everywhere it can.
- The company's claims of accuracy and popularity with law enforcement agencies is a bit murky.
Is this legal? And does it matter?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjY0NTY5OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMzg5ODg2M30.DMdhtKuBNY4_ZOJA7_kNumGSHavaG4CHT47KX2-k51M/img.jpg?width=980" id="75d49" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="0b3a34d5ed3f4971dd26579ee9277c5e" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Anton Watman/Shutterstock<p>In terms of Federal law protecting one's personal data, the regulations are way behind today's digital realities. The controlling legislation appears to be the anti-hacking <a href="https://www.wired.com/2014/11/hacker-lexicon-computer-fraud-abuse-act/" target="_blank">Computer Fraud and Abuse Act</a> (CFAA) enacted in 1984, well before the internet we know today. Prior to a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling last year, the law had been used to fight automated data-scraping. However, that ruling determined that this type of scraping doesn't violate the CFAA.</p><p>Social media sites generally include anti-scraping stipulations in their user agreements, but these are hard — and perhaps impossible given programmers' ingenuity — to enforce. Twitter, whose policies explicitly forbid automated scraping for the purposes of constructing a database, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/22/technology/clearview-ai-twitter-letter.html" target="_blank">recently ordered</a> Clearview AI to knock it off. Given last year's CFAA ruling, though, sites have little legal recourse when their policies are violated. In any event, tech is a troublingly incestuous industry — for example, a Facebook board member, <a href="https://bigthink.com/robby-berman/hulk-hogans-suit-against-gawker-justice-or-a-billionaires-revenge" target="_self">Peter Thiel</a>, is one of Clearview AI's primary investors, so how motivated would such people really be to block mining of their data?</p>
Is Clearview AI legit?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjY0NTczNC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMDk1NjI0MX0._f15F1S9pw6yLmXnVXVFODHLeFypl_L8RYJi474yrLA/img.jpg?width=980" id="a6e08" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9f6e33faf37a61164bec61e0f497a5cb" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Clearview AI, through Atlanta public-records request by New York Times<p>Clearview has taken pains to remain off the public's radar, at least until the <em>New York Times</em> article appeared. It<u></u>s co-founders long ago scrubbed their own social identities from the web, though one of them, Hoan Ton-That, has since reemerged online.</p><p>In efforts to remain publicly invisible while simultaneously courting law enforcement as customers for Clearview's services, the company has been quietly publishing an array of targeted promotional materials (The <em>Times</em>, BuzzFeed, and <em>WIRED</em> have acquired a number of these materials via Freedom of Information requests and through private individuals). The ads make some extraordinary and questionable claims regarding Clearview's accuracy, successes, and the number of law enforcement agencies with which it has contracts. Not least, of course, among questions about the company's integrity must be their extensive scraping of data from sites whose user agreements forbid it.</p><p>According to Clearview, over 600 law enforcement parties have used their product in the last year, though the company won't supply a list of them. There <em>are</em> a handful of confirmed clients, however, including the Indiana State Police. According to the department's then-captain, the police were able to identify the perpetrator in a shooting case in just 20 minutes thanks to Clearview's ability to find a video the man had posted of himself on social media. The department itself has officially declined to comment on the case for T<em>he </em><em>New York Times</em>. Police departments in Gainesville, Florida and Atlanta, Georgia are also among their confirmed customers.</p><p>Clearview has tried to impress potential customers with case histories that apparently aren't true. For example, they sent an email to prospective clients with the title, "How a Terrorism Suspect Was Instantly Identified With Clearview," describing how their software cracked a New York subway terrorism case. The NYPD says Clearview had nothing to do with it and that they used their own facial recognition system. Clearview even posted a video on Vimeo telling the story, which has since been removed. Clearview has also claimed several other successes that have been denied by the police departments involved. </p><p>There is skepticism regarding Clearview's claims of accuracy, a critical concern given that in this context a false positive can send an innocent person to jail. Clare Garvie, of Georgetown University's Center on Privacy and Technology, <a href="https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/ryanmac/clearview-ai-nypd-facial-recognition" target="_blank">tells BuzzFeed</a>, "We have no data to suggest this tool is accurate. The larger the database, the larger the risk of misidentification because of the doppelgänger effect. They're talking about a massive database of random people they've found on the internet."</p><p>Clearview has not submitted their results for independent verification, though a FAQ on their site claims that an "independent panel of experts rated Clearview 100% accurate across all demographic groups according to the ACLU's facial recognition accuracy methodology." In addition, the accuracy rating of facial recognition is usually derived from a combination of variables, including its ability to detect a face in an image, its correct-match rate, reject rate, non-match rate, and the false-match rate. As far as the FAQ claim, Garvie notes that "whenever a company just lists one accuracy metric, that is necessarily an incomplete view of the accuracy of their system."</p>
Image source: Andre_Popov/Shutterstock<p>It may or may not be that Clearview is doing what they claim to be doing, and that their technology is really accurate and seeing increasing use by police departments. Regardless, there can be little doubt that the company and likely others are working toward the goal of making reliable facial recognition available to law enforcement and other government agencies (Clearview also reportedly pitches its product to private detectives).</p><p>This has many people concerned, as it represents a major blow to personal privacy. A bipartisan effort in the U.S. Senate has seemingly failed. In November 2019, Democrats introduced their own privacy bill of rights in the <a href="https://www.cantwell.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/COPRA%20Bill%20Text.pdf" target="_blank">Consumer Online Privacy Rights Act</a> (COPRA) while Republicans introduced their <a href="https://aboutblaw.com/NaZ" target="_blank">United States Consumer Data Privacy Act of 2019</a> (CDPA). States have also enacted or are in the process of considering new privacy legislation. Preserving personal privacy without unnecessarily constraining acceptable uses of data collection is complicated, and the law is likely to continue lagging behind technological reality.</p><p>In any event, the exposure of Clearview AI's system is pretty chilling, setting off alarms for anyone hoping to hold onto what's left of their personal privacy, at least for as long as it's possible to do so.<br><br><strong>UPDATE</strong>: The ACLU announced on Thursday that it is suing Clearview in the state of Illinois. <a href="https://www.cnet.com/news/clearview-ai-faces-lawsuit-over-gathering-peoples-images-without-consent/" target="_blank">CNET reports</a> that Illinois is the only state with a biometric privacy law, the Biometric Information Privacy Act, which requires "informed written consent" before companies can use someone's biometrics. "Clearview's practices are exactly the threat to privacy that the legislature intended to address, and demonstrate why states across the country should adopt legal protections like the ones in Illinois," the ACLU said in a statement. <br><br>For more on the suit, head over to the <a href="https://www.aclu.org/news/privacy-technology/were-taking-clearview-ai-to-court-to-end-its-privacy-destroying-face-surveillance-activities/" target="_blank">ACLU website</a>.</p>
Does the President get to decide when to ignore the law?
- During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln decided to suspend habeas corpus, a protection in the Constitution that prohibited imprisonment without a trial.
- From Lincoln's point of view, following the law to the letter during that unprecedented and pivotal moment in history (i.e. the threat of war and secession from the Union) would put lawfulness itself at risk, so some restrictions of civil liberties were necessary.
- The war and the president's actions changed how the founding document is interpreted and sometimes challenged by the rule of men.
A review of the global "wall" that divides rich from poor.
- Trump's border wall is only one puzzle piece of a global picture.
- Similar anxieties are raising similar border defenses elsewhere.
- This map shows how, as a result, "the West" is in fact one large gated community.
World-wide fence<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMTk5NTczMi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwMjE3MjUxMX0.MO6GQwcV_Ms8h2j4vL-eJGkDJWbyligT5RpcuDCtWkE/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C11%2C0%2C12&height=700" id="4f36b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="bc96a05ab38ddd887e4b0fcbb8758182" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
The western terminus of the US-Mexico land border at Tijuana.
Image source: © Tomas Castelazo / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0<p>This map is a decade old, but it feels increasingly topical with every passing year. More than ever, we live in a Walled World.</p><p>Even though the stats on the map may have changed somewhat, its shocking main point still stands: the rich countries of the world are, in fact, the world's biggest gated community. </p><p>This world-wide fence is rarely presented to us in its totality; we catch glimpses of its various bits whenever they're in the news. Those separate pieces don't necessarily seem to belong to the same puzzle. <br></p><p>The US-Mexico border is far away from "Fortress Europe," and both are different from Israel's security wall. Other, similar barriers have their own peculiarities. But in the end, they all do the same thing: keep the poor, huddled masses from the shantytowns off the manicured lawns of the First World. </p>
The Berlin Window<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMTk5NTc2OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMTE4NDU3OH0.ZcwaxEM2GGfjka5EGLHK64EQeKkiWFexo9NnJ4s_e0Q/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C45%2C0%2C81&height=700" id="b8dc4" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="4d742b2b29f6ebe1533c49c5e396e764" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
East and West Berliners on top of the recently opened Berlin Wall, early November 1989.
Image: Lear21, CC BY-SA 3.0<p>For a brief window of time, opened 30 years ago next month, it seemed history would go the other way. In November 1989, the Berlin Wall came down. Its joyous demolition predicted the end of hard borders everywhere. <br></p><p>That window soon flew shut. The idea of a globalized world with frictionless borders fell out of fashion faster than the bleached jeans and mullet hair of the East Berliners marveling at their first banana in 1989. </p><p>Two events stand out: 9/11, and the refugee crisis of 2015. Both increased the fear and suspicion of "others" and remedied it by shoring up the entrance barriers into what is still sometimes — incongruously — called "the West" (1).</p><p>At the end of the Cold War, there were just 15 walls separating countries from each other. Now there are at least 70 walled borders worldwide. Since the fall of the Wall, <em>thousands</em> of miles of steel and concrete walls have gone up on international borders. <br></p>
A global wall<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMTk5MDU5My9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjE5MDc2OH0.U4xDS12lsL7SRPCGjce3Vgeq_xNQOg-NNptaUwziecU/img.jpg?width=980" id="051fa" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f75555ed62d03501e002e1bda6335f81" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="The rich world, developed world, first world or Western world by another name: the walled world." />
The rich world, developed world, first world or Western world by another name: the walled world.
Image: TD Architects<p>As this map shows, the Walled World consists of the U.S. and Canada (in North America); Japan and South Korea, plus Australia and New Zealand (in the Asia-Pacific region); plus basically the entire European Union (2); and also Israel. In 2009, that club of nations represented just 14 percent of the world's population but earned 73 percent of its income. Conversely, the "gray areas" outside the walls were home to 86 percent of humanity, who scraped together just 27 percent of the world's income. <br></p><p>The average monthly income inside the wall is around €2,500. Outside, it's just €150. Money may or may not buy happiness, but it does buy quality of life. The yellow dots, which represent the world's top 50 cities in terms of quality of life, are almost all inside the wall — only Singapore is outside, and <a href="https://bigthink.com/politics-current-affairs/singapore-economy" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">that relatively wealthy city-state should arguably be included inside the wall anyway</a>. </p><p>In other words: the poor are many, the rich are few. That's not a new phenomenon of course, nor are the migratory pressures it causes. That's where those barriers come in. The map lists some examples, the locations and the circumstances of which are all different — but which are all pieces of the same puzzle shown on this map. <br></p>
Technically still at war<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMTk5NTc4OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxODAxODI5MH0.NJDXkLspXY_M7kQ2iGLkMimUqoFaaJDNpGxLQm4piXI/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C106%2C0%2C0&height=700" id="b89f0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="04e8de99cfd0a17b8a17e1e8f15a4658" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea.
Image source: Korean Culture and Information Service (Jeon Han), CC BY 2.0<p><strong>A. The DMZ between North and South Korea</strong><br></p><p>The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which came into being in the ceasefire on July 27, 1953, cuts the Korean peninsula about in half. It's 155 miles (248 km) long and around 2 miles (3 km) wide. The two sides are technically still at war. Skirmishes at the DMZ have cost the lives of hundreds of Koreans, and at least 50 U.S. service personnel. The border is so heavily fortified that North Korean defectors rather try their luck going north into China than attempting to cross the DMZ. </p><p><strong>B. The Australian Defense Force (ADF)</strong></p><p>The ADF — charged with the defense of Australia — patrols the waters north of Australia, where incursions by boat refugees are most likely. </p><p><strong>C. The US-Mexico barrier<br></strong></p><p>Although Trump got elected by promising to "build that wall," the systematic erection of physical barriers on the 1,954-mile (3,145-km) US-Mexico border already began under the Clinton Administration. At first, it was concentrated on urban crossing points. After 9/11, fencing occurred in more rural/isolated areas as well — both under presidents Bush Jr. and Obama. Over the decades, thousands of migrants have died crossing the border. </p>
Tourist attractions<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMTk5NTc5NS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMDM5MjE4Mn0.86WA094D1hRCgqpss7SPPd4MAxZ9UslIVWgw9_FOafA/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C149%2C0%2C90&height=700" id="944cb" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="240c408cac098df3647d7776bc9ae362" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
The 'Valla' in Melilla, where Europe touches Africa.
Image: Ángel Gutiérrez Rubio, CC BY 2.0<p><strong>D. The Ceuta and Melilla border fences<br></strong></p><p>Ceuta and Melilla, the two Spanish exclave cities in Morocco, are where Fortress Europe meets North Africa. Built from 1993 with EU funding, a hard border consisting of tall barbed-wire fences equipped with motion sensors tries (and often fails) to keep out the flow of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. Before making the attempt, many hide in the Gurugu Mountains outside Melilla. Called "La Valla," the fences have become one of the cities' major tourist attractions. </p><p><strong>E. The EU's Schengen Border</strong></p><p>The map legend reads: "It took the European Union only six years (after the fall of the Berlin Wall) to create, with the Schengen Agreement in 1995, a new division only 80 km offset to the east of Berlin." The 26 Schengen Area members (3) have abolished all "internal" passport and border controls and have strengthened border controls and a common visa policy for non-Schengen countries. </p><p><strong>F. The West Bank Barrier</strong></p><p>In 2002, Israel started work on a concrete barrier separating Israelis from Palestinians. Israel says this is to stop the incursion of terrorists into Israel proper. The placing of the wall, largely beyond the Green Line which constitutes the "official" border between Israel and the Palestinian territories, means 9.4 percent of West Bank and East Jerusalem territory is now included on the Israeli side. Palestinians contend the wall is a land grab and constitutes a de facto border. Almost 90 percent of Israeli settlers in the occupied territories live between the Green Line and the Wall. <br></p>
Another brick in the wall<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMTk5MDU5Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMDcwNDkyOH0.NEteoE3ddyguc1CmyYsHOfFzdBkjjiyj1cn_eQCr7AE/img.jpg?width=980" id="e57f6" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b0023574b71dc95ff3d259ccf5ca5f55" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="One of the 99 'Peace Walls' in Belfast, Northern Ireland." />
One of the 99 "Peace Walls" in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Image source: Duke Human Rights Center, CC BY 2.0<p>Of course, there are many more border walls than these.<br></p><ul> <li>Take for instance the Evros Wall. Built in 2012 along the eponymous border river between Greece and Turkey, its purpose is to stop illegal migrants crossing the only land border between both countries into the EU. </li></ul><p>Not all border walls are between the First World and the Rest of the World.</p><ul> <li>India is building a 2,500-mile barbed-wire fence around Bangladesh, the overcrowded neighbour squeezed in entirely between India and the sea. India says the "Bengal Wall" will keep out smugglers and terrorists — but it will mostly keep out people fleeing poverty and climate change. </li></ul><p>Some of the border walls aren't even between countries, but between neighborhoods.</p><ul><li>Belfast counts 99 "Peace Walls" separating Catholic/nationalist communities from Protestant/loyalist ones. The largest one, dividing Protestant Springmartin Estate from Catholic Springfield Park, consists of no less than a million bricks.</li><li>Brazil's rich cordon themselves off from the nation's poor in gated communities such as Alphaville in São Paulo.</li><li>A decades-old wall divides Nicosia on Cyprus in Greek and Turkish halves — after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Nicosia is now the only European capital still divided by a wall.</li></ul>
Feel the Berm<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMTk5MDU5Ny9vcmlnaW4uZ2lmIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzODE2MjU3OH0.7OvuhyZRUb_PYE6P5zjSkQ19Ik5qmCnUMZhTskzhCW0/img.gif?width=980" id="73de0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6bc5605dab25e876c434fb4929f6f711" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="The expansion of Morocco's Berm, in six phases from 1982 to 1987." />
The expansion of Morocco's Berm, in six phases from 1982 to 1987.
Image source: Cedric31, GFDL<p>Border walls are both old and new.<br></p><ul><li>In 1975, Morocco took over the Western Sahara from Spain without granting the locals a referendum on independence. An armed rebellion ensued. Morocco responded by building the "Berm." The world's longest and oldest security barrier divides the Western Sahara in a large, ocean-facing swathe controlled by Morocco, and a thin strip of desert on the border with Mauritania, left to the Sahrawi rebels.</li><li>In recent years, "security walls" have gone up in Kabul, Baghdad, Cairo, and Syria. So many in fact, that none of them merit the notoriety of the Berlin Wall or even Belfast's Peace Walls. </li></ul><p>An updated map of the Walled World would contain many more red lines crisscrossing the planet. It feels like it'll be a while before there'll be another Berlin Moment, and any of these walls will start coming down again. <br></p>
If we make the right choices, there's hope for the future.
- According to historian Jared Diamond, we currently have four global crises to address: the ongoing threat of nuclear attacks, climate change, running out of resources, and socioeconomic inequality.
- Diamond believes there's hope for the future, though, because these problems are human caused, and must have human solutions — they are not looming doomsdays like an asteroid poised to strike Earth (of which we are currently largely helpless to address).
- If we don't aim to solve these issues within the next 30 years, then we — and our children — may end up living in a "miserable world not worth living [in]."
President Trump has called for Silicon Valley to develop digital precogs, but such systems raise efficacy concerns.
- President Donald Trump wants social media companies to develop A.I. that can flag potential mass shooters.
- Experts agree that artificial intelligence is not advanced enough, nor are current moderating systems up to the task.
- A majority of Americans support stricter gun laws, but such policies have yet to make headway.
On August 3, a man in El Paso, Texas, shot and killed 22 people and injured 24 others. Hours later, another man in Dayton, Ohio, shot and killed nine people, including his own sister. Even in a country left numb by countless mass shootings, the news was distressing and painful.
President Donald Trump soon addressed the nation to outline how his administration planned to tackle this uniquely American problem. Listeners hoping the tragedies might finally spur motivation for stricter gun control laws, such as universal background checks or restrictions on high-capacity magazines, were left disappointed.
Trump's plan was a ragbag of typical Republican talking points: red flag laws, mental health concerns, and regulation on violent video games. Tucked among them was an idea straight out of a Philip K. Dick novel.
"We must recognize that the internet has provided a dangerous avenue to radicalize disturbed minds and perform demented acts," Trump said. "First, we must do a better job of identifying and acting on early warning signs. I am directing the Department of Justice to work in partnership with local, state and federal agencies as well as well as social media companies to develop tools that can detect mass shooters before they strike."
Basically, Trump wants digital precogs. But has artificial intelligence reached such grand, and potentially terrifying, heights?
A digitized state of mind
It's worth noting that A.I. has made impressive strides at reading and quantifying the human mind. Social media is a vast repository of data on how people feel and think. If we can suss out the internal from the performative, we could improve mental health care in the U.S. and abroad.
For example, a study from 2017 found that A.I. could read the predictive markers for depression in Instagram photos. Researchers tasked machine learning tools with analyzing data from 166 individuals, some of whom had been previously diagnosed with depression. The algorithms looked at filter choice, facial expressions, metadata tags, etc., in more than 43,950 photos.
The results? The A.I. outperformed human practitioners at diagnosing depression. These results held even when analyzing images from before the patients' diagnoses. (Of course, Instagram is also the social media platform most likely to make you depressed and anxious, but that's another study.)
Talking with Big Think, Eric Topol, a professor in the Department of Molecular Medicine at Scripps, called this the ability to "digitize our state of mind." In addition to the Instagram study, he pointed out that patients will share more with a self-chosen avatar than a human psychiatrist.
"So when you take this ability to digitize a state of mind and also have a support through an avatar, this could turn out to be a really great way to deal with the problem we have today, which is a lack of mental health professionals with a very extensive burden of depression and other mental health conditions," Topol said.
Detecting mass shooters?
....mentally ill or deranged people. I am the biggest Second Amendment person there is, but we all must work togeth… https://t.co/T9OthUAsXe— Donald J. Trump (@Donald J. Trump)1565352202.0
However, it's not as simple as turning the A.I. dial from "depression" to "mass shooter." Machine learning tools have gotten excellent at analyzing images, but they lag behind the mind's ability to read language, intonation, and social cues.
As Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said: "One of the pieces of criticism we get that I think is fair is that we're much better able to enforce our nudity policies, for example, than we are hate speech. The reason for that is it's much easier to make an A.I. system that can detect a nipple than it is to determine what is linguistically hate speech."
Trump should know this. During a House Homeland Security subcommittee hearing earlier this year, experts testified that A.I. was not a panacea for curing online extremism. Alex Stamos, Facebook's former chief security officer, likened the world's best A.I. to "a crowd of millions of preschoolers" and the task to demanding those preschoolers "get together to build the Taj Mahal."
None of this is to say that the problem is impossible, but it's certainly intractable.
Yes, we can create an A.I. that plays Go or analyzes stock performance better than any human. That's because we have a lot of data on these activities and they follow predictable input-output patterns. Yet even these "simple" algorithms require some of the brightest minds to develop.
Mass shooters, though far too common in the United States, are still rare. We've played more games of Go, analyzed more stocks, and diagnosed more people with depression, which millions of Americans struggle with. This gives machine learning software more data points on these activities in order to create accurate, responsible predictions — that still don't perform flawlessly.
Add to this that hate, extremism, and violence don't follow reliable input-output patterns, and you can see why experts are leery of Trump's direction to employ A.I. in the battle against terrorism.
"As we psychological scientists have said repeatedly, the overwhelming majority of people with mental illness are not violent. And there is no single personality profile that can reliably predict who will resort to gun violence," Arthur C. Evans, CEO of the American Psychological Association, said in a release. "Based on the research, we know only that a history of violence is the single best predictor of who will commit future violence. And access to more guns, and deadlier guns, means more lives lost."
Social media can't protect us from ourselves
First Lady Melania Trump visits with the victims of the El Paso, Texas, shooting. Image source: Andrea Hanks / Flickr
One may wonder if we can utilize current capabilities more aggressively? Unfortunately, social media moderating systems are a hodgepodge, built piecemeal over the last decade. They rely on a mixture of A.I., paid moderators, and community policing. The outcome is an inconsistent system.
For example, the New York Times reported in 2017 that YouTube had removed thousands of videos using machine learning systems. The videos showed atrocities from the Syrian War, such as executions and people spouting Islamic State propaganda. The algorithm flagged and removed them as coming from extremist groups.
In truth, the videos came from humanitarian organizations to document human rights violations. The machine couldn't tell the difference. YouTube reinstated some of the videos after users reported the issue, but mistakes at such a scale do not give one hope that today's moderating systems could accurately identify would-be mass shooters.
That's the conclusion reached in a report from the Partnership on A.I. (PAI). It argued there were "serious shortcomings" in using A.I. as a risk-assessment tool in U.S. criminal justice. Its writers cite three overarching concerns: accuracy and bias; questions of transparency and accountability; and issues with the interface between tools and people.
"Although the use of these tools is in part motivated by the desire to mitigate existing human fallibility in the criminal justice system, it is a serious misunderstanding to view tools as objective or neutral simply because they are based on data," the report states. "While formulas and statistical models provide some degree of consistency and replicability, they still share or amplify many weaknesses of human decision-making."
In addition to the above, there are practical barriers. The technical capabilities of law enforcement vary between locations. Social media platforms deal in massive amounts of traffic and data. And even when the red flags are self-evident — such as when shooters publish manifestos — they offer a narrow window in which to act.
The tools to reduce mass shootings
Protesters at March for Our Lives 2018 in San Francisco. Image source: Gregory Varnum / Wikimedia Commons
Artificial intelligence offers many advantages today and will offer more in the future. But as an answer to extremism and mass shootings, experts agree it's simply the wrong tool. That's the bad news. The good news is we have the tools we need already, and they can be implemented with readily available tech.
"Based on the psychological science, we know some of the steps we need to take. We need to limit civilians' access to assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. We need to institute universal background checks. And we should institute red flag laws that remove guns from people who are at high risk of committing violent acts," Evans wrote.
We don't need advanced A.I. to figure this out. There's only one developed country in the world where someone can legally and easily acquire an armory of guns, and it's the only developed country that suffers mass shootings with such regularity. It's a simple arithmetic.