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Does a Robot Get to Be the Boss of Me?

Does a Robot Get to Be the Boss of Me?

support request:

I’m disturbed by the fact that law enforcement agencies are increasingly using robots for neutralizing threats, surveillance, and hostage situations. Maybe I’ve just seen RoboCop too many times, but I’m wary of machines making crucial, life-or-death decisions—especially given how often actual human officers abuse their authority. Do I have any kind of moral obligation to obey a police robot? 

—SUSPECT

Dear Suspect—

Hollywood has not been particularly optimistic about robots in positions of authority. RoboCop is just one example of the broader sci-fi canon that has burned into our minds the tragic consequences of relinquishing critical tasks to inflexible machines—robots whose prime directives are honored with a literalism that can turn lethal, who can blast a person to death but are confounded by a set of stairs. The message of these films is clear: Rigid automatons are incapable of the improvised solutions and moral nuance that’s so often required in moments of crisis.

It may have been this stereotype that led Boston Dynamics, some of whose robots are being incorporated into police departments, to release a video last December of its models dancing to the 1950s Contours hit “Do You Love Me.” Maybe you saw it? The robots included Atlas, an android that resembles a deconstructed storm trooper, and Spot, which served as inspiration for the killer dogbots in the “Metalhead” episode of Black Mirror. Neither machine seems to have been designed to quell fears about a robot takeover, so what better way to endear them to the public than to showcase their agility? And what better test of said agility than a skill considered so uniquely human that we invented a move designed to mock an automaton’s inability to do it (the Robot)? Watching the machines shuffle, shimmy, and twirl, it’s difficult to avoid seeing them as vibrant, embodied creatures, capable of the same flexibilities and sensitivities as ourselves.

Never mind that Spot’s joints can slice off your finger or that police robots have already been used to exercise deadly force. One way to answer your question, Suspect, without any appeals to moral philosophy, might be in terms of pragmatic consequences. If you have plans, as most of us do, to remain alive and well, then yes, you should absolutely obey a police robot.

But I sense that your question is not merely practical. And I agree that it’s important to consider the trade-offs involved in handing policing duties over to machines. The Boston Dynamics video, incidentally, was posted at the tail end of 2020 as a way “to celebrate the start of what we hope will be a happier year.” One week later, insurgents stormed the Capitol, and images proliferated of police officers showing little resistance to the mob—photos that were strikingly juxtaposed, on social media, against the more severe responses to the Black Lives Matter protests last summer.

At a moment when many police departments are facing a crisis of authority due to racial violence, the most compelling argument for robotic policing is that machines have no intrinsic capacity for prejudice. To a robot, a person is a person, regardless of skin color, gender, or cause. As the White House noted in a 2016 report on algorithms and civil rights, new technologies have the potential to “help law enforcement make decisions based on factors and variables that empirically correlate with risk, rather than on flawed human instincts and prejudices.”

Of course, if current policing technology is any evidence, things are not that simple. Predictive policing algorithms, which are used to identify high-risk persons and neighborhoods, are very much prone to bias, which the roboticist Ayanna Howards has called the “original sin of AI.” Because these systems rely on historical data (past court cases, previous arrests), they end up singling out the same communities that have been unfairly targeted in the first place and reinforcing structural racism. Automated predictions can become self-fulfilling, locking certain quadrants into a pattern of overpolicing. (Officers who arrive at a location that has been flagged as ripe for crime are primed to discover one.) These tools, in other words, do not so much neutralize prejudice as formalize it, baking existing social inequities into systems that unconsciously and mechanically perpetuate them. As professor of digital ethics Kevin Macnish notes, the values of the algorithm’s makers “are frozen into the code, effectively institutionalizing those values.’’

Rumble Sends Viewers Tumbling Toward Misinformation

Rumble Sends Viewers Tumbling Toward Misinformation

“I’m not really expecting things to ever be what they were,” says Sarah. “There’s no going back.” Sarah’s mother is a QAnon believer who first came across the conspiracy theory on YouTube. Now that YouTube has taken steps toward regulating misinformation and conspiracy theories, a new site, Rumble, has risen to take its place. Sarah feels the platform has taken her mother away from her.

Rumble is “just the worst possible things about YouTube amplified, like 100 percent,” says Sarah. (Her name has been changed to protect her identity.) Earlier this year, her mother asked for help accessing Rumble when her favorite conservative content creators (from Donald Trump Jr. to “Patriot Streetfighter”) flocked from YouTube to the site. Sarah soon became one of 150,000 members of the support group QAnon Casualties as her mother tumbled further down the dangerous conspiracy theory rabbit hole.

Between September 2020 and January 2021, monthly site visits to Rumble rose from 5 million to 135 million; as of April, they were sitting at just over 81 million. Sarah’s mother is one of these new Rumble users, and, according to Sarah, is now refusing to get the Covid-19 vaccine. Explaining her decision, says Sarah, her mother cites the dangerous anti-vax disinformation found in many videos on Rumble.

Rumble claims that it does not promote misinformation or conspiracy theories but simply has a free-speech approach to regulation. However, our research reveals that Rumble has not only allowed misinformation to thrive on its platform, it has also actively recommended it.

If you search “vaccine” on Rumble, you are three times more likely to be recommended videos containing misinformation about the coronavirus than accurate information. One video by user TommyBX featuring Carrie Madej—a popular voice in the anti-vax world—alleges, “This is not just a vaccine; we’re being connected to artificial intelligence.” Others unfoundedly state that the vaccine is deadly and has not been properly tested.

Even if you search for an unrelated term, “law,” according to our research you are just as likely to be recommended Covid-19 misinformation than not—about half of the recommended content is misleading. If you search for “election” you are twice as likely to be recommended misinformation than factual content.

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Courtesy of Ellie House, Isabelle Stanley and Alice Wright; Created with Datawrapper

The data behind these findings was gathered over five days in February 2021. Using an adaptation of a code first developed by Guillaume Chaslot (an ex-Google employee who worked on YouTube’s algorithm), information was collected about which videos Rumble recommends for five neutral words: “democracy,” “election,” “law,” “coronavirus,” and “vaccine.” The code was run five times for each word, on different days at different times, so that the data was reflective of Rumble’s consistent recommendation algorithm.

Over 6,000 recommendations were manually analyzed. There can be disagreements about what can and cannot be classed as misinformation, so this investigation erred on the side of caution. For example, if a content creator said “I won’t take the vaccine because I think there might be a tracking chip in it,” the video was not categorized as misinformation. Whereas if a video stated “there is a tracking device in the vaccine,” it was. Our conclusions are conservative.

Of the five search terms used, Rumble is more likely than not to recommend videos containing misinformation for “vaccine,” “election,” and “law.” Even for the other two words “democracy” and “coronavirus,” the likelihood of Rumble recommending misleading videos remains high.

This data was tracked almost a year into the pandemic, after more than 3 million deaths worldwide have made it far more difficult to maintain that the virus is fake. It’s possible that searching for “coronavirus” on Rumble would have resulted in much more misinformation at the start of the pandemic.

A Top New York Restaurant Is Going Vegan. It Could Backfire

A Top New York Restaurant Is Going Vegan. It Could Backfire

So long eggs Benedict with sturgeon roe, lavender- and honey-roasted duck, and butter-poached lobster tail. Last week, Eleven Madison Park, one of the most high-end, meat-laden restaurants in New York City (and the world), announced it’s going vegan, with the exception of milk and honey for coffee and tea.

The news came as a big surprise to the culinary community, but Eleven Madison Park isn’t the first high-end restaurant to stop serving animal products; it’s the latest in a trend of food institutions drawing stark lines in the sand around meat consumption. Just last month, the Michelin-starred French chef Alexis Gauthier turned his London-based restaurant, Gauthier Soho, entirely vegan. “I’m vegan myself; it would be unethical for me to profit from selling dead animals,” Gauthier told Big Hospitality. Daniel Humm, the owner and head chef of Eleven Madison Park, cited environmental concerns: “The way we have sourced our food, the way we’re consuming our food, the way we eat meat, it is not sustainable,” he told NPR’s Guy Raz on the latest episode of the How I Built This podcast. “And that is not an opinion. This is just a fact. So we decided that our restaurant will be 100 percent plant-based.”

Chefs like Gauthier and Humm are on the right side of history. The global meat industry accelerates climate change, condemns billions of animals to terrible treatment in factory farms, and leaves meatpacking plant workers in unusually cruel working conditions. But even so, there’s one variation of these plans that I wish they had considered: simply cutting back on meat, rather than ditching it altogether. It might seem counterintuitive, but introducing their omnivorous clientele to plant-based dining gradually with, say, an 80 to 90 percent plant-based menu would have a similar impact on the planet—and without making it a binary choice for consumers. This change in perception could reduce the polarization around veganism, eventually leading more people to eat less meat.

As a flexitarian myself, I primarily eat plant-based but occasionally eat some animal products. Given the grim state of our industrialized farming system, I think a vegan world—or one in which we eat drastically fewer animal products—would be optimal. But I’m also realistic about how hard it is to get any individual person, let alone an entire culture, to cut back on animal products. Environmentalists and animal advocates have been trying for decades, and still only a small percentage of the industrialized world is vegetarian or vegan. Right now, the average American eats about 225 pounds of meat annually. That number is slowly increasing, even as the popularity of plant-based meat grows. And it’s no wonder; meat is cheap, delicious, convenient, and tied to culturally significant moments like Thanksgiving and Christmas. For some people, an entirely vegan meal is simply not appealing.

To be clear, I think it’s great that Eleven Madison Park and institutions like it are moving the ball on plant-based eating, and there’s a case to be made for bold moves that draw attention to the urgency of cutting meat consumption. Plus, it’ll showcase how delicious vegan food can be. And because Eleven Madison Park is a culinary icon, other restaurants and institutions may follow its lead.

Still, it seems other restaurants would be more likely to follow Eleven Madison Park’s lead if the shift were less drastic. Industry professionals are probably wary that many diners still think vegan food and vegan restaurants are only for vegans—even Humm himself has said, “At times I’m up in the middle of the night, thinking about the risk we’re taking.” This trepidation is not unfounded. There’s no shortage of people who think vegan food is boring and bland, and research has shown that veganism is heavily stigmatized. Many omnivores simply will not go to a vegan restaurant unless a friend or family member drags them. But if the vegan label and stigma are removed, and diners know they can eat what they want, they are more likely to go on their own. Once they’ve been hooked as a customer, they’ll come back—and maybe they’ll try something new (and meat-free). While Humm will undoubtedly attract many folks who aren’t vegan because of his reputation and status, he will likely still lose some customers, and with them, the likelihood of influencing other restaurants.