William Hertling is the author of the acclaimed Singularity series, including Avogadro Corp, which Wired called “chilling and compelling.” His upcoming data privacy technothriller, Kill Process, will be available in April.
William Hertling spoke with me at length about invasive and Big Brother technology, brain-technology interface, the Singularity, Ludite backlash, piracy, technology addiction, and how his fiction has predicted disturbing technology trends with astounding accuracy.
CARL SLAUGHTER: If Google has the technology to gather, analyze, and use information on such a wide scale and yet so personally intimate, and do all this virtually at the speed of thought, what can government or corporations do with it?
Many people are concerned about issues such as the privacy settings of their Facebook posts, or how much of their profile is shared with advertisers. But the real data privacy issues are much worse than what most people are concerned about. Consider that people share intimate details of their lives and preferences on dating websites, sometimes answering thousands of questions about everything from what they like to eat to their preferred sexual activities, and all of that gets shared with advertisers. Imagine the comprehensive picture that can be built of someone’s life when their data is combined: their social media posts and likes, search history, purchasing patterns, and geographical travel log. All of this data is on the Internet today, and under some conditions, seemingly disparate data sources can get connected together.
That being said, what happens in practice usually isn’t as bad as what we imagine. Data collection and use usually falls into either of two categories:
- Organizations gather a tremendous amount of data and aren’t very effective at using it. This happens most of the time. I also suspect most data collected by the government falls into this category.
- Organizations gather a tremendous amount of data and are very effective at using it to drive targeted advertising.
Nefarious? Probably not. Potentially embarrassing, sure.
There are legitimate concerns with highly targeted ads. Advertising does manipulate behavior, and the more effective the targeting, the more manipulative it can be. Consider that depressed people tend to buy more, and spend more on each item they buy. Advertisers and retailers can tailor their ads, products, and pricing strategies to take advantage of this effect and extract more money from customers, especially those most vulnerable to their manipulation.
On the other hand, sometimes targeted advertising is welcome. One day I saw an alert on Facebook that my favorite band was playing in town that very night. I was grateful that Facebook had this “band alert feature” and I rushed to buy tickets.
Of course, that’s not what happened at all. There is no band alert feature in Facebook. What really happened was my favorite band had unsold tickets for the show that night. They took out a Facebook ad targeted at their fans in the Portland geographic area, and I saw the ad. I didn’t realize this until later. Still, I wasn’t angry at targeted advertising in that case. Far from it. I really appreciated knowing they were playing.
However, heinous things can happen, and they almost always stem from abuses of the system.
Consider the WebcamGate scandal that occurred in 2010. A school district installed spyware on the school notebook computers, which the students were mandated to use for schoolwork and homework. They had no ability to opt out of the spyware, and were not allowed to use personal computers. The spyware included an ability to remotely activate the webcam, a feature to assist with the return of equipment should the laptops be stolen. But was it used for that? No, instead it was abused by the security staff and various school officials who used it to spy on students and take hundreds of pictures of them in various stages of undress.
Another case Cory Doctorow spoke about was government malware inserted onto computers, in theory to give the government a backdoor in case they need to wiretap computers in a criminal case. What actually happened? Their backdoor was compromised by criminals, who then used it to spy on ordinary individuals and government officials. This is similar to the rationale Apple is using to defend against the FBI’s demand to create a compromised version of iOS.
When data is collected by governments, ideally it would be used to detect and stop a crime before it happens. If that was all that ever happened, we wouldn’t see as much opposition to government demands for backdoors and other security weaknesses. But in practice, that data is abused by those inside and outside of government.
Consider that forty to fifty percent of all police officer’s households experience domestic violence. Fifty percent! That’s an insane number. If half of all police officers are committing domestic violence crimes (most of which go unpunished), how often is government access to data being abused to spy on family members and friends, or being used as leverage against people?
CS: What about piracy issues?
WH: Tim O’Reilly said “For a typical author, obscurity is a far greater threat than piracy.” I’m glad to have people read my books, whether they buy them or not. Cory Doctorow has proven that although he makes his books available for free, enough people still purchase them that he is able to live off his book sales.
What I hear a lot of people say is if they can get what they want conveniently, affordably, and in the format they want through a legal channel, they will. If they can’t, they’ll torrent it. For these people, piracy is a backup option they use only when something is unreasonably priced, locked up with DRM, or only available through difficult-to-use channels.
We’re heading toward a world with much bigger piracy issues. 3D printers move piracy from the realm of digital goods (limited to books, music, and film) into all physical goods. Today, 3D printers can churn out low-fidelity plastic stuff. Somewhere down the road, everything up to and including your smartphone or car may come out of a 3D printer. Then all physical products will be subject to piracy.
That brings us back to what people are willing to pay for. Today, name brands carry a value above and beyond the actual cost of goods. In the future, when pirated copies are easy to get and free, name brands won’t be able to charge a super premium. Who would buy a designer T-shirt for $50 if they can torrent the design and print it at home for $5 in supplies? Only when designs are reasonably priced will people buy them legally.
CS: What about brain-device interfaces? Will our grandchildren all have computer chips in their brains that allow us to do everything from unlock our door to drive our car to surf the Net to type words? Will they be hacking into each other’s brains?
WH: When I wrote The Last Firewall, which is set in 2035, I extrapolated technological progress by analyzing quantifiable long-term trends such as the increases in computer storage, Internet connectivity speeds, and CPU processing power. One additional trend I examined was the size of a computer, which is diminishing exponentially. Following that trend out to the mid-2030s, I saw that computers, along with all their input/outputs, power supply, and other components will be pencil eraser sized. That suggests we could see the first fully embeddable computers around that time. Other supporting technology, such as neural interfaces need to be created, but we already see that work happening with cochlear and optical implants, and DARPA’s brain-computer interface project.
2035 is just twenty years away. Brain-embeddable computing is a giant leap for humanity. The real significance is not about surfing the net or controlling computers with our mind, but participating in extremely compelling virtual realities that are as real as our current reality, but vastly better than anything we can experience in real life. If you think drugs or television are addictive, there’s nothing compared to a truly immersive, brain-embedded virtual reality experience. Want to be a superhero? Super-villain? Super-stud? Want to tweak your emotions to be super-happy? Anything is possible.
The Unincorporated Man by Dani Kollin and Eytan Kollin is set a few hundred years in the future. On of the subplots addresses the emergence of the first true virtual reality. Civilization collapses over a short period of time as everyone becomes captivated by VR to the point of abandoning their children. It was one of the most chilling passages I’ve ever read.
Similarly, Ramez Naam’s Nexus series also explores this topic, in addition to the idea of brain hacking. If you’re at all worried about computer security abuses now, imagine what happens when the other side of the firewall is not your private data, but your brain.
CS: What about backlash? Will our great grandchildren launch a movement to shut down and ban any type of technology that could be accessed and abused by others, Luddite/Canticle for Leibowitz style?
WH: I think we’ll see movements like that, just as we see communities today oriented around intentional living or sustainability. But it’s difficult for a substantial percentage of society to move technologically backwards because the number of people we have and the standard of living we demand requires advanced technology to keep the environmental impact constrained to sustainable levels.
We can’t run the planet on 1950s technology. We can’t operate factories with 1950s levels of efficiency and supply all the products people want, or drive as many miles as we do in cars that get 10 miles per gallon. We can’t move the raw materials we need around without advanced planning and tracking software. In the future it will take ever greater amounts of technology to deliver incrementally higher standards of living while adapting to available resources.
CS: How have the scenarios in your fiction played out in the real world?
WH: In my first novel, Avogadro Corp, the protagonist, David Ryan leads an email initiative for the world’s largest Internet company, my fictional analogue to Google. The purpose of David’s project, known as the Email Language Optimization Project or ELOPe, is to analyze emails as the user crafts them and to optimize the email contents for the intended recipient. If you’re a manager emailing your boss for additional funding, should you make an emotional appeal, or a data-based appeal? Should you include charts, or stick to text? Are there particular words that are more or less convincing?
The project is about to be cancelled due to insufficient funding. David, desperate to save the project, which will make or break his career, gives ELOPe access to everyone’s email in the company, instructing it to modify emails necessary to optimize for success of the ELOPe project itself. The result is a runaway artificial intelligence.
One of the biggest surprises is just how much of the core premise has come true since Avogadro Corp was published. Crystal is a real-life Gmail plugin that analyzes social media profiles in order to suggest email improvements based on the personality of the recipient.
Google itself has introduced a Gmail auto-reply feature that scan emails, determines the content, and then suggests several appropriate replies.
Something similar happened with my second novel, AI Apocalypse. It starts with a programmer creating a virus to swell the ranks of the Russian mafia’s botnet. Rather than programming built-in functionality, the virus is engineered to lift building blocks from other working programs and evolve with each new generation. Progressing at computer speeds, the virus develops into an entire species of artificial intelligences that communicate, trade resources, and build a reputation-based economy.
AI Apocalypse was also used in a mock legal trial at the Liverpool Law School to establish exactly what legal rights AI should have.
Later I wrote The Last Firewall, which explores transhumanism, the modification of people with technology, to become something substantially more than human. The last novel in the series, The Turing Exception, considers approaches to survival should AI and humans find themselves in inescapable conflict.
The series has been very popular with the tech community who tend to appreciate the approaches used to project where technology is headed. Peter A. Garretson, who is the former Chief of Future Technology for Air Force Strategic Planning, said “Avogadro Corp, AI Apocalypse and The Last Firewall are among the most plausible and best conceived scenarios exploring the emergence of artificial intelligence and its attendant implications and challenges for humanity and society.”
CS: What have you been concerned about lately?
WH: Lately I’ve become concerned about data ownership and the long term health of the Internet. If you look back to the Internet of the 90s, people were in total control of their content. If you wanted to share something, you put it on a website. If you wanted to take it down, you removed it. Pretty simple. Fast-forward 20 years. Nobody really knows or is in control of how anything is shared anymore. Who can see what I’ve posted? Can I pull it back down? Who is profiting from it? How much of my sensitive and private information is out there on the internet, and what can I do about it? These are much harder questions to answer now.
I polled Facebook users about a year ago. One third were unabashedly fans who talked about how much they loved staying connected to other people. But the other two-thirds all complained strongly about the same few things: control over their data, whether they were giving away their personal information (and for what), how their personal information was being used, and whether what they shared was private or not.
But here’s the kicker: None of those two-thirds can escape because Facebook holds their social connections hostage. For the vast majority of people, if they choose not to be on Facebook, they don’t get to see what their friends and family are doing or stay connected to them.
There’s a reason solitary confinement is the ultimate punishment in prison, and that’s because people will do almost anything to avoid it. Interested related fact: nearly half of all Americans meet the definition of being socially isolated.
Here we have these social tools that can, in theory, be used for social connection. But the majority of users feel abused by the corporations that run these tools, and yet they are held captive because it’s their primary conduit to their friends and family.
There are certain parallels to the way domestic abusers treat their victims, and that’s what inspired Kill Process, which will be out in April. Angie is a data analyst at the world’s largest social media company, Tomo. She exploits her access to everyone’s data to profile domestic abusers and kill them. But when she has a revelation that Tomo has an abusive relationship with its users, she decides she has to eliminate the company itself.
Carl Slaughter wrote many reviews for Tangent before moving to Diabolical Plots as a reviewer and later an interviewer. He conducted 50 plus interviews for Diabolical Plots. For the past 14 years, he has traveled the globe teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) in 6 counties on 3 continents. Carl has traveled to 18 countries and counting. (He’s tired.) In college, Carl studied journalism, broadcasting, advertising, English, speech, and history. For several years, he was a stringer for the Associated Press. His essay on Chinese culture was published in Beijing Review. His essay on Korean culture was published in The Korea Times, as was his expose on the Korean ESL industry. His travel/education reports about Thailand occasionally appear on the Ajarn website. Carl subscribes to the Mike Resnick philosophy of fiction: It’s all about the characters. Check out Carl’s Diabolical Plots interviews, his Facebook photos with his students of all ages from around the world, and a short Youtube video of Carl with some VERY excited Thai kindergarteners.