In which I get freaked out by a machine learning algorithm that allows Nicolas Cage to star in any movie.
On any given day, the number of times I visit Reddit is probably between ten and hundred. I couldn’t give you an exact number, but I enjoy reading new articles that are published within the subreddits and lively discussions that occur as a result. The other day in my usual Reddit-ing spree I came across this article: “Nicolas Cage Can Now Be Put into Any Movie in History Thanks to a Machine-Learning Algorithm.” Typical absurdist stuff from Reddit, the home of the One True God subreddit dedicated to the (ironic) worship of Nic Cage himself. The comments I found were typical of this, lauding the value of the meme, marveling at the ability for such reconstructions in film to be possible. I must admit, though, after the initial joke of the matter had passed, I was terrified of the implications. It took a lot of scrolling through these comments to find one that matched the same reaction as I had.
“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” — Ian Malcom, Jurassic Park
The primary uses of this technology are simply put, amazing. Think about the future ability to reconstruct individuals who are no longer alive, and the sense of realism that will give to films. Instead of Daniel Day-Lewis dressed as Abraham Lincoln, film could maintain his brilliant acting but replace his image with that of the real Lincoln. This is great until you think about the potential for evil with such technology. Psychologically we have come to the stand-point that eye-witness testimony is almost always inherently flawed, and instead we rely on visually recorded evidence of an event. Where Photoshop exists this, this can make individual frames difficult to prove legitimate, but video recordings are almost always easier to verify. Think of the power given to individuals or institutions able to edit video recordings.
Where we have come to understand CCTV as definitive proof of a break-in, what’s to stop the manipulation to portray a political dissident? How do we address someone willing to edit others into potentially compromising videos? These are just a couple of questions that must be considered when we extol the values of any given technology: What potential does this technology have to improve the lives of people and does that outweigh its potential for destruction?
I must admit my fears come from a deep-seated pessimism in people doing the right thing. I believe the capacity for individuals to weaponize technologies is almost as endless as the technologies themselves. I also believe there is a sense in modern day technological discussion that all advancement and innovation is naturally good to a society as a whole. Technological objectivism if you will — that realization of individual technological goals will inevitably benefit an advanced civilization. Often the inception of these technologies is based primarily on capital gain with little foresight to social cost
I am writing this because I want to confirm that it’s okay to be worried about potentially dangerous uses of technology that are not anticipated. One should not fear being labeled as a luddite for expressing skepticism of technological innovation; in fact, it is a healthy fear that motivates us to regulate potentially dangerous uses of such technology. There’s a great quote from Jurassic Park, spoken by scientist Ian Malcom, “your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Obviously, this discussion isn’t in the context of running from carnivorous dinosaurs but it holds the same weight. Perhaps it’s not just the scientists, but all of us that have a responsibility to stop and think whether we should embrace certain technologies and what the implication
I want to be clear I am not decrying research, innovation, and new technologies; quite the opposite. The rapidity of change over the last century has created better lives for almost everyone in the world, and that’s a really good thing. Science should always be a primary focus of society and we are all the better for it. Still, it is important to maintain a critical view of impact that many technologies will and do have on society at-large.
To put this another way: I study Strategy, writ large that’s Military Strategy. The levels of innovation over same time frame as consumer technology has been astounding, and by and large has prevented many deaths. Technology has also had an effect on what we deem an acceptable threshold for engaging in combat. The drone program developed over the last twenty years has lowered that threshold tremendously. Think about it, if you need to place troops in harm’s way, backlash grows as those people suffer casualties. The price of violence is clear to a populace. With advanced technology, the people of a nation do not see that same cost. It becomes easy to commit drones to battlefield with less and less discussion of whether we should, and that’s the inherent flaw in such technology.
Technology is the bright neon lettering that hides the ugly shadows in our society. It is the continual promise of ever healthier, stronger, and better community. The veneer of these ever-evolving technologies is usually beautiful enough to look past underlying flaws and unanticipated uses. Not only is it okay to be skeptical of the impact of certain technologies on society, I think it’s the right thing to do. Perhaps you disagree, and maybe all technology really does have a purpose on progressing society, in which case I should probably just sit back and enjoy Nic Cage playing both Jack and Rose in Titanic.
Julian is a master’s student at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and the Director of Development at arbitror.org