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The Optimism of Certainty

Every once in a while, I’ll hit a week in which a group of annoyances seem to gleefully cluster, making life challenging. The fence falls down. The trip to the vet costs way more than you expected. You receive a recall notice for your car.

Mind you, these are annoyances, life could be worse. After all, it’s just a fence, and they don’t last forever. And my idea of what a trip to the vet should cost was established a long time ago, when browsing was something you did in a record store. The car? Well, technology is as good as it is today, because we have learned from mistakes, built upon research and put value on quality. I’m participating in the betterment of the automobile. So I can let these things go. Again, these are little blips.

On the other hand, I sometimes have weeks in which I stumble upon very cool things that stick in my head, act as new filters for incoming data, and add remarkable hues to my worldview palette. Let’s start with a couple of news stories.

What they say vs. what they do: First, the German public broadcasting company NDR found that a browser extension designed to build a crowdsourced ratings system for websites in order to help its users decide whether or not to trust sites, was collecting and selling information about its users. It turns out that the data it collected and sold was easily linked to the identities of its users. The name of the extension? “Web of Trust.” Google and Firefox have now removed it from their stores. I often describe myself as a “disappointed optimist,” so this news didn’t disappoint, and I can remain optimistic that there will be more disappointing news in the future.

Neural networks and rich implications: Second, a couple of researchers at Google Brain have trained neural networks to obscure communications between two agents from a third agent, tasked with figuring out the message the other two are sending between themselves. These agents figured out some simple encryption, employed it, and improved upon it over time. The article, by Martin Abadi and David G. Andersen, is called “Learning to Protect Communications With Adversarial Neural Cryptography.” In conclusion, the authors note that neural networks “may be useful not only for cryptographic protections but also for attacks.” As Spock might say: “Fascinating. And rich with implication.”

Technology in culture: I will admit I have been slow to get up to speed on some of the most interesting films and television series. Sometimes you just get busy.

But here are a few things that are worth checking out if you are at all interested in the role of technology in culture.

  • First, I highly recommend the film Ex Machina. This one looks at artificial intelligence, lifeforms and asks some great questions about our relationship with those technologies. Actually, you’ll be asking yourself these questions, and more. Beautifully shot, highly stylized and I found myself thinking about it for weeks afterwards.

Now on to a couple of shows that examine truth and reality with a heavy dose of technology.

  • I can’t stop thinking about Mr. Robot and Black Mirror. Both of these will spin you around. Be forewarned, neither are appropriate for the kids! In both, technology is omnipresent, much as it is today, but these force you to consider the implications of compromised ethics, hard choices, and the power that we have given, by design or inadvertently, to our technical worlds. It’s kind of nice to see some thought-provoking television, and both of these programs offer plenty of it.

If you’ve not seen any of these, check them out. If you have, don’t mock me for just discovering them. It’s been a busy year.

Uncertainty in today’s world: There is a pattern in all of this, and it is one of uncertainty. Technology, especially advances in communication technology over the past few decades, has brought us a world of uncertain identities, intentions, realities, and ethics. It won’t be easy to navigate. It’s won’t be easy to secure. But it will be interesting. Of that, I am certain.

Keywords: 
HIMSS; innovation; value of health IT; technology