morals in the machine

The first time I took on the role of a lead engineer, a few years ago, I had a really hard time learning how to prioritize and delegate work. For much of my early career, I had simply never needed any planning skills beyond “say yes to everything and work yourself into the ground”. One of the best pieces of professional advice I’ve ever received came during this time, from a mentor who told me to delegate the things I was already good at. If I’m good at something, it means I’m actually equipped to evaluate whether my team is doing a good job. It also means I don’t need the practice as much, so delegating frees me up to improve other skills.

There’s an oft-repeated myth about artificial intelligence that says that since we all know that humans are prone to being racist and sexist, we should figure out how to create moral machines that will treat human beings more equitably than we could. You’ve seen this myth in action if you’ve ever heard someone claim that using automated systems to make sentencing decisions will lead to more fairness in the criminal legal system. But if we all know that humans are racist and sexist and we need the neutrality of machines to save us—in other words, if we should delegate morality to AI—how will we ever know if the machines are doing the job we need them to do? And how will we humans ever get better?

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left alone, together

There’s a depressing sort of symmetry in the fact that our modern paradigms of privacy were developed in response to the proliferation of photography and their exploitation by tabloids. The seminal 1890 Harvard Law Review article The Right to Privacy—which every essay about data privacy is contractually obligated to cite—argued that the right of an individual to object to the publication of photographs ought to be considered part of a general ‘right to be let alone’.

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right to forget

Like many fundamental assumptions about The Way The Internet Works, the idea that the things you put online stay online feels both arbitrary and inviolable. Once upon a time, the lovable nerds who built the first bulletin board systems decided that anything posted to it would persist on disk until the disk hit capacity, and that (as they say) was that.

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so this is the new year

I know that human brains gobble up patterns and ritual like there’s no tomorrow, and while there is technically no difference between the December 31st of one year and the January 1st of the next it nevertheless feels like the turn of the year is when I am granted a brief reprieve from physical reality in which I get to believe that I’m the kind of person who can effect change just by wanting it a lot.

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books of 2019

I read 104 books this year! Not including 10 books that I started and gave up on. Goodreads tells me that’s 32,886 pages, which seems like an awful lot of pages. I’m pretty proud of the fact that I averaged a steady clip of 2 books per week, but I’m also starting to suspect that I’ve been approaching these reading challenges as an end in and of itself—that is, as a metric to be tracked and gamified, not for the pure enjoyment of reading. Growth mentalities are unsustainable everywhere, even in beloved hobbies. In 2020, I’d like to make a conscious effort to read fewer books more deeply, to re-read books that have shaped my thinking, and with any luck, to write more about them.

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