Category archives: Thoughts

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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the thing with feathers

I know that practically every generation has thought that the end times were nigh, but it’s hard for me not to think that maybe this time we could be right. After all, we have Science now, more information than our brains were ever meant to absorb, and if I think too much about the bees and the coral reefs and the antibiotics and the cellphones in our hands and in our oceans and the borders and walls and cages and guns and bombs —

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places and homes

Toronto was my first view of Canada, a grey slushy view in the dead of March that called into question all of my parents’ decision-making capabilities in choosing to move here. After the idyll of a tiny German university town (complete with castle ruins!), nothing about this place that was too big and too loud and too cold made sense. It had giant box stores in the middle of the city and a downtown that wasn’t entirely dedicated to pedestrians. It was basically barbaric.

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