Machine Morality

This post started as a response to a provacative question by David Brin on Google+:

It was in response to this fantastically titled article: “The Case Against Autonomous Killing Machines”

I don’t think we should be designing machines that kill people, period. But if you are going to have machine’s that kill sometimes and military uses fund a lot of this research they may not be willing to encode the Asimov laws. At least not in the same ordering (ie. following human orders will be more important than saving lives).

But a bigger question right now is whether an AI could reliably evaluate moral laws at all, even if it isn’t literally a killing machine. How sure does the system need to be that there is a human near by or that the machine’s actions will cause harm? How much failure are we willing to accept if it’s only 99% sure what it’s doing won’t cause harm?

Think of google’s self driving cars. That’s the nearest, potentially deadliest robotic systems we need to worry about in our daily lives. Any wrong move while driving could harm the passengers as well as people in other cars. You can never be _sure_ you won’t get into an accident. So how sure do you have to be? Then every once in a way someone will get killed anyways, who’s the blame? The robot? The engineer? No one? If we define these laws too strictly we may stop ourselves from creating amazing technologies that change the world. But if it’s too loose or not present at all then we enter this moral grey zone where accidents happen even though they might not have happened with more processing time.

Another Salvo

New Attack takes down by Operation Payback organized under the concept of Anonymous using thousands of people voluntarily joining a botnet to direct Denial of Service Attacks at enemies of WikiLeaks.

Now, in English…

Anonymous is an adhoc protest pseudonym taken on by various people on the internet.  It relates to the movie V for Vendetta but basically captures the idea of a assigning a generic identity to a faceless mass of people all acting for a common purpose.  There is no known central organizing person for protests by Anonymous but its not surprising that the WikiLeaks conflict would draw people to using the identity since it involves technology, freedom of information and speech.

A Denial of Service attack (DoS) is probably the simplest form of attack there is on a website or computer system.  It doesn’t require any hacking or breaking of codes. The attack simply directs a large amount of traffic to a website or server all at the same time in order to overload the system and bring it down.  In the simplest form this could be thousands of people agreeing to point their webrowser at the offending website at exactly some time of day.  Usually these attacks are actually carried out in a more automatic way using a botnet.


A botnet is a term used to describe a network of computers usually taken over with viruses and other destructive software.  A botnet might be used to scour credit card databases, attack company or government servers or host porn or marketing website content.  The Operation Payback botnet is interesting because people have voluntary installed software on their computer to allow it to be used to orchestrate attacks on organizations seen at undermining WikiLeaks.  People joining such a network should be aware that the actions being undertaken by those directing their computer could easily be construed as illegal, even terrorist attacks.  It is not clear that individuals joining such a botnet would be free from prosecution and they cannot hope that their machine ip and identity will be hidden by the people centrally running it.  However, for law enforcement authorities the truth is also that this kind of attack can’t really be stopped. Just as sharing information is virally unstoppable these kind of attacks can always be reinitiated even if you take down the people centrally running this particular one.  Just as legal attacks on music piracy have led to ever more subtle and unstoppable file sharing schemes like torrents, a concerted effort to restrict organizing and protest of this kind will likely only lead to evolution of more decentralized and unstoppable forms via natural selection.


Note: If there are other computer/technology terms being thrown around regarding the WikiLeaks story (or any story) and Wikipedia isn’t doing it for you, then let me know in the comments and I’ll do my best.

Is this the Beginning of Information War?

A few comments on the technological implications of the WikiLeaks saga unfolding over the past week.  My comments on the politics of it all can be found, as always, at Pop The Stack.

World Info War I

This has been called the first InfoWar, I don’t know what that means, but it seems to have started already. WikiLeaks has had its websites attacked by mass Denial of Service attacks since the news broke.  These could be arranged by governments or groups of loosely organized people with lots of computers, or even one person with access to lots of computers.

Next, WikiLeaks has been having trouble staying afloat as the various companies they depend on abandon them.  Most are dropping WikiLeaks as clients based on reasons unrelated to the content of WikiLeaks. Companies such as Paypal have used language in their contract about illegal content to drop them.  Their internet service providers and DNS hosts have dropped them due to high load.  Their bank in Switzerland has now dropped them due to an inaccurate living address.This article is a great analysis of what this reveals about some of the core functionality of the new internet, cloud computing in particular.

The counter-attack has apparently now begun as their Swiss bank and Paypal have now come under attack by hackers who are taking the InfoWar ralying cry to heart.

So how does this end? There is apparently still a lot of data to be released and the recent batch of sensitive security cables seems to indicate WikiLeaks is applying almost no filtering on what data is useful or dangerous.  They have also implied that all this data is actually already released in the form an encrypted file that many people have already downloaded.  All Assange needs to do is say the password to a reporter or to anyone with a twitter account and the data will all be release en masse, all at once.

Info War N

I think the most interesting thing about this from a technological point of view is that Assange himself and WikiLeaks are sort of irrelevant at this point. Even if he is arrested tomorrow and convicted of many crimes and WikiLeaks is shut down, this won’t be over.  First of all, there is that encrypted file, if it exists.  How do you punish someone who can still blackmail you with a single password.  But beyond that what WikiLeaks has demonstrated is that we have passed a point of no return for controlling information.  The only way to keep  a secret is to not tell anyone.  But if you communicate electronically and share this with anyone then the data will be stored in many places you cannot control and eventually, someone can release it.  The thing that has changed since Deep Throat in the 60s is that ‘releasing it’ is now super easy.

Assange is no super hacker, he has no magic that allows him to do this.  He just has the information and had to will to push this through and publisize it. But any kid with a computer could do what he’s doing if they had the data.  Many people with secrets around the world may just now be realizing that the information they have real power.  The technologies of  the web, email, social media and encryption are now core utilities of the internet that cannot be shut down by anyone.  They can be tracked, they can be watched, they can be tapped.  But the moment one is dropped another will pop up.  Some country will host you, somewhere else will also host a new site.  The new link will be shared on Facebook or Twitter or via email, publisizing is free now.  The data can even be stored in public view so that the keeper of the secret knows you have the goods yet can’t actually find all the copies to delete them.  Yet, if you don’t release the password, then the secret isn’t really out and only the NSA can probably break it.  Maybe this has been happening for years, but the public level of this changes a lot.

These technologies are now all very accessible and used by millions of people every day. What this means is that the next WikiLeaks doesn’t need to be anyone with an organization or a degree or even money.  Information is so liquid, so viral now that it literally can’t be stopped once it’s let out of the box.  So the only options for those keeping secrets are to make sure nothing ever leave the box again (ie. only have face to face voice conversations in soundproof booths), turn off the internet or stop keeping secrets.

I’m not sure this is a good thing, secrets can have their place, people are not always good at handling the unvarnished truth.  But you should expect more of it in the future no matter what happens to WikiLeaks.  The age of the endless Info War may be upon us.

The Spy Who Flamed Me

Apparently yesterday’s massive attack on Twitter/Facebook/Blogger/Livejournal was aimed at a single blogger.  This amazing for  a couple reasons.  First, the attack was massive, it was a Distributed Denial of Service (DoS) attack that used a huge number of drone machines to send false emails and web hits to these services and overwhelmed them so that normal users couldn’t get through.  Its the equivalent of blanket carpet bombing several towns (Twitterville, Facebookberg…) just to get at some guy you heard hangs out in those towns sometimes. (more…)

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