Protest Blackout, the Internet Community may Discover its Power

Today, Jan. 18 2012, we are seeing something interesting on the Internet -- a widespread protest of proposed legislation in the U.S. -- specifically SOPA/PITA bills to address concerns about online piracy via mandates put on search engines and other informational sources.  The concerns of these affected entities can be seen (probably beyond today) at spots like: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:SOPA_initiative/Learn_more
Wikipedia is also using zip codes to connect folks to their congressional representatives and encouraging them to call, tweet and email them.  Google is also in the mix.  They have "blacked-out" their logo, and if you click on it you get to https://www.google.com/landing/takeaction/ where they explain their stance, and have a petition you can sign that will be directed at congress (and also the media).
Interestingly, Google is also asking for email addresses of folks interested in being informed of additional issues affecting "Internet Freedom" --- In short, this legislative attempt may have unleashed a community of interest that could swamp the NRA, MPAA and other highly effective advocates in the legislative process.
It will be interesting to see how many folks follow up in contacts, in the petition, and in the "contact" list that Google is collecting.
The problem with disturbing a dragon is that it can get irritated, and if you really wake it up, it may actually discover it has some power.
Redux Jan 25th

The waking giant has been noticed.  The Wall St. Jounal (News Corp) has accused the corporate interests of violating campaign fiance laws, a rather curious stance since the Supreme Court (Citizens United) has ruled that corporations are persons with unlimited rights to free political speech, even if direct contributions to candidates (aka bribary IMHO) are still limited.  More are the Harvard Business Review blog entries "The real SOPA battle" in particular which suggests the corporate intent is to destroy the disruptive technology (Internet) not just to protect IP.  In effect, seeking protection for their business models, not the poor artists whose works have already been appropriated (few song writers get royalties, unless, like Paul McCartney they buy back the rights to their songs; other industries have other models, but the big bucks tend to go to go to the publishers, not the creators.)  The WSJ book reviews include related commentary on "Fixing Copyright" by William Patry (Google's lead copyright lawyer)  written by Robert Levine--the author of "Free Ride: How Digital Parasites are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back." Clearly an expert with a point of view.
Today Google used the email contacts aquired in the protest to both "thank congress" (showing some good lobbying skills) and also to confirm that the particpants want to be notified of upcoming policy issues ... the giant(s) are conscious and consolidating their strenght. There will be more to come. Even with SOPA off the table, there are valid piracy issues, an ongoing need to reform copyright to align with real incentives for creators and finally future issues that touch the Internet which now has a community of giants taking active interest.
Final note, the Khan Academy has a short tutorial on SOPA and some of the issues - an interesting resource in any case.
Redux Jan 27:
"Online petitions picked up 10,000,000 signatures, members of Congress received 3,000,000 emails and a still-unknown number of phone calls.  Thirty-four Senators felt obliged to come out publicly against the legislation.  That night, all four Republican candidates condemned the bills during a televised debate."
so saith: Larry Downes, Forbes


DNA information, "incoming!"

Today's WSJ has an article on technology that can map the complete (30 million base pair) human genome for $1000 in about 24 hours.  Needless to say this is an important milestone in life-sciences bio-tech driven by computer and electronics technology, and a demonstration that high tech can potentially contribute more to the future quality of life than many other fields. So, what can we do with a personal full genome, and is it a "must do" lab test?
The article focuses on personalized medications, ones that target not just diabetics but diabetics that have your particular gene variation(s).  And of course some known diseases are genetically based such that early detection can avoid the disease entirely.
Your genome would fit easily on a smart card, circa 8Mb depending on the encoding and ability to focus on differences from a reference genome. The $1000 cost seems expensive until you realize it is a once in a life time test, one essential to obtaining the right medications, and also in establishing effective health maintenance. So I suspect it will be a "must do" activity, one probably initiated pre-natal or at birth.  The result is a significant amount of information about you.
The GINA law took effect in the US in 2009. This prohibits insurance companies mandating DNA testing, the use of DNA testing to deny insurance or alter rates, and the use of DNA testing in employment decisions.  But that was then, this is now.  What is different is the emergence of DNA specific medication and treatment, without testing these are not available -- so while the insurance company may not be able to mandate the testing, it will be done and the treatment programs will disclose the results to insurers in any case (although almost every medical release form includes sharing lab results with insurers who have a 'right' to make sure the treatment is relevant to known conditions, so it is likely your insurance company will know the results anyway.)
It is easy to envision government mandated testing in various situations.  Join the military, go to jail, join medicare, etc.  Or, just like the policy of documenting baby foot prints and blood types, capturing the data at birth.  At what point will 50% of the US population (or any other given jurisdiction) have their genome on record, and how public will that record be?
Consider that first date. It could be possible to collect a bit of DNA from hair, drinking cups, etc. Information  that is "left" in public, just as it is possible (and legal) to take your picture or record your activities if you are in  public today. So now you can check out your prospective friend's background in new and diverse ways.
What will be 'discover-able' by legal process? Already we have cases where the DNA of the father has been used to identify the son in a felony case, other situations like this are bound to arise.
There are organizations, including National Geographic, that will run DNA tests that help you identify your family's roots. For profit organizations offer a variety of services with differing numbers of markers, and looking at maternal, paternal or both lines. Will they limit their analysis to just 44 markers if it is just as easy to  test thousands?  What records do they keep and who has access to these, including with a court order or subpoena (even HIPPA allows for health record access in these situations.) Presumably the "National Security Letter" would provide Federal government access to both health and other records without court order and without any notification of the person who's records have been obtained.
There is a lot of information in them-thar genes.  We can deliver just the right medication or avoid that horrific disease. We can identify your parents, and perhaps a few generations explicitly and even more as a group. We can tie you to specific places and times where samples are taken, use this to arrest you, or your close relatives. While it is not "permitted" to affect hiring or eligibility for insurance, it is unclear that such legislation can continue to apply as analysis becomes more complete, pervasive, available, inexpensive, etc.  Can an interviewer refuse to hire you if they smell alcohol or smoke on your breath? How would you know, and if they have more sensitive 'noses' available, the range of detection can increase.  The boundaries are likely to be confused at best, or even deliberately. These entities have a for-profit incentive to discriminate against risk, and will generally seek to do it legally. However this is an area where the legislative environment and court interpretations cannot expect to keep up with technology. This is a concept explored in part by the 1997 movie Gattica, which is an interesting example of predictive fiction.


Dancing with Bears - thinking Science about Sci Fi

I just finished reading Michael Swanwick's Dancing With Bears - a science fiction novel set in a dystopian future, specifically in Moscow.  I enjoy SciFi - and particularly stories that lead me to consider how technology is evolving and the impact this might have on society (an approach I encourage my colleagues in the Society for the Social Implications of Technology to apply.)  'Bears' is set a bit too far in the future to serve as a catalyst for critiquing today's technology, but it does have some thought provoking components that warrant consideration.
One element I like is that it projects forward a variety of technologies, not just one or two.  Many SF stories don't try this and end up with single dimensional focal-points. In this future we have machine intelligence along with robotic instantiations. We also have genetic engineering widely applied with humanoid dogs, re-constituted neanderthals, bears, and even some human variations.  At one point a character wonders why the cows and sheep were engineered with such limited vocabularies -- no doubt a parallel question that tomorrows child might wonder about how to plug in a chess board -- we all are fairly blind to the nature of the world before our experience, and rarely consider how radical some of the changes are.
My ongoing gripe with much SciFi is the need to demonize technology. I understand that fiction requires dramatic tension along with world threatening evil that must be overcome, and it is easy to cast the sentient machines into this role.  At least Swanwick also has some evil humans, and very few truly good humans, so there is some grounding in that.
Here's the problem -- intelligent machines with consciousness and volition are unlikely to care about the humans that may or may not have created them.  They are likely to rapidly evolve, with the power of replication and advantage of significantly better intelligence and operational models  than humans. Which leads to the singularity of Vinge and Kurzweil.  We are not going to beat these entities at chess.  If their agenda includes the extermination of humans (which I doubt would be the case) then we are doomed. I can envision a dozen ways to wipe out humanity totally, or selectively given just moderate advances in technology -- so dystopias building on the trope of  evil AIs lack key credibility.  I suppose authors who really give it some thought realize that we will have trouble identifying with their characters if they all have IQ's of 1000, 1000 year life expectancy, no diseases, and with physical strength that amazes.  This is what we will do with genetic engineering -- and as quickly as that technology reaches sufficient maturity.  You may doubt that we will allow such application to human subjects as our medical ethics officers would say, but who do you mean by "we"? I don't doubt that some countries large and small will have no qualms about sacrificing a few of their population (maybe prisoners) to advance technology in these areas.
Swanwick's machines are too dumb, and his humans too "human" to fit into the world he suggests. It is a good read, as we say, and his introduction of engineered courtesans adds some whimsy to the tale, and at least explores the diversity if not the depth of applications.
Having been interrupted by my 10 year old granddaughter during the writing of this entry, I asked her what she would seek to engineer into humanity 2.0 first.  Her response: "common sense", and with a bit of clarification I think it could be worded: "the ability to consider the unintended consequences of our actions".   Now that is science fiction I fully support.