Heck, They Can Hack Us

By us, I do not mean our phones, tablets or laptops. I mean what’s in our head. They can hack into our brain. I suppose it is not so weird – we are after all, algorithms albeit biological ones. This morning, a friend shared a Wall Street Journal documentary about China’s 5G roll-out. Impressive, from a utopian viewpoint. In some schools in China, students are required to wear headbands that use EEG to track and record their brain wave patterns. Electroencephalography is a method used by medical experts to diagnose certain disorders such as epilepsy and brain-related illnesses. I was surprised it is being used to monitor kids in school. Their neural data collected from these headbands are reported in real-time to the teacher’s computer as a tool to improve their school results. Artificial Intelligence (AI) even graphs each student’s attention in class as well as the whole class’s. If there is a tapering off in their attentiveness, AI can be used to help analyse the teacher’s teaching skills or point to topics that the kids find boring. Robots scan them before they enter the school to check on their body temperatures for their health and facial recognition robots equipped with cameras are on the lookout to catch those whose attention spans are interrupted by their mobile phones or how frequently they yawn. Parents love it, as they can monitor their children’s progress remotely. Teachers love it, as the school results show a marked improvement. The kids, knowing they are being monitored and assessed real time, are more attentive. One boy did ask what would happen to him at home if his parents were to find out his score is “only” 85 and the others’ are 95. I am glad I am not growing up at a time when the world is poised to hack into us during our whole lifespan. All our thoughts whether made loudly or kept silently in our heads are monitored 24/7 and recorded in our personal data bank forever. Authorities in the future can have AI comb through our historical data and either promote or demote us based on something we said or wrote when we were growing up. As for me, I’m sure they won’t be interested in someone who cannot even decide if his ears hear Laurel or Yanni. I’m also that someone who sees a white and pink shoe as grey and teal blue. I think I am safe from the Stazi’s of tomorrow. They won’t even care about my existence, which is just as well. Talking about tomorrow, it is Mother’s Day and I have got just the right present from the neighbour’s garden for The Mrs and Ma. My neighbours are stuck overseas, so their garden is mine to enjoy in their absence.

Yuval Noah Harari, author of the three books that I enjoyed – Sapiens, Homo Deus and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, in his podcast with Sam Harris suggested that we can be hacked by AI. “It will know us better than we know ourselves”, he said. AI will understand what we want better than us, and know what we want better than we care to admit. To hack a human being, we need biology – brain science, a lot of data and a lot of computer power. Now for the first time in human history, we have all that. Google knows everything about us – our taste of music, movies, fashion, even our sexual desires and fantasies (especially those who visit porn sites!). Youtube knows a lot about us too – whether we subscribe to conspiracy theories, Asian cooking, or have a passion for classical music. Ever since I watched the Chinese TV series White Deer Plain or Bai Lu Yuan with my mum, it keeps recommending other Chinese movies to us. Facebook knows all our friends and even those we have forgotten. It knows our friends much more intimately than we ever will. The wearable electronic gadget we attach to our bodies, such as a smartwatch even monitors our exercise habits and records our heart rate and other vital health data. It knows exactly how fit we are and whether we are candidates for statins, high blood pressure pills or diabetic drugs whereas we only know we are “fine” or “ok”. But history shows that anything with utopian value that is promoted by a leader and becomes universally accepted will also have its dystopian threats. Harari highlights the problems that may arise when AI is capable of knowing our deep desires. Self learning machines may use algorithms to manipulate the truth and provide us with “facts” that will lead us to make certain choices or decisions that “Big Brother” wants, e.g. vote for whoever is the highest bidder as President of that country. Fake information can be fed to us by AI through the channels that interest us to the extent that we no longer question their accuracy or check if they are true. Recently, people have died from drinking bleach just because the leader they believed in told them it would cure them from the coronavirus. When the pandemic spread fear and panic throughout the world, I was hoping the world would reset and we would come to our senses. Magically, we would all start to appreciate and value our scientists and medical experts more than our football gods and NBA personalities. We would recall our ancient respect for nature and admire the beauty and vital importance of a healthy environment for our survival. We would listen to the science rather than the politics. We would come together as one global family to fight the virus and not fight each other and play the blame game. But, the whole world has not followed the example the Italians set – singing to one another on their balconies, spreading love and appreciation for their neighbours and front line workers. The world lost its global leader once the inward-looking Americans voted for Trump to make America great again. The one flawed characteristic of humans is our reluctance to admit when we are wrong. America isn’t great again. America isn’t great anymore, actually. Yet, almost half of Americans still support Trump and will likely vote for him to remain in the White House for a second term. The pandemic has shattered the myth of American greatness and exposed the beginnings of the empire’s decline. A few weeks ago, they tried to hijack all the potential vaccine from a German pharmaceutical company by offering them to move their business to the US. Despite the German government and its main investor exposing Trump’s recklessness and selfishness, Curevac insists it did not receive any offer from Trump to secure exclusive rights to a potential coronavirus vaccine. They were also accused of hijacking shipments of masks bound for France, Germany and Canada. Trump would be more accurate to change his “America First” to “America Only”. The US froze their funding to the WHO at the most critical time when the world needs a coordinated approach to stop the coronavirus. The US was absent from last week’s global conference held to raise money for the development and “universal deployment” of a COVID-19 vaccine and other medical treatments. At a time when more than 4 million have been infected, any sensible observer would ask why a country that represents only 5% of the world’s population but accounts for almost a third of the infections and deaths would not be more proactive to contribute to such a cause? Harari went on to suggest the media should report less on the statistics of cases and deaths that the pandemic has caused. It felt like a transgression when I heard him say it. “We have the scientific knowledge to tackle the virus”, he said. People are overwhelmed by the negative impacts of the virus but very few are looking at the people who are focused solely on cementing or increasing their power and raking in the money from COVID-19. Trillions of dollars are being handed out – who are benefiting? Who are getting their hands on the money? Are they the ones the monies are meant for? Or are the financial incentives being diverted to big business and individual party donors instead? Are the checks and balances between the executive and the judicial being diminished? Trump signed the massive bill for the pandemic stimulus, with a caveat. He will not allow the Special Inspector General and the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee to provide primary oversight of the massive handouts. We are concerned about surveillance on the individuals – we discuss the pros and cons of “track and trace” methods of those infected but is anyone doing any surveillance on those who can and will abuse their power if left unchecked?


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