With help from Derek Robertson
Welcome back to our regular Friday feature, The Future in Five Questions. Today, we have Cathy O’Neil, author of “Weapons of Math Destruction” and “The Shame Machine” — books that articulate the societal impact of algorithmic decision-making and of the internet more broadly.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
What’s one underrated big idea?
A long term vision of a functioning set of helpful, non-destructive, accurate and fair, automated decision making systems that makes our world a better place. How are they kept in check? How are they monitored? How are they updated as our values update?
We definitely have the capacity to imagine a long term utopia — what would it look like for this technology to be helpful, and not harmful? We have not figured out how to make automated systems subservient to human values.
What’s a technology you think is overhyped?
Cryptocurrency and blockchain. Cryptocurrency does nothing. And it wastes a lot of electricity and warms up the planet.
I was introduced very early to the world of Bitcoin because I was moderating an Occupy Wall Street group. One of the big groups who came in to proselytize their vision was the Bitcoin people. They told us all how to harvest Bitcoin.
But I refused to do it on the grounds that we should be earning money for saving electricity, not for wasting electricity. I was like: this sounds like a climatic disaster.
Their argument was that Bitcoin was going to decentralize finance in general — it was going to bring democracy to the world. They had all these very highfalutin principles around it, but they had no explanation for why that would work.
There’s nothing behind it. It’s a nothing burger wrapped up in a Ponzi scheme.
What book most shaped your conception of the future?
“Super Sad True Love Story” by Gary Shteyngart. He just really nailed it with the sort of dystopian oversharing. He also predicted Occupy Wall Street and the use of surveillance technology. Because it’s a novel, he was able to see how surveillance technology would play out in actual characters’ lives — in particular their love lives and dating lives, and how it would make them feel.
What could government be doing regarding tech that it isn’t?
Proving the safety of high impact, potentially very harmful tech needs to be the burden of the deployers — not the public who gets harmed. Drug companies have to prove their drugs work before they sell them. That’s the FDA process. But Facebook doesn’t have to do shit before they deploy a very, very awful algorithm.
Government regulators should be saying: before you deploy a powerful, potentially harmful algorithm, you have to give evidence that it’s safe and effective, just like a drug. Right now, the burden is on us, the public, to prove that these algorithms harm us. I want that burden to be on the companies who profit from using them.
We, as individuals in the public, don’t have any way to prove or even gather evidence that something’s harming us. The companies themselves have all the data and they’re not sharing it. So it’s all backwards.
What has surprised you most this year?
That we got any kind of laws passed was surprising. I’m surprised that the climate provisions went through. I have become pretty cynical about politics. With long term things like climate change, if it doesn’t allow politicians to posture and claim victory, then the short term wins usually just don’t happen.
The White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy published a report yesterday afternoon on the climate implications of crypto mining, and the outlook is not pretty.
Among its most notable takeaways: Crypto now consumes as much energy as all home computers in the United States (or all home lighting, take your pick). It’s responsible for somewhere between 0.4 percent and 0.8 percent of the U.S.’ annual greenhouse gas emissions. It also found that the U.S. does about a third of the world’s crypto mining, with electricity usage for that purpose tripling since the beginning of 2021.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Notably ahead of next week’s planned switch by Ethereum — which according to the report accounts for somewhere between 20 and 39 percent of all global crypto energy usage — to a more efficient and eco-friendly form of adding records to blockchains, researchers found that form of “proof of stake” mining consumes less than 0.001 percent of the world’s electricity annually. The report recommends the DoE and EPA take action to mitigate crypto energy usage, and should that fail, recommends “Congress might consider legislation, to limit or eliminate the use of high energy intensity consensus mechanisms for crypto-asset mining.” — Derek Robertson
The European Union is known for being a little more proactive than the U.S. when it comes to tech regulation — and it might have the metaverse in its sights next.
Today the EU’s Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton told reporters in Paris that regulators overseas are preparing to “take hold of the subject of the metaverse” and investigating whether existing telecom and data regulations are sufficient for the new technology, as POLITICO’s Giorgio Leali reported for Pro subscribers. This follows a brief report issued by the European Parliament’s research arm this summer, warning that issues like safety and accessibility will be of particular importance in the metaverse.
Breton said the EU “will then launch a broad consultation that we would like to open by the first quarter of next year.” His remarks were light on details, but if the Union’s sweeping Artificial Intelligence Act is any indication companies like Meta will have their hands full working with regulators to bring the metaverse to the massive global audience they seek. — Derek Robertson
Stay in touch with the whole team: Ben Schreckinger ([email protected]); Derek Robertson ([email protected]); Konstantin Kakaes ([email protected]); and Heidi Vogt ([email protected]). Follow us @DigitalFuture on Twitter.