Tuesday, 27 November 2012

The rise of the algorithms

The Knife - a financial trading algorithm

This week Tarleton Gillespie was the latest critical commentator to analyse the role that algorithms play in contemporary life. His detailed insightful and urgent essay, The Relevance of Algorithms was published on the Culture Digitally blog this week, ahead of it's forthcoming publication in the MIT book, "Media Technologies".

Picking up where Kevin Slavin's excoriating Lift talk, "Those algorithms that govern our lives" (later reprised for TED) left off, Gillespie conducts a thorough investigation into how algorithms provide the basis for a great deal of our individual and societal choices. That we understand their impact on our daily lives so poorly is cause for great concern, Gillespie argues. He notes a particular anxiety with the way that algorithms are starting to influence how we find and interpret information, and points to the obvious impact this will have on politics:

"Algorithms not only help us find information, they provide a means to know what there is to know and how to know it, to participate in social and political discourse."

This has strong and relevant echoes back to the set of concerns raised by both designers and artists working with technology, as alluded to in a previous post. Artists Julian Oliver, Danja Vasiliev and Gordan Savicic have developed a discourse they refer to as "critical engineering", which aims to expose the systems, mechanisms, languages and logics which make up our engineered world. This is urgent, political work, they argue, as the encroachment of engineering into our lives, is matched only by its increasing invisibility. If we lose our ability to perceive this technological infrastructure, we lose agency.

As Oliver wrote recently:
"As thinkers with technical abilities in several areas, we want to take on our built and increasingly automated environment [...] If there's ever a time to be doing that, it's now, especially with opaque and hidden infrastructure in the telecommunications space deeply impacting diplomatic relations and civil liberties world wide. [...] Our inability to describe and understand technological infrastructure reduces our critical reach, leaving us both disempowered and, quite often, vulnerable." - Julian Oliver (September 2012)

These thoughts are echoed almost precisely by designer, writer and publisher, James Bridle (who's work in this area was referenced here recently), who notes:
"By legibility I mean our own ability to read these systems, how much they can affect the way we see and act in the world, and the differing positions of power we have in the world based on how legible those systems are. [...] Programmers have a huge amount of agency in the world, because they can deconstruct, reverse engineer and write and construct and create these systems. People who can't, don't, and they have less power in the world because of it." - James Bridle (September 2012). He later wrote:
"Those who cannot perceive the network cannot act effectively within it, and are powerless. The job, then, is to make such things visible."

Gillespie's essay operates very much within this spirit, insisting on the need to be able to perceive and understand the way that algorithms are becoming part of our lived environment. He writes:
"What we need is an interrogation of algorithms as a key feature of our information ecosystem, and of the cultural forms emerging in their shadows, with a close attention to where and in what ways the introduction of algorithms into human knowledge practices may have political ramifications."

His essay then seeks to do just that, providing an excellent map for this emerging terrain.  His perspective is not technological, but rather sociological, an analysis which he insists "must not conceive of algorithms as abstract, technical achievements, but must unpack the warm human and institutional choices that lie behind these cold mechanisms."

His essay is a vital insight into these choices.  Resonating with the worlds of both Oliver and Bridle, he concludes:
"In many ways, algorithms remain outside our grasp, and they are designed to be. This is not to say that we should not aspire to illuminate their workings and impact. We should. But we may also need to prepare ourselves for more and more encounters with the unexpected and ineffable associations they will sometimes draw for us, the fundamental uncertainty about who we are speaking to or hearing, and the palpable but opaque undercurrents that move quietly beneath knowledge when it is managed by algorithms.


Sunday, 18 November 2012

Your move, theorists

B-mesons' decay products

Physicists rather enjoy the friendly rivalry between theorists and experimentalists, and this week has been a fascinating week for both. Results presented at the Hadron Collider Physics symposium in Kyoto this week have proved a triumph for experimentalists working with the most powerful tool at their disposal - the LHC. But theorists have been left scratching their heads, as one of the most prominent theories of "new physics" took a major hit. Since the search for physics beyond the Standard Model is a leading priority in particle physics, this is highly significant for everyone.

Unsurprisingly, the hot topic of discussion at the Hadron Collider Physics symposium was the LHC's incendiary boson results from earlier this year.

Both the teams from the CMS detector and the ATLAS detector presented new analyses of the observations which led them to announce the discovery of a Higgs-like boson in July.  What's striking about the new data is that is backs up initial suspicions that the boson discovered at the LHC appears to be behaving precisely as the Standard Model predicted it would. As Tommaso Dorigo noted in Quantum Diaries, the new measurements, "confirm the standard model interpretation of the new found object."  Philip Gibbs at viXra provides some further technical analysis of the results here.

The LHCb Experiment. Photo courtesy of CERN.

But perhaps more sensational was the new results presented by their colleagues over at the LHCb Experiment. Johannes Albrecht reported that the LHCb team have observed one of the rarest particle decay events in physics, a Bs meson decaying into 2 muons. These events are so rare that the Standard Model predicts they should only occur about once in 300 million collisions.

That LHCb has observed one of these events at all is a stunning achievement for the experimentalists working on the detector. But the fact that their results suggest the the Bs meson decay is every bit as rare as the Standard Model predicted it should be, is a serious blow for one of the leading theories of new physics - supersymmetry.

The theory of supersymmetry, often referred to by its shortened nickname, SUSY, states that every fundamental matter particle should have a more massive, or 'super' force carrier particle, and every force carrier should have a 'super' matter particle.  These particles are often referred to as 'sparticles' (supersymmetric particles). Supersymmetry. has been championed by theorists such as Savas Dimopoulos and Gordon Kane, who memorably described the theory as a "wonderful, beautiful and unique" solution for the problems in our understanding of the subatomic world.

However, the LHCb results have cast serious doubt on the viability of supersymmetry as a theory. Supersymmetry predicts that if superparticles exist the Bs meson decay to a pair of muons should occur far more often than one in 300 million.  The work the LHCb team were doing has long been considered the most important experimental test for supersymmetry.  Whilst the LHCb results, which prove the rarity of the decay, don't rule supersymmetry out all together, the parameters for superparticles have narrowed dramatically, making the theory a much less likely explanation for the mysteries in our subatomic world, than many had hoped.

Why is this significant? Well, all physicists know that the Standard Model, despite its elegance, does not function as a complete explanation for the forces which govern our universe. It provides little explanation for gravity, and it noticeably fails to explain either dark energy or dark matter. Given that it is believed that dark matter may constitute up to 84% of all matter in the universe, and dark energy up to 73% of all the known energy in the universe, a theory which explains neither is clearly inadequate.

The science community at large had been hoping that the experiments running at the LHC would start to uncover evidence for "new physics" beyond the Standard Model, which would begin to explain these puzzling features of the universe.  But so far, not only have the main results not done so, they've simply provided ever-strengthening evidence for the veracity of the Standard Model

As Marc-Olivier Bettler from LHCb noted this week, "if new physics is present then it is hiding very well behind the Standard Model".

A typical candidate event for the Higgs boson measured in the CMS electromagnetic calorimeter. Image courtesy of CERN

The fact that CMS and ATLAS this week seemed to be describing a Higgs boson which looks awfully like the one predicted by the Standard Model, is compounding theoretical concern. Expressing this eloquently this week, Guido Altarelli from CERN stated that a Standard Model Higgs was, "a toy model to make the theory match the data, a crutch to allow the Standard Model to walk a bit further until something better comes along."

As Matthew Chalmers noted in an article which starkly set out the challenges the experimental results are raising, a Higgs boson at 125 GeV (the measurements both CMS and ATLAS have provided further evidence for this week) not only has a mass "vastly less than it should be, it is also about as small as it can possibly be without dragging the universe into another catastrophic transition. If it were just a few GeV lighter, the strength of the Higgs interactions would change in such a way that the lowest energy state of the vacuum would dip below zero. The universe could then at some surprise moment "tunnel" into this bizarre state, again instantly changing the entire configuration of the particles and forces and obliterating structures such as atoms."
He dramatically intoned, "as things stand, the universe is seemingly teetering on the cusp of eternal stability and total ruin."

All of this is to say that whilst results presented by ATLAS, CMS, and the LHCb are bringing relief in some quarters, as they certainly prove how exceptional the LHC is as a tool of discovery, they are causing some deep unease amongst theorists.

These are exciting times.

As particle physicist Ben Still observed earlier this year, "until theorists can come up with ways we can test their theories, they are just dealing with works of fiction."

So after some cracking moves this week in which the experimentalists have put pay to some of the most treasured literary works of physics theory, the ball is now back in the court of the theorists. They need to dream up new theories which help make sense of these results, and suggest new routes forward.


Saturday, 10 November 2012

A drones-eye-view: revealing the killing fields

Jaar, Yemen, October 18 2012 / 7-9 killed. Image from Dronestagram by James Bridle

The unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or drone, has become one of the most potent weapons of contemporary warfare. Remotely controlled by operators thousands of miles away from the theatre of war, drones carry out aerial attacks which leave hundreds of people dead. The increasing amount of 'collateral damage' from US drone strikes on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border recently lead prominent politician, Imran Khan, to lead a high-profile protest against their use.

Drone Vision by Trevor Paglen

Artists have been actively documenting the impact of the use of drones in warfare for some years now.   Trevor Paglen's Drone Vision, recently on show at Lighthouse in Brighton, provides us with a chilling "drones-eye-view" of a landscape, enabling us to see what drone-operators see.

Five Thousand Feet is the Best by Omer Fast

The utterly compelling and disturbing film installation, Five Thousand Feet is the Best by Israeli artist Omer Fast tells the story of a former Predator drone operator, recalling his experience of using drones to fire at civilians and militia in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  At one stage of the film, he describes the use of what marines refer to as "the light of god", the laser targeting marker, which is used to direct hellfire missiles to their intended target.

"We call it in, and we're given all the clearances that are necessary, all the approvals and everything else, and then we do something called the Light of God - the Marines like to call it the Light of God. It's a laser targeting marker. We just send out a beam of laser and when the troops put on their night vision goggles they'll just see this light that looks like it's coming from heaven. Right on the spot, coming out of nowhere, from the sky. It's quite beautiful." (quoted from Five Thousand Feet is the Best).

The Light of God by James Bridle

Writer, publisher, web developer and artist, James Bridle responded to this by creating his own work, The Light of God.

Sharing Paglen and Fast's concern with the use of drones in warfare, Bridle has crated a series of projects which attempt to reveal their presence in the landscape.  His Drone Shadow interventions are one-to-one representations of the MQ-1 Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) drawn to scale within urban landscapes. The first was drawn in London this February (in collaboration with Einar Sneve Martinussen), and the second in Turkey this October as part of the Istanbul Design Biennial.

Drone Shadow 002 by James Bridle

Like Paglen and Fast, Bridle's work stems from a deep concern with increasingly invisible and seamless military technologies that are creating the context for "secret, unaccountable, endless wars".

Bridle writes, "the drone also, for me, stands in part for the network itself: an invisible, inherently connected technology allowing sight and action at a distance. Us and the digital, acting together, a medium and an exchange. But the non-human components of the network are not moral actors, and the same technology that permits civilian technological wonder, the wide-eyed futurism of the New Aesthetic and the unevenly-distributed joy of living now, also produces obscurantist "security" culture, ubiquitous surveillance, and robotic killing machines. [....] We all live under the shadow of the drone, although most of us are lucky enough not to live under its direct fire. But the attitude they represent - of technology used for obscuration and violence; of the obfuscation of morality and culpability; of the illusion of omniscience and omnipotence; of the lesser value of other peoples lives; of, frankly, endless war - should concern us all."

His latest work, released yesterday, is Dronestagram. Bridle has been collecting images of the locations of drone strikes, and sharing these photographs on the photo-sharing site Instagram. His intention is to make these locations more visible, bringing them closer to us, and in the process perhaps making the reality of the daily occurrence of deadly drone strikes more tangible.

He utilises public records from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism who document strikes as they happen in Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia. After confirming the location of a strike, he then uses Google Maps to create a satellite image of the targeted location.  The image, accompanied by a description of the site, and the death-toll, if known, is uploaded to Instagram.

Wadi Abu Jabara, Yemen, 28 October 2012. 3 killed. Image from Dronestagram by James Bridle

The images of deserted, barren landscapes and abandoned buildings have a sobering potency juxtaposed with with the banal pictures of pets and parties that populate Instagram. But it is what we don't see that gives these images such an emotional power. The mortality.

Bridle writes, "drones are just the latest in a long line of military technologies augmenting the process of death-dealing, but they are among the most efficient, the most distancing, the most invisible. These qualities allow them to do what they do unseen [...]. Whether you think these killings are immoral or not, most of them are by any international standard illegal."

The work of artists such as Trevor Paglen, Omer Fast, and James Bridle exists within a long tradition of artists bearing witness to events that our governments and military would prefer we didn't see.

But Bridle's work is also part of an ongoing collective effort from both artists and engineers to reveal the technological infrastructures that enable events like drone-strikes to occur. As technology becomes more ubiquitous, and our relationship with our devices becomes ever more seamless, our technical infrastructure is becoming ever more invisible. When our environment becomes opaque or invisible, it becomes difficult to interpret it, and act within it.  As artist and critical engineer, Julian Oliver recently noted, "our inability to describe and understand technological infrastructure reduces our critical reach, leaving us both disempowered and, quite often, vulnerable."

Or as Bridle puts it, "those who cannot perceive the network cannot act effectively within it, and are powerless. The job, then, is to make such things visible."