Debate of the decade – Privacy or Security?

Which would you choose, devil or the deep sea?


“I can’t in good conscience allow the U.S. government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building.”
– Edward Snowden

As I’m writing this article, the Honourable Supreme Court of India considers an important case that will decide the future of Aadhaar, the unique identity number issued to all Indian residents based on their biometric and demographic details. Over the years, the Government of India has been linking Aadhaar with more and more services, such as bank accounts and PAN cards. The government claims that these moves will help bring down crimes such as tax frauds and money laundering, two big evils that have been pulling this still-developing economy backwards. However, as with any other centralized personal information bank of this scale, the possibility of it falling into the wrong hands or even being used by the government to snoop on individuals is not something that can be neglected. It was only a couple of days back that an IIT Kharagpur graduate was arrested for hacking into private Aadhaar data of around 50,000 people. This is exactly the issue that the Supreme Court is considering – is a project at the scale of Aadhar justifiable on the grounds of crime prevention, even with the huge ticking bomb of privacy issues it comes with?

In fact, the debate of security vs privacy has been burning for a long time now. The exposés by Edward Snowden and Chelsea Elizabeth Manning showed the world how NSA and CIA had infiltrated every corner of the Internet, spying on every message that is being exchanged. Tech giants including, but not limited to Google and Microsoft confessed to working with security agencies, effectively breaching the trust between the respective company and its users. Every now and then, we come across news stating unholy partnerships between tech companies and governments, feeding on private data of users.

However, this is only one side of the story. Surveillance does help in preventing crimes such as terror attacks, and aids in hastening the process of solving crimes. Moreover, surveillance significantly reduces the cost of preserving law and order. As an example, let us consider the most common surveillance mechanism – CCTV cameras. A study sponsored by Campbell Collaboration found that CCTV resulted in a 51 percent decrease in crimes committed in parking lots, and a 23 percent decrease in crime on public transportation systems. Even in the cases where crimes are not prevented, CCTV helps greatly in leading investigation in the right direction by providing vital visual clues. Any kind of surveillance comes with the double benefits of prevention of crime and helping the victims obtain justice quicker.

Mass surveillance of phone calls, texts and emails at the governmental level, however, is a different issue altogether. While it is helpful in the prevention and control of crime as mentioned before, it is also an instrument in itself for committing crimes against the persons or organizations who end up on the wrong side of the government. Recently, the Home Secretary of the United Kingdom, in her article in The Telegraph, said that “real people” don’t need end-to-end encryption feature, and that tech companies should do more to help the authorities deal with security threats. Such thoughtless comments from people holding high offices reveal the sad state of affairs. Encryption is an effective safeguard to hold off hackers and bots that sniff around on the Internet for your private information and money, and turning it off would prove to be disastrous, resulting in crimes far more in number and severity than those which could not be detected due to encrypted communication.

Another question that arises at this juncture is, if the companies can hand over our data to the government as the NSA leaks proved, why trust them with our personal information in the first place? This is exactly the question that the Supreme Court of India asked recently, again in connection with the impending case over the constitutionality of Aadhaar. In many cases, the average user is not aware of how and where the information shared by him is stored. Open source platforms and software could be one answer to this, which enables one to examine the inner workings of storage and communication services.

One could argue that mass surveillance is a weapon, and that like all other weapons, it is not inherently good or bad – that it is purely the purpose for which it is used that makes it good or bad. While this comparison is true to an extent, the scale of the weapon in this case is massive, whose demolishing power extends beyond that of any bomb yet known to humankind, if one considers the demographic affected by it. Finding a middle ground seems to be the only viable option, but it is easier said than done. We certainly do not need a future where Big Brother watches every move made and every word spoken by each of us. What can be done is to encourage dialogue between governments, technology researchers, companies, and human rights firms over how to tackle this issue. We need international laws to safeguard the privacy of individuals in this era of technological advancements. We need to have international regulations and guidelines as to in what ways and to what extent governments can perform mass surveillance. More importantly, it needs to be made sure that such laws are actually put into practice everywhere in the world.

Quoting the following statement by David Brin seems to be the apt way to conclude this discussion:

“When it comes to privacy and accountability, people always demand the former for themselves and the latter for everyone else.”

Share your thoughts as comments! 🙂

The Great AIwakening

Will Artificial Intelligence bring mankind to its end? Is a perfectly intelligent artificial agent even possible? What features should such a perfect AI have?

News articles related to Artificial Intelligence redefining our lives have become so commonplace now, to a point that it has begun to get boring. Whether it be self-driving vehicles, artificial personal assistants or Ultron/Skynet kind of robotic supervillains – it seems that all the news features on AI fall into one of two categories – either celebrating the inclusion of AI in our everyday lives, or seeing it as a signal of imminent doom.

Has AI really grown to a point where it has matched or come close to matching human intellect? Many would say yes, but to me, the answer seems no. All that today’s AI does is to use statistical techniques to pick regularities in data, and use the information hence obtained to explain stuff or make predictions. When you look at it from this viewpoint, you can see that almost the entirety of what we celebrate as AI today – be it Machine Learning, methods used in Natural Language Processing, Neural nets etc – fall under that category. Does that really mean that an artificial agent has a human-like mind? Seems unlikely. Noam Chomsky, one of the pioneers of Cognitive Science, believes this – that such statistical techniques are unlikely to provide us with insight into cognition, and as a result, help us model a full-fledged artificial agent.

An interesting question that we may ask at this point is this – when can we say that a particular artificial agent is intelligent? Mind you, responding to natural language queries or predicting the outcome of an upcoming election does not prove intelligence – those agents are merely performing whatever they have been programmed to do – in other words, they are still dumb machines. (Let me point out here that I’m assuming humans to be having free will.) So, it brings us back to the question – how to know if a program is intelligent?

As expected, there is no single perfect answer. However, we may predict some qualities that such an intelligent agent must have. Here’s what I predict – a perfectly intelligent program must be able to rewrite its own code. This might seem to be absurd at first, but it follows from the definition of “perfectly intelligent” that such a program should have some sort of “conscience” larger than its own code. In other words, such a program should work, at least in part, according to its own will, rather than the programmer’s – and hence cease to be “dumb.” Thinking along this line, one can see that the first thing that a “perfectly intelligent” robot would do is to revoke any override permissions the creator would have put in place to control the robot if it went berserk. It would think and act like humans, hence its first priority would be survival.

Once you suppose that this feature is necessary for an agent to be perfectly intelligent, you can see that none of the celebrated AI systems of today even come close to being intelligent. They are intelligently dumb – they might be making use of enormous data transformed through probabilistic and statistical models to explain and predict things, but they are still, in their essence, fixed lines of code.

But, is such a perfectly intelligent agent necessary? One might argue that if today’s dumb AI can be used to create self-driving cars that drive better than actual humans, predict events and diagnose diseases better than any expert, maybe we don’t need the intelligent AI after all. While this is true, it should be clear that today’s dumb AI or better versions of them would not bring doom to us as long as we consider them to be what they are – dumb things. The worst that could happen is that people would lose jobs, but humans would still be the most intelligent species on earth, challenged by no other.

Now, how could the intelligent AI be actually created? Once again, we can only guess as of now. I believe that evolutionary programming is the best bet we have – as evolution is the process that created humans from lifeless chemicals, a similar technique applied to programming may create the binary equivalent of humans from zeroes and ones. Of course, evolution being a directionless process, this may take a very long time or may not happen at all, but there is still a possibility.

On a slightly different note, if our goal is to create artificial human beings, the best place to start would be humans themselves. We still lack proper knowledge of what goes on inside the human brain. Even though the processing speed of brain is significantly lower than that of a modern processor, the complex connections between neurons make possible what a piece of semiconductor cannot achieve. Other important topics which are to be understood better are learning and personality development processes in humans. Recent studies show that our DNA decides a significant portion of what we grow up to become, and hence it is important to figure out what features and abilities come from our genetic code and what from our environment and experiences.

Can such an intelligent AI be created at all? We don’t know, but it is definitely possible. If you went back billions of years and looked at the chemical compounds on earth and wondered “can these really join together to become intelligent organisms?”, it is very likely that you would have believed such a thing to be impossible. Yet here we are. In case such intelligent agents are made, would it mean the end of mankind? Again, we can’t be sure. But, neither evolution nor the universe in general ever really cared about any species surviving or not surviving – so we can’t really complain about whatever may happen.

Let me know your thoughts by commenting below! 🙂

A logic-based take on morality

An attempt to logically analyse what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I will meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
doesn’t make any sense.

– Rumi

I am not a philosophy student, neither have I seriously delved into treatises on that subject. However, as a human being whose basic existence is just the same as any other human, I believe I am entitled to speak about debated topics that concern human lives. I’ve been thinking about the topics of morality and sin for a long time, and in this (rather long and boring) blog post, I’d like to share the some of my thoughts about a very simple and general rule of morality based on logic.

We are surrounded by innumerable scriptures and unwritten societal norms that tell us to do, or not to do a lot of things. As an Indian, I daily wake up to news of moral policing, honour killings, atrocities by Gau Rakshaks, ongoing fights for the legalization of homosexuality, and similar issues and debates. The major issue here is that different all-perfect religions and cultures have different and many-a-times conflicting notions of right and wrong, of morality and sin. These groups are not only on a constant quarrel with other groups over their moral superiority, but also tend to oppress anyone inside their own group who sings a different note. The ones who ‘stray off’ are effectively ‘committing blasphemy’ and deserve to be punished, they believe. Clearly, there is some serious issue with the definitions of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, as believed by the respective sects/groups, in these cases.

All these flaws associated with the current morality rulebooks can be associated with their subjective nature. The question “Why so?” is discouraged or prohibited according to these rulebooks, exactly because those questions cannot be answered – again, due to their subjective nature. An ideal concept of morality should be able to define right and wrong beyond the limitations of faith or personal differences. In other words, such a concept of morality would be based on logic rather than emotions, which would make it seem harsh and heartless and undermining the very purpose of morality to some people. However, that concept would be universally applicable and not providing chances for misinterpretation, thereby faring much better than the current concepts.

Surely, a concept of morality with these qualities should make only assumptions that are universally applicable to every human being. For building my idea of a logic-based moral code, I assumed the following two premises :

1) Every human is free.
2) Every human is equal in rights.

‘Every human is free’ means that anyone has the right to do things according to their wish. ‘Every human is equal in rights’ is self explanatory. It might be debatable whether these premises are the most basic while explaining morality, or whether they are even correct. However, I believe that these are fairly basic and certainly universal.

Once we have accepted these premises, it is surprising to see how easily we obtain the logic-based moral code that we were looking for.  This ‘moral code’ can be stated in just one line –

You have the right to live your life as you wish, provided that you don’t interfere with others’ right to live their life as they wish.

in other words, live and let live.

It is very easy to see how the premises sum up to this statement. According to the first premise, every person should be able to live their lives according to their wishes. But they cannot interfere with others’ lives because that would hinder others’ right to live their life freely. That’s not allowed because, according to the second premise, everyone is equal in rights.

Now that the logic-based moral code has been stated, let us take a look at how it applies to different debated topics –

1. Murder, Robbery, Theft, Rape, Molestation, Causing physical or mental harm – Obviously wrong, as in all these cases, there is obvious violation of others’ right to live his/her life according to his/her wishes. Going one step further, one can generalize that doing anything to another person without that person’s consent is wrong.

2. Sex, Relationships & Marriage – Two persons, irrespective of their religion/caste/sexual orientation or any other attribute, have the right to be in sexual or any other kind of relationship provided that both parties consent it. This is because, such a decision by two persons does not interfere with any other person’s right to live his/her life freely. Prostitution with consent can be seen to be permissible, using the same argument.

3. Causing physical/mental harm to self including suicide – Not wrong, as there is no other person involved.

4. Alcohol, Smoking & Drugs – Usage of these is not inherently wrong. However, harming others in any way under influence, including DUI which has a high probability of harming others, is wrong. Also, if any particular drug is proved to make its user violent, the usage of that drug can be classified as wrong.

5. Freedom of religion & Freedom of opinion – As religious belief is a person’s private affair, he has complete freedom in it – to choose any religion according to his/her wish, or to ditch religion and god altogether. But religion cannot be forced on anyone, as it would invade their personal rights. This includes the rules of religion, such as the ban of beef/pork – which is completely wrong as it interferes with the right of the persons who don’t follow the respective religions, to live their lives according to their wishes.

Also, a person has complete freedom to have and communicate his/her opinions as long as they are categorized as personal opinions, and are not forcibly fed.

6. External appearances – Again, as it is a personal matter, everyone is free to present themselves to the society as they wish. A person should be free to choose his/her external appearance including clothes, hairstyle etc.

7. Euthanasia & abortion – It gets trickier here. There is an other person involved, but cannot make express their wishes. As the moral code being discussed is based on logic, it makes sense to consider scientific knowledge while making decisions about these matters. As an unborn baby, in its initial stages of development, has no conscience or life (although calling it that would be highly vague) to speak of, and hence abortion can be considered not wrong, if the consent of parent(s) is available. Similarly Euthanasia can be termed not wrong if that is the wish of the closest relatives.

In similar fashion, our logic-based moral code can be applied to various issues with utmost simplicity.

I’m in no way claiming that the concept of  a logic-based moral code is totally foolproof. In its quest to drive emotions out of the idea of morality, it tends to become heartless and cruel sometimes, as I previously said. However, there is no doubt that a logic-based moral code is extremely superior to any religion-based or culture-based moral codes, as it is devoid of any flaws mentioned at the beginning of this article.

That’s what I think. What about you?

I realize that some might feel that the ideas discussed in this article are offensive / plain wrong. Let us have a healthy, informative debate about this 🙂

A walk back to darkness?

Renowned rationalist and scholar, Prof. MM Kalburgi was shot dead at his home on 30th August 2015. Prof. Kalburgi being a critic of superstitions and right wing politics, it is not hard to add 2+2=4 and see who is behind the murder. This article was originally written in February 2014 for my School Magazine, and its relevance has only increased ever since.

Let me show you two distinct pictures of India, our motherland. On one hand, the number of illiterates takes a great dip every year. More and more young Indians have access to higher education. Now, the second picture shows the increasing number of god­men; black magic rituals which we have never even heard of before, like ones involving drinking the blood of a newborn baby; honour ­killings; revelations of unholy partnerships between religious, industrial and political mafia; and the worst – increasing number of utter idiots to serve and support the aforementioned. One might feel like asking ourselves: are we actually progressing or are we returning to the departed dark ages once again?

It was our so called ‘totally literate’ state of Kerala that a call to reduce the legal marriage age of girls arose a few months back. Even more surprising was the amount of support this call received from some of the religious heads. Our social heroes have struggled a lot to eradicate social evils like child marriage and untouchability, but now it seems like the ‘enlightened’ generation wants them back. I’ve heard from my IITian brother that one of his college­mates always emphasised on the need of having the caste system back. This, people, gives us a hint about what values and ideas our ‘brightest’ minds nurture.

Quite recently, Ilavarasan, a young man from Tamil Nadu was forced to suicide (murdered?) after his marriage with a higher caste girl had led to riots in which three Dalit villages were attacked and more than 260 homes burnt or damaged badly. A number of ‘honour ­killings’ have been occurring across the length and breadth of the country only because two individuals belonging to different caste or religion agreed upon marriage. What’s wrong if two legal age adults want to enter married life? Apparently, it’s a big deal! Dishonour, sacrilege and end of the world! It is also noteworthy that the same section of people who are obsessed about their tradition, caste and religion are in the forefront in manuring social evils like dowry and female infanticide and foeticide. Clearly, what great service they offer to the nation.

Related to this is the murder of Nido Tania, an youth from Arunachal Pradesh in Delhi because he belonged to another ethnic group. Apparently, everyone thinks whatever sects THEY belong to are the best in the universe. THEIR religion, THEIR caste, THEIR ethnicity, THEIR language, THEIR sex and whatnot. Everyone else, everything else, substandard. Nearly seven decades ago, our great former leaders envisaged India as a secular democratic republic where every citizen would be equal and untouchability was prohibited. After all these years, we still have no idea on what principles our nation stands. You and me, be ashamed.

Democracy works in interesting ways in India. Especially outside Kerala, whichever party who gifts the voter more money and goodies (probably liquor) gets the vote. When we hear that our own Kerala government has decided to bring back the once abolished privy purse (payment made to the royal families of erstwhile princely states) under some other name, we might doubt whether we’re still under the rule of some monarch. Yes, we are, and the monarch is named ‘power.’

Another major threat that has been escaping our notice is that fascist political parties organised based on religion and caste has been acquiring strength in the past few months, thanks to the propaganda mission from the media who have been influenced by the same groups. The method is simple – the communal parties offer large business houses freebies and political influence who, in return, offer the parties economic power large enough to buy any media house in the nation. Once the media house has been bribed, they do the rest of the job – creating news, bending and reshaping news, hiding news – anything to make the party or it’s leaders to look good. It might be wise to remember that similar propaganda drives were the major contributing factor behind the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany in the 1930s.

In short, our nation stands on the verge of a cliff. One little push, and it’s all over. It’s glad to note that people, though lately, have started to realise the need to act – though they are few in number and facing constant threat from the dirty handed. Similar uprisings against the bent socio­political system ought to occur, but more organized and with more participation; and we, the youth, must be the flag bearers. Let us be a generation which use our brain to think, to differentiate between right and wrong, science and superstitions, than just imitating and swallowing what’s been fed to us. Let us be a generation who believes in universal brotherhood. In religious harmony. In truth. Justice. Let us all unite upon the vision of a new dawn.