Have you ever stopped to think about how little control you have over your life? Even though people are born with a freedom of thought, we usually end up observing – or worse, becoming victim to – our thoughts.
For better or worse, you are mostly an observer. Through the magic of sentience, you thoughtfully respond to situations based on your observations. We are all doing the best we can with what we have, right?
An old friend (latency) comes into play here. In this case, latency describes the time between cause and effect. Or observation and action.
It takes time for us to process what is going on around us and to respond. Latency is everywhere: how long does it take for a can opener to open a can; how long does it take for a car to stop; how long do we have to wait for a delinquent pizza.
Engineers have to deal with latency in product design. For example, I may design a fancy new speedometer for your car. It requires a sensor to measure the rotational speed of an axle. There is latency between sensor and speedometer. If it is thousandths of a second, you will never notice; if it is minutes, the car would not be safe to drive. (Wouldn't that be fun? A speedometer that is one minute late announcing your speed.)
Life would be easier if everything happened in an instant. But it doesn’t – until engineers tried a different approach.
Just Say no to Latency
In general, engineers want to avoid latency at all costs – it is usually an unwanted byproduct. Consider your car’s cruise control as you approach a steep grade: the throttle changes only after the engine load has increased due to the climb, plus some latency.
Engineers can be clever folks. Using a construct fondly known as a State Observer, or observer for short, latency can be reduced by predicting what should happen based on what is known. In our example above, the car could have a digital map of the road that is used to control the throttle knowing about the hill ahead of time. This could be used to save fuel with a gentle acceleration as the grade is approached versus the more drastic knee-jerk direct-feedback approach.
Or, more interestingly, consider if your car had a model of every stoplight’s timing in town and would tell you what speed to drive on each road to reach every green light based on when you left.
The goal of using an observer is to improve an outcome by predicting what should happen instead of waiting for it to happen.
I brought up these examples for a reason. Engineering tricks never remain a secret. And they have gradually leaked out into the world in an unfortunate way.
Latency is always a problem in the business world. It takes time to collect feedback from customers.
Observers to the rescue: individualized ads are now regularly served to you based on predicting what you want from the fact that practically every website observes what you do in some way.
Some people call this Big Data. I call it Big Noise. It is a reinforcing spiral – “appears true” is equated to “is true” because everything that we see influences us. This is neuroscience. If you are shown an ad for cat food, and you buy cat food, the observer determines that you are hungry for kibbles.
(See top of post for picture of cat to further influence you to buy kibbles.)
As noted in a previous post, your brain does not contain memories – it is memories.
Lawyers are all too familiar with this: some outspoken comments are made in the middle of a jury trial, are objected to, and stricken from the record. The jury is told not to consider the wild statement in deliberation. But the damage is done whether or not it is consciously recognized by the jury. You cannot unhear statements.
In its worst manifestation, I have read about Big Data “successfully” predicting where and when crime would occur based on past patterns and deploying police proactively; there is little consideration that the appearance of police would simply trigger unfortunate events in some neighborhoods.
Sometimes, the best book in the library is the one you didn’t expect to find and were not looking for.
If you have been following my posts, you are well aware that I am outspoken about a pinch of caution when measuring people, or on relying on any measurement.
In China, certain workers have their emotions measured via brainwaves and analyzed by AI. Citizens are observed, measured, and allotted “social currency” that allows them to move about society.
Right now, there is still some latency between measurement and action in the totalitarian states.
The obvious next step is to bring in an observer. Predict criminals based on Big Noise and jail them before they can do anything. When those individuals resist arrest and become violent in jail, the data will indicate that the arrest was reasonable and warranted.
The observers are in the wild, and they will only become more invasive without a push for humane, sustainable technology from companies like Shift Sight. Big Data is big power use and big e-waste.
Shift Sight is driven by two observations: our children deserve better than where society is headed, and they need an inhabitable planet.
Ty is a Founder of Shift Sight, LLC.