Why should technologists care about belief?

[cross-posted from Medium]

This is part of a talk on hacking belief systems using old AI techniques. The first part covered human beliefs, machine beliefs, and deep learning and the internet as belief-based systems.

Lean and Agile are based on belief

The build-measure-learn cycle. Image from https://steveblank.com/2015/05/06/build-measure-learn-throw-things-against-the-wall-and-see-if-they-work/

Most system development I see now uses agile principles: short, iterative cycles of development, and an emphasis on learning, preferably alongside the system’s users, and adapting their systems to increase some measure of customer or user value. Lean is a similar idea at the company level, based around learning quickly about what works through prototyping and measurement (aka the “build-measure-learn” cycle). Lean Startup is the small-scale version of this; Lean Enterprise is the large-organisation one.

I’m going to focus on Lean Enterprise because it’s more complex. In an established organization, Lean’s usually a combination of learning and adapting existing business, and exploring new business ideas (with innovations people bridging across these). Core ideas in this include purpose, customer value and incremental learning.

  • Purpose is the ‘why’ of an organization, and acts as the common vision that everything in the organisation works towards (Daniel Pink’s videodescribes this well).
  • Customer value is what the customer needs instead of the things we think they’d like to have. Concentrating on customer value reduces waste in the organisation.
  • Iterative learning is about learning in small increments so we can adapt quickly when markets or needs change, and don’t bet too many resources on an idea that might not work out.

The build-measure learn cycle is at the heart of this. We start with ideas, build the smallest thing that we can learn something useful about them from (this might be code, but it might also be wireframes, screenshots, a pitch, a talk), test it, measure the results of our tests, learn from them, adapt our idea and iterate again.

And at the heart of this cycle are value hypotheses: testable guesses about the problems that we think we’re trying to solve (“our mailing lists are too general”), and the solutions that we think could solve them (“more people will vote for us if we target our advertisements to them”). We make each guess, often framed as a “null hypothesis” (a statement that what we’re seeing in our results is probably due to random chance rather than the effect that we were hoping to see), then try to prove or disprove it.

There’s a lot of design thinking behind hypothesis generation, and there’s a whole different post to write on how hypotheses breed smaller hypotheses and form hierarchies and structure, but the point here is that a hypothesis is an expression of a belief, and that belief and its management is at the core of Lean.

Lean value trees link beliefs together

Mock-up Lean Value Tree for Bannon’s brain

A lean value tree (LVT) links an organisation’s purpose to its beliefs, metrics (the ways it measures itself), hypotheses and experiments. The layers in the tree build on each other, and are:

  • The organisation’s purpose (aka mission): who is it, and what its vision is for itself. This is a stable belief, owned by the organisation’s executive.
  • Goals that support the purpose, framed as desired, stable and measurable outcomes.
  • Strategic bets on those goals: different ways that we could satisfy a goal, with metrics associated with them. Stable in the medium term, owned below executive level.
  • Promises of value: value-driven initiatives against those bets. Stable in the medium-term, owned by the product team.
  • Hypotheses: measurable, testable guesses that support or refute the promises of value. Experiments on these are very short term (often quick and dirty) ways to learn about the problem space and potential solutions, and are owned by the development team.

Beliefs (hypotheses) are built into the tree, but belief is also built into how we manage the tree. One layer is called “strategic bets” because organisations rarely have the resources (teams, time, money) to do everything on their LVTs, and need to prioritise where they put those resources, by allocating them to the more ‘important’ things on the tree, where “important” is belief-based: a combination of beliefs in how big the market connected to a bet is, and how much value (financial or otherwise) is in that market.

HDD card (from Barry O’Reilly post on HDD)

Hypothesis driven development is an extension of the arc from test driven development to behavior driven development: its purpose is to learn, and to experiment quickly with ideas. Before a team tests a HDD hypothesis, it fills out a card (like the one above) describing the work done, the changes that we expect from that work, and a success condition (a “signal”) that the team believes will happen if the experiment succeeds. Writing the success condition (e.g. “1% increase in donations”) before testing is important because it a) forces the team to concentrate on what they would accept as an outcome, and b) stops them fitting the test to the results they obtained (which could perhaps be called “optimism driven development”).

LVTs are useful models for talking not only about what we want within our own organisations, but also for testing our assumptions and beliefs about the goals and actions of other organisations, including organisations competing with us in the same markets.

We’re really optimising on other peoples’ beliefs

Lean practitioners talk a lot about customer value, and about including users in its feedback loops (either directly, or by tracking the changes in user behavior after changing the system). This optimizes systems not on an organisation’s beliefs, but on its beliefs about other peoples’ beliefs, filtered through those other peoples’ behavior. This is why things like good survey design and execution are difficult, with many types of observer effect (e.g. people doing and saying what they think you want to hear, responding differently to different ways of asking etc) that need to be allowed for.

Image: http://www.rosebt.com/blog/descriptive-diagnostic-predictive-prescriptive-analytics

But this isn’t just about understanding customer beliefs; it’s also about using that knowledge to predict and adjust customer behavior. Data scientists have a diagram for that, and talk about their work as a continuum from traditional statistics summarising data about events that have already happened (descriptive and diagnostic analytics), to predicting what might happen and how we could influence that (predictive and prescriptive analytics). But there is another box at the top of this descriptive-diagnostic-predictive-prescriptive diagram, describing a feedback loop where we learn and adapt our environment given that learning. This box is where the belief hackers, the roboticists and the lean enterprise people live.

Mixing human and computational belief

[cross-post from Medium]

This is part 1 of a talk I gave recently on hacking belief systems using old AI techniques.

I have a thing about belief systems. Not religious belief, but what it means to believe something, when accuracy does and doesn’t matter, and why “strongly held belief” is a better concept to aim at than “true”. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while, and I believe (!) it’s a conversation we need to have both as technologists who base many of our work decisions on beliefs, and often work on a belief-based system (the internet), and in the current climate of “fake news”, uncertainty and deliberate disinformation.

I care about belief because I care a lot about autonomy: the ways that humans and machines can work together, sharing control, responsibility and as teams, and we don’t talk enough yet about the human-machine sharing of belief systems and cultures that go with that. I also work in two professions that are fundamentally based on belief: data science, and lean/agile system development, and care about two topics that badly need a better theory of belief: that deep learning systems are doubling-down on human inequality and bias, and that America’s collective belief systems are currently being ‘hacked’. If that isn’t enough, there’s also a smaller interest, that Aspergers and neurotypical people hold the world in their minds differently, and whether that could be useful.

There are many definitions of belief, and many interpretations of those definitions. For this talk, I looked primarily at three old definitions: doxa, faith-based division of ‘facts’ into ‘true’ or ‘false’ (doxa is the root word of ‘orthodoxy’); pistis, which is more nuanced, and allows for evidence and different degrees of confidence (pistis is the root word of epistemology), and normative belief: what you think other people expect you to believe. Each of these exist in both humans and systems, and each can be manipulated (albeit often in different ways).

You don’t escape the machine

Robot image from clipart library http://clipart-library.com/clipart/pT7rMdb8c.htm

We need to find a way to frame human and machine belief in the same way, so we can talk about their joint effects and manipulations, and how to apply theories about one to the other. We can frame our discussion of human beliefs in the same way that we talk about robots; humans as self-contained units that rely entirely on their sensors (things that gather information about the world, e.g. eyes) and effectors (things that can change the state of the world, e.g. hands), and build belief-based models of their world based on those interactions.

There are many other philosophies about what it means to be human, but the one I’m holding here is that we don’t escape the machine: we will probably never totally know our objective truths, we’re probably not in the matrix, but we humans are all systems whose beliefs in the world are completely shaped by our physical senses, and those senses are imperfect. We’ll rarely have complete information either (e.g. there are always outside influences that we can’t see), so what we really have are very strong to much weaker beliefs.

There are some beliefs that we accept as truths (e.g. I have a bruise on my leg because I walked into a table today), but mostly we’re basing what we believe on a combination of evidence and personal viewpoint, e.g. “it’s not okay to let people die because they don’t have healthcare”, where that personal viewpoint is formed from earlier evidence and learning.

First technique: uncertain reasoning

So now we have humans and bots framed the same way, let’s look at some of the older ‘bot reasoning systems that might help. First up are belief networks (also known as Bayesian networks, probabilistic networks etc).

Image: wikipedia article on belief networks

Let’s look at the structure of these networks first. This is the classic tiniest network: a way of talking about the interactions between wet grass, rainfall and a sprinkler system (which may or may not be on). The arrows (and not every probabilistic network had arrows) show causality: if it rains, the grass gets wet; if the sprinkler is on, the grass gets wet, if it rains, the sprinkler is less likely to be on. And with this tiny network, we can start to talk about interactions between beliefs that don’t just follow the arrows, e.g. if the grass is wet, why?

This is how we used to do things before the explosion of data that came with the Internet, and everyone and everything generating data across it. Artificial Intelligence was about reasoning systems, where we tried to replicate either experts (e.g. “expert systems”) or the beliefs than an average rational person would hold (e.g. “normative belief”). Without enough data to throw at a deep learning system and allow the system to work out connections, we focussed on building those connections ourselves. And frankly, most expert systems were pretty dumb (“if x then y” repeated, usually with a growing morass of edge cases); the interesting work happened where people were thinking about how to handle uncertainty in machine reasoning.

Image: wikipedia article on belief networks

Here’s that network again, but in its full form, with the interactions between nodes. Each of those links applies Bayes’ theory to describe how our belief in the state of the thing at the end of a set of links, e.g. wet grass, depends on the states of the things at the starts of the links, e.g. sprinkler and rain (aside: I first learnt about this network on the week that I also learnt that running across an American lawn at 7am in summertime could get you soaked). These things chain together, so for instance if I have a weather forecast, I can give a belief about the (future) grass being wet via my belief in (future) rain.

Back in the day there were many uncertain reasoning techniques that we could slot into networks like this: Bayesian probability theory, multi-state logics (e.g. (true, false, unknown) as three possible values for a ‘fact’), modal logics (reasoning about ‘necessary’ and ‘possible’), interval probabilities, fuzzy logic, possibility theory, interval probabilities, but eventually Bayesian probability theory became dominant in the way we thought about probability (and as far as I know, is the only uncertainty theory taught on most data science courses beyond classical frequentist probability). These techniques have influenced other potentially useful tools like structured analytics, and it might be useful to reexamine some of them later.

Meanwhile, even a small network like this raises lots of questions: what about other reasons for wet grass, what if we’re wrong, what if it’s a really important decision (like surgery) etc etc etc. There are framings for these questions too (the frame problem, risk-averse reasoning etc), that could be useful for one of my starting problems: deep learning systems doubling-down on human inequality and bias.

Learning = forming beliefs

Images: two recent headlines about systems that may/do have human bias built into them.

We’ve talked a bit about human belief, and about machine representations of uncertainty and belief. The next part of the human-bot connection is to explore how computers have beliefs too, how we’re not thinking about those belief sets in the same way that we think about human beliefs, and about how we really should start to do that.

We train our algorithms like we train our children: in most machine learning, we give them examples of right and wrong; in some machine learning, we correct them when their conclusions aren’t sound. Except we don’t do all the things that we do with children when we train a machine: with children, we install culture, correct ‘errors’ and deviations from that, and parents from the pistis traditions do many other things to help children question their environment and conclusions.

And this lack of the other things is starting to show, and really starting to matter, whether it be researchers touting their great classification scores without wondering if there’s a racial bias in sentencing in China, chatbots mirroring our worst online selves, or race bias being built into government systems that make decisions about people’s lives from education to health to prison sentences all over the USA. We’re starting to talk about the problems here, but we also need to talk about the roots and mitigations of those problems, and some of those might come from asking what the algorithmic equivalent of a good childhood learning is. I don’t have a good answer for that yet, but gut feel is that autonomy theory could be part of that response.

Beliefs can be shared

Image: clipart library http://clipart-library.com/clipart/pT7rMdb8c.htm

In machine learning we’re often talking about a single set of beliefs from a single viewpoint as a good representation of the world. When we look at humans, we talk a lot more about other peoples’ beliefs, and the interactions between their belief systems and viewpoints.

When we talk about belief sharing, we’re talking about communication: the ways in which we pass or share beliefs. And communication is totally and routinely hackable, either in-message through the messages used, messages adapted, subtexts created, or by adapting communications channels and using old-school network effects like simple and complex contagion.

As technologists, we spend a lot of our time talking about other people’s beliefs. But we also need to talk about what it means to understand what someone else’s beliefs are. When we talk about other people’s beliefs, we’re really talking about our beliefs about their beliefs which may be offered through a communication channel (e.g. surveys) which is subject to their beliefs about our beliefs and how we’re likely to react to them. This is important, complicated, and something that I had many fascinating meetings about when I worked on intelligence analysis… which also has a set of techniques that could help.

PACT image from book Human Factors in Simulation and Training https://books.google.com/books?id=cgT56UW6aPUC

Humans and machines can share beliefs too. There’s a whole field of study and practice (autonomy theory) on how machines (originally UAVs) and humans share control, authority, viewpoint and communication. PACT is one of the early models — a relative youngster at about 15–20 years old; with the rise of things like self-driving cars, new models mirroring this work are appearing, but although there are discussions about sensing and action, there hasn’t been much yet on shared belief and culture.

Yes, culture, because when you mix humans and bots in UAV teams, the same cultural issues that happen when you mix, say, Italian and American pilots in a team, start to happen between the bots and the humans: the bots’ social rules differ, their responses differ and building shared mental models can become strained. When we look at the internet as a mixed human-machine belief system, this earlier work might become important.

Beliefs can be hacked

Text from an article about Cambridge Analytica’s work on Trump’s election campaign. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/feb/26/robert-mercer-breitbart-war-on-media-steve-bannon-donald-trump-nigel-farage

You can hack computer beliefs; you can also hack human beliefs. Here’s a quote from a recent article about Trump’s election campaign. This looks suspiciously like a computer virus infecting and being carried by humans in their belief systems, with network contagion and adaptation (spreading and learning). We have a crossover with the bots too, with sensors (Facebook likes) and effectors (adverts): this takes the work beyond the simple network effects of memes and phemes (memes carrying false information).

Cambridge Analytica’s system was large but apparently relatively simple, from the outside looking like an adapted marketing system; mixing that with belief and autonomy theories could produce something much more effective, albeit very ethically dubious.

Image: wikipedia page on the Muller-Lyer illusion

Even when you know better, it’s hard to manage the biases created by someone hacking your belief system. This is a classic optical illusion (Muller-Lyer); I know that the horizontal lines are the same length, I’ve even measured them, but even knowing that, it’s still hard to get my brain to believe it.

Optical illusions are a fun brain hack, and one that we can literally see, but there are subtle and non-visual brain hacks that are harder to detect and counter. We’ll look at some of those later, but one insidious one is the use of association and memory traces: for example, if I borrow your car, tell you as a joke that I’ve crashed it, and immediately tell you it’s a joke, the way that your brain holds new information (by first importing it as true and then denying it — see Daniel Gilbert’s work for more on this) means that you not only keep a little trace of me having crashed your car in your memory, you also keep associated traces of me being an unsafe driver and are less likely to lend me your car again. This is a) why I don’t make jokes like that, and b) the point of pretty much any piece of advertising content ever (“you’re so beautiful if you have this…”).

The Internet is made of belief

websearch result for “fake news”

The internet is made of many things: pages and and comment boxes and ports and protocols and tubes (for a given value of ‘tubes’). But it’s also made of belief: it’s a virtual space that’s only tangentially anchored in reality, and to navigate that virtual space, we all build mental models of who is out there, where they’re coming from, who or what to trust, and how to verify that they are who they say they are, and what they’re saying is true (or untrue but entertaining, or fantasy, or… you get the picture).

Location independence makes verification hard. The internet is (mostly) location-independent. That affects perception: if I say my favorite color is green, then the option to physically follow me and view the colours I like is only available to a few people; others must either follow my digital traces and my friends’ traces (which can be faked), believe me or decide to hold an open mind until more evidence appears.

When the carrier that we now use for many of our interactions with the world is so easily hacked (for both human and computer beliefs), we need to start thinking of counters to those hacks. These notes are a start at trying to think about what those counters might sensibly be.

Hacking elections with data

[cross-post from Medium]

Cambridge Analytica basically used customer segmentation and targeting: standard advertising stuff (and some cynicism about that: iirc one of the other campaigns ditched them) that will probably become standard for campaigns if it hasn’t already (full disclosure: am helping out on a campaign). Cool (if unethical) use of surveys as probes though. Get the feeling they didn’t do as much as they could have done, but that was enough. Not sure how I feel about gaming elections right now: part of me says bad, another part that it’s politics as normal, just scaled and personalised.

Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, big data seems to be a problem. We need to fix this. So repeat after me “big data is not data science”. Get the data, study the data, but understand that exploring data is just part of the arc between questions and storytelling, that humans are complex and working with them is about both listening and persuading.

Let’s try data-supported hearts-and-minds.

Bursting the right bubbles

[cross-post from Medium]

First, understand the bubble

It’s hard to argue with people if you don’t know where they’re coming from. One way is to ask: engage with people who are vehemently disagreeing with you, find out more about them as people, about their environments and motives. Which definitely should be done, but it also helps to do some background reading…

The Guardian’s started in on this: a round-up of 5 non-liberal articles every week, complete with backgrounder on each author and why the article is important. It doesn’t hurt that some of these authors are friends of friends and therefore maybe approachable with some questions. It’s also worth checking out things like BlueFeed RedFeed.

I’ve taken some flack lately for trying to understand Trump supporters. I’m slowly coming round to amending that to trying to understand Trump voters — especially the ones who voted with their noses held.

Us vs Them

I still can’t be pulled into “them vs us”. God it would be easier sometimes to build barricades and see ‘them’ as evil people supporting an evil leader, but truth is we’re all human, and unless we get out of this together, it’s going to be way beyond hard to get out at all.

I spent the lead-up to the election in a house in Trump country (neighbours with guns and banners about them having guns and I don’t mean in a jolly countryside lets bag some pheasants kinda way; Trump signs and flags everywhere including my local pub; that damned hat on people I’d spend time at the bar with) and whilst I wouldn’t necessarily ask for empathy (those flags were on some damn nice houses), I would ask for understanding the narratives and doing some deep soul-searching to see if any of them might be true, because that’s where we start the honest conversations about where we are today.

And yes, I’m going to fight by every nonviolent means possible too — I have much less to lose than others around me (older, no children, nobody who depends on me); I’m hoping that if enough of us fight that way, we’ll never have to fight in the alternative.

Could Ring Theory help?

I’ve been thinking a lot today about people, their interactions, margins, fairness and how to be a better ally, friend and compatriot (thank you Barnaby for making me think hard about this). We humans are complex beasts: en masse it’s hard to apply things like Ring Theory (the “comfort in, dump out” theory for comforting individuals and the layers of people around them that we often talked about in the Crisismappers’ Cancer Survival Chat — yes, there was such a thing, yes there were many people you wouldn’t expect in it, no I didn’t — I was there as an admin/ friend…) because everyone has different pain from different things, especially when that pain is being deliberately seeded in many areas at once. I’m not sure what the answer is, but mutual compassion, respect and walking in the other guys’ shoes have definitely got to be in there somewhere.

Bottom line: understand where other people are coming from. See if you can get them to understand where you are coming from too. Am not talking about the trolls (ignore them), but the people who are genuinely trying to argue with you…

Fake News Isn’t About Truth, It’s About Gaming Belief Systems

[cross-post from Medium]

Thinking about #fakenews. Starting with “what is it”.

* We’re not dealing with truth here: we’re dealing with gaming belief systems. That’s what fake news does (well, one of the things; another thing it does is make money from people reading it), and just correcting fake news is aiming at the wrong thing. Because…
* Information leaves traces in our heads, even when we know what’s going on. If I jokingly tell you that I’ve crashed your car, then go ‘ha ha’, you know that I didn’t crash your car, but I’ve left a trace in your head that I’m an unsafe driver. The bigger the surprise of the thing you initially believe, the bigger the trace it leaves (this is why I never make jokes like that).
* That’s important because #fakenews isn’t about the thing that’s being said. It’s about the things that are being implied. Always look for the thing being implied. That’s what you have to counter.
* Some of those things are, e.g. “Liberals are unpatriotic”. “Terrorists are a real and present threat *to you*”. Work out counters for these, and mechanisms for those counters. F’example: wearing US flags at protests and being loudly patriotic whilst standing up for basic rights is a good idea.
* Yes, straighten the record, but you’re not aiming at the person (or site) spouting fake news. What you *are* trying to change is their readers’ belief in whether something is true.
* America is a big country. Not everyone can go and see what’s true or not. Which means they have to trust someone else to go look for them. The Internet is even bigger. Some of the things on it (e.g. beliefs about other people’s beliefs) don’t have physical touchpoints and are impossible to confirm or deny as ‘truth’.
* Which means you’re trying to change the beliefs of large groups of people, who have a whole bunch of trust issues (both overtrust for in-group, and serious distrust of out-group people) and no direct proof.
* You know who else hacks trust and beliefs in large groups? Salesmen and advertisers. Learn from them (oh, and propagandists, but you might want to be careful what you learn there).
* People often hold conflicting beliefs in their heads (unless they’re Aspie: Aspies have a hard time doing this). Niggling doubts are levers, even when people are still being defensive and doubling-down on their stated beliefs. Look for the traces of these.
* But go gentle. Create too much cognitive dissonance, and people will shut down. Learn from the salesmen on this.
* People are more likely to trust people they know. Get to know the people whose beliefs you want to change (even if it means hanging out in conservative chat channels). Also know that your attention is a resource: learn to distinguish between people who are engaged and might listen (hint: they’re often the ones shouting at you), people who won’t, and sock puppets.
* More advertising tricks: look for influencers (not just on Twitter ‘cos it’s easy goddammit; check in the real world too). There’s only one you: use that you wisely.

Some reading:
* A field guide to earthlings (the Aspie reference)
* Social psychology: a very short introduction

How to culture jam a populist

The Internet is made of beliefs

[cross-post from Medium]

“Most people don’t have the time or headspace to handle IW: we’re going to need to tool up. Is not much, but I’m talking next month on belief, and how some of the pre-big-data AI tools and verification methods we used in mapping could be useful in this new (for many) IW world… am hoping it sparks a few people to build stuff.” — me, whilst thoroughly lost somewhere in Harlem.

Dammit. I’ve started talking about belief and information warfare, and my thoughts looked half-baked and now I’m going to have to follow through. I said we’d need to tool up to deal with the non-truths being presented, but that’s only a small part of the thought. So here are some other thoughts.

1) The internet is also made of beliefs. The internet is made of many things: pages and and comment boxes and ports and protocols and tubes (for a given value of ‘tubes’). But it’s also made of belief: it’s a virtual space that’s only tangentially anchored in reality, and to navigate that virtual space, we all build mental models of who is out there, where they’re coming from, who or what to trust, and how to verify that they are who they say they are, and what they’re saying is true (or untrue but entertaining, or fantasy, or… you get the picture).

2) This isn’t new, but it is bigger and faster. The US is a big country; news here has always been either hyperlocal or spread through travelers and media (newspapers, radio, telegrams, messages on ponies). These were made of belief too. Lying isn’t new; double-talk isn’t new; what’s new here is the scale, speed and number of people that it can reach.

3) Don’t let the other guys frame your reality. We’re entering a time where misinformation and double-talk are likely to dominate our feeds, and even people we trust are panic-sharing false information. It’s not enough to pick a media outlet or news site or friend to trust, because they’ve been fooled recently too; we’re going to have to work out together how best to keep a handle on the truth. As a first step, we should separate out our belief in a source from our belief in a piece of information from them, and factor in our knowledge about their potential motivations in that.

4) Verification means going there. For most of us, verification is something we might do up front, but rarely do as a continuing practice. Which, apart from making people easy to phish, also makes us vulnerable to deliberate misinformation. We want to believe stuff? We need to do the leg-work of cross-checking that the source is real (crisismappers had a bunch of techniques for this, including checking how someone’s social media profile had grown, looking at activity patterns), finding alternate sources, getting someone to physically go look at something and send photos (groups like findyr still do this). We want to do this without so much work every time? We need to share that load; help each other out with #icheckedthis tags, pause and think before we hit the “share” button.

5) Actions really do speak louder than words. There will most likely be a blizzard of information heading our way; we will need to learn how to find the things that are important in it. One of the best pieces of information I’ve ever received (originally, it was about men) applies here: “ignore everything they say, and watch everything they do”. Be aware of what people are saying, but also watch their actions. Follow the money, and follow the data; everything leaves a trace somewhere if you know how to look for it (again, something that perhaps is best done as a group).

6) Truth is a fragile concept; aim for strong, well-grounded beliefs instead. Philosophy warning: we will probably never totally know our objective truths. We’re probably not in the matrix, but we humans are all systems whose beliefs in the world are completely shaped by our physical senses, and those senses are imperfect. We’ll rarely have complete information either (e.g. there are always outside influences that we can’t see), so what we really have are very strong to much weaker beliefs. There are some beliefs that we accept as truths (e.g. I have a bruise on my leg because I walked into a table today), but mostly we’re basing what we believe on a combination of evidence and personal viewpoint (e.g. “it’s not okay to let people die because they don’t have healthcare”). Try to make both of those as strong as you can.

I haven’t talked at all about tools yet. That’s for another day. One of the things I’ve been building into my data science practice is the idea of thinking through problems as a human first, before automating them, so perhaps I’ll roll these thoughts around a bit first. I’ve been thinking about things like perception, e.g. a camera’s perception of a car color changes when it moves from daylight to sodium lights, and adaptation (e.g. using other knowledge like position, shape and plates) and actions (clicking the key) and when beliefs do and don’t matter (e.g. they’re usually part of an action cycle, but some action cycles are continuous and adaptive, not one-shot things), how much of data work is based on chasing beliefs and what we can learn from people with different ways of processing information (hello, Aspies!), but human first here.

The Ethics of Algorithms

I opened a discussion on the ethics of algorithms recently, with a small thing about what algorithms are, what can be unethical about them and how we might start mitigating that. I kinda sorta promised a blogpost off that, so here it is.

Algorithm? Wassat?


Al-Khwarizmi (wikipedia image)

Let’s start by demystifying this ‘algorithm’ thing. An algorithm (from Al-Khwārizmī, a 9th-century Persian mathematician, above) is a sequence of steps to solve a problem. Like the algorithm to drink coffee is to get a mug, add coffee to the mug, put the mug to your mouth, and repeat. An algorithm doesn’t have to be run a computer: it might be the processes that you use to run a business, or the set of steps used to catch a train.

But the algorithms that the discussion organizers were concerned about aren’t the ones used to not spill coffee all over my face. They were worried about the algorithms used in computer-assisted decision making in things like criminal sentencing, humanitarian aid, search results (e.g. which information is shown to which people) and the decisions made by autonomous vehicles; the algorithms used by or instead of human decision-makers to affect the lives of other human beings. And many of these algorithms get grouped into the bucket labelled “machine learning”. There are many variants of machine learning algorithm, but generally what they do is find and generalize patterns in data: either in a supervised way (“if you see these inputs, expect these outputs; now tell me what you expect for an input you’ve never seen before, but is similar to something you have”), reinforcement-learning way (“for these inputs, your response is/isn’t good) or unsupervised way (“here’s some data; tell me about the structures you see in it”). Which is great if you’re classifying cats vs dogs or flower types from petal and leaf measurements, but potentially disastrous if you’re deciding who to sentence and for how long.

 neuralnetwork architecture (wikipedia)

Simple neural network (wikipedia image)

Let’s anthropomorphise that. A child absorbs what’s around them: algorithms do the same. One use is to train the child/machines to reason or react, by connecting what they see in the world (inputs) with what they believe the state of the world to be (outputs) and the actions they take using those beliefs. And just like children, the types of input/output pairs (or reinforcements) we feed to a machine-learning based system affects the connections and decisions that it makes. Also like children, different algorithms have different abilities to explain why they made specific connections or responded in specific ways, ranging from clear explanations of reasoning (e.g. decision trees, which make a set of decisions based on each input) to something that can be mathematically but not cogently expressed (e.g. neural networks and other ‘deep’ learning algorithms, which adjust ‘weights’ between inputs, outputs and ‘hidden’ representations, mimicking the ways that neurons connect to each other in human brains).

Algorithms can be Assholes

Algorithms are behind a lot of our world now. e.g. Google (which results should you be shown), Facebook (which feeds you should see), medical systems detecting if you might have cancer or not. And sometimes those algorithms can be assholes.


Headlines (screenshots)

Here are two examples: a Chinese program that takes facial images of ‘criminals’ and maps those images to a set of ‘criminal’ facial features that the designers claim have nearly 90% accuracy in determining if someone is criminal, from just their photo. Their discussion of “the normality of faces of non-criminals” aside, this has echoes of phrenology, and should raise all sorts of alarms about imitating human bias. The second example is a chatbot that was trained on Twitter data; the headline here should not be too surprising to anyone who’s recently read any unfiltered social media.

We make lots of design decisions when we create an algorithm. One decision is which dataset to use. We train algorithms on data. That data is often generated by humans, and by human decisions (e.g. “do we jail this person”), many of which are imperfect and biased (e.g. thinking that people whose eyes are close together are untrustworthy). This can be a problem if we use those results blindly, and we should always be asking about the biases that we might consciously or unconsciously be including in our data. But that’s not the only thing we can do: instead of just dismissing algorithm results as biased, we can also use them constructively, to hold a mirror up to ourselves and our societies, to show us things that we otherwise conveniently ignore, and perhaps should be thinking about addressing in ourselves.

In short, it’s easy to build biased algorithms with biased data, so we should strive to teach algorithms using ‘fair’ data, but when we can’t, we need to use other strategies for our models of the world, and can either talk about the terror of biased algorithms being used to judge us, or we can think about what they’re showing us about ourselves and our society’s decision-making, and where we might improve both.

What goes wrong?

If we want to fix our ‘asshole’ algorithms and algorithm-generated models, we need to think about the things that go wrong.  There are many of these:

  • On the input side, we have things like biased inputs or biased connections between cause and effect creating biased classifications (see the note on input data bias above), bad design decisions about unclean data (e.g. keeping in those 200-year-old people), and missing whole demographics because we didn’t think hard about who the input data covered (e.g. women are often missing in developing world datasets, mobile phone totals are often interpreted as 1 phone per person etc).
  • On the algorithm design side, we can have bad models: lazy assumptions about what input variables actually mean (just think for a moment of the last survey you filled out, the interpretations you made of the questions, and how as a researcher you might think differently about those values), lazy interpretations of connections between variables and proxies (e.g. clicks == interest), algorithms that don’t explain or model the data they’re given well, algorithms fed junk inputs (there’s always junk in data), and models that are trained once on one dataset but used in an ever-changing world.
  • On the output side, there’s also overtrust and overinterpretation of outputs. And overlaid on that are the willful abuses, like gaming an algorithm with ‘wrong’ or biased data (e.g. propaganda, but also why I always use “shark” as my first search of the day), and inappropriate reuse of data without the ethics, caveats and metadata that came with the original (e.g. using school registration data to target ‘foreigners’).

But that’s not quite all. As with the outputs of humans, the outputs of algorithms can be very context-dependent, and we often make different design choices, depending on that context, for instance last week, when I found myself dealing with a spammer trying to use our site at the same time as helping our business team stop their emails going into customers’ spam filters.  The same algorithms, different viewpoints, different needs, different experiences: algorithm designers have a lot to weigh up every time.

Things to fight

Accidentally creating a deviant algorithm is one thing; deliberately using algorithms (including well-meant algorithms) for harm is another, and of interest in the current US context.  There are good detailed texts about this, including Cathy O’Neill’s work, and Latzer, who categorised abuses as:

  • Manipulation
  • Bias
  • Censorship
  • Privacy violations
  • Social discrimination
  • Property right violations
  • Market power abuses
  • Cognitive effects (e.g. loss of human skills)
  • Heteronomy (individuals no longer have agency over the algorithms influencing them)

I’ll just note that these things need to be resisted, especially by those of us in a position to influence their propagation and use.

How did we get here?

Part of the issue above is in how we humans interface with and trust algorithm results (and there are many of these, e.g. search, news feed generators, recommendations, recidivism predictions etc), so let’s step back and look at how we got to this point.

And we’ve got here over a very long time: at least a century or two, to back when humans started using machines that they couldn’t easily explain because they could do tasks that had become too big for the humans.   We automate because humans can’t handle the data loads coming in (e.g. in legal discovery, where a team often has a few days to sift through millions of emails and other organizational data); we also automate because we hope that machines will be smarter than us at spotting subtle patterns. We can’t not automate discovery, but we also have to be aware of the ethical risks in doing it.  But humans working with algorithms (or any other automation) tend to go through cycles: we’re cynical and undertrust a system tip it’s “proved”, then tend to overtrust its results (these are both part of automation trust). In human terms, we’re balancing these things:

More human:

  • Overload
  • Incomplete coverage
  • Missed patterns and overlooked details
  • Stress
More automation:

  • Overtrust
  • Situation awareness loss (losing awareness because algorithms are doing processing for us, creating e.g. echo chambers)
  • Passive decision making
  • Discrimination, power dynamics etc

And there’s an easy reframing here: instead of replacing human decisions with automated ones, let’s concentrate more on sharing, and frame this as humans plus algorithms (not humans or algorithms), sharing responsibility, control and communication, between the extremes of under- and over-trust (NB that’s not a new idea: it’s a common one in robotics).

Things I try to do

Having talked about what algorithms are, what we do as algorithm designers, and the things that can and do go wrong with that, I’ll end with some of the things I try to do myself.  Which basically comes down to consider ecosystems, and measure properly.

Considering ecosystems means looking beyond the data, and at the human and technical context an algorithm is being designed in.  It’s making sure we verify sources, challenge both the datasets we obtain and the algorithm designers we work with, and have a healthy sense of potential risks and their management (e.g. practice both data and algorithm governance), and reduce bias risk by having as diverse (in thought and experience) a design team as we can, and access to people who know the domain we’re working in.

Measuring properly means using metrics that aren’t just about how accurately the models we create fit the datasets we have (this is too often the only goal of a novice algorithm designer, expressed as precision = how many of the things you labelled as X are actually X; and recall = how many of the things that are really X did you label as X?), but also metrics like “can we explain this” and “is this fair”.  It’s not easy but the alternative is a long way from pretty.

I once headed an organisation whose only rule was “Don’t be a Jerk”.  We need to think about how to apply “Don’t be a jerk” to algorithms too.

Infosec, meet data science

I know you’ve been friends for a while, but I hear you’re starting to get closer, and maybe there are some things you need to know about each other. And since part of my job is using my data skills to help secure information assets, it’s time that I put some thoughts down on paper… er… pixels.

Infosec and data science have a lot in common: they’re both about really really understanding systems, and they’re both about really understanding people and their behaviors, and acting on that information to protect or exploit those systems.  It’s no secret that military infosec and counterint people have been working with machine learning and other AI algorithms for years (I think I have a couple of old papers on that myself), or that data scientists and engineers are including practical security and risk in their data governance measures, but I’m starting to see more profound crossovers between the two.

Take data risk, for instance. I’ve spent the past few years as part of the conversation on the new risks from both doing data science and its components like data visualization (the responsible data forum is a good place to look for this): that there is risk to everyone involved in the data chain, from subject and collectors through to processors and end-product users, and that what we need to secure goes way beyond atomic information like EINs and SSNs, to the products and actions that could be generated by combining data points.  That in itself is going to make infosec harder: there will be incursions (or, if data’s coming out from outside, excursions), and tracing what was collected, when and why is becoming a lot more subtle.  Data scientists are also good at subtle: some of the Bayes-based pattern-of-life tools and time-series anomaly algorithms are well-bounded things of beauty.  But it’s not all about DS; also in those conversations have been infosec people who understand how to model threats and risks, and help secure those data chains from harm (I think I have some old talks on that too somewhere, from back in my crisismapping days).

There are also differences.  As a data scientist, I often have the luxury of time: I can think about a system, find datasets, make and test hypotheses and consider the veracity and inherent risks in what I’m doing over days, weeks or sometimes months.  As someone responding to incursion attempts (and yes, it’s already happening, it’s always already happening), it’s often in the moment or shortly after, and the days, weeks or months are taken in preparation and precautions.  Data scientists often play 3d postal chess; infosec can be more like Union-rules rugby, including the part where you’re all muddy and not totally sure who’s on your side any more.

Which isn’t to say that data science doesn’t get real-time and reactive: we’re often the first people to spot that something’s wrong in big streaming data, and the pattern skills we have can both search for and trace unusual events, but much of our craft to date has been more one-shot and deliberate (“help us understand and optimise this system”). Sometimes we realize a long time later that we were reactive (like realizing recently that mappers have been tracking and rejecting information injection attempts back to at least 2010 – yay for decent verification processes!). But even in real-time we have strengths: a lot of data engineering is about scaling data science processes in both volume and time, and work on finding patterns and reducing reaction times in areas ranging from legal discovery (large-scale text analysis) to manufacturing and infrastructure (e.g. not-easy-to-predict power flows) can also be applied to security.

Both infosec and data scientists have to think dangerously: what’s wrong with this data, these algorithms, this system (how is it biased, what is it missing, how is it wrong); how do I attack this system, how can I game these people; how do I make this bad thing least-worst given the information and resources I have available, and that can get us both into difficult ethical territory.  A combination of modern data science and infosec skills means I could gather data on and profile all the people I work with, and know things like their patterns of life and potential vulnerabilities to e.g. phishing attempts, but the ethics of that is very murky: there’s a very very fine line between protection and being seriously creepy (yep, another thing I work on sometimes).  Equally, knowing those patterns of life could help a lot in spotting non-normal behaviours on the inside of our systems (because infosec has gone way beyond just securing the boundaries now), and some of our data summary and anonymisation techniques could be helpful here too.  Luckily much of what I deal with is less ethically murky: system and data access logs, with known vulnerabilities, known data and motivations, and I work with a most wonderfully evil and detailed security nerd.  But we still have a lot to learn from each other.  Back in the Cold War days (the original Cold War, not the one that seems to be restarting now), every time we designed a system, we also designed countermeasures to it, often drawing on disciplines far outside the original system’s scope.  That seems to be core to the infosec art, and data science would seem to be one of those disciplines that could help.

Notes from John Sarapata’s talk on online responses to organised adversaries

John Sarapata (@JohnSarapata) = head of engineering at Jigsaw  (= new name for Google Ideas).  Jigsaw = “the group at Google that tries to help users facing organized violence and oppression”.  A common thread in their work is that they’re dealing with the outputs from organized adversaries, e.g. governments, online mobs, extremist groups like ISIS.
One example project is redirectmethod.org, which looks for people who are searching for extremist connections (e.g. ISIS) and shows them content from a different point of view, e.g. a user searching for travel to Aleppo might be shown realistic video of conditions there. [IMHO this is a useful application of social engineering in a clear-cut situation; threats and responses in other situations may be more subtle than this (e.g. what does ‘realistic’ mean in a political context?).]
The Jigsaw team is looking at threats and counters at 3 levels of the tech stack:
  • device/user: activities are consume and create content; threats include attacks by governments, phishing, surveillance, brigading, intimidation
  • wire: activities are find then transfer; threats include DNS hijacking, TOR bridge probes
  • server: activities are hosting; threats include DDOS
[They also appear to be looking at threats and counters on a meta level (e.g. the social hack above).]
Examples of emergent countermeasures outside the team include people bypassing censorship in Turkey by using Google’s public DNS, and people in China after the 2008 Szechwan earthquake posting images of school collapses and investigating links between these (ultimately leading to finding links between collapses, school contractors using substandard concrete and officials being bribed to ignore this) despite government denial of issues.  These are about both reading and generating content, both of which need to be protected.
There are still unsolved problems, for example communications inside a government firewall.  Firewalls (e.g. China’s Great Firewall) generally have slow external pipes with internal alternatives (e.g. Sino Weibo), so people tend to consume information from inside. Communication of external information inside a firewall isn’t solved yet, e.g mesh networks aren’t great; the use of thumb drives to share information in Cuba was one way around this, but there’s still more to do.  [This comment interested me because that’s exactly the situation we’ve been dealing with in crises over the past few years: using sneakernet/ mopeds,  point-to-point, meshes etc., and there may be things to learn in both directions.]
Example Jigsaw projects and apps include:
  • Unfiltered.news, still in beta: creates a knowledge graph when Google scans news stories (this is language independent). One of the cooler uses of this is being able to find things that are reported on in every country except yours (e.g. Russia, China not showing articles on the Panama Papers).
  • Anti-phishing: team used stuff from Google’s security team for this, e.g. using Password Alert (alerts when user e.g. puts their company password into a non-company site) on Google accounts.
  • Government Attack Warning. Google can see attacks on gmail, google drive etc accounts: when a user logs in, Google displays a message to them about a detected attack, including what they could do.
  • Conversation AI. Internet discussions aren’t always civil, e.g. 20-25 governments including China and Russia have troll armies now, amplified by bots (brigading); conversation AI is machine classification/detection of abuse/harassment in text; the Jigsaw team is working on machine learning approaches together with the youtube comment cleanup team.  The team’s considered the tension that exists between free speech and reducing threats: their response is that detection apps must lay out values, and Jigsaw values include that conversation algorithms are community specific, e.g. each community decides its limits on swearing etc.; a good example of this is Riot Games. [This mirrors a lot of the community-specific work by community of community groups like the Community Leadership Forum].  Three examples of communities using Conversation AI: a Youtube feature that flags potential abuse to channel owners (launching Nov 2016). Wikipedia: flagging personal attacks (e.g. you are full of shit) in talk pages (Wikipedia has a problem with falling numbers of editors, partly because of this). New York Times: scaling existing human moderation of website comments (NYT currently turns off comments on 90% of pages because they don’t have enough human moderators). “NYT has lots of data, good results”.  Team got interesting data on how abuse spreads after releasing a photo of women talking to their team about #gamergate, then watching attackers discuss online (4chan etc) who of those women to attack and how, and the subsequent attacks.
  • Firehook: censorship circumvention. Jigsaw has the Uproxy plugin  for peer-to-peer information sharing across censorship boundaries (article), but needs to do more, eg look at the whole ecosystem.  Most people use proxy servers (e.g. VPNs), but a government could disallow VPNs: we need many different proxies and ways to hide them.  Currently using WebRTC for peer to peer proxies (e.g. Germany to Turkey using e.g NAT hole punching), collateral freedom and domain fronting, e.g. GreatFire routing New York Times articles through Amazon and GitHub.  Domain fronting (David Fyfield article) uses the fact that e.g. CloudFlare hosts many sites: the user connects to an allowed host, https encrypts it, then uses the encrypted header to go to a blocked site on the same host.  There are still counters to this; China first switched off GitHub access (then had to restore it), and used the Great Cannon to counter GreatFire, e.g. every 100th load of Baidu Analytics injects malware into external machines and creates a DDOS botnet. NB the firewall here was on path, not in path: a machine off to one side listens for banned words and breaks connections, but Great Cannon is inside the connection; and with current access across the great firewall, people see different pages based on who’s browsing.
  • DDOS: http://www.digitalattackmap.com/ (with Arbor Networks), shows DDOS in real time. Digital attacks are now mirroring physical ones, and during recent attacks, e.g. Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution, Jigsaw protected sites on both sides (using Project Shield, below) because Google thinks some things, like DDOS, are unfair.  Interesting point: trolling as the human equivalent of DDOS [how far can this comparison go in designing potential counters?].
  • Project Shield: reused Google’s PSS (Page Speed Service) to protect news sites, human rights organization etc from DDOS attacks. Sites are on Google cloud: can scale up number of VMs used and nginx allows clever uses with reverse proxies, cookie challenges etc.  Example site: Krebs on Security was being DDOSed (nb a DDOS attack on a site costs about $50 online), moved from host Akamai to Google with Project Shield. Team is tracking Twitter user bragging about this and other attacks (TL;DR: IoT attack, e.g. baby monitors; big botnet, Mirai botnet source code now released, brought down Twitter, Snapchat).  Krebs currently getting about 5 attacks a day, e.g. brute-force, Slowloris, Hulk (bandwidth, syn flood, post flood, cache busting, WordPress pingback etc), and Jigsaw gets the world’s best DDOSers hacking and testing their services.
Audience questions:
  • Qs: protecting democracy in US, e.g. botnets, online harassment etc.? A: don’t serve specific countries but worldwide.
  • Q: google autofill encouraging hatespeech? A: google reflects the world as it is; google search reflects what people do, holds a mirror back up to you. Researching machine learning bias on google suggest results and bias in training data.  Don’t want to censor, but don’t want to propagate bad things.
  • Q: not censor but inform, can you e.g. tell a user “your baby monitor is hacked”? A: privacy issue, eg g connecting kit and emails to ip addresses.
  • Q: people visiting google site to attack… spamming google auto complete, algorithms? A: if google detects people gaming them, will come down hard.
  • Q: standard for “abusive”? how to compare with human?. A: is training data, Wikipedia is saying what’s abusive. Is all people in the end.
  • Q: how deal with e.g. misinformation? A: unsolved problem, politically sensitive, e.g. who gets to decide what’s fake and true? censorship and harassment work will take time.
  • Q: why Twitter not on list of content? A: Twitter might not want this, team is resource constrained, e.g. NYT models are useless on youtube because NYT folks use proper grammar and spelling.
  • Q: how to decide what to intervene in?A:  e.g. Google takes sides against ISIS, who are off the charts on eg genocide.
  • Q: AWS Shield; does Google want to commercialise their stuff? A: no. NB CloudFlare Galileo is also response to google work.
  • Q: biggest emerging tech threat online? Brigading, e.g. groups of people and bots. This breaches physical and online, includes eg physical threats and violence, and is hard to detect and attribute.
Other references:

Why am I writing about belief?

[Cross-post from LinkedIn]

I’ve been meaning to write a set of sessions on computational belief for a while now, based on the work I’ve done over the years on belief, reasoning, artificial intelligence and community beliefs. With all that’s happening in our world now, both online and in the “real world”, I believe that the time has come to do this.

We could start with truth. We often talk about ‘true’ and ‘false’ as though they’re immovable things: that every statement should be able to be assigned one of these values. But it’s a little more complicated than that. What we see as ‘true’ is often the result of a judgement we made, given our perception and experience of the world, that a belief is close enough to certain to be ‘true’.

But what is there are no objective truths? In robotics, we talk about “ground truth” and the “god’s eye view” of the world: the knowledge of the world that our robots (or computer vision or reasoning systems) would have if they had perfect information about the world. We talk about things like the “frame problem”, where a system’s ability to reason and act is limited by the “frame” that it has around the world, and the “naughty baby problem” of outside influences that it has no awareness of and cannot plan for. We accept that a robot’s version of “truth” is limited to what it can perceive. But humans being are also limited by their perceptions of the world, by the amount of information available to them. Without going all “Matrix” on you, is it possible that we too are wrong about our “truths”, and we’re not truly objective in reasoning about them because there is no “God’s Eye View” that we can access?

For now, let’s put aside Godel’s theorem and the ‘undecidable’ sentences like “this sentence is false” that can’t be assigned a true or false value, and think about what happens in a world where we all have only perception and consensus agreements on ‘reality’, and nobody has perfect information. One of the things that happens is that we stop talking about “true” and “false”, and start talking about perception: what we can reasonably believe to be true or false (or undecidable), the uncertainty we have about those beliefs, influence and what it might take in terms of evidence or new information to change them. In psychology, that gets us into the theories of mind and reasoning like cognitive psychology and studies of people like Aspergers individuals who process ‘facts’ differently; in design, into things like social engineering and the theory of change. In maths and AI, that gets us into territories like multi-state logics (which beliefs are possible, necessary etc) and both frequentist (‘what happened”) and Bayesian (“what if”) statistics. We might also shift our focus, and talk not of beliefs, but of what we are trying to achieve with them, getting us into theories of actions, influence and decisions (hello, robotics and operational research). There are many theories of uncertainty, but for now probability theory is dominant, so its good to spend time with and understand how that works under the hood.

Although this may all seem abstract hand-wavey, late-night-discussiony “are we living in the Matrix already”, theories of belief have many practical applications. They’re used heavily in data science, and underpin decisions on things like technology designs (via e.g. AB testing), political information release and propaganda (which are usually not the same thing). We need to talk about that too, because the tools and the terrain available (e.g. the internet) are already more powerful than their current uses. One thing we’re becoming painfully aware of now is how belief functions in groups; the use of influence, multiple separate sources of information and repetition to spread beliefs that compete with each other, and the role of things like desire in those beliefs. We’re also learning that systems we build based on human outputs (e.g. Internet-based AI) have the same biases in belief as the humans; an obvious-but-not-obvious thing that we need to recognise and handle. There are useful theories for this too, ranging from the maths of multiple viewpoints to techniques used to both create and make sense of competing views (ACH, information incest detection, phemes). There are also theories of how humans think in groups, and how they can be persuaded to or do change their minds, both rapidly and slowly over time (e.g. game theory, creativity theory and the study of both human and scientific revolutions).

I’ve spent a lot of my life thinking about and applying the theories above, but I’ve never really got round (apart from the odd note on intelligence, data science or the risks inherent in processing data about people) to writing it all down. The session notes are, I hope, a start on this, and even if nobody else reads them, it’ll be fun to do some targeted thinking around them.