What Slate Readers Think About the Legacy of Frankenstein
Throughout January, Futurography focused on the legacy of Frankenstein, tracing the scientific and cultural reverberations of that 199-year-old novel. We looked at its relationship to the anti-vaxxer movement, how it can help A.I. researchers, and even why our modern monsters are so much sexier. But we’re also interested in what you have to say, so we’ve written up the results of our survey on the topic. Meanwhile, Futurography continues this month with our course on the essentials of cybersecurity self-defense.
By and large, those who wrote in agreed that Frankenstein still has lessons to teach us, though they had a range of thoughts about how it might do so. Some held that the novel offers a warning against the unintended consequences of our actions, while others took it as a story of hubris. “Just because you can create life, doesn’t mean you can, or should try to, control it,” one wrote, even as another took the opposite approach, proposing that it’s imperative to “[c]ontrol the monsters that you build.”
Some embraced more philosophical approaches, as did one who wrote, “A ‘monster’ is an assigned concept that becomes self-fulfilling.” And yet another described the book as “a profound essay on … the male inability to escape the trap of masculine thinking,” arguing, “Given the opportunity to create a new being, instead of nobility and kindness, they enshrine strength and violence.”
A similarly contemplative attitude manifested in many readers’ response to the question of whether we should worry about scientists “playing god.” As one put it, “We all play God. We think we know best and continually lament that other people aren’t more like us.” Meanwhile, another observed, “If by ‘playing God’ you mean blithely creating things without looking to the consequences and impacts they may have in the real world, yes, this is a concern,” before adding, “good old-fashioned omnipotent hubris” was less worrisome, even if it was still a concern. And at least one thought the framing of the question was wrong, telling us, “There is no god. Stop using the false concept and perpetuating it.”
Whatever their stances on the question of divine overreach, readers pointed to a variety of possible Frankentechnologies. Cloning seems troubling, wrote one, explaining, “Already had that as I am a twin.” Several others echoed this concern in one way or another, though one tossed “AI systems capable of creative thought” into the hat as well. Some got far more specific, pointing to particular examples such as reports of a lab-created human-pig hybrid embryo. And one suggested that the real problem isn’t with bad science, but with scientific illiteracy: “It’s not so much the Frankentech that worries me as it is the uproar over it that seems to support pseudoscience and charlatans’ quests to have things like GMOs banned or labeled with no real evidence of harm.”
One thing that didn’t seem to divide readers? Their love for Young Frankenstein, which many cited as their favorite pop cultural incarnation of the original book. Several more pointed to the seminal 1931 James Whale film adaptation, about which one acknowledged, “I know it’s nothing like the book; they really seem to have keyed into the supposition of Victor’s madness/the Creature’s badness and gone off on a tangent from there.” Others nodded to an array of ’80s and ’90s gems, including Blade Runner, Robocop, and Demolition Man. Here too, though, at least one reader expressed an ongoing frustration with the Frankensteinian genre, since all adaptations “depict scientists in simplistic, comic book fashion.”
Finally, readers got speculative in response to our query about how the book would have differed if it had been written today. “His parts would be grown in a lab instead of stolen from graves,” one suggested, even as others proposed that the story would bypass the physical altogether and focus on artificial intelligences. Among those who thought that corporeality would remain important, some seemed to agree with Joey Eschrich, holding that the monster would be a lot sexier today. Beyond such superficial changes, however, many readers were convinced that the central themes would persist. Exploring this idea, one wrote, “Our simultaneous fascination with and fear of technological advancements seems to create [a] tension that’s worthy of dramatists in every century.”
And that, dear readers, is why we’re still reading Frankenstein today.
This article is part of the Frankenstein installment of Futurography, a series in which Future Tense introduces readers to the technologies that will define tomorrow. Each month, we’ll choose a new technology and break it down. Future Tense is a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate.
Do You Really Need to Copy-Paste Those Viral Anti-Trump Posts on Facebook?
You might have seen some posts circulating Facebook recently that end with a warning for friends spreading the post’s message: “Copy and paste this but do not share.”
These posts—often anti-Trump pronouncements that list the accomplishments of the “resistance” or instructions to budding activists for how to get involved—explain that if you share the post, only your mutual friends will see it.
But is it true? This comes down to two things: the method of sharing (public or friends-only, for instance), and the newsfeed algorithm.
How Intel Lit Up the Super Bowl With Drones—and Why
Here at Future Tense, we’re on the record with our belief that no Super Bowl is complete unless it features jetpacks. In that respect—if in few others—Lady Gaga’s enthusiastic, inclusive halftime performance arguably disappointed.
Still, the production incorporated a compelling bit of contemporary technology: In a reportedly pre-recorded sequence, a swarm of 300 tightly coordinated drones lit up the sky, circling around one another in patterns choreographed tightly as anything happening on stage. While Gaga mugged at the camera, the devices came together, forming the shape of a massive American flag.*
As a tag at the end of the show made thuddingly clear, that display came courtesy of Intel, the company that developed and deployed the technology. The company and its collaborators sometimes refer to the individual devices as “spaxels,” a portmanteau of “space” and “pixels.” It’s a helpful term, in that it gets at what Intel is really up to here from a technological perspective. The system works much like an immensely complicated low-resolution computer monitor: Wired explains that each of the flying robots respond to a central computer, “oblivious to what the hundreds of machines around it are doing.”
The halftime performance comes on the heels of a handful of previous events in which Intel demonstrated the technology. The first notable production, held, Intel explains, at “a private, secure location” near Hamburg, Germany, in November 2015, involved 100 drones. Though artists had programmed out the devices’ flight patterns in advance, every 25 devices were also controlled by a single pilot. The company pared that back to a single pilot in a subsequent 100-drone performance in the United States in 2016, and then at an another with 500 drones later that year.
Intel’s drones, dubbed Shooting Stars by the company, resemble consumer quad-copters, but the devices it’s been using lately differ in a handful of key ways, including the addition of a cage around the helicopter blades, presumably against the eventuality that they might collide with one another. Since the tech that allows the drones to receive instructions is mostly hidden away in their chassis, the devices’ other dominant feature is a large LED light at the bottom. “All this drone can do is light up the sky, but this is something it can do really, really well,” says Daniel Gurdan, an engineer involved with the project, in a video from that recent 500-drone performance.
Though most of Intel’s prior productions took place at secluded outdoor venues, the company’s ambitions were already clear in its past promotional videos. “Our goal is to do this over stadiums, to do this over events that have large populations,” Intel CEO Brian Krzanich intones in one, over footage of the tightly coordinated robots expanding and contracting like the luminescent wings of some gargantuan angel.
Well, congratulations, Krzanich! You sort of did it.
It’s impossible to overstate the rhetorical importance of that accomplishment for Intel: The company regularly stresses that it has collaborated with the Federal Aviation Administration to receive exemptions for its airborne performances. Those efforts are of a piece with its other attempts to sway regulators, including a recent demonstration of drone technology on Capitol Hill. That Intel received permission to pull off such a feat in Houston, above a packed arena, is almost as impressive as the technological accomplishment, speaking to the legal progress it’s made.
Ultimately, though, the real goal of its Sunday night performance likely had as much (or more) to do with overcoming public discomfort as it did with swaying regulators. Almost every article about the show repeats the official Intel line, indicating, as Wired does, that these colorful devices “will one day revolutionize search-and-rescue, agriculture … and more.” For what it’s worth, academic drone researchers—unaffiliated with Intel—have described similar possibilities to me. But it’s worth noting that the Department of Defense has tested still-more sophisticated drone swarm systems that can be deployed from F/A-18 Hornets. While it’s generally important not to conflate consumer drones with military ones—the two share little more than a name—these related applications suggest the distinct technologies might be on a collision course.
For now, though, Intel would probably prefer we set such considerations and concerns aside. And what better way to calm us than to light up the sky up in the red, white, and blue of the American flag?
*Correction, Feb. 6, 2017: This post originally misstated that the drone sequence was performed live. It has been revised to reflect reporting that the drone sequence was prerecorded.
Every Super Bowl Halftime Show Should Feature Jetpacks
For those of us who don’t follow football, the Super Bowl can be an annual exercise in frustration. The best sports let us find freedom, power, and capacity in our identification with talented athletes, but this outsized spectacle inevitably leaves the untutored feeling helpless. Watching, you’re all but imprisoned by the erratic stop-and-start rhythms of the game, trapped by its baroque rules. If, as the NFL slogan has it, “Football is family,” then the Super Bowl is our near-obligatory reminder that hanging out with your family is almost always terrible.
Why else would we fixate on commercials? Here, at least, is something for the rest of us. In them, we find the illusion of agency, of choice. The halftime show plays a similar role, or at least it should. But—and here I admit I’m no scholar of the genre—it seems unlikely that any did so better than the one that arrived in the middle of the first Super Bowl in 1967, when two jet pack—or “rocket belt”—pilots danced in mid-air around the stadium. Their flight speaks to the very thing some of us need most when we’re watching football: a fantasy of escape.
As Rick Maese reported in the Washington Post in January, the pilots in that long-ago performance dressed in costumes representing the American Football League and the National Football League. After taking off, the pair stayed “50 to 60 feet above the field, the two men circled back inward and landed near midfield. The AFL and NFL shook hands at the 50-yard line,” Maese writes.
The jetpack was a fitting enough image that the game’s organizers would revisit it in 1985, which featured another aerial stunt. Here, the surrounding production was far more elaborate, and arguably far sillier—so much so that Business Insider’s Rob Wile places it beside some of the worst halftime shows of all time. In Smithsonian, meanwhile, Matt Novak writes of that latter-day flight, “it feels less spectacular … in 1985 than it does to see the footage from 1967. Maybe it’s because there was sadly no real technological progress made on the jetpack in those 20 years.”
Perhaps it was also that some of the jetpack’s emblematic appeal had faded by 1985. As one of Maese’s sources suggests, jetpacks were symbols of the Space Age. But it wasn’t that era’s accomplishments that they represented so much as its promise: Bulky as they were, these devices suggested that we might be able to break free from the prison called gravity—and that each might do so according to according to our own fancies. In that sense, the jetpack was still more liberatory than the rocket. It offered a vision of radically personal agency, one that never quite arrived—hence their status as enduring symbols of disappointment with failed futures.
At the Super Bowl, however, such fantasies may still have a place. Every Super Bowl should feature jetpacks, if only to let us imagine flying away from whatever’s happening in the second half.
Netizen Report: Egyptian NGOs Face Rampant Phishing Attacks, Researchers Say
The Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in internet rights around the world. It originally appears each week on Global Voices Advocacy. Afef Abrougui, Ellery Roberts Biddle, Marianne Diaz, and Sarah Myers West contributed to this report.
Researchers at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab exposed a series of at least 92 phishing attempts targeting the digital communications and data of human rights defenders, lawyers, and activists associated with seven prominent nongovernmental organizations in Egypt. The attacks used social engineering, as attackers effectively masqueraded either as colleagues and confidants of the NGO workers or as technology companies seeking account verification.
Among those targeted were EIPR, the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, and Nazra for Feminist Studies. In one example, just hours after women’s rights lawyer Azza Soliman was arrested at her home, her colleagues received a message purporting to share with them a Dropbox file containing her arrest warrant. The message in fact led to a malicious software program that sought to infiltrate their devices.
In other cases, NGO workers received account authentication messages from official-sounding email addresses that in fact were malicious. The report contains a full list of harmful domain names and email addresses found in the study, nearly all of which mimic the names of legitimate services such as Gmail and Dropbox.
These attacks come as no surprise to Egyptian civil society advocates and their allies. They appear to target defendants in the so-called “foreign funding” Case 173, which the Egyptian government filed against several NGO workers in 2011, alleging that they had used foreign grant money to carry out work that undermined the government. Despite multiple changes in Egypt’s ruling government, the case has worn on. Since spring 2016, courts have imposed a travel ban and asset freeze on multiple defendants in the case, along with other NGO leaders, strictly limiting their abilities to work or even seek refuge outside of the country.
Mauritanian courts consider death sentence for blogger who criticized caste system
On Jan. 31, Mauritania’s supreme court heard the case of blogger Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir, who received a death sentence for publishing an opinion article critical of the use of religion to justify the country’s caste system. Ould Mkhaitir was first arrested in 2014 and was convicted of apostasy by a lower court for using examples from the life of the prophet Mohammed in the piece.
The Supreme Court referred his case back to the appeal court for procedural irregularities. The move that does not bode well for Ould Mkahitir, as the appeal court previously confirmed his apostasy conviction and upheld his death sentence.
Criticism of the caste system, which originally included a “slave” caste, remains an incendiary topic in the North African country. In 1981, Mauritania became the last country in the world to abolish slavery, but slavery and related practices of forced labor have nevertheless continued in some parts of the country.
U.S. border agents demand social media data from travelers, journalists
A wave of travelers from the Middle East, including two journalists, have reported that border agents demanded their mobile phones and social media usernames over the last four days. This comes on the heels of Donald Trump’s executive order—which multiple legal experts and scholars say is unconstitutional—temporarily banning citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States.
This practice is not new, nor is it unique to the Trump administration—in June 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol proposed plans to begin asking foreign visitors from visa-waiver countries to disclose their social media identities. Since mid-2016, the Council on American-Islamic Relations has documented nine cases of Muslim Americans being asked questions about their social media accounts, along with questions about their faith and lifestyle, when returning to the US from travel abroad.
As part of an effort to defend the privacy rights of travelers, the Electronic Frontier Foundation is soliciting first-hand accounts from individuals who have been asked for social media information and/or had their electronic devices searched at U.S. borders.
Bitcoin will not solve Venezuela’s currency nightmare
Police in Venezuela arrested four bitcoin miners for allegedly affecting the stability of the nation’s electricity supply. The group ran 300 computers in order to mine bitcoins and sell them online, an effort that essentially converts the value of electricity into currency. Bitcoin mining has become an increasingly popular—if dangerous—venture in Venezuela, which has experienced extreme economic instability, with national currency inflation at rates of 50 percent and higher since 2014.
Myanmar journalists push back against defamation law
Journalists in Myanmar are opposing the use of the 2013 Telecommunications Law by authorities to file defamation charges against their critics. Forty-eight defamation cases have been heard since the law was passed, with 29 arrests in the last year alone. The law penalizes the use of a “telecommunication network to extort, threaten, obstruct, defame, disturb, inappropriately influence, or intimidate” with three years in prison and a fine. Prominent Myanmar human rights lawyer Robert San Aung has spoken out against the law, arguing that it is “not appropriate that a citizen who criticises someone more powerful should face legal action of this kind.”
Anti-gay and looking for a vacation spot? There’s an app for that (in Russia)
A new Russian website aims to provide Airbnb-style options for homophobes, supposedly calculating the number of LGBTQ people in cities around the country. MyLinker aims to evade policies issued by Airbnb that are intended to prevent discrimination. There are many problems with the website, but among them are highly questionable methods for measuring the number of LGBTQ people in a city (on the basis of porn searches) and incredibly offensive rhetoric. A Change.org petition is calling on Russian authorities to ban the site for its discriminatory practices.
“Nile Phish: Large-Scale Phishing Campaign Targeting Egyptian Civil Society”—Citizen Lab and EIPR
“Who’s That Knocking at My Door: Understanding Surveillance in Thailand”—Privacy International
Futurography Newsletter: Frankenstein and Cybersecurity
Hello, fellow Futurographers,
Welcome to the latest installment of the Futurography newsletter. This month, we have something unusual for you: a cybersecurity self-defense course. For the next few weeks, we’ll be featuring articles that offer practical guidance into the things you can do to make yourself more secure—even in these insecure times. As always, we’ve kicked things off with a conversational introduction to the topic, along with a cheat sheet that will introduce you to the lingo, debates, key players, and other components of the issues we’ll be exploring. But we’re also already getting into the particulars, starting with a step-by-step guide to setting up a virtual private network (it's easier than you might think!) and a explanation of how to figure out what cybersecurity threats should actually worry you, both from Jennifer Golbeck.
We have lots more like that on the way, including a happy hour event on Feb. 16 in Washington, where we'll teach you how to secure your devices. In the meantime, you might want to take this opportunity to revisit last month’s Futurography course, which looked at the legacy of Frankenstein. Here’s what we published:
- Introduction: In which we explore why this novel is still relevant to contemporary science and technology, almost 200 years after it was first published.
- Cheat sheet: Learn the names you need to know, the debates that are still raging, the titles of some great Frankenstein adaptations, and more.
- How Franken- Lurched Its Way Into Our Lexicon: Katy Waldman investigates the history of a patchwork prefix.
- The Problem With “Playing God”: When we dismiss scientific innovations as hubristic, we miss the true legacy of Frankenstein, a book that calls on us to be better stewards of our creations.
- The Weird Science That Inspired Mary Shelley: This video examines some of the real innovations and events that underlie even the most fantastical elements of Frankenstein.
- What Frankenstein Has to Do With Anti-Vaxxers: As Charles Kenny shows, the history of vaccines overlaps strikingly with that of Shelley’s masterpiece.
- The Vivisectionist and Frankenstein: Shelley’s protagonist may be fictional, but he had real-world analogues, including the brtual French physiologist Claude Bernard.
- Dr. Frankenstein’s Three Big Mistakes: Today’s A.I. researchers have a lot to learn from Shelley’s novel, most of all that they should beware of isolation, neglect, and inadequate funding in their work.
- How Frankenstein’s Monster Became Sexy: Creatures that were once horrifying have grown increasingly desirable, a shift that speaks to the consumerist imperatives of modern technology.
- What Victor Frankenstein Got Wrong: Kevin M. Esvelt, who helped develop CRISPR gene-editing technology, stresses the importance of openness when we’re pursuing scientific innovation.
- The Modern-Day Victor Frankensteins?: Though contemporary biohackers sometimes seem Frankensteinian, they bring an ethical attitude to their work that Shelley’s protagonist lacked.
Once you’ve read all of those articles, test what you’ve learned with our quiz on the legacy of Frankenstein. Then tell us what you think about these topics (and come back next week for a write-up of your responses).
for Future Tense
Future Tense Newsletter: The Personal Cybersecurity Is Political
Greetings, Future Tensers,
The reports regarding President Trump’s god-awful phone and Twitter security have brought much needed attention to personal cybersecurity, and cybersecurity expert Josephine Wolff suggests it most likely won’t bode well for national policy. While the White House figures out two-factor authentication for its Twitter accounts, Future Tense writers are calling upon Congress and law enforcement agencies fix outdated laws and have an “adult” conversation about encryption. Hopefully, some adults among them can help figure it out.
If you laughed at Trump’s personal cybersecurity but secretly don’t know what a virtual private network is, let alone how to use one, we have good news for you. This month, Future Tense will be helping you beef up your personal cybersecurity with the February installment of Futurography—our online course offering monthly breakdowns of the science and tech topics that define our time. All month we’ll be offering practical tools, tips, and tutorials on how to protect your privacy online. As always, we’ll start you off with a conversational introduction and cheat sheet to guide you through the key players, lingo, and major security debates. We’re even hosting a live cybersecurity self-defense class in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 16.
While you anxiously await new Futurography content you can test what you learned from last month’s installment on Frankenstein by taking our quiz and telling us what you think about the legacy of Mary Shelley’s novel in our survey. I’m particularly looking forward to reading your thoughts on biohackers, a subculture of professional scientists and amateur enthusiasts building a community for scientific exploration. Some are taking do-it-yourself science to the extreme by hacking their own bodies—seen anyone walking around with an antenna attached to their head recently?
Here are some of the other things we read this week while setting up our own two-factor authentication:
- Inauthentic content: Will Oremus unpacks the recent changes Facebook has made to make its news feed both more trustworthy and more timely.
- Automated manufacturing: Daniel Bliss writes that manufacturing employment is down not because of NAFTA or weak trade policy but because of people like him: engineers and scientists advancing the capabilities of machines. And yes, he feels pretty guilty about it.
- Tech-supported activism: Wondering what to do after the protest? Hollie Russon Gilman’s four strategies to organize and to hold politicians accountable are an excellent place to start.
- The American internet: Did you miss our event last week on the internet’s nationality? Rachelle Hampton covered the highlights in her recap. You can also watch video of the event here.
- On Thursday, Feb. 2 (yup, that’s tomorrow!), we conclude our January installment of Futurography on the legacy of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at a live event in Washington, D.C. We’ll explore how the novel continues to influence the way we confront emerging technologies, understand the complex relationships between creators and their creations, and weigh the benefits of innovation with its unforeseen pitfalls. RSVP to attend in person or watch online here.
- You may not be high on Putin's to-hack list, but there are still good reasons to protect yourself online. And there is no better place to start than a Future Tense happy hour. Bring your devices and join us for drinks and demos on Feb. 16 in Washington, D.C., for a Cybersecurity Self-Defense Class where experts will teach you how to use a virtual private network, cover your digital tracks, use secure communications platforms, and more. RSVP to attend in person or watch online here.
Changing my passwords,
For Future Tense
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University.
What I Learned About the Internet From The Baby-Sitters Club
I was part of the “Oregon Trail Generation,” which means that as a child I spent a lot of time dying of dysentery. The first computer I remember was my family’s IBM PC, which I mostly used for playing Maniac Mansion from a copied floppy disk before anyone realized that software piracy was a thing.
At that point, using a computer was not a social activity, except for when we played Oregon Trail at school, named characters after one another, and pointed and laughed when they were bitten by snakes. You didn’t turn to a computer to read things or find information, until the amazing invention of encyclopedias on CD-ROM, invaluable for writing reports about Peru and the Battle of Gettysburg and Odysseus.
So before Tumblr and Reddit were even a twinkle in their creators’ eyes, I spent elementary school devouring books at a good clip. My parents eventually started trying to nudge my reading habits in productive directions. They bought me Black Beauty and Treasure Island and Little Women. I would read them and enjoy them, and then get back to stacks of Sweet Valley High and Baby-Sitters Club. I also read Gone With the Wind when I was 9 because someone told me I couldn’t, and I decided I preferred Sweet Valley, California, and Stoneybrook, Connecticut, over the Deep South.
The Baby-Sitters Club books were particularly engaging for me because I was so enamored of the idea of a close group of friends. My family moved twice while I was in school, and it always took me a while to make new friends. What I really, desperately wanted was someone to talk to about books. I wanted a book club! And the friends that I did make never seemed to be interested in the books I liked. In the early ’90s it seemed like all preteens wanted to read was R.L. Stine, but reading a single book about evil cheerleaders gave me my first experience of literary snobbery. (I once tried to convince someone that A Wrinkle in Time was a horror novel. It didn’t work.)
It’s probably appropriate, then, that it was the Baby-Sitters Club that first taught me that a computer could be used for talking to people. Specifically, it was back-of-the-book ad for Prodigy, declaring boldly that with the new Online Baby-Sitters Club, you could talk to Ann M. Martin and read brand new stories and make friends all across the country! Whoever created this “online” thing, I immediately decided, was speaking directly to my soul. For some time after that, I assumed the internet was just a place where people went to talk about Baby-Sitters Club, which seemed like a pretty worthy invention to me.
Obviously I begged my parents for Prodigy. This was 1992, and they had no idea what I was talking about. In retrospect, I can understand why $9.95 per month for five hours of online time for me to talk about books with strangers might have been a hard sell. They didn’t sign up for Prodigy.
I reached out to Ann M. Martin to see if she had fond memories of the Prodigy board, though it turns out that, though she wrote content for the board, she had little to do with the Internet aspect and didn’t communicate directly with participants. Still, exchanging an email with Ann may have just made my dashed childhood dreams finally come true.
My first online experience came a couple of years later when a middle school friend’s dad set up a bulletin board system. We would log in after school and send messages to each other and play Legend of the Red Dragon. My seventh-grade diary recounts in great detail how the boy I had a crush on asked my in-game character to marry him, followed by by agonized speculation about what it meant. To this day, it remains a universal constant that most new technologies can be immediately appropriated for middle-school flirting.
Of course, it was my family’s subscription to AOL when I was 14 that really opened up the world to what I knew it could be—something beyond the local. I didn’t have to force my friends to read the things I wanted to read. Instead, I could find people literally anywhere to talk to about J.R.R. Tolkien and Danielle Steele (since at that point I was beyond Baby-Sitters Club … OK, fine, I was also reading Sweet Valley University). And thanks to Usenet, I also discovered that when I’d been writing my own stories about Kristy, Mary-Ann, Claudia, and Stacey (or, more recently, Kirk and Spock), it was actually a thing called fan fiction, and that other people did it, too, and then shared it with each other!
At some point during college when I realized that I could study the internet for a living. Many years later, I’m doing exactly that, and sometimes I’m struck by how much we can focus on the negative and take for granted how much smaller and lonelier our worlds might be if we weren’t online. We might see more of the bad things in the world than we’d like to see, or we might learn too much about our friends’ political beliefs, or we might suffer the worst kind of context collapse when our high-school acquaintances fight with our bosses in Facebook comments.
We may also spend less time with our noses in books than we might if our eyes were never on a screen, but we also always have someone to talk to about them afterward. And when the outside world is a bit more contentious, and our friends are about to be bitten by snakes, we can gather online to help them—now, no one has to travel the Oregon Trail alone.
Join Future Tense in Washington, D.C., for a Cybersecurity Self-Defense Class
We’ve heard more about personal cybersecurity over the past several months than in the previous 20 years. (May we never hear the words “private email server” again.) You may not be high on Putin's to-hack list, but there are still good reasons to protect yourself online, and there is no better place to start than a Future Tense happy hour.
We invite you to bring your devices and join us for drinks and demos on Thursday, Feb. 16, in Washington, D.C., for a Cybersecurity Self-Defense class as part of our February installment of Futurography—Future Tense’s monthly online course offering monthly breakdowns of science and tech topics. Both online all month and in person, our experts will teach you how to use a virtual private network, cover your digital tracks, use secure communications platforms, and more.
For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.
Associate professor, College of Information Studies, University of Maryland
Director of strategy, Global Security Initiative, Arizona State University
Fellow, Future Tense
A New Poker A.I. Eviscerated Its Human Competition, and It’s a Beautiful Thing
In January, four top poker players convened at the Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh to challenge Libratus, an artificial intelligence developed by a professor and a Ph.D. student from Carnegie Mellon University. The AI and the humans would play a total of 120,000 hands of poker over a three-week period, which ended Monday night. Each of the human players faced the computer independently across four isolated heads-up matches pitting man versus machine. Libratus won convincingly, leaving the poker community wonderstruck.
As a former professional poker player, I—like many others—believed the game to reside above the paygrade of computers. Poker, after all, hinges on a hypersubjective flux of strategy, and an elite player often accredits success to instinct, patience, boldness, cunning, and sense of timing—variables humans are hard-pressed to quantify. Previous attempts to create an unbeatable poker robot have proven largely ineffectual, more a romantic notion than a plausible reality. In 2015 there was Claudico, which lost handily in a similar challenge, exhibiting glaring deficiencies in bet-sizing. Then there was Cepheus, which some claimed was “unbeatable,” but in reality was confined solely to limit hold’em and whose expected long-term win rate was infinitesimally small. (As I wrote for Future Tense, I actually beat Cepheus—sort of.)
To the pros, poker is not really a game at all. Elite pros are mapmakers who have traversed every last inch of the game’s terrain and are seldom baffled by a scenario. In comes Libratus, chronicling the cosmos of cards like the Hubble Space Telescope, unveiling a superior depiction of poker’s far-reaching expanses, every possibility on the tree of decisions rendered in exponentially finer detail. We were only scratching the surface.
We humans don’t enjoy being told that our tough decisions can be boiled down to integers and decimals and then drawn to conclusions with the ease and absolution and inevitability of butter melting in a hot pan. It stung a bit, then, watching Libratus skyrocket to a convincing chip lead almost instantly out of the gates. The poker community watched as the four pros—Jason Les, Dong Kim, Daniel McAulay, and Jimmy Chou—withstood the onslaught, valiantly so, but incurred a definitive loss in the process. Libratus adapted to the aggression of the human players. It stole pots when weakness was shown. It maximized value on its strong hands and exhibited caution when weak. Ultimately, it was sounder in all its decisions, refusing to concede any glimmer of advantage or edge.
People hoped, presumed even, that the human team would mount a comeback. But the deficit grew and grew, and less than halfway through the match one thing became abundantly clear. Libratus signaled a changing of the guard. This robot was the best heads-up poker player in the world.
Libratus derives its name from Latin and translates roughly to the word “balance,” which in poker is the noblest aspiration and the framework for every consideration. The AI’s display of balanced decision-making was sublime. The human team threw fury at Libratus, tactics that typically devastate an opponent, and it responded with aplomb. Like Ali in his prime, it was elusive, imposing, positively unreachable.
Poker is a game of ebbs and flows, a test of who can manage the throes of variance with grace. Libratus used trendy and controversial poker tactics, many of which are generally eschewed, such as taking the betting initiative out of position straight into a pre-flop raiser, as well as massively over-betting in relation to the size of the pot. It did so in a decidedly profitable manner, reopening the floor for discussion in the realm of poker meta-game. It has been enigmatic, mixing eerily stoic caution with a flair for the dramatic, ambushing like a predator with perplexing bets and bluffs in big pots, bobbing and weaving, zigging when the humans zagged.
In essence, Libratus highlighted the folly in assuming that humans have collectively mastered anything. In truth, we are not equipped to randomize and compute equity. We are emotional, replete with biases such as loss aversion and recent memory. We have poor understanding of statistical variance and terrible grasp of the long run. Human nature impedes perfection.
The public’s knee-jerk reaction may be to mourn poker’s death. Computers will extinguish whatever luster remains, they say. But let me offer a more optimistic viewpoint. It’s possible that poker will actually be emboldened by these developments, experientially enhanced as a human endeavor. Libratus suggests that we can raise the game of poker to new heights. We can benefit from machine learning, even if it is imperfect. Because so are we. Poker in the past had the look and feel of an insurmountable climb of which humans would never glimpse the peak. Libratus can help us get there. This is an empowering proposition, the kind that precludes great human advancement in any field. AI will shine the light and lead the way, but humans trek forth themselves and will bask in the progress.