In celebration for the release of the irreverent, self-depreciating, profane, and funny PETER WATTS IS AN ANGRY SENTIENT TUMOR, Tachyon presents glimpses from the essay collection.
Life in the FAST Lane
Nowa Fantastyka Apr 2015
in 2007 I wrote a story about a guy standing in line at an airport.
Not much actually happened; he just shuffled along with everyone
else, reflecting on the security check awaiting him (and his fellow
passengers) prior to boarding. Eventually he reached the head of the
queue, passed through the scanner, and continued on his way. That was
pretty much it.
the scanner wasn’t an X-ray or a metal detector: it was a
mind-reader that detected nefarious intent. The protagonist was a
latent pedophile whose urges showed up bright and clear on the
machine, even though he had never acted on them. “The Eyes of God”
asks whether you are better defined by the acts you commit or those
you merely contemplate; it explores the obvious privacy issues of a
society in which the state can read minds. The technology it
describes is inspired by a real patent filed by Sony a few years ago;
even so, I thought we’d have at least couple more decades to come
to grips with such questions.
certainly didn’t think they’d be developing a similar system by
here we are: a technology which, while not yet ready for prime time,
is sufficiently far along for the American University Law Review
to publish a paperi
exploring its legal implications. FAST (Future Attribute Screening
Technology) is a system “currently designed for deployment at
airports” which “can read minds … employ[ing] a variety of
sensor suites to scan a person’s vital signs, and based on those
readings, to determine whether the scanned person has ‘malintent’—the
intent to commit a crime.”
envisioned system doesn’t actually read minds so much as make
inferences about them, based on physiological and behavioral cues. It
reads heart rate and skin temperature, tracks breathing and eye
motion and changes in your voice. If you’re a woman, it sniffs out
where you are in your ovulation cycle. It sees your unborn child and
your heart condition—and once it’s looked through you along a
hundred axes, it decides whether you have a guilty mind. If it think
you do, you end up in the little white room for enhanced
course, feelings of guilt don’t necessarily mean you plan on
committing a terrorist act. Maybe you’re only cheating on your
spouse; maybe you feel bad about stealing a box of paper clips from
work. Maybe you’re not feeling guilty at all; maybe you’re just
idly fantasizing about breaking the fucking kneecaps of those
arrogant Customs bastards who get off on making everyone’s life
miserable. Maybe you just have a touch of Asperger’s, or are a bit
breathless from running to catch your flight—but all FAST sees is
elevated breathing and a suspicious refusal to make eye contact.
minds, angry minds, fantasizing minds: the body betrays them all in
similar ways, and once that flag goes up you’re a Person of
Interest. Most of the AULR article explores the Constitutional
ramifications of this technology in the US, scenarios in which FAST
would pass legal muster and those in which it would violate the 4th
Amendment—and while that’s what you’d expect in a legal
commentary, I find such concerns almost irrelevant. If our rulers
want to deploy the tech, they will. If deployment would be illegal
they’ll either change the law or break it, whichever’s most
convenient. The question is not whether the technology will be
deployed. The question is how badly it will fuck us up once it has
talk about failure rates.
someone tells you that a test with a 99% accuracy rate has flagged
someone as a terrorist, what are the odds that the test is wrong? You
might say 1%; after all, the system’s 99% accurate, right? The
problem is, probabilities compound with sample size—so in an
airport like San Francisco’s (which handles 45 million people a
year), a 99% accuracy rate means that over 1,200 people will be
flagged as potential terrorists every day, even if no actual
terrorists pass through the facility. It means that even if a
different terrorist actually does try to sneak through that one
airport every day, the odds of someone being innocent even though
they’ve been flagged are—wait for it—over 99%.
latest numbers we have on FAST’s accuracy gave it a score of
78-80%, and those (unverified) estimates came from the same guys who
were actually building the system—a system, need I remind you,
designed to collect intimate and comprehensive physiological data
from millions of people on a daily basis.
good news is, the most egregious abuses might be limited to people
crossing into the US. In my experience, border guards in every one of
the twenty-odd countries I’ve visited are much nicer than they are
in ’Murrica, and this isn’t just my own irascible bias: according
to an independent survey commissioned by the travel industry on
border-crossing experiences, US border guards are the world’s
biggest assholes by a 2 to 1 margin.
is why I wonder if, in North America at least, FAST might actually be
a good thing—or at least, a better thing than what’s currently in
place. FAST may be imperfect, but presumably it’s not explicitly
programmed to flag you just because you have dark skin. It won’t
decide to shit on you because it’s in a bad mood, or because it
thinks you look like a liberal. It may be paranoid and it may be
mostly wrong, but at least it’ll be paranoid and wrong about
FAST might still embody a kind of emergent prejudice. Poor
people might be especially nervous about flying simply because they
don’t do it very often, for example; FAST might tag their sweaty
palms as suspicious, while allowing the rich sociopaths to sail
through unmolested into Business Class. Voila: instant class
discrimination. If it incorporates face recognition, it may well
manifest the All Blacks Look Alike To Me bias notorious in such tech.
But such artifacts can be weeded out, if you’re willing to put in
the effort. (Stop training your face-recognition tech on pictures
from your pasty-white Silicon Valley high school yearbook, for
starters.) I suspect the effort required would be significantly less
than that required to purge a human of the same bigotry.
Indeed, given the prejudice and stupidity on such prominent display
from so many so-called authority figures, outsourcing at least some
of their decisions seems like a no-brainer. Don’t let them choose
who to pick on, let the machine make that call; it may be inaccurate,
but at least it’s unbiased.
how bad things already are over here, maybe even something as
imperfect as FAST would be a step in the right direction.
Rogers, C.A. 2014. “A Slow March Towards Thought Crime: How The
Department Of Homeland Security’s Fast Program Violates The Fourth
Amendment.” American University Law Review 64:337-384.
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