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


Peter Watts

Back 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.

Except 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.

I certainly didn’t think they’d be developing a similar system by 2015.

Yet 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 paper1 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.”

The 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 thinks you do, you end up in the little
white room for enhanced interrogation.

Of 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 every­
one’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.

Guilty 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 been.

Let’s talk about failure rates.

If 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%.

The 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.

The 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.

Which 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 everyone equally.

Certainly 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.

Given how bad things already are over here, maybe even some-
thing as imperfect as FAST would be a step in the right direction.

1/ 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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