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Fiction Science Club

How technology can keep democracy from dying

Between the voting-machine failures, the cyberattacks and the social-media shenanigans, technology hasn’t had a great record when it comes to fostering and protecting democracy in the 21st century. But George Zarkadakis says the technology — and democracy — can be fixed.

In his new book, “Cyber Republic: Reinventing Democracy in the Age of Intelligent Machines,” the Greek-born tech expert, writer and management consultant offers a repair manual that takes advantage of innovations ranging from artificial intelligence and expert systems, to blockchain, to data trusts that are personalized and monetized.

According to Zarkadakis, one of the most important fixes will be for governments to earn back the trust of the people they govern.

“We should have a more participatory form of government, rather than the one we have now,” Zarkadakis told me from his home base in London. “A mixture, if you like, of more direct democracy and representational democracy. And that’s where this idea of citizen assemblies comes about.”

He delves into his prescription for curing liberal democracy — and the precedents that can be drawn from science fiction — in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast. Check out the entire show via your favorite podcast channel, whether that’s Anchor, Apple, Spotify, GoogleBreakerOvercastPocket Casts or RadioPublic.

Zarkadakis’ journey to the frontiers of governance began back in 2006, when he was a facilitator for the European Union’s Meeting of the Minds citizen assembly experiment. In the book, he describes the experience as his “Pauline conversion.”

The process involves recruiting small groups of ordinary citizens, and getting them up to speed on a pressing social issue. In Zarkadakis’ case, the issue had to do with the policies and ethical considerations surrounding brain science. During a series of deliberations, the groups worked out a series of recommendations on research policies, free of the political maneuvering that usually accompanies such debates.

One of the key challenges involved how to connect regular citizens with expert knowledge. It struck Zarkadakis that machine-based expert systems — for example, IBM’s Watson, the question-answering computer that bested human champs on the “Jeopardy” game show — could help guide citizen assemblies through the complexities of complex issues such as climate change, health care and education.

Citizen assemblies have been called “the flavor of the month among political geeks,” but they’re not a simple panacea for what ails political systems. Zarkadakis acknowledged that the current information climate is rife with disinformation. Why? One big reason is that trumped-up polarization is so profitable, due to the algorithms used by Facebook and other social-media platforms.

“Those algorithms are very powerful,” he said. “They collect a lot of data, and they have a lot of collateral damage. They just want to sell ads. Now, can we do something about it? I think we can, of course. We can use this technology for other purposes. We can use this technology, for example, to build algorithms with different goals.”

Rewriting the formula for how personal data can be used is a big part of Zarkadakis’ prescription. In the book, he proposes the development of data trusts that put consumers in control of their own data — and put a price tag on the use of such data by businesses.

Is the market for an individual’s data lucrative enough to sustain the sellers? That was one of the questions my Fiction Science co-host, sci-fi author Dominica Phetteplace, asked Zarkadakis.

In reply, Zarkadakis pointed to a $5.5 billion loan that American Airlines received from the federal government in June to weather the coronavirus crisis.

“Interestingly, they put up a collateral for that loan that wasn’t the airplanes. It wasn’t the slots they have on various air fields around the world. It was the loyalty program, a database,” he said.

American Airlines valued its AAdvantage program at $19.5 billion to $31.5 billion. There may be some question about that valuation, but in any case, “that’s the kind of money we’re talking about around data,” Zarkadakis said.

To guarantee the veracity and the source of a given data stream, Zarkadakis suggests using the same kinds of blockchain-based software tools that are used for cryptocurrencies.

Cyber Republic book cover
“Cyber Republic” lays out a game plan for giving democracy an upgrade. (MIT Press / Shutterstock / chuckchee)

The data trust concept may sound way-out, but it’s already gaining some traction among pundits and researchers as well as science-fiction authors. In “The Ministry for the Future,” a newly published novel that anticipates the deepening of the world’s climate crisis, Kim Stanley Robinson works in references to a fictional data trust called YourLock. (Stay tuned for more in a future Fiction Science episode.)

Speaking of science fiction, the sky’s not the limit for Zarkadakis’ ideas: Early on, he planned to devote a chapter of “Cyber Republic” to the idea of creating decentralized, crypto-savvy cooperatives to govern future space settlements.

“My publisher dissuaded me from including the chapter in the book,” he said with a chuckle. “I didn’t want to argue the point too much, so I said, OK, fine, we’ll keep it on Earth and keep it earthly for this time.”

Instead, Zarkadakis laid out the idea in a pair of postings to his personal blog. He’s also working on a science-fiction novel that capitalizes on his familiarity with the ins and outs of AI and robotics — and who knows? In that novel, he just might address the invention of democracy for intelligent machines.

I reminded him that happy endings aren’t guaranteed, whether we’re talking about science fiction or real-world governance. The example I had in mind was the scene from “Star Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith,” where Natalie Portman’s character watches the birth of the Galactic Empire and remarks: “So this is how liberty dies: with thunderous applause.”

George Zarkadakis
George Zarkadakis is the author of “Cyber Republic.” (Yannis Bournias Photo)

Are there lessons that political scientists can learn from science fiction? Or that science-fiction writers can learn from political scientists? Zarkadakis noted that there are ample parallels between “Star Wars” and the tale of the Roman Republic’s transition to the Roman Empire, or Germany’s transition from the Weimar Republic to the Third Reich.

“I also find it interesting when science fiction is looking into the future, into different sorts of political systems,” he said.

Among his favorites are “The Dispossessed” by Ursula K. Le Guin and “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress” by Robert Heinlein.

“Both of those novels are interesting, because they imagine future human colonies on the moon, very near, but in very different ways as well,” Zarkadakis said. “It’s always interesting to read science fiction when you are interested in politics.”

Will citizen assemblies and data trusts end up being consigned to the realm of science fiction, along with Heinlein’s lunar revolutionaries and Le Guin’s anarcho-syndicalists? Zarkadakis, for one, hopes not. The way he sees it, we’re already stuck in a bad science-fiction plot.

“We are living actually in a nightmare right now, as far as I’m concerned,” Zarkadakis said. “And I believe that one of the reasons why this is happening is because the public was not involved in the conversation, and therefore there was not acceptance by the public of those measures. To cut a long story short, I believe that this needs to change.”

My co-host for the Fiction Science podcast is Dominica Phetteplace, an award-winning writer who is a graduate of the Clarion West  Writers Workshop and currently lives in Berkeley, Calif. She’s among the science-fiction authors featured in The Best Science Fiction of the Year. To learn more about Phetteplace, check out her website, DominicaPhetteplace.com.

Use the form at the bottom of this post to subscribe to Cosmic Log, and stay tuned for future episodes of the Fiction Science podcast via Anchor, Apple, Google, Overcast, Spotify, Breaker, Pocket Casts and Radio Public.

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GeekWire

Microsoft gives a boost to COVID-19 data analysis

Coronavirus data chart
Microsoft’s Power BI data visualization tool tracks statistics relating to the coronavirus epidemic. Click on the graphic for an interactive version. (Microsoft Graphic)

Microsoft says it’s immediately putting $20 million from its AI for Health program toward analytical tools that can help researchers and public health officials get a handle on the coronavirus pandemic.

John Kahan, Microsoft’s chief data analytics officer, said AI for Health “will collaborate with nonprofits, governments, and academic researchers on solutions, and bring our experience to the table, providing access to Microsoft AI, technical experts, data scientists and other resources.”

“We’re focusing our efforts in five specific areas where we think data, analysis and the skills of our data scientists can have the biggest impact,” Kahan wrote today in a blog post about the effort.

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Orrery.ai aims to spin data into gold

Chipsats
Chipsats like the ones shown here could provide streams of radar data for processing by Orrery.ai’s algorithms. (Photo courtesy of Orrery.ai)

Satellites, sensors, social media and purchasing data provide terabytes’ worth of information about how the global economy is working — and the insights gleaned from that data can be more precious than gold.

But what’s the best way to extract the gold from the dross? That’s where longtime space entrepreneur Dick Rocket intends to step in with a stealthy venture called Orrery.ai.

“There’s a gap between the data analysis firms and the financial sector,” Rocket told GeekWire this week. “That is our gap.”

Rocket launched Orrery.ai about a year ago, with backing from angel investors, but he and a small executive team are just now ramping up a more ambitious private funding campaign. They’re also mulling over where to put their headquarters. (The Seattle area is in the mix, along with sites in Florida, Texas, New York and Georgia.)

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Number crunchers are on the trail of dark energy

Saul Perlmutter
Berkeley astrophysicist Saul Perlmutter discusses the implications of the universe’s accelerating expansion at the University of Washington. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Big data just might give astronomers a better grip on the answer to one of the biggest questions in physics: Exactly what’s behind the mysterious acceleration in the expansion rate of the universe, also known as dark energy?

And that means the number crunchers at the University of Washington’s DIRAC Institute have their work cut out for them.

The role of data analysis in resolving the mystery came to the fore on May 14 during a talk given at the DIRAC Institute’s first-ever open house on the UW campus. The speaker was none other than Berkeley astrophysicist Saul Perlmutter, who won a share of the Nobel Prize in physics in 2011 for finding the first evidence of dark energy.

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How families will help shape the future of health

Future of Health panel
Panelists discuss the future of health during a Town Hall Seattle forum at the Institute for Systems Biology. From left: GeekWire’s Clare McGrane, the panel’s moderator; Leroy Hood of Providence St. Joseph Health; Howard Frumkin of the University of Washington School of Public Health; and John Aitchison of the Center for Infectious Disease Research. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

It’s no secret that a rising flood of data, from the results of sophisticated genetic tests to the vital signs recorded by your smartphone, is transforming the way we approach health and wellness. But one of the pioneers of that trend says big data could well shift the focus of the quest for wellness from the hospital to the home.

“I think the most powerful unit for scientific wellness is the family,” Leroy Hood, co-founder of Seattle’s Institute for Systems Biology and chief science officer at Providence St. Joseph Health, said during a March 7 forum on the future of health.

The forum was hosted by the Institute for System Biology’s headquarters as part of Town Hall Seattle’s science lecture series.

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Numbers tell tales on ‘Game of Thrones’

"Game of Thrones" title

“Game of Thrones,” the HBO sword-sorcery-and-sex series that begins its seventh season tonight, has spawned a geekier kind of game: doing data analytics to study who’s on top and who’ll get the ax (figuratively and literally).

The Wall Street Journal delved deeply into the data geekery last week, noting that fans have recorded the screen time and other statistics for nearly 200 notable characters over the course of the past 60 episodes. Intricate algorithms seek to correlate the characters’ characteristics with their chances of surviving the poison pens wielded by book author George R.R. Martin and the series’ screenwriters.

Indian data scientist Shail Deliwala ran the numbers and came up with several correlations. Some mesh with common sense (for example, characters with lots of dead relatives are less likely to survive), while others mesh more with literary sense (for example, the larger the attacking force, the higher the chances that the defenders will prevail).

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Clobotics revs up drone data venture with $5M

Drone inspection
A drone inspects turbines at the Sacramento Municipal Utility District’s wind farm in California’s Solano County. (SMUD via YouTube)

Small drones, big data and computer vision: That’s the tech-frontier trifecta for Clobotics, a Shanghai startup that says it’s raised $5 million in seed funding and opened a research and development center in the Seattle area.

“This is where I took the plunge,” Clobotics co-founder George Yan, a former executive at Microsoft China and the Chinese drone venture Ehang, told GeekWire.

Yan said Clobotics (“cloud” plus “robotics”) has been more than a decade in the making. The venture aims to capitalize on the capabilities of aerial robotics and artificial intelligence to automate the task of evaluating the condition of hard-to-reach infrastructure.

GGV Capital, a U.S.-Chinese venture capital firm, is leading a $5 million financing round to get Clobotics off the ground, Yan said.

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Boeing opens hip new data lab in Vancouver

Image: Boeing airplane
Boeing’s new Vancouver lab will focus on data analytics. (Credit: Boeing Canada-AeroInfo)

A Canadian subsidiary of the Boeing Co. has announced plans to open a data analytics laboratory in downtown Vancouver, B.C., to help the aerospace giant and its customers figure out how to maximize their efficiency and minimize their costs.

The downtown lab will supplement Boeing Vancouver’s operations in suburban Richmond, where 200 software engineers and data scientists are currently employed.

“The expansion represents a natural extension of Boeing Vancouver’s analytics, software development and professional consulting work,” Boeing Vancouver President Bob Cantwell said in a news release issued today. “As one of the largest analytics groups within Boeing, we are well suited to house the new Vancouver Labs, which will focus on delivering data-driven solutions at a rapidly increased pace over traditional development.”

A spokesman for the company, Mike Pound, told GeekWire that 50 data analysts would be working at the downtown location, which is in a converted warehouse on Homer Street in the Yaletown district. Moving day is due to take place next month.

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What mobile phone data can reveal about you

Image: Rwandans with phones
The mobile phone penetration rate in Rwanda is more than 70 percent. (Credit: Joshua Blumenstock)

Researchers have analyzed data about mobile phone use in Rwanda to figure out how wealthy a phone’s user is – and they say they might be able to do the same kind of analysis for any other country.

The study, published today in the journal Science, applies big-data models to look at much more than income. The Rwandan data, for example, could be massaged to predict which phone users owned a motorcycle or a TV.

Joshua Blumenstock, the study’s lead author and an information scientist at the University of Washington, is now working on a follow-up project to see how easily the computer models can be applied to places beyond Rwanda.

“In every country, we hypothesize that there’s a relationship between how people use their phone and how wealthy they are,” he said in a Science podcast. “The exact nature of that relationship is going to change from one country to another, and it might even change from one year to the next within a country. But fundamentally, you’d think that there are these relationships that exist.”

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