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What if governments would use your private data
In human culture it is not unusual to put people into imaginary ranks, be it because of the way they dress, their education, their career, or kindness. Depending on one's social background the criteria for rating people can be extremely individual. Just like one person can have more best friends and another only one. Does it mean that one person is more popular and therefore has more friends? Maybe. But it could also mean, that one person can have a very different system to subconsciously rate individuals around them.
Nowadays we do not just get scored by humans around us, but also by computers. Social media, online shops, or search engines are collecting our data everyday creating an online persona of us, to show us personalized content or ads. This data can also be bought by organizations or governments, which may help you get a better credit score or maybe even deny you access to certain public places.
If you open up a new bank account or need a loan, the bank will check your credit score to make sure you are trustworthy and can pay the loan back. Also, each time you rate a restaurant on yelp, visit a place with your location turned on, buy something online, like a video on YouTube or comment on a friend's post on social media your data is being collected and an online persona of you is being automatically created and put in relation with people behaving similar to you online.
Usually, your online persona is being used to personalize your digital experience. This data about you can be bought so that organizations and governments could create a scoring system. Let's say you play online poker from time to time: Algorithms could then detect the start of a possible gambling addiction, hence lowering your credit score. One of the most prominent social credit scoring systems is issued by Zhima Credit in China, which is sometimes translated to Sesame Credit.
The Zhima Credit
Zhima Credit is a subsidiary of the Chinese online retailer Alibaba. Users can voluntarily choose being scored by the system based on credit history and behavior. Li Yinguin, Zhima's technology director, explained how the system works: "Someone who plays video games for 10 hours a day, for example, would be considered an idle person, and someone who frequently buys diapers would be considered as probably a parent, who on balance is more likely to have a sense of responsibility."
If participating in this social scoring system is voluntarily, why do people do it? In China a huge number of citizens does not own a traditional credit history. The Zhima system allows them to be measured and gives banks the opportunity to score their credit risk. If your score is high enough you may even book hotel rooms or rent a car without having to pay a deposit. The Zhima Credit can be understood as a bonus program, where you gain benefits, if you behave a certain way.
Good Versus Bad
What is considered good by one person may not be for the other based on subjective, social or cultural aspects. Let's just take a look about sleeping patterns in different cultures: In Germany sleeping in too long at the weekends is usually considered lazy, because you are not seizing the day. Especially when the sun is shining you should wake up early and go on a hiking trip. For Egyptians on the other hand it is not frowned upon sleeping till noon on the weekends, as a long working week and stressful commute can drain a lot of your energy. Also, as it can get very hot in the summer time, the seizing the day part may come a bit later than in a Central European country which eventually leads to people staying up late and needing to compensate on sleep over the weekend.
"Given the variation in each country's context, a global system may not be feasible. It will fall on each country, at least in the near term, to make their own decision. For individuals, it is important to make informed decisions on your own data: who can store and use them, who can share them, who they are shared with, and what are the impacts on you. It is also important to get prepared and consider whether and how to participate in a social score system should it be implemented in your country," says Prof. Chengyi Lin, Affiliate Professor of Strategy at INSEAD and a leading expert on digital transformation.
Can A Social Scoring System Be Trusted?
A digital scoring system would be developed by humans adopting artificial intelligence and machine learning. In order for the algorithms to know what is right and wrong they would need to feed it with our data and different behavior has to be connected with a positive, negative or neutral score. But how reliable can such a system really be today?
First of all, the algorithm would be programmed by people so there is always the possibility of human error and the subjective definition of right and wrong. Second, the system would probably be regimented by the government. In Germany, for example, they have their issues with suppressive systems burned into their cultural minds with the last one just ending 30 years ago. This does not mean that Germans do not trust their government –in the face of the Corona pandemic Germans nowadays trust their government more than ever – but rather being aware of the democratic need to split power and interest in order to protect freedom and privacy.
Just imagine if such a scoring system would have been implemented a few decades ago. Would we still have the same rights we have now? How could such a system affect individuality and how much of our freedom and privacy would we lose? Such a scoring system would need to have access to the most private aspects of our lives. We cannot just shut the door and make it wait outside.
Dangers of Discrimination in An Automated Scoring System
In order for a scoring system to work it has to access our everyday life, to understand our sleep patterns, how often we go to the gym, take a walk, or what we eat. Let's say you have a sweet tooth and buy and eat sweets on a regular basis. Even though you may be healthy the system could negatively score you on it: your health insurance could cost more, because the system puts you in a risk group for diabetes, and you may have to pay more for dental treatments, even though you take good care of your teeth. A system will score you via numbers: If statistics say you are more likely to be a criminal because you grew up in a certain area with a lot of gang violence or are more likely to succeed when your parents have well-paying careers, will this have any consequences on which colleges or scholarships you can apply to?
Transparency in how a system like this works is very important. Only then, can we be sure its purpose is really to make our lives safer and more convenient. Also, how do we make sure people not in the system can still participate in everyday life. A recent headline in China was about a man who had to turn himself in after 16 years on the run for murder, as he didn't have a smartphone and therefore no health code, which Chinese authorities use to fight the spread of the corona virus, and thus could not access public transport or even find a place to live. I am sure we can all agree that one less criminal on the street is very positive, but what about elderly who do not use smartphones, like your grandparents? Would they be excluded from society, because they are not part of a digital scoring system?
In order for a digital scoring system to work there are a lot of issues which still need to be discussed, tested or understood, like transparency, privacy, and discrimination issues. And we still have a long way to go, before an AI can grant someone the opportunity to get an apartment or take the bus.
Assistive tech is changing disabled people's lives
Independence has no price. For disabled people, new assistive technology can make all the difference. These recent examples show what's possible and set a standard for tech with a purpose far beyond speed and convenience.
Assistive technologies change lives
For some people with disabilities, doing daily tasks independently can be a challenge. Assistive tech (also known as adaptive technology) is any device or other means that means a disabled person can do more without support from for example, a care assistant.Assistive tech itself isn't new. Magnifying glasses for people with low vision date back to around 1250 and Braille came along in 1820. Technologies range from the relatively straightforward, like this text-to-speech app for people with dyslexia to more affordable high-tech artificial limbs like Motorica's:
What if everyone who needed it could use assistive tech?
A billion people or 15 percent of the world's population has some form of disability. But only 1 in 10 can access assistive technologies. While Motorica sets its sights on making prosthetics affordable for everyone, assistive technology is often expensive. With widespread adoption, how could these assistive technologies change lives for the better?
With more companies starting to understand the importance of assistive tech and disabled people increasingly spearheading its development, affordability can only improve in future.
Here are some compelling examples of assistive tech that's on the horizon or already here.
Computers can be challenging for people with some kinds of visual and motor impairments. Norwegian start-up No Isolation has stepped up to make computing more accessible with its one-button computer, KOMP. Here's how it works.
No Isolation also offers a rent-a-KOMP model as a way to make their assistive tech more accessible.
This smart cane uses ultrasonic sensors to identify obstructions like street signs and tree branches, sending out vibrations to warn its user. WeWalk also connects to a smartphone app, giving voice-activated directions and alerts to help find a misplaced or moved cane. There's even talk of connecting the cane to autonomous vehicles in future.
3. Fridai: Voice-activated gaming AI
Could voice-activated AI for billions of gamers with disabilities be the future of gaming? See for yourself in Tomorrow Unlocked's Defenders of Digital series:
For people with visual impairments, The Dot is a Braille smartwatch that gives users the time and date in Braille, and includes alarms, a Braille dictionary and the ability to answer or reject phone calls. On top of all that, a five-day battery life makes it all the more usable.
Useful for people with conditions like lateral sclerosis, spinal cord injury or multiple sclerosis (MS,) Open Sesame lets you control smartphones, tablets and computers with head movements. Like so:
Another piece of genius hands-free engineering, this time for people using electric wheelchairs. Munevo DRIVE is a pair of smart glasses that lets users manipulate their wheelchair using head movements. See for yourself:
One device theoretical physicist and author Stephen Hawking used to communicate involved him tensing a muscle in his cheek. Earswitch lets users operate it with a tiny, hidden muscle in the ear:
OrCam MyEye2 is a voice-activated, wearable assistive vision device that can read out any text and even tell you people's names using facial recognition, designed for people with vision impairment and reading difficulties. Here's how it works:
Cybathlon: Assistive tech’s ultimate showcase
With the pace of assistive technology development speeding up, Cybathlon is a great way to see the latest in assistive tech, with a competitive edge. At Cybathlon, people with disabilities compete against each other using their assistive tech to perform everyday tasks and more. We even made a film about it:
As with all new technologies that can improve lives, assistive tech needs regulation to make sure people's personal and sensitive data stays safe. What are your thoughts? Tell us how you see the future of assistive technologies on Twitter and Facebook.
Chatting with Leiden University space law expert, Tanja Masson-Zwaan
Law protects orbit from space cowboys, gold rushes and rogue satellite launches, but making it work for today's space exploration realities is challenging. I chat with International Institute of Air and Space Law's Tanja Masson-Zwaan (@tanjamasson) about the ins and outs of space law, as part of Tomorrow Unlocked's audio series Fast Forward.
Ken: What have been the biggest changes in space exploration since the Moon landings 50 years ago?
Tanja: Nowadays, it's not two superpowers – the US and the Soviet Union – but many more countries and start-ups, companies, even universities. That change raises legal issues because space law is based on states rather than corporations or entities. Under the many space treaties, resolutions and so on, states are responsible and liable, and must perform their activities in certain ways.
Companies becoming involved, maybe becoming the main actors, stresses the system. That's why we see new national legislation: States are making sure their companies and entities don't break the principles they signed up to.
Ken: So if I launch a satellite that damages someone else's satellite, my government is liable, rather than me?
Tanja: When a private entity launches and operates a satellite, it first needs state authorization and supervision – for instance, through a license from the government. If their satellite crashed into a satellite owned by another state, the state that launched the object is liable, not the private entity.
That's different from aviation. If you lose your suitcase, you can sue the airline. If your satellite is damaged, you will go to your Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who would present a claim to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the state that launched the satellite that caused the damage.
Ken: What's the legal position on mining in space?
Tanja: Extracting and commercially using space resources is essential for establishing a semi-permanent human presence on the Moon or Mars, or for using the Moon as a stepping stone to Mars. You wouldn't have to bring all the water you need from Earth – you could use water on the Moon and transform it into fuel to go to Mars. But whether you can use those resources or commercialize them is a legal question not addressed in space treaties.
Companies are asking, are we allowed to own and commercialize these resources? There is growing consensus that it's not illegal, but how do you make sure it happens in a regulated way and doesn't become a gold rush? The treaties also have a principle that benefits from space must be for all countries. Many conditions must be guaranteed. But how? That's the debate.
Ken: When the US planted its flag on the Moon in 1969, was that legally valid? Did they claim anything?
Tanja: The US explicitly said putting their flag on the Moon was an expression of pride about being the first nation to the Moon, not claiming to own the Moon. To claim the Moon is contrary to a cardinal principle of space law: You cannot own any part of outer space – but owning a part of space isn't needed to use it and its resources.
Ken: Growing up with the space race, I don't think many thought about the environmental impact. It seems like laws are needed in that area now.
Tanja: When the space era started, it really was a space race – neither side worried about what was going up. Scientists were excited just to be launching things into space. But space is getting polluted. There are also concerns about going to another celestial body and spoiling its pristine environment with bacteria. There are rules about what level of protection you must apply depending on the mission and where you're going.
We need clear environmental protection rules and enforcement, for example, obliging parties to do an environmental impact assessment. If we have a settlement on the Moon, we'll have to think about managing waste. The Apollo landings left bags of garbage on the Moon. If there will be a sustained human presence, will we have a landfill on the Moon? Are we going to put garbage into orbit? We'll need ways to keep it sustainable because we depend on space.
Ken: Is there a fundamental question around our right as a species to go into space? Some people feel passionately that we have no business on Mars because it's not our planet.
Tanja: And some cultures have special connections with the Moon and other celestial bodies. It's important to respect that. But humankind is driven to push frontiers and to discover. I like Russian rocket scientist Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky's quote, "Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot remain in the cradle forever." We should go out and explore, but show respect for other beliefs and the environments of other planets.
Ken: What is possible within the law to restrain corporate buccaneers from taking advantage of space?
Tanja: There are some space cowboys out there doing things that may raise concerns. Is that what we want?
I think we should appreciate the good being done alongside issues it raises. Elon Musk now operates a third of all satellites, and that happened in a year. If he launches the planned 42,000 satellites, how will we deal with that? He also says he will provide broadband to places on Earth that don't have it, and that's good. And he's developed reusable rockets, so he's contributing to space sustainability.
I think there needs to be a regulatory counterweight. The US authorities should ask those in Elon Musk's position to do environmental impact assessments and find ways to develop their plans without disrupting science and astronomy. It's give and take, but you have to appreciate what these people are doing – they have the money states never will.
Ken: What's next in your space law work?
Tanja: I've just started a big EU project researching the European position on space traffic management. We don't yet have rules on space traffic management nor space security and safety, like retrieving objects from outer space.
Ken: Could there be money in space salvage – bringing satellite components back to Earth?
Tanja: An analogy is salvaging wrecks on the sea. A shipowner can abandon a ship, and a salvage company can salvage it, selling the scrap metal. We have an extra problem in space because space object ownership is eternal – you can't abandon anything.
We need to get a space debris-removal industry going, but they'll need approval for every piece they retrieve. The state that launched it will be eternally liable if something else is damaged during space salvage.
We also need to make it possible to refuel or repair in space. So as well as space salvage, space sustainability may mean a new industry of in-orbit servicing.
Ken: So there are wider benefits to a focus on sustainability in space. Thanks for filling us in on space law, Tanja.
Tanja: You're welcome.
Tanja Masson-Zwaan features in the Tomorrow Unlocked audio series Fast Forward, Episode 6. Listen to Fast Forward and explore more interviews with featured experts.