Pretty Patterns

I was invited to submit an idea for a science – science fiction workshop. “Write 250 words about an artificial life technology that could have some important impacts in the next 50 years or so”. I ended up writing over 500 words about prison labour.

One of the distressing milestones of dementia occurs when the person no longer can recognize the face of their partner, children, best friend. Our ability to put a name to a face, to know a face, is so well developed that it’s a central part of our humanity. A significant amount of structure and function of the brain seems to be associated with facial recognition. There are various evolutionary arguments proposed to account for this. For example Homo sapiens are social animals and recognizing individuals from the same groups is an important skill. In fact our face recognition skills can be so prodigious that it can lead to false positives. That’s not just a piece of burnt toast, but the face of Jesus, head bowed in prayer.

Pattern recognition is an important topic in computer science. Not just because of its ability to torment undergraduates, but being able to reliably match patterns from ever increasing amounts of data is in a sense the challenge of our time. Big Data. Companies and organisations such as Facebook, Google, the NSA and GCHQ are also very interested in being able to recognize your face and identify patterns in your online behaviour. The thing is, most algorithms are a bit rubbish at seeing patterns. They often struggle to see new patterns or make generalisations based on existing ones.

This is why citizen science projects such as seek to harness not the computational power of engineered Turing machines but evolved human brains. An individual’s ability to classify images of distant galaxies supercedes the best in breed classification alrgorithms. Rather than pay large amounts of money for large amounts of computer time to crunch digitized images, the very clever folk at Galaxy Zoo invest in a website that allows anyone with an internet connection to logon and classify astronomical images. What they trade on is people’s goodwill and motivation to get involved and make real contributions to science.

But what about more mundane or less attractive pattern matching? Economic data can be visualised in such ways as to make it easier for humans to see patterns. People’s online behaviour is analysed to various ends. Which advert should be shown on a user’s Facebook page? Which individual is engaging in undesireable behaviour? Who is a security risk? But who would want to spend time recognising these sorts of patterns? Who would want to actively assist large corporations or organisations who are actively spying on them?

As of 2011, 2,266,800 adults were held in US state and federal prisons. A further 4,814,200 adults were in probation or on parole. The current rate of US incarceration has increased by over 400% over the past 40 years and continues to rise. Federal Prison Industries, a US government corporation, in 2008 generated sales totally $765 million using prisoner labour to produce items such electronic goods, textiles, office furniture and for the supply of services such as data entry and encoding.

1 thought on “Pretty Patterns

  1. Here’s mine:


    Imagine if we left trails. Trails that show where we’ve just been, what we’ve just been doing, how we’ve just been feeling.

    They’re not visible to the naked eye – they’re vapourous fumes, nano particles suspended in the air or smeared on surfaces that we’ve touched, walked over, or looked at. Micro tags or tracers – spreading from us like the pheromones from a busy termite or an intangible version of snail slime.

    Invisible to us, but they are there – and they can be seen (or smelt?) by some things: buzzing little nanodevices, personal transport vehicles, Google glasses, police sniffer dogbots.

    A population of people creates a soup of these trails, tendrils and pools and fogs, representing places that people tend to go, creating an overlay or coating that makes sense of the world. Here are commuter routes, here are meeting places, eating places. Here are places for kids, here are places for dads. Here are places for goths, here are places for toffs.

    Termites already use their pheromones to organise themselves to create enormous cathedral like homes that breathe and grow, and repair and restructure themselves, in response to the changing needs of the termite population. Imagine if our environment had the same capabilities – buildings that sense trails and adapt to the changing numbers and kinds of people inside. Freeform transport networks that work and rework themselves to reflect our changing destination choices.

    We’re already familiar with leaving trails online: “The people who checked out this book also looked at these other books”. What if that kind of functionality came to the physical world? Web trails have allowed people with obscure interests to find each other. And with numbers comes power and influence and community. What if that happened in a physical city?

    How could corporations exploit your trails? How could government use them to monitor and control you? What would privacy look like? How would a soft, reconfigurable world that can sense our behavioural patterns adapt itself to our needs and desires? How would our needs and desires change as a consequence?

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