Category: Research

Radicalizing Twitter

Twitter states that their mission is “to give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers” (Twitter). A powerful a statement coming from one of the largest social media websites in the world, and as a platform of 300 million users that can collectively respond to any disruption in the world, it’s the end of that statement that is slowly becoming a burden too heavy to carry by the social media titan. Among plunging stock prices and trouble finding substantial advertisers (Statt), Twitter is, and has been, facing a much more sinister threat to its existence as the essential social platform “without barriers”. A threat that is the culmination of western philosophy and eastern indoctrination techniques that are now being spread across the globe on the platform. Its name is the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and its tool is Twitter.

In the last 10 years, Twitter has become a platform of propaganda and recruitment that is advancing the way terrorism connects to the world by creating a digital podium that can be used to challenge religion and government across the planet. Evolving rapidly from the communication methods terrorism used in the past, and, arguably, surpassing many American marketing strategies, ISIS has turned to Twitter to promote extremism, incite violence, and spread the jihadist message. And in the very same way that American’s react emotionally to viral content seen anywhere on the web, this message is being absorbed and reverberated through the community at a startling pace. In order to halt the progress of ISIS’s massive, online propaganda machine, Twitter needs to be examined as to why it has become the best platform for spreading information, and what specific communication techniques are being employed by ISIS.

Organized terrorism faces a unique problem when it comes to communications. Leaders at the top need to flow orders down to the bottom, recruitment efforts need to be emphasized in the correct manner, and the group needs to instill fear into any opposition. (Pekgozlu, Ozdemir, & Ercikt) With at least 200,000 pro-ISIS tweets a day (“Terror Threat Snapshot”), all of this needs to be done nowadays without leaving any sort of digital footprint. At least not in any tangible way that can lead directly back to leadership.

Not even a decade ago, videos released from extremist groups, such as Al-Qaeda, were nothing more than a routine, talking head in a cold cave on the other side of the planet. The editing was crude, color tones were bland, and the only message received by the American people were that of complete savages living as such (Pekgozlu, Ozdemir, & Ercikt). To many Americans, this was hardly a threat to their way of life. Al-Qaeda recruitment efforts were very much different than the system ISIS uses today. The boundary of their endeavors were fairly restricted to the Middle East, and surrounding areas. As the group would enter towns and villages, Al-Qaeda would build a support network to help recruit people for their cause. In doing so, the group would offer financial help to those eager to receive it, as well as offer a solution to more social situations. Those people would then be used to spread the message further with each acting a a single node to a large network of people. However, that was the extent of any outreach conducted by the group themselves. Communities around the world helped spread the message without intent, mostly the mainstream media. In order to draft suicide bombers, Al-Qaeda preyed on weak individuals with drug addictions and histories of mental illness. (Ibrahim)

Al-Qaeda was developed with a cellular structure. Members of the cell are not aware of leadership and can only communicate with other members of the cell. These cells are spread out through the region. In order to operate this kind of organization, communication is crucial. However, just like their public communications, Al-Qaeda’s private means of communications were just as primitive. If an order needed to be given, a human courier was used most often. In some cases, they would risk using private chat rooms, however that was rarely the case as the groups would not often take the risk. (Hamilton)

Fast forward ten years and Al-Qaeda has been eliminated, the Internet has developed to a capacity hardly restrained by regulations, and ISIS is now the most prominent terror threat in the world. Has Twitter been the catalyst to foster such radical change, to position ISIS atop the pedestal it currently sits?  The most notable case to demonstrate this massive change is illustrated with the #AllEyesOnISIS campaign. With a single hashtag, ISIS was able to publicly announce, at a global level, the assault on Northern Iraq and the soon after capture of Mosul. First seen on July 19th, #AllEyesOnISIS storm started surging on June 19th, 2014 (Shiraz $ Carter). Started as a retaliation to President Barack Obama’s announcement of air strikes in the area, #AllEyesOnISIS quickly captured the attention of the users on Twitter, specifically within the Muslim community. Support started pouring in from all over the world. A photo with a user holding note professing support for ISIS with the Roman Coliseum standing in the background is tweeted at 3:22am June 20th. “We support the Mujahideen of the Islamic State” reads another photo tweeted from Australia a few hours following. Another tweet pictures a plane window looking over an Asian mountain range with another message encouraging the efforts of ISIS. In time, thousands of people, and their collective voice, proudly proclaimed their support for ISIS, and at that moment, terror learned of the strength that Twitter wields. (De Graaf)

Since #AllEyesOnISIS, ISIS has found ways to take advantage of Twitter and manufacture it into the instrument of propaganda that it is today. The most evident example is the group’s development of videos. As mentioned earlier, videos that were released in the past had nothing more than a person in a cave issuing a threat to the masses, along with an inherent dependence on the mainstream media to amplify the message. Today, they develop highly targeted videos, all with a purpose and a target audience, that can be instantly spread by that very same audience. Furthermore, the immense amount of effort that goes into making these videos rivals that of a Hollywood movie. Situations are scripted so that ISIS victories can become glorified, exaggerating the sense of achievement in the region. In some cases, special effects are added in post-production, along with grandiose music, to heighten the emotional connection to the video. The video is then released through a network of Twitter accounts while the message is retweeted from continent to continent, invading the minds of anyone willing to surrender. (Berger & Morgan)

To further illustrate ISIS’s sophisticated use of video, the deployment technique itself can be investigated further. In the age of the Internet, the shorter the video, the better. This is especially the case with Twitter, a platform that boasts itself on a cavalier “less is more” attitude.  ISIS understands this. Videos are rarely over five minutes long, with the majority falling within the one-minute range. This is quite the distance from the documentary propaganda videos created by Al-Qaeda. Distributing these shorter videos allows for the group to tailor the message to a variety of different audiences, as well as create and distribute many more videos. Another prominent feature was highlighted in the James Foley execution video. The video was short, only spent the necessary time to get the message across, and faded to black right as a knife met James Foley’s neck. This method was used with a very deliberate purpose. The first purpose is that it could be quickly shared, and consumed, through a social media platform like Twitter. The second reason, the reason for fading to black, involved the mainstream media. American media already operates with the specific intentions of creating “clickbait”, or news titles that only give enough information to pull a user in. This drives traffic to a website and allows for quicker sharing (Brooking & Singer). In the case of the James Foley execution, it was a clickbait video intended to be shared specifically by the American media. After the edited version was picked up by the media, and played on national television due to no real violence being shown, the actual video was released onto Twitter to draw users to follow links that belonged to ISIS indoctrination and propaganda websites hosting the full video. In comparison to modern American marketing techniques, ISIS’s use of video strikes all the necessary chords. In fact, the similarity of this particular method of marketing comparative to that of a Super Bowl commercial is striking. (Berger & Morgan)

Aside from the videos that ISIS releases, there is also an active campaign on Twitter with the focus of fusing popular American culture with ISIS propaganda. The most prevalent example would include the #CatsOfISIS campaign. Created by ISIS as a means to exploit the Internet’s obsession with pictures of cats, the photos shown revealed a more human side to the extremist group not seen by the American public before. By sharing photos of cats and hiding the true message, individuals would become much more susceptible to indoctrination. #CatsOfISIS would be only one of many different hashtags that would open up multiple different avenues for a person to arrive at viewing the photo. With the state of today’s Internet sub-culture, identifying with a kitten next to a grenade is much easier a message to spread than that of a beheading (Chastain). Another way of integrating culture is by creating celebrities out of certain fighters. As a propaganda mechanism, this is nothing new. Find a person with a compelling story and drive that narrative until everyone believes in the cause. However, with the use of Twitter, that narrative can spread like wildfire and that person can be lifted to a pantheon not seen in conflicts past. Jihadi John may be the best use of Celebrity within ISIS. Jihadi John was a convert from a foreign country, spoke in an English accent, and executed his victims on camera, including James Foley. The message to the users across the world that see him on Twitter is that if a young person like Jihadi John could get to where he was, why couldn’t they? Information on Jihadi John spread through Twitter as quickly as the tweets of American pop stars. Even after being confirmed dead as a victim of a drone strike in January of 2016, a quick search for #jihadijohn shows that support for him is still alive (“Jihadi John and Terror’s Celebrity Factor”)

All of these messages are an active endeavor to play on emotions. When inspecting why users share as much information as they do on social media, studies indicate that they are specifically driven by emotion (Morrison). ISIS propaganda taps into these emotions and the science behind them. In order to make their content go viral, whether it’s in the depths of Twitter or in the mainstream media, ISIS knows how to evoke high-arousal emotions. In American marketing, there is a model that can predict virality. The model is based on Valence, Arousal, and Dominance (VAD). Valence is how positive or negative an emotion is. Arousal is the range from excitement to relaxation. Dominance is the spectrum between submission and feeling in control (Jones, Libert, & Tynski) As every emotion falls somewhere on the VAD model, ISIS had been finding way to use that to their advantage. Whenever an organization is marketing content, “the message is the virus, the carriers are your audience, and a strong emotional connection to the message is the catalyst” (Jones). As ISIS pushes their propaganda across Twitter, they stay very clear of emotions that that have been proven to be less viral. #CatsOfISIS incites a very positive mixture of emotions, joy and amusement, which in turn indicates that the content will be shared more. On the other end of the spectrum, propaganda videos for pro-ISIS supporters are generally more shocking, another emotion that will factor into the likelihood of virality. This would mostly include video of executions and bombings, and are an act to inspire radicals and push them to share content within their communities.

Propaganda is not the only function Twitter serves to the Islamic State. Since its inception, ISIS has notoriously used Twitter, a western technology, to communicate with thousands of individuals across the social network with a best estimate of 46,000 overt ISIS supporters (Berger & Morgan). The ISIS recruitment effort is a highly effective machine that targets individuals they believe will be valuable to their cause. In fact, the group uses American Twitter marketing strategies to do just that. According to Lars Schmidt, co-founder of the recruitment company Amplify Talent, there is a very specific process that needs to be adhered to on Twitter in order to recruit individuals for careers. Lars begins with the first step any company should do when getting started on Twitter, which is to build a brand presence. The brand that is being created should be personalized and have a message that can relate to potential candidates. The second is to localize the practices to best fit your organization. This would involve an internal examination of the message and how best to express it. Once that is done, the company can begin engagement efforts. This is most likely done by analyzing specific hashtags and manually targeting individuals that show interest in the efforts of the company. Once targets have been sourced, the company can reach out to the individuals and begin communications. If the message is properly received, individuals are then captured (Schmidt). When employing these typical American marketing techniques, and through the use of a massive amount of supporters driving their marketing engine, the company examined illustrates the exact same efforts used by the Islamic State.

In order to fully understand this endeavor, the New York Times, in a joint effort with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, examined a very specific young woman in the state of Washington as she was targeted by ISIS sympathizers. Titled ISIS and the Lonely Young American, the article illuminates ISIS’s application of dark treachery masquerading as kindness and friendship. Alex, the young American woman, was a Sunday school teacher and a babysitter. Sick of her suburban lifestyle, a feeling of loneliness bared down on the 23-year-old. She longed for friends and companionship. Eventually, upon hearing the news of James Foley’s execution, she took to Twitter to openly ask questions about ISIS and their motives. This was soon followed by an orchestrated indoctrination effort used many times before (Callimachi), an effort outlined first in Al Qaeda’s A Course in the Art of Recruiting. Although this document was first captured in a cave in Iraq in 2009, the techniques are still the same, although they have been inflated to keep up with current technologies. Emphasize isolation, wait for the opportune moment, and a proper set of manners are among the many techniques that litter the definitive terrorist recruitment guide (Al Qa’idi). These techniques were exactly what was used against the young Alex.

“All of us have a natural firewall in our brain that keeps us from bad ideas. They Look for weaknesses in the wall, and then they attack” (Wedaddy in Callimachi). And that’s just what ISIS did. After detecting the sense of isolation Alex already had, ISIS recruiters actively pushed her further from her family and her faith. Upon asking her questions, she was flooded with individuals begging to be her friend, to shower her in gifts, and support any idea she had. These gifts included outfits, chocolate, money, and a translated version of the Quran. One gift, to both Alex and her interested cousin, contained lots of chocolate, a hallmark card with a cutout of a kitten, and $40. The card was signed with “Please go out and enjoy pizza TOGETHER”, followed underneath by, “Twitter Friends”. Although Twitter user @KindLadyAdilah pressed against the grooming process, warning death if Alex were to continue, she abandoned reason and dedicated herself to the Muslim way of life. While leading a double life, Alex went on record to describe discussions of bombings with Twitter user @SurgeonOfDeath and even an interrogation process with user @InviteToIslam, a radical Islamist group based in England (Middle East Media Research Institute in Callimachi), to prove she wasn’t an American spy. Alex’s situation was eventually brought to the attention of her family as she was planning a trip to Austria. A trip to marry a 40-year-old man and complete her conversion of faith. Alex’s involvement ended after her grandmother contacted the FBI, as she promptly agreed to cooperate in an intensive investigation. However, even after the article in the New York Times, and agreeing to not contact members of ISIS or ISIS supporters again, Alex continues communications to this day; a testament to the resolution of the Islamic State’s recruitment efforts (Callimachi).

As ISIS has clearly shown mastery of propaganda and recruitment on Twitter, one could argue that Twitter should be responsible for the rise of the terrorist organization. Would the remnants of Al Qaeda have been able to have been pieced together to form ISIS and initiate the global impact that has since followed if not for Twitter as a communications platform? With tweets stating “The killing will be .. I start walking with my bomb and no one know I have a bomb I will kill a more more more of son of bitch Americans” (@enghaltham1989), can Twitter safely walk the line between a private company upholding the privacy of their users and that of a sympathizer towards terrorism?

In order to combat such criticism, Twitter has upped the rate at which it handles pro-ISIS accounts. In a statement from the company following a suspension of 125,000 accounts promoting acts of terrorism in early 2016, the company condemns “the use of Twitter to promote terrorism”.  The company also emphasizes that the “Twitter Rules make it clear that this type of behavior, or any violent threat, is not permitted on our service” (Twitter). Although ISIS benefits extremely from Twitter, this act was followed by death threats towards the company’s cofounder, Jack Dorsey, as it was a direct effort with authorities to identify the accounts that were suspended. (IJR). However, many believe this is not enough to battle the narrative pushed by ISIS on Twitter. Suspensions do not delete the accounts, and they eventually become active again. In one case, user @turjaman123 has been suspended at least 122 times (IJR). At the time of this writing, the account was suspended, although not removed from the site. Suspensions also serve as a tool to focus user efforts. Trends indicate that, following large suspensions, pro-ISIS accounts become more active and insular in order to push their agenda harder and farther, even if their boundaries remain within the realm of supporting accounts (Berger & Morgan).

FBI director James Comey also insinuates Twitter’s responsibility. “ISIL’s M.O. is they broadcast on Twitter, get people to follow them, then move them to Twitter Direct Messaging while they evaluate whether they’re a potential liaison either to travel or to kill where they are. (Comey in “Terror Threat Snapshot”). However, in a lawsuit filed against Twitter, a grieving widow of a terror attack victim disputed ISIS’s presence on Twitter as material support for terrorism (Brandom). The judge ultimately deemed Twitter, and it’s direct messaging capabilities, to be applicable under the Safe Harbor clause of the Communications Decency Act (“Tamara Fields v. Twitter Inc.”). This clause was created to protect “online services from liability for speech published on their network” (Brandom). Legally, as it this case suggests, Twitter is not responsible for the rise of ISIS and its extensive online presence.

ISIS has taken the techniques of yesteryear and successfully applied them to the tools of the modern age in a manner that would outshine any American marketing agency. In doing so, the terrorist organization has successfully manipulated western technology against the very people that created it, and in return, generated the most enthusiasm for a terror group this world has ever seen. In fact, the Islamic State’s efforts were noticed and feelings of sympathy have even been generated through the research conducted for this paper, or at the very least, it’s been made very apparent how and why individuals would share compassion towards the group. Radicalizing the planet has never been so easy… and ISIS owes it all to Twitter.

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Minecraft’s Effect on Institutional Organization

As a game, Minecraft offers an incredible amount of entertainment a replayability. Since the year it was released, I have spent many hours in these procedurally generated worlds fending off creepers, building structures to survive the night, and mining precious ores to progress further into the game. Minecraft is a game that will define a generation… But it will do more than that.

Minecraft started as a project by Markus Persson. The intent was to create an endless world with RPG elements. For the first few days in the game, the player needs to quickly mine resources and build defenses in order to survive the night. Lethal mobs of creatures come out at night to attack the player. Along with building structures, the player needs to build weapons and tools. The weapons help in fighting the creatures and the tools allow for quicker mining. As the days go by in the game, surviving turns to mining for precious resources. The further you go down into the world, the more precious the minerals are. Crafting begins to get more difficult as well, needing much rarer materials. Once the player has built up enough defenses and has made the right tools, they can make the journey to the “End” and defeat the Ender Dragon. It’s possible for a single player to get that far, but it’s much easier with a few players and needs a lot of effort and organization.

Ender Dragon

Generally, these goals would be achieved through institutional organization. From what I could find, institutional organization is based on normative procedures. These procedures are then standardized and instituted across the organization. In terms of Minecraft, it would be that one person, or a group of persons, are responsible for maintaining the ovens to smelt the precious metals. Another person, or group, is responsible for chopping down tress and collecting wood resources. One final person, or group, would be in charge of mining the precious metals. At the top, there would be one more person, or group, that decides what all these other groups are responsible for and determines their course. As this is generally how most workplaces operate, I expected Minecraft would operate the same. I was wrong.

It wasn’t until I recently started playing Minecraft with my five year old son that I saw Minecraft as a tool for learning instead of just a game. To take it even further, at the beginning of the semester, I built a server and invited 10 people to spend some time together in this server and analyze how Minecraft changes the way people interact and communicate. The most obvious impact I noticed was how traditional institutional organization went completely out the window inside the world of Minecraft.

Minecraft Structures

The ten people I invited were a combination of my brothers, my friends, and my son. They ranged in age from 5 to 35 and half had held jobs and the other half have not. I believed this to be a good combination of people to study from. When I first invited them to the world, the two that were most experiences with Minecraft took over the course of direction. They informed us that we needed to find a good place to set up our homes that would be close to all the resources we needed. After we found a base, the group split up and claimed various places as our personal homes. At this point, I would expect us all to work together to achieve our goals. This isn’t what happened.

People did split up, but retained focus on the goal. They built their separate houses and mined their own resources. Resources were kept operate but pooled. If anyone needed something, they were allowed to take them so that we all kept going in the same direction, at the same pace. After a few days of personal exploring, we came together to build a giant mine. No one person took control, no one person made all the decisions, it all happened organically. The most notable observation in the mining process was smelting. The ovens needed to be maintained to continue smelting precious ores so that we could continue. Instead of having one person do that, we all would maintain it as we walked by. If someone saw something that needed to be done, they just did it. In institutional organization, a single entity would be responsible for all of this. Either making the decision where to mine, maintaining the furnaces, or mining down into the earth.

Minecraft Characters

After a few days of mining, we had enough resources to find the End and the Ender Dragon. We needed to find a portal to the End in a forest mansion. There was zero traditional organization in this happening. We all just started exploring until we found the portal. When it came time to fight the Ender Dragon, organization did come into play. However, it was very loose. The organization observed was based on roles. Specific actions were not delivered, but roles of archer, swordsmen, medic, and mage, were defined. As of 5 days ago, we defeated the Ender Dragon.

Minecraft has sold over 100 million copies worldwide and is on every major console and mobile platform there is. And through my experiment with my son, family, and friends, there is one final conclusion I could come up with. Minecraft is teaching an entire generation to operate independently and achieve complex goals without any sort of traditional institutional organization.

This experiment was to see how people, across all ages, operate in the digital world of Minecraft. Moving forward, and as a father, I want to do more research into how this will affect the workplace in 20 years. If these children can operate under these conditions, will they when they find a job?

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Trends Towards a Singularity

“With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet”… Victor Frankenstein continues reflecting on a dark, dreary November night. And as his Creation takes its first breath, Victor realizes “the different accidents of life are not so changeable as the feelings of human nature” (Shelley, 1994, pg 42-43). In describing that moment, a self-proclaimed “catastrophe”, Victor Frankenstein perfectly interprets the transcendence of man and machine, an event, bound only by time, that might lead to the inevitable.

Mary Shelley’s classic depiction of artificial intelligence (AI) may be cruel, at best, however it portrays a more primal and humanistic fear of technological progress. A fear that is rooted in self-destruction; a fear of an impending Singularity. At a high level, the singularity represents a unity between organic life and synthetic intelligence, along with the consequences that soon follow. The evolution of artificial intelligence and technology suggests such an event will happen. However, in order to justify even the slightest suggestion of a Singularity, the event needs to be clearly defined and the current state and path of artificial intelligence examined.

Artificial intelligence began as a science with a clear objective, “to replicate human level intelligence in a machine” (Brooks, 1987). As a technology, it received massive investments that allowed for momentum to carry the technology further, and quicker, than any other technology before. In time, individuals began to notice the energy the industry had and hypothesized an event that may occur if this energy was not regulated. This event is defined as a technological, or biological, Singularity, dependent on the theory one chooses to believe in.

The first to describe such an event was Vernor Vinge within NASA’s Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering in the Era of Cyberspace. Vinge proposed that, by the year 2030, the world will see “the development of computers that are awake and superhumanly intelligent”, that “computer/human interfaces may become so intimate that users may reasonably be considered superhumanly intelligent”, and “biological science may find ways to improve upon natural human intellect” (Vinge, 1991, pg 11). In the same way modern technology, across all industries, improves upon itself given the correct amount of time, this hypothesis imposes that the rapid progress made in the space of artificial intelligence will lead to an “intelligence explosion” (Good, 1965). This explosion will be a series of self-improvements, conceived by the synthetic agents humans will create, to allow for the destruction of the human race. As such, this is the path of the technological Singularity. According the Vinge, “we cannot prevent the Singularity, that its coming is an inevitable consequence of the humans’ competitiveness and the possibilities inherent in technology” (Vinge, 1991, pg 16).

Ray Kurzweil, in his book The Singularity is Near, defined the Singularity as a very different event. Kurzweil saw that transcending human biology is no mere task. His stance was to reverse engineer the human brain and interface it with a machine. This meant more than just “adding a fourth cell phone or doubling the number of unwanted e-mails”. Kurzweil implies that the Singularity “means perfecting the technologies to conquer cancer and other devastating diseases, creating ubiquitous wealth to overcome poverty, cleaning up the environment from the effects of the first industrial revolution, and overcoming many other age-old problems” (Kurzweil, 2005). Among this list includes the ability to overcome aging, reduce disease, and, in some cases, even defeat Death himself. The intention of amplifying human cognitive abilities will greatly reduce the impact that humans have had on the world, furthering many to believe this biological Singularity to be the most likely to occur through the sheer will of humanity to correct their mistakes.

One aspect of these theories, however, has made quite the impact in the scientific community and has developed an ideology unto itself: transhumanism. According to the Institute of Ethics and Emerging Technologies, transhumans are defined as the effort of “modifying the human species via any kind of emerging science, including genetic engineering, digital technology, and bioengineering” (LaGrandeur, 2014). Transhumanist search to enhance the human condition through bioaugmentation, not in an effort to correct any kind of abilities, but to improve normal human functions. By extension of transhumanism, the idea of posthumans has also come into existence. Posthumans can be described as the “condition in which humans and intelligent technology are becoming increasingly intertwined” (LaGrandeur, 2014). Through this belief, humanity evolves to the point that function takes precedence over form. To further the definition of transhumanism, Max More described it as,

both a reason-based philosophy and a cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition by means of science and technology. Transhumanists seek the continuation and acceleration of the evolution of intelligent life beyond its currently human form and human limitations by means of science and technology, guided by life-promoting principles and values. (2009)

Through this definition, transhumanism can be interpreted as the promotion of all sentient life. Upon the event of a Singularity, humanity becomes more of a process and the human body, or any body, becomes the equivalent of an accessory. Whether it’s a human or a machine, humanity will evolve past the need to be bound to a physical form.

When studying the progression of technology and the likelihood of a technological Singularity, Vernor Vinge’s hypothesis, four main points indicate its probability. The first confesses that “the study of the history of technology reveals that technological progress has long been accelerating”. The second states that “there are good reasons to think that this acceleration will continue for at least several more decades”. The third admits that “if it does continue, our technological achievements will become so great that our bodies, minds, societies, and economies will be radically transformed”. The final statement suggests “it is likely that this disruptive transformation will occur” (Eden, Steanhart, Pearce, Moor, 2012). However, what technological advancements suggest this, or Kurzweil’s theory, will ever occur?

The Singularity, as an event horizon that will change all matters of life on Earth, cannot be easily predicted. Both theories have the Singularity occurring around the year 2045. In an effort to argue for the progress towards a Singularity, Kurzweil presents the Law of Accelerating Returns. This “law” suggests that instead of steady progression towards the end goal, technological advancement will exponentially accelerate. Kurzweil suggests,

We won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century—it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate). The “returns,” such as chip speed and cost-effectiveness, also increase exponentially. There’s even exponential growth in the rate of exponential growth. Within a few decades, machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence, leading to The Singularity (2001)

The rate of technological growth was fairly flat until the Industrial Revolution. Once it began, the rate at which technology evolved became very exponential, and continues to this very day. If humanity were to view the Digital Revolution (the late 20th century) in the same manner, the assumption that a Singularity will occur in our lifetime becomes increasingly more likely.

In order for the Singularity to occur before 2047, a few milestones must first be achieved. This path is based on resources, or technologies, becoming available to the populace in an almost infinite supply and are only a handful of many different possibilities. The first milestone would be to have 5 billion people on the planet connected to the Internet with speeds greater than 10mbps. Once the infrastructure is established, it is likely that this will happen before 2025. The second milestone would be a worldwide capacity of 1 terawatts of photovoltaic energy. Again, infrastructure needs to be established, however, this energy source will decrease human dependence on finite natural resources. This can be expected sometime around 2030. The third milestone would to have 90 percent of the world’s population living in developed countries, as determined by a UN Human Development Index greater than .8000 (equivalent to the United States in the 1960’s). Through worldwide efforts, and the advancement of technology, this should be reached by 2035. The last milestone would be an artificial intelligence that can pass the Turing Test. Developed by Alan Turing, the Turing Test is specifically designed to test the responses of a machine. Instead of testing to find the correct answer, Turing examines how humanlike a response is and whether or not a machine can imitate a human. Effective imitation, which also imposes more thought like functions, is estimated to be achieved around 2040. Although there are many different milestones that need to be achieved, the combination of these four will set the world up to be prepared for the likely Singularity. (The Futurist, n.d.)

The possibility of a Singularity is easy to argue, however, it’s just as easy is argue against. The most critical aspect of Kurzweil’s theory rests on the Law of Accelerated Returns, yet this law is not a physical one. This is an assumption using past technological and scientific progress to predict future progress, a concept that is only valid while true (Allan, 2011). It can also be clearly argued that the current level of understanding of the brain is in no way ready, nor will it be anytime soon, for the levels of reverse engineering needed to incite a Singularity (Hartsfield, 2013). Lastly, most mainstream support for technological progress is dependent on hardware advancements. However, just as the hardware needs to be developed, so too does the software that runs on it, and not just artificial intelligence (Allan, 2011). If a Singularity is to be achieved by Kurzweil’s and Vinge’s predictions, these hurdles need to be addressed.

Technological progress will bring with it a Singularity. When it will happen is up for debate, with multiple trends leading in very different directions. Will it be a single event like a machine gaining consciousness, or will it be a decade long process of engineering a brain? No one quite knows, nor can it be accurately calculated. However, whether it’s the technological demise proposed by Vinge or, more likely, the biological transformation put forth by Kurzweil, “we are the last. The last generation to be unaugmented. The last generation to be intellectually alone. The last generation to be limited by our bodies” (Beight & Reddell, n.d.).

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The Sovereignty of Cyberspace

The Internet is a very unique gathering of individuals, in a very strange sort of place, and it should stay that way. However, the American government, with the support of conglomerates like Comcast, are looking to strangle the very essence that makes the Internet what it is. Collectively, cyber citizens need to rise up and fight for what we have nurtured, created, and love so dearly.

“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”

So begins the Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace; authored by John Perry Barlow for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which I am a member, in the Febuary of 1996. This entire document was written almost a decade before social media was put into practice, or was even a developed idea. It amazing to me that almost 20 years later, these words have more of an impact, and are somewhat predifined, as a fateful recreation of the years to come.

SOPA, PIPA, Comcast, PRISM, the NSA, and countless others are searching for a way to infringe upon our privacy; take our liberties and enforce laws in a domain where no laws should exist. I’m an avid, and proud, supporter of a free web. The Internet needs to stay a place where people can express themselves in any way they see fit, a place where business can be conducted without too many hands trying to find there way into the pot, and a place that cutural and social difference don’t divide people, they unite them.

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Does World Citizenship Matter?

I recently listened to the Nerdist podcast with Bill Gates. I thought that it would be focused on Microsoft and his history with the company. Instead, and what I didn’t realize, was that it was released along with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Annual Letter. I knew that he was a huge supporter of third world countries, and that his philanthropic helped people all over the globe. But what I did not expect out of listening was to be introduced to “world citizenship”.

And honestly, it does matter; in ways I’ve never thought of, or realized, before. The concept is that everyone on the planet should be aware of the welfare of the rest of the world. Even though I’ve always been stubborn and only care about the United States, it made me realize a few things. Conflict in the Middle East DOES affect everyone, Polio and different diseases CAN affect me, political unrest in Egypt WILL affect my son’s life in the future, and there IS something I can do about it.

World citizenship is a very unique theory. I’m happy to have ended up listening to the whole podcast, and even read the annual letter (both are linked below). I don’t want to push people, or inspire them to do something. Just give the letter a read, or the podcast a listen, and make your own conclusion.

Nerdist Podcast with Bill Gates

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Annual Letter

 

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