Cambridge Analytica and the Hacking of Free Will

Stephen Hawking had written in his book The Grand Design that if you give him enough time and enough computer speed (both physically impossible), he can predict all of human behavior based on our molecular information. I think we have some free will, and many things that will happen defend on chance which cannot be predicted. Chaos Theory, and the Butterfly Effect as an example, says that minor actions/changes in the present can lead to major consequences in the future. But I do not know how much of our actions in the present are deterministic, and how much are free will/pure chance. Although I don’t think we can always determine when a butterfly will flap its wings, I think we can predict much of its behavior based on a lot of environmental reasons. And the same is true for humans because we too belong to the animal species and we too share traits common to us as a species, and even as individuals we have certain nature where our reactions to certain can be predicted with good probability.

What Cambridge Analytica did is something I have written for years, and something I knew can be and will be eventually done. For most of the last six to seven years, the question I have pondered the most is “why do humans believe and behave the way they do?” The deeper I have dived into neuroscience and psychology, the less I have believed in the concept of complete free will. As I have studied humans as a species and observed individuals and their nature, many of what we do can be predicted. At the very least, nothing about human behavior has surprised me in the last 4 years or so, not even the election of Donald Trump. We might consider ourselves to be rational species, yet we react according to our nature. It just so happens that the team we support is the team we were raised with – be it nationality, ethnicity, religion etc. Even the most moderate and rational amongst us will fall for partisanship in certain issues.

We know how certain animal species behave. And as such, we know how to manipulate their behavior and train them according to our needs. We also know the nature of our individual pets along with the general nature of their species. Therefore, how much free will do we really think other animals possess? As such, why should humans be any different because we too are an animal species. We already know how traits are transferred across generations. We can tell if a person inherited an angry nature or a calm nature from their parents or grandparents. We can make good probabilistic predictions as to how a person will react in a certain situation. And that is exactly what Cambridge Analytica did. Although it saddens me how easily voters were manipulated, as a scientist and lover of neuropsychology I am also fascinated at the use of data and understanding of human behavior to predict and influence our actions.

During the 2016 election season I was surprised and annoyed at how nearly all the negative leaks and news were against Hillary Clinton. Considering how extremely popular she was as the Secretary of State up till she declared her candidacy among liberal voters, the sudden change in attitude towards her was certainly surprising. The same voters who despised her also loved Obama, and how much did they really differ? Sure, she supported the Iraq war which he opposed, but then again Obama’s drone campaigns killed countless of innocent civilians. His attitude towards big banks and the corporate elite wasn’t exactly socialistic, regardless of what his Republican detractors said. I saw numerous memes on Facebook about how Bernie’s election would bring in liberal utopia and how there was no difference between Hillary and Trump. Even as someone whose personal beliefs aligns more closely with Bernie Sanders, such messaging and beliefs annoyed me because Presidents cannot make unilateral changes. Just like Obama struggled to keep his promises, Trump is struggling with his promises, Sanders would have struggled in a Republican-controlled Washington. As Obama loved to say and something I believe in, change and progress happens in increments and sometimes in zig-zag fashion. Although the arc of history bends towards justice and progress, such arcs bend over decades and generations. And in these great arcs of history, there would be countless examples of going backwards and forwards while eventually moving towards justice and progress. Too many people felt the primaries were rigged and that baffled me. It is as if the citizens of the oldest democracy in the world did not know how politics worked. As Bernie correctly said, if his campaign’s emails were hacked they wouldn’t have much nice things to say about Hillary. And it was within the right of the DNC to want one of their prime candidates to win their party’s nominations over someone who had never been a member of the party. Unless the elections themselves were rigged, this cannot in the remotest of terms be called rigging. Politicians say and do what they must to win. Obama’s “evolution” on gay marriage and his trying to act religious are just par for the course in politics, when people who know him well say he doesn’t have a religious bone in his body and he was for gay marriage since the 90s, except when he conveniently became against it as a candidate in 2008.

Today we know that numerous of these pro-Bernie, pro-Stein news and memes on social media were made by foreign actors to target the DNC and Hillary. Many of these ads and pages were targeted towards African-Americans to turn them against Hillary and depress their turnout. Even if it took us a while to figure out what happening, this campaign of foreign agents to influence our elections worked. They used our data, our nature, and our beliefs to target us. They did so with the full understanding of how we will react when he see something on social media, and they took advantage of our rush to emotions and tribalism over sober practicality. And they will do so again. Unless speech and the entire internet itself is censored, there is not much we can do about it except training ourselves to not fall for something instinctively because it tugs at our emotions. These ads, pages, groups, messages, and memes appealed to our emotions, our deepest fears, and our strongest beliefs. Since they used our data to influence us, how much free will do we really have? The foreigners did not hack our election. They used our nature and our likes and dislikes against us. The machines who learned our behaviors through algorithms manipulated us the way we manipulate other animals. This must make us think about the concept of free will and whether we have the power to make completely rational and free decisions. And we must steel ourselves for the future because machines will only get better at learning, and corporations and politicians will use these powers to target us into doing their biddings. Just because we see something on social media doesn’t mean it is true. And even if it is, we must research the context and question why that ad/message/meme exists. Without context any topic might lose its meaning. And we would remain as guinea pigs for these algorithms. We must eschew partisanship and we must stop supporting the puritans and extreme partisans on our sides. The more we remain divided, the more we will fall for these algorithms in a positive feedback loop. Prophets and politicians have always hacked our free wills before, but machine-learning and their ever-improving algorithms are a completely different ballgame. Whatever free will and independent thinking we have as a human species, we must try our best to maintain our equanimity in the face of emotional pulls, to stay away from hyper-partisanship, and to think, analyze, and understand the context before we react to any situation or information.

Guns, Regulations, & Mental Health

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” A single sentence, yet whose interpretation has been hotly debated. This essay is not going to discuss whether the two parts of the Second Amendment – Militia and Right to bear Arms – should be read together or as two separate issues. I will be discussing the arguments made in the gun control debate and how mental health plays into it.

Arms are short for armaments. It does not include just guns, but any weapons. A literal interpretation of the second amendment would give an individual the right to carry any weapons. But we already restrict such unlimited rights to weapons. We ban machine guns, grenades, or the ability of individuals to carry bioweapons or small, tactical nukes. And we will never ban all weapons nor all guns, because many are required for self-defense, protection, and hunting. So the question isn’t if there is an unlimited right to carry weapons or having an absolute ban on weapons, but what type of weapons should be in the hands of civilians.

A question for strict constructionists of the constitution, who do not believe in a ‘living’ constitution but who want us to follow the constitution exactly as the founders intended – should we then remove all restrictions from armaments, but ban any armaments invented after 1791? I don’t think many people will agree to such a suggestion. Times change, technologies change, and our attitudes change. As the technologies of modern guns allow dozens to be killed in a matter of seconds, shouldn’t our laws keep up with the times and advancement of technologies?

I don’t think gun laws should be same nationwide, just like I don’t think minimum wage laws should be same nationwide. The reality on the ground in Manhattan is different from the reality in rural Montana. But there should be minimum federal standards in gun laws just like it is in minimum wage. In a populated place like New York City where anyone can mow down dozens before we realize what is happening, guns laws should be extremely strict. In rural areas with low population density, law enforcement not nearby, and where people hunt for a living or for food, guns laws must be different from New York City.

But what is the need for military-grade weapons in the hands of civilians? Why should a civilian have access to semi-automatic weapons that can kill dozens in the blink of an eye, or have access to high-capacity magazines? These aren’t weapons for self-defense or for hunting. These are the weapons for mass murder. And there is no unrestricted “right” to such weapons of mass murder because we already restrict numerous weapons of mass murder. Why should a civilian be allowed to build an arsenal of dozens of semi-automatic weapons and tens of thousands of ammunitions that can kill scores of individuals?

Some say that the purpose of guns is to bring down a tyrannical government. I think this is such a fantasy that I do not even know how to react. It is as if they don’t realize the situation in 1776 and 2018 are not the same. The United States has the most powerful military in the world. Does anyone expect civilians to win a firefight with the US military. And if they truly believe that stashing of guns with civilians is a deterrent against the might of the US military, then shouldn’t the same civilians have the right to more advanced weapons like machine guns, tanks, and their own WMDs in case these “troop supported Patriots” decide to fight the same troops some day? The United States is the greatest example of the success of a democratic society. As long as the citizens themselves perform their civic duty and support the foundations of democracy, the government won’t be tyrannical. And no, a fairly elected government of the opposition party isn’t by default a tyrannical government if it stays within its constitutional bounds. And the path to stop politicians from gaining too much power is through elections and standing up for democratic principles over partisanship and tribalism, not through fantasizing a future war between American civilians and the American military.

There are few, if any, unrestricted rights just because “I like it”. My liking of machine guns, rocket launchers, or driving over 100 mph does not give me the ‘right’ to do any of it. Someone’s liking of semi-automatic weapons or high capacity handguns shouldn’t give them unrestricted rights to those guns either. The number of people killed by guns in a single day is similar to the total number of deaths by Islamic extremists since 9/11, and by domestic far-right violence. Yet the President would rather ban all Muslims than deal with the American lives lost because of guns or because of the far-right extremist groups and individuals. A few toddlers are killed each year by reversing cars, and rightfully we made it mandatory for all cars to have a rear-view camera. We did not ban all cars, but we put regulations. The debate about guns isn’t banning all guns or allowing all weapons to be available to the general population. It is about why should an individual have access to such weapons of mass murder, and I don’t think personal liking or fetishizing certain weapons makes it a right to own those weapons. We can have these semi-automatic guns available in regulated gun ranges. But a civilian should not have access to weapons of mass murder.

Some say that cars also kill people, but we don’t ban cars. Yes, we do not ban cars, but we have numerous regulations on vehicles. We have regulations on size, speed, and what sort of vehicles should be on what kind of road. And vehicles are restricted to roads only, and some vehicles aren’t allowed on all roads, and some aren’t allowed on public roads at all. Also, the purpose of a car is for transportation. The single purpose of a gun is to kill and/or injure, and it can be carried to any place unlike a car. We regulate everything based on safety and need, and regulations of firearms must also follow such standards. The other arguments are about video games and movies. But rest of the world also plays violent video games and they also watch violent movies. Yet the epidemic of gun violence is a uniquely American condition, and it is not a topic one in which should tout American exceptionalism. Other countries that did face gun violence took steps to reduce such violence and it has worked. Saying that restricting of some guns will not work is intellectually hollow and moral cowardice. Research, experience, and reality says it does. Protection of American lives should not be held hostage to a small group’s unhealthy addiction to high capacity firearms.

In the aftermath of recent school shootings, the President suggested arming of teachers. This is a terrible idea on many fronts. Arming of teachers reminds me of the myth of “good guy with guns”. It might look sexy in movies and sound heroic in our minds, but does it work in practical life? It might work in a some instances, but would it work in a general situation? Trained law enforcement officers do not have a good accuracy record, so how do we expect civilians to fare better? Especially in a crowded location where mass shootings happen, where people are running in panic, how do you target a shooter? Secondly, if numerous people are armed, how do you determine in a split second who is the shooter and who all are the “good guys with guns”? Thirdly, if a security guard isn’t expecting danger and someone walks in through the door blazing a semi-automatic, does that guard draw his weapon before the bullets hit him? Fourth, schools (or any public place) aren’t small, confined one-room buildings. Arming two-three teachers in a school will not prevent a carnage from happening. By the time these excellent marksmen teachers with nerves of steel can find a shooter, scores of children could be dead. Fifth point – if guards and teachers are always on hair trigger alert, like some cops are, their paranoia can cause them to escalate a situation and shoot to kill when there is no reason to. They might imagine a danger when none is actually present, like we see in numerous police shootings of unarmed civilians. Sixth point – even teachers can have a bad day. How long will it take before we hear news of a teacher gunning down a classroom and committing suicide? Seventh point – accidental discharges can happen in a classroom; or students can get to a gun. The eight point brings me to neuroscience – in the Parkland shooting one cop stayed outside and he was called out as a coward. Except, one never knows how our body and brain will react in a life and death situation until we are in one. Fight or flight are not the only two reactions, but also the reaction of freezing in the face of danger. We do not know if teachers or “good guns with guns” will panic, freeze, or indiscriminately start shooting. If trained police officers cannot control their triggers, we expect too much of civilians. This situation is not much different from how young men have always romanticized wars for finding meanings and glory, and too many come back broken and with psychological issues from war zones. When bullets start flying, when people start dropping dead around you, much of our reaction comes down to basic biology over which we might not have much control. Some will have nerves of steel, but that is the exception, not the norm, unless they are highly trained elite soldiers. Liberals are called-out as idealists who don’t always understand reality, and in many instances that is accurate. But the idea of “good guys/teachers with guns” is a conservative fantasy that has no basis in reality. It does not work in other countries; it goes against basic biology and human nature, and it is a fantasy that must be put to rest forever.

The final point of this issue is how mental health plays with gun violence. Mental health is not an American issue, but gun epidemic is. Neither is it true that most of the world has more mental health support compared to America. The difference isn’t that Americans are more mentally ill compared to the world, but the hundreds of millions guns in the hands of civilians in America. And mental health is not a black-and-white issue and we should be extremely careful about stigmatizing people as such. First of all, it is hard to define what exactly is mental illness and what is “normal behavior”. Some say that adults believing in fairy tales as facts is a mental illness. So should we treat those people differently? Even when people are diagnosed as mentally ill, most of them will not commit a crime.

Mental illness exists across a spectrum and is transient for most people. Many might go through periodic depressions but be ‘normal’ at other times. Many might become mentally ill because of life experiences – be it financial hardships, abusive relationships etc – and become normal when their situation improves. For many, mental illness might be acquired later in life and last forever; many might be born with certain illness and never be cured their entire lives, and many might get cured at some point in life. Not every loner and socially isolated individual will commit crimes. And many who commit crimes do not fit into the stereotypical portrait of a mentally ill person, at least not before they committed crimes.

Yet, if we dive deep into neuroscience, shouldn’t any crime be a sign of mental illness, not just firearms crimes? Should murder, rape, arson be considered a sign of ‘normal’ behavior, or can we classify these criminals as mentally ill? These are the questions we will have to grapple as a society over the next few decades. As neuroscience keeps advancing, and as we can see in the Cambridge Analytica scandal as to how easily we can be manipulated by machines (the way we can manipulate other animal behaviors), we have to wonder how much free will do we really have, and what are the signs of ‘normal’ behavior and what are the signs of mental illness. Yes, dangerous firearms must be kept away from those diagnosed with mental illnesses, but in the present age we do not know who will become mentally ill and when, who can be cured and when, or who will commit a crime. The best prevention is keeping dangerous firearms out of the reach of civilians. No civilian, unless authorized under proper regulations and training, should have access to semi-automatic rifles, handguns with high capacity magazines, or any weapon that can kill dozens before we have a chance to stop such a person.





Pondering Parenthood

I have wanted to be a parent since I was in my late teens, as strange as it might sound. I guess the parent mind-set entered into my brain when I became a big brother a few months before turning four. I had to help my mother in taking care of my baby brother; I had to be a role model, mature, and act like grown up. Part of it might be genetics, but the concept of responsibility was inculcated into my brain at a very young age.

As I grew older I understood the sacrifices my parents have made for us. My extremely qualified mother had to stay home to ensure our education was never neglected. My parents never went anywhere or did anything fun for themselves so that we can have a disciplined life at home. They did not take cable TV when we were young so we won’t be distracted from our studies. They spent their entire life savings on our education, and my dad left a stable career where he had worked nearly 25 years and stayed back in a country for our education. Along with these major sacrifices, we cannot quantify the infinite smaller sacrifices they have made for us nearly every single day of our lives, from financial support to emotional support to cooking for us every time we are home, and packing a week’s worth of food when we leave!

Even though our parents have loved us unconditionally, as children we weren’t always grateful. Many a time we never appreciated or understood their love. One of the sad facts of life is that many of us don’t understand someone else’s love until we have loved ourselves, and many of us don’t understand the love of parents until we ourselves have been parents. That is a mistake I might have made in adolescence, but something I have actively tried to avoid since my mid-20s. I do not want to be the person who appreciates someone else’s love, caring, kindness, and sacrifice when its too late.

As such, being a parent for me is giving back to 1-2 more lives what my parents have done for me. It is passing on what I have learned in my life, my experiences, knowledge, my mistakes. Each generation should learn from their’s and previous generations so they can make the next generation’s lives better. I want to have a kid or two, and give them all my love and affection. I might not be the most verbal individual in the world, but I hope they can understand my love for them through my actions. I want to be a role model for them so they have healthy childhood, and they in turn can be a role model for their own children. Not only as a father, I want to be a role model to them as a husband to my wife so they learn from childhood that both genders are equal. If they see me doing household chores, cooking, cleaning, and grocery, maybe they will grow up with a progressive mindset towards gender roles. Marriage, or any relationship, should be a partnership – a teamwork, where both couple complement each other. Today I might cook, and tomorrow she might cook. Or I love cooking more and she loves cleaning more, maybe I will cook more often and she will clean more often. There should be no defined roles, but a true partnership based on our interests, desires, and compromise.

Being a parent also means living a disciplined live so they have a stable childhood. It also means being disciplined financially so they can pursue whatever they want to do, whether it be a doctor, tennis player, or a musician. My parents gave me a better life than they had. And I want my kids to have a better life than I do. I hope they can travel more, learn more cultures and languages, and see the world more. But that can happen if I can provide a stable foundation as a parent. The responsibilities are enormous, but nothing can compare when you see your loved ones being happy. When you unconditionally love someone and see they succeed, prosper, smile, and be happy…that is a reward in itself for all your efforts.

I am under no illusion about how hard it is to be a parent. I will have months of sleepless nights. I will be worried about them for the rest of my life. I will be hurt by them. It might be a disaster. But when I see my parents do it all, see so many people sacrifice so much for their children, I want to too. Whatever my strengths or weaknesses, I know when I decide to love someone with everything I have, I can go farther than most people. And that is what I hope to do, love my kids and wife…have a loving family where we can build our own stories, our own laughter and tears, and hopefully leave my children with a better world and a better future. That must be the goal of every generation – leave a better planet than what we found. And if we can do that successfully as a good role model, hopefully our kids can learn from us and leave an even better world for their children and our grandchildren.

Put the Sci in your Fi – #2 – Beakers, Bunsen Burners and Budget Cuts (Part 1)

Read this blog from an amazingly talented and imaginative scientist about how scientists use some day-to-day wares and instruments in a life science laboratory.

Rachel M Brick

First of all, thank you to fellow sci-fi writer K.S. Watts for the title!

And now, on to post no. 2 for putting the ‘sci’ in your ‘fi’, part 1 of the mini-series, Beakers, Bunsen Burners and Budget Cuts!

If you’ve watched any sci-fi movie, you’re probably familiar with the following setting:

Super dark, blue-lit labs… (Image credit: jimmyjimjim)

Full of high-tech equipment… (Image credit: neisbeis)

Why do labs always look like this? Because it’s edgy. It’s dramatic. It’s exciting and photogenic.

It’s also incredibly expensive. And who can blame the author for wanting to set up a billion-dollar lab? Expensive, flashy toys are always exciting, not to mention they are apparently extremely effective at getting the job done. Vaccines can be discovered and mass-produced within a week, amiright?

But what if your character is not a trust fund baby with rich parents, and they want to set…

View original post 1,500 more words

Gender stereotypes and toxic masculinity

Recently, I read on the internet about a famous director’s statement that women have never been complicit in any atrocity in history. Many women took offense at it because that is factually not true, and putting women on a pedestal propagates gender stereotypes and is ultimately detrimental in fighting sexism, including benevolent sexism like this director’s supposedly well-intentioned statements. In this blog post I want to focus on how gender stereotypes from everyone can affect us all. Whether it is society’s unrealistic expectations of women, or the expectations of men that can lead to toxic masculinity, both issues need to be addressed honestly. Since I was in high school, I have had dozens of female friends who have shared their most intimate pain and sufferings with me, details they even hide from own parents and husbands. One of the most common themes I have heard over these past 18 years is that it is the women in their lives – their mothers, grandmothers, sisters, friends – are the ones who have enforced the rules of patriarchy and made their lives miserable. They are the ones who enforced gender rules detrimental to these girls’ independence and freedom. They are the ones who have slut-shamed their sisters and friends. From my grandmother’s time in her village in India, to my own friends’ lifetime here in New York City, it is the mothers-in-law who have treated their daughters-in-law the worst. And stories that break my heart the most is when mothers and grandmothers know of sexual abuse in their household, but protect the male perpetrators to maintain the “honor” of the family.

These personal anecdotes doesn’t even encompass the complicity of women in wartimes, crimes, and genocides. The point is to show that women too can commit crimes, they can lie, and can entrap. Indian society has had a huge problem with women being murdered and tortured over dowry, as well as facing sexual harassment and assaults in daily lives. As the laws have strengthened to prevent these atrocities, false accusations of dowry harassment or sexual assaults in exchange for extortion have also skyrocketed. It is factually true that women suffer more than men because of their gender and associated stereotypes, but putting anyone or any group on a pedestal of perfection doesn’t help anyone, least of all women who suffer because of other women.

I and countless others have written about male and female gender stereotypes of women and how it negatively effects women. In this article I also want to focus on the male and female gender stereotypes of men and how it can lead to toxic masculinity. It would be negligent to say that our evolutionary history has no say in what traits we look for in a partner of the opposite gender. Combine that with cultural expectations of gender roles and we have a toxic situation in our hands. Whether it is looks and obedient attitude from women, or power and being the provider from men, these expectations has led individuals to act out in detrimental fashion. We shouldn’t train boys to withhold their emotions. They will grow up to be men who cannot express themselves, men who bottle up their feelings before they explode. We shouldn’t have toys and games for different genders, where girls are guided towards traditionally feminine toys such as Barbie dolls that focuses on looks, and boys are guided towards action figures that focuses on violence and power.

To combat toxic masculinity, we should be teaching men and boys how to harness their traits and testosterone towards better causes. We should stop rewarding testosterone-charged behaviors and traits, the side-effects of which leads to war, violence, domestic abuse, and sexual assaults. As per many psychologists, rape is less about sex and more about power and domination. Expecting men to be the strong, silent type can have detrimental effects, and both genders are complicit in propagating these stereotypes. Both genders use the phrases “be a man”, or “grow some balls” when talking about courage. Does that mean “being a woman/girl” means lacking in courage? And what does it matter if someone lacks in courage about something? False bravado or trying to be stupidly brave has led to enough wars and violence. Let men be emotional if they want to. Let women join the combat marines if they want to. Let boys play with dolls, let women play with video games. Many times I hear, even from the most feminist/progressive women, that they want the stereotypical manly men. When I point out the contradiction between the views of no gender expectations for women but having the same expectations from men, many fall back upon the tried and tested answer of “it is in our nature/it is part of evolution”. Are we going to be limited by our genes and natural selection, or do we believe in free will and think we can rise beyond our primal instincts?

Instead of silence, we can teach boys to be communicative and expressive, so they can grow up to be communicative partners. Strength shouldn’t mean physical strength, but emotional strength, so men have a proper outlet for emotions and pain without resorting to unhealthy vices and outbursts. “Being a man” can mean someone can be loving, caring, affectionate, and expressive of emotions, without any of these traits being mocked at. “Being a man” can mean teaching responsibility and maintaining equanimity in tough situations. Men should police themselves so we do not glorify behaviors such as rape jokes or using degrading language used towards women in our personal conversations. It is not the woman’s responsibility to dress in a way so that they don’t get assaulted or harassed. It is men’s responsibility to be respectful and not see women as walking meat. If a man doesn’t think he can control himself around a woman, he should remove himself from the situation or from society, not remove the woman from the situation or from society by making her stay indoors. Power can be used to dominate, and it can also be used to bring about changes. Men should be part of feminist issues because change isn’t happening without both genders working towards it. It means men taking a deep look at how their attitudes and behaviors and assumptions affects women. It also means many women not instinctively assuming all men as scum or pigs, which can quickly turn off potential allies. It means men not putting women on pedestals, and helping women calling out their own who are complicit in abuse and misogyny. As individuals and as society we have to decide how quickly we can rise above biology or culture. Arc of time has always bent towards progressive values. It is up to us to decide how quickly we can accept change, and if we as a generation want to be on the right side of history.