Big Data and our Humanity: A Talk

Big Data and our Humanity: A Talk

[Background: The week of March 11, 2018 I attended the “Computing Morality: Artificial Intelligence and ‘Big Data’ in Science and Faith” conference at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. This was a conference with talks ranging from how we train self-driving cars to handle people dashing in front of the car, to how we understand understanding. I was asked to give a talk introducing the theme of moral issues that arise from big data, and what follows is the notes I spoke from, along with links to references. (image credit:NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech)]

When I was 15, I was able to travel to the Soviet Union for the summer to study astronomy. I was part of a People to People exchange program with 20 some odd students from 15 to 18. We were young, and thought we knew everything in that way that only clever teenagers can think.

A highlight of the trip was visiting the 6-m telescope in the Northern Caucasus mountains. At the time, it was the largest in the world, and here we were – high school students – getting to explore its dome and sign the visitors wall alongside some of the best astronomers in the USSR and the world. That night, exhausted but exhilarated, we piled into the back of a bus to travel down the mountain. It was a long ride, and we were too drunk on being alive to consider sleep.

As we rode, we asked those fundamental 4am questions that at the time had no answers. How will the world end? Where did our universe come from? Where did life come from? Are we alone?

Back then, it was impossible to know any of these answers, and we could only debate our opinions. We drew on science, and we drew on our religions and lack of religions as we argued. It was the last 80s. Laptops weren’t yet a thing, the Internet was only a science fiction dream, and the fundamental questions had no answers.

We didn’t know if in our lifetimes these questions could have answers, but like Aristotelian philosophers, we wanted to believe the truth of life the universe and everything could be gotten at from first principles and careful thought experiments.

When we were teens, it was a different time. We had been children who could wander free (as long as we were home by dark). Our parents might tell us to stay on the block, but there was nothing to stop us from dashing a couple miles away to the corner store and when asked where we’d gone, it was easy to lie and say we’d just been climbing trees. We were becoming teens who might say we were at the local mall, when in reality we’d snuck into the city. We weren’t bad children. We just knew the world was big and needed exploring.

A lack of data gave us freedom. It let us imagine, and it let us run wild in the world and in our minds as we dreamed, pretended, and escaped.

The world has changed in the nearly 30 years since that summer. That 6-m telescope is no longer the largest. The USSR is no longer a nation. Those impossible to answer 4am questions? Many of their answers are now graspable, and sometimes they are even solved.

In gathering data, we technologists have made our world smaller. As people, we don’t explore to discover… we google. We can’t disappear on a day off… we are tethered and trackable by our cell phones.

As a scientist, this explosion of information is truly thrilling, but as a armchair sociologist, I find it terrifying. Let’s consider the life and death of our universe for a moment, because these are questions we can now grasp through multiple lines of evidence. We know the universe expanded out from a single point that became everything. We can measure the cosmic microwave background with the Planck Satellite and see a temperature that matches what you expect from a cooling expanding universe. We can measure the universe’s expansion. We can look at the chemical composition of space and see in it, ratios of elements that match what we expect from Big Bang nucleosynthesis. We can even look at the structure in the cosmic microwave background and see the signatures of acoustic waves that oscillated through the early universe, leaving behind slight over densities and under densities in matter – variations that would lead to the stars, galaxy, and large scale structures we see today.

From the cosmic microwave background, we get an age of 13.82 billion years old.

In looking through the composition of stars, we can measure some of their ages using a technique not too different from radio-carbon dating used here on Earth. This technique, called nucleicosmochronology, yields stellar ages for our milky way of about 9 billion years on average, and gives us a solar age of 4.57 billion years. Our supercomputer powered models align with these observations as well, and allow us to model the formation of the stars and structures we see with our telescopes. Our models of a 13.8 billion year old universe match the universe that we see.

The universe is not just old; it is ancient.

But there are those who will call me a liar. Who will say my science is false and that my words come from the devil.

In 2009, I was part of a debate between old universe scientists and a young earth creationist. It was me, Don York, Bill Keel and Hugh Ross on the side of Big Bang cosmology, and Danny Faulkner defending young earth creationism. We were all astronomers, but somehow, not all of us could lose ourselves in the data. This was no Ken Ham versus Bill Nye debate born out of publicity and a desire to publicly “win” against the other. We were all Christians, and we argued from a point of compassion.

That day I learned an important lesson: I realized there are those whose faith is inflexible, and like a glass put under pressure, will hold up to significant weight, but cannot bend without shattering. I realized, that to some, belief in a young universe, and a literal creation are interwoven with a belief in God. To change one would be to lose the other, and lose a meaningful part of a person’s identity. There are foundations that are brittle, and there are no words to allow such a person to gain science without losing God and losing themselves. I hurt for these people because they have put god in a box, and can’t see our potentially limitless universe.

The more data humanity collects, the more we challenge people’s beliefs. This is both the power of big data, and it brings the potential for social revolution.

For science to win in this battle, we must argue from a place of compassion. We must remind people that it would be a cruel god indeed who explained to a preliterate society a creation that requires the mathematics of relativity. In 1 Corinthians 13:11, Paul writes: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” In science, we were children, but we’re growing up, and we need to find ways to grow our ideas.

In looking out of the gutter at the stars, we find narrow religious ideas challenged. We also find it challenged when we look inside ourselves.

The US Scopes Monkey Trials of 1925 demanded that we allow the teaching of evolution in the classroom. At the time, evolution was understood in only the broadest ways, and yet people fought against the fossil record. Today, evolution is known in much greater detail, and we need to teach it in detail, as we can learn about ourselves in genetic detail.

In the US it is now possible for anyone with $99 to get a basic genetic work up. You can learn what percentage of your DNA is from the Neanderthals and how likely you are to become addicted to caffeine. Just as we struggle to face the truths of global warming, we also struggle to face the truth of who we are. People don’t just struggle with their low-browed Neanderthal ancestors, the also struggle with questions of race and identity.

As much as me might wish for a non-racist modern age, the truth is, we live in a world of hate and ignorance.

There are those who base their self-worth on racist ideals that their people are superior to that people. These racists are now being challenged by facts. We are learning that one of the primary breast cancer genes is tied to Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry that many people had no idea they had. We are finding that many of the whitest men genetically have some black African ancestor. If our self worth is tied to our racial identity, what happens when we learn we are in truth related to our so called enemy?

I would hope the truth would set us free, but the reality is, denial is easy and we live in what many are beginning to call a post-factual world.

Practicing denial is easier than learning to love the other.

As humans, we don’t like to feel shame. We don’t like to feel regret. We don’t like to acknowledge our mistakes.

Facing our own mistakes is one of the greatest struggles we deal with in examining some sets of data.

One of the mostly frequently asked questions I get is some form of “how will it all end?” Early in my career I got comfortably saying, well, someday far in the future, our warming Sun will overheat our world, and than, once it bloats up into a red-giant star, it will either consume our planet, or just toast it to well-blackened; it all depends on the Sun’s mass loss rates.

Once upon a time, I could say, we don’t know how the universe will end, but Robert Frost summed it up well:

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Today, we have data that brings us answers, and the longterm truth is sad, but beautiful. It appears that at about the same time our galaxy and the Andromeda galaxy are colliding, our own Sun will expand into a red giant. The Earth will have a front row seat for all of this, and it is looking more and more like our planet itself should survive.

It just won’t be habitable.

We also know from a myriad of supernovae studies that our universe isn’t just expanding, it’s accelerating apart.

This means that in the fullness of time, our universe will expand so much that there is no longer sufficient energy in any one given place to support life. The black holes will evaporate, and if protons decay as predicted, all the small compact embers of stars and planets that remain will also decay away. The universe will be a great diffuse nothing, with the structure erased through the stretching.

For now we have time. We have more than 5 billion years before we collide with Andromeda and until our Sun expands. We have trillions of years before what is called the heat death of the universe,

Humans have trouble grasping numbers larger than 1000. When I say these things will happen in billions and trillions of years, that boggles the mind, and it is easy to shrug it off as something we needn’t be concerned about.

But the things that we needs most fear aren’t billions or even millions of years in our future, they are in the next 100 years.

Just as we constantly observe the Sun, and vigilantly explore the heavens to learn about our place in space, we also monitor our own world with multiple suites of instruments and satellite networks. Scientists are gathering data from across the planet, and from above the planet, and we are using this data to derive a more immediate understanding of own and our children’s future.

Man made pollution, deforestation, and construction are all radically altering our landscape. After the World Trade Center terrorist attack on 9-11, US flightspace was shut down for several days. This provided scientists a chance to measure the difference in cloud coverage between days with and without airplanes, and that difference was shocking; airplane contrails seed cloud formation and change our world’s heating.

We are changing our environment. We are changing how the clouds come and go, and how the temperatures rise.

We have been able to monitor our world from space with increasing precision since the 1950s. This long baseline allows us to see how our own actions influence our world.

We can measure the differences between how rural and urban areas retain heat in their paved parking lots and their blowing fields of green. Today, Los Angeles is painting itself white to try and lessen its heat retention and stave off one small part of Global warming.

We can measure changes in erosion where forests have been lost and where forests have been gained. Today, Iceland struggles to replant it forests.

We can measure our warming world. We can measure our rising seas. We can see changes in the oceans and measure changes in year to year weather patterns and global average temperatures.

I’m not going to lie, this data terrifies me. I want to turn my back on it and deny that we must act. I want to, but I don’t.

But there are many who do deny these facts.

And again, we are faced with a contradiction in belief systems and data driven reality.

I have heard it argued that we needn’t worry about global warming because we will face Armageddon before we face a ruined world. I have heard it argued that God would not let us destroy our world, and God will save our planet because we are saved.

And every time I hear these arguments, it reminds me of this modern parable I first heard on an Episode of West Wing:

You remind me of the man that lived by the river. He heard a radio report that the river was going to rush up and flood the town, and all the residents should evacuate their homes. But the man said, “I’m religious. I pray. God loves me. God will save me.” The waters rose up. A guy in a row boat came along and he shouted, “Hey, hey you! You in there. The town is flooding. Let me take you to safety.” But the man shouted back, “I’m religious. I pray. God loves me. God will save me.” A helicopter was hovering overhead and a guy with a megaphone shouted, “Hey you, you down there. The town is flooding. Let me drop this ladder and I’ll take you to safety.” But the man shouted back that he was religious, that he prayed, that God loved him and that God will take him to safety. Well, the man drowned. And standing at the gates of St. Peter, he demanded an audience with God. “Lord,” he said, “I’m a religious man, I pray. I thought you loved me. Why did this happen?” God said, “I sent you a radio report, a helicopter, and a guy in a rowboat. What the hell are you doing here?”

The reasons for denial are aren’t always wrapped in religion. They are motivated by economics, by the desire for a life of ease, and by our own denial that what we are doing may cause harm.

As long as I don’t acknowledge the data, I can deny that my every Amazon Prime airmailed package is harming the planet. As long as I don’t know the data, I can deny that buying oranges out of season is increasing the carbon in the atmosphere. As long as I don’t know the data, I can eat any fish I want, without worrying about the collapse of the oceans.

But I do know, and climate change terrifies me.

Currently, no one is watching me to see how I’m changing the world. At least as far as I have learned from the news headlines, this is true. But I don’t think this lack of watching will stay true for long.

Big data can be our big brother, looking over our shoulder and informing us of our sins. It can be there, monitoring not just our carbon footprint, but also almost everything else from our water intake to our daily commute.

Today, smart cities like Utrecht are monitoring the streets for noises consistent with rowdy behavior, and they are tracking the teens to see who is hanging out with who, and trying to use algorithms to decide where and when the police need to be seen.

With smart cities, we must ask ourselves, how much privacy dare we give up in the name of safety?

The TV show Black Mirror asks us this question over and over and over in its stories of technology gone wrong. Like modern day morality tales, the parables ask us to confront the possible consequence of big data.

Where do we draw line on monitoring our children? Is it right to monitor their positions through their phones? Is it right to monitor what they are doing by monitoring them through their webcams? Where is the boundary?

Can we investigate people based on their internet search history? What conclusions should we draw from a person’s purchase profile?

The real question needs to be: Where do we draw the line on monitoring our citizenry? While it’s annoying to have Target predict a pregnancy and target ads based on purchases, it is worse when more vulnerable health issues are explored. As we explore the gun debate, we have to balance safety and privacy. Image if we demand mental illness be logged in massive government databases the same way we report significant diseases do the World Health Organization. Now imagine if that data is released? Hell, imagine if the database of case reporting of HIV is breached!

We also need to ask, what is it right and wrong to do with this information. In China, online profiles are starting to be used to predict criminal behaviors. According to the Japan Times: “The data are collected under the “Integrated Joint Operations Platform,” which pools information from individuals’ bank records, legal past, computer details and other sources including security camera footage, HRW said.

“According to people HRW interviewed, some of those targeted are detained and sent to extralegal “political education centers” where they are held indefinitely without charge or trial.”

Do we as humans have the right to remove freedom by forcing people to act in specific ways through big data driven carrots and sticks? Or is that playing at being a vengeful god?

I don’t know the answers to a lot of the questions I’ve raised today. I am a scientist, and to Paraphrase Thornton Wilder, there some things only the saints and the poets can understand.

What I do know is that as much as big data can challenge our beliefs, it can also be used to show that people are good.

It is often claimed that people on welfare in the US are lazy drug addicts, but in those states that temporarily required drug testing,  very few tests were positive, and the money spent on testing may have exceeded the savings the states received for ending benefits to addicts.

While there are terrible people in this world, there is also goodness and light.

Now that it’s possible to engage people in charity through the Internet, we see people giving to support the creation of art, to support the creation of science… people are donating to make our world a place of makers and doers.

And people are helping to solve the problems big data sometimes runs into. I’ve talked a lot about this in the context of citizen science, and how we are engaged volunteers to help us solve problems we haven’t yet gotten deep learning to solve, like mapping craters, and labeling astronaut photos.

As we move into this week’s discussions, I would ask all of you to come at big data with a scientists’ eyes. When the data reveals a new truth, we need to find flexibility in our world view. We need to take out beliefs out of the box, and allow them to expand to encompass the true awesomeness of our universe and of our pale blue dot that is just a speck in the vastness of space.

As we explore the limits of what technology offers, we need to ask not just what is possible, but also what is fair and what is moral. We need to ask, what choices set us free to be our best selves and what choices take us into a dystopian future .

We are at a turning point. How we choose to use the data that is now available to us will decide if we are able to save ourselves through our actions or lose ourselves to a post factual age.

I’m an astronomer. I can’t tell you how we can save our society. I can tell you that the Earth will be here for another 5 billion years, with or without us. I can tell you our world is just one of countless worlds in our galaxy, but that due to the vast emptiness of space, we are essentially alone in the darkness. It is up to us to find our own way and use the data to move ourselves forward without losing our humanity.

1 Comment

  1. Donald K King, M.D.
    Jun 12, 2018

    Re-read again, for the third time. Wonderful perspective, compassion and, I judge, rigorous and correct understanding.

    Thank you so much for your thoughts and insights!

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Now live! Expect the Unexpected.
Currently offline.