A Former Broker’s Perspective on Facebook’s Libra

I’ve been particularly interested in the Libra situation since Facebook’s announcement in June. My view is shaped by my personal experience as a user of Facebook products, including its advertising toolkit, and my professional experience as a registered representative working for Charles Schwab for a short, but extremely relevant period of time.[1]

It’s not that I want to see Facebook fail. I’ve seen firsthand the role that Facebook can play in a political campaign. As an undergraduate at Arizona State University, where enrollment was over 45,000 at the time, I was our school’s first candidate to be elected to student government after having used Facebook advertising in a campaign. Previous candidates had used Facebook’s free tools prior to my 2010 student campaign, but to the best of my knowledge, none had ever run Facebook ads. Ultimately, my campaign was successful, and by the time polls closed, the campaign ad had reached nearly 400,000 impressions for a cost of $19.35 (I still have the invoice). The ads were no substitute for voter outreach, but all of this is to say that I appreciate the many Facebook products and tools that I’ve been able to put to use over the years.

But as a former stockbroker, I prefer not to imagine what would result from adding every Facebook-related scandal and catastrophe on top of the already turbulent waters that can trouble the financial services industry. I spoke with retail clients over the phone the night news of the Brexit decision broke in the US, as well as during the weeks following the 2016 US general election and 2017 inauguration of President Trump. With each of these events, our firm experienced an influx of support calls and messages from clients expressing sincere concerns about the future of their retirement accounts and investment portfolios. These weren’t wealthy people calling just to check on the status of their millions. These were everyday Americans hoping to share in the economic prosperity made possible by investing in the public markets, and when anxiety about world events ran high, they called for support.

Cryptocurrency was starting to be seen as a legitimate asset class by many investors during this time as well. By December 17, 2017, a single bitcoin traded for nearly $20,000. The number of support calls from clients curious to learn more also increased, even though cryptocurrency was not traded or held in custody at our firm. None of this is not to say that I’m an expert on cryptocurrency, but rather that I’ve seen the extent to which everyday American investors are also starting from square one regarding the topic.

The investors I spoke to on a daily basis were protected by American financial regulations, but the underbanked populations Facebook presumably seeks to serve with Libra lack access to comparable consumer protection regulations as much as they lack low-cost, secure and convenient financial services. In short, the underbanked are likely to be even more vulnerable to financial and data exploitation than the American people.

And that’s why this is also about so much more than establishing the right rules and then simply holding Facebook accountable when they fail to comply with the regulations set by Congress or the Fed. Facebook has already shown an inability to effectively police the use of its own platform, at times with disastrous consequences. As Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) put it in July, the last thing regulators should grant Facebook at this point is a green light to “experiment with people’s bank accounts.” It is true that the underbanked need access to secure, convenient, low-cost financial services, but in my opinion, Facebook’s sordid past speaks for itself. It would be irresponsible for regulators to allow Facebook to proceed with the creation of a digital currency.

[1] I worked as a Series 7 and Series 63 licensed stockbroker, authorized to buy and sell securities including stocks, exchange-traded funds (ETFs), mutual funds, and certain options contracts for the accounts of the firm’s clients. My previous registration can be verified on BrokerCheck.org, CRD#: 6598388. I worked at the firm for two years, 18 months of which was as a broker.

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Perspectives on Libra: Facebook’s Digital Currency Initiative

  1. The Digital Currency Solution
  2. The Institutional Trust Objection
  3. The Rules of the Road Exception
  4. Facebook Should Not Be Permitted to Proceed with the Creation of Libra
  5. A Former Broker’s Perspective on Facebook’s Libra

Facebook Should Not Be Permitted to Proceed with the Creation of Libra

Yesterday, a bipartisan group of United States House Representatives introduced the “Managed Stablecoins are Securities Act of 2019.”

The bill would clarify existing financial sector rules by definitively classifying stablecoins as securities, which are regulated by the Securities Act of 1933, the Investment Advisers Act of 1940, and the SEC more broadly. The bill defines the terms “managed stablecoin” and “digital asset,” then adds those definitions to the existing Acts mentioned above. “Bringing clarity to the regulatory structure of these digital assets protects consumers and ensures proper government oversight going forward,” Representative Sylvia Garcia (D-TX) said in a statement according to CNBC’s Lauren Feiner. 

This is good news. The introduction of the bill marks the first step in reining in Facebook’s vision for Libra, a digital currency set to launch early next year. If passed into law, the legislation would send a strong message. Facebook has taken to describing Libra as though it doesn’t fit within any existing classification, and would thus be able to sidestep securities regulation.

Despite this effort to update rules and provide regulatory clarity, I remain convinced that Facebook must not be able to proceed with the creation of Libra at all. Further, it is incumbent upon legislators from both sides of the aisle to do much more than simply provide the right rules of the road, hoping to hold Facebook in compliance even as it repeatedly collides with the guardrails.

In this series, I’ll present my perspective on the situation, and argue that because Facebook has repeatedly failed to police its own platform, it should not be permitted to proceed with the creation of Libra. 

Facebook’s Many Existing Deficiencies

When Facebook unveiled its plans to create a new digital currency called Libra in June, reactions were mixed. Despite the excitement surrounding cryptocurrency and blockchain that has become common in recent years among technology enthusiasts, what reasonable person could ignore the checkered past of Libra’s corporate creator? Clearly banking on the potential for lawmakers to divorce themselves from the lessons of recent history, Facebook now continues to seek the requisite regulatory approval from officials on Capitol Hill. Although the social networking giant revised its infamous motto of “Move fast and break things” in 2014, the planned launch date for Libra of early 2020 has some wondering if anything has really changed at Facebook in the years since a few enterprising Harvard students started the company in 2004.

When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before the House Financial Services Committee on October 23, Committee Chair Maxine Waters (D-CA) delivered her assessment of the Libra situation. Citing insufficient gender representation in the upper management of Facebook, Facebook’s role in the 2016 US election and the recent decision not to fact check political ads for 2020 among other examples, Representative Waters came to the “conclusion that it would be beneficial for all if Facebook concentrates on addressing its many existing deficiencies and failures before proceeding further on the Libra project.”

Facebook’s Vision for Libra: A Plea for the Underbanked

Perhaps Rep. Waters’ conclusion is too harsh. After all, Facebook and advocates of Libra say that the world’s underbanked are in dire need of access to financial services. When Facebook’s Head of Calibra, David Marcus testified before the US Senate Banking Committee in July, he urged legislators to act, claiming that the crises of the underbanked has left millions of people around the world without access to basic financial services at a reasonable cost.

“The status quo is not working for many,” Marcus argued. “It is too expensive for people around the world to use and transfer their money. We believe Libra can offer a more efficient, low-cost, and secure alternative.” Libra’s appeal then, is its aid to the underbanked. For some, access to Facebook and a smartphone is easier to come by than it is to establish a traditional bank account—something most of us take for granted. Facebook says Libra would provide the underbanked with access to secure, convenient, and low-cost financial services. As David Marcus argued in July, Libra’s “first goal is to create utility and adoption, enabling people around the world—especially the unbanked and underbanked—to take part in the financial system.”

Facebook has connected over 2.4 billion people worldwide, and the platform includes pages for many brands and small businesses, as well as political, educational, and non-profit groups. Facebook launched Facebook Pay earlier this month, and if allowed to proceed with Libra, it will further enrich its trove of messaging, social networking, and users’ private financial data by integrating the digital currency across the breadth of its platform. In the next post I’ll describe my perspective on the Libra situation and tell why my experience has led me to conclude that permitting Facebook to proceed with the creation of Libra would be an irresponsible move for regulators.

Sources for this post

Perspectives on Libra: Facebook’s Digital Currency Initiative

  1. The Digital Currency Solution
  2. The Institutional Trust Objection
  3. The Rules of the Road Exception
  4. Facebook Should Not Be Permitted to Proceed with the Creation of Libra
  5. A Former Broker’s Perspective on Facebook’s Libra

The Rules of the Road Exception for Facebook’s Libra

Facebook should not be prohibited from proceeding with the creation of Libra if they comply with applicable regulatory frameworks and continue to engage with regulators to establish “clear rules of the road” moving forward.

Another Senator present at the July 16 Senate hearing was Mike Crapo, Chair of the US Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs itself. Crapo has also served on a number of other committees during his tenure in the Senate: Budget, Finance, Judiciary, and Indian Affairs. In contrast to his Democratic colleague and fellow committee member Sherrod Brown, Senator Crapo argues less antagonistically toward David Marcus. Rather than emphasizing a mistrust of Facebook due to its past transgressions, Crapo takes an action-orientated stance and expresses concern for the privacy and data rights of consumers.

Senator Crapo argues that the creation of Libra is an event that should spur Congress to establish the “rules of the road” for digital currencies in a manner that respects the rights of consumers. Crapo leans heavily into the claim that “Congress needs to act to give individuals real control over data” because of the vast amounts of user data generated by both social media and financial activity. According to Crapo, if Facebook and the Libra Association are permitted to proceed, they must do so with an understanding of the following three premises:

  1. Individuals are the rightful owners of their data;
  2. Individuals should be granted privacy rights which must in turn be protected through avenues of informed consent;
  3. Individuals are entitled to know what data is being gathered and how it is being used.

Senator Crapo’s stance shares commonalities with the view of Benoit Coeure, Executive Board Member of the ECB. In the past, Coeure worked as the Deputy Director General of the French Treasury, and he has held numerous other posts at the French Treasury between 1997 and 2011. On September 17, 2019, Coeure delivered a speech called “Digital challenges to the international monetary and financial system” at the Central Bank of Luxembourg-Toulouse School of Economics conference. In short, he sees the potential of digital currencies to transform the market, so long as the private actors creating these currencies “conform to international anti-money laundering and know-your-customer regulation.”

Unlike his ECB colleague Yves Mersch, Coeure is much less suspicious of digital currencies, and speaks of the need to meet the changing demands and expectations of consumers in the digital era. Coeure is open to the potential benefits of “stablecoins” in particular, and argues that the possibility of “something special about these currencies that could allow them to compete more effectively with the US dollar” is worth entertaining, but only with the understanding that proper regulatory frameworks must be enforced. For as Coeure states, “regulatory hurdles will be set very high for these initiatives to get off the ground.”

As Coeure’s speech concludes, his view again diverges from his colleague Yves Mersch. Coeure reminds his audience that rather than disallowing the creation of private currencies, one course of action available to policy makers is to ensure “that private systems will thrive in a space that respects our common global policy priorities.” For Coeure, such an environment will allow “market-based and public payment systems [to] effectively complement each other,” therefore addressing the changing demands of modern consumers and the necessity to comply with established and emerging financial regulation.

Today, more than four months after Facebook’s Libra announcement, the fate of the digital currency remains uncertain. Reactions from the general public to Facebook’s plan have been mixed at best, trending from skeptical unease to incredulous outrage. Additionally, the combination of regulatory uncertainty and heightened scrutiny from policy makers has caused a number of Facebook’s prominent corporate partners to revoke their initial support for the initiative, canceling plans to join the Libra Association. The Verge reports that as of October 11, PayPal, Visa, Mastercard, eBay, and Stripe have all officially exited the nascent corporate coalition, giving rise to increased skepticism of Facebook’s capacity to act as a successful shepherd of Libra from day one. 

Despite the lonely road ahead, Congressional hearings are set to continue, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is scheduled to testify before the House Financial Services Committee on October 23, 2019. While the Facebook founder’s strategy for the upcoming hearing remains unknown, if recent attrition at the Libra Association is any indication, Zuckerberg would do well to speak directly to his allies in the private sphere and make the case for Facebook as a competent and responsible partner, even if government officials and central bankers are unlikely to agree.

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The Institutional Trust Objection to Facebook’s Libra

Facebook should not be permitted to proceed with the creation of Libra. Facebook cannot be trusted when it comes to financial services. Libra will damage the integrity of the global financial system by eroding public trust in the institutions that back our money.

One of the committee members present to make an official statement at the July 16 Senate hearing was Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, who was elected to the Senate in 2006 and has served as the ranking member of the US Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs since 2015. In the hearing mentioned above, Sen. Brown criticized Facebook and its executive team, comparing them to child arsonists who view every burned-down house as merely another learning opportunity. As the Senator’s official statement from the hearing claims, “Facebook has demonstrated, through scandal after scandal, that it does not deserve our trust, and that it should be treated like the profit-seeking corporation it is, just like any other company.”

To support his claim of Facebook’s untrustworthiness, the Senator cites several troubling incidents from Facebook’s recent past. He speaks to the ways in which Facebook has disrupted the newspaper industry and consequently redirected profits away from real journalists and into its own coffers. Senator Brown also cites past psychological experiments Facebook has run on its users in order to ascertain new ways of increasing engagement across the platform. Finally, and perhaps most distressingly, the Senator cites a UN report detailing the ways in which the Facebook platform was used to spread hate, incite violence, and fuel a genocide against the Rohingya people in Myanmar beginning in late 2016. According to Sen. Brown, Facebook and its executive team have “proven over and over that they don’t understand governing or accountability.” Senator Brown concludes his statement by arguing that “this is a recipe for more corporate power over markets and consumers, and fewer protections for ordinary people.”

Meanwhile, the central bankers of Europe have not been bashful about their skeptical stance toward Libra. Yves Mersch, Executive Board Member of the European Central Bank, delivered a speech entitled “Money and private currencies: reflections on Libra,”on September 2, 2019 at the ECB Legal Conference in Frankfurt, Germany. Echoing Sherrod Brown’s emphasis on the role of trust with regard to monetary policy, Mersch argues that trust is an essential element to money’s ability to perform its function. Further, trust in money is derived from the independent institutions that maintain the stability and reliability of the financial system more broadly, e.g. the ECB and Federal Reserve. As Mersch states, “Only an independent central bank with a strong mandate can provide the institutional backing necessary to issue reliable forms of money and rigorously preserve public trust in them.”

Returning specifically to the context of Facebook, which has “a questionable track record in matters of trust,” according to Mersch, the Libra ecosystem is not only complex, but “cartel-like.” In other words, Mersch’s view is that the governance system proposed by Facebook (the Libra Association) lacks the fundamental underpinnings of institutional trust that support traditional sovereign currencies. Such a system will place control of the Libra money supply in the hands of private corporate actors who are “only accountable to their shareholders” and who have “privileged access to private data that they can abusively monetize.” In sum, Mersch argues that Libra’s promise is a tempting “siren’s call,” that leads only to disaster because it entails abandoning “the safety and soundness of established payment solutions and channels.”

Senator Brown argues that because of its history of far-reaching transgressions, Facebook is not to be trusted. In the words of the Senator, “We would be crazy to give them [Facebook] a chance to experiment with people’s bank accounts.” For both Brown and Mersch, the emphasis on trust marking the standard by which Facebook should be judged is key. As argued by Yves Mersch, this is because trust in money is derived from trust in the institutions that back the money. In this case, these policy makers claim, because we cannot trust in Facebook, we cannot trust Libra.

In part three of this series, I will explore the perspective of policy makers who argue that while misgivings over Facebook’s past transgressions may be warranted, misgivings alone are insufficient grounds for liberal-democratic institutions to place overly cautious prohibitions or needlessly strict regulations on one of the United States’ largest technology firms and most powerful corporations. Again taken from the US Senate and ECB, these policy makers see the current state of open communication and engagement with regulators as an opportunity to establish a framework that protects consumers and holds Facebook accountable to financial regulations.

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Solution, Objection, Exception: Perspectives on Facebook’s Libra

This is part one of a three part series exploring Libra, a digital currency Facebook and its partners plan to launch in 2020. Parts two and three will be posted over the next few days leading up to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s scheduled appearance before the United States House of Representatives’ Financial Services Committee on October 23, 2019.

On June 18, 2019, Facebook announced that it would begin moving forward with plans to launch Libra, its global digital currency initiative. Facebook envisions a future where Libra encourages greater economic participation for its 2.4 billion users as they pay fewer fees over time and engage in financial transactions with greater security. Such a complex undertaking will not only require support from Facebook’s global corporate partners, but regulatory approval from policy makers around the world as well. Should Facebook be permitted to proceed with the creation of Libra? In this series, I will explore three prospective answers to this question.

First, I’ll explore the view of Facebook and other digital asset advocates as delivered via written testimony to the United States Senate by David Marcus, Facebook’s head of Calibra, and Jeremy Allaire, CEO of Circle, a financial services company specializing in digital assets. They have positioned the digital currency as a solution: a low-cost, secure, and efficient way to make financial transactions and send peer-to-peer payments by utilizing Facebook’s platform and blockchain technology.

Representing a second perspective, I will discuss arguments from United States Senator Sherrod Brown and European Central Bank (ECB) Executive Board Member Yves Mersch. These objectors share a common concern over the potential consequences of trusting the money supply to a corporation with a past as sordid as Facebook’s. These policy makers argue that because we cannot trust Facebook, we should not trust Libra.

The final perspective explored is represented by Senator Mike Crapo and ECB Executive Board Member Benoit Coeure. Being less suspicious of Facebook’s ability to act as a responsible steward for Libra, they argue that if the right set of rules can be worked out, a blanket prohibition against the creation of Libra may not be the most prudent course of action.

Given the scale of the global financial system and the number of Facebook users worldwide, stakes are high. The risk of enacting nearsighted policy prior to properly understanding the complexities of the issue looms darkly over the heads of central bankers and Federal regulators, all of whom continue to monitor Facebook’s movement on Libra with rapt attention.

The Digital Currency Solution

Facebook should be permitted to proceed with the creation of Libra because while the status quo leaves many underbanked and subject to excessive fees, Libra offers 2.4 billion users with “a more efficient, low-cost, and secure alternative” to use and send money across borders.

In a US Senate hearing held on July 16, 2019 before the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, Facebook’s former Vice President of Messaging David Marcus provided testimony about Facebook’s plan for Libra. Marcus, who is also the former president of PayPal, recently transitioned to a new role within Facebook as he took the reins of Calibra: Facebook’s upcoming virtual wallet app designed to hold Libra tokens and facilitate digital payments. Marcus was the sole witness at the Senate hearing, which was fittingly called Examining Facebook’s Proposed Digital Currency and Data Privacy Considerations.

Two weeks after David Marcus delivered his remarks and answered questions from Senators, the Committee held another hearing on July 30, 2019. With a total of four witnesses called to testify, this hearing was wider-reaching and called Examining Regulatory Frameworks for Digital Currencies and Blockchain. Jeremy Allaire, CEO of Circle Internet Financial, a digital asset services firm, was the first witness to testify. By contemplating Marcus’s July 16 remarks along with the testimony of Jeremy Allaire on July 30, the Digital Currency Solution perspective is reified.

As Marcus states, “The goal of Libra is straightforward: A digital currency built on a secure and stable open-source blockchain, backed by a reserve of real assets, and governed by an independent association.” By establishing the 100-member Libra Association based in Switzerland, Facebook claims that it will not exert undue influence over the currency as it is minted because Facebook’s single seat in the Libra Association will prevent it from doing so. Additionally, there are a host of technical benefits to embracing blockchain as the underlying technology upon which to build the Libra ecosystem. As attested to by Allaire, digital currencies built on blockchain “can be easily stored, transferred, traded, and exchanged, while providing utility to users and benefits to businesses, all within a public infrastructure that is highly secure, tamper-proof, open, and interoperable.”

But the potential of an emerging technology is far from the only reason Marcus utilizes as grounds for creating Libra. The global financial system, Marcus argues, is currently facing a crisis of the underbanked, a term used to describe millions of people around the world who lack access to basic financial services at a reasonable cost. “The status quo is not working for many,” Marcus argues. “It is too expensive for people around the world to use and transfer their money. We believe Libra can offer a more efficient, low-cost, and secure alternative.”

Statements from David Marcus and Jeremy Allaire aside, not everyone is as optimistic about the possibility of our global financial system becoming another piece of the puzzle that is Facebook’s already bloated private-sector portfolio. As we will see in the next part of this series, at least one group of policy makers from the United States and European Union’s Central Bank strongly object to permitting Facebook to proceed with the creation of Libra.

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Writing Without Nonsense

I switched away from Evernote and started using a different text editor for notes and drafts this year. I prefer to stay as close to plain text as possible until I’m ready to publish. For the longest time I did most of my writing in TextEdit.app and saved to .rtf when necessary to preserve minor formatting.

iA Writer is phenomenal. I love the minimal UI and that it’s available on both iOS and MacOS (and other platforms). It doesn’t save in proprietary formats like Evernote, so my drafts aren’t lost in an app silo—they’re easily exportable and readable by other apps, and they play nicely with iCloud and iOS’s bizarre file manager.

The syntax highlighter is super neat too.

iA Writer also supports Markdown beautifully, so… I finally taught myself Markdown. It’s a straightforward language that’s easy to write natively, so my notes get formatted in real time as I type!

Markdown – Wikipedia > 

Markdown is a lightweight markup language with plain ext formatting syntax. Its design allows it to be converted to many output formats, but the original tool by the same name only supports HTML. Markdown is often used to format readme files, for writing messages in online discussion forums, and to create rich text using a plain text editor.

Multiple Intelligences: Biological and Artificial

The original draft of this post was written on May 26, 2013 as part of my unpublished (and as of yet unfinished) work, The New Era of Tech: How Emergent Virtual Constructs are Reshaping the World. As our civilization finds itself today on the precipice of fully embracing a world of algorithms, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and neural engines, I find now to be a more appropriate time to publicly share this and other works I’ve previously held as works in progress. I ask that the casual reader forgive the formality with which I’ve chosen to write, as this is the voice and ethos of my training in the discipline of Philosophy.

These articles, and my thesis more broadly, are primarily grounded in the dialectic principles of Hegel, as observed through a specific understanding of historical progression. It’s my hope that as I continue to write and publish, it will become evident how virtual constructs in their many forms pull us ever closer to the inevitable moment of Singularity, perhaps best articulated by Ray Kurzweil, and to illustrate the myriad other ways in which EVCs have fundamentally changed our world for good.

It’s difficult to identify one achievement alone for which Kurzweil is best known, but his work expounding upon the Law of Accelerating Returns (LOAR) shines bright among many. Although Kurzweil may be credited with progressing one of the most formal and well-known articulations of the LOAR in his book The Singularity is Near, he’s not the first to make note of the increasing pace and significance of technological development that underlie the law itself. As he acknowledges in his 2012 book How to Create a Mind:

“A year after his [John von Neumann’s] death in 1957, fellow mathematician Stan Ulam quoted him as having said in the early 1950s that ‘the ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life give the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.’ This is the first known use of the word singularity in the context of human technological history” (194).

Understanding our Biology in Context with Technology

How to Create a MindOn April 2, 2013, just 5 months after Kurzweil published How to Create a Mind, President Barack Obama announced the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative: a government-funded project aimed at mapping the brain. The BRAIN initiative is precisely the sort of project Kurzweil argues is needed so as to further unlock the mysteries of the human brain, and more specifically the biological neocortex.

Using the neocortex as a basis first for understanding human intelligence and creativity, then as a model for replicating that intelligence primarily through the utilization of cloud-based computational processing power, Kurzweil believes we will soon augment human biology to such an extent as to achieve transcendent capabilities.

Evidence presented by early mathematicians and computer scientists (von Neumann, Moore, Turing, et al.) support the theory that the human brain processes information in ways similar to primitive computation machines, but as technology has advanced it has become clear that there are several key differences between biological human intelligence and technological computational power. For example, increases in processing capabilities and memory capacity within super computers has resulted in vast improvements to the overall computational power of machines, making them capable of tasks far beyond the scope of a human brain.

It has been posited by other modern thinkers such as Kevin Kelly that there are multiple and different types of intelligence, and that the best kind may in fact be the combination of human intelligence with super computer brain power. Today’s AI excels at automating the duties of household appliances, suggesting solutions to scheduling conflicts among groups, and intelligently routing us around traffic accidents on our daily commute, but it doesn’t do well at nurturing children the way human parents can, or catalyzing creativity and innovation in students the way an engaging teacher can. When we combine these intelligences together, we see great advances in efficiency, safety, creativity, and happiness in the home and in schools.

The growing chasm of capability between machine and human intelligence suggests that the creation of new and uniquely significant human knowledge without the aid of AI has come increasingly close to its limit. This isn’t to say that we’re approaching a point of absolute omniscience in which we will know all there is to know. This is only to say that very soon, the primary task of the creative human mind will be to develop insight into that which is already known: to make meaning from knowledge already made by humans and information already indexed by machines, through the exploration and expression of human experience.

Qualia and Consciousness

Not only does computational processing differ from human intelligence in scope by virtue of its capacity for infinite expansion, but it differs in method as well. As Kurzweil states, “There is considerable plasticity in the brain, which enables us to learn. But there is far greater plasticity in a computer, which can completely restructure its methods by changing its software. Thus, in that respect, a computer will be able to emulate a brain, but the converse is not the case” (193). Personally, I would append but one word to this claim: yet.

The human brain has no formal or automatic method for weeding out inconsistencies in thought or contradictions of belief. This can result in a range of undesired phenomena, from irrational behavior to cognitive dissonance. Although humans are capable of what has been called “critical thinking,” Kurzweil cites this faculty only as a “weak mechanism,” and a skill “not practiced nearly as often as it should be.” For as he writes in Chapter 8 of How to Create a Mind, “In a software-based neocortex, we can build in a process that reveals inconsistencies for further review” (197). In other words, computer scientists can integrate superior methods of data processing and error-correction into the foundations of consciousness for artificially intelligent machines.

With the potential for superior error-correction built into AI, the question then arises whether or not an artificially intelligent machine can/will eventually replicate the workings of a biological human brain, and to what extent such a creation will resemble true human intelligence.

This is question can very likely can be answered via scientific inquiry: through experimentation and observation, along with proper interpretation and wise application of the results derived from said inquiry. This question asks us to shift from the brain as biological substance, to the mind and consciousness as Philosophical concepts.

Kurzweil continues, “Consciousness, and the closely related question of qualia are a fundamental, perhaps the ultimate, philosophical question” and “I maintain that these questions can never be fully resolved through science. In other words, there are no falsifiable experiments that we can contemplate that would resolve them, not without making philosophical assumptions” (205).

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has this to say on the topic of qualia:

Philosophers often use the term ‘qualia’ (singular ‘quale’) to refer to the introspectively accessible, phenomenal aspects of our mental lives. In this broad sense of the term, it is difficult to deny that there are qualia. Disagreement typically centers on which mental states have qualia, whether qualia are intrinsic qualities of their bearers, and how qualia relate to the physical world both inside and outside the head. The status of qualia is hotly debated in philosophy largely because it is central to a proper understanding of the nature of consciousness. Qualia are at the very heart of the mind-body problem.

Although there are a number of compelling theories that attempt to define the point at which a being is fully endowed with true consciousness, Kurzweil believes that in the end there is a fundamental need for a leap of faith on our part when assessing the (non)consciousness of machines. Whether or not they are in fact conscious, “machines in the future will appear to be conscious and that they will be convincing to biological people when they speak of their qualia” (209). Kurzweil’s leap of faith is that once this convincing occurs, they [machines] “will indeed constitute conscious persons.”

I believe this leap of faith to be quite rational, as it follows from the claim that although not all beings with consciousness are capable of convincing others of their consciousness, that any being capable of convincing others of their conscious is, in fact, conscious.

The key to understanding the thought experiment of machine consciousness is to invest fully in the “convincing” itself. For if we are in fact convinced of a nonbiological, artificially intelligent being’s narrative of self-reflection and description of individual qualia, what difference does it make whether or not a true consciousness lies behind the eyes? Indeed, the bulk of this conclusion may translate to life in general: if you are fully convinced of anything yet act the opposite, where is your integrity? The feminist philosopher belle hooks once said in a lecture I attended that integrity is the congruence of that which we believe, think, and act.

The emergence, identification, and recognition of this consciousness will each undoubtedly stand as epochal moments in the history of what Kurzweil and others term the human-machine civilization. It may sound like the stuff of Battlestar Galactica’s Cylons and Westworld’s Hosts to some, and they would be right to reflect upon the problem as such.

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Monument Valley: A Game to Remember

Monument ValleyMonument Valley is a mind-warping mobile puzzle game with stunning visuals, satisfying gameplay, and awesome audio.

The game is about Princess Ida’s journey to uncover the secrets of a lost, sacred geometry. There is no violence in the game, and each level is a unique architectural marvel set in an M. C. Escher-like world.

The visuals of the game are phenomenal. They’re probably the most talked about feature of the game, but my favorite components are the background sound and gameplay audio. As you slide platforms and twist gears in sequence, you create harmonic chords that make you want to keep playing.

Each level takes the form of a different self-contained puzzle world. The player moves the game’s hero, Princess Ida, through the levels by changing camera perspectives and revealing new pathways to areas of the world hidden by optical illusions.

Although Monument Valley is a puzzle game, it wasn’t designed to stump the player. Instead, the focus is surprise and delight as Ida progresses through her journey.

Developed at a digital design studio called ustwo, Monument Valley’s creators sought to construct an experience for players that valued the medium as an emerging artform. The team of programmers, artists, and designers at ustwo don’t typically work on games, and they employed a singular approach that resulted in a game with a compelling narrative that feels as much like a music video as it does a video game.

Ustwo wanted to design a game that would appeal to all potential players (not just teen boys and hardcore gamers). At a fundamental level, the game was designed to specifically value inclusion:

  • Ida is relatively featureless, allowing players to project themselves into the game
  • the game is not too hard, so any player can win
  • the game is not too long, so any player can finish
  • gameplay is so audio-visually appealing as to be mass-market

Part of the promise and appeal of the iPad was that it was a computer for everyone. As a game built specifically for mobile devices, Monument Valley was designed to be a game for everyone.

Not only that, but Monument Valley is very much its own game. This isn’t just another platformer, shooter, or racing game. It’s also more than a classic arcade game repackaged with updated graphics (e.g. Frogger -> Crossy Road). Monument Valley is a game to remember.

More about Monument Valley:

  • over 5 million copies sold on Android and iOS
  • sales have soared to over $13 million
  • featured by Apple, Google, and appeared on House of Cards
  • offered a promotional expansion pack for World AIDS Day 2014

Real Life is Not a Zoo

Re: On ethics in information technology

We know watching everything because you can is not okay in our daily life. If we do it to strangers it’s illegal stalking. If we do it online, with a computer between us and our ‘target’ and we work for a big organization, it becomes okay.

It’s not okay. There’s no reason to spy on someone without their knowledge whether its for personal reasons or for a group or organization. More than likely it will set you on a path of false conclusions and unjustified defensive moves. There’s no reason to obsess over every word, thought, or image someone posts online, even if it’s in public.

We don’t live in a zoo, and acting as if it’s permissible to gape at each other’s private lives from the other side of a computer screen is not just in poor taste, it’s creepy.

Naming the Toasters

Macs and iPhones over the years

  • Van Gough: 15″ PowerBook G4
  • da Vinci: 13″ Macbook Air
  • Eleanor: 13″ Macbook Air
  • Infinite Loop: 11″ Macbook Air
  • Eve: Mac Mini
  • Valkill: iPhone 4
  • Jeejah: iPhone 4S
  • RGB Phone: iPhone 5

I don’t remember what my first few iPhones were named, and I still need to settle on a name for my current iPhone 6 Plus. It has turned out to be the best iPhone yet by far. After using an iPhone for 8 years, I’ve finally reached a level with the iOS keyboard where I can get close to 100% accuracy without looking at the screen while taking notes in Evernote. It’s quite magical. Voice dictation is also delightfully accurate now. Editing photos is a breeze.

My phone is now my computer and most of the time my computer is a glorified TV.

I’ve watched iPhone/iOS evolve since the beginning, and it’s not an understatement for Tim Cook to say “These are the best iPhones we’ve ever made,” even if he repeats it every year.