Apple’s Backdoor

If anyone is interested in reading more about the technical details of the recent conflict between Apple and the FBI, there’s a helpful article at Ars Technica. Such disputes over personal devices might seem petty compared to the artificial intelligence revolution that Issac Asimov imagined in I, Robot. Yet those stories do help us imagine a world where information technologies subsume politics to engineering problems. The positronic brains in “The Evitable Conflict,” for instance, operated at levels beyond human comprehension, so also beyond political dispute.

While we are not there yet, the enormous amounts of data that those fictional machines processed may look much like what we now call “big data.” With private companies like Apple and Google collecting data on a scale stressing the imagination, it’s not surprising that we see new concerns about conflicts between personal privacy, trade secrecy, and government oversight. If Asimov has anything to teach us about this latest conflict between Apple and the federal government, I think it’s that we need not let our machines create an “artificial atmosphere” that will determine political results. How do we avoid that fate? Perhaps we just avoid hanging ourselves by our own rope, as Quinn does in “Evidence” when he asks the robotics corporation to arbitrate a political decision.

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