When It Comes to Technology, Humans Are Idiots
At the core of bad decisions, you can usually find one of three things: an excessive focus on finding someone to blame rather than doing causal analysis and focusing on the actual problem; an unwillingness to do the hard work to actually fix the problem; and a stronger need to appear right than actually to be right. Technology can help us become smarter, but it can't force us to act smart.
08/04/14 6:37 AM PT
There are a lot of things going on at the moment. Israel is tactically defending itself against Hamas -- winning the battles but losing the war, because the Israeli government can't see the big picture. The U.S. is still blaming Snowden for leaks, even though Russia clearly is able to pull damaging information pretty much anytime it wants without Snowden's help -- and this is nothing new.
Airlines fly planes over areas where folks are shooting planes down with missiles and then everyone is blamed except the idiots responsible for those flight plans -- which likely are focused on saving fuel not lives.
Finally, we've been focusing like a laser on smartphone security -- but until recently, no one seemed to put much focus on securing the voice side of the technology. It's a friggin phone, people! I'll step back and make fun of the idiots this week and not spend a whole lot of time on the fact -- though it's not lost on me -- that they are pretty much us.
I'll close with my product of the week: Microsoft's Cortana, which isn't like Siri at all and whose descendants actually could address the core problem I'm complaining about.
Israel and Hamas
Hamas is outmatched. Israel has more money, weapons, trained soldiers and technology. Israel is supposedly a smart, well-equipped fighting country that is determined to protect its people and property. Hamas has a rabble of poorly equipped and trained fighters who don't seem to agree on much of anything other than they want Israel to go away. Israel is the force that binds Hamas together.
So Hamas fires low-tech ordinance into Israel and from time to time hits something, and it digs tunnels that are used, mostly unsuccessfully, to kidnap Israel's citizens. If Israel did nothing other than take normal police actions, the deaths and damage would be relative minor. If they wanted to do something to curb Hamas' efforts, there were two viable choices: improve its defenses by creating better tunnel- locating technology and a stronger Iron Shield to block any ordinance from getting through; and improve its ability to surgically strike back.
The emphasis here is on the world "surgical." High-altitude, computer-controlled, hyper-velocity mini-guns on protected aerial platforms that could take out a weapon surgically are well within Israel's technical capability -- the technology to identify in real time where the missiles are coming from, they apparently already have.
Instead, they use ordinance -- apparently mostly high-explosive rounds and missiles -- designed for battlefields, and they send soldiers into the conflict, killing more innocents and Israeli citizens than Hamas could hope to do itself. Now, rather than Hamas being the villain, Israel actually is acting more villainous. The collateral damage to the country's image, allies, and long-term prospects is massive -- and here is the stupid part, it's self-inflicted. This is seriously like watching an entire country run with scissors.
For Hamas, a strategy that is founded on getting lots of your own people and children killed isn't exactly smart either, even if it does appear to be more effective.
Malaysian Plane Crash
Personally, I'm trying to figure out why anyone in their right mind would fly Malaysian Airlines. One of the company's planes apparently just flew off into the ocean, and the latest disaster occurred because it routed the plane over a battlefield, where one side was actively shooting down planes and most of what was in the air were military planes it wanted to shoot down.
Oh, and the guys doing the shooting weren't exactly rocket scientists. What idiot would fly a plane, even an empty one, over a place like that? The odds of being shot down are overwhelming. The screwy thing is, rather than the world blaming the idiots who came up with that flight plan, Russia is blaming the Ukraine, and the Ukraine and U.S. are blaming Russia, even though neither actually appears to have either fired the missiles or had anything to do with the flight plan.
Here is a thought: Let's have a rule that commercial airlines don't fly over places where folks are shooting planes down. Or, like Israel does, let's put missile defenses on commercial airliners. Right now, I'd vote for both.
All Your Calls Belong to Us
One of the big topics right now is how unsecure our cellphones are. We've been down this path with PCs just recently, and Google was one of the most outspoken critics of Microsoft's old security policy, pointing out how overlaying third-party security on an unsecure platform doesn't work. Google's leading security effort is Samsung Knox, which is a security overlay by a third party that has no ability to secure the operating system. It's like no one on its team has heard of rootkits.
The really amazing thing for me, given that these things are phones, it that until just recently, no one focused on making the phone calls themselves secure. (Blackberry just stepped up to fix this, and it is the only company in its class doing this.)
That is why we can listen to a call by a U.S. diplomat telling the EU to get screwed (the word she used began with "f"), which likely did substantial damage to U.S.-EU relations. What is absolutely amazing to me is that the U.S. seems to be taking the position that this was a one-time thing instead of acknowledging that every call can be monitored, even though we know the NSA has completed a massive data repository that appears designed to do just that.
If we wanted to protect against this, we'd have to replace virtually every single personal phone, both wired and wireless, that we place calls from or to. All of the PBXes would have to be replaced -- most use proprietary phones that can't be secured -- and the chances of that are pretty much zip.
The U.S.'s response to the diplomatic call leak was to blame Russia. Perhaps rather than focusing on doing the same monitoring on our calls, the U.S. government should focus on making its calls more secure. Right now, blaming Russia for spying is like the pot calling the kettle black. Just saying...
Internet Ads: Eyeballs Over Conversion Rates
The Internet and companies like Google, Twitter and Facebook live on page views and metrics that focus on whether ads are being viewed -- but are unrelated to whether ads actually are acted on. TV does this as well, and in both formats we behave as though people don't go out of their way to avoid ads.
Social networks' incredibly low conversion rates -- the percentage of people who actually buy something after seeing an ad -- would suggest that advertisers are massively overpaying for most related Internet ads, and this is likely because their CEOs and CFOs aren't looking at the right statistic. It is far easier to cheat than to get real results.
This strategy of focusing on the easy metric, while beneficial to individual companies, is a huge waste of resources for the companies that practice it. That money, which is in the billions, is mostly wasted. It substantially weakens the advertisers that have implemented this cheat -- and that is most of them.
The screwy thing is that social networks actually should be better at this than content sites, because they should know more about the user and thus be better able to target ads that result in purchases. They just don't, because it is hard.
Yet if line executives ever figure out they are being cheated, the social networks' revenue models will collapse, which suggests that the goal of self-preservation should drive a policy change. It doesn't -- because they are run by idiots.
Wrapping Up: We're Idiots
I'm not standing above anyone else in making this pronouncement, as I can look back and see the massive number of times I personally have focused on the wrong thing in solving a problem, and I'm supposedly trained specifically not to do that.
At the core of each of these examples is one of three things: an excessive focus on finding someone to blame rather than doing causal analysis (understanding why the problem exists) and focusing on the actual problem; an unwillingness to do the hard work to actually fix the problem; and a stronger need to appear right than actually to be right (argumentative theory).
For instance, the goal of advertising isn't to get people to see ads; the goal is to change viewers' behavior and sell a product or idea. Let's take Hamas and Israel. To actually solve the problem, one side has to go away -- the choice is change, move or die. Unfortunately for both, the easiest path is death, which isn't exactly the smart choice for either.
Technology can help us become smarter, but it can't force us to act smart -- and that may be at the core of the world's problems, because it is also a force multiplier. It can make our dumb decisions far more dangerous.
Product of the Week: Cortana
If our core problem is that we are idiots and can't make decisions based on the actual problem to be solved, then the fix could be something that would help us approach the problem more intelligently. Cortana, Microsoft's intelligent assistant, is the kind of technology that can help us approach problems more intelligently. While Cortana is often compared to Siri, they are as different as a computer and a calculator. Microsoft is showcasing that difference in some fun ads with a bite.
Siri right now is basically a voice front end to search, while Cortana is much more like IBM's Watson in that she has a built-in decision engine and can make more complex decisions herself. Analytic in nature, she was roughly modeled after the game element by the same name in Halo -- and in Halo, she's pretty much what helps you navigate the game and keeps you alive.
Now imagine a future Cortana that would have similar advanced capabilities to help you focus on the problem you need to solve -- that could step in when you, or some government official, were doing something stupid. Her potential ability to focus our efforts on actually fixing things or in giving us suggestions like either not flying over battlefields with anti-aircraft missile systems -- or not getting in planes that are planning to do that -- would in fact be lifesaving.
She could help prevent us from driving cars while intoxicated, give us a signal that keeps us from saying something really stupid to our spouses, keep us from buying something we really don't need on a whim, or maybe suggest that suing the sitting president over relatively small things is less than intelligent during a time when Congress can't get anything done.
Not that the Republicans have a monopoly on stupid, mind you. There is at least one Democrat who seems hell-bent on being the most stupid person in congress.
Forget Cortana as an personal assistant -- I'd vote to put her and her sisters in as replacements for the folks we have running the government. They could only do better.
If Cortana advances like I expect she will, the result may save us as a race, so she is my product of the week.
Now excuse me while I go watch the historically accurate masterpiece, Sharknado 2.