Leavitt: Nobody told them it was wrong

By Irv Leavitt for Chronicle Media

Irv Leavitt

After being caught doing something horrible for which there was no excuse, most kids as dumb as I was tried a last-ditch plea for absolution.

“How should I know I wasn’t supposed to do it? Nobody told me it was wrong.”

This assertion served mainly to infuriate our elders. They knew full well that anyone sensible didn’t need to be told not to hang a playmate by his ankles out of a second-story window. The most we could hope for was that the sheer arrogance of claiming ignorance could stagger anyone within earshot long enough for us to run.

You’re likely to have heard CEOs’ version of “Nobody told me.” They call it, “It’s better to beg forgiveness than ask permission.”

This concept operates both for daring risk-taking and obnoxiously irresponsible methodology.

Often, those two strategies travel together.

An example is coming into focus right now. Electronic concierges, it’s clear, have been listening when we don’t know they’re listening, and saving everything they hear.

Google, after its Assistant was caught, has promised to stop recording. Amazon has not, and now Alexa has found herself subpoenaed to testify in various court actions about what she has heard.

In a “beg forgiveness” world, we should prepare ourselves by guessing what corporations are going to do next. We have no other defense.

So with the concierges, perhaps their next play may be to share our questions and their answers between machines on credenzas all over the world.

You know, if you’ve kept up, that would fit in with the way artificial intelligence systems learn. Alexa can help us out more in our lazy ways if whatever one unit has figured out becomes canon for all the units. Then, it becomes a hive mind.

If you’re a fan of TV science fiction, you know some examples of electronic hive minds. Cybermen. The Borg.

But that’s another couple of steps.

Meanwhile, our friends at McDonald’s have started recording license plates of cars heading into their driveways, to retrieve the drivers’ purchasing patterns for transmission to message boards that helps Speedy Mac sell up. That’s a little creepy, but not too horrifying.

But what’s next?

I know one of the things that might be next, because a salesman for one of the restaurant-oriented AI firms told me at the 2019 National Restaurant Association show.

He said facial recognition would be used by some clients not only to identify and help sell returning customers, but also take guesses about people who couldn’t be identified.

“Diversity,” he said as a picture of an African-American woman flashed on one of his screens. “People from different cultures like different things.”

I began to remark that this was the first time I had heard anyone use the term “diversity” to describe the activity of stereotyping people’s eating habits for profit, when he suddenly remembered to whom he was speaking, and he took off at a trot across McCormick Place.

So what’s the next step if you put together retailers checking your license plates and identifying your face — and race?

In the future, if three African-American men rob a bank one morning, isn’t it easy to imagine squad cars converging on every retail establishment within miles in which three black men are shopping at the same time? For the rest of the day? Or week?

No. You can’t imagine something like that happening in your America.

After all, there’s no such thing as a doorbell camera, used by homeowners to watch, from wherever they are, everyone in front of their houses. With an accompanying computer site that allows them to share the pictures with their friends. And the police. And which is sold by a company that cuts deals with police departments to help sell more and more of the camera systems.

But there is! It’s called Ring, owned by Amazon, which recently was estimated to own 97 percent of this particular market niche.

So, what’s the next step? Put together facial recognition in every store, license plate recognition in every parking lot, and doorbell cameras and other security video cameras every few feet, almost everywhere? All talking to each other?

Then, maybe, combine all that with the data that’s been streaming out of our wireless phones, with and without our permission. And the various kinds of communication capability in our cars. And the “Internet of Things,” on appliances all over the place. And the banking systems. And the government databanks of motor vehicle departments, courts and clerks.

Let’s connect it all!

There will come a time, probably soon, when creating that kind of network will look pretty good to some people, good enough to start assembling it without asking permission. After all, we worry about terrorism and crime. Having the entirety of the urban United States connected digitally would make us safer, right?


And just imagine how convenient it would be for all of us to be able to buy just a little access to a network like that.

“Hey, Alexa? Find out where my wife is.”

“Hey, Alexa? Don’t let John Smith buy anything until he pays the money he owes us.”

“Hey, Alexa? Two hundred thousand independents in DuPage County will be on their way to vote tomorrow. See to it that 35 percent of their cars stall.”