Dan Feldman and Nir Eisikovits
March 03, 2021
The history of humans' use of technology has always been a history of coevolution. Philosophers from Rousseau to Heidegger to Carl Schmitt have argued that technology is never a neutral tool for achieving human ends. Technological innovations – from the most rudimentary to the most sophisticated – reshape people as they use these innovations to control their environment. Artificial intelligence is a new and powerful tool, and it, too, is altering humanity.
Writing and, later, the printing press made it possible to carefully record history and easily disseminate knowledge, but it eliminated centuries-old traditions of oral storytelling. Ubiquitous digital and phone cameras have changed how people experience and perceive events. Widely available GPS systems have meant that drivers rarely get lost, but a reliance on them has also atrophied their native capacity to orient themselves.
AI is no different. While the term AI conjures up anxieties about killer robots, unemployment or a massive surveillance state, there are other, deeper implications. As AI increasingly shapes the human experience, how does this change what it means to be human? Central to the problem is a person's capacity to make choices, particularly judgments that have moral implications.
Taking over our lives?
AI is being used for wide and rapidly expanding purposes. It is being used to predict which television shows or movies individuals will want to watch based on past preferences and to make decisions about who can borrow money based on past performance and other proxies for the likelihood of repayment. It's being used to detect fraudulent commercial transactions and identify malignant tumors. It's being used for hiring and firing decisions in large chain stores and public school districts. And it's being used in law enforcement – from assessing the chances of recidivism, to police force allocation, to the facial identification of criminal suspects.
Algorithms trained on biased data build biased models and perpetuate existing prejudices.
Many of these applications present relatively obvious risks. If the algorithms used for loan approval, facial recognition and hiring are trained on biased data, thereby building biased models, they tend to perpetuate existing prejudices and inequalities. But researchers believe that cleaned-up data and more rigorous modeling would reduce and potentially eliminate algorithmic bias. It's even possible that AI could make predictions that are fairer and less biased than those made by humans.
Where algorithmic bias is a technical issue that can be solved, at least in theory, the question of how AI alters the abilities that define human beings is more fundamental. We have been studying this question for the last few years as part of the Artificial Intelligence and Experience project at UMass Boston's Applied Ethics Center.
Losing the ability to choose
Aristotle argued that the capacity for making practical judgments depends on regularly making them – on habit and practice. We see the emergence of machines as substitute judges in a variety of workaday contexts as a potential threat to people learning how to effectively exercise judgment themselves.
AI conjures up anxieties about killer robots and a massive surveillance state, but there are other, deeper implications — Photo: Cottonbro
In the workplace, managers routinely make decisions about whom to hire or fire, which loan to approve and where to send police officers, to name a few. These are areas where algorithmic prescription is replacing human judgment, and so people who might have had the chance to develop practical judgment in these areas no longer will.
Recommendation engines, which are increasingly prevalent intermediaries in people's consumption of culture, may serve to constrain choice and minimize serendipity. By presenting consumers with algorithmically curated choices of what to watch, read, stream and visit next, companies are replacing human taste with machine taste. In one sense, this is helpful. After all, the machines can survey a wider range of choices than any individual is likely to have the time or energy to do on her own.
At the same time, though, this curation is optimizing for what people are likely to prefer based on what they've preferred in the past. We think there is some risk that people's options will be constrained by their pasts in a new and unanticipated way - a generalization of the "echo chamber" people are already seeing in social media.
The advent of potent predictive technologies seems likely to affect basic political institutions.
The advent of potent predictive technologies seems likely to affect basic political institutions, too. The idea of human rights, for example, is grounded in the insight that human beings are majestic, unpredictable, self-governing agents whose freedoms must be guaranteed by the state. If humanity – or at least its decision-making – becomes more predictable, will political institutions continue to protect human rights in the same way?
As machine learning algorithms, a common form of "narrow" or "weak" AI, improve and as they train on more extensive data sets, larger parts of everyday life are likely to become utterly predictable. The predictions are going to get better and better, and they will ultimately make common experiences more efficient and more pleasant.
Algorithms could soon – if they don't already – have a better idea about which show you'd like to watch next and which job candidate you should hire than you do. One day, humans may even find a way machines can make these decisions without some of the biases that humans typically display.
But to the extent that unpredictability is part of how people understand themselves and part of what people like about themselves, humanity is in the process of losing something significant. As they become more and more predictable, the creatures inhabiting the increasingly AI-mediated world will become less and less like us.
Nir Eisikovits, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Director, Applied Ethics Center, University of Massachusetts Boston; Dan Feldman Senior Research Fellow, Applied Ethics Center, University of Massachusetts Boston
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.
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Letters from inmates provide a crucial link with the outside world, and yet the process of sending and receiving them in Egyptian prisons is both arduous and arbitrary as an extra means of control.
October 28, 2021
CAIRO – Abdelrahman ElGendy says letters were a crucial lifeline for him during the time he spent locked up in five different prisons between 2013 and 2020. "Letters were not only important, they literally saved my life," he says. "I was only living because I was looking forward to them from one visit to the next, and I would read them over until the paper became worn and torn."
Last month, the family of imprisoned software engineer and activist Alaa Abd El Fattah — who had been held in remand detention for over two years until his referral to emergency trial last week — announced it would take legal steps to ensure that Abd El Fattah is able to send letters to them following a period when prison authorities refused to allow him any correspondence.
According to the family, besides prison visits once a month, Abd El Fattah's letters are the only way they can gain assurance of his condition, and when his letters are denied, that in itself is an indicator that his treatment in detention is worsening. The numerous legal requests and official complaints by the family have been met only with silence by authorities.
While letters provide a crucial link between prisoners and the outside world, the process of sending and receiving them in Egyptian prisons is an arduous one as a result of arbitrary restrictions put in place by authorities.
Mada Masr spoke with a number of former prisoners about their relationship to letters during their incarceration and the way prison administrators constrained their right to send and receive correspondence.
Two letters per month
The law regulating Egypt's prisons and the Interior Ministry's prison bylaws stipulate that prisoners have a right to send out two letters per month and that prison administrators may allow more than two at their discretion. Prisoners are also legally entitled to receive letters.
Those sentenced to hard labor — a type of sentence that in practice usually entitles prisoners to fewer visits — are allowed to send one letter a week, and prisoners in remand detention technically have the right to exchange letters with family and friends at any time. However, in all cases, prison bylaws grant prison authorities the right to monitor, censor and refuse any correspondence sent and received , a power the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights deems a "violation to the personal freedom of prisoners, as it intrudes on their privacy."
A form of punishment
Prison authorities often restrict prisoner letters as a form of punishment, a measure that came under the spotlight when correspondence from Abd El Fattah to his family was arbitrarily cut off for an extended period last month.
Mohamed Fathy, a lawyer, says that Abd El Fattah's family pursued all possible legal procedures to push for allowing the exchange of letters with him, the last of which was a report submitted by the family to the Maadi District Court. This was preceded by an official notice through a court bailiff to the head of the Prisons Authority and telegraphs to the interior minister, Prisons Authority director and the superintendent of Maximum Security Wing 2 of Tora Prison Complex. Abd El Fattah's mother, Laila Soueif, also sent official requests to the superintendent on a daily basis.
Outside the gates of Tora Prison
Aside from the legal procedures, Soueif spent over a week waiting at the gates of Tora Prison Complex in the hope of receiving a letter from her son, a circumstance that gained particular urgency after Abd El Fattah signaled he was contemplating suicide during a detention renewal session in September.
This marked the second time that Abd El Fattah's family has embarked on a legal campaign in order to be granted their right to exchange letters with him. As the coronavirus pandemic first gripped the world in early 2020, the family went through a similar struggle after authorities halted all prison visitations as part of its COVID-19 restrictions.
During this period, letters became the principal form of communication between prisoners and the outside world. The Interior Ministry halted all prison visits from March until it reinstated them again in August 2020, though they were restricted to once a month.
Gendy, who was released from prison in January 2020, one month before the outbreak of the coronavirus in Egypt was officially announced, says that even in ordinary circumstances, letters were of vital importance since only direct family members are allowed visitation rights.
He says he used to give his family around 10 letters during every visit, addressed both to family and friends. "I used to keep an open letter to write to my mother about everything that was happening because the visitation time did not allow me to tell her all the details," he says.
Even though the right to correspondence for prisoners is enshrined in the law, in reality, the process is an arduous one for both prisoners and their families due to the conditions of Egyptian prisons and arbitrary restrictions put in place by authorities, according to the accounts of several former prisoners.
It typically begins when the prison warden announces the visitation schedule for the following day. Prisoners hurry to pen letters before lights out, though some continue to write in the darkness. A prisoner who has a scheduled visit then gathers all the letters from his cellmates and hands them over to his visiting family members, who in turn give them to the rest of the prisoners' families outside, either in person or via WhatsApp if the family lives in another governorate.
In parallel, the families of prisoners who share a cell often create a WhatApp group to inform each other about visitation times. "Some families in nearby governorates send physical letters inside with the families that have scheduled visits. But those who live in remote governorates and who cannot afford to travel to the prison simply write letters and send pictures of them to the WhatsApp group," says Amgad Samir*, who was imprisoned for two years in Tora Prison Complex and was the facilitator for letter exchanges in his cell.
Marked in red
According to Samir, families would print out the letters sent via WhatsApp to deliver them to the prisoners, but the prison administration would sometimes not allow the entry of printed letters, so some families would volunteer to rewrite them by hand. "The sister of one of the detainees in Alexandria would rewrite dozens of letters in one day and would ask the children of some of the families to help her," Samir says. "Some families would send their letters with more than one person to make sure that at least one version made it inside."
Any letter being sent or received from prison is required to first be reviewed by the National Security Agency (NSA) officer stationed in the prison, who usually delegates a subordinate officer to read the letters before allowing them through or to "mark them in red," at which point the officer reads the letters himself to approve or deny them, according to Samir. After this screening phase is over, explains Samir, the officer hands over the letters to the mail facilitator, a designated prisoner, who then hands them out in the cell. "I would look at the faces of those who had letters sent to them, it was as if they had just been released," Samir says.
Khaled Dawoud, a journalist and the former head of the Dostour Party who was released from prison in April after nearly one and a half years behind bars, says that prison authorities tightly restrict prison correspondence. "Everything in prison is cracked down upon: food, clothes and even letters," Dawoud says.
According to Dawoud, the NSA officer in Tora Liman Prison, another maximum security facility in the complex, would sometimes force prisoners to rewrite their letters after redacting sections describing things like prison conditions, for example, to avoid them making it into the press or being circulated on social media.
Disseminating information about prison conditions can even lead to further prosecution, as was the case with imprisoned attorney Mohamed Ramadan in December 2020, when he was rotated into another case by the State Security Prosecution after he was ordered released on charges of "sending letters from prison with the intention of destabilization."
Relatives speaking with defendants at a Cairo court
Fear of being forgotten
Banning letters is a form of punishment and pressure that authorities deploy arbitrarily against prisoners, according to lawyer former detainee Mahienour al-Massry, who has spent time in prisons. She tells Mada Masr that following the reinstatement of prison visitations in August 2020, after they had been halted amid the coronavirus outbreak, the National Security officer in Qanater Women's Prison told her she had to choose between visitations and letter correspondence, but that she couldn't have both. Massry refused the ultimatum, and after negotiating with the officer, was eventually granted "exceptional" approval for both under the condition that she only send two letters a month.
"Even though letter correspondence from prison is a legal right that is non-negotiable, there were always negotiations and struggles about sending and receiving them, about how many letters were allowed, and about their content," she says. "Prisoners inside for criminal offenses were in a different situation from political prisoners. The latter had a chance to talk and negotiate, whereas the former did not."
Massry recalls a situation when the NSA officer in Qanater took back some letters that she had initially been allowed to receive. "He said, 'I don't have a reason. This was an order from the National Security Agency. You could try next time, maybe they will go through.' They are moody like that," Masry says. The letters were returned to the family, who then delivered them to Mahienour in a subsequent visit without any objections from the officer. Another time, a letter was confiscated because it had the term "son of a bitch," which the officer deemed "foul language."
Looking for something to say
During an earlier stint in prison in 2016 in Damanhour, Massry did not receive any letters for a month. When she went to the officer to inquire after them, she found that he had a pile of letters addressed to her on his desk. She says the officer simply told her: "Sorry, I didn't have time to go through them all."
After the coronavirus outbreak in March 2020, letters to and from prison were banned for two months in Tora Prison Complex while visitations continued to be suspended until August. During this period the prison was overwhelmed with letters, as they were often the only form of communication with detainees. According to Dawoud, the National Security officer was unable to go through hundreds of letters a day, even with the help of another officer. After long negotiations, the officer finally approved the sending of letters to and from prison under the condition they did not exceed two passages.
Dawoud says that he used his letters to simply reassure his family with brief sentences. "Sometimes I couldn't find anything to say because on the one hand, I can't speak about prison conditions, otherwise the letter would be confiscated; and on the other hand I couldn't talk about personal issues," he says.
Despite that, the short letters were enough for Dawoud to check in on his father, who was battling cancer and eventually died. "One sentence was enough for me to know that he was okay. It was enough for me to be reassured," he says.
News about COVID-19
In certain cases, letters have taken on additional importance beyond allowing families and prisoners to check in on each other.
Samir says he was able to help out a foreign cellmate who was charged in a criminal case without the authorities ever informing his consulate or assigning him a lawyer. Samir was able to tell his wife about this prisoner in a letter, but he made sure to use coded language in order to evade surveillance.
Samir would also use coded language to pass on information about COVID-19 in prison that would otherwise be flagged and confiscated by the NSA officer. "We replaced the word 'corona' with 'mosquitoes.' I would write that someone had been bitten by mosquitoes yesterday, and my sister would understand what that meant," he says.
Using this simple code, Samir was able to communicate the prison's coronavirus situation to the outside world until the officer realized that someone was passing along information and pressured him to confess. "I had two choices: either lie and say that there was a mobile phone in the room, or tell him the truth. I told the truth," he says. As punishment, he was not permitted to exchange letters for a period before the officer finally allowed it again.
"The importance of letters does not just lie in their content," Gendy says. "They are also a testament that people outside still remember you, because the fear of being forgotten is every prisoner's worst nightmare."
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