County News

The Freedom from Information Act

My beautiful wife of four dozen years, Charlotte, recently showed me a snippet from the Reader’s Digest about a possible new law in Europe that would grant employees the right to disconnect from emails once they leave work.  “The Freedom from Information Act” might be a great name. Whether or not such a law ever passes in Europe, it is highly unlikely that such a new federal mandate would pass or, for that matter, be signed by the president, especially if it restricted tweeting in any way.  Nonetheless, a new Civil Right for Americans — the right to be free from information overload will become increasingly attractive and increasingly important in the world ahead.

Our lives in an age of smart phones, internet communication and soon-to-come widespread Virtual Reality and Artificial Intelligence (AI) could not have been imagined as creating a growing and perhaps very dangerous problem when the Founding Fathers were alive. Perhaps this is no different than the 18th century Second Amendment, born in the era of muskets, yet now allowing me to purchase and use high-powered semi-automatic assault rifles. Where are the Founding Fathers when we need them?

Information now assaults us whether we are awake or semi-conscious. I am even beginning to have conversations with Alexa about whatever information she may be gathering about me. We have discussed, for example, whether or not I have a right to see such information, perhaps not unlike being able to have access to my very own medical records. Even writing this article was interrupted by a robo phone call urging me to renew my vehicle warranty before it is too late and terrible things happen.

The next generation of “smart” communications will see further growth in artificial intelligence. Computer algorithms are increasingly able to mimic patterns of human thinking and communicating. Our lives will be shaped, more likely dominated, by robotics and genetics. We will live in a world where our pets will either be robotic canines or kitties, or be genetically modified animals, which are nearly as smart as various human beings I have encountered. I can already open the door in the morning and ask my dog Isibindi to please go bring me the morning paper.  After negotiating the number of treats he will be paid for his work, he races out the door with the lightning speed of a Rhodesian Ridgeback-hunting hound mix. My morning newspaper arrives with only a small amount of dog drool on it but in otherwise excellent condition.

There are canines who also sense people’s moods and impending medical issues.  We have not yet begun to witness the capabilities which lie ahead for our interaction with smart animals designed to be far smarter than they now are in being able to meet our needs. 

Yet,  AI is growing in sophistication and presence in our lives to such an extent that it will constitute a danger to our personal liberties and the way in which our society functions.  The information overload will expand to a point where we will have no choice but to rely on our machine creations to manage it all for us. These machines will think faster than we can and not just in terms of adding up numbers.  The machine intelligence coming soon to our everyday lives will be able to make subjective judgments, ethical decisions, and determinations about what is or isn’t in our best interests. Then they will act on those results.

As long as there is an “off” button that I control I remain optimistic and curious about how this future will play out. I am looking forward to it in fact. Very importantly, it also becomes a new imperative for me to ensure that my family members are not part of what will be a large information-deprived, or information-poor segment of the population. I must make sure that my family is educated about the science behind robotics and AI, the likely developments in the field and the huge importance of continuing to be human in a world of bytes and bits.

Given all this, the idea represented by the concept of “The Freedom From Information Act” would enable you and me individually, as well as the government decision-makers who represent us, to decide to turn on or turn off the products of AI before some mega-corporation comes up with a way to disable the on-off switch.

We are moving toward a time when freedom from information may become just as important as freedom of information. Perhaps the Luddites of the 19th century had it right when they tried to shun machines in favor of a simpler existence. May we ponder this concept and develop an action plan sooner rather than waiting around until the calendar again reads 1984.

Contact the Editor

Bev Schlotterbeck
Executive Editor
(202) 942-4249
bschlott@naco.org