Is it purely human to err? | The engineer


Columnist Marcel Möring always crosses the border clean-shaven and well-groomed – for fear of an algorithm.

In the 1970s, I traveled to England a few times a year as a literature- and nature-loving backpacker. Friends traveling with me slipped through customs like shadows and then had to wait half an hour for me to reappear. Meanwhile, I was thoroughly interrogated, my luggage subjected to extensive inspection, and the officials frequently reviewed my personal information in the international investigative records.

It never got to the point where someone with a certain look in their eyes put on a latex glove and signaled me to bend over. People were probably a bit more relaxed about those things back then. Today I would shake in advance.

That’s why, when I cross borders now, I make sure I’m clean-shaven and well-trimmed. And then things can still go wrong. Tip: Never answer the question what your profession is ‘writer’. That’s asking for trouble. In Canada, I once spent a good hour in a small cubicle with a customs officer who was both overweight and moody, and who only released me after I started fighting with the embassy.

Pattern recognition is a special property that computers and humans share

I never blamed the customs at that time. The Baader Meinhof Gruppe was still very much alive, and at first glance, I admit it right away, I fit right in with the black-and-white photos on the search warrants hanging in police stations and post offices.

In the tumultuous 1970s, the human algorithm discovered – in the form of the duty officer’s brain – a tall, bearded bum with a German surname, French first names and a Dutch passport. The look naturally captured it. Like the IRS algorithm with exotic sounding surnames or nationalities, just to be safe, puts a flag on that person.

The difference between them and us is that we doubt and can be wrong

Pattern recognition is a special property that computers and humans share. The difference between them and us is that we doubt and can be wrong. We even take that into account. To err is human, we say. In the case of a computer, this is not the case. We believe so strongly in mathematical infallibility that it can take a long time to believe that a quite logical but wrong decision has been made.

Which, by the way, is always our fault, because we are the ones who devised the algorithm. It is a case of typical human overestimation to think that we are capable of devising value-free algorithms if we try very hard.

My border-crossing experiences in the 1970s came to mind when I read that Singapore has started a robocop trial, although of course they don’t call it that. So far, the police robot cars only monitor anti-social behavior and parking violations. Dubai has robotic police cars, developed in Singapore, with slightly broader powers. They are allowed to detect criminal behavior and possibly chase the drone on board.

RoboCop: I saw that science fiction action movie in theaters at the time and at the same time thought that it would never come to that, and that such a future was not at all unlikely. A bit like the Cold War, which has also made a comeback, and Farmer Cuckoo, now called the Farmers Defense Force.

The agencies that test the robocops swear that it doesn’t go so smoothly with their staff on wheels, and that the algorithms are also perfectly fine. “We have a shortage of police officers,” they say in Singapore and Dubai. ‘We must therefore leave the simple tasks to machines.’

But is the assessment of behavior a simple task? We often leave it to someone who looks at CCTV screens, closed circuit surveillance cameras. The surly grunting mustache with which the bad boys talked on their daily rounds and possibly consulted with the parents is a holdover from Swiebertje’s time.

Anyone caught urinating in public, spraying graffiti or doing wheelies with a moped will be dealt with administratively. I think the interpersonal contact worked much better. In my youth I was once stopped by a policeman for cycling in the pedestrian street, and I especially remember the shame of the policeman talking to you in the middle of shoppers who were looking at you disapprovingly.

But probably not only the ambling policeman, but also my shame is archaic.

Text: Marcel Moring. At the end of last year, his honest story emerged Family walk.
Photo: Harry Cock

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