There are in excess of half a million CCTV cameras in London today. Most are old-fashioned, low-resolution, not networked and operated under disjoint authorities.
Project into the middle-future: many more cameras with microphones and speakers, online and linked to one central authority. Realtime oversight by an AI system - no people involved so no privacy issues - (right, Google?).
This is not just a sensor system, although it has input from the ubiquitous Internet of Things. This AI comes with apps: it can talk to people, warn them, nudge them.
So the AI needs social policies. Naturally they should be prosocial, intolerant of negative -isms. Something like the BBC or The Guardian made flesh.
"Mielikki Neith is an enthusiastic proponent of both the System and the Witness.A system like that is going to need state-of-the-art user authentication to access its internals.
The first is a government of the people, by the people, without intervention or representation beyond what is absolutely necessary: a democracy in the most literal sense, an ongoing plebiscite-society.
The second is the institution for which Britain perhaps above all other nations has always searched, the perfect police force.
Over five hundred million cameras, microphones and other sensors taking information from everywhere, not one instant of it accessed initially by any human being. Instead, the impartial, self-teaching algorithms of the Witness review and classify it and do nothing unless public safety requires it. The Witness is not prurient.
The machine cannot be bribed to hand over images of actresses in their baths to tabloid journalists. It cannot be hacked, cracked, disabled or distorted. It sees, it understands, and very occasionally it acts, but otherwise it is resolutely invisible.
In the gaps where the cameras cannot scan or where the human animal is yet too wild and strange, there are intervention. The majority of the Inspectors' cases concern acts of carefully considered violence, international organised crime and instances of domestic or international terrorism. Some few crimes of passion still occur, but hardly require deep scrutiny, and most are headed off early and preemptively when tremors of dysfunction give them away.
The Witness does not ignore a rising tide, a pattern of behaviour. It does not take refuge behind the lace curtain of non-interference in personal business. No one now shall live in fear of those they also love. Everyone is equally seen. That's how the System works and what it means."
"Even so, the protections around it were ferocious, and Annie insisted - in a rare moment of straightforward technical lecturing -that I know them off by heart.
`Authentication on steroids,' Annie said. `Username and password, that's standard. We start there, then we add a dongle.'
`Excuse me,' I asked, 'a what?'
`A physical key. Don't ask why it's called that, no one knows. A physical object that proves your right to access a given resource. These days it's usually your phone. In our case it's a little doodad you wear around your wrist.' ...
`Yes,' Annie said. 'If you're a total lunatic, you can have the chip encased in plastic and implanted in your arm so that you can Obi-Wan your way around the office. I don't recommend it.' ...
I slipped the dongle around my wrist, next to the bracelet. ...
All right. Something you know and something you have. Two factors. Okay? But we need more than that. The dongle itself has a biometric scanner. Most people use fingerprints or retinal scan, even aural topology scan, but there are issues with those. Once they're compromised, that's it - you have a finite number. And they lend themselves to rather ugly forms of violence.
We're trialling microbial cloud analysis. The sensor in the dongle is actually patterned after canine nasal cells, which always sounds a little bit weird.'
Yes. To these silicon children, biology is outré.
'Anyway: everyone has a distinct collection of biomass on and around the skin. Recognition is about ninety-six per cent accurate, so not perfect, but it's incredibly hard to fake.
'For full-access login, we have predictive neural modelling and response.'
Colson shook his head. 'It's the absolute creepiest thing in the world.'
`The machine asks you a string of random questions,' Annie said 'and measures your answers against its analysis of your personality. It's not predicting your answer, it's determining whether it's the sort of answer you'd give. Over time, it also notices if you're changing in significant ways. That's why Colson hates it.'
`It's fucking intrusive,' Colson growled. 'In theory, it could decide you're emotionally unstable and tell your boss. If you vary too much from your previous behaviour, it might lock you out of your own files.
'There's potential for abuse, Annie, and you know it. The alcohol-anklet people could use it to say you're backsliding. And those probation future-crime fuckers, they'd love it: if your connectome gets too much like the one you had when you were a sinner, off to jail you go!
'And sooner or later, someone's going to say it can detect defections and whistleblowers before they can decide what they're going to do themselves. Maybe you see something, I don't know, you're an oil exec and you see the results of a spill. The system might lock you out for insufficient faith in the corporate ethos. Loyalty-based access.'
Annie glanced at me. 'Colson believes the world is on the brink of a collapse into pre-liberal government. The erasure of the twentieth century.'
It is,' Colson said firmly.
`Be that as it may -'
'Loyalty-based access. It's the automation of the merger of a religion of the state with corporate power in the form of information.'
`We'll code it out.'
'Someone'll code it back in.'
`They won't be able to.'
`That's why we haven't sold it,' Annie said, a little exasperated, and then to me once more:
'Five requirements. It's like putting ingredients in a cauldron for a magic spell. A significant object, your name, a secret word, your body. Then eventually, connectome: your soul.'
Turns out the last of these is the hardest to hack.
In the next post I'll say something about the novel itself.