Tagged: Deb Roy

Informational Chaff and Metaphors

chaffI received word last night that our scholarship has received over 1400 applications, which definitely surprised me. I had worried that the regional restriction might be too limiting but Agricultural Sciences were added in as part of STEM so that probably magnified the pool.

Dan Dennett of Tufts and Deb Roy at MIT draw parallels between informational transparency in our modern world and biological mechanism in Scientific American (March 2015, 312:3). Their article, Our Transparent Future (related video here; you have to subscribe to read the full article), starts with Andrew Parker’s theory that the Cambrian Explosion may have been tied to the availability of light as cloud cover lifted and seas became transparent. An evolutionary arms race began for the development of sensors that could warn against predators, and predators that could acquire more prey.

They continue on drawing parallels to biological processes, including the concept of squid ink and how a similar notion, chaff, was used to mask radar signatures as aircraft became weapons of war. The explanatory mouthful of the Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicle (MIRV) with dummy warheads to counter anti-ballistic missiles were likewise a deceptive way of reducing the risk of interception. So Dennett and Roy “predict the introduction of chaff made of nothing but megabytes of misinformation,” designed to deceive search engines of the nature of real info.

This is a curious idea. Search engine optimization (SEO) is a whole industry that combines consulting with tricks and tools to try to raise the position of vendors in the Google rankings. Being in the first page of listings can be make-or-break for retail vendors, and they pay to try to make that happen. The strategies are based around trying to establish links to the vendor from individuals and other pages to try to game the PageRank algorithm. In turn, Google has continued to optimize to reduce the effectiveness of these links, trying to establish whether hand- or machine-created content with links looks like real, valuable information or just promotional materials. This is, in some ways, the opposite of informational chaff. The goal is not to hide the content in plain sight, but to make it more discoverable. “Information scent” was a concept introduced at XeroX PARC when I was there and it applies here.

But what of chaff? Perhaps the best example that I can think of is the idea of “drowning in paper” that lawyers occasionally describe, on TV or otherwise, where huge piles of non-digitized materials are dumped in the hopes that the criminal or civil needle-in-the-haystack will be impossible to find. This is highly dependent on the temporal limitations of individuals to ingest the materials, and is equally countered by OCR and scanning services to produce accessible forms of data. Dennett and Roy point out that more sophisticated search engines (and I’ll add other analytic tools) can counter efforts at chaff.

More broadly, though, we get to the issue of whether evolutionary metaphors provide us with any new insights into the changing role of information in an interconnected and digitized society? I’m not altogether sure. It is routinely argued that the existence of early computing machines led to cognitive science as we have known it, conflating problem solving with algorithms and describing the brain’s hardware and software. Is evolutionary adaption equally influential in steering weapon’s designs or informational secrecy strategy? I think we are probably cunning enough (thanks evolution) about proximate threats and consequences that there might not be much to learn from metaphorical analysis of this type.