Bogdan Bocșe, tech entrepreneur: Privacy is not a given, it’s a choice

Bogdan Bocșe, tech entrepreneur: Privacy is not a given, it’s a choice

Bogdan Bocșe is the Romanian entrepreneur who has built and implemented VisageCloud, a face recognition solution which can help authorities to find wanted felons and missing people.

These days the cost of sharing information is close to non-existent. But what is the price of misinformation? In a digital era, how do you think people should stay well informed?

Bogdan Bocșe: Our relationship to information relies on the pillars of focus (the ability to select) and trust. And now more than ever, pressured by the heavy boot of making ends meet, our media is chasing clicks a lot more vividly than it is chasing the truth.

The now-proverbial three independent sources confirming a piece of news and any journalistic deontology have been diluted by the torrent of cheap, useless information.

So in a way, in the era of fake news, our minds are going through a similar crisis as our bodies have been in the era of fast food. While our prehistoric ancestors were preoccupied with locating, consuming and storing the food supply, we are under more pressure to keep a balanced diet and not giving in to impulses that had been calibrated during times when resources were far scarcer.

In a similar fashion, the limiting factor of sharing information is no longer the access to data and the ability to communicate, spread or receive. For the first time in history, the bottleneck of information processing has shifted towards the ability of the individual to select sources, cross-reference facts, spot inconsistencies and synthesize a coherent story.

Obesity is an evolutionary challenge to our bodies brought forth by the industrialization and automation of agriculture, the same way fake news, alternative facts, opinion-based science and ideological isolationism are a challenge for our minds and for our societal values. We are at a step where we must cultivate attention and encourage education for filtering out the irrelevant noise of the digital, focusing on the essential and more pragmatic aspect of life and tech.

At this moment we have access to much more information than we are able to process. In your opinion, how would you choose what to ignore and what not? How to know which sources to trust?

Bogdan Bocșe: There is no recipe for selecting one’s news sources. What I do is I keep in mind the following principles when evaluating the quality of a news source:

1. It emphasizes fact over opinion.
2. It prioritizes trust and certainty over gossip and sensationalism.
3. It seeks to present several angles to a story.
4. It doesn’t coincidentally align with my principles beliefs all the time.
5. It challenges its own assumptions.
6. The same goes for institutions and for media outlets. Basing one’s decision based on data, encouraging transparency and open, respectful debate.

One test I often use to check whether an opinion or publication is biased is: if I happened to be on the other side of the argument, would I think it’s fair? In general, to close the gaps opened up by fake news and alternative fact, I think people need to focus more on empathy (what’s the greater good for the other side?) and to pluri-perspectivism (seeing several nuances, not just black and white, good and bad).

What is the prosumer? And what are his duties? Are there some ethical principles after one should do his work?

Bogdan Bocșe: It makes me happy to see that people start bringing up the duties of the individual, not just the rights of the individuals. When the Magna Carta was written in the 13th century, power was so concentrated that it mostly made sense to focus on the rights of the masses. Now that the masses have been empowered with such great access to communication, information is being heard on a global scale, so I guess it makes sense to talk about our responsibilities as individuals of the digital age.

The post-modernism of the 20th century slowly but surely diluted the weight of the truth. There is no longer right and wrong, the good and the bad – there’s just my opinion and your opinion, separated by a wall of indifference painted with the colors of tolerance. I think that the main duty of the prosumer is the rediscovery of the importance of truth, not as immutable fact, but as the continuous search process, which occasionally spits out best guesses and working hypotheses. So as a prosumer, one should dedicate more time to analysis-introspection and less time to just spreading information. We are facing a challenge of redefining the quest for truth, with a healthy balance of progressivism based on facts, conservativism based on track record (not on dogma) and inclusionism based on common objectives (not on endless division).

In the internet era, who decides what is good and what is bad?

Bogdan Bocșe: In 2018, we are at a point where the great information hubs deploy their own interpretations of what is good and what is bad. On one hand, we don’t want social media to turn into a cesspool of harassment, violence, porn or sub-standard content. On the other hand, we don’t want a handful of corporations to have the censorship and shush-power that dictators and super-powers can only dream of. So right now, the levers of the printing press are concentrated in the hands of a few organizations. As if Gutenberg had taken out a patent on his press and held a monopoly.

The challenge of re-democratizing the morality good & bad, of true & false doesn’t reside into more technology.

Cheaper phones won’t help us discern. Better resolution and higher framerate HD won’t paint a clear picture. And robots, machines and artificial intelligence, at least in the near-to-mid future, will only be able to learn what we teach them.

As a person working in technology, I can confirm that technology won’t bring the relief that our divided society so desperately needs. The only way to reclaim the truth and our autonomy over the good and the bad is to focus on education, preferably by lying the STEM bricks of practical utilitarianism over the foundation of civic education, philosophy, psychology and political science.

As information becomes free, attention becomes priceless. So, how can you win people’s attention on the internet? Are there some steps to follow? Or some rules to respect?

Bogdan Bocșe:  There are two very different concepts: winning attention vs earning attention.

Winning attention is a lottery of spectacularism and standing out for no other reason than to get (and monetize) attention – this can probably be done overnight, but I’m not the right person to come up with viral get-rich-and-popular-quick schemes. If you want a recipe for being popular, maybe you should ask someone who’s running an ICO. Or those guys at Cambridge Analytica.

Earning attention is a long-term process which involves doing your homework, thinking before you promise, pushing through the unexpected to deliver, admitting when you screw up and doing what you feel is the right thing even when it’s really uncomfortable. Earning attention is earning trust by being open, working hard and generally not being an asshole. It usually takes longer than going viral by snorting condoms or eating tide pods, but it’s the only sort of attention I am willing and able to pursue.

What can you tell me about privacy in the digital era? Can we talk about freedom online?

Bogdan Bocșe: There is some privacy on the Internet if you’re conscientious about seeking it. But privacy is no longer a default. After all, you can’t expect to always discuss your affairs in the public market and then be surprised when your business is the new town gossip. The same way you can’t blame society for having your house robbed after you left the door wide open.

I mean, sure, you can expect that society has no thieves and that the police will deter them, find them or punish them. But wouldn’t it be smarter to buy a lock while you argue about the inherently good nature of the human spirit?

Privacy is always about keeping the cost of harvesting information much higher than the value of the information. That’s how cryptography works – any of your SSL connections can be broken, but it will probably take the full mining power of Bitcoin for two years to do it – so it’s not worth doing it. So it’s up to the user to make a minimal effort of keeping their password long and weird, their accounts secured by two factors, the list of authorized apps short and their dirty laundry out of Facebook. If all those conditions are met, I think one has a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Of course, if the individual pisses off enough people, corporations, and states, the cost-benefit balance of one’s privacy is shifted. If you’re a drug dealer or terrorist or whistleblower, the state will intercept your phone and try to tap your emails. But then again, if you are any of the aforementioned, you should probably expect the heat and take additional measures.

So I do believe we have access to a reasonable amount of privacy, but we often fail to secure that level of privacy because we’re too lazy to setup MFA on our email or because we can’t help the attention highs that Facebook gives us or because we are generally embracing “I’m not a tech person” mentality in a world which is mostly about tech. If we want more security, we need to pimp up our defenses. If we want more privacy, we should consider eating that breakfast in Paris without posting it on Insta.

Privacy is not a given, it’s a choice.

As for the greater theme of liberty, I remember one of Murphy’s laws which says: “When you think you’re free, there is no longer any escape.” In my opinion, liberty is not a gift from nature or god or the state, liberty is more about the thought process of challenging the status quo, re-examining evidence and facts, seeking opportunities and alternatives. So liberty is a choice. I would say that there still is liberty online, but less than there used to be.

Do you think machines will replace mankind in 50 years (in the context that at the present moment the most advanced robots have the intelligence of a bug)?

Bogdan Bocșe: History and nature tend to be more convoluted and less extreme than Hollywood movies. So no, I don’t think Skynet will come online during my lifetime. I don’t think that machines will replace us as a dominant species in the next 50 years.

Instead, I think machines will irreversibly change us, our world and our lifestyles. Machines and AI will blend into the way we drink our coffees, the way we use our cars, the way we consume media and the way we unwind. AI will eat away from repetitive and execution-focused jobs and it will increase pressure on those jobs who rely on mental discipline. I’ve read a lot of studies and articles about statistics of job erosion by AI. I have a rule of thumb “If you often get bored at your job, that job will go in 20-25 years”.

One thing that worries me is that blending of AI into everyday life will make us very dependent. It already has turned us into notification zombies. Life without machines will increasingly become like life without running water or electricity – possible, but rare and perceived as unpleasant.

How do you believe AI is changing the way we interact with computers and machines?

Bogdan Bocșe: While the existence of AI is certainly drawing more of the available human attention to machines, there is a fundamental bottleneck in the human-machine interface that AI won’t directly solve. That’s the bandwidth of the keyboard. The most skillful of us can maybe type-in 5 bytes/second, which for typing on mobile devices is even slower. Compared to the processing power of GPUs and the transmission power of now-4G/tomorrow-5G, our ability to output information sent to a machine is ridiculously low.

So I feel that the tipping point for computer-machine interaction will be the advent of brain-to-machine/biological-to-digital two-way interface, which would drive forward a lot of other industries (inputting data into AI, virtual reality, telepresence, gaming, retail, sales, entertainment, movies). Of course, this breakthrough in our path to the hive mind is reliant upon our better understanding of the biochemistry of the brain (and its quantum implications) and upon our development advanced enough (fast, cheap, reliable) nanobots who can metaphorically suture a spinal cord to a fiber optics cable.

What fascinates you about AI?

Bogdan Bocșe: Artificial intelligence is one of the few places where math seems like magic. So let’s face it: AI is a geeks dreams come true. 20-30 years ago being interested in numerical methods for optimization problems in high-dimensions would have earned you an obscure Ph.D. at some possibly high-end university. Now, at worst it gets you a high paid job and at best it gets you on the cover of magazines and on top of a sizzling IPO or acquisition.

What fascinates me is that by welding a weird tech hybrid of programming, applied math, numerical methods, statistics, data structure and good-ol’-fashioned imagination, one can prototype results that previously seemed fringe even by S.F. fans. I like the intellectual challenge. I like the business potential. And I like the roller-coaster ride of a new industry.

How relevant is AI for the near future?

Bogdan Bocșe: AI is definitely over-hyped right now. It’s at that peak of unreasonable expectations where it will do everything from curing cancer to facilitating everyone slacking off on guaranteed universal income. It‘s not a panacea. Mobile was not a panacea. Social networking, big data and cloud and virtual reality weren’t either. It’s not going to turn us into Star Trek in 20 years. And AI won’t leave all drivers in the US out of a job either – just 80% of them, the rest will become Self-Driving Vehicle Cohort Operators.

But AI is relevant and it’s changing us already. It’s increasing the disbalance of power between big corporations and small businesses. It puts the individual at a disadvantage in the open market. And it turns every business into something where the entry barrier is “you have to be at least 1/10th the size of Amazon to be on this ride”. Not to mention, it increases the demand for high-quality, results-driven, industry-driven widely accessible higher-education in a time where there seems to be a gaping rift between society, school, and business.

You know, I heard the Japanese use the following as a curse-word “May you live interesting times”

And I think we are living very interesting times.

How would you describe the market in which you activate and what do you think it should be improved in Romania?
Bogdan Bocșe: The AI market is driven by a few forces:
1. Intellectual property,
2. Doing the actual research, not just development
3. Building from the building blocks which are available
4. Having and harvesting sustainable access to data
5. Understanding how AI can really, pragmatically help businesses

So this makes AI more feasible for small teams with bootstrapped resources than other branches of IT, like mobile development, web development where standardization turned the game from “being smart” to “being big”. Basically, with the right idea, with the right puzzle of customer requirements, algorithms and available data you can brew a useful, cool, feasible AI product in a smaller lab.

I think small Romanian teams have a lot of potential, are really smart and they have an early ticket to the AI train. Now, they also have to get on the train by focusing on:

– the business strategy at least as much as you’re focusing on the tactical tech challenges
– making phone calls, get your shitty prototype in front of customers. It’s the only way you’ll learn what real-world requirements for your product actually are.

What can you tell me about your company?

Bogdan Bocșe: My company has built and is implementing VisageCloud, a face recognition solution, which works both on-premise and in-cloud and it gives clients more flexibility and control than other solutions. This year we are focusing on improving accuracy, speed and the general bang-for-buck of face recognition. At the same time, we are preparing for next year branching out our computer vision portfolio towards generic and behavioral object detection, anomaly detection in video streams and vertical-specific solutions for banking, retail and the hospitality industries.

What are your greatest achievements?

Bogdan Bocșe: My greatest achievement so far is not taking my greatest failures seriously. On a more serious, optimistic note, I like to think that my greatest achievement has yet to happen.

For now, I am proud of having bet on an idea that seems to get traction from customers. I am grateful for being part of a team which is dynamic, open and prone to growth. I am focused on delivering to customers in a way in which they feel like I want them to have an easy time, not just stick to a contract. And I’m excited to have joined a roller-coaster of an industry just as it’s climbing it’s first big upward slope.

 5 lessons technology is teaching you?

Bogdan Bocșe: 1. On the long-term, trust is more important than power – no matter whether it’s political power, firepower or computing power.

2. False optimism, (self)deception and comfortable ignorance can wipe out more progress in the next 50 years than technology delivered in the past 100 years.

3. More technology and more capability rarely make us better people. It just gives more amplitude to the sways of our moral compass. More technology will also confront us with the consequences of our choices faster.

4. As they concentrate more power, the companies driving the technology forefront need to better acknowledge the role they play in shaping society.

5. States need to rethink their relationship with citizens and technology. I’m not saying that we should all keep our ID cards on the blockchain, but I am saying that a lot of techs appeared since signing the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648.

How would you describe the future in 140 characters or less?

Bogdan Bocșe: We are at a fork in the roadmap of humanity. We either choose to pursue the fruit of enlightenment, technology, and diplomacy together or we choose to return to darker ages of isolationism, conflict and blurry tomorrows. Tick-tock.

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