Computing Profession Letters to the editor

When to Hold ‘Em

  1. Introduction
  2. Beware the Internet of Traitorous Things
  3. Author Responds:
  4. Called to Programming
  5. References
  6. Footnotes
Letters to the Editor, illustration

Neil Savage deserves praise for his informative overview of recent computational results related to Nash equilibrium in his news story "Always Out of Balance" (Apr. 2018). I fully agree that the notion of Nash equilibrium does not always reflect how competitors behave in competitive situations, and that the fact that Nash equilibrium is provably computationally intractable makes it less useful than John Nash himself might have envisioned when he developed it. However, Savage also overstated (somewhat) the effect of intractability by claiming the intractability of computing Nash equilibrium necessitates researchers abandon this notion in favor of other competition-related ideas.

While looking for Nash equilibrium yields additional computational complexity, the decision-making problem is, in general, already computationally intractable (NP-hard) for non-competitive situations (such as when a company makes internal planning decisions). In doing so, a company would be looking for an optimal solution (such as one that would aim to help produce maximum profit), but computational optimization is, in general, NP-hard. Such computational intractability does not mean researchers have to abandon the idea of optimization and look for other ideas. Many real-life problems are NP-hard (such as robotic movement) and what makes working on them such an intellectual and computational challenge.

Indeed, there is no general feasible algorithm (unless P = NP), so computer scientists need to be creative when designing algorithms for specific practical problems.

Vladik Kreinovich, EL Paso, TX, USA

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Beware the Internet of Traitorous Things

Stephen B. Wicker’s Viewpoint "Smartphones, Contents of the Mind, and the Fifth Amendment" (Apr. 2018) correctly pointed out the importance of protecting against the risk of self-in-crimination through our smartphones but neglected the far-greater risk the more pervasive Internet of Things (IoT) poses to our personal liberty and the future of global e-commerce.

IoT can be traitorous in two ways: to their users by acting against their interests by exploiting sensitive personal information and to freedom of global e-commerce by motivating nations to prohibit the use of IoT connected to foreign-domiciled data centers due to threats of foreign mass surveillance.

In particular, future holographic-type glasses, or "hologlasses," could be used against their users in ways more insidious than smartphones are today, as discussed by Wicker. Hologlasses promise all the functionality of today’s smartphones—but without the disadvantage of having to look down while holding the device. The world’s largest computer companies have publicly discussed their expectation that hologlasses could be in use at the scale of today’s smartphones by 2030.

Moreover, hologlasses promise many applications that are inherently impractical through smartphones alone. For example, they likely will include facial recognition to instantly tag people a user might encounter, providing real-time relevant background information, including even ongoing analysis of their emotional states. Some police officers in China are already using early-model hologlasses with facial recognition to nab those in a police database as they walk by.

A backdoor in hologlasses could enable a "we see and hear what you see, hear, and do" capability to provide extraordinary insight into a user’s private thoughts. Protection against self-incrimination through hologlasses could become a contentious legal (and political) issue, way beyond Wicker’s discussion of smartphones.

Beyond threats of personal self-incrimination, defending against the threat of foreign mass surveillance could also make freedom of global commerce in IoT problematical. Sovereign nations could end foreign mass surveillance of their own citizens and institutions by prohibiting control of their IoT devices, including hologlasses, by companies domiciled in other nations. China has already adopted a strategy of having China-domiciled companies take over large information-based businesses that operate in China.

Storing sensitive information in data centers of foreign-domiciled companies could wind up being widely banned if China’s strategy for ending foreign mass surveillance within its sovereign borders is adopted by other countries. Outside of China, international companies doing business online might still hope to preserve their advertising-based business models by continuing to function as brokers, with the big difference being that matchmaking between merchants and users would be done on the users’ own equipment as opposed to in the data centers of foreign-domiciled companies.2 A new policy of storing sensitive information on users’ own equipment could address increasing European concerns about ending foreign mass surveillance thereby conforming to recent judgments of the European Court of Justice.1

Carl Hewitt, Palo Alto, CA, USA

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Author Responds:

I agree. Hologlasses do raise the prospect of third parties capturing everything we perceive and our responses to those perceptions. Such ultimately personal information would support near-ideal modeling of the individual and finely tuned manipulation that goes well beyond our current concerns regarding electoral interference and Facebook advertising. We can only hope the U.S. Supreme Court will recognize the increasing anachronism and folly of the third-party doctrine, and that Congress finds its way to meaningful limitations on data collection. We can also hope that some sense of personal aesthetics will keep our future selves from wearing hologlasses for all but the briefest periods of time.

Stephen B. Wicker, Ithaca, NY, USA

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Called to Programming

I wonder what could have concerned David G. Stork so much about the equity of women in technology that he was compelled to write a letter to the editor, "Gender ‘Equity’ in Computer Science" (Apr. 2018), on Jodi L. Tims’s "From the Chair of ACM-W column "Achieving Gender Equality: ACM Can’t Do It Alone" (Feb. 2018).

When I first began working as an engineer after college, I was disappointed to find I basically worked only with men, usually older and married. I learned programming largely on my own since I was eight years old by retyping simple programs out of magazines like Compute!’s Gazette and experimenting by changing the code or partially running the code as I typed it. While I did learn programming more professionally in college, it was something more within me that drew me to the field.

No one not already interested in technology can be forced to care about programming. It is certainly interesting to some people, but to many others it is just a tool, like, say, a screwdriver. People can know all about building screwdrivers, all the different sizes and types of heads, materials, and qualities, but all one really needs to know is that it is useful for tightening screws that are usually useful for something far more important than the screwdriver itself. Following the screwdriver analogy, it would not be that different to ask why we don’t see more women mechanics at the local garage. Yes, I know there are some; in fact, one changed my car’s oil the last time it needed it.

People ultimately do what they want to do, not what education (or even well-meaning parents) directs them to do.

Robert Wilkens, Levittown, NY, USA

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