Once every few years, a movie comes which re-defines the sci-fi genre. Years ago, the Matrix trilogies did that. Inception was another movie which pushed the imagination and the idea of a future where the mind itself could be controlled by others.

Recently, I saw a movie Ex Machina which explores yet another frontier in technology – artificial intelligence. Is it really possible to build an artificially intelligent robot which has consciousness? Ex Machina is a movie which asks this question along with other relevant questions in today’s world. Hollywood has explored the theme of robotics and artificial intelligence. But many of them have glossed over the philosophy and have turned into mindless sci-fi action flicks. Ex Machina brings a fresh approach to this, as it depicts the current progress in the field of artificial intelligence (at least in private research) and online privacy, or the lack thereof.

Nathan, played by Oscar Isaac, is a genius at coding and has built the world’s most popular search engine. At a secret research facility, he has also built an artificially intelligent robot. He organizes a contest to invite the winner to conduct a Turing Test on his creation. For those out of the loop, a Turing Test was devised by Alan Turing to judge whether a computer can be called artificially intelligent. Read more about the Turing Test here, and a good if not great movie on Alan Turing himself).

From the first scene that he features in, Nathan looks distant, cold and calculating. IMHO, this is probably how the biggest software moguls today would behave, at least when they are out of the public eye. Think the founders of Google and Facebook. Curiously, the company which Nathan runs is named Blue Book.

The winner of the contest, Caleb, is an employee in Nathan’s company. Once Caleb is flies down to the secret research facility, he is introduced to Ava, the robot which Nathan has created. Alicia Vikander is mesmerizing as Ava, the curious yet intelligent AI robot who tries her best to learn more about Caleb and the situation she is in. The interactions between Caleb and Ava, and between Nathan and Caleb, form the majority of the movie.

Although I won’t reveal the entire plot of the movie, below could be some spoilers on what the movie is about. Read it at your own risk.

Ex Machina touches various aspects of robotics and artificial intelligence which are relevant in the future. There are a few points which I would found particularly interesting.

1) The topic of sexuality in robotics – There is a point in the movie where Caleb questions Nathan on the importance of an AI needing a gender. Why can’t the AI simply be a gray box? Nathan counters the question by asking why would one gray box want to interact with another gray box? Thus the concept of form, gender, and body language is as important as the actual brain of the AI. It provides the motivation for one AI to interact with another. But the answer is much simpler. One of the most wide uses of artificial intelligence would be in interactions with humans, and not with each other. For humans to be comfortable with AI robots, they need to have a form which they can relate to. This may, or may not, cause them to put down their guard. But in order to encourage a smooth and natural communication, all the senses will have to be developed, rather than having a screen on a dull gray box. No doubt, the sex/porn industry is one of the areas where artificial intelligence will find much use. And Nathan hints at this as well in the movie, when he mentions that, Ava, is indeed equipped with sensors at the “right” places to ensure that she too enjoys sex. But even out of the sex/porn industry, the presence of a human form, complete with gender and skin preferences would be required for humans to feel comfortable with AI robots.

2) Can robots kill? This is one of the most controversial concepts in the field of robotics. Can artificially intelligent beings kill? Or rather, should they be allowed to? Here the words “artificially intelligent” is very important. This is what differentiates machines from robots. This concept was made quite popular by Isaac Asimov through his Laws of Robotics. Of course whether a particular robot has the laws of robotics ingrained in it is decided by its creator. This is where things can start getting scary, and precisely why scientists such as Stephen Hawking and entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk are worried about the rapid growth of what AI can and cannot do.

This problem is compounded if we generalize the phrase, “Can robots kill?” to the more believable, “Can robots act against humans?” Granted that in the future, your household robot may not pick up the kitchen knife and stab you in the back while you sleep, but can it act against the general interest of you and your family, if programmed by its creators? The question, “What if Skynet becomes self-aware?” should be on our minds as we progress through more frontiers in AI technology.

3) Is your data really yours? This point is also touched upon in the movie. Nathan, being the head of the world’s most popular search engine, mentions nonchalantly how he has hacked each and every cell phone in the world to build a database of face gestures, speech patterns, etc. which he used to program his AI. He mentions that a lot of phone manufacturers did the same through their hardware as well. If you think that this far-fetched, think again. Even today, hundreds of websites track each and every move of yours on the internet. And some of the most notorious sites are the popular search engines and the social networks of the world. According to some reports, they can do so even when you’re logged out of your account. Searches, Photos, Likes, Check-Ins, Interests, Favorites, etc. can be used to build a personal preference profile which is currently used to target relevant ads to individuals. But the same information can be used for much more nefarious purposes.

This “leak” of data is even more rampant on mobile devices, where apps can read your identity, list others apps running on your devices, and monitor your browsing preferences with little to no control in your hands. Although it is easier to restrict such tracking on the computer, it is much more difficult to restrict what gets tracked through a hand-held device, such as a mobile or a tablet.

From what is available in the public domain (or commercially), one can surmise that artificial intelligence still needs to go a long way before it can achieve what is shown in the movie. Companies, in private, are already clearing the next hurdle with regard to technology and artificial intelligence. For now, we probably need not worry about what AI can and cannot do. But coupled with the kind of data which is being captured today, the AI of tomorrow will already have a lot of information about how you will react to situations in daily life (and in emergencies). So imagine, you know nothing about the AI, while the AI knows everything about you. That would, as Ava says, be one dimensional. And that is not how friendship is created.

In closing, the famous Oppenheimer quote is quite apt as far as AI is concerned. After all, artificial intelligence is no less damaging than the atomic bomb if it falls in the wrong hands. “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds” 

The problem statement

As e-commerce spreads in India,more and more people will switch to online to buy books, magazines and various other products online. With time, more and more transactions will be made online, including a majority through credit cards. Today in the name of making your online experience easier and faster, each e-commerce site or payment gateway stores your payment details in their databases. This, they claim prevents you from having to remember multiple cards or to have the card handy while buying something. This is done by all major sites including Amazon, Apple, Google etc. Of course, the convenience part is just a smoke-screen. It is psychologically beneficial for these sites to not let the customer have second thoughts when he reaches for the wallet to remember the credit card number and the various other related bits of information.

What are the consequences?

Security

There are two consequences of allowing a site to do store this information online. One is, of course, the security risk. In case someone hacks the site’s database, you run the risk of exposing your credit card details to thousands of unscrupulous hackers. But the safety aspect of this has been written countless number of times elsewhere.

Auto-renewals

What I want to explain is one more consequence of storing your payment information online – the problem of auto-renewals.

Netflix, Spotify, Amazon Prime, Google Music, Zinio, Magzter – all of these are changing the consumption model in today’s world. Moving from paying for a physical CD, to downloading single mp3s, to a streaming model, the online world is moving towards a subscription model – be it magazines, movies, TV shows, music subscriptions.

I subscribe to many digital magazines as it is more of an eco-friendly option. No doubt it is cheaper than the paper edition. Many sites like Magzter and Zinio come up with offers upto 75-90% off on various magazines, which is a steal in my opinion.

But my experience on some of these sites has been far from ideal. Let’s say I bought a one-year subscription for a magazine which was being offered at a 90% discount. The site stores my payment information by default (in the name of convenience). At one of these websites, surprisingly I had no way of accessing this payment information which was stored in their database. When the subscription expired, the site auto renewed my subscription and charged me the full price of the magazine. When I wrote to them about cancelling my renewal, they simply said that cancellations are not part of their policy. This was indeed a shocking revelation. Not providing the user the option to change or remove their own payment details is a major bug/lack of feature. Not only this, I did not have any option to turn off auto renewals on any of my magazines through their website.

Even when I had gifted someone a one year subscription to a magazine, this site went ahead and renewed their subscription once it expired! The “giftee” in essence would get a life time subscription of magazines until and unless I decide to block that particular card. In the end, I did manage to get them to cancel auto-renewals on all my magazines.

So what are the solutions?

This problem comes up with sites who are not yet established players in the e-commerce field (and by that I mean, anyone who is not Amazon, Apple or Google) and by extension, not trust-worthy to keep my credit card information stored in their databases.

So what is the solution then? Look for alternate payment options, if possible:-

1) Cash on Delivery (COD) – This is for the most paranoid. If the site offers a COD option, go for it. The money stays safe under your mattress until the product is delivered. And once the subscription ends, the delivery man can not practically enter your home to take some more of your money to renew that subscription.

2) Cheque – A cheque is still a very popular and safe way of payment. The only problem is the time it takes to getting a cheque cleared and the subscription to start. Especially in terms of e-magazines and e-books, it would be foolish to wait for a cheque to clear to be able to download something to your devices.

3) Net banking – This is also a very safe option, especially when coupled with a one time password (OTP) sent on your mobile number. This would stop unauthorized auto-renewals in their tracks.

4) Gift cards/Coupons – By buying gift cards or coupons first, and then using these to buy your subscriptions can prevent reuse once the subscription expires.

5) Disposable cards – Out of all the above, this one is what seems the most convenient and flexible. The above three options may not necessarily work especially in international sites or for payment in currencies other than rupees. Some sites may not even have payment through the above options, instead demanding only international credit cards. This is where disposable cards can be a powerful tool in your arsenal. Many banks (HDFC Bank Netsafe, Kotak Mahindra Bank, Citibank) now offer the facility of generating a one-time disposable card. This card can be generated using the netbanking site provided by the bank. This card not only has different details than your original card, but also you can limit the maximum amount of transaction on the card. This is an added layer of protection.

Once the card is used up, it doesn’t matter which site stores this information because the card is automatically disabled after first usage. Whenever you need to renew your subscription, you can always generate a new card and use that at the time of renewal. Since most magazine subscriptions would take place yearly, it is only once a year that you would have to undergo such a procedure (of course you will have to batch your magazine shopping in one go)

So in closing, if given an option, do not store your credit card information online. It takes hardly a minute to whip out your card every time you need to make a transaction. And it is a million times safer as well. In case you suspect that site will discreetly store your payment information without telling you so, generate a temporary credit card from your bank’s website and use that to make the payment. Lastly,  use non-CC based approaches if you have an option to do so. These may be a little less convenient but safer in terms of keeping your money with you.