Stack Overflow

Posted by – December 26, 2008

My favourite talk at Defcon, the Las Vegas hacker convention that flew us out to screen Infest Wisely, was one on social engineering.

The speaker brought up the idea that by asking questions of someone you can increase the chances of getting what you want from them — somewhat similar to opening several applications at once on a computer can crash the system. I came across this idea again on a recent Radiolab piece on Choice:

…again, focusing on the idea that the human brain has limited analytical power. But it also explores the idea that a Vulcan like rationality causes indecision, since there’s no emotional “tilt” one way or the other.

So I’m imagining a duo of scientifically grounded con men (or women) who get what they want by exploiting this limitation of the human platform. As the movie progresses we discover their relationship to an artificial intelligence that needs their emotive decision making ability to function, and who has given them this training as a reward.

7 Comments on Stack Overflow

  1. Cecil says:

    I was fascinated by that trust worthy face thing when I saw it a few months back. And that choice piece, is really fascinating.

    What I like in the idea is that there are two distinct needs. That intelligence needs emotion and that the con men need to not have emotions. It is sort of the dilemma of being. It could be interesting if there was also one person who was too emotional, you know? Like the total opposite of the emotionless.

    who built the ai? humans? I find that interesting, too.

    And, guess what! my dad is a neuroscientist. So if we need anyone to vet any kind of brain science. We’ve got an expert! His specialty is the mechanics of memory.

  2. Dave says:

    “by asking questions of someone you can increase the chances of getting what you want from them” – police investigators are trained at this, as are military interogators, sales agents, psychologists, marketing people, etc.

    as a kid i was always fascinated by the old ‘eliza’ program, which i recently found online:

  3. Anthony says:

    i like the idea of the dilemma of being, as cecil mentioned.
    a concept or theme that we all can relate to.
    i know i am always trying to be more logical and yet am always persecuted for not feeling enough, and when i feel too much it only makes me useless to the real world (capitalism, law, etc.)

  4. Jim says:

    Thanks for the input guys. And Cecil, exciting about your dad being a neuroscientist. Would he be open to me picking his brain over the phone at this stage, I wonder? If I promise not to use phrases like “picking his brain”?

  5. Jim says:

    Still going to be talking to a few more scientists about social engineering, but here’s what I’ve dug up so far.

    -I looked up the original defcon talk I mentioned earlier by Mike Murray and watched it again

    -I’m reading the Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz, and watched his great Ted talk:

    -I read up on trustworthy face image Princeton survey and found myself amazed by how much the dominant face looked like an orc.

    -I read this interesting con man piece, my favourite bit:
    “The country’s first celebrity con man was a Bostonian named Tom Bell who was kicked out of Harvard in the 1730s for stealing some chocolate…Stephen C. Bullock, a history professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute who has studied and written on Bell, believes he may even have conned Benjamin Franklin. In 1739 Franklin put an ad in his paper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, reporting that a man using one of Bell’s aliases had gained his trust with his refined manners and extensive knowledge of Greek and Latin, then made off with a fine ruffled shirt and an embroidered handkerchief…”

    I talked to Cecil’s dad, Vincent, who’s a neuroscientist
    -he explained that a lot of what he does with neurons and synapses is at a molecular level, the behavioural stuff is much more complex
    -when asked what he thought about the computer metaphor in creating a “stack overflow” in the human brain, he said that it’s a somewhat useful metaphor
    -where it breaks, however, is that neurons are more graded than 0 and 1 binary
    -he said that if computing moves to a graded light switches, it’ll be closer to the kind of rich communication the nervous system is capable of
    -he also mentioned that the brain of a child is particularly plastic, as evidenced through language development: sometimes things we imagine are “innate” are just extra fast learning
    -social engineering, as a way of helping and manipulating people, has existed for a hundred years (ie. pre-hacker)

  6. Tate says:

    Ben Franklin may have written under alias and conned a few people as well:

  7. Jim says:

    I love Ben Franklin. Inventor, media activist, library advocate and hoaxer — inspiring!

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