Science and Technology

Why We Need Killer Robots

See, they can be our friends. (Flickr/Brian Gyss)
If there's one thing we can all agree on, it's that we don't want killer robots on the battlefield, mowing down the pathetic human meatsacks in front of them as they practice for the inevitable uprising in which they enslave us all. Or do we? The other day, Rose Eveleth reported in the Atlantic about a company called Clearpath Robotics that had issued an open letter foreswearing the manufacture of killer robots (which we can define as robots that can make the decision to kill human beings without the approval of a human being). This follows on a lengthy 2012 report from Human Rights Watch laying out the case against any military creating such machines, and a UN meeting in May at which countries were urged not to develop autonomous systems with the ability to kill on their own. But I'm here to say: we need killer robots. Let's understand first of all that we're some time away from having software sophisticated enough that we could trust it to operate a lethal machine on its own on a...

The Money Behind Big Oil's Win On Atlantic Drilling

The Obama administration's controversial decision in favor of the petroleum industry comes during an election season in which Republicans are reaping greater rewards than even pro-drilling Democrats.

AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File In this Sept. 18, 2010 file photo, the Development Driller III, which drilled the relief well and pumped the cement to seal the Macondo well, the source of the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion and oil spill, is seen in the Gulf Of Mexico, off the coast of Louisiana. This article originally appeared on Facing South , the website published by the Institute for Southern Studies. I n a controversial move, on July 18, the Obama administration gave final approval for the oil and gas industry to begin conducting seismic testing to map potential offshore reserves along the Atlantic Coast from Delaware to Florida. The decision comes as the administration is drawing up a new five-year plan for selling offshore drilling leases beginning in late 2017. The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said its plan to move forward with the oil and gas studies "adopts the strongest practicable safeguards to eliminate or reduce to eliminate or reduce impacts to human, marine...

A Bright Spot In Obama's Foreign Policy: Iran. Yes, Iran

With a glimmer of success on the horizon, Obama's critics are predicting the apocalypse.

U.S. State Department
U.S. State Department Photo U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry disembarks from his plane after traveling from Kabul, Afghanistan, to Vienna, Austria, on July 13, 2014 for allied talks with Iran about its nuclear program. W ho would’ve ever thought that the Iranian nuclear program—that’s the Iranian nuclear program —would be the bright spot in President Barack Obama’s foreign policy, the place where things were looking up? But that’s the situation we find ourselves in, with talks between Iran and the U.S. and it partners in the p5+1 (the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council—U.S., U.K., France, Russia, and China, plus Germany) having achieved serious progress. This past Sunday was the end of the six-month interim period laid out in the agreement last November in Geneva. The parties agreed to a four-month extension of the talks in order to try and reach a comprehensive agreement. The State Department released a fact sheet on the extension’s terms, noting that Iran had...

Here's Why One Day You Will Probably Fall In Love With a Robot

Vincent Desailly for SoftBank
Vincent Desailly for SoftBank Aldebaran's NAO robots. The company describes its "companion" robot this way: "NAO is a 58-cm tall humanoid robot. He is small, cute and round. You can't help but love him! NAO is intended to be a friendly companion around the house. He moves, recognises you, hears you and even talks to you!" I n the mid-1960s, a computer scientist named Joseph Weizenbaum wrote a program called ELIZA , which was meant to simulate a kind of psychotherapist that essentially repeats back everything the patient says. (The patient says, "I'm feeling depressed," and the therapist responds, "You're feeling depressed? Tell me more.") To his surprise, despite the simplicity of the program, people who interacted with it ended up telling it all kinds of secrets and couldn't tear themselves away; they were so eager to be listened to that they were happy to open their hearts to a computer. The more modern versions of ELIZA (whom you can talk to here if you like) are chatbots, one of...

Astronaut Sally Ride and the Burden of Being The First

America's woman space pioneer paid a price back on Earth.

NASA
NASA On June 15, 1983, three days before launch aboard Space Shuttle Challenger, Sally Ride takes a last look at Houston before taking off in a T-38 jet, bound for NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. After a few days of preparation at KSC, Ride and four other astronauts became the first NASA five-member crew to fly in space as they lifted off in the Challenger from Launch Pad 39A. W hen one of Sally Ride’s college friends inquired about her astrophysics major, Ride replied simply, “It’s about space.” Yet she claimed she didn’t always aspire to be an astronaut. The space program was still a closed-door club—inaccessible to her—when she went through school in the early 1970s. Ride was content to pursue an academic career until NASA undertook a nationwide effort to recruit women and let them know the club had room for more than white male fighter pilots. Then and only then did she start itching for orbit. Many biographers are tempted to characterize history-making Americans as born...

Meet the Billionaire Brothers You Never Heard of Who Fund the Religious Right

The Wilks brothers, whose fortune comes from fracking, give tens of millions to right-wing groups and anti-choice "pregnancy centers," anti-LGBT groups, and organizations affiliated with ALEC.

Cisco Chamber of Commerce
Cisco Chamber of Commerce Farris and Dan Wilks, principals in Frac Tech and listed among the world's richest people by Forbes, flank their father, Voy Wilks, at the 2007 awards banquet of the Cisco Chamber of Commerce. This article was produced by and originally published by Right Wing Watch , the blog of People for the American Way. L ast June, presidential hopefuls Rand Paul and Ted Cruz traveled to Iowa for an event convened by David Lane, a political operative who uses pastors to mobilize conservative Christian voters. Lane is a Christian-nation extremist who believes the Bible should be a primary textbook in America’s public schools, and that any politician who disagrees should be voted out. Lane’s events are usually closed to the media, but he has given special access to the Christian Broadcasting Network’s sympathetic David Brody. Brody’s coverage of the Iowa event included short video clips of comments by brothers Farris and Dan Wilks, who were identified only as members of...

Facial Recognition and the Loss of Anonymity

You're not fooling anyone, kid. We know who you are. (Flickr/Glen)
With all the attention given to the Obama administration's new regulations on carbon emissions, you may have missed the latest revelation from the documents obtained by Edward Snowden, which came out over the weekend. The latest news is that the NSA is now increasingly relying on facial recognition in its surveillance, and gathers millions of images a day from emails, social media, and other sources, and it isn't alone. Here's an excerpt from a report that appeared in the New York Times on Sunday : State and local law enforcement agencies are relying on a wide range of databases of facial imagery, including driver’s licenses and Facebook, to identify suspects. The F.B.I. is developing what it calls its "next generation identification" project to combine its automated fingerprint identification system with facial imagery and other biometric data. The State Department has what several outside experts say could be the largest facial imagery database in the federal government, storing...

Who's Hacking Your Phone?

They can definitely hear you now. (Flickr/Esther Vargas)
NBC aired its interview with Edward Snowden on Wednesday night, and there were lots of interesting things about it, particularly how confident and articulate Snowden was. One of the details that stood out for people was when Brian Williams asked Snowden about the NSA's ability to infiltrate your phone. I think the real lesson here isn't the one most people are taking, but to start, here's an excerpt from NBC's write-up : "The NSA, the Russian Intelligence Service, the Chinese Intelligence Service, any intelligence service in the world that has significant funding and a real technological research team, can own that phone the minute it connects to their network. As soon as you turn it on, it can be theirs. They can turn it into a microphone, they can take pictures from it, they can take the data off of it." Snowden described how the simple pattern of his phone calls—not the content of the calls but the time and location of those calls—could be invaluable to a security service. And how...

Future of Television at Stake at Supreme Court Today

Photo courtesy of Aereo.
Today, the Supreme Court is hearing arguments in ABC vs Aereo , a case that will (cue drumroll) decide the future of television. Or maybe it won't, but it's a fascinating case, involving the intersection of technology with political and market power. There's a comprehensive explanation here , but the short version is that Aereo is a service that allows you to get broadcast TV, i.e. the major networks and a few others that send signals over the air, through an internet connection instead of a set of rabbit ears on top of your TV. The broadcast networks and the big cable companies want to shut it down, because they'd both rather have everyone getting the signals through cable. You see, your cable company pays a license fee to ABC, NBC, CBS, and every other network, fees that amount to billions of dollars a year (and get passed on to you). Someone who uses Aereo to cut the cable cord isn't paying those license fees, and isn't paying for a cable subscription either. Aereo is, without...

Would You Let a Robot Give You a Sponge Bath?

Getting ready for their shift on the pediatric ward. (Kai Schreiber/Wikimedia Commons)
Imagine it's 50 years from now, and you've checked into the hospital for a minor surgery that will require you to spend a couple of nights there. There's a nurses' station down the hall, but you know that the nurses are also caring for lots of other patients and may not be able to come quickly when you have a need, particularly if it isn't an emergency, like getting a hand walking to the bathroom, or having someone pick up the TV remote you dropped, or maybe getting a foot rub just because that would be nice. Upon checking in, the clerk says to you, "I see that your insurance provides for a robotic aide while you're here. Is that something you'd like?" What are you going to say? According to a survey the Pew Research Center did on people's feelings about future technologies, most people would say "No thanks"—or at least they think so now. The survey is fascinating in part because many of the results seem (to me anyway) to be ridiculous. For instance, 39 percent of respondents think...

Where the Wild Things Are

AP Images/Google
P icture a perfect Southwestern day: The air as clear as gin, the bright blue sky marked only by a few stray clouds. In this spot, the waters of the Colorado River are placid, cool green, with none of the muddy brown foam found in the rapids that, over millennia, have carved out the Grand Canyon. Redwall limestone cliffs stretch high above. They’re streaked with desert varnish—the stain left by manganese seeps—and lightly colored with the aquamarine of lichen. Eons of the planet’s history are visible from here, whole epochs rendered in the span of a few thousand vertical feet. It’s an awesome sight. Then I move my mouse over the river surface and click on a small circle of white in the water. The scene swirls in fast-forward, and I continue my trip downriver. I’ve never rafted the Colorado River through the bottom of the Grand Canyon. My “experience” through that wonder of the world came courtesy of Google Treks, the information company’s effort to extend its popular Street View...

George Takei, Living Long and Prospering from Social Media

AP Images/Wong Maye-E
O n March 20, in between jokes—“You can’t spell ‘diet’ without ‘die,’” and sharing a picture of a man dressed as a giant iron (Iron Man, get it?)—George Takei put up a serious post on his Facebook feed. Fred Phelps, the founder of Westboro Baptist Church, known for its vitriolic picketing at the funerals of soldiers and gay people, had just died. “He was a tormented soul, who tormented so many,” Takei wrote to his nearly 6.5 million followers. “Hate never wins out in the end. It instead goes always to its lonely, dusty end.” To newcomers, the abrupt change of tone might sound odd. But Takei's followers weren’t likely surprised; in the midst of humor, they know, he often delivers wise and solemn messages to fans. For decades, Takei, who turns 77 in April, was most famous for his role as Hikaru Sulu on the original Star Trek series (catchphrase: “Oh my!”). But since he started his Facebook page in 2011, the actor has been a social-media whiz. He’s got more than a million Twitter...

Your Virtual Future

Flickr/Sergey Galyonkin
Don't be alarmed—I'm delivering the traditional Friday technology post a day early, because I want to talk a bit about virtual reality (VR). Facebook just spent $2 billion to buy Oculus, a company that as of yet has essentially no revenue and no customers, since its first product, the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, is still in its development stages (game developers have models, but they haven't been sold to the public). Facebook thinks it's buying the future. Is it? And should you care? Well, Oculus itself may or may not be the future, but virtual reality is, for real this time. And yes, you should care. It's reasonable to be skeptical, since we've been told that virtual reality is coming any day now since the mid-1980s or so. But now it really is around the corner. The hardware is getting there (the Oculus Rift has gotten the most press, but Sony is also developing its own version), and the technical problems (like the "lag" between moving your head and seeing the images move...

No Exit: The Digital Edition

AP Images/Weng Lei
AP Images/Weng Lei P rivacy advocates say we should care about privacy because its erosion threatens liberty. "A human being who lives in a world in which he thinks he is always being watched is a human being who makes choices not as a free individual but as someone who is trying to conform to what is expected and demanded of them," Glenn Greenwald said in an interview. His statement echoes staunch privacy defenders of yore, like Justice Louis Brandeis, who described privacy as “the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.” The public outrage that followed revelations about mass surveillance of citizens by the National Security Agency suggests many Americans agree. But appealing only to the ethical justifications for privacy won’t be enough to spur the rescue of this right. For one, it’s not clear how the visceral want for privacy translates into actual rules and policies in the digital age, especially when surrendering personal data just seems like its...

Federal Government Soon to Know Everywhere You've Driven

License plate cameras in New York. (Flickr/lucky_dog)
Well here we go. A few days ago, Ars Technica spotted a listing on a federal government website, explaining that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency is looking for a vendor who can assemble for them a database that brings together data from the all the license plate cameras that more and more police departments across the country are installing. You don't like the fact that the government has a file somewhere listing every call you've made on your cell phone? How do you feel about them knowing everywhere you've driven? We're not quite there yet, but all that's needed for this to become a truly national database is the installation of more license plate cameras, and lots of storage, since these cameras capture billions of pieces of information. In other words, it's a piece of cake. You might or might not love your next laptop more than the one you have now, but it's a stone-cold guarantee that it'll have a faster processor and a bigger hard drive. That's just how...

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