Science and Technology

Want to Predict the Future of Surveillance? Ask Poor Communities.

AP Images/Stephen Chernin

Since Edward Snowden started disclosing millions of classified NSA documents in June, terms like meta-data, software backdoors, and cybervulnerability have appeared regularly in headlines and sound bites. Many Americans were astonished when these stories broke. In blogs, comment sections, and op-ed pages, they expressed disbelief and outrage.

The "Internet of Things," Still a Long Way Off

Behold the future of home refrigeration. (Flickr/David Berkowitz)

As you've heard a zillion times if you pay attention to this sort of thing, the hot technology trend of 2014 is "wearables," i.e., technology that you wear. I'm more than a little skeptical, the main reason being that wearables seem to be around five years away from not completely sucking. OK, maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration, but at this stage, they're not transformative yet, unless you hear about a watch that monitors your heartbeat or a pair of $400 ski goggles with a heads-up display and say, "Oh my god, life as we know it will never be the same."

But the next hot technology trend, and one that has been the next trend for a while, is the "Internet of things," in which all our previously dumb and superficially mundane devices will become "smart" and connected to the web. Ask yourself: how amazing would it be if your refrigerator scanned its contents, realized you were low on milk and eggs, and placed an order to a store which delivered them, without you ever needing to be involved?

Once again, I have to say that the answer is, not really all that amazing.

The Trouble with Moore's Law Determinism

Flickr/Paul Hocksenar

You've probably heard of Moore's Law, which states that the number of transistors that can fit on a computer chip doubles every 18 months to two years, give or take. It has held true since Intel's Gordon Moore made the conjecture in 1965, and though it might not go on forever, the exponential rise in computing power has driven all kinds of technological change. But there's something that's been bugging me for a while in the way people reference Moore's Law, and I figured the new year was as good a time as any to get it off my chest.

The error is in the assumption that a very specific exponential curve regarding change in the power of transistors and circuits is the same as change in technological innovation, which is the same as societal change driven by technology. It isn't.

Google to Begin Building Robot Army

Boston Dynamics' Atlas marches over the rubble of our shattered world.

When Amazon bought a robotics company called Kiva Systems last year, it made perfect sense. Kiva makes robots that move things around warehouses; Amazon has a lot of warehouses full of a lot of stuff that needs moving around. Google, on the other hand, would seem to have no obvious need for robots, which is why it might appear odd that they just announced the purchase of Boston Dynamics, a company developing robots that mostly resemble animals and are designed to do things like carry equipment for soldiers, run really fast, and jump really high. In fact, it's only the latest of a bunch of robotics companies Google has bought.

So what are they up to? In some ways, Google increasingly resembles a corporation out of a near-future sci-fi novel, one that begins by making some nice but (seemingly) not exactly world-transforming product, then that product turns out to be bigger than anybody imagined, then it gradually expands into one area after another until it controls practically the entire world. Eventually, the corporation becomes a nuclear power and wages war on its few remaining competitors, then becomes a practical one-world government. If that's their goal, a steady supply of robots would obviously be extremely useful.

Technology's Invisible Future

Thankfully, you no longer have to check your vacuum tubes before sending an email.

Friday is tech day for me, so here's the question of the day: What will happen when computers are so ubiquitous, and have become so seamlessly integrated into the objects that surround us, that we don't even think of them as computers anymore? It can often be hard for us to imagine what life with very different technologies might be like, particularly for those of us who are extremely dependent on current technologies. I spend most of my day staring at my computer; if you asked me how I'll do my job when computers have become invisible, I'd have no idea.

The possibility of computers becoming essentially invisible is raised in this BBC article:

Plan for Robotification of Everything Proceeding Apace

In the late 19th century, major American cities began installing networks of underground pneumatic tubes between post offices, enabling them to whisk hundreds of letters back and forth at speeds up to 35 miles per hour, with the satisfying thurp sound as an added bonus. Most of the systems were dismantled in the 1920s, but somehow New York's managed to stay in use until the 50's (here's a description of this odd bit of postal history).

Sadly, the dream of universal pneumatic tube delivery to the home was never achieved. But in a 14-minute ad for Amazon that was cleverly staged as a report on 60 Minutes ("If you can do this with all these products, what else can you do?" gushed Charlie Rose on the floor of a fulfilment center. "You guys can organize the world!"), the company revealed the future of package delivery: drones.

When Robots Take Over, What Happens to Us?

Artificial intelligence has a long way to go before computers are as intelligent as humans. But progress is happening rapidly, in everything from logical reasoning to facial and speech recognition. With steady improvements in memory, processing power, and programming, the question isn't if a computer will ever be as smart as a human, but only how long it will take. And once computers are as smart as people, they'll keep getting smarter, in short order become much, much smarter than people. When artificial intelligence (AI) becomes artificial superintelligence (ASI), the real problems begin.

Twitter Is Neither Our Salvation Nor Our Doom

If you aren't following that guy, your life is obviously devoid of meaning.

A pop quiz: Twitter is A) a world-transforming communication medium that connects us to one another in ways that redefine what it means to be human; B) an idiotic time-waster that is the enemy of genuine thought and meaning; C) both; D) neither.

What do you think? Sometimes I feel like people who write about it have to take either position A or position B, without entertaining the possibility that the answer is C, or maybe something else: used in a way that suits you, it can be quite handy and entertaining, but it could also disappear tomorrow and life as we know it would continue.

Facebook Is Watching You

There's an old saying in media that if you're getting something for free, then you are the product. When you listen to commercial radio, the advertisers are the customers, and you're the product that the station sells to their customers. But if you're the company selling those eyeballs or ears, it's best to convince the humans attached to them that you care deeply about them and have their best interests at heart. So I'm wondering exactly how Facebook thinks it could persuade its billion users that this is anything less than horrifying:

Facebook Inc. is testing technology that would greatly expand the scope of data that it collects about its users, the head of the company’s analytics group said Tuesday.

The social network may start collecting data on minute user interactions with its content, such as how long a user's cursor hovers over a certain part of its website, or whether a user's newsfeed is visible at a given moment on the screen of his or her mobile phone, Facebook analytics chief Ken Rudin said Tuesday during an interview.

I guess this isn't too surprising, since Facebook is legendarily disdainful of its users' privacy. But wow. Tracking your cursor movements? That is a whole new level of creepy. And what are the users getting in return for allowing their real-time movements to be monitored in this way? Absolutely nothing, it appears. Facebook is getting information that allows it to sell more ads and make more money. But you? Nada.

I'm reading Dave Eggers' The Circle, and while I'm only about halfway through (and things are obviously about to take a turn for the sinister), I had a different reaction to one important part of the book than Lee Konstantinou did. Lee talks about Eggers seeming uncertain and unsure about what the problem with The Circle (a kind of mashup of Facebook and Google, with some Twitter and PayPal thrown in) is and what it represents, but the ambiguity strikes me as intentional and even compelling, despite the fact that Eggers' satire isn't exactly subtle. When The Circle's personnel make presentations about new products they're planning (for instance, cheap, lollipop-shaped cameras that will become ubiquitous and record every moment of existence on Earth), they're almost persuasive in their enthusiasm that this will be a wonderful thing for humanity, even as what they're proposing is also horrifying.

Maybe my opinion about this will change once I finish the book, but it seems to me that Eggers is trying to capture the fact that it's no accident that these companies are so successful. For instance, Gmail really is a great email system. So yeah, it reads your emails and pushes advertising at you based on the content. But you can ignore that, right? And people love what Facebook offers them. It seems to me that most of the time when one of these behemoths rolled out a service people rejected, it wasn't because it was too invasive but because the benefits weren't attractive enough.

So you'd think people won't want Facebook wants to track their cursor movements unless they're getting something in return. But I'm sure the company will come up with something to tell them. Just wait until they debut the software that uses your computer's camera to track your eye movements and monitor your heart rate.

Why Are Police Shootings of Innocents on the Rise?

AP Photo/Jessica Hill

In New York City, police mistakes get played out on a big stage. In September, the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) performance was caught on camera in crowded Times Square when two officers shot at an unarmed suspect, missed him, and hit two bystanders instead. The man had been lurching in and out of traffic and ignoring police commands to stop, and at one point pulled his hand out of his pants as if he had a gun, according to a report in The New York Times.

It was the latest in the department’s two-year run of unintentional shootings of innocents.

Healthcare.gov 2: The Contractors' Search for More Money

AP Photo/John Amis, File

Everyone agrees that the rollout of Healthcare.gov has been something between a fiasco and a disaster. One of the mysteries is how a famously tech-savvy administration, headed by a president whose campaigns broke new ground in using digital technology to accomplish their goals, could have presided over this kind of screw-up. The answer is nearly as complicated as the website itself, but as the administration has said, the problems are not insurmountable and the site will be fixed (hopefully sooner rather than later).

Eric Schlosser, Bard of Folly

AP Images/John S. Zeedick

It took decades after the invention of nuclear weapons for today’s taboos against them to take hold. Some witnesses to the first nuclear explosions apprehended their horror immediately. Some planners, civilian and military, fell in love. In the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. built nuclear reactors in Iran, Pakistan, and dozens of other countries; in the 1960s and 1970s, the Atomic Energy Commission made plans to use nuclear explosions to dig a canal in Nicaragua and carve a pass-through in the California mountains for Interstate 40. Influential strategists like Herman Kahn were enthralled by the potential of nuclear weapons to reshape the world. On Thermo-nuclear War, Kahn’s best-known book, contains scenarios not only for how nuclear weapons would work in World War III but also in World Wars IV, V, VI, and VII.

The Robot Invasion

Jason Schneider

If you want a sense of where the nation’s job market is headed, a good place to stand is inside the half-mile-long Skechers warehouse in Moreno Valley, California, where box after box of shoes is stacked upon row after row of shelving, which soars some 40 feet in the air. Physically, the place is a wonder—quiet, sleek, and environmentally friendly (at 1.8 million square feet, it’s the largest officially certified “LEED Gold” building in the country). But what’s most remarkable about the $250 million structure, which opened in 2011, is how few people work there.

Attack of the Giant Grass!

AP Photo/Allen Breed

Arundo donax towers over the tallest man's head. It's thick, bamboo-like, and three-stories tall. It can withstand cold, and it can withstand drought. Give it water, and a little nitrogen, and it grows. Fast.

Killing it can be difficult. In California, where it was introduced in the 1800s, Arundo has gotten so out of control that in some places it seems to be the only plant growing on the riverbanks. It doesn’t have seeds, but it doesn't need them: it has other methods of multiplying. A fierce rainstorm can tear up its shallow roots and spread them far downstream. There, they start growing all over again.

Mow it down, spray it with pesticides—it’s all futile.

In Praise of Designer Babies

One day, I will rule this measly planet. (Flickr/paparutzi)

Imagine you knew that you carried a gene for a debilitating illness. But doctors could go into your egg (or your spouse's) and remove that gene, enabling you to have a baby who, whatever other problems they might encounter through their lifetime, wouldn't have to worry about the illness. Would you let them? Most people would say probably yes, provided they were sure the technique was safe and wouldn't produce some kind of two-headed mutant centaur baby. That, after all, is what people were worried about when the first baby conceived via in-vitro fertilization was born in 1978—although in that case, they were worried about cyclops babies (seriously). It turned out in the end that IVF is perfectly safe, and now it's a common procedure, the ethics of which is questioned only by radical anti-choice extremists.

Well we may be approaching the time when doctors can fix certain kinds of inherited diseases before an egg is even fertilized. And naturally, people are worried about "designer babies," the phrase that gets repeated whenever the subject of this kind of genetic engineering comes up.

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