Science and Technology

Thwarting Big Brother

Nobody can tell who this guy is. Also, it's a dog. (Flickr/Davharuk)
As you know, our society is rapidly moving toward a dystopian future of mass surveillance, where every step you take and purchase you make and everywhere you drive and everyone you call and everything you eat and breathe and think is logged, categorized, and stored. Or at least it sometimes feels that way. But is it possible to take some of this control back? Here's one attempt as Technology Review tells us: A new app notifies people when an Android smartphone app is tracking their location, something not previously possible without modifying the operating system on a device, a practice known as "rooting." The new technology comes amid new revelations that the National Security Agency seeks to gather personal data from smartphone apps (see " How App Developers Leave the Door Open to NSA Surveillance "). But it may also help ordinary people better grasp the extent to which apps collect and share their personal information. Even games and dictionary apps routinely track location, as...

Technology and Oppression, 30 Years Ago and Today

Apple's "1984" ad, thirty years old this week.
Thirty years ago this week, the Super Bowl featured an ad (directed by Ridley Scott, no less) for the soon-to-be-released Macintosh computer, in which Apple implicitly compared the dominance of Microsoft operating systems and IBM computers to the oppressive dictatorship of George Orwell's 1984 . Apple's Board of Directors apparently hated the ad, but Steve Jobs insisted that it air, probably because he understood how critical it was to building Apple into not just an identifiable brand but a statement of personal identity. If you use a PC, Jobs was saying, you're a drone, a cog in the wheel, someone who has been stripped of your individuality as you labor for the Man. Whereas if you use a Mac, you're a creative, youthful individual forging your own way in the world and subverting the dominant paradigm. Part of the reason Apple has managed to sustain that brand identity for so long is that there was always some truth to their argument. Nobody really loved Windows, but you had to use it...

The Examined Life of the Digital Age

AP Images/Jose Luis Magana
You've seen it on CSI and other police procedurals a hundred times: the detectives take a surveillance photo and watch as their computer cycles through a zillion photos of perps and crooks until it blinks with a match, telling them who their suspect is. You may have known enough to realize that they can't actually do that—computerized face recognition isn't capable of taking a grainy, shadowed photo and identifying it positively as a particular person. Or at least they couldn't until recently. But the technology has been advancing rapidly, and now some law enforcement agencies are using powerful new software that can do just that, at least sometimes. It has a ways to go yet, but the question is when, not if, computers will be able to take the video that was shot of you as you walked down the sidewalk or browsed in a store and know exactly who you are. Last Friday I brought up the question of the future of surveillance, after President Obama's speech proposing new limits on the...

Today's Robot Threat

Sure, he looks friendly now... (Photo from RoboEarth)
Today is the last day at the Prospect for our brilliant associate editor Jaime Fuller, who is cruelly abandoning me, much like Shane walked away from that little boy crying for him to come back. We've had a running joke for a while, wherein on many Fridays I write a post about robots, Jaime mutters, "Sheesh, another post about robots? Give it up Waldman, this is a magazine about politics, remember?" and I say "Yer damn right it's another post about robots! You'll thank me when they take over!" (This conversation actually takes place in my head; in fact, Jaime has been unfailingly tolerant of my odd Friday topic choices.) Anyhow, I couldn't let the day end without some alarming robot news in Jaime's honor. It comes in the form of a threat from across the ocean: a robot gap! Are we going to let the Europeans move ahead of us? This is from the BBC : A world wide web for robots to learn from each other and share information is being shown off for the first time. Scientists behind...

The Surveillance State of Tomorrow

Flickr/Bryan Chan
By the time you read this, President Obama will probably have finished his speech outlining some changes to the NSA's global information vacuum. According to early reports , he'll propose creating an independent body to hold the phone metadata that the NSA gathers, and forcing the agency to get some kind of approval (presumably from the FISA court) before accessing it. Which is all fine and good. But the real question is whether we set up procedures and systems that constrain the NSA from doing not just what we already know about, but the things we haven't yet heard of, and even more importantly, the kinds of surveillance that will become possible in the future. Just today, we learned from the Guardian that "The National Security Agency has collected almost 200 million text messages a day from across the globe, using them to extract data including location, contact networks, and credit-card details, according to top-secret documents." I can't imagine that will be the last revelation...

The Internet Service Providers' Triumph

Her joy will soon turn to despair. (Flickr/collegedegrees360)
Yesterday, the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit struck down the Federal Communication Commission's "net neutrality" rules, probably opening the door for Internet service providers (ISPs) to start charging different customers different rates to send their web terrificness to your computer. I say "probably" because there's a good amount of uncertainty over what is going to happen now, which I'll get to in a moment. Chances are you're only marginally interested in the details, and it can get pretty arcane rather quickly, but I do want to point out the absurdity of the arguments the big ISPs like Verizon and Comcast make about net neutrality. This was a very big win for some of the most unpopular companies in America, but how soon they're going to try to destroy everything you love about the Web is hard to determine. There are some reasons to be worried, though. Briefly, the principle of net neutrality says that everyone providing content on the Internet should be treated the same,...

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

AP Images/Stephen Chernin
S ince Edward Snowden started disclosing millions of classified NSA documents in June, terms like metadata, 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. But I wasn’t surprised. A decade ago, I sat talking to a young mother on welfare about her experiences with technology. When our conversation turned to Electronic Benefit Transfer cards (EBT), Dorothy* said, “They’re great. Except [Social Services] uses them as a tracking device.” I must have looked shocked, because she explained that her caseworker routinely looked at her EBT purchase records. Poor women are the test subjects for surveillance technology, Dorothy told me ruefully, and you should pay attention to what happens to us. You’re next. Poor and working-class Americans already live in the surveillance future. The revelations that are so...

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...

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. Perhaps no one is more responsible for this misconception than Ray Kurzweil, the engineer/inventor/technocelebrity who has popularized the notion of the "singularity," the moment when artificial intelligence...

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 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...

Technology's Invisible Future

Thankfully, you no longer have to check your vacuum tubes before sending an email.
Friday is tech time 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 act in fundamentally different ways from the way they do now, I'd have no idea. The possibility of computers becoming essentially invisible is raised in this BBC article : The consequences of all this will be profound. Consider what it means to have a primarily spoken rather than screen-based relationship with a computer. When you’re speaking and listening rather than reading off a screen, you’re not researching and comparing results, or selecting from a list – you’re being...

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. It isn't as though they're the first ones to have thought of this; people have been making jokes about things like pizza-delivery drones for a few years now. But as...

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. In his new book Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era , James Barrat argues that we need to begin thinking now about how artificial intelligences will treat their creators when they can think faster, reason better, and understand more than any human. These questions were long the province of thrilling (if not always realistic) science fiction, but Barrat warns...

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. It may well be that ten or 20 years from now Twitter will have swallowed up the communication world. But I've had this sneaking suspicion, watching all the hype over its IPO, that a couple of years from now, something will come along that we haven't yet thought of, and it'll make Twitter seem about as current as MySpace. Then a few years after that, it'll just be gone. I'm not bold enough to predict...

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...

Pages