Nerval's Lobster writes: Imagine a future in which fleets of self-driving cars navigate city streets, picking up anyone who requests a ride via their smartphone or tablet. That’s exactly the future predicted by TechCrunch in a new piece of speculative fiction, set in July 2023, in which Google sells Uber 2,500 driverless vehicles for the latter’s car-hire service. Despite the sci-fi trappings, the concept isn’t that far-fetched: Google Ventures is already a multimillion-dollar investor in Uber. It’s clear that executives at both companies are interested in exploring where their respective strategies overlap—and that raises the prospect of a future in which self-driving cars from a plethora of companies execute a variety of tasks, from taxiing people to delivering goods. In theory, this is good for society: fleets of sensor-studded vehicles send tons of data back to Google and other technology companies, which analyze that information and use it to make the vehicles safer and more efficient—a virtuous cycle, to be sure, but one that also poses risks for a certain segment of society. Google’s self-driving cars are an experiment in eliminating many of challenges that face the current generation of computers and robots, most notably situational adaptability and training. Pair that with the tech industry’s widespread attempts to solve the problem of language recognition—as “personified” by Siri, Google Now, and other voice-activated digital assistants in the production pipeline—and one can see the barriers to robots and computers in all sorts of industries rapidly eroding. So a more nuanced picture of July 2023 might feature Uber buying fleets of self-driving cars from Google—but it should also include taxi and truck drivers, fearful for their jobs, doing everything in their power to prevent such deals from going through. Any industry that requires some combination of intuition and improvisation could end up affected within the next few years.
Nerval's Lobster writes: In the “Iron Man” trilogy, billionaire inventor Tony Stark uses a gesture-controlled hologram to draft new designs of the titular armor, sending virtual parts flying around his lab with the flick of a wrist. Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk—who is often compared to Stark by the tech press—is apparently creating the real-life equivalent of that fictional hologram system. “We figured out how to design rocket parts just w hand movements through the air (seriously),” he Tweeted August 23. “Now need a high frame rate holograph generator.” In a follow-up Tweet, he added: “Will post video next week of designing a rocket part with hand gestures & then immediately printing it in titanium.” But Musk has no plans to actually make an Iron Man-inspired suit of armor. “I am not going to make an IM suit,” he wrote on Twitter, “however design by hand-manipulated hologram is actually useful.”
Nerval's Lobster writes: Any number of executives could take Ballmer’s place, including a few he unceremoniously kicked to the curb over the years. Whoever steps into that CEO role, however, faces a much greater challenge than if Ballmer had quietly resigned several years ago. Ballmer famously missed the boat on tablets and smartphones; Windows 8 isn't selling as well as Microsoft expected; and on Websites and blogs such as Mini-Microsoft (which had a brilliant posting about Ballmer’s departure), employees complain bitterly about the company’s much-maligned stack-ranking system, its layers of bureaucracy, and its inability to innovate. Had Ballmer left years ago, replaced by someone with the ability to more keenly anticipate markets, the company would probably be in much better shape to face its coming challenges. In its current form, Microsoft often feels like it’s struggling in the wake of Amazon, Google, Apple, and Facebook.
Nerval's Lobster writes: In an effort to give troops in the field more reliable ways to exchange data with each other and with local commanders, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) created has a project whose goal is to create a secure, local mesh network that troops in the field can use to communicate even when they’re out of range of wireless access points, cell towers or even satellite links. In the first phase of the project, known as Content-Based Mobile Edge Networking (CBMEN), DARPA has developed apps that could be loaded onto Android smartphones to allow them to connect with standard Army Rifleman Radios and with one another without requiring a server or wireless access point to provide a central communications hub. The first CBMEN systems just passed their first round of testing at Fort A.P. Hill in Virginia, according to an Aug. 21 announcement from DARPA. The idea behind the project is not to give troops special applications, heads-up displays or other technology designed specifically to help them in combat, according to the original project pitch from DARPA program manager Keith Gremban. Instead, the idea is to give them a way to exchange data with each other, with local commanders or other units to make sure squads in the field have access to the latest intelligence information and imagery without having to return to camp to download the information from a server.
Nerval's Lobster writes: The crowdfunding campaign to build an Ubuntu-powered smartphone has fallen short of its ambitious goal. Canonical, which works with the open-source community to support Ubuntu worldwide, decided to fund its Ubuntu Edge smartphone via crowdfunding Website Indiegogo. The funding goal was set at $32 million, and at first it looked as if the project had enough momentum to actually succeed: within the first 24 hours of the project’s July 22 launch, some $3.45 million had poured in. But that torrent of cash soon slowed to a trickle. In the end, the campaign managed to amass $12,809,906 by its August 21 closing. Nonetheless, Canonical did its best to put a brave face on the situation. “While we passionately wanted to build the Edge to showcase Ubuntu on phones, the support and attention it received will still be a huge boost as other Ubuntu phones start to arrive in 2014,” the organization wrote in a posting. “Thousands of you clearly want to own an Ubuntu phone and believe in our vision of convergence, and rest assured you won’t have much longer to wait.”
Nerval's Lobster writes: A new research paper from the New England Complex Systems Institute, titled “Sentiment in New York City” (PDF), attempts to pull off something that would have been impossible—or at least mind-bogglingly difficult and time-consuming—before the invention of online social networks: figure out the block-by-block happiness level of the biggest metropolis in the United States. In order to generate their “sentiment map” of New York City, the researchers analyzed data from 603,954 Tweets (collected via Twitter’s API) organized by census block. “This method, combined with geotagging provided by users, enables us to gauge public sentiment on extremely fine-grained spatial and temporal scales,” read the paper’s abstract. The study took emoticons and word choice into account when deciding whether particular Tweets were positive or negative in sentiment. According to that flood of geotagged Tweets, people are happiest near New York City’s public parks, and unhappiest near transportation hubs. Happiness increased closer to Times Square, the declined around Penn Station, the Port Authority, and the entrance to the Midtown Tunnel. People were in a better mood at night and on weekends, and more negative about the world between the hours of 9 A.M. and 12 P.M. None of this is surprising: who wouldn’t be happy amidst the greenery of a public park, or borderline-suicidal while stuck in traffic or waiting for a late train? The correlation between happiness and Times Square is almost certainly due to that neighborhood’s massive influx of tourists, all of them Tweeting about their vacation. But as with previous public-sentiment studies, using Twitter as a primary data source also introduces some methodology issues: for example, a flood of happy Tweets from tourists could disguise a more subdued and longstanding misery among a neighborhood’s residents, many of whom probably aren’t tweeting every thirty seconds about a Broadway show or the quality of Guy Fieri’s food.
Nerval's Lobster writes: In conjunction with a variety of partners (including Nokia, Opera, Qualcomm and Samsung), Facebook is launching Internet.org, which will try to make Internet access more affordable to more people. The partnership will also work on ways to lower the amount of data necessary to power most apps and Internet experiences, which could help people in areas with poor connectivity access online services, and devise incentives for businesses and manufacturers to offer customers more affordable access. Why would Facebook and its partners want to connect another 5 billion people to the Internet? Sure, there are altruistic reasons—people online can access information that will improve or even save their lives. But for Facebook, more people online equals more ad revenue, which equals more profit. Social networking in the developed world is reaching a saturation point, with a significant percentage of the population already on one (or more) social networks; only by expanding into developing nations can Facebook and its ilk maintain the growth rates that Wall Street demands. In a similar vein, building devices and services accessible via weaker Internet connections would open up a whole new customer base for the app developers and manufacturers of the world. In theory, Internet.org plans on enlisting a variety of nonprofits and “experts” to help in its effort; but the initial announcement only lists for-profit companies among its constituency. NGOs, academics and the aforementioned experts will apparently arrive “over time.” So is this effort really charitable, or a cynical attempt to break into new markets?
Nerval's Lobster writes: Get 'em young: That could be LinkedIn’s new motto, after the professional-networking Website opened itself up to universities and students. LinkedIn’s University Pages offer schools a place to post updates about campus news and activities; they can also link to famous alumni, who will doubtlessly love when a couple thousand students try to connect with them all at once. Some 200 universities are setting up LinkedIn Pages, including NYU, the University of Michigan, the University of Illinois, the Rochester Institute of Technology, and more. Why this aggressive expansion into a younger demographic? Today’s students are tomorrow’s cubicle bees and entrepreneurs; by locking them into the network early, LinkedIn can (at least in theory) maintain a user base for many years to come. (It’s safe to presume that at least a fraction of these young users will eventually engage LinkedIn’s paid services, which makes this initiative a long-term revenue play.) Building a substantial base among students could also help LinkedIn head off future competition, such as Facebook moving more aggressively into the careers space. Or it could just open a whole lot of concerns over privacy and security, similar to what Facebook already faces with its teen audience.
Nerval's Lobster writes: When Ars Technica editor Nate Anderson sat down to write The Internet Police (W.W. Norton & Company, 320 pp.), Edward Snowden hadn’t yet decided to add some excitement to the National Security Agency’s summer by leaking a trove of surveillance secrets to The Guardian.
As a result, Anderson’s book doesn’t mention Snowden’s escapade, which will likely become the security-and-paranoia story of the year, if not the decade. For anyone unaware of the vast issues highlighted by Snowden’s leak, however, The Internet Police is a handy guide to the slow and unstoppable rise of the online security state, as well as the libertarian and criminal elements that have done their level best to counter that surveillance.
Anderson starts off his book in 2000, with an exploration of HavenCo. The people behind HavenCo had a fascinating idea: build a datacenter on a rusting naval fort in the North Sea, and use it to hold data for customers concerned about the government sniffing around. But the company’s dream of constructing a “true libertarian paradise” eventually sank, thanks to a toxic combination of infighting and infrastructure challenges.
HavenCo was an early entrant in a longtime attempt to place a large swath of the Web beyond the reach of governments and corporations, and it definitely wasn’t the last: from Silk Road to MegaUpload, the properties dedicated to a “liberated Net” have proliferated in recent years. Some people founded such sites out of high principle; others for the LULZ; and many because they simply wanted to download movies and music and possibly highly illegal drugs for free.
Anderson does an excellent job of tracing the push-and-pull between these Websites and various government and corporate entities. People form peer-to-peer networks to swap copyrighted content, and corporations sue to shut them down; others set up networks to trade pornography or drugs, and law-enforcement agencies unleash all sorts of surveillance tools to track down the perpetrators; spam networks rise, and governments pass legislation (boosted by corporations) to nuke them off the Web, with varying degrees of success. These attempts at control usually prove successful, at least until new and improved versions of those Websites rise from the smoking ruins of the old.
To his credit, Anderson wears his journalist hat to the proceedings, never tipping his sympathies to one side or the other. He acknowledges that government and law enforcement really do want to keep people safe above all else, even as certain legislatures and police departments run roughshod over citizens’ privacy; he also details how many software creators built their security and privacy tools out of a genuine desire for people to have as much freedom as possible online, only to watch as criminals and others twisted those tools to their own nefarious ends.
Anderson’s conclusion is that society needs an Internet police in order to keep some degree of peace, but that “we need to keep a close eye on them.” In this post-Snowden era, when it seems increasingly clear that governments have the ability to monitor virtually every single aspect of our electronic lives, this bit of advice seems more important than ever.
Nerval's Lobster writes: Over at The Kernel, staff writer Greg Stevens wonders whether police departments around the world should outfit their officers with Google Glass. There’s some logic behind the idea. A cop with wearable electronics constantly streaming audio and video back to a supervisor (or even a Website) would be less likely, at least in theory, to take liberties with civilians’ civil liberties. But not everybody thinks it's such a good idea. Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, wrote in a recent blog posting that society needs to make choices “about the extent to which we want to allow the government to store up that data so that it has the power to hit ‘rewind’ on everybody’s lives.” In the view of that organization, “that’s just too much power.” That being said, law enforcement wearing electronics that streams constant video and audio data would still be subject to the law. “If the officer is recording a communication he has in public with someone, there’s probably no wiretap problem since there’s at least the consent of one party and no expectation of privacy,” Hanni M. Fakhoury, a staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, wrote in an email to Slashdot. “But if he’s recording peripheral communications between two separate individuals, than there’s potential wiretap liability depending on the circumstances.” What do you think? Are cops wearing Google Glass (or similar wearable electronic) a good idea?
Nerval's Lobster writes: Daniel Kottke and Bill Fernandez had front-row seats to the birth of the personal computing industry, as well as the most valuable technology company in the world. Both served as employees of Apple Computer in its earliest days: Kottke working with the hardware, Fernandez developing the user interfaces. Both have some strong opinions about the new feature film, Jobs, which dramatizes the personal and professional escapades of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and his more technically inclined partner, Steve Wozniak. Kottke consulted on early versions of the script, attended the movie’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in February, and is currently planning to see it again shortly after its release on August 16. Fernandez, on the other hand, hasn’t seen it and doesn’t intend to, because he considers it a work of fiction and thinks it will upset him. In this lengthy interview with Slashdot, both attempted to distinguish the facts and longstanding geek legends from the instances of pure creative license exercised by the filmmakers.
Nerval's Lobster writes: Over at The Kernel, staff writer Greg Stevens wonders whether police departments around the world should outfit their officers with Google Glass. There’s some logic behind the idea. A cop with wearable electronics constantly streaming audio and video back to a supervisor (or even a Website) would be less likely, at least in theory, to take liberties with civilians’ civil liberties. But a bunch of people aren't very happy with the idea. Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, wrote in a recent blog posting that society needs to make choices “about the extent to which we want to allow the government to store up that data so that it has the power to hit ‘rewind’ on everybody’s lives.” In his view, “that’s just too much power.” But existing laws could also prevent Google Glass from kicking off some kind of Orwellian free-for-all. Under the Wiretap Act, intercepting audio signals is strictly controlled by state and federal statute, and generally requires a judge to sign off on a specific monitoring action. “If the officer is recording a communication he has in public with someone, there’s probably no wiretap problem since there’s at least the consent of one party and no expectation of privacy,” Hanni M. Fakhoury, a staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, wrote in an email to Slashdot. “But if he’s recording peripheral communications between two separate individuals, than there’s potential wiretap liability depending on the circumstances.” In other words, officers wearing Google Glass during an arrest or search could spark a thorny legal battle, depending on the circumstances. What do you think? Google Glass (or other wearable electronics) for cops a good idea, or an awful one?
Nerval's Lobster writes: The Navajo Nation cut the ribbon August 13 on an $8 million data center that has been under debate and development since 2000, when then-President Bill Clinton expressed shock that a 13-year-old Navajo girl who just won a new laptop couldn’t connect to the Internet. At the time that girl won the laptop in a school contest, the Navajo Nation--a 27,425 square-mile region that covers portions of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico--had barely any IT infrastructure. The incident helped drive debate among leaders of the Navajo Nation, many of whom said they believed adding telecommunications and computing facilities were secondary to other concerns for the chronically poverty stricken region. The 50,000-square-foot facility in Albuquerque, New Mexico includes 25,000-sq.-ft. of datacenter and an equal space for computer training and business incubation, according to Nova Corp., an IT services company owned by Navajo Nation and formed in 2004 to execute an IT plan to create the “Digital Navajo Nation” (PDF). The drive to get it built also helped push development of a $46 million broadband project designed to cover about half of Navajo territory with 550 miles of fiber, 32 new cell towers and upgrades to another 27. It will eventually connect more than 30,000 households and 1,000 businesses.
Nerval's Lobster writes: For most businesses, data analytics presents an opportunity. But for DARPA, the military agency responsible for developing new technology, so-called “Big Data” could represent a big threat. DARPA is apparently looking to fund researchers who can “investigate the national security threat posed by public data available either for purchase or through open sources.” That means developing tools that can evaluate whether a particular public dataset will have a significant impact on national security, as well as blunt the force of that impact if necessary. “The threat of active data spills and breaches of corporate and government information systems are being addressed by many private, commercial, and government organizations,” reads DARPA’s posting on the matter. “The purpose of this research is to investigate data sources that are readily available for any individual to purchase, mine, and exploit.” As Foreign Policy points out, there’s a certain amount of irony in the government soliciting ways to reduce its vulnerability to data exploitation. “At the time government officials are assuring Americans they have nothing to fear from the National Security Agency poring through their personal records,” the publication wrote, “the military is worried that Russia or al Qaeda is going to wreak nationwide havoc after combing through people’s personal records.”
Nerval's Lobster writes: Three years ago, game designer and author Jane McGonigal argued that saving the human race is going to require a major time investment—in playing video games. “If we want to solve problems like hunger, poverty, climate change, global conflict, obesity, I believe that we need to aspire to play games online for at least 21 billion hours a week [up from 3 billion today], by the end of the next decade,” she said in a TED talk. Her message was not ignored—and it has indirectly contributed to the formation of something called the Internet Response League (IRL). The small group has a big goal: to harness gamers’ time and use it to save lives after disasters, natural or otherwise. The idea is to insert micro-tasks into games, specifically asking gamers to tag photos of disaster areas. With the IRL plugin, each image would be shown to at least three people, who tag the photo as showing no damage, mild damage, or severe damage. The Internet Response League has been in talks with a couple of indie developers, including one that’s developing a new MMO. Mosur said they’ve tried to get in touch with World of Warcraft maker Blizzard, but haven’t had any luck yet. Blizzard did not return a request for comment from Slashdot.