The Citizen's Guide to the Future

April 16 2014 2:32 PM

The Smartphone Kill Switches Are Coming

Smartphones need kill switches. It's a relatively easy solution to the pricey (and irritating) problem of smartphone theft. But who would have thought that the big carriers would team up with Apple, Google, Microsoft, Nokia, Samsung, and lots of other manufacturers to voluntarily begin adding the technology by July 2015? The cooperative spirit! It makes so much sense!

The Wireless Association (CTIA) has created a voluntary commitment that manufacturers can join to make kill switches an industry standard. That way, if someone swipes your phone, you can "kill" it remotely, making it inoperable for whoever has it. And if your device is recovered, you can use a special password or other type of ID to bring it back to life. Otherwise, the device is useless.

The chief executive of CTIA, Steve Largent, said in a statement, “We appreciate the commitment made by these companies. ... This flexibility provides consumers with access to the best features and apps that fit their unique needs while protecting their smartphones and the valuable information they contain.”

The voluntary initiative is a good step. But there’s always a but, isn’t there? San Francisco’s district attorney, George Gascón, and New York’s attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, both feel that the agreement isn't enough, since the kill switches won't necessarily be on as a default. They said in statement, “While CTIA’s decision to respond to our call for action by announcing a new voluntary commitment to make theft-deterrent features available on smartphones is a welcome step forward, it falls short of what is needed to effectively end the epidemic of smartphone theft.”

And others, like California Sen. Mark Leno, who has introduced a universal kill-switch bill for California, are also skeptical. He called the effort, "incremental yet inadequate."

Clearly, when it comes to kill switches, lawmakers don't have a take-what-you-can-get attitude.

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April 16 2014 12:21 PM

If I Knew You Were Coming, AI'd've Baked a Cake

A couple of years ago, Evgeny Morozov wrote a spirited defense of the robot-free kitchen, worrying that the machines would destroy creativity in cookery and create “kitchens as exciting as McDonald’s joints.” At the time his concern was merely academic, inspired by efforts to create chef-analyzing computer systems.

Now, though, his concerns are based on reality. PreciBake has started to develop and market artificial intelligence that bakes. The company’s system is integrated into a customer’s ovens, monitors the products in them—breads, cookies, etc.— and learns how they should be properly baked. When it detects discrepancies in the baked goods—too hot, too moist—it can make adjustments. Although the technology is limited to monitoring and controlling the actual baking inside an oven, it is not hard to foresee this technology merging with the systems that concerned Morozov, producing fully integrated kitchen AI.

Every time new technology confronts established art, people worry that the technology will destroy the art. Photography was supposed to kill painting. Theater was declared dead after radio, movies, and television. Some people still wonder if writing can survive the Internet. Similarly, the culinary arts will survive and thrive after AI is widely used. 

The more important issues raised by kitchen AI are: 1) the other forms of AI that it suggests, and 2) the legal issues introduced by AI in so many areas of our lives where we have no legal models to address machines that make decisions like people.

On the first topic, AI that cooks could lead to AI that cleans, shops, balances our checkbooks, cares for our children and elderly relatives, and performs many other day-to-day chores. Like cooking, there are many tasks we won’t want to give up. But even the ones we like will be made more enjoyable when we can take a quick break as needed or wanted: “Rosie, please look after Jane and Elroy while I run to the store for five minutes.”

Margaret Boden, a professor of cognitive science at the University of Sussex, calls the potential for AI to create more free time a “rehumanizing” effect. She wrote several decades ago in an article for the International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence that AI “can free us not only from drudgery but for humanity.” By relieving us from the responsibility of maintaining the background infrastructure of our lives, AI could give us time to devote to other people, education, service, and the arts, including cooking.

But PreciBake is also a reminder of the unintended legal consequences of AI, as it predicts a time in the near future when similar AI installed throughout the kitchen will learn the recipes you cook and create a new one based on your preferences, an area IBM’s Watson recently explored in an AI food truck. Who owns that recipe? Who is liable for any potentially dangerous allergic reactions caused by that recipe? These concerns may be fairly minimal at home, but in a commercial kitchen they are much more serious.

Under U.S. intellectual property law, only human beings can be authors and inventors. A recipe created by AI, therefore, wouldn’t belong to the person who owns the kitchen. That doesn’t matter in a private home. If my AI blender creates the perfect smoothie, everyone in the world is welcome to share my joy, no charge. But in a commercial kitchen, a recipe can be incredibly valuable. Even if Coca-Cola’s “secret formula” is more marketing stunt than intellectual property right, Coke’s position that it owns the formula and no one else can have it would be much weaker if a computer had created the recipe and it belonged in the public domain.

Similarly, before making dinner for friends and family, a private host likely knows guests’ food allergies and diets. Monitoring the family kitchen AI for troublesome ingredients is not much different than checking the recipe before preparing your own feast.

But meals and food coming out of commercial kitchens have a much greater chance of causing an allergic reaction, with potentially dangerous results. Who bears the liability when these incidents are caused by artificial intelligence is an open question. Did the restaurant fail to monitor the AI properly? Did the AI operate appropriately in the restaurant? AI manufacturers and their customers will need to draft user agreements carefully to make sure indemnification, insurance, and liability issues are addressed directly. Victims will want to review carefully those agreements following any accident that is serious enough to warrant a law suit.

So don’t worry about baking AI resulting in cookie-cutter cookie recipes. AI in the kitchen can free us to experiment with ingredients, techniques, and styles while it prepares the boring meals for us—school lunches, quick breakfasts before work, etc. After AI enters the kitchen, the bigger question is not what will happen to the culinary arts, but what will happen to the law.

April 15 2014 6:35 PM

The FBI's New Face Recognition Database Will Have 52 Million Entries by 2015

Got a guilty face? Beware. Next Generation Identification (NGI), the FBI's biometric database, is expanding to include photos for facial recognition.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has been reporting on this initiative for years and recently won a lawsuit against the FBI over a Freedom of Information Act request to see more documents related to data collection for facial recognition. And the numbers EFF now has about what's in the database are staggering.

The facial recognition part of NGI may contain 52 million images of faces by 2015. By 2012, it already had 13.6 million photos of 7 million to 8 million people. And by 2013, the database had grown to 16 million images.

The documents show that almost half of states are already participating in the facial recognition component's pilot program or have expressed interest in participating. And no matter how big the database grows, it should still be able to process 55,000 new photos a day, plus tens of thousands of searches.

But the database doesn’t only contain criminals. According to the documents, the FBI estimates that by 2015, the database will have 4.3 million images of civilians. EFF writes:

Currently, if you apply for any type of job that requires fingerprinting or a background check, your prints are sent to and stored by the FBI in its civil print database. However, the FBI has never before collected a photograph along with those prints. This is changing with NGI. Now an employer could require you to provide a “mug shot” photo along with your fingerprints. If that’s the case, then the FBI will store both your face print and your fingerprints along with your biographic data.

The documents and older files EFF has reviewed describe where the FBI gets photos of both criminals and civilians, such as the Repository for Individuals of Special Concern. But photos apparently also come from other sources described in the documents as "750,000 images from a 'Special Population Cognizant' (SPC) category, 215,000 images from 'New Repositories.' " Combined, these photos will account for about 1 million images in the database by 2015, but EFF can't tell where they will come from.

This is one of many concerns EFF outlines about the FBI project, including the lack of separation between criminal and non-criminal images:

NGI will allow law enforcement at all levels to search non-criminal and criminal face records at the same time. This means you could become a suspect in a criminal case merely because you applied for a job that required you to submit a photo with your background check.

With so much controversy over the NSA, a biometric database assembled by the FBI should merit similar scrutiny. The database could help solve crimes and act as a deterrent for particularly savvy would-be criminals. But it could also wrongly involve citizens in investigations regardless of their criminal backgrounds.

April 15 2014 4:08 PM

This Sleeve Turns Your iPhone Into a GameBoy. There’s Just One Problem.

The great triumph of Apple’s iPhone, beyond the whole revolutionizing-mobile-devices thing, is that an effectively buttonless gadget has become today’s default gaming system. But while, say, Angry Birds works just fine with a touchscreen—and is in fact harder to play with a regular controller—nothing pushes gamers’ buttons like actual buttons.

Enter the G-pad, a silicon sleeve that slips onto your smartphone to restore what it’s dearly missing. Covering roughly a third of the screen, the G-pad outfits your phone with a four-way directional pad and an A and B button, A oriented in a pleasingly familiar upper-right angle to B. If the layout reminds you of the classic Nintendo controller interface, well, that’s the whole point. Gizmodo heralds the G-pad, which designer Aws Jan is crowdfunding on Indiegogo at $13 a pop, as something that “turns your iPhone into a Game Boy.” All you have to do is download a program called GBA4iOS, slip on the G-pad, and you can play through a giant chunk of the Nintendo library—Mario, Donkey Kong, Zelda, and more, the way they were meant to be played, all for free!

April 15 2014 12:30 PM

Survey: More Americans Are Losing Personal Info to Digital Thieves

With the Target hacks still a recent memory and Heartbleed potentially affecting two-thirds of the Internet, you may be feeling like your personal data is increasingly exposed. The good news is that that’s not just paranoia whispering in your ear: A Pew survey shows an increase in the number of adults who say that their personal data has been stolen online.

The phone survey of 1,002 Americans, chosen as a "nationally representative sample," compared how many people had had personal data like their Social Security Number, credit card, or bank account information stolen in January 2014 vs. July 2013. It found that overall, 18 percent of adults who use the Internet have had information stolen compared. Last July, that number was 11 percent. In both January 2014 and July 2013, 21 percent said that they had had a social media account or email account compromised.

Pew divides survey respondents into four age groups (19-29, 30-49, 50-64, and 65+), and every age group reported more personal data theft versus the 2013 group. Pew reports that the sampling error for all the data is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, so it's possible that some of the margins are slimmer than they seem. But, even if the maximum margin of error applied, there would still be a small total increase.

It’s a time of crisis—and all you can do is keep your will strong and your passwords stronger.

April 15 2014 10:58 AM

It’s Time to Stop Hating Google Glass

Google Glass has gotten a bad rap—or, at least, an inaccurate one.

In the nearly two years since Google began testing its augmented-reality eyewear, public reaction has progressed from “that’s amazing” to “those look stupid” to “if you wear them, you deserve to be physically assaulted.” Google always said people would need some time to adjust to the concept of smart glasses, but this probably isn’t the evolution the company had in mind. 

The backlash is bound up with a growing anti-tech movement that has emerged as a counterweight to the fat wallets and ponderous egos of Silicon Valley’s new overclass. It’s hard to imagine a more blatant signifier of tech wealth than a  $1,500 computer that you wear on your face.

But the anti-Glass sentiment has also been fueled by a couple of misconceptions that should fall by the wayside once the device becomes more widely available. That process might well begin today, as Google opens sales to the public for the first time—albeit for a limited time and at a still-exorbitant price.

The first misconception is that Google Glass turns its wearer into a walking surveillance machine. As I’ve explained, Glass is no more a stealthy spy tool than your average iPhone, and probably less so, thanks to its glaring conspicuousness and limited battery life. While the device has received some updates in the past year that make it a little easier to operate, it remains a poor choice for surreptitiously filming one’s friends or enemies.

The second misunderstanding is that Google has intentionally made Glass exclusive for ignoble reasons—to artificially inflate demand, perhaps, or to make its early adopters feel extra-special. In fact, Google has kept Glass exclusive for the same reason it kept Gmail exclusive in the early days. That is, to enlist early adopters in the project of testing and refining a prototype before unleashing it on the public at large.

This iterative-design approach is common at Google and other Internet companies. But it’s at odds with the prevailing approach in the consumer-electronics industry. Hardware companies like Apple pride themselves on keeping each new product under wraps until it’s fully polished—and then whipping back the curtain to gasps and applause.

By contrast, Google’s approach requires a certain humility. Rather than imagine that its engineers could build with the perfect device on their own, the company was willing to ask for help—even if that meant letting outsiders get their hands on a device that was clearly flawed and unfinished.

“We felt that if we locked ourselves away in a room and tried to come up with a new computing platform in isolation, that wasn’t the right way to do it,” says Ed Sanders, director of marketing for Google Glass. “The device in our opinion is thrilling but not ready for primetime. Instead of forcing it out into the world unencumbered, we wanted to do it in a way we could listen and learn from as many people as possible.”

Is it possible, I asked Sanders, that this strategy backfired? That people would have reacted better to Glass if Google had waited to release it until it was more affordable, and made it available to everyone from the start? “I wouldn’t have done it differently,” Sanders replied. He argues the backlash was inevitable, and he’s confident it will dissipate the more people get a chance to try Glass for themselves. “Look at the uproar when smartphones first got cameras 10 years ago,” he says. “The New York Times wrote this great piece about the end of privacy as we know it. Now I think if you asked somebody, ‘Would you buy a smartphone without a camera?’, you’d probably get a pretty low uptake.”

Does that mean you should go out and buy Google Glass for yourself today? Not unless you’ve got $1,500 to burn on a piece of hardware that’s still in its formative stages. Glass at this point is an impressive technological achievement and useful for certain things, like shooting a video while doing things with your hands, but rather distracting as an everyday device. It’s certainly no substitute for a smartphone, and as a complement to a smartphone it’s superfluous at best.

Dislike Glass all you want. But there’s no need to hate it. Odds are the people wearing it at this point are feeling more sheepish than superior.

April 14 2014 4:38 PM

It Was Only a Matter of Time Before Google Acquired a Drone Manufacturer

Google has been on a months-long shopping spree, purchasing companies like military robot maker Boston Dynamics and smart-home device manufacturer Nest. And now the Wall Street Journal is reporting that Google just acquired high-altitude drone manufacturer Titan Aerospace. The cost is unknown.

The company, which is based in New Mexico and will remain there, makes solar-powered vehicles that are meant to fly for years at a time. It has about 20 employees and is run by Vern Raburn, who formerly worked at Symantec and Microsoft. The plan is for Titan Aerospace to work on Google's worldwide Internet coverage initiative, Project Loon, and potentially do imaging for Google Maps.

"It's still early days, but atmospheric satellites could help bring internet access to millions of people, and help solve other problems, including disaster relief and environmental damage like deforestation," a Google spokesperson said in a statement to the Wall Street Journal.

The announcement comes a few weeks after Facebook announced the acquisition of drone manufacturer Ascenta. Facebook bought the company for $20 million and plans to use it as part of the Internet.org initiative—which is the social network’s planned worldwide Internet service. Facebook also originally considered buying Titan Aerospace.

Google's purchase will help in its ongoing acquisitions war with Facebook, but it seems to work with the direction many of the company's plans were going in anyway. For instance, drones will help with things like deploying sensors for data collection. Plus,  with Amazon researching drones, why wouldn’t Google want its own vehicles in the sky?

Titan Aerospace plans to begin operations beyond the planning stage in 2015, and it could be a few years after that before Google services start to change in any significant way because of the drones. But while everything looks normal on the ground just remember that Google-branded aerial vehicles are going to be gliding above.

April 14 2014 3:05 PM

Just Before Tax Day, IRS Blows an Expensive, Important Deadline

Taxes are due tomorrow, but the Internal Revenue Service is overdue on its Windows XP upgrades. Even though Microsoft ended support for XP last week, about 53 percent of the agency's 110,000 Windows-based computers are still running the outdated operating system. The other 52,000 computers were successfully upgraded to Windows 7 ahead of XP's retirement date.

Like government agencies in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands—plus other U.S. agencies—the IRS will have to pay Microsoft so its computers can continue receiving security patches until they can be upgraded. By some estimates, this will cost the IRS $11.6 million per year.

At an IRS budget hearing last week, Rep. Ander Crenshaw, chairman of the House Financial Services and General Government subcommittee, summed the situation up nicely. "Now we find out that you've been struggling to come up with $30 million to finish migrating to Windows 7, even though Microsoft announced in 2008 that it would stop supporting Windows XP past 2014. I know you probably wish you'd already done that."

John Koskinen, the IRS Commissioner, admitted that the agency knew about XP's end of support deadline for years and added that budget constraints have caused almost $300 million worth of unfinished IT projects within the agency. "So we are very concerned that if we don't complete that work, we're going to have an unstable environment in terms—in terms of security," he said.

In a statement to the Washington Post, the IRS said that none of its systems for processing tax returns or other critical filings were on computers running Windows XP. But in addition to concerns about vulnerabilities related to XP, the Government Accountability Office found in the last year that the IRS wasn't doing enough to monitor the security of its databases. According to the GAO's report, many of the weaknesses have to do with lack of updates, or partial implementation of security plans in different parts of the system. Not exactly a boon for citizen confidence.

April 14 2014 10:09 AM

The Genius Entrepreneurs Who Turn E-Waste Into Usable Products

Young men sitting in the wreckage of a toxic wasteland, children picking through piles of high-tech rubble, women hunched over coils of tangled copper wiring: These are the faces of e-waste, as we know it.

A few years ago I started visiting tech dumps around the world, because I wanted to see if the horrors I’d read about were true. They are. But I learned that something else in those dumps: I learned that if there is despair in the rubble, there is hope there, too.

When I arrived in Agbogbloshie—a suburb of Accra, Ghana—in 2011, it was already the most notorious e-waste dumpsite in Africa. Two years later, it achieved the grim distinction of being named one of the 10 most polluted places in the world.

Inside the dump, broken and burnt out computer parts were strewn everywhere—the graveyard I expected. But after taking in the chaos, I saw what most don’t: I saw the order. It was a massive disassembly line.

April 13 2014 10:43 AM

U.N. Climate Report: We Must Focus On "Decarbonization," and It Won't Wreck the Economy

So far, climate change is following the plot of an epic disaster movie.

In the last few years, giant megafires have burned out of control, we’ve been hit with superstorms, our fields have wilted, and there’s barely any ice left at the North Pole. Despite all we think we’ve done so far to change course, emissions are still increasing.

We’ve now advanced to the part when the world’s best scientists emerge from their conclave to announce a range of possible plans that could save us from going over the climate cliff.

On Sunday, they made their announcement, calling for a “fundamental decarbonization” of the world economy. Sounds daunting, but overwhelmingly the message from scientists to the world was one of hope.

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