The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Sept. 16 2014 6:40 PM

This iPhone 6 Feature Will Change Weather Forecasting

The iPhone 6 and 6 Plus have a lot of nifty added features like near field communication for secure transactions and screens with serious pixel density. But one of the most noteworthy pieces of new hardware that Apple stuffed into the handset is a barometer (which measures atmospheric pressure). But as lots of people have been quick to point out, barometers have been in Android phones like Samsung’s Galaxy line for years. Indeed, as Jesse Ferrell of AccuWeather.com points out, “I got a digital watch with a barometer in it for my 10th birthday in 1985.” So does it matter that Apple is finally giving the little sensor some play?

Sure! Apple plays a big role in bringing technologies to the mainstream, whether or not they’re novel. Now that iPhones have barometers, other smartphone makers that weren’t concerned about adding them before may think twice now.

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And that’s good news for meteorologists who want to crowdsource hyperlocal weather data from the barometers in everyone’s smartphones. As James Robinson, who developed the OpenSignal crowdsourcing app, told the Washington Post last year, “The ultimate end is to be able to do things we’ve never been able to do before in meteorology and give those really short-term and localized predictions.”

In fact, the weather crowdsourcing idea is already in motion. Companies like Cumulonimbus, which makes the localized forecast app PressureNet, are part of a growing group of startups founded around the concept. Even Slate’s own weather blogger Eric Holthaus worked on a weather crowdsourcing iOS app before the iPhone had a built-in barometer.

Local pressure data could help create more reliable forecasts so we can all make more detailed decisions around weather affecting us, from little showers to tornadoes. It could also broaden meteorologists’ access to weather data in remote regions all over the world.

All of this and the iPhone’s barometer will probably be primarily used as a way of measuring users’ elevation for fitness apps. Typical.

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Sept. 16 2014 1:48 PM

Why We Need a Federal Robotics Commission

This month, on the heels of its policy paper on our cyborg future, Brookings Institution has put forth a new publication on robotics—and this time, it’s explaining why we need a new federal commission to deal with them.

The idea for a federal robotics commission came out of workshop of a paper that author Ryan Calo (who will, in the interest of full disclosure, be a participant in a Future Tense event this October) was presenting at Fordham Law School. Following the discussion, Calo decided to treat the idea of a new commission to deal with robotics and its importance as a standalone subject.

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In a phone interview, Calo explained that he envisions a bipartisan, independent, and, at least initially, small agency, with two commissioners from each party, structured much like the Federal Trade Commission. The commission, he specifies in the report, would be composed primarily of "a handful of engineers and others with backgrounds in mechanical and electrical engineering, computer science, and human-computer interaction, right alongside experts in law and policy."

Calo’s commission would not be a pre-emptive, regulatory one. Rather, it would act in an advisory capacity, writing reports and serving as a resource for states with questions on, for example, how to regulate driverless cars. (There is already reason to believe that they will, in the not too distant future, need someone to whom to turn: As Calo notes in the paper’s introduction, the Department of Transportation has already had to turn to NASA to deal with a case of inexplicably accelerating Toyotas.)

But the case for a commission isn’t only in what could happen were we to create one—it’s also what will happen if we fail to do so. Calo worries that, without such a commission, and without thinking about robotics consistently and centrally, “People will strike the wrong balance between innovation and safety,” meaning that we won’t allow robotic advancements to be made out of fear. Alternatively, we might allow them to happen, but they’ll come with missteps, poorly thought-out rules, and lack of regulations.

What’s more, if we don’t establish such a commission, other countries will. In fact, they already are. Calo points to the central planning of Japan, and the consistent (albeit permissive) attitude toward drones in Australia and Canada, and the RoboLaw project developed by the EU (for which Calo was an advisor). Without dedicated and sustained policy attention paid specifically to robotics, robotics will go forward to the future—but with it, we have a better chance of leading them there.

Sept. 16 2014 1:41 PM

You Can Play the Original Doom on a Hacked Canon Printer

Printers aren’t exactly hip these days, but they still lurk in our offices and homes. They’ve subtly advanced over the last several years to include extras like Wi-Fi connectivity and nice color screens. Unfortunately, adding new features to uninteresting devices means that security isn’t always on developers’ minds.

All of this has allowed one cybersecurity researcher to install and play the 1993 classic video game Doom on a Canon Pixma printer. Which is both worrying and awesome.

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Michael Jordon, a researcher at Context Information Security, wrote a blog post for Context detailing his hack and “demonstrating current insecurities in devices categorised as the ‘Internet of Things’.” Though it took four months to get Doom up and running, Jordon’s broader goal was to experiment with the vulnerabilities he had found and present them in an interesting way to get people's attention. Canon says it will fix the vulnerability “as quickly as is feasible.”

The Web interface that Pixma printers use to allow remote status checks of things like ink levels isn’t protected by a password because it doesn’t do much. As Jordon explains out, “you could print out hundreds of test pages and use up all the ink and paper, so what?” But he found that in the process of updating the firmware (the code that coordinates the interaction of hardware and software in a device), he could freely control where the printer checked for the update. This means that a malicious hacker could direct the printer to install an “update” that was really malware. And if the newly infected printer was, say, on an office network, that malware could then be used to infiltrate deeper and into more information-rich devices like servers.

Pixma firmware is encrypted, which is good. But Jordon says he was able to crack the encryption and use that to his advantage, because it allowed him to make his malware look trustworthy to the printer he was installing it on. Jordon reports that there are thousands of vulnerable Pixma printers online right now.

But what about Doom?

He told BBC News, “Running Doom, that's real proof you control the thing.” The printer he used has convenient specs for Doom, including a 32-bit Arm processor and a screen with the correct aspect ratio. “I had all the bits, but it was a coding problem to get it all running together,” he told the BBC. You can watch a video of the printer running Doom here.

At least something good came out of this bug.

Sept. 16 2014 12:33 PM

Slate Exclusive: Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Jason Box knows ice. That’s why what’s happened this year concerns him so much.

Box just returned from a trip to Greenland. Right now, the ice there is … black:

Photo by Jason Box
Dark ice is helping Greenland’s glaciers retreat.

Photo by Jason Box

Photo by Jason Box
Crevasses criss-cross the Greenland ice sheet, allowing melt water to descend deep beneath the ice.

Photo by Jason Box

Photo by Jason Box
This year, Greenland’s ice was the darkest it’s ever been.

Photo by Jason Box

Photo by Jason Box
Box and his team are trying to discover what made this year’s melt season so unusual.

Photo by Jason Box

Photo by Jason Box
Box marks his study sites, appropriately, with black flags.

Photo by Jason Box

Photo by Jason Box
Box’s ‘Dark Snow’ project is the first scientific expedition to Greenland to be crowdfunded.

Photo by Jason Box

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The ice in Greenland this year isn’t just a little dark—it’s record-setting dark. Box says he’s never seen anything like it. I spoke to Box by phone earlier this month, just days after he returned from his summer field research campaign.

 “I was just stunned, really,” Box told me.

The photos he took this summer in Greenland are frightening. But their implications are even more so. Just like black cars are hotter to the touch than white ones on sunny summer days, dark ice melts much more quickly.

As a member of the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, Box travels to Greenland from his home in Copenhagen to track down the source of the soot that’s speeding up the glaciers’ disappearance. He aptly calls his crowdfunded scientific survey Dark Snow.

Courtesy of The National Snow and Ice Data Center
This year was another above-average melt season in Greenland.

Courtesy of The National Snow and Ice Data Center

There are several potential explanations for what’s going on here. The most likely is that some combination of increasingly infrequent summer snowstorms, wind-blown dust, microbial activity, and forest fire soot led to this year’s exceptionally dark ice. A more ominous possibility is that what we’re seeing is the start of a cascading feedback loop tied to global warming. Box mentions this summer’s mysterious Siberian holes and offshore methane bubbles as evidence that the Arctic can quickly change in unpredictable ways.

This year, Greenland’s ice sheet was the darkest Box (or anyone else) has ever measured. Box gives the stunning stats: “In 2014 the ice sheet is precisely 5.6 percent darker, producing an additional absorption of energy equivalent with roughly twice the US annual electricity consumption.”

Perhaps coincidentally, 2014 will also be the year with the highest number of forest fires ever measured in Arctic.

Box ran these numbers exclusively for Slate, and what he found shocked him. Since comprehensive satellite measurements began in 2000, never before have Arctic wildfires been as powerful as this year. In fact, over the last two or three years, Box calculated that Arctic fires have been burning at a rate that’s double that of just a decade ago. Box felt this finding was so important that he didn’t want to wait for peer review, and instead decided to publish first on Slate. He’s planning on submitting these and other recent findings to a formal scientific journal later this year.

Photo by Jason Box/NASA
Arctic and sub-Arctic fires were more powerful in 2014 than ever recorded before.

Photo by Jason Box/NASA

Box’s findings are in line with recent research that shows the Arctic is in the midst of dramatic change.

A recent study has found that, as the Arctic warms, forests there are turning to flame at rates unprecedented in the last 10,000 years. This year, those fires produced volumes of smoke and soot that Box says drifted over to Greenland.

In total, more than 3.3 million hectares burned in Canada’s Northwest Territories alone this year—nearly 9 times the long term average—resulting in a charred area bigger than the states of Connecticut and Massachusetts combined. That figure includes the massive Birch Creek Complex, which could end up being the biggest wildfire in modern Canadian history. In July, it spread a smoke plume all the way to Portugal.

In an interview with Canada’s National Post earlier this year, NASA scientist Douglas Morton said, “It’s a major event in the life of the earth system to have a huge set of fires like what you are seeing in Western Canada.”

Box says the real challenge is to rank what fraction of the soot he finds on the Greenland ice is from forest fires, and what is from other sources, like factories. Box says the decline of snow cover in other parts of the Arctic (like Canada) is also exposing more dirt to the air, which can then be more easily transported by the wind. Regardless of their ultimate darkening effect on Greenland, this year’s vast Arctic fires have become a major new source of greenhouse gas emissions from the thawing Arctic. Last year, NASA scientists found “amazing” levels of carbon dioxide and methane emanating from Alaskan permafrost.

Earlier this year, Box made headlines for a strongly worded statement along these lines:

That tweet landed Box in a bit of hot water with his department, which he said now has to approve his media appearances. Still, Box’s sentiment is inspiring millions. His “f’d” quote is serving as the centerpiece of a massive petition (with nearly 2 million signatures at last count) that the activist organization Avaaz will deliver to “national, local, and international leaders” at this month’s global warming rally in New York City on Sept. 21.

Sept. 16 2014 12:01 PM

More Than 3 Million Told the FCC What They Think About Net Neutrality. Why Hasn't Obama?

The FCC has received more than 3 million comments on Commissioner Tom Wheeler’s controversial plan to rethink net neutrality. If the last couple of million comments are anything like the first 1.1 million, 99 percent of commenters were strongly in favor of protecting net neutrality. They include startups, small businesses, artists, and small- and medium-size broadband providers, among many others.

One comment was missing, though—President Obama’s. While President Obama campaigned heavily on net neutrality and recently reiterated his support for it, he hasn’t filed a thing to the FCC. The president has alluded to the FCC being an independent agency, and therefore suggested he should not publicly encourage the commission to fulfill his campaign promises. Yet since becoming president, his Executive Branch has submitted more than 200 filings to the FCC in over 80 proceedings. (If you want proof, see this spreadsheet.)

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If the administration were to file comments, it might come through a White House office, such as the National Economic Council or the Office of Science & Technology Policy, or the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). In 2009, the NTIA submitted comments telling the FCC that the “NTIA expects to offer views on the issues presented in [the network neutrality] rulemaking at the appropriate time.” You would think that we have reached the appropriate time. But President Obama has stood largely silent while his FCC chairman, Tom Wheeler, barrels toward dismantling an open Internet and threatening the entire economy that now rides atop it.

The president should advocate for strong net neutrality rules under something called “Title II” of the Communications Act. Title II is simply the necessary legal basis for net neutrality, as all network neutrality champions have acknowledged, and the only way the FCC could effectuate the president’s vision, according to the judges who struck down the FCC’s last rule. It’s the only approach that would accomplish the president’s stated vision of ensuring we don’t have “differentiation in how accessible the internet is to different users.”

Indeed, even George W. Bush’s Department of Defense supported Title II. When the FCC was considering reclassifying phone companies to Title I, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld filed with the FCC in to say National Security and Emergency Preparedness “communication functions will be best served if the provisioning of broadband Internet access over wireline facilities remains classified as a ‘telecommunication service’ that can be regulated by the Commission under Title II of the Act.”

Obama has proclaimed that he “will take a backseat to no one in my commitment to network neutrality.” By not commenting in the FCC proceeding, the president has taken a back seat to dozens of tech companies, including Etsy, Kickstarter, Vimeo, Reddit, and Tumblr, the AARP, dozens of senators and members of Congress, and millions of people that have strongly filed or commented in favor of real, strong Title II network neutrality. It’s time for that to change.

Disclosure: The author is a lawyer who has advised startups and nonprofits on net neutrality issues.

Sept. 15 2014 4:49 PM

Cheetah Robot Is Now Wireless and Gallivanting on MIT’s Campus

cheetah
Spotted: A Cheetah 2 in the wild.

Image from MIT.

Have you ever seen a cheetah roaming around a university campus? Because Cheetah 2 is on the move at MIT. It may be a robot, not a wild animal, but it recently stepped out of the lab for the first time ever and started running and jumping around.

The Cheetah 2, which MIT researchers work on through funding from DARPA, can run at 10 mph and can jump more than a foot in the air. By letting it go free rather than just testing it in the lab, researchers are evaluating its performance in real-world environments and working on improving its design. Breakthroughs in the cheetah’s development could be applicable to other autonomous robots or things like prosthetics.

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It may not be an animal rights issue to make sure the cheetah has enough outdoor time, but perhaps it’s a robot rights concern?

Sept. 15 2014 1:55 PM

Microsoft Is Buying Minecraft for $2.5 Billion, but Its Founder Is Leaving

Microsoft and Mojang, the studio that makes Minecraft, have been in talks about an acquisition deal for a while. And now Microsoft is officially shelling out for the game maker to the tune of $2.5 billion. That’s a lot of blocks.

Phil Spencer, the head of Xbox, said in a statement, “ ‘Minecraft’ is one of the most popular franchises of all time. We are going to maintain ‘Minecraft’ and its community in all the ways people love today, with a commitment to nurture and grow it long into the future.”

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Mojang also released a statement, which attempts to reassure Minecraft users that Microsoft isn’t going to immediately ruin everything about the game they love. But the wording of the statement, including phrases like, “everything is going to be OK,” makes it seem like the decision was difficult, and that the “Mojangstas” may be uncertain about the decision internally.

Clearly no one is more conflicted than Minecraft inventor Markus Persson, aka Notch. Mojang’s statement explains:

As you might already know, Notch is the creator of Minecraft and the majority shareholder at Mojang. He’s decided that he doesn’t want the responsibility of owning a company of such global significance. Over the past few years he’s made attempts to work on smaller projects, but the pressure of owning Minecraft became too much for him to handle. The only option was to sell Mojang. He’ll continue to do cool stuff though. Don’t worry about that.

On his personal website Notch explains in detail how the success of Minecraft has been difficult for him on a personal level. He writes that it’s been “interesting” to gain fame and recognition for something he created, but that it has also created pressure and responsibility in his life that he doesn't want. He writes,

Minecraft certainly became a huge hit, and people are telling me it’s changed games. I never meant for it to do either. ... As soon as this deal is finalized, I will leave Mojang and go back to doing Ludum Dares and small web experiments. If I ever accidentally make something that seems to gain traction, I’ll probably abandon it immediately.

It's sort of reminiscent of Dong Nguyen buckling under the pressure of Flappy Bird’s fame, though Notch says in his post that he has wanted to and planned to leave Mojang for a long time. Luckily Minecraft is much bigger than Notch at this point. Hopefully that also means that Microsoft won’t be able to demolish it.

Sept. 15 2014 11:54 AM

Twenty-One Months’ Worth of Rain in Two Days for Baja California

An incredible amount of rain is hitting Mexico’s Baja California peninsula thanks to yet another rare hurricane passing through—the second one in the desert in barely more than a week.

The latest in a string of exceptionally powerful storms—Hurricane Odile—made landfall late Sunday night near Cabo San Lucas on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula with 125 mph sustained winds.

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The National Hurricane Center warns that Odile could bring isolated rain totals of 18 inches to an area that typically gets only about 10 inches per year. (That’s like New York City getting seven and a half feet of rain.) It could remake the local geography and turn the desert into a temporary Niagara. Since comprehensive weather records began in 1950, only one other hurricane in that part of the world has been this strong at landfall, 1967’s Hurricane Olivia.

On its approach to Mexico this weekend, Odile looked ferocious from space.

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El Niño-fueled warm water is turning the Pacific Ocean into a hurricane factory this year. A combined index of hurricane strength and longevity off the coast of Mexico is at 151 percent of average in 2014. Odile comes just days after a surge of moisture from Hurricane Norbert brought Phoenix its rainiest day in history. Late last month, Hurricane Marie, one of the strongest Pacific hurricanes ever measured, made for an epic day of surfing in Southern California.

Odile, too, will affect the Arizona desert this week, bringing another round of tropical moisture at off-the-charts levels.

On Sunday night, National Weather Service meteorologists from Las Vegas, Tucson, Phoenix, and Flagstaff organized an impromptu Twitter chat that spurred hundreds of comments from people nervous about the potential for back-to-back major flood events.

As I mentioned last week, deluges like these do comparatively little to blunt the effects of ongoing drought in the Southwest, since most of the rain finds its way into gullies and riverbeds. As the climate warms, more rainfall is expected from heavy downpours, further taxing local attempts at flood management.

And just like Norbert, most of the rains from Odile will miss the U.S. state of California, where drought lingers at levels not seen in hundreds of years.

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Odile is bound for Arizona next.

Image: NCAR

Sept. 12 2014 3:53 PM

We Need to Pass Legislation on Artificial Intelligence Early and Often

Not that long ago, Google announced something unheard of in the auto industry—at least in the part of the auto industry that makes moving cars. A car without a steering wheel or gas and brake pedals. To Google, this was the next step in self-driving cars. Why bother with a steering wheel if the driver isn’t driving? Some observers questioned whether this feature in the proposed the test vehicle violated the autonomous vehicle statute in California (where the vehicle would be tested), which required that the driver take control of the self-driving vehicle in case the autonomous system malfunctions. Google claimed that it installed an on/off button, which satisfied the California law.

California recently weighed in: Google, you’re wrong. The state has released regulations requiring that a test driver be able to take “active physical control” of the car, meaning with a steering wheel and brakes.

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To this I say—good for you, California.

This is only the most recent example of wonderfully swift governmental response to autonomous technology and artificial intelligence. At every level of government—local, state, federal, and international—we are seeing rules, regulations, laws, and ordinances that address this developing technology actively discussed, debated, and passed. Four states have passed legislation governing autonomous cars, and they’re not even on the market yet. The FAA is drafting regulations to address drones, even though their use is relatively limited; there is even case law on the books addressing drone regulation. States and towns are weighing in on drones, too. At least one urban planner is actively developing zoning ordinance provisions that would establish fly and no-fly zones for drones in cities. Internationally, the United Nations has begun to weigh in on how military drones fit into established international legal norms.

If you look at the details, this activity is not targeted so much at pure government regulation like registration, permitting, etc. (although that is certainly present). Legislators and regulators are targeting people and their welfare, in much the same way that historic legislation responding to the Industrial Revolution targeted people and labor. The state legislation governing autonomous cars is very concerned with how people will use those vehicles, their safety, and their best interests. The FAA’s drone regulations will be largely (although not exclusively) concerned with the safety of people: in the sky, on the ground, in their homes. In contrast, states and towns are concerned with another element of people's welfare: privacy. They are pushing for tighter restrictions on drone usage by police forces, frequently requiring warrants, as Margot E. Kaminski recently advocated in Future Tense. Some states, like Indiana and Oregon, have gone so far as to try to prohibit drone usage altogether. Efforts from the United Nations are focused exclusively on saving lives and preventing killings by military drones. Many recognize that it is easier for governments to order killings and attacks when their own human soldiers aren't on the ground, separating the decision makers from the true cost of their decisions.

These laws, these regulations, these debates—this is exactly what we should be doing. Economists and historians traditionally claim that the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution led to the creation of a large middle class in the United States. That’s only partly true. The technology certainly made that middle class possible, but the legal innovations that we created following the Industrial Revolution made possible the widespread prosperity of the mid-20th century American middle class: minimum wage laws, child labor laws, laws protecting unions, regulations governing workplace safety and environmental protection, etc. All of these laws tried to help average Americans benefit from the new system that the Industrial Revolution introduced.

But those laws took 100 years. We don’t get that much time anymore. The Internet and automation in factories (i.e., robots) were among the last two major technological advances that altered our economy and labor market. Automation decimated blue collar workers beginning in the 1960s and the internet hit small businesses hard starting in the 1990s. One of the big reasons those technological advances were so hard on working and middle class workers is that we never adequately addressed them with legal changes as we did following the Industrial Revolution. But we also had much less time. There were 30 years between robots in factories and Amazon on the Internet, and there have been about 20 years between the introduction of the Internet and the introduction of AI and autonomous devices.

In addition to its self-driving cars, Google is developing a secret fleet of self-flying delivery drones, according to a recent Atlantic article by Alexis Madrigal. The FAA’s regulations aren’t due until 2015—and those will probably be late—but I hope the drafters are looking ahead at the drones of the future and not just what’s available today.

This technology is going to develop fast, almost certainly faster than we can legislate it. That’s why we need to get ahead of it now. There are legitimate concerns about how AI and autonomous technology will impact the work force and our quality of life. There were in the face of the Industrial Revolution, factory automation, and the internet, too. If we want to make sure that the benefits of these technological advances are widely shared among all people, we need to legislate early and often. Otherwise, the problems experienced by working Americans and the middle class over the last several decades will only get worse.

Sept. 12 2014 3:48 PM

How Do You Say “Crack Down on Google” in German?

There is, in Germany, a law under which companies must provide a way for customers to communicate with them. And so, on Friday, a German court ruled that Google.de can no longer respond to customer service emails with an automated response saying that Google gets so many emails that it will not answer, or even bother to read, yours.*

The decision is but a small part of a larger German pushback against Google. Earlier in the week, Germany, along with France, put pressure on the EU antitrust authorities not to settle with Google over its search practices.

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The deal, which EU Competition Commissioner Joaquín Almunia supported after its announcement back in February, would have allowed Google to avoid $6 million worth of fines by displaying the services of its rivals comparably to how it displays its own in search results. Instead, a variety of EU politicians—including the German economic minister—have urged that the EU seek “fresh concessions” from Google in the fourth round of such talks. German media associations and publishing houses were particularly vocal about their discontent with the proposed settlement. Axel Springer, for example, publishes Germany’s largest-circulation newspaper, Bild, and owns, among other websites, a shopping comparison site that has been adversely affected by Google.

For obvious reasons, Germans are sensitive to issues of privacy and overreach, creating a serious trust issue for Google. In an open letter, Matthias Doepfner, chief executive of Axel Springer, wrote, "Google knows more about every digitally active citizen than George Orwell dared to imagine in his wildest dreams in 1984."

But neither matters of trust nor antitrust are likely to be resolved soon in Germany for Google.

*Correction, Sept. 12, 2014: This post originally misstated that Google.de will no longer be allowed to send automated responses claiming Google gets so many emails “it will answer, or even bother to read, yours.” The automated response is “it will not answer, or even bother to read, yours.”​

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