The Citizen's Guide to the Future

April 17 2014 4:15 PM

Facebook's "Nearby Friends" Feature Will Help You Organize Impromptu High School Reunions

On Thursday, Facebook launched a new feature called "Nearby Friends." It's kind of self-explanatory, but before you get any specific details about it, Facebook just wants you to know that it's optional. Totally optional. Not at all a scary privacy invasion. Your body (existing in space-time), your choice.

It's a feature that shows you where your Facebook friends are (if they have the feature turned on) and tracks your phone to show them where you are. It also "occasionally" uses notifications to alert you when friends are close by. Nearby Friends pulls from your Facebook friends, so it doesn't require you to build a new contact list like similar services do. But that's also a downside: Most people's Facebook friends are largely compromised of acquaintances, not actual friends.

The feature is similar to products like Foursquare, Banjo, and Apple's "Find Friends," which all came out in the last five years and seem to have sort of peaked in popularity. Be that as it may, Facebook is forging ahead. The people who created Nearby friends are the team from the location service Glancee, which Facebook acquired about two years ago.

Location services have struggled to stay relevant, and Nearby Friends seems like it will have similar problems. Facebook says in a press release:

If you turn on Nearby Friends, you’ll occasionally be notified when friends are nearby, so you can get in touch with them and meet up. For example, when you’re headed to the movies, Nearby Friends will let you know if friends are nearby so you can see the movie together or meet up afterward.

Sure. You see how that's supposed to work. But how often do you go to the movies alone hoping you'll run into people you know? Or how often do you go to the movies with one or more selected friends, but secretly hope you'll be able to meet up with other as-yet undetermined people after so you don't have to actually spend time with your movie buddies?

This type of coincidental meetup can be fun, and as a friend of mine (a real friend whom I intentionally hang out with, often as the result of advanced plans) realized a few weeks ago. He texted me the following: "I ended up randomly chilling with Mark yesterday. It was fun. We both went to the Nets game and he saw me check in on Foursquare. So we went to a bar. Btw, Foursquare was actually useful for a thing!"

Location services tend to end up having these very niche uses, like checking whether any of your friends are at the same large sports game or concert as you. I find adding people on Find Friends in iOS to be kind of creepy in general, but my roommate and I do use it from time to time. Mainly we're checking to make sure the other one is safe, or to get a sense of when we'll each be home based on where we are. It's faster and less annoying than constantly sending "Are you still at work?" or "Are you at home right now?" messages.

Though the general lack of enthusiasm for other location-based social networks makes now seem like a kind of odd time to introduce Nearby Friends, it's not that surprising in terms of Facebook functionality. You can already turn on location-awareness on Facebook so the service can post where you are in things like statuses, and keep track of where you've been for the "Places: Visited" map (you can also add to that map manually). And Nearby Friends has the potential to give Facebook more data about you for better targeted advertising.

But if you turn the feature on (and Facebook would want you to keep in mind that it's totally optional) just remember that it's going to be another location-tracking feature that's sucking your battery life. You'll have to weigh conserving that juice against the potential that you may be playing frisbee in the same park as your childhood best friend's cousin who's jogging.

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April 16 2014 5:37 PM

Wall Street Journal Tech Conference Will Feature 17 Men and No Women

Sometimes there are conferences that are specifically about "women in tech." They tend to present positive female role models, encourage discussion about challenges in the field, and work to expand the community of tech. They're not perfect, but people pretty much agree that they're productive. But did you know that there are also conferences for "men in tech"? Apparently there are! AndThe Wall Street Journal is hosting one in October.

WSJDLive is the first conference for The Journal's revamped tech group, and every speaker on the roster so far is male.* The conference is billed as "vibrant" and a place to see "both established and emerging" technologists all in one place.

The WSJDLive website points out that Silicon Valley isn't the only site of rapid and exciting technological advancement anymore: "New entrants from international tech hubs are rapidly driving change in everything from payments to messaging." Except without a diverse mix of panelists, the conference won't be able to foster a fully-formed discussion about changes in tech. People are already calling out WSJDLive:

Conferences don't need to have a "women in tech" focus to be about gender—WSJDLive has made itself about gender simply by excluding an entire gender. (It's also really white!) This isn't about putting women on these lists to fulfill a minimum quota and avoid criticism—it's about wanting to have women and other diverse voices at these events.

*Correction, April 17, 2014: This post originally misstated that WSJDLive is The Journal's first tech conference. It is the 12th year the conference is taking place, but it is the first year under new management and is therefore being referred to as the "inaugural" conference.

April 16 2014 4:49 PM

Hacking the University: A Future Tense Event

If 2012 was the year of the massive open online course, according to the New York Times, 2013 was something of a reality check. MOOCs were meant to give people all over the United States (and the world) access to the best lecturers and classes from some of the top universities. But their first iterations have been beset with problems—lack of student engagement, high dropout rates—leading critics to question their long-term value.

MOOCs highlight the usual trajectory of new technologies that are supposed to transform education: big promises, followed by the trough of disillusionment, and a return to the status quo. So, what's next for technology in higher education in 2014 and beyond? Should we just give MOOCs some room to grow? Does big data have the answers? And anyway, is college even the best option in the tech economy?


Join Future Tense—a partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University—on Wednesday, April 30, at the New America offices in Washington, D.C., for Hacking the University: Will Tech Fix Higher Education? For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.


8:45 a.m.: Registration

9:00 a.m.: What's Wrong with the Old-School?

Kevin Carey
Director, Education Policy Program, New America Foundation

9:15 a.m.: My First MOOC

Robert Wright
Author, Nonzero 
Senior Future Tense fellow, New America Foundation

9:30 a.m.: What Can We Expect From Tech in Higher Ed?

Adrian Sannier
Chief academic technology officer, Arizona State University Online

Robin Goldberg
Chief marketing officer, Minerva Project

Jeffrey Selingo
Author, College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students
Contributing editor, Chronicle of Higher Education 
Professor of practice, Arizona State University

Robert Wright
Author, Nonzero 
Senior Future Tense Fellow, New America Foundation

10:15 a.m.: Hack 1: Get Government Money out of Higher Ed

Bryan Caplan
Professor of economics, George Mason University
Author, the upcoming The Case Against Education

10:25 a.m.: Hack 2: Cracking the Credit Hour

Amy Laitinen
Deputy director, Education Policy Program, New America Foundation

10:35 a.m.: In the Tech Economy, Does a Degree Still Matter?

Bryan Caplan
Professor of economics, George Mason University
Author, the upcoming The Case Against Education

Michael Gibson
Vice president for grants, Thiel Foundation

Leng Lee
Head of operations, Codecademy

Katherine Mangu-Ward
Future Tense fellow, New America Foundation
Managing editor, Reason

11:20 a.m.: Hack 3: Radically Improve Math Preparedness for College

Adrian Sannier
Chief academic technology officer, Arizona State University Online

11:30 a.m.: Can Tech Fix the Inequalities of Higher Ed?

Hal Plotkin
Senior policy advisor, Office of the Under Secretary of Education, United States Department of Education

Naomi Davidson
Education partnerships, higher education, Khan Academy

Tammy Wincup
Chief operating officer, EverFi

Kevin Carey
Director, Education Policy Program, New America Foundation

April 16 2014 4:06 PM

Netflix Is Actually Getting Faster on Comcast

When Netflix and Comcast signed an agreement to give Netflix direct access to Comcast's network, it raised questions about peering and net neutrality. It's definitely controversial, but is it working? Yeah. Yeah it is.

According to new data released by Netflix, customers with Comcast Internet have been seeing major speed improvements since the deal in February. Comcast moved up six places in Netflix's carrier speed rankings to No. 5. Other carriers in the top 10 lost a spot or stayed the same—Comcast was the only ISP that gained.


Joris Evers, a spokesperson for Netflix, wrote in a blog post, "This month’s rankings are a great illustration of how performance can improve when ISPs work to connect directly to Netflix. In the US, the average speed on the Comcast network for Netflix streams is up 65 percent from 1.51Mbps in January to 2.5Mbps in March."

Though it's good news for Netflix, the company's CEO Reed Hastings took to the blog last month to advocate for net neutrality. He described deals like the one Netflix made with Comcast as "arbitrary tax[es]" and explained how these fees can create inequality on the Web.

Some major ISPs, like Cablevision, already practice strong net neutrality and for their broadband subscribers, the quality of Netflix and other streaming services is outstanding. But on other big ISPs, due to a lack of sufficient interconnectivity, Netflix performance has been constrained ... Once Netflix agrees to pay the ISP interconnection fees, however, sufficient capacity is made available and high quality service for consumers is restored. If this kind of leverage is effective against Netflix, which is pretty large, imagine the plight of smaller services today and in the future.

Given the speed improvements from this deal, it doesn’t seem like Netflix will be going back on it any time soon, no matter how much Reed Hastings hates the situation on principle. So if Comcast is your ISP and Netflix is blissfully fast for you now, you might as well enjoy it even if a byproduct is the degradation of Internet equality. Who would say no to the end of buffering?

April 16 2014 3:45 PM

Drone U: FAA Tells Search-and-Rescue Group to Stop Using Drones

Every week on Future Tense, we highlight a talk from Drone U in which a leading thinker speaks about what our drone future may look like. Drone U is produced in cooperation with the New America Foundation. (Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University.)

This week, Drone U features a podcast from Brendan Schulman, a lawyer representing the nonprofit Texas EquuSearch regarding its use of drones for volunteer search-and-rescue efforts. (We’ve featured Schulman before for his defense of Raphael “Trappy” Pirker, a drone pilot who was fined $10,000 by the FAA.) Shulman elaborates on the humanitarian use of civilian drones here in the United States.


Texas EquuSearch has used civilian drones in its efforts since 2005. In fact, says Schulman, EquuSearch believes drones to be the “single most useful technology that the organization has ever used.” Given that there are 84,000 missing persons cases still active in law enforcement records, as Schulman explains, this seems like an invaluable resource. But the FAA has recently asked that EquuSearch “stop immediately” its use of drones, stating that it is an “illegal operation(s)”. (EquuSearch’s letter in reply to the FAA is available here.)

April 16 2014 3:17 PM

The World’s Biggest Jenga Game, Featuring Caterpillars and 600-Pound Blocks 

Jenga has always made me uneasy, so dramatic are the results of a failed move. I prefer to lose discreetly. For some reason, I feel much differently about this video stunt by Caterpillar, in which giant 600-pound Jenga blocks are carefully plucked by various models of the company’s Cat line. The video, which features the best use of Grieg since The Social Network, delightfully shows the familiar yellow machines grabbing the blocks and lopping them on the top of the stack, blowing out tense little clouds of dust with each fateful drop. Since the set features just 27 blocks, half the game’s regulation 54, nature quickly takes its course.

The video’s presumptive point is to show the durability of Caterpillar’s machines as part of its "Built For It" campaign. But the inadvertent result may be to make us much more demanding of our high-concept publicity stunts. Next I would like to request the Boston Dynamics robots play an oversized game of Connect Four. What do you think, Google?


April 16 2014 2:41 PM

Netizen Report: Zambian Government Nixes Internet-Friendly Constitution

The Netizen Report originally appears each week on Global Voices Advocacy. Hae-in Lim, Lisa Ferguson, Ellery Roberts Biddle, Richard Teverson, Lakshmi Sara, Bojan Perkov, Sonia Roubini, and Sarah Myers contributed to this report.

Global Voices Advocacy's Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world. This week's report begins in Zambia, where top officials recently rejected a draft constitution prepared by a coalition of government, academic and civil society representatives. Commissioned three years ago, the draft contained key protections for online publications and media workers. It comes as no surprise that the ruling Patriotic Front party has rejected the text—for nearly two years, top officials have spoken disparagingly of the country’s online media environment, charging that independent news outlets are spreading “falsehoods” and “gossip” and openly praising efforts to block sites including the Zambian Watchdog and Zambia Reports. Earlier this month, top Information Ministry officials disclosed plans to develop legislation intended to tackle a perceived increase in “Internet abuse” and cybercrime that they say has resulted from a lack of control over online media.

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.

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.