Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Feb. 8 2016 6:40 PM

Indian Facebook Users School Mark Zuckerberg on the Kind of Internet Their Country Needs

On Monday, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India blocked Facebook's ability to offer its Free Basics Internet connectivity in the county. The decision followed heated debate in India about whether Free Basics is incongruous with the tenets of net neutrality.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has consistently defended Free Basics, which is part of Facebook's broader Internet.org connectivity initiative. Unsurprisingly, he was "disappointed with today's decision" and said in a statement on Facebook that the company is still intent on addressing connectivity issues in India. "More than a billion people in India don't have access to the internet. We know that connecting them can help lift people out of poverty, create millions of jobs and spread education opportunities. We care about these people, and that's why we're so committed to connecting them."

His heart may be in the right place, but "these people" and others from around the world had a bunch of smart things to say about Zuckerberg's statement. So they did what good Facebook users do and commented directly on his post.

"Come on. Internet access for everyone doesn't mean giving two or three sites to use for free and paying different prices for the rest," wrote Anushka Banerjee. "India might have low literacy but we are not dumb to be fooled Mark!" responded Brijesh D Nayak.

Manav Patadia wrote:

Mark we Indians Love you for what you are. We just wanted net neutrality. You don't know how big cheaters this Telecom Operators are. They don't have motive of connecting India. They just want to exploit Indians for making profit. If you really wanna help us give us Free Internet and not Free Basics.

Numerous commenters suggested donating free Wi-Fi or data as an alternative to Free Basics. Rohit Kumar wrote, "Your vision is appreciable but If you truly care about them then consider offering limited free data rather controlled access to selected websites which furthers vested interests."

And most commenters were respectful even as they criticized Free Basics. Mohammad Layeeque wrote, "Indians don't want discriminated internet service Mark. If you really want to help people of India grow, change their life and become better, please plan Free World Wide Web, all internet services and not only Facebook and few websites what you decide. -- Regards."

Put simply by Purva Deshpande, "We r all up for your mission of connecting india through internet.. but not at the cost of compromising net neutrality.. please find out better ways tht wrks for every1 n we will support u in your goals."

Feb. 8 2016 5:49 PM

What Slate Readers Think About Geoengineering


As part of our new Futurography project, Future Tense spent much of January introducing readers to the ideas and debates surrounding geoengineering—the practice of tinkering with the Earth’s atmosphere to fight climate change. As the month came to a close, we asked for your thoughts on the topic, inquiring about where you stood on the issues and how you felt that scientists and policymakers should proceed. While the results of our survey were far from scientific, we were struck by the variety of your responses—and the intensity of your engagement. We hope that you’ll follow along with similar enthusiasm as we look into the power and promise of algorithms this month. For now, however, here are some of your opinions on geoengineering.

Respondents were split on the question of whether we should be moving ahead with geoengineering technologies at all. Some felt that the complexity of the topic itself made it difficult to decide definitively, with one observing, “I think your own coverage of this issue demonstrates that it is a topic that defies categorical evaluation.” Others recognized that it might be necessary, whether or not it was actually desirable. One person wrote: “Nobody thinks we should but some fear we will have to.” Even those who felt it might be worth attempting geoengineering, however, tended to stress that we should proceed with caution.

Most readers who accepted that it might be worth attempting geoengineering projects tended to emphasize carbon dioxide reduction through filtration systems that pull greenhouse gasses out of the air over solar radiation management, which involves reflecting sunlight back into space to cool the Earth. In this, they followed the positions of researchers such as Raymond Pierrehumbert, a vocal critic of the latter method who earned accolades from many survey respondents. Others seemed to think that even these endeavors should be secondary to simply finding alternative energy sources. If we’re going to invest money into climate technologies, one typical respondent observed, “let's put it into building the infrastructure for viable alternatives to carbon emission[s].” The so-called natural approach to carbon dioxide reduction—forestry and crop management—captured readers’ attention as well, with at least one noting that it might be our safest bet: “We have a pretty good idea what the effect of planting a forest is 10,000 years from now. Can’t really say the same for solar radiation management,” the respondent wrote.

Despite that, a significant proportion of geoengineering believers acknowledged that albedo modification—that is, increasing the Earth’s reflectivity to prevent sunlight from warming the planet in the first place—might be worth attempting. “If fossil fuel emissions are not reduced in a timely manner over the next 10 years, I think a small amount of [solar radiation management] in conjunction with emissions reductions could work well to stabilize the climate,” one wrote. Others argued that whatever the risks, it might be morally necessary to embrace solar radiation management. “If we start to experience runaway global warming the only thing that will save millions of people in low lying areas like Bangladesh is SRM,” one wrote, before going on to insist that it would be “genocidal” to neglect such solutions.

Despite that, many pointed to important objections, including the concern that albedo modification presents a moral hazard: the danger that small fixes might dissuade us from pursuing larger solutions. Others worried that it requires too long a commitment for too little effect, as did one who echoed Pierrehumbert’s cautions: “The argument against geoengineering by albedo hacking … I find most convincing is that you have to commit to keep doing it basically forever, and if you are ever forced to stop, the world will face catastrophic rapid warming.” Some suggested that their concerns weren’t so much scientific as political, since geoengineering would “require strong and adaptive social institutions, institutions which currently are not up to the task.”

The most common argument that had swayed readers against geoengineering? That we just don’t know enough about it at this point. “We don’t know [its] full consequences and it doesn’t treat the root problem,” one wrote. Another observed that the “potential for unintended environmental consequences (DDT and birds comes to mind) gives me pause.” The relative novelty of most geoengineering proposals weighed heavily on many. As one respondent noted, “It took decades for scientists to characterize relatively well the problem of anthropogenic global warming and marshal the political and popular will for any emission reduction.”

Some readers, especially those who aren’t scientists themselves, were reluctant to try to set research priorities, but a few had ideas. Arguing that “computer simulations and lab experiments are not enough,” one respondent proposed that we should attempt small-scale implementation. Taking a contrary position, others wrote that there’s no way to really know whether and how geoengineering will work unless we implement it on a global scale. The problem is that to do so might be to court catastrophe: “You are never gonna know for sure that going full planet with something isn’t going to have unanticipated negatives.”

Perhaps the biggest questions readers had was: How can geoengineering be “in any way ... preferable to reduction of fossil fuel use”? Above all else, the results suggest that this is and will remain a contentious topic, but we hope you’ve taken as much from our exploration of as we have.

This article is part of the geoengineering installment of Futurography, a series in which Future Tense introduces readers to the technologies that will define tomorrow. Each month from January through June 2016, we’ll choose a new technology and break it down. Read more from Futurography on geoengineering:

Feb. 5 2016 5:21 PM

Apple Is Killing Some iPhones Repaired by Third Parties. But There’s Sort of a Good Reason.

Our devices are an important part of daily life, so a shattered smartphone screen or a broken headphone jack needs to be fixed—the quicker and cheaper the better. But if you have an iPhone and don't go through Apple, you could be left with a hopeless brick.

On Friday, the Guardian published a troubling report about an iPhone problem called "Error 53." Numerous anecdotes, discovered in forums online and gathered by the Guardian itself, describe the same issue: a bricked iPhone that will only display an "Error 53" message and can't be restored. IPhones producing Error 53 run iOS 9 and contain a replaced part that is affecting either the device's Touch ID sensor or motherboard.

Apparently Apple has iPhone motherboards and Touch IDs tied to special codes. Beginning with iOS 9, if a component gets replaced but doesn't have the correct matching code, the phone will become a hopeless brick. This happens most commonly when a third-party does a home-button repair, but can also come from changing the motherboard during a cracked-screen replacement.

Reports of problems with Error 53 are becoming more frequent as iOS 9 adoption increases. A user who replaced her home button months or even years ago through a third party won't notice a problem until she upgrades to iOS 9. The only way to fix the problem is to reunite the original parts. But Error 53 can even be triggered without any type of third-party repair. If a home button is broken, or the ribbon cable that connects it is loose, the phone may become a brick in error.

Apple says that this measure is meant to protect Touch IDs against tampering. A representative told the Guardian:

We protect fingerprint data using a secure enclave, which is uniquely paired to the touch ID sensor. When iPhone is serviced by an authorised Apple service provider or Apple retail store for changes that affect the touch ID sensor, the pairing is re-validated. ... Without this unique pairing, a malicious touch ID sensor could be substituted, thereby gaining access to the secure enclave. When iOS detects that the pairing fails, touch ID, including Apple Pay, is disabled so the device remains secure.

It's a pretty solid defense of the practice. You can easily imagine a crooked repair shop installing malware-ridden Touch IDs that steal fingerprints and other data. But there are some problems with Apple's approach.

Apple products are increasingly available around the world, but there aren't Apple Stores or official Apple repair sites in every region. Nonetheless, the company has always been adamant about discouraging third-party repairs. For years Apple Care warranties have warned that they could be voided by the presence of third-party parts in a device. This is Apple's attempt to control all phases (money-making opportunities) of product life. It allows the company to charge what it wants for repairs by discouraging customers from seeking cheaper alternatives. And you can see how the Touch ID situation is a perfect opportunity to take this one step further. Apple offers major disincentives for criminals to tamper with Touch ID and Apple Pay while also scaring consumers into sticking to official company repairs.

Similar conflicts have arisen in the vehicle repair industry. Companies like John Deere and General Motors have argued that they should be the only ones who are allowed to tinker with the software in their vehicles, claiming that individuals or third-parties who accessed and altered the software by themselves would be violating copyright protections. This seems to be both an attempt to keep proprietary software a secret and a move to undermine third-party mechanics. As Kyle Wiens, the co-founder of the "right-to-repair" site iFixit, wrote on Slate last month, "I’m not a lawyer. I’m a repairman by trade and a software engineer by education. ... When a farmer friend of mine wanted to know if there was a way to tweak the copyrighted software of his broken tractor, I knew it was going to be rough."

Apple doesn't have to leave Touch ID security this way. It could detect hardware changes and require extensive user reauthentication. It could offer third parties some type of parts-vetting process. It could give customers more leeway to choose what risks they want to take. Instead, Error 53 is excessively paternalistic. It's good to help protect consumers by building in precautions and encouraging the use of high-quality parts, but Apple isn't a parent. It shouldn't literally take customer's phones away if they do something it doesn't like.

Feb. 5 2016 9:54 AM

Here’s How to Stream the Super Bowl Even if You Don’t Have a Cable Login

It's pretty easy to be a cord-cutter these days, relying on streaming services and set-top boxes instead of paying for cable. But for certain big shows and events, you likely still find yourself scrambling to borrow someone’s cable credentials. Luckily, you won't have to prostrate yourself before your ex-boyfriend's dog walker's cousin to gain access to a Super Bowl stream on Sunday. There are a bunch of ways to view it for free.

The first place to check is CBS, the network broadcasting the game this year. There will be an open stream on the CBS Sports website and through the app, which you can download for platforms like Android, iOS, AndroidTV, Roku, Xbox One, Apple TV, and Amazon Fire products. Only Verizon Wireless customers will be able to stream the game on their smartphones because of an exclusivity deal with the NFL.

GeekWire notes that international viewers can watch through NFL Game Pass, but a subscription to the service costs $100 per year. Not exactly free. And the New York Times lists popular digital antennas, if you want to watch over the air the old-fashioned way. I have a cheap indoor HDTV antenna from Amazon Basics that works fine, but depending on how far you are from signal transmitters, you may need a better-quality model.

Television networks have been streaming the Super Bowl live and for free since 2012, which is a good reminder of how far cord-cutting culture has come in a few short years. It's already the fifth anniversary of free access the game. And the networks seem to be evolving with the trend, however slowly. This year for the first time, the CBS livestream will show all the ads that run on the regular broadcast. No point missing out on online viewers when there are more and more of them every year.

Feb. 4 2016 5:38 PM

The FAA Plan to Prevent A Modern-Day “Fan Man” from Crashing the Super Bowl

Two months ago Slate asked me to watch every Super Bowl game ever played. I did so—watching roughly 160 hours worth of football—and then I wrote about it. I wrote about the meaning of the Super Bowl throughout the years; I wrote about the best and worst Super Bowl commercials of all time; I ranked every Super Bowl from top to bottom. I know a lot about the Super Bowl, is what I’m trying to say. So you should trust me when I say that the Super Bowl is no place for drones.

If you don’t trust me, then at least trust the Federal Aviation Administration, which really, really, really wants you to know that drones and the Super Bowl do not mix. The agency has issued a temporary flight restriction for all drone traffic within a 32-mile radius of Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, between 2 p.m. and 11:59 p.m. on Super Bowl Sunday. The Super Bowl drone ban should come as no surprise. The FAA already prohibits gametime drone traffic over major outdoor sporting events; and last year’s Super Bowl was subject to similar restrictions.

Decades ago, well-meaning intruders like James “Fan Man” Miller won fame for paragliding into boxing matches and buzzing NFL playoff games. But the sporting establishment frowned on Fan Man even back then, and there’s even less tolerance for airborne interruptions now, when everyone and their brother has a drone, and you don’t need a gigantic fan-powered parachute to stoke panic at big games. Over the past year or so, enough sporting events have been interrupted by errant drones for it to count as a minor epidemic. The FAA is basically saying “enough is enough.”

Anyway, violate this ban, and you risk being shamed and sanctioned; the Los Angeles Times reports that individual violators risk a potential $1,000 fine, while commercial violators risk a potential $27,500 fine. You also risk having your drone downed and destroyed by government personnel on the lookout for tiny flying security threats. Maybe your drone will be shot down; maybe an eagle will swoop up and grab it. Either way, if you violate the drone-free perimeter, it’s unlikely that you’ll see your device again.

“With so many drones being sold for recreational use, we want to do everything we can to get the word out that the game is a No Drone Zone,” FAA administrator Michael Huerta said in a statement. The agency even produced a slick little video to help bring the message home, helpfully listing three things that you should bring to the game—your lucky jersey, your face paint, your team spirit—in lieu of your drone: 

This article is part of a Future Tense series on the future of drones and is part of a larger project, supported by a grant from Omidyar Network and Humanity United, that includes a drone primer from New America.

Feb. 4 2016 2:12 PM

A University Hack Exposed 63,000 Social Security Numbers. Face, Meet Palm.

University of Central Florida president John Hitt announced Thursday that the school has been, well, hacked. Discovered at the beginning of January, the breach exposed the social security numbers and other identifying personal information of 63,000 students, former students, and faculty/staff.

The announcement, spotted by Gizmodo, notes that credit card numbers, financial records, medical records, and grades were not affected. UCF is a big community—the school enrolled 60,810 students in 2014—but it seems that the breach centered on certain groups (perhaps based on which information was easiest for the hackers to access). UCF's investigation showed that current and former student athletes, students who work for the university, and certain categories of staff are at high risk.

UCF is sending letters to everyone whose information was compromised and will offer a year of free credit and identity monitoring to them. The university is offering a website and hotline that community members can use to get information.

Hitt wrote, "Safeguarding your personal information is of the utmost importance at UCF. To ensure our vigilance, I have called for a thorough review of our online systems, policies and training to determine what improvements we can make in light of this recent incident."

The university has taken solid steps to address the hack and disclosed it fairly quickly. But it wouldn't be a public hack disclosure without a few out-of-touch comments. In answering the question, "What should I do to help protect myself from identity theft?" the University’s Q&A says, "Out of an abundance of caution, we recommend that you carefully check credit reports for accounts or inquiries you do not recognize." But it's not really an "abundance of caution" when your school has been hacked, right?

Feb. 3 2016 5:02 PM

Europe’s Brand-New Data Transfer Agreement With the U.S. Is Already Drawing Criticism

The European Union’s highest court struck down the 15-year-old “Safe Harbor” data-transfer pact in October. But on Tuesday the European Commission announced that it had brokered a new data-flow agreement with the United States. Known as the “Privacy Shield,” the revision is meant to address the court’s problems with the old arrangement. But critics are already beginning to emerge.

The broad goal of this type of agreement is to shuttle data from EU to U.S. data centers in a way that complies with EU privacy laws and protects data from all sorts of government surveillance. The Privacy Shield promises to impose stricter standards on how companies communicate with customers and handle their data and calls for increased enforcement from the U.S. Department of Commerce and Federal Trade Commission. These agencies will also be involved in conflict resolution if Europeans feel that their data is being mishandled.

At this point the Privacy Shield needs to be turned into a full draft proposal so it can be submitted for approval by the 28 nation states in the EU. U.S. agencies and businesses also need to figure out how they will comply with the changes.

The plan is already generating skepticism and criticism, though. On Wednesday a group of European privacy agencies asked for a number of clarifications about the new agreement, fearing that it doesn’t do enough to protect European citizens from surveillance by U.S. government agencies. Isabelle Falque-Pierrotin, chief of privacy in France and chair of an EU body of data protection authorities, told the New York Times, “We want to receive the documents to assess whether the E.U.-U.S. Privacy Shield can answer our concerns. ... We have to review the consequences of this arrangement.”

Others worry about whether the new agreement will be viable. Austrian privacy campaigner Max Schrems told Ars Technica, “If this case goes back to the ECJ [European Court of Justice]—which it very likely will do, if there is a new safe harbour that does not meet the test of the court—then it will fail again, and nobody wants that.”

For businesses, especially small businesses, the cost burden of reforming to meet the new agreement could be significant, costing hundreds of millions of dollars across various industries. And the European Commission didn’t attempt to downplay this fact. In its announcement the commission said that U.S. companies would have “robust obligations” if they want to serve EU customers. Allison Grande wrote on Law360 on Tuesday, “The increase in compliance obligations and legal exposure compared with the previous regime should make companies think twice about blindly signing on to the revamped deal.”

When a full Privacy Shield draft emerges in the next few weeks, there will be more for interests groups to pick apart. But privacy regulations are so contentious right now that even without a draft it only took a few hours for the controversy to heat up.

Feb. 3 2016 3:59 PM

The Dutch Have Devised the Best Drone Defense System: Trained Eagles

There are many ways to stop an errant or hostile drone from venturing over forbidden territory—more and more methods every month, it seems. “Shooting it down with a shotgun” is a popular method, but also unimaginative, and generally illegal. In October, I wrote about the DroneDefender, a futuristic rifle-shaped device that uses directed radio waves to force wandering drones to the ground. In January, a professor at Michigan Technological University announced a drone taker-downer that was basically just another drone equipped with a big net. Now, there’s a new method for repelling unwanted drones, and that method is a trained eagle.

Jamie Condliffe at Gizmodo reports that the Netherlands National Police have hit on the honestly brilliant idea of training eagles to identify errant drones and pluck them out of the air as if they were prey. That’s the long and short of it. You should basically just watch the video here to get a sense of how this would work under ideal circumstances:

The apparent ease with which eagles can be trained to swoop up and snatch consumer electronics out of midair is mildly alarming. If I were a mugger, I would acquire one of these eagles and send that sucker out to grab as many iPhones as possible. The point is, there’s a fighting-fire-with-fire mentality that seems to demand that we meet technological problems with technological solutions, but sometimes the simplest solutions can be just as good. (Not that training an eagle to attack a drone is simple, per se, but it’s simpler than building a futuristic radio-rifle or having to constantly stuff and restuff a damn net inside a second drone.)

Obviously there’s a huge difference between training an eagle to successfully grab a drone in controlled circumstances in a giant warehouse and having it do so out in the real world. But regardless of whether the eagle program is effective as a drone repellent, I suspect that it might pay unexpected benefits as a drone deterrent. I, for one, would think twice about operating my own drone recklessly if I knew there was a chance that it might be snatched from the skies by a bird of prey and carried back to some remote aerie, never to be seen again. So maybe the publicity around a campaign like this is just as important—or more so—than the actual efficacy of the program itself. And maybe American officials should be considering similar attention-grabbing methods. We’ve got the eagles!

This article is part of a Future Tense series on the future of drones and is part of a larger project, supported by a grant from Omidyar Network and Humanity United, that includes a drone primer from New America.

Feb. 3 2016 10:46 AM

Future Tense Newsletter: A Hypothetical Climate

Greetings, Future Tensers,

January has come to an end, and with it our first Futurography course. By way of conclusion, we published a second excerpt from Oliver Morton’s The Planet Remade in which Morton imagines how geoengineering projects might begin with a small group of rogue nations trying to make a difference. Hypothetical as such endeavors remain, they seem a little more urgent when you consider that climate change may contribute to the spread of Zika mosquitoes in the decades ahead.

Fortunately, we’re not quite there yet, just as we’re not on the brink of some “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” despite the overeager claims of some at the World Economic Form. Real change may be incremental, as when General Electric announced this week that it would stop producing compact fluorescent light bulbs in favor of more energy-efficient LED options. Still, there’s something to be said for imagining extreme scenarios, like the one in Occupied, a Norwegian political thriller that features Russia invading after Norway cuts off oil and gas production.

Even with our geoengineering course behind us, we’ll continue to report on and discuss such issues. For now, Futurography has moved on to its next topic: the question of whether we’ve given algorithms too much power. As we did last month, we’re starting off with a conversational introduction to the topic and a cheat sheet that will introduce you to key terms, players, debates, and other essential information. We’ll have much more in the days and weeks ahead. And we’re curious to hear what you learned from our previous unit. Consider testing your knowledge with our quiz and letting us know what you think about geoengineering. We’ll be reporting on the results soon.

In the meantime, here are the other stories we read while we were losing to a computer at Go:

  • Virtual reality: Companies are getting serious about VR, partly because consumers are finally getting on board—as is the open source community.
  • Assistive technology: At Carnegie Mellon University, Bluetooth-emitting beacons are changing how the blind move through—and interact with—the world around them.
  • Flat-earthers: Lawrence Krauss argues that the resurgence of ludicrous theories about our planet presents an opportunity to engage in some basic scientific observations.
  • Oregon Trail: A co-creator of one of the best-selling video games of all time showed up on Reddit to dish about its origins. We have the details.


Looking for the bug spray,

Jacob Brogan

for Future Tense

Feb. 3 2016 8:19 AM

This Company Waited More Than a Decade for People to Get Serious About Virtual Reality

Virtual reality feels cutting-edge. It’s been around in some form since the ’90s (and even before, sort of), but the technology has really started to come into its own in the past few years. There are VR films at Sundance, VR news apps, and, of course, VR video games. So for VR company Sensics, patience has been crucial.

“Virtual reality trade shows used to be half a dozen exhibitors. It was like a club,” says CEO Yuval Boger. Founded in the late ’90s, Sensics is based on technology developed at Johns Hopkins for Honda. When developing a new model, the car company wanted to sit in it and get a feel for its design long before investing in physical prototypes. This led to a 6-million-pixel-per-eye head-mounted display. (Currently, the optimal Oculus Rift resolution is 2,160-by-1,200, or 2.6 million pixels per eye, but computers powering the Rift process about 233 million pixels per second.)

In the early 2000s Sensics didn’t have access to cheap components and processing power like it does now, but for a cost it could deliver much of what consumers are experiencing today. Most clients were big corporations, research organizations, or defense agencies. “I remember standing in front of a mirror practicing saying, ‘These goggles cost $200,000’ without bursting into laughter,” Boger says.

For the past year, Sensics has been working with gaming company Razer on an industry standard for VR called Open-Source Virtual Reality. For $300 (compared to Oculus’ $600), consumers can buy an OSVR Hacker Dev Kit—a headset that connects to “a mid-tier gaming PC and upwards” to deliver VR experiences. OSVR is often compared with Android because it is an open-source standard accepted by 300 partners and growing. The idea is to enable manufacturers to provide VR equipment at a variety of price points and qualities while allowing Internet-connected peripherals, like smart clothing or biometric trackers, to integrate into the VR experience.

“There are going to be more and more sensors connected to the VR experience in 2016,” Boger says. “As a result, people are going to run into, ‘Oh my god, there are no standards for how devices are going to talk to each other.’ But we can say that we are the de-facto standard. Today we support hundreds of devices.”

For example, last year Oculus announced that it would stop supporting Mac development. So when Mozilla WebVR (browser-powered virtual reality) approached OSVR about a partnership, it asked about potential Mac compatibility. OSVR couldn't offer it on the spot but said it would put the challenge out to its open-source community. Within three weeks, developers around the world had volunteered their time to add the functionality Mozilla wanted.

Consumer virtual reality has certainly come a long way since products like Nintendo's Virtual Boy debuted in 1995. But the technology behind what we see today isn't just the result of a sudden boom—it’s been evolving steadily for the past two decades. Boger is enjoying it. “One of the fun things about Sensics is that for 10 years people have come in and said, ‘Here's what I want to do with VR.’ And now with a $300 device it's becoming accessible.”