Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future

June 20 2016 1:34 PM

This Cute Badminton Opponent Might Actually Entice You to Play Badminton

You may not think of badminton as a sport on the cutting edge of technology, but boy is it ever. Researchers from the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China have been working on analyzing and modeling the game—not to optimize human performance, but to build a robotic opponent.

"Robomintoner" currently plays at a solid amateur human level. The robot has two HD cameras mounted on it that stream video to a more powerful computer, which processes the movement of the shuttlecock and sends back instructions for how the robot should position itself and when it should swing its racquets. The robot is equipped with two racquets, each oriented differently, to make different types of shots.

China Central Television reports that, among others, it has faced off with badminton champion Dong Jiong and Chinese premier Li Keqiang—though it hasn't had any major victories over human badminton professionals quite yet. The robot also played in an amateur badminton competition in April, according to the Daily Mail, and may be sold commercially as a badminton buddy since the sport is quite popular in China.

A particularly tricky part of building the bot was getting it to recognize and track its own location in space, says Luo Deyuan, a mechatronics researcher who worked on the project. He told CCTV, "Currently there’s no perfect system in the world for a robot to locate itself indoors. The technology used in the Robomintoner is actually very advanced. No matter how it moves on the court, as long as it’s got battery, it will know its exact location."

If the Olympics ever adds a robot division it would be fun to see the Robomintoner go for gold.

June 20 2016 1:04 PM

We Need You to Colonize Mars, NASA’s Retro Recruitment Posters Implore

Mars is hardly a welcoming place. Tens of millions of miles from Earth, lacking in atmosphere, and blanketed in chemicals that are mildly toxic to the human endocrine system, it’s hardly the kind of place you’d go to on a lark, even if we had the technology to easily get there and back again. Nevertheless, Mars exploration has a fair share of boosters, including aquatic car entrepreneur Elon Musk, who has announced that he intends to send a spacecraft to the Red Planet by 2018.

With both private companies and government entities mulling over interplanetary missions and eventual settlments, the real trouble may be convincing anyone to go along. But NASA's recent release of a trove of recruitment posters might do the trick of changing people's minds. The retro-styled posters, which anyone can download in high-resolution for free, show off a variety of possible careers that colonists might take up, from technicians to surveyors, teachers to farmers.


NASA/Kennedy Space Center


NASA/Kennedy Space Center


NASA/Kennedy Space Center


NASA/Kennedy Space Center

NASA explains that it commissioned the images for a Kennedy Center exhibition in 2009. Thanks to their chic midcentury styling, however, they’re as charming and relevant now as they were then—and they’ll likely remain that way whenever we actually do make it out of Earth’s orbit.


NASA/Kennedy Space Center

While these posters clearly aren’t meant to really convince anyone to become, say, a Martian potato farmer, they’re a charming reminder that NASA and other organizations are still doing important work. Indeed, the retro aesthetic of the images may serve primarily to remind us of NASA’s own golden age. That’s likely why the agency has taken a similar approach in the past with other posters that depict the future of space travel through the iconography of the 20th century Space Age.

In any case, not everyone needs convincing. In a recent trailer for his forthcoming documentary Lo and Behold, actor and director Werner Herzog interrupts Elon Musk to offer himself as a candidate for interplanetary travel. “I would come along. I wouldn’t have a problem,” he tells the nonplussed CEO.

We’ll be right there with you, Werner. As long as you narrate the trip.

June 20 2016 8:47 AM

Making the World a Little More Like a Bond Movie, Elon Musk Says the Tesla Model S Turns Into a Boat

According to an all-too-common joke, Elon Musk is a Bond villain come to life. To be fair, something about the Tesla and SpaceX CEO seems to invite the comparisons: Maybe it’s his too-perfect name, or perhaps it’s his ambiguously international charms, but it’s almost certainly his desire to send us to Mars. Now, however, a new possibility presents itself. What if Musk isn’t aspiring to become some borderline Blofeld? What if he instead wants to be more like Q, the good-natured inventor who supplies Bond with his toys?

Here’s a data point in support of that possibility: On Sunday, Musk cropped up on Twitter to claim that the Tesla Model S “floats well enough to turn it into a boat for short periods of time.” He went on to explain that “wheel rotation” provided minor thrust, and clarified that key components of the electric vehicle are “sealed,” presumably making them adequately water-resistant to function beneath the surface.

This revelation arrived in response to an article in Electrek discussing a video that shows a Model S plowing through a flooded tunnel. Electrek’s Fred Lambert was skeptical, writing, “You simply don’t want the entire undercarriage of your vehicle to be submerged regardless of if it consists of a large battery pack or an exhaust line.” To be sure, Musk’s comments don’t exactly dispute that premise—he’s not saying that the car is a boat, just that it can function for a bit in water—but it’s still yet another declaration that his luxury vehicle is more powerful than you might think.

Sure, the Model S may not be James Bond’s notorious Lotus Esprit S1 (his submarine car from The Spy Who Loved Me), despite the jokey reference to that fictional vehicle in the Tesla’s interface. But this is, let’s remember, a company that included a “bioweapon defense mode” in some of its vehicles. And the Model S itself already sports a surprisingly robust autopilot mode. Musk has clearly always aimed to make electric cars cool, which often means cramming them with unexpected features and capabilities. In that light, limited boat functionality is hardly surprising.

If nothing else, Musk is admirably chatty about his company’s innovations, comparing favorably to Larry Page, who tried to keep his flying “car” startups a secret. Musk, by contrast, is the sort of guy who wants to keep talking your ear off about his inventions long after you’re ready to leave his laboratory—the sort of guy, in other words, who’s a lot like Bond’s Q.

Seemingly amused by the interest in the Model S’ boatlike capacities, Musk went on to suggest that he’s “planning to do a sports sub car that can drive on roads.” We look forward to reports from anyone who has the opportunity to try it out once it debuts. But if you find a pen on the dashboard, be sure not to click it too many times. The results could be explosive.

June 17 2016 6:00 PM

At Least We’re Getting Better Gun Control for Emojis

Emojis may seem frivolous, but in their depictions of the world they reflect currents in society. It's a lot of pressure for one little 👻 or 🐘, and discussions about the approval of new emojis are getting increasingly political.

Buzzfeed reported on Friday that Apple lobbied the emoji technical standards body, Unicode, to eliminate a rifle emoji from the new set of pictograms coming in this June's Unicode 9.0 release. Though these discussions were reportedly happening last May, news of the negotiation is especially resonant in light of this week's Orlando shooting.

Generally, Unicode proposes new emojis that are then approved by the consortium of stakeholders without any trouble. Then they are encoded so they can be available and displayed across different devices and platforms. There is already a handgun emoji (above), and Unicode had apparently proposed the rifle as part of a set of emojis pegged to the Olympics. But Apple and Microsoft, two of the 12 full voting members of the Unicode consortium, argued that a second gun was unnecessary. Eventually the rifle and a pentathlon emoji (which showed a man with a pistol) were rejected.

An anonymous source who was present during the rifle discussion told Buzzfeed, “I heard Apple speak up about it and also Microsoft. ... Nobody in the room seemed to mind not encoding the rifle.”

Apple has championed socially conscious emojis as well. In 2014 the company openly supported adding racial diversity to the character set, and worked with the consortium to implement this quickly. Additionally, Ars Technica points out that macOS used to exclude the gun, knife, and other violent symbols from its emoji picker.

As emojis become more mainstream and less of a geeky curiosity, the battles over what to include and exclude from the set will probably heat up more and more. A proposal from May currently before the consortium grapples with how to handle upcoming challenges. “There is more public awareness of [emojis]: more public pressure to implement them, but also more public scrutiny of them. Hence, it makes sense to first make sure that there is reasonable commitment to significant support before encoding.”

Given how polarizing some social issues are in the U.S., it looks like emojis are doomed to be politicized, too.

June 16 2016 2:09 PM

Will the Supreme Court Really Take on Net Neutrality?

On Tuesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit unequivocally upheld the Federal Communications Commission’s authority to regulate the internet and enforce net neutrality. Yes, that net neutrality—of the 4 million comments and John Oliver fame.

This decision is a major legal victory for not only the FCC but for all internet users (including you, since you’re reading this online), who will continue to benefit from the commission’s open internet rules. These rules safeguard the principle of net neutrality by preventing internet service providers from abusing their gatekeeper role to block or interfere with the ability of users to access the content of their choosing. In the simplest of terms: The FCC rules mean no fast and slow lanes on the internet, no blocking of content, and no provider throttling your streaming video just because it can.

In turn, this preserves the internet’s essential character as a fair and open platform: On the internet, there is equal opportunity of expression and access to information, which has made it the most important communications network of our time.  

Advocates for industry—which has fanatically opposed the rules—and net neutrality alike have awaited this decision with bated breath for months. A panel of three circuit judges presided over the case: Judges Tatel and Srinivasan sided with the FCC, joining in the majority opinion. The other judge on the panel, senior circuit Judge Stephen Williams, filed a partial dissent.

Specifically, the panel’s ruling roundly rejects all of industry’s challenges to the 2015 Open Internet Order and affirms the FCC’s reclassification of broadband internet as a Title II telecommunications service—the legal framework that underpinned the FCC’s ability to adopt its strong open internet rules. The panel also found that the FCC acted properly when it applied its regulatory framework to mobile broadband. Equal rules for both mobile and fixed broadband ensure that the same protections apply regardless of the type of device someone uses to access the internet, or what type of network that person is on when they do. This parity is particularly important for low-income communities and communities of color, whose members tend to rely primarily or even exclusively on mobile broadband connections. Noting the explosive growth of mobile broadband service and its near universal use by the public, the court found “the Commission’s reclassification of mobile broadband as a commercial mobile service … to be reasonable and demonstrated by record evidence.”

The court also affirmed the FCC’s assertion of authority over interconnection disputes, and rejected specific challenges to the FCC’s paid prioritization and general conduct rules. Finally, the panel rejected a First Amendment challenge from some providers that argued that the rule would prohibit them from exercising the same type of editorial discretion used by newspapers or cable television providers that choose what content to offer subscribers. The court recognized that companies that hold themselves out as providing access to the internet do not exercise that type of editorial discretion, and therefore the rules did not limit the exercise of their First Amendment rights.

With this important legal hurdle out of the way, the FCC can now proceed with its full docket of work teed up for the final months of the Obama administration. This includes the FCC’s rulemaking on broadband privacy and a potential review of various zero rating arrangements, both of which depend on commission authority granted by reclassification.

Tuesday’s ruling also validates the efforts of many grass-roots and public interest organizations that have worked on net neutrality over the years. They’ve been fighting against some of the most powerful and well-funded corporate lobbies in America: the cable and wireless internet industries. Industry-sponsored lawsuits have thrice dragged the open internet rules before the D.C. Circuit.

Even though the federal court’s ruling decisively rejects the legal challenges to the FCC net neutrality rules, a few companies are refusing to give up. Shortly after the opinion was released, some looked to the Supreme Court, which might be next in line to review the lawsuit. “We have always expected this issue to be decided by the Supreme Court, and we look forward to participating in that appeal,” said David McAtee, AT&T’s senior executive vice president and general counsel, in an official statement.

However, “the prospects are grim” that today’s ruling would be overturned—at least according to Kevin Russell, the attorney who represented three public interest intervenors in the case (including New America’s Open Technology Institute, where we work; New America is a partner with Slate and Arizona State University in Future Tense).The next steps in appealing the decision would be a either petition to hear the case en banc (before all the judges who sit on the U.S. Court of Appeals) or a direct petition for a writ of certiorari (a “cert petition,” as it is commonly called) from the Supreme Court. The ruling’s opponents would have to convince the court not only that was the panel decision wrong, but that the ruling was sufficiently important to warrant the rare Supreme Court review.

Currently down one justice, Russell noted, SCOTUS is also being particularly punctilious and picky about the cases it takes on. And even if the high court were to grant cert, it would be highly unlikely that a case like Title II net neutrality would be decided until well after the 2016 presidential election, given the various procedural hurdles that must be crossed in the meantime.

Any imminent threats to net neutrality, then, would likely come from Congress, where industry has been pushing to defund and legislate away net neutrality for years—and even as recently as last week. ”Opponents threw the kitchen sink at the FCC rules,” said Michael Scurato, a vice president at the National Hispanic Media Coalition. Luckily for the internet, today’s court decision knocks the wind out of many anti-net neutrality attacks. We now know with certainty that internet freedom and openness is strong, sound, and settled law.

June 16 2016 10:18 AM

Future Tense Newsletter: All Tomorrow’s Liabilities

Greetings, Future Tensers,

As we’ve already seen throughout this month’s Futurography course on autonomous vehicles, self-driving cars are well on their way. Still, many automobile and energy analysts argue that traditional, gas-guzzling vehicles aren’t going anywhere fast. But as Levi Tillemann and Colin McCormick argue, those analysts aren’t looking at all the data when they evaluate consumer choices. In the near future, Tillemann and McCormick propose, companies like Uber and Lyft will drive growth in the sector, and electric, self-driving cars serve their interests best. It’s a surprisingly practical premise, one that makes other, seemingly quixotic efforts such as Larry Page’s reported $100 million investment in a flying “car” startup seem a little more reasonable.

As Adam Thierer writes in another Futurography article, this also means we’re looking toward an automotive future that “is more likely to be an amalgam of Tesla, Uber, and Zipcar: a fleet of robot cars that are just sitting out there waiting for us to hail them for a ride.” One of the primary arguments in favor of that eventuality holds that it will reduce car crashes, saving a lot of lives. But those super-safe cars may still subject manufacturers to legal troubles. To avoid a resulting chilling effect that could stultify innovation, Thierer suggests limiting their liability, while still finding ways to compensate victims of any accidents that do occur.

Here are some of the other stories we read while preparing to delete Apple’s bloatware from our phones:

  • Sexism: Mattel’s Barbie has featured some deeply retrograde depictions of women in the STEM fields, but information science assistant professor Casey Fiesler argues that the new Game Developer Barbie is refreshingly progressive.
  • Conservation: In a beautifully written story, Lisa Margonelli describes her community’s relationship with the alewife, a peculiar bait fish that, when smoked, has “the salty slick of bait garnished with a dab of road tar, liquid smoke, and a frill of tiny bones.”
  • Net neutrality: A telecom company is promising to automatically block ads on mobile devices in the United Kingdom. Dan Gillmor warns that that could be deadly for the free and open internet.
  • Artificial intelligence: An algorithm scripted a short film, which is cool, but it would have been totally incoherent were it not for the cinematic craft that humans brought to the table.
  • Customer service: Comcast wants to fix its notoriously terrible reputation, but can it actually treat its customers like human beings?

Jacob Brogan

for Future Tense

June 14 2016 2:00 PM

New Apple Watch Feature Will Call 911 at the Press of a Button

Since its debut last April, a big criticism of the Apple Watch has been that it doesn't do enough. So with every update of its watchOS software, Apple tries to pack more functionality and gravity into the tiny device. At its developer conference Monday, the company announced new smart-home interconnectivity, a breathing-centered stress management app, improved fitness tools, and expanded payment options. And then there's the feature that's a matter of life and death.

"SOS" is an emergency function that calls 911 if you press and hold the Apple Watch's side button. The call routes through your iPhone if you're on the go, or directly from the watch if you have access to Wi-Fi. After the 911 call, "SOS" can also alert emergency contacts you've chosen, sending them information and a map of where you are. It's basically next-gen Life Alert.

Helpfully, "SOS" doesn't just call "911"—it will contact the correct emergency service number for whatever country you're in. This could really aid travelers in crisis who don't know the local number off-hand.

You can see how "SOS" is going to be a boon to Apple as soon as it saves its first life. The company is presumably also genuinely interested in customers' well-being, but when Watches start saving people who are in dire circumstances, it will add a whole new argument to why you should constantly wear a connected device. (There are already some similar emergency apps for Android Wear, Google's smartwatch operating system.)

Still, the feature will probably create problems at some point, like involving unwanted people in a delicate situation simply because they were put on a forgotten emergency contact list years before. It will also suffer from the same location accuracy problems as normal cellphone 911 calls and VoIP 911 calls.

At the conference, Apple's vice president of technology Kevin Lynch said, "You might be having a medical emergency, for example, or a safety situation and we’re going to be able to help with that." It's a weighty promise. 

June 13 2016 7:55 PM

Apple Will Finally Let You Delete Its Intrusive Apps

You might use Apple’s Mail app or the Safari browser. You might not mind having Apple Maps kicking around. A number of native apps come standard on Apple’s mobile operating systems, though, and they take up space. Too bad they’ve been undeletable in every version of iOS. No choice. At Apple’s developer conference on Monday, though, that all changed. Finally.

Though it wasn’t officially announced, people started noticing that Apple’s default apps (Stocks, News, etc.) were showing up in the App Store like the company’s other optional offerings. They’ve never been there before because they were already on everyone’s phones and never needed to be re-downloaded. Then developers at the conference started installing the test beta of Apple’s freshly announced mobile operating system upgrade, iOS 10. They found that when they pressed and held to make apps jiggle, Xs came up in the corners of the default apps to delete them. This was never an option before.

Now you can really choose what’s on your iPhone, whether you want to get rid of Apple’s Weather app and use a different one or you don’t have an Apple Watch and want to ditch the Watch app. It’s rare for Apple to relax its grip on anything in its ecosystem, but the number of undeletable native apps had been growing and the company may have recognized the unfair burden, especially on customers with 16GB iPhones (limited local storage for a current smartphone).

And there were hints that something like this might be coming. In September, Apple CEO Tim Cook told BuzzFeed:

This is a more complex issue than it first appears. ... There are some apps that are linked to something else on the iPhone. If they were to be removed they might cause issues elsewhere on the phone. There are other apps that aren’t like that. So over time, I think with the ones that aren’t like that, we’ll figure out a way [for you to remove them].

That’s basically exactly what’s happening now. The Verge reports that some native apps like Camera, Messages, and Photos still can’t be deleted, probably because they’re too enmeshed with everything else, like Cook said. But for the bulk of the bloat, change is coming. I can’t wait to delete my Apple Crap folder.

June 10 2016 4:43 PM

You’ll Want to Love This $700+ Laundry-Folding Robot, but It’s Not Worth It

There’s been a lot of buzz lately about a laundry-folding robot called the FoldiMate. More than 90,000 people have already registered (and paid $80) to be guaranteed a folding robo-helper when the machines go into preorder next year and ship in 2018. And in a poll of more than 2,000 people on theTelegraph, 83 percent have said they would buy a FoldiMate. What a time to be alive.

The appliance is about the size of a washer or dryer. You clip your pants, shirts, skirts, and other clothes onto the machine and it does professional folding, wrinkle-reducing steaming, and even perfuming. And it’s a robot. It sounds like a dream come true.

The reality, though, is that there are major drawbacks. First of all, the full price is expected to be between $700 and $850—numbers that sound more suited to a robot that’s also a washer or dryer, and maybe even makes coffee. To operate the FoldiMate, you have to clip each item of clothing onto it individually. It can only do 15-20 items at a time, and it can’t handle underwear, baby clothes, socks, plus-size clothes above XXL, or bed linens.

A FoldiMate spokesperson wrote in an email that the robot will fold “virtually anything that will fit inside of it.” And added that, “We have yet to find a fabric that FoldiMate cannot handle.” The company’s website says that the chance of the robot harming or ripping your clothes is less than one percent.

Given all the clipping, FoldiMate’s FAQ section includes the question “Isn’t it faster just to fold the clothes myself?” Very valid! The company’s answer is not exactly reassuring. “Even if you fold faster than clipping, folding a full load of laundry is akin to using a dishwasher over doing the dishes by hand. Plus, your clothes will be expertly folded every time.”

Couple things. First of all, this would be true except that the majority of the time you only need to load your dishwasher once (except maybe at Thanksgiving) versus having to load it 15-20 items at a time in the case of the FoldiMate. Unless it’s a small load of laundry, it’s going to take a lot of clipping to get everything folded. Also, in terms of environmental impact, running a full dishwasher saves resources versus hand-washing, whereas using the FoldiMate draws resources that you wouldn’t have used by just folding your frickin’ laundry yourself.

To be fair, automation is delightful, and putting less human energy into mindless household chores is a good thing in lots of ways. But there’s something more concerning about the FoldiMate. The robot is going to be Wi-Fi-enabled so that someday users can receive updates and notifications about things like the machine’s status, and stats like folding time. So now your laundry-folding robot, which is already of questionable usefulness, will also be vulnerable to cyberattacks. You just don’t want to be answering the question, “Oh, how did your smartphone get hacked?” with “Eh, some bug in the push notifications from my laundry robot.” That would be a sad day, indeed.

The FoldiMate definitely has its charms and taps into a lot of our hopes about a more luxurious future. But microwaves didn’t put an end to cooking just like Roombas didn’t eliminate the need for cleaning. If you really want to invest in folding technology, you might want to just buy a FlipFold (As Seen on TV!).

June 9 2016 4:50 PM

An Artificial Intelligence Scripted This Short Film, but Humans Are Still the Real Stars

Contemporary artificial intelligence algorithms are surprisingly good at wide range of tasks, from driving cars to playing Go. One thing they haven’t mastered yet? Creative writing. That’s the lesson of Sunspring, a new science-fiction short with a script composed by a recurrent neural network. (You can watch it here.) Far from suggesting that computers will be winning Academy Awards any time soon, it shows how much humans can still make meaning as we struggle with them.

As Annalee Newitz explains in Ars Technica, Sunspring is the creation of director Oscar Sharp and A.I. researcher Ross Goodwin. Goodwin created the algorithm that spat out the script, training it on dozens of other film and television scripts that he found on the internet. They shot the film in two days, aided by a substantial crew and a cast of three actors, including Thomas Middleditch of Silicon Valley.

 “The question for us,” says one of the filmmakers in a behind the scenes clip that plays over Sunspring’s credits, “is, Can a computer write a screen play that will win a competition?” The answer to that question, of course, is a flat no—at least not yet. Though the film came in the top 10 of the Sci-Fi London 48 Hour Film Challenge, it clearly didn’t do so on the basis of its script. To the contrary, it succeeds, to the extent that it does, in spite of its mechanized origins.

Nothing here resembles a story, partly because the dialogue is so choppy. Sometimes there’s a charming, slightly surrealist quality to the words assembled by Goodwin’s algorithm, as when the scruffy Middleditch mumbles, “It’s a damn thing scared to say. Nothing is going to be a thing.” Elsewhere, the script collapses into outright grammatical incoherence: “I just wanted to tell you that I was much better than he did,” another character emotes while staring into the camera.

Everyone involved has clearly brought a great deal of interpretive effort to the proceedings, but they can only do so much. Even at its best moments, Sunspring feels like a movie shot in a foreign language you once studied but never really understood. You keep getting the sense that there might be something meaningful here, but mostly because you’re looking for meaning, not because it’s actually available.

In spite of all this, Newitz claims, “The AI has captured the rhythm of science fiction writing, even if some of [the algorithm's] sentences are hilariously nonsensical.” Given how heavily the resulting film trends toward the incomprehensible, though, it’s hard to feel those rhythms in the final project. Indeed, were it not for the characters’ retro-futuristic outfits—Middleditch, for example, wears a shiny gold and silver jacket that would have fit in at this year’s Met Gala—and a few other visual details, there’d be little reason to think of it as science fiction at all.

To some extent, that may be because the algorithm’s source material isn’t especially coherent. According to Newitz, the filmmakers fed their computers numerous X-Files scripts, as well as material from programs such as Star Trek and Futurama. Peruse the full list of scripts (which runs at the start of the film), and you’ll also spot less obviously germane selections, including Silver Linings Playbook and Scary Movie 2. Though fretting over genre boundaries is rarely productive, it would be a stretch to slot either of these films into the same rubric. But, then again, we also probably wouldn’t consider Sunspring to be a science fiction short if we weren’t explicitly told that it was one by its human filmmakers.

That’s fitting, because it’s ultimately the question of human involvement that makes Sunspring interesting. As with the supposedly A.I.–written novel that recently competed for a Japanese literary prize, the most compelling details here were actively shaped by the cast and crew. Consider the score, which adds a level of emotional intensity to the surrounding gibberish. Or watch for the blocking and editing, which suggest relationships between the three characters that we would never be able to discern from the dialogue alone. And if the finished film is “hilarious and intense,” as Ars suggests, that has more to do with the deeply felt, if sometimes overwrought, performances by Middleditch and his co-star Elisabeth Gray.

It’s tempting to read Sunspring as a high-concept joke, an admission of the limitations of computers. Far from suggesting that we can simply submit to machines, it’s a reminder of how much human labor still goes into our relationships with automated systems. Watching it, though, I mostly found myself mulling over the clearest and most memorable phrase that Middleditch’s character speaks: “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”