Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Aug. 27 2015 5:19 PM

1 Billion People Visited Facebook on Monday

For the first time, 1 billion people visited Facebook in a single day Monday. Mark Zuckerberg and chief product officer Chris Cox both posted celebratory notes on Facebook. (Where else?)

Zuckerberg wrote, "Our community stands for giving every person a voice, for promoting understanding and for including everyone in the opportunities of our modern world," and Cox noted, "I couldn’t be more excited about connecting the next billion." Their comments are in line with Facebook's ongoing, but controversial, effort to bring Web connectivity to everyone through its Internet.org initiative.

Facebook hit 1 billion monthly active users in October 2012, but it has taken until now for 1 billion people to visit the site in one day. As of June 30, the service has 1.49 billion monthly active users.

It would be pretty surreal to be able to say that you invented something that was used by "1 in 7 people on Earth" in a single day. There weren't even 1 billion cars in the world until 2010.

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Aug. 27 2015 12:38 PM

Hurricane Forecasts Have Become Much, Much Better Since Katrina

With a potentially strong hurricane bearing down on the United States the same week as Hurricane Katrina’s 10-year anniversary, it feels like a good time to take a step back and think about what’s different now.

As far as meteorology is concerned, Katrina may as well have been a century ago.

After the disastrous 2005 hurricane season, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration began to plan for a crash course in greatly boosting the accuracy of hurricane forecasts. The Bush administration approved the Hurricane Forecast Improvement Project in 2008, and it has since exceeded even its own lofty goals.

In a statement Wednesday, NOAA said: “Since the 2005 hurricane season, NOAA has launched 5 new satellites, deployed new coastal observing systems and made major breakthroughs in oceanic and atmospheric research, all of which has resulted in a remarkable *40% reduction* in the margin of error of a hurricane’s expected track.”

Seen graphically, the result is stunning:

In a tweet earlier this year, Eric Blake, a hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center, called the stunning improvement in hurricane track forecast accuracy over the last decade “one of the most incredible success stories of our lifetimes.” Five-day forecasts today are just as accurate, on average, as three-day forecasts were the year of Katrina. That means two extra days for people in the path to prepare.

Forecasting hurricane strength days in advance has historically proven more challenging than track forecasting, but there’s been vast recent improvement there, too. The U.S. flagship high-resolution hurricane model, the Hurricane Weather Research and Forecasting Model, has improved its accuracy at a rate of 10 to 15 percent per year since 2011.

Earlier this year, HFIP fell victim to its own stunning success, and the budget took a big cut. But the program should still be able to benefit from a massive new NOAA investment in faster supercomputers.

You’d be forgiven if you haven’t noticed much benefit from the vastly improved hurricane forecasts. That’s mostly because, with the possible exception of Hurricane Sandy, there’ve been (thankfully) very few high-profile opportunities to test new forecast systems in the last 10 years. The U.S. is in the midst of a record-breaking drought of hurricane landfalls with winds of 111 mph or higher—“major” hurricanes. We’ve grown complacent, and sooner or later, our luck will run out.

I can guess what will happen then: There’ll be an ominous forecast cone, worryingly camped over a major coastal city for a few days. Officials may wait until the day before to order mandatory evacuations, and many locals might choose to stay. After the stormwaters recede, the damage will be measured in the tens of billions. People on the evening news will say, “We never saw it coming.”

Just this week, on Twitter and in weather message boards, I’ve noticed Floridians confidently quip something like: “If we’re in the cone at five days, I know I can breathe easy. We never get hit when the storm is pointed at us that far out.” NOAA, to its credit, is gently challenging that narrative this month.

Still, at this point, there’s reason to believe that better forecasting isn’t the most important thing in minimizing American losses to hurricanes. Providing two or three extra days of warning may not mean much for low-income families whose evacuation options are limited, as Katrina painfully showed. In a recent op-ed, Peter Neilley, the scientist in charge of forecasting operations at the Weather Channel, said that when preparing for the next major hurricane, psychology is now as important as meteorology. In Katrina, “there was a gap between the perceived accuracy of the forecast and the real accuracy,” Neilley wrote. “Society’s perspective on forecast accuracy lagged behind the true gains that our science had made up until that point.”

The same is true now. Even with perfect forecasts, society can never be perfectly prepared for extreme weather. Only when meteorologists and emergency managers place the “why” of improving forecasts above the “how” will society truly benefit. This is a lesson that the meteorological community is still struggling to learn. That’s why after Katrina, after the horrible tornadoes of 2011, after Hurricane Sandy, we all asked, “How could this happen?” At some point, improving society requires a re-think of why people become vulnerable in the first place, and then taking action to ensure those vulnerabilities are addressed. Better weather forecasts help, but what we need is a better society that prevents those vulnerabilities from reaching potentially disastrous levels in the first place. Many meteorologists are already thinking this way, but we’ll need a whole lot more before we can say we’ve made progress since Katrina.

Aug. 26 2015 7:43 PM

North Dakota Police Drones Can Be Weaponized If They’re Not Lethal. Wait, What?

A bill passed by North Dakota's legislative assembly that was meant to require warrants for drone searches evolved into something entirely different, thanks to an amendment from a lobbyist.

The Daily Beast reports that House Bill 1328, sponsored by Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck, aimed to forbid all weapons on police drones. But Bruce Burkett from the North Dakota Peace Officer’s Association amended the bill to prohibit only lethal weapons, leaving the door open for “less than lethal” weapons like Tasers, pepper spray, and rubber bullets. (Let's not even get into the fact that “less than lethal” weapons actually have killed people.)

As the Verge points out, North Dakota is one of six Federal Aviation Administration pilot programs for trying out commercial drone use in civilian airspace, and drones are allowed to fly at up to 1,200 feet in the state instead of the usual 400-foot limit.

Becker told the Daily Beast of the amendment, “This is one I’m not in full agreement with. I wish it was any weapon. ... In my opinion there should be a nice, red line: Drones should not be weaponized. Period.”

Aug. 26 2015 4:57 PM

Report: A Lot of People Don’t Bother Using Fancy Car Tech

Cars are supposed to be able to do basically anything these days. They listen to you and try to answer your questions, they know all your favorite music, they self-park. Soon they'll be doing all the driving for us. But the 2015 Driver Interactive Vehicle Experience Report from J.D. Power shows something unexpected: A lot of people don't seem to care about any of this.

The Los Angeles Times notes that 43 percent of people surveyed don't use their cars' voice recognition to call up things like GPS directions. Thirty-five percent never tried automatic parking, 32 percent avoided apps like Yelp, and 20 percent didn't even use half of the tech features in their cars. (The survey asked about 33 tech features that seemed to be available in all respondents’ cars.)

The report polled 4,200 people between April and June who had bought or leased cars no more than three months before taking the survey. Research indicates that people are unlikely to explore car features and start using new ones after the first three months of owning a car, Reuters reports.

It seems that most people, especially those in the 21- to 38-year-old range simply used their smartphones instead of attempting to engage with their cars' tech features. For all ages the lack of engagement seemed to be a combination of active avoidance and not knowing all of the things the cars could do.

Kristin Kolodge, the executive director of driver interaction at J.D. Power, told Reuters, "Customers say, 'I have a competing technology that's easier to use, or I've already paid for it—so why do I need it again?' ... Is it really making it easier? That's where some of the value is being challenged." She noted in a statement that the tech features people seem to like the most are more related to actual driving mechanics—things like maintenance diagnostics, cruise control, and blind spot monitoring—than entertainment or connectivity.

Though these results could have implications for the (supposed) impending rise of self-driving cars, it also could play out that people have more time to figure out all the features in their cars when they're not actually driving them. And when people are already so practiced on their smartphones, it's hard to see how plugging in some directions at a red light is more difficult than trying to get the voice of your car's "personal assistant" to stop blasting out of the speakers about alternate route options and Top 40.

Aug. 26 2015 1:51 PM

Voting Selfies Violate the Sanctity of the Ballot Box. That’s a Good Thing.

In one of his more controversial essays, E.B. White writes about politicians, religion, and the dogma of democracy. In 1956’s "Bedfellows," White aptly observing that the “Democracy is itself a religious faith. For some it comes to being the only formal religion they have.”

Prescient and wise though he was on certain matters, the famously reclusive White could not have foreseen the appeal of selfies and the slavish devotion of those who snap them, nor their place in debates about suffrage. Selfie takers may be radiant, but they’re not terribly humble and can be a bit piggish. The advent of the selfie ballot may be causing a spiritual crisis for those who worship democracy.

To produce a ballot-box selfie, complete the following steps: Take a photo of yourself with your marked ballot. Use flash only as needed, i.e., when your district’s booth is relegated to the dark corner of the high school gym. Collect your “I voted” sticker, and Photoshop image thereof into original photo. (This part is optional but encouraged.) Post to social media platform of choice. Rocking of vote complete. Watch the likes roll in—that is, of course, as long as you’re not in Indiana.

On Monday, the New York Times reported on a newly enacted Indiana law, in which a voter may not take a photo of her ballot in the polling place to distribute or share using social media. The photos may be shared, however, to document a problem or malfunction with voting system. Indiana is hardly the first state to adopt such a law. White’s beloved Maine amended its code in 2011 to remove a pre-existing (pre–selfie heyday!) ban on sharing of photos of one’s ballot. Research by the Digital Media Law Project indicates that while only a handful of states explicitly ban recordings inside the polling place, there are actually plenty of laws on the books that, if fully enforced, would stifle ballot selfie expression. And until recently, New Hampshire voters were also bound by a law that left them free to live, but not to post. Earlier this month, the U.S. District Court in New Hampshire overturned the law on the grounds that it amounted to a content-based restriction on speech, giving Kardashian lovers everywhere reason to celebrate and bow down to the altar of the “gram.”

In 2014, New Hampshire updated a decades-old election law to extend the general ban on a voter sharing her marked ballot to specifically prohibit social distribution. The rationale? Selfies and the information they contain could lead to coercion and vote buying. Boss Tweed political-machine types and corporate overlords with a cause, the argument goes, will demand voting booth selfies as proof that smartphone-wielding employees are toeing the party and company line. The increasing political influence of corporations is real and a source of concern. The prospect of a resurgence of vote-buying by powerful interests is scary. It is also already illegal.

The Indiana and New Hampshire legislatures’ motivations in banning the ballot selfie may or may not be noble. Underlying the laws is the notion of a pure voting experience unsullied by external forces, a celebration of political expression, of participation, of the power of the one, of the power of the many. Voting is the cornerstone of our democracy, so this is appealing stuff. I admire the instinct to protect the vote. Despite whiffs of paternalism, it’s a welcome balancing influence to the unfailing belief in transparency as a cure to all political woes. But the doctrinaire approach—protect the sanctity the booth—misses an important point: It’s hard to celebrate by yourself. One need look no further than the Iowa caucuses for proof that politics is a team sport. Democracy (when it’s functioning as intended) is a religion open to all. So it is with the selfie. Selfies are meant to be shared for all to see and comment upon. And I expect the tweeting masses won’t give up on the right to frame without a fight, or, at the very least, a rousing debate.

Aug. 26 2015 9:15 AM

This Might Be the Best Internet Service Provider in the U.S.

When we moved to our current Bay Area home in 2010, it seemed wise—given our reliance on the Internet for our work—to get both cable Internet and DSL service, to ensure a connection in all but the worst of circumstances. We had one choice for cable: Comcast, which is under no obligation to share its lines or central facilities. But because of different rules governing copper-line connections, we had more than one choice for DSL. And rather than send money to AT&T, a company that has earned widespread contempt—notably, most recently, for its eagerness to turn over its customers’ data to the government’s pervasive-surveillance maw—we opted for a more trustworthy alternative.

Our DSL comes from a small company called Sonic, based north of San Francisco. It’s an independent in an industry dominated by a cable-phone cartel notorious for greed, customer disservice, and control-freakery. Sonic is innovative and aggressive in good ways, expanding its footprint by providing excellent service at a fair price. It has (from first-hand experience) a genuine commitment to customer service. And, reflecting the civil-libertarian beliefs of its founder and CEO, Dane Jasper, it is the anti-AT&T when it comes to privacy and security.

Sonic consistently gets a perfect score from the Electronic Frontier Foundation for protecting users’ privacy. Unlike most Internet service providers, which hang on to users’ data for months or years, Sonic retains customer data for just two weeks, long enough to troubleshoot network problems and provide law enforcement help in emergencies but not long enough to fuel copyright trolls or government fishing expeditions. “We’re not trying to help people evade the law,” Jasper says. “We're trying to protect the privacy of our lawful customers.”

Sonic also fought back when the government subpoenaed a user’s information during its ongoing investigation of WikiLeaks—“so he would have an opportunity to fight it,” says Jasper. The court let Sonic tell the customer, who was identified in press accounts as Jacob Appelbaum, but the ISP was required to hand over the data.

Like other DSL competitors, Sonic co-locates its own equipment inside the phone company's facilities, effectively renting the copper lines. For the small percentage of Sonic customers whose setup requires the use of AT&T's central-office electronics—most customers are using Sonic gear on both ends of the conection—Sonic provides a virtual private network service at no extra charge. AT&T may be saving and handing over its own customers’ information willy-nilly, but Sonic customers’ Internet traffic (at least, for people taking advantage of the VPN) is subject to Sonic’s data-retention policies, not AT&T’s, a major improvement.**

Jasper says Sonic has business and residential customers—he won’t say how many, and he doesn’t have to since he runs a privately held company—in 125 California communities. The vast majority have some variant of DSL, which uses the copper wires from the traditional phone system. But advances in technology have given companies like Sonic a way to offer significantly more connection speed than was available on DSL a decade ago.

Sonic’s speed offerings, for DSL customers who live close enough to phone company facilities (we don’t, unfortunately), are amazingly fast: up to 100 megabits per second, and occasionally more, for a dual-line setup that connects two phones. The high-speed data comes with a wired phone line—a kind of “double play” in telecom parlance that is only $60 a month plus various fees and taxes. A single-line setup is $40 a month but still, in a good location, is plenty fast. (Sonic has a deal with DirecTV to offer a small discount on the satellite provider’s service). Now Sonic is deploying fiber, so far in two northern California communities with more to come; fiber is Sonic’s most important new frontier. Jasper’s goal is to offer super-fast fiber, gigabit-level connections, plus phone for the $40 base price as widely as possible.*

Jasper and Sonic aren’t the only noncartel competition in the country, though the collective independent footprint is dwarfed by the telecom giants’ installations. There are many wireless ISPs, though their data speeds can’t generally keep up with wired connections. A Toronto-based company, Tucows (disclosure: the CEO is a friend), has moved into the ISP business as well: It’s taken over several small independent systems (one built by a city) in the eastern U.S., with plans to move further into the business. And, of course, Google is a huge competitor to the entrenched telecoms in the few cities it’s been wiring for gigabit service.

Even if Sonic never brings its fastest connections to our address, I’ll stick with them. It feels important to do business with companies that believe in doing the right thing. From what I’ve seen, Sonic is one of them.

*Update, Aug. 26, 2015: This post was updated to clarify that the fastest DSL service requires two linked phone lines, while most customers get a single line at a lower cost.

**Update, Aug. 27, 2015: This post was updated to reflect that while Sonic's DSL customers are using AT&T's lines, only a small percentage of them are using AT&T electronics.

Aug. 25 2015 4:31 PM

Beating Extinction Will Take More Than Freezing Animal Sperm

Wired logo

Zoo animals are giving humans a run for their money in the assisted reproduction department. Mei Xiang, a giant panda at the National Zoo, gave birth to twin babies this past Saturday, thanks to artificial insemination. And earlier this month, scientists announced the birth of a bouncing baby black-footed ferret, conceived with cryogenically preserved sperm from a father who had died twenty years ago.

This is great, you’re thinking. Why can’t we just artificially inseminate all the endangered animals? Game over, extinction … right?

Well, no. But that line of reasoning isn’t too far off from what scientists were thinking back in the ’70s and ’80s. That’s when, inspired by successes in the livestock industry, researchers started freezing and stockpiling the sperm, eggs, and other tissues of endangered animals in “frozen zoos.” Farmers have successfully artificially inseminated cows for decades, and it’s common practice for prize horses and dogs. (And humans, of course.)

But it turns out wild animal insemination is a whole different beast.

Scientists, first off, simply don’t know how reproduction works for the vast majority of species. “We had to go back first to basic reproductive biology, because, of course, a cheetah is not a dairy cow,” says Pierre Comizzoli, a biologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.

Artificial insemination for cows has been successful because the livestock industry has poured millions of dollars and decades of research into studying them. But that’s just one species worth of research. With 6,264 endangered or critically endangered species on the IUCN Red List, scientists are spread thin trying to tease out the intricacies of their reproductive systems.

On top of that, science-mediated sex is really complicated (even more complicated than run-of-the-mill sex). “Artificial insemination is still an experimental model,” Comizzoli says. It works sometimes, but the odds of success aren’t great. So vials and vials of endangered animal sperm are just sitting around in liquid nitrogen in zoos across the country, waiting for the day the science catches up to the promise of their gooey contents.

Take the big cats. They’re especially challenging to artificially inseminate, says Adrienne Crosier, who’s been studying cheetah reproduction at the National Zoo for more than a decade. That’s because cheetahs don’t tend to produce good quality sperm samples. “A lot of cells in fresh ejaculate are motile and of good quality,” Crosier says, but what samples scientists can get from the small cheetah population are plagued by low sperm count and abnormally shaped cells. Mostly, that’s because cheetahs have an unusual lack of genetic diversity, thanks to a population bottleneck 10,000 years ago.

Female cheetahs aren’t helping out much either: Their estrous cycles are so irregular that Crosier has to administer hormones to reset them, and her team relies on male cheetahs to let them know when the females are in heat. Otherwise, she says, “it’s impossible for us to tell.”

Once scientists have collected a semen sample (a logistically complex procedure that may involve anesthetizing the animal), the sperm needs to be frozen and, when the time comes, thawed. “It’s asking a lot of these cells,” says Budhan Pukazhenthi, a Smithsonian scientist who works with ungulates like zebras, antelopes, and deer. Scientists basically pickle the sperm cells with a cocktail of antifreeze chemicals, which involves a delicate dance between lowering the temperature of the sperm and introducing the solution to keep sharp ice crystals from forming within the cell. Reanimating the sample involves reversing the process while controlling for temperature and thawing rates. “It’s almost like cooking,” Pukazhenthi says.

But, again, not all sperm is created equal. Giant pandas owe their human-orchestrated reproductive success to their hardy sperm: It’s resistant to cold, not fragile, and relatively easy to freeze and reanimate. Elephants, though? Scientists are still struggling to freeze the sperm and keep it alive after thawing. Cheetahs are somewhere in between—researchers have worked out a protocol to preserve sperm well, but insemination itself hasn’t gone so well. Out of 50 attempts or so, inseminated cheetahs have given birth to 11 litters. “You may have a perfect-quality sperm sample that’s just absolutely beautiful, and then your female doesn’t respond to the hormone, or vice versa,” Crosier says. “So some of it is all the stars aligning.” She and her team are working to increase those odds.

Still, artificial insemination has a ton of promise: Instead of transporting animals to breed between zoos and stressing them out in the process, it would be much simpler for everyone involved to just move their genes instead. Scientists can keep populations from becoming too inbred by pairing up genetically favorable couples. And a single sample can have a longer shelf life—and better staying power—than a single stud.

Using artificial insemination would be especially useful for cheetahs, who are extremely picky about their mates and rarely breed in captivity, says Crosier. “We need to be patient, but we also have species that need to be saved as soon as possible,” Comizzoli says. “This is kind of a race we have to win.”

Also in Wired:

Aug. 25 2015 3:15 PM

You’d Think Ashley Madison Would Have Stopped Touting Its Security Features By Now

This is what Ashley Madison's homepage looks like right now, and maybe it's just me, but I feel like those emblems at the bottom right shouldn't be there. (It's not just me.) Let's take a closer look, shall we?


Screencap of Ashley Madison


After a highly publicized data breach that affected every part of a site (user data, source code, emails), it feels pretty brazen to continue to advertise strong cybersecurity measures, but Ashley Madison is just rolling with it.

The most problematic icon is probably the one that says "100% Discreet Service," just because it's, you know, categorically false. But even among the two that are just in poor taste there are problems.

Many suspect that the site's "Trusted Security Award" is fake, and even if it's real, Ashley Madison probably won't be winning it for the second year in a row. As for the promise of an "SSL Secure Site," sure, great. Your data will be encrypted as it travels between your browser and Ashley Madison itself. Seeing as Ashley Madison's servers (and all the data on them) are compomised, though, it's not very reassuring in this case.

When Motherboard asked the Impact Team hackers (who released the data dumps and claim responsibility for the breach) about the quality of Ashley Madison's cybersecurity measures, they said, "Bad. Nobody was watching. No security."

There's been a lot of speculation that the attack was an inside job, and at this point that's kind of a best-case scenario for Ashley Madison owner Avid Life Media Inc. At least in that case the company could take the position that it wasn't actually hacked and that its external security is strong. Avid Life Media CEO Noel Biderman told Krebs on Security in July that the culprit “was definitely a person here that was not an employee but certainly had touched our technical services.”

Given everything that's happened, there's really no good way for Ashley Madison to be marketing itself right now, but it could at least update its home page to be a little more humble.

Aug. 25 2015 1:10 PM

What Ray Bradbury’s FBI File Teaches Us About Science Fiction’s Latest Controversies

If you believe Ray Bradbury’s FBI file, science fiction is a dangerous genre.

When the bureau investigated Bradbury—a man its 1959 records describe as “a free-lance science fiction, television and motion picture scenario writer”—it found little of interest.

Separate FOIA requests by the Daily Beast and MuckRock unearthed Bradbury’s files in 2012. Though they received some coverage at the time, Boing Boing, the Register, and MuckRock have discussed the documents this week, focusing to their charming anachronisms and other period peculiarities. Ultimately, however, those documents stand out most for what they reveal about the state of science fiction today.

The FBI studied Bradbury on two occasions, separated by more than a decade, but it learned less about Bradbury himself than it did about his work. The bureau’s mostly anonymous informants were richly imaginative, none moreso than Martin A. Berkeley, a former Communist Party member who reported extensively to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Berkeley, a 1959 section notes, “declared that a number of science fiction writers have created illusions with regard to the impossibility of continuing world affairs … through the medium of futuristic stories concerned with the potentialities of science.” Speaking in more general terms, Berkeley would tell the bureau “that science fiction may be a lucrative field for the introduction of Communist ideologies.”

Though Bradbury’s files speak to his commercial success, they offer no suggestion that it was driven by the introduction of any ideology, a communist one least of all. Instead, they show that his work was capable of upsetting established dogmas of many kinds. His Martian Chronicles, for example, feature the "repeated theme that earthmen are despoilers and not developers." Elsewhere, the documents note—“without irony,” as MuckRock’s JPat Brown puts it—that Russian authorities had banned “The Fireman,” an early version of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

Silly as these statements may seem, they feel somehow more resonant now than they did when they were first unearthed three years ago. In a Metafilter thread about the file from Monday, a commenter going by the name “Max Sparber” observes, “Thank goodness weirdo conservatives with a distrust for leftist writers are no longer trying to destroy science fiction.” Sparber is alluding to the failed co-optation of the Hugo awards—one of SF’s highest honors—by groups calling themselves the Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies.

As Amy Wallace explains in her thorough account of the saga in Wired, the Puppies’ leaders claim they’re trying to bring SF back to simpler times. Pushing back against what they perceive as an elitist wave of liberal propaganda, they claim they “want sci-fi to be less preachy and more fun.” The Puppies’ brand of “less preachy and more fun” conservatism includes reactionary misogyny, homophobia, and racism, as Wallace and others have documented. At core, however, the Puppy movement was a call for a return to an imagined childhood—perhaps that of the genre, perhaps that of its readers.

Bradbury’s FBI file contradicts the still-yipping proponents of Puppygate. It serves as a pointed reminder that science fiction, even popular science fiction, was never just about entertaining. Much as they might whine to the contrary, the Puppies aren’t angry about what science fiction has become—they’re uncomfortable with what it has always been. Science fiction has always made us imagine the world differently. No one knew this better than Bradbury himself, Bradbury whose books—as the FBI notes—sold hundreds of thousands of copies. As he would write in his short story “No News, or What Killed the Dog?” from Quicker Than the Eye, “That's all science fiction was ever about. Hating the way things are, wanting to make things different.”

Of course, wanting to make things different doesn’t always mean making a stir. Isaac Asimov’s FBI file, for example, is mostly dull, even more a testament to overeager informants than Bradbury’s. And Philip K. Dick’s file speaks more to the author’s paranoia about other science fiction writers than to the bureau’s interest in Dick. Still, in their oddities and banalities alike, all of these documents—and especially those that pertain to Bradbury—are important reminders that science fiction invites us to see and think in new ways. It’s not always ideologically inclined, but it has rarely strayed far from the political. 

Aug. 25 2015 12:12 PM

Should Drones Have License Plates So Officials Can Police Them Like Cars?

Consumers and businesses have really been accelerating their use of unmanned aerial vehicles lately, and mo' drones means mo' problems. As officials scramble to vet and implement safety measures, the number of near-miss encounters between UAVs and airplanes is on the rise.

Federal Aviation Administration documents obtained by the Washington Post show that there have been almost 700 dangerously close encounters in 2015 so far, up drastically from 2014. "The documents show that ­remote-control planes are penetrating some of the most guarded airspace in the country," Craig Whitlock wrote in the Post, including all over airports, even though drones are supposed to stay five miles away.

The Department of Homeland Security has said that drones could play a role in terrorist threats since they are so often observed near critical or sensitive locations. And the FAA documents reveal that drones aren't just hanging out a few hundred feet from the ground. Some have been spotted above 10,000 feet. The Post wrote:

In most cases, rogue drones disappear without a trace. The aircraft are usually too small to be detected by radar and do not carry transponders that would broadcast their locations. Unlike other planes, these drones are not marked with serial numbers, and their owners are not required to register them.

The FAA is still ironing out guidelines about who can fly drones and where. For now, recreational drone pilots just have to avoid airports and flying above large crowds of people, plus stay under 400 feet. Businesses need special approval from the FAA to operate drones. And as safety concerns grow, the agency is considering identification systems so it can enforce its growing framework of rules.

Michael Huerta, who heads the Federal Aviation Administration, talked to NPR Sunday about options for identifying drones. "One of the things that I've asked our industry partners to look at is are there technological solutions that would enable us to be able to tie a particular drone or unmanned aircraft with a specific operator?" He added that there is ongoing debate over requiring that people register drones in a centralized database at time of purchase, much like a car. "That might also provide the opportunity to ensure that we're reinforcing the message of what the rules are," Huerta said.

There are already some identifcation options in development. At the University of California, Berkeley, researchers are working on a type of "license plate" that uses multicolor LED lights blinking in unique patterns, rather than letters and numbers, to show which drone is which. The project, called Lightcense, uses a special app and optic sensors to decipher the blinks, thus identifying different drones.

Inventor Aislan Foina, who is the director of the Cal Unmanned Aviation Research Lab at UC–Berkeley, told MIT Technology Review last week that Lightcense would enable local police to quickly ID drones. “If a drone is bothering people, they’re going to call the police, not the Air Force or FAA,” he said.

It took 17 years (1901–1918) for every state to require car registration and license plates. Hopefully the process will move a bit more quickly with drones.