Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Aug. 18 2016 4:01 PM

Here’s How Data From Amazon’s Delivery Algorithm Can Help Reduce Discrimination

Amazon recently began to offer same-day delivery in selected metropolitan areas. This may be good for many customers, but the rollout shows how computerized decision-making can also deliver a strong dose of discrimination.

Sensibly, the company began its service in areas where delivery costs would be lowest, by identifying ZIP codes of densely populated places home to many existing Amazon customers with income levels high enough to make frequent purchases of products available for same-day delivery. The company provided a web page letting customers enter their ZIP code to see if same-day delivery served them. Investigative journalists at Bloomberg News used that page to create maps of Amazon’s service area for same-day delivery.

The Bloomberg analysis revealed that many poor urban areas were excluded from the service area, while more affluent neighboring areas were included. Many of these excluded poor areas were predominantly inhabited by minorities. For example, all of Boston was covered except for Roxbury; New York City coverage included almost all of four boroughs but completely excluded the Bronx; Chicago coverage left out the impoverished South Side, while extending substantially to affluent northern and western suburbs.

Aug. 18 2016 1:19 PM

Yet Another Way the Baltimore Police Unfairly Target Black People

What do you get when you take a very segregated city with a history of high racial tension, give it a police department that is demonstrably racially biased against blacks, and arm those police with secret high-tech surveillance tools? The answer: Baltimore. This is a city where, through use of suitcase-size fake cellphone towers that can be used to track Baltimore residents, police disrupt the cellphone network on a regular basis, disproportionately—unfairly—focusing on black neighborhoods.

With all this in mind, on Tuesday I represented three national nonprofits in filing a complaint against the Baltimore City Police Department for its use of certain surveillance equipment that mimics cellular towers in order to track cellphones. That equipment, described as “cell site simulators” and often referred to in shorthand as “stingrays,” emulates real cell towers, sends out counterfeit registration signals to nearby cellphones, forces cellphones in the area to connect with it, and then enables law enforcement agents to catalog or track any cellphones within 200 meters—about a two-block radius. These devices are used by police departments around the country, but quite likely most heavily in Baltimore, and they have real downsides. They can cause disruptions to the cellular phone network, jam 911 and other emergency calls, and directly discourage First Amendment–protected speech and access to information.

Cell site simulators have been challenged in the past, primarily for Fourth Amendment violations when police have failed to get warrants to use the devices. Less has been said, however, about how these devices fare under the Communications Act—which, as we point out in our complaint, is not well. In order to masquerade as cell towers, cell site simulators transmit signals over the air to cellphones, just like real cell towers do. Unfortunately for the Baltimore City Police Department, federal law says you need a license to do that. The law also says you can’t interfere with legitimate communications between someone’s cellphone and the cellular network. Finally, the law directs the Federal Communications Commission to make emergency calling available, and to ensure that communications networks are available to all people equally, or at least that they are not discriminatorily only to some.

The FCC is going to have to do something about all of this, and soon. Interference with the cellular network—especially in an era when more than half of households no longer have landlines—is greatly concerning. But more than that, the FCC has the legal obligation to enforce the Communications Act, and this is a clear violation of the Communications Act. We’ve asked the FCC to stop Baltimore police from using these devices, and not to use them again unless and until they get the licenses they need under the law. Given the ways in which surveillance technology enhances police power, and in light of the recent Justice Department report demonstrating that the police are racially biased, asking the Baltimore Police to stop using the devices seems like a reasonable thing to ask for.

But what then? We’d like to see surveillance equipment specifically addressed in any consent decree reached between DOJ and the police of Baltimore or any other city over racially biased policing. And if police agencies also want the FCC to modify its rules to make licenses easier to obtain, as they might, the burden should be on law enforcement to explain clearly and compellingly to the public why we should support that, and how we can be confident the technology won’t continue to be used in a way that exacerbates racial disparities in society. From the days of slavery, to the Civil Rights Era, to today, communities of color have borne far more than their share of surveillance harms.

Also, future conversations between police and activists over racially biased policing simply must include a surveillance component. And conversations between police and activists about intrusive surveillance need to include a racial justice component. Because surveillance and racial justice are not two separate issues. These issues are one and the same, and we should scrutinize and treat them that way.

Aug. 18 2016 12:18 PM

Uber Is Rolling Out Driverless Cars in Pittsburgh. Each One Has Two Drivers.

Hailing an Uber in Pittsburgh is about to be a little like buying a chocolate bar and praying for the Golden Ticket. Bloomberg Businessweekreports this morning that Uber will integrate self-driving cars into its operations in downtown Pittsburgh later this month. Uber customers will be slotted into the few driverless cars at random, and those trips will be free.

Max Chafkin writes that Uber is “crossing an important milestone” with the rollout, and it’s true, in a sense, that the fares represent the first commercial application of self-driving cars in the U.S. But it’s a lot less exciting than it sounds—the Pittsburgh initiative just adds some publicity to an ongoing beta test.

Aug. 17 2016 5:59 PM

The Upside of Global Warming: Luxury “Northwest Passage” Cruises for the Filthy Rich

It has been described in the press as “the world’s most dangerous cruise“ and in glossy marketing copy as “the ultimate expedition for the true explorer.” It is a historic voyage, one that marks the opening of one of Earth’s last frontiers.

It is also an abomination—a massive, diesel-burning, waste-dumping, ice-destroying, golf-ball-smacking middle finger to what remains of the planet, courtesy of precisely 1,089 of its richest and most destructive inhabitants. And it’s all made possible by runaway climate change, the existential global crisis that these same people and their ilk have disproportionately helped to create.

The $350 million, 68,000-ton Crystal Serenity, operated by the decorated Los Angeles–based line Crystal Cruises, embarked from Anchorage, Alaska, on Tuesday. Its 32-day itinerary will take it to New York by way of the mythical Northwest Passage. Make that the formerly mythical Northwest Passage: Thanks to ocean warming brought on by climate change, the once-impassable shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans became ice-free in summer 2007 for the first time on satellite record.

A growing trickle of recreational and cargo ships have managed the trip in recent years, but the 820-foot, 13-deck Crystal Serenity will be, by far, the largest to do so. On board will be a rarefied set of passengers, each of whom paid between $22,000 and $120,000 for the privilege—plus $50,000 in required “emergency evacuation” insurance, according to National Geographic. At their disposal will be a crew of 600, a spa, a fitness center, a hair salon, multiple swimming pools, six restaurants, a movie theater, a casino, a driving range, and a complimentary “get out of hell free” card.

Just kidding about that last one.

Because global warming hasn’t completely vanquished the Arctic ice—yet!—the voyage truly will be perilous. As a precaution, the Crystal Serenity will be accompanied by an ice-breaking boat and two helicopters. Meanwhile, apparently by coincidence, the U.S. Department of Defense is holding a five-day, multiagency training exercise to prepare for the possibility of a massive Arctic rescue operation. The exercise will commence in Nome, Alaska, the day after the cruise ship leaves that port.

Northwest Passage
Warming oceans have led to ice-free summers, opening the Northwest Passage to commercial tourism and shipping.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Harder to prepare for is the possibility of a fuel spill like the one that ensued when a tourist cruise ship sank off the coast of Antarctica in 2007, poisoning the nearby penguin mating grounds.

But even cruise ships that don’t crash can still befoul the world around them. In addition to their exorbitant per-capita carbon emissions, commercial cruise ships dump 1 billion gallons of sewage into the sea each year, according to a 2014 study by the nonprofit Friends of Earth. While Crystal says it treats its sewage and avoids dumping it close to shore, it was one of four cruise lines to receive a failing grade in that 2014 report.

It isn’t just the U.S. government that is scrambling to accommodate these wealthy tourists’ whims. National Geographic notes that the Inuit community of Ulukhaktok, Canada, has spent the past two years holding town meetings and training sessions in preparation for the arrival of a cruise ship whose population is four times that of the town itself. The Crystal Serenity is scheduled to dock there on Saturday, Aug. 27, with its passengers disembarking in groups of 150 at a time.

The people of Ulukhaktok might as well get used to being outnumbered. Analysts say the Crystal Serenity’s cruise, if successful, will blaze a path for many more large cruise, and cargo, ships to follow in the years to come. Already, Crystal Cruises says it’s planning a second Northwest Passage cruise for 2017, after this one sold out.

When environmentalists talk about climate change, they tend to focus on its enormous and potentially catastrophic costs. But as Crystal Cruises reminds us, there are others who prefer to focus on its benefits—and profit from them.

But what about the passengers? What kind of person spends tens of thousands of dollars to partake in a cruise that simultaneously celebrates and accelerates the degradation of one of Earth’s last pristine landscapes? It’s hard to fathom, but an anecdote from a recent Travel and Leisure feature on Arctic cruises offers a clue.

In it, the author recounts how a sort of acquisitive mania overtook his fellow passengers when they spotted their first polar bears, after two weeks at sea without encountering any:

I think that’s why we kept getting closer and closer even as they tried to swim away, crossing a cove and scrambling up a cliff. There were people on the cruise—a minority, to be sure—who later criticized the decision to follow them. Polar bears, they pointed out, often go up to a month without finding anything to eat and can ill afford to waste precious calories paddling away from people, even if those people only want to share pictures of them on Facebook.
But I’m not sure we had a choice. … If we hadn’t seen any polar bears, I think there might have been a riot.

These, then, are the kind of people who will stop at nothing to satisfy their thirst for consumption—not only of goods, but of experiences. To be fair, ruining the Arctic probably isn’t their goal, and all things equal, they might well prefer to see it preserved. It’s just that, in their personal moral calculus, the coefficient they assign to their own pleasure happens to be infinity.

Aug. 17 2016 4:44 PM

God Help Us, These Researchers Are Using Reddit to Teach a Supercomputer to Talk

OpenAI, the nonprofit backed by Elon Musk and Peter Thiel, wants to teach technology to talk. It has enlisted the help of a supercomputer named DGX-1 to help train its machine learning systems. (What are machine learning systems? MIT Technology Review describes them alluringly as a “network of crudely simulated neurons” that use data to glean “a probabilistic understanding of conversation.”) DGX-1 can feed prodigious amounts of natural language to OpenAI’s robotic reticulation, which then takes the input as a model for its own “speech.” All the student teacher pair needs in its quest for cocktail chatter mastery is source material.

Source material—that sounds easy enough! Did the researchers prescribe a steady diet of luminous prose from English’s marquee authors? Did they plunder the canon for Martin Luther King Jr.’s oratory, Virginia Woolf’s collected letters, and Tennessee Williams’ plays?

Nope. “We’re training,” said OpenAI research scientist Andrej Karpathy in a press release, “on entire years of conversations of people talking to each other on Reddit.”

Oh boy.

To recap: Of all the possible linguistic corpora on earth, these scientists have decided to expose their learning systems to a discourse that usually ends with someone calling someone else a fat gay loser cuck and comparing him to Hitler. And then the second guy cracks a xenophobic, sexually explicit joke about the first guy’s mom. And then the first guy pretends to solve the Boston Bombing.

Have we learned nothing from Tay, the Microsoft chatbot that spewed foul racist garbage after only a few hours of interacting with trolls on Twitter? Sure, Reddit models a colloquial tone, as Sophie Kleeman at Gizmodo points out, and its many communities discuss a wide range of subjects, but it is also frequently the boneyard where all grace and decency go to die. Will OpenAI’s learning systems absorb strategies for choosing careers and college majors, or only gain expertise in nihilistic lulz and platform-specific acronyms? At least, a success from the researchers on this front would break new ground: They’d have created the only brain ever to get smarter by reading Reddit.

Aug. 17 2016 2:45 PM

When a Roomba Goes Up Against Animal Poop, No One Wins

It is a poignant fact about robots that they are much better than humans at some tasks and hilariously worse at others. Take, for example, the Roomba. The round robotic vacuum keeps floors spotless by working its way in complicated patterns around the home, zipping into corners and around furniture. But put a piece of animal poop in its way, and suddenly it doesn’t look so smart. This weekend, when a Roomba in Arkansas ran into a puppy’s fresh deposit on the floor, disaster ensued. “If the unthinkable does happen, and your Roomba runs over dog poop, stop it immediately and do not let it continue the cleaning cycle,” Little Rock resident Jesse Newton warned in a viral Facebook post, complete with illustration. “Those awesome wheels, which have a checkered surface for better traction, left 25-foot poop trails all over the house.”

Newton was not alone in experienced what he called “the Pooptastrophe.” A Roomba representative admitted to the Guardian, “Quite honestly, we see this a lot.” In fact, the exact same thing happened a few years ago to my brother- and sister-in-law. Daniel and Margaret are both lawyers, and they live in Texas with their Bichon Frise, Mr. Fluffy. (As Daniel describes the incident, “The robot we bought to act as a surrogate cleaner so we both can have time to pursue our jobs literally covers the house in excrement from our proxy for a child.”) I called Margaret and asked her to walk me through what happened. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Let's start at the beginning. When this happened, how long had you had the Roomba and how long had you had Mr. Fluffy?

Mr. Fluffy predated the Roomba, but I don’t remember how long. Both were relatively new to the household. Can I just say, I don’t want my 15 minutes of fame and internet posterity to be about this story.

Ha, I’m not going to use your last name. Is just “Margaret” OK?

“Margaret” is fine.

OK, so tell me how you came to acquire the Roomba and how you used it. Would you set it every day before you go to work?

Daniel was really into this idea of getting a Roomba. And it wasn’t even a Roomba, it was a generic [version] that was on sale at Costco. He was really into it, and I was like, whatever. So we got the Roomba and he handled setting it up and everything. It [ran] during the day while we were at work. We’d leave for work, and the Roomba and Fluffy would be home alone.

Did it clean things well? Were you happy with it?

I was neutral toward it. Daniel, I think, was happy with it.

How would you describe Fluffy as a dog?

He’s mostly couch-bound, and he hates going to the bathroom outside, especially in hot weather. [Reminder: Fluffy lives in Texas.]

So walk me through what happened: You get home that day, what’s the first thing you notice?

I was walking into the kitchen, and I looked out into the dining room and there was a brown—almost like a giant crayon, all over the floor. I get down on my hands and knees and rub it with my thumb, and it becomes very clear to me immediately that it is shit, because of the smell. I cannot even tell you, Ruth, the smell. That was the worst part of the entire thing. I’m on my hands and knees and I’ve just realized my thumb is covered in shit.

That guy’s story really resonated with me because it was all over. All, all over. And you saw how inefficient the Roomba was. It was covering its own tracks a lot. It’s going over the same area a ton. It’s a very efficient poop-smearing thing, but it’s not very efficient for cleaning your house. I remember thinking to myself, it’s going to be easier to move. And then I spent the next hour-and-a-half scraping up poo trails.

Did you have to clean out the Roomba?

I did not. There was no way I’m cleaning out the Roomba. Daniel can do that if he wants.

Did Fluffy seem aware at all of the hell that he had unleashed?

No. No. No. He’s never been aware. Just this last week I ordered a pair of flip-flops and he ate the left flip-flop. I ordered another pair, and fortunately later in the week he ate the right one. But at least I have one pair.

Was Daniel willing to get rid of the Roomba after this happened?

You might have to talk with him about this. I remember the Roomba use being curtailed, but I don’t know if it was directly related to this incident. That would be my lawyer response to that. [Daniel: “Yes, that pretty much killed the little robot. Every time I brought it out or referenced it there was an automatic retelling of the incident. ... You should try to ask her this Christmas, ‘Hey—what ever happened to that Roomba?’ ” Eventually, they gave it away to friends.]

Who do you blame for this incident?

I blame it on the Roomba, absolutely. Fluffy, he’s a dog. That just happens. The Roomba was definitely at fault.

Aug. 17 2016 11:56 AM

Now Twitter's Soulless Machinations Have Ruined Stickers

Two things about the internet: It runs on cuteness, and that cuteness often veils tremendous corporate power.

You already know this, and yet Twitter has demonstrated it yet again, this time with the launch of its branded stickers. Stickers! Everyone loves stickers—they embody the app world’s zeitgeist of youthful fun. Snapchat lets you scribble on your photos. Facebook invites you to garnish your friends’ posts with cartoon reactions. As of the end of July, Twitter—often considered a slightly more serious playground for media types—gives you pages of cheery insignia with which to comment, ironically or sweetly, on the freeze frames of your life. Some of the stickers, which appear in a searchable drop-down menu and which you can plaster on uploaded images, are summer-themed: palm trees, beach cocktails, sailboats, popsicles. You can bedeck your loved ones with mustaches and unicorn horns and Viking hats. Sure, it’s a bit juvenile, but it’s also expressive and possibly even artistic. Far be it from me to heap calumny on the harmless glee of the adhesive doodle.

On Aug. 15, Twitter launched the next phase of Operation Sticker: the “promoted sticker.” These are lightly branded tags designed by companies—the first to participate is Pepsi—that users can affix to their photos. Each company may create four to eight stickers; when you click one, you can see how other tweeters are interacting with the graphic. Businesses are able to pull the marked tweets out of the stream and analyze them for market research purposes.

Not every sticker associated with the #SayItWithPepsi campaign evokes Pepsi, although some do. Some are just smiley faces. You can paste a smiley face over your actual face in a photo to become a miniature smiling Pepsi person. If you are drinking a Pepsi in the photo, you can use the “yum” face and all of your followers—plus the actual Pepsi people who are tracking your tweets—will get to see how much you like Pepsi.

Promoted stickers “allow brands to be featured by their fans in a truly authentic way,” Twitter explained further in a blog post this week. More words followed, including the words “fun,” “creative,” “dynamic,” “connect,” “engaging,” “awareness,” and “message.”

Perhaps Twitter, still scrambling to reach profitability, believes selling companies these “visual hashtags” will lift its bottom line. As Quartz points out, both Line and Snapchat have found that “stickers are less intrusive for users than actual advertising messages in feeds.” That’s an attractive carrot for brands that aspire to fluidity and seamlessness in the age of native advertising and sponsored content. For now, Twitter continues to depend on promoted tweets and video units to earn revenue.

But some Twitter users feel like guests at a dinner party who, instead of food, keep getting handed ever more elaborate ice sculptures. They don’t want stickers; they want consequences for Twitter harassment and abuse. They want to edit tweets. They want photos, links, and GIFs not to count against their 140-character limit.

If these disgruntled people have something to say to the platform, they seem unlikely to say it with Pepsi.

Aug. 17 2016 11:12 AM

Future Tense Newsletter: Emerging Conversations

Greetings, Future Tensers,

“Gradually, Ford is starting to look like a tech company.” That’s the conclusion Will Oremus came to in his report about the car company’s plans to start rolling out fully autonomous vehicles by 2021. That’s all the more reason to start public dialogue about how such driverless systems will behave in crisis conditions like those suggested by this fun game from MIT researchers that asks you to decide who a robot car should kill.

Charming as that game is, it’s probably not going to change the course of self-driving car development. But Jason Lloyd writes that the public should be more engaged with discussions surrounding cutting-edge research. Lloyd writes that “citizen science” has gotten a lot of press for allowing people to contribute data to research, but it can be so much more. Andrew Maynard helps show why that’s so necessary with this article on the National Institutes of Health’s request for public comment on policy changes around human-animal hybrids.

There are, of course, other conversations that we should be having about technology, most of all those that we have with our elders. As Jamie Winterton argues, our senior citizens tend to fall prey to cyberattacks because they don’t have information about how to protect themselves. We can help allay that dilemma, Winterton suggests, by actually chatting with them about cybersecurity, thereby helping keep them from getting hacked like the NSA. Of course, nothing can protect them from the greatest menace of our digital world: squirrels.

Here are some of the other stories that we read while trying to guess who wrote Donald Trump’s tweets:

  • Gaming: Laura Hudson writes that Kentucky Route Zero tells a haunting, surreal story about both the “broken promises of America” and “the small moments of beauty that manage to bloom” in the ruins.
  • Social graces: June Thomas investigates a company that automates the work of sending personalized cards out for you. Goodbye to guilt!
  • Virtual reality: Some experts think that we’re going about VR all wrong: We should be using it to facilitate experiences that we couldn’t have by other means.
  • Emoji: Kyle MacLachlan retold the plot of Dune in emojis for a fan, and it’s surprisingly brilliant.

Jacob Brogan

for Future Tense

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University.

Aug. 16 2016 3:41 PM

Google Wants to Help You Vote

With Election Day just three months away, voters need to start thinking about things like registration, up-to-date IDs, absentee ballots, and all the hullabaloo that goes along with casting a vote for the next president of the United States. It can be overwhelming to figure out how registration varies from state to state, and what you—patriotic voter that you are—need to be prepared. Well, worry no more, because Google is here to help.

Google partnered with Perkins Coie, an international law firm, to obtain the information to create an in-depth search tool cataloging state-by-state data on deadlines, registration forms, and even “how to vote” (which talks about poll hours and ID requirements).

Emily Moxely, the Google employee at the helm of this feature, said that “We’ve been putting significant resources behind driving voter turnout. We’re developing a whole new suite of tools that make the registration process easier and more accessible to everyone.” The company is also making the info available online so that other organizations can help to spread it; you just have to fill out a form to access it.

Aug. 16 2016 3:01 PM

Kyle MacLachlan Just Brilliantly Re-Created the Plot of Dune in Emojis

You don’t have to know much about Dune, either the 1965 Frank Herbert novel or the 1984 David Lynch film adapted from it, to know that it tells a deeply crazy story. Though there are familiar lines and big moments that stand out, the whole can be baffling, especially if you haven’t revisited it for a while. If you don’t believe me, refresh your memory with this info dump from the film:

And that’s just the back story! No wonder, then, that some fans of Kyle MacLachlan, who starred in the film as Paul Atreides, have been left a little confused. That, at least, is presumably what led someone to tweet a query at the actor, asking him to explain it to her:

Plenty of celebrities would have ignored such a request, and others still might have snidely pointed to the film’s Wikipedia page. But Kyle MacLachlan is not plenty of actors, so he offered something else altogether, a gloriously concise synopsis of the plot in 41 emojis:

It’s an formidable feat, not least of all because it provides a reasonably accurate and complete account of the story, from the Atreides clan’s departure for Arakis to the concluding duel. Still more impressive, especially given the amount of decades-old narrative detail he had to sort through, MacLachlan (who would probably do pretty well at this emoji-centric quiz) appears to have put his tweet together in just over two hours.

Color us impressed, but now that we know about MacLachlan’s mastery of the surprisingly expressive form, we here at Slate have a few other questions, starting with this:

And if he wants to tell us why he decided to do Showgirls, we’re all ears.