Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Oct. 4 2016 11:31 AM

Futurography Newsletter: The Future of Ownership and the State of Nanotechnology

Hello, fellow Futurographers,

Welcome to the first installment of the Futurography newsletter. Today, we’re excited to announce the start of our latest course, a monthlong series on the changing state of ownership. A variety of technological forces, both familiar and emerging—from file sharing to autonomous vehicles—promise to radically reshape how we recognize and understand property. How will those transformations change the ways we live and work? This month, we’re looking at some possible answers to that question. As always, we’re starting with a conversational introduction to the topic, along with a cheat sheet that will introduce you to some of the key players, major debates, and lingo that we’ll be exploring in the weeks ahead.

We’ve got a lot more coming, but while you’re waiting, we invite you to make your way through our September unit on nanotechnology (if you haven’t already). Here’s what we published:

  • Introduction: Not sure what “nanotechnology” actually entails? Start here.
  • Cheat Sheet: Catch up on the lingo, find out what else you should be reading, and more.
  • How Small Is the Nanoscale?: We made a short video to show just how small this very small stuff really is.
  • Gods of Small Things: For a still-emerging field, nanotechnology has a long history. W. Patrick McCray has the details.
  • Nanoparticles vs. Cancer: Nanomedicine is a promising field, but it introduces a new array of complications.
  • Cutting-Edge Art: In this Q-and-A, artist Kate Nichols explains how nanomaterials have influenced and shaped her work.
  • What Is a Nanomaterial?: Definitively determining what does and doesn’t count as a nanomaterial is surprisingly difficult, which is a problem for regulators.
  • Why I’m Suffering From Nanofatigue: After a quarter of a century studying the nanoscale, Andrew Maynard finds the discourse of nanotech increasingly exhausting, and he’s not alone.
  • From Nano to Nature: As nanomaterials become more common, we need to evaluate their environmental effects.
  • Small Misunderstandings: You probably know that nanotech isn’t really about tiny robots. But here are six other myths and misconceptions worth debunking.

Once you’ve made it through all of that, test what you’ve learned with our nanotech quiz. And then take a few minutes to share your thoughts about nanotechnology with us. We’ll be writing up the results of that survey later this week.

Futuristically yours,

Jacob Brogan

for Future Tense

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

Sept. 30 2016 12:22 PM

Netizen Report: Swiss Citizens Say Yes to Surveillance

The Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world. It originally appears each week on Global Voices Advocacy. Afef Abrougui, Renata Avila, Ellery Roberts Biddle, Pauline Ratze, and Sarah Myers West contributed to this report.

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In a public referendum held Sept. 25, a majority of Swiss voters supported a new law that would grant the Swiss intelligence agency powers to spy on telecommunications, infect citizens’ digital communications devices with surveillance malware, and place microphones and video cameras in private locations.

The law expands the surveillance capacities of the Swiss government, but still requires intelligence officials to obtain approval from a federal court, the defense ministry, and a cabinet in order to monitor a citizen. This procedure is intended to distribute checks on power and thereby make the law less susceptible to abuse, at least in theory. In urgent cases, however, these approvals can be obtained retroactively. Citizens who are targets will also be informed within a month of the methods and duration of the surveillance, though there are exceptions if notifying the suspect is against the public interest, would affect legal proceedings, or could put people in danger.

The law won citizens’ approval by 65.5 percent, with 43 percent of eligible voters participating. The bill was initially approved by parliament in 2015, but critics of the bill collected signatures to force the referendum.

Social Democrat parliamentarian Jean Christophe Schwaab, a leading opponent of the bill, expressed concern that the current government would circumvent judicial and defense approval processes. He also said that he is concerned that it could give way to a slippery slope effect for surveillance practices in the coming years, noting that it is very difficult to reject an urgent request from the intelligence service “in the current climate of general paranoia.”

The law is also raising concern among Swiss-based technology companies including ProtonMail, a popular encrypted email service provider known for its relative user-friendliness. ProtonMail founder Andy Yen expressed disappointment about the referendum results in an interview with TechCrunch, but he asserted that the law would have “no impact on ProtonMail,” because the company does not collect or store users’ email encryption keys (which are imperative to decrypting and reading the content of an email message) or personally identifiable information.

Mexico is spending a lot of money on surveillance tools
Mexican news outlet Reforma recently confirmed that Mexico's attorney general acquired surveillance software from the Israeli company NSO Group in 2014 and 2015 for a sum of $15 million. This only adds to a growing list of major purchases that Mexican government agencies have made from leading surveillance software companies over the last four years. Leaked documents and technical investigations revealed that authorities have also used Gamma’s Finfisher software, Hacking Team’s Remote Control System, and so-called IMSI catchers made by Finnish technology company Exfo Oy.

Jordanian authorities ban media coverage of writer’s assassination
Jordanian writer Nahed Hattar was shot dead Sept. 25 outside a courtroom in Amman, where he was scheduled to stand trial over a cartoon deemed offensive to Islam that he posted on Facebook. Hattar was charged with “inciting sectarian strife and insulting Islam,” according to the Guardian. The cartoon depicted a bearded man, presumably an ISIS militant, lying in bed next to two women, asking God to bring him a drink. Though the gunman was arrested, Hattar’s family has called on the government to hold those accountable who incited violence against Hattar on social media. In the meantime, Jordanian authorities have issued a ban on media coverage of Hattar’s case and assassination.

Sudanese prosecutors use “pornographic” photos to support case against activists
Six Sudanese activists affiliated with Khartoum Center for Training and Human Development are currently on trial for undermining the constitutional system, waging war against the state, espionage, and terrorism. If convicted, they could be sentenced to life in prison or death. As evidence of the defendants’ “immorality,” Sudanese prosecutors have resorted to showing private photos and videos culled from their confiscated laptops. For example, the photo tweeted below was presented as evidence of the activists having “pornography” on their computers.

UAE drops charges over Facebook charity plea gone awry
The United Arab Emirates has dropped charges against Scott Richards, a British-Australian national living and working in Dubai, for sharing on Facebook a link to a charity raising funds for refugees in Afghanistan. Under UAE law, it is illegal to promote charities that are not registered with state authorities. In addition, it is prohibited to raise money for charities without obtaining the written approval of the authorities. Violators can face up to one year in jail and a fine.

Gender divides internet usage in Africa, Southeast Asia
Women in a cross-section of developing countries are 50 percent less likely to use the Internet than men, according to the World Wide Web Foundation. The foundation produced report cards assessing the progress on closing the gender gap in 10 countries, including Colombia, Egypt, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Mozambique, Nigeria, the Philippines, and Uganda. The report finds that while India and the Philippines have almost closed the gap in urban areas, there is a long way to go—and simply obtaining gender-disaggregated data on Internet access is still difficult, making it hard to measure progress where it occurs. According to the report, factors that prevent women from going online include affordability, knowing how to use the Internet, and online violence.

New Research

Sept. 29 2016 6:30 PM

Do Driverless Cars Favor Urban or Suburban Life?

Here are two competing theories of how the coming transportation revolution could impact American life.


One possibility is that easy mobility—driverless cars, on-demand deliveries, and the like—dulls the pains of suburban life. The long commute, the wasted time in the car, the difficulty of running out for a carton of milk… the inconvenience and expense of the subdivision are melted away by hot new technology. Milk by drone, what a concept!


Another is that easy mobility produces greater advantages in the city. Carless living is better than ever. NIMBY battles don’t happen because parking and congestion aren’t problems. Wasted auto infrastructure, like lots and curbside parking and garages, is converted towards better uses like housing and restaurants. Maybe a central highway becomes a park.


Those two futures might both exist, but is it possible that the technology could push Americans away from the suburban status quo? Will freedom from driving allow us to live closer together, or permit us to live further away? Consider the question a loose societal analogy to Clayton Christiensen’s business dichotomy of disruptive versus sustaining innovation. Does the transportation revolution sustain American sprawl or disrupt it?

Sept. 28 2016 12:13 PM

Future Tense Newsletter: Go Big or Go Nano

Greetings, Future Tensers,

As we’ve learned throughout this month’s Futurography course, it can be difficult to determine what we’re talking about when we talk about nanotechnology. The term is an enormous umbrella, one that can cover synthetic biology, materials science, computer engineering, and much more. That enormous conceptual range helps explain why some researchers find themselves under the spell of what Andrew Maynard and others call nanofatigue. Since nanoscale research draws on a host of older field, it’s often become a means of branding work that’s been in progress for ages, and the endless cycles of hype and disappointment around that brand can be exhausting.

But there’s also a related, much more miniscule, problem of definition, which is that it’s hard to define just how small something has to be before it counts as a nanomaterial. As Gary Marchant explains, that challenge becomes especially pronounced when we’re working to regulate nanotechnological products and processes. Indeed, such ambiguities are complex enough that, as Marchant puts it, we may need “to forget about developing nanospecific regulations altogether.”

Back at the macroscale, this week Future Tense looked into some highly aspirational plans from a few very rich people. Charles Kenny turned a skeptical eye to Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s announcement that they were committing $3 billion to an attempt to end all disease. Though that sum is, as Kenny puts it, “underscaled to the ambition,” their approach is still promising, so long as it proves to be just one component of wider “eradication efforts that will have to involve an army of others.”

In any case, where that’s a figurative moonshot, Elon Musk wants to literally kickstart civilization on Mars. To that end, he outlined a formidable plan to start sending hundreds—and eventually hundreds of thousands—of people to the red planet. Would you make the trip?

Here are some of the other articles we read while trying to figure out if our Yahoo accounts had been hacked (they had):

  • Voting rights: Should we be allowed to take pictures of our ballots? Mark Joseph Stern argues that such images “have become a fundamental mode of political speech in America.”
  • Drones: Viral stories about people shooting down drones may seem fun, but actually firing at unmanned aircraft is astonishingly dangerous.
  • Social media: Trying to use the courts to stop parents from posting embarrassing pictures of their kids online is to “too blunt an instrument,” writes Priya Kumar.
  • Cyberlaw: Josephine Wolff offers a concise history of the now 30-year-old Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a law that ultimately serves as “a living testament to the considerable challenges of trying to regulate new and emerging technologies.”


  • The 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act remains one of the most controversial federal tech-regulating laws on the books. On Thursday, Sept. 29, Future Tense and New America’s Open Technology Institute will host a lunchtime conversation in Washington, D.C., on the legacy and future of the law—and what lessons it offers for those crafting tech-related legislation. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.
  • Is it time we designed an election for the 21st century? Join Future Tense in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 5 at 6 p.m. for a happy hour and brainstorm on how to create a better, more efficient, and more just election system. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.

Thinking small,

Jacob Brogan

for Future Tense

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

Sept. 27 2016 5:59 PM

Elon Musk Outlines His Crazy, Very Real Plan to Colonize Mars

Elon Musk has a plan to colonize Mars. It is weird, and risky, and very real.

In a long-awaited speech at an astronautical conference in Mexico on Tuesday, Musk detailed his ambitions to eventually create a civilization of 1 million people on the Red Planet. The roadmap—spacemap?—starts with a gigantic spaceship strapped to a gigantic rocket. Said spaceship would head to Mars at regular intervals, with 100–200 people on board for each passage. The first landings could happen within next decade, he said, if all goes well. Building a city and a civilization would take decades more.

The cost of a ticket would be quite high for the early voyages, but over time it could come down to less than $200,000, Musk predicted—comparable to the price of a house. Once all the kinks are worked out, he imagines a one-way trip would take about 30 days.

Oh, and it would be “fun and exciting,” he promises—not “boring or cramped.” There would be “zero-G games,” movies, and a restaurant. “It’ll be, like, really fun to go,” he said, chuckling. “You’re gonna have a great time.” (And if you don’t, he said, there’s a possibility you could make a return trip to Earth.)

The goal of Musk’s Mars civilization: “Making humans a multiplanetary species.” That’s crucial, he believes, because if we stick around on Earth long enough, eventually there will be “an extinction event.” He did not elaborate.

This is not a new ambition for Musk. He founded SpaceX in 2002 with the ultimate goal of trying to get people to Mars. At the time, he assumed the odds of success were quite low but he thought it was worth a shot nonetheless. Nearly 15 years later, SpaceX is a major player in the space industry, shuttling supplies, and soon human crew members, to the International Space Station.

Now Musk believes it’s time to start working on that Mars plan. As is typical of his projects, this one comes with lots of sci-fi references. The first spaceship to Mars, he said, will probably be named Heart of Gold, after the prototype starship in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The rocket will have 42 of SpaceX’s new Raptor engines.

His speech on Tuesday doubled as a pitch to NASA and private funders to bankroll the project. “I’m incredibly grateful to NASA for supporting SpaceX,” Musk said at one point. “I’m NASA’s biggest fan.”

At the talk’s conclusion, Musk took questions from the audience, which seemed to comprise exactly the sort of people you’d expect to find at a talk about colonizing Mars. One questioner spoke of his recent trip to Burning Man, compared it to Mars, and asked how Musk plans to handle the question of toilets on Mars. There was some discussion of who should be on the first voyage, given the likelihood of death; a questioner suggested Michael Cera, as part of what was apparently a pitch for the humor website Funny or Die.

Vox and the Verge, among others, have more details on the logistics and the specifications of the spacecraft involved. Suffice it to say there are rather a lot of things that have to go right before Musk’s dream can become a reality.

Musk is well aware of this. “There’s a lot of risk,” he said. “It’s going to cost a lot. And there’s a good chance we don’t succeed. But we’re going to do our best and make as much progress as possible.”

Sept. 27 2016 12:00 PM

Donald Trump Knows Terrifyingly Little About Computers

Midway through Monday night’s presidential debate, moderator Lester Holt introduced the topic of cybersecurity into the conversation, asking the candidates to discuss who was behind recent hacks—and how the U.S. should respond. The question could have been a tricky one for Hillary Clinton, who’s come under fire for her use of a private email server. Instead, it became a minefield for Donald Trump—who may have never used a computer. Indeed, it revealed he knows so little about cybersecurity that the only expert he can apparently name is his 10-year-old son.

In responding to Holt’s question, Clinton spoke in broad but coherent terms, discussing the danger of state-sponsored cyberattacks and scolding Trump for “invit[ing] Putin to hack into Americans.” She likewise offered an ambiguous, threatening remark about the status of American cyberweapons, observing, “And we’re going to have to make it clear that we don’t want to use the kinds of tools that we have.” This isn’t exactly technical stuff, but it still suggests that she understands the terrain—or, at least, the stakes of the conversation—which can’t be said for her opponent.

The most obvious sign of Trump’s ignorance on cybersecurity issues—as well as computing more generally—may be his comical insistence on using “cyber” as a noun, a rhetorical hiccup that Clinton avoided in her own remarks. But where speaking of “the cyber” may have just been a gaffe, Trump’s remarks on the topic are full of bizarre indications that he has no idea what he’s talking about. They’re worth quoting at length:

As far as the cyber, I agree to parts of what Secretary Clinton said. We should be better than anybody else, and perhaps we’re not. I don’t think anybody knows it was Russia that broke into the DNC. She’s saying Russia, Russia, Russia, but I don’t—maybe it was. I mean, it could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK?

The core assertion in Trump’s remarks here isn’t entirely unreasonable. In addressing the difficulty of identifying who hacked the DNC, he may be implicitly referring to what experts in the field describe as the “attribution problem.” Instead of working through the complexities of these issues, however, Trump seems to be proposing that when things are this hard to resolve, we shouldn’t bother.

That Trump acknowledges such challenges is arguably admirable, whether or not it’s intentional, but here he puts that recognition into the service of a defense of Russia—a project that disquietingly aligns with his record on U.S.–Russia relations—seemingly using it to absolve Vladimir Putin’s government of any responsibility. As it happens, though, there’s plenty of evidence that Russia actually is responsible for the DNC hack, but Trump ignores that possibility. He is instead content to lazily body-shame the computer experts he’s clearly not listening to instead, shifting from a real challenge to stereotypical nonsense and offering a South Park–ready image of hackers as morbidly obese shut-ins. None of which, of course, has anything to do with the actual state of cyberwarfare.

Lest we worry, though, that Trump has never talked to—let alone met—an actual cybersecurity expert, Trump went on to identify a very knowledgeable adviser in his corner:

So we have to get very, very tough on cyber and cyberwarfare. It is—it is a huge problem. I have a son. He’s 10 years old. He has computers. He is so good with these computers, it’s unbelievable. The security aspect of cyber is very, very tough. And maybe it’s hardly doable.

As is so often the case, it’s hard to untangle what Trump is actually getting at here. Like a cat batting at house flies, he swings at whatever catches his eye instead of focusing on a single topic. On the one hand, he suggests that cybersecurity is tricky—and it is! But on the other, he wants to reassure us that Barron, his preteen son, is really good with computers.

What, exactly, is Trump getting at here? Is he trying to tell us that his son could solve these “hardly doable” problems, if only he had the chance? Is he proposing that these issues are so irresolvable that even a 10-year-old can’t work them out? Or, most likely, is he just saying the first thing that popped into his head?

Regardless, it’s clear enough that Trump has no idea what he’s talking about. Better that he take advice from his son than, say, John McAfee, but Trump’s failure to come up with a coherent statement on the topic is telling, suggesting that he isn’t really listening to anyone. And, more troublingly, he doesn’t seem as if he cares to learn more. Concluding his remarks on the topic, Trump asserted, “We have so many things that we have to do better, Lester, and certainly cyber is one of them.” You can do better too, Donald. Start by figuring out what you’re talking about.

Sept. 23 2016 4:57 PM

Netizen Report: Internet Shutdowns Are Ever-Present in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula

The Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world. It originally appears each week on Global Voices Advocacy. Afef Abrougui, Ellery Roberts Biddle, Weiping Li, and Sarah Myers West contributed to this report.

GVA logo

Over the weekend of Sept. 17, citizens in Egypt’s North Sinai region weathered a shutdown of phone and internet services that went on for at least eight hours. Al-Masry Al-Youm reports that service has been restored in most areas of the region, but there’s little hope that networks will remain connected for good.

The Egyptian military has controlled the northern zone of the Sinai Peninsula, which abuts Israel and Palestine’s Gaza strip, since mid-2013, when it began in earnest its assault on violent insurgent groups in the region. By early 2014, cuts to telecommunications networks would regularly last throughout the day, in what appears to be an effort to deter insurgents from communicating with one another. This move has brought incalculable damage upon citizens, leaving them unable to communicate, stay in touch with loved ones, and send and receive money, among many other things. The cuts have also helped solidify a de facto media blackout in the region that has resulted from strict punishments for journalists seeking to cover military operations in the area.

In December 2015, Egyptian technologist and Global Voices author Ramy Raoof told Time magazine that security authorities were cutting network connections “indiscriminately,” noting that they have made no effort to preserve basic or emergency services, such as the ability to call for an ambulance. And when networks are down, insurgents can use other unblockable means of communications like roaming foreign (chiefly Israel-based) mobile networks and satellites. Like many others, Raoof reasons: “It doesn’t prevent the bad guys from doing bad things.”

Kuwaiti royal faces jail time for insulting emir on Snapchat
A Kuwaiti court convicted Sheikh Abdullah Salem Al Sabah of insulting the royal family, despite the fact that he is the grandnephew of the emir. He has been sentenced to three years in prison and ordered to pay a fine of $16,500 for sending a Snapchat message in which he criticized the main cabinet, which is occupied entirely by members of the royal family (and his own).

Russian blogger convicted of publishing “extremist statements” about Syria
Russian prosecutors are calling for opposition blogger Anton Nossik to be sentenced to two years in a penal colony for publishing “extremist statements” online. The charges stem from a blog post titled “Wipe Syria from the Face of the Earth,” in which Nossik called for bombing territory controlled by the Syrian government. The post was published just days before the Russian government began a bombing campaign in support of the ruling Assad government. Nossik’s verdict is set to be announced Oct. 3.

Why didn’t the United Arab Emirates have an “Arab Spring”?
Despite a relative absence of government protests, state-sponsored repression in the UAE is commonplace: Tactics like arrests, forced disappearances, torture, unfair trials, deportations, and revocation of citizenship are used to silence dissent in the country. Despite boasts by UAE leaders of the high living standards of citizens, “for the time being ... activists and government critics do not seem to enjoy the happiness, well-being and safety the Emirates offer,” writes Global Voices’ Afef Abrougui.

New research shines light on political censorship in Bahrain
Bahrain is using an internet filtering software called Netsweeper to censor political content, including Shiite websites, local and regional news sources, content critical of religion, and pages related to human rights and opposition politics, according to new research by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab. Citizen Lab researchers found that the software was being used on nine Bahrain-based internet service providers during the summer of 2016. The report concludes: “The sale of technology used to censor political speech and other forms of legitimate expression, to a state with a highly problematic human rights record, raises serious questions about the corporate social responsibility practices of Netsweeper.”

More than anyone else, the US is knocking on Twitter’s door
Twitter’s latest transparency report shows that the U.S. government made more requests for users’ personal data than any other government—and that overall, the number of government requests rose 2.1 percent since the last quarter, affecting 8 percent more user accounts. Twitter also revealed more detailed information about who is making the requests. The company said the FBI, Secret Service, and New York County District Attorney’s Office were the top requesters for account information in the United States.

Latin American indigenous language activists promote new emojis
Calls for more emoji diversity have expanded beyond skin color to include more culturally diverse representations, writes GV’s Eddie Avila. In addition to a recent petition to include a hijab emoji, indigenous language activists in Mexico and Chile have begun to create their own emoji sets reflecting traditional dress and linguistic expressions in languages including Huastec, spoken mostly in central Mexico, and Mapudungun, spoken by the Mapuche of Chile.

New Research

Sept. 22 2016 4:06 PM

More Than Half a Billion Yahoo Accounts Have Been Hacked, Yahoo Confirms

Yahoo confirmed on Thursday that account information for more than 500 million Yahoo users was stolen in a 2014 data breach of epic proportions.

The information may have included names, email addresses, telephone numbers, birth dates, encrypted passwords, and security questions and answers, the company said in a Tumblr post. Yahoo said it is notifying users who may have been affected and asking them to “promptly” change their passwords, among other steps to protect themselves.

That’s sound advice: Changing passwords as soon as you’re aware of a breach is always advisable. Yahoo users should immediately change not only their Yahoo passwords, if they haven’t already done so in the past year or two, but their passwords on any other site where they used the same credentials they were using on Yahoo in 2014. They should also be on guard for spam emails that could include malware, scams, or phishing attempts.

The urgency feels a bit awkward, however, coming from a company that apparently required almost two years to discover, confirm, and notify its users of the breach. Reports of the hack first surfaced on Aug. 1, when a hacker known as Peace began publicly selling alleged Yahoo user credentials online. (Peace told Vice’s Motherboard blog he or she had been trading them privately for some time before that.) Yahoo said at the time that it was “aware of the claim” and its security team was “working to determine the facts.”

That means users’ credentials were out in the open for nearly two months before Yahoo confirmed the breach and notified them. Verizon, which is in the process of acquiring the long-troubled internet giant for $4.8 billion, said in a statement Thurdsay that it was only notified of the issue by Yahoo “within the last two days.”

Yahoo said in its Tumblr post that it believes the information was stolen by “a state-sponsored actor” but it did not get more specific. In a June interview with Wired, Peace identified himself or herself a former member of a team of Russian hackers who had breached and sold credentials from several major online services between 2012 and 2013.

How bad is the news for those whose information was stolen? It’s not great, but it also doesn’t necessarily mean someone’s out there running up charges on your credit card.

Peace told Wired in June that the information from the breaches—which presumably included the Yahoo hack, although that had not been disclosed yet—was being used primarily “for spamming,” i.e., sending spam to the people whose information was stolen. But since such info can often be passed around widely among criminal hackers, it’s always possible it could be used for more nefarious purposes. The good news is that Yahoo says the passwords were hashed, meaning that they’re useless unless someone can decrypt them. Yahoo adds that its ongoing investigation suggests the breach “did not include unprotected passwords, payment card data, or bank account information,” and that there’s no evidence the hackers still have access to Yahoo’s system.

The company’s full post is here.

Sept. 21 2016 7:41 PM

Googles New Messaging App Is “Smart.” But Should You Use It?

The first thing to remember about Allo, Google’s new messaging app, is that there are a lot of messaging apps out there. For that matter, there are a lot of Google messaging apps out there, including Hangouts and Duo. (As my former colleague Lily Hay Newman pointed out, there really should be just one—and it should be called Gchat.) The tech press may be abuzz over Allo’s launch, and there are good reasons to pay attention to it. Whether there are good reasons to use it, however, is less clear.

As a messaging app, Allo seems … fine? Pretty good, really, to the extent that the major messaging apps are distinguishable from one another. If your goal is to communicate with someone via text or voice recording or funny animal sticker, it will do the trick. Clean interface, simple controls—it’s straightforward and pleasant to use, which probably means the teens will hate it.

What’s special about Allo is not that it’s supposed to be a better messaging app than all the others, per se. Rather, Google is billing it as a smarter messaging app. “Smarter” refers to the artificial intelligence built into the Google Assistant, a sort of helper bot that lives in the app. You can converse with it directly, like Siri. But it can also slide into your conversations with others by suggesting replies to their messages, offering a restaurant recommendation, or connecting you to relevant info from the Web or other apps. It’s like a genial butler who is also sort of nosy.

This is not a novel idea: Bots are de rigeur in messaging apps these days. But Google has a big head start on rival companies when it comes to both A.I. and search. That comes in handy in figuring out what you mean when you type, for example, “who won the game last night,” or “when’s my next appointment.” Apple’s Siri has long been criticized as useless or unintelligent because it seems to struggle to even hear you correctly, let alone answer basic inquiries. It may be improving but Google’s voice and conversational search technology has long felt superior. “Smart” may still be the wrong word for the Google Assistant, at least by the standards of human intelligence, but “less dumb” is a step in the right direction.

Part of the promise of Allo, then, is that of a messaging app that is not simply a line of communication between two or more people, but a portal through which they can readily draw in information from the outside world. It’s the kind of thing that sounds impressive in a Silicon Valley boardroom or in the pages of a tech blog. It’s an open question whether these sorts of features really matter to those who just want a convenient way to chat with friends or family.

More entertaining is the “smart reply” feature that suggests potential responses to people’s messages. You can have some fun or laughs at its expense by seeing how it responds to a booty call, or a Welsh corgi. But the real utility lies in the convenience of being able to quickly tap on a canned response, rather than typing something from scratch, in the many situations when nothing more elaborate is needed. Google said earlier this year that 10 percent of replies in its email app Inbox begin with a “smart reply,” which users can either send as-is or tweak as needed. As Google gets better at this, the number should go up. And it seems even more appropriate to a chat app than the somewhat more formal realm of email.

Google Allo smart replies
Allo's A.I. assistant suggests "smart replies" to your friend's messages.

Image courtesy of Google

A clever-sounding twist is that the Google Assistant will actually pay attention to the language you use in chats with a given person, so that it can tailor its smart replies to the context. If you’re in the habit of saying “yo” to your friend but not to your grandfather, it will adapt accordingly.

This is all quite neat and futuristic, if not exactly essential, from the user’s perspective. But, as we’ve come to expect from Google’s services, there’s a flipside for those concerned with privacy.

Google raised the hopes and expectations of privacy advocates when it announced in March that Allo would offer end-to-end encryption, and that it would delete your messages after a certain amount of time rather than storing them indefinitely. In a surprising reversal, Google disclosed when it launched the app on Wednesday that it actually will store your chats indefinitely by default, until or unless you actively delete them. If you want your chats to be truly private, you’ll have to switch to “Incognito” mode. This will disable the A.I. assistant features that were supposed to be Allo’s selling point. Google told the Verge it made the change because the smart replies wouldn’t work as well without access to people’s chat histories.

There’s nothing inherently evil about a messaging app that stores your chats or makes end-to-end encryption an option, rather than the default. And users of Google services like Gmail should be familiar with the tradeoffs involved in letting the company store and scan your personal communications. But Google’s backtracking was a big strategic blunder, because the big story of the day of Allo’s launch was not its “intelligence” but its privacy risks. Edward Snowden spent half the day on Twitter telling people not to download it.

Eventually the privacy backlash will fade, but it underscores what might be a bigger problem for Google and other big tech companies. As I explained at length in a story about the rise of A.I. assistants, Silicon Valley’s dream of making them your primary portal to the online world is partly about making things easier on users. But it’s also about ingratiating tech companies’ own services more deeply into our lives, so that we come to trust and depend on them—and give them ever more access to our data. When we let a chat bot in on all our daily interactions, we’re letting its creator in on them too.

Allo is a test case for our willingness to participate in that bargain. Based on the press it has received so far, it's probably a test Google wishes it could retake.

Previously in Slate:

Sept. 21 2016 12:41 PM

Isn’t It Time We Designed an Election for the 21st Century?

The civic ritual of voting in America is an act of nostalgia. Casting a ballot, unlike most things in our society, doesn’t ever seem to change. It’s the same as it was when you accompanied your parents to vote, or when they accompanied their parents. This deference to tradition would be worth celebrating if our elections weren’t riddled with hanging chads, imperfect counts, long lines, and confusion over who’s registered to vote, and if our voter experience didn’t compare so poorly to other, less important 21st-century customer experiences. Countries like Canada, Brazil, and Germany use electronic voting that offers accurate and instantaneous results. Why not the United States? Why not design an election for the 21st Century?

On Wednesday, Oct. 5, at 6 p.m., Future Tense—a partnership of Arizona State University, New America, and Slate—will host a happy hour and brainstorm conversation in Washington, D.C., on how to create a better, more efficient, and more just election system.* Speakers will include Slate’s Jamelle Bouie and Dahlia Lithwick. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.


Matt Adams
Program director, IDEO

Jamelle Bouie
Chief political correspondent, Slate

Jeremy Epstein
Senior Computer Scientist, SRI International

Dahlia Lithwick
Senior editor, Slate

Lawrence Norden
Deputy director, Democracy Program, Brennan Center for Justice


Mark Schmitt
Director of studies, New America
Director, Political Reform Program, New America

Correction, Sept. 23, 2016: This post originally misstated the date of the event. It is Oct. 5, not Nov. 5.