Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Nov. 18 2017 8:30 AM

Duolingo Has Mandarin Now. Can It Really Teach You the Language?

Duolingo, the immensely popular app for people looking to begin learning a new language, released a Mandarin module this week. The app has been around since 2011 and offers courses in dozens of languages, but is only now getting to Chinese. With everyone from Mark Zuckerberg to Amy Adams trying to learn Mandarin, the delay isn’t due to a shortage of demand.

 

Nov. 17 2017 7:18 PM

What a Gymnastics Coach Thinks About Boston Dynamics’ New Flipping Robot

Here’s another thing robots can do better than you: backflips. Boston Dynamics, the MIT offshoot company now owned by Japanese tech giant SoftBank, showed off the latest iteration of their bipedal Atlas robot in a video released Thursday. At first viewing, the mobility of a 4 foot 9 inch, approximately 165-pound hydraulic machine is mind-boggling. But are robots going to steal Simone Biles’ job, too?

Atlas has made cheer-worthy progress since 2013, when Boston Dynamics debuted it at a robotics challenge sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and 2015, when it competed in the finals of the competition. Essentially, the federal government hosted a contest where humanoid robots had to complete a series of simple tasks useful in the case of a nuclear power plant disaster, like traveling up a one- to two-degree incline with scattered obstacles, shutting off a valve, opening a door to enter a building. It was a fail-fest. Making a basic bipedal robot is no small feat, but they were like high-tech toddlers. The competition’s finals spawned video reels of off-kilter robots crashing to the ground. By comparison, this version of Atlas is pretty impressive (and significantly less creepy than Boston Dynamics’ SpotMini, a spindly yellow robotic dog).

Advertisement

But we wanted to know how impressive, so Slate asked a gymnastics coach to rate Atlas’ parkour skills. According to gymnastics coach Aryan Mazloum, Atlas’ backflip—a back salto, if you want the technical term—is not bad. “It’s pretty fantastic to be able see a robot have the center of gravity and be able to not only just move, but literally flip and catch itself,” said Mazloum, a junior Olympic coach at Northern Virginia’s Capital Gymnastics National Training Center. (He’s also working toward a Ph.D. in informatics at George Mason University.)

The back salto, Mazloum explains, is “an intermediate skill” that coaches introduce in the fifth level of USA Gymnastics, when students tend to be 9 to 11 years old. For a robot, it takes incredible spatial awareness. In a back salto, says Mazloum, “you want to be able to go as high as you can, and you want to be able to land as close to where you take off as possible.” To do that, the gymnast has to squat, throw her arms up by her ears so her body is a straight line (in gymnast-speak, opening the shoulder angle and the hip), then contract into a “closed” position again. By these standards, Atlas’ trick is “not the cleanest flip,” explains Mazloum.

Here’s Mazloum’s critique: Atlas didn’t quite get to that open position, “so it didn’t really get the full vertical that we look for. That’s why it went backwards a little bit.” But, he adds, it’s “still astonishing that it did that, though.” (By the way, at the end of the video, where Atlas falls? That’s again probably because it didn’t get enough height, which means it didn’t have the time to rotate, and then since the robot lacks toes, it couldn’t push into the ground to counterbalance.)

Still, Mazloum gives the robot kudos: “It was a good landing, I’ll say that.” In gymnastics, you don’t score individual components, only full routines. But Mazloum made an exception for Atlas: 3.5/5 for its back salto.

Nov. 17 2017 6:41 PM

Twitter’s Best Weirdo Got Identified and It Doesn't Matter

The Twitter account known as Dril has long been one of the internet’s most unlikely treasures. A comically unhinged, but somehow coherent character, Dril is, as the AV Club’s Clayton Purdom puts it, “a rare rallying point and muse for everyone, regardless of affiliation or creed.” Indeed, the account’s best tweets show us our own digital lives as in a fun house mirror.

Retweeting a Dril tweet feels like a small gift to those who follow you on Twitter: To do so is to insert a bit of antic eccentricity into the stream of bad news (or as we call it in 2017, “news”) that generally blankets the platform. There are other accounts that meet a similar need (I’m partial to Birdsrightsactivist), but few quite manage to hit the tone that Dril has perfected, an unlikely combination of self-contempt and self-confidence.

Advertisement

For years, one of the defining features of Dril was his anonymity. The account reportedly had origins on the Something Awful forums, and its author was supposedly acquainted with Jacob Bakkila, creator of the famously strange account Horse_ebooks. Beyond that, though, details were scarce, which most agreed was for the best. “The most important part of dril lore is that no one knows who dril is,” Alexander Mcdonough wrote on Medium. Purdom likewise suggests that the account’s anonymity contributes to the feeling that Dril is just the internet itself—in all its hilarious stupidity—personified.

Some people, though, just can’t let a good thing be. On Friday afternoon, K. Thor Jensen mournfully tweeted that Dril’s LinkedIn page had been identified.

Though Jensen pointed back to a recent Tumblr post on the topic, much of the real investigative work seems to have been done by Reddit users back in September. The name has, in other words, been out there for months, but it’s only finding its way to the surface now. And there’s a reason for that, presumably: No one really wants to know who Dril is. Both the Daily Dot and Mashable rounded up numerous Tweets from mourners, many of them irritated that anyone had bothered to identify Dril in the first place.

Some of the bereaved go further, suggesting that the mere act of identifying Dril should be a punishable crime.

I can respect this position: There’s something to be said for keeping the mystery alive. But if I haven’t named the individual behind Dril, it’s mostly because it doesn’t matter. I made my way through the Tumblr post. I’ve trawled the Reddit thread. I’ve seen the name. And I don’t care. It changes nothing. I’ll forget it by tomorrow.

None of Dril’s fans really believed the character was anything but a character. But knowing that there was a performer behind the mask didn’t make the mask any less wonderful. That’s as true today as it was before. If the revelation still upsets, it may be because, as Purdom suggests, Dril seemed to be all of us, a composite of our foolishness and our foibles. Identifying the author doesn’t, however, make that feeling go away; it simply reminds us of something we should have recognized all along: Even as we were reading Dril, Dril was reading us.

Nov. 17 2017 6:29 PM

Trump's FCC Is About to Destroy Net Neutrality, and a Democratic Commissioner Is Calling Foul

Network neutrality is on its deathbed, and Ajit Pai, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission appointed by President Trump, is about to pull the plug. Pai could release a new set of rules as early as next week, according to two sources familiar with the agency’s process—while many Americans are distracted by Thanksgiving. If enacted, his proposal would likely rescind the net neutrality rules passed by the FCC in 2015 that prevented internet providers, like Comcast and Verizon, from charging websites to reach users at faster speeds. That’s just enough time for the FCC to vote to end the open internet protections by mid-December.

But not everyone on the FCC is gunning to undo the hard-won net neutrality protections.

Advertisement

The FCC started soliciting comments from the public on Pai’s proposal to end network neutrality in May. More than 22 million comments came in, but there have been so many serious irregularities with the process that Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel thinks the FCC needs to slam on the brakes. “I’ve got concerns,” Rosenworcel, who also served on FCC under President Obama and originally voted to instate the open internet order in 2015, said in an interview with Slate. “There were some procedural problems with the way this all came together.”

For instance, she said, there have been allegations that most of the comments came from bots, or some even from dead people. Most of those fraudulent comments were suspiciously against net neutrality, while data analysts found the overwhelming majority of organic comments to be in favor of the internet regulations. In May, the FCC said that its comment system went down due to “deliberate attempts by external actors to bombard the FCC’s comment system with a high amount of traffic,” an attack often referred to as a DDoS attack. Rosenworcel noted that the Government Accountability Office is now investigating that DDoS attack because the FCC’s description of what happened raised some red flags, including questions as to whether or not the attack actually happened, since, according to a letter from two congress members who called for the investigation, the FCC hasn’t “released any records or documentation that would allow for confirmation that an attack occurred.”

All of which is why Rosenworcel says that before a vote takes place, the FCC needs to hold a series open hearings across the country to ensure that Americans gets a fair shot at weighing in on Pai’s proposal. “I think it’s important for the agency to get out from behind its computers and actually meet with the public on these matters face to face,” Rosenworcel said, because the consequence of killing the open internet protections could be extreme. “If you want to make changes this big that affect every person in this country who accesses the internet, we shouldn’t be shy about reaching out to Americans and asking them what they think about these policies. Rushing them through with a bureaucratic process and at a speed so that they occur before anyone knows what happens is just at odds with basic transparency,” Rosenworcel continued. (Slate reached out to ask Pai’s office to ask whether he is open to the idea of holding a series of public hearings before moving to finalize his proposal to end the network neutrality rules. We will update if we hear back.)

Without network neutrality rules, internet providers stand to make a lot of money, since the companies will be able to operate what is essentially a two-way toll—collecting money from both subscribers and websites that want to reach those users at faster speeds. The internet companies that are able to afford the fast-lane speeds would likely get to set the price, which could relegate most websites—including smaller startups and struggling news organizations—to what is, in effect, a slower internet. This would help further entrench the power of the incumbent internet companies. Yet one of the great promise of the internet is that there’s no telling what someone might create next, and if internet providers aren’t required to treat all websites equally, that vibrant future would likely flicker out.

The idea of agency-hosted hearings to clarify public opinion on contentious issues, like net neutrality, isn’t farfetched. The FCC has held public hearings under both Republican and Democratic leadership. In 2008, Chairman Kevin Martin, a Republican appointed by President Bush, held two hearings about how internet providers treat traffic that travels over their network, and Chairmen Julius Genachowski and Tom Wheeler, who were both appointed by President Obama, each held multiple public events on network neutrality.

Pai said last year that he envisions “taking a weed whacker” to the network neutrality rules, but he also claimed at a House subcommittee hearing in July that he was open to hearing a convincing argument that investment in internet infrastructure from providers actually was on the rise now that net neutrality is the law of the land. But despite the fact that Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T have all said on investor calls that investment in their networks has actually increased since 2015, Pai seems poised to continue. Though it’s possible that without the network neutrality rules that broadband providers would have invested even more in their networks, there are all kinds of reasons why an ISP might have held back in the past 12 months: the election, disastrous extreme weather events, or even AT&T’s proposed merger with Time Warner.

If Pai does move forward with a vote, it’s likely that the Republican majority commission will win, and the rules could take effect soon after. That means by this time next year, the internet may be a very different place.

Still, the rules aren’t passed yet. And with so much confusion around the validity of the recent net neutrality comment process, it could only help to clarify public opinion on the issue before codifying any new rules. The future of the internet is at stake.

Nov. 17 2017 4:39 PM

This Thanksgiving I’m Thankful for Everyone’s Bizarre, Performative Display Names on Twitter

November on Twitter always comes with a sigh of relief. That’s when all the people who were doing wacky Halloween monikers in the lead-up to Oct. 31 switch back to their normal display names. But this year, we didn’t even make it halfway through November before Twitter upended our nicknameless tranquility.

You may not have thought much of it last week when, along with doubling the character limit for tweets, Twitter also expanded the character limit for display names from 20 to 50. My reaction was something along the lines of, “OK, a rare win for people with hyphenated and otherwise very long names ...” But where I saw a minor administrative change, other tweeters saw possibility. A few days into the 50-character display name era, the service has become overrun with crazy-long names. (Twitter’s war on brevity continues.) As one user pointed out, it’s already getting out of control.

Advertisement

I’ve seen Twitter names that are followed by strings of emojis, joke names, names that end in redundant-on-purpose phrases like “who has a very long name now,” even names that quietly protest Trump or Twitter itself.

It’s similar to a concept that BuzzFeed dubbed “nameflaming” last month: using one’s display name to mock someone who has quote-tweeted you. (Does this sound like a foreign language to you? Welcome to Twitter—it’s a weird place.) As annoying as these names look crowding up our feeds—it’s like our tweets are now tweeting longer tweets—you’ve got to admire the creativity. There’s an adage that if you give humans an empty text field on the internet, they will fill it—usually with strange, sad, and inspiring things. It’s a testament to the bizarre culture of Twitter and maybe human ingenuity in general that its users keep finding such weird ways to use it. Consider the one below, who promised to stop tweeting altogether and communicate only through his display name.

Memedreamextreme hasn’t stuck with that plan, for the record. But it’s heartening to see that, in the ways that don’t involve Nazis and hate speech at least, some genuinely good things about Twitter’s weird culture continue to abide. Let’s all be thankful.

Nov. 17 2017 1:52 PM

The FCC Approves New Rules to Block Robocalls

Robocalls, the illegal telemarketing schemes that rely on autodialers to send out prerecorded sales pitches for free cruises and hotel stays, are facing a crackdown. The FCC this week approved regulations that will give phone companies more latitude to block calls that are likely to be scams.

 

Nov. 17 2017 10:42 AM

The History of the Future: A Future Tense Event Recap

While flying cars and colonies on Mars may feel closer than ever, Americans have been aspiring to both for a very long time. But the way we think about the future depends a lot on the present. At a Nov. 14 event called “History of the Future,” Future Tense—a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University—brought together writers and academics to discuss our relationship with tomorrow, and how it has changed.

“The future, unlike the past and unlike the present, is an invention,” said Neal Gabler, author of Walt Disney: The Triumph of American Imagination. He noted that early societies saw future as “cycles [that] repeated themselves,” but post-Enlightenment scholarship brought us into a more linear way of thinking about the future.

Advertisement

After Gabler’s remarks, speakers offered case studies focused on how transportation, the home, work, and entertainment provide us case studies of America’s long fascination with the future. In a presentation about historical visions for the future of transportation, Joey Eschrich, editor at Arizona State University's Center for Science and the Imagination, discussed British bureaucrat Ebenezer Howard’s "Garden City" model from 1898. In this scheme, the grit and grime cities like London would be solved by concentric railways that would free up the space in between for healthier, green spaces. The spaces were designed to be walkable and to reduce transportation time to free up life for other pursuits. While Blade Runner-style vehicles might get more attention, designs like Howard’s suggest that what we really want, then and now, is to reclaim the time “lost between the places we want to be, the things we need to do, and the experiences we want to have.”

But according to Reason editor-in-chief Katherine Mangu-Ward, tedium has been an important part of our visions of the future. “What the future of life at home looks like is what life at home has always looked like,” she said. “People have a way of muddling through to a kind of messy human-ish middle ground no matter what resources they’ve been given.” Far from “utopian plenty” or sheer dystopia, we’ve landed in a middle ground where Postmates robots bring us takeout and Roombas vacuum our floors—helpful but not life-changing technologies. According to Mangu-Ward, “ordinariness” has always been essential to our visions of the future.

This may be a result of what television producer Patric Verrone described as the “tech plus one” principle: when futurists take an existing technology and added one dimension. This is especially true when it came to visions of future entertainment, said Verrone. For instance, both Jonathan Swift and Jules Verne described forms of television in their works. Even as recently as 1989, Back to the Future Part II predicted holograms that theatergoers would interact with—something that doesn’t seem so far-fetched given entertainment’s current obsession with virtual reality.

What visionaries didn’t account for was that time-saving technologies have us working more, not just enjoying more leisure time.

“You tend to not have more leisure time but rather try to cram more of those activities into one day,” said author Ytasha Womack. Womack remarked on the accuracy of our predictions for work and our desire to “create some sort of efficiency through communications,” which eventually resulted in technologies like email and video conferencing.

While many of the predictions shown at the event have born into fruition, their visionaries didn’t seem to anticipate many of the consequences.

As seen in the various video montages during the event, past visions of the future left out a significant portion of America. Robot assistants might rid grumpy white, male executives of secretaries, but they did little for the laboring underclass. Dream kitchens filled with automatic cake makers were reserved for white housewives. This future vision of work had labor issues that still persist. Mangu-Ward described the automation trope as a way for science fiction writers to deflect away the real-life problems we face with labor. Newer ways of thinking about the future, like Afrofuturism, can help us correct these limited visions, said Womack.

While the speakers shared varying levels of optimism for our current future, they agreed that we can learn from history’s mistakes by adapting more intersectional frameworks and implementing safeguards against technological change, particularly in regards to labor. Instead of becoming “hopelessly fatalistic,” Future Tense editorial director Andres Martinez urged Washington in particular to “take ownership” of the challenges our future brings.

Nov. 16 2017 6:07 PM

Amazon Key Flaw Could Let Intruders Avoid Detection

Researchers from Rhino Security Labs found a way to disable the Amazon Cloud Cam, a crucial safeguard for the Amazon Key service that allows Prime members to remotely unlock their front doors for couriers and other chosen visitors. The hack could theoretically allow people to enter into Amazon-Key-protected domiciles without users realizing it.

 

Nov. 16 2017 8:05 AM

What’s Been Reported So Far on Tesla’s Electric Truck

Tesla has been developing an electric semitruck for two years now, the details of which are still largely under wraps.

On Thursday night, the company will unveil a prototype, which CEO and big-rig hype man Elon Musk has been eagerly teasing on his Twitter feed.

Advertisement

So what’s so mind-boggling about this new vehicle that merits the hyperbolic Rick and Morty reference? In advance of the main event, let’s take stock of what’s been reported so far.

Tesla’s newest vehicle looks to be a Class 8 semi, which has the highest weight limit among heavy-duty commercial trucks. According Musk’s remarks during a sales call in May, the torque for this goliath will come from “a bunch” of Model 3 motors that will sit in line with the wheels’ axles. The Model 3, Tesla’s attempt at mass producing an affordable electric sedan, has of late been beset with production snafus and delays in fulfilling orders. According to Bloomberg, this trucking venture could exacerbate issues with the Model 3, though sharing similar components could also lower the production prices for both vehicles in the long run. Musk may have been hinting at this when he said trucks are “just a very compelling product that has a low unit cost” for Tesla.

The distance that the truck will be able to travel is obviously a crucial spec if the company wants to break into the market for shipping vehicles. Tesla’s smaller and more aerodynamic cars, as Wired notes, can run for around 315 miles at most on a single charge.

Yet Reuters reported in August that Tesla’s goal was for the truck to run for 200 to 300 miles. Ever the showman, Musk then tweeted in October, “Semi specs are better than anything I've seen reported so far.” He’ll hopefully explain during the unveiling how Tesla plans to maintain this sort of endurance with something as big and blocky as a truck. (The Nikola Motor Co. unveiled the Nikola One electric semi in 2016, which promises a running distance of 1,200 miles through the use of a hydrogen fuel cell generator. Toyota has also been working on a hydrogen-fueled electric semi that can run for 200 miles.)

Another mystery that’s been swirling around Thursday’s event is whether Musk will reveal any autonomous driving technology for the truck. Reuters reported in August that Tesla had been conferring with the departments of motor vehicles for California and Nevada concerning test runs for a self-driving prototype to travel across the border between the two states.

And what will this possibly-autonomous, high-endurance, mind-blowing electric truck look like?

Musk on Wednesday released a darkened image of the truck reminiscent of a movie poster at Comic Con:

Nov. 15 2017 9:44 PM

Twitter Unverified a Bunch of White Nationalists and Anti-Muslim Activists

Twitter’s latest salvo in its Great Clean-Up of 2017 is a reorganizing of what it means to be verified. First, after getting a torrent of heat for giving its coveted blue checkmark to Jason Kessler, the man who organized the deadly white nationalist and neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August, the company decided Nov. 9 to suspend its verification program.

Now Twitter is going even further and revoking the verification for other prominent tweeters who are famous for their bigotry, including the famous white nationalist and neo-Nazi Richard Spencer, the alt-right activist Laura Loomer (who was recently kicked off of Uber and Lyft because of her anti-Muslim tweets), Kessler, the British anti-Muslim activist Tommy Robinson, and others. Also Tim "Treadstone" Gionet, who went by the handle Baked Alaska and formerly served as tour manager for Milo Yiannopoulos, has been banned from Twitter permanently. Yiannopoulos was permanently banned from Twitter after inciting a racist trolling campaign against the actor Leslie Jones in 2016. Gionet’s Twitter account was littered with Nazi overtones, including doctored photos depicting people he doesn’t like in gas chambers.

Advertisement

“Verification was meant to authenticate identity & voice but it is interpreted as an endorsement or an indicator of importance,” Twitter’s support account said last week after the outcry around the verification of Kessler. But as I pointed out then, Twitter’s verification status means content from accounts with a blue checkmark are more likely to show up in its “top tweets” results and are more likely to be captured in Google search’s Twitter bar, which populates at the top of search results during important news moments. In order to apply to be verified, users are asked to describe “their impact in their field” and provide URLs that demonstrate their newsworthiness. So sure, Twitter might say that the blue checkmark was misinterpreted as an endorsement of someone’s importance, but the process and privileges of its verification program tell a different story.

Today, Twitter admitted its policies in practice contradicted the company’s claim that verification isn’t an endorsement. “We gave verified accounts visual prominence on the service which deepened this perception,” the company tweeted Wednesday. It also rolled out new guidelines around what behavior will result in the revocation of a verified status. Now Twitter says an account may become unverified if it’s found to be “promoting hate and/or violence,” “inciting or engaging in harassment,” threatening violence, or promoting hate groups. For now, the verification program is still suspended, Twitter says, while it continues work out its new rules.

Verification on Twitter is useful. It helps users know that @realDonaldTrump is indeed President Donald Trump and that @DonaldTrump is not. Confirming that authenticity is incredibly valuable on a platform that’s infested with bots and misinformation. On Oct. 31 and Nov. 1, unhappy members of Congress grilled an attorney from the company, along with executives from Google and Facebook, about its failure to realize that Russian agents had been using its platform in an effort to manipulate Americans in the run-up to the 2016 election.

Now, to Twitter’s credit, it’s trying to do better. In October, the company shared a timeline for changes that it hopes will “make Twitter a safer place,” including the banning of hate symbols and strengthening its policy against the sharing of nonconsensual explicit images, which is commonly called revenge porn, since the people who share are often retaliatory ex-partners.

Twitter’s move to clarify the meaning of its verification badge and revoke the status for people who are famous for their racism or sexism or hate speech are great first steps. And the fact that the company appears to be systematically enforcing its new safety policies is also a giant step in the right direction. Now it’s up to Twitter to be consistent in its enforcement.

                                                                                                                          

READ MORE STORIES