Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future

March 5 2015 6:21 PM

If You Thought the Net Neutrality Debate Was Resolved, You Were Impressively Optimistic

Last week, open-Internet advocates celebrated a victory when the FCC passed protective net neutrality rules. The changes included reclassifying broadband as a utility so the agency would have more authority to regulate telecom companies. But if you thought Repubicans would go quietly on the issue, you've been watching too much unthrottled Netflix.

On Wednesday, Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee reintroduced the Internet Freedom Act as part of an attempt to stop the FCC from moving forward with its new net neutrality rules. The bill has 19 original co-sponsors and attacks the idea that the FCC decision will lead to a truly open and modern Internet.


In a statement Blackburn said, “These overreaching rules will stifle innovation, [and] restrict freedoms. ... Once the federal government establishes a foothold into managing how Internet service providers run their networks they will essentially be deciding which content goes first, second, third, or not at all.”

As Motherboard has noted, Blackburn is one of the legislators who receives the most money from telecom companies.

Blackburn has championed similar bills before, but now that the FCC has had its vote, the version can pointedly address the agency's latest decision. It says, "The rule adopted by the Federal Communications Commission ... on February 26, 2015 (relating to broadband Internet access service) shall have no force or effect ..." You can't get much more straightforward about your goals than that.  

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March 5 2015 3:23 PM

Could Immersive Virtual Reality Tech Solve World Problems?

This post originally appeared on WIRED.

The plane already was convulsing by the time the “please fasten seatbelt” sign came on. Dark, foreboding clouds filled the sky. We must have been flying right into a storm. All I could think of was that opening scene in Lost where the plane splits in half.


We rode out the turbulence and made an uneventful landing. As the plane came to a stop on the tarmac, I pulled off my goggles, and the virtual world of the cabin disappeared. I was in a conference room in the offices of River, a startup incubator in San Francisco’s SoMa district, miles from the airport.

River was launched earlier this year by venture capital Rothenberg Ventures with the goal of advancing the state of virtual reality by providing VR startups with office space plus $100,000 in seed funding. In those offices you’ll find hardware hackers working on a new VR headsets and 3D camerasfilmmakers creating lush, interactive digital movies, and developers building the “Ticketmaster for VR events.” But most importantly, you’ll find VR designers hard at work helping people solve real-world problems today.

And not just “problems” in the sense that too many startups mean as they try to monetize a solution to a minor inconvenience. For years, virtual reality has made inroads in helping to treat serious phobias, post-traumatic stress, and burn victims’ pain. Now, as the price of VR tech plummets, this therapeutic tech is advancing—and could soon become available to many more people who need it.

Since Facebook acquired VR company Oculus last year, we’ve heard a lot about the potential for virtual reality to transform the economy by revitalizing consumer entertainment, social media, shopping, education, and travel. We’ve speculated about what the killer app for VR might be, or whether it even needs one. Less has been said about the progress VR has already made as a tool for healing. In fields like pain management, physical rehabilitation and the treatment of anxiety disorders such as post traumatic stress, VR is coming into its own. And thanks to the recent emergence of affordable consumer VR rigs like Samsung Gear VR, patients may finally be able to take advantage of technology that’s been inaccessible to the larger public for two decades.

For example, the airline simulation I experienced—created by River company Psious—is a virtual reality version of exposure therapy, an approach to treating anxiety disorders such as phobias and post traumatic stress disorder. The idea is to gradually expose someone to the source of their anxiety—flying, for example—in a safe setting in a way that enables them to face that fear in the real world later. The company offers several other simulators, including ones to help with arachnophobia, fear of needles, claustrophobia, and public speaking.

The simulations aren’t perfectly immersive—it’s obvious you’re in a computer-generated world when wearing a headset—but studies have found VR to be more effective at treating some phobias than traditional exposure methods like mental visualization or photographs. The problem is that historically, VR systems have cost tens of thousands of dollars, making such therapy available to a small percentage of people. Psious, however, is now able to sell a bundle of hardware—including a Homido headset, a smart phone and a haptic feedback device—for $300. “We haven’t invented anything,” Psious co-founder Dani Roig acknowledges. “We just democratized these kind of treatments.”

The conventional wisdom is that VR was vastly overhyped in the 1980s and 90s, and after a few disappointments like Nintendo’s Virtual Boy, quietly disappeared until 2012 when Oculus began demoing its Rift headset. But the thing is, virtual reality never really went away.

Just ask Howard Rose, who has spent the past 20 years building virtual worlds for medical researchers. In the mid-1990s, his company Firsthand helped the University of Washington design SpiderWorld, an application for treating arachnophobia. Later the company built Attack of the S. Mutans!, a game designed to help children develop better toothbrushing habits, and IraqWorld, a game designed to help treat PTSD.

But the company’s most important project may be SnowWorld, a first-person action game designed to help burn victims manage their pain designed in conjunction with University of Washington researchers led by Hunter Hoffman. Researchers have been using the game to help distract patients from their pain for years. Now Rose and Firsthand co-founder Ari Hollander are now focusing strictly on pain management with their new River-backed startup Deepstream VR.

But while the usefulness of VR for treating acute pain in burn victims is generally well accepted, a review of VR-based pain management studies published in 2012 noted that the research into VR’s effectiveness for treating chronic pain is much less mature. The problem, Rose says, is that because VR equipment is so expensive, researchers have focused their time and resources on only the most dire needs for pain relief.

That makes this new wave of consumer devices exciting. The earliest practical VR technologies were flight simulators used by the military, and much of the VR hardware industry has focused on this market. “People were making their bread and butter on military gear,” Rose says. “And they weren’t motivated to make it cheaper.”

That’s changing. Though much has been written about the Rift’s special lens and custom software, Rose says the most important factor driving down the cost of VR gear is the rise of smartphones, which dramatically lowered prices for components such as gyroscopes and accelerometers. “Four years ago we were using $4,000 sensor networks.” he says. “Sensors are now really cheap, and they’re everywhere. Displays have gotten better and smaller.”

Much of this new crop of VR hardware—including the Samsung Gear VR, Google Cardboard, and the VR One—simply place a smartphone into a pair of goggles, displaying a stereoscopic image on the phone’s screen and using its internal sensors to track head position.

These gadgets still may be too expensive or not immersive enough to bring about the VR revolution we’ve been promised for years. But they’re fine for therapeutic applications. And by bringing down to just a few hundred dollars, these devices are poised to help doctors, therapists and researchers treat more patients than ever before. About 18 percent of the U.S. population suffers from an anxiety disorder and 7 to 8 percent experience PTSD at some point in their lives. Meanwhile, chronic pain affects 100 million people in the U.S. alone.

Even if VR never becomes a consumer darling, it’s poised to improve the lives of millions.

Also in WIRED:

March 5 2015 2:01 PM

I Tried to Watch CSI: Cyber, I Really Did

Right away, before anything else, I want to say that CSI: Cyber is not the worst. It definitely has some accuracy issues, but when you think about shows like House and Dexter that took wild liberties in portraying interesting professions, CSI: Cyber is doing all right. The problem is that it's not really about hacking, because hacking is boring.

The show centers around Special Agent Avery Ryan—played by a stony Patricia Arquette. She runs the FBI’s Cyber Crime division, a team of nerdy, misfit, white-hat hackers that includes James Van Der Beek for some reason. It's a classic crime-drama setup. There's even the kind-hearted boss, Assistant Director Simon Sifter (played by Peter Mac­Nicol), who is vaguely on the side of bureaucracy, but has a soft spot for the antics of those crazy kids in Cyber Crime.


Agent Ryan works cybercrime cases because around the "beginning of the Internet," her behavioral psychology practice got hacked, all the records were stolen, and her patients' secrets were exposed. She says, “I keep thinking if I could just turn one hacker at a time, nothing like that will ever happen again.” So the whole show is basically premised on a forced conversion vendetta.

But anyway! The pilot, called "Kidnapping 2.0," raises some important questions about cloud services and the Internet of Things as it tracks a ring of criminals who have been surveilling babies through insecure baby monitor cams, then auctioning the babies off, kidnapping them, and selling them to families overseas.

Since we hear about vulnerabilities and cybercrimes every day in the news now, it seems like CSI: Cyber is debuting at the perfect time. As assistant director Sifter says, “Oh, those poor parents. They buy a baby cam to protect their child, and it’s the very thing that gets him abducted. That is truly horrifying.”

But the same weariness we have with the news cycle will probably spread to this show. Since watching people try to trace malware or crack encryption keys is visually boring (people typing for hours or just a computer executing a command without divine revelations or lucky guesses), the show adds chase scenes, sniper attacks, underwater rescues, and suspect interrogations to keep things moving. But all of that makes it seem like a cybercrime episode of normal CSI, rather than an actual chronicle of how white-hat hacking gets done.

Once the show covers all the big topics, it will probably have to repeat various basic premises with different combinations of compromised devices. It's only the first episode and a character has already said, “You thought patch-and-pray was going to make this problem go away?” But Americans seem to love formulaic crime dramas, so being repetitive doesn't necessarily mean the show won't be popular.

As FBI informant and LulzSec co-founder Hector "Sabu" Monsegur wrote on the Daily Dot, "The premise of reckoning with the reality of cloud vulnerabilities is an awesome one. Unfortunately, Kidnapping’s story disintegrates sooner than you can change the channel."

There isn't a lot of incentive to accurately depict technology on TV, because it's at the same time so familiar to viewers and so limitessly magical. It's almost too easy to sneak in questionable tech in a believable way. When Agent Ryan dusts for prints, takes a photo of what she finds, and checks it against a database to get an instant fingerprint match—all from her smartphone—that's probably not realistic. But then there's a whole other level of fudging when a few of the characters perform virtual autopsies on three shooting victims in an immersive 3-D projection room, essentially a Star Trek holodeck. What? How?

March 4 2015 2:41 PM

Netizen Report: China Continues to Crack Down on Virtual Private Networks

The Netizen Report originally appears each week on Global Voices Advocacy. Renata Avila, Ellery Roberts Biddle, Marianne Diaz Hernandez, Lisa Ferguson, Hae-in Lim, and Sarah Myers West contributed to this report.

GVA logo

Global Voices Advocacy’s Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world. This week’s report begins in China, where the government has continued its crackdown on the use of virtual private networks by blocking Avast.com, a free anti-virus and anti-spyware protection software for Windows, Android, and Mac users. According to technology blogger William Long, the block is linked to the site’s SecureLine VPN service. In addition, Chinese companies including Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu, and Weibo deleted more than 60,000 accounts for reasons as varied as “being misleading, rumor mongering, links to terrorism, or involving violence, pornography and other violations.”


Quartz reports that for unclear reasons, when Chinese users attempt to navigate to sites banned by the Great Firewall, they are sometimes being directed to seemingly random sites, a hacking technique known as DNS poisoning. Normally, such requests are routed to nonexistent IP addresses.

A new trial for a Saudi blogger?
Saudi Arabia’s criminal court may attempt retrying blogger Raif Badawi for apostasy charges, which carry the death sentence. Badawi has already been sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for his criticism of Saudi clerics, although his lashes have been postponed since they were first administered. A judge previously threw out the apostasy charge in 2013, after Badawi clarified for the court that he is Muslim.

Eyes on Africa
In what has been dubbed South Africa’s WikiLeaks, Al Jazeera and the Guardian published “The Spy Cables,” a horde of documents painting Africa as the “El Dorado of espionage” and South Africa as a major hub for communications in the region. The documents, which date from 2006–2014, generally involve spying by or on Israel and Iran, with the CIA, the U.K.’s MI6, and others as supporting characters. Revelations include security weaknesses of the South African government and a partnership for satellite surveillance with Russia. Some have expressed concern about the consequences of the publication of the cables, which include the name of a potential North Korean asset who may now face torture or possibly death. Furthermore, Right2Know, a campaign launched in 2010 to oppose the proposed Protection of State Information Bill, worried that the humiliation stemming from the cables’ publication could provide the momentum to finally pass the “Secrecy Bill,” which could threaten whistleblowers and journalists with up to 25 years in prison for publishing “state secrets.”

“Right to be forgotten” could head to the Southern Hemisphere
The Buenos Aires legislature is considering a city law similar to the European “right to be forgotten” ruling. The law would provide for the protection of personal data released by websites and search engines, with an exception for public persons in whom citizens have a “special interest.” The law would require users to submit requests for harmful content to be removed, and companies would need to comply with such requests within five days.

Google Tehran HQ coming soon?
Google and other Internet companies may soon be able to set up offices in Iran, provided they respect the country’s “cultural” rules, according to the Fars news agency. Sites such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter have been blocked intermittently in Iran since a series of protests surrounding the 2009 presidential election. Iran’s Deputy Telecommunications and Information Technology Minister Nasrollah Jahangard said that American businesses may face problems operating in the country due to U.S. sanctions, but he claimed companies outside the United States have begun negotiations to enter the market.

Cool Things
Privacy and security researcher Runa Sandvik recounts how she used a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain records showing information that U.S. Customs collected about her (and the photographs taken of her) every time she entered the country during a four-year period.

New Research

March 3 2015 7:06 PM

Did Hillary Clinton Compromise Her Email Security or Make It Stronger?

On Monday night, the New York Times unleashed a new controversy about Hillary Clinton's four years as secretary of state. It seems that Clinton exclusively used a nongovernment email address for professional correspondence during her tenure—apparently she didn't even have a state.gov address. The whole situation basically just seems like a perfect storm of HR screw-ups and shady communication practices. But maybe it was for the best.

Let’s put aside the question of whether Clinton violated the Federal Records Act, which says that public officials should store written communications on federal servers—they’re government records that must be available for review, with various exceptions for classified communications. (For more on the legal questions, read my colleague Josh Voorhees’ post on the Slatest.) Did Clinton’s email habit make her vulnerable to hackers?


It seems that Clinton did all of her emailing through a domain called “clintonemail.com.” As the Washington Post points out, this address was created on Jan. 13, 2009, which was the first day of Clinton's Senate confirmation hearings. It’s not clear who set it up, but the domain was renewed in 2013 and is paid for through 2017.

In 2008, Farhad Manjoo wrote on Slate that “it's not a good idea for politicians to use personal e-mail accounts,” because of the security risks. And in light of revelations about Clinton’s practices, this view is circulating again. American Civil Liberties Union principal technologist Christopher Soghoian tweeted on Tuesday, “While the American public didn’t know about Hillary’s private email account, it probably wasn’t a secret to foreign intelligence agencies.” And Nate Cardozo, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Motherboard:

I don't actually have any less faith in Google than I do in the government to secure those emails, but it's still a terrible idea. Let's assume for the sake of argument she was using Gmail. If she was using Gmail, it means Google was scanning all of the email to present her with targeted advertising … Do we want a private company doing profiling on our Secretary of State?

It’s not clear whether Clinton actually used Gmail or some other commercially available service. But could Clinton have actually been smart to go outside the .gov email system? (Again, this is just about the security, not legality or ethics.) After all, U.S. government email systems are frequent targets for hackers, whether state-sponsored or freelance. In November, the unclassified State Department email system was compromised by hackers and was temporarily shut down. This incident occurred long after Clinton’s departure, but does call the State Department’s cyberdefenses into question.

Joe Loomis, the founder and CEO of the security group CyberSponse, said that though there are risks, he can also see how there could be security benefits to setting up a personal email account for State Department work. He says that hackers looking to target Clinton's communications would normally have attempted to infiltrate her State Department email address and might have had knowledge about how the account was configured, making it an easier target.

“It’s one way that you can almost kind of mask yourself from being targeted by using off-channel communication,” he said. “[Hackers] have to guess what the email is against all the email providers, Yahoo, Outlook, MSN, Google, whatever.” Loomis says that though the accountability issue is important, he has heard about a lot of people in government using personal email accounts to make their communication channel more difficult to guess. John Kerry is actually the first secretary of state to solely use a state.gov email account.

If Clinton and her advisers were savvy in setting up her personal account, it could have offered more protection than the unclassified government email system. If they implemented rigorous end-to-end encryption (in which a message is encrypted at every stage of its movement from server to server across the Internet and can only be locally decrypted by the recipient on the other end), and especially if Clinton’s account only communicated internally via intranet with other government employees, her messages might have been highly secure. But using a standard consumer email service like Gmail or Yahoo wouldn’t have been very secure at all.

Christopher Peikert, a cryptography researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology, explained:

The majority of email ... travels unencrypted “in the clear” across a wide variety of networks (and even countries) as it goes from sender and receiver. It’s fair to say that anyone with a computer on any one of those networks can read any of the email that passes through—there are easily available tools that make this possible.

Basically a personal email account would give Clinton the element of surprise—hackers might not have been able to find her account to target it. But once hackers had her clintonemail.com address in their sights, it might be easier to crack unless she and her team knew a lot about creating a secure email environment. And then again, the State Department email doesn’t seem to have been so secure, either. It feels like a no-win.

Evidence of Clinton's use of a personal email account surfaced a couple of years ago. In March 2013, Gawker reported that Clinton had been corresponding with former Bill Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal on a personal account. Gawker’s John Cook wrote at the time, “And why was Clinton apparently receiving emails at a non-governmental email account? The address Blumenthal was writing to was hosted at the domain ‘clintonemail.com,’ ... which is privately registered via Network Solutions. It is most certainly not a governmental account.”

Clinton is certainly not the first official to skirt rules about government email. Before Gina McCarthy was approved as administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency in 2013, a Senate panel questioned her on the agency’s known use of personal email accounts for business. In a hearing McCarthy openly admitted that she used her personal email address to send herself attachments so she could print them in her Boston home. As Bloomberg’s Brendan Greeley noted at the time, “Either the EPA doesn’t have a cloud-based system to read and print documents at home, or it does, and it doesn’t work very well. Regardless, the problem is so universal that McCarthy felt perfectly justified telling a Senate panel she does it.”

Meanwhile, during hearings in June 2014 about how the Internal Revenue Service had lost emails relevant to a political targeting probe, Texas Republican Blake Farenthold made a suggestion: “I went on Amazon and found you could buy a terabyte hard drive for $59. Buy two of them, so $120.”

Though the State Department’s email security may need work, the agency hasn’t been completely out to lunch since the rise of email. In 2004, it was the first agency to “transfer electronic textual records” to the National Archives and Records Administration. And its Foreign Affairs Manual contains an extensive section on “Electronic Records, Facsimile Records, and Electronic Mail Records,” which notes:

The Department’s Records Management Office (OIS/RA/RD) conducts periodic reviews of the records management practices both at headquarters and at overseas posts ... These periodic reviews now will include monitoring of the implementation of the Department’s E-mail policy.

It would seem that Clinton was never subject to a “periodic review.” State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf did tell Bloomberg on Tuesday, “We have no indication that Secretary Clinton used her personal e-mail account for anything but unclassified purposes.”

It’s hard to imagine that Clinton was never even assigned a state.gov email address, but the situation is sort of understandable when you think about Clinton’s rank. With so many aides to brief her on what was going on, she probably didn't need her work email to find out when there was cake in the break room.

March 3 2015 5:52 PM

Can a 3-D Printing Company Stop People From Printing Their Own Guns?

This post originally appeared in WIRED.

The age of 3-D printing in carbon fiber has hardly arrived. But the controversy over 3-D printing carbon fiber guns is well under way.


Starting in the second half of last year, 3-D printing startup MarkForged has been shipping the Mark One, a device it advertises as the world’s first 3-D printer that prints carbon fiber; The Mark One digitally fabricates objects in a material as light as plastic and as strong by some measures as aluminum. But one group isn’t about to receive its Mark One order: Defense Distributed, the nonprofit political group that invented the first fully 3-D printed gun nearly two years ago.

Defense Distributed founder Cody Wilson says he pre-ordered the Mark One about a year ago for $8,000, but was told last Friday in a phone call with a MarkForged salesman that the company refuses to sell him one, citing terms of service that disallow private citizens from using the machine to make firearms. So instead, Wilson is offering what he describes as a “bounty” to anyone who can get him MarkForged’s new carbon fiber printer.

“Anyone who’s got access to one, any reseller, any individual or business or entity that can deliver it to me, I will give them fifteen grand,” says Wilson, who has also released a YouTube video advertising his offer. “I’m going to get this printer. I’m going to make a gun with it. And I’m going to make sure everyone knows it was made with a MarkForged printer.”

In a statement to Wired, MarkForged cited terms of service that “limit experimentation with ordnance to the United States Government and its authorized contractors.” In fact, the company’s terms of service page doesn’t include that statement. But it does reserve the right for the company to refuse sale to anyone, even after an order is placed.

“Our website automatically took Mr. Wilson’s pre-order, and we certainly regret that we did not catch this sooner,” MarkForged’s statement continues. “We are expediting his refund with interest.”

Wilson, of course, isn’t satisfied with a refund. Defense Distributed’s radically libertarian founder—who has said he seeks nothing less than to prove all government regulation irrelevant in the digital era—accuses MarkForged of denying Defense Distributed its printer based on hypocritical politics, given that it’s willing to let its machines be used to make weapons for the U.S. military and defense contractors.

“They’re happy to sign contracts with [a government contractor like] Boeing. There’s Department of Defense money in the mix here,” he says. “This isn’t about stopping us [from printing a gun.] They’re demonstrating which side they’re on.”

MarkForged is far from the first company to try to disassociate itself from Defense Distributed’s anarchist, gun-loving mission. Indiegogo pulled the group’s initial fundraising campaign in 2012. 3-D printer maker Stratasys refused to rent a printer to the group after it learned what it was being used for. 3-D printing websites like Thingiverse and Shapeways have banned gun components from their collections of CAD models. Even Fedex and UPS have refused to ship a computer-controlled milling machine that Defense Distributed began selling late last year.

Those obstacles didn’t stop Wilson’s gun-making organization from creating and test-firing the Liberator, the world’s first fully 3-D printed firearm, in May, 2013. If the group gets its hands on one of MarkForged’s carbon fiber 3-D printers, it could potentially demonstrate homemade, lethal weapons that are far more durable and practical. MarkForged advertises that its material—plastic polymer laced with carbon fiber strands—is 20 times stiffer than typical 3-D printing plastic and five times stronger, with a higher strength-to-weight ratio than aluminum.

That material could make a firearm that doesn’t crack or deform after a few shots, as the plastic Liberator tends to. Defense Distributed engineer John Sullivan says one of the biggest barriers to the Liberator’s durability has been the expansion of its barrel with every firing. A barrel with strands of carbon fiber wound around it in rings would withstand much greater “hoop stress,” as Sullivan calls it. “The barrel won’t expand. It’s just beautiful,” Sullivan says. “This is a gun machine they’ve made, and we want to make a gun on it.”

Wilson says a more durable barrel is only the beginning. Defense Distributed has been working on 3-D printed carbon fiber gun designs since it pre-ordered MarkForged’s printer last year. “We’re talking about paradigmatically different stuff,” Wilson says. “The gun is entering a new chapter.”

Printing a gun on one of MarkForged’s new carbon fiber printers—if Defense Distributed does obtain one—would be a bit of a stretch from the group’s original goal of making a gun that anyone could download and create on a cheap printer with a click of a mouse. But as 3-D printing evolves and becomes more mainstream, carbon fiber printing is sure to become more accessible, too.

MarkfFrged and other companies’ attempts to publicly distance themselves from that gun-printing won’t prevent it from happening, says Michael Weinberg, a 3-D-printing-focused policy analyst for the non-profit Public Knowledge. “On any sort of scale, this is not particularly sensical,” Weinberg says. “For the printer companies, they don’t have the time or resources or inclination to figure out everything that’s coming out of their machines. That’s an impossible task.”

Weinberg argues that companies like Stratasys or MarkForged refusing business to a group like Defense Distributed is largely a public relations move more than a practical attempt to stymy gun printing. “They’re not thinking ‘now no one will be able to 3-D print firearms,’” he says. “They’re thinking, ‘we don’t want to be associated with this high profile example of it.’”

In a marketing video for its new printer, MarkForged founder Greg Mark almost seemed to acknowledge the company’s lack of control over how its customers will use its machines.

“We’ve now enabled you to print carbon fiber,” Mark says in the final line of the video, “And God knows what you’re going to do with it.”

Also in WIRED:

March 3 2015 5:00 PM

Designing for Happiness: The Ultimate Sustainability Solution?

We’ve all been there before—took a wrong turn and ended up in a “scary” neighborhood. Quickly now, roll up the windows, lock the doors—¼ inch of glass will save our lives. What causes us to react this way? Humans are incredibly in tune with their surroundings, subconsciously analyzing environmental factors that drive mental and physical responses—it is the basis for our survival. Our favorite restaurant might evoke a sense of relaxation and familiarity, while a busy elevator makes us feel cramped, anxious, and insecure. Neighborhoods incite similar responses, causing our bodies to prepare for battle or for peace. Some of us are able to live in neighborhoods that make us feel safe, secure and at home. Others aren’t as fortunate, often a result of disinvestment and poor planning policies. Consider, for a moment, how your neighborhood makes you feel. Now, take it a step further: How happy does your neighborhood make you feel? Happiness is a common value we all strive for and deserve the opportunity to pursue—each and every one of us.

How often do you contemplate your happiness and the levels to which it is affected by your neighborhood? Never? Join the club—most lack a sense of connection between happiness and the neighborhood. However, even as sustainability transcends its earlier buzzword status, happiness is missing from the conversation. Sustainability is literally about the survival of the human race—why wouldn’t we want that survival to equal a happy life? A shortsighted lens will no longer work and we are foolish to think so. I suggest that a happy neighborhood might just be a sustainable neighborhood, and vice versa.

March 3 2015 9:00 AM

The Best Adaptive Technologies Are Designed by, Not for, People With Disabilities

This post is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. At noon on Wednesday, March 4, Future Tense will host an event in Washington, D.C., on technology and the future of disability. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.

Consider for a moment all of the visual cues you rely on when you walk into a room full of people. You can see how many people are there, where they are located, which directions they are facing, and whether they are moving.


You can also read the many nonverbal cues that add to what they are saying. Does a person smile with recognition when you walk in the room, or furrow their brow trying to remember who you are? Does your suggestion elicit a disapproving smirk or a nod of the head? Are your anecdotes met with rapt attention, or is the listener yawning and toying with their cellphone?

Sighted people take these cues for granted, interpreting this vast supply of information subconsciously. For people who are blind or visually impaired, the absence of this information can make social interactions extremely difficult and/or awkward. Fortunately, we can now develop technologies that provide the information in nonvisual ways.

Technology—particularly multimedia and ubiquitous computing—can help enrich life, enhance productivity and promote independent living for people across the entire spectrum of abilities. For example, the Center for Cognitive Ubiquitous Computing (CUbiC) at Arizona State University is developing a social interaction assistant to address the problems listed above for people with visual impairments.  (Disclosure: I work for ASU; ASU is a partner with Slate and New America in Future Tense.)

One thing we have learned from working with potential users is that people with visual impairments rely heavily on their sense of hearing. If an assistive device provides auditory feedback, it could drown out important situational information. In the case of missed conversation, this would be inconvenient. In a situation like a traffic crossing, it would be hazardous. As a result, we are developing a wearable device that uses tactile cues such as pattern of vibrations to convey information.

Truly revolutionary technologies require engagement with users throughout the design and development process. While it’s helpful to get feedback and ideas from focus groups on users’ needs, short sessions don’t give us a full understanding of the challenges and opportunities in developing assistive technology solutions. It is imperative that people with disabilities play a leading role in envisioning, conceptualizing, developing, implementing, deploying, testing, and validating potential solutions, tools, and technologies.

Several years ago, an ASU student came to me asking about technology that might help him get access to the content of the blackboard in his classes. David Hayden was a freshman double-majoring in math and computer science, and he also was visually impaired. Even sitting at the front of the class couldn’t get him the access to the board to understand the process being enumerated in solving math problems or designing an algorithm by his professors.

I encouraged him to  come work in my lab with a team to see how we could solve this problem. After all, who better understood this problem than David?

In his sophomore year, he began working at the CUbiC lab, developing an application on a tablet connected to a camera with a pan-tilt-zoom feature. He could take the device to his classes and have the video of the blackboard piped into his laptop. Then he did something even more clever—he split the screen into two halves. One side of the screen showed the video of the blackboard while the other was used to design a “notes” interface. He linked sections of the class notes to individual frames from the video.

David took the prototype to the classroom and shared it with other visually impaired students for obtaining their feedback, which he then used to further improve the device. At the end of his junior year, he submitted his invention to the worldwide Microsoft Imagine Cup competition in the “touch and tablet” category. He won both the national and world competitions in that category.

After graduation, David received an internship opportunity at NASA and is now pursuing a Ph.D. at MIT. He’s also manufacturing his Note-Taker prototype for use by others.

Once visually impaired students started using Note-Taker in classrooms, something truly remarkable happened. Sighted students began asking for the technology for their own use. This is not actually uncommon among well-designed assistive devices. For example, the first commercially successful typewriter, the Hansen Writing Ball, was designed to help blind people write through touch-typing. The QWERTY keyboards we use with our computers today are descendants of this accessibility tool.  

In reality, we are all looking for ways to enhance our abilities. For instance, a soldier on the battlefield needs better access to information at night or in stressful environments. One could argue that blindness is not only a disability but a concept. We are all blind from a touch perspective to distant environments like exploring the surface of Mars. Assistive technologies have the power to transcend our limitations and enrich our lives.

March 2 2015 7:13 PM

Ikea Wants You to Wirelessly Charge Your Smartphone on Tables, Desks, and Lamps

Ikea is always releasing new furniture lines, and some of them debut with nifty updated features. But a table is basically a table, right? Maybe not. On Sunday, the Swedish furniture maker announced that it will be incorporating wireless charging stations into new desks, lamps, and even tables.

Using the Qi inductive charging standard (developed by the Wireless Power Consortium), Ikea is hoping to tie its furniture more closely to the devices we always have in hand. It's a good stab at renewed relevance, and advocates are presumably hoping it will help Qi adoption spread. But currently only certain devices—like Nexus phones from Google and the Motorola Droid line—support Qi charging, so keep that in mind. Gizmodo also cautions that there's evidence of degraded battery life after consistent wireless charging.


If you have a phone with wireless charging capabilities, though, and you need a new lamp (or want to take a stab at future-proofing your lamp purchase), the line will be available in April. There will also be standalone charging pads for furniture purists. 

Plug in your furniture so you don't have to plug in your phone.

Photo from Ikea

March 2 2015 3:20 PM

New Study Says Climate Change Helped Spark Syrian Civil War

By now, it’s pretty clear that we’re starting to see visible manifestations of climate change beyond far-off melting ice sheets. One of the most terrifying implications is the increasingly real threat of wars sparked in part by global warming. New evidence says that Syria may be one of the first such conflicts.

We know the basic story in Syria by now: From 2006-2010, an unprecedented drought forced the country from a groundwater-intensive breadbasket of the region to a net food importer. Farmers abandoned their homes—school enrollment in some areas plummeted 80 percent—and flooded Syria’s cities, which were already struggling to sustain an influx of more than 1 million refugees from the conflict in neighboring Iraq. The Syrian government largely ignored these warning signs, helping sow discontent that ultimately spawned violent protests. The link from drought to war was prominently featured in a Showtime documentary last year. A preventable drought-triggered humanitarian crisis sparked the 2011 civil war, and eventually, ISIS.

A new study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science provides the clearest evidence yet that human-induced global warming made that drought more likely. The study is the first to examine the drought-to-war narrative in quantitative detail in any country, ultimately linking it to climate change.