Category: Cool future stuff

Does the world need interactive emails?

I’m on the fence on this as, on the one hand, email is an absolute bedrock of the internet, a common federated standard that we can rely upon independent of technological factionalism. On the other hand, so long as it’s built into a standard others can adopt, it could be pretty cool.

The author of this article really doesn’t like Google’s idea of extending AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) to the inbox:

See, email belongs to a special class. Nobody really likes it, but it’s the way nobody really likes sidewalks, or electrical outlets, or forks. It not that there’s something wrong with them. It’s that they’re mature, useful items that do exactly what they need to do. They’ve transcended the world of likes and dislikes.

Fair enough, but as a total convert to Google’s ‘Inbox’ app both on the web and on mobile, I don’t think we can stop innovation in this area:

Emails are static because messages are meant to be static. The entire concept of communication via the internet is based around the telegraphic model of exchanging one-way packets with static payloads, the way the entire concept of a fork is based around piercing a piece of food and allowing friction to hold it in place during transit.

Are messages ‘meant to be static’? I’m not so sure. Books were ‘meant to’ be paper-based until ebooks came along, and now there’s all kinds of things we can do with ebooks that we can’t do with their dead-tree equivalents.

Why do this? Are we running out of tabs? Were people complaining that clicking “yes” on an RSVP email took them to the invitation site? Were they asking to have a video chat window open inside the email with the link? No. No one cares. No one is being inconvenienced by this aspect of email (inbox overload is a different problem), and no one will gain anything by changing it.

Although it’s an entertaining read, if ‘why do this?’ is the only argument the author, Devin Coldewey, has got against an attempted innovation in this space, then my answer would be why not? Although Coldewey points to the shutdown of Google Reader as an example of Google ‘forcing’ everyone to move to algorithmic news feeds, I’m not sure things are, and were, as simple as that.

It sounds a little simplistic to say so, but people either like and value something and therefore use it, or they don’t. We who like and uphold standards need to remember that, instead of thinking about what people and organisations should and shouldn’t do.

Source: TechCrunch

Audio Adversarial speech-to-text

I don’t usually go in for detailed technical papers on stuff that’s not directly relevant to what I’m working on, but I made an exception for this. Here’s the abstract:

We construct targeted audio adversarial examples on automatic speech recognition. Given any audio waveform, we can produce another that is over 99.9% similar, but transcribes as any phrase we choose (at a rate of up to 50 characters per second). We apply our white-box iterative optimization-based attack to Mozilla’s implementation DeepSpeech end-to-end, and show it has a 100% success rate. The feasibility of this attack introduce a new domain to study adversarial examples.

In other words, the researchers managed to fool a neural network devoted to speech recognition into transcribing a phrase different to that which was uttered.

So how does it work?

By starting with an arbitrary waveform instead of speech (such as music), we can embed speech into audio that should not be recognized as speech; and by choosing silence as the target, we can hide audio from a speech-to-text system

The authors state that merely changing words so that something different occurs is a standard adverserial attack. But a targeted adverserial attack is different:

Not only are we able to construct adversarial examples converting a person saying one phrase to that of them saying a different phrase, we are also able to begin with arbitrary non-speech audio sample and make that recognize as any target phrase.

This kind of stuff is possible due to open source projects, in particular Mozilla Common Voice. Great stuff.
 

Source: Arxiv

Augmented and Virtual Reality on the web

There were a couple of exciting announcments last week about web technologies being used for Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR). Using standard technologies that can be used across a range of devices is a game-changer.

First off, Google announced ‘Article’ which provides an straightforward way to add virtual objects to physical spaces.

Google AR

Mozilla, meanwhile directed attention towards A-Frame, which they’ve been supporting for a while. This allows VR experiences to be created using web technologies, including networking users together in-world.

Mozilla VR

Although each have their uses, I think AR is going to be a much bigger deal than Virtual Reality (VR) for most people, mainly because it adds to an experience we’re used to (i.e. the world around us) rather than replacing it.

Sources: Google blog / A-Frame

Amazon Go, talent and labour

I’ll try and explain what Amazon Go is without sounding a note of incredulity and rolling my eyes. It’s a shop where shoppers submit to constant surveillance for the slim reward of not having to line up to pay. Instead, they enter the shop by identifying themselves via the Amazon app on their smartphone, and their shopping is then charged to their account.

Ben Thompson zooms out from this to think about the ‘game’ Amazon is playing here:

The economics of Amazon Go define the tech industry; the strategy, though, is uniquely Amazon’s. Most of all, the implications of Amazon Go explain both the challenges and opportunities faced by society broadly by the rise of tech.

He goes on to explain that Amazon really really likes fixed costs, which is what their new store provides. Yes, R&D is expensive, but then afterwards you can predict your costs, and concentrate on throughput:

Fixed costs, on the other hand, have no relation to revenue. In the case of convenience stores, rent is a fixed cost; 7-11 has to pay its lease whether it serves 100 customers or serves 1,000 in any given month. Certainly the more it serves the better: that means the store is achieving more “leverage” on its fixed costs.

In the case of Amazon Go specifically, all of those cameras and sensors and smartphone-reading gates are fixed costs as well — two types, in fact. The first is the actual cost of buying and installing the equipment; those costs, like rent, are incurred regardless of how much revenue the store ultimately produces.

Just as Amazon built amazingly scalable server technology and then opened it out as a platform for others to build websites and apps upon, so Thompson sees Amazon Go as the first move in the long game of providing technology to other shops/brands.

In market after market the company is leveraging software to build horizontal businesses that benefit from network effects: in e-commerce, more buyers lead to more suppliers lead to more buyers. In cloud services, more tenants lead to great economies of scale, not just in terms of servers and data centers but in the leverage gained by adding ever more esoteric features that both meet market needs and create lock-in… [T]he point of buying Whole Foods was to jump start a similar dynamic in groceries.

Thompson is no socialist, so I had a little chuckle at his reference to Marx towards the end of the article:

The political dilemma embedded in this analysis is hardly new: Karl Marx was born 200 years ago. Technology like Amazon Go is the ultimate expression of capital: invest massive amounts of money up front in order to reap effectively free returns at scale. What has fundamentally changed, though, is the role of labour: Marx saw a world where capital subjugated labour for its own return; technologies like Amazon Go have increasingly no need for labor at all.

He does have a point, though, and reading Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work convinced me that even ardent socialists should be advocating for full automation.

This is all related to points made about the changing nature of work by Harold Jarche in a new article he’s written:

As routine and procedural work gets automated, human work will be increasingly complex, requiring permanent skills for continuous learning and adaptation. Creativity and empathy will be more important than compliance and intelligence. This requires a rethinking of jobs, employment, and organizational management.

Some people worry that there won’t be enough jobs to go around. However, the problem isn’t employment, the problem is neoliberalism, late-stage capitalism, and the fact that 1% of people own more than 55% of the rest of the planet.

Sources: Stratechery and Harold Jarche

Game-changing modular wheels

This is fantastic:

The Revolve is a full-size 26-inch spoked wheel that can be folded to a third its diameter and 60 percent less space, and back again in an instant, and its commercial availability will offer new design possibilities for folding bicycles, folding wheelchairs and many other vehicles that need to be transported in compact form.

A real game-change in terms of accessibility, I reckon.

Source: New Atlas

Cool decentralisation resources from MozFest

I missed the Mozilla Festival at the end of October 2017 as I’d already booked my family holiday by the time they announced the dates.

It’s always a great event and attracts some super-smart people doing some great thinking and creating on and with the open web.

Mark Boas co-curated the Decentralisation Space at MozFest, and recently wrote up his experiences.

Sessions incorporated various types of media, from photography and other visual artforms, through board games to hand assembled systems made out of ping-pong balls and straws. Some discussions dove into the nitty gritty of decentralising the web, many required no prior knowledge of the subject.

His post, which mentions the session that was run by my co-op colleagues John Bevan and Bryan Mathers, is a veritable treasure trove of resources to explore further.

Source: maboa.it

Potentially huge wind farm proposed in the North Sea

Dogger Bank, which thousands of years ago as Doggerland would have been visible from the North East of England where I live, is the proposed site for a huge new wind farm complex with a central island power hub.

To accommodate all the equipment, the island would take up around 5-6 sq km, about a fifth the size of Hayling Island in the English Channel.

While the actual engineering challenge of building the island seems enormous, Van der Hage is not daunted. “Is it difficult? In the Netherlands, when we see a piece of water we want to build islands or land. We’ve been doing that for centuries. That is not the biggest challenge,” he said.

The short YouTube video is pretty cool.

Source: The Guardian