Category: Cool future stuff (page 1 of 2)

The disappearing computer and the future of AI

I was at the Thinking Digital conference yesterday, which is always an inspiring event. It kicked off with a presentation from a representative of Amazon’s Alexa programme, who cited an article by Walt Mossberg from this time last year. I’m pretty sure I read about it, but didn’t necessarily write about it, at the time.

Mossberg talks about how computing will increasingly become invisible:

Let me start by revising the oft-quoted first line of my first Personal Technology column in the Journal on October 17th, 1991: “Personal computers are just too hard to use, and it’s not your fault.” It was true then, and for many, many years thereafter. Not only were the interfaces confusing, but most tech products demanded frequent tweaking and fixing of a type that required more technical skill than most people had, or cared to acquire. The whole field was new, and engineers weren’t designing products for normal people who had other talents and interests.

Things are different now, of course. We expect even small children to be able to use things like iPads with minimal help.

When the internet first arrived, it was a discrete activity you performed on a discrete hunk of metal and plastic called a PC, using a discrete software program called a browser. Even now, though the net is like the electrical grid, powering many things, you still use a discrete device — a smartphone, say — to access it. Sure, you can summon some internet smarts through an Echo, but there’s still a device there, and you still have to know the magic words to say. We are a long way from the invisible, omnipresent computer in Starship Enterprise.

The Amazon representative on-stage at the conference obviously believes that voice is the next frontier in computing. That’s his job. Nevertheless, he marshalled some pretty compelling, if anecdotal, evidence for that. A couple of videos showed older people, who had been completely bypassed by the smartphone revolution, interacting naturally with Alexa.

I expect that one end result of all this work will be that the technology, the computer inside all these things, will fade into the background. In some cases, it may entirely disappear, waiting to be activated by a voice command, a person entering the room, a change in blood chemistry, a shift in temperature, a motion. Maybe even just a thought.

In the same way that the front end of a website like Facebook, the user interface, is the tip of the iceberg, so voice assistants are the front end for artificial intelligence. Who gets to the process data harvested by these devices, and for what purposes, is an important issue — both now and in the future.

And, if ambient technology is to become as integrated into our lives as previous technological revolutions like wood joists, steel beams, and engine blocks, we need to subject it to the digital equivalent of enforceable building codes and auto safety standards. Nothing less will do. And health? The current medical device standards will have to be even tougher, while still allowing for innovation.

This was the last article Mossberg wrote anywhere, having been a tech journalist since 1991. In signing off, he became a little wistful about the age of gadgetry we’re leaving behind, but it’s hopefully for the wider good.

We’ve all had a hell of a ride for the last few decades, no matter when you got on the roller coaster. It’s been exciting, enriching, and transformative. But it’s also been about objects and processes. Soon, after a brief slowdown, the roller coaster will be accelerating faster than ever, only this time it’ll be about actual experiences, with much less emphasis on the way those experiences get made.

This is an important touchstone article, and one I’ll be returning to in future, no doubt.

Source: The Verge

What can dreams of a communist robot utopia teach us about human nature?

This article in Aeon by Victor Petrov posits that, in the post-industrial age, we no longer see human beings as primarily manual workers, but as thinkers using digital screens to get stuff done. What does that do to our self-image?

The communist parties of eastern Europe grappled with this new question, too. The utopian social order they were promising from Berlin to Vladivostok rested on the claim that proletarian societies would use technology to its full potential, in the service of all working people. Bourgeois information society would alienate workers even more from their own labour, turning them into playthings of the ruling classes; but a socialist information society would free Man from drudgery, unleash his creative powers, and enable him to ‘hunt in the morning … and criticise after dinner’, as Karl Marx put it in 1845. However, socialist society and its intellectuals foresaw many of the anxieties that are still with us today. What would a man do in a world of no labour, and where thinking was done by machines?

Bulgaria was a communist country that, after the Second World War, went from producing cigarettes to being one of the world’s largest producers of computers. This had a knock-on effect on what people wrote about in the country.

The Bulgarian reader was increasingly treated to debates about what humanity would be in this new age. Some, such as the philosopher Mityu Yankov, argued that what set Man apart from the animals was his ability to change and shape nature. For thousands of years, he had done this through physical means and his own brawn. But the Industrial Revolution had started a change of Man’s own nature, which was culminating with the Information Revolution – humanity now was becoming not a worker but a ‘governor’, a master of nature, and the means of production were not machines or muscles, but the human brain.

Lyuben Dilov, a popular sci-fi author, focused on “the boundaries between man and machine, brain and computer”. His books were full of societies obsessed with technology.

Added to this, there is technological anxiety, too – what is it to be a man when there are so many machines? Thus, Dilov invents a Fourth Law of Robotics, to supplement Asimov’s famous three, which states that ‘the robot must, in all circumstances, legitimate itself as a robot’. This was a reaction by science to the roboticists’ wish to give their creations ever more human qualities and appearance, making them subordinate to their function – often copying animal or insect forms. Zenon muses on human interactions with robots that start from a young age, giving the child power over the machine from the outset. This undermines our trust in the very machines on which we depend. Humans need a distinction from the robots, they need to know that they are always in power and couldn’t be lied to. For Dilov, the anxiety was about the limits of humanity, at least in its current stage – fearful, humans could not yet treat anything else, including their machines, as equals.

This all seems very pertinent at a time when deepfakes make us question what is real online. We’re perhaps less worried about a Blade Runner-style dystopia and more concerned about digital ‘reality’ but, nevertheless, questions about what it means to be human persist.

Bulgarian robots were both to be feared and they were the future. Socialism promised to end meaningless labour but reproduced many of the anxieties that are still with us today in our ever-automating world. What can Man do that a machine cannot do is something we still haven’t solved. But, like Kesarovski, perhaps we need not fear this new world so much, nor give up our reservations for the promise of a better, easier world.

Source: Aeon

10 breakthrough technologies for 2018

I do like MIT’s Technology Review. It gives a glimpse of cool future uses of technology, while retaining a critical lens.

Every year since 2001 we’ve picked what we call the 10 Breakthrough Technologies. People often ask, what exactly do you mean by “breakthrough”? It’s a reasonable question—some of our picks haven’t yet reached widespread use, while others may be on the cusp of becoming commercially available. What we’re really looking for is a technology, or perhaps even a collection of technologies, that will have a profound effect on our lives.

Here’s the list of their ‘breakthrough technologies’ for 2018:

  1. 3D metal printing
  2. Artificial embryos
  3. Sensing city
  4. AI for everybody
  5. Dueling neural networks
  6. Babel-fish earbuds
  7. Zero-carbon natural gas
  8. Perfect online privacy
  9. Genetic fortune-telling
  10. Materials’ quantum leap

It’s a fascinating list, partly because of the names they’ve given (‘genetic fortune telling’!) to things which haven’t really been given a mainstream label yet. Worth exploring in more details, as they flesh out each on of these in what is a reasonably lengthy article.

Source: MIT Technology Review

The moon is getting 4G

Yep, you read that headline correctly. Vodafone and Nokia are getting huge amounts of publicitly for partnering with scientists to put a 4G network on the moon.

Why? Because it takes too much power to beam back high-definition video directly from the lunar rovers to the earth. So, instead, it’ll be relayed over a data network on the moon and then transmitted back to earth.

It’s totally a marketing thing for Vodafone and Nokia, but it also sounds totally cool…

Source: BBC News

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