Category: Cool future stuff (page 1 of 2)

Noise cancelling for cars is a no-brainer

We’re all familiar with noise cancelling headphones. I’ve got some that I use for transatlantic trips, and they’re great for minimising any repeating background noise.

Twenty years ago, when I was studying A-Level Physics, I was also building a new PC. I realised that, if I placed a microphone inside the computer case, and fed that into the audio input on the soundcard, I could use software to invert the sound wave and thus virtually eliminate fan noise. It worked a treat.

It doesn’t surprise me, therefore, to find that BOSE, best known for its headphones, are offering car manufacturers something similar with “road noise control”:

With accelerometers, multiple microphones, and algorithms, it’s much more complicated than what I rigged up in my bedroom as a teenager. But the principle remains the same.

Source: The Next Web

The many uses of autonomous vehicles

While I’m not a futurist, I am interested in predictions about the future that I didn’t expect… but, on reflection, are entirely obvious. I’m quite looking forward to (well-regulated, co-operatively owned) autonomous vehicles. I think there’s revolutionise life for the very young and very old in particular.

What I hadn’t thought about, but which a new report certainly has considered, is all of the other uses for self-driving cars:

“One of the starting points was that AVs will provide new forms of competition for hotels and restaurants. People will be sleeping in their vehicles, which has implications for roadside hotels. And people may be eating in vehicles that function as restaurant pods,” says Scott Cohen, deputy director of research of the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at the University of Surrey in the U.K., who led the study. “That led us to think, besides sleeping, what other things will people do in cars when free from the task of driving? And you can see that in the long association of automobiles and sex that’s represented in just about every coming-of-age movie. It’s not a big leap.”

I remember talking to one taxi driver who said that he drove former footballer Alan Shearer back home to the North East from the Match of the Day studio in London. Shearer would travel overnight and sleep in the cab so that he was home for Sunday breakfast with his family. Of course, with autonomous vehicles designed for that kind of thing (and, erm, others) that would be much more comfortable.

Source: Fast Company


Image CC BY-SA Florian K

Blogging in the Fediverse with Write.as

I couldn’t be happier about this news. Write.as is a service that allows you to connect multiple blogs to one online editor. You then compose your post and then decide where to send it.

Matt Baer, the guy behind Write.as, has announced some exciting new functionality:

After much trial and error, I’ve finished basic ActivityPub support on Write.as! (Though it’s not live yet.) I’m very, very excited about reaching this point so I can try out some new ideas.

So far, most developers in the fediverse have been remaking centralized web services with ActivityPub support. There’s PeerTube for video, PixelFed for social photos, Plume or Microblog.pub for blogging, and of course Mastodon and Pleroma for microblogging — among many others. I’ve loved watching the ecosystem grow over the past several months, but I also think more can be done, and getting AP support in Write.as was the first step to making this happen.

Baer references one of his previous posts where, like the main developer of Mastodon, he takes a stand against some things that people have come to expect from centralised services:

If we’re going to build the web world we want, we have to constantly evaluate the pieces we bring with us from the old to the new. With each iteration of an idea on the web we need to question the very nature of certain aspects’ existence in the first place, and determine whether or not every single old thing unimproved should still be with us. It’s the only way we can be sure we’re moving — if not in the direction, at least in some direction that will teach us something.

In Baer’s case, it’s not having public ‘likes’ and in Mastodon’s case it’s not providing the ability to quote toots. Either way, I applaud them for taking a stand.

Baer is planning a new product called Read.as:

Today my idea is to split reading and writing across two ActivityPub-enabled products, Write.as and Read.as. The former will stay focused on writing and publishing; AP support will be almost invisible. Blogs can be followed via the web, RSS, email (soon), or ActivityPub-speaking services (for example, I can follow blogs with my Mastodon account, and then or share any posts to my followers there). Then Read.as would be the read-only counterpart; you go there when you want to stare at your screen for a while and read something interesting. It would be minimally social, avoid interrupting your life, and preserve your privacy — just like Write.as.

Great, great news!

Source: Write.as

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