Tag: BBC

The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance—it is the illusion of knowledge

So said Daniel J. Boorstin. It’s been an interesting week for those, like me, who follow the development of interaction between humans and machines. Specifically, people seem shocked that voice assistants are being used for health questions, also that the companies who make them employ people to listen to samples of voice recordings to make them better.

Before diving into that, let’s just zoom out a bit and remind ourselves that the average level of digital literacies in the general population is pretty poor. Sometimes I wonder how on earth VC-backed companies manage to burn through so much cash. Then I remember the contortions that those who design visual interfaces go through so that people don’t have to think.

Discussing ‘fake news’ and our information literacy problem in Forbes, you can almost feel Kalev Leetaru‘s eye-roll when he says:

It is the accepted truth of Silicon Valley that every problem has a technological solution.

Most importantly, in the eyes of the Valley, every problem can be solved exclusively through technology without requiring society to do anything on its own. A few algorithmic tweaks, a few extra lines of code and all the world’s problems can be simply coded out of existence.

Kalev Leetaru

It’s somewhat tangential to the point I want to make in this article, but Cory Doctorow makes a a good point in this regard about fake news for Locus

Fake news is an instrument for measuring trauma, and the epistemological incoherence that trauma creates – the justifiable mistrust of the establishment that has nearly murdered our planet and that insists that making the richest among us much, much richer will benefit everyone, eventually.

Cory Doctorow

Before continuing, I’d just like to say that I’ve got some skin in the voice assistant game, given that our home has no fewer that six devices that use the Google Assistant (ten if you count smartphones and tablets).

Voice assistants are pretty amazing when you know exactly what you want and can form a coherent query. It’s essentially just clicking the top link on a Google search result, without any of the effort of pointing and clicking. “Hey Google, do I need an umbrella today?”

However, some people are suspicious of voice assistants to a degree that borders on the superstitious. There’s perhaps some valid reasons if you know your tech, but if you’re of the opinion that your voice assistant is ‘always recording’ and literally sending everything to Amazon, Google, Apple, and/or Donald Trump then we need to have words. Just think about that for a moment, realise how ridiculous it is, and move on.

This week an article by VRT NWS stoked fears like these. It was cleverly written so that those who read it quickly could easily draw the conclusion that Google is listening to everything you say. However, let me carve out the key paragraphs:

Why is Google storing these recordings and why does it have employees listening to them? They are not interested in what you are saying, but the way you are saying it. Google’s computer system consists of smart, self-learning algorithms. And in order to understand the subtle differences and characteristics of the Dutch language, it still needs to learn a lot.


Speech recognition automatically generates a script of the recordings. Employees then have to double check to describe the excerpt as accurately as possible: is it a woman’s voice, a man’s voice or a child? What do they say? They write out every cough and every audible comma. These descriptions are constantly improving Google’s search engines, which results in better reactions to commands. One of our sources explains how this works.


Every other provider of speech recognition products does this. Obviously. How else would you manage to improve voice recognition in real-world situations? What VRS NWS did was to get a sub-contractor to break a Non-Disclosure Agreement (and violate GDPR) to share recordings.

Google responded on their blog The Keyword, saying:

As part of our work to develop speech technology for more languages, we partner with language experts around the world who understand the nuances and accents of a specific language. These language experts review and transcribe a small set of queries to help us better understand those languages. This is a critical part of the process of building speech technology, and is necessary to creating products like the Google Assistant.

We just learned that one of these language reviewers has violated our data security policies by leaking confidential Dutch audio data. Our Security and Privacy Response teams have been activated on this issue, are investigating, and we will take action. We are conducting a full review of our safeguards in this space to prevent misconduct like this from happening again.

We apply a wide range of safeguards to protect user privacy throughout the entire review process. Language experts only review around 0.2 percent of all audio snippets. Audio snippets are not associated with user accounts as part of the review process, and reviewers are directed not to transcribe background conversations or other noises, and only to transcribe snippets that are directed to Google.

The Keyword

As I’ve said before, due to the GDPR actually having teeth (British Airways was fined £183m last week) I’m a lot happier to share my data with large companies than I was before the legislation came in. That’s the whole point.

The other big voice assistant story, in the UK at least, was that the National Health Service (NHS) is partnering with Amazon Alexa to offer health advice. The BBC reports:

From this week, the voice-assisted technology is automatically searching the official NHS website when UK users ask for health-related advice.

The government in England said it could reduce demand on the NHS.

Privacy campaigners have raised data protection concerns but Amazon say all information will be kept confidential.

The partnership was first announced last year and now talks are under way with other companies, including Microsoft, to set up similar arrangements.

Previously the device provided health information based on a variety of popular responses.

The use of voice search is on the increase and is seen as particularly beneficial to vulnerable patients, such as elderly people and those with visual impairment, who may struggle to access the internet through more traditional means.


So long as this is available to all types of voice assistants, this is great news. The number of people I know, including family members, who have convinced themselves they’ve got serious problems by spending ages searching their symptoms, is quite frightening. Getting sensible, prosaic advice is much better.

Iliana Magra writes in the The New York Times that privacy campaigners are concerned about Amazon setting up a health care division, but that there are tangible benefits to certain sections of the population.

The British health secretary, Matt Hancock, said Alexa could help reduce strain on doctors and pharmacists. “We want to empower every patient to take better control of their health care,” he said in a statement, “and technology like this is a great example of how people can access reliable, world-leading N.H.S. advice from the comfort of their home.”

His department added that voice-assistant advice would be particularly useful for “the elderly, blind and those who cannot access the internet through traditional means.”

Iliana Magra

I’m not dismissing the privacy issues, of course not. But what I’ve found, especially recently, is that the knowledge, skills, and expertise required to be truly ‘Google-free’ (or the equivalent) is an order of magnitude greater than what is realistically possible for the general population.

It might be fatalistic to ask the following question, but I’ll do it anyway: who exactly do we expect to be building these things? Mozilla, one of the world’s largest tech non-profits is conspicuously absent in these conversations, and somehow I don’t think people aren’t going to trust governments to get involved.

For years, techies have talked about ‘personal data vaults’ where you could share information in a granular way without being tracked. Currently being trialled is the BBC box to potentially help with some of this:

With a secure Databox at its heart, BBC Box offers something very unusual and potentially important: it is a physical device in the person’s home onto which personal data is gathered from a range of sources, although of course (and as mentioned above) it is only collected with the participants explicit permission, and processed under the person’s control.

Personal data is stored locally on the box’s hardware and once there, it can be processed and added to by other programmes running on the box – much like apps on a smartphone. The results of this processing might, for example be a profile of the sort of TV programmes someone might like or the sort of theatre they would enjoy. This is stored locally on the box – unless the person explicitly chooses to share it. No third party, not even the BBC itself, can access any data in ‘the box’ unless it is authorised by the person using it, offering a secure alternative to existing services which rely on bringing large quantities of personal data together in one place – with limited control by the person using it.


It’s an interesting concept and, if they can get the user experience right, a potentially groundbreaking concept. Eventually, of course, it will be in your smartphone, which means that device really will be a ‘digital self’.

You can absolutely opt-out of whatever you want. For example, I opt out of Facebook’s products (including WhatsApp and Instagram). You can point out to others the reasons for that, but at some point you have to realise it’s an opinion, a lifestyle choice, an ideology. Not everyone wants to be a tech vegan, or live their lives under those who act as though they are one.

Friday fumblings

These were the things I came across this week that made me smile:

Image via Why WhatsApp Will Never Be Secure (Pavel Durov)

Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things

I’m fond of the above quotation by Douglas Adams that I’ve used for the title of this article. It serves as a reminder to myself that I’ve now reached an age when I’ll look at a technology and wonder: why?

Despite this, I’m quite excited about the potential of two technologies that will revolutionise our digital world both in our homes and offices and when we’re out-and-about. Those technologies? Wi-Fi 6, as it’s known colloquially, and 5G networks.

Let’s take Wi-Fi 6 first, which Chuong Nguyen explains in an article for Digital Trends, isn’t just about faster speeds:

A significant advantage for Wi-Fi 6 devices is better battery life. Though the standard promotes Internet of Things (IoT) devices being able to last for weeks, instead of days, on a single charge as a major benefit, the technology could even prove to be beneficial for computers, especially since Intel’s latest 9th-generation processors for laptops come with Wi-Fi 6 support.

Likewise, Alexis Madrigal, writing in The Atlantic, explains that mobile 5G networks bring benefits other than streaming YouTube videos at ever-higher resolutions, but are quite a technological hurdle:

The fantastic 5G speeds require higher-frequency, shorter-wavelength signals. And the shorter the wavelength, the more likely it is to be blocked by obstacles in the world.


Ideally, [mobile-associated companies] would like a broader set of customers than smartphone users. So the companies behind 5G are also flaunting many other applications for these networks, from emergency services to autonomous vehicles to every kind of “internet of things” gadget.

If you’ve been following the kerfuffle around the UK using Huawei’s technology for its 5G infrastructure, you’ll already know about the politics and security issues at stake here.

Sue Halpern, writing in The New Yorker, outlines the claimed benefits:

Two words explain the difference between our current wireless networks and 5G: speed and latency. 5G—if you believe the hype—is expected to be up to a hundred times faster. (A two-hour movie could be downloaded in less than four seconds.) That speed will reduce, and possibly eliminate, the delay—the latency—between instructing a computer to perform a command and its execution. This, again, if you believe the hype, will lead to a whole new Internet of Things, where everything from toasters to dog collars to dialysis pumps to running shoes will be connected. Remote robotic surgery will be routine, the military will develop hypersonic weapons, and autonomous vehicles will cruise safely along smart highways. The claims are extravagant, and the stakes are high. One estimate projects that 5G will pump twelve trillion dollars into the global economy by 2035, and add twenty-two million new jobs in the United States alone. This 5G world, we are told, will usher in a fourth industrial revolution.

But greater speeds and lower latency isn’t all upside for all members of societies, as I learned in this BBC Beyond Today podcast episode about Korean spy cam porn. Halpern explains:

In China, which has installed three hundred and fifty thousand 5G relays—about ten times more than the United States—enhanced geolocation, coupled with an expansive network of surveillance cameras, each equipped with facial-recognition technology, has enabled authorities to track and subordinate the country’s eleven million Uighur Muslims. According to the Times, “the practice makes China a pioneer in applying next-generation technology to watch its people, potentially ushering in a new era of automated racism.”

Automated racism, now there’s a thing. It turns out that technologies amplify our existing prejudices. Perhaps we should be a bit more careful and ask more questions before we march down the road of technological improvements? Especially given 5G could affect our ability to predict major storms. I’m reading Low-tech Magazine: The Printed Website at the moment, and it’s pretty eye-opening about what we could be doing instead.

Also check out:

You need more daylight to sleep better

An an historian, I’ve often been fascinated about what life must have been like before the dawn of electricity. I have a love-hate relationship with artificial light. On the one hand, I use a lightbox to stave off Seasonal Affective Disorder. On the other hand, I’ve got (my optician tells me) not only pale blue irises but very thin corneas. That makes me photophobic and subject to the kind of glare on a regular basis I can only imagine ‘normal’ people get after staring at a lightbulb for a while.

In this article, Linda Geddes describes an experiment in which she decided to forgo artificial life for a number of weeks to see what effect it had on her health and, most importantly, her sleep.

Working with sleep researchers Derk-Jan Dijk and Nayantara Santhi at the University of Surrey, I designed a programme to go cold-turkey on artificial light after dark, and to try to maximise exposure to natural light during the day – all while juggling an office job and busy family life in urban Bristol.

By the end of 2017, instead of having to manually install something like f.lux on my devices, they all started to have it built-in. There’s a general realisation that blue light before bedtime is a bad idea. What this article points out, however, is another factor: how bright the light is that you’re subjected to during the day.

Light enables us to see, but it affects many other body systems as well. Light in the morning advances our internal clock, making us more lark-like, while light at night delays the clock, making us more owlish. Light also suppresses a hormone called melatonin, which signals to the rest of the body that it’s night-time – including the parts that regulate sleep. “Apart from vision, light has a powerful non-visual effect on our body and mind, something to remember when we stay indoors all day and have lights on late into the night,” says Santhi, who previously demonstrated that the evening light in our homes suppresses melatonin and delays the timing of our sleep.

The important correlation here is between the strength of light Geddes experienced during her waking hours, and the quality of her sleep.

But when I correlated my sleep with the amount of light I was exposed to during the daytime, an interesting pattern emerged. On the brightest days, I went to bed earlier. And for every 100 lux increase in my average daylight exposure, I experienced an increase in sleep efficiency of almost 1% and got an extra 10 minutes of sleep.

This isn’t just something that Geddes has experienced; studies have also found this kind of correlation.

In March 2007, Dijk and his colleagues replaced the light bulbs on two floors of an office block in northern England, housing an electronic parts distribution company. Workers on one floor of the building were exposed to blue-enriched lighting for four weeks; those on the other floor were exposed to white light. Then the bulbs were switched, meaning both groups were ultimately exposed to both types of light. They found that exposure to the blue-enriched white light during daytime hours improved the workers’ subjective alertness, performance, and evening fatigue. They also reported better quality and longer sleep.

So the key takeaway message?

It’s ridiculously simple. But spending more time outdoors during the daytime and dimming the lights in the evening really could be a recipe for better sleep and health. For millennia, humans have lived in synchrony with the Sun. Perhaps it’s time we got reacquainted.

Source: BBC Future