Fun With Conspiracy Theories

Earlier this week security reporter Brian Krebs pointed out an odd glitch in Google Translate. It had to do with the service’s treatment of “Lorem Ipsum” placeholder text—the string of Latin words that people use to block out space for text on websites and in other designs before meaningful verbiage is added.

For some reason, strings of “Lorem Ipsum” were coming back as “NATO.” In his post, Krebs works through a few examples and posits a few explanations. Perhaps someone is gaming the translate system for fun, or to get around Chinese censorship laws.

Could it be a code hidden in plain sight?

Even before Krebs finished the post, Google had changed its translation algorithm to make reproducing these results impossible. Now, rather than “lorem” returning “China,” Google Translate simply throws “lorem” right back at you. And, for its part, Google responded cheekily with a Tweet. Garbage in, garbage out, they said. (Google turned down my request for an interview, dismissing the translation as a technical snafu.) But for some that’s not quite good enough—and the assumption that Google is hiding something rather than simply failing at translation says a lot about how we see the Internet giant.

“I’m not a tinfoil hat kind of guy for the most part,” Krebs told me, “but it was very clear that the tinfoil hat people were going to have a field day with this.” And in some ways it’s the perfect conspiracy theory, because you can’t prove what’s going on either way. Without Google’s help—which they haven’t yet offered—there’s no way to know why the translate algorithm connected “lorem lorem” to “China’s Internet.”

via The Atlantic

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“Should Facebook, Yahoo, and Twitter really judge what’s news?”

Where did you first learn about Amazon’s crazy plan to deliver packages via drone? “60 Minutes”? The New York Times? Increasingly, the answer is likely to be Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo, and that’s just how the online giants like it.

Those companies aren’t news providers in any traditional sense, but they’re trying harder to become the go-to place where their users learn about current events. It opens up new streams of revenue for the companies, but some experts wonder what it will mean for how we consume news.

”Facebook’s algorithms don’t spring out of nowhere,” said Jeremy Gilbert, who teaches media product design at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. “Why does Google favor one source over another?”

They are not necessarily malevolent forces, but Internet companies’ power to influence what citizens read and see—and what they don’t—is becoming greater.

via PCWorld.

An education problem – when now even many teachers don’t understand why Wikipedia isn’t the same as a credible source, when Encyclopedia Britannica has almost as many errors, and the mainstream news sources have cut back on reporters in favor of more reliance on press releases, unsourced stories, and even outright op-ed masquerading as news….do we even have any such thing as a credible source?

The problem is that access to reliable information is necessary to a functioning civilization – it is necessary for economic growth, for political well-being, and for social cohesion.

“Is there a ‘dark side’ to Amazon drones, Google robots?”

…The idea is that packages below five pounds could be delivered straight from Amazon distribution centers to customers within 30 minutes using drones.

For now, it seems like half pipe dream, half pseudo-marketing: As many have observed, it probably wasn’t a coincidence that the 60 Minutes segment aired on Sunday ahead of Cyber Monday, the busiest online shopping day of the year — a good time for Amazon to be in the news.

Since Sunday’s show, media coverage of Bezo’s plan has overwhelmingly focused on the technical and logistical aspects of Prime Air.

For example, will the FAA be okay with all these drones flying around? Are they safe enough to fly around crowded cities and neighborhoods? And can Amazon economically operate what would be a presumably large fleet of drones?

And Amazon’s not the only one in this game. The Verge reported that United Parcel Service is researching delivery drones, too.

Additionally, we learned this week that Google acquired seven robotics companies, which, according to a New York Times report, “are capable of creating technologies needed to build a mobile, dexterous robot.”

Remember, Google has been experimenting with driverless cars, and is actually running a same-day delivery service in California, so it is definitely interested in humanless logistics, for lack of a better term.

The Dark Side

I find it a bit disturbing how little conversation there is about the possible negatives of replacing humans with machines for things like delivering packages.

Here’s a passage from the Times’ article that actually startled me a bit:

A realistic case, according to several specialists, would be automating portions of an existing supply chain that stretches from a factory floor to the companies that ship and deliver goods to a consumer’s doorstep.

“The opportunity is massive,” said Andrew McAfee, a principal research scientist at the M.I.T. Center for Digital Business. “There are still people who walk around in factories and pick things up in distribution centers and work in the back rooms of grocery stores.”

In terms of the massive opportunity, it certainly isn’t for the middle class. Mr. McAfee himself discussed this issue in a June piece from the M.I.T. Technology Review, fittingly titled “How Technology Destroys Jobs”:

New technologies are “encroaching into human skills in a way that is completely unprecedented,” McAfee says, and many middle-class jobs are right in the bull’s-eye; even relatively high-skill work in education, medicine, and law is affected. “The middle seems to be going away,” he adds. “The top and bottom are clearly getting farther apart.” While technology might be only one factor, says McAfee, it has been an “underappreciated” one, and it is likely to become increasingly significant.

And what about the people who make a living in the back rooms of grocery stores? Should we simply write them off as left behind because machines are more productive?

Here’s more from the Times’ on Google’s Andy Rubin, the engineer behind the Android operating system who is now heading up the company’s robotics effort:

“I have a history of making my hobbies into a career,” Mr. Rubin said in a telephone interview. “This is the world’s greatest job. Being an engineer and a tinkerer, you start thinking about what you would want to build for yourself.”

He used the example of a windshield wiper that has enough “intelligence” to operate when it rains, without human intervention, as a model for the kind of systems he is trying to create. That is consistent with a vision put forward by the Google co-founder Larry Page, who has argued that technology should be deployed wherever possible to free humans from drudgery and repetitive tasks.

Well, there are a lot of people who earn honest livings from drudgery and repetitive tasks.

My father dropped out of school at a pretty early age. But he went to trucking school and learned a skill that allowed him to earn a good living doing something he enjoyed. In fact, he’d still be doing it at 71 if he could get his big belly up into the cab.

Nonetheless, as much as he liked his job, he certainly experienced a lot of drudgery and repetition — there was a lot of waking up at 4:00 a.m. to do round trips from Brooklyn to Indiana, and an awful lot of late nights on the road.

But would it have been better for that job to not exist?

The Great Debate

There’s no standing in the way of technological advancement. But we shouldn’t gloss over the inevitable friction that comes with evolution, especially since in this case, the end result looks like a class war.

The victims of this relentless innovation in automation will be, at least initially, people who work in factories, for delivery services, and in service industries like retail — not the programmers and entrepreneurs who reap the economic benefits of increased productivity.

The good news is that a truly automated world still seems pretty far off.

But that’s exactly why we should be talking about it now.

via USA Today.

What I want to know is if we’re allowed (yet?) to point out that companies like Google and Amazon are dedicated to amassing as much money and power as they can – that is their purpose for being: to control as much as possible.

We’re the only checks & balances we will ever have.

The jobs problem is with us regardless of whether this particular class of robots comes to fruition. But I’m not real keen on the idea of my nighttime sky being full of whizzing aircraft.

And will I get to use drones for my own purposes, too? Somehow I suspect this is going to be more like government-regulated airwaves, only (given current corruption levels) much less accessible: where a few wealthy corporations pay a token fee to ‘own’ things that rightfully belong to all of us.

“When Privacy Is Becoming Expensive”

Silicon Valley has destroyed our ability to imagine other models for running and organizing our communication infrastructure. Forget about models that aren’t based on advertising and that do not contribute to the centralization of data on private servers located in America. To suggest that we need to look into other – perhaps, even publicly-provided alternatives –is to risk being accused of wanting to “break the Internet.” We have succumbed to what the Brazilian social theorist Roberto Unger calls “the dictatorship of no alternatives”: we are asked to accept that Gmail is the best and only possible way to do email, and that Facebook is the best and only possible way to do social networking.

But consider just how weird our current arrangement is. Imagine I told you that the post office could run on a different, innovation-friendly business model. Forget stamps. They cost money – and why pay money when there’s a way to send letters for free? Just think about the world-changing potential: the poor kids in Africa can finally reach you with their pleas for more laptops! So, instead of stamps, we would switch to an advertising-backed system: we’d open every letter that you send, scan its contents, insert a relevant ad, seal it, and then forward it to the recipient.

Sounds crazy? It does. But this is how we have chosen to run our email.In the wake of the NSA scandal and the debacle that is Healthcare.gov, trust in public institutions runs so low that any alternative arrangement – especially the one that would give public institutions a greater role – seems unthinkable. But this is only part of the problem. What would happen when some of our long cherished and privately-run digital infrastructure begins to crumble, as companies evolve and change their business models?

Now that our communication networks are in the hands of the private sector, we should avoid making the same mistake with privacy. We shouldn’t reduce this complex problem to market-based solutions. Alas, thanks to Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial zeal, privatization is already creeping in. Privacy is becoming a commodity. How does one get privacy these days? Just ask any hacker: only by studying how the right tools work. Privacy is no longer something to be taken for granted or enjoyed for free: you have to expend some resources to master the tools. Those resources could be money, patience, attention – you might even hire a consultant to do all this for you – but the point is that privacy is becoming expensive.

And what of those who can’t afford tools and consultants? How do their lives change? When the founder of a prominent lending start-up – the former CIO of Google, no less – proclaims that “all data is credit data, we just don’t know how to use it yet” I can’t help but fear the worst. If “all data is credit data” and poor people cannot afford privacy, they are in for some dark times. How can they not be anxious when their every move, their every click, their every phone call could be analyzed to predict if they deserve credit and at what rates? If the burden of debt wasn’t agonizing enough, now we’ll have to live with the fact that, for the poor people, anxiety begins well before they get the actual loan. Once again, one doesn’t have to hate or fear technology to worry about the future of equality, mobility and the quality of life. The “digital debate,” with its inevitable detours into cultural pessimism, simply has no intellectual resources to tackle these issues.

via FAZ.

“Google’s new shared endorsements: How to opt out”

On Nov. 11, Google will begin to plug users’ names, photos and reviews posted to sites like YouTube and Google Play, into online advertisements. Under Google’s new terms of service, the company has granted itself the right to republish these so-called “shared endorsements” as marketing fodder.

That is, unless you opt out (or unless you’re under 18—Google isn’t including minors in this change). To do so, click here. Scroll to the bottom of the page. Find the box next to the text that reads “Based upon my activity, Google may show my name and profile photo in shared endorsements that appear in ads.” Uncheck it. Hit save….

via Slate

Today I created a new category: humans as commodity.

Will have to go back and figure out how to add all the previous articles in this category to the categorical listing….

“To Enjoy Driverless Cars, First Kill All the Lawyers”

Here’s the dream: You want to go out to meet some friends for a drink, 30 miles from your house. You get into your autocar, set the destination, and then lie back for a quick disco nap so that you’ll be fresh enough for dancing afterward. The car drops you off at the restaurant and obediently takes itself off to the parking lot. It will come back to pick you up when you send an electronic signal that you’re ready. You can even have it drop off a friend who lives five miles beyond your house — after it’s dropped you off. It will be back in the driveway in time for your morning trip to the farmer’s market.

Or maybe you don’t own a car, but want to go to the crowded ballgame on the outskirts of town. You pull out your smartphone, which informs you that an autocab is five minutes away — seven minutes if you want to cut your costs by sharing with a nice couple who are already on their way to the game. Because you’re meeting friends at the park, you’d love to save money by sharing. You spend five minutes getting your wallet and keys together, and checking out tonight’s lineup, before your autocab pulls up to the door with a nice couple already in it … wearing the jerseys and caps of the opposite team.

Ah, well, nothing’s perfect, even in the world of driverless cars.

But to hear tech futurists talk, it will be close. Driverless cars will be safer and quieter. They will fetch you to your destination, and then trundle off to park themselves. They will all but eliminate the auto accidents that kill tens of thousands every year. I believe all this. But I’m still worried about the future of driverless cars, not because they’re technically impossible, but because the liability possibilities are enormous.

To see why, a brief primer on manufacturer liability. Currently, liability is limited by two things. On the manufacturer side, user negligence: If you run your car into a school bus, it is you, not the manufacturer, who is liable. Even if better brakes might have helped, the fact that you were going 50 in a school zone is probably going to make it hard for the plaintiffs to recover from a manufacturer.

On the user side, liability is limited by the fact that most people are judgment proof, or close to it. Plaintiffs will usually sue up to the limits of your liability policy, but not beyond, because it’s not worth the hassle of trying to collect. Even most middle-class people have a bit of a retirement account and a smidgen of home equity, both of which are usually protected in bankruptcy. They have a few thousand dollars in the bank, which can be converted into cash and “spent on ordinary living expenses” long before the jury delivers a verdict. The lawyer can get a judgment against you for $10 billion, if he wants, but the expected value of that judgment is … the limits on your liability policy.

(Note: This does not apply to people with large amounts of liquid assets, who should have lots and lots of liability insurance. But hopefully, they already know that.)

On the other hand, the expected value of a $10 million judgment against Ford is … $10 million. That gives lawyers more incentive to file claims, and increases the expense to the company of the claims that are filed.

And even if the overall number of accidents drops, the number of accidents where the automaker is perceived to be at fault will approach 100 percent. After all, they’re the ones who designed or installed the software that made the decision. And while in theory, a jury should be able to say, “Well, this was a hard design problem, you can’t make everyone happy, and this is an unfortunate tragedy,” in practice, this is unlikely. If the machine built by a corporation made a decision that killed or seriously injured a person, the jury is going to give the person money at the expense of the corporation.

These issues make me very worried for the future of driverless cars. Understand that I’d love to be wrong — I, too, want a car that will let me nap while it does the hard work. But I think this is a big hurdle for the nascent industry to jump. They may “jump” it by specifying that drivers are expected to be alert and at the wheel at all times. That would still be good from a safety standpoint — auto fatalities would fall a lot. But it would be far from The Dream.

Here’s one way that we could fix this: Do a radical overhaul of our liability system. In fact, we’d get rid of the liability system, and replace it with a no-fault accident insurance system like New Zealand’s….

via Bloomberg

Ahh, yes.

The only thing better than a perfect car that will do all your thinking for you is a perfect car that you can’t sue* if it fails to do its job properly.

Hand over all that control. You can keep the risk.

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*Don’t get me wrong; I despise lawsuit trolls, and on the two occasions when I had a really good lawsuit I could have filed, I opted not to. But lawsuits do in fact serve a purpose. Back in the days before lawsuits were a thing, people tended to die of totally preventable causes. When there’s no reason to care, there’s always a certain percentage of people who just won’t.

“Facebook privacy and kids: Don’t post photos of your kids online”

I completely understood her parents’ desire to capture Kate’s everyday moments, because early childhood is so ephemeral. I also knew how those posts would affect Kate as an adult, and the broader impact of creating a generation of kids born into original digital sin.

Last week, Facebook updated its privacy policy again. It reads in part: “We are able to suggest that your friend tag you in a picture by scanning and comparing your friend’s pictures to information we’ve put together from your profile pictures and the other photos in which you’ve been tagged.” Essentially, this means that with each photo upload, Kate’s parents are, unwittingly, helping Facebook to merge her digital and real worlds. Algorithms will analyze the people around Kate, the references made to them in posts, and over time will determine Kate’s most likely inner circle.

The problem is that Facebook is only one site. With every status update, YouTube video, and birthday blog post, Kate’s parents are preventing her from any hope of future anonymity.

That poses some obvious challenges for Kate’s future self. It’s hard enough to get through puberty. Why make hundreds of embarrassing, searchable photos freely available to her prospective homecoming dates? If Kate’s mother writes about a negative parenting experience, could that affect her ability to get into a good college? We know that admissions counselors review Facebook profiles and a host of other websites and networks in order to make their decisions.

There’s a more insidious problem, though, which will haunt Kate well into the adulthood. Myriad applications, websites, and wearable technologies are relying on face recognition today, and ubiquitous bio-identification is only just getting started. In 2011, a group of hackers built an app that let you scan faces and immediately display their names and basic biographical details, right there on your mobile phone. Already developers have made a working facial recognition API for Google Glass. While Google has forbidden official facial recognition apps, it can’t prevent unofficial apps from launching. There’s huge value in gaining real-time access to view detailed information the people with whom we interact.

The easiest way to opt-out is to not create that digital content in the first place, especially for kids. Kate’s parents haven’t just uploaded one or two photos of her: They’ve created a trove of data that will enable algorithms to learn about her over time.

via Slate Magazine.

We need a law that requires royalties to be paid on peoples’ personal information:

…One innovative approach, as Jaron Lanier suggests in his new book, “Who Owns the Future,” includes forcing companies to pay for the privilege of using your data, thereby “spreading the wealth” from a few hegemons to the wider populace.

from Newgeography.com (see also here)