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The week of forgetting

Sunday, 1 June, 2014 0 Comments

According to news reports, more than 12,000 people lodged requests to be “forgotten” by Google on Friday, the first day that the search engine offered the service in Europe. The desire to forgot what we’ve said and done predates the internet by many a generation and this longing was addressed by Mary Elizabeth Coleridge, who happened to be a great-great-niece of the great Samuel Taylor Coleridge, composer of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan.

To Forget

Ah, I have striven, I have striven
That it might vanish as the smoke;
Angels remember it in heaven.
In vain I have striven, I have striven
To forget the word that I spoke.

See, I am fighting, I am fighting
That I may bring it to nought.
It is written in fiery writing,
In vain I am fighting, I am fighting
To forget the thought that I thought.

Mary Elizabeth Coleridge (1861–1907)


Google and the right to forget

Friday, 30 May, 2014 0 Comments

“When evaluating your request, we will look at whether the results include outdated information about you, as well as whether there’s a public interest in the information.” That’s what Google says on the form that will allow Europeans to ask for personal data to be removed from online search results. Will this help the bad guys evade scrutiny or is it a necessary move to save what remains of our rapidly eroding privacy?

The painter and programmer Maciej Ceglowski has this to say:

“Anyone who works with computers learns to fear their capacity to forget. Like so many things with computers, memory is strictly binary. There is either perfect recall or total oblivion, with nothing in between. It doesn’t matter how important or trivial the information is. The computer can forget anything in an instant. If it remembers, it remembers for keeps.

This doesn’t map well onto human experience of memory, which is fuzzy. We don’t remember anything with perfect fidelity, but we’re also not at risk of waking up having forgotten our own name. Memories tend to fade with time, and we remember only the more salient events.”

We don’t want to hinder innovation but we do need to preserve the things that make us human.


The Google Car

Wednesday, 28 May, 2014 0 Comments

No steering wheel, no accelerator and no brake pedal. That’s the Google Car. It’s got a stop and go button, though. What we’ve got here is a smartphone version of a car.

In case you’ve forgotten what happened in 2008, here’s WALL-E.

Liz Gannes: “It’s entirely driven by computers. To head off any concerns of malfunctioning robots hurtling you toward imminent doom, Google has made the car look cute and cuddly from the outset. Because of the compact, round frame of the prototype with built-in sensor mounts, Google says the car has virtually no blind spots.”


Or, Ori and Eran, plus Dori, Nori and Oin, unite against passwords

Wednesday, 19 February, 2014 0 Comments

“Today we’re announcing that the SlickLogin team is joining Google, a company that shares our core beliefs that logging in should be easy instead of frustrating, and authentication should be effective without getting in the way.” That’s what Or, Ori and Eran posted on their site on Monday. The Israeli start-up has created technology that allows websites to verify a user’s identity by using sound waves. How does it work? By playing a uniquely generated, almost-silent sound through computer speakers that is picked up by an app on the user’s smartphone. The app then analyses the sound and sends a signal back to confirm the user’s identity. The technology can be used either as an additional security layer or, and this is potentially huge, a replacement for a password.

The Google acquisition coincides with a grassroots initiative called the Petition Against Passwords, which was started by people who want to get rid of passwords altogether:

“The mission of the Petition Against Passwords is to collect every frustrated yell at forgotten passwords and make sure the organizations responsible hear them. This movement is working on behalf of every person who has ever had their identity stolen, their password leaked, or been confused just trying to remember passwords and PINs for multiple sites.”

And so say all of us. We’re joined in our detestation of passwords and PINs by Dori, Nori, Ori, Kili, Gloin, Oin Fili, Dwalin, Bombur, Bofur, Bifur, Balin and Thorin Oakenshield.

Petition Against Passwords


Google on Life and Death

Monday, 23 September, 2013 1 Comment

“One of the things I thought was amazing is that if you solve cancer, you’d add about three years to people’s average life expectancy. We think of solving cancer as this huge thing that’ll totally change the world, but when you really take a step back and look at it, yeah, there are many, many tragic cases of cancer, and it’s very, very sad, but in the aggregate, it’s not as big an advance as you might think.” So says search engine entrepreneur Larry Page in “The Audacity of Google”, the main feature article in the current issue of Time magazine, which plays up the interview on its cover with the dramatic title: Can Google Solve Death?.

In a post on Google+ dated 18 September, Page wrote: “I’m excited to announce Calico, a new company that will focus on health and well-being, in particular the challenge of aging and associated diseases… These issues affect us all — from the decreased mobility and mental agility that comes with age, to life-threatening diseases that exact a terrible physical and emotional toll on individuals and families.”

Nabanita Das commented on the post: “quite an overpowering thought ….cancer is known to exist more than 5000 yrs back (as mentioned in epics ) ….it is the most persistent harbinger of natural (aging) death process ….any breakthrough will surely be multifaceted.”

But a close reading of Page’s comments in the Time interview suggest that “solving” the cancer problem is not what Page has in mind. Sure, the search for the cancer “cure” is regarded by many as the Holy Grail of modern medicine, but it does not follow that Page would see it this way. The reason is “Big Data”. More about that here on Wednesday.

Time


Replacing the (unreliable) eyewitness

Friday, 21 June, 2013 0 Comments

“Eyewitness misidentification is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwide, playing a role in nearly 75% of convictions overturned through DNA testing.” So claims the Innocence Project. Imagine, then, a car crash in the near-future where one of the drivers captures the accident with her Google Glasses. Would the court prefer to watch the video rather than hear (unreliable) eyewitness testimony? Consider the implications for the justice system as it now operates. Discuss.

Further reading: “With wearable tech like Google Glass, human behavior is now a design problem” by Sean Madden.

Google Glasses


Erdogan channels Assange and Morozov

Tuesday, 4 June, 2013 0 Comments

“Now we have a menace that is called Twitter. The best example of lies can be found there. To me, social media is the worst menace to society.” As protests engulf Turkey, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is blaming social media for the unrest. His targeting of Twitter, which has become a hub for activists and a major news source as Turkey’s mainstream media have downplayed the crisis, will be watched with interest by Evgeny Morozov, who has made a profession out of his cynicism for the popular notion that the internet can be an agent of regime change. In the internet-inimical Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which hosts a regular Morozov column, the Belarus-born author argues that the net is, in fact, a tool for mass surveillance and political repression.

Echoing Morozov’s fears, the alleged-rapist, Julian Assange, took to the New York Times at the weekend and declared, “The advance of information technology epitomized by Google heralds the death of privacy for most people and shifts the world toward authoritarianism.” The notorious fugitive from justice was reviewing Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen’s book, The New Digital Age. He continued: “But while Mr. Schmidt and Mr. Cohen tell us that the death of privacy will aid governments in ‘repressive autocracies’ in ‘targeting their citizens,’ they also say governments in ‘open’ democracies will see it as ‘a gift’ enabling them to ‘better respond to citizen and customer concerns.’ In reality, the erosion of individual privacy in the West and the attendant centralization of power make abuses inevitable, moving the ‘good’ societies closer to the ‘bad’ ones.”

When the dictatorial Erdoğan, the seedy Assange and the skeptical Morozov are on the same page, it’s time to count our digital spoons.

Twitter Istanbul


YouTube paid channels are part of a possible future

Friday, 10 May, 2013 0 Comments

YouTube has launched a paid channels experiment that can be accessed by paying a variable subscription fee, which starts at $0.99 a month. National Geographic is there, and so is TNA Wrestling Plus. Among the other offerings: Fix My Hog and Gay Direct. And there’s more to come. Notorious B-movie producer and director Roger Corman has announced that he will launch a paid YouTube channel this summer. “Corman’s Drive-In” will showcase his library of around 400, er, classics.

For all those who equate YouTube with free, this will come as a shock, but Jaron Lanier, the computer scientist who popularized the term “virtual reality”, will be pleased. Who Owns the Future? is the title of his new book and in it he pleads for a radical rethink of how all those busily engaged in creating the digital commons should be compensated. The Lanier solution? If information is worth money (and the share price of Google would suggest it is), then people must be paid for what they contribute to the web. He proposes an intricate system in which Facebook, for example, is no longer free, but also stops getting user data for free. Information creators of would be rewarded with nanopayments generated by users of information in Lanier’s scheme.

The internet, claims Lanier, is currently biased in favour of “siren servers” (big companies) that convince users to exchange data for “free” services — search, e-mail, social networks. But instead of heralding a new age of prosperity, he writes, the net is making us poorer. Careers in professions such as music and writing are disappearing, thanks to the ease of copying, and more traditional middle-class jobs will certainly follow. “To grasp the Huffington Post’s business model, picture a galley rowed by slaves and commanded by pirates,” wrote Tim Rutten. While some grow fat, creatives are not paid and many are driven to destitution by those who pretend that they have our interests at heart. Jaron Lanier’s heart is in the right place, but his nanopayment proposal is unworkable. Paid channels offer a better solution.


Drop the Glass, Google

Friday, 1 March, 2013 0 Comments

“Don’t be evil.” Heard that one before? Let’s have a quick look now at that famous corporate Code of Conduct: “Googlers generally apply those words to how we serve our users. But ‘Don’t be evil’ is much more than that. Yes, it’s about providing our users unbiased access to information, focusing on their needs and giving them the best products and services that we can. But it’s also about doing the right thing more generally — following the law, acting honorably and treating each other with respect.”

Google cofounder Sergey Brin spoke at the TED 2013 Conference this week and showed off Google Glass, a hands-free, voice-activated augmented-reality headset developed by the search engine. Brin used the presentation to take a swipe at the phone. “We get information by disconnecting from other people, looking down into our smartphone,” he said. “Is this the way you’re meant to interact with other people? Is the future of connection just people walking around hunched up, looking down, rubbing a featureless piece of glass? It’s kind of emasculating. Is this what you’re meant to do with your body?”

That made headlines and his use of “emasculating” provoked intense reaction, but Mark Hurst, founder of Creative Good, ignored the frenzy and focused instead on “The Google Glass feature no one is talking about.” And what have we all missed in our gadgetry excitement? Snippet:

Google Glass is like one camera car for each of the thousands, possibly millions, of people who will wear the device — every single day, everywhere they go — on sidewalks, into restaurants, up elevators, around your office, into your home. From now on, starting today, anywhere you go within range of a Google Glass device, everything you do could be recorded and uploaded to Google’s cloud, and stored there for the rest of your life. You won’t know if you’re being recorded or not; and even if you do, you’ll have no way to stop it.

And that, my friends, is the experience that Google Glass creates. That is the experience we should be thinking about. The most important Google Glass experience is not the user experience — it’s the experience of everyone else. The experience of being a citizen, in public, is about to change.

Just think: if a million Google Glasses go out into the world and start storing audio and video of the world around them, the scope of Google search suddenly gets much, much bigger, and that search index will include you. Let me paint a picture. Ten years from now, someone, some company, or some organization, takes an interest in you, wants to know if you’ve ever said anything they consider offensive, or threatening, or just includes a mention of a certain word or phrase they find interesting. A single search query within Google’s cloud — whether initiated by a publicly available search, or a federal subpoena, or anything in between — will instantly bring up documentation of every word you’ve ever spoken within earshot of a Google Glass device.

If the Google Code of Conduct is “about doing the right thing”, the company should drop the Glass device right now. It has the potential for evil.

Google Glass


Google bails out France

Wednesday, 6 February, 2013 0 Comments

There they were, François Hollande, the president of France, and Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, doing what the leaders of middle-ranking powers do so well: holding a joint press conference, shaking hands while posing for the camera signing important-looking documents. And what was it all about? In short, a €60 million bailout. Cheap […]

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Google ideas

Monday, 4 February, 2013 1 Comment

It’s time to get familiar with the name Jared Cohen. The 31-year old former US State Department hot shot founded and runs Google Ideas, the search engine’s think tank, and he’s co-written what may well be the most important book of 2013, The New Digital Age. The other name on the cover is that of Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt.

The New Digital Age will be strong on the dangers represented by the “illicit networks” run by Chinese and Russian cyber authoritarians. Quote:

“The increasing ubiquity of connection technologies will both empower those driving illicit networks as well as the citizens seeking to curb them. These networks have been around for centuries, but one thing has changed — the vast majority of people now have a mobile device, empowering citizens with the potential to disrupt the secrecy, discretion, and fear that allow illicit networks to persist. As illicit networks grow in scope and complexity, society’s strategy to reduce their negative impact must draw on the tremendous power of technology.”

Yes, Google is a hard-headed business, and it is determined to dominate the search industry, but the company is far more idealistic than its rivals and Schmidt and Cohen are to be applauded for their determination to defend the cause of democracy from its enemies. More about this on Wednesday here.