April 23, 2013
When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone on January 7, 2007, he said, “Every once in a while a revolutionary product comes along that…changes everything….Today, Apple is going to reinvent the phone.”
The iPhone has proved even more revolutionary than Jobs understood, as its role in the remarkable capture of the Boston Marathon bombers illustrated. In the wake of the bombing, the FBI asked for crowdsourcing assistance to identify suspects. The digital sites Reddit and 4chan were instantly swamped by a “general cybervibe” of shared digital information sent from iPhones and video surveillance cameras. It was a stunning interaction between citizens and law enforcement.
This interaction is currently very high on the media radar screen. In the Washington Post, Craig Timberg recently wrote about the technologies that can produce “access to unprecedented troves of video imagery” and information about location data emitted by cellphones. In their recent book The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business, Google executive chairman Jared Cohen and Google director of ideas Eric Schmidt describe how a camera will “zoom in on an individual’s eye, mouth and nose, and extract a ‘feature vector’” that creates a biometric signature. This signature is what law enforcement focused on following the Boston bombing, according to Schmidt and Cohen, in an excerpt from their book, published last week in the Wall Street Journal.
A media appeal from law enforcement is not new. John Walsh’s television program, “America’s Most Wanted,” is credited with capturing 1,149 fugitives between 1988 and 2011. But the stakes have sky-rocketed in the digital age, and the issue of unfiltered social media information has proved problematic. In the midst of the Boston manhunt, Alexis Madigal wrote for the Atlantic that the crowdsourcing flood revealed “well-meaning people who have not considered the moral weight” of their rush to judgment: “This is vigilantism, and it’s only the illusion that what we do online is not as significant as what we do offline. . .”
In a story on April 20th, the Associated Press reported that “Fueled by Twitter, online forums like Reddit and 4chan, smartphones, and relays of police scanners, thousands of people played armchair detectives. . . . .” The problem of inevitable mistakes, the AP noted, illustrated the unintended consequences of law enforcement “deputizing the public for help.” Reddit is a giant message board divided into subsections similar to local newspapers, except that users are the content providers. In the Boston case, users viewed their assistance as “a citizen responsibility” and engulfed the digital sites with every possible piece of “evidence.”
On the PBS News Hour April 19th, Will Oremus of Slate said that Reddit is unmediated democracy in action—a site where everyone gets to vote on what rises to the top of the page as the headlined feature. The lack of a filter means mistakes will be made, but Oremus argued that the potential for good superseded the bad. He also suggested that the Boston experience, where innocent people were momentarily tagged as suspects, illustrated how complex the learning curve is going to be.
It has certainly been a learning curve for me. I was intending to write here about a fascinating new book, Ernest Freeberg’s The Age of Edison, when I found myself scurrying around exploring “Reddit” and “4chan.” But as it happens, there are intriguing parallels between the advent of revolutionary technology a century ago and today’s media metamorphosis.
In the Gilded Age, Freeberg writes, society “witnessed mind-bending changes in communication. . .hardly imagined beforehand.” Their generation was the first “to live in a world shaped by perpetual invention,” and Edison personified the age with his contributions to the light bulb, the phonograph, and moving pictures.
As in the digital age today, the greatest impact then was not simply the invention itself but the invention’s consequences. There were no rules: For example, how should street lighting be constructed–should there be one giant arc light, or a series of lights lining the streets? Freeberg also explains how standards were developed for the use of electricity, and how professions evolved to implement those standards.
One of my favorite stories in The Age of Edison describes how electricity affected public behavior: people accustomed to lurching home from saloons in gaslight’s forgiving darkness were now exposed to public opprobrium by electricity’s illumination. Electricity, Freeberg suggests, was “a subtle form of social control.” Neighbors peering from behind curtains were the cultural antecedents of today’s surveillance cameras.
Like Steve Jobs did in the 21st century, Freeburg writes that “Edison invented a new style of invention.” But in both cases, what became important were the ramifications—the unintended consequences.
April 17, 2013
In recent years, we’ve gone from relying on bulky external GPS receivers to having digital maps of the world accessible at our fingertips. But what can we expect in the next few decades from the technology. Andrew Johnston, one of four curators for the new Air and Space Museum exhibit, “Time and Navigation,” says much of the change will likely come from the commercial and social media side of it. Meaning, soon your phone may be getting even smarter. He says, “All that will be invisible for most people. It’s become this sort of hidden utility that everybody uses but nobody really sees it, or understands quite how it works.”
We talked with him about the ubiquity of the technology, what it might look like in the future and whether we’re at risk of being overdependent.
What are some of the applications?
[GPS] was born as a military system and is still operated by the Air Force in coordination with civilian U.S. government agencies. So there’s lots of applications that are important for strategic directives with the country.
The first thing that people might be used to doing is accessing maps on their phones. That is something that depends on satellite positioning using GPS satellites.
These days, large shipping companies use satellite positing to determine where their trucks are. And you can keep track of all your vehicles from a central location, which is huge for enabling more efficient transportation.
There’s a story in the exhibition about precision agriculture. That’s a huge business now. Satellite positioning has revolutionized how large scale agriculture is taking place. Fertilizer is very expensive, the old way of doing things you would apply the same amount of fertilizer for a whole field. Whereas, now because the piece of farm equipment knows where it’s located and you have a map of the soils and previous season’s crops yields, as the vehicle drives over the field it can actually vary how much fertilizer goes down depending on those conditions.
A firefighter appears in the exhibition highlighting how satellite positioning allows vehicles to get to places faster because they know the routes and have the on-board mapping information. But it also points out some of the things that we can’t do yet, like indoor positioning.
Satellite positioning is also a timing system. It provides high precision time, like an atomic clock, except it’s distributed over large areas. That’s useful for running an electric grid. The way that electricity is transmitted over long distances, you have to time when surges of electricity move from point A to point B and that’s done with GPS timing. Even financial transactions need precise time. Transactions that happen very quickly need a precise time reference, which often comes from GPS.
What are some of the challenges, for example, indoor navigation?
Right now satellite positioning does not work indoors in most situations. Different solutions are being explored. For instance, you can determine your position pretty roughly by using cell phone towers. The phone knows where the towers are located and which towers it is using, so it can roughly determine its position. The level of error is lower when you’re using satellite positioning.
But let’s say you knew which were the closest WiFi hotspots and you knew the information about those spots, and you knew where they were located, you could use that to help you navigate as well, indoors and outside.
Map databases have to be globally consistent so you can move anywhere on the earth and still see the map data, but then they have to be up-to-date and that’s a huge amount of work. One of the ways that different groups are trying to address that is by collecting data and updates from people as they move around with their phones.
It may be possible for a phone to search for hotspots as it’s being carried around and then save this data to a central server. Then subsequent phones, if they’re tapped into the same database, will know the locations of WiFi hotspots.
The commercial aspect is interesting. Throughout the exhibit, there are moments where government funding and competition spurs innovation, is that still the way it is?
When it comes to these global navigation tools, in terms of the funding that makes these systems work, that is still mostly a government story. Systems like GPS, that’s government money that actually makes all that operate.
The thing that’s been going on recently is that there’s a lot of non-government money getting involved in utilizing these services and making derived products, and providing services to individuals all over the world. In other words, there’s this government system that is being run, but then there’s all of these different applications and a lot of the innovation for how to actually use the system is coming from the non-government side.
While the future of positioning technology in terms of social media is largely invisible, a visible example includes the promise of driverless cars, which Stanley represents in the exhibit. Anything else like that on the horizon?
The possibility of self-driving cars has the potential to transform everyday life. We’ve run out of space to build highways so it’s a possibility of increasing the capacity of the highways that we have by having cars going bumper-to-bumper at 50 miles per hour by getting the human out of the equation. It’s impossible to say how long in the future that will take place. I suspect more than ten years from now that we’ll have lanes set aside for driverless cars but who knows.
The other thing that it will change is how airplanes get around. . .who knows, maybe down the road, human pilots will not be as common as they are today, that’s another possibility.
Some people do wonder if it’s possible to become too dependent on these satellite-positioning systems, because, what is the backup? The answer today is that for a lot of these services, there is no backup. Now GPS is a very robust system, it’s not going anywhere, but there are some things that make it not work as well. Down the road, we have to worry about things like solar interference and make sure the radio spectrum is free of other signals. We have to worry about jamming. Although it is illegal to do so–GPS is shockingly easy to interfere with by someone determined to block the system or create problems.
Has it happened?
One of the famous examples was at Newark Airport. A few years ago a new airport positioning system was being tested. Every so often, the GPS would stop working briefly. They finally figured out that what was going on was that right next to the airport was the New Jersey Turnpike. A truck was driving by with a GPS jammer to prevent the central office from tracking the movements of this truck. The jammer plugs into the power adapter and GPS doesn’t work for the vehicle. The problem is that it affects a zone much bigger than a truck, including, in this case, the grounds of the airport.
There actually are ways to provide backup to global positioning, including ground-based transmissions. For instance, the LORAN system was made up of ground-based radio transmitters that allowed you to determine position. That system was mostly shut down and many people are not happy about that because they ask the question–”What’s the backup to satellite positioning?”
The new generations of GPS satellites being developed right now will include features that will protect the signals and make them even more useful for users all over the world. I think right now, the robustness of the GPS system is such that we’re not in any kind of danger zone, but I do think we’ll see a push for a ground-based backup.
April 11, 2013
The first several Soviet and American spacecrafts sent to the moon missed it completely, crashed on the moon or were lost in space, according to a new exhibition at the Air and Space Museum. Navigation is a tricky business and has long been so, even before we ever set our sights on the moon. But the steady march of technological advances and a spirit of exploration have helped guide us into new realms. And today, any one with GPS can be a navigator.
From the sea and sky to outer space and back, the history of how we get where we’re going is on view at the National Air and Space Museum’s new exhibit “Time and Navigation: The Untold Story of Getting from Here to There,” co-sponsored by both Air and Space and the National Museum of American History.
Historian Carlene Stephens, who studies the history of time and is one of four Smithsonian curators who worked on the show, says: “If you want to know where you are, if you want to know where you’re going, you need a reliable clock and that’s been true since the 18th century.”
That interplay of time and space is at the heart of the exhibit—from sea to satellites. As technology allows for greater accuracy, so too does it ease navigation for the average user, so that by World War II, navigators could be trained in a matter of hours or days.
What began as “dead reckoning,” or positioning oneself using time, speed and direction, has transformed into an ever-more accurate process with atomic clocks capable of keeping time within three-billionths of a second. Where it once took roughly 14 minutes to calculate one’s position at sea, it now takes fractions of a second. And though it still takes 14 minutes to communicate via satellite with instruments on Mars, like Curiosity, curator Paul Ceruzzi says, we were still able to complete the landing with calculations made from earth.
“That gives you a sense of how good we’re getting at these things,” says Ceruzzi.
The exhibit tells the story with an array of elegantly crafted and historical instruments, including models of clocks designed by Galileo, Charles Lindbergh’s sextant used to learn celestial navigation, artifacts from the Wilkes Expedition and Stanley, the most famous early robotic vehicle that can navigate itself. It as much a testament to the distances we’ve traversed as it is to the capacity of human intellect that first dreamed it was all possible.
March 20, 2013
Though the long-running CBS television show, “NCIS,” is based on the real-life activities of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, Lou Eliopulos, NCIS division chief of forensic sciences, would rather compare his work to another show: “Chef Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares.”
“If you ever watch, Ramsay in the kitchen where he comes in and analyzes a restaurant, we’ll do the same thing,” he says of the organization’s case work.
The job is a bit more complicated than inattentive wait staff and messy prep stations. A team of 1,876 special agents travel the world solving everything from violent crimes to espionage plots. Though they are specifically tasked with working with the Navy, the group’s global reach and special technological expertise means law enforcement agencies often ask NCIS to partner with them on difficult investigations. Unlike other military investigative branches, NCIS is almost entirely civilian, meaning they’re able to operate in the civilian world of law enforcement much more freely.
Occasionally, NCIS calls on the Smithsonian to help crack a case. “If we have a tough case or a tough question, we go to the best,” says Eliopulos. In particular he says, the Institution’s anthropological expertise aids in identifying skeletal remains, a critical part of the investigation that helps agents understand the timeline of and activities surrounding the crime.
Eliopulos and special agent David Lobb stopped by the Institution for a sold-out Smithsonian Associates event Wednesday, but we spoke with them by phone to bring you the behind-the-scenes story about the job’s challenges and rewards.
What are the challenges of the job?
LE: The entire job is a challenge, it’s unique. When you talk about cold cases, for example, those are cases no one else has solved. If they were easy, they would have been solved. So you’re working cases that are difficult to resolve, that have resisted solving for years and years. You have problems associated with witnesses memories and evidence, so that presents a challenge yet we’ve been tremendously successful not only in our own cases involving 64 cases since we started the cold case program but we go out and train three times a year for local law enforcement and stage agencies. And they’ve been successful using our methods. That’s one of the great benefits of working for NCIS, our job is different, and it’s very challenging, and that’s one of the reasons that drew me here to begin with.
DL: I agree. The expectation that’s levied on our agents and our professional staff is great. You talk about taking a special agent and dropping them in a foreign country, where they’re working and they’re there to support a Navy ship or an exercise that’s taking place in that country, and their job is to meet the local law enforcement, the mayor or the local governor of that region or that country and ensure the safety of the personnel coming into that country and making a call if they think it’s not safe.
Most common misconception?
DL: The biggest eye-opener is how much writing you do. For all the fun stuff you see on TV and for all the fun stuff you get to do in the field, there’s paperwork and other things that go with that, which is an important part of documenting your cases and seeing them through to prosecution.
LE: For me, it’s having everything readily available. . .It’s a little bit more work involved. We are not really permitted to tap into the CIA databases and other databases like that to obtain information.
Do you have a favorite case?
LE: I’ve never won a Super Bowl, I’ve never won a World Series, but when you solve a case it’s got to rival that feeling. That’s like trying to decide which child you like best.
Any one of us that has ever stood over a dead body or put a body into a body bag, that’s ever made the notification of next of kin and heard that primal scream that you can’t hear or duplicate anywhere else, it literally stands that hair up on the back of your neck and to be able to sit there and unravel that mystery and put the case together. . .being able to get the conviction, it would be hard to rival.
We just had a recent case; 28 years unsolved of a ten-year-old that was abducted, a Navy dependent. While her family was moving and her dad is deployed, someone comes and abducts this child and rapes and murders her and we literally had no suspects. Since 1999 we’ve worked the case as a cold case and waited for our first break, knowing that we were due one. Through the different forms of DNA testing and latest technology, we were able to resolve that and going to tell the parents that we made an arrest on the case, all of those are tremendous achievements for our agency.
What was their reaction?
LE: When I came in to talk with them, it had been ten years since we had spoken last. I had already known an arrest was made about 30 minutes before. I went through the process of everything we did in the past ten years, it took about 20 to 25 minutes to go through that. I could see the parents listening to all this, like, here’s the excuses and more excuses and 28 years and it’s still unsolved. Then I told them we did Y-STR [DNA analysis] and we identified the killer, and he was just arrested, and literally you saw the mom’s jaw just drop to her chest and you could see their eyes welling up with tears.
They made me repeat the news and I went into the details. They spoke to me about this person that was arrested and that they knew them. The dad actually has cancer now and I asked if they had any questions and the mom said, “I just have one.” I said, “What’s that?” And she said, “Can I hug you?” I said, “Absolutely and I want the big guy over there to hug me too.”
And your favorite case?
DL: One that stands out for me was a terrorism case that I worked. . .This was an interesting case because it was an insider situation where we had a Muslim convert on one of our Navy ships, who had been turned to extremism. We’re not sure exactly why. He began giving and selling classified information about the movement of the ship and its vulnerabilities to two al-Qaeda financiers and operators in London, with the hope that they would be able to use that to plan an attack on one of our Navy vessels. . .Through years of work and joint work with the FBI we were able to, in 2007, arrest the individual and have him sentenced a year later. He’s serving ten years in federal prison on an espionage charge in New York.
He hasn’t told us much about why he joined the Navy in the first place, that’s one of the things that we continue to monitor as we look at the threat of an insider, and what they can do to damage and bring down our own military. It was an eye-opener for a lot of folks.
When the captain of the ship. . .learned about this, his immediate concern was: ‘How many other people do I have that are trying to do this?’ And the Navy’s concern is: “How many people in the Navy are trying to do this?” You can imagine the pressure that that, then, puts on our agency to make sure that we’re watching those things, and covering those gaps, and it’s a difficult thing to do.
February 27, 2013
Is that real? It’s one of the most frequent questions I hear when I guide visitors through our museum, and admittedly, I stumble. Yes, sometimes it is the real thing, in rock, bone, fur or flesh. But often what you see on display is a replica of an actual specimen, or an amalgam of real bits along with creative layers of plaster and paint—embellishments from a less discerning era in museum curation. Even today, we unfortunately don’t identify these distinctions clearly to visitors, in favor of “making it look good.”
So, what’s the difference between a replica and the real thing? The answer seems pretty straightforward if you deal with one-of-a-kind specimens, like at a museum: there’s an original object; and then there are facsimiles—copies—made from silicone or latex molds or, these days, 3D prints from digital scans (see video, above). Sometimes copies are made for exhibit, or for research exchanges. Or, if the original specimen is too fragile (or unwieldy), high precision replicas are preferred for measurements or side-by-side comparisons.
By making copies, museums function in the same way as a library. Though this analogy falls apart if you consider the increasing rate that books are being sold and process digitally. What happens when an entire book—its cover, binding, marginalia and type—gets digitized and made searchable? What’s a physical book then, other than a doorstop? While the searchable digitized book can be a useful tool, happily, the real thing still does matter: to researchers following the historical trail of a book’s age, owner or reader; or just as a work of art. Ask an antiquarian book seller. As a consequence, there’s a need for places like libraries or the Smithsonian, to archive and protect the real deal.
Lately, making digital copies of museum specimens has become a process far more sophisticated than taking high-resolution photographs. And like digital books, these replicas become extremely useful tools. Bits and bytes are more easily accessible to researchers than specimens looked away in isolated museums. Here at the Natural History Museum, we can supplement traditional 2D methods with CT scanning, 3D surface scans, and we can archive bits of molecular code. We’re in the first stages of building digital avatars of specimens: the digital versions of their DNA, voices, surfaces and innards. And we can even bring the technology into the field, which opens new doors into saving, studying and archiving one-time collecting events.
So keep your eyes peeled. The next time you see something from the Smithsonian, it might be better than the real thing.
Nicholas Pyenson is a curator of fossil marine mammals at the Natural History Museum and records his fieldwork and other activities at Pyenson Lab. He studies the paleobiology of marine mammals with an interest in evolutionary comparisons. This is his first in a series of posts that he will be contributing to Around the Mall.