December 11, 2013
We like to believe that every visit to Google is a search for knowledge, or, at least, useful information. Sure, but it’s also an act of narcissism.
Each time we retrieve search results, we pull out a virtual mirror that reflects who we are in the Web world. It’s what Eli Pariser aptly described as the “filter bubble” in his 2011 book, The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding From You.
Pariser laid out the thinking behind algorithmic personalization. By meticulously tracking our every click, Google–and now Facebook and more and more other websites–can, based on past behavior, make pretty good guesses about what we want to know. This means that two people doing exactly the same search can end up with very different results.
We’re fed what we seem to want, and since we’re more likely to click on stuff within our comfort zone–including ads–Google, and others, are motivated to keep sharpening their targeting. As a result, the bubbles we live in are shrinking.
There’s a price for all this precision, as Pariser pointed out in an interview with Brain Pickings’ Maria Popova:
“Personalization is sort of privacy turned inside out: it’s not the problem of controlling what the world knows about you, it’s the problem of what you get to see of the world.”
The bigger picture
So we’re trapped in a maze of our own making, right?
Not necessarily, thanks to a team of scientists who say they may have come up with a way to escape the constraints of algorithms. As the MIT Technology Review reported recently, Eduardo Graells-Garrido at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona and Mounia Lalmas and Daniel Quercia at Yahoo Labs have developed what they call a “recommendation engine,” designed to expose people to opposing views.
One key, say the researchers, is that those views come from people with whom we share other interests. That seems to make us more receptive to opinions we’d otherwise likely dismiss as folly. The other is to present opposing views in a visual way that makes them feel less foreign.
To that end, the scientists used the model of a word cloud, which allowed study participants both to see what subjects they tended to tweet about most often, and also to have access to–in a visually engaging way–content from others whose own word clouds mentioned many of the same topics.
But what if some of that content reflected a very different political view? Would people instinctively reject it?
To put their theory to a proper test, the researchers connected people on opposite sides of an issue that evokes deeply personal feelings–abortion. They focused on thousands of active Twitter users in Chile who had included hashtags such as #prolife and #prochoice in their tweets, creating word clouds for them based on terms they used most frequently.
Then, they provided study participants with tweets from people who had many of the same terms in their word clouds, but who also held the opposite view on abortion. The researchers found that because people seemed to feel a connection to those who had similar word clouds, they were more interested in their comments. And that tended to expose them to a much wider range of opinions and ideas than they would have otherwise experienced.
In short, the researchers used what people had in common to make them more open to discussing ways in which they differed. They had, their paper concluded, found “an indirect way to connect dissimilar people.”
So, there’s hope yet.
Madness to the method
Here are other recent developments in the sometimes bizarre world of algorithms.
- Nothing like automated “Warm personal regards”: This was probably inevitable. Google has just received a patent for software that would keep such close track of your social media behavior that it will be able to provide you with a choice of possible reactions to whatever comments or queries come your way on Facebook or Twitter. If a friend gets a new job, for example, “Congratulations” would be an option. That’s right, you wouldn’t have to waste any of your brain power coming up with your own response. The algorithm will do it for you.
- Phone it in: Researchers at the University of Helsinki have developed algorithms for determining how people get around--walking, driving or taking the bus or subway–by tracking the accelerometer signals of their cell phones. That allows them to analyze the frequency of their stops and starts. The researchers say it could be a powerful tool in helping planners understand how people move around in their cities.
- All the news that fits: Facebook has tweaked its “news feed” algorithms so that more actual news will start showing up there. The idea is to give greater exposure to links to articles from news organizations on Facebook feeds–which will help make the social media giant more relevant to what’s going on in the world besides friends’ birthdays. The speculation is that this is an effort by Facebook to challenge Twitter’s dominance in generating buzz around current events.
- What does she have to say about the Chicago Cubs?: An Israeli computer scientist has created an algorithm that can analyze huge volumes of electronic data about past events from sources as diverse as the New York Times’ archive to Twitter feeds and predict what might happen in the future. Most notably, the scientist, named Kira Radinsky, has used her system to predict the first cholera epidemic in Cuba in many decades and the protests leading up to the Arab Spring.
Video bonus: Here’s the TED talk that made Eli Pariser and his concept of the filter bubble famous.
Video bonus bonus: There are algorithms for everything these days and, to believe Sheldon, of “The “Big Bang Theory,” that includes making friends.
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October 4, 2013
You have to hand it to Google.
Yes, Google Glass is one nifty technology, but wearing glasses with a little camera attached seems to reek of geek, the kind of gadget that would appeal most to men and women who, as young boys and girls, wanted so much to believe in X-ray glasses.
Yet twice now, Google Glass has managed to crash one of America’s biggest glamor parties—New York’s Fashion Week. Last year, all of the models in designer Diane Von Furstenberg’s show strutted down the runway accessorized by Google. And, a few weeks ago, at this year’s event, anyone who was anyone—top models, fashion editors, reality show judges—was walking around shooting pictures and videos with their clever camera glasses.
Still, if Google Glass is to go mainstream, it needs to move beyond the air kiss crowd and geek buzz. That part of the plan starts tomorrow in Durham, North Carolina, the first stop in what Google says will be a national roadshow. With Google Glass expected to hit the market by early 2014, it’s time to start letting the general public see what all the chatter’s about.
The camera never blinks
So, it’s also time to begin taking a closer look at what it might mean to have a whole lot of people walking around with computers/cameras attached to their heads.
There’s obviously the matter of privacy. Google Glass wearers will have the ability to shoot a steady stream of photos and videos as they go about their daily lives. A group of U.S. congressmen raised the issue to Google earlier this year, as have privacy commissioners from Canada, the European Union, Australia, Israel, Mexico, Switzerland and other countries.
Google’s response is that the camera will not be that surreptitious since it will be voice-activated and a light on the screen will show that it’s on. Google also insists that it won’t allow facial recognition software on Google Glass—critics have raised concerns about someone being able to use facial recognition to track down the identity of a person they’ve captured in photos or videos on the street or in a bar.
Others are worried about so much visual data being captured every day, particularly if Google Glass hits it big. The video and images belong to the owner of the glasses, but who else could get access to them? Google has tried to assuage some of those fears by pointing out that all the files on the device will be able to be deleted remotely in the event that it’s lost or stolen.
Thanks for sharing
Then there’s this. In August, Google was awarded a patent to allow for the use of something known as “pay-per-gaze” advertising. In its application, the company noted that “a head-mounted tracking device”—in other words, Google Glass—could follow where the person wearing it was gazing, and be able to send images of what they saw to a server. Then, any billboards or other real-world ads the person had seen would be identified and Google could charge the advertiser. As noted in the New York Times’ Bits blog, the fee could be adapted based on how long the ad actually held the person’s gaze.
Here’s how Google proposed the idea in its patent: “Pay-per-gaze advertising need not be limited to online advertisements, but rather can be extended to conventional advertisement media including billboards, magazines, newspapers and other forms of conventional print media.”
Since it became public, Google has downplayed the patent—first filed in 2011—saying it has no plans to incorporate the eye-tracking capability into Google Glass any time soon. “We hold patents on a variety of ideas,” the company responded in a statement. “Some of those ideas later mature into real products or services, some don’t. Prospective product announcements should not necessarily be inferred from our patents.”
There are other ways advertising could be integrated into the Google Glass experience. Digital ads could pop up in a person’s glasses based on what they may be looking at. Say you’re walking down the street and suddenly an ad for the restaurant down on the corner shows up on your display screen. That could get real old real fast—but it’s not that improbable. Or maybe you’d see virtual ads—for which advertisers pay Google—which would replace real-world ads that appear in your line of vision.
No doubt, though, Google Glass will provide us with plenty of ethical dilemmas. When, for instance, will you be justified in telling someone to please remove their camera glasses? And will there be places and situations where glasses in the filming position are universally seen as bad form—say, at dinner parties, or stops at public bathrooms or in the midst of messy breakups?
But there’s another aspect of Google Glass—or most wearable tech, for that matter—that’s particularly intriguing. It has to do with the power of real-time feedback to change behavior. Studies have shown that nothing is more effective at getting people to slow down their cars than those digital signs that tell you how fast you’re going. It’s feedback to which you can immediately respond.
So, will a steady stream of data about our personal health and exercise make us take our bad habits a lot more seriously? Sure, you can forget the occasional crack from your partner about your weight gain. But a smart watch reminding you all day, every day? What about prompts from your smart glasses that give you cues when you start spending money recklessly? Or flagging you on behavior patterns that haven’t turned out so well for you in the past? Can all these devices make us better people?
Sean Madden, writing for Gigaom, offered this take: “This is social engineering in its most literal sense, made possible by technology, with all of the promise and paranoia that phrase implies.”
Wear it well
Here are other recent developments on the wearable tech front:
- Remember when all a watch needed to do was tick: Samsung has jumped into the wearable tech business with the release of its Galaxy Gear smart watch, although some critics have suggested that it’s just not smart enough.
- If teeth could talk: Researchers at National Taiwan University have designed a sensor that when attached to a tooth can track everything your mouth does during a typical day—how much you chew, how much you talk, how much you drink, even how much you cough.
- How about when you need more deodorant?: A Canadian company is developing a machine-washable T-shirt that can track and analyze your movement, breathing and heart activity.
- Don’t let sleeping dogs lie: Why shouldn’t dogs have their own wearable tech? Whistle is a monitoring device that tells you how much exercise your dog is getting while you’re at work. Or more likely, how much he’s not getting.
Video bonus: Here’s a Google video showing how Glass can keep you from ever getting lost again.
Video bonus bonus: With luck, advertising on Google Glass will never get as bad as it plays out on this video parody.
More on Smithsonian.com
First Arrest Caught on Google Glass
August 27, 2013
As we in America head into the Labor Day weekend, let us pause to consider that these days when you refer to an army of workers, you could be talking about people managed by their smartphones. That’s pretty much how it works with an outfit called Gigwalk,which has found a way to build a big temp worker network strictly through a iPhone app–and now it’s become available on Android phones.
Gigwalk’s M.O. is to use its app to quickly mobilize temp workers for projects that cover a lot of territory. Say, for instance, a big company needs pictures of restaurants or current menus for an online guide. Gigwalk puts out the word on its app and people get a chance to make a little extra money, usually at $12 to $15 an hour.
Kudos to Gigwalk for creating a new type of labor market to deal with jobs that otherwise would probably be too complex logistically to get done. It’s been suggested that it could become the “eBay of work.”
So it’s all good, right? Well, mostly. But there’s another aspect of Gigwalk’s model that may give you pause. It scrupulously gathers performance data on it each of its temps, with the goal of being able to better match them with future gigs. It tracks how long it takes a person to respond to a job alert on their app–too slow and you ding your rating. It tracks the GPS on a temp’s phone see how long they spend on a job and takes that into account in measuring his or her productivity. It analyzes customer surveys, naturally, but it also evaluates how much complexity a person can handle on a project before they seek help.
All of this is wrapped into a “mathematical profile” that Gigwalk says makes it more likely that their temps will succeed because it’s easier to assign them to work for which they’re best suited. And the Gigwalk people are quite proud of that. As CEO Bob Bahramipour told Bloomberg BusinessWeek: “We know more about our workers than anyone has ever known about workers.”
Co-founder and CTO Matt Crampton had more to say in a recent interview on Salon:
“Behind the scenes we are watching everybody while they are going about doing their work. We are building these mathematical profiles on top of people, figuring out who is doing good jobs on a variety of gigs. We can figure out what kind of jobs you do well and start routing more complex, higher-paying jobs to you based on the skills we see inside our system. And then we can provide companies with workers with the specific kind of skill sets they need to get work done.”
It’s all perfectly logical, a deep bow to meritocracy, and as Crampton notes, if businesses–particularly retailers–find that this approach can consistently provide them with competent, geographically distributed temps, they’ll start to look for other ways to use them. And that could end up creating new kinds of jobs.
But there is the matter of Gigwalk’s worker profiles. Sure, they may be well-intentioned, but what to make of job performance grades largely driven by data and spawned by algorithms? How inviolable will they be? And who ultimately could have access to them?
Maybe I’m being paranoid–writing about algorithms as the engine of 21st century life will do that to you–but are we seeing the first hint of something like career credit ratings? Could you one day moan that your data points have done you wrong?
Matters of privacy
Here are other recent developments in the realm of digital privacy:
- Is it in your DNA to want to let people know what’s in your DNA?: A small start up in Minneapolis named Miinome wants to create what it calls the first “member-controlled human genetic marketplace.” It would electronically store the DNA data of anyone who has had their genome sequenced. Haven’t gone there yet? Well, Miinome would do this for you for free or at low cost. In return, you’d have the option of sharing select aspects of your DNA data–say, gluten intolerance or a genetic disposition to male pattern baldness–with marketers who could target offers to you based on what your genes say about you.
- It’s my life and you’re not welcome to it: According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, more than half of all U.S. teenagers who use mobile apps have avoided certain ones because they would have to share personal information. And just under half of the teenagers surveyed said they have turned off location-tracking features in apps they’ve downloaded. The researchers said they found that American teenagers tend to think about privacy in the sense of “social privacy” or whether an app is “creepy,” but don’t seem to worry much about personal data being captured through advertising or governmental surveillance, as adults do.
- Thanks for sharing: Medical and health mobile apps are a boom business–an estimated 97,000 different ones now are out in the marketplace. And plenty of people are sharing lots of very personal information through those apps, assuming that it will stay secure and private. Not quite. A recent study found that many health apps firms don’t encrypt the data they receive and that fewer that half of those analyzed didn’t post privacy policies. Others didn’t disclose that captured data could be made available to third parties.
- Not that I don’t trust you: A “Boyfriend Tracker” app was removed from the Google Play app store in Brazil last week in response to complaints about potential invasion of privacy abuses–but not before tens of thousands of Brazilians downloaded it. The app lets users obtain a call history, receive any incoming or outgoing text messages, identify a partner’s location on a map using GPS, and actually turn on the phone to listen in to the surrounding environment.
- Help us help you get pregnant: Earlier this month, an app called Glow was launched with the goal of helping women get pregnant. Technically, it’s a free fertility app, but one that goes way beyond just tracking a woman’s menstrual cycle. It asks users to enter very detailed information about their health and sex lives–including frequency of sex and sexual positions. The more detailed the info is, say Glow’s creators, the more precise the app can be in projecting a woman’s best chance for getting pregnant. Glow is unique in another way, too. Users who sign up for a service called Glow First can get help paying for fertility treatments.
Video bonus: Rick Smolan, author of “The Human Face of Big Data” weighs in on how much we don’t know about what happens to all the personal info we’re so happy to share.
More from Smithsonian.com
August 7, 2013
A few days ago, scientists in London unveiled the first lab-grown burger created from stem cells taken from the muscle tissue of cow. The small strips of synthetic meat were collected into pellets and ultimately shaped into the hamburger patty rolled out before the cameras.
Although food critics on hand agreed that the burger felt like real meat in their mouths and tasted okay, most of the coverage of the event came with a heavy dose of snark, usually accompanied with shots of people chomping on big, thick, juicy burgers straight from the cow.
But there was science behind it all–with the research funded by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who was motivated to help find more imaginative and planet-friendly ways to produce food. As he put it, “If what you’re doing is not seen by some people as science fiction, it’s probably not transformative enough.”
This summer has been full of stories like that, where on the surface the science may seem strange, but it’s spurred by innovative thinking that finds out something new about the world or may make a difference in the way we live some day. Here are 10 more of them:
1) So much for minty breath: Last week, Chinese scientists shared the latest example of why science often isn’t pretty. They reported that they’ve been able to grow rudimentary teeth from human urine. Technically, they transplanted stem cells from urine into mice and those cells were able to grow into knobby things resembling teeth–they had pulp, dentin and enamel-forming cells. While they were only about a third as hard as the real thing, one day, as the researchers wrote in the journal Cell Regeneration, dentists may be able to plant little buds in your jaw that started out in urine.
2) I love the sound of slot machines in the morning. It sounds like…winning: And scientists from the University of Waterloo in Canada say that based on their analysis, the cacophony emanating from slot machines not only makes gambling more exciting, but it also can cause gamblers to think they’ve won more times than they actually have. All that noise, the scientists suggested, can make losses feel like wins.
3) How else would we show how big was the one that got away?: One of the highlights of the annual meeting of the Society for Experimental Biology in Spain last month was the presentation of Cornell University Andrew Bass, who contends that talking with our hands may have its roots in fish. That’s right, fish. Bass, aptly named, said his research indicates that the evolutionary origins of the link between speech and gesturing can be traced to a compartment in a fish’s brain. And that part of its brain, notes Bass, allows a fish to vocalize and gesture with its pectoral fins simultaneously.
4) When rocks scream: Who knew that volcanoes “scream” before they erupt? Okay, it’s not a blood-curdling wail–more like a harmonic vibration–but in some cases, such as Alaska’s Redoubt Volcano, the mountain makes a sound so loud it can actually be heard by humans. A study published in July says that in Redoubt’s case, the sound–high-pitched and increasing in volume–is produced by a succession of small earthquakes caused by quick movements of magma pushed by building pressure before an eruption.
5) I’m too sexy for this cave: While we’re on the subject of nature noise, give props to the male bat. It apparently is quite the romantic singer, according to research by Texas A&M biology professor Mike Smotherman, at least when it comes to enticing a mate. In short, a male bat needs to cut to the chase–he has less than a second to grab a female’s attention as she flies by at 30 feet per second. If he gets her to stop by, he then mixes up his songs to keep her entertained long enough to get to the matter at hand.
6) They need to listen to some slot machines: A Duke University study of chimps and bonobos not only found that apes are quick to throw tantrums when things don’t go as expected, but that they can become particularly agitated when they gamble and lose. In one part of the research, the apes could choose to accept a very small portion of food or wait longer for a larger serving of a meal they weren’t able to see. If the gamble paid off, the apes were able to chow down on a large helping of their favorite fruit. But if it didn’t work and they ended with a big heaping of something like cucumbers, they flipped out, or tried to switch their choice at the last minute. The researchers also found that chimps were both more willing to wait for food and much bigger gamblers than the bonobos.
7) But wait until they get a load of their first kangaroo: Okay, go with me on this: If Martians did exist and if they wanted to take a getaway vacation, but to a place that still felt a little like home, they would head to the Australian outback. So says University of Sydney geologist Patrice Rey, who believes that the red dirt in the central part of the continent might be very much like what’s found on Mars. He has researched why precious opal can be found all over the place there, but hardly anywhere else on Earth, and believes that it started forming when a giant sea that covered much of Australia began drying out about 100 million years ago–conditions similar to those seen on the surface of Mars.
8) The first nano smile: Scientists at Georgia Tech have recreated the world’s most famous painting–the Mona Lisa–on the world’s smallest canvas–a surface about one-third the width of a human hair. The nano-art, titled “Mini Lisa,” is meant to demonstrate a technique in which an atomic force microscope is used to vary the surface concentration of molecules. Da Vinci the scientist would be thrilled, da Vinci the artist, not so much.
9) Show me you care: Humans have much more positive feelings about a robot that cares for them than one they have to take care of. According to a study by an international team of scientists, people think a robot that seems to look out for them is smarter and more human than one that appears to need help. The researchers say this helps them better understand how to get humans to trust robots.
10) When there aren’t enough brains to go around: And finally, researchers using a zombie-themed game found that people under pressure tend to make dumb decisions when evacuating a building. In fact, the more pressure players were under, the more likely they were stick to evacuation routes they knew, even if they meant it took longer for them to escape. The study, reported last month, was part of real science incorporated into a ZombieLab event held at London’s Science Museum earlier this year.
Video bonus: Here’s a clip of the taste test of the first in vitro burger. And an animation that explains how a cow’s muscle tissue grows into a burger, although it sure doesn’t make it very appetizing.
Video bonus bonus: And here’s a look at how science and zombies mix.
More from Smithsonian.com
July 11, 2013
“There is no doubt that over time, people are going to rely less and less on passwords. People use the same password on different systems, they write them down and they really don’t meet the challenge for anything you want to secure.”
None other than Bill Gates said this. Back in 2004.
People in the business of keeping data secure will tell you that passwords should have gone the way of dial-up Internet by now. Sure, back in the day, when we only needed them for two or three websites and hackers weren’t nearly so diabolical, we could get away with using the same “123456″ password for everything, without worrying that someone on the other side of the world was a click away from emptying our bank accounts.
Ah, sweet innocence. Now, we have an average of 24 different online accounts, for which we use at least six different passwords. And we need them for tablets and smartphones, too. If we’ve heeded the security gods—although most of us haven’t—we’ve abandoned the memorably quaint for strange, long combos of numbers, letters—capital and lower case—and symbols that dare to be remembered. (Then again, most of us don’t seem to have a knack for this passwords thing, considering that year after year, the world’s most popular password is still the word “password.”)
Not that conjuring up the perfect password guarantees immunity from code crackers. Just last week the giant game company Ubisoft admitted that its database had been breached and advised those with Ubisoft accounts to change their passwords immediately. Last summer’s big cybersecurity caper was a hack of LinkedIn, in which more than 6 million encrypted passwords were exposed.
It’s time, it would seem, for a better idea.
So, who figures to make the first big splash in the post-password world? Right now, a lot of the betting is on Apple, with speculation that the killer feature of the iPhone 5S coming out later this year will be a fingerprint scanner, perhaps embedded under the home button. Some Apple watchers think the iWatch, also expected on the market by the end of 2013, will likewise come with scanner capabilities that would allow the device to verify the user’s identity. Apple tipped its hand last year when it paid $356 million for AuthenTec, a company that develops fingerprint scanners.
Other big names pushing for the password’s demise are Google and PayPal, two of the key players in an industry group known as FIDO, which stands for Fast IDentity Online Alliance. FIDO isn’t boosting any particular approach to identity recognition; mainly it plans to set industry standards. But it is promoting what’s known as two-step verification as a move in the right direction.
This is when you’d be identified by a combination of “something you know”—such as a password—with “something you have”—such as a token that plugs into your device’s USB port—or “something you are”—such as your fingerprint. This combo of a password and a device you carry around with you—Google security experts have suggested a log-in finger ring—would be a lot safer than a simple password, and would let you use an easy-to-remember password, since the account can’t be hacked without your ring or your fingerprint.
And once fingerprint sensors or face and voice recognition software become more common, it will be that much easier for passwords to simply fade away.
That feels inevitable to Michael Barrett, chief information-security officer of PayPal and president of FIDO. “Consumers want something that’s easy to use and secure,” he says. “Passwords are neither.”
A fingerprint scanner on your phone is only the beginning. There are a number of other inventive, and yes, even bizarre ideas for replacing passwords. Among them:
- Coming soon to a stomach near you: Let’s start strange. At a conference in late May, Regina Dugan, head of advanced research at Motorola, suggested that one day you’ll be able to take a pill every day that would verify your identity to all of your devices. The pill would have a tiny chip inside and when you swallow it, the acids in your stomach would power it up. That creates a signal in your body, which, in essence becomes the password. You could touch your phone or your laptop and be “authenticated in.” No, it’s not happening any day now, but the FDA has already approved its precursor—a pill that can send information to your doctor from inside your body. In other words, it’s a lot more plausible than it sounds.
- So, how about a tattoo that spells “password:” But that’s not all Dugan projected for the future. She also showed off an electronic tattoo. Motorola, now owned by Google, is working with a company named MC10, which has developed this “stretchable” tattoo with its own antenna and sensors embedded in it. It’s so thin, it can flex with your skin. And it would serve as your password, communicating with your devices and verifying that you are who you say you are.
- Now, what are all these keys for?: Back to the present. A Canadian company called PasswordBox is now offering a free app that remembers and automatically enters all your passwords across all your platforms. It signs you into websites, logs into apps, and enables you to securely share your digital keys with friends and loved ones—all through an app for your smartphone and a Chrome browser extension for your desktop. Its pitch is one-click login everywhere.
- Would my heart lie?: Another Canadian company called Bionym is building its business around the fact that heartbeats, like fingerprints, are unique. Its approach is to turn your heartbeat into a biometric pass code that’s embedded in a wrist band which, in turn, uses Bluetooth to let your machines know you’re the real deal.
Video bonus: Let’s go back to the future with John Chuang, a researcher at the UC Berkeley School of Information. He’s working on the idea of allowing people to verify their identities through their brain waves. Okay, at least hear him out.
Video bonus bonus: The Internet Password Minder is a stroke of…something. Even Ellen DeGeneres was impressed, in a funny way.
More from Smithsonian.com
How You Type Could Become Your New Password