December 4, 2013
On “60 Minutes” the other night, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos made drones fun again. They’re usually associated with clandestine warfare, but Bezos showed interviewer Charlie Rose–along with the millions of others watching–how the unmanned aircraft can be cool little gizmos that become a part of our daily lives–in this case by delivering stuff you ordered from Amazon right to your doorstep.
Bezos used the program to reveal the wonders of Amazon’s “octocopter,” a mini-drone with the capability of achieving the Holy Grail of e-commerce–deliveries within 30 minutes. This is still years away, as Bezos acknowledged, but it’s clear he thinks drones will one day be as ubiquitous as Domino’s drivers.
Bezos’ demo had the desired effect–his octocopter was all over the Internet on Cyber Monday, burnishing Amazon’s reputation as a company gliding along the cutting edge of customer service. Some derided the the whole thing as little more than a beautifully orchestrated publicity stunt, given the not insignificant hurdles commercial drones still need to clear. Other websites, such as The Telegraph in the U.K., piled on. It produced a list of nine things that could go “horribly wrong”–from drone hackers to long weather delays to packages falling from the sky.
The truth is, we won’t really know all that can go wrong–or right–with commercial drones until closer to 2020, at least in the U.S. It could happen sooner, but the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been moving slowly and cautiously, not surprising, considering that we’re talking about tens of thousands of pilotless vehicles buzzing around in public airspace. Extensive drone testing at six still-to-be-named locations won’t begin until next year, almost a year and a half behind the schedule set by Congress.
Me, my drone and I
But let’s step back for a minute and forget about messy things like political and legal realities. If Bezos is right, more personal drones are inevitable. Many, no doubt, will be used to make deliveries. (That already appears to be happening in China.) But what else will they be able to do?
Plenty, if you believe some of the ideas that have been floated. And those little flying machines could become a lot more personal than most of us would have imagined.
Consider the possibilities:
1) I’m ready for my selfie: Not long ago, a group of designers from a product strategy firm named frog staged a workshop with the purpose of imagining ways that drones could become a much bigger part of our lives. One idea was an aircraft called the Paparazzi, and, true to its name, it would be all about following you around and recording your life in photos and videos. It would then feed everything directly to your Facebook page. Yes, it sounds ridiculously self-indulgent, but then again, who could have imagined our obsession with self portraits on phones?
2) Cut to the chase: Here’s another idea from the frog workshop, a drone they named the Guardian Angel. Described as the “ultimate accessory for serious runners,” it would act as a trainer or exercise companion by flying ahead and setting the pace. It could conceivably tap into data from a heart monitor a runner is wearing and push him or her harder to get pulse rate up. Or it could use data from a previous run and let a person race against himself. In short, these drones would be like wearable tech that you don’t actually wear.
3) Take that, Siri: Researchers at M.I.T., meanwhile, have developed a personal drone app they’ve named Skycall, which serves as a personal tour guide. Sure, you can listen to your smartphone give you directions, but this app/drone combo would actually show you the way. It works like this: You tell the app on your phone where you want to go and it would then identify and contact the nearest unmanned aircraft. It would show up, like a flying cab, and lead you to your destination.
4) Allow me to revel in my greatness: A British drone maker has designed one that’s a variation of the Paparazzi mentioned above, although his is geared more to outdoor types, such as mountain bikers,snowboarders and surfers. It tracks a person through a smartphone and, from overhead, takes a steady stream of photos and videos to capture his or her awesomeness for posterity.
5) An idea whose time has already come: Finally, Dan Farber, writing for CNET the other day, raised the prospect of what he called a “Kindle Drone.” He sees it as a device about the size of a baseball, loaded with sensors and a camera, that would serve as a guard and personal assistant. On one hand, it could roam your house gathering data and generally making sure everything’s in order. On the other, you could direct it to go find your phone.
Now that has potential.
Video bonus: Here’s a drone in action in China, delivering a cake from the air.
Video bonus bonus: It’s safe to say this is the only engagement ring delivered by drone.
Video bonus plus: Need to map the Matterhorn. No problem, drones at your service.
More from Smithsonian.com
November 1, 2013
All of us have had a teacher who had eyes in the back of his or her head. Even while facing the blackboard, they saw everything—every note being passed, every answer being copied, every face being made.
Or at least it seemed that way. All they really had to do was guess right a few times about what was going on behind their backs and, well, that is how classroom legends are made.
But what if you took all the guessing out of the picture? What if cameras focused on every kid in the class? That’s what a New York company named SensorStar Labs has in mind, although the point would not be to catch miscreants, but rather to help teachers determine when they’ve lost the class.
Here’s how it would work. Using facial recognition software called EngageSense, computers would apply algorithms to what the cameras have recorded during a lecture or discussion to interpret how engaged the students have been. Were the kids’ eyes focused on the teacher? Or were they looking everywhere but the front of the class? Were they smiling or frowning? Or did they just seem confused? Or bored?
Teachers would be provided a report that, based on facial analysis, would tell them when student interest was highest or lowest. Says SensorStar co-founder Sean Montgomery, himself a former teacher: “By looking at maybe just a couple of high points and a couple of low points, you get enough takeaway. The next day you can try to do more of the good stuff and less of the less-good stuff.”
No doubt some parents are going to have a lot of questions about what happens to all that video of their kids’ faces. But Montgomery is confident that most will agree to let their children be videotaped when they see how much it helps teachers polish their skills.
He’s convinced that in five years, teachers all over the country will be using it. First, though, he has to prove that the SensorStar algorithms can truly interpret the workings of young minds based simply on eye movement and facial expression.
That, of course, assumes teachers will jump right on board. Which is hardly a sure thing, given the response last year to a report that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is helping to fund the development of sensor bracelets that could, in theory at least, track a student’s engagement level.
The wrist devices are designed to send a small current across the skin and then measure subtle changes in electrical charges as the nervous system responds to stimuli. These bracelets have been used in tests to gauge how consumers respond to advertising, and the thinking goes that if they can tell you how excited someone gets while watching a car ad, they can give you a sense of how jazzed a kid can get about fractions. (Or not.)
Not so fast, snapped skeptics. They were quick to point out that just because a second grader is excited doesn’t mean he or she is learning something. And while the bracelets’ boosters argue that their purpose is to help teachers, critics say that no one should be surprised if the sensors eventually are used to evaluate them. Some teachers suggested that they might have to work random screams into their lesson plans to keep the excitement level high.
Ultimately, it comes down to whether, like Bill Gates, you believe that accumulating and analyzing data from classroom behavior is the key to applying science to the learning process. Or, if you think that teaching is more art than science, and that the connection between teachers and students is too complex and nuanced to be measured through a collection of data points.
Who’s your data?
- And you will not eat a salad your first six months in college: More and more colleges are using predictive analysis to give students a good idea of how they’ll fare in a class before they even sign up for it. By using data from a student’s own academic performance and from others who have already taken the class, advisers can predict with increasing accuracy how likely it is that a particular student will succeed or fail.
- Please like this investment: Last week Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg made his first investment in a startup company—he joined a team of investors putting $4 million in seed money behind a Massachusetts company named Panorama Education. It crunches data from surveys it does for schools from K to 12, ranging from subjects such as why some promising students end up failing to why bullying is particularly prominent among ninth grade boys.
- Acing the tests: A smartphone app called Quick Key has an optical scanner that can quickly grade SAT-style bubble answer sheets. Then it uploads the results to teachers’ electronic grade books and analyzes the data.
- Apple-picking time: Earlier this week, Apple CEO Tim Cook announced that iPads make up 94 percent of the tablets now used in schools. The company’s sales have slowed in the consumer market, so it’s been making a big push into education by offering discounts for bulk purchases.
- And they probably drew outside the lines: A new study from Michigan State University found that people who were involved in artistic activities while they were in school tended to be more innovative when they grew up—specifically that they were more likely to generate patents and launch businesses as adults.
Video bonus: Bill Gates offers his take on how he thinks teachers should be given feedback.
Video bonus bonus: Here’s a different twist on facial recognition in the classroom.
More from Smithsonian.com
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
July 26, 2013
I’m sure there are people who enjoy working out. I just don’t know many of them.
So, no doubt, the people I do know would be thrilled to hear that scientists at the Scripps Research Institute in Florida have made progress in developing a pill that mimics the effects of exercise. Get this: Mice injected with a particular chemical compound lost weight, lowered their cholesterol and expended more energy. And not only did all this occur while they were on a high-fat diet, they also actually were lazier and less active than they had been before they received any injections.
Sounds like magic in a bottle.
Alas, there are caveats. No one, for instance, knows how the human body would react to the compound or what risks it might bring. And the researchers themselves aren’t certain that it’s possible to create any pill that can come close to replicating all of the complex effects and benefits of true physical exercise.
Back to the grind.
The problem is that the fitness business has never been one to crackle with innovation. You can switch the soundtrack or pump up the volume or change the instructor’s outfit, but in the end, there are only so many ways you can run and step and spin.
Still, wearable sensors like the Nike+ Fuelband or Jawbone UP, are starting to make the gathering of data as much a part of exercise as sweating without shame. And now that interplay of workouts and stats-tracking is being taken to another level in a different kind of fitness center, one that its backers want to become the Apple store of health clubs.
That’s some ambition, particularly since pretty much the only equipment inside these clubs will be a line of skinny little walls. Each wall, called a Fitwall, is seven feet tall and has four stationary rungs that serve as footholds and four hand grips. It’s designed for what’s known as “vertical training”–which means you can do all kinds of exercises while you’re hanging from the wall–a “perfect pullup,” for instance, or something named the “cowboy squat.”
Still, this does not a fitness revolution make, right?
Okay, but then you add the data layer. Before he or she gets get on a wall to begin the group workout, each person straps a wearable Bluetooth monitor over their chest. This transmits data throughout the session to an iPad connected to the top of each Fitwall. And that allows each “athlete”–that’s what you’re called here, rather than member–to see how he’s doing compared to past workouts or how he stacks up against people on the walls nearby. To add a gaming element, the data is calibrated, or graded on a curve, so that a white-haired guy can compete with a 22-year-old workout warrior on the next wall.
Bring on the coconut water
But wait, there’s more. The goal is to create an experience unique enough that Fitwall will come to mean more than the thing you hang on. So there’s no front desk with a zesty greeter; each person instead checks in on an iPad, where his or her data is stored. And, apparently, no club will have more than 16 Fitwalls, meaning that counting instructors, there should never be more than a dozen and a half people in the club at one time. When each 40-minute workout is over, the trainers go over everyone’s results, then the session is wrapped with a celebratory shot of coconut water and chilled towels–scented with mint and lavender– all around.
You might say this is not for everyone and you’d be right. It’s no accident that the first Fitwall opened earlier this summer in relentlessly chic La Jolla, California, with more to follow soon in the LA area. Next year, Fitwall plans to tackle Manhattan.
But even if less trendy markets don’t embrace the full Fitwall experience, the company does seem to be on to something, with its infusion of real-time data and body-to-body competition into workout routines. At the very least, it’s something different.
Says Josh Weinstein, one of the Fitwall’s main investors:
“There are so many products out there in the fitness industry that I would call ‘me too’ products. It’s yoga–but with heat. It’s spinning–but the music is louder. There’s so little innovation in the industry and that frustrates us, not just as entrepreneurs, but also people who have a passion for working out.”
Or you can hold out for the pill.
Here’s more recent news on the fitness front:
- Or about long enough to chow down an order of fries: According to researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, four-minute bursts of intense physical activity three times a week is enough for a person to stay fit. A total of 12 minutes of vigorous exercising, they said, was enough to elevate oxygen intake levels, plus lower blood pressure and glucose levels.
- Burn, baby, burn: Japanese scientists have developed a pocket-sized sensor that can tell you if your body is really burning away fat. After a person breathes into the device, it provides a reading of acetone levels in your blood. Acetone is produced when fat is broken down.
- Unless, of course, the thought of exercise gives you stress: And there’s more evidence that physical activity reduces stress. Scientists at Princeton University found that exercise reorganizes the brain so that its response to stress is reduced and anxiety is less likely to interfere with normal brain function. When mice allowed to exercise regularly experienced a stressor — in this case, exposure to cold water — their brains showed a spike in the activity of neurons that shut off excitement in the hippocampus, a region of the brain that regulates anxiety.
- It’s always something: So much for resveratrol, the antioxidant found in red wine, being a magical compound that can help fight aging. Oh, it may still be able to do that, but a new study at the University of Copenhagen has found that for older men, resveratrol can undercut how much good exercise is doing hem.
- Drinking sweat–the final frontier: Well, it’s about time. Swedish scientists have invented a machine that turns sweat into good old water you can drink. The device spins and heats sweaty clothes to remove the moisture, then runs it through a filter that allows only water molecules to pass. While the researchers pointed out that their liquid was cleaner than the local tap water, they also acknowledged that people don’t really sweat all that much.
Video bonus: Get a little taste of Fitwall frenzy. I apologize in advance for the music.
Video bonus bonus: For old time’s sake, take a look at a mash-up of what some people still think was the last big fitness innovation.
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