Category Archives: technology

Google v Facebook – which contributes most to humanity?

Please don’t take this too seriously, it’s intended as just a bit of fun. All of it is subjective and just my personal opinion of the two companies.

Google’s old motto of ‘do no evil’ has taken quite a battering over the last few years, but my overall feeling towards them remains somewhat positive overall. Facebook’s reputation has also become muddied somewhat, but I’ve never been an active user and always found it supremely irritating when I’ve visited to change privacy preferences or read a post only available there, so I guess I am less positive towards them. I only ever post to Facebook indirectly via this blog and twitter. On the other hand, both companies do a lot of good too. It is impossible to infer good or bad intent because end results arise from a combination of intent and many facets of competence such as quality of insight, planning, competence, maintenance, response to feedback and many others. So I won’t try to differentiate intent from competence and will just stick to casual amateur observation of the result. In order to facilitate score-keeping of the value of their various acts, I’ll use a scale from very harmful to very beneficial, -10 to +10.

Google (I can’t bring myself to discuss Alphabet) gave us all an enormous gift of saved time, improved productivity and better self-fulfilment by effectively replacing a day in the library with a 5 second online search. We can all do far more and live richer lives as a result. They have continued to build on that since, adding extra features and improved scope. It’s far from perfect, but it is a hell of a lot better than we had before. Score: +10

Searches give Google a huge and growing data pool covering the most intimate details of every aspect of our everyday lives. You sort of trust them not to blackmail you or trash your life, but you know they could. The fact remains that they actually haven’t. It is possible that they might be waiting for the right moment to destroy the world, but it seems unlikely. Taking all our intimate data but choosing not to end the world yet: Score +9

On the other hand, they didn’t do either of those things purely through altruism. We all pay a massive price: advertising. Advertising is like a tax. Almost every time you buy something, part of the price you pay goes to advertisers. I say almost because Futurizon has never paid a penny yet for advertising and yet we have sold lots, and I assume that many other organisations can say the same, but most do advertise, and altogether that siphons a huge amount from our economy. Google takes lots of advertising revenue, but if they didn’t take it, other advertisers would, so I can only give a smallish negative for that: Score -3

That isn’t the only cost though. We all spend very significant time getting rid of ads, wasting time by clicking on them, finding, downloading and configuring ad-blockers to stop them, re-configuring them to get entry to sites that try to stop us from using ad-blockers, and often paying per MB for unsolicited ad downloads to our mobiles. I don’t need to quantify that to give all that a score of -9.

They are still 7 in credit so they can’t moan too much.

Tax? They seem quite good at minimizing their tax contributions, while staying within the letter of the law, while also paying good lawyers to argue what the letter of the law actually says. Well, most of us try at least a bit to avoid paying taxes we don’t have to pay. Google claims to be doing us all a huge favor by casting light on the gaping holes in international tax law that let them do it, much like a mugger nicely shows you the consequences of inadequate police coverage by enthusiastically mugging you. Noting the huge economic problems caused across the world by global corporates paying far less tax than would seem reasonable to the average small-business-owner, I can’t honestly see how this could live comfortably with their do-no evil mantra. Score: -8

On the other hand, if they paid all that tax, we all know governments would cheerfully waste most of it. Instead, Google chooses to do some interesting things with it. They gave us Google Earth, which at least morally cancels out their ‘accidental’ uploading of everyone’s wireless data as their street-view cars went past.They have developed self-driving cars. They have bought and helped develop Deep-mind and their quantum computer. They have done quite a bit for renewable energy. They have spent some on high altitude communications planes supposedly to bring internet to the rural parts of the developing world. When I were a lad, I wanted to be a rich bastard so I could do all that. Now, I watch as the wealthy owners of these big companies do it instead. I am fairly happy with that. I get the results and didn’t have to make the effort. We get less tax, but at least we get some nice toys. Almost cancels. Score +6

They are trying to use their AI to analyse massive data pools of medical records to improve medicine. Score +2

They are also building their databases more while doing that but we don’t yet see the downside. We have to take what they are doing on trust until evidence shows otherwise.

Google has tried and failed at many things that were going to change the world and didn’t, but at least they tried. Most of us don’t even try. Score +2

Oh yes, they bought YouTube, so I should factor that in. Mostly harmless and can be fun. Score: +2

Almost forgot Gmail too. Score +3

I’m done. Total Google contribution to humanity: +14

Well done! Could do even better.

I’ve almost certainly overlooked some big pluses and minuses, but I’ll leave it here for now.

Now Facebook.

It’s obviously a good social network site if you want that sort of thing. It lets people keep in touch with each other, find old friends and make new ones. It lets others advertise their products and services, and others to find or spread news. That’s all well and good and even if I and many other people don’t want it, many others do, so it deserves a good score, even if it isn’t as fantastic as Google’s search, that almost everyone uses, all the time. Score +5

Connected, but separate from simply keeping in touch, is the enormous pleasure value people presumably get from socializing. Not me personally, but ‘people’. Score +8

On the downside: Quite a lot of problems result from people, especially teens, spending too much time on Facebook. I won’t reproduce the results of all the proper academic  studies here, but we’ve all seen various negative reports: people get lower grades in their exams, people get bullied, people become socially competitive – boasting about their successes while other people feel insecure or depressed when others seem to be doing better, or are prettier, or have more friends. Keeping in touch is good, but cutting bits off others’ egos to build your own isn’t. It is hard not to conclude that the negative uses of keeping in touch outweigh the positive ones. Long-lived bad-feelings outweigh short-lived ego-boosts. Score: -8

Within a few years of birth, Facebook evolved from a keeping-in-touch platform to a general purpose mini-web. Many people were using Facebook to do almost everything that others would do on the entire web. Being in a broom cupboard is fine for 5 minutes if you’re playing hide and seek, but it is not desirable as a permanent state. Still, it is optional, so isn’t that bad per se: Score: -3

In the last 2 or 3 years, it has evolved further, albeit probably unintentionally, to become a political bubble, as has become very obvious in Brexit and the US Presidential Election, though it was already apparent well before those. Facebook may not have caused the increasing divide we are seeing between left and right, across the whole of the West, but it amplifies it. Again, I am not implying any intent, just observing the result. Most people follow people and media that echoes their own value judgments. They prefer resonance to dissonance. They prefer to have their views reaffirmed than to be disputed. When people find a comfortable bubble where they feel they belong, and stay there, it is easy for tribalism to take root and flourish, with demonization of the other not far behind. We are now seeing that in our bathtub society, with two extremes and a rapidly shallowing in-between that was not long ago the vast majority. Facebook didn’t create human nature; rather, it is a victim of it, but nonetheless it provides a near-monopoly social network that facilitates such political bubbles and their isolation while doing far too little to encourage integration in spite of its plentiful resources. Dangerous and Not Good. Score -10

On building databases of details of our innermost lives, managing not to use the data to destroy our lives but instead only using it to sell ads, they compare with Google. I’ll score that the same total for the same reasons: Net Score -3

Tax? Quantities are different, but eagerness to avoid tax seems similar to Google. Principles matter. So same score: -8

Assorted messaging qualifies as additional to the pure social networking side I think so I’ll generously give them an extra bit for that: Score +2

They occasionally do good things with it like Google though. They also are developing a high altitude internet, and are playing with space exploration. Tiny bit of AI stuff, but not much else has crossed my consciousness. I think it is far less than Google but still positive, so I’ll score: +3

I honestly can’t think of any other significant contributions from Facebook to make the balance more positive, and I tried. I think they want to make a positive contribution, but are too focused on income to tackle the social negatives properly.

Total Facebook contribution to humanity: -14.

Oh dear! Must do better.

Conclusion: We’d be a lot worse off without Google. Even with their faults, they still make a great contribution to humankind. Maybe not quite a ‘do no evil’ rating, but certainly they qualify for ‘do net good’. On the other hand, sadly, I have to say that my analysis suggests we’d be a lot better off without Facebook. As much better off without them as we benefit by having Google.

If I have left something major out, good or bad, for either company please feel free to add your comments. I have deliberately left out their backing of their own political leanings and biases because whether you think they are good or bad depends where you are coming from. They’d only score about +/-3 anyway, which isn’t a game changer.

 

 

Future sex, gender and relationships: how close can you get?

Using robots for gender play

Using robots for gender play

I recently gave a public talk at the British Academy about future sex, gender, and relationship, asking the question “How close can you get?”, considering particularly the impact of robots. The above slide is an example. People will one day (between 2050 and 2065 depending on their budget) be able to use an android body as their own or even swap bodies with another person. Some will do so to be young again, many will do so to swap gender. Lots will do both. I often enjoy playing as a woman in computer games, so why not ‘come back’ and live all over again as a woman for real? Except I’ll be 90 in 2050.

The British Academy kindly uploaded the audio track from my talk at

If you want to see the full presentation, here is the PowerPoint file as a pdf:

sex-and-robots-british-academy

I guess it is theoretically possible to listen to the audio while reading the presentation. Most of the slides are fairly self-explanatory anyway.

Needless to say, the copyright of the presentation belongs to me, so please don’t reproduce it without permission.

Enjoy.

Fluorescent microsphere mist displays

A few 3D mist displays have been demonstrated over the last decade. I’ve seen a couple at trade shows and have been impressed. To date, they use mists or curtains of tiny water droplets to make a 3D space onto which to project an image, so you get a walk-through 3D life-sized display. Like this:

http://wonderfulengineering.com/leia-display-system-uses-a-screen-made-of-water-mist-to-display-3d-projections/

or check out: http://ixfocus.com/top-10-best-3d-water-projections-ever/

Two years ago, I suggested using a forehead-mounted mist projector:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2014/11/03/forehead-3d-mist-projector/

so you could have a 3D image made right in front of you anywhere.

This week, a holographic display has been doing the rounds on Twitter, called Gatebox:

https://www.geek.com/tech/gatebox-wants-to-be-your-personal-holographic-companion-1682967/

It looks OK but mist displays might be better solution for everyday use because they can be made a lot bigger more cheaply. However, nobody really wants water mist causing electrical problems in their PCs or making their notebook paper soggy. You can use smoke as a mist substitute but then you have a cloud of smoke around you. So…

Suppose instead of using water droplets and walking around veiled in fog or smoke or accompanied by electrical crackling and dead PCs, that the mist was not made of water droplets but tiny dry and obviously non-toxic particles such as fluorescent micro-spheres that are invisible to the naked eye and transparent to visible light so you can’t see the mist at all, and it won’t make stuff damp. Instead of projecting visible light, the particles are made of fluorescent material, so that they are illuminated by a UV projector and fluoresce with the right colour to make the visible display. There are plenty of fluorescent materials that could be made into tiny particles, even nano-particles, and made into an invisible mist that produces a bright and high-resolution display. Even if non-toxic is too big an ask, or the fluorescent material is too expensive to waste, a large box that keeps them contained and recycles them for the next display could still be bigger, better, brighter and cheaper than a large holographic display.

Remember, you saw it here first. My 101st invention of 2016.

Chat-bots will help reduce loneliness, a bit

Amazon is really pushing its Echo and Dot devices at the moment and some other companies also use Alexa in their own devices. They are starting to gain avatar front ends too. Microsoft has their Cortana transforming into Zo, Apple has Siri’s future under wraps for now. Maybe we’ll see Siri in a Sari soon, who knows. Thanks to rapidly developing AI, chatbots and other bots have also made big strides in recent years, so it’s obvious that the two can easily be combined. The new voice control interfaces could become chatbots to offer a degree of companionship. Obviously that isn’t as good as chatting to real people, but many, very many people don’t have that choice. Loneliness is one of the biggest problems of our time. Sometimes people talk to themselves or to their pet cat, and chatting to a bot would at least get a real response some of the time. It goes further than simple interaction though.

I’m not trying to understate the magnitude of the loneliness problem, and it can’t solve it completely of course, but I think it will be a benefit to at least some lonely people in a few ways. Simply having someone to chat to will already be of some help. People will form emotional relationships with bots that they talk to a lot, especially once they have a visual front end such as an avatar. It will help some to develop and practice social skills if that is their problem, and for many others who feel left out of local activity, it might offer them real-time advice on what is on locally in the next few days that might appeal to them, based on their conversations. Talking through problems with a bot can also help almost as much as doing so with a human. In ancient times when I was a programmer, I’d often solve a bug by trying to explain how my program worked, and in doing so i would see the bug myself. Explaining it to a teddy bear would have been just as effective, the chat was just a vehicle for checking through the logic from a new angle. The same might apply to interactive conversation with a bot. Sometimes lonely people can talk too much about problems when they finally meet people, and that can act as a deterrent to future encounters, so that barrier would also be reduced. All in all, having a bot might make lonely people more able to get and sustain good quality social interactions with real people, and make friends.

Another benefit that has nothing to do with loneliness is that giving a computer voice instructions forces people to think clearly and phrase their requests correctly, just like writing a short computer program. In a society where so many people don’t seem to think very clearly or even if they can, often can’t express what they want clearly, this will give some much needed training.

Chatbots could also offer challenges to people’s thinking, even to help counter extremism. If people make comments that go against acceptable social attitudes or against known facts, a bot could present the alternative viewpoint, probably more patiently than another human who finds such viewpoints frustrating. I’d hate to see this as a means to police political correctness, though it might well be used in such a way by some providers, but it could improve people’s lack of understanding of even the most basic science, technology, culture or even politics, so has educational value. Even if it doesn’t convert people, it might at least help them to understand their own views more clearly and be better practiced at communicating their arguments.

Chat bots could make a significant contribution to society. They are just machines, but those machines are tools for other people and society as a whole to help more effectively.

 

AI presents a new route to attack corporate value

As AI increases in corporate, social, economic and political importance, it is becoming a big target for activists and I think there are too many vulnerabilities. I think we should be seeing a lot more articles than we are about what developers are doing to guard against deliberate misdirection or corruption, and already far too much enthusiasm for make AI open source and thereby giving mischief-makers the means to identify weaknesses.

I’ve written hundreds of times about AI and believe it will be a benefit to humanity if we develop it carefully. Current AI systems are not vulnerable to the terminator scenario, so we don’t have to worry about that happening yet. AI can’t yet go rogue and decide to wipe out humans by itself, though future AI could so we’ll soon need to take care with every step.

AI can be used in multiple ways by humans to attack systems.

First and most obvious, it can be used to enhance malware such as trojans or viruses, or to optimize denial of service attacks. AI enhanced security systems already battle against adaptive malware and AI can probe systems in complex ways to find vulnerabilities that would take longer to discover via manual inspection. As well as AI attacking operating systems, it can also attack AI by providing inputs that bias its learning and decision-making, giving AI ‘fake news’ to use current terminology. We don’t know the full extent of secret military AI.

Computer malware will grow in scope to address AI systems to undermine corporate value or political campaigns.

A new route to attacking corporate AI, and hence the value in that company that relates in some way to it is already starting to appear though. As companies such as Google try out AI-driven cars or others try out pavement/sidewalk delivery drones, so mischievous people are already developing devious ways to misdirect or confuse them. Kids will soon have such activity as hobbies. Deliberate deception of AI is much easier when people know how they work, and although it’s nice for AI companies to put their AI stuff out there into the open source markets for others to use to build theirs, that does rather steer future systems towards a mono-culture of vulnerability types. A trick that works against one future AI in one industry might well be adaptable to another use in another industry with a little devious imagination. Let’s take an example.

If someone builds a robot to deliberately step in front of a self-driving car every time it starts moving again, that might bring traffic to a halt, but police could quickly confiscate the robot, and they are expensive, a strong deterrent even if the pranksters are hiding and can’t be found. Cardboard cutouts might be cheaper though, even ones with hinged arms to look a little more lifelike. A social media orchestrated campaign against a company using such cars might involve thousands of people across a country or city deliberately waiting until the worst time to step out into a road when one of their vehicles comes along, thereby creating a sort of denial of service attack with that company seen as the cause of massive inconvenience for everyone. Corporate value would obviously suffer, and it might not always be very easy to circumvent such campaigns.

Similarly, the wheeled delivery drones we’ve been told to expect delivering packages any time soon will also have cameras to allow them to avoid bumping into objects or little old ladies or other people, or cats or dogs or cardboard cutouts or carefully crafted miniature tank traps or diversions or small roadblocks that people and pets can easily step over but drones can’t, that the local kids have built from a few twigs or cardboard from a design that has become viral that day. A few campaigns like that with the cold pizzas or missing packages that result could severely damage corporate value.

AI behind websites might also be similarly defeated. An early experiment in making a Twitter chat-bot that learns how to tweet by itself was quickly encouraged by mischief-makers to start tweeting offensively. If people have some idea how an AI is making its decisions, they will attempt to corrupt or distort it to their own ends. If it is heavily reliant on open source AI, then many of its decision processes will be known well enough for activists to develop appropriate corruption tactics. It’s not to early to predict that the proposed AI-based attempts by Facebook and Twitter to identify and defeat ‘fake news’ will fall right into the hands of people already working out how to use them to smear opposition campaigns with such labels.

It will be a sort of arms race of course, but I don’t think we’re seeing enough about this in the media. There is a great deal of hype about the various AI capabilities, a lot of doom-mongering about job cuts (and a lot of reasonable warnings about job cuts too) but very little about the fight back against AI systems by attacking them on their own ground using their own weaknesses.

That looks to me awfully like there isn’t enough awareness of how easily they can be defeated by deliberate mischief or activism, and I expect to see some red faces and corporate account damage as a result.

PS

This article appeared yesterday that also talks about the bias I mentioned: https://techcrunch.com/2016/12/10/5-unexpected-sources-of-bias-in-artificial-intelligence/

Since I wrote this blog, I was asked via Linked-In to clarify why I said that Open Source AI systems would have more security risk. Here is my response:

I wasn’t intending to heap fuel on a dying debate (though since current debate looks the same as in early 1990s it is dying slowly). I like and use open source too. I should have explained my reasoning better to facilitate open source checking: In regular (algorithmic) code, programming error rate should be similar so increasing the number of people checking should cancel out the risk from more contributors so there should be no a priori difference between open and closed. However:

In deep learning, obscurity reappears via neural net weightings being less intuitive to humans. That provides a tempting hiding place.

AI foundations are vulnerable to group-think, where team members share similar world models. These prejudices will affect the nature of OS and CS code and result in AI with inherent and subtle judgment biases which will be less easy to spot than bugs and be more visible to people with alternative world models. Those people are more likely to exist in an OS pool than a CS pool and more likely to be opponents so not share their results.

Deep learning may show the equivalent of political (or masculine and feminine). As well as encouraging group-think, that also distorts the distribution of biases and therefore the cancelling out of errors can no longer be assumed.

Human factors in defeating security often work better than exploiting software bugs. Some of the deep learning AI is designed to mimic humans as well as possible in thinking and in interfacing. I suspect that might also make them more vulnerable to meta-human-factor attacks. Again, exposure to different and diverse cultures will show a non-uniform distribution of error/bias spotting/disclosure/exploitation.

Deep learning will become harder for humans to understand as it develops and becomes more machine dependent. That will amplify the above weaknesses. Think of optical illusions that greatly distort human perception and think of similar in advanced AI deep learning. Errors or biases that are discovered will become more valuable to an opponent since they are less likely to be spotted by others, increasing their black market exploitation risk.

I have not been a programmer for over 20 years and am no security expert so my reasoning may be defective, but at least now you know what my reasoning was and can therefore spot errors in it.

Colour changing cars, everyday objects and makeup

http://www.theverge.com/2016/11/24/13740946/dutch-scientists-use-color-changing-graphene-bubbles-to-create-mechanical-pixels shows how graphene can be used to make displays with each pixel changing colour according to mechanical deformation.

Meanwhile, Lexus have just created a car with a shell covered in LEDs so it can act as a massive display.

http://www.theverge.com/2016/12/5/13846396/lexus-led-lit-is-colors-dua-lipa-vevo

In 2014 I wrote about using polymer LED displays for future Minis so it’s nice to see another prediction come true.

Looking at the mechanical pixels though, it is clear that mechanical pixels could respond directly to sound, or to turbulence of passing air, plus other vibration that arises from motion on a road surface, or the engine. Car panel colours could change all the time powered by ambient energy. Coatings on any solid objects could follow, so people might have plenty of shimmering colours in their everyday environment. Could. Not sure I want it, but they could.

With sound as a control system, sound wave generators at the edges or underneath such surfaces could produce a wide variety of pleasing patterns. We could soon have furniture that does a good impression of being a cuttlefish.

I often get asked about smart makeup, on which I’ve often spoken since the late 90s. Thin film makeup displays could use this same tech. So er, we could have people with makeup pretending to be cuttlefish too. I think I’ll quit while I’m ahead.

Can we automate restaurant reviews?

Reviews are an important part of modern life. People often consult reviews before buying things, visiting a restaurant or booking a hotel. There are even reviews on the best seats to choose on planes. When reviews are honestly given, they can be very useful to potential buyers, but what if they aren’t honestly give? What if they are glowing reviews written by friends of the restaurant owners, or scathing reviews written by friends of the competition? What if the service received was fine, but the reviewer simply didn’t like the race or gender of the person delivering it? Many reviews fall into these categories, but of course we can’t be sure how many, because when someone writes a review, we don’t know whether they were being honest or not, or whether they are biased or not. Adding a category of automated reviews would add credibility provided the technology is independent of the establishment concerned.

Face recognition software is now so good that it can read lips better than human lip reading experts. It can be used to detect emotions too, distinguishing smiles or frowns, and whether someone is nervous, stressed or relaxed. Voice recognition can discern not only words but changes in pitch and volume that might indicate their emotional context. Wearable devices can also detect emotions such as stress.

Given this wealth of technology capability, cameras and microphones in a restaurant could help verify human reviews and provide machine reviews. Using the checking in process it can identify members of a group that might later submit a review, and thus compare their review with video and audio records of the visit to determine whether it seems reasonably true. This could be done by machine using analysis of gestures, chat and facial expressions. If the person giving a poor review looked unhappy with the taste of the food while they were eating it, then it is credible. If their facial expression were of sheer pleasure and the review said it tasted awful, then that review could be marked as not credible, and furthermore, other reviews by that person could be called into question too. In fact, guests would in effect be given automated reviews of their credibility. Over time, a trust rating would accrue, that could be used to group other reviews by credibility rating.

Totally automated reviews could also be produced, by analyzing facial expressions, conversations and gestures across a whole restaurant full of people. These machine reviews would be processed in the cloud by trusted review companies and could give star ratings for restaurants. They could even take into account what dishes people were eating to give ratings for each dish, as well as more general ratings for entire chains.

Service could also be automatically assessed to some degree too. How long were the people there before they were greeted/served/asked for orders/food delivered. The conversation could even be automatically transcribed in many cases, so comments about rudeness or mistakes could be verified.

Obviously there are many circumstances where this would not work, but there are many where it could, so AI might well become an important player in the reviews business. At a time when restaurants are closing due to malicious bad reviews, or ripping people off in spite of poor quality thanks to dishonest positive reviews, then this might help a lot. A future where people are forced to be more honest in their reviews because they know that AI review checking could damage their reputation if they are found to have been dishonest might cause some people to avoid reviewing altogether, but it could improve the reliability of the reviews that still do happen.

Still not perfect, but it could be a lot better than today, where you rarely know how much a review can be trusted.

Sky-lines – The Solar Powered Future of Air Travel

High altitude solar array to power IT and propel planes

High altitude solar array to power IT and propel planes

A zero carbon air travel solution. Well, most of the bits would be made of carbon materials, but it wouldn’t emit any CO2.

The pic says it all. A linear solar farm suspended in the high atmosphere to provide an IT platform for sensors, comms and other functions often accomplished by low orbit satellite. It would float up there thanks to being fixed to a graphene foam base layer that can be made lighter than helium (my previous invention, see https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/01/05/could-graphene-foam-be-a-future-helium-substitute/ which has since been prototyped and proven to be extremely resilient to high pressures too). Ideally, it would go all the way around the world, in various inclinations at different altitudes to provide routes to many places. Carbon materials are also incredibly strong so the line can be made as strong as can reasonably be required.

The flotation layer also supports a hypersonic linear induction motor that could provide direct propulsion to a hypersonic glider or to electric fans on a powered plane. Obviously this could also provide a means of making extremely low earth orbit satellites that continuously circumnavigate the ring.

I know you’re asking already how the planes get up there. There are a few solutions. Tethers could come all the way to ground level to airports, and electric engines would be used to get to height where the plane would pick up a sled-link.

Alternatively, stronger links to the ground would allow planes to be pulled up by sleds, though this would likely be less feasible.

Power levels? Well, the engines on a Boeing 777 generate about 8.25MW. A high altitude solar cell, above clouds could generate 300W per square metre. So a 777 equivalent plane needs 55km of panels if the line is just one metre wide. That means planes need to be at least that distance apart, but since that equates to around a minute, that is no barrier at all.

If you still doubt this, the Hyperloop was just a crazy idea a century ago too.

We need to reset society by bursting the bubbles

Looking at the state of democracy across the whole of The West right now, we are in deep poo.

I’ve written often about my concern that tribalism is increasing, that the live-and-let-live attitudes that used to prevail have been evaporation, that people are too quick and too willing to be aggressive against those with whom they disagree,  that common civility and manners are vanishing from politics, and that if we continue, we will end up with the Great Western War, essentially a civil war between an increasingly polarized Left and Right. Although I’ve never been sure about how fast the speed of change would get there, I’ve usually estimated mid-century or soon after.

Recent trends do not encourage optimism. In many cases, people are actually proud of their intolerance of the other side, proud to wear it as a badge. Even more ridiculously many of them call holding such a set of attitudes ‘love’, accusing the other side of being ‘haters’ even as they go out rioting against their existence and vowing never to live peacefully side by side with them because they stand for ‘hate’. It doesn’t bode well for peace, or for language. The love on display in the #lovetrumpshate demos is a doubleplusgood love, 1984 doublespeak for hatred and despising of ‘the other’, not the sort we used to understand. This new ‘love’ is love for those with who you share allegiance, and a deep hatred for everyone else. The very dangerous sort of love that wars are made from. The love I was brought up to understand is a love for others that doesn’t depend on who they are or what they believe. The sort that hates sin but loves the sinner. That’s actually a hard thing to understand and a tough principle to live by but many generations managed to do that. You may disagree with what someone says or does, but you can still love them as a person. That is love, not ‘intolerance of intolerance’, or ‘hating haters’. When you hate others for who they are, even if you rationalize that as being because they are evil, war is a short step away. In rare occasions, such as when it’s Hitler, doing what he did, then war is justified and we actually do take up arms.

If I only had friends I agreed with, I’d have none at all. I disagree often with many of the people who I follow or who follow me, but I am very happy to share the planet with them and to get on as best we can. Thankfully, almost all share that same view and accept me with all my differences. I hardly ever get trolled or called names. I sometimes tease, and sometimes get teased, sometimes I point out a few home truths and sometimes people point out a few of my faults too. And that’s about the limit for what should happen in civil society.

If you really do want a war and you’re prepared to kill others and die yourself for it, then fine, but have a good think about that first. If you’ve never lived through violent conflict first hand, and the nearest you’ve ever got is using a hashtag, waving a banner, emoting or virtue signalling, then grow up, get out of your playpen or safe space, and start behaving like a civilized adult. That involves discussion of tough ideas, it often involves looking at hard and unpleasant facts and it involves reaching very difficult compromises with other people, not just calling them names or sulking in a corner because you didn’t get your way. It’s the difference between being a kidult and an adult, the difference between a luvvie and a leader.

I don’t really need to labor that point, we all see this new intolerance and hatred every day now, whether it’s far right marches or far left ones, #lockherup or #lovetrumpshate, Brexiteers or Remainers, #blacklivesmatter or #alllivesmatter. I’ve said this stuff many times before. We need to learnt to get along. Sure, by all means gently tease the other lot, but accept that while you may not agree with them, they have just as much right to their views as you do to yours.

We may reasonably ask how we got to this state. When Thatcher was the most disliked PM the UK has ever elected, or when Reagan was elected, those who voted the other way accepted the result peacefully. They grieved and moaned a bit for sure, and argued against policies all the time of course, as they indeed should, but democracy carried on peacefully. When Tony Blair was elected, or Bill Clinton, or even George W Bush, it was still peaceful. Even when Obama was voted in just 8 years ago, it was still peaceful. The people who didn’t like it accepted that the pendulum would eventually swing back and they’d get their way again.

Some time during the last decade, the foundations of civilized society have badly eroded and collapse of the walls has started. If we don’t do some much-needed repair, then the Great Western War will go from an idea in a blog to reality.

There are several contributing factors. Replacement of religion by political correctness harnesses the religious zeal of a new convert to PC causes. The energy-intense fuel of sanctimony powers new-found hatred of their own community, as we see manifested in the white protesters whining about #whiteprivilege, cultural appropriation or joining the increasingly anti-white racist #blacklivesmatter movement. This is similar to the rejection of background, friends and family so often seen in new religious converts over the ages. Religion has declined quickly in recent years so this force is an important contributing factor, becoming a secular Spanish Inquisition.

But while secular religion substitution is a powerful force lying behind some of this new divide, it is not the strongest force. For that we need to look at the self-reinforcing social , information and cultural bubbles caused by social networking, and these are what really lie behind this divide growing over the last decade.

Social media such as Facebook provide a strongly insulated protected world where nobody ever needs to see views that differ from what they find comfortable. They are a safe space, a play pen, full of friends and same-thinking celebrities, full of being stroked, and safe from being attacked. Mostly anyway. They are therefore very dangerous places where group think is seeded, germinates and quickly matures, and where alternative views are kept away. Outside social media, the real media is populated and run by those who have become more polarized by these bubbles themselves, so the real media has also become far more polarized. People then watch channels they feel comfortable with and read papers that share the same spin preferences. So the social media and real media become aligned and a superbubble arises that accounts for the entirety of information input.

When people spend so much of their time in these bubbles and when they even get their news from them, filtered and spun to reinforce their existing groupthink, they can build an extremely distorted view of the world that bears little resemblance to reality. They may be wholly unaware of some events because their news source completely filters them out, or they might be aware of some other events, but via such spun reporting and presentation of the facts that they have no real understanding of hat actually happened. On the other side, another group is seeing different sets of events, or very different interpretations of the same ones. I read several newspapers every day, from different parts of the political spectrum, and I am often shocked by just how much difference there is in how they are interpreted and presented to readers. It really is no surprise that each side thinks of the other so badly, when although they are probably actually not very different people, they are seeing extremely different information. Even from the same set of events, people will come to very different conclusion if they only see some of what’s going on, and only though very distorted lenses and filters.

I’d therefore suggest that the biggest problem we face is not that half of the population are nasty horrible people who we should rightly refuse to peacefully co-exist with. The problem is that although the other side is really only slightly different from us, and probably share most of the same desires and values, and really only differ a bit on how best to achieve pretty much the same fair and free society we want, where the poor and unfortunate are protected as much as possible, and people can get on with living free and happy lives as they see fit, but are seeing extremely different information about what is going on because they are locked into different media and social media bubbles.

The problem therefore is the bubbles, not the people. Republicans and Brexiteers are actually not all uneducated misogynist omniphobic bigots. Democrats and Remainers are not all antisemitic antiwhite snowflake commies. A few on either side actually are, but most aren’t. Actually, almost everyone is quite a nice person who just wants to get on with life and will cheerfully help anyone else they can along the way. The problem is that each half thinks the other half are a bunch of idiots and nasties hellbent on wiping them out and destroying the world.

Social media was never meant to be the cause of division. We all imagined that networking would make the world a nicer place. We would all get to know each other better, learn that we’re really not that different, and peace would result. Actually, it has become a force for the amplification of tribalism.

I could speculate further that the deeper problem is advertising. Maybe the polarization has arisen because of self-reinforcement caused by tapping into small differences in personal preferences and pandering to them via advertising for commercial gain, thereby feeding them and making hem bigger. I could, but I need to develop that line of argument and leave it for another blog.

 

 

Future Augmented Reality

AR has been hot on the list of future IT tech for 25 years. It has been used for various things since smartphones and tablets appeared but really hit the big time with the recent Pokemon craze.

To get an idea of the full potential of augmented reality, recognize that the web and all its impacts on modern life came from the convergence of two medium sized industries – telecoms and computing. Augmented reality will involve the convergence of everything in the real world with everything in the virtual world, including games, media, the web, art, data, visualization, architecture, fashion and even imagination. That convergence will be enabled by ubiquitous mobile broadband, cloud, blockchain payments, IoT, positioning and sensor tech, image recognition, fast graphics chips, display and visor technology and voice and gesture recognition plus many other technologies.

Just as you can put a Pokemon on a lawn, so you could watch aliens flying around in spaceships or cartoon characters or your favorite celebs walking along the street among the other pedestrians. You could just as easily overlay alternative faces onto the strangers passing by.

People will often want to display an avatar to people looking at them, and that could be different for every viewer. That desire competes with the desire of the viewer to decide how to see other people, so there will be some battles over who controls what is seen. Feminists will certainly want to protect women from the obvious objectification that would follow if a woman can’t control how she is seen. In some cases, such objectification and abuse could even reach into hate crime territory, with racist, sexist or homophobic virtual overlays. All this demands control, but it is far from obvious where that control would come from.

As for buildings, they too can have a virtual appearance. Virtual architecture will show off architect visualization skills, but will also be hijacked by the marketing departments of the building residents. In fact, many stakeholders will want to control what you see when you look at a building. The architects, occupants, city authorities, government, mapping agencies, advertisers, software producers and games designers will all try to push appearances at the viewer, but the viewer might want instead to choose to impose one from their own offerings, created in real time by AI or from large existing libraries of online imagery, games or media. No two people walking together on a street would see the same thing.

Interior decor is even more attractive as an AR application. Someone living in a horrible tiny flat could enhance it using AR to give the feeling of far more space and far prettier decor and even local environment. Virtual windows onto Caribbean beaches may be more attractive than looking at mouldy walls and the office block wall that are physically there. Reality is often expensive but images can be free.

Even fashion offers a platform for AR enhancement. An outfit might look great on a celebrity but real life shapes might not measure up. Makeovers take time and money too. In augmented reality, every garment can look as it should, and that makeup can too. The hardest choice will be to choose a large number of virtual outfits and makeups to go with the smaller range of actual physical appearances available from that wardrobe.

Gaming is in pole position, because 3D world design, imagination, visualization and real time rendering technology are all games technology, so perhaps the biggest surprise in the Pokemon success is that it was the first to really grab attention. People could by now be virtually shooting aliens or zombies hoarding up escalators as they wait for their partners. They are a little late, but such widespread use of personal or social gaming on city streets and in malls will come soon.

AR Visors are on their way too, and though the first offerings will be too expensive to achieve widespread adoption, cheaper ones will quickly follow. The internet of things and sensor technology will create abundant ground-up data to make a strong platform. As visors fall in price, so too will the size and power requirements of the processing needed, though much can be cloud-based.

It is a fairly safe bet that marketers will try very hard to force images at us and if they can’t do that via blatant in-your-face advertising, then product placement will become a very fine art. We should expect strong alliances between the big marketing and advertising companies and top games creators.

As AI simultaneously develops, people will be able to generate a lot of their own overlays, explaining to AI what they’d like and having it produced for them in real time. That would undermine marketing use of AR so again there will be some battles for control. Just as we have already seen owners of landmarks try to trademark the image of their buildings to prevent people including them in photographs, so similar battles will fill the courts over AR. What is to stop someone superimposing the image of a nicer building on their own? Should they need to pay a license to do so? What about overlaying celebrity faces on strangers? What about adding multimedia overlays from the web to make dull and ordinary products do exciting things when you use them? A cocktail served in a bar could have a miniature Sydney fireworks display going on over it. That might make it more exciting, but should the media creator be paid and how should that be policed? We’ll need some sort of AR YouTube at the very least with added geolocation.

The whole arts and media industry will see city streets as galleries and stages on which to show off and sell their creations.

Public services will make more mundane use of AR. Simple everyday context-dependent signage is one application, but overlays would be valuable in emergencies too. If police or fire services could superimpose warning on everyone’s visors nearby, that may help save lives in emergencies. Health services will use AR to assist ordinary people to care for a patient until an ambulance arrives

Shopping provide more uses and more battles. AR will show you what a competing shop has on offer right beside the one in front of you. That will make it easy to digitally trespass on a competitor’s shop floor. People can already do that on their smartphone, but AR will put the full image large as life right in front of your eyes to make it very easy to compare two things. Shops won’t want to block comms completely because that would prevent people wanting to enter their shop at all, so they will either have to compete harder or find more elaborate ways of preventing people making direct visual comparisons in-store. Perhaps digital trespassing might become a legal issue.

There will inevitably be a lot of social media use of AR too. If people get together to demonstrate, it will be easier to coordinate them. If police insist they disperse, they could still congregate virtually. Dispersed flash mobs could be coordinated as much as ones in the same location. That makes AR a useful tool for grass-roots democracy, especially demonstrations and direct action, but it also provides a platform for negative uses such as terrorism. Social entrepreneurs will produce vast numbers of custom overlays for millions of different purposes and contexts. Today we have tens of millions of websites and apps. Tomorrow we will have even more AR overlays.

These are just a few of the near term uses of augmented reality and a few hints as issues arising. It will change every aspect of our lives in due course, just as the web has, but more so.