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A Rebirth, or a Requiem? July 16, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Technology and Culture.
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Here on the 50th anniversary of the first manned moon mission, I’d like to share this image.  In 1973, at my Eagle Scout dinner in downtown Pittsburgh, I (and the other Eagle Scouts) received Man in the Moon, the official recordings of the Apollo 11 journey, back in 1969 (and yes, I still have a turntable to play it).

ManOnTheMoon

I have always been a forceful advocate of space travel.  While in the Air Force, I applied to become a flight engineer on the Space Shuttle program (I’m sure my candidacy was met with a good chuckle by all concerned).

Further, I believe in space travel for very abstract reasons.  “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” wrote poet Robert Browning.  But more so, there seems to be an historical pattern of civilization reaching out for a seemingly impossible goal, then retreating from it.

We are in the stage of retreat from space right now.  Certainly, perhaps a dozen or more countries launch hundreds of low Earth orbit satellites yearly for weather, military, scientific, communications, or other purposes.  But that is largely proven (although not entirely reliable) technology today.  We have not tested technical boundaries since the 1970s.

Many say it is too expensive; we have too many problems here on Earth.  But that is a fallacy perpetuated by the ignorant.  The trailblazing work in electronics, software, communications, safety-critical systems and much more would not exist today without the breakthroughs found in our space program of the past.

But there is so much more inherent in pursuing space travel that cannot be readily quantified.  Smart people reaching for seemingly impossible goals stimulate those around them, and society in general.  If we focus inward, we lose sight of the value of interactions with others.  Yet that is where we are.

I was at Cape Canaveral last year.  I saw large buildings and a lot of activity from the likes of Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and SpaceX.  Every few years, the US government and NASA make loud noises about reviving some ambitious goal, but ultimately back down in the face of cost, complexity, or simply indifference.  The government won’t get us there, because too few people care.  But we are so close to losing space altogether that we should be afraid that future innovation will consist only of better ways to look down at our phone.

I think I said it well here, should you care to read.  Yes, set controls for the heart of the sun.

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The Path to Autonomous Automobiles Will Be Longer Than We Think July 14, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Algorithms, Machine Learning, Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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I continue to be amused by people who believe that fully autonomous automobiles are right around the corner.  “They’re already in use in many cities!” they exclaim (no, they’re not).  In a post earlier this year, I’ve listed four reasons why we will be unlikely to see fully autonomous vehicles in my lifetime; at the very top of the list is mapping technology, maps, and geospatial information.

That makes the story of hundreds of cars trying to get to Denver International Airport being misdirected by Google Maps all that much more amusing.  Due to an accident on the main highway to DIA, Google Maps suggested an alternative, which eventually became a muddy mess that trapped over 100 cars in the middle of the prairie.

Of course, Google disavowed any responsibility, claiming that it makes no promises with regard to road conditions, and that users should check road conditions ahead of time.  Except that it did say that this dirt road would take about 20 minutes less than the main road.  Go figure.  While not a promise, it does sound like a factual statement on, well, road conditions.  And, to be fair, they did check road conditions ahead of time – with Google!

While this is funny (at least reading about it), it points starkly to the limitations of digital maps for use with car navigation.  Autonomous cars require maps with exacting detail, within feet or even inches.  Yet if Google as one of the best examples of mapping cannot get an entire route right, then there is no hope for fully autonomous cars to use these same maps sans driver.

But, I hear you say, how often does this happen?  It happens often.  I’ve often taken a Lyft to a particular street address in Arlington, Massachusetts, a close-in suburb of Boston.  The Lyft (and, I would guess, Uber) maps have it as a through street, but in ground truth it is bisected by the Minuteman Bikeway and blocked to vehicular traffic.  Yet every single Lyft tries to take me down one end of that street in vain.  Autonomous cars need much better navigation than this, especially in and around major cities.

And Google can’t have it both ways, supplying us with traffic conditions yet disavowing any responsibility in doing so.  Of course, that approach is part and parcel to any major tech company, so we shouldn’t be surprised.  But we should be very wary in the geospatial information they provide.

Will We Ever Be Ready for Smart Cities? July 12, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Machine Learning, Technology and Culture.
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In theory, a smart city is a great idea.  With thousands of sensors and real time data analytics, the city and its inhabitants can operate far more efficiently than they do today.  We have detailed traffic, pedestrian, and shopping patterns, right down to the individual if we so choose.

We can use data on traffic flows to route traffic and coordinate traffic lights.  Stores can operate at times that are convenient to people.  Power plants can generate electricity based on actual real time usage.  Crime patterns can be easily identified, with crime avoidance and crimefighting strategies applied accordingly.  The amount of data that can be collected in a city with tens of thousands of sensors all feeding into a massive database is enormous.

This is what Google (Alphabet) wants to do in a development in Toronto, with its company Sidewalk Labs, and last year won the right to take a neighborhood under development and make it a smart city.  This article cites that urban planners have rushed to develop the waterfront area and build the necessary infrastructure to create at least a smart neighborhood that demonstrates many of the concepts.

But now Toronto is pushing back on the whole idea.  The primary issue is one of data control and use.  A smart city will generate enormous amounts of data, not just on aggregates of people, but on identifiable images and people.  It seems this was left as a “to be determined” item in initial selection and negotiations.  Now that Sidewalk Labs is moving forward to build out the plan, the question of the data has come to the forefront.  And what is occurring isn’t pretty.

The answer that seems to be popular is called a “data trust”, a storage and access entity that protects the data from both government and the vendor supplying the smart services.  Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs claims to have produced the strongest possible data protection plan; Toronto and activist groups strongly disagree.  Without seeing the plan, I can’t say, but I can say that I would be concerned about a commercial vendor (especially one connected to Google) having any access to this level of data for any purpose.  It is truly the next level of potentially breeching privacy to obtain deeper commercial data.  And do any of us really think that Google won’t ultimately do so?

Now, I was raised in rural America, and while I am comfortable enough whenever I am in a city, it is not my preferred habitat.  It seems to me that there is a tradeoff between privacy and the ability to use data on individual activities (even aggregated) to make day to day activities more efficient for the city and its occupants.  Despite the abstract advantages in the smart cities approach, I don’t think we have the trust necessary to carry it out.

Deep Fakes and A Brave New World June 30, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Algorithms, Machine Learning, Technology and Culture.
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I certainly wasn’t the only one who did a double-take when I read about DeepNude, an AI application that could take a photograph of a woman and remove her clothing, creating a remarkably good facsimile of that woman without clothes.  At the drop of a hat, we are now in a world where someone can take a woman’s photo on the street, run it through facial recognition software to determine her name, age, address, and occupation, then use DeepNude to create realistic naked images that can be posted on the Internet, all without even meeting her.

The creator of this application (apparently from Estonia), took it down after a day, and in a subsequent interview said that he suddenly realized the ability of such a program to do great harm (duh!).  But from his description of its development, it didn’t seem that complex to replicate (I could probably do it, except for obtaining 10,000 nude photos to train it.  Or one nude photo, for that matter).

One of my favorite thriller writers, James Rollins, recently wrote a novel titled Crucible, which personalizes the race toward creating Artificial General Intelligences, or AGI.  These types of AIs have the ability to learn new skills outside of their original problem domain, much like a human would.  His fictional characters point out that AGIs will eventually train one another (I’m not sure about that assertion), so it was critically important that the first AGIs were “good”, as opposed to “evil”.

The good versus evil aspects invite much more debate, so I’ll leave them to a later post, but I can’t imagine that such an application has any socially redeeming value.  Still, once one person has done it, others will surely copy.

To be clear, DeepNude is an Artificial Specialized Intelligence, not an AGI, and its problem domain is relatively straightforward.  It is not inherently evil by common definition, and is not thinking in any sense of the word.  But when DeepNude appeared the other day, the world changed irrevocably.

Too Many Companies Know My Birthday June 12, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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Simply by saying that, I am making my birthday known to anyone who cares to read this.  Friends and family certainly know.  Fidelity wished me a happy birthday; they schedule a financial review call to approximately correspond to the date.  They have to know my birthday (and date) in order to help me plan retirement.

But BingRock & Roll Marathon Series?  IlluminEyes Vision Care?  Canard Line, for god’s sake?  Bing says that my birthday was included in my Microsoft account.  I have two questions there.  First, why would I have given my birthday for a Microsoft account?  Second, why would/should Bing have access to that?

I suppose Rock & Roll Marathon needs to know my birthday in order to determine my age group in various races I might participate in (I’ve only done one of these, Virginia Beach).  Likewise, my eye doctor probably needs to know, as he is a doctor.

Also, I’ve never cruised on Canard, so I can only think that they bought it from a marketing clearinghouse.  That concerns me.

I’m not a privacy nut.  But when the data are about me, I have to ask myself where it came from and what it was being used for.  Wishing me a happy birthday is an easy and inexpensive way to seem more personal, and to remind me that these companies exist and are at my service (for a fee, of course).

A birthday and birth date are key ingredients of identity theft.  It’s also easy to get credit card numbers and expiration dates in any number of ways.  Identity theft is very difficult to recover from; in some cases, it has ruined people’s lives.

Companies sending me birthday greetings are not being warm and personal.  Rather, they are showing off the fact that they know a lot about me, and can use that data in very trivial ways if they desired.  Imagine if that data fell into the hands of hackers, who have shown that they are very adept at breaking into corporate data vaults and making off with our information.

Or worse, it some marketing genius at those companies could think of more creative ways of abusing our data.

Uber, Lyft, and Unintended Consequences April 24, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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There is a lot going on with, well, I cannot use the term ride-sharing, because it’s not, but with changing the dynamics of personal transportation, often in unforeseen ways.

So here we go.  I grew up in rural middle America (well, not so middle, but flyover country nonetheless).  I had my driver’s license the day after my sixteenth birthday (the day after I soloed in a Piper Cherokee 140), because in blue collar America, your family had one car that your father used to go to work in the mill, and otherwise you had no way of getting around.  If you were a guy, you got a beater for a hundred bucks, and you drove yourself.  And changed the oil and rigged the rust with bondo.

(I have a related story.  I was passed down my family’s 66 Chevy BelAir, a true rusting hulk.  In fact, the frame rusted through, underneath, on the driver’s side.  I drove a bolt between the frame and the crossmember, and drove it for another couple of years.)

But it was more than that.  I learned my way around my community, and the surrounding area.  I knew every single dirt road in a 25-mile radius, and the fastest way to get from the place I was at to the place that I needed to be (including driving through fields).

Uber and Lyft say several things about the future of personal transportation.  First, you have to live somewhere they are available.  You might think that is a given proposition, but in much of America it is not.  That may drive people toward more urban areas, or it may create another digital divide across our country.

But I think most important, you are not going to be able to get from one place to another on your own.  You don’t know your locality.  Now, I recognize that there are a couple of retorts to that statement.  First, I have my GPS.  Ah, but in rural America, just how accurate is that?  Even in my current East Coast suburbia, it has significant flaws.  People won’t have a mental model of their locality.

Well, it’s not my problem, you say, it’s Uber’s!  No, it’s yours too.  I have been deposited in places that the GPS has said was correct, only to find out that it wasn’t.  What do you do then?

I am a strong believer in situational awareness.  You need to know where you are at all times, and what is around you.  If you don’t, you are subject to mostly unpleasant surprises.  Don’t at all think it’s going to turn our well if you have no clue as to where you are, and where you are going.

I wonder if we are forming a geographic cocoon, unable to navigate ourselves outside of a range of a few hundred yards (less if we don’t even walk for recreation).  More so, is it necessarily a bad thing?  I think it is.  We have people who take their mobile phones on hikes in the wilderness, expecting 9-1-1 to rescue them if they don’t get home by dinner.

I wonder what my life would be like if I couldn’t navigate on my own, based on my own experiences and travels.  It would certainly be less rich, but I also wonder if it would be more, well dangerous, in the event that I found myself having to, but ill-prepared to do so.

The Problems With Seasteading April 21, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture, Uncategorized.
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It’s a new word, at least to me, and refers to establishing a residence outside of any national boundary, generally at sea.  Chad Elwartowski, a US citizen, and his Thai girlfriend, Supranee “Nadia Summergirl” Thepdet built a home on the water outside of Thailand territorial waters (but within the country’s economic zone).  Thailand wasn’t amused, revoked Elwartowski’s visa, and are towing the ‘home’ to land (the residents apparently abandoned it the previous day).

It sounds free and in a way romantic, but isn’t practical by any means.  You may think that you avoid taxes and live outside of a structured legal system, but you are giving up much more than you are gaining.

So let’s list just a few things that can go wrong.

  1. Your transportation or communication fails. The assistance you need is relatively minor but very necessary.  You may think you can pay for it, until you get the bill.  And that bill is likely far larger than any tax bill you may have gotten over the years.
  2. You are attacked and kidnapped by pirates. You may think that is foolish, but these waters are among the most pirate-infested in the world.  Absolutely no legal national entity in the world will go to bat for you.
  3. A storm renders your home unlivable. These are also among the stormiest waters in the world.  You’re hanging onto a piece of debris, hoping that rescue is on the horizon.  But because you have rejected all legal entities, there is no reason for any nation to lift a hand.
  4. You are sick or injured, and need assistance. There are humanitarian services, but if you are nationless, it becomes more difficult to call on them.
  5. You want to order takeout pizza. Just kidding, but yes, you are giving up conveniences like that too.

We may debate the value of what we get from our tax dollars, but emergency services are usually available when we need them.  If you are in dire need, you probably think that nations will help you anyway.  To which I say, “Why?”  You want freedom, such as it is, but you also want someone there to backstop you.  Ain’t gonna happen.

You’re Magnetic Tape April 4, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Algorithms, Machine Learning, Technology and Culture.
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That line, from the Moody Blues ‘In the Beginning’ album (yes, album, from the early 1970s), makes us out to be less than the sum of our parts, rather than more.  So logically, writer and professional provocateur Felix Salmon asks if we can prove who we say we are.

Today in an era of high security, that question is more relevant than ever.  I have a current passport, a Real ID driver’s license, a Global Entry ID card, and even my original Social Security card, issued circa 1973 (not at birth, like they are today; I had to drive to obtain it).  Our devices include biometrics like fingerprints and facial recognition, and retina scans aren’t too far behind.

On the other hand, I have an acquaintance (well, at least one) that I’ve never met.  I was messaging her the other evening when I noted, “If you are really in Barcelona, it’s 2AM (thank you, Francisco Franco), and you really should be asleep.”  She responded, “Well, I can’t prove that I’m not a bot.”

Her response raises a host of issues.  First, identity is on the cusp of becoming a big business.  If I know for certain who you are, then I can validate you for all sorts of transactions, and charge a small fee for the validation.  If you look at companies like LogMeIn, that may their end game.

Second, as our connections become increasingly worldwide, do we really know if we are communicating with an actual human being?  With AI bots becoming increasingly sophisticated, they may be able to pass the Turing test.

Last, what will have higher value, our government-issued ID, or a private vendor ID?  I recently opined that I prefer the government, because they are far more disorganized than most private companies, but someone responded “Government can give you an ID one day, and arbitrarily take it away the next.”  I prefer government siloes and disorganization, because of security by obscurity, but is that really the best option any more?

So, what is our ID?  And how can we positively prove we are who we say we are?  More to the point, how can we prove that we exist?  Those questions are starting to intrude on our lives, and may become central to our existence before we realize it.