Friday Faves – What We’re Reading This Week
Friday Faves is our weekly blog series highlighting a few select pieces from the REG team’s reading lists. You can catch up on past Friday Faves on the archive.
Self-driving buses – are you ready?
Anne says: There’s been a flurry of articles recently about self-driving buses, cabs, even pods. Most of them showcasing the potential and viability of their operations. It was no surprise then when I noticed this article on Wired Magazine: Who’s ready to put their kid on a self-driving school bus? This article extends the dialogue from my post last week – are we ready to work alongside robots? Are we ready to embrace self-driving buses or, even more telling, are we prepared to let our children ride in them?
The school bus described in the article includes AI similar to interactions with robots – Hannah (yes, the bus has a name) welcomes the children by name and drops them right at their front door, with many other features that are still in concept mode. The epic question: are parents comfortable putting their children on autonomous buses? According to a Pew Internet study, 39 percent were very or somewhat enthusiastic, while 53 percent were very or somewhat worried.
This is all great conversation – hypothetically – but what happens when it’s put into practice? Introducing the self-driving bus (in Las Vegas) that was involved in a crash 2 hours after being launched! Of course, it wasn’t the autonomous vehicle’s fault, it was the truck driver who acted unpredictably (in terms of what the self-driving bus was programmed to respond to).
Remember – it’s not the technology that’s at fault, it’s the people who are sharing the roads with it! Like working with robots, it seems we’re going to have to learn to co-exist with self-driving cars and update our avoidance techniques!
So – will you let your children ride in a self-driving bus?
Mars city living: Designing for the Red Planet
Nat says: This is the mother of all grand design problems – how can we humans live on Mars? The international competition of designing Mars as a city saw an MIT Urban Design team take out the title. Whenever Mars is brought up as a potential migration destination for humans, there are sceptics and disbelievers, and rightfully so. If we are already destroying this planet, who’s to say we won’t do it to another planet? There are also arguments that we should focus our science and technological efforts on this planet and not on others.
However, these are common misconceptions of cause and effect attributes. For example, many of the technologies we use and take advantage of today came from the moon mission. The grander the problem, the greater the need there is for us to ‘think outside the box’. Grand design problems both test and extend what we are capable of achieving, as we are trying to answer questions that have never before been asked. Can we land a man on the moon? Yes. Can we live on Mars? Perhaps. As stated by the winning team:
On Mars, our city will physically and functionally mimic a forest, using local Martian resources such as ice and water, regolith (or soil), and sun to support life. Designing a forest also symbolizes the potential for outward growth as nature spreads across the Martian landscape…The design workflow is parametric, which means that each habitat is unique and contributes to a diverse forest of urban spaces.
I believe that humans will live on Mars one day. We grow from the earth as apples grow from trees, and at one point in time, Earth was nothing but a lifeless rock, and the tree was just a seed in the ground. So, in a way, Mars represents the rocky planet that, at this moment, is just a seed of possibility. Things ‘splitting’ is also the norm. All our continents were once connected, and the population of earth keeps rising (we as humans keep splitting). Moving to Mars will just be another type of split.
Trump’s Twitter Takedown Reveals Another Tech Blind Spot
“While human oversight is often held up as the solution to algorithms run amok, giving people the power to judge what can be said and who can say it can be just as fraught.”
Emilio says: Amidst all the chatter circulating on the Twitterverse this week about the microblogging social platform’s confirmation that it is expanding the length of a tweet to 280 characters (you can read more about this in an earlier commentary of mine), one episode last week exposed an alarming flaw and a more pressing issue.
A contractor working at Twitter’s Customer Service deactivated US President Donald Trump’s Twitter account on their last working day, and the Twitterverse went ballistic. Whether it was deliberate or accidental, it brought to the fore a heightened criticism over the lack of security protocols at Twitter. How is it possible that just about any staffer at the company can have full access to users’ settings and create such a ruckus with just one click and possibly silence anyone on a whim?
To be fair, this alarming flaw isn’t unique to Twitter. Facebook’s hordes of human moderators received their fair share of flak after the social media giant failed to show transparency in how they vet content.
It is clear that all social platforms and tech applications need to be subject to stringent scrutiny where human operators could be acting on a whim or making subjective or illogical calls regarding censorship of users. Further, it is imperative that there are checks and balances in place, and perhaps stricter security protocols particularly for high profile users like Donald Trump whose pronouncements (or ‘mispronouncements’ by erring operators) can have far-reaching consequences.
We will be eagerly awaiting how Twitter and all the tech giants respond to this gaping security hole seriously and with urgency.
Snapchat counts a loss of over $50 million on spectacles
Joel says: If you hadn’t heard, Snapchat has been trying to sell “exclusive spectacles”. Unfortunately it’s newest financial report released this week has let us know that things don’t seem to be going to plan when it comes to the social media giant’s newest wearble.
The Spectacles themselves are a pair of smart glasses that feature a camera lens capable of recording short 10 second video segments, which retail online for £129.99 ($223.75 AUD).
Snap Inc. released its third quarterly financial report on Tuesday, one which highlighted the disappointing sales from the glasses – a loss of nearly $50 million in total. The report states: “These charges are non-recurring and not reflective of underlying trends in our business.”
Snap Inc’s stocks dropped by nearly 20 per cent hours after the announcement on Tuesday, resulting in the photo sharing app losing approximately $580 million in the quarter.
It seems the new wearables may have to go back to the drawing board and have a wider spread relaunch at some point in the future. Not too dissimilar to what Google decided to do with their Glass.
Something is wrong on the internet
Jakkii says: Did you watch the video I shared in last week’s Friday Faves? If not, I really encourage you to put aside some time this weekend to give it a viewing – I honestly think it’s that important. Not only for us to be aware, but also to be thinking about these kinds of issues and what they mean for us as a society – and what we want to do about them. We’ve raised related issues through our Friday Faves before: back in April Anne shared a Sam Harris podcast with guest Tristan Harris (no relation), in which they discussed how the design of technology platforms like Facebook and YouTube influences – and perhaps controls – us. And in August Emilio shared a movement called ‘Time Well Spent’ through which Tristan Harris (yes, the same one) wants to help ‘rescue our technology-hijacked minds.’
It is in a similar vein that I come to this week’s piece, ‘Something is wrong on the internet.’
If you have or have spent time with young children, you are probably familiar with Kid’s YouTube. Kids are obsessed with YouTube, and I can attest from my experience watching with them that some of the stuff on there is just flat out bizarre. If you’re not familiar, don’t worry – the author of this piece is about to help you become more familiar than you’re likely to wish you were.
This is a long read, so you’ll want to set aside a bit of time to get through it. Medium suggests 21 minutes – perfect for a weekend morning read over a cup of coffee. There is a great deal to pique the interest – and concern – as you read through this piece, little more so than this early quote:
This is content production in the age of algorithmic discovery — even if you’re a human, you have to end up impersonating the machine.
Even before delving further into the issues raised by the author, this quote, this concept, is at once fascinating and alarming. What exactly are we creating with our algorithms? Where – and when – are we going to draw the line? Are humans in control – or are the algorithms?
Automated reward systems like YouTube algorithms necessitate exploitation in the same way that capitalism necessitates exploitation, and if you’re someone who bristles at the second half of that equation then maybe this should be what convinces you of its truth. Exploitation is encoded into the systems we are building, making it harder to see, harder to think and explain, harder to counter and defend against. Not in a future of AI overlords and robots in the factories, but right here, now, on your screen, in your living room and in your pocket.
I’m compelled by this article to think more broadly about the impacts on our society – how might a generation of children raised by algorithms differ, in who they are, what they expect, and what they will accept?
It presents many and complexly entangled dangers, including that, just as with the increasing focus on alleged Russian interference in social media, such events will be used as justification for increased control over the internet, increasing censorship, and so on. This is not what many of us want…
What concerns me is that this is just one aspect of a kind of infrastructural violence being done to all of us, all of the time, and we’re still struggling to find a way to even talk about it, to describe its mechanisms and its actions and its effects.
Complex, and scary. And long past time for us to be contemplating, discussing, debating the ethics that surround these big technology companies that are exerting more and more influence over not just our individual lives, but our society as a whole.
I’d love to hear your thoughts – what do you think about Kid’s YouTube? How did the piece change your opinion – or why didn’t it? What do you think about the points the author has raised regarding algorithms, mechanisms, actions and effects?
And the big question: what should we be doing about it all?