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A Metal Gun, Made from Digital Bits

By - November 08, 2013

3D-Printed-Metal-Gun-Components-Disassembled-Low-Res-300x225One of the artifacts we’re considering for our book is the 3D printer – not only the MakerBot version, but all types of “bits to atoms” kinds of conversions. The advances in the field are staggering – it is now possible to print human tissue, for example. Every so often, however, there’s a milestone that brings things into dramatic focus. That’s how I felt when I saw this story: First 3-D-Printed Metal Gun Shows Tech Maturity.

The company behind the gun, Solid Concepts, has a federal license to make guns, so what they’ve done is not illegal. Rather, they argue in a blog post, they want to prove the efficacy of the approach they’ve taken. A firing test seems to prove them have.

What I find fascinating about 3D printers is the how they tie together a physical object with a digital description. More as we get into this chapter, but for now, just worth noting the milestone.

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else 11.4: “Where’s the rage, man?”

By - November 04, 2013

This week, we dig deeper into the political implications of NSA revelations, we think about how we live with technology, note that self-driving cars are safe but driving under the influence of Glass is not, and bitcoin goes mainstream as a transaction protocol.

As always, if you want to keep up with what we’re reading/thinking about on a weekly basis, the best way is to subscribe to the “else” feed, either as an email newsletter or through RSS.

nsa_smiley

NSA infiltrates links to Yahoo, Google data centers worldwide, Snowden documents say – Washington Post
It just keeps getting worse…this time with a cheeky emoticon smiley.

It’s time for Silicon Valley to ask: Is it worth it? – Pandodaily
Evoking David Foster Wallace’s question: “Where and when was the public debate on whether they’re worth it?” we have to wonder where these trade offs between security and privacy and overly broad law leave us.

The Real Privacy Problem – MIT Technology Review
Passing privacy legislation won’t solve the real civic problem, argues Evgeny Morozov. “How can we make sure that we have more control over our personal information?—cannot be the only question to ask. Unless we learn and continuously relearn how automated information processing promotes and impedes democratic life, an answer to this question might prove worthless, especially if the democratic regime needed to implement whatever answer we come up with unravels in the meantime.”

Data transparency effort – successful in U.K. – to be tested in U.S. – Knight Foundation
Tim Berners-Lee and the Knight Foundation bring UK experiment the Open Data Institute to the US, advocating data standards to improve transparency.

Waiting for the Next Great Technology Critic – The New Yorker
On the event of Pogue’s and Mossberg’s respective departures from their papers, Matt Buchanan explores the kind of consumer tech criticism we need now that goes beyond describing consumption of beautiful gadgets: “The questions that consumers face, in other words, are less about what to buy than about how to live.”

Data Shows Google’s Robot Cars Are Smoother, Safer Drivers Than You or I – MIT Technology Review
Google is beginning to share data on how its self-driving cars are better drivers than humans. That same data will likely be used to change how liability gets determined: “We don’t have to rely on eyewitnesses that can’t act be trusted as to what happened—we actually have the data…The guy around us wasn’t paying enough attention. The data will set you free.”

California Woman Gets the First Ticket for Driving with Google Glass – Glass Almanac
Existing laws bump up against new technology. The California law bars video devices “at a point forward of the back of the driver’s seat, or is operating and the monitor, screen, or display is visible to the driver while driving the motor vehicle.”

Bitcoin Pursues the Mainstream – NYTimes
Entrepreneur Jeremy Allaire enters the bitcoin ring with his latest start up, Circle, and calls Bitcoin as significant as the web browser.

Bitcoin as Protocol – Union Square Ventures
Bitcoin’s is changing the way transactions are represented in a “distributed public ledger.” Much like HTTP, TCP/IP and DNS, this protocol will be a building block for further innovation.

Finally, an Art Form That Gets the Internet: Opera – The Atlantic
The challenge of depicting drama as a digital media is taken on in this Opera, Two Boys. “This is an opera that is essentially set on the Internet,” says Mark Grimmer. “And we don’t know what the Internet really looks like.”

It’s…A Marketing Barge?!

By - November 01, 2013

google_barge_map_103113(image CBS KPIX) The #googlebarge meme has taken a very strange turn.

A rather welcome diversion from our industry’s endless NSA revelations, the enigmatic barge floating off Treasure Island had been widely assumed to be a floating data center of some kind. But today a local CBS station is reporting that the massive box is custom built for….marketing. No one suggested *that* when I asked for wild speculation yesterday. Answers ranged from “a place to store Google’s cash” to “a hide out for Microsoft’s next CEO,” but “a seaworthy rival to Apple’s retail stores”? Nope, no one was that drunk on Halloween.

From the CBS story:

The project, which has been in the planning stages for more than a year, was created at Google[x], the secret facility that Google reportedly runs near its corporate headquarters in Mountain View. It is personally directed by Google co-founder Sergey Brin and is Google’s attempt to upstage rival Apple and its chain of popular retail stores, sources said.

A source who has been onboard the vessel, which is moored off San Francisco’s Treasure Island under tight security, told KPIX 5 the first three floors are designed to serve as “dazzling showrooms” that can be outfitted with chrome features and floor lighting. There is an upper “party deck” meant to feature bars, lanais and other comforts so Google can fete its upscale customers.

The barge can reportedly be taken apart quickly and shipped to anywhere in the world.  Like, say, Davos. The thing’s apparently one huge, mobile marketing stunt.

Kind of makes sense, no?

Poll: What’s On the Google Barge?

By - October 31, 2013

USATodayPicGoogleBarge(image USA Today) I’m fascinated by this “Google Barge” story. It reminds me of the Google container stories of years past, which first sparked all manner of speculation, but turned out to be pretty mundane – a portable, water cooled data center, as I recall.

But their appearance in the San Francisco Bay, as well as off the coast of Maine, is laden with the echoes of science fiction blockbusters. As in alien spaceships mysteriously appearing over major capitals around the world.

It may be that this latest apparition will turn out to be hopelessly uninteresting. That’s certainly what most folks are speculating. But what the heck, it’s Halloween, so why not speculate wildly for a moment: What might be the purpose of these barges? What’s inside them? And why are they here, now?

Put your thoughts in the comments. I’ll publish the best answers in a followup post.

Update:

Here’s some funny tweets in response:

else 10.28: “Merging with the technology”

By - October 28, 2013

This week in our news round up: artists play with the possibilities of the 3-D printing medium, the lines between the digital world and the physical world of drones and dating blur, and Silicon Valley is getting more overtly political. As always, if you want to keep up with what we’re reading/thinking about on a weekly basis, the best way is to subscribe to the “else” feed, either as an email newsletter or through RSS.

Artists Take Up Digital Tools – NYTimes
“Out of Hand: Materializing the Postdigital” at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York explores 3-D printers as tools for new art. “In recent years I’ve seen a shift in thinking from ‘What can the machine do?’ versus ‘How can I use this as part of the tool kit to achieve what I want to do?’ ” The New Yorker has a nice slideshow.

3-D Printed Untitled #5 by Richard Dupont at “Out of Hand: Materializing the Postdigital.”

There Is No Difference Between Online and ‘Real-Life’ Dating – NYMag
The line between online and offline is blurring as we all use the internet as a tool for meeting and staying in touch with people.

Confessions of a Drone Warrior – GQ
This personal account from retired Predator drone pilot has got us more emotionally involved in the ethical concerns around drone warfare and its human impacts.

Thousands gather in Washington for anti-NSA ‘Stop Watching Us’ rally – The Guardian
Protesters from the right, left, and center come together to protest mass surveillance.

Silicon Valley Attempts to Install Its First Federal Candidate – Valleywag
Congressional candidate Ro Khanna signals Silicon Valley’s foray into fixing government inefficiencies.

Is Google building a hulking floating data center in SF Bay? – CNET
Highly speculative, but could Google be working on a floating data center? This is both technically and politically interesting, given surging libertarian interest in seasteading.

Why Facebook Is Teaching Its Machines to Think Like Humans – Wired
“Deep learning” algorithms try to parse vernacular language to find more meaning in phrases like “off the hook.” On Facebook, all the language data is there, we just need better means to make sense of it.

Where Humans Will Always Beat the Robots – The Atlantic
MIT’s Rob Miller believes that for certain kinds of tasks, humans will always be better than machines. But he’s using computing scale to crowdsource those tasks with Mechanical Turk.

Automatic’s quantified car device debuts in Apple stores – Gigaom
Placing this data pulling device in Apple retail stores brings automotive stats–and quantified driving–to the masses.

What Do Drones Mean for Humanity?

By - October 23, 2013

predator-firing-missile4(Image) One of the “artifacts” that Sara and I are paying close attention to as we work on the book is “the drone.” Drones ply the liminal space between the physical and the digital – pilots fly them, but aren’t in them. They are versatile and fascinating objects – the things they can do range from the mundane (aerial photography) to the spectacular – killing people, for example. And when drones kill – well, what does it mean, to destroy life, but to not be physically present while doing it?

Until today, drone warfare for me has been a largely intellectual concept: I followed the political and social issues closely, but I avoided emotional engagement – most likely because I knew I hadn’t quite worked out my point of view on the ethical issues. But after reading Matthew Power’s Confessions of a Drone Warrior, I can no longer say I’m not emotionally involved.

The article profiles Brandon Bryant, a retired Airman  trained to pilot Predator drones above Iraq and Afghanistan. Bryant’s story frames all that we’re struggling with as a nation, as citizens, and as human beings when it comes to this new technology. As Powers writes:

…the very idea of drones unsettles. They’re too easy a placeholder or avatar for all of our technological anxieties—the creeping sense that screens and cameras have taken some piece of our souls, that we’ve slipped into a dystopia of disconnection. Maybe it’s too soon to know what drones mean, what unconsidered moral and ethical burdens they carry. Even their shape is sinister: the blunt and featureless nose cone, like some eyeless creature that has evolved in darkness.

Bryant understood that his job probably saved lives, on balance, but over time his ambivalence grew.

Often he’d think about what life must be like in those towns and villages his Predators glided over, like buzzards riding updrafts. How would he feel, living beneath the shadow of robotic surveillance? “Horrible,” he says now.

By the time he left the service, Bryant had aided in killing, or directly killed, more than 1600 human beings. That’s a heavy burden. He fell apart, and was diagnosed with PTSD. I found this passage particularly difficult to internalize:

Forty-two percent of drone crews reported moderate to high stress, and 20 percent reported emotional exhaustion or burnout. The study’s authors attributed their dire results, in part, to “existential conflict.” A later study found that drone operators suffered from the same levels of depression, anxiety, PTSD, alcohol abuse, and suicidal ideation as traditional combat aircrews. These effects appeared to spike at the exact time of Bryant’s deployment, during the surge in Iraq. (Chillingly, to mitigate these effects, researchers have proposed creating a Siri-like user interface, a virtual copilot that anthropomorphizes the drone and lets crews shunt off the blame for whatever happens. Siri, have those people killed.)

Existential conflict. I think there’s a very important concept to explore in those two words, one that is highlighted by the proposed remedy: To give technology – a non human actor – the agency of a human being, so that we can transfer the conflict we feel about killing to a machine.

It makes me wonder how much of that we do in everyday life already, on a far less dramatic scale. In any case, it’s clear that killer drones are not going away. The real question is how we as a society will internalize what they mean for our humanity. Bravo to GQ for publishing such a thought provoking piece of journalism. And to Bryant for being willing to speak out.

else 10.21: Are Drones Over Burning Man “Evil”?

By - October 21, 2013

This week we pondered how Google defines norms, how we understand ourselves through technology, and how our present technical reality moves faster than speculative fiction.

As always, if you want to keep up with what we’re reading/thinking about on a weekly basis, the best way is to subscribe to the “else” feed, either as an email newsletter or through RSS.

What Is ‘Evil’ to Google? – The Atlantic
Ian Bogost asks “what counts as ‘good things,’ and who constitutes ‘the world?’” according to Google’s norms, values, and ideas of progress

Quadcopter demos in the desert. (Fast Company)

The Drones Of Burning Man – Fast Company
Was Burning Man the test bed for how drone flight might be regulated elsewhere? Complete with some great images of hobbiest drones from the festival.

Think You Can Live Offline Without Being Tracked? Here’s What It Takes – Fast Company
The lengths we have to go to now, even in the physical world, to live outside the data-tracked world.

My Selfie, Myself – New York Times
How we come to know and express ourselves through technology. And taken to the artistic end, we have a National #Selfie Gallery.

What Life Will Be Like in the Cities of the Future – Time
As more sensors give us real time feedback, how do our urban environments change and adapt?

10 Things I Think I Think on Bitcoin – David Lee
Bitcoin points to an emerging “multipolar” global economic system, and first mover standards (like TCP/IP and SMTP were) seem like a good bet.

7 Supposedly Futuristic Technologies From Dave Eggers’s The Circle That Already Exist – The Atlantic
The artifacts of the future are already here, it’s not just speculative fiction. Sorry, Eggers.

 

A World Lit, Literally, By Data

By -

data bulbsAs you work on a book, even one as slow to develop as if/then, certain catch phrases develop. People ask you what the book is about, or the shape of its core argument, and some of the descriptions start to stand out and  hit home. One of those is “a world lit by data,” an idea I’ve been toying with for some time now. It’s a metaphor that’s not entirely worked out, but it seems to get the job done – it paints a picture of a time when everything of value around us – everything we “see” – has a component of data to it. In a world lit by data, street corners are painted with contextual information, automobiles can navigate autonomously, thermostats respond to patterns of activity, and retail outlets change as rapidly (and individually) as search results from Google.

The tortured bit of the metaphor is in asking you, the reader, to believe that we will live in spaces full of data, just as we live in spaces filled with light (be it natural or man made). Everyone understands the idea of light as metaphor. But data? Well, to my mind, they are quite connected. Without light, we can’t (easily) take in information about our physical surroundings. In darkness there is far less data. Equating “light” with “data” isn’t too much of a stretch.

Now, the interplay of light and “information” is dangerous but well-trodden ground. After all, in the Old Testament, the first thing God did after creating the physical (Heavens and Earth) was to turn on the lights. And after further contemplation, Christians decided that before Light, there was The Word, which was God’s will made flesh (John 1). Since then, of course, “the word” has come to mean, well, encoded information, or data. Loosely put (and I know I’m on thin ice here) – first we establish the physicality of that which we don’t fully understand, then we bathe it in light, hoping to understand it the best we can.

Given this metaphor, it was fun to see this headline in Quartz: A plan to turn every lightbulb into an ultra-fast alternative to Wi-Fi. The recent “li-fi” spec sends data utilizing the same frequency as light – literally, it uses a light bulb as a carrier of information. Seems my “world lit by data” metaphor is getting quite real, indeed.

 

 

else 10.14: “Drones don’t feel” – But the people who see them do.

By - October 14, 2013

Between OpenCo, the Quantified Self conference, and our visit to Google, it was a busy week for the book. From around the web: drones get the critical treatment, sensors develop new capabilities, the internet of things gets more connected, and our twitter streams start speaking for themselves.

As always, if you want to keep up with what we’re reading/thinking about on a weekly basis, the best way is to subscribe to the “else” feed, either as an email newsletter or through RSS.

Granny peace brigade anti-drone protesters at #droneconf via kimgittleson Instagram

At Drone Conference, Talk of Morals and Toys – NYTimes
Hobbyists and ethicists came together in New York to talk drones this weekend. The lineup ranged from aerial demos to policy debates.

The Latest Smartphones Could Turn Us All Into Activity Trackers – Wired
The M7 coprocessor in the new iPhone 5S brings low-battery consumption activity tracking to the masses, turning the device in your pocket into a tracker. But does that mean we’re all quantified selves when we as a cost of using smart phones?

MIT’s ‘Kinect of the future’ looks through walls with X-ray like vision – IT World
Simply using the reflections off the human body, this tool can pinpoint a body’s location within ten centimeters. Through a wall.

G.E.’s ‘Industrial Internet’ Goes Big – NYTimes
A big announcement plants more sensors in more places, with the promise of optimizing industries with more data.

Free Software Ties the Internet of Things Together – MIT Technology Review
OpenRemote offers the connections between smart devices, making it easier and cheap to manage a smart home.

Enough with the Trolley problem, already – Brad Ideas
After our ride in the self-driving car at Google last week, we’ve been thinking a lot about the ethics stories that get told. Brad Templeton is tired of the same, played out hypothetical.

A Twitter Account After One’s Own Tweets – The New Yorker
Twitter bots live on after @horse_ebooks with @tofu_product, an account that mimics the “flavor” of your own tweets.

Samsung Galaxy Gear: A Long Time Coming – YouTube
From Dick Tracy to the Power Rangers, Samsung’s ad for the Gear smart watch brings back our retro-futuristic nostalgia for calling base from our wrists.

 

Google Now: The Tip of A Very Long Spear

By - October 09, 2013

Yesterday my co-author and I traveled down to Google, a journey that for me has become something of a ritual. We met with the comms team for Google X, tested Google Glass, and took a spin in a self-driving car. And while those projects are fascinating and worthy of their own posts (or even chapters in the book), the most interesting meeting we had was with Johanna Wright, VP on the Android team responsible for Google Now.

Some of you might respond – “Google what?!” – and that’d be normal. Google Now is one of those products that to many users doesn’t seem like a product at all. It is instead the experience one has when you use the Google Search application on your Android or iPhone device (it’s consistently a top free app on the iTunes charts). You probably know it as Google search, but it’s far, far more than that. It’s the tip of a very important spear for Google, and if you study its architecture, all manner of interesting questions and insights can be found about where Google – and the Internet – may be headed.

When you fire up the Google search application on your phone, Google Now is all the bits that are not the familiar search bar. Here’s a screen shot of my Google Now “home page”:

gnow

As you can see, the search bar, which in a PC format is usually the *only* thing one sees, is most certainly not the main event. Certainly it’s at the top, and voice search is prominently featured (I could write 1,000 words just on voice search…another time, perhaps). But, the screen is dominated by “cards” of information – in this case a reminder of a call I have coming up (Google Now integrates with my calendar and contacts), as well as information about my drive home (Google Now knows I usually drive home in the afternoon). If I were to scroll down, more “cards” of information are shown, including local weather, points of interest, and sports scores (when the SF Giants were playing this past summer, I’d see scores – because Google Now knew I searched for “SF Giants scores” a lot).

These cards are extremely important to understanding where Google is heading with not only search, but with all of its various services (the card interface is now incorporated into Google’s “knowledge graph” search results, Google+, Gmail, and Google Maps, among many others). First, the cards “know” things about me – most critically my location, but also my search history, my calendar and contacts, my browsing history, key links in my Gmail, and more. They show up based on what interests and needs that Google believes will be most important to me. In essence, they are very tangible expressions of Google’s pivot from being a company that answers search queries, to being a company that anticipates your most important questions in real time, and answers them before you ask.

This, of course, has been the holy grail of tech  for some time – predating Google and even Microsoft. But now that rich data streams course constantly through the silicon veins of a very personal mobile device, that long-held vision is becoming reality.

In short, Now is Google’s attempt at becoming the real time interface to our lives – moving well beyond the siloed confines of “search” and into the far more ambitious world of “experience.” As in – every experience one has could well be lit by data delivered through Google Now.

Google knows that this moment – the moment of our lives becoming data – is happening now, and the company is very, very focused on seizing it.

If you doubt my hyperbole, I’d not be surprised, but I tend to test such hyperbole on multiple senior sources working deeply inside Google. To each I posited this question: “Is Google Now one of the most important products  at Google today?” Each answered emphatically yes.

To see why, consider this message, which popped up on my screen as I was preparing to write this post:

share daily commute

This is Google, asking me if I’d like to let selected people know where I am, in real time, during my daily commute. Of course, I can only share that status with people who are also Google+ users (no option to share on Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, etc) – and that’s my point. First, questions like these are habituating us to the idea of sharing intimate information about ourselves with others, in real time. Second, a feature like this is *only* available to Google Now because of its integration with Google+ – one platform is reinforcing the other. Will Google let others play in this sandbox? Such a feature raises a very important question about what kind of world we want to live in – a world dominated by tightly integrated vertical platforms, or a world, as David Weinberger elegantly stated it, made up of small pieces loosely joined?

It was this question that weighed on my mind as I sat down with Johanna Wright yesterday. Since introducing Google Now (and the extremely related Google Knowledge Graph), the company has introduced more than 40 cards – cards for hotels, car rentals, and other travel information (like boarding passes), cards for movies, events, music and local businesses, cards tracking your activity (like walking, biking, etc.), and cards for nearby restaurants. There’s even a card that listens to your TV and tells you what music is playing.

Sound familiar? It should, because, to put it in words we can all understand: There’s an app for that. Or rather, there are apps for each of those. Let me list just a few of them, in order what what I laid out above: Hotel Tonight, Expedia, Lyft, Sidecar, Travelocity; Fandango, NetFlix, Hulu, iTunes, Spotify, Eventful, Yelp, Foursquare; Fitbit, Jawbone Up, Fuelband, Human; OpenTable, Urban Spoon; Shazam.

Google Now supplants the need to open an app by surfacing cards – cards that magically turn into just the information you need, when you need it – *without having to go to an app to get it.*

You following where this is going? Google is potentially disrupting the app world much the way its Universal Search disrupted major web properties  - taking the most valuable service or information, and surfacing it up for free. You may recall that universal search was quite controversial when it came out, because it appeared to favor surfacing Google-owned properties, such as YouTube, Finance, and Maps, over other web properties. Now, six years later, Universal search is, well universal, and that debate, which included an FTC investigation,  is over. Google properties won.

It’s worth noting that a key product manager for Universal Search was Johanna Wright, now the VP over Google Now. With all this in mind, I asked Wright about Google’s plans for Now: Would it be an open platform, where third parties can compete to be surfaced based on merit, or would favored services win out? And would various commercial products and services be able to pay to get integrated into Now’s suggestions and services?

Wright was understandably careful with her words when approaching this question. She declined to talk about monetization and business models for Now, but she did note that Google’s overall philosophy was one that favored the open web. The key, she said, was that Google get the user experience for Now right. The business model will come later (though she did note that Google Offers was already integrated into Now).

While Wright deferred comment on Now’s business model, I have no doubts there are plenty of folks inside Google thinking long and hard about the next steps the company will take to monetize Wright’s work. For now (no pun intended), Google Now is, in the main, a closed platform – surfacing only information that Google has deemed worthy of being surfaced, and integrating on a selective basis with only those services that Google believes will add value its consumers  (Google’s restaurant card, for example, integrates with OpenTable). Just as it did with search, Google is angling to control a key moment of a person’s daily life and attention – the point at which we lift our phone up to receive new information. When and if Google Now become ubiquitous, I can certainly imagine that the question of access and fairness will once again be raised. This movie, it seems, is fated to play out once again.