Archives October 19, 2018

Universal Basic Income, Silicon Valley’s push for our further enslavement

Douglas Rushkoff, long-time open source advocate (and currently a professor of Digital Economics at the City University of New York, Queens College), is calling Universal Basic Incomes “no gift to the masses, but a tool for our further enslavement.”

Uber’s business plan, like that of so many other digital unicorns, is based on extracting all the value from the markets it enters. This ultimately means squeezing employees, customers, and suppliers alike in the name of continued growth. When people eventually become too poor to continue working as drivers or paying for rides, UBI supplies the required cash infusion for the business to keep operating. When it’s looked at the way a software developer would, it’s clear that UBI is really little more than a patch to a program that’s fundamentally flawed. The real purpose of digital capitalism is to extract value from the economy and deliver it to those at the top. If consumers find a way to retain some of that value for themselves, the thinking goes, you’re doing something wrong or “leaving money on the table.”

Walmart perfected the softer version of this model in the 20th century. Move into a town, undercut the local merchants by selling items below cost, and put everyone else out of business. Then, as sole retailer and sole employer, set the prices and wages you want. So what if your workers have to go on welfare and food stamps. Now, digital companies are accomplishing the same thing, only faster and more completely…. Soon, consumers simply can’t consume enough to keep the revenues flowing in. Even the prospect of stockpiling everyone’s data, like Facebook or Google do, begins to lose its allure if none of the people behind the data have any money to spend. To the rescue comes UBI.

The policy was once thought of as a way of taking extreme poverty off the table. In this new incarnation, however, it merely serves as a way to keep the wealthiest people (and their loyal vassals, the software developers) entrenched at the very top of the economic operating system. Because of course, the cash doled out to citizens by the government will inevitably flow to them… Under the guise of compassion, UBI really just turns us from stakeholders or even citizens to mere consumers. Once the ability to create or exchange value is stripped from us, all we can do with every consumptive act is deliver more power to people who can finally, without any exaggeration, be called our corporate overlords… if Silicon Valley’s UBI fans really wanted to repair the economic operating system, they should be looking not to universal basic income but universal basic assets, first proposed by Institute for the Future’s Marina Gorbis… As appealing as it may sound, UBI is nothing more than a way for corporations to increase their power over us, all under the pretense of putting us on the payroll. It’s the candy that a creep offers a kid to get into the car or the raise a sleazy employer gives a staff member who they’ve sexually harassed. It’s hush money.

Rushkoff’s conclusion? “Whether its proponents are cynical or simply naive, UBI is not the patch we need.”

A Future Where Everything Becomes a Computer Is As Creepy As You Feared

More than 40 years ago, Bill Gates and Paul Allen founded Microsoft with a vision for putting a personal computer on every desk. […] In recent years, the tech industry’s largest powers set their sights on a new target for digital conquest. They promised wild conveniences and unimaginable benefits to our health and happiness. There’s just one catch, which often goes unstated: If their novelties take off without any intervention or supervision from the government, we could be inviting a nightmarish set of security and privacy vulnerabilities into the world. And guess what. No one is really doing much to stop it. The industry’s new goal? Not a computer on every desk nor a connection between every person, but something grander: a computer inside everything, connecting everyone.

Cars, door locks, contact lenses, clothes, toasters, refrigerators, industrial robots, fish tanks, sex toys, light bulbs, toothbrushes, motorcycle helmets — these and other everyday objects are all on the menu for getting “smart.” Hundreds of small start-ups are taking part in this trend — known by the marketing catchphrase “the internet of things” — but like everything else in tech, the movement is led by giants, among them Amazon, Apple and Samsung. [American cryptographer and computer security professional Bruce Schneier] argues that the economic and technical incentives of the internet-of-things industry do not align with security and privacy for society generally. Putting a computer in everything turns the whole world into a computer security threat. […] Mr. Schneier says only government intervention can save us from such emerging calamities. “I can think of no industry in the past 100 years that has improved its safety and security without being compelled to do so by government.”

Actors Are Digitally Preserving Themselves To Continue Their Careers Beyond the Grave

Improvements in CGI mean neither age nor death need stop some performers from working. From a report:

From Carrie Fisher in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story to Paul Walker in the Fast & Furious movies, dead and magically “de-aged” actors are appearing more frequently on movie screens. Sometimes they even appear on stage: next year, an Amy Winehouse hologram will be going on tour to raise money for a charity established in the late singer’s memory. Some actors and movie studios are buckling down and preparing for an inevitable future when using scanning technology to preserve 3-D digital replicas of performers is routine. Just because your star is inconveniently dead doesn’t mean your generation-spanning blockbuster franchise can’t continue to rake in the dough. Get the tech right and you can cash in on superstars and iconic characters forever.

[…]

For celebrities, these scans are a chance to make money for their families post mortem, extend their legacy — and even, in some strange way, preserve their youth. Visual-effects company Digital Domain — which has worked on major pictures like Avengers: Infinity War and Ready Player One — has also taken on individual celebrities as clients, though it hasn’t publicized the service. “We haven’t, you know, taken out any ads in newspapers to ‘Save your likeness,'” says Darren Hendler, director of the firm’s Digital Humans Group. The suite of services that the company offers actors includes a range of different scans to capture their famous faces from every conceivable angle — making it simpler to re-create them in the future. Using hundreds of custom LED lights arranged in a sphere, numerous images can be recorded in seconds capturing what the person’s face looks like lit from every angle — and right down to the pores.

Facebook Could Use Data Collected From Its Portal In-Home Video Device To Target You With Ads

Facebook announced Portal last week, its take on the in-home, voice-activated speaker to rival competitors from Amazon, Google and Apple. Last Monday, we wrote: “No data collected through Portal — even call log data or app usage data, like the fact that you listened to Spotify — will be used to target users with ads on Facebook.” We wrote that because that’s what we were told by Facebook executives. But Facebook has since reached out to change its answer: Portal doesn’t have ads, but data about who you call and data about which apps you use on Portal can be used to target you with ads on other Facebook-owned properties.

“Portal voice calling is built on the Messenger infrastructure, so when you make a video call on Portal, we collect the same types of information (i.e. usage data such as length of calls, frequency of calls) that we collect on other Messenger-enabled devices. We may use this information to inform the ads we show you across our platforms. Other general usage data, such as aggregate usage of apps, etc., may also feed into the information that we use to serve ads,” a spokesperson said in an email to Recode. That isn’t very surprising, considering Facebook’s business model. The biggest benefit of Facebook owning a device in your home is that it provides the company with another data stream for its ad-targeting business.

Amazon worker demands company stop selling facial recognition tech to law enforcement

An Amazon employee is seeking to put new pressure on the company to stop selling its facial recognition technology to law enforcement. An anonymous worker, whose employment at Amazon was verified by Medium, published an op-ed on that platform on Tuesday criticizing the company’s facial recognition work and urging the company to respond to an open letter delivered by a group of employees. The employee wrote that the government has used surveillance tools in a way that disproportionately hurts “communities of color, immigrants, and people exercising their First Amendment rights.”

“Ignoring these urgent concerns while deploying powerful technologies to government and law enforcement agencies is dangerous and irresponsible,” the person wrote. “That’s why we were disappointed when Teresa Carlson, vice president of the worldwide public sector of Amazon Web Services, recently said that Amazon ‘unwaveringly supports’ law enforcement, defense, and intelligence customers, even if we don’t ‘know everything they’re actually utilizing the tool for.'” The op-ed comes one day after Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos defended technology companies working with the federal government on matters of defense during Wired’s ongoing summit in San Francisco. “If big tech companies are going to turn their back on the U.S. Department of Defense, this country is going to be in trouble,” Bezos said on Monday.

Most Americans say they can’t tell the difference between a social media bot and a human

A new study from Pew Research Center found that most Americans can’t tell social media bots from real humans, and most are convinced bots are bad. “Only 47 percent of Americans are somewhat confident they can identify social media bots from real humans,” reports The Verge. “In contrast, most Americans surveyed in a study about fake news were confident they could identify false stories.”

The Pew study is an uncommon look at what the average person thinks about these automated accounts that plague social media platforms. After surveying over 4,500 adults in the U.S., Pew found that most people actually don’t know much about bots. Two-thirds of Americans have at least heard of social media bots, but only 16 percent say they’ve heard a lot about them, while 34 percent say they’ve never heard of them at all. The knowledgeable tend to be younger, and men are more likely than women (by 22 percentage points) to say they’ve heard of bots. Since the survey results are self-reported, there’s a chance people are overstating or understating their knowledge of bots. Of those who have heard of bots, 80 percent say the accounts are used for bad purposes.

Regardless of whether a person is a Republican or Democrat or young or old, most think that bots are bad. And the more that a person knows about social media bots, the less supportive they are of bots being used for various purposes, like activists drawing attention to topics or a political party using bots to promote candidates.

Facial recognition used to identify and catalogue animals

Salmon are just the latest entry in a growing cornucopia of animal faces loaded into databases. For some animals, the biometric data gathered from them is being used to aid in conservation efforts. For others, the resulting AI could help ward off poachers. While partly creepy and partly very cute, monitoring of these animals can both help protect their populations and ensure safe, traceable livestock for developing communities…

U.K. researchers are using online resources like Flickr and Instagram to help build and strengthen a database that will eventually help track global tiger populations in real time. Once collected, the photos are analyzed by everyday people in a free app called Wildsense… The mighty lion is being surveilled too. Conservationists and wildlife teachers are using facial recognition to keep tabs on a database of over 1,000 lions… Wildlife experts are tracking elephants to protect them from encroaching poachers. Using Google’s Cloud AutoML Vision machine learning software, the technology will uniquely identify elephants in the wild. According to the Evening Standard, the tech will even send out an alert if it detects poachers in the same frame.

The story of whale facial tracking is one of crowdsourcing success. After struggling to distinguish specific whales from one another on his own, marine biologist Christian Khan uploaded the photos to data-competition site Kaggle and, within four months, data-science company Deepsense was able to accurately detect individual whale faces with 87% accuracy. Since then, detection rates have steadily improved and are helping conservationists track and monitor the struggling aquatic giant.

U.S. researchers are trying to protect “the world’s most endangered animal” with LemurFaceID, which is able to accurately differentiate between two lemur faces with 97% accuracy. But “In the livestock surveillance arms race China is definitely leading the charge,” the article notes, citing e-commerce giant JD.com and its use of facial recognition to monitor herds of pigs to detect their age, weight, and diet.

And one Chinese company even offers a blockchain-based chicken tracking system (codenamed “GoGo Chicken”) with an app that can link a grocery store chicken to “its birthplace, what food it ate and how many steps it walked during its life.”

The UK Invited a Robot To ‘Give Evidence’ In Parliament For Attention

“The UK Parliament caused a bit of a stir this week with the news that it would play host to its first non-human witness,” reports The Verge. “A press release from one of Parliament’s select committees (groups of MPs who investigate an issue and report back to their peers) said it had invited Pepper the robot to ‘answer questions’ on the impact of AI on the labor market.” From the report:

“Pepper is part of an international research project developing the world’s first culturally aware robots aimed at assisting with care for older people,” said the release from the Education Committee. “The Committee will hear about her work [and] what role increased automation and robotics might play in the workplace and classroom of the future.” It is, of course, a stunt.

As a number of AI and robotics researchers pointed out on Twitter, Pepper the robot is incapable of giving such evidence. It can certainly deliver a speech the same way Alexa can read out the news, but it can’t formulate ideas itself. As one researcher told MIT Technology Review, “Modern robots are not intelligent and so can’t testify in any meaningful way.” Parliament knows this. In an email to The Verge, a media officer for the Education Committee confirmed that Pepper would be providing preprogrammed answers written by robotics researchers from Middlesex University, who are also testifying on the same panel. “It will be clear on the day that Pepper’s responses are not spontaneous,” said the spokesperson. “Having Pepper appear before the Committee and the chance to question the witnesses will provide an opportunity for members to explore both the potential and limitations of such technology and the capabilities of robots.”

MP Robert Halfon, the committee’s chair, told education news site TES that inviting Pepper was “not about someone bringing an electronic toy robot and doing a demonstration” but showing the “potential of robotics and artificial intelligence.” He added: “If we’ve got the march of the robots, we perhaps need the march of the robots to our select committee to give evidence.”

EU Ruling: Self-Driving Car Data Will Be Copyrighted By the Manufacturer

Yesterday, at a routine vote on regulations for self-driving cars, members of the European Peoples’ Party voted down a clause that would protect a vehicle’s telemetry so that it couldn’t become someone’s property. The clause affirmed that “data generated by autonomous transport are automatically generated and are by nature not creative, thus making copyright protection or the right on data-bases inapplicable.” Boing Boing reports:

This is data that we will need to evaluate the safety of autonomous vehicles, to fine-tune their performance, to ensure that they are working as the manufacturer claims — data that will not be public domain (as copyright law dictates), but will instead be someone’s exclusive purview, to release or withhold as they see fit. Who will own this data? It’s unlikely that it will be the owners of the vehicles.

It’s already the case that most auto manufacturers use license agreements and DRM to lock up your car so that you can’t fix it yourself or take it to an independent service center. The aggregated data from millions of self-driving cars across the EU aren’t just useful to public safety analysts, consumer rights advocates, security researchers and reviewers (who would benefit from this data living in the public domain) — it is also a potential gold-mine for car manufacturers who could sell it to insurers, market researchers and other deep-pocketed corporate interests who can profit by hiding that data from the public who generate it and who must share their cities and streets with high-speed killer robots.