John Naughton: The crucial flaw of self-driving cars? They will always need human involvement | John Naughton

The introduction of new technology into everyday life will always take longer than you think

In 1979, Douglas Hofstadter, an American cognitive scientist, formulated a useful general rule that applies to all complex tasks. Hofstadter’s law says that “It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s law”. It may not have the epistemological status of Newton’s first law, but it is “good enough for government work”, as the celebrated computer scientist Roger Needham used to say.

Faced with this assertion, readers of Wired magazine, visitors to Gizmodo or followers of Rory Cellan-Jones, the BBC’s sainted technology correspondent, will retort that while Hofstadter’s law may apply to mundane activities such as building a third runway at Heathrow, it most definitely does not apply to digital technology, where miracles are routinely delivered at the speed of light. Think of the astonishing advances in machine learning, for example, or the sophistication of smartphones. Or think of the self-driving car, an idea that seemed preposterous only 15 years ago and yet is already a reality on the highways of a number of US states. Surely these and other achievements of digital technology took less time than we thought?

Related: Autonomous car innovations: from jam busters to cures for queasiness

Continue reading…

Advertisements

John Naughton: More choice on privacy just means more chances to do what’s best for big tech | John Naughton

A study of how Facebook, Google and Microsoft have applied the EU’s new GDPR rules shows users are being manipulated

One of the most influential books published in the last decade was Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. In it, the authors set about showing how groundbreaking research into decision-making by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky decades earlier (for which Kahneman later won a Nobel prize) could be applied to public policy. The point of the book, as one psychologist puts it, is that “people are often not the best judges of what will serve their interests, and that institutions, including government, can help people do better for themselves (and the rest of us) with small changes – nudges – in the structure of the choices people face”.

Nudge proved very popular with policymakers because it suggested a strategy for encouraging citizens to make intelligent choices without overtly telling them what to do. Thaler and Sunstein argued that if people are left to their own devices they often make unwise choices and that these mistakes can be mitigated if governments or organisations take an active role in framing those choices. A classic example is trying to ensure that employees have a pension plan. Their employer can encourage them to choose a plan by emphasising the importance of having one. Or they can frame the decision by having every employee enrolled in the company plan by default, with the option of opting out and choosing their own scheme.

Continue reading…

John Naughton: John Naughton | The internet of things has opened up a new frontier of domestic abuse

As most digital devices are installed by men, it is former partners, not hackers, who pose the greatest threat to women’s welfare

Standing on a tube platform the other day, I found myself looking at a huge ad for the Nest Hello, “the doorbell you’ve been waiting for”. Apparently, “it makes other doorbells seem like dumbbells”. That’s because it “lets you know who’s there, so you never miss a thing. It replaces your existing wired doorbell and delivers HD video and bright, crisp images, even at night. It’s designed to show you everything on your doorstep – people head to toe or packages on the ground. And with 24/7 streaming, you can check in any time. Or go back and look at a three-hour snapshot history to see what happened.”

The Nest doorbell fits neatly into the emerging narrative of networked devices that will make your home “smarter”. The company already markets the Nest Learning Thermostat – “an electronic, programmable and self-learning wifi-enabled thermostat that optimises heating and cooling of homes and businesses to conserve energy”. It’ll go nicely with your networked lightbulbs, your Amazon Echo, Apple HomePod or Google Home.

Victims of this kind of abuse reported code numbers of digital front door locks being mysteriously changed

Continue reading…

John Naughton: Anti-Social Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy by Siva Vaidhyanathan – review

An excellent critique of the social media giant underlines the threat it poses to us all – and suggests how it can be tamed

The best metaphor for Facebook is the monster created by Dr Frankenstein. Mary Shelley’s story shows how, as Fiona Sampson put it in a recent Guardian article, “aspiration and progress are indistinguishable from hubris – until something goes wrong, when suddenly we see all too clearly what was reasonable endeavour and what overreaching”. There are clear echoes of this in the evolution of Facebook. “It’s a story”, writes Siva Vaidhyanathan in this excellent critique, “of the hubris of good intentions, a missionary spirit and an ideology that sees computer code as the universal solvent for all human problems. And it’s an indictment of how social media has fostered the deterioration of democratic and intellectual culture around the world.”

Facebook was founded by an undergraduate with good intentions but little understanding of human nature. He thought that by creating a machine for “connecting” people he might do some good for the world while also making himself some money. He wound up creating a corporate monster that is failing spectacularly at the former but succeeding brilliantly at the latter. Facebook is undermining democracy at the same time as it is making Mark Zuckerberg richer than Croesus. And it is now clear that this monster, like Dr Frankenstein’s, is beyond its creator’s control.

All uses of its services for political campaigns should be inspected

Continue reading…

John Naughton: America’s moon landings gave us GPS. Without Galileo, Britain will be all at sea | John Naughton

Withdrawing from the European Union could leave us far from technology’s cutting edge

It’s funny the things that geeks notice. I’ve been a keen photographer since I was a teenager and so one of the fascinating aspects for me about the Apollo programme was the cameras that the astronauts used on their missions. On Apollo 11, the first moon landing, for example, they had three Hasselblad 500ELs.

Why is this interesting? Well, in those days, Hasselbads were – and remain– ferociously expensive devices. But the final straw came with Apollo 17, the final moon landing, when the commander, Eugene Cernan, left his Hass behind on the lunar surface, where it remains to this day. Even in the context of a space mission that was fabulously expensive, the casual abandonment of such a beautiful, precision-engineered instrument looked – to those of us who thought about these things – like a criminal act.

Powerful states have often possessed more sophisticated surveillance technology than their adversaries suspected

Continue reading…

John Naughton: How China censors the net: by making sure there’s too much information | John Naughton

A new book shows how the republic’s government has adapted to the challenge of a networked age

One of the axioms of the early internet was an observation made by John Gilmore, a libertarian geek who was one of the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “The internet,” said Gilmore, “interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” To lay people this was probably unintelligible, but it spoke eloquently to geeks, to whom it meant that the architecture of the network would make it impossible to censor it. A forbidden message would always find a route through to its destination.

Gilmore’s adage became a key part of the techno-utopian creed in the 1980s and early 1990s. It suggested that neither the state nor the corporate world would be able to censor cyberspace. The unmistakable inference was that the internet posed an existential threat to authoritarian regimes, for whom control of information is an essential requirement for holding on to power.

Flooding involves deluging the citizen with a torrent of information, with the aim of making people overwhelmed

Continue reading…

John Naughton: The lesson from big tech’s latest PR events? They know we’re on to them… | John Naughton

Both Google and Apple talked up the great benefits of their technologies at recent conferences, but it takes only a touch of Kremlinology to find a very different story

In the bad old days of the cold war, western political and journalistic institutions practised an arcane pseudoscience called Kremlinology. Its goal was to try to infer what was going on in the collective mind of the Soviet Politburo. Its method was obsessively to note everything that could be publicly observed of the activities of this secretive cabal – who was sitting next to whom at the podium; which foreign visitors were granted an audience with which high official; who was in the receiving line for a visiting head of state; what editorials in Pravda (the official Communist party newspaper) might mean; and so on.

The Soviet empire is no more, much to Putin’s chagrin, but the world now has some new superpowers. We call them tech companies. Each periodically stages a major public event at which its leaders emerge from their executive suites to convey messages to their faithful followers and to the wider world. In the past few weeks, two such events have been held by two of the biggest powers – Google and Apple. So let’s do some Kremlinology on them.

Related: Why Silicon Valley can’t fix itself – podcast

Continue reading…

John Naughton: How Theranos used the media to create the emperor’s new startup | John Naughton

With £10bn and a pretty face, fraudster Elizabeth Holmes blinded some of the most respected journalists in the industry

It’s a quintessential Silicon Valley story. A smart, attractive 19-year-old American woman who has taught herself Mandarin while in high school is studying chemical engineering at Stanford, where she is a president’s scholar. Her name is Elizabeth Holmes. In her first year as an undergraduate she persuades her professor to allow her to attend the seminars he runs with his PhD students. Then one day she drops into his office to tell him that she’s dropping out of college because she has a “big idea” and wants to found a company that will revolutionise a huge part of the healthcare system – the market for blood testing services. Her company will be called Theranos.

Holmes’s big idea was for a way to perform multiple tests at once on a tiny drop of blood, and to deliver the results wirelessly to doctors. So she set about pitching to investors. Her story was straight out of the Silicon Valley playbook: blood testing is a $75bn (£64m) market, which is certain to keep growing as medical science advances and is dominated by a few big, dozy companies. As such, it’s ripe for disruption – that key SV word. A standard blood test costs $50, but Theranos will be able to do it for $2.90, and because the dozy incumbents buy their testing kit from other companies such as Siemens and Roche Diagnostics, it has to be approved by the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA). But Theranos will make its own “lab-on-a-chip” testing machine and so, via a strange legal loophole, will be exempt. And – best of all – Theranos will just require a tiny pinprick’s-worth of blood: none of that nasty business of sticking a needle into a vein.

There is a depressing list of journalists who were taken in by the Holmes hype, including high-status practitioners

Continue reading…

John Naughton: China is taking digital control of its people to unprecedented and chilling lengths | John Naughton

The Chinese government’s unsettling new system will see citizens rated by ‘good deeds’

Watching Donald Trump trying to deal with China is like watching a clown dancing in front of an elephant. The US president’s entire approach is transactional – the methodology he employed in his allegedly successful career as a property developer. It’s all sticks and carrots, bluff and counter-bluff, aggressive bluster followed by rapid retreats.

Sometimes, it appears to work. For example, the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, clearly leant on Kim Jong-un to force him to agree to a summit meeting with Trump. But then Xi leant on Trump to rescue the Chinese tech company ZTE, brought to its knees by a US ban because it had evaded sanctions on trade with Iran. Trump duly complied and ZTE executives breathed again.

Examples of deductible behaviour can apparently include not showing up at a restaurant without cancelling your booking

Continue reading…

John Naughton: As Facebook becomes better policed, bad actors are moving to WhatsApp | John Naughton

The social network has clamped down on fake accounts. But its figures are fudged and say nothing of the rise of its encrypted cousin

Jeremy Paxman, who once served as Newsnight’s answer to the pit-bull terrier, famously outlined his philosophy in interviewing prominent politicians thus: “Why is this lying bastard lying to me?” This was unduly prescriptive: not all of Paxman’s interviewees were outright liars; they were merely practitioners of the art of being “economical with the truth”, but it served as a useful heuristic for a busy interviewer.

Maybe the time has come to apply the same heuristic to Facebook’s public statements. An informative case study is provided by the company’s revelations last week that in the first three months of this year it had discovered – and disabled – 538m fake accounts. This was in addition to “the millions of fake accounts we prevent daily from registering with Facebook”. In the same period, the company also took down 21m pieces of adult nudity and sexual activity, 3.1m pieces of violent content and 2.5m pieces of hate speech.

Continue reading…