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New CSTV site coming! June 7, 2016

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : Announcements , comments closed

In the next day or two, we expect roll out of our new-look CSTV website, composed in the Waterloo Content Management System. Our site’s content will remain much the same but it will look like a regular UWaterloo site and be more compatible with mobile devices.

Hits on the old URL “” will resolve to the new site, although only to the main page.

We look forward to seeing you there!

DNN: 7 June 2016 June 7, 2016

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed

H8rs are gonna h8, even if their object of their disaffection is a cute little quadcopter. I say this because several companies are now demonstrating anti-drone technology. For example, a system called DroneDefender recently featured at the Navy League Sea Air Space Exposition in Maryland. The system is drone jammer that can disrupt the control signals that most drones rely on for direction. The DroneDefender looks like a machine gun and is used with a point-and-shoot method.

Drones affected by such weapons may engage in default behavior, such as landing or flying home, or simply crash. These systems have yet to be approved by the FCC.

Similarly, the FAA is considering an Anti-UAV Defense System for use at airports. Looking like a truck-mounted missile launcher, the system combines a tracking radar with a jamming device. Constructed by a consortium of British companies including Blighter Surveillance Systems, Chess Dynamics and Enterprise Control Systems, the system will begin testing at several US airports shortly.

If you are one of those people who dislike drones, then it may interest you to know that none of these devices are currently legal, at least, in Canada. Radio frequency jamming devices are banned under Canadian law, with fines of up to $15,000 set for infractions.

Mind you, the article reports that jammers are regularly purchased by Canadians from overseas companies, none of which have been charged with an offense.

Perhaps to revise their bad PR, drones have mounted a charm offensive of sorts. For example, a French company called Drone Volt has developed the Drone Spray Hornet, a drone that can be used to locate and spray insecticide on hornet nests. The idea is to help deal with the problem of invasive Asian hornets in Europe.

Australian authorities are testing a drone system to patrol beaches for dangerous sharks. Called “Little Rippers”, the drones will soon begin trials off the coast of New South Wales. At first, the drones will be remotely piloted and simply look out for the creatures. Future versions may be automated and equipped to intervene with shark repellent, life rafts, and medical supplies.

Drones are also seeking to make themselves useful on the ground. For example, researchers at A*STAR’s Institute for Infocomm Research are developing drones that would read the stacks at libraries. Reading the stacks traditionally involves humans who scan the stacks to identify books that are out of place and re-shelve them appropriately. After all, a mis-shelved book is essentially lost. However, the work is rather dull and a robotic reader might be better equipped for it.

The robots use RFID scanners to identify books during the wee hours when people are not using the stacks. They then generate a list of out-of-place books for librarians to consider each morning. The system has been tested in Singapore and apparently found to be useful.

Finally, Starship Technologies has developed a terrestrial drone for package deliveries. Looking rather like a cooler on wheels—perhaps the better to deliver beer?—the little starships navigate city streets while avoiding traffic and pedestrians. The developers point out that the terrestrial model has considerable advantages, i.e., it does not have to fly, thus saving lots of energy and making it much more compatible with existing regulations regarding the use of public space.

Even so, the public may be slow to trust little black boxes roving city streets.

Is Uncle Sam listening in? June 2, 2016

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed

He certainly reserves the right if the conversation occurs on a phone line in a US prison. Every call into or out of an American prison is recorded. This is done for security reasons, so that authorities can intercede in the event prisoners use the calls to conduct illegal business.

One problem has been that it is arduous to monitor such a large amount of traffic. After all, the US has the world’s largest prison population, at about 2.2 million. Enter London company Intelligent Voice, which has software that can monitor phone conversations automatically.

Developed originally for British banks, the software was trained to understand speech by identifying voice spectrum data (wavy lines plotted from voice frequency over time) with transcripts. Training data consisted of voice recordings of US congressional hearings plus transcripts. The result works well, with approximately 88% accuracy.

The software already helped to identify a codeword used by prisoners during phone calls. It found that the term “three-way” came up with unusual frequency in these calls. It turns out that callers use the term to refer to third parties that callers want included in the calls, against regulation. (Get your mind out of the gutter!)

I am reminded of the concept of the panaudicon, the use of universal auditory surveillance techniques to catch or deter anti-social behavior. Microphones installed by authorities are becoming increasingly common, including in Canadian airports and New Jersey transit.

As software analysis of voice recordings becomes more formidable, the issue arises as to how it should be employed. Prisoners are well aware that their calls are monitored and for what purpose. Authorities are restricted in their use of this information, at least to some extent. What standards should be applied in other contexts, where these assumptions do not apply?

Uber watch: 31 May 2016 May 31, 2016

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed

The plot thickens in Uber’s tense relationship with regulators.

A few weeks ago, citizens of Austin, Texas, voted down a proposition that would exempt ride-for-hire services, especially Uber and Lyft, from certain security bylaws. Recently adopted regulations require fingerprinting for drivers and disallow them from stopping in traffic for pick up or drop off of passengers. The two services campaigned forcefully, perhaps heavy-handedly, against the regulations and then for their exemption.

As a result of this ballot, Uber and Lyft have made good on their threat to leave Austin. It is unlikely that Austinites will go long without such services. Other companies, more open to compromise with city authorities, are likely to move in. The city is also contemplating deregulation of its taxi industry, so that cab companies can compete with Uber on more equal terms. In fact, the city is considering security arrangements that might apply to many “sharing economy” services, such as AirBNB. Austin Mayor Steven Adler cheekily says that the ride-hailing giant has become too big and rigid to adapt to innovative ideas like this:

“My sense is we were innovating too quickly for Uber and Lyft,” Adler says. “You get to be a big company, you’re less nimble. But these companies have to expect disruption.”

Take that, Travis Kalanick!

Uber is not exactly inert, though. It has, for example, agreed to recognize an association of New York drivers. The “Independent Drivers Guild” will elect a panel of drivers to hold monthly meetings with the service. Meetings will allow drivers to raise issues with the company and seek redress. The Guild will not engage in contract negotiations, like a union would, although it will be affiliated with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers union.

Such moves may help the service to deal with ongoing issues on the labor relations front. Attorneys for drivers suing Uber claim that the plaintiffs would be owed $730 million if they were treated as employees instead of contractors. Uber has offered to settle the suit for $100 million, considerably less, and without acknowledging the plaintiffs as employees. A San Francisco federal judge will rule on whether or not the offer is acceptable.

Uber is also appealing a penalty of $11.4 million levied against it in Pennsylvania. The state’s Public Utility Commission fined the service for operating without approval for six months in 2014. Uber is appealing the ruling and has offered to settle for $399,000.

Uber is also contemplating the end of surge pricing. This pricing scheme raises the cost of rides during times of peak demand, a method of rationing supply when it cannot keep up. However, customers hate it and Uber seeks to replace it with a scheme involving more supply and better prediction of demand spikes. The service is developing software to better anticipate demand surges, e.g., when a Beyonce concert lets out, and manage supply accordingly. Drivers do not like the idea, though, since surge pricing helps to put them in the black.

Relations with drivers and regulators may change for another reason. Uber is betting heavily on self-driving cars. Having raided CMU, the service is now testing Ford Fusion cars souped up with self-driving tech. Self-driving cars will someday put further downward pressure on Uber driver income and, ultimately, perhaps obviate the issue of driver relations altogether.

Uber’s deal with Ford is part of a trend of automakers getting on board with ride-for-hire services. For example, Toyota recently made a “strategic investment” for an undisclosed amount in Uber. The gist of the deal seems to be that Toyota will help Uber drivers to lease their cars. Who knows? If Toyota likes what it sees, then it may get more deeply involved in the business.

Apple has also invested in the business, sinking $1 billion into Didi Chuxing, a Chinese competitor of Uber. This investment may seem odd for a company that does not make cars but Apple is apparently developing an electric car, one that may or may not be self-driving. Stay tuned for “one more thing” in 2020.

One more thing: if you would like to hear more about how Uber might be regulated here in Ontario, then I can recommend this discussion with Steve Paikin from TVO’s The Agenda:

What does a face say about someone? May 30, 2016

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed

The concept of facial recognition seems straightforward: Match a photo of a face against a database of profiles in order to find a match. However, applying this capability can be controversial. Recall the recent lawsuit over whether or not Facebook’s software violates Illinois’s Biometric Privacy Information Act.

For another example, consider the use of facial recognition by a company called Faception. This software claims to identify personality traits from facial features. It can, the company claims, identify people who are terrorists, paedophiles, white-collar criminals, bingo players and even academics, among others! A spokesman says that the classification operates with “80% confidence”.

Some machine vision experts dispute these claims. The company’s case for its product seems based largely on its low false-negative rate: It correctly classified 9 out of the 11 Paris attackers in a simulation, for example. Yet, what is the false positive rate, that is, the rate at which non-terrorists are misidentified as villains? A system that flags people of Arabic descent might flag 9 out of the 11 Paris attackers but also misidentify hundreds of millions of others who are not terrorists.

Furthermore, the notion that a person’s facial features can reveal that they are a terrorist seems implausible. A person’s facial features derive from their DNA and life experiences, not from a recent decision to join a terrorist organization. (Or, perhaps terrorist organizations now require members to adopt special facial tattoos.) Interestingly, leaked Daesh membership profiles reveal that its adherents are from a larger diversity of backgrounds than might be suspected.

This software is similar to “mal-intent” detection systems that claim to identify people who are up to no good through security camera images. However, figuring out what people are thinking from a camera feed is also a dubious undertaking. VibraImage by Elsys Corporation of St. Petersburg claimed to pull off just this trick by looking for tiny muscle vibrations in people’s heads. This notion also sounds ridiculous, yet the system was bought and deployed by organizers of the Sochi Olympics and the Rio Soccer World Cup.

Security services are typically motivated mostly by the desire to avoid false negatives. However, the public has to deal with whatever false positives are produced by these systems, which may be copious if the system is at all inaccurate. It is therefore a difficult policy decision to figure out what balance is in everyone’s best interests.

Innovation, obsolescence, and risk May 27, 2016

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed

A couple of interesting stories came across the “wires” today, prompting ruminations on the theme of innovation and obsolescence, and how these are related to risk.

The first article from the Washington Post describes how the American military’s nuclear weapons control system is run by hardware from the 1970s, including floppy disks! Why? Because such old tech still works and cannot be hacked. Leaving nuclear weapons off the Internet is actually a pretty good security measure, keeping them out of reach of North Korean hackers, for example.

The second article from HuffPo describes how a man “driving” a Tesla was observed to be asleep at the wheel! However, because the car was in autopilot mode, it continued to make its way through traffic. Tesla was quick to reiterate that they consider this a bad idea, that it is drivers’ responsibility to maintain control of their vehicles at all times.

Still, people may increasingly act in this way as they overestimate how “smart” the autopilot mode is:

On Wednesday, a video was posted to YouTube showing a Model S crashing into a van ahead of it. The Tesla owner claims not to have braked because they expected the autopilot features to react to the situation.

This seems like a case of risk compensation, a tendency of people to tolerate greater risk in the presence of safety features.

There is an interesting symmetry here. While innovative technology may incentivize greater risk taking, obsolete equipment may satisfy a demand for risk aversion. At least, sometimes.

The song machine May 20, 2016

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed

“The Song Machine” is the title of a new book by New Yorker writer John Seabrook. It is about a group of mostly Scandinavian musicians who generate many of the world’s big hit songs. In the following short interview with Steve Paikin of TVO, Seabrook discusses the gist of the book.

A couple of central themes are relevant to this blog. First, there is the matter of authenticity. As Seabrook notes, the ideal of singers writing and performing their own music was established by the Beatles. For the most part, musicians in the industry have performed songs written for them by others. The continuing power of the Beatles ideal is manifested by the concealment of the “song machine”, so that pop singers continue to appear to author their own works.

Second, much of the development of pop music has been shaped by developments in technology. The development of music over the internet, today often streamed, has broken down album as a unit of music consumption. (The album, of course, was itself a product of a previous generation of technology.) The focus of songwriting has thus fallen on the catchiness of individual songs. This focus has been served by the development of research equipment, such as the fMRI machine used to study how people’s brains react to certain aspects of musical performance.

The composition of pop singles has changed. Seabrook notes that computer composition equipment allows writers to establish how a sing should be performed even as they hash out the ideas and the lyrics. Indeed, the sonic aspect of pop music has come to dominate the aims of composition. This has opened the door wider for non-native-English speakers, such as the Scandinavians who are so central to the “song machine”, who pay less attention to the meanings and implications of their lyrics and more to the sounds and their relation to the instrumental side of the product. Of course, the ability of people to collaborate over the Internet has facilitated the transition of pop songwriting from a personal endeavor to one more like script writing, in which a dozen or more people may participate.

Perhaps the best-known technology involved in the music-making process is Autotune. This software allows producers to correct and composite different tracks from an artist’s rendition of a song in order to come up with the optimal result.

The discussion manages to avoid any dystopian undertones. That is, the “song machine” is not obviously the ultimate degeneration of music, a once human art form brought low by advances in technology. Still, it does demonstrate the continuing power of the notion of authenticity in human affairs, as well as the interaction of technological development and artistic expression.

DNN: 17 May 2016 May 17, 2016

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed

Drones can perform a variety of useful services. In some of those roles, drones act largely as intermediaries. In others, they are themselves the objects of interest. In yet other cases, the role of drones is mixed.

A good example of a drone as an intermediary is found in the recording made by a drone of Bertha, an enormous tunnel-boring machine being used to construct a highway under Seattle. Here, the drone is an invisible substitute for the human eye, as it flies through the tunnel from its beginning to the drilling face itself.

Sometimes, the role of the drone is not merely (or primarily) to see but to draw a response. Consider a program developed by the Desert Research Institute of Nevada to try cloud seeding by drone. A fixed-wing drone was used to haul aloft gear to dump silver-iodide on clouds, the idea being to prompt precipitation. The work is in a testing phase—no rain has been made yet, nor is it clear what its ultimate use will be. Still, given the level of water stress in areas of the southwest US, hopes may be flying high with the drone.

Researchers from Duke University planned to monitor elephant populations in Gabon by drone. However, the elephants were not impressed:

And it wasn’t just that the elephants noticed them; in many cases, the elephants were clearly agitated. Some of them took off running. In at least one case, an elephant used her trunk to hurl mud in the drone’s direction. “She had her baby with her,” said Missy Cummings, the director of Duke’s Robotics Lab.

It seems that the noise of the drones reminds elephants of swarms of bees, something they are not fond of. The researchers are hoping to modify the drones so that they do not make the offensive sound.

Elephants are not the only ones who may respond defensively to the presence of drones. One participant at a Russian renaissance fair shot down a drone by hurling a spear, the most advanced anti-drone weapon apparently available to him.

I note from the row of port-a-potties in the background that the fair-goers are not completely inflexible about the use of authentic technology.

In some cases, interest in drones lies in seeing them and not in what they see at all. This is suggested by a recent Mountain Dew commercial featuring drone hunting. Dirt bikers on their steeds chase after and bag a drone, rather like the mounted, fox-hunting toffs of yesteryear.

If it has not already been done IRL, it soon will be.

In any event, such a pursuit shows how interest in drones can vary from a means of observation to the object of observation themselves.

Gene drive discussion May 16, 2016

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV203 , comments closed

As noted in an earlier post, researchers are looking for ways to implement the concept of gene drives using the CRISPR gene-editing technology. In rough terms, this technology would allow them to change the genome of many species quickly and in a more-or-less arbitrary fashion.

The most prominent application mooted for the technology is the elimination of malaria. This disease is transmitted by certain species of mosquito. A gene drive could be used to alter the genome of the mosquito so that it can no longer carry the cause of the disease. Given the harm that malaria does, such a prospect is quite inviting.

Journalist Jennifer Kahn gives an accessible overview of gene drives and the medical or ecological effects their deployment might have.

The take-home quote is the question, “Are we gods now?” I take it that this question refers to the usual concept that to modify nature is to “play God” in the sense of blasphemously changing the natural order.

That question is an interesting one but I prefer another interpretation. Aristotle argued that gods are distinguished by the ability to foresee all the consequences of their actions, as opposed to humans who are able to foresee only some. When Kahn talks about the use of one gene drive to reverse another, for example, that proposition assumes that the results of the interaction of two gene drives (or more) in nature can be anticipated with a high degree of certainty. Such an idea may look good under laboratory conditions where external factors can be controlled. However, I would be quite concerned about generalizing that notion to interactions in the wild where control is lacking. So, the idea of simply hitting “undo” after an ecological boo-boo seems somewhat dubious.

Her conclusion is that perhaps gene drives should be deployed permissively in nature. After all, there is a large and immediate benefit to be reaped, at least in the case of malaria. Of course, any harms stemming from fundamental changes in ecology might be equally as rapid, suggesting a more precautionary strategy. It is a good illustration of a fundamental dilemma of progress.

And the conversation continues.

Requiem for BlackBerry May 13, 2016

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed

Journalists Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff published a book called “Losing the signal: The spectacular rise and fall of BlackBerry.” I suppose, as an employee of the University of Waterloo, I should have read it by now, but other projects have come first.

In any event, the book recently won the National Business Book Award. In honour of the occasion, Ms. McNish appeared on TVO’s The Agenda with Steve Paikin. If, like me, you have not had the chance to read it, then the interview will give you some idea of what it’s about. As usual, Mr. Paikin conducts a good interview.

In spite of having lost its footing in the global phone market, BlackBerry lives on in significant ways.

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