The smart guns are here May 16, 2013Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , add a comment
Guns have been in the news a lot lately, due to the development of 3D printable ones. However, gun news is not confined to additive manufacturing. From NPR comes an item about a “smart gun”, that is, a rifle that does the aiming and firing for the shooter. The Tracking Point rifle has a computerized scope with laser range-finger and heads-up display that corrects the shooter’s aim for environmental conditions, and can also delay pulling the trigger until it computes that the shot will hit its mark. It also allows the shooter to record videos of each shot for review, or posting to YouTube.
The video promotes the rifle’s use as a means of making hunting more efficient. As noted in the article, this efficiency will not suit purists, who point out that the system has the effect of deskilling the practice of hunting. I am reminded of a quote from an episode of The Simpsons, where Lenny, a gun enthusiast and NRA member, discourses on why hunters need assault rifles:
“Assault weapons have gotten a lot of bad press lately, but they’re manufactured for a reason: to take out today’s modern super animals, such as the flying squirrel, and the electric eel.”
Of course, as is often the case when tools become automated, purists will stick to the old ways, while people who otherwise would not engage in hunting may take it up with the new gear that makes it easier to score. They will be encouraged by the familiar, first-person-shooter look of the Heads-Up Display.
Naturally, the new technology poses security issues. The TrackingPoint rifle seems like a godsend to anyone planning an assassination. Aware of the issue, company President Jason Schauble notes that the scope is password protected:
“It has a password protection on the scope. When a user stores it, he can password protect the scope that takes the advanced functionality out. So the gun will still operate as a firearm itself, but you cannot do the tag/track/exact, the long range, the technology-driven precision guided firearm piece without entering that pass code,” he says.
I wonder how many of the devices will have their passwords stuck on them with Post-it notes? In any event, the password scheme seems unimpressive. Given that the scope requires users to look into it, eye-scanning might be more a propos. Even in that case, it is unclear how robust the password system will be, or whether or not having to think of a password will deter people who want the system for malicious purposes.
Besides assassinations, some users may be inclined to appropriate the system for various stunts. Some will imitate William Tell and shoot objects perched on heads. Others may find excitement out of getting the system to do odd things that the designers have probably not considered. Think of Autotune, a system that was originally designed to correct variations of pitch in singing, but was quickly used to produce odd and inventive, new sound effects instead. TrackingPoint hackers will likely find ways to get the system to produce interesting patterns of shots, playing “X”s and “O”s or spelling names with bullet holes, perhaps.
It will be interesting to see how this gun factors into the ongoing gun control debate in the US. Is access to smart guns an inalienable right? Or, should they be regulated in some way? Perhaps the best move would be not to ban smart guns but to produce a weapon smart enough not the pull the trigger at all.
Google strikes back May 13, 2013Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
I have posted before about some of the dissing that Google Glass has received so far, even before its introduction. For example, it has been compared to the Segway, a personal mobility vehicle that never took off as its inventors intended.
(Loic Le Meur/Wikimedia commons)
But Google has been fighting back, countering the criticism with some positive PR. For example, Google has publicized some warm feelings from beta testers:
Mary Lambert got cooking instructions using Glass. “The friend who I was doing it with could see what I was doing and was like ‘No no no, that’s all wrong,’ which was really helpful and I didn’t expect it,” she says.
So, interacting with Glass is better than interacting with friends? Well, friends are not always well-informed or compliant, unlike Glass.
Critics, I suppose, would argue that early adopters like everything new–like the Segway–whether it is really a good idea or not.
Another time-honoured way to take some heat off Glass is to identify a marginalized social group with whom everyone is sympathetic and who might surely benefit from the new technology. In this case, Google points out that war veterans could use Glass to have a better experience at war memorials:
[Sarah] Hill is convinced that leading a virtual tour for veterans while wearing Google Glass would be completely different for them than showing the group just a DVD. She says it gives them the ability to ask questions and request certain sights and sounds, like the waves on the beaches of Normandy or the waterfalls at the World War II memorial.
This use of Glass is similar to another new technology, also discussed by NPR, namely Sony’s new Entertainment Action Glasses. The purpose of these specs is to help deaf people enjoy movies in theaters:
Sony Entertainment Access Glasses are sort of like 3-D glasses, but for captioning. The captions are projected onto the glasses and appear to float about 10 feet in front of the user. They also come with audio tracks that describe the action on the screen for blind people, or they can boost the audio levels of the movie for those who are hard of hearing.
This technology might well be really enjoyable for deaf movie fans and could help to boost attendance in theaters somewhat. Of course, Sony’s Glasses won’t be recording any movies, perhaps unlike sets of Google Glass in front of the big screen.
This comparison suggests that veterans might be better served by simpler and more specialized gear like the Action Glasses, which would also likely be a lot cheaper than Glass.
I do not know whether Google Glass will succeed in the marketplace or not. However, its road to success would be smoother if Google could somehow assure institutions like restaurants and movie theaters that its gear won’t imperil their business enough to make them want to ban it.
(Stop the cyborgs/Wikimedia commons)
Nanoparticles and your health May 10, 2013Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
It has been a while since I have seen much news on nanoparticles and their possible effects on health. However, nanotechnology research continues, and new applications have been investigated. For example, New Scientist reports on some recent work applying nanosilver particles to filter water:
Thalappil Pradeep at the Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai and colleagues have developed a filter based on an aluminium composite, embedded with silver nanoparticles. As water flows through the filter, the nanoparticles are oxidised and release ions, which kill viruses and bacteria, and neutralise toxic chemicals such as lead and arsenic.
This sounds great, but what about the nanosilver particles that are released into the water? The articles notes that their concentration is so low as to pose no threat to human health. Certainly, it might be preferable to high concentrations of lead and arsensic.
FastCompany features a short article on some recent research in nanotoxicology, on the potential of nanoparticles such as carbon nanotubes, to cause health problems in people. A recent study raises some grounds for concern:
A new study published in Environmental Health Perspectives found that titanium dioxide nanoparticles and carbon nanotubes–two nanomaterials often found in lightweight sports equipment and paints–can cause lung inflammation in mice and rats.
The report notes that, because of their diminutive size, nanoparticles can pass through the lungs and into the bloodstream, with uncertain consequences.
As ever, we face a dilemma of progress with the advent of new technologies. Do we go the precautionary route and wait until the new materials are declared safe? Or, do we proceed and introduce them into technological designs, not wanting to miss out on their promises of a better world, e.g., cleaner water?
Canada gets robot money May 9, 2013Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
Word comes today from New Scientist that Canada is going to put robots on its upcoming revision of the five-dollar bill. More specifically, the Canadarm2 and Dextre robot arms will be featured on the note, along with an anonymous astronaut. Behold:
(Bank of Canada/Flickr.com)
This news will please many techies out there, and not just in Canada, e.g., at Engagdet:
Let that sink in for a moment: a country’s currency will reference space robots alongside the usual politicians. The only thing dampening the awesomeness is the irony of it all, as it’s an ode to technology in a format that’s being destroyed by technology. Still, we’ll consider the $5 note a victory for geeks everywhere when we’re buying a box of Timbits.
The design looks pretty neat, and definitely is better than some of the other space-tech possiblities:
Or, there is the more down-to-earth option, that being Justin Bieber:
I suppose that the Mint’s idea to go with the robot is understandable. My one quibble with the design is that it looks somewhat like Laurier’s head is on a spike, that being the pinnacle of the Peace Tower, from which I infer that the designer is not a Liberal.
first all-3D printed gun fired May 8, 2013Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
Huffington Post reports that Defense Distributed has designed and test-fired a pistol made on a 3D printer. The only parts not printed out were the firing pin, for which a common nail is used, and strip of metal to comply with US laws requiring guns to be detectable by metal detectors. (This last part can be left out if desired.)
The pistol is called “the Liberator“, in honor of the group’s goal “to defend the civil liberty of popular access to arms” by making printable gun designs available to anyone with an internet connection.
There appears to be nothing illegal in DD’s efforts. It is legal, in the United States, for people to make guns for their own use. A license is required to sell them. Whether or not it is advisable to design printable guns is less clear, although Wilson is not deterred:
“This tool might be used to harm people,” Defense Distributed founder Cody Wilson told Forbes magazine. “I don’t think that’s a reason to not put it out there. I think that liberty in the end is a better interest.”
There is some push-back from law-makers on the matter. California State Senator Leland Yee is drafting legislation that would ban the printing of weapons of this sort. Nationally, Senator Chuck Schumer and Congressman Steve Israel are drafting similar legislation.
Such laws would, I imagine, be challenged in court as violations of Americans’ Second Amendment right to bear arms. How such laws and challenges would fare, I do not know.
From a broader perspective, the right to carry weapons is often seen as implicit in the right to self-defence, a basic right. However, the need for universal arming would seem to make the most sense in a state of universal threat to individual safety, a Hobbesian “war of all against all.” In fact, though, gun violence has been declining in the US, in spite of the common impression to the contrary. So, it seems that Americans are actually winning that “war”. Will DIY weapons help or hurt that cause? Or, is that issue irrelevant, as Wilson seems to believe?
More dissing for Google Glass May 7, 2013Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
Google Glass is months from its commercial introduction, but it is already getting a rough ride. I noted in a recent posting that some commentators have found Glass to be too “dorky”. The basic complaint is that wearing Glass will make you seem rude and out-of-it to the people around you. Fear of this condition (“Glass eye”?), that is, not wanting to appear dorky in public, will inhibit uptake of Google Glass by consumers.
As noted by the New York Times, resistance to Google Glass is already gathering steam:
The glasses-like device, which allows users to access the Internet, take photos and film short snippets, has been pre-emptively banned by a Seattle bar. Large parts of Las Vegas will not welcome wearers. West Virginia legislators tried to make it illegal to use the gadget, known as Google Glass, while driving.
“This is just the beginning,” said Timothy Toohey, a Los Angeles lawyer specializing in privacy issues. “Google Glass is going to cause quite a brawl.”
Glass is poised to turn all its wearers into paparazzi, recording one another on the sly. Google responds that they have considered the possible dork factor: Google Glass must be turned on via voice or manual command, and the subject must be directly in the line of sight of the wearer before recording can start. Thus, people will know when they are being recorded. Maybe. The article notes that some developers have already hacked Glass, allowing the user to begin recording with merely a wink.
Then there is the issue of distraction. The state of Virginia has already considered legislation that would ban drivers from using Google Glass behind the wheel, which would otherwise be permitted as a hands-free device under current law. No doubt, other jurisdictions will be considering similar measures in the near future.
Google Glass will not be permitted in some private venues. The “5 point bar” in Seattle, for example, has already banned customers from using the gear there on the grounds that patrons want a private experience there. Also, Glass will not be permitted in casinos in Las Vegas, which prohibit people from using any recording device.
In a CNN article, former secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, compares Google Glass to drone technology:
Now imagine that millions of Americans walk around each day wearing the equivalent of a drone on their head: a device capable of capturing video and audio recordings of everything that happens around them. And imagine that these devices upload the data to large-scale commercial enterprises that are able to collect the recordings from each and every American and integrate them together to form a minute-by-minute tracking of the activities of millions.
I guess that Chertoff has the unarmed variety of drone in mind, although more than a few Americans do carry heat. Certainly, there is potential for abuse here, but Google’s use of the data could presumably be regulated, as their use of Street View data is. Perhaps Google’s computers could track only those who have explicitly agreed to it.
Google views concerns like this one as over-reactions. By and large, they feel, people will continue to treat each other much as before:
Thad Starner, a pioneer of wearable computing who is a technical adviser to the Glass team, says he thinks concerns about disruption are overblown.
“Asocial people will be able to find a way to do asocial things with this technology, but on average people like to maintain the social contract,” Mr. Starner said. He added that he and colleagues had experimented with Glass-type devices for years, “and I can’t think of a single instance where something bad has happened.”
How hard were they looking?
And what is Google’s view of the social contract? My idea is that I do not expect to be tracked under normal circumstances, even when in public. I do not expect to be tailed by police, for example, unless they have “probable cause” to suspect that I am up to something nefarious. Is that Google’s view?
Google does seem to have something different in mind:
Like many Silicon Valley companies, Google takes the attitude that people should have nothing to hide from intrusive technology.
“If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place,” said Eric Schmidt, then Google’s chief executive, in 2009.
In other words, Google takes the view that, by appearing in public, people have implicitly agreed to be tracked; otherwise, they should not have made themselves visible. Is that really the social contract?
More likely, gear like Google Glass will require people to re-negotiate the social contract. It will be interesting to see how that plays out.
In the meantime, Google Glass got some more love over the weekend, this time from Saturday Night Live:
Perhaps users of Glass will be the ones to worry about their public appearances.
Is Google Glass too dorky? May 3, 2013Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
We recently heard from Sergey Brin that smart phones are emasculating. His solution? Google Glass, the spectacles that are your new, Googly eyes on the world.
Now, just as Google Glass is poised to take over the smart phone market, Marcus Wohlsen at Wired argues that Google Glass is too dorky to become a commercial success. By this, he appears to mean that Google Glass makes its wearers, at least the white male ones, appear too obviously cut off from their physical and social environment. Unlike nerdiness, which implies a social awkwardness that is not without its charms, dorkiness is offensively bad, he observes. As potential Google Glass wearers recognize this problem, they will stay away in droves, thus dooming the design.
To make his case, he provides an analogy with the Segway, a sort of two-wheeled, self-balancing golf cart that was set to revolutionize personal mobility but never did. The failure of the Segway was, Wohlsen explains, due to how dorky it made its riders:
But that transformation hasn’t happened. And it won’t. Why? Because Segways are lame. They’re too rational. They fail to acknowledge all the irrational reasons people love their cars.
There may be something to this argument. As Paul Graham explains, people on Segways may seem obnoxious and detached to other people on the streets:
When you’re riding a Segway you’re just standing there. And someone who’s being whisked along while seeming to do no work—someone in a sedan chair, for example—can’t help but look smug.
This observation may explain why people enjoy watching “Segway fails” videos, like this one:
However, as Gary Rivlin explained in an earlier Wired article, the Segway had other, substantial issues. For one thing, at a price point of $3,000 to $7,000, it was never going to outsell the bicycle. For another thing, the Segway is fairly heavy, about 80 lbs, and travels fairly fast. This means that a collision with a Segway rider on a busy sidewalk is no fun. As a result, the Segway was classified as a motor vehicle in many places, forcing it off the sidewalks, full of vulnerable pedestrians, and onto the roads, full of impervious cars. The Segway lives on, but in a niche market with police patrollers and tourist “walkabouts”.
So, will Google Glass be the Segway of 2013? I do not know, but the main issue may be not how smug wearers appear to others but how good they are at avoiding collisions with them as the walk and surf the ‘net.
Two treasure-hunting robots April 29, 2013Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
Sometimes, the daily news provides items that make for an inadvertent but interesting pair. Today’s news provides just such a comparison, both from the Huffington Post.
The first item concerns a robot that has revealed burial chambers under the Temple of the Feathered Serpent at Teotihuacan, near Mexico City. Teotihuacan was the site of an ancient civilization that built this monumental city, ever more thoroughly excavated by archaeologists.
New technologies have permitted the excavations to go even further. A 2011 survey using ground-penetrating radar revealed an unexplored tunnel under the Temple. This year, a 77-pound robot named Tlaloc II-TC (after Mexico’s ancient god of rain) was used to inspect the tunnel and see what may be seen. The result was the discovery of several burial chambers, perhaps even those of the rulers of the City.
(Courtesy of INAH)
The second item concerns a young man, who goes by the handle “ioduremetallique”, who has designed a robot that excavates pop cans from vending machines. Have a look!
The design is clever, and I am sure that newer versions will work even faster.
Robots can be great prostheses, helping people to reach places that are difficult or impossible otherwise. Besides helping us stretch our physical limitations, they will help to challenge our ethical boundaries as well.
Public photography April 24, 2013Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
An article in PhotographyIsNotACrime argues that the police response to the Boston Marathon bombings reveals hypocrisy regarding public photos (hat tip to Bruce Schneier). Since 9/11, taking photos of buildings or public spaces has been regarded sometimes with suspicion: Perhaps the photos are preparations for a bombing plot. However, the police in the Boston Marathon bombing case solicited public photographs as a part of their investigation. Isn’t that hypocritical?
Adding to the hypocrisy is that these same authorities will most likely start clamping down on citizens with cameras more than ever once the smoke clears and we once again become a nation of paranoids willing to give up our freedoms in exchange for some type of perceived security.
Read in this general way, this policy does seem hypocritical: It is ironic that police could both repudiate and advocate public photography, and do so in a way that benefits them at the expense of photographers. However, is it really police policy to prohibit all photography in public, e.g., taking pictures of family members as they cross the line at a marathon? I doubt it, and I don’t suppose that police will be cracking down on such things in the coming weeks.
Douglas McCormick at IEEE Spectrum notes that facial recognition software played no role in the identification of the bombing suspects. Even though the suspects had drivers’ photos on record, the software did not connect them with photos of people at the bombing site. That was accomplished by police. However, police are adopting more automatic, visual surveillance equipment, e.g., New York City’s Domain Awareness System. This system will include cameras in public places and entry or exit points to the City, tracking each vehicle that enters the city until it leaves.
(So, next time you visit NYC, smile! Or don’t–it screws up the biometric assessment.)
In any event, I think that the situation reveals not so much police hypocrisy as a general ambivalence towards the gift of ubiquitous picture snapping. Most of us enjoy taking pictures of all sorts in public spaces and sharing them with others. We also fear people who use this capability against us. The question becomes: Who do we trust with it, and to what extent?
Juror sent to jail April 22, 2013Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
Wired notes that young Benjamin Kohler was recently sent to jail for two days. His crime? He was found in contempt of court for texting during a trial at which he was a juror:
When prosecutors were playing a video-taped interview with the defendant, Judge Dennis Graves suddenly halted the trial after noticing a light glow around juror Benjamin Kohler’s chest. The judge, who had previously instructed jurors to pay attention and not to use mobile phones, immediately halted the proceeding and ordered everybody to vacate the courtroom except Kohler, the Sheriff’s Department said.
As Kohler could not give a satisfactory explanation for his actions, the judge jailed him in order to give him time to reconsider them.
Traditionally, jurors on duty are separated from their other affairs so that they may concentrate on their role in the court. It was once possible to achieve that separation straightforwardly by constructing isolated court rooms and buildings. Of course, in the era of wireless networks and portable smart phones, four walls will no longer do the trick.
The mismatch between the expectations of judges and those of jurors can be quite serious. Kohler was sent to jail. A British woman was convicted of contempt for contacting the defendant via Facebook during trial. In a case in Arkansas, the judge ordered a new trial for a defendant accused of a capital crime because a juror was caught tweeting about the proceedings.
The role of juror is basically to comprehend and weigh evidence presented to them in order to generate a justified verdict. Mike Masnick at TechDirt has argued that jurors should be able to use the ‘net to achieve this end. The more information they bring to bear, the better their decisions will be.
Although this argument makes some sense, it sets aside the problem of due process. As noted above, the traditional role of juror requires a fair degree of isolation and attention. Smart phones undermine both: They connect people constantly and ubiquitously, and they divide attention the same way. Responses in the legal system have generally been to uphold the traditional model, as the Kohler case suggests. Could the role of juror be re-conceived, to make it more compatible with the realities of modern life?
One possibility would be to crowdsource jury duty. Put a camera in the courtroom and allow any willing person to watch the proceedings. Those who watch for long enough (and fulfill some other preconditions) would be permitted to vote on the verdict. Allow jurors from developing countries to participate and the cost of jury deliberations could be lowered considerably!
Another possibility would be to gamify the process. Jurors could earn badges for assessing evidence and making arguments on the trial’s Facebook page. Those who advance enough levels by the end of the trial would be allowed to vote on the verdict. That would help to address the problem of paying attention–make jury duty more compelling.
Any other ideas?