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More About Alexa and Its AI Siblings

Following up on my previous rant about Alexa in the classroom, two good, related articles from Wired on the subject of artificial intelligence that are worth your time to read.

In one the writer highlights sections of reports to regulators from both Alphabet (Google’s parent) and Microsoft that warn of possible “risk factors” in future products.

From Alphabet:

New products and services, including those that incorporate or utilize artificial intelligence and machine learning, can raise new or exacerbate existing ethical, technological, legal, and other challenges, which may negatively affect our brands and demand for our products and services and adversely affect our revenues and operating results.

Microsoft was more specific:

AI algorithms may be flawed. Datasets may be insufficient or contain biased information. Inappropriate or controversial data practices by Microsoft or others could impair the acceptance of AI solutions. These deficiencies could undermine the decisions, predictions, or analysis AI applications produce, subjecting us to competitive harm, legal liability, and brand or reputational harm.

On the other hand, Amazon, in a report to stockholders, is more worried about governments regulating their products than they are about Alexa activating Skynet at sometime in the future.

The other post is a long excerpt from a book being published this month called “Talk to Me: How Voice Computing Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Think”.

It covers some pieces of recent history in the development of artificially intelligent products and the difficulty of programming a machine to understand the many ways that humans communicate.

I’m undecided about reading the whole book, but this part of it is worth 15 minutes.


The image is the user interface of HAL, the malfunctioning artificial intelligence from the 1968 film “2001: A Space Odyssey”. It also links to an interesting New York Times story of how the sound of HAL was created.

Can You Really Escape?

Escape

Over the past couple of years, much has been written about the downside from immersing ourselves in technology. From the far too many data breeches to warnings about too much screen time to predictions of artificial intelligence taking over the world, it’s pretty hard to escape.

But suppose you really did want to escape.

A writer for Gizmodo decided to test that premise and find out what happens if she said goodbye to the big five: Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple. Or if it was even possible.

People have done thought experiments before about which of the “frightful five” it would be hardest to live without, but I thought it would be more illuminating, if painful, to do an actual experiment: I would try to block a tech giant each week, to tell the tale of life without it. At the end of those five weeks, I’d try to block all of them at once. God help me.

She found out very quickly that her experiment would require some special tech expertise, including a custom VPN that the average person wouldn’t have access to.1

Each of the six parts to this story are a little long and can sometimes get somewhat geeky, but I think it’s all worth your time. If you teach high school kids, this would be some good stuff to have them explore as well. I doubt they have any idea how far the threads from even one of these companies are woven into their lives.

For myself, I already know that there’s no way I can extract myself from Apple. Not without replacing lots of expensive devices I use every day. Plus Apple Music, iCloud, and who knows what else.

Google is another tech giant that would also be hard to leave completely. Even if I switched to Duck Duck Go for search, stopped using the Chrome browser, and relied on Apple Maps for directions,2 their code is still in the background of practically every site on the web. They’ve become very good at tracking me.

The same is true for Amazon. Even if you never bought anything from the company (or any of the many companies they’ve bought), their Amazon Web Services hosts tens of thousands of other websites. Even some of their retail competitors. They’re also very good at tracking people, even into the real world.

The segment on Microsoft surprised me a little. I thought I had cut the cord with them when I left the overly-large school district that employed me. Kill my Outlook account and delete Office. Done. I didn’t realize their software was behind the screen in my car.

And then there’s Facebook. I have an account that I open infrequently, usually to see photos from friends and family, and to catch up with the latest strips from Bloom County. Despite never posting anything original,3 I still see evidence of Facebook lurking all over the web.

Anyway, as I said, take some time to read this series. Even if you have no interest in escaping from any of these tech behemoths, everyone needs to understand how they are collecting and using our data.


Image: Escape by d76, posted to Flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.

1. I suspect that the average person doesn’t even know what at VPN, virtual private network, is.

2. Apple Maps is actually excellent, certainly much better today than it was when introduced almost seven years ago. Google’s Street View, however, is still the most compelling reason to stick with their mapping service.

3. I have a few images on Instagram, posted before Facebook bought them, and I regularly open that app because that’s where some photographer friends post their images.

Another Wealthy Education Expert

The latest billionaire who wants to revolutionize education is Jeff Bezos. He says he got the idea from a Twitter “conversation” about where he should put his philanthropy. So you know the idea is well thought out, right?

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is launching a $2 billion “Day One Fund” to help homeless families in the US and create a series of innovative preschools.

The Amazon CEO announced his new organization would be “creating a network of new, non-profit, tier-one preschools in low-income communities,” inspired by the Montessori School model, a child-centered educational method that relies on scientific observations of children from birth to adulthood.

Bezos didn’t offer many details on the preschool project, but his words show that he plans on treating these new schools like he does Amazon. He described the students as “customers” and explained that his new organization would ”use the same set of principles that have driven Amazon” to “learn, invent, and improve.”

Describing preschool children as “customers” is rather clueless and somewhat frightening.

And I always thought the principles that have driven Amazon were to grow as fast as possible, crush the competition, and make Bezos very, very rich. I suppose I could have been mistaken.

Anyway, the writer of this particular report at least manages to land on some good reasons why we should not be relying on super rich people to create education policy in this country.

Bezos’ latest announcement comes at a time of heightened criticism of Amazon’s business practices, and some critics say this latest move is savvy PR by the CEO of one of the world’s most profitable companies. But it also illustrates a deeper problem, which arises when private philanthropy fills a gap that the government should be filling, namely, the lack of quality, affordable early education in the United States. The problem lies both in the US government’s lack of investment in early education, and in big tech companies’ success at avoiding paying taxes, thus depriving states of crucial funds they could use to start their own early education programs.

Yep. Maybe if Bezos and his friends just paid their fair share of taxes, we could afford to develop quality educational programs for all kids at all levels.

Sidenote: As always Audrey Watters has an excellent take on this story, adding the historical context that the general media usually misses. Check the URL on the page for her original title. I wish she’d kept it.


Image credit: Wikipedia, used under a Creative Commons license. The Amazon Go stores are completely self-service. Maybe the Bezos schools will be self-learning.


The Store is Tracking You

Screen Shot 2018 01 23 at 8 30 25 PM

Irony is not dead.

This week Amazon, the 800-pound gorilla of online merchants, opened an actual physical store. From the pictures, it looks like what Whole Foods (which Amazon bought last year) might have come up with if they were designing a Wawa.

However, the unique part of Amazon Go is that there are no checkout lines, cash registers, or cashiers, and the tech press went wild.

On arrival, you launch the Go app, which comes out today for iPhones and Android phones and connects to your Amazon account. It displays a 2D code that you scan at one of several glass security gates. The code identifies you to the store and opens the gate. (You can also check in other people—a spouse, a kid, a friend—whose purchases will be added to your tab.) Once you’re in, AI algorithms start to track you and everything you pick up and keep. You can bag your items as you go if you so choose, and need interact with an employee only if you’re buying alcohol, in which case an associate standing in the liquor area will check your ID.

The article talks about the store using a lot of AI, although I’m not sure this system is all that smart (yet). Really it’s only a couple of steps beyond how I already shop.

At the supermarket I go to most often, I pick up a hand-held device after scanning a loyalty card. As I select the items I want, I scan the bar code and stick it in my bag. At check out, I scan a code on the device, wave my Apple Pay at the register, and leave. Amazon engineers take that semi-manual process and incorporate the scanner into the building itself.

This is only one store, in downtown Seattle, and it’s not clear where Amazon plans to take this concept. But it’s not hard to predict where this general technology is going.

Between the general lust for data by corporations and governments, and the paranoia-fueled push for more “security”, this kind of tracking system will become more powerful. And likely be spread far and wide.

Watch for AI-powered cameras and sensors at your local mall, airport, convention center, wherever lots of people come and go. At your school?

Ok, that’s enough ranting on this topic for now. I have to go work on my sensor-blocking tin foil hat. :)


Tweet by @typesfast, posted January 22.

 

Who Owns The Media You Just “Bought”?

My cable company regularly sends me offers to buy movies. Amazon does the same, and for television shows as well. iTunes tells me they have thousands of video programs I can purchase.

Except they’re all lying.

They either claim, as in the cable ads, that I’ll “own them forever”, or imply that’s the case. But what happens if (more likely, when) Verizon’s contract with the owner of your movie ends and it’s no longer available from that particular store. Or if your cable company merges with another and the new accountants decide that season pass you “bought” was priced too low. Or Amazon goes out of business (it will happen someday).

When it comes to music, there are a half dozen or more streaming services, places where you can listen to all the tracks in the known universe. Build collections, assemble albums, play them on any device. At least you can until you stop paying the monthly charge, after which your music collection disappears.

Then there are digital books from Amazon and Apple, and audiobooks from Audible (which is owned by Amazon). They download to your device and you can read them when you’re not online, so it looks like you own them, but not really. Those files come with digital rights management (DRM), code that prevents you from doing what people have always done with paper-based books: give to family or friends when you are done, or allowing others to borrow them from your library. Except, it’s not “your” library.

The bottom line to all this ranting is simply that everyone needs to realize that when you pay for media and are not allowed to control the file, you don’t own it; you’re renting. And that’s the plan of the big copyright owners. They want to get us used to this kind of media marketplace, since it’s only a few steps from there to all music, video, and books being pay-per-view.

Just something to think about as you go about your holiday shopping this year.

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