All posts filed under: Tech

Denying Encryption To Terrorists Is A Fantasy

The script for responding to Western terror attacks is now so predictable that they might as well publish a schedule in the TV listings. First we get the platitudes: “praying for” the affected city, liking Facebook statuses, and projecting flags onto buildings. Next there is the denial stage, where the commentariat implore us not to make assumptions about the attacker’s motives, because for all we know this was actually the work of Buddhist monks or the National Farmers’ Union. Then comes the hand-wringing over the potential racist backlash at the hands of the unstable, knuckle-dragging public, whose desire for an anti-Muslim pogrom can only be kept in check by loudly proclaiming that Islamic terrorists are not Real Muslims. Finally, once the emotion has died down, politicians can get on with doing what they do best — demanding more control over the internet. After Khalid Masood murdered four people in London last month, Home Secretary Amber Rudd wasted no time in laying the blame at the feet of WhatsApp, insisting that secure messaging apps must not …

Using Social Media Scientifically

It is often said that we need more science in our public debate. By this, it is usually meant that people should base their views on scientific facts, which have more authority than mere opinion. It is said that political leaders and public commentators should be both scientifically literate, and base their views on scientific findings where it is relevant to do so. While this is a noble goal, it is not what I’m proposing here. Instead, I’d like to argue that we should attempt, on a day-to-day basis, to approach social media and news consumption scientifically. What do I mean by ‘scientifically’? Social media, and the internet more broadly, have afforded us tremendous potential to access information, and to interact with people beyond our immediate social circles. Interacting with others helps us to develop our knowledge of the world by digesting information, disseminating it, or engaging in dialogue about it. We can test our views about the world—however informal or loosely formed they are—against the views of others. However, social media debates can often …

Five Stars or Nothing

Everyone rating everything out of five is a terrible idea and we are on a trajectory towards this. In April 2016 The Guardian podcast Tech Weekly explored how we are becoming a “rating society”. Uber was the focus. Uber drivers rate passengers out of five and vice-versa. As a passenger, you are apparently less likely to be picked up as quickly if you have a low star rating. And Uber drivers who slip in their ratings risk losing the ability to drive for Uber. Your personal rating is a form of currency. If your Uber driver rating slips “below average” you may need “to come into the office so [Uber] can provide you with some tailored feedback.” The problem is that “below average” would appear to be anything under 4.6 out of 5. On most historical measures a 4.6 out of 5 is excellent. One star out of a possible three under the century-old Michelin Guide is “a very good restaurant.” In the past, experts provided the ratings, not the consumers. Ratings were reserved to …

Why Pokemon Go Became An Instant Phenomenon

In the last week, Pokemon Go, an augmented reality game for mobile phones, has taken off. Daily traffic for the game exceeded Twitter and Facebook use. What is driving this intense interest and involvement? One way to understand is to take a closer look at the game’s design. First, for those who haven’t played or watched, a brief overview of how the game works. To play Pokemon Go, you download an app onto your phone, which allows you to search for and “see” virtual creatures called Pokemon that are scattered throughout the real world. You need to be physically close to a Pokemon’s location to see it on your mobile screen. Pokemon Go uses augmented reality technology – the game overlays the creature image on top of video from your phone’s camera, so it looks as if the creature is floating in the real world. When you find a Pokemon, you try to catch it by swiping an on-screen ball at it. The simplest aim of the game is to “catch ’em all.” To do …

Regaining a Sense of Sanity in an Age of Social Media

For those of us who follow politics and current events, it’s hard not to feel cynical. The cultural practices of manufactured outrage, sensationalism and professional offense taking seem to have set us on course for a total cultural burnout. Things can still get better, but cultural recovery begins with individual improvement. I joined Facebook back in 2005 and came of age with everything since then, so maybe I’m just a little burned out. At this point, my indifference at being part of the “Facebook generation” has morphed into shame and resignation. True, public discourse has always been a little over the top in The United States. When I hear people say, “I miss the good old days when people were nice to each other,” I think, “what the hell are you talking about? Do you remember the 90s?” None of this is really new. But our current epoch is indeed unique. It’s incredible how frequently we see things like public shaming, and harassment used for the most minor transgressions. And no side has a true …

Evolving our way to Artificial Intelligence

Researcher David Silver and colleagues designed a computer program capable of beating a top-level Go player – a marvelous technological feat and important threshold in the development of artificial intelligence, or AI. It stresses once more that humans aren’t at the center of the universe, and that human cognition isn’t the pinnacle of intelligence. I remember well when IBM’s computer Deep Blue beat chess master Garry Kasparov. Where I’d played – and lost to – chess-playing computers myself, the Kasparov defeat solidified my personal belief that artificial intelligence will become reality, probably even in my lifetime. I might one day be able to talk to things similar to my childhood heroes C-3PO and R2-D2. My future house could be controlled by a program like HAL from Kubrick’s “2001” movie. Not the best automated-home controller: HAL. As a researcher in artificial intelligence, I realize how impressive it is to have a computer beat a top Go player, a much tougher technical challenge than winning at chess. Yet it’s still not a big step toward the type …

Bitcoin might not change the world, but the blockchain that makes it work, might

Digital cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin may have failed to unseat their more traditional rivals, but the technology that underpins Bitcoin may yet bring about a revolution in finance and other industries. This technology is called the “blockchain”. The blockchain acts as a public database or ledger, and is the technology that stores the details of every exchange of bitcoins. What makes it particularly clever is that it is designed to stop the same bitcoin being spent twice, without the need for a third party (like a bank). The Promise of the Blockchain Even from the early days of Bitcoin, it was believed that the blockchain could be used for much more than recording Bitcoin transactions. What the blockchain does is record a set of details that include a time, a cryptographic signature linking back to the sender and some data that can represent almost anything. In the case of Bitcoin, it is the number of bitcoins being sent but it could be a digital cryptographic signature, called a “hash”, of any electronic document. One of the …

The next war will be an information war, and we’re not ready for it

  In the 21st century the familiar form of warfare in which physical damage is meted out against the opponent’s military forces and infrastructure has become only one form of attack. Instead, states are increasingly launching non-lethal attacks against an enemy’s information systems – this is the rise of information warfare. Dan Kuehl of the National Defence University defined information warfare as the “conflict or struggle between two or more groups in the information environment”. You might say that just sounds like a fancier way of describing hacking. In fact it’s a lot more sinister and a lot more dangerous than its somewhat tame name implies. Western leaders are investing billions to develop capabilities matching those of China and Russia, establishing military commands for attacking, defending and exploiting the vulnerabilities of electronic communications networks. Information warfare combines electronic warfare, cyberwarfare and psy-ops (psychological operations) into a single fighting organisation, and this will be central to all warfare in the future. The anatomy of information warfare The free flow of information within and between nation states …

The Great Statistical Schism

What is probability? This sounds like a discussion question for a philosophy class, one of those questions that’s fun to think about but that doesn’t have many practical consequences. Surprisingly, this is not the case. As it turns out, different answers to this question lead to completely different views of how to do statistics and data analysis in practice. In the early 20th century, this led to a split in the field of statistics, with intense debates taking place about whose methods and ways of thinking were better. Unfortunately, the wrong side won the debate and their ideas still dominate mainstream statistics, a situation which has exacerbated the reproducibility crises affecting science today [1]. Here’s a common, standard statistical inference problem. An old drug successfully treats 70% of patients. To test a new drug, researchers give it to 100 patients, 83 of whom recover. Based on this evidence, how certain should we be that the new drug is worse than, identical to, or better than the old one? If you think it is legitimate to …

Time to go Deeper on Blockchain

Blockchain has been getting more attention lately. With the publication of two widely shared articles on the subject, in the Economist in October, one may wonder why is it so important? Blockchain is important because it provides a way to communicate electronically that mimics face-to-face transacting in the physical world. Its implications are massive. Maybe you’ve heard ‘blockchain’ mentioned in the same breath as ‘Bitcoin’. I had heard of Bitcoin. But until recently I hadn’t given it much thought. My first experience with electronic currency was at the turn of the millennium in a book of fiction called Cryptonomicon. Fast-forward about a decade and I couldn’t see how a non-government or gold backed currency could ever have any real value. So I didn’t educate myself. I now know that users of Bitcoin are able to connect directly with each other and exchange the currency. This disintermediates payment systems like VISA, PayPal and SWIFT – there’s no central third-party. If I want to send a friend bitcoin, I broadcast this message across the protocol. Nodes (computers …