- The Military Wants to Make AI That Mimics the Human Brain. Experts Know There’s a Better Way.
- Yes! Futurism’s New App Is Here. Meet the Geniuses Behind It.
- Everything You Need to Know From Mark Zuckerberg’s Congressional Testimony: Day 1
- DNA Marketplace Helix Will Offer Tests For Serious Diseases. 23andMe Is About to Get Some Serious Competition.
- While Mark Zuckerberg Testified Before Congress, Senators Introduced Legislation That Would Finally Rein Facebook in
- Goodbye, Passwords: Future Internet Demands Biometric Readings And Dorky Lanyard Security Keys
- Dare to Eat the World’s Hottest Chili Peppers? Beware of “Thunderclap” Headaches
- Users Can’t Stop Taking Antidepressants. Why Don’t We Know More?
- Alphabet Will Start Toronto Smart City Project This Summer. Residents Still Have Questions.
Posted: 11 Apr 2018 10:18 AM PDT
No matter how many times you may hear that AI is going to make us human slaves and take over the world, it’s kind of hard to believe when we’re constantly confronted with AI that’s consistently stupid. A few reminders: Alexa once played porn when someone requesting a children's song; AI playing one of those old text-based computer games got stuck when it kept giving nonsense commands.
While that might save us from a Skynet-type situation, it’s problematic as we use AI for increasingly sophisticated applications, such as robotic prosthetics, writes DARPA's Justin Sanchez in the Wall Street Journal. Brains and computers process information very differently, and the software for a prosthetic arm can't keep up with all the different ways a person's brain might attempt to control it. The result is that prosthetics spend an awful lot of time sitting still.
What if the software was better adapted to how brains actually work?
DARPA thinks it found the answer: train AI to read and adapt along with the brain's signals, learning what we are thinking and why as we do it. In short: teach AI to function more like the human brain.
Sounds good, right? In practice, however, it would mean jumping over a much bigger hurdle, one that has tripped up a great deal of researchers on their race to create a truly intelligent machine: figuring out how in the hell our brains work. Doing that would allow for a seamless interface between brain and machine that could, to continue their example, give an amputee perfect control over their artificial limbs. And if their plan wasn't batshit enough, it even has some scientists speculating on whether AI might be able to hallucinate or develop depression.
Hey but here’s a handy thing to know about the human brain: we really have no idea what's going on in there.
And it just so happens that a number of leading AI researchers think that trying to decode and mimic the human brain is a waste of time.
Max Tegmark, an MIT physicist and director of the Future of Life Institute, has a few choice words for those attempting to digitally recreate the human brain. Namely, he calls it "carbon chauvinism."
"We're too obsessed with how our brain works, and I think that shows a lack of imagination," he said during a panel on AI last September.
“The main progress right now and in the near future will be getting to a performance at a human-level without getting the details of the human brain all figured out,” Bart Selman, an AI researcher at Cornell University, told Business Insider.
There’s nothing wrong with mimicking the natural world in technology. For an amputee controlling a prosthetic, software based on how the brain processes language could be invaluable.
But the key there is to be inspired by existing biology while creating something new based on the framework of the technology itself — in this case, intelligence and information processing.
There's a very good reason the first flying machines didn’t imitate the way bats fly, and the first cars weren't based on horses and buggies: people tried that, and they were terrible. AI is no different. And the sooner we can move away from the idea that we should try to copy an incredible computer that we don’t understand (our brains), the more AI can advance.
The post The Military Wants to Make AI That Mimics the Human Brain. Experts Know There's a Better Way. appeared first on Futurism.
Posted: 11 Apr 2018 09:04 AM PDT
Readers of Futurism: Hi! If you’re here, that means you either swiped on our clever-ass push alert (HA! GOTCHA!) or you’re really, really interested in a media company’s inner-workings.
Either way, thank you, and congrats – because you got to this very special webpage, where we’re going to go over three important things with you, our dear, beloved readers:
1. Our new app is here. Download it, or update it. Because…
2. It’s great. It’s got some wonderful new features (including an offline mode), and contains a peek into what’s to come from us. Oh, and also…
3. There’s some good thought behind it. Rather than roll out another new app design (which, no matter how great, can be disruptive to readers’ familiarity with a publication and user experience, generally), and do so absent context, we wanted to let you in, under the hood, to let you know why we did what we did, and what’s on the horizon for us.
We think it’s pretty decent. You might, too.
So, without further ado, we present the two stallions who made this thing happen:
Tag Hartman-Simkins, The Artsy One (“Director of Design”)
The app redesign is part of a much larger planned redesign for Futurism, and it’s mostly dialed in on the ways we’ll be punching up on the aesthetics of the site, to go with it’s new editorial tone [Ed. You’re welcome!] and changing aesthetics: color, space, and cleanliness.
We made some fun changes. We introduced a new color palette for each of our “themes,” and they now have a fresher, brighter aesthetic. Colors! They’re colorful! We’re getting away from grayscale. No, but really: Futurism generally covers a pretty complex array of topics, even for people who consider themselves well-versed in tech publications and writing. We’re gonna be delving even further into these more obscure, complicated areas in the future, while also trying to give these stories appeal to a wider audience. It’s why I needed those concepts, visually, to code as attractively accessible to the curious, and the first step in doing that — in inviting more people to understand these topics — is by presenting them in a comfortable, visually-appealing space, as opposed to one that’s stuffy, tight, and compressed.
Even more: Our headers are bolder. And our articles are set in Palatino — a typeface based on humanist typefaces from the Italian renaissance – but way more legible, and set with a taller line height to make the text feel considered and valuable, rather than rushed and cheap. Instead of a drawer that pulls down from the top of the app, we drew up a left-rail drawer that can be pulled out by tapping that tab in the upper left hand corner of the screen, where users can navigate through different themes, videos and the latest news. And: Readers can now tag stories for later. In many ways, it’s just a fresh coat of paint. We’ve got plenty in mind for future iterations of the app, including further polishing and new features that enrich the user’s experience of reading and exploring Futurism, and understanding it all, too. It’s the first step, but it was still a fun step to take. We think you’ll agree.
Dan Scanlon, Lead Nerd (“Head of Engineering”)
Under the hood, Futurism’s first app was generated using a service called Appful, which integrated with our WordPress back-end, and basically loaded our content into a theme we customized with our colors. It worked as a temporary solve, but now, it’s been replaced with a new app I built from the ground up – one that suits our needs better than a plug-and-play solution.
The app was written using React Native (a cross-platform framework for writing mobile apps) and Expo (a React Native SDK that helps distribute our app, and use common platform features, like instruments and analytics).
The codebase for our new app actually builds four different apps: the iOS and Android apps for Futurism and Mostaqbal (our Arabic partner site), and the two variants share the same code. There’s no copy-pasted source code, so we don’t need to worry about keeping the variants in sync. This kind of thing’s not supported out of the box or documented anywhere on the web, so I wrote some custom tooling so we can make changes to the source, and run a single command to select the app variant we want to run to test it.
As far as user experience improvements go, again, we’re not at the mercy of Appful to change the appearance or features of the app, anymore. That means we can push important updates to the apps immediately, without submitting updates via the App Store. The “Read Later” feature has offline support, which is pretty fun, too.
And as for what’s coming down the pipeline? Like everyone else, we’re after a richer, more-polished UX — always. The challenge isn’t on the mobile end, though. It’s not that hard to build a tasty app. WordPress, really, (or an over-reliance on it) is the big dream-crusher we’d love to get out from under.
In other words: A new CMS supporting structured content. All of the things that don’t make for a perfect transfer to the app (i.e. post content rendering, video playback, infographics) are due to how the underlying information gets encoded. And: We can’t neatly lay out site posts on mobile, because it’s basically represented as HTML intended to be spit into a cup, at least as far as our WordPress theme is concerned. So instead of using native typography, image views, and so on, we have to load the HTML into a web view, and inject a bunch of CSS to make it readable on mobile. It blocks us from supporting basic features like image light-boxes (allowing users to zoom into images) and nice video playback (for videos in posts). And of course, there’s self-hosted video: If we want to have a video-heavy app, we should be serving that content ourselves, so that we can control the UX. Currently the best we can do is embed YouTube players inside of web views, which: “puke emoji.”
So, yeah, we’ve got some work ahead of us. That said, as perfectionists, we occasionally need to be reminded (and remind ourselves) that we do halfway decent work. So, fine: The new app is pretty swell. It’s, in all honesty, a huge jump over the last one. And you’re gonna love the way we look in it. I guarantee it.
The post Yes! Futurism’s New App Is Here. Meet the Geniuses Behind It. appeared first on Futurism.
Posted: 10 Apr 2018 06:28 PM PDT
You’ve heard the rumblings over the years: Might Mark Zuckerberg make it to Washington? We’re pretty sure this isn’t the type of visit he had in mind. In the wake of Facebook’s involvement in the data-sharing scandal, Zuckerberg testified today before a joint session of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee (at 10:00 ET tomorrow morning, he’ll be in the hot seat again, this time before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce).
Zuckerberg already shared his written testimony, but during today’s live-streamed hearing, 44 Senators had five minutes each to ask him questions directly. The whole thing took about five hours. Here are the topics they batted around the most, and what both the Senators and Facebook’s CEO had to say about them.
“If you and other social media companies don’t get your act in order, none of us are going to have any privacy any more,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) said during his opening statement. Given the nature of the Cambridge Analytica scandal (reminder: the third-party app used a quiz to get ahold of user data, as well as that of all of their friends), it’s not surprising that privacy was a hot topic throughout the hearing.
Lawmakers tried to suss out exactly what Facebook knew about the Cambridge Analytical scandal, most of which was already covered in Zuckerberg’s previous statements on the topic. They also asked if he’d react differently if the data scraping happened today (yes, he would).
At several points throughout the testimony, Zuckerberg attempted to clarify exactly what data Facebook collects and what it doesn’t. He frequently emphasized that Facebook does not sell user data. It collects data, and then gives advertisers access to the Facebook users that are most relevant for their products or services.
In one of the most overtly critical moments of the day, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) questioned outright whether Zuckerberg had the “will” to help Congress solve the problem of inadequate privacy protections.
Zuckerberg told Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), “I agree that we’re responsible for the content [on Facebook],” and a number of questions focused specifically on what kind of “content” actually showed up on the social media site.
Several senators asked how Facebook is addressing hate speech. Zuckerberg noted that the platform is creating helpful artificial intelligence (AI) tools and hiring more native speakers to review content in non-English speaking nations.
Meanwhile, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) took a different line of questioning (perhaps not surprising since, as several have pointed out, Cruz himself was working with Cambridge Analytica), noting that the platform seems to express a bias against conservative stories and users.
“I am very committed to making sure Facebook is a platform for all ideas,” Zuckerberg responded. Facebook attempts to police content that can cause “real-world harm,” such as terrorism, self-harm, or election interference, according to Zuckerberg.
Beyond that, though, the platform’s goal is “to allow people to have as much expression as possible.”
Sen. John Thune (R-SD) noted in his opening remarks that lawmakers may soon need to take more control in the tech industry instead of letting the companies mostly regulate themselves.
When Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) asked Zuckerberg if Facebook would “welcome regulation,” Zuckerberg said, “I think, if it’s the right regulation, then yes.”
As for what those that regulation might be, Zuckerberg told Graham he would “absolutely” work with lawmakers on crafting it, and that his team would follow up after (this, perhaps, was Zuckerberg’s most-often repeated phrase of the afternoon).
He later told Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) that a rule requiring Facebook to notify users of a breach within 72 hours “makes sense” to him. He also supports having a law that makes “opt in” the standard for data sharing.
The Best of the Rest
Here’s a potpourri of things that might have come up less frequently, but were still significant during Zuckerberg’s testimony:
Tune in tomorrow for Zuckerberg’s round 2 in the ring with the U.S. Senate.
The post Everything You Need to Know From Mark Zuckerberg's Congressional Testimony: Day 1 appeared first on Futurism.
Posted: 10 Apr 2018 06:07 PM PDT
Genetic tests that were once only available through doctors are now sent right to your mailbox. PerkinElmer and its consumer genomics marketplace, Helix, have announced that they will soon start selling tests for serious genetic diseases.
Helix’s new offerings could make it a strong competitor against genetic testing giant 23andMe, which currently offers a limited array of tests for health conditions (which will soon see cancer risk added to the mix) alongside the ancestry tests that made it famous.
Unlike 23andMe, Helix combines its genetic testing service with offerings from third parties (MIT Tech Review compared it to a “DNA app store”), giving users a wide array of products that utilize their genomic data. Maybe you want to learn about how much Neanderthal DNA you have? There’s an app for that. How about socks, shirts and prints personalized with stripes meant to represent your DNA variants? That’s there, too. Helix’s store even offers a test, from a company called “Vinome,” that claims to select the best wines for you based on your genetics.
Helix’s parent company, Illumina, has spent the past 15 years selling the machines that researchers worldwide use to sequence human DNA. But its foray into direct-to-consumer testing speaks to consumers’ insatiable demand for genetic tests to tell them anything they may want to know about themselves, and the tests’ potential to make the company a whole genome-load of cash.
By giving consumers the option to continue interacting with their DNA long after that first spit, Helix gives itself a chance to keep making money. Instead of the individual tests offered by 23andMe, consumers can order test after test as Helix partners with new third-party organizations. And after that initial $80 sequencing charge, they only have to pay $29.99 for each subsequent test. Why get new customers when you can get the same ones to keep paying?
Should you be wary of Helix? In general, it presents many of the same risks as other direct-to-consumer tests: that disease risk is often too complex to educate patients about in a one-way online portal; that DNA-based traits are also influenced by other factors; that genetic tests themselves can yield false results; and that the accuracy of tests is determined by what populations they’ve tested before. (Indeed, the page for the Vinome test states “Some results may be less accurate for individuals of non-European ancestry.”)
But Helix does offer unique risks: that the company will take advantage of consumers’ relatively immature knowledge of how DNA works, plus their unceasing curiosity, in their constant pursuit of sweet, sweet cash. These “second-wave” testing companies have been popping up more frequently, offering everything from dating services to dieting advice based on genetics. And though Helix says it vets the science behind every third-party app, it also notes in its terms of service: “Partners are responsible for the content of their DNA Product(s), including the scientific basis of each product and the information each product provides,” and Helix “is neither responsible nor liable for the content.”
Ideally, a customer who wants to know whether they’re at risk for the diseases that Helix is testing for (or even dieting advice based on their genes) would consult a doctor. However, as a genetic counselor pointed out to Wired, that can require specialized expertise and can run up thousands of dollars in bills. (Hence, the growth of cheap, mass-sequencing companies.)
Since it seems like these companies are the direction that genetics are going, we can at least hope that companies are rigorously evaluation what patients see, and not trading patient trust for an easy buck.
Posted: 10 Apr 2018 03:13 PM PDT
If your eyes were glued to your screen as you watched the soothing back-and-forth between a bunch of elderly white men pretending to understand the internet and a contrite, broad-foreheaded, moon-faced Mark Zuckerberg, you might have missed the only real piece of substantial news to come out of Congress in the past few hours.
That is: proposed legislation that could limit Facebook and its ilk more than any before it.
Today, senators Edward Markey (D-MA) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) introduced a piece of legislation called Customer Online Notification for Stopping Edge-provider Network Transgressions (CONSENT Act — way catchier, right?).
The legislation would require companies that mine user data to sell to advertisers, such as Facebook and Google (both are mentioned by name in the press release but not in the legislation itself), to allow users to opt-in to sharing of personal information and develop “reasonable security practices,” according to a press release. Companies would have to notify users if their data was collected or shared, or if their information was hacked.
It would fall to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to enforce the law, which, as The Verge notes, would make the agency even more powerful, especially in the realm of online advertising, over which the FTC already has jurisdiction.
American legislators seem to be heeding consumers’ growing demands for legislation to protect their privacy online to rival the laws that will go into effect in the European Union this year.
It’s not yet clear when the CONSENT Act might go to a vote.
Senators Markey and Blumenthal don’t seem all that impressed by Zuckerberg’s apology tour. They’ve decided the time has come to stand up for users who were shocked by the Cambridge Analytica scandal and still find themselves with little say in (or, often, knowledge about) what kind of their own data companies are using to make money and share with others.
"The startling consumer abuses by Facebook and other tech giants necessitate swift legislative action rather than overdue apologies and hand-wringing," Blumenthal said in the press release. "Our privacy bill of rights is built on a simple philosophy that will return autonomy to consumers: affirmative informed consent. Consumers deserve the opportunity to opt in to services that might mine and sell their data – not to find out their personal information has been exploited years later."
Posted: 10 Apr 2018 02:38 PM PDT
The days of “Password123” and “qwerty” are numbered. And, honestly, good riddance. Single-factor authentication is laughably easy to crack, through things like phishing attacks and rampant malware. So not only are passwords obsolete, they in fact pose a huge risk.
Luckily, the FIDO (“Fast IDentity Online”) Alliance is coming to the rescue. The organization developed a brand new standard called “Web Authentication” (WebAuthn, to all those hip teens), Motherboard reports. Now any web site that uses the application interface could require users to log in with at least two or more steps of authentication, with the ability to use biometric data for one or more of them.
Multi-factor authentication, as it exists now, can also be a real burden to users: tying private keys to personal phone numbers can become tedious, and could even lock users out of their accounts if they can no longer access that phone number.
The experience of using the new WebAuthn standard is very straightforward. In fact, in some cases, you won’t have to change your behavior at all.
Large parts of the new WebAuthn standard were pretty much ready to roll out back in 2014, but FIDO couldn’t figure out how to implement it on mobile devices. Now that basically every recent smartphone is equipped with at least one kind of biometric sensor— fingerprint-readers, facial recognition software in the cameras — the time is finally ripe.
WebAuthn is easy enough to use on a smartphone, then, but what about devices that don’t have a fingerprint or face-reading device? This is where things aren’t quite so seamless — they’ll need an external piece of hardware to comply with the WebAuthn standard. Security hardware companies such as Yubico have developed hardware keys that act like a USB-stick-like authenticator.
Admittedly, carrying a dorky lanyard around your neck just in case you need to stick into a port on your device is not exactly the sexiest solution. But it’s substantially safer than using a simple password. Safety first, kids!
This all might sound annoying, but we’ll take it for granted when all our browsers start using it. So far, Google Chrome and Windows Edge have shown signs that they will soon adopt the technology. Mozilla’s Firefox has already implemented it. Apple’s Safari has shown no signs of interest just yet, though Apple has started working with a related working group, and could soon be jumping on board.
“My biometric data all over the internet, you say?” Yes, it sounds scary — we’ve seen all the nasty stuff that can happen when data lands in the wrong hands. And now they want your fingerprint and face scan as well? You might be tempted to pass.
But having an additional safeguard on your logins and private data on the web is always a good thing. Passwords have proven time and time again that they are security hazard, and the sooner we move away from them, the better. Plus, they’re a huge pain in the ass. How am I supposed to remember what every password is if it’s supposed to be unique, contain capital letters and numbers and characters?
Moving on from passwords is a no-brainer. Not only is a simple fingerprint-scan a whole lot easier for users, it instantly adds another great layer of security needed in the age of data breaches, hacks, and global malware attacks. But users will have to embrace the technology to make it widespread, and actually useful.
The post Goodbye, Passwords: Future Internet Demands Biometric Readings And Dorky Lanyard Security Keys appeared first on Futurism.
Posted: 10 Apr 2018 01:13 PM PDT
Daredevils who enjoy torturing their mouths with spicy chili peppers can expect a number of unpleasant symptoms: burning mouth, running nose, teary eyes, coughing, stomach pain, even vomiting.
If that, for some reason, doesn’t dissuade you from taking a dumb bet to eat a super spicy pepper? Consider another risk: waves of excruciating, brain-crushing headaches.
At least, that’s what happened to one foolhardy young man after he consumed a Carolina Reaper, the world’s hottest chili pepper, in (of course) a contest. (For reference, a jalapeño pepper has a spiciness level of 5,000 Scolville units; a Reaper has 1.569 million.) The pepper-eater’s unusual symptoms landed him in the pages of BMJ Case Reports as the first case of “thunderclap headaches” from eating chilies.
The anonymous patient, a 34-year-old New York man, sought emergency care after developing severe neck pain alongside strong headaches that lasted just a few seconds each. Brain scans showed that several arteries had constricted in the patient’s brain, a condition often associated with bad reactions to prescription medicine or illegal drugs.
After ruling our various neurological issues, doctors deduced that the condition likely had a peppery perpetrator. Thanks to a chemical called capsaicin, cayenne pepper (the Reaper’s relatively mild cousin) has been shown in limited cases to narrow coronary arteries and even cause heart attacks, though this was the first time doctors have seen narrowed arteries in the brain that were spice-induced.
Eating the spiciest of the spicy is more popular than ever, in part thanks to videos of YouTubers eating chilis. So it makes sense that researchers are learning more about what happens to us when we do.
Though nearly every cuisine in the world has incorporated spicy peppers in some form, they’re not traditionally eaten whole and uncooked; that’s a phenomena that seems to be associated solely with modern-day pyro-gourmaniacs (yes: that is, indeed, the word for spicy pepper eaters).
In a previous case, doctors in California discovered that a man had developed a one-inch hole in his esophagus after eating a ghost pepper, said to be the world’s second-most spicy pepper, in a contest (noticing a trend here?). The condition nearly killed him.
The BMJ case study patient was more fortunate. His symptoms cleared up on their own, and within five weeks his brain appeared normal. As to whether he will remain in the ranks of “benign masochists” that regularly enjoy the sweet, sweet burn of spicy food, we may never know.
Scientists suspect that spice-lovers’ ability to enjoy the apparently negative sensations chilies cause is something like our enjoyment of the fear that comes with sky diving or roller coasters. But we wouldn’t blame this fella if he gave the Tabasco a brief break. And maybe stop taking on pepper-eating competitions that might put him at risk of further health hazards.
The post Dare to Eat the World’s Hottest Chili Peppers? Beware of “Thunderclap” Headaches appeared first on Futurism.
Posted: 10 Apr 2018 12:51 PM PDT
Dizziness. Insomnia. Weight gain. Confusion. Nausea. “Brain zaps.”
Those aren’t the side effects of a medication. They’re the side effects of quitting one — namely, antidepressants, one of the most-prescribed medications in the United States. Some patients have to continue taking their drugs even after they want to quit because those side effects are so severe.
One of the most striking elements: the companies making the drugs, regulators, and the patients themselves know shockingly little about those effects.
Antidepressants treat mood disorders by balancing the brain’s chemistry. At least, that’s how we think they work. Even researchers aren’t entire sure. What they do know is that antidepressants can work. For people battling suicidal thoughts or struggling to get out of bed every day, that’s reason enough to give the pills a try.
Today, a record number of Americans take antidepressants, and they staying on the drugs longer, too. Since 2010, the number of Americans on antidepressants for at least two years has jumped 60 percent, the New York Times found. Five or more years? That figure has doubled.
Many patients are happy with their medications. But some of those who try to quit antidepressants find going off them can come with unexpected side effects, especially if they’ve been using them for years.
“Had I been told the risks of trying to come off [Paxil], I never would have started it,” Robin Hempel, a New Hampshire woman who took the drug for nearly two decades, told the NYT. “A year and a half after stopping, I’m still having problems.”
It’s hard to say how much responsibility pharmaceutical companies should take for that lack of information. They’re in the business of selling medications, so it doesn’t make much financial sense to invest in studies exploring how best to get users off those meds, which has led to a major knowledge gap. Government regulations don’t require that information for a drug to be approved, so it simply goes understudied. Even if they had conducted those studies, it’s not clear whether they would have been revelatory; past trials show that drug companies have meddled in antidepressant experiments.
With neither drugmakers nor regulators addressing the issue of antidepressant withdrawal, patients and advocates have been largely left to fend for themselves. They’ve created online support communities and agreed to participate in long-term studies designed to improve our understanding of antidepressant withdrawal.
It’s important to note that this is not everyone’s experience. A number of these patients, along with physicians and other healthcare professionals, responded to the New York Times story with letters to the editor about the life-saving power of antidepressants.
How prevalent is antidepressant withdrawal, exactly? And how do we treat it when it does happen?
Those are just two of the questions we can’t answer without more research.
Researchers in Canada and United Kingdom are wrapping up one of the largest studies on that topic to date and expects to publish her findings in the next few months. It might be an important step in helping patients who seek to go off antidepressants the support they need.
The post Users Can’t Stop Taking Antidepressants. Why Don’t We Know More? appeared first on Futurism.
Posted: 10 Apr 2018 10:35 AM PDT
Toronto’s about to get the “world's first neighborhood built from the internet-up,” according to the company behind the project. Residents, though, aren’t totally sold on the idea.
Reuters reports that Google’s parent company, Alphabet, and its “urban innovation company,” Sidewalk Labs, plan to break ground on a Toronto smart city project by 2020. They’ll test some of the smart city technology this coming summer.
But here’s the thing: in light of the Cambridge Analytica scandal that revealed that online data is often being used without users’ consent, it’s a bit unsettling to hear that Alphabet will soon bring that sort of data collection into the real world.
The project was commissioned in October and is intended to revitalize the industrial neighborhood of Quayside, which runs along Toronto’s waterfront. But this is the first time Sidewalk Labs has given us any sense of the project’s timeline.
Its timing for that announcement is a bit less than ideal. Data collection and abuse been getting lots of media attention, and Sidewalk and Alphabet haven’t been very forthright about how the Toronto smart city project will collect and use data about its residents.
The public document describing Sidewalk Labs’ plan describes an area of eco-friendly buildings with temperatures controlled by a thermal grid that recycles energy. It will have bike and walking paths with neighborhood-specific bans on non-emergency vehicles, autonomous transit shuttles, and generous green space. But the plan also includes a “digital layer” to Quayside, one that would monitor everything from inefficient electricity use to foot traffic to popular park benches.
This level of invasion has many Torontonians worried. Alphabet and Google aren’t exactly known for subtle respect of users’ privacy; the entire Alphabet empire is built on gathering data about you and using it to sell you stuff.
Yet according to the BBC, hundreds of Toronto residents who attended public meetings about the project in late March walked away with their questions unanswered.
“The public has a right to know… the contents of a deal of this significance and this importance,” said Toronto’s deputy mayor, Denzil Minnan-Wong, to the BBC. Though Minnan-Wong has seen the legal agreement between the city and Sidewalk, he is not legally allowed to comment on its contents. Yet the deputy mayor has been outspoken in his concern that the contract has not been made public in the five months since it was signed.
“In any deal I get something and you get something,” he said. “What exactly are we getting from Sidewalk and what are we giving for it?”
A Sidewalk Labs representative told Reuters that the city would “destroy non-essential information,” retaining only that which improves the quality of life, and not sell any information to advertisers. Yet there’s still a long list of questions — yes, a literal list, gathered from the public by the newspaper Torontoist — that remain. Who is Sidewalk Labs serving in their data collection, and how can they guarantee citizens will benefit from it? What sort of security will the data have, given that cities have proven tempting to hackers? How will Sidewalk ensure that the neighborhood represents Toronto’s diverse population, not just its wealthiest residents?
It’s uncomfortable not to know the answer, especially for a public left with distrust in the wake of recent data abuses. We’ve become acutely aware that companies may use our data improperly, even while avowing to protect our privacy. Alphabet and Sidewalk Labs are going to have to do a lot more than make promises if people are to trust Toronto’s smart city enough to actually live in it.
The post Alphabet Will Start Toronto Smart City Project This Summer. Residents Still Have Questions. appeared first on Futurism.
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