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Did 2018 usher in a creeping tech dystopia?

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Matt O’Brien, The Associated Press


Published Monday, December 24, 2018 7:45PM EST

We may remember 2018 as the year when technology’s dystopian potential became clear, from Facebook’s role enabling the harvesting of our personal data for election interference to a seemingly unending series of revelations about the dark side of Silicon Valley’s connect-everything ethos.

The list is long: High-tech tools for immigration crackdowns. Fears of smartphone addiction. YouTube algorithms that steer youths into extremism. An experiment in gene-edited babies .

Doorbells and concert venues that can pinpoint individual faces and alert police. Repurposing genealogy websites to hunt for crime suspects based on a relative’s DNA. Automated systems that keep tabs of workers’ movements and habits. Electric cars in Shanghai transmitting their every movement to the government.

It’s been enough to exhaust even the most imaginative sci-fi visionaries.

“It doesn’t so much feel like we’re living in the future now, as that we’re living in a retro-future,” novelist William Gibson wrote this month on Twitter. “A dark, goofy ’90s retro-future.”

More awaits us in 2019, as surveillance and data-collection efforts ramp up and artificial intelligence systems start sounding more human , reading facial expressions and generating fake video images so realistic that it will be harder to detect malicious distortions of the truth.

But there are also countermeasures afoot in Congress and state government — and even among tech-firm employees who are more active about ensuring their work is put to positive ends.

“Something that was heartening this year was that accompanying this parade of scandals was a growing public awareness that there’s an accountability crisis in tech,” said Meredith Whittaker, a co-founder of New York University’s AI Now Institute for studying the social implications of artificial intelligence.

The group has compiled a long list of what made 2018 so ominous, though many are examples of the public simply becoming newly aware of problems that have built up for years. Among the most troubling cases was the revelation in March that political data-mining firm Cambridge Analytica swept up personal information of millions of Facebook users for the purpose of manipulating national elections.

“It really helped wake up people to the fact that these systems are actually touching the core of our lives and shaping our social institutions,” Whittaker said.

That was on top of other Facebook disasters, including its role in fomenting violence in Myanmar , major data breaches and ongoing concerns about its hosting of fake accounts for Russian propaganda .

It wasn’t just Facebook. Google attracted concern about its continuous surveillance of users after The Associated Press reported that it was tracking people’s movements whether they like it or not.

It also faced internal dissent over its collaboration with the U.S. military to create drones with “computer vision” to help find battlefield targets and a secret proposal to launch a censored search engine in China. And it unveiled a remarkably human-like voice assistant that sounds so real that people on the other end of the phone didn’t know they were talking to a computer.

Those and other concerns bubbled up in December as lawmakers grilled Google CEO Sundar Pichai at a congressional hearing — a sequel to similar public reckonings this year with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other tech executives.

“It was necessary to convene this hearing because of the widening gap of distrust between technology companies and the American people,” Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said.

Internet pioneer Vint Cerf said he and other engineers never imagined their vision of a worldwide network of connected computers would morph 45 years later into a surveillance system that collects personal information or a propaganda machine that could sway elections.

“We were just trying to get it to work,” recalled Cerf, who is now Google’s chief internet evangelist. “But now that it’s in the hands of the general public, there are people who … want it to work in a way that obviously does harm, or benefits themselves, or disrupts the political system. So we are going to have to deal with that.”

Contrary to futuristic fears of “super-intelligent” robots taking control, the real dangers of our tech era have crept in more prosaically — often in the form of tech innovations we welcomed for making life more convenient .

Part of experts’ concern about the leap into connecting every home device to the internet and letting computers do our work is that the technology is still buggy and influenced by human errors and prejudices. Uber and Tesla were investigated for fatal self-driving car crashes in March, IBM came under scrutiny for working with New York City police to build a facial recognition system that can detect ethnicity, and Amazon took heat for supplying its own flawed facial recognition service to law enforcement agencies.

In some cases, opposition to the tech industry’s rush to apply its newest innovations to questionable commercial uses has come from its own employees. Google workers helped scuttle the company’s Pentagon drone contract, and workers at Amazon, Microsoft and Salesforce sought to cancel their companies’ contracts to supply tech services to immigration authorities.

“It became obvious to a lot of people that the rhetoric of doing good and benefiting society and ‘Don’t be evil’ was not what these companies were actually living up to,” said Whittaker, who is also a research scientist at Google who founded its Open Research group.

At the same time, even some titans of technology have been sounding alarms. Prominent engineers and designers have increasingly spoken out about shielding children from the habit-forming tech products they helped create.

And then there’s Microsoft President Brad Smith, who in December called for regulating facial recognition technology so that the “year 2024 doesn’t look like a page” from George Orwell’s “1984.”

In a blog post and a Washington speech, Smith painted a bleak vision of all-seeing government surveillance systems forcing dissidents to hide in darkened rooms “to tap in code with hand signals on each other’s arms.”

To avoid such an Orwellian scenario, Smith advocates regulating technology so that anyone about to subject themselves to surveillance is properly notified. But privacy advocates argue that’s not enough.

Such debates are already happening in states like Illinois, where a strict facial recognition law has faced tech industry challenges, and California, which in 2018 passed the nation’s most far-reaching law to give consumers more control over their personal data. It takes effect in 2020.

The issue could find new attention in Congress next year as more Republicans warm up to the idea of basic online privacy regulations and the incoming Democratic House majority takes a more skeptical approach to tech firms that many liberal politicians once viewed as allies — and prolific campaign donors.

The “leave them alone” approach of the early internet era won’t work anymore, said Rep. David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat poised to take the helm of the House’s antitrust subcommittee.

“We’re seeing now some of the consequences of the abuses that can occur in these platforms if they remain unregulated without meaningful oversight or enforcement,” Cicilline said.

Too much regulation may bring its own undesirable side effects, Cerf warned.

“It’s funny in a way because this online environment was supposed to remove friction from our ability to transact,” he said. “If in our desire, if not zeal, to protect people’s privacy we throw sand in the gears of everything, we may end up with a very secure system that doesn’t work very well.”

——

AP Technology Writer Michael Liedtke in San Jose, California, contributed to this report.

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Trudeau Government Should Turn to Sustainable Floor Heating In Its New Deal

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A consortium has been chosen by Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) to manage the $1.1-billion overhaul of five heating and cooling plants in the National Capital Region. However, this decision has been met with a lot of disapproval by the country’s largest federal public service union.

Early June, the department announced that Innovate Energy has been awarded the 30-year contract “to design, retrofit, maintain and operate the plants,”winning the bid over a rival group that included SNC-Lavalin.

Minister of Environment, Catherine McKenna, said the federal government was “leading by example” in its bid to drastically reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions across the country. McKenna noted that by supporting this project, they’re utilizing heating and cooling infrastructure to promote a more environmentally friendly option.

“We’re very proud that our government is working with partners like Innovate Energy to modernize this critical infrastructure,” she said during the announcement at one of the facilities that will be upgraded, the Cliff Heating and Cooling Plant in downtown Ottawa.

The plants would be known as the district energy system and would heat 80 buildings in the area with steam. It is also expected to cool 67 of these buildings with chilled water through more than 14 kilometres of underground pipes.

Under the Energy Services Acquisition Program, PSPC will be tasked with modernizing the outdated technology in the plants to lower emissions and supportgrowth in the eco-friendly technology sector.

During the first stage of the overhaul, the system would be converted from steam to low temperature hot water and then switched from steam to electric chillers—with the estimated completion date being 2025. PSPC notes that the project will reduce current emissions by 63 per cent, the equivalent of removing 14,000 non-eco-friendly cars off the road.

Afterwards, the natural gas powering the plant will then be replaced by carbon-neutral fuel sources, which according to estimated will reduce emissions by a further 28 per cent. The renovation project is bound to save the government an estimated fee of more than $750 million in heating and cooling costs in the next 40 years.

Furthermore, the implementation of radiant floor heating in Ottawa by the federal government would be an additional step in driving its agenda for a more eco-friendly state.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Savers website, radiant floor heating has a lot of benefits and advantages over alternate heat systems and can cut heating costs by 25 to 50 per cent.

“It is more efficient than baseboard heating and usually more efficient than forced-air heating because no energy is lost through ducts,” the website states.

Radiant floor heating provides an equal amount of heat throughout a building, including areas that are difficult to heat, such as rooms with vaulted ceilings, garages or bathrooms. Consideringit warms people and objects directly—controlling the direct heat loss of the occupant—radiant floor heating provides comfort at lower thermostat settings.

“Radiators and other forms of ‘point’ heating circulate heat inefficiently and hence need to run for longer periods to obtain comfort levels,” reports the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNet).

Radiant heating is a clean and healthy option—a perfect choice for those with severe allergies—as it doesn’t rely on circulating air, meaning there are no potentially irritating particles blowing around the room. Additionally, it is more energy efficient, aesthetically pleasing with wall radiators or floor registers and virtually noiseless when in operation.

“They draw cold air across the floor and send warm air up to the ceiling, where it then falls, heating the room from the top down, creating drafts and circulating dust and allergens.”

It is important for the leadership in Ottawa to equally drive the adoption of radiant floor heating as doing this would lead to increased usage in residential buildings—and even government-owned buildings.

However, in October, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), a representative body of employees of the plants,began a campaign target at the government against their decision to use a public-private partnership (P3) for the retrofitting project, citing concerns about costs and safety.

According to the union, outside employees won’t be bound to the same health and safety standards of government workers and that typically P3 projects cost a lot more than traditional public financing deals.

The union demands that the government scraps the proposed project and meet PSAC members and experts to brainstorm on a new way forward that would ensure federal employees continue to operate and maintain the plants.

However, parliamentary secretary to public services and procurement minister, Steve MacKinnon said that the union officials have consulted him but that after conducting an analysis, the P3 option was still the best for the job.

“We didn’t have (to) sacrifice on safety or health — we didn’t have to sacrifice on job security,” he said.

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Steps to becoming a Data Scientist

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Data science has become one of the most in-demand career paths in this century, according to Business Insider. With the amount of information being circulated online, it has created a huge demand for storing, interpreting and implementing big data for different purposes—hence the need for a data scientist.

Today, there too much information flying around for regular people to process efficiently and use. Therefore, it has become the responsibility of data scientists to collect, organize and analyze this data. Doing this helps various people, organizations, enterprise businesses and governments to manage, store and interpret this data for different purposes.

Though data scientists come from different educational backgrounds, a majority of them need to have a technical educational background. To pursue a career in data science, computer-related majors, graduations and post graduations in maths and statistics are quite useful.

Therefore, the steps to becoming a data scientist are quite straightforward.  After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in an IT related field—such as computer science, maths or physics—you can also further your education by obtaining a master’s degree in a data science or any other related field of study. With the necessary educational background, you can now search for a job and obtain the required experience in whichever filed you choose to invest your acquired skills.

Here are the necessary steps to be taken to become a data scientist.

Step 1: Obtain the necessary educational requirements

As earlier noted, different educational paths can still lead to a career in data science. However, it is impossible to begin a career in data science without obtaining a collegiate degree—as a four-year bachelor’s degree is really important. However, according to a report by Business Insider, over 73% of data scientist in existence today have a graduate degree and about 38% of them hold a Ph.D. Therefore, to rise above the crowd and get a high-end position in the field of data science, it is important to have a Master’s degree or a Ph.D.—and with various online data science masters program, obtaining one is quite easy.

Some institutions provide data science programs with courses that will equip students to analyze complex sets of data. These courses also involve a host of technical information about computers, statistics, data analysis techniques and many more. Completing these programs equips you with the necessary skills to function adequately as a data scientist.

Additionally, there are some technical—and computer-based degrees—that can aid you begin a career in data science. Some of them include studies in, Computer Science, Statistics, Social Science, Physics, Economics, Mathematics and Applied Math. These degrees will imbibe some important skills related to data science in you—namely, coding, experimenting, managing large amounts of data, solving quantitative problems and many others.

Step 2: Choose an area of specialization

There rarely exists an organization, agency or business today that doesn’t require the expertise of a data scientist. Hence, it is important that after acquiring the necessary education to start a career as a data scientist, you need to choose an area of specialization in the field you wish to work in.

Some of the specializations that exist in data science today include automotive, marketing, business, defence, sales, negotiation, insurance and many others.

Step 3: Kick start your career as a data scientist

After acquiring the necessary skills to become a data scientist, it is important to get a job in the filed and company of your choice where you can acquire some experience.

Many organizations offer valuable training to their data scientists and these pieces of training are typically centred around the specific internal systems and programs of an organization. Partaking in this training allows you learn some high-level analytical skills that were not taught during your various school programs—especially since data science is a constantly evolving field.

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Artificial intelligence pioneers win tech’s ‘Nobel Prize’

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Computers have become so smart during the past 20 years that people don’t think twice about chatting with digital assistants like Alexa and Siri or seeing their friends automatically tagged in Facebook pictures.

But making those quantum leaps from science fiction to reality required hard work from computer scientists like Yoshua Bengio, Geoffrey Hinton and Yann LeCun. The trio tapped into their own brainpower to make it possible for machines to learn like humans, a breakthrough now commonly known as “artificial intelligence,” or AI.

Their insights and persistence were rewarded Wednesday with the Turing Award, an honor that has become known as technology industry’s version of the Nobel Prize. It comes with a $1 million prize funded by Google, a company where AI has become part of its DNA.

The award marks the latest recognition of the instrumental role that artificial intelligence will likely play in redefining the relationship between humanity and technology in the decades ahead.

Artificial intelligence is now one of the fastest-growing areas in all of science and one of the most talked-about topics in society,” said Cherri Pancake, president of the Association for Computing Machinery, the group behind the Turing Award.

Although they have known each other for than 30 years, Bengio, Hinton and LeCun have mostly worked separately on technology known as neural networks. These are the electronic engines that power tasks such as facial and speech recognition, areas where computers have made enormous strides over the past decade. Such neural networks also are a critical component of robotic systems that are automating a wide range of other human activity, including driving.

Their belief in the power of neural networks was once mocked by their peers, Hinton said. No more. He now works at Google as a vice president and senior fellow while LeCun is chief AI scientist at Facebook. Bengio remains immersed in academia as a University of Montreal professor in addition to serving as scientific director at the Artificial Intelligence Institute in Quebec.

“For a long time, people thought what the three of us were doing was nonsense,” Hinton said in an interview with The Associated Press. “They thought we were very misguided and what we were doing was a very surprising thing for apparently intelligent people to waste their time on. My message to young researchers is, don’t be put off if everyone tells you what are doing is silly.” Now, some people are worried that the results of the researchers’ efforts might spiral out of control.

While the AI revolution is raising hopes that computers will make most people’s lives more convenient and enjoyable, it’s also stoking fears that humanity eventually will be living at the mercy of machines.

Bengio, Hinton and LeCun share some of those concerns especially the doomsday scenarios that envision AI technology developed into weapons systems that wipe out humanity.

But they are far more optimistic about the other prospects of AI empowering computers to deliver more accurate warnings about floods and earthquakes, for instance, or detecting health risks, such as cancer and heart attacks, far earlier than human doctors.

“One thing is very clear, the techniques that we developed can be used for an enormous amount of good affecting hundreds of millions of people,” Hinton said.

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