In the summer of 2010, the Iranian uranium enrichment centrifuges started to malfunction. Eventually, it came to light that the cause was a piece of computer malware called Stuxnet. This little computer bug—small enough to hide on a thumbdrive among PowerPoint presentations and photographs of the kids—managed to wend its way around the world, to the cloistered confines of Iran’s nuclear facilities, and into machines that were “air gapped,” as they say in the business—isolated from any other computer network. To get into one of these machines requires more than the garden variety computer virus—it requires a virus built for maximum effectiveness and autonomy—the Jason Bourne of viruses.
How long will it be before the advanced programming techniques that went into Stuxnet make their way into cyber weapons that boomerang against us? If anybody knows the answer to that question, they aren’t telling, but it seems a near certainty that, sooner or later, advanced malware will be headed in our direction. At the moment, the United States is highly vulnerable to a malware attack from a Stuxnet-like virus. And some security experts think it could cause as much economic and humanitarian damage as an attack with nuclear weapons.
The advent of intelligent rogue computer programs such as Stuxnet is only one of the many ways the field formerly known as artificial intelligence is making its way slowly and inexorably into every aspect of life. This is what happens with technology. It starts out as something for an elite corps of supernerds and gradually works its way to the masses, getting cheaper and more powerful.
Artificial intelligence started out decades ago with the promise of general-purpose machines that could think and act like humans. These hopes were dashed, though, in part because the goal was too ambitious—human intelligence is just too subtle, too sophisticated, too poorly understood, to capture in a machine. It failed, too, in part because the hardware was too crude—computers in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s were big but not powerful. Now they’re tiny and quite powerful, and getting more so every year.
In the meantime, computer scientists have taken a divide-and-conquer approach to the problem of artificial intelligence. They’ve broken it up into bits and attacked each one separately. This had led to something of a renaissance in the field in the past decade or so. Progress in AI is proceeding in narrow slices of intelligence—speech recognition, text reading, computer vision. The pieces come together in robots, which have sensors to take in what’s going on in the real world, and the ability to move about and to effect physical change on the world. Increasingly, robots interact with people and their daily lives.
The notion of humanoid robots taking over the world is probably silly—certainly when you think of robots in the literal sense, as mechanical creatures with arms and legs that walk around in the streets and sit at a desk in the office cubicle next to yours, competing with you for a promotion. But it becomes less outlandish when you abandon the literal notion of robots as humanoids. In the world we’re now creating, you can think of robots as any artificial intelligence that connects somehow with the physical world. In this respect, Stuxnet was a kind of robot; instead of affecting the physical world through its arms and legs, it did so through the uranium centrifuges of Iran’s nuclear program. A robot is a general-purpose tool made up of different components of narrowly built artificial intelligences.
The first concern that engineers express about new technologies is inevitably privacy, and machine intelligence is no different. Take your iPhone. It is, basically, a computer, and it carries an awful lot of information about you. It’s got a camera, a microphone, a GPS that gives your location. The kind of information it collects is very telling about you and your habits. And the degree to which this information is collected and made available is only going to increase. Many policymakers and computer experts are thinking up ways of using the kind of data that cellphones collect to improve such things as traffic control and public health. If you’re home with the flu, for instance, health officials could use your cellphone data to figure out who got within three feet of you in the past few days, when you were at the peak of contagiousness, and use that information to help contain the spread of infection, perhaps by contacting those people and informing them that they are about to be sick and are unwittingly at that moment spreading infection.
Having your phone provide such information to, say, the CDC may offend your sense of privacy, or perhaps you think it’s worth it for the common good. Regardless, imagine what would happen if a computer virus promulgated by organized crime infected your phone and began to turn its capabilities of information-gathering to nefarious ends.
A sophisticated virus in your cellphone might be able to listen in on all your conversations. It would know your credit card numbers, it would intercept all your emails. Microsoft, Google, and other firms have already developed software that prioritizes email messages by what you’re most likely to be interested in. They can do “sentiment analysis” that scans email messages and finds out how you feel about certain things—whether you think Obama is doing a good job and so forth. The software can read blogs and automatically tag people as leaning to the right or the left on the political spectrum. The software could gather information the way Gallup polls do, but you wouldn’t have to ask people what they thought about certain subjects; the software would be able to tell just by analyzing their emails and blog posts.
Vast resources are now available on individuals from a multitude of sources. If you have a machine intelligence that can draw this information together, you’ve got a mind that embraces the Internet and can sift through it with great speed and pluck out what information it needs. As a storage device, the Internet dwarfs all others. The human brain contains the equivalent of about 3.5 quadrillion bytes of information; the Internet contains 10 times that amount. But what would a robot whose mind embraces the Internet be able to do with all that information? That becomes clear once you start to look at the narrow bits of artificial intelligence that are now emerging.
The ability to speak has improved by leaps and bounds in the past decade. The mechanical voice you hear when calling the phone company to inquire about a bill seems more annoying than potentially destructive, but only if you fail to imagine the day when the ability to program a ma- chine to understand language and speak it is just a tool that you can buy at RadioShack. The voice speaking to you from your iPhone and fielding your queries started out as advanced technology in elite labs a few decades ago, and now it’s part of a common experience.
Where natural-language ability gets dangerous, potentially, is when it gets a bit more powerful, then seeps down to common usage and becomes a relatively inexpensive tool that just about anyone can use. It’s not just the ability to listen to spoken commands; it’s a matter of interpreting human intent and responding in a way that sounds, well, human. If machines can do that well, then it may get harder to tell them from real humans.
A machine that can understand a human by spoken language and can also move easily in the world of humans could do a lot of other humanlike things. You can imagine using computer technology to impersonate a human—perhaps even someone you know. The idea of a computer that can sense human feelings and come up with an appropriate response is a legitimate subject of research these days, and companies such as Google and Microsoft have a keen interest in it. Crude emotive software has already been used with autistic children to bring out hidden social skills. As scientists understand more about how to simulate human emotions, they may increase the ability of computers to pass themselves off as human.
When you consider this possibility, you can imagine the kind of disruption that could ensue in a terrorist plot to use computers to impersonate people. This type of identify theft goes well beyond what we know now. It’s not hard to go from these kinds of identity-theft scenarios to one in which machines (or software, which is a type of machine) orchestrate vast disruptions to our economy. The confusion that would reign if software began impersonating important people, handing out conflicting commands, causing markets to tumble and people to behave in odd ways, adds a whole new dimension to the kind of damage that a Stuxnet-like bot could do to the economy.
The precursors to a machine version of Jason Bourne are drones. They are now used by the military, but what happens when the technology that makes it possible to build a drone becomes commonplace, when it’s easy enough for states or even individuals to acquire the capabilities now reserved for the U.S. military? You could imagine a group like al-Qaida or Aum Shinrikyo or Hamas getting their hands on drones that could take out political targets in Washington, D.C., or New York City.
At the moment, this is a bit far-fetched, but it won’t be for long. Scientists have implanted computer chips in the brains of beetles. The chip is connected to the beetle’s nervous system and sends tiny pulses of electricity that make the beetle turn left or right or fly up or down. The chips also have little radio receivers that put the beetles at the remote command of their researcher overlords. In the lab, they’ve gotten the beetles to zig and zag and do loop-de-loops. It’s not an ominous technology at the moment, but it does give the future of drones a new twist. You could imagine a swarm of locusts that respond to digital control wreaking havoc on crops. You could imagine a swarm of bugs with surveillance cameras in their mandibles fanning out across the land in search of particular people that some remote military power wants to target. Mix some gene manipulation in there and you could envision some kind of venomous creature under remote command that can inflict a paralyzing or fatal dose of poison. And so on.
If drone technology keeps marching along, you can imagine a day when the cops can send bee-like to your house to see if you’re growing marijuana plants or running a crystal meth lab in your basement. The first worry about a new technology that is publicly expressed is often concern for privacy. We don’t tend to tell real horror stories in advance—nobody wants to scare people off new technologies that could be beneficial. But you could just as easily imagine how such mechanical bees could, if in the wrong hands, cause considerable disruption. Drones could wind up having many productive civilian uses, but having self-reliant machines in our lives is going to be an adjustment.
We already have hard enough time living with insects as pests. Imagine when they’re tiny versions of Jason Bourne with wings.
Gadget Lab Show: Asus Zenbook Prime and MindWave Mobile Headset - Wired News
Gadget Lab Show: Asus Zenbook Prime and MindWave Mobile Headset
By Christina Bonnington This week on the Gadget Lab Show, we take a look at the new Asus Zenbook Prime ultrabook, the MindWave Mobile Headset, and talk about Star Wars’ recent 35th anniversary. To start, staff writers Christina Bonnington and Roberto …
You cannot plan for and design a _responsive_, _content-focused_, _mobile-first_ website the same way you’ve been creating websites for years—you just can’t. If your goal is to produce something that is not fixed-width and serves smaller devices just the styles they require, why would you use a dated process that contradicts those goals?
I’d like to walk you through some problems caused by using old processes with responsive design. Let’s look into an evolving design process we’ve been using with some promising new deliverables and tools. This should provide a starting point for you to freshen up your own process and bring it into the responsive age. http://sswi.me/McVXfy via @smashingmag
Today on Branding Strategy Insider, another question from the BSI Emailbag. Jackie, a Director of Coprporate Marketing in St. Louis, Missouri writes: “My company is about $100 million in annual revenue. We offer business services. We are a back office… http://sswi.me/McM9lH via @TheBlakeProject via @TheBlakeProject
Introducing Always On, coming June 19 on CNET - CNET (blog)
Introducing Always On, coming June 19 on CNET
‘s new CNET show, Always On, will torture test new gadgets, put them to the real-world test, spotlight amazing new future tech, and show you how to use your current and future gear. by Molly Wood This is the home of my new show, Always On, …
“Piranha” sequel is first 3D film to get early VOD release
The Weinstein Company’s tongue-in-cheek 3D horror sequel will debut simultaneously on pay TV VOD through Starz, and on internet-based platforms including Amazon and Facebook. Such “day and date” releases are still rare for such semi-high-profile films, and it’s never been done with a 3D movie.
iPhone officially goes prepaid in the US via Cricket
Leap Wireless announced on Thursday morning that its Cricket prepaid wireless carrier will begin offering the “first” prepaid iPhone option in the US on June 22. Though the devices will cost significantly higher up front than iPhones purchased “on contract” from another carrier, Cricket offers a $55 per month, no-contract plan which includes “unlimited” calls, […] http://sswi.me/MczQ9c via @shellypalmer
No More Mobile Overage Charges: Netflix iPad App Now Lets You Limit Streaming To WiFi Only
Mobile video is taking off, especially due to high-quality video streams available over increasingly fast LTE mobile networks. The only problem is that most users have wireless plans that include a limited amount of data usage — usually just 2GB or 5GB per month. Read the full story at TechCrunch http://sswi.me/Mcu07I via @shellypalmer
SpaceX cargo ship returns to Earth after historic mission
In the final chapter of a history-making space drama, a commercial cargo ship completed a near-flawless test flight to the International Space Station with a splashdown off the Baja California peninsula Thursday, clearing the way for the start of routine cargo delivery missions later this year. Read the full story at CNET http://sswi.me/McoCRS via @shellypalmer
Snap: Hipstamatic's New iPad Magazine Is A Field Guide For Sharpshooters
The app maker is launching Snap to teach Hipstamatic users how to take better photos and land in its pages. (And use Hipstamatic more.)
There are casual iPhoneographers, and then there are Hipstamatic users. The 4 million cult users of Hipstamatic’s flagship $1.99 app choose custom lenses, films, and flashes to take professional-looking photos, which many of them email directly to Hipstamatic—of their food, their travels, even their kids. But until now, Hipstamatic didn’t have a designated space in which to showcase them.
But today, Hipstamatic will launch Snap, a free monthly culture and lifestyle magazine for the iPad featuring original editorial content and, naturally, gorgeous spreads of Hipstamatic photos. Snap reads like a traditional magazine: Eight sections (with names like “Cultured” and “Obsessed”) detail the hippest in music, fashion, food, and travel, gussied up with plenty of large and lush photographs. But more than a magazine, it’s also a clever pull for new Hipstamatic users, who CEO Lucas Buick tells Fast Company he draws in by capitalizing on a concept called FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out, for the misanthropes).
“Everyone wants to know why your friend’s photos are better than yours,” Buick says. “That gives us another opportunity to highlight our users. And when we highlight any of our users, they become evangelists for life.”
If Facebook has taught us one thing, it’s that long-term user engagement is invaluable currency. Hipstamatic made a big push for deep users in March, when it partnered with Instagram to allow users to seamlessly push their photos onto the Instagram platform. But where Instagram-induced FOMO is triggered by how much fun people seem to be having without you, Hipstamatic-induced FOMO is triggered by how much better their photos seem to look than yours.
Which is exactly why Snap is a smart product for Hipstamatic, who can now present you with a sleek magazine chock-full of photos that are, well, better than yours. They may not be photos taken by your friends, but that’s irrelevant to a company that was never designed to be a social network. The photos in Snap are tangible representations of what the average or future Hipstamatic user can aspire to. To that effect, Snap includes information on the different lens, film, and flash combinations used to achieve many of the magazine’s shots. Yes, this is possible, the pages say, and Hipstamatic can help you get here.
Often the things in those photos are desirable, too, and Snap is linking out to a few boutique products featured in its photos—it’s not hard to imagine a monetized future where Hipstamatic photography is the gateway into a Hipstamatic-powered cool-hunting or shopping experience.
For now the photo process and those who’ve mastered it are the focus. And that’s where Make Beautiful comes in. It’s Hipstamatic’s new social photo project that also launches today. It provides a gateway for the average photographer to get his work featured in Snap. Make Beautiful streams users’ #makebeautiful photos from Instagram and Twitter (for now), some of which Buick says Hipstamatic will eventually feature in Snap. Make Beautiful will also offer downloadable files of Hipstamatic artwork for users to repurpose for their own projects, whether that’s a custom desktop background or a T-shirt.
Make Beautiful provides a low barrier to entry: Anyone can snap and hashtag a photo. But Buick knows that true enthusiasts feed off the exclusivity of its community’s top talent. Whereas the reward of posting to Instagram lies in likes and comments from friends, the reward of shooting with Hipstamatic lies in being recognized for your talent. And what better way to feel recognized than to have your photos featured in a magazine? “We want to engage the community and get Hipstamatic users used to the idea of contributing more,” Buick says. “The Make Beautiful platform is going to be a way to pull content into the magazine that’s not possible in print.”
That’s not just good for users, it’s also great for Hipstamatic’s business. By setting the tone for what’s hip right now, Hipstamatic is neatly setting itself up to sell special lenses and other extras designed for specific interests. (It’s already begun to do this, with a food-specific lens developed with food photographer David Loftus. “Nobody wants to look at weird, green food when it’s not supposed to be green,” Buick says.) Anything featured in Snap, from street art to fashion, could conceivably feed into a new moneymaking vertical.
"When we first came out, it was all about retro photography," says Molli Sullivan, Hipstamatic’s director of communications. "But now, we’re also releasing lenses that are more about creating a specific look for a certain setting. The more we can educate people on how to achieve that certain look, the more people will shoot with Hipstamatic."
In an interview at paidContent 2012 in New York, venture capitalist Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures said he has stayed away from media investments, and believes that the future for content providers lies in connecting directly with consumers through platforms like Kickstarter.
Where before they could only donate, now the crowd can invest. What does it mean for startups? We talk with Sang Lee of the National Crowdfunding Association to find out.
Sang Lee is the founder of Return on Change, a crowdfunding platform set to launch this summer, as well as an executive board member of the National Crowdfunding Association. We caught up with Lee to find out what happens when the crowd starts taking an actual equity stake in the companies it funds—a situation newly possible in the wake of President Obama signing the JOBS Act into law.
FAST COMPANY: What is Return on Change?
SANG LEE: Return on Change is the next-generation crowdfunding platform for high-impact startups. We’re focusing on high tech, clean tech, social ventures, biotech, and medical tech startups.
How is it different from Kickstarter?
Kickstarter supports specifically creative endeavors, and can only do so on a philanthropic basis. People who support a project on Kickstarter are not permitted to be actual equity investors in the business. Our platform allows supporters to become long-term investors in the business itself.
Will investors visit Return on Change because they want to get rich, or because they want to change the world?
To be frank, I think it’ll be both. I think people can get great economic returns while at the same time investing in the future.
When President Obama signed the JOBS Act, it legalized the idea of a site like Kickstarter enabling equity investment. Do you think Kickstarter will go in that direction?
It’s difficult to say. Kickstarter’s openly stated mission was to support creative endeavors on a donation basis, but they very well may be able to pivot to benefit from legislation under the JOBS Act.
Some groups, especially traditional investors, opposed the JOBS Act. Why?
A lot of traditionalists in the securities field thought that by opening up this kind of investment tool to people who were not savvy investors, there might be an invitation to outright fraud. But we’ve seen some success in the field, and the crowd tends to have a self-filtering mechanism anyway.
Have there been cases of fraud in the crowdfunding world, where a company claimed they were making a product, when really they were taking the money and flying to Cabo and spending it on cocaine and prostitutes?
The days of crowdfunding are new to begin with. We haven’t seen an open issue of fraud, but it may be too early to say. Information may not be publicly available yet. With Kickstarter, there are certain products that were funded that have fallen behind schedule.
That’s clearly a euphemism for going to Cabo and blowing the money on cocaine and prostitutes.
I hope that’s not the case. I believe the supporters are trying to take class action, which would be very difficult. The way the structure of the crowdfunding movement currently works, there is no obligation, legally speaking. It’s kind of an honor system. That’s why we’re really excited about the new legislation that enables people to become actual equity investors. Then you will have an obligation, as the founder of your company, to do the best for your shareholders.
What’s going on when a Kickstarter project (the Pebble Watch) raises $10 million—100 times as much as they asked for?
That’s more of a pre-purchase order model. Basically, a lot your supporters are at the end of the day your consumers. For the Pebble Watch founder, his responsibility now, since he hit 100 times his target, is to produce 100 times the number of watches.
What if he simply lacks the operations experience to scale up like that?
One obligation we’ll have on Return on Change is to have specific uses for the capital you’re raising. This is different from Kickstarter—it can’t be open-ended, you have to be raising an amount of capital for a very specific purpose. Whether it be manufacturing, or supplies procurement, you know exactly where the funds are going.
And presumably you can’t designate a capital stream for trips to Cabo.
You could designate funds for trips to Cabo. The question is what investors would support you in that.
On Kickstarter, hyped projects get overfunded while other worthy ideas languish by the wayside. Is crowdfunding just replicating the blind spots of venture capital?
The way I view it, once crowd investing platforms become a commercially viable early-stage funding method, it’ll just move over the risk-return profile to the right a little. What I mean by that is this: The reason VCs often command such a high return is because they take an outsize risk. But if you have several thousand investors, they become marketers and maybe consumers as well, so the business idea is thriving by the time a VC is shown the idea. They may then be able to make more investments, and that will have an overall positive impact on the startup community.
Thank you for your time, Sang. Enjoy your trip to Cabo.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
For more from the Fast Talk interview series, click here. Know someone who’d make a good Fast Talk subject? Mention it to David Zax.