Podcast: When Your Boss Is Big Brother

“If we let the technologies dictate our values, we’ve got it deeply backward.” — Andrew McAfee A recent article in The New York Times exposed a hard-charging workplace environment at Amazon. The Times piece — which Amazon says was not a fair representation — suggests that the company’s workers are closely monitored and tracked and […]


True story! Man saves rack of ribs from a burning building

Robert Wright is lucky to be alive after a fire tore through his neighbour’s apartment. And while he rescued his kids from the apartment building, it was a rack of ribs he was most anxious to save! Speaking to TV station KMPH, Wright says: ‘First thing, I got my kids, and I thought about my ribs. […]

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We just watched President Obama snack on a half-eaten salmon with Bear Grylls

While the U.S. President was visiting Alaska last week to highlight the impact of climate change, he set aside a bit of time to spend with the one and only Bear Grylls. You know, the guy who drank his own pee and drank the liquid out of camel dung (I saw that episode last night […]

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Woman stands up to sexism on LinkedIn with the perfect message

Charlotte Proudman probably didn’t think twice before posting her profile picture on LinkedIn to connect with colleagues and look for job opportunities. After all, LinkedIn is a site for business networking, right? Well, some people might think differently. Alexander Carter-Silk, a partner at Brown Rudnick law firm sent Charlotte a message he won’t soon live […]

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IBM Buys StrongLoop To Add Node.js App Development To Its Cloud Platform

ibm-earnings IBM has today made another acquisition to expand its business in cloud services — specifically in the area of enterprise app development. It has acquired StrongLoop, a startup based in San Mateo that builds application development software for enterprises using the open source JavaScript programming language Node.js. This in turn enables enterprises to build mobile and cloud-based… Read More


The Sentient Surveillance Camera

Surveillance cameras of one sort or another get pointed at us every day. You probably pass through their gaze on your way to work, on public streets and transit, and inside stores and businesses. In New York City, there are thousands—no one is sure exactly how many, but the ACLU counted 4,400 in just two downtown areas and Harlem alone. In London, there are over half a million; the average Londoner is famously captured on CCTV hundreds of times a day. There are estimated to be 20 million to 30 million surveillance cameras in China.

So we know our images are being captured, over and over—when the cameras aren’t broken, anyway—and we know that they’re being recorded and stored somewhere. Beyond that, what do we know about what the cameras are actually seeing? What is the quality, not just quantity of the information they’re recording?

In an era where artificial intelligence is beginning to converge with surveillance—in the wake of the Boston bombings, for instance, the BPD is reportedly experimenting with artificially intelligent mass surveillance with the help of the Houston company AISight—how can we begin to understand the data these networks might soon be processing about us?

They’re not easy questions to grasp, let alone answer, but they’re Ross Goodwin and Gene Han’s forté. Both are masters students at NYU, where they research artificial intelligence and machine learning. On the side, they’re inventors; DIY makers who build experimental tech to test out their ideas. Their latest project is a surveillance camera that “reads” a person’s face and “speaks” aloud what it “sees.”

Goodwin in particular is interested in how machines “perceive” humans—I’ve written about his work before; his last project featured a camera that would send the images it took to a crude artificial intelligence that then attempted to describe it in English. It was funny, and, for a second at least, it opened a channel between the human and mechanical mind. His next project, built with Han’s software, takes the experiment a step further, and forces an audience to directly interact with a roving lens that’s gathering and reciting information about it in real-time.

They call it their “sentient surveillance camera.”

“Our idea was to raise awareness regarding the omnipresence of surveillance equipment, and the current state of technological advancement with artificial intelligence,” Goodwin told me. “We wanted to create an entity with its own sense of social awareness, its own eyes, and an ability to communicate with humans, albeit with some glitchiness that underscores the limitations of the current technology.”

At its heart, it’s an interactive art project, designed to get us to thinking about the quickly complicating relationship between humans and the robotics that surround and surveil us.

“The pan-tilt-zoom surveillance camera is constantly moving and scanning its view area for human faces,” Goodwin said. When it recognizes one, it uses Haar Cascade detection, a machine learning approach where a cascade function is trained from positive and negative images, and “zooms in on the face and sends an image of the face and its surroundings to our server, which utilizes convolutional neural networks to extract concept words from the scene.”

“Those words are expanded into sentences and paragraphs using related words from a lexical relations database,” he said, as was the case with his previous project. “The paragraphs are then automatically read aloud using Apple’s text-to-speech utility.”

As you can see in the short doc we made about the camera, when you take it out into the real world, the results are almost always surprising and occasionally genuinely unnerving. Some of its victims delight in the “insights” the sentient bot relays, while others recoil. It freaks people out when the talking surveillance machine “knows” something about them, and is able to tell them so. The bot makes a few accurate observations—alongside plenty of gibberish, you’ll note—but the fact that it gets anything right about us at all mostly makes us squirm.

“In our daily lives, we will soon be confronting AI as a self-contained entity, rather than merely a tool we use”

In part, this is because we already know that the surveillance apparatus is everywhere, though we may have pushed it to the back of our minds. To think it’s doing more than just watching, that it is actively rendering “thoughts” or “judgments” about us—like, say, whether we might look like we’re about to commit a crime—or compiling data in a language that could be comprehensible to us, that it could confront us with, directly—it’s, well, creepy.

“Once I started to care about the surveillance camera, I realized there are so many eyes watching our every move,” Han told me. “I started tracking all the surveillance cameras around me, and it was literally watching all my moves in the city.”

Surveillance, in the form of augmented reality, is already being marshalled to sell us beauty products based on an algorithm’s judgment of our facial composition. Governments can “tag” faces their CCTV networks pick up. But artificial intelligence can do both better and faster. The infrastructure is mostly already there—it’s the software that’s catching up. Soon we really will be living in a world watched over by artificially intelligent camera eyes. It might be nice to start thinking about what we want them to see.

Regular old humans like Ross and Gene can help.

“In our daily lives, we will soon be confronting AI as a self-contained entity, rather than merely a tool we use,” Goodwin said. “The sentient surveillance camera presents one possible implementation of such an entity, albeit a bizarre one, but it’s designed to raise questions about the places these technologies could take us, and the possibilities for technology that actively judges us and forms its own conclusions about its environment.”

Han concurs.

“Now we have technologies that can read and comprehend the image. Algorithms that can be trained from images to make decisions that mock humans,” he said. “With all the cloud computing systems and so much processing power, all surveillance footage can be analyzed, looking for something and acting upon it,” he said.

“That’s the future I thought of and it is possible right now.”


A Poem by Amit Majmudar

Apocalypse Shopping List Lead-lined gonad-guards.               Lysol (radiation sickness causes killer runs). Breadboxes, to bury stillbirths.               Flare guns, glue guns, gun guns. Marijuana brownies for the burn units.               Ersatz shrouds (viz., bedsheets, towels, sails). Triple-earwig-pincer Biohazard labels.               Fun Size Snickers Not Labeled for Individual Sale But good to barter in a pinch.               Amputation pails. Seeing-eye dogs […]


The market has never been more terrified of China

china hard landing chart

The world has never been more afraid that China’s economy will have a hard landing.

Societe Generale tracks the number of news articles discussing disaster in Beijing, and over the last four weeks they’ve reached an all-time high.

“At first glance, the strong increase in the number of hard landing news articles could simply be viewed as a sign that the Chinese outlook is deteriorating rapidly,” said Societe Generale strategists Arthur van Slooten and Alain Bokobza in a note.

If that is the case, the indicator would be a precursor to rather dramatic changes in economic consensus that we have not seen so far.”

It’s not hard to understand why so many people around the world might be fearing a hard landing: China’s transition from an investment based economy to one based on domestic consumption — what the government has called “the new normal” — has been brutal.

Growth in the old drivers of the economy, likes manufacturing and real estate, have slowed faster than expected. Exports plummeted almost 9% in July and employment is stagnating. This prompted the government to devalue the yuan slightly last month.

On top of that,  China’s two main stock markets — Shanghai and Shenzen — started crashing back in June after experiencing an almost 150% rally over the last year and a half. As it stands now, both have also give back almost all their gains for 2015.

scary china tibet mask

The Societe Generale note said: “The unprecedented stream of articles related to a Chinese hard landing has fuelled collective (and apparently not so latent) fears.

“So even without the chart in hand, but just by reading the press, one can be excused for thinking that a China hard landing is imminent. In this context, it is hardly surprising that the general risk appetite has strongly diminished.”

“It’s kind of bad when they’re an $10 trillion to $11 trillion economy on a learning curve and they influence a third of the world’s economies.”

SEE ALSO: Maybe China thought no one would notice that it just killed the biggest stock futures market in the world

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Optical illusion lamps make it look like it you can see right through them

Tel Aviv-based designer Nir Chehanowski of ‘Studio Cheha’ has created a lamp collection that will make you do a double take – or even a triple take, or as many takes needed to comprehend what you’re seeing. Called the ‘BULBING’ lamps, the series of lighting fixtures serve as optical illusions, making you think you’re looking […]

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These ferocious animals killing other animals are still so adorable

I can’t say I’ve ever thought a cat chomping down on a dying bird was cute, but somehow illustrator Alex Solis makes his Predator & Prey series quite adorable. With their big baby eyes you can’t help but love these predators. But then your eyes shift to the animal in their teeth and you’re left […]

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