Machines That Know: 10 Bad Things

Today I’m going to take a look at the flip side of “Machines That Know“.  What are the bad unintended consequences of having machines that can recognize objects, people and emotions?

The assumptions for the technology will be the same as the “10 Good Things“.   First, cameras are ubiquitous in public areas (roads, malls, businesses, schools, etc).  The second assumption is the information collected from cameras (the data) is easily accessible by anyone, but not the raw feeds (the video).  So you can’t sit and watch a particular camera to spy on someone.  Third, everyone has an iPhone or similar travelling computer to access the data (with the appropriate apps).

Ten Bad Uses for “Machines That Know”

1) Lift personal information and passwords when using kiosks (ATMs and credit cards).

2) Corporations can track individual tastes and spending habits to maximize profit on you, because they would know what you were willing to pay.

3) Government used data to decide if you might be about to perform a crime based on your facial expression (i.e. Minority Report or the TV series Lie To Me).

4) Estranged parents using the information trail to find the best place to snatch their children.

5) Churches checking up on their members to make sure they are not “sinning”.

6) Employers checking up on their employees to make sure they aren’t violating contracts.

7) Used to cheat in card games because “tells” could be identified by programs.

8 ) Stalk someone, and send them messages saying “I know you were <insert location>”. 

9) Health insurance keeping tabs on people for bad habits (smoking, eating fast food, etc) and increasing rates when found doing too many “bad” things.

10) Employers checking facial expressions for happiness quotient during customer interactions.  (ie – smiling)


The key misuse of the information in the “bad” list, as opposed to the “good” list, is that the data is tied directly to an individual.  When someone else can access your personal information, then they can make many assumptions, good or bad, about you without you getting a chance to correct them. 

It is my belief that personal data in the Internet age should be owned by the individual.  Generalized data is free to be used by anyone, so long as it is not tied to an individual.  If personal data is allowed to be used by anyone, then I believe that usage will impose on a person’s free will.

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Pew Internet Study

Back in December, the Pew Internet & American Life project penned a study called the Future of the Internet III.  There are a number of items that won’t surprise you from the study: cell phones will be the primary access to the Internet worldwide (dur, iPhone), copyright technology will still be a battle between the corporations and the “crackers”, AR (Augmented Reality) will be commonplace, and non-traditional interfaces will be used to access the Internet.  I’ll elaborate more on that last item. 

The area I thought was interesting was on page seven of the study.  I’ll quote the important line: “A notable majority of the respondents (64%) favored the idea that by 2020 user interfaces will offer advanced talk, touch,  and typing options, and some added a fourth “T”–think.”  Whoa. 

I know I made a post a couple of weeks ago talking about the Neural Impulse Actuator and how it could be used for controlling your computer, but I didn’t expect to see a serious study suggesting it would be possible as soon as 2020.  Once a lot of these technologies come together to form a full integrated AR Internet (or The Digital Sea), then things are going to get pretty strange.

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The Death of the PC

The death of the PC is right around the corner.  I’ll say by 2015 at the latest. 

In this post by Adam Hartung, he discusses how the iPhone is providing the steam to obsolete the PC.  Because the iPhone with its wide array of innovative apps, and other devices like it, are creating new uses that cannot be matched by the PC, it’s doomed to obscurity. 

I’ll go further that the combination of innovative apps from a hand held device like the iPhone and the decoupling of the viewing screen will be the combination that will kill the PC.  In previous posts, I’ve shown how screens can be projected in glasses.

Or if you don’t want to watch on your glasses and prefer to project on yourself:


Either way, it eliminates the complaint that screens are too small to get the same amount of information as a PC.  The downside is, unless we can control our computers with our minds, we’re all going to look like idiots waving our fingers around to google directions to the nearest Starbucks.

Machines That Know: 10 Good Things

As I stated in my previous post, creating the “Internet of Things” with computers that can recognize objects, people and even emotions, can have dangerous implications when used incorrectly.  Many times its the unintended consequences of technology that have the biggest effects.  Item recognition by a computer has the potential to have many unintended consequences.

However, technology in itself is neither inherently good nor evil.  The potential usage depends on how we craft our societal rules to administer the new technology.  And this isn’t just to protect ourselves from Big Brother, because in this modern age, technology is utilized by everyone.  We have to protect from each others use of the technology just as much as from corporations or governments. 

Today I want to explore some of the good applications of these technologies.  I’m going to use a couple of assumptions for these applications.  First, is that cameras are ubiquitous, at least in public areas (roads, malls, businesses, schools, etc).  The source of these cameras could either be for security reasons, or individuals with personal cameras (which reminds of me gargoyles from Neal Stephenson’s great cyberpunk novel Snow Crash).  The second assumption is the information collected from cameras is easily accessible by anyone, but not the raw feeds.  So you can’t sit and watch a particular camera to spy on someone.  Third, everyone has an iPhone or similar travelling computer (let’s face it, it’s not a cell phone except in name). 

Ten Good Uses for “Machines That Know”

1) Rapid way to find lost children or lost dogs.  (no lost cats, when they leave it’s on purpose)

2) Worried parents can find out exactly where their teenagers went last night.

3) Teen-age girls can find out exactly what fashions are in or out by checking out what everyone is wearing.

4) Instant price comparision when shopping and would tell you where to find and if it was worth the gas to drive there.

5) Check if your favorite restaraunt was busy or not when the kids were at grandparents. 

6) Business owners could figure out what everyone was using, eating, buying , etc.  This would allow them to not carry inventories on items no one wants.  Less waste for our society.

7) Business owners could learn if people were happy with their experience in their stores. 

8 ) Shoppers could find out which stores had a particular item in stock. 

9) Drivers could know the route to work with the least amount of traffic.

10) Grocery lists could be converted into maps to show you the fastest route through the grocery store.


As I made my list, I realized a few things about the information usage.  One, the data is generalized, so no one’s personal privacy would be violated.  Two, if personal information is accessed, it’s only the individual accessing their own or their children’s information.  I think these are important distinctions when we consider the ownership of data in the Internet.  I personally have no problem when businesses collect data, but I don’t want that data to have my face on it.

Machines That Know

An interesting article on the Economist.com explains how computers are being taught to recognize both objects and people.  This is important, because it helps bring about the “Internet of Things“.  Currently, information on the Internet is tagged so it can be searched for by name or tag.  If you’re at the nearest Best Buy and want to find out if the 50” flat screen is a good buy, you can type in the information into Google and do some research.  With computers that can recognize objects, you’d be able to take a picture of the flat screen you’re examining and your iPhone could let you know everything about it–handy for an individual. 

The article also explains how computers can identify facial expressions to decide if employees are friendly enough to customers by analyzing their smile.  Other computer systems can identify the rough age of someone by the shape of their face.  Useful for vending machines selling cigarettes or alcohol. 

These two technologies used together can create many new problems when automated in a public place.  Imagine you’re visiting your favorite ice cream store.  You go in and try a few flavors, and eventually settle on rocky road.  The following week, you receive a coupon in the mail for rocky road ice cream from the same store you had just visited.  How did it know?

It would know because facial recognition would allow it to identify you, and also, because the computer can identify your base facial expressions, tell which ice cream you liked.  Pulling up information available on the Internet, it would find your address and send you the coupon for rocky road ice cream.  If it sounds a little Big Brotherish, well then it is. 

Applied on a broad scale, computers could harvest information about everyone and their habits.  Some of this information might be useful, and actually add value to society, but our privacy should be protected at all costs. 

The problem is who will own information on the Internet?  Currently there are vague rules for even the information available as you surf websites.  The problem will be compounded by real-time passive collection.  What will constitute permission to record your activities for informational purposes?  Can information be recorded about you in a public place? 

These are questions we should be asking, and passing along to our representatives in government.  We also need to be clear with the companies we frequent that we want our privacy protected.  While this won’t stop the inevitable abuses, we can limit the damage if we start acting now.

Augment Your Reality

See that little blurb up in the right corner on my banner–it says “Augmented Reality Explained”.  You might have been thinking, “WTF, mate.  I don’t even know what that is.”  In short, it’s adding virtual or digital graphics to real-time feeds (TV, computers, etc).  A more complete definition can be found here

Most people would know AR (short for Augmented Reality) as the yellow line at the first down marker during NFL games.  The potential implications of it are far reaching.  AR allows for the merging of real life and virtual reality.  The Internet and other computer applications can then be woven into our lives more easily.  A demonstration of the current state of the technology can be seen on this video:


In this next video makers show off a game engine. 


The importance of their demonstration is how easily the virtual object is manipulated.  One of the many possible uses of AR is that computer interfaces could be moved from the monitors to glasses that project the virtual environment where ever you are looking.  A virtual desk would substitute the windows icons, and instead of opening a file, you might grab a virtual document off your desk that would appear in front of you. 

Lastly, as a gamer, I love this video showing an AR cubical zombie attack.  A must own game for Dilbert.

TiVo Your Life

Lately I’ve been finding many occasions where I wish I had a TiVo for my life.  Getting a call in the car while my favorite song is on.  Wanting to go back to what my wife said earlier in the day to prove I did tell her that I had planned to nap in the afternoon.  Remembering the phone number spit out at me faster than the speed of sound.  Figuring out what I actually agreed to when I mumbled “yes” while contemplating what I was going to eat for lunch while at work.  Or getting another look at the long legged girl who walked by at the mall while my wife was talking to me. 

As more functions of our lives are converted to digital, we’ll have more opportunities to TiVo our lives.  Check out this Digital Camera Eye Implant that’s been developed to help the blind see.  Now the coolest part of this is that it’s helping the blind see.  But even the researchers admit to being able to add slow motion replay in the future.  It works because sight is converted to the same information that a digital camera creates. 

Recently I also heard about a man who replaced his fake eye with a camera eye.  His project is called The Eyeborg Project.  Essentially, he’s going to be able to playback anything he sees because the camera will be a record of his life.  While I wouldn’t want to lose my eye to get a camera version, Ashton Kutcher would like to for his show Punk’d.  

For those of us too squeamish to attach anything to our eyes, we’d need to record everything happening around us with a digital camera.  The straight feed could be replayed in a pair of lightweight glasses like these from Mirage Innovations

Someday, I’ll be able to go back two days and find that spot where my wife says that she told me I was supposed to take the kids to soccer.  The only problem is I’ll probably find out that she really did tell me and I was too busy daydreaming about that long legged girl at the mall.  But we won’t tell her that, I’ll just quietly take the kids to soccer.