Google tracks your movements, like it or not

The Associated Press reports:

Google wants to know where you go so badly that it records your movements even when you explicitly tell it not to.

An Associated Press investigation found that many Google services on Android devices and iPhones store your location data even if you’ve used a privacy setting that says it will prevent Google from doing so.

Computer-science researchers at Princeton confirmed these findings at the AP’s request.

For the most part, Google is upfront about asking permission to use your location information. An app like Google Maps will remind you to allow access to location if you use it for navigating. If you agree to let it record your location over time, Google Maps will display that history for you in a “timeline” that maps out your daily movements. [Continue reading…]

Carmakers speed toward electric future despite Trump rollback

Bloomberg reports:

The Trump administration wants to try to limit California’s special ability to require increasing purchase of electric vehicles in the state—but major automakers say they have no intention of reversing course on their electric vehicle plans.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Transportation Department are targeting California’s authority under the Clean Air Act to set stricter tailpipe emissions limits and zero emission vehicle requirements than the federal government.

The agencies, as part of a larger Aug. 2 proposal to relax Obama-era fuel economy standards for passenger cars, argued federal regulators’ authority preempts the Golden State’s ability to go beyond federal requirements.

“By 2020, more than 15 percent of our U.S. lineup will consist of hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and fuel cell electric vehicles. And that’s regardless of what regulation does,” Fred Turatti, general manager of environmental regulation for Toyota, told a July 23 event hosted by the Energy Consumer Market Alignment Project, a recently launched energy policy nonprofit group.

Toyota isn’t an outlier. Other major automakers told Bloomberg Environment, or have said publicly, they will stay on track toward their electric vehicle plans.

And analysts say that is because China—and the rapid growth in the country’s electric vehicle market—is a larger and more long-term driver for U.S. and foreign automakers’ focus on electric vehicles, more so than stringent federal fuel economy regulations or state zero emission vehicle mandates. [Continue reading…]

The marvel of LED lighting is now a global blight to health

By Richard G ‘Bugs’ Stevens, Aeon

Light pollution is often characterised as a soft issue in environmentalism. This perception needs to change. Light at night constitutes a massive assault on the ecology of the planet, including us. It also has indirect impacts because, while 20 per cent of electricity is used for lighting worldwide, at least 30 per cent of that light is wasted. Wasted light serves no purpose at all, and excessive lighting is too often used beyond what is needed for driving, or shopping, or Friday-night football. 

The electric light bulb is touted as one of the most significant technological advancements of human beings. It ranks right up there with the wheel, control of fire, antibiotics and dynamite. But as with any new and spectacular technology, there are invariably unintended consequences. With electric light has come an obliteration of night in much of the modern world; both outside in the city, and indoors during what was once ‘night’ according to the natural position of the Sun.

Life has evolved for several billion years with a reliable cycle of bright light from the Sun during the day, and darkness at night. This has led to the development of an innate circadian rhythm in our physiology; that circadian rhythm depends on the solar cycle of night and day to maintain its precision. During the night, beginning at about sunset, body temperature drops, metabolism slows, hunger abates, sleepiness increases, and the hormone melatonin rises dramatically in the blood. This natural physiological transition to night is of ancient origin, and melatonin is crucial for the transition to proceed as it should.

We now know that bright, short-wavelength light – blue light – is the most efficient for suppressing melatonin and delaying transition to night-time physiology; meanwhile, dimmer, longer-wavelength light – yellow, orange, and red, from a campfire or a candle, for example – has very little effect. Bright light from the Sun contains blue light, which is a benefit in the morning when we need to be alert and awake; but whether we are outdoors or indoors, when bright, blue light comes after sunset, it fools the body into thinking it’s daytime.

[Read more…]

Inside Google’s shadow workforce

Bloomberg reports:

Every day, tens of thousands of people stream into Google offices wearing red name badges. They eat in Google’s cafeterias, ride its commuter shuttles and work alongside its celebrated geeks. But they can’t access all of the company’s celebrated perks. They aren’t entitled to stock and can’t enter certain offices. Many don’t have health insurance.

Before each weekly Google all-hands meeting, trays of hors d’oeuvres and, sometimes, kegs of beer are carted into an auditorium and satellite offices around the globe for employees, who wear white badges. Those without white badges are asked to return to their desks.

Google’s Alphabet Inc. employs hordes of these red-badged contract workers in addition to its full-fledged staff. They serve meals and clean offices. They write code, handle sales calls, recruit staff, screen YouTube videos, test self-driving cars and even manage entire teams – a sea of skilled laborers that fuel the $795 billion company but reap few of the benefits and opportunities available to direct employees. Earlier this year, those contractors outnumbered direct employees for the first time in the company’s twenty-year history, according to a person who viewed the numbers on an internal company database. It’s unclear if that is still the case. Alphabet reported 89,058 direct employees at the end of the second quarter. The company declined to comment on the number of contract workers.

Other companies, such as Apple Inc. and Facebook Inc., some of the most cash-rich public companies, also rely on a steady influx of contractors. Investors watch employee headcount closely at these tech powerhouses, expecting that they keep posting impressive gains by maintaining skinnier workforces than older corporate titans. Hiring contractors keeps the official headcount low, and frees up millions of dollars to retain superstars in fields like artificial intelligence.

The result is an invisible workforce, off the company payrolls, that does the grunt work for the Silicon Valley giants with few of the rewards. [Continue reading…]

Inside China’s dystopian dreams: AI, shame and lots of cameras

Paul Mozur writes:

In the Chinese city of Zhengzhou, a police officer wearing facial recognition glasses spotted a heroin smuggler at a train station.

In Qingdao, a city famous for its German colonial heritage, cameras powered by artificial intelligence helped the police snatch two dozen criminal suspects in the midst of a big annual beer festival.

In Wuhu, a fugitive murder suspect was identified by a camera as he bought food from a street vendor.

With millions of cameras and billions of lines of code, China is building a high-tech authoritarian future. Beijing is embracing technologies like facial recognition and artificial intelligence to identify and track 1.4 billion people. It wants to assemble a vast and unprecedented national surveillance system, with crucial help from its thriving technology industry.

“In the past, it was all about instinct,” said Shan Jun, the deputy chief of the police at the railway station in Zhengzhou, where the heroin smuggler was caught. “If you missed something, you missed it.”

China is reversing the commonly held vision of technology as a great democratizer, bringing people more freedom and connecting them to the world. In China, it has brought control. [Continue reading…]

How Silicon Valley fuels an informal caste system

Antonio García Martínez writes:

California is the future of the United States, goes the oft-cited cliché. What the US is doing now, Europe will be doing in five years, goes another. Given those truthy maxims, let’s examine the socioeconomics of the “City by the Bay” as a harbinger of what’s to come.

Data shows that technology and services make up a large fraction of citywide employment. It also shows that unemployment and housing prices follow the tech industry’s boom-and-bust cycle. Amid the current boom, a family of four earning $117,400 now qualifies as low-income in San Francisco. Some readers laughed when I wrote in a memoir about working at Facebook that my six-figure compensation made me “barely middle class.” As it turns out, I wasn’t far off. With that credential, consider this rumination on bougie life inside the San Francisco bubble, which seems consistent with the data and the experience of other local techies.

San Francisco residents seem to be divided into four broad classes, or perhaps even castes:

The Inner Party of venture capitalists and successful entrepreneurs who run the tech machine that is the engine of the city’s economy.

The Outer Party of skilled technicians, operations people, and marketers that keep the trains belonging to the Inner Party running on time. They are paid well, but they’re still essentially living middle-class lives—or what lives the middle class used to have.

The Service Class in the “gig economy.” In the past, computers filled hard-for-humans gaps in a human value chain. Now humans fill hard-for-software gaps in a software value chain. These are the jobs that AI hasn’t managed to eliminate yet, where humans are expendable cogs in an automated machine: Uber drivers, Instacart shoppers, TaskRabbit manual labor, etc.

Lastly, there’s the Untouchable class of the homeless, drug addicted, and/or criminal. These people live at the ever-growing margins: the tent cities and areas of hopeless urban blight. The Inner Party doesn’t even see them, the Outer Party ignores them, and the Service Class eyes them warily; after all, they could end up there. [Continue reading…]

How robots helped Trump win

Brian Alexander writes:

“We used to laugh at the robots,” Rickey’s buddy said. “When they first came in, they were so slow. We would sorta hurry and outproduce them. But one of the lines was about 18 people, and now they can run it with, like, five.”

Rickey and his friend were echoing, almost word for word, two other men with whom I’d shared one-dollar beers in the Agenda Sports Bar, not far from the Toledo Assembly Complex. Both 30-year men who’d started at the Cove, they now worked at the complex. Both referred to management and agreed that “they want us out of there.” One said, “If they could replace us with robots, they would. They doin’ it faster and faster. You ain’t gonna fool me! … They gonna replace us as fast as they can.” Both also agreed that, despite the recommendation of UAW Local 12, “lots of people in our plant voted for Trump.”

“Look, man,” Rickey’s friend said. “I’m a dumb guy. I am! I had a learning disability when I was in school. But I could do factory work. Factory work is what we did. Now robots do that job. What happens to people like me? People in the plant thinkin’ somebody’s gonna save ’em, like Trump. There ain’t nobody gonna save ’em.”

Rickey looked at me and said he tells his own children that if they wind up working in the plant, “then I failed as a father.”

Every person I talked to in the Toledo region said technology was as unstoppable as the sunrise. The inevitability of it, and the uncertainty about what it would mean, weighed on them like lead blankets. Of the two men in the Agenda, one’s grandfather and father had worked for Jeep. The other’s father did. But legacy didn’t mean anything anymore. You couldn’t count on much for very long.

Kaptur listens to the people in her district and hears the same thing between the lines. “People feel very much alone,” she says. “Vulnerable.” Her voters have lived through globalized trade, outsourcing, recession, and the coming of robots. Soon it’ll be AI. Meanwhile, defined pension plans are gone in favor of 401(k)s. More companies, like Fiat Chrysler, use more temp workers. New workers sign on to lower wage tiers. A working draft of the World Bank’s World Development Report advised governments that “rapid changes to the nature of work put a premium on flexibility for firms to adjust their workforce, but also for those workers who benefit from more dynamic labor markets”—a fancy way of saying labor is disposable.

The effects are felt far beyond the jobs themselves. “Tribes of affection matter,” Kaptur says. “Whether it’s work-related, or a vets’ organization, or church, neighborhood, neighborhood businesses—they’re all evaporating. It’s the disappearance of everything they’ve worked for. Their identity, really.”

This is what Silicon Valley promoters of salves like universal basic income fail to understand. The engineers and programmers of the new machines seem to think they can buy off the displaced with a promise of cash. But many people don’t work for money, not really. They need the money, and they want the money, but money alone isn’t why anybody worked 40 years in the Cove. They stood on the line and welded or painted or bolted because they were auto workers in a country in which what you do is who you are, just as Shrewsbery is the Robot Doctor. They could look at a Wrangler, or a glass windshield, or a Whirlpool washer, and say “I made that.”

Probably nobody voted for Trump just because of technology. But when people feel powerless, they’ll gravitate toward any object, person, or belief they think might return some autonomy to them, or help them preserve what they fear they’re losing. [Continue reading…]

The dangers of distracted parenting

Erika Christakis writes:

Smartphones have by now been implicated in so many crummy outcomes—car fatalities, sleep disturbances, empathy loss, relationship problems, failure to notice a clown on a unicycle—that it almost seems easier to list the things they don’t mess up than the things they do. Our society may be reaching peak criticism of digital devices.

Even so, emerging research suggests that a key problem remains underappreciated. It involves kids’ development, but it’s probably not what you think. More than screen-obsessed young children, we should be concerned about tuned-out parents.

Yes, parents now have more face time with their children than did almost any parents in history. Despite a dramatic increase in the percentage of women in the workforce, mothers today astoundingly spend more time caring for their children than mothers did in the 1960s. But the engagement between parent and child is increasingly low-quality, even ersatz. Parents are constantly present in their children’s lives physically, but they are less emotionally attuned. To be clear, I’m not unsympathetic to parents in this predicament. My own adult children like to joke that they wouldn’t have survived infancy if I’d had a smartphone in my clutches 25 years ago.

To argue that parents’ use of screens is an underappreciated problem isn’t to discount the direct risks screens pose to children: Substantial evidence suggests that many types of screen time (especially those involving fast-paced or violent imagery) are damaging to young brains. Today’s preschoolers spend more than four hours a day facing a screen. And, since 1970, the average age of onset of “regular” screen use has gone from 4 years to just four months.

Some of the newer interactive games kids play on phones or tablets may be more benign than watching TV (or YouTube), in that they better mimic children’s natural play behaviors. And, of course, many well-functioning adults survived a mind-numbing childhood spent watching a lot of cognitive garbage. (My mother—unusually for her time—prohibited Speed Racer and Gilligan’s Island on the grounds of insipidness. That I somehow managed to watch every single episode of each show scores of times has never been explained.) Still, no one really disputes the tremendous opportunity costs to young children who are plugged in to a screen: Time spent on devices is time not spent actively exploring the world and relating to other human beings.

Yet for all the talk about children’s screen time, surprisingly little attention is paid to screen use by parents themselves, who now suffer from what the technology expert Linda Stone more than 20 years ago called “continuous partial attention.” This condition is harming not just us, as Stone has argued; it is harming our children. The new parental-interaction style can interrupt an ancient emotional cueing system, whose hallmark is responsive communication, the basis of most human learning. We’re in uncharted territory. [Continue reading…]

Google’s artificial intelligence drone project for the Pentagon provoked backlash for the company

Gizmodo reports:

Google will not seek another contract for its controversial work providing artificial intelligence to the U.S. Department of Defense for analyzing drone footage after its current contract expires.

Google Cloud CEO Diane Greene announced the decision at a meeting with employees Friday morning, three sources told Gizmodo. The current contract expires in 2019 and there will not be a follow-up contract, Greene said. The meeting, dubbed Weather Report, is a weekly update on Google Cloud’s business.

Google would not choose to pursue Maven today because the backlash has been terrible for the company, Greene said, adding that the decision was made at a time when Google was more aggressively pursuing military work. The company plans to unveil new ethical principles about its use of AI next week. A Google spokesperson did not immediately respond to questions about Greene’s comments.

Google’s decision to provide artificial intelligence to the Defense Department for the analysis of drone footage has prompted backlash from Google employees and academics. Thousands of employees have signed a petition asking Google to cancel its contract for the project, nicknamed Project Maven, and dozens of employees have resigned in protest.

Google, meanwhile, defended its work on Project Maven, with senior executives noting that the contract is of relatively little value and that its contribution amounts merely to providing the Defense Department with open-source software.

But internal emails reviewed by Gizmodo show that executives viewed Project Maven as a golden opportunity that would open doors for business with the military and intelligence agencies. The emails also show that Google and its partners worked extensively to develop machine learning algorithms for the Pentagon, with the goal of creating a sophisticated system that could surveil entire cities. [Continue reading…]

The total information awareness we feared the government acquiring, we have freely given to the tech giants

Renee DiResta writes:

“Every purchase you make with a credit card, every magazine subscription you buy and medical prescription you fill, every Web site you visit and e-mail you send or receive, every academic grade you receive, every bank deposit you make, every trip you book and every event you attend—all these transactions and communications will go into … a virtual, centralized grand database,” the New York Times columnist warns.

On the heels of Mark Zuckerberg’s numerous government testimonies and sustained criticism over the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the author of this Times column must be talking about Facebook—right? Or perhaps the web’s broader, ad-based business model?

Not so: The William Safire column, “You Are a Suspect,” was published in the Times in 2002—two years before Facebook was created. And Safire isn’t talking about social networks or digital advertising—he’s discussing Total Information Awareness, a US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) program that proposed mining vast amounts of Americans’ data to identify potential national security threats. The virtual grand database was to belong to the Department of Defense, which would use it to identify behavior patterns that would help to predict emerging terrorist threats.

Today, we’re voluntarily participating in the dystopian scenario Safire envisioned 16 years ago, with each bit of data handed to companies like Facebook and Google. But in this system, private companies are our information repositories—leaving us to reckon with the consequences of a world that endows corporations with the kind of data once deemed too outrageous for the government. [Continue reading…]