Entering The Era of Cyborgs, Tech Antitrust, and The End of Project Dragonfly
This week in tech
This week was a big one for transhumanists and anyone interested in human augmentation. Elon Musk’s company Neuralink announced that it’s nearly ready for human volunteers to have their brain interface installed via four 8-millimeter holes in their skulls. A similar neural implant called Orion was successfully used to deliver camera data directly to the brain of six blind patients, partially restoring their vision. Intel unveiled a new chip design that is showing great promise in robotic prosthetics, performing up to a thousand times faster than general-purpose CPUs for some tasks.
With all this in mind, the provocative essay published by Vivienne Ming — a self-described “mad scientist” who has worked on human augmentation, including a device she made for her own son — is quite timely. Ming describes how the world of human augmentation is full of tricky ethical questions, but argues that not pursuing this technology — knowing the benefits it could bring to some people’s lives — could be just as problematic as letting the technology run amok without careful thought and regulation. Another fascinating perspective on this kind of technology comes from Nathan Copland, who is paralyized and already has a neural link (on the outside of his head) which helps him control computers and robots.
The worlds of politics and technology continue to collide. This week the FTC announced long anticipated settlement with Facebook over their role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The settlement includes a record breaking $5 billion fine. $5 billion is a lot of money, but Facebook reported $14.9 billion in revenue in the first quarter of 2019 alone. Combined with a 2% stock price increase after the settlement was announced it’s not at all clear that the record setting fine will cause Facebook — a repeat and often flagrant privacy offender — to change their behavior. As usual in Washington, partisanship was on display as well: while the three Republicans on the panel voted in favor of the settlement, the two Democrats voted against it, arguing that it did not go far enough. A similar dynamic played out in a feisty congressional hearing focused on antitrust which featured testimony from senior officials from Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Google
There is clearly a growing interest among lawmakers in regulating emerging technologies in general, the tech giants in particular. Tim Wu Published an article in OneZero calling for stronger enforcement of antitrust laws, especially regarding mergers and acquisitions by tech giants. The city of Oakland California became the third American city to ban the use of facial recognition technology by city agencies, including the police force. The move comes on the heels of an independent review of London’s facial recognition system which found the software had an 81% failure rate. Evidently undeterred by the concerns over efficacy, ICE was caught harvesting data from driver’s license databases to power their own facial recognition systems.
The outspoken libertarian Peter Thile is getting in on the political action as well. He called for an investigation of Google, claiming the company has been infiltrated and co-opted by Chinese intelligence. Perhaps ironically, Google announced the end of Project Dragonfly, which was the name for Google’s efforts to build a censorship friendly version of their search product for release in China.
In the Privacy sector there was a lot of Buzz over FaceApp — an AI powered image editing app. The company has been around since 2017, but a new feature that lets users generate realistic pictures of an older version of themselves became popular on social media. It turns out FaceApp’s terms of service agreement grants the company a perpetual and transferable license to any photos you upload to the service, which led to a backlash. Some were quick to point out this type of language is common in terms of service agreements, and that while FaceApp is clearly a privacy concern other social media sites — which have far more information about their users — are even worse privacy violators.
Some tidbits: a bluetooth connected hair straightener was found to be quite hackable. MIT Technology Review published a look WeChat’s real-time censorship features. Vice obtained an unsettling Palantir training manual which revealed just how powerful their surveillance software is. An AI beat six professional poker players in a game of Texas Hold’em, a new milestone for poker playing AIs. Finally, 4 of the 7 organizers of the Google walkout have now left the company.