New Movie Trailer: Divergent

DivergentCame across this trailer recently, for the upcoming movie adaptation of the 2011 novel Divergent. And while the trailer does look like impressive, this does seem like a really predictable move on Hollywood’s part. With the recent adaptation of the Hunger Games and Ender’s Game, it was only a matter of time before producers began looking farther afield to find more examples of YA dystopian literature.

In fact, that’s been a subject which I’ve been thinking about quite a lot lately. In terms of sci-fi trends, the past decade has seen a revival of dystopian literature, and the majority of it seems to be aimed at young readers. Not surprising really, seeing as how issues like the “war on terror”, domestic surveillance and NSA data mining have led to a resurgence of fears that humanity could still be living in Big Brother state in the near future.

divergent-iron-on-patches-summit-boothAnd with the rise in publications that appeal to young adult readers – with everything from Twilight to Harry Potter – writer’s began to see just how accessible dystopian tales would be to young readers. And Divergent is certainly no exception to this rule. And just like the Hunger Games, a dystopian society is used as a metaphor to address the issues of teen angst and the struggle to belong.

Basically, the story takes place in a Chicago of the future, where live in a society that is divided into castes and membership is determined when people turn 16. Enter into this Beatrice “Pris” Prior, a young woman with a special mind who undergoes the test designed to determine what caste she belongs to, only to find out that the test failed and she has been declared “Divergent”.

divergent-movie-set-reportThe rest of the movie, as is made clear from the trailer, consists of her joining the resistance – a group composed of “casteless” people (aka. other Divergents) – and waging war against the state. So, a society where people are forced into specialized roles, where those who are different must live in secret or face persecution, and a heroine who rises up to bring down the system… sound like the teenage experience to you?

Yeah, me too. And while some criticize Divergent for being a Hunger Games ripoff, people who actually know their dystopian lit are quick to point out that that book was probably a ripoff of Battle Royale. And in reality, all these books are eating crumbs off the table of Zamyatin, Huxley and Orwell, and the YA angle with all its wish fulfillment is nothing that hasn’t been seen a hundred times before.

Anyhoo, the movie is set for release on March 21st, 2014. Enjoy the trailer!

The Future is Creepy: Reading Consumer’s Brainwaves

brainscansProduct marketing has always been a high stakes game, where companies rely on psychology, competitive strategies, and well-honed ad campaigns to appeal to consumer’s instincts. This has never been an exact science, but it may soon be possible for advertisers to simply read your brainwaves to determine what you’re thinking and how much you’re willing to pay.

This past October, the German news site Spiegel Online profiled the provocative work of a Swiss neuroscientist and former sales consultant who is working on a method of measuring brain waves to determine how much a person would be willing to pay for a good or service. Known as “feel-good pricing” to marketing critics, the idea is already inspiring horror and intrigue.

brainwavesThe neuroscientist in question is Kai-Markus Müller, the head of Neuromarketing Labs who has over 10 years of experience in neuroscience research. According to his test, Starbucks is not actually charging enough for its expensive coffee. In fact, it’s probably leaving profits on the table because people would probably still buy it if they charged more.

To conduct this test, Müller targeting an area in the brain that lights up when things don’t really make sense. When test subjects were presented with the idea of paying 10 cents for coffee, their brain reacted unconsciously because the price seemed too cheap. A coffee for $8, on other hand, produced a similar reaction since the price seemed too high.

brain-activityOne would think that this method would help to determine optimum pricing. However, Müller then set up a coffee vending machine where people were allowed to set their own price. The two methods then matched up and revealed that people were willing to pay a higher price than what Starbucks actually charges. Somehow, paying less made people think they were selecting an inferior grade of product.

Naturally, there are those who would be horrified by this idea, feeling that it represents the worst combination of Big Brother surveillance and invasive marketing. This is to be expecting when any talk of “reading brainwaves” is concerned, dredging up images of a rampant-consumer society where absolutely no privacy exists, even within the space of your own head.

neuromarketOn the other hand, Müller himself takes issue with the notion of the “transparent consumer”, claiming that “Everyone wins with this method”. As proof, he cited the numerous flops in the consumer economy in the Spiegel Online article. Apparently, roughly 80 percent of all new products disappear from shelves after a short time, mainly because the producers have misjudged the markets desire for them or what they are willing to pay.

It’s all part of a nascent concept known as Neuromarketing, and it is set to take to the market in the coming years. One can expect that consumers will have things to say about it, and no doubt those feelings will come through whenever and wherever producers try to sell you something. Personally, I am reminded of what Orwell wrote in 1984:

“Always the eyes watching you and the voice enveloping you. Asleep or awake, working or eating, indoors or out of doors, in the bath or in bed — no escape. Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimetres inside your skull.”

futurama_lightspeedbriefsAnd perhaps more appropriately, I’m also reminded of what Fry said about advertising in the Season 1 episode of Futurama entitled “A Fistfull of Dollars”:

“Leela: Didn’t you have ads in the 21st century?

Fry: Well sure, but not in our dreams. Only on TV and radio, and in magazines, and movies, and at ball games… and on buses and milk cartons and t-shirts, and bananas and written on the sky. But not in dreams, no siree.”

Somehow, truth is always stranger than fiction!

Sources: fastcoexist.com, spiegel.de, neuromarketing-labs.com

The Future of Education: Facial Recognition in the Classroom

https://i2.wp.com/edudemic.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/intel-bridge-the-gap.pngFor some time now, classroom cameras have been used to see what teachers do in the course of their lessons, and evaluate their overall effectiveness as educators. But thanks to a recent advances in facial recognition software, a system has been devised that will assess teacher effectiveness by turning the cameras around and aiming at them at the class.

It’s what’s known as EngageSense, and was developed by SensorStar Labs in Queens, New York. It begins by filming student’s faces, then applying an algorithm to assess their level of interest. And while it might sound a bit Big Brother-y, the goal is actually quite progressive. Traditional logic has it that by filming the teacher, you will know what they are doing right and wrong.

https://i1.wp.com/f.fastcompany.net/multisite_files/fastcompany/imagecache/slideshow_large/slideshow/2013/10/3018861-slide-makerfaire1.jpgThis system reverses that thinking, measuring reactions to see how the students feel and react, measuring their level of interest over time to see what works for them and what doesn’t. As SensorStar Labs co-founder Sean Montgomery put it:

This idea of adding the cameras and being able to use that information to assist teachers to improve their lessons is already underway. Where this is trying to add a little value on top of that is to make it less work for the teachers.

Montgomery also emphasized that the technology is in the research and development research and development  phase. In its current form, it uses webcams to shoot students’ faces and computer vision algorithms to analyze their gaze – measuring eye movement, the direction they are facing, and facial expressions. That, coupled with audio, can be transformed into a rough, automated metric of student engagement throughout the day.

https://i2.wp.com/endthelie.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/facial-recognition-data-points.jpgAfter a lesson, a teacher could boot up EngageSense and see, with a glance at the dashboard, when students were paying rapt attention, and at what points they became confused or distracted. Beyond that, the concept is still being refined as SensorStar Labs looks both for funding and for schools to give EngageSense a real-world trial.

The ultimate goal here is to tailor lessons so that the learning styles of all students can be addressed. And given the importance of classroom accommodation and the amount of time dedicated to ensuring individual student success, a tool like this may prove very useful. Rather than relying on logs and spreadsheets, the EngageSense employs standard computer hardware that simplifies the evaluation process over the course of days, weeks, months, and even years.

https://i1.wp.com/image.slidesharecdn.com/technologyandeducation2-110922110134-phpapp01/95/slide-1-728.jpgAt the present time, the biggest obstacle would definitely be privacy concerns. While the software is designed for engaging student interest right now, it would not be difficult at all to imagine the same technology applied to police interrogations, security footage, or public surveillance.

One way to assuage these concerns in the classroomstudents, according to Montgomery, is to make the entire process voluntary. Much in the same way that smartphone apps ask permission to access your GPS or other personal data, parental consent would be needed before a child could be recorded or their data accessed and analyzed.

Sources: fastcoexist.com, labs.sensorstar.com

The Future of the Classroom

virtual_learning2As an educator, technological innovation is a subject that comes up quite often. Not only are teachers expected to keep up with trends so they can adapt them into their teaching strategies, classrooms,and prepare children in how to use them, they are also forced to contend with how these trends are changing the very nature of education itself. If there was one thing we were told repeatedly in Teacher’s College, it was that times are changing, and we must change along with them.

And as history has repeatedly taught us, technological integration not only changes the way we do things, but the way we perceive things. As we come to be more and more dependent on digital devices, electronics and wireless communications to give us instant access to a staggering amount of technology, we have to be concerned with how this will effect and even erode traditional means of information transmission. After all, how can reading and lecture series’ be expected to keep kid’s attention when they are accustomed to lighting fast videos, flash media, and games?

envisioning-the-future-of-education

And let’s not forget this seminal infographic, “Envisioning the future of educational technology” by Envisioning Technology. As one of many think tanks dedicated to predicting tech-trends, they are just one of many voices that is predicting that in time, education will no longer require the classroom and perhaps even teachers, because modern communications have made the locale and the leader virtually obsolete.

Pointing to such trends as Massive Open Online Courses, several forecasters foresee a grand transformation in the not too distant future where all learning happens online and in virtual environments. These would be based around “microlearning”, moments where people access the desired information through any number of means (i.e. a google search) and educate themselves without the need for instruction or direction.

virtual_learning3The technical term for this future trend is Socialstructured Learning = an aggregation of microlearning experiences drawn from a rich ecology of content and driven not by grades but by social and intrinsic rewards. This trend may very well be the future, but the foundations of this kind of education lie far in the past. Leading philosophers of education–from Socrates to Plutarch, Rousseau to Dewey–talked about many of these ideals centuries ago. The only difference is that today, we have a host of tools to make their vision reality.

One such tool comes in the form of augmented reality displays, which are becoming more and more common thanks to devices like Google Glass, the EyeTap or the Yelp Monocle. Simply point at a location, and you are able to obtain information you want about various “points of interest”. Imagine then if you could do the same thing, but instead receive historic, artistic, demographic, environmental, architectural, and other kinds of information embedded in the real world?

virtual_learningThis is the reasoning behind projects like HyperCities, a project from USC and UCLA that layers historical information on actual city terrain. As you walk around with your cell phone, you can point to a site and see what it looked like a century ago, who lived there, what the environment was like. The Smithsonian also has a free app called Leafsnap, which allows people to identify specific strains of trees and botany by simply snapping photos of its leaves.

In many respects, it reminds me of the impact these sorts of developments are having on politics and industry as well. Consider how quickly blogging and open source information has been supplanting traditional media – like print news, tv and news radio. Not only are these traditional sources unable to supply up-to-the-minute information compared to Twitter, Facebook, and live video streams, they are subject to censorship and regulations the others are not.

Attractive blonde navigating futuristic interfaceIn terms of industry, programs like Kickstarter and Indiegogo – crowdsources, crowdfunding, and internet-based marketing – are making it possible to sponsor and fund research and development initiatives that would not have been possible a few years ago. Because of this, the traditional gatekeepers, aka. corporate sponsors, are no longer required to dictate the pace and advancement of commercial development.

In short, we are entering into a world that is becoming far more open, democratic, and chaotic. Many people fear that into this environment, someone new will step in to act as “Big Brother”, or the pace of change and the nature of the developments will somehow give certain monolithic entities complete control over our lives. Personally, I think this is an outmoded fear, and that the real threat comes from the chaos that such open control and sourcing could lead to.

Is humanity ready for democratic anarchy – aka. Demarchy (a subject I am semi-obsessed with)? Do we even have the means to behave ourselves in such a free social arrangement? Opinion varies, and history is not the best indication. Not only is it loaded with examples of bad behavior, previous generations didn’t exactly have the same means we currently do. So basically, we’re flying blind… Spooky!

Sources: fastcoexist.com, envisioningtech.com

The Future is Here: Using 3D Printing and DNA to Recreate Faces

strangervisions-1In what is either one of the most novel or frightening stories involving 3D printing and genetic research, it seems that an artist named Heather Dewey-Hagborg has been using the technology to recreate the faces of litterbugs. This may sound like something out of a dystopian novel – using a high-tech scenario to identify perpetrators of tiny crimes – but in fact, it is the basis of her latest art project.

It’s known as Stranger Visions, a series of 3D printed portraits based on DNA samples taken from objects found on the streets of Brooklyn. Using samples of discarded gum and litter collected from the streets, a her work with a DIY biology lab in Brooklyn called Genspace – where she met a number of biologists who taught her everything she now knows about molecular biology and DNA – she was able to reconstruct what the strangers looked like and then printed the phenotypes out as a series of 3D portraits.

According to Dewey-Hagborg, the inspiration for this project came to her while waiting for a therapy session, when she noticed a framed print on the wall that contained a small hair inside the cracked glass. After wondering who the hair belonged to, and what the person looked like, she became keenly aware of the genetic trail left by every person in their daily life, and began to question what physical characteristics could be identified through the DNA left behind on a piece of gum or cigarette butt.

strangervisions-3In a recent interview, Dewey-Hagborg explained the rather interesting and technical process behind her art:

So I extract the DNA in the lab and then I amplify certain regions of it using a technique called PCR – Polymerase Chain Reaction. This allows me to study certain regions of the genome that tend to vary person to person, what are called SNPs or Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms.

I send the results of my PCR reactions off to a lab for sequencing and what I get back are basically text files filled with sequences of As, Ts, Cs, and Gs, the nucleotides that compose DNA. I align these using a bioinformatics program and determine what allele is present for a particular SNP on each sample.

strangervisions-5

Then I feed this information into a custom computer program I wrote which takes all these values which code for physical genetic traits and parameterizes a 3d model of a face to represent them. For example gender, ancestry, eye color, hair color, freckles, lighter or darker skin, and certain facial features like nose width and distance between eyes are some of the features I am in the process of studying.

I add some finishing touches to the model in 3d software and then export it for printing on a 3d printer. I use a Zcorp printer which prints in full color using a powder type material, kind of like sand and glue.

The resulting portraits are bizarre approximations of anonymous people who unknowingly left their genetic material on a random city street. Naturally, there are plenty of people who wonder how accurate her approximations are. Well, according to Dewey-Hagborg, the portraits bear a “family resemblance” to the subject, and at this time, no person has never recognized themselves in any of her exhibitions. Yet…

strangervisions-4And of course, there are limitations with this sort of phenotype-DNA identification. For starters, it is virtually impossible to determine the age of a person from their DNA alone. In addition, facial features like scars and hair growth cannot be gauged, so Dewey-Hagborg casts each portrait as if the person were around 25 years of age.

And yet, I cannot help but feel that there is some awesome and terrible potential in what Dewey-Hagborg has created here. While her artistic vision had to do with the subject of identity and anonymity in our society, there is potential here for something truly advanced and invasive. Already it has been considered that DNA identification could be the way of the future, where everyone’s identity is kept in a massive database that can either be used to track them or eliminate as suspects in criminal cases.

But in cases where the person’s DNA is not yet on file, police would no longer need to rely on sketch artists to identify potential perps. Instead, they could just reconstruct their appearances based on a single strand of DNA, and use existing software to correct for age, hair color, facial hair, scars, etc, and then share the resulting images with the public via a public database or press releases.

strangervisions-2And as Dewey-Hagborg’s own project shows, the potential for public exposure and identification is huge. With a sophisticated enough process and a quick turnover rate, cities could identity entire armies of litterbugs, polluters, petty criminals and even more dangerous offenders, like pedophiles and stalkers, and publicly shame them by posting their faces for all to see.

But of course, I am forced to acknowledge that Dewey-Hagborg conducted this entire project using a DIY genetics lab and through her own ardent collection process. Whereas some would see here an opportunity for Big Brother to mess with our lives, others would see further potential for a democratic, open process where local communities are able to take genetics and identification into their own hands.

Like I said, the implications and potential being shown here are both awesome and scary!

Source: thisiscolossal.com

Drone Wars: Hiding Your Home from a UAV

(U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson)(Released)In a world increasingly permeated by surveillance systems, especially ones that are airborne and remotely operated, it was only a matter of time before some struck back. Much like Steve Mann’s concept of sousveillance – using camera devices and wearable computers to help people spy back against “Big Brother” – it seems that there are individuals out there looking for ways to help the common people avoid UAV detection.

In this case, the individual is Tim Faucett, CEO of APlus Mobile. When his company is not manufacturing mobile computer units that manage robots and UAVs for clients like the U.S. Navy and Lockheed Martin, they are contemplating ways to shield us from the technology they help create. Might seem a bit ironic, but looking to the future, Faucett and his colleagues are concerned about people other than government and military having access to the technology.

drone_target_1Alongside the FAA, which estimates that there could be tens of thousands of unmanned aircrafts circling overhead by the end of this decade, Faucett believes the future will be permeated by privately-owned unmanned aerial vehicles:

There are going to be private drones, there’s going to be commercial drones. Everybody’s going to have access to a drone. And people are going to have good intentions with them, and people are going to have bad intentions with them.

An interesting idea, and not one the public has fully considered yet. Most concerns vis a vis UAVs and their unlawful use are targeted at the governments who use them, mainly with the intention of “combating terrorism” overseas. But to Faucett, the real threat comes from our neighbors and private groups, people who are harder to discern, identify and fight than a monolithic organization.

drone-laser-targeting_620x374In keeping with this mindset, a few weeks ago, his startup Domestic Drone Countermeasures filed its first of what he said would be nine patents for a system that will detect and disable drones before they have the chance to film their targets. Few details have been made available yet as to what these systems involve, mainly because it’s new and Faucett hopes to keep the cat in the bag until its time to unveil.

Still, some details have managed to trickle out, such as Faucett’s own reference to a system that includes software and sensors that will be able to identify nearby UAVs based on their electromagnetic signature, alert the owner of the system, and then “neutralize the drone’s capability to see you with its camera.” But Faucett was also sure to emphasize the non-military nature of all this, responding to rumors that his company is developing some sort of weaponry:

We don’t interfere with the drones navigation in any way. We don’t jam anything. We don’t intercept anything … This is non-combative. That’s really important. We’ve taken great pains to design systems that aren’t going to get shut down or be outlawed or become illegal. … We’ve taken the combat elements out so [the former military technology] can’t be viewed as unlawful.

???????????????????In fact, the new system may actually be capable of doing something creative and comical, should anyone attempt to spy on you. And all without causing harm to the camera that’s attempting to see you :

The camera just won’t be able to look at you. Actually, at some point, we can show the operator at the other end a little movie or something.

So try to misuse a UAV, and you may end with an eye full of porn bombs, or several hours of Desperate Housewives, playing on a loop. Take that, nosy neighbor! You too, Big Brother!

Faucett says his team of three full-time engineers and several part-time staffers should be able to bring the system to market in a matter of months. It’ll be scalable to suit the needs of someone who just wants their home protected, ranging from a home owner who some added security, to larger property owners or institutional clients. You might say, spying will become the new type of Cold War, with government, security and surveillance companies all engaged in a game of one-upmanship.

And as usual, I sense an idea for a novel… Patent Pending!

Source: fastcoexist.com

 

Fears of a Police-Drone State

UAVsIn a decision which has been decried by countless community activists and civil rights leaders, the Alameda  County Sheriff’s Department announced plans last month to deploy up to two small, lightweight drones to assist in police surveillance. Despite resistance from the community, the town seems poised to join many other cities in using UAV’s for domestic security, effectively steam-rolling over concerns over privacy and “Big Brother” government.

As it stands, several police agencies across the US are currently using drones, including the Miami-Dade Police Department and the Texas Department of Public Safety. Until recently, the Seattle Police Department also employed a two-drone fleet, but grounded them amidst growing concerns over privacy and a recent government report, which warned that drone use could become even more commonplace.

california_dronesBefore anyone gets too worried, rest assured that the drones in question are a far cry from the UAV’s currently conducting armed missions overseas. Unlike the Predator and Reaper drones that carry multiple Hellfire missiles and can level entire villages, these drones are relatively benign, weighing only a few pounds and relying on a series of propellers to keep them aloft. But of course, the potential for harm resides in their ability to monitor, not to kill…

UAV_scoutConcerns over domestic drone surveillance reached a sort of climax  last February after federal lawmakers signed the Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 into law. Among other things, the act required the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to accelerate drone flights in U.S. airspace. In response, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) warned that the act would allow drone use to become commonplace in the US.

In accordance with that law, drones, known in the report as “unmanned aerial systems,” are currently limited in the United States to law enforcement activities, search and rescue, forensic photography, monitoring or fighting forest fires, border security, weather research, scientific data collection and even hobbies. However, the law calls for expansion so drones can be used for commercial, utility and public  uses.

UAV_dom1Naturally, the FAA feels that the new law doesn’t take into account several key problems – notably concerns surrounding privacy, security and even GPS jamming and spoofing. In short, they pointed out that despite drone’s on-board navigation and detection system that allow them to avoid crashes, said systems could cause complications if and when drones share airspace with private aircraft.

Among other things, the FAA recommended that drone GPS systems undergo encryption so they would be resistant to jamming and hacking, which is apparently a danger in non-military unencrypted drones. They also advised that the government set up secure operation centers for unmanned drones, and recommended that the government formulate privacy protections to head off potential “abuses”.

UAV_domObviously, the FAA’s report and public concern struck a note. Just last month, federal lawmakers introduced legislation regulating state and federal government use of unmanned drones in the United States. This legislation prohibits drones from being armed, and would demand that agencies register drones and adopt privacy polices. What’s more, the proposal would allow drones to be used only in criminal matters, in which warrants would be required.

Once again, it appears that the Obama administration is willing to step in where public concerns over developing technology are concerned. Recall the instruction signed by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter back in December of last year designed to limit the development of autonomous aerial drones? Well here too, instructions have been given, but the general sense of worry is far from alleviated.

X-47BIt puts me in mind of a prediction Arthur C. Clarke made shortly before he died in 2008. He predicted that despite concerns over “Big Brother”-type monitoring, that digital surveillance would be adopted by every city within the civilized world, until such time that crime was virtually eliminated. Much like many predictions he made, this one proved a little optimistic and futurist for some of his fans (including this one!).

As it stands, the use of remote machines to monitor our world is an ongoing and growing concern, and the debate will hardly be decided so easily. In the end, we all just have to ask if we really want to live in a post-privacy state, what the costs of living in that kind of world will be, and whether or not it will truly mean the emergence of dystopian scenarios, as envisioned by George Orwell and others.

Source: Wired.com, (2)