Does This $3.25m Funding Round Mark A New Phase of All-Pervading Surveillance?

Image from the Mindtech Global website

A lot has been made of surveillance technology in recent years. Our once relatively benign CCTV setup has been given an AI-driven makeover. At the same time, lower production costs have facilitated a kind of “camera creep” evident in the boom in home security cameras, police bodycams and the trend for heightened employee surveillance

Many cameras now also have so-called facial recognition technology baked in, allowing them to identify and track rule breakers. (Though volumes of evidence stands to show that the technology is often deeply flawed and discriminatory.) 

And while surveillance cameras have become more pervasive and (arguably) more sophisticated in what they can identify — like faces or employee inattention or even a distinctive gait — bigger plans are afoot, and a recent investment boost for a small UK start-up called Mindtech Global might give us a clue as to how things will unfold. 

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Our “AI Ghosts” Could Have A Stake In The Future

Back in 2016, James Vlahos spent many months building the ambitious piece of software he ended up calling Dadbot. It was a heartfelt attempt to preserve the memories of his then dying father by assimilating them into a chatbot that he and his family could converse with in their grief, and in the years to come. A journalist by trade, James wrote the full story of this journey in WIRED, and if you don’t shed a tear while reading it you are *officially* dead inside.

James now helps others memorialize themselves and loved ones in a similar fashion with his business Hereafter, which is part of a wider tech-driven trend for conserving legacy (see Vita and Storyworth).

However, outside of these clear and obvious reasons for recording and encoding human lives, the WSJ reported last week that there is a parallel movement to use AI and digital technologies to somehow prolong the lives of the subjects in question: “…not only as static replicas for the benefit of their loved ones but as evolving digital entities that may steer companies or influence world events.

No, I’m not making this up.

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Do Our AI Assistants Need To Be Warm And Fuzzy?

Open the tech news on any given day and you’re almost guaranteed to find something about conversational AI or Natural Language Processing (NLP). This is the tech that powers chatbots, virtual assistants and the likes as they mimic human interaction. As this blog has noted, complex language models have come on leaps and bounds recently, and our future as users is becoming clear: we’ll be holding (reasonably) natural conversations with non-human bots on a regular basis, and for a variety of reasons.

The shadows on the cave wall — if not yet the fully realized Platonic form of conversational AI — can already be made out. Want banking tips? Ask Erica. Legal advice? There are bots like April. Want to engage your students? Juji thinks it can help.

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Will Google’s Controversial LaMDA Help or Hinder Internet Discovery?

In his online Masterclass on the art of writing, renowned journalist Malcolm Gladwell explains the shortcomings of Google when it comes to research and discovery. “The very thing that makes you love Google is why Google is not that useful“, he chirps. To Gladwell, a Google search is but a dead-end when a true researcher wants to be led “somewhere new and unexpected“.

In juxtaposition to Google’s search engine stands ye olde library, which Gladwell calls the “physical version of the internet” (sans some of the more sophisticated smut…). In a library — should it be required — guidance is on-hand in the form of a librarian, and unlike the internet there is a delightful order to things that the writer likens to a good conversation. Discovery can be as simple as finding what books surround the book that inspired you…and following the trail. Gladwell elucidates: “The book that’s right next to the book is the book that’s most like it, and then the book that’s right next to that one is a little bit different, and by the time you get ten books away you’re getting into a book that’s in the same general area but even more different.”

There is something altogether more natural and relational about uncovering the new — and the forgotten — in the context of a library or a conversation. Hidden gems lay undisturbed, unlike popularity-ranked internet search results that spew out the obvious and the familiar.

Enter LaMDA AI.

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Klara and The Sun: Love, Loyalty & Obsolescence

If you’re of a certain generation, you might remember the Tamagotchi; the Japanese pocket-sized “pet simulation game” that became the chief obsession of 90s kids bored of yo-yos and other fleeting trends. The Tamagotchi lived mostly in the grubby hands or lint-filled pockets of its owners but, for social currency, could be paraded before envious or competitive enthusiasts. 

Oddly, these oviparous virtual critters weren’t remotely animallike in their appearance, and could be intolerably demanding at times. Neglect to feed them, clean up after them, or tend to them when sick and — as many of us found out — very soon you’d be left with nothing but a dead LCD blob. But even the best cared-for Tamagotchi(s?) had certain obsolescence looming in their futures, once their needlessly complex lifecycle was complete: egg, baby, child, teen, adult, death. 

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Dig out your tinfoil hat! Consumer neurotech is here to stay – and it needs more scrutiny

“Thoughts are free and subject to no rule. On them rests the freedom of man, and they tower above the light of nature”

Philippus Aureolus Paracelsus (1493-1541)

This week, Facebook Reality Labs revealed the latest piece of hardware gadgetry that it hopes will introduce eager consumers to a new world of augmented and mixed reality. The wristband is a type of technology known as a neural — or brain-computer — interface, and can read the electrical nerve signals our brain sends to our muscles and interpret them as instructions.

In other words, you don’t have to move. You can just *think* your movements.

You’d be forgiven for wondering if we’ve evolved too far..

A jazzy, high production video features grinning young San Francisco-type execs describing this new, immersive experience. They’ve invented it, and they’ll be damned if they aren’t going to foist it upon us.  “The wrist is a great starting point for us technologically,” one chirps, “because it opens up new and dynamic forms of control.” Quite. 

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AI Ethics for Startups – 7 Practical Steps

Radiologists assessing the pain experienced by osteoarthritis patients typically use a scale called the Kellgren-Lawrence Grade (KLG). The KLG calculates pain levels based on the presence of certain radiographic features, like missing cartilage or damage. But data from the National Institute of Health revealed a disparity between the level of pain as calculated by the KLG and Black patients’ self-reported experience of pain.

The MIT Technology Review explains: “Black patients who show the same amount of missing cartilage as white patients self-report higher levels of pain.”

But why?

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Could You Fall In Love With A “MetaHuman”?

Image from the Unreal Engine website

In the early months of the COVID-19 shelter-in-place, Cathy Gover joined the dating website Plenty of Fish. Like many people during the pandemic, the Tennessee widow was suffering from the onset of lockdown loneliness and decided to look for love online. It wasn’t long before she met Marc from Atlanta, and fell for his considerable charms. Then, six weeks into their online romance, Marc asked Cathy for financial help.

Of course, you’ve heard this story many, many times before. An older woman looking for love and companionship meets a predator posing as a lonely heart, only to be duped out of thousands of dollars. Sometimes these cases can be frustrating, and leave us asking how the victim missed all of the glaring red flags.

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Deepfaking the Deceased: Is it Ever Okay?

In February last year, the world baulked as the media reported that a South Korean broadcaster had used virtual reality technology to “reunite” a grieving mother with the 7-year old child she lost in 2016. 

YouTube.com

As part of a documentary entitled I Met You, Jang Ji-sung was confronted by an animated and lifelike vision of her daughter Na-yeon as she played in a neighborhood park in her favorite dress. It was an emotionally charged scene, with the avatar asking the tearful woman, “Mom, where have you been? Have you been thinking of me?”

“Always”, the mother replied. 

Remarkably, documentary makers saw this scene as “heartwarming”, but many felt that something was badly wrong. Ethicists, like Dr. Blaby Whitby from the University of Sussex, cautioned the media: “We just don’t know the psychological effects of being “reunited” with someone in this way.”

Indeed, this was unchartered territory. 

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Playing to the Algorithm: Are We Training the Machines or…?

It is our human inclination to want to look good. Our desire to impress keeps the fashion industry alive, it also motivates many of us to work or study hard, and there are billions of dollars to be made from our desperation to look visibly fit and healthy. So, it should come as no surprise that as algorithms hold more and more sway over decision-making and the conferral of status (e.g. via credit or hiring decisions), many of us are keen to put our best foot forward and play into their discernible preferences. 

This is certainly true of those in business, as discovered by the authors of the working paper How to Talk When A Machine is Listening: Corporate Disclosure in the Age of AI. An article posted by the National Bureau of Economic Research describes the study’s findings:

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