100 Million Times Faster

Recently I tried to read an article about huge advances in computer technology that appear to be just over the horizon.

I say “tried,” because the article includes sentences like this one:  “Quantum annealing (QA) has been proposed as a quantum enhanced optimization heuristic exploiting tunneling.”  I recognize each of those words as being English, and capable of being understood on a word-by-word basis — but put them all together and my conscious mind explodes.  Rather than grasping the intended, core meaning, my brain diverts into cul-de-sacs like:  “Hey, shouldn’t there be a verb somewhere near the end of that sentence?”
black-screen-spinning-wheel-on-bootBut the key concept from the article is that a new form of computer design called a quantum annealer, that a joint project between Google and NASA is experimenting with, is proving to be as much as 100 million times faster at solving difficult, multi-variable problems than the “classical” computer design.  The article cautions that there are still lots of technological hurdles and challenges to be addressed before the quantum annealing approach can be turned into practical technology, but the test results are enormously promising.

It’s not hard to imagine what such a dramatically enhanced and powerful computer could accomplish for an entity like NASA, in calculating the trajectories needed to dodge asteroids, skirt gravitational fields, and safely land spacecraft on alien surfaces.  You could also see how new computers with such tremendously accelerated raw processing power could be used by governments — in decrypting encoded messages, for example — or by hackers looking to crack passwords.  And, of course, such advancements typically are followed by great leaps forward in miniaturization and new applications that weren’t even considered before the technology came on line.  Futurists and dreamers will have a field day considering how faster processing power could be used, for example, in diagnostic medical equipment or implants.

What would having a computer that processes 100 million times faster mean for the rest of us?  We’ll still be moving at standard human mental and physical speeds, of course, unless the new technology results in a trend toward creation of speeded-up cyborgs.  Nevertheless, there is one great promise for all PC users arising from development of inconceivably faster quantum annealing computers:  no more frustrated staring at the computer screen, watching the annoying spinning circle of death!

Scrutinizing The Search Engines

How do search engines work, exactly?  When you type in your poorly worded, off the top of your head inquiry, how do they sift through mountains of data and come up with responsive information — and then rank that information, to boot?

Staffers at the Federal Trade Commission looked at Google and concluded that Google skews its search results to favor its own services and offerings at the expense of its rivals.  Among other things, the report concluded that Google modified its ranking criteria so that Google options fared better and that Google “scraped” content — whatever that means — from other websites as part of its effort to favor Google offerings.

IMG_4976I suppose I should be irate about the notion of Google jimmying search results in its favor, but it’s hard to get too exercised about it.  I really don’t care about how the rankings are determined or presented, nor do I want to get into the boring details of search algorithms.  How many people automatically click on the top option their search produces?  I don’t.  I’m perfectly happy to skip the sites that have paid for priority and the cached options and scroll through until I find what I’m looking for.

The search engine world is a black box to most of us non-techies, but there seems to be a lot of games being played, by everyone.  How often have you done a software update on your computer and found that your default search engine option has mysteriously changed from Google to, say, Yahoo as part of the process?  That’s happened to me, and I assume that Yahoo has paid for that modification, figuring that most people won’t go through the hassle of changing the default back to Google or Yelp or whatever it was before.  And most people won’t.

The reality is, most of us don’t care which search engine gets used, or how the search engine produces its results, or whether those results are faithfully based on objective criteria.  We just want to get instantaneous answers to our questions.  I’m more interested in how Google comes up with those funky substitutes for the letters in its name that recognize special occasions, like today’s colorful flower-based nod to the official beginning of spring.

Considering The Self-Driving Car

Google has announced that it will be building and producing its own self-driving vehicles, rather than retrofitting cars produced by other manufacturers.  The announcement means that we’re one step closer to the future envisioned in sci-fi books of days gone by — but I’m not sure it’s a future that I like.

According to the BBC story linked above, the Google car will look like a cute little cartoon bug, with two lights like eyes.  (That’s a specific design feature to make a self-driving car seem more harmless and fun and to encourage people to give it a try.)  It will seat two, be electrically powered, have a top speed of 25 mph, and have only a stop-go button — no steering wheel or pedals.  The car will follow Google maps built for the vehicle and operate using radar and laser sensors.  Google says its self-driving cars have already covered 700,000 miles of roadway, and it will produce a fleet of 200 cars and test them in Detroit within a year to make further advances in self-driving technology.

Advocates of self-driving cars say they will be safer for the car’s drivers, for other drivers, and for pedestrians.  If the cars are limited to 25 mph, of course, there is bound to be a safety enhancement, because there is a direct correlation between vehicle speed at the time of a crash and severity of injury.  Pedestrians also will benefit by a design that features a foam front end rather than a bumper.  But the safety arguments go deeper than that.  They assert that computer programs, lasers, and machines are bound to be more precise and careful on the road than humans, with no risk of distracted, texting drivers, drunken, impaired drivers, or macho, road raging drivers.

I’m somewhat skeptical about relying wholly on a machine guidance system — anyone who has GPS knows that it isn’t infallible — but more than that I’m leery of a future where machines do more and more for human beings.  We’ve already got problems with people becoming less active, less creative, and less self-reliant; self-driving cars is just another step toward a future of flabby, passive people waiting for a machine to move them around in slow-moving cars designed to maximize safety and security.  Sorry, but I don’t like it.

Debating The Right To Be Forgotten

Should people have the right to require internet search engines, like Google, to remove links to personal information about them?  Should there be, in the words of privacy advocates, a “right to be forgotten”?  Or, should newspaper articles about individuals be available permanently, as part of the mass of information to be found on the internet?

The European Court of Justice addressed that issue yesterday and ruled that people can ask Google to remove such information. If Google doesn’t do so, individuals can go to the authorities to require removal of the link in question if the linked information is found to be “inadequate, irrelevant, or no longer relevant.”  It’s not entirely clear what those standards mean, and their contours will no doubt be framed by future decisions.

The facts of the case that gave rise to the European ruling help to illustrate the issue.  A man was dismayed to find that a search of his name on Google produced a link to a 1998 newspaper article about his financial problems.  He contended that the information was outdated and irrelevant because he had paid off his debts, and thus that the link should be removed.  The Court agreed that he could pursue that request and that search engines have a duty to ensure that data that is “inadequate” or “irrelevant” does not appear.

It’s a European ruling, of course, so it doesn’t having binding force in America — but if Google is forced to change its practices in response to personal requests from individual Europeans, it presumably would change its practices for individual Americans, too.  Fielding and responding to requests for removal of links to outdated information could have a significant impact on the operation of search engines and, by extension, on the kinds of information available to everyone through the internet.

It’s not hard to see both sides of the issue.  If you are a 60-year-old who’s had a successful career, should a newspaper article about an embarrassing youthful indiscretion appear on the first page of Google search results about you?  If you’re trying to decide whether to hire a person for a job that involves handling money for your business, would you want to know about his prior financiaI problems, even if those problems occurred 20 years ago?  And should different expungement rules apply to people who want to be elected to public office? Could a savvy candidate cleanse his record before starting his first campaign?  And are there any instances in which a person’s decision to approach Google and ask for removal of a link could itself become a matter of public record?

The “right to be forgotten” and “the right to know” are in tension, and we’re going to see that tension worked out in the years ahead.

The Incest Avoidance App

If you want to know whether you are dating your cousin, there’s an app for that — in Iceland, at least.

It turns out that Iceland, in addition to having the most affirmatively unappealing country name in the world, has an issue with inadvertent incest.  It is a small, isolated, sparsely populated land where the residents have lived for thousands of years.  As a result, the forces of nature dictate that most of the 330,000 citizens share some common ancestry.  But what if you want to make absolutely certain that you avoid consorting with someone with uncomfortably close degrees of sanguinity?  Fortunately, Google is offering an Android app that allows Icelanders to use their smart phones to access the Book of Icelander — an ancestry log that includes some 720,000 names — to determine their exact relations with that attractive person they met at work.

This is the kind of practical app that not only facilitates the avoidance of awkward social situations, but also could have changed the course of classical literature.  If only Oedipus had that helpful smartphone app!

No word yet on when the app will be rolled out in Appalachia.

Privacy In A Warrantless World

Recently Google provided information about how frequently it has received warrantless requests for information from the FBI.  Those of us who think personal privacy still has value in our increasingly monitored world should hope that Google’s approach to disclosure is followed by other companies.

The FBI requests are called National Security Letters.  For some time, FBI headquarters had been permitted to use NSLs in connection with espionage investigations.  In 2001, the Patriot Act broadened the circumstances in which NSLs may be used, and also authorized FBI offices around the country to issue NSLs.  Under current procedures, the FBI may issue NSLs to obtain name, address, length of service, and other information about computer users.  No court approval or warrant is necessary.  Companies receiving the FBI requests aren’t permitted to disclose the existence of the requests, although the recipient can challenge the NSLs in court.

Because of the prohibition on disclosure, Google could provide only summary numerical information about NSLs.  The company said that, in 2012, it had received between 0 and 999 requests for information targeting between 1,000 and 1,999 accounts.  That doesn’t sound too bad — but, of course, Google is only one of many companies that store, move, and organize data on the internet.  Until we know more about the prevalence of NSLs, we can’t assess whether the FBI is appropriately using its authority to issue them.

We should all applaud Google’s effort to provide some information about NSLs and encourage other companies to do likewise.  Whether you think NSLs are a necessary tool in the fight against terrorism or an ill-conceived exception to the warrant requirement, the American public should at least be advised about how frequently NSLs are used, and under what circumstances.  Otherwise, how are informed citizens supposed to voice their views on the law to their elected representatives — and isn’t that how democracies are supposed to work?

Daily No More

By the year after next, don’t expect to see a daily newspaper hitting your doorstep each morning — according to the Nieman Journalism Lab, that is.

The Nieman Journalism Lab looks to future trends in journalism.  Last month, it predicted that the seven-day print newspaper is doomed.  It forecasts that newspapers increasingly will focus on digital publication and that by 2015 less than half of current newspapers will follow the seven-day, home delivery model.  Instead, print newspapers will be reduced to a two or three times a week vestigial option, offered as part of a much broader set of services and benefits available to “members.”

And rather than those irritating paywalls, the digital membership model would be like membership in your local public TV station,  giving you complete access and providing discounts and other benefits (presumably not just the tote bags and coffee mugs you see on every PBS fundraiser, either).  The membership model would allow the newspaper to act as a kind of mini-Google, collecting information about the news stories you access and then delivering targeted advertising based upon your reading pattern — advertising that retailers presumably would pay a premium for, because it is more likely to find a receptive audience than the tire ad on page C-7 of the sports section of your daily newspaper.

The most interesting prediction is that newspapers will focus less on news and more on “jobs to be done.”  The jobs would include reporting news, but also assisting members in making connections to services and groups in their communities, giving recommendations and answering questions, and helping members meet the right people in the right settings.  It sounds something like a combination of Emily’s List and Dear Abby.

I agree that the daily printed newspaper model cannot survive forever; it’s simply too slow, and expensive, to compete with digital delivery of the news.  Readership and ad revenues are ever-declining, too.  I’m a bit skeptical, however, that daily newspapers can successfully morph into quasi-social networking sites and then hold their own in that area, where there also is a lot of competition.  What newspapers do, better than anyone else, is find and report hard news — not opinion, nor advice, but actual facts about events and issues that should be of concern to members of their communities.  If newspapers move away from that area of strength to some more amorphous, soft-side model, they may be losing their identities and digging their own graves.

Is there still a market for hard news — without tote bags, membership benefits, and social networking gloss?  We’ll find out over the next few years.

Are You Kidding Me ?

One of the interesting things about the uprising in Egypt is the idea that a government can actually cutoff it’s citizens access to the internet. In the past there have been reports in the news of Google’s ongoing battle with China who wants to limit it’s citizens access to the internet, but to totally turn off the Internet, that seems almost hard to believe.

I stumbled across this article that I found quite interesting that asked and answered the question, could the same thing happen here in the United States and could the president actually shut off the internet ? Based on the article the answer right now is no, but there is a bill pending in the Senate called “Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset”.

The intent of the bill is to give the president the ability to flip a switch which would slow or stall our Internet Service Providers operations in case there is a cyber-emergency. As the article points out free speech advocates have some concerns. I’m not sure that we really want to have one person to have that much power do we – I mean what happens if access to the switch gets into the wrong hands ?

Wouldn’t it be fascinating to see Jefferson, Franklin, Adams and the other founding fathers debating the issue ?

More on Google !

As I mentioned yesterday I am hopeful that Google’s efforts to stand up to what they feel is a moral wrong in China will produce an outcome which allows the Chinese people greater internet access. This “Tank Man” picture always gives me chills, one man standing for freedom against his oppressive government !

As this article points out, Google has stopped censoring images of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in China during the last twenty four hours because of their ongoing fued with the Chinese government. The Chinese government says they are attempting to properly guide internet opinion. For the first time Chinese internet users were also allowed to access taboo topics online such as the Dalai Lama.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Let Freedom Ring

Hurray, my hat goes off to the Google co-founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page. Finally a big company is putting their money where their mouth is and they are taking a stand against China as this article states, no matter at what cost.

Below is a portion of the Google Manifesto that was distributed just a few months before they took their stock public in 2004:

 There are two components to our definition of open: open technology and open information. Open technology includes open source, meaning we release and actively support code that helps grow the Internet, and open standards, meaning we adhere to accepted standards and, if none exist, work to create standards that improve the entire Internet (and not just benefit Google).

Open information means that when we have information about users we use it to provide something that is valuable to them, we are transparent about what information we have about them, and we give them ultimate control over their information.

These are the things we should be doing and in many cases we aren’t there yet. I hope that with this note we can start working to close the gap between reality and aspiration.

If we can embody a consistent commitment to open — which I believe we can — then we have a big opportunity to lead by example and encourage other companies and industries to adopt the same commitment. If they do, the world will be a better place.

Keep up the good work guys, I’m pulling for you.