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Did 2018 usher in a creeping tech dystopia?

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We may remember 2018 as the year when technology’s dystopian potential became clear, from Facebook’s role enabling the harvesting of our personal data for election interference to a seemingly unending series of revelations about the dark side of Silicon Valley’s connect-everything ethos.

The list is long:

  • High-tech tools for immigration crackdowns.
  • Fears of smartphone addiction.
  • YouTube algorithms that steer youths into extremism.
  • An experiment in gene-edited babies.
  • Doorbells and concert venues that can pinpoint individual faces and alert police.
  • Repurposing genealogy websites to hunt for crime suspects based on a relative’s DNA.
  • Automated systems that keep tabs of workers’ movements and habits.
  • Electric cars in Shanghai transmitting their every movement to the government.

It’s been enough to exhaust even the most imaginative sci-fi visionaries.

“It doesn’t so much feel like we’re living in the future now, as that we’re living in a retro-future,” novelist William Gibson wrote this month on Twitter. “A dark, goofy ’90s retro-future.”

More awaits us in 2019, as surveillance and data-collection efforts ramp up and artificial intelligence systems start sounding more human, reading facial expressions and generating fake video images so realistic that it will be harder to detect malicious distortions of the truth.

‘Something that was heartening this year was that accompanying this parade of scandals was a growing public awareness that there’s an accountability crisis in tech,’ said Meredith Whittaker, right, a co-founder of New York University’s AI Now Institute. (Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press)

But there are also countermeasures afoot in Congress and state government — and even among tech-firm employees who are more active about ensuring their work is put to positive ends.

“Something that was heartening this year was that accompanying this parade of scandals was a growing public awareness that there’s an accountability crisis in tech,” said Meredith Whittaker, a co-founder of New York University’s AI Now Institute for studying the social implications of artificial intelligence.

Something that was heartening this year was that accompanying this parade of scandals was a growing public awareness that there’s an accountability crisis in tech. – Meredith Whittaker, a co-founder of New York University’s AI Now Institute

The group has compiled a long list of what made 2018 so ominous, though many are examples of the public simply becoming newly aware of problems that have built up for years. Among the most troubling cases was the revelation in March that political data-mining firm Cambridge Analytica swept up personal information of millions of Facebook users for the purpose of manipulating national elections.

“It really helped wake up people to the fact that these systems are actually touching the core of our lives and shaping our social institutions,” Whittaker said.

That was on top of other Facebook disasters, including its role in fomenting violence in Myanmar, major data breaches and ongoing concerns about its hosting of fake accounts for Russian propaganda.

Google and other concerns

It wasn’t just Facebook. Google attracted concern about its continuous surveillance of users after The Associated Press reported that it was tracking people’s movements whether they like it or not.

It also faced internal dissent over its collaboration with the U.S. military to create drones with “computer vision” to help find battlefield targets and a secret proposal to launch a censored search engine in China. And it unveiled a remarkably human-like voice assistant that sounds so real that people on the other end of the phone didn’t know they were talking to a computer.

Those and other concerns bubbled up in December as lawmakers grilled Google CEO Sundar Pichai at a congressional hearing — a sequel to similar public reckonings this year with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other tech executives.

“It was necessary to convene this hearing because of the widening gap of distrust between technology companies and the American people,” Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said.

Internet pioneer Vint Cerf said he and other engineers never imagined their vision of a worldwide network of connected computers would morph 45 years later into a surveillance system. (Joi Ito/Flickr)

A surveillance system

Internet pioneer Vint Cerf said he and other engineers never imagined their vision of a worldwide network of connected computers would morph 45 years later into a surveillance system that collects personal information or a propaganda machine that could sway elections.

“We were just trying to get it to work,” recalled Cerf, who is now Google’s chief internet evangelist. “But now that it’s in the hands of the general public, there are people who … want it to work in a way that obviously does harm, or benefits themselves or disrupts the political system. So we are going to have to deal with that.”

We were just trying to get it to work. But now that it’s in the hands of the general public, there are people who … want it to work in a way that obviously does harm, or benefits themselves or disrupts the political system. So we are going to have to deal with that.– Internet pioneer Vint Cerf

Contrary to futuristic fears of “super-intelligent” robots taking control, the real dangers of our tech era have crept in more prosaically — often in the form of tech innovations we welcomed for making life more convenient.

Part of experts’ concern about the leap into connecting every home device to the internet and letting computers do our work is that the technology is still buggy and influenced by human errors and prejudices. Uber and Tesla were investigated for fatal self-driving car crashes in March; IBM came under scrutiny for working with New York City police to build a facial recognition system that can detect ethnicity; and Amazon took heat for supplying its own flawed facial recognition service to law enforcement agencies.

In some cases, opposition to the tech industry’s rush to apply its newest innovations to questionable commercial uses has come from its own employees. Google workers helped scuttle the company’s Pentagon drone contract, and workers at Amazon, Microsoft and Salesforce sought to cancel their companies’ contracts to supply tech services to immigration authorities.

“It became obvious to a lot of people that the rhetoric of doing good and benefiting society and ‘Don’t be evil’ was not what these companies were actually living up to,” said Whittaker, who is also a research scientist at Google who founded its Open Research group.

Microsoft president Brad Smith in December called for regulating facial recognition technology so that the ‘year 2024 doesn’t look like a page’ from George Orwell’s 1984. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

Some tech titans speaking out

At the same time, even some titans of technology have been sounding alarms. Prominent engineers and designers have increasingly spoken out about shielding children from the habit-forming tech products they helped create.

And then there’s Microsoft president Brad Smith, who in December called for regulating facial recognition technology so that the “year 2024 doesn’t look like a page” from George Orwell’s 1984.

In a blog post and a Washington speech, Smith painted a bleak vision of all-seeing government surveillance systems forcing dissidents to hide in darkened rooms “to tap in code with hand signals on each other’s arms.”

To avoid such an Orwellian scenario, Smith advocates regulating technology so that anyone about to subject themselves to surveillance is properly notified. But privacy advocates argue that’s not enough.

Such debates are already happening in states like Illinois, where a strict facial recognition law has faced tech industry challenges, and California, which in 2018 passed the nation’s most far-reaching law to give consumers more control over their personal data. It takes effect in 2020.

We’re seeing now some of the consequences of the abuses that can occur in these platforms if they remain unregulated without meaningful oversight or enforcement.– U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat 

The issue could find new attention in Congress next year as more Republicans warm up to the idea of basic online privacy regulations and the incoming Democratic House majority takes a more skeptical approach to tech firms that many liberal politicians once viewed as allies — and prolific campaign donors.

The “leave them alone” approach of the early internet era won’t work anymore, said Rep. David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat poised to take the helm of the House’s antitrust subcommittee.

“We’re seeing now some of the consequences of the abuses that can occur in these platforms if they remain unregulated without meaningful oversight or enforcement,” Cicilline said.

Cerf said too much regulation may bring its own undesirable side effects.

“It’s funny in a way because this online environment was supposed to remove friction from our ability to transact,” he said. “If in our desire, if not zeal, to protect people’s privacy we throw sand in the gears of everything, we may end up with a very secure system that doesn’t work very well.”

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Top 5 Analytics Trends That Are Shaping The Future

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Digital transformation is increasingly becoming the focus for many CIOs around the world today—with analytics playing a fundamental role in driving the future of the digital economy.

While data is important to every business, it is necessary for businesses to have a firm grip on data analytics to allow them transform raw pieces of data into important insights. However, unlike the current trends in business intelligence—which is centred around data visualization—the future of data analytics would encompass a more contextual experience.

“The known data analytics development cycle is described in stages: from descriptive (what happened) to diagnostic (why did it happen), to discovery (what can we learn from it), to predictive (what is likely to happen), and, finally, to prescriptive analytics (what action is the best to take),” said Maurice op het Veld is a partner at KPMG Advisory in a report.

“Another way of looking at this is that data analytics initially “supported” the decision-making process but is now enabling “better” decisions than we can make on our own.”

Here are some of the current trends that arealready shaping the future of data analytics in individuals and businesses.

  1. Growth in mobile devices

With the number of mobile devices expanding to include watches, digital personal assistants, smartphones, smart glasses, in-car displays, to even video gaming systems, the final consumption plays a key role on the level of impact analytics can deliver.

Previously, most information consumers accessed were on a computer with sufficient room to view tables, charts and graphs filled with data, now, most consumers require information delivered in a format well optimized for whatever device they are currently viewing it on.

Therefore, the content must be personalized to fit the features of the user’s device and not just the user alone.

  1. Continuous Analytics

More and more businesses are relying on the Internet of Things (IoT) and their respective streaming data—which in turn shortens the time it takes to capture, analyze and react to the information gathered. Therefore, while analytics programspreviously were termed successful when results were delivered within days or weeks of processing, the future of analytics is bound to drastically reduce this benchmark to hours, minutes, seconds—and even milliseconds.

“All devices will be connected and exchange data within the “Internet of Things” and deliver enormous sets of data. Sensor data like location, weather, health, error messages, machine data, etc. will enable diagnostic and predictive analytics capabilities,” noted Maurice.

“We will be able to predict when machines will break down and plan maintenance repairs before it happens. Not only will this be cheaper, as you do not have to exchange supplies when it is not yet needed, but you can also increase uptime.”

  1. Augmented Data Preparation

During the process of data preparation, machine learning automation will begin to augment data profiling and data quality, enrichment, modelling, cataloguing and metadata development.

Newer techniques would include supervised, unsupervised and reinforcement learning which is bound to enhance the entire data preparation process. In contrast to previous processes—which depended on rule-based approach to data transformation—this current trend would involve advanced machine learning processes that would evolve based on recent data to become more precise at responding to changes in data.

  1. Augmented Data Discovery

Combined with the advancement in data preparation, a lot of these newer algorithms now allow information consumers to visualize and obtain relevant information within the data with more ease. Enhancements such as automatically revealing clusters, links, exceptions, correlation and predictions with pieces of data, eliminate the need for end users to build data models or write algorithms themselves.

This new form of augmented data discovery will lead to an increase in the number of citizen data scientist—which include information users who, with the aid of augmented assistance can now identify and respond to various patterns in data faster and a more distributed model.

  1. AugmentedData Science

It is important to note that the rise of citizen data scientist will not in any way eliminate the need for a data scientist who gathers and analyze data to discover profitable opportunities for the growth of a business. However, as these data scientists give room for citizen data scientists to perform the easier tasks, their overall analysis becomes more challenging and equally valuable to the business.

As time goes by, machine learning would be applied in other areas such as feature and model selection. This would free up some of the tasks performed by data scientist and allow them focus on the most important part of their job, which is to identify specific patterns in the data that can potentially transform business operations and ultimately increase revenue.

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Waterloo drone-maker Aeryon Labs bought by U.S. company for $265M

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Waterloo’s Aeryon Labs has been bought by Oregon-based FLIR Systems Inc. for $256 million, or $200 million US.

The acquisition was announced Monday. 

Dave Kroetsch, co-founder and chief technology officer of Aeryon Labs, says not much will change in the foreseeable future.

“The Waterloo operations of Aeryon Labs will actually continue as they did yesterday with manufacturing, engineering and all the functions staying intact in Waterloo and ultimately, we see growing,” he said.

“The business here is very valuable to FLIR and our ability to sell internationally is a key piece of keeping these components of the business here in Canada.”

Aeroyn Labs builds high-performance drones that are sold to a variety of customers including military, police services and commercial businesses. The drones can provide high-resolution images for surveillance and reconnaissance.

The drones already include cameras and thermal technology from FLIR. Jim Cannon, president and CEO of FLIR Systems, said acquiring Aeryon Labs is part of the company’s strategy to move beyond sensors “to the development of complete solutions that save lives and livelihoods.”

‘A piece of a bigger solution’

Kroetsch said this is a good way for the company to grow into something bigger.

“We see the business evolving in much the direction our business has been headed over the last couple of years. And that’s moving beyond the drone as a product in and of itself as a drone as a piece of a bigger solution,” he said.

For example, FLIR bought a drone company that builds smaller drones that look like little helicopters.

“We can imagine integrating those with our drones, perhaps having ours carry their drones and drop them off,” he said.

FLIR also does border security systems, which Kroetsch says could use the drones to allow border agents to look over a hill where there have been issues.

“We see the opportunity there as something that we never could have done on our own but being involved with and part of a larger company that’s already providing these solutions today gives us access not only to these great applications, but also to some fantastic technologies,” he said.

Aeryon Labs has done a lot of work during emergency disasters, including in Philippines after Typhoon Hagupit in 2014, Ecuador after an earthquake in 2016 and the Fort McMurray wildfire in 2016.

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Inuvik infrastructure may not be ready for climate change, says study

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The Arctic is expected to get warmer and wetter by the end of this century and new research says that could mean trouble for infrastructure in Inuvik.

The study from Global Water Futures looked at how climate change could impact Havipak Creek — which crosses the Dempster Highway in Inuvik, N.W.T. — and it predicts some major water changes.

“They were quite distressing,” John Pomeroy, director of Global Water Futures and the study’s lead author, said of the findings.

Researchers used a climate model and a hydrological model to predict future weather and climate patterns in the region. They also looked at data gathered from 1960 to the present. 

If greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate — which Pomeroy said they are on track to do — the study projects the region will be 6.1 C warmer by 2099 and precipitation, particularly rain, will increase by almost 40 per cent.

The study also found that the spring flood will be earlier and twice as large, and the permafrost will thaw an additional 25 centimetres. While the soil is expected to be wetter early in the summer, the study said it will be drier in late summer, meaning a higher risk of wildfires.

John Pomeroy is the director of Global Water Futures. (Erin Collins/CBC)

“The model’s painting kind of a different world than we’re living in right now for the Mackenzie Delta region,” Pomeroy said.

He noted these changes are not only expected for Havipak Creek, but also for “many, many creeks along the northern part of the Dempster [Highway].”

Pomeroy said the deeper permafrost thaw and a bigger spring flood could pose challenges for buildings, roads, culverts and crossings in the area that were designed with the 20th century climate in mind.

He said the projected growth of the snowpack and the spring flood are “of grave concern because that’s what washes out the Dempster [Highway] and damages infrastructure in the area.”

Culverts and bridges may have to be adjusted to allow room for greater stream flows, Pomeroy said. And building foundations that are dependent upon the ground staying frozen will have to be reinforced or redesigned.

Pomeroy said the ultimate solution is for humans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“This study is the future we’re heading for, but it’s not the future we necessarily have if we can find a way to reduce those gases,” he said.  

“It’d be far smarter to get those emissions under control than to pay the terrible expenses for infrastructure and endangered safety of humans and destroyed ecosystems.”

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