Tag Archives: Google

Making the most of Safer Internet Day

It’s Safer Internet Day. Since this international effort — primarily about the safety and positive online interactions of young people — is co-funded by the EU, many of us in the States may never have heard of it, but I expect wider awareness since Google took up the cause by suggesting that account holders do a 2-minute security checkup today.


The online interactions I have with others are generally thoughtful and interesting. Every now and then I’m reminded how many hyperbolic, hostile, clueless, and nearly unhinged trolls there are, but I appreciate that I rarely have to deal with them. I still take it very personally. That’s my nature. Perhaps because I am introverted and shy, I am very sensitive when I extend myself into the public arena and a brush with idiocy makes me want to retreat into my shell.  I wonder how I would have gotten through my tween and teen years if the Internet had been around, with the added drama of hormones, a maturing brain, and lack of perspective. While I think a lot of younger people understand online culture intuitively because it always surrounds them, many more are damaged by cruel interactions than those we see in highly publicized cyber bullying cases.

Messages about online respect and safety are important for children but there is no age cut-off. I’ll make use of this reminder to do a security update on my important accounts: changing passwords and adding 2-step authentication where I can. I’d also like to thank the people who have commented on this blog with civility and insight, even when disagreeing with me (hell, I disagree with myself much of the time, so I don’t mind that at all).

I went through Google’s 2-minute security check-up this morning and it was useful, though I couldn’t help thinking of this XKCD cartoon:

It'll be hilarious the first few times this happens.


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Posted by on February 10, 2015 in In the News


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Looking at the human side of autonomous vehicles

Today I’m focused on the impact of autonomous vehicles on professional drivers rather than consumers. This was spurred by the latest entrant in the autonomous vehicle field: Mercedes, who released a video and information on their prototype Future Truck 2025.

My first reaction was skepticism, not at the technological issues but at the idea that a company would pay a driver to sit there doing his paperwork and ordering his next meal. I’m not alone. When this topic came up on Slashdot, many of the comments — including some from working truck drivers — focused on the potential human cost. One comment cited data from that estimates there are 3.5 million professional truck drivers in the US: if accurate, that’s more than 1% of the population or about 2.5% of all employed Americans (from data I can glean from the Bureau of Labor Statistics). Another comment says,

Yes, autonomous drivers are a wonderful invention but no one is focusing on the social changes that must take place. We are eliminating employment at an ever increasing pace. If we fail to make provisions for keeping people above water without regard to whether they work or not we are going to bring down our society into the worst collapse of all times. If we generate poverty we will generate rebellion and chaos. Meanwhile we have people chained to dogmas who are in denial about what is occurring.

That connects closely to my recent post on the human cost of thinking of robots as replacement rather than augmentation. Mercedes doesn’t see the driver as expendable, but after the capital costs of switching to autonomous trucks, will companies be willing to pay a living wage for ride-along “transport managers”? The technology would have to advance to the point where a human would never be called upon for reflex responses — impossible if he is taking care of other tasks or simply not watching the road with the attention of a driver — yet would be a valuable partner with the machine. Google’s tests with autonomous cars have shown that once people grow accustomed to the car doing the driving, they aren’t ready to take control in case of an equipment failure; transport managers would need to be cut from different cloth. Could this increase efficiency? Would late night trucking with emptier roads and cooler asphalt be easier? How could the “transport manager” make productive use of his time when his intervention isn’t required for most of a long haul trip?

People are thinking more about autonomous vehicles, whether as creators, consumers, or competitors. One of the applications for which driverless cars could be brilliant is as a taxi service, an industry that is already in upheaval because of app-based services like Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar. (The Washington Post has a fascinating article about the economics of taxi medallions in Chicago, if you’re interested in that sort of thing.) Taxi drivers in the US are not like London cabbies with the Knowledge; I rarely use cabs but more often than not in recent years, I’ve had to provide detailed directions to my destination and then my driver talked loudly with friends or family on his Bluetooth headset, usually in a language other than English. Less frequently, I’ve had nice conversations with drivers. Most of the time I would be thrilled to simply get into a vehicle and have it quietly take me to my destination. Perhaps during the current controversy, taxi operators might want to consider the value a professional driver can add and require it from their employees and licensees — not only as a way of differentiating their services from the app-based ones, but also as future-proofing for a time when the competition has no steering wheel at all. It could be an opportunity to take an active role in shaping the future and showing the importance of professional drivers rather than reacting defensively after the change has already happened.

We’ve come a long way from the autonomous car of my childhood, but even then it was seen as a partner, not a replacement.


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Posted by on July 7, 2014 in Culture, In the News, Our Robot Overlords


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Another virtual helper launches

Last week Microsoft unveiled its virtual assistant, Cortana (yes, after the Halo character), in the style of Apple’s Siri and Google Now. MIT Technology Review has a nice writeup about it.


Sadly, Cortana only looks like this inside Halo

I watched friends chat with Siri when she first appeared, but most of their interactions were playful, such as trying out questions to provoke amusing responses.  I don’t know if they continue to find Siri useful and part of daily life. In my case, as an Android gal, I started using Google Now with voice commands a couple months ago but I find myself forgetting about it. I’m accustomed to using text and switching to voice requires a change of mindset.  When I’ve used it, however, it’s been fantastic. Once I retrain myself, I think it will be very helpful.  Trendblog put together a handy infographic of the Google Now voice commands, including some Easter eggs, that they just updated for 2014.

Where virtual assistants are most powerful is in the uncomfortable grey zone of possible privacy invasion. Last Wednesday I bought tickets online for a showing of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. I got a confirmation of the purchase on my Gmail account.  The following night, I got a notification on my phone that I should leave the house in four minutes to arrive at the theatre on time.  My reaction was pleasant surprise with an undertone of discomfort.  It was a very useful notification, but as I hadn’t added the movie to my calendar or set a reminder, it also emphasized the point that Google parses my mail and knows where I am on the map.

I think that the current generation of virtual assistants is a point on the trajectory of constructed assistants, which will extend into robotics and perhaps someday to something like the holographic agent S.A.M. which acted as the interface for a smart home in the “Disrupt” episode of Almost Human. Speaking of which, there is no news yet whether Almost Human is being renewed, but I have my fingers and toes crossed.  The first season had some remarkably fresh and exciting thinking about futurism, technology, and humanity. If you didn’t watch, some video is available on the Fox site, including the full “Disrupt” episode.

The detectives and captain question the holographic S.A.M.

The detectives and captain question the holographic S.A.M.

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Posted by on April 7, 2014 in In the News, Our Robot Overlords


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