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🛰 Terms of Service apply, Voice ID, Tesla’s Beta Test, and faulty smart meters - Internet of People Observatory #16

March 7 · Issue #16 · View online
The VUCA Observatory
welcome to another week with the Observatory.
In this issue: Terms of Service governance, Voice ID for assistants, Self-driving beta tests, and faulty smart meters.
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Terms of Service Apply
Last week, it transpired that UBER had a system in place to automatically flag city officials who were trying to enforce local laws and regulation by looking for patterns, such as credit cards that could be linked back to city governments. This was part, as told by UBER, of a wider effort, called VTOS, for “Violation of Terms of Service”.
This is part of a wider concern I’m looking at with Internet of People. How does the widespread diffusion of Terms of Services into goods that were previously unencumbered by them, but instead regulated by law, affect the position of customers. I’ve written before how inclusion of software in traditional goods, and thus the inclusion of licenses and Terms of Service in the sale contract, reduce the optionality users have with regards to the goods bought. We need to have a look at what Ownership means in a world of connected products.
This discussion flared up again this week with the discussion around “Right to Repair” legislation in Nebraska. Interestingly, it’s farmers again who lead the charge for a more liberal approach to technology, after John Deere and its farm equipment pretty much stood in as primary case for the section 1201 DMCA exemption pertaining to vehicles.
The broader issue here is that we have very granular legislation and regulation around many areas of commerce and life. Automotive traffic is regulated differently than Entertainment for a reason. With the increasing diffusion of technology and software into all kinds of arenas, this granularity gives way to more generalised software governance, and regulation made in on area often have unanticipated and counterproductive effects in other areas. That legislation crafted to notionally defeat music piracy has an effect on farmers trying to service their equipment is not something that any of the sponsors of the DMCA would have foreseen.
UBER provides an interesting illustration of this problem, and shows that this is not just something related to physical objects powered by software, but platform services in general.
The question here is, when local laws and Uber’s terms of service conflict, which prevails? The local officials assumed, naively, that laws trumped terms of service. But that is antiquated thinking. In the modern era of global technological capitalism, the terms of service need to prevail universally. Otherwise you’d just have anarchy. I mean, I guess I am kidding, but Uber probably believes that.
Smart Everything
Finally. I try not to use that word too often, but it appears that Amazon’s Alexa system might finally get voice fingerprinting capabilities. I’ve long argued that this is an essential feature for down-the-line capabilities, such as being usable in multi-user homes. And it’s a basic security feature. If we want our voice-activated systems to be generally more helpful, they need to be able to respond to appropriate context, e.g. not giving just about anyone who happens to be within pick-up distance of the mic array access to my calendar, or to the IoT-enabled smart locks that might be hooked up to the system.
Given the murder case we discussed last week, and Alexa’s potential role as evidence, it becomes even more pressing then, that Amazon reconsider their approach to storing voice snippets, given that, with Voice Fingerprinting, they’re then going to be tagged with a unique user ID. Apple gets a lot of flak for “not playing” in the voice activated assistants arena, and for their privacy rules to make it cumbersome to effectively develop for the platform. But with these concerns, the decision to limit the amounts of data stored with the firm looks like it might indeed build up to a competitive advantage.
In other news: have you heard AWS went down? You might have noticed that a few web services were offline late last week. Which of course leads the pundits to declare this is a gaping problem with the Internet of Things, whereas when the cloud goes offline, stuff becomes unusable. The only problem: there are no cases to report where this happened. I’ve so far found one example where a user was prevented to do something with their smart home, and then again, that was a problem of IFTTT being down, not with the actual device. But y’know, why let facts get in the way of a good opinion.
Lastly, I talk a lot about how startups fulfil the macro job of discovering new products. They don’t necessarily have to make sense on their own, as long as someone thinks it’s an interesting enough bet that could pay off. And a lot of success stories have started as weird and have been cast aside as toys. And then, every so often, I stumble upon something that makes me question this view. This week, it was the Internet-connected condom. Software is eating the world, indeed.
Ouch. Smart Meters are often considered a fundamental building block for more flexible energy systems that allow large amounts of power from renewable energy sources. They are not uncontroversial. Concerns range from privacy impact to security scenarios. What wasn’t really on anyones mind, however, is that the meters could deliver just plain wrong readings. But such is the case of about 750k smart meters in the Netherlands.
The effects of wrong readings don’t just impact customers, which might charged to much (or too little, the article really doesn’t say) but negates the value of dynamically regulating the power grid. Correct data is really important here, and if you can’t trust the meters, well, then you’re pretty much SOL.
Another important component of more flexible grids is storage. Here, we’ve made tremendous advances in the affordability of Li-Ion batteries, primarily driven by e-mobility and the smart phone revolution. Now the decreasing cost curve comes home to bite, in a situation that might ring familiar to anyone who’s followed the fate of German photovoltaics producers: Tesla’s batteries are already being underpriced, before the full Gigafactory has even come online. Such is the nature of exponentials.
Self-piloted cars work great in contained environments. Out in the real world, where you might encounter inclement weather or construction sites? Well, the jury is still out, but right now, it doesn’t look too hot. There’s the case of a Tesla driver, ceding control to the Autopilot which promptly slams the car into a concrete barrier. The lane markings hadn’t been adjusted.
The reality of street traffic, even in relatively predictable situations like highways, remains messy. And messiness is the nemesis of algorithms. Given that Tesla accident, there‘s been discussion on how the construction crews should have adjusted the lane markings, or how the Autopilot system should’ve warned the driver that it won’t be able to handle the situation correctly. There is a case for the former, but given that for a human driver, the situation was pretty obvious, there probably wasn’t a perceived need to do that. The latter is harder. An algorithm cannot reliably predict when the operational circumstances will outstrip its ability to adapt. That’s why the problem of ceding control from autonomous driving back to human operation remains such a big one.
What we’re left with is the impression that Tesla’s Autopilot is indeed a glorified beta test, that customers pay good money for to participate in.
And self-driving is just one part of the changes that the automotive industry currently experiences. Another area is software platformisation, and where all that software that’s necessary to make those rolling computers work and enjoyable to use actually lives. BMW put the boot down not supporting Android Auto. That might be just economic signaling, but expect the heat to increase in what looks to shape up to be another platform war.
A sustainable lifestyle blogger discovers that regulation beats concious consumerism – Conscious consumerism is a lie. Here is what you can really do to save the environment.
Bank of England staff is worried about AI – Should economists be more concerned about Artificial Intelligence?
In case you consider joining the government – How to be an effective minister
End note
Phew, what a week.
I’m hunkering down to finish a couple of research jobs that have lined up. I’m likely going to be in Düsseldorf next week. If you’re in the area, we should have a coffee. And if you’re at Bosch Connected World next week, give me a shout so we can meet.
As always, let me know what you think about the Observatory at
See you next week! Cheers,
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