Tech Revolution

By Martin SFP Bryant

a robot spy wants to move in with you

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Tech Revolution
Issue #1019 • View online
Hello there,
Robot spies in our homes are suddenly a hot topic, thanks to Amazon. The company would love you to adopt a robot assistant or an in-home security drone. I dig into this more below in this week’s newsletter.
Meanwhile, this week I have been:
Right, let’s get straight into making sense of what today’s tech news says about the future, shall we?
— Martin

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🤔 Big questions
From this week’s news…
🤖 Will anyone welcome Amazon's robot minions into their homes?
It’s that time of year when Amazon likes to announce new hardware for the holiday season. This time, a little fellow called Astro stole most of the attention.
As Wired explains:
What do you get when you mix Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant with an Echo Show tablet, give it a hefty dose of artificial intelligence, integrate it all with Ring’s home security system, and let it roll around your home autonomously? You get a robot for the sake of a robot.
Actually, you get Astro, Amazon’s long-rumored home robot. The company has been working on this for nearly four years, and it has plans for Astro. It’s just not quite sure exactly what those are yet, so it’s offering the robot by invitation only, hoping thousands of early customers can help define what it’s for. The 2-foot-tall, 20-pound robot has a 10-inch touchscreen; includes an array of sensors, cameras, and microphones; and can wheel, multi-directionally, around your home. It costs $1,000.
I can see how a techno-optimist might love this; a little assistant who follows you around the house to help your with your queries or alert you when someone’s at the door. But it’s not that practical—it can’t go up or down stairs—and Amazon fully admits it’s not sure how useful Astro will be yet.
Leaked documents obtained by Vice shed more light on Astro than the official marketing. In ‘Sentry’ mode, the robot will follow people it doesn’t recognise around the house, ‘investigating’ them. This sounds sinister, but in reality it’s likely to just be annoying to visitors. A genuine intruder would just destroy Astro or throw it downstairs, wouldn’t they?
Speaking of which, the documents also reveals that the robot has a habit of throwing itself downstairs, which means the intruder might not encounter anything more than a broken robot anyway.
One of the development team is quoted in the documents as describing Astro as “a privacy nightmare that is an indictment of our society and how we trade privacy for convenience with devices like [this].” Nice to see some Amazon staff are thoughtful about this stuff, even if their thoughts get drowned out by the constant whirring of a corporate machine that demands ever more invasive innovation.
If a cute little robot pal doesn’t appeal to you, how about an in-home drone? Amazon also announced that the Ring Always Home Cam—first revealed last year—is set for a limited launch soon at $250.
Imagine Astro, but flying, and without the Alexa stuff. It can set off on command, or patrol the house automatically while you sleep. I’ve always wanted the security of knowing what’s happening in my house when I’m away or sleeping, but I’m far from alone in being uneasy about letting an autonomous drone loose around the house.
This is a case of tech leading the way, hoping that demand will follow. Security drones are already a thing for commercial property and I can see how someone might buy one of these for their office, but it crosses the creepy line when it comes to home use… especially if you imagine it’s Jeff Bezos’ eyes surveying your home on the front of that robot or drone.
😳 Are Facebook's metaverse plans hobbled by its trust deficit?
Can we trust Facebook to build ‘the metaverse’ responsibly? In the week where the company suspended plans for an Instagram Kids app because people don’t trust it to look after children’s safety, it’s hard to answer that question with a ‘yes’.
But Facebook is keen to emphasise from the start of the development of mass-scale virtual worlds that it’s going to get this one right. Andrew Bosworth (soon to be the company’s CTO) and Nick Clegg wrote in their blog post:
We’ll work with experts in government, industry and academia to think through issues and opportunities in the metaverse. For instance, its success depends on building robust interoperability across services, so different companies’ experiences can work together. We also need to involve the human rights and civil rights communities from the start to ensure these technologies are built in a way that’s inclusive and empowering.
What Facebook wants is to be at the centre of a huge, multi-operator ‘multiverse,’ where different companies’ ‘experiences’ feed into one another. Imagine hopping straight from a virtual work meeting to a Nike shoe shop, and then onto a live performance by your favourite artist, all online in a space that has an illusion of being a pervasive world.
What Facebook doesn’t want is questions about privacy, ethics, and competition law being raised too far down the road. It’s understandable that it would want to deal with them now, or at least frame lawmakers’ understanding of the metaverse concept in Facebook’s terms as quickly as possible. But there’s not a lot of goodwill around for the company right now.
This gets to the heart of the problem for Facebook. Even if it is sometimes misunderstood by journalists keen to paint the company as the perpetual villain, even if some of the bad news stories about it are overblown, the thing Facebook has lost from the media and many politicians is trust.
In the face of that trust deficit, being at the heart of the definitive metaverse may be an uphill struggle for Facebook, especially when there’s nothing at all to say that there can’t be multiple competing metaverses. Epic Games, not ones to bow down to tech giants, set out its own metaverse vision this week.
💱 Is China right to ban cryptocurrencies?
Cryptocurrencies have no place in China’s vision of the future, to the point that all crypto-related activity was banned on Friday.
As CNBC reports:
In a Q&A posted to its website, the People’s Bank of China said services offering trading, order matching, token issuance and derivatives for virtual currencies are strictly prohibited. Overseas crypto exchanges providing services in mainland China are also illegal, the PBOC said.
“Overseas virtual currency exchanges that use the internet to offer services to domestic residents is also considered illegal financial activity,” the central bank said, according to a CNBC translation of the comments. Workers at foreign crypto exchanges will be investigated, it added.
The news, a culmination of months of clampdowns on various aspects of the cryptocurrency world in China, makes sense for the country. If you’re trying to build an even more centralised, controlled version of an already pretty centralised, controlled society and economy, the last thing you need is decentralised payments undermining your efforts.
Many cryptocurrency fans love the way they tie in with a libertarian or anarchist vision of a world without much (or any) government. Cut out the banks and centrally-managed currencies, and you get a world where people can trade with each other without as much legal oversight.
Until recently, the likes of Bitcoin have largely been playthings of geeks and speculative investors - something for authorities to keep an eye on as they grow. But as companies like Coinbase take cryptocurrencies more mainstream, and even PayPal supports crypto trading, don’t be surprised if supposedly freer countries in the West take a similar approach to China. Rising decentralisation is likely to strike fear into governments keen to maintain a social order they can control.
👀 ICYMI
News you shouldn’t miss…
  • A Chinese power supply crisis could be the next challenge global supply chains could really do without. [New York Times $$$]
  • The EU has formally proposed forcing phone manufacturers to standardise on USB-C chargers. But this might just push Apple to launch a wireless-charging-only iPhone instead. [The Verge]
  • The UK has announced a national A.I. strategy, in the hope of boosting A.I. R&D and business in the country over the next 10 years. But there’s no new money to back it up. [TechCrunch]
  • Forcing police to use surveillance tech responsibly doesn’t work. It turns out police just keep less ethical uses of the tech secret, at least in Oakland, California. [Wired $$$]
  • Microsoft will let other app stores have a presence on the Windows Store. Amazon and Epic Games are first to sign up. The move comes amid regulatory concern around the world over app stores’ control over the software market. [The Verge]
  • Meanwhile, Epic Games can’t bring Fortnite back to the Apple App Store any time soon. The games publisher says Apple won’t allow it back until all appeals are completed following last week’s ruling that Apple must allow links to alternative payment methods in iOS apps. [Kotaku]
🌟 Thing of the week
The Switch OLED is a strong contender for most gorgeous handheld ever
🏭 Future of work
As big tech gets ever better at accurately predicting (or at least thinking it’s accurately predicting) what we’re going to do next, it also gets better at keeping tabs on its own employees.
This is a paywalled report from the Information, but even a short snippet gives you a flavour:
In the past, [Google’s] security teams have flagged employees who search an internal website listing the cost of COBRA health insurance—which gives workers a way to continue their coverage after leaving their employer—for further investigation, according to a person with direct knowledge of its tactics. Employees who draft resignation letters or seek out internal checklists that help workers plan their departures from Google have also faced similar scrutiny, the person said.
It has even looked at who has taken screenshots on work devices while running encrypted messaging services at the same time.
Many employers who hire remote staff they don’t trust use tech like activity monitors to check employees are active on their computers, but Google seemingly takes surveillance much further.
In security cases, where someone is leaking confidential documents for example, there could be some justification for tracking a suspect’s movement. But it can still overstep the mark. I’ve heard stories of journalists and sources at Facebook who meet in secret, with neither person having a phone with them. If Facebook figured out they were in the same location at the same time, it would be game over.
Security concerns aside, that’s just creepy and intrusive if someone’s whistleblowing bad behaviour by your employer.
While tech giants have an edge on most employers when it comes to being able to spy on staff (all the tech is in-house!), I fully expect other big employers to be able to deploy such tools across their cloud systems soon enough. It’s up to workers to push back and say they won’t work in such hyper-surveilled conditions.
More future of work:
  • Academics are trying to fix the last mile gig economy. [Wired $$$]
  • Gig workers are uncertain, scared, and barely scraping by. [Rest of World]
🛸 Almost sci-fi
“Researchers from Samsung and Harvard University have proposed ‘copying and pasting’ the brain onto memory networks to build smarter computer chips.”
Don’t expect it any time soon, though; our brains are more complex than today’s chips could handle.
📰 Big reads
How Tesla’s ‘Self-Driving’ Beta Testers Protect the Company From Critics
On the Internet, We’re Always Famous
Kids who grew up with search engines could change STEM education forever
More big reads…
🐣 Tweet of the week
An optimistic thread (from an investor in crypto projects) about the future of decentralised technologies (AKA Web 3, because ‘Web 3.0’ sounds old-hat)… Tap through to read it all 👇
Bonus tweet:
Sarah Holder
just got served an ad about a smart toothbrush that gives you “rewards” for brushing your teeth.. feels like it’s all gone too far
The only reward I need for brushing my teeth is minty-fresh breath.
That's all for now...
Back next week. See you in your inbox then!
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