Cook on privacy. Sachs on tech tax. Shaping cities as skeptical urbanists. Octopus smarts — No.54

Big news this week. I finally completed the prototype phase and the new website, I’m officially launching Sentiers at Work ?! It builds on all the research and reading I do at large and for this newsletter. It provides briefings to feed your curiosity at and around work, organisations, and careers. Please have a look and feel free hit reply if you have questions.

I’m also launching a Patron plan, if you want to help make the weekly newsletter more sustainable. I love writing Sentiers and the conversations it creates but it does take a good chunk of time each week, which I’m not spending on client work so every bit from patrons would help take some pressure off and lead to bigger and better things around the project.

Finally, I’m looking for feedback on the whole thing and wouldn’t mind a few more testimonials to display, if you’ve got something nice to say ?.

Apple’s Tim Cook makes blistering attack on the ‘data industrial complex’

I’ve complained time and again about Apple’s closed hardware but on privacy, they are dead on. Cook praises the GDPR, offers four things to prioritize for privacy protection, and uses some strong and warranted language concerning the “data industrial complex.” (The article also includes some good comments by Europe’s data protection supervisor Giovanni Buttarelli.)

  • The right to have personal data minimized.
  • The right to knowledge. (What and why it’s being collected.)
  • Data belongs to users.
  • The right to security. (Foundational to trust and all other privacy rights.)

“Our own information — from the everyday to the deeply personal — is being weaponized against us with military efficiency,” warned Cook. “These scraps of data, each one harmless enough on its own, are carefully assembled, synthesized, traded and sold.” […]

“At its core this technology promises to learn from people individually to benefit us all. But advancing AI by collecting huge personal profiles is laziness, not efficiency,” […]

“For artificial intelligence to be truly smart it must respect human values — including privacy. If we get this wrong, the dangers are profound. We can achieve both great artificial intelligence and great privacy standards. It is not only a possibility — it is a responsibility.”


‘Tech tax’ necessary to avoid dystopia, says leading economist

Short interview with economist Jeffrey Sachs. He argues for a tech tax, and for AI’s potential being determined through “a desire to serve the public interest.” Also of interest because his emphasis on IP mirrors that of Jim Balsillie, covered in No.52. Early trend there.

[A]rguing that new technologies were dramatically shifting the income distribution worldwide “from labour to intellectual property (IP) and other capital income.” […]

“So rather than cutting capital income taxation, as we’ve been doing in a race to the bottom, we ought to be finding ways to tax capital income and IP income,” Sachs added. […]

“So more creative IP design is always on the books, not just with regard to AI, but with regard to any advanced technology, however it’s organised. Whether there should be forced licensing, whether it should be forced to be open source, whether there should be pooling of the technologies in some way across companies, we grappled with that over and over again in the 20th century, because there’s nothing that says that the plain vanilla, 20 year from date of filing, patent, is the right way to handle any of this.”

Retailers Are Using Facial-Recognition Technology Too

Surveillance capitalism in all its “glory.” Facial-recognition and tracking used in multiple retailers (and growing) and the merging of marketing and security.

It’s marketed to them as an unparalleled tool for cutting down on shoplifting, and sold to the public as a security tool — helping identify would-be terrorists at sports games, for instance, or protecting consumers against identity theft by making sure that they are who they say they are. It’s also almost completely unregulated. […]

In the future, facial-recognition technology could also be used for marketing, helping stores track customers in real life the way online retailers track them with cookies. […]

[A]lready seeing companies merge their security and marketing divisions. On a project with Home Depot last year, for instance, he helped the marketing team use security footage to track customers through stores and figure out what products they were browsing.


Shaping Cities contribution, “Of Systems and Purposes: Emergent technology for the skeptical urbanist”

Adam Greenfield starts by offering this week’s bleak af abyss gaze, then reminds us, with a couple of examples, that when bumping into reality the dreams of disruptors rarely come to pass in exactly the way they intended. It is then possible to dream other versions of the future, other combinations. To properly understand and use technologies, yet not allow their creators’ versions to come to be.

And all the while, thanks to the myriad sensors of the so-called internet of things, everything from physical location to social interaction to bodily and affective states becomes grist for the mill of powerful machine-learning algorithms set to anticipate a wide range of needs and desires, and fulfill them before they quite breach the surface of awareness.”

Deeply entrenched systems, structures that are psychic every bit as much as they are political or economic, lay in wait to capture and redirect the energies unleashed by emergent technology, and very often the result of this encounter is something starkly other than any innovators had intended. […]

Seeing an innovation bedded in at the core of some longer-lasting transformation requires the much harder work of making space for it in all the interlocking systems that give shape to our lives: systems of law, governance and regulation, infrastructures both physical and financial (e.g. insurance), social conventions and practices, language, even entrenched habits of mind.

A device that can pull drinking water from the air

A system that uses “Skywater, a large box that mimics the way clouds are formed” and powers it with a biomass gassifier, a low-cost source of energy:

When the gassifier is filled with wood chips, coconut shells, or whatever biomass is locally available, a process calls pyrolysis vaporizes that material. That makes the system hot and humid, the ideal environment to run the air-to-water machine. As it generates power, it also produces biochar, a charcoal that can be added to soil to store carbon and help plants grow.

Could be Mark, Alexis, Jack—even Reid

A short thread by Paul Ford speculating on the impact platform kings could have on climate change awareness and mobilization… if only they took the time.

It is too bad, given how urgently action is needed, that the science-loving leaders of massive social platforms refuse to band together and use their vast reach to communicate with their billions of users about the real risks of climate change. […]

I doubt anyone will do a thing except squeeze more revenue from the moist corpse of the society they’re destroying while fantasizing that in doing so they are molding the world into their own image, in a Bataille-esque narcissistic erotic death waltz, but it’s fun to contemplate!


? How the octopus got its smarts

This is fascinating. A good longish read on how the octopus’ (and squid, and scuttlefish) brain works. The last, highlighted, quote below is the gist of it but I encourage you to read the whole thing.

Some researchers who study the octopus and its smart cousins, the cuttlefish and squid, talk about a ‘second genesis of intelligence’ – a truly alien one that has little in common with the mammalian design. […]

It takes serious computing power to control eight arms, hundreds of suckers, ‘thinking skin’ and camera eyes. Hence the oversized brain of the octopus. With its 500 million neurons, that’s two and a half times that of a rat. But their brain anatomy is very different. […]

So far, the octopus has revealed three big clues as to how it generates brain complexity: it has multiplied its set of circuit-building protocadherin genes and its network-regulating zinc fingers. It has also unleashed RNA editing to generate more complexity on the fly.

? Explore space using swarms of tiny satellites

Other than the “lets put ever more stuff up there, like we did down here” vibe, super interesting look at swarms of tiny satellites, what they could do and the technical innovations needed to make them happen.

Costs must be slashed; satellites should be small, nimble and able to repair themselves; and they should operate in swarms. […]

Together, thousands of these ‘femtosatellites’ could operate as a network. […]

Eventually, we’ll need fully self-repairing space platforms, including propulsion systems, power plants, life-support systems and scientific instruments. Building even a prototype demands major breakthroughs and new ways of working.