eXtensions - Sunday 28 July 2019


Cassandra - Weekend Review: Fencing Zuckerberg; Controlling Silicon Valley; and a Real Life Minority Report

By Graham K. Rogers


Facebook was fined last week and controls were put in place as Zuckerberg's deer in headlights approach under questioning was not convincing. The major tech companies are to be investigated on questions of monopoly: Washington wants to rein them in. AI used in predictive policing may not be safe: remember the warnings of Minority Report?

Coincidentally, as Netflix was screening The Big Hack last Wednesday, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released its decisions on Facebook's privacy breaches. Along with a fine of $5 billion, there are a number of controls to be put in place, including a privacy panel to prevent Mark Zuckerberg's direct involvement. It is suggested that the fine may actually be less than the profits made from the privacy breaches.

There are some who think this should all go much further and that Facebook should be broken up. They tried that with Bell and there seems to be such a gravitational pull that most of it is back together again but is now called AT&T. Some businesses are like that, although the British motor car industry which was born of many small manufacturers, self-imploded.

When I teach a course on Ethics & Morals for Computer Engineers, I point to several works of fiction for background. In some cases the creators have been remarkably prescient, particularly George Orwell, H.G. Wells (and the related Korda movies), and Philip K. Dick. While some of his works have been made into movies that are more fiction than science (Blade Runner, Paycheck), I have always been uncomfortable with the idea behind Minority Report.

Predictive policing is not new and statistical data has always been used, but more often in the proof of the past than in a look at future potential. I wrote an internal paper in the 1970s concerning predictions about car theft to help focus prevention and arrests, although nothing came of it then. What is new is the use of computer technologies, particularly AI and this is where the dangers, as hinted in Minority Report may lie. What happens when the predictions are wrong?

In recent history, AI has come to the fore and all manner of ways in which this could be used are being investigated. For example, some of my students are looking at the use of AI in identifying brain hemorrhages in CT scans (computer tomography) which are cheaper than the more accurate MRI scans. I have also seen AI and neural networks used in character recognition research, and currently Topaz (and others) have a number of applications that use AI to enhance images.

The problem with the fictional Minority Report was that the predictions should have been ignored if there was one input that differed, but this was kept secret and thousands were wrongly arrested. The police (Tom Cruise and colleagues) acted in good faith but those in charge hid this little fact away. Currently AI is being used to predict the potential for recidivism: re-offending if released or let out on bail.

Minority Report
Screenshot from Minority Report - Imprisoned Souls

The judges that have been using this on good faith have been told that it is foolproof, but some smart minds are not convinced and think that "predictive policing tools are not only 'useless,' but may be helping to drive mass incarceration" (AngleNews). The original comments were in a NYTimes op-ed and they conclude that reliance on such technology, where the algorithms may be wrongly weighted, is not as safe. Maybe the old gut feelings were better.

As well as Facebook there is now pressure on others in the tech industry, with the monopoly positions of several, including Apple, Amazon and Google about to be investigated by the Department of Justice ( Nate Madden). As a note the DoJ just approved the $26 billion merger of T-Mobile and Sprint. Related to the investigation, and in support of the Attorney General (no surprise there) Treasury Secretary, Mnuchin, coincidentally suggested that Amazon had been the cause of the destruction of much of the US retail sector ( Jacob Kastrenakes, The Verge), although bad management (Sears et al) may also have played some part. We also remember the attempts to investigate Microsoft for a monopoly position some years back. That took a long time, cost millions and made no difference to the way Redmond operated.

Belkin cable Belkin cable

Belkin micro-USB to USB-C cable

A problem with companies like Amazon gaining strength is that some products may just not be available in the stores. This is more of a problem in the huge rural areas in America, but here too, some products either never arrive (good 4K computer monitors - TVs are here of course), or are never ordered by the stores. My particular bête noire is the micro-USB to USB-C cable. Belkin has an office here and several products from the company are on sale in the stores, but not that one, so if I order online (Lazada) it comes from the Belkin warehouse. This annoys me particularly because of the many devices that use the micro-USB connector, and because many computers (not only Macs) have USB-C ports.

The technical companies to be investigated are all Silicon Valley based, which the current president hates. Amazon has an additional problem as Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post which does not often praise the president. What they also represent is power; and power that cannot be controlled (at least not at the moment) by Washington, with the occasional exception, such as with Facebook and the FTC, although the restrictions that may be put in place will hardly trim its wings.

Google is a different matter. It is hugely influential, but has not hooked up with organizations like Cambridge Analytica to influence elections in the USA and elsewhere; at least as far as we know. Google's power is commercial in the main. However part of that power also comes from Android, while much of Apple's influence comes from the iPhone and other devices. Apple is not really a monopoly company, even in the area of smartphones, although its design influence is significant. As Wall Street and research organizations like IDG continue to remind us, other companies sell more devices, although whether this will influence those conducting the investigations, is another matter. Focusing on one specific area, like the EU does, may be more successful if the intention is to bring these companies under the control of Washington.

Although it was rumored a couple of days ago, several sites are now reporting that Apple has confirmed the purchase of Intel's modem business for $1 billion. Some sites are calling this a "lowball offer": the idea being that Intel did not have much choice. Apple is perhaps one of few companies that could turn this sow's ear into a silk purse. The whole section had not been performing well, particularly in comparison to Qualcomm with its ready to roll 5G chips, so about the time Apple settled the lawsuit with Qualcomm, Intel announced it was shutting it all down. There is however, the problem of the existence of countless patents, the research that had been done, and the engineers who had been doing that research. What a waste to throw it all away.

Apple may not be able to put out any products right away, but that never worries Cupertino as they are in things for the long haul (which Wall Street still fails to grasp). Bringing in such an operation as Intel's modem section could realize the long term dream of controlling all of a product's technology from end to end. It is suggested that suitable chips may be available in around three years with some reports indicating that testing could begin in 2021. Now all we need are those ARM chips in the Macs.

On Saturday morning there was a bit of a buzz about Siri and, like another service that was reported on a couple of weeks back, some messages are being sent to human listeners; the idea being that this will improve the way that the AI used with such voice recognition services is able to recognize human input ( Jon Fingas, Engadget). While there was a sort of grudging acceptance that the other service had this information in the Terms & Conditions, this is Apple, and Tim Cook should have told everyone. I expect he will on Tuesday because he is sure to be asked at the Conference Call for Q3 2019.

Siri Apple has made a point about user privacy, so with the use of unvetted outside contractors it seems as if Apple has made an error here. I am sure that somewhere in the T&C there will be a note that the data may be shared. For example, I always agree when a pop up appears on the screen asking for my information to be shared for the purposes of analysis; and if I remember rightly I also allow this to be shared with developers. As I sometimes used Apple PR equipment in the past for the purposes of being able to review the latest devices, I had no objections to this and I let it carry over to my own purchases too.

While there is bound to be some anger (Jason Snell was not happy on Twitter about who was listening) this is no worse than what Google does and Apple is sharing such voice data in a more limited way, although what information they may have been listening to is another matter: all manner of people, good and bad, use Siri, so unless there is a cast iron guarantee that zero information has been shared outside Apple and its associates, this may rumble on for a while. Any bets on a member of Congress demanding answers to questions about the security of user data? This has been done with the Fingerprint ID and FaceID and Apple put out the fires there.

Just before the weekend, I saw a review in Shutterbug by Jon Sienkiewicz for a Tamron 35mm lens. I was impressed with the writing and the technical information, including some mathematics to make a couple of points. I have been interested in a 35mm lens for a while to slot between the 50mm and 24mm lenses I have now. I do have a 35mm for an older Mamiya I have, but that has a 42mm screw thread and I would need an adapter.

As with availability of products (above), I often look at price comparisons. Apple is not bad there (after VAT is factored in), but I had a fright a couple of years back over a set of Bowers & Wilkins bluetooth headphones that were almost twice the price they were in the USA. I bought a set from Bang & Olufsen instead. The article showed the US price of this lens as $899, which translates to 29,377.3422 baht with VAT.

When I looked around, a Thai article on the same lens showed a price of 36,900 baht. I went looking and found the lens (not on display) in Siam Paragon. When I asked, the price was quoted as 29,990 (much better), but the assistant, with whom I have dealt before, told me she would do it for 28,500 baht. I did not have the Nikon with me to try on Friday so went back Saturday, with the Nikon and the cash. It is everything that Jon Sienkiewicz wrote. I will be writing about this at length in the next day or so.

Tamron sp 35mm f1.4
Tamron SP 35mm f1.4 lens on Nikon D850

With Apple's Q3 2019 results out this week, several other companies are reporting their results currently. Canon did not have a good quarter. DL Cade, writing on PetaPixel says the results show a steep decline in camera and inkjet sales of 18.5%, slightly up from the 17% of the previous quarter. The company is optimistic, however, about prospects in the mirrorless market. The medical imaging business saw significant growth. The drop in imaging sales not a surprise as several commentators, and companies like Nikon have all recognized the shifting markets: away from DSLR and towards mirrorless; although the larger cameras still have a significant market among professionals and older amateurs like me.

I expect that we shall also see the results from Nikon which has no printers to support the cameras, although the product lineup with the D850 and the Z-series mirrorless cameras might soften the blow. Nikon saw the same 17% drop in sales as Canon last quarter. The company also has a significant presence in medical imaging, with several centres in the USA and elsewhere, as well as a long-time presence in high quality devices like microscopes.

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs. After 3 years writing a column in the Life supplement, he is now no longer associated with the Bangkok Post. He can be followed on Twitter (@extensions_th)



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