Archive for the ‘Technology and Society’ Category

Sex positive blogs fall down the Google memory hole

December 28, 2006

This is kind of disturbing. From Tiny Nibbles:

In recent weeks, Google has been changing its search algorithms and now many (though not all) sex websites have been dropped — including this one. It seems to have coincided with changes they made relating to their pay-for-play keyword ad program, AdSense. What’s disturbing to me (besides the harm it’s done to small businesses over the holidays) is that Google’s snafu seems to have dropped more sex-positive businesses (that focus on accurate sex ed) than big-gun, mainstream adult businesses (that sell unsafe sex toys and skanky product).

Personally, all the searches worked for me, resulting in the top hit that you would expect. But this was also reported on Boing Boing, Babeland, Pretty Dumb Things, and Valleywag, among others, so I don’t doubt that it was/is a problem for at least some people doing these searches.

The likeliest scenario is that Google did some algorithm tweaking, and it took a while for these pageranks to be properly recalculated, giving temporary favor to spam blogs that are “optimized” to appear high in Google rankings. The problem is that we, the users, the web site operators, have no way of knowing for sure one way or the other. Their search engine is so shrouded in secrecy that we’ll likely never know.

And here we see the danger of a one search engine world, especially when that search engine is about as transparent as mud:

As soon as Winston had dealt with each of the messages, he clipped his speakwritten corrections to the appropriate copy of The Times and pushed them into the pneumatic tube. Then, with a movement which was as nearly as possible unconscious, he crumpled up the original message and any notes that he himself had made, and dropped them into the memory hole to be devoured by the flames.

If Google is the Library of Alexandria, the place (and the only place) that we turn to, because it’s supposed to be an index of all information – then Google is potentially a memory hole even more effective than anything Orwell could have imagined. If you search for something in Google and it turns up nada… then for all intents and purposes it doesn’t exist.

I like Google, but they seriously need to be more transparent about what they’re doing behind the scenes.

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Danger Will Robinson, Danger!

December 22, 2006

Robots could demand legal rights

Robots could one day demand the same citizen’s rights as humans, according to a study by the British government.

If granted, countries would be obliged to provide social benefits including housing and even “robo-healthcare”, the report says.

At least this is British taxdollars at work, for once. I think someone in the government there has read just a little too much Isaac Asimov.

As to the meat of the study; I think it’s being a little misguided. What are “Human rights” as applied to a robot, anyway?

The thrust of the article is correct, I believe. Protecting robot rights is the moral and ethical thing to do, if and when strong AI is developed. But the mistake is in assuming that these rights will be identical to the rights afforded to biological human beings.

Take robot healthcare, mentioned in the article.

Human healthcare is expensive in large part because the human body is so complex and poorly understood, even in the modern era. Providing healthcare requires spending a decade educating doctors just so they can learn to address a narrow specialty of human biology.

Intelligent robots, however we’re imagining them, would be engineered, not born. We’d have a much more perfect understanding of their workings, reducing the fuzziness of diagnosis and treatment. Further, there’s no reason to imagine that robots wouldn’t be able to perform many of the maintenance tasks on themselves (or each other) – learning what needs to be done would be a simple matter of downloading the information. Further, assuming that a robot “brain” is similar to computers, we need not worry much about their “bodies” at all. Upgrades and backups would reduce much of the imperative for healthcare as applied to humans (the biggest expenses with us, after all, are all associated with aging).

The main problem with this thesis though is that social services would be the least of the economic issues that AI powered robots create.

To illustrate, let’s take it to the extreme example. Imagine a company that makes widgets. The raw materials for the widgets are mined by robots. They’re transported to the factory by robots, where they’re manufactured by robots. The finished widgets are then shipped to the store by robots, where they’re placed on the shelf by robots. The company has robots dedicated to maintaining the other robots. The company even has robots that handle the sales and marketing. In short – in a world where humanoid robots possess human level intelligence, the value of labor falls to zero. There’s no job that can’t conceivably be done (better) by a robot. The very foundation for our economy falls apart.

We’ll probably adapt, mind you – but getting back to the main point, worrying about social services seems shortsighted; we’d have to figure out how to make this robot economy work first.

Time’s person of the year

December 17, 2006

Is You.

America loves its solitary geniuses—its Einsteins, its Edisons, its Jobses—but those lonely dreamers may have to learn to play with others. Car companies are running open design contests. Reuters is carrying blog postings alongside its regular news feed. Microsoft is working overtime to fend off user-created Linux. We’re looking at an explosion of productivity and innovation, and it’s just getting started, as millions of minds that would otherwise have drowned in obscurity get backhauled into the global intellectual economy.

Who are these people? Seriously, who actually sits down after a long day at work and says, I’m not going to watch Lost tonight. I’m going to turn on my computer and make a movie starring my pet iguana? I’m going to mash up 50 Cent’s vocals with Queen’s instrumentals? I’m going to blog about my state of mind or the state of the nation or the steak-frites at the new bistro down the street? Who has that time and that energy and that passion?

The answer is, you do. And for seizing the reins of the global media, for founding and framing the new digital democracy, for working for nothing and beating the pros at their own game, TIME’s Person of the Year for 2006 is you.

In other words, they went with “Web 2.0”.

I have to admit, they got this one mostly right. In considering the question myself, I’d come up with Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert. The defining moment of the year, in my humble opinion, was Colbert’s speech at the White House Correspondent’s dinner. He stood up that night and spoke truthiness to power; but the most amazing thing about that night was the dissonance between how the mainstream press covered it (they mostly didn’t, or else claimed that he bombed) and the way the blogosphere covered it. It was at once symbolic of the political shift which culminated this November, as well as the technological and cultural shift that Time did wind up acknowledging.

Ironically, Time’s choice has been met with almost predictable cynicism from the very blogosphere that it awarded. In fact, I looked, and I couldn’t find any bloggers that actually had a positive outlook on the thing.

I applaud the choice though. After all, even in the case of Stewart and Colbert, where would they be without Youtube, and the millions of people who link to those videos? Would George Allen have lost the Virginia Senate race had his infamous “Maccaca” comment not spread in the same fashion? After a false start in the 2004 election cycle, this was really the year that the propagandists and marketers lost control of the message, where the people, collectively, took control of the political discourse. I lost count of the number of times in the past year that the mainstream press followed the lead of the blogosphere – the long tail really is wagging the dog now.

So, especially given how sucky Time’s choices have been in recent years, I’m willing to give credit to Time for giving credit to something deserving this year.

Who Killed Desktop Publishing?

November 16, 2006

Think about what you were doing with your PC in the mid-90’s, and what programs you used on it. There was MS Word and Excel (or perhaps WordPerfect and Lotus), which haven’t changed all that much over the years. You probably had a few games installed – Sim City, Carmen Sandiego, and Doom, to name a few. And if you’re like almost everyone I knew, you probably had Print Shop Deluxe (or MS Publisher, which came a little later).

I can’t remember a birthday party in the 90’s that wasn’t accompanied by that four foot banner that read “HAPPY BIRTHDAY X” in colorful letters, with low resolution confetti, cake, and party-hat clipart around the border. Sometimes it was printed on a paper-feed printer, other times it was taped together 8.5″ x 11″ sheets, but it was always there as part of the decorations. Then there were the cards, which were almost always 4.25″ x 5.5″ folded sheets of paper,with a stock greetings and a customized border. Occasionally, it would have a graphic chosen from massive clip art galleries that came on the CD-ROM.

What’s more, we thought that stuff was cool. Making it was a big deal to us, and everyone spent a lot of time doing it. Then it just sort of vanished; hardly anyone does it anymore.

The software is still there – Microsoft still makes Publisher and it comes with some versions of the MS Office suite. I’m sure there’s still some version of Print Shop Deluxe out there as well. And I still see flyers made with that software hanging on billboards and the such. But I don’t see the banners anymore, and I never receive those two-fold cards either.

So my question: Why’d it stop? I suppose it’s possible I just don’t go to the right birthday parties anymore, but I don’t think that’s the answer though. Somewhere along the line, our love affair with cheesy clipart and taped-together banners simply ended, and desktop publishing has become a lost art.

Not that I’m lamenting it’s loss, mind you. But it’s pretty curious how it just sort of faded into oblivion, and makes you wonder about what kind of stuff today might suffer a similar fate.