The Human Upgrade

The Human Upgrade
By Ariana Eunjung Cha

Using their ideas and their billions, the visionaries who created Silicon Valley’s biggest technology firms are trying to transform the most complicated system in existence: the human body.
Four part series appeared in the ‘Washington Post’ in over the course of 2015.

Part 1: ‘Tech titans’ latest project: Defy death’ <http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/national/2015/04/04/tech-titans-latest-project-defy-death/>

Part 2: ‘The revolution will be digitized’ <http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/national/2015/05/09/the-revolution-will-be-digitized/>

Part 3: ‘Watson’s next feat? Taking on cancer’ <http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/national/2015/06/27/watsons-next-feat-taking-on-cancer/>

Part 4: ‘Building an artificial brain’ <http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/national/2015/09/30/brain/>

The real reason why 4-inch phones are back in fashion

The real reason why 4-inch phones are back in fashion
By MATTHEW HUSSEY
Mar 30 2016
<http://thenextweb.com/apple/2016/03/30/apple-samsung-xiaomi-bringing-back-4-inch-phone/>

Last week, Apple unveiled the newest iteration of the iPhone, a product line that accounts for two thirds of the company’s revenue: the iPhone 5SE.

Unlike previous announcements, in which Apple has steadily increased the size of its phones, it went smaller. Not only did the company go smaller, it also recycled the chassis of an older model, the iPhone 5.

A week later, pre-order figures emerged from China – with more than three million of the handsets purchased before the phone hit the shelves according to CNBC. 

With China becoming increasingly important to Apple’s bottom-line, this is a good sign for the company. However, no sooner had everyone in Cupertino slapped themselves on the back for working out how to sell the marketplace a bit of old rope, Samsung is allegedly doing the same. The South Korean chaebol is shrinking its flagship Galaxy S7 to 4.6-inches and calling it the ‘Mini’.

Xiaomi, Apple’s Chinese shadow is also supposed to be jumping into the shrunken screen pool. We have reached out to both Xiaomi and Samsung for comment and will update the story if we hear back from them.

But why the sudden shift down? When Sony released its range of Xperia Z5s, they had a smaller 4.6-inch version that no one seemed that excited about?

As Greg Joswiak, Apple’s head of marketing highlighted in the keynote last week, Apple sold 30-million 4-inch iPhones last year, making a small, but significant contribution to its bottom line. So from a pure business perspective, it makes sense, right? If people still like smaller phones, then make more of them?

But I think there’s more at play here. After Apple announced its record last quarterin January this year, it also said that next quarter things wouldn’t be quite so rosy. This is the first time Apple will post year-over-year declines in sales for 13 years. Of course, Apple is incredibly profitable still, but this shouldn’t be overlooked.

The company has been consistently criticised for its over-reliance on the iPhone to generate its record-breaking profits. It’s one reason why Apple’s keynotes have been progressively more diverse in their offering. Apple needs another iPhone or it risks being the victim of its own success.

“Some investors are starting to punish Apple for not being able to do the impossible,” Dr Aleksi Aaltonen, an assistant professor of information systems at the University of Warwick and cofounder of smartphone app Moves told memeburn. 

“The longer the company keeps breaking its iPhone records, the more likely the following quarter shows that the product has finally peaked. Lots of analysts predicting quarterly sales figures and pondering if the inevitable peaking has finally happened diverts attention from what really matters to the company”.

[snip]

Living From Rent To Rent: Tenants On The Edge Of Eviction

Living From Rent To Rent: Tenants On The Edge Of Eviction
By Pam Fessler
Mar 29 2016
<http://www.npr.org/2016/03/29/471347542/living-from-rent-to-rent-tenants-on-the-edge-of-eviction>

Every morning for weeks, Meagen Limes made the same phone call: to a court in Washington, D.C., to see if that day was the day she’d be evicted from her home.

Limes faced eviction because she couldn’t pay rent on her three-bedroom apartment in Southeast Washington, where many of the city’s poorest residents live.

It can sometimes take weeks before the marshals actually show up at your door, and Limes fully expected to be homeless any day.

“And it’s like really scary,” the 28-year-old said. “I try so hard not to cry. Like, I would be like, ‘Oh my God, if they come today, what am I gonna do?’ “

I first met Limes outside the courtroom of the Landlord and Tenant Branch of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, where tenants go when they’ve been sued by their landlords for not paying rent.

That day, a judge ordered a writ of restitution — directions for the marshals to begin eviction proceedings.

Limes wore a black apron and purple shirt with the logo of a local grocery store where she works part time. When the judge asked why she owed more than $3,300, Limes said she was struggling to make ends meet.

“And basically he was like, ‘So the only reason why you’re behind on rent is because you can’t pay rent?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s the only thing,’ and he was just looking at me like, he said, ‘We’ll send out a writ,’ ” Limes recalls. “And I was just like, ‘Wow, like, is there any way I can get some help?’ “

Limes is among the hundreds of thousands of Americans who face eviction because they simply can’t afford their rent. One in four low-income families pays more than 70 percent of its income on rent, leaving little money for other bills and almost no room for an unexpected expense.

According to the Harvard Research Center’s State of the Nation’s Housing report in 2015, rising rents and stagnating wages nationwide have contributed to a record number of cost-burdened renters — a situation that is worsened by the shortage of affordable housing for low-income tenants.

Living On A Tight Margin

Limes lives with her 4-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter. Her ailing father had been living with her, too, until he died recently.

“I also have my niece. She’s 18 and she’s been going from house to house,” Limes says. “So I told her just come stay with me until she get on her feet.”

Their apartment feels like someplace people are just passing through, with empty walls and plastic bins stuffed with clothes on the floor.

Limes is pretty typical of those who end up in rent court: She’s a single mother, juggling things on her own. She says the father of one of her children is in prison and the other is a deadbeat dad. She lost a full-time job last October; her new job is only 20 hours a week. At $10.50 an hour, that’s not nearly enough to cover her $1,275 monthly rent.

[snip]

Brain-zapping gadgets promise to make you a better you — smarter, stronger, even happier

Brain-zapping gadgets promise to make you a better you — smarter, stronger, even happier
By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Mar 29 2016
<https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2016/03/29/brain-zapping-gadgets-promise-to-make-you-a-better-you-smarter-stronger-even-happier/>

LAS VEGAS — Jamie Tyler was stressed. He had just endured a half-hour slog through airport security and needed some relief. Many travelers in this situation might have headed for the nearest bar or popped an aspirin. But Tyler grabbed a triangular piece of gadgetry from his bag and held it to his forehead.

As he closed his eyes, the device zapped him with low-voltage electrical currents. Within minutes, Tyler said, he was feeling serene enough to face the crowds once again.

This is no science fiction. The Harvard-trained neurobiologist was taking advantage of one of his own inventions, a device called Thync, which promises to help users activate their body’s “natural state of energy or calm” — for a retail price of a mere $199.

Americans’ obsession with wellness is fueling a new category of consumer electronics, one that goes far beyond the ubiquitous Fitbits and UP activity wristbands that only passively monitor users’ physical activity. The latest wearable tech, to put it in the simplest terms, is about hacking your brain.

These gadgets claim to be able to make you have more willpower, think more creatively and even jump higher. One day, their makers say, the technology may even succeed in delivering on the holy grail of emotions: happiness.

These headbands can read your mind and change your mood

THYNC and Muse are two wearable headbands that use electrical nerve stimulation and an EEG respectively to read your mind. THYNC looks to alters your mood, while Muse reads your thoughts to help in meditation. (Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)

There’s real, peer-reviewed science behind the theory driving these devices. It involves stimulating key regions of the brain — with currents or magnetic fields — to affect emotions and physical well-being. It isn’t too different from how electroshock therapy works to counter certain mental illnesses and how deep-brain stimulation smooths motion disorders such as  multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease. Indeed, recent studies have looked at the technique as a possible treatment for stroke, autism and anorexia.

Lots of people and companies are making investments, too, from Silicon Valley venture capitalists to large pharmaceutical companies and even the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. And according to the start-ups selling the products, their technology appears to be safe and effective based on certain, very controlled tests.

But more rigorous research is ongoing, and some of the early results have generated controversy because of how the studies were conducted. Moreover, the gadgets themselves haven’t been independently validated, and, for competitive reasons, many of the entrepreneurs making them have revealed little information about their development and testing. The companies claim the stimuli they utilize are so weak that the products shouldn’t be considered medical devices and subject to regulation by the Food and Drug Administration. To date, the agency hasn’t intervened.

All this has unnerved many neuroscience experts, who worry about putting something that tinkers with the brain in the hands of naive consumer masses.

Kareem Zaghloul, who runs one of the brain labs at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, said that even if the devices work as advertised — which is a big if, he stressed — there are also concerns about how they account for individual variability in brain structure and whether enhancing one area of the brain could negatively affect another. No one knows the long-term consequences.

“When you’re dealing with the brain and electrical simulation, there are always possible dangers. We worry about this even with our own work. We think the chances are quite low, but it’s still a potential problem,” Zaghloul said.

[snip]

Interoperability and the W3C: Defending the Future from the Present

Interoperability and the W3C: Defending the Future from the Present
By Cory Doctorow
Mar 29 2016
<https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2016/03/interoperability-and-w3c-defending-future-present>

Imagine a new, disruptive company figured out a way to let hundreds of people watch a single purchased copy of a movie, even though the rightsholders who made that movie objected. The new company charged money for this service, and gave none of it back to the movie’s creators. That’s exactly the business model that a controversial project at the Web’s premier open standards organization seeks to prevent.

Of course, it’s also the business model of Netflix, circa 1997, not to mention every prior video rental service relying on the traditional principle that a copyright owner’s control ended when they sold a copy of the work.

If the studios had been able to to lock out disruptive new companies by adding a bit of technology that was against the law to break, Netflix would have been stopped in its tracks. It never would have grown into the powerhouse it is today, a valued partner to the movie studios and independents alike, a production house in its own right — and one of the principal advocates for standardizing digital restrictions on media use.

We get it: companies often become less revolutionary once they achieve success. But people love Netflix, and they will love the next Netflix even more.

By adopting a covenant to protect interoperability, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) can save innovators of tomorrow from those of yesterday.

The World Wide Web Consortium is is mired in conflict over its decision to standardize digital locks — the technologies that allow other people to give your computer orders that you can’t override. The first of these, “Encrypted Media Extensions” (EME) will be part of HTML5 is being designed as the primary interface between people and the smart devices of the Internet of Things, from medical implants to vehicles to power stations to security systems.

Sections 1201-12031 of the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) ban bypassing such restrictions, and have been used to shut down legitimate tools because their makers had to remove a lock to improve existing products, and to silence security researchers who came forward with revelations about defects in covered products.

Though EFF could not convince the W3C to abandon its commitment to adding digital locks to the Web, we have proposed a middle ground. We asked W3C to impose a promise not to use DMCA 1201 or similar laws to attack interoperable technologies or security research as a condition of participating in the EME standards-setting process.

The main event with digital restrictions isn’t the technology: it’s the law. It may be a dumb idea to design computers to disobey their owners and hide their internal workings from the humans that rely on them, but it’s legal threats that keep security researchers and innovators from working with and improving products that use such restrictions.

It’s easy to understand what we mean by protecting security researchers, of course, but what’s all this about “interoperability?”

Interoperability means being able to have one product function with another product, sometimes in ways the original manufacturer didn’t anticipate and wouldn’t necessarily approve of. If you’ve ever plugged a cell-phone charger into a car’s cigarette lighter, you’ve experienced interoperability — though the original manufacturer never conceived of charging a not-yet-invented phone with a gadget intended to make heat to ignite tobacco products, someone else was able to invent a way to use that original gadget in a new and useful way.

Standards bodies play a key role in interoperability, specifying a common framework that manufacturers can cooperatively agree upon. That framework makes it much easier for one company to design something to work with another company’s products and provides assurance that the products that are yet to come will be able to interoperate with both.

But as important as cooperative compatibility is, it’s dwarfed by uncooperative compatibility, where companies get their products to work together without any kind of agreement. Sometimes, that’s because the original maker is gone — you might get an inkjet cartridge to go in an old printer whose manufacturer is out of business — but sometimes, that’s because the original manufacturer objects to the add-on.

[snip]

Surveillance has reversed the net’s capacity for social change

Surveillance has reversed the net’s capacity for social change
By Cory Doctorow
Mar 29 2016
<http://boingboing.net/2016/03/29/surveillance-has-reversed-the.html>

Sociologists describe the “spiral of silence”: people with socially unpopular ideas fear that they’re the only ones who think that way, and say nothing, and their silence convinces others that they, too are alone, begetting yet more silence.

One of the Internet’s most radical properties is its capacity to break this deadlock. The ability to speak anonymously or pseudonymously, along with the ability to private search for and read forums discussing transgressive ideas has emboldened people who have minority points of view and created discourse that has given rise to social justice movements from #blacklivesmatter to the trans rights movement to marijuana reform, as well as social phenomena like the rise of polyamory and steampunk and cosplay and other minority practices whose adherents are thinly spread across the world, but who are numerous in aggregate.

(The same could be said for things like jihadism, of course).

But with the Snowden revelations and the widespread understanding of ubiquitous Internet surveillance (something that a minority was always aware of, of course), sociologists have observed a marked chilling effect on political and social discourse, as people who disagree with the majority fear that their searches and discussions will be observed, correlated, logged and use to ascribe guilt to them.

In Under Surveillance: Examining Facebook’s Spiral of Silence Effects in the Wake of NSA Internet Monitoring, Wayne State University communications researcher Elizabeth Stoycheff looks at the way that discussion of US interventions against ISIS have been discussed on Facebook, documenting the chilling effect on a critical democratic discourse.

In our living memory, it was a crime for black and white people to marry each other, for people to be gay, for people to use marijuana (whether medically or recreationally). The changes that have made the world better for untold millions were possible because there were ways to express support for reform without going on the record until you were ready to, ways to learn about minority viewpoints without exposing yourself to suspicion.

Unless you believe that we’ve made all the progress we need to make — unless you believe that your grandchildren will ask you in 2066 how it was that every social question was permanently settled half a century ago — then you need to believe that there are people today who are practicing some activity or harboring some belief whose suppression our descendants will be unable to understand, whose practice will be completely normalized in the years to come. We have to preserve a space for those views and practices to occur beneath the threshold for surveillance and enforcement, or we will deny the justice that future generations will find to be completely natural.

[snip]

The feds have resumed a controversial program that lets cops take stuff and keep it

The feds have resumed a controversial program that lets cops take stuff and keep it
By Christopher Ingraham
Mar 28 2016
<https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/03/28/the-feds-have-resumed-a-controversial-program-that-lets-cops-take-stuff-and-keep-it/>

The Justice Department today announced that it is resuming a controversial practice that allows local police departments to funnel a large portion of assets seized from citizens into their own coffers under federal law.

The “equitable-sharing” program gives police the option of prosecuting asset forfeiture cases under federal instead of state law. The Justice Department had suspended payments under this program back in December, due to budget cuts included in last year’s spending bill.

“In the months since we made the difficult decision to defer equitable sharing payments because of the $1.2 billion rescinded from the Asset Forfeiture Fund, the financial solvency of the fund has improved to the point where it is no longer necessary to continue deferring Equitable Sharing payments,” spokesman Peter J. Carr said.

Asset forfeiture is a contentious practice that lets police seize and keep cash and property from people who are never convicted — and in many cases, never charged— with wrongdoing. Recent reports have found that the use of the practice has exploded in recent years, prompting concern that, in some cases, police are motivated more by profit and less by justice.

The Justice Department’s equitable sharing program allowed state and local authorities to pursue asset forfeiture under federal, rather than state law. Federal forfeiture policies are more permissive than many state policies, allowing police to keep up to 80 percent of assets they seize.

Asset forfeiture is fast growing — in 2014, for instance, federal authorities seized over $5 billion in assets. That’s more than the amount of money lost in every single burglary that year.

[snip]