TR Editors' blog

Recommended from Around the Web (Week Ending August 2, 2014)

A roundup of the most interesting stories from other sites, collected by the staff at MIT Technology Review.

MIT TR Editors 31/07/2014

Hold the Phone: A Big-Data Conundrum
If nothing else, big data suggests we're all conspiracy theorists.
Will Knight, news and analysis editor

Electric Utilities Get No Jolt from Gadgets, Improving Economy
The Wall Street Journal (paywall) examines the reasons executives are abandoning the assumption that electricity use is coupled with overall economic conditions.
Mike Orcutt, research editor

HitchBOT, the Hitchhiking Robot, Bums 1st Ride
An experiment by McMaster University scientists focuses on the interaction between people and technology. HitchBOT, thumbing rides from Canada's East to West Coasts, was near Montreal at the time of this writing.
Nanette Byrnes, senior editor, Business Reports

Checking In from Home Leaves Entry for Hackers
No huge surprise in this Homeland Security report, but the clarity of the statement is striking.
Brian Bergstein, deputy editor

Sprint Will Sell a $12 Wireless Plan That Only Connects to Facebook or Twitter
Sprint's experiment with low-cost plans that offer access to only certain social networks has led to accusations it is damaging net neutrality.
Tom Simonite, senior editor, IT

Brazil Farmers Say GMO Corn No Longer Resistant to Bugs
Brazilian farmers bring false-advertising claim against Monsanto as bugs become resistant to Bt corn.
Antonio Regalado, senior editor, business

Venter Steals Top Scholar from Google
Craig Venter hires machine learning bigwig Franz Och, who built Google Translate, to decipher genomes.
—Antonio Regalado

These Aren't Abstract Paintings, They're iPhone Smudges
Finger-smudged manufactured art coming soon to a local gallery near you.
—J. Juniper Friedman, associate web producer

Mark Phelan: Lab Rolls Out Ideas for Future Vehicles
A handful of discoveries at a national lab that could transform transportation.
Kevin Bullis, senior editor, energy

What’s a Moon Shot Worth These Days?

Google X’s project to study human health is no Apollo 11.

Antonio Regalado 29/07/2014

The term "moon shot" has been getting tossed around a lot lately, mostly by Google X, the search company's publicity arm.

Ahem, secret lab.

The last time was last Friday, when the Wall Street Journal broke the news of a biomedical research study being planned by Google X, which it crowned "Google's New Moonshot" and rated as the company's "most ambitious and difficult science project ever."

Google added, in a fact sheet sent to journalists, that the study would engage in "a type of clinical research study that has never been done before."

But the research, called the Baseline Study, sounded pretty ordinary to me—measure the genes and blood chemistry of 175 healthy people (and eventually thousands more) and try to establish some molecular information about what normal looks like.

It makes you wonder what qualifies as a moon shot. On Twitter, some genome researchers had the same feeling:


Google's CEO Larry Page started talking up "moon-shot thinking" a couple of years back. He wanted to make sure Google didn't get stuck focusing on incremental ideas and would always come up with the next Android or Gmail. So the company created Google X, a kind of skunk works where far-sighted researchers can play with the toys of their choice.

Google's moon shots now include autonomous cars, Google Glass, high-altitude blimps that beam Internet service to the ground below, contact lenses that monitor glucose, a life extension company with plans to "solve death," and something involving walking robots. Half these projects were announced in the last eight months.

But let's consider the original lunar trip. In 1961, President Kennedy challenged his nation to put men on the moon inside a decade. This seemingly impossible goal was achieved eight years later, on July 20, 1969. As Google itself defines it, a moon shot must combine "a huge problem, a radical solution, and the breakthrough technology that might just make that solution possible."

The Baseline study doesn't fulfill this definition. It doesn't appear particularly novel. There's not much question it can be done. And Google also hasn't established a clear scientific destination or problem. The study's goal to "investigate the chemistry of a healthy body" is open-ended. How will we know when they get there?

Even a few normally tech-friendly doctors, like Scripps's Eric Topol, were underwhelmed:


There's also something slightly hokey-sounding about Baseline. The Google X manager running the study, Andrew Conrad, previously cofounded the California Health & Longevity Institute. That's an upscale spa near Malibu where the well-heeled can pick from a menu that includes acupuncture treatments, healthy cooking lessons, or sitting inside a 64-slice CT scanner.

It was funded by Conrad's previous benefactor, the 91-year-old billionaire David Murdock, who is the chairman of Dole Foods, and who has plans to live to be 125 by eating only healthy foods. In fact, the $4,000 executive physicals offered at the spa (technicians check your vitamin levels and scour your scans for cancer while you get a massage) sounds vaguely like the workups the 175 volunteers will get as part of Baseline.

And then there's simply the matter of scale. Google has been building a team of "70 to 100" experts in biomedical imaging and analysis, according to the WSJ. That's not small, but it's not moon-shot-sized either. About 400,000 people worked for the Apollo program, a massive undertaking that at times ate up as much as 4 percent of the U.S. GDP.

According to historian Roger Launius of the National Air and Space Museum, putting men on the moon cost $24 billion, or about $180 billion in today's dollars.

When I added up Google's R&D spending over the last eight years (a time frame comparable to that of Apollo), it came to around $36 billion. That's pretty sizable. It means Google's R&D spending amounts to about one-fifth an Apollo project, on an ongoing basis.

But Google X only represents a fraction of Google's R&D spending, and moreover, Google doesn't just have one moon shot but a half dozen of them. Just guesstimating here, but Google's biggest moon shot is probably spending 1 percent of the budget of the real one.

What NASA's moon trip and Google X have in common is that they are huge publicity generators. I'm not sure that going to the moon had any practical use—astronauts brought back a few hundred pounds of rocks and some great pictures—but the psychological impact was immense. It positioned the U.S. to dominate aerospace for years to come.

Similarly, Google's X lab has changed the way people perceive the company. I've stopped thinking of Google as a company that makes its money selling search ads for easy credit, online degrees, and auto insurance. Now, when I hear the name Google, I think of world-changing technical derring-do.

But Google could break the spell if they overdo it. Baseline is no moon shot.

Software That Can See Will Change Privacy Forever

Advances in machine vision will let employers, governments, and advertisers spot you in photos and know exactly what you're doing in them.

Pete Warden 29/07/2014

When I was an undergraduate 20 years ago, I was so excited about computer vision that I chose to implement a cutting-edge paper on recognizing machine parts as my final-year project. Even though those parts were simple silhouettes of basic shapes like triangles and cogs, my project barely worked at all. Computer vision was a long way from being good enough to use in most real applications, and there was no clear path to dramatic improvements.

My college years weren't entirely focused on algorithms, though. I was a peaceful participant in the protests that turned into the Criminal Justice Act riots in the U.K., I attended plenty of outdoor rave festivals, and I ended up at parties where lots of the attendees were high as a kite. Thankfully there's no record of any of this, apart from a few photos buried in friends' drawers. Teenagers today won't be as lucky, thanks to the explosion of digital images and the advances in computer vision that have happened since that final-year project of mine.

I've spent my professional career building software that makes sense of images, but each project was highly custom, more art than science. If I wanted to detect red-eye in photos, I'd program in rules about the exact hue I expected, and to look for two spots of that color in positions that might be eyes, for example. A couple of years ago, I came across a technique that changed my world completely. Alex Krizhevsky and his team won the prestigious Imagenet image recognition contest with a deep convolutional neural network. Their approach had an error rate of 15 percent. The next best contestant's approach had an error rate of 26 percent.

More importantly, the same technique turned out to be useful for all sorts of problems that require computers to make sense of images, from guessing what kind of environment a photo was taken in to recognizing faces. Before, it would take months of my time to build a classifier for just one kind of object. Now any competent engineer with a bit of training can do the same thing in days. Image analysis algorithms used to be rare handcrafted Fabergé eggs, but now they're cheap off-the-shelf components made on a production line.

These advances have huge implications for our privacy, since we now document our lives with so many pictures. Facebook alone already has over 200 billion photos. So far this hasn't had a massive impact on privacy because there's been no good way to search and analyze those pictures, but advances in image recognition are changing all that. It's now possible to not only reliably spot you in photos, but also tell what you're doing. Creating an algorithm to spot common objects, whether they're bikes or bongs, is now so easy. Imagine all your photos being processed into a data profile for advertisers or law enforcement, showing how much you party, who you're with, and which demonstrations you attended.

You might think this is science fiction, but the mayor of Peoria managed to justify a raid on the apartment of a critic by citing a Twitter photo appearing to depict cocaine. Police departments across the country monitor YouTube videos that gang members upload of themselves threatening rivals and posing with guns. Right now, this is done manually, but it could be taken much further with easy-to-use object recognition software.

All of us have become used to uploading photos and videos safe in the knowledge that we have privacy through obscurity, but as data-mining images becomes easy, they could come back to haunt us. I've been able to move on from my youthful missteps, but it could have been different if all the landlords, potential employers, and bureaucrats I've dealt with since then could have summoned photographic evidence of them all at the touch of a button.

Pete Warden is chief technology officer and cofounder of Jetpac

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