How Algorithms Influence Us Every Day

Computer algorithms have become an increasingly integral part of our personal lives and how we interact and view society as a whole. Because of algorithms, we get the latest news stories and information via Facebook and Twitter. We get Google search results that cater to our personal preferences. We’re able to take the easiest driving routes with the help of GPS, and we buy products that we might not have known we wanted due to recommendation functions.

Since algorithms play such a large part in our lives, we may overlook their pervasiveness and also overlook the way our views are affected by a seemingly subtle force. A recent article by Michele Willson of Curtin University in Perth, Australia, suggests the omnipresence of algorithms raises interesting questions about day-to-day human experience, reports Science Daily.

One key aspect that Willson examines is the reduction of the human experience into data.

“Time, bodies, friendships, transactions, sexual preferences, ethnicity, places and spaces are all translated into data for manipulation and storage within a technical system or systems. On that basis alone, questions can be posed as to… how people see and understand their environment and their relations (when all is reducible to malleable discrete but combinable units),” says Willson.

But isn’t the thought of humans as data an affront to our uniqueness? If our personalities can be neatly packaged into bits of data, we might wonder if there’s anything that makes us distinctly special. Can our identities be observed simply as clusters of objective personality traits? Can we be so easily boxed up based on aesthetic preferences, ethnicities, sexuality and places of residence?

Not only can algorithms have an impact on the way we view ourselves, they can also have an impact on the way our socio-political perceptions are shaped — forcing us to look at how we view our relationships with others.

Algorithms aren’t perfect

Recent research has shown that there’s much bias in algorithms, reports The New York Times. These biases cover everything including gender, class and race.

For example, Google’s online advertising system shows ads for high-income jobs to males much more so than to females, according to researchers at Carnegie Mellon University. If you search for a name that tends to be a more characteristically associated with African-Americans vs. a name that’s typically associated with a white person, you’re more likely to find arrest records, according to a study from Harvard University. And University of Washington researchers discovered that if you type “CEO” into a Google Images search, only 11 percent of the images show women even though 27 percent of United States CEOs are female.

Demographics as pure data could be seen as problematic for individuality and identity; after all, we live in a country where being unique is considered a right. But there are some positive aspects to these attempts to quantify human experience and preference via algorithms; just look at the success rate of marriages that began in the realm of online dating.

But they do make good matchmakers

Recent research suggests that there’s a higher rate of marriage satisfaction with couples who met online, reports Time. In a study funded by eHarmony and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of 20,000 Americans who were married between 2005 and 2012, 35 percent of those marriage were made possible because of internet dating. It turns out that 6 percent of marriages that began online ended in divorce or separation as opposed to 8 percent for marriages that began outside the digital world.

Aside from bringing love into many people’s lives, preference algorithms help us discover a wide array of media catered to the individual. The recommendation functions of Amazon and streaming services like Netflix and Hulu expose audiences to unexplored worlds in film, music and books. Just like your GPS app can make your drive easier, media-oriented algorithms can reveal untouched terrain by leading the user down roads that might otherwise remain less traveled. By guessing your ideal destination and refining your personalized path, algorithms can enhance how you experience media by recognizing your preferences, even if you’re unaware of them.

None of this is to say that algorithms are an absolute evil that must be eradicated, or that algorithms are the end-all be-all that can save us from loneliness. And of course, there are examples abound of how algorithms affect our everyday world like national security and financial analytics. But nonetheless, the examination of algorithms in our everyday lives gives us a chance to contemplate broader questions about our own humanity.

Elon Musk Wants To Fly You Anywhere On Earth In Under An Hour

Right now, the quickest way to get from, say, New York to Siberia involves at least a few plane tickets and a lot of layovers. But if Elon Musk has his way, travelers won’t have to rely on airlines to get them to the other side of the world — they can just hop on a rocket ship and be there in the same time it takes to get a pizza delivered.

Speaking at the 68th International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia, Musk revealed his plan for a rocket ship dubbed “BFR” that he says could fly travelers anywhere in the world in under an hour. By all appearances, at 30 feet in diameter, this would be a big frickin’ rocket, indeed.

The way Musk sees it, if SpaceX — the aerospace company he founded — is going to colonize Mars, and make us a “multiplanet species,” they might as well improve life on this planet, too.

“If we are going to places like Mars, why not Earth?” Musk asked while onstage, saying that if BFR is a success, travelers could get from New York to Shanghai in 30 minutes.

The BFR would have a maximum speed of 27,000 km/h, and accommodate 40 cabins that could carry about 100 people at one time, Musk said. After his on-stage appearance, he added in an Instagram post that fares would cost about the same as an economy airfare.

“Fly to most places on Earth in under 30 mins and anywhere in under 60,” he wrote. “Cost per seat should be about the same as full fare economy in an aircraft. Forgot to mention that.”

The BFR would also be able to make trips to the Moon and Mars, carry satellites into orbit, and ferry cargo and crew members to the International Space Station.

Although Musk originally to use a rocket called Red Dragon for unmanned missions to Mars, the new plan is land the first unmanned BFR on the planet in 2022 and then send crewed rocket ships out there in 2024.

Travel: Netflix Offers Its Streaming Tech to Airlines

If you’ve ever tried to get any work done or stream video on your own device during a flight, you know just how terrible and unreliable in-flight wi-fi can be. Thankfully, however, internet connections on airlines may soon see vast improvements across the board as Netflix has announced that its partnering with airlines to upgrade their internet bandwidth. Rather than bring its own platform to flights’ on-board entertainment systems (as its done with the likes of Virgin America), the move will instead see Netflix providing airlines with its own bandwidth technology — the same tech it uses to stream video on the likes of your laptops, tablets, and smartphones. According to Netflix, it believes it can save airlines around 75% of the cost of their bandwidth while offering even better performance. Naturally, Netflix hopes passengers will take advantage of the improved costs and speeds to stream more movies and shows, making it a win-win for airlines and the video platform alike.

Though it remains unclear when exactly the technology will begin rolling out, the partnership will also likely see an increase in Netflix’s subscriber base: Netflix plans to offer subscribers free access via their devices while non-subscribers will be offered a free 30-day trial.

Donald Trump Is Being Sued For Blocking People On Twitter

The Knight Institute leading the legal challenge to Trump’s use of Twitter has revealed that the White House will not be contesting that Trump does block his critics from time to time.

So if the White House accepts that, doesn’t it mean they automatically lose the case? No, not necessarily. The White House believes that as @realDonaldTrump is a personal account, and not the official @POTUS presidential channel, the First Amendment rights don’t apply. In other words, when Trump tweets from his own personal account, he does so with the same rights as a private citizen.

The Knight Institute, however, doesn’t buy this. Why? Because the president frequently makes policy announcements and reveals government news through his personal account. Precedent for this has already been set in America with Phyllis Randall, chairwoman of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, who was told that banning someone from commenting through a non-government funded Facebook page amounted to a breach of the First Amendment.

“The White House’s concessions here amount to an acknowledgment that the president and his aides have engaged in viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment,” said Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight Institute. “We look forward to making this case to the court.”

Why might the president blocking people on Twitter be constitutionally iffy? The original piece, originally published back in July, explains below.

Donald Trump is no stranger to the lawsuit, having dealt with more than 4,000 of them in the past 30 years. Nonetheless, the latest one is designed to hit him where it hurts: not in the wallet, but in the Twitter account.

The issue is with Trump’s penchant for blocking people who attack him in 140-character barbs. Seven of them have teamed up with the Knight First Amendment Institute to sue Trump on the grounds that blocking them is an attempt to “suppress dissent” in a public forum. This, they claim, violates their First Amendment rights to free speech.

In other words, they want the right to troll the president without consequences. This sounds pretty flimsy on the surface, but is justified by the fact that the Trump administration has described the president’s personal tweets as “official statements,” and that his team “use the account to make formal announcements, defend the president’s official actions, report on meetings with foreign leaders, and promote the administration’s positions”.

Trump himself has described his Twitter usage as “modern day presidential”, which is probably true, given it’s hard to imagine Thomas Jefferson publishing a GIF of himself repeatedly punching a man with CNN’s logo crudely plastered over his face. But then he did once write “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter”.

“The First Amendment applies to this digital forum in the same way it applies to town halls and open school board meetings,” said Jameel Jaffer, the Knight First Amendment Institute’s executive director, in a statement. “The White House acts unlawfully when it excludes people from this forum simply because they’ve disagreed with the president.”

That’s another intriguing aspect of the case: how Twitter deals with blocking. If you’re blocked by the president, you can no longer see his tweets when you’re logged in. Granted, logging out will allow you access again (unless he decides to make his account private, which seems hugely unlikely) but crucially you can’t reply if you’re not logged in. This means that if Trump blocks enough critics, then theoretically he can ensure that only positive responses to his tweets are seen by anyone, in effect silencing public debate.

“I’m troubled that the president can create a space on Twitter – where there are millions of people – that he can manipulate to give the impression that more agree with him than actually do,” said Professor Philip Cohen, one of the citizens suing Trump. Although, in fairness, this does ignore internet trolls’ almost limitless capacity to open new accounts to engage their favorite pastime.

So what kind of tweets get the president riled enough to reach for the block button? Here’s a selection of the plaintiffs’ replies to Trump that seem to have provoked the president to retreat to his safe space.

What chances of success? Can the courts force Trump to acknowledge criticism? Legal opinion is split on this one, with skeptics arguing that Trump’s Twitter account is personal, the plaintiffs’ injuries are minor and that he has the same right to block people as anybody else on Twitter, a private company. It would be something of an irony if Trump’s lawyers were to hide behind Twitter’s terms and conditions, given he seems to violate them with no chance or repercussions, but there we are.

A lot of this seems to come down to intent – the issue isn’t with Trump ignoring the abuse, but preventing others from seeing active dissent. The irony, therefore, is that if the president had just reached for the mute button rather than blocking, there would be far less of an issue – and nobody would know that he’d done it. Just another way in which the world where politics and social media meet is unnervingly murky.

Instagram Now Lets You Choose Who Can Comment On Your Posts

For the better part of the last year, Instagram has introduced new tools intended to keep the social media platform a “safe and positive place for self-expression” by allowing users to filter out unwanted or offensive comments. Now, the photo sharing site is launching another initiative letting users pick just who can comment on their posts in the first place. 

Instagram announced the new tool in a blog post today offering users another option to manage their comment experience on the site.

Comment Culling

Starting today, users with public accounts will be able to choose who can comment on their posts. Users can limit comments to only those who follow them, only people they follow, or anyone.

Additionally, users with both public and private accounts will be able to block other accounts from commenting on their posts.

Instagram notes that the tool — which joined others that filter out unwanted comments on their photos by keyword or hide offensive comments automatically — will improve over time.

Offering Help

In addition to rolling out the new comment filtering tool, Instagram also announced today that it has increased its efforts to provide mental health resources for users.

To do so, the company has added anonymous reporting to live video.

Now, if you see someone going through a difficult time or in need of support during a live broadcast, you can report it anonymously, the company says. The person will then see a message offering help with options to talk to a helpline, reach out to a friend or get other tips and support.

In Ten Years, Robots Could Replace More Than 4 Million Workers

Robots could replace human workers in up to four million jobs in Britain over the next decade, according to research conducted by UK market research firm YouGov on behalf of the Royal Academy of the Arts. This accounts for 15 percent of the workforce in the country’s private sector.

Researchers quizzed business leaders on how they see automation and artificial intelligence affecting their industry over the coming years. Over 20 percent of employers in finance, accounting, transportation, and distribution stated that they expect more than 30 percent of jobs in the field to be automated by 2027.

We’re already seeing more robots enter the workforce, from robot construction workers to drones that can deliver vital medical supplies. New technology is offering up benefits to the world of work that simply can’t be ignored, but it’s crucial that we consider the impact that it will have on society as a whole.

Chiefly, businesses have to make sure that the millions of workers who are replaced by robots and other automated systems aren’t left behind.

Many robots are simply better equipped to perform menial tasks than humans are. They don’t get bored, they can be designed for a specific purpose, and if they break, they can generally be fixed with relative ease. We simply can’t compete on a level playing field — but we can work alongside our synthetic colleagues.

Robots can raise overall productivity by doing the dirty, difficult, or otherwise unpleasant jobs that human workers would rather avoid. This frees up those people to perform tasks that require a level of judgement or original thought that a robot would not be capable of providing. Many experts would argue that we can have the best of both worlds.

“The UK must make the most of the economic opportunities that new technologies offer,” said Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of British national trade union federation the TUC, speaking to The Guardian. “Robots and AI could let us produce more for less, boosting national prosperity. But we need to talk about who benefits — and how workers get a fair share.”

There have been several different solutions outlined in response to this problem. Some argue that a tax on robots is the best way to ensure that no one is left unable to support themselves, while others would push for universal basic income to become the norm.

The biggest question is how quickly automation is going to be adopted. If it’s a steady process, it will be easier to transition human workers in other roles to help take advantage of increased productivity. If it’s sudden, this will be much harder — and as many as four million workers in Britain, and millions more worldwide, stand to be stuck in a very undesirable situation.

New Hinge App Lets You Set Up Your Single Friends

If you’re single and you use dating apps, we’re sure you’ve been there: Your partnered friends grab your phone so they can swipe around and make matches for you. “They didn’t have this when I was single,” your friend might gleefully cackle. And so, in an effort to let the coupled-up join the mobile fun, dating app Hinge is now offering would-be matchmakers the chance to set up their friends.

Make me a match

Hinge Matchmaker allows users to see which of their Facebook friends are on Hinge — or invite those who aren’t on it yet to join — then view suggested potential matches, and recommend them to their intended targets. Or, you can choose a friend you want to set up.

Those friends can then decide whether or not they want to connect on the Hinge app.

“We found a lot of people who felt like they missed out on the dating app craze wanted to be able to participate in some way,” Hinge founder Justin MacLeod tells TechCrunch. “A lot of times, people will pull out their friend’s phone and swipe for them on other apps.”

For now, Hinge Matchmaker is a standalone app for iOS only, but it could eventually be integrated into the main app.

Get me out of here

Don’t want your non-single pals poking around in your business — or for them to know that you’re on Hinge in the first place? You can opt out of Matchmaker.

First update to the latest version of Hinge.

1. Tap Settings
2. Tap Hinge Matchmaker
3. Scroll to the bottom and toggle off “Let friends matchmake for me”

You’ll have to write with the subject line “Matchmaker” and indicate you’d like to opt-out.

The Xbox One X Is Now Available for Preorder

Today Microsoft announced that they will begin pre-orders on the standard Xbox One X. This comes after last month when the company announced pre-orders for the Xbox One X Project Scorpio Edition, a limited edition console celebrating its codename during development. The limited edition system sold out in a matter of five days, making it the fastest pre-order ever for any Xbox console.

Pre-orders for the standard edition is available at your local retailers around the world with Microsoft Store and opening up more pre-orders for Xbox One X online. Pre-order yourself one from MS Store, Amazon, GameStop and Best Buy.

The U.S. Navy Is Using Xbox Controllers on Submarines

The US Navy will start collecting a number of Xbox controllers for its Virginia-class submarines starting with the USS Colorado which is set to be commissioned in November. Sailors will use the controllers to maneuver its periscope which utilizes high-resolution cameras and displays the images on bigger screens. This is unlike most periscopes which only allows a single person to peer through an eyepiece.

The original controller was costly to develop, around $38,000 USD. It was also heavy and clunky and took hours of training to man properly. Xbox controllers were able to cut costs down and reduced functionality training to only a few minutes.

Commercial Drone Pilots Can Now Get Customized Weather Forecasts

Drones have become central to various industries, including agriculture, construction, insurance, gas and oil, public safety, and more. They are essential for tasks such as inspection, crop spraying, and filming. However, it’s currently impossible for drone operators to get the same type of detailed weather information that airplane pilots receive because of the much lower-flying altitudes of drones. A company named Earth Networks is about to change that with its Sferic DroneFlight program, a predictive hyperlocal, low-altitude weather service for drone operators.

Drone pilots using the service will enjoy detailed regional forecasts for anywhere in the world, between 10 to 400 feet of altitude, in 10 foot increments. These will include hourly wind direction and speed forecasts for up to six days in advance. The system spans 90 countries and boasts 10,000 weather sensors and 1,500 lightning sensors.

According to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the number of drones in the U.S. will increase dramatically over the next five years. The commercial drone fleet reached about 42,000 by the end of 2016; the FAA estimates that it will grow to at least 442,000 by 2021, and there could be up to 1.6 million commercial drones taking to the air by 2021.

Engadget reports that drone-makers are working to develop planning and preventive features which may be able to work with transmitted data on winds and other weather sent directly to pre-flight apps or drones. This kind of synergy would make it possible for drone systems to calculate trajectory, range, and other flight parameters more effectively. Both pilots and researchers will be able to use the data more efficiently to conduct post-mortems after drone accidents and better identify disruptive conditions.

The company will test the new network via the unmanned aircraft systems test site at the University of Maryland to ensure optimum accuracy. Once running at full tilt, they believe the system will win the praise of the public and agencies like the FAA.

“Until now, drone operators have had to plan missions by relying on surface-level weather information or high-altitude measurements provided to commercial airlines, neither of which provides the needed intelligence to optimize missions,” Earth Networks Chief Marketing Officer Anuj Agrawal said in a Business Wire release. “As the drone market and regulatory environment continue to evolve, weather intelligence will be a key technology to enable longer and beyond line of sight missions.”