Weekend news round-up: Throwing ice on Google Glass; Facebook’s second coming

15 Apr 2013

In our round-up of some of the top tech stories from the weekend, the privacy issues that will come with the arrival of Google Glass wearable devices are highlighted; many of the top tech start-ups in the US are being led by immigrants into that country; yes, Google is trying to build the Star Trek computer; and Facebook has fully embraced mobile as its new religion.

Throwing ice on wearable computing

One of the unexplored issues around wearable computing devices, in particular Google’s new Google Glass specs, is the issue of privacy. How much will the wearer know about a person they are looking at and what are the ramifications of this on society and how we think of computing?

This thorny subject was breached by All Things Digital at the weekend, and one possible remedy for those concerned would be to throw a bucket of ice over the wearer.

“Glass is Google’s unintentional public service announcement on the future of privacy,” wrote Jan Chipcase. “Our traditional bogeyman for privacy was Big Brother and its physical manifestation – closed-circuit TV – but the reality today is closer to what I call Little Sister, and she is socially active, curious, sufficiently tech-savvy, growing up in the land of ‘free,’ getting on with life and creating a digital exhaust that is there for the taking. The sustained conversation around Glass will be sufficient to lead to a societal shift in how we think about the ownership of data, and to extrapolate a bit, the kind of cities we want to live in. For me, the argument that Glass is somehow inherently nefarious misses a more interesting point: It is a physical and obvious manifestation of things that already exist and are widely deployed today, whose lack of physical, obvious presence has limited a mainstream critical discourse.”

US-China cyber security pact

Reuters reported at the weekend that the US and China have come to some kind of agreement on cybersecurity. US Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters that the two sides have moved to ease months of tensions and mutual accusations of hacking and internet theft.

“Beijing and Washington have traded accusations in recent months of massive cyber intrusions. The United States says hacking attacks emanating from China have targeted US government and corporate computer networks among others, stealing government and commercial data. A US computer security firm released a report in February saying a secretive Chinese military unit is believed to be behind a wave of hacking attacks against the United States.

“China claims it is the victim of large-scale cyber attacks from the United States, though it has given few details.”

Facebook’s new mobile religion

It’s almost a year since Facebook’s disappointing IPO and it is apparent that Facebook has not only taken the limping flotation in its stride but has managed to be seen once again as an innovator and driver of change.

CNN Money analysed Facebook’s apparent change of fortunes when it comes to mobile and after apparently getting it wrong at first about the hegemony of the Android and iOS ecosystems, is back in step with its Android-based Home product and has made mobile the company’s new religion.

“Hidden among all the Silicon Valley success stories there are hundreds more companies that fail to catch the next wave and die. Zuckerberg was determined not to be among them. But to address his mobile problem, the wunderkind who had tasted enormous success so early in his career had to come to terms with failure, and he had to make sweeping structural and cultural changes at the young company – moves that often went against his instincts. Instead of going faster (virtually a religion at Facebook), mobile developers had to take a pause on new releases. Instead of doubling down on the mobile web, they had to embrace apps. And instead of trying to reach the broadest possible audience with a killer product, Facebook ultimately would have to pick one operating system to show off what it could really do in mobile.”

Yes it’s true, Google really was inspired by Star Trek

Google is trying to build the all-knowing computer that has existed in the Star Trek TV and movie franchise. Sure, why not? Hasn’t Star Trek been seen as a source of inspiration for devices like the mobile phone, videoconferencing and portable medical diagnostic technology?

Slate reported at the weekend that Google takes more inspiration from Star Trek than people realise and really is trying to build an all-knowing, universal computer.

“Google’s transformation into the Star Trek computer will take years. But it has already made huge leaps toward building such a machine. For lots of searches today, you’ll notice Google giving you more and more direct answers. Type in “tom cruise height,” for instance, and you’ll see the diminutive star’s digits at the top of the page (5 feet, 7 inches).

“Google can do this, in part, because it ‘understands’ concepts. During the last few years, the company has been compiling what it calls the Knowledge Graph, a database of hundreds of millions of real-world ‘objects.’ Before the Knowledge Graph, Google would simply have searched for ‘tom cruise height’ (and related keywords, like ‘tall’) on pages around the web. Now, the engine can accumulate direct knowledge about Tom Cruise and other notable objects. After analysing all of the information on the web, Google ‘ knows’ that Tom Cruise is a specific person, that he’s male, that he’s an actor, that he’s had three spouses, that he starred in Risky Business, and that he was born in Syracuse, NY, on July 3, 1962. When you ask Google about Tom Cruise, its brain pictures the same thing yours does – not a string of letters, but a close to fully formed picture of a quite short man.

“It’s not just celebrities that Google is getting better at understanding. It is also amassing more and more knowledge about you. Consider the Gmail ‘field trial,’ Google’s name for an opt-in experimental feature that the company unveiled a couple of months ago. It connects the search engine to your email, so you can now search for questions about your personal data. Type in ‘when’s my flight?’ and – because it has seen your itinerary in your inbox – Google can tell you when you need to leave for the airport.”

Immigrants are emerging as America’s real tech stars

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg rightly pointed out last week that America is an immigrant country and that many of its celebrated business and innovation leaders are sons and daughters of immigrants. The Economist went a step further this weekend and pointed out that many of the hottest, young start-ups in Silicon Valley and indeed across the US are in fact led and founded by newly arrived immigrants.

“Some 40pc of Fortune 500 firms were founded by immigrants or their children, according to the Partnership for a New American Economy, a pressure group. So were the firms behind seven of the 10 most valuable brands in the world. Although the foreign-born are only an eighth of America’s population, a quarter of high-tech start-ups have an immigrant founder.”

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years