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On Homelessness

Photo by Quaz Amir
It started yesterday, after work as I left my building, I saw them walking. A couple, hauling their belongings in a few neatly stacked boxes that looked like tackle boxes tied to a small luggage cart. The man had crossed the street, along with his dog who stayed faithfully by his side. An older woman was stuck at the intersection waiting for cars to stop. Before long, the cars did stop, she joined her partner, and I didn't spend much more time thinking about them that day.

At my job today, I had a great morning. A coworker gave me a great idea for a quick but useful project, which I was able to finish before noon. I feel I am at my best when I am able to be productive. It gives me a sense of purpose for lack of a better word. Feeling good about myself, I set out to buy myself a hamburger for lunch and skip the more healthy option that I brought from home.

I drove the short distance to the hamburger joint, the epitome of laziness. As I drove up, I saw the same co…

The Scope Of Big Data

Photo by koon boh Goh
Combining massive data warehouses, powerful supercomputers, and a global computing network infrastructure,  big data delivers a more tailored experience as we migrate ever more of our lives onto the internet. Big data is what adds value to connected our lives; data is fed to algorithms which in turn make an increasing amount of decisions on our behalf. But at what cost does this freedom from decision come?

It is common knowledge that Facebook extracts a fee from its users, but this fee is paid in data rather than in dollars. Despite overwhelming abuse of the use of customer data, people continue using the social networking behemoth. Recently, Facebook entered into negotiations with the FTC regarding a multi-billion dollar fine over its conditions for the company. These negotiations follow Facebook another multi-billion dollar fine in Europe. Facebook usage has not declined because it provides value to its users. Value is, of course, a subjective term but the cons…

Operator Overload

Photo by Oliver Sjostrom
Life has changed dramatically since the start of the personal computer revolution in the late 1970s. We have seen computing go from the realm of military to industry, then to the home and now to the pocket of our pants. Connected computers have followed the same path, as the Internet has forever changed the landscape of computing, including how people interact with it. Along the way, we've seen computing go from being rather anti-social to being a completely mainstream component of popular culture.

Let's pause for a moment and examine how technology migrated into being chic. In the late 1970s there was a lot of optimism around what computing technology could someday do for us and while many people were eager to learn, that number was still small. Computers were essentially souped up calculators and most people weren't eager to learn an arcane programming language or spend their free time noodling around with calculations.

One pivotal use case for t…

An Algorithmic Life

Photo by sk
Data is the most valuable commodity of the 21st century. Algorithms are what transform data into information. Algorithms have become like a trusted friend whose recommendations we seek, and that we adhere to. Perhaps what isn't known is how these pieces of code are able to derive such useful information for us, which is the part of algorithms that are unseen to many. An algorithm is ultimately only as good as the data that is fed into it, and we are all feeding vast amounts of data into code we did not author, that we don't control, and that is only visible to us in its outputs.

The convenience provided by algorithms is certainly welcome, but according to a recent Pew Research Center report, the public doesn't have such a welcoming opinion of them when used for decisions that can be life-changing. Algorithms represent far more than recommendations on which media to consume. There is an innate desire for humanity in decisions that could dictate, for example, whe…

The Growing Disruption Of Artificial Intelligence

Photo by Frank Wang
Artificial intelligence may be as disruptive as the computers used to create it once were, and it could be even bigger. Given the disruption that social media has proven to be, one has to wonder if we are fully prepared for the life altering consequences we are building for ourselves.

IBM has been a key player in the artificial intelligence arena for over two decades. Deep Blue was their first tour de force in 1997, when its team of developers received $100,000 for defeating chess champion Gary Kasparov in a game of chess. That watershed moment has its roots all the way back in 1981 when researchers at Bell Labs developed a machine that achieved Master status in chess, for which they were awarded $5000. In 1988, researchers at Carnegie Melon University were awarded $10,000 for creating a machine that achieved international master status at chess. Deep Blue, however, was the first machine to beat the world chess champion.

Google has entered the fray as well, with th…

Information Dissemination In An Open Society

Information derives a large part of its value in its timeliness. Democracy dies in darkness, because transparency of government is essential for it. When these two principles collide, things get messy, as they have with Waze and the NYPD. Google, owner of Waze, was recently notified by the NYPD with a demand that they remove a feature from Waze that alerts drivers of DUI and speeding checkpoints. Here our democratic principles are colliding, whereby timely information is being communicated about the government operations which is effectively being used to undermine it.

Police departments generate a lot of revenue from DUI and speeding convictions. This revenue sustains law enforcement in other crime fighting activities which generate little, if any, cash flow for police. Yet the NYPD is not framing the issue in this way. DUI checkpoint and speed trap data is posted to Waze by a method called crowdsourcing. If someone sees a DUI checkpoint or speed trap, they use Waze on their smartph…

Law enforcement and DNA sequencing

DNA sequencing has risen in popularity in recent years to to the widespread availability of affordable testing kits. Obviously people are opting into participation by uploading their DNA data, in great numbers, but do they fully know how that data will be used?

The Golden State Killer, who terrorized California from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, was recently apprehended by working with a lesser known testing company, Family Tree DNA. Their kits are smaller and so is their database, but their database has an big advantage. The company boasts that it has the largest database Y-DNA database in the world. Y-DNA is very useful in tracing patrilineal ancestry, which is essentially data on who you are related to. This data is how the Golden State Killer was caught. Because some of his relatives had willingly participated in DNA kit testing, law enforcement was able to triangulate his identity.

Use of these databases by law enforcement is a new but already rapidly growing phenomenon. Gene …