2017 will give us unprecedented information about the world around us. But can privacy survive the future?

In a world of increased connectivity, where our presence and behaviour is increasingly being tracked by the technology we use, is there a place for privacy? We hear from Scobleizer’s Robert Scoble, author, blogger and VR and mixed reality evangelist, and Salil Shetty, secretary-general of Amnesty International, about whether there’s space to hide as the technologies of 2017 provide us with ever-more data about the world around us

From 2017, according to technology evangelist Robert Scoble, we are going to see technologies that give us unprecedented information about the world around us, including the people in it.

“The next iPhone is going to be a clear iPhone with a 3D sensor that is so sensitive that it can see your heart beating from about 3ft away,” said Scoble, CEO of Scobleizer, at a debate at Web Summit, during which he spent the entire time wearing a Microsoft Hololens. “It’s so sensitive it can see how hard you’re touching on a desk and it can see the fibres on a jacket from 3ft away so it can check its authenticity from that distance.

“It’s the same technology that is going to be running our self-driving cars, or a very similar technology, and is already being used at Qualcomm in drones to see the world. We are heading into a mixed reality world; one where things like this Microsoft Hololens are going to be very commonplace.”

In a world where the digital seems to be stripping away our privacy at every turn, however, this may not be the best news.

“The world we’re about to enter is going to bring us huge new increases in functionality and features, and they do come with a scary price: I will know a lot about you. Soon,” said Scoble with glee.

Value of technology’s utility

In reality, any technologies that do infringe further on our privacy will likely be accepted, Scoble argues, because they will provide us with knowledge and abilities that will enrich our lives.

“The utility of all these technologies that are coming are going to be extraordinary,” he said. “They’re going to save my kid’s life from killing himself in a car; they’re going to make it easy for me to walk into a shopping mall and find the blue jeans; it’s going to let me play new kinds of video games with my kids in virtual reality, augmented reality.”

Image courtesy of Web Summit

He gave the example of a scenario familiar to many convention regulars: where you are in the presence of a person you know is important, but you can’t work out who they are. This situation was experienced by Scoble himself when he was talking to Peter Piot at the World Economic Forum earlier this year.

“He had a badge on so I knew his name – I knew he worked for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – but I couldn’t get on my phone because I couldn’t get Wi-Fi, and I couldn’t figure out who he was,” he said.

In this instance, it was obvious to Scoble that Piot was extremely important, but not why.

“I did know he was highly technical because of how he was talking to people, and I knew he was a god among people because everybody was genuflecting, so I knew he was important in some way but I couldn’t figure out how.”

In the future, Scoble said, this problem would be resolved, because mixed reality glasses would provide the wearer with pertinent information pulled from the web about those around them.

“Soon I’m going to have glasses with LinkedIn right here that’s going to tell me who he is,” he said, pointing to his eyes. “The first line on LinkedIn is going to say he discovered the Ebola virus. I wish I had known that when I was talking to him!”

Protecting privacy

As exciting as this technology is, in this increasingly connected reality we do, however, need to maintain a certain level of personal privacy. Salil Shetty, secretary-general of Amnesty International, was keen to remind the assembled crowd of developers, investors and tech enthusiasts of the importance of something we often blindly take for granted.

“Privacy in a sense is being used as shorthand for human rights now because privacy is a key enabler for freedom of expression, freedom of speech and many other key human rights,” he said.

Privacy is a key enabler for freedom of expression, freedom of speech

“Every day of the week that governments are using the same power of digital technology to crack down on dissent, on freedom of expression, on our position and it’s very different if you’re having this conversation in mature democracies, say like the United States, but Amnesty’s work, a lot of it, is in places like Ethiopia, Egypt, Vietnam, China.

“If you’re raising your voice against the government in any of these places and you do not have the privilege of privacy, you’re dead meat.”

He gave the example of the Malaysian cartoonist Zunar who, according to Shetty “had 11 sedition charges against him, one each tweet”.

“Journalists in Mexico are being hounded because of what they do,” he added. “If you want to meet journalists in Turkey right now where would you go? You go to jail, that’s where they are. And a lot of this is happening because of exposure online. Women, minorities, LGBT activists, all being hounded.”

Technology: the cause and solution

However, although technology can expose people to human rights abuses, and any technology that is developed has the potential to increase this, Shetty believes technology can also provide the answer to this problem.

“It’s not a question in my view as to whether it’s privacy or human rights, technology or human rights. I think the question is can we make it technology for human rights? How do we make it work for human rights?” he queried the 15,000-strong crowd of attendees.

Amnesty International secretary-general Salil Shetty. Image and featured image courtesy of Amnesty International

“I personally believe that in some ways digital technology’s expansion has done more for making people aware of what their human rights are and bringing to them the capability of claiming their human rights, and holding governments and companies accountable for their human rights violations.”

But using technology to protect privacy does also mean needing one rule for everyone, no matter who they are, according to the Amnesty secretary-general.

“We’ve had many battles with Apple. We’re having one right now about the potential use of child labour in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the production of lithium batteries, which are in every single device,” he said. “But on [encryption] they are right. There is no backdoor only for good guys.

“You have a backdoor, you have a backdoor everyone is going to enter from there. And so on the FBI case I think Apple has absolutely taken the right stand and we were very much with them on this.”

Old rules, new reality

While government surveillance can be fought against by maintaining strict encryption, the everyday creep that new mixed-reality devices are set to provide is harder to counter.

For Scoble, the answer lies is the existing laws we have, which can be reapplied to the new abilities technology has given us.

Privacy is a key enabler for freedom of expression, freedom of speech

“In journalism school we learned about the difference between public and private, and a lot of these rules still will apply in this 3D world,” he said. “We’re heading to a world where the old rules still have some value to talk about, right? In a public street I have the permission to take a picture of you, which actually helps with human rights because if you’re getting shot by the cops you might want that picture of you to be displayed to the world.”

In spaces such as your own home, there is an expectation of privacy, meaning tighter rules already apply.

“The rules change from the publicness of the public street to: where are you in your own private world, did you have expectations of privacy? Did you close the drapes so nobody could take a picture of you inside?” said Scoble. “The more things you do like that, in a court of law you will have more of an expectation of privacy to show the judge that hey, somebody was breaking the rules when they took a drone into my window.”

“The principles are the same,” agreed Shetty. “So when it comes to individuals we would go for maximum privacy, but when it comes to things which are of public interest we go for maximum transparency.”

However, there are times when new technologies will be required to assist with the protection of this privacy.

“This 3D sensor on your glasses is also going to be able to capture you in a locker room, or somewhere inappropriate, and we have to have technology that turns the glasses off because a lot of us are going to forget we have them on,” said Scoble.

“Particularly when we get to contact lenses in 10 or 15 years, we’re going to forget we have them on and we’re not going to take them off just to go into a restroom, right?

“But they’re going to be capturing stuff about what’s going on in those places, so we need new kinds of technology to block it, because I’m not going to be one of the guys who are going to say we have the right to capture something in the bathroom in 3D when you walk in. No.”

Soviet report detailing lunar rover Lunokhod-2 released for first time

Russian space agency Roskosmos has released an unprecedented scientific report into the lunar rover Lunokhod-2 for the first time, revealing previously unknown details about the rover and how it was controlled back on Earth.

The report, written entirely in Russian, was originally penned in 1973 following the Lunokhod-2 mission, which was embarked upon in January of the same year. It had remained accessible to only a handful of experts at the space agency prior to its release today, to mark the 45th anniversary of the mission.

Bearing the names of some 55 engineers and scientists, the report details the systems that were used to both remotely control the lunar rover from a base on Earth, and capture images and data about the Moon’s surface and Lunokhod-2’s place on it. This information, and in particularly the carefully documented issues and solutions that the report carries, went on to be used in many later unmanned missions to other parts of the solar system.

As a result, it provides a unique insight into this era of space exploration and the technical challenges that scientists faced, such as the low-frame television system that functioned as the ‘eyes’ of the Earth-based rover operators.

A NASA depiction of the Lunokhod mission. Above: an image of the rover, courtesy of NASA, overlaid onto a panorama of the Moon taken by Lunokhod-2, courtesy of Ruslan Kasmin.

One detail that main be of particular interest to space enthusiasts and experts is the operation of a unique system called Seismas, which was tested for the first time in the world during the mission.

Designed to determine the precise location of the rover at any given time, the system involved transmitting information over lasers from ground-based telescopes, which was received by a photodetector onboard the lunar rover. When the laser was detected, this triggered the emission of a radio signal back to the Earth, which provided the rover’s coordinates.

Other details, while technical, also give some insight into the culture of the mission, such as the careful work to eliminate issues in the long-range radio communication system. One issue, for example, was worked on with such thoroughness that it resulted in one of the devices using more resources than it was allocated, a problem that was outlined in the report.

The document also provides insight into on-Earth technological capabilities of the time. While it is mostly typed, certain mathematical symbols have had to be written in by hand, and the report also features a number of diagrams and graphs that have been painstakingly hand-drawn.

A hand-drawn graph from the report, showing temperature changes during one of the monitoring sessions during the mission

Lunokhod-2 was the second of two unmanned lunar rovers to be landed on the Moon by the Soviet Union within the Lunokhod programme, having been delivered via a soft landing by the unmanned Luna 21 spacecraft in January 1973.

In operation between January and June of that year, the robot covered a distance of 39km, meaning it still holds the lunar distance record to this day.

One of only four rovers to be deployed on the lunar surface, Lunokhod-2 was the last rover to visit the Moon until December 2013, when Chinese lunar rover Yutu made its maiden visit.

Robot takes first steps towards building artificial lifeforms

A robot equipped with sophisticated AI has successfully simulated the creation of artificial lifeforms, in a key first step towards the eventual goal of creating true artificial life.

The robot, which was developed by scientists at the University of Glasgow, was able to model the creation of artificial lifeforms using unstable oil-in-water droplets. These droplets effectively played the role of living cells, demonstrating the potential of future research to develop living cells based on building blocks that cannot be found in nature.

Significantly, the robot also successfully predicted their properties before they were created, even though this could not be achieved using conventional physical models.

The robot, which was designed by Glasgow University’s Regius Chair of Chemistry, Professor Lee Cronin, is driven by machine learning and the principles of evolution.

It has been developed to autonomously create oil-in-water droplets with a host of different chemical makeups and then use image recognition to assess their behaviour.

Using this information, the robot was able to engineer droplets to have different properties­. Those which were found to be desirable could then be recreated at any time, using a specific digital code.

“This work is exciting as it shows that we are able to use machine learning and a novel robotic platform to understand the system in ways that cannot be done using conventional laboratory methods, including the discovery of ‘swarm’ like group behaviour of the droplets, akin to flocking birds,” said Cronin.

“Achieving lifelike behaviours such as this are important in our mission to make new lifeforms, and these droplets may be considered ‘protocells’ – simplified models of living cells.”

One of the oil droplets created by the robot

The research, which is published today in the journal PNAS, is one of several research projects being undertaken by Cronin and his team within the field of artificial lifeforms.

While the overarching goal is moving towards the creation of lifeforms using new and unprecedented building blocks, the research may also have more immediate potential applications.

The team believes that their work could also have applications in several practical areas, including the development of new methods for drug delivery or even innovative materials with functional properties.