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.”

Advances in genetic technologies mean that it could soon be possible to de-extinct our closest relative. But even if we can, does that mean we should? We investigate

45,000 years ago our species was not alone on this planet. Alongside us, Homo sapiens, was a second member of our genus, Homo neanderthalensis, with its own tools, society and cultural practices.

At one time it is thought that there were around 70,000 Neanderthals living on Earth, mainly in what we now know as Europe and southwest and central Asia. How much our species interacted with this sapient cousin is not fully known, but there was certainly some interbreeding: while Neanderthals are long deceased, their DNA lives on in many Europeans and Asians.

But now, with the advances of genetic technologies, Neanderthals could return. Recent advances of gene editing tools such as CRISPR, as well as the sequencing of DNA taken from the bone of a female Neanderthal who is thought to have walked the Earth some 50,000-100,000 years ago, mean that what was once pure science fiction could soon become a reality.

Legendary geneticist George Church, the Robert Winthrop Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School who is currently spearheading the project to de-extinct the woolly mammoth, has said that he thinks the de-extinction of Neanderthals will occur in his lifetime.

“The reason I would consider it a possibility is that a bunch of technologies are developing faster than ever before,” he told Spiegel Online in 2013. “In particular, reading and writing DNA is now about a million times faster than seven or eight years ago. Another technology that the de-extinction of a Neanderthal would require is human cloning.

“We can clone all kinds of mammals, so it’s very likely that we could clone a human. Why shouldn’t we be able to do so?”

Bringing Neanderthals back from the dead

When we consider de-extincting Neanderthals, it is important to note that we would not be bringing back a precise, perfect copy of the Neanderthals that lived on Earth up until their extinction some 40,000 years ago.

As Douglas McCauley, assistant professor in the University of California Santa Barbara’s Department of Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology, explains, the question of whether we can bring Neanderthals back from extinction “depends upon how much of a purist you are about the definition of Neanderthal”.

I expect we will be more interested in engineering bigger brains than bigger brow ridges

In the simplest terms, any scientists who set out to de-extinct Neanderthals will do so by cobbling together modern human and extinct Neanderthal DNA.

“The technique that many de-extinction scientists are now using to bring back extinct species is to sequence the genome of the dead species – line it up next to the genome of the nearest living relative – then use CRISPR gene editing techniques to modify elements of the genome of the living relative to approximate elements of the genome of the dead species,” explains McCauley.

This is the approach being taken by the Harvard team currently attempting to de-extinct the woolly mammoth.

“Here they are using the genome of the extinct woolly mammoth and the genome of a living Asian elephant. The goal, however, isn’t to bring back a perfect replica of the woolly mammoth. A success would be to genetically engineer a hairy, cold-tolerant Asian elephant.

“This would also remain the same strategy for any group attempting to bring back a Neanderthal. Again, this would be more like engineering increased Neanderthal-ness into the human genome – not like cranking out a carbon copy of a Neanderthal.”

This approach should be technically possible for Neanderthals in the near future. But, as McCauley explains, that doesn’t mean it will actually happen.

“Technically engineering more Neanderthal into the human genome will indeed be possible very soon,” he says. “Practically, I don’t really see this happening. People will most certainly use CRISPR and next-generation gene editing techniques to edit the human genome – but I think this is much more likely to be tuning humans up, rather than tuning down.

“I expect we will be more interested in engineering bigger brains than bigger brow ridges.”

Criteria for de-extinction

De-extinction is, in general, a topic that is set to be the subject of ever-greater discussion in the coming years, as hypothetical concepts become scientific reality.

“It is on the precipice of moving from a crazy idea we once mused about over coffee, to a real possibility we can actually make happen in the lab. From science fiction to real science,” summarises McCauley.

However, with such abilities come significant moral questions. De-extinction could be a vital tool for conservation, but it could also be used to produce creatures that are more reminiscent of science fiction horror stories than of scientific value.

As a result, efforts are already being made to build a moral framework within which de-extinction scientists can work. As part of this, McCauley authored a paper along with several colleagues that recommended using three specific criteria for the selection of candidates for the de-extinction process.

“I am a conservation biologist and an ecologist. The three criteria we issued were created from that vantage point: what species would we bring back if we genuinely wanted de-extinction to combat the ecological crisis being created by the ongoing human-driven mass extinction?” he explains.

“We suggested recovering species that: 1) performed ecological jobs that were highly unique and were not replicated by other surviving species; 2) recent extinctions for which the technological and ecological barriers for recovery and restoration were lower; and 3) species that we could meaningfully recover to historic levels of abundance.”

If following this approach, scientists would therefore favour species to de-extinct that could not only fulfil a role in the ecosystem that another species had not taken over, but were likely made extinct fairly recently and would survive and flourish in the current environment. And under these criteria, Neanderthals would be a poor choice.

“Neanderthals most importantly fail the first test,” explains McCauley. “Their ecology is very similar to another species that survived and thrived – our own.

“To put it bluntly, from a conversation biologists point of view: the last thing our planet needs right now is more hungry Hominids.”

Neanderthal revival: the moral issue

This is not to say, as some have suggested, that Neanderthals would pose any particular threat to modern humans.

“Quite the opposite,” argues McCauley. “The greatest challenge would be keeping de-extincted Neanderthals alive and safe from us, not worrying about them taking over.”

As these newly engineered Neanderthals would not be true replicas of their past equivalents, they would be likely to suffer from genetic issues, as well as being potentially highly ill-suited to the human-occupied modern world.

There are likely to be a host of developmental issues associated with looking after imperfectly genetically re-engineered Neanderthals

“There are likely to be a host of developmental issues associated with looking after imperfectly genetically re-engineered Neanderthals (e.g. birth defects), they are likely to be quite susceptible to modern disease, and it is unclear what habitats they would slot back into,” he adds. “Our species has taken over all of the once prime habitat of Neanderthals.”

Then there is the matter of Neanderthals’ original demise; something that could easily play out again if we were to bring back a group of the species. It’s hard to see the scientific value of de-extincting a species that would be at high risk of quickly becoming extinct again.

“It is important to remember that we likely played an important role in the original extinction of Neanderthals,” explains McCauley. “We competed heavily with them for food and homes and we may have given them lethal diseases. Reviving Neanderthals might simply be an act of recreating history.”

Value in de-extinction

For McCauley, there is currently no circumstance under which bringing back Neanderthals would be a good idea. But that does not mean that de-extinction as a wider practice does not have value – in fact, it could offer significant benefits, provided we select the right species to focus on.

“There is a very long list of other species that I think would be smarter to bring back before we started in on Neanderthals,” he says.

“As an ecologist that looks out at a world with species being driven extinct in all directions around us, I am all ears for smart new conservation tools.

“The challenge here will be carefully selecting targets that meaningfully help the planet, not using this new-found power to create oddities for zoos or bio-bazaar.”

School will use facial analysis to identify students who are dozing off

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Source: The Verge

Company offers free training for coal miners to become wind farmers

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Source: Quartz

Google AI defeats human Go champion

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Source: BBC

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Source: Bloomberg

The brain starts to eat itself after chronic sleep deprivation

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Source: New Scientist

"We can still act and it won’t be too late," says Obama

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Source: The Guardian