The Atlantic


Behind Every Robot Is a Human

The Atlantic

Hundreds of human reviewers across the globe, from Romania to Venezuela, listen to audio clips recorded from Amazon Echo speakers, usually without owners' knowledge, Bloomberg reported last week. We knew Alexa was listening; now we know someone else is, too. This global review team fine-tunes the Amazon Echo's software by listening to clips of users asking Alexa questions or issuing commands, and then verifying whether Alexa responded appropriately. The team also annotates specific words the device struggles with when it's addressed in different accents. According to Amazon, users can opt out of the service, but they seem to be enrolled automatically.


Recruiting Women to Online Dating Was a Challenge

The Atlantic

"Abstinence ... Animal rights ... Very conservative ... Marijuana OK ... Children should be given guidelines ... Religion guides my life ... Make charitable contributions ... Would initiate hugs if I wasn't so shy ... Enjoy a good argument ... Have to-do lists that seldom get done ... Sweet food, baked goods ... Artificial or missing limbs ... Over 300 pounds ... Drag ... Exploring my orientation ... Women should pay." By the fall of 1994, Gary Kremen was working toward launching the first dating site online, Match.com. There was another four-letter word for love, he knew, and it was data, the stuff he would use to match people. No one had done this, so he had to start from scratch, drawing on instinct and his own dating experience.


Your Online-Shopping Experience Was Grown in a Lab

The Atlantic

As you scroll through a website--say, TheAtlantic.com--you're Your eyes dart from headline to headline, bypassing a few before choosing which to read. Your brow furrows at one article. Your face flushes in anger when you watch a charged video on an issue important to you. Usually, all these physical cues go nowhere other than the reflection of your computer screen.


Your Health Data Are a Gold Mine for Advertisers

The Atlantic

Hospitals across the nation are piloting voice-enabled smart speakers in patients' rooms, including Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles and Boston Children's Hospital. These institutions are hoping that smart speakers will make patients more comfortable, help staff stay organized, and, in some cases, keep people out of hospitals and emergency rooms altogether. Early results are promising, but health-care providers are still figuring how to protect privacy once smart speakers know our intimate medical details. Searching online for medical help, even for common ailments, already reveals much more than people realize. That data has proved valuable both to health officials and to big businesses.


The AI-Art Gold Rush Is Here

The Atlantic

The images are huge and square and harrowing: a form, reminiscent of a face, engulfed in fiery red-and-yellow currents; a head emerging from a cape collared with glitchy feathers, from which a shape suggestive of a hand protrudes; a heap of gold and scarlet mottles, convincing as fabric, propping up a face with grievous, angular features. These are part of "Faceless Portraits Transcending Time," an exhibition of prints recently shown at the HG Contemporary gallery in Chelsea, the epicenter of New York's contemporary-art world. All of them were created by a computer. The catalog calls the show a "collaboration between an artificial intelligence named AICAN and its creator, Dr. Ahmed Elgammal," a move meant to spotlight, and anthropomorphize, the machine-learning algorithm that did most of the work. According to HG Contemporary, it's the first solo gallery exhibit devoted to an AI artist.


How AI Will Rewire Us

The Atlantic

Fears about how robots might transform our lives have been a staple of science fiction for decades. In the 1940s, when widespread interaction between humans and artificial intelligence still seemed a distant prospect, Isaac Asimov posited his famous Three Laws of Robotics, which were intended to keep robots from hurting us. The first--"a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm"--followed from the understanding that robots would affect humans via direct interaction, for good and for ill. Think of classic sci-fi depictions: C-3PO and R2-D2 working with the Rebel Alliance to thwart the Empire in Star Wars, say, or HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey and Ava from Ex Machina plotting to murder their ostensible masters. But these imaginings were not focused on AI's broader and potentially more significant social effects--the ways AI could affect how we humans interact with one another.


The Microphones That May Be Hidden in Your Home

The Atlantic

Google apologized Wednesday to customers who purchased its Nest Secure home-security system. The device is equipped with a microphone that has gone unmentioned since it went up for sale in 2017. Earlier in February, Google announced on Twitter an upcoming software update that activated the microphone, making the Nest Guard responsive to voice commands and Google Assistant technology. The tweet startled users, who were never told the system could pick up sound. "Have I had a device with a hidden microphone in my house this entire time?" one user asked.


Waymo's Robots Drove More Miles Than Everyone Else Combined

The Atlantic

Self-driving cars promise to change cities, mint billionaires, and push robots into the everyday lives of millions of people. The only problem is, no one knows quite when or how. And with all the research and development locked up inside private companies, the public has little information to judge the progress of the technology, aside from the occasional PR reveal or disaster. We have one (imperfect) yardstick, however: the numbers that the California Department of Motor Vehicles requires that any company testing an autonomous vehicle in the state file every month. Those are rolled up and released in January of each year.


San Francisco Wants to Ban Government Face Recognition

The Atlantic

A San Francisco lawmaker is proposing what would be a nationwide first: a complete moratorium on local government use of facial-recognition technology. Introduced by San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin, the Stop Secret Surveillance Ordinance would ban all city departments from using facial-recognition technology and require board approval before departments purchase new surveillance devices. The bill regulates only local use, not use by private companies: The face-unlock feature included on the latest iPhone model, for example, would still be legal. Neighboring cities Berkeley and Oakland have passed similar rules, requiring public input and a privacy policy before officials implement new tech, but nowhere in the United States is facial recognition outright banned. Texas and Illinois require consent before collecting facial data, but don't ban the practice.


The Quiet Heroism of Mail Delivery

The Atlantic

On Wednesday, a polar vortex brought bitter cold to the Midwest. Overnight, Chicago reached a low of 21 degrees Fahrenheit below zero, making it slightly colder than Antarctica, Alaska, and the North Pole. Wind chills were 64 degrees below zero in Park Rapids, Minnesota, and 45 degrees below zero in Buffalo, North Dakota, according to the National Weather Service. Schools, restaurants, and businesses closed, and more than 1,000 flights have been canceled. Even the United States Postal Service stalled mail delivery, temporarily.