The Atlantic


When Pop-Up Books Taught Popular Science

The Atlantic

Today, books with pop-up illustrations--flaps to be lifted, tabs to be pulled, and wheels to be turned--form a small niche of the book market. Mostly, pop-up books are meant to get young children interested in books and reading. Once that interest is kindled, they are discarded for more sophisticated reading material. The charm and whimsy of pop-ups might seem far removed from the dry seriousness of technical literature. But during the first three centuries of printing, from about 1450 to 1750, most pop-ups appeared in scientific books.


Alexa, Should We Trust You?

The Atlantic

To hear more feature stories, see our full list or get the Audm iPhone app. When I say "smart," I mean the speakers possess artificial intelligence, can conduct basic conversations, and are hooked up to the internet, which allows them to look stuff up and do things for you. And when I say "all," I know some readers will think, Speak for yourself! Friends my age--we're the last of the Baby Boomers--tell me they have no desire to talk to a computer or have a computer talk to them. Cynics of every age suspect their virtual assistants of eavesdropping, and not without reason.


The Newest Password Technology Is Making Your Phone Easier for Police to Search

The Atlantic

In August, 28-year-old Grant Michalski was implicated as part of a ring of men sharing images and videos of a young girl, the daughter of one of the ring's members, being sexually abused. The FBI arrived at Michalski's home with the authority to require him to unlock his iPhone X using the phone's Face ID feature. It was the first search warrant of its kind. From schools to summer camps to baseball stadiums to, of course, phones, biometric technology is everywhere. It's how we sort photos, buy beer at baseball games, and board flights.


Police-Grade Surveillance Technology Comes to the Playground

The Atlantic

As other elementary schools across the country were preparing for the new school year by cleaning classrooms and training teachers, Hermosa Elementary, in Artesia, New Mexico was also installing a network of wireless microphones that could pick up the specific concussive audio signature of gunfire. Placed high in classrooms and hallways, the golf-ball-sized devices can alert authorities to the sound and location of gunshots, reportedly within 20 seconds of firing. They can also identify make and model of guns, and automatically lock doors and sound alarms throughout the campus. They are a technological balm for a terrifying problem: In the wake of the Parkland shooting, and Sandy Hook before that, school districts across the nation are spending hundreds of thousands to outfit campuses with high-tech surveillance, crisis response, and police technologies. Playgrounds are cordoned off by biometric locks requiring face and iris scans, parking lots are scanned and license plates are recorded, gunshot-detection devices are embedded in cafeterias, human police wear body cameras, and autonomous robots patrol hallways to detect weapons.


When an AI Goes Full Jack Kerouac

The Atlantic

On March 25, 2017, a black Cadillac with a white-domed surveillance camera attached to its trunk departed Brooklyn for New Orleans. An old GPS unit was fastened atop the roof. Inside, a microphone dangled from the ceiling. Wires from all three devices fed into Ross Goodwin's Razer Blade laptop, itself hooked up to a humble receipt printer. This, Goodwin hoped, was the apparatus that was going to produce the next American road-trip novel.


Another Day, Another Facebook Problem

The Atlantic

More bad news: Facebook has announced that a security exploit allowed attackers to gain control of at least 50 million user accounts. According to the company, the exploit impacted a feature that lets users see what their profile looks like to another user. In this case, the breach doesn't appear to involve extracting data from servers. Instead, the defect--introduced by a change to the way videos get uploaded--allowed users to gain control of a user's account directly, without a password. Facebook says they have fixed the vulnerability and taken steps to protect other users who could have been impacted.


Amazon Is Invading Your Home With Micro-Convenience

The Atlantic

Almost every day I make a pot of tea. Strong, black tea, the kind you have to steep properly in a ritual that involves a kettle, a tea tin, tea lights, a tea cozy. It's a four-minute brew, so I set a timer. I used to do it on the microwave, but some time ago I just started asking Alexa, via the Amazon Echo on my kitchen counter. "Alexa, set a timer for four minutes."


A New Kind of Labor Movement in Silicon Valley

The Atlantic

In August, not long after The Intercept revealed that Google has been working with the Chinese government to launch a censored search engine, workers at Google drafted a letter demanding that their bosses stop their plans and put in place a "concrete transparency and oversight process" to avoid being blindsided in the future by projects that conflict ethically with the employees working on them. To date, according to Buzzfeed, more than 1,400 people have signed the letter. The letter is the latest evidence that tech workers are interrogating their roles in changing the world. Before this, organized white-collar tech workers' biggest success occurred in June, when Google announced it wouldn't renew its contract for the Pentagon's Project Maven, which "involved drone video footage and low-res object identification using AI." To the more than 3,100 Google workers who signed an open letter, this contract would not only "irreparably damage Google's brand" but also pivot the company into "the business of war."


Waymo's Robot Cars, and the Humans Who Tend to Them

The Atlantic

Google's self-driving corporate sibling, Waymo, is preparing to launch a commercial robotaxi service outside Phoenix. As that's happened, the focus of the program has shifted from the technical details of lasers and sensors to the operational details of how to build the system that surrounds the driverless vehicles. And although they are the defining (or at least the most charismatic) achievement of 21st-century robotics, it looks like these machines will be surrounded by scores of humans tending to their needs, resolving problems that the cars don't know they have, and mentoring them through traffic situations too confusing even for an artificial intelligence that's driven 8 million miles on the road. What humans lack in regularity, precision, and relentlessness, we (typically) make up for with manual dexterity, adaptability, and excellent visual sensors. Anywhere Waymo can't quite make things work automatically, in come the people.


Crazy/Genius Season 2: Five Radical Ideas to Save the World

The Atlantic

In the first season of Crazy/Genius, The Atlantic's podcast on tech and culture, I asked experts to help me answer some of the hardest questions I could imagine. Would the U.S. economy be better off if the government broke up Amazon? Is smartphone use a behavioral addiction? And, seriously, where are all the aliens? In our upcoming season, the focus shifts from hard questions to radical answers, featuring a ragtag cast of scientists, tinkerers, and artists: a Harvard professor who's convinced that aging is just another curable disease; the chief engineer behind the world's most advanced self-driving car technology; climate scientists who study volcanic eruptions and see a lesson for slowing global warming; a startup couple developing the future of "meat" (it chirps); a concert pianist who plays duets with an algorithm, and whose work might be the future of creativity.