The immigration reform measure the Senate began debating yesterday would create a national biometric database of virtually every adult in the U.S., in what privacy groups fear could be the first step to a ubiquitous national identification system.
Buried in the more than 800 pages of the bipartisan legislation (.pdf) is language mandating the creation of the innocuously-named “photo tool,” a massive federal database administered by the Department of Homeland Security and containing names, ages, Social Security numbers and photographs of everyone in the country with a driver’s license or other state-issued photo ID.
Employers would be obliged to look up every new hire in the database to verify that they match their photo.
This piece of the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act is aimed at curbing employment of undocumented immigrants. But privacy advocates fear the inevitable mission creep, ending with the proof of self being required at polling places, to rent a house, buy a gun, open a bank account, acquire credit, board a plane or even attend a sporting event or log on the internet. Think of it as a government version of Foursquare, with Big Brother cataloging every check-in.
“It starts to change the relationship between the citizen and state, you do have to get permission to do things,” said Chris Calabrese, a congressional lobbyist with the American Civil Liberties Union. “More fundamentally, it could be the start of keeping a record of all things.”
For now, the legislation allows the database to be used solely for employment purposes. But historically such limitations don’t last. The Social Security card, for example, was created to track your government retirement benefits. Now you need it to purchase health insurance.
“The Social Security number itself, it’s pretty ubiquitous in your life,” Calabrese said...
Police and politicians across the United States are pointing to the example of surveillance video that was used to help identify the Boston Marathon bombing suspects as a reason to get more electronic eyes on their streets.
From Los Angeles to Philadelphia, efforts include trying to gain police access to cameras used to monitor traffic, expanding surveillance networks in some major cities and enabling officers to get regular access to security footage at businesses.
Some in law enforcement, however, acknowledge that their plans may face an age-old obstacle: Americans’ traditional reluctance to give the government more law enforcement powers out of fear that they will live in a society where there is little privacy.
“Look, we don’t want an occupied state. We want to be able to walk the good balance between freedom and security,” said Los Angeles police Deputy Chief Michael Downing, who heads the department’s counterterrorism and special operations bureau.
“If this helps prevent, deter, but also detect and create clues to who did (a crime), I guess the question is can the American public tolerate that type of security,” he said...
It's relatively easy to get something big and heavy to fly. With enough equipment, it's possible to load the object with lots of energy to power the flight, specialized parts to control it, and the computers (or people) needed to direct the flight. But things get challenging as you make things smaller, and it gets harder to squeeze all the requisite parts into an ever-shrinking space. In that, nature has us beat, since something like a fruit fly crams all the energy, control systems, and specialized hardware into an extremely compact form.
We may not be at fruit fly level yet, but researchers are giving the insects some competition. Today's issue of Science reports on miniature flying robots that aren't much bigger than a coin. The power and control are handled externally, but the tiny robots can still perform basic maneuvers, and they have enough lift to spare that they could fly under their own power for a few minutes if the right power storage were developed.
The authors are all from the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard, and they clearly find insects inspirational, noting that, despite their simple nervous systems, "flying insects are able to perform sophisticated aerodynamic feats such as deftly avoiding a striking hand." So they set out to build their own.
Simply scaling down mechanics that work for flight on larger objects wouldn't do. Scaling things down just results in too little force, or it creates a situation where surface interactions between the parts inhibit flight, as things like friction begin to dominate. Rather than taking the traditional route to get something tiny aloft—attaching it to some form of rotary engine—they returned to the fly for inspiration, making a pair of flapping wings.
On the fly, the wings work because the angle they take when moving upwards is different from the one they take when flapping down. The authors set that up so it happened passively; as the wings swept in opposite directions, the hardware at the joint where they met the robot's body forced them to rotate.
To get the wings to beat fast enough, the authors created two "muscles" made from a piezoelectric material, which changes shape when a voltage is applied. These flapped the wings at 120 beats a second. Not only is this rate similar to a fly's, but it also created a resonance in the robot's body that amplified the force of each beat. That resonant frequency was so important that the flight control system never changed it, even when it needed to change the force generated by the wing (to fly up or drop lower, for example). Instead, the force was controlled by changing how far the wing traveled with each beat...
Actors do it. Professional athletes do it. Now Bill Gates wants the country to spend $5 billion for every teacher in every classroom in every district to be filmed in action so they can be evaluated and, maybe, improve.
Among all his foundation's educational initiatives for things like smaller schools and new technology, Gates has increasingly zeroed in on effective teaching as the key lever to improve education, as he discusses in an exclusive interview in Fast Company this month.
But how do you know effective teaching when you see it? Judging teachers by their students' test scores is crude and incomplete. In a talk he gave for a TED / PBS special to be aired May 7, Gates discussed a pilot program, the Measures of Effective Teaching, with 3,000 teachers in seven districts. They reported three years of findings in January on a teaching evaluation system that combines test scores, student evaluations, and classroom assessments, where teachers are graded by impartial observers.
The idea of reevaluating how we test teachers is spreading, but remains controversial--even without the privacy issues involved in filming the classroom. "I know some teachers aren’t immediately comfortable with a camera in the classroom," Gates acknowledged, then said that could be overcome by allowing teachers to pick which lessons they want filmed--which would seem to undermine the validity of any findings.
States and districts have already spent millions of dollars overhauling teacher evaluation systems, only to have districts rating 97, 98, or 100% of teachers as "satisfactory" or better.
In his talk, Gates emphasized the idea of using this feedback system to help teachers do their job better. "We need a system that helps all our teachers be as good as the best," he said. "Our teachers deserve better feedback." He clearly wants to be seen as a friend, not an enemy, of teachers. However, the MET project, at least, has done nothing to demonstrate that these evaluations can actually help teachers improve--rather than just weed out the good from the bad...
Let’s give credit where it is due: Google is not hiding its revolutionary ambitions. As its co-founder Larry Page put it in 2004, eventually its search function “will be included in people’s brains” so that “when you think about something and don’t really know much about it, you will automatically get information”.
Science fiction? The implant is a rhetorical flourish but Mr Page’s utopian project is not a distant dream. In reality, the implant does not have be connected to our brains. We carry it in our pockets – it’s called a smartphone.
So long as Google can interpret – and predict – our intentions, Mr Page’s vision of a continuous and frictionless information supply could be fulfilled. However, to realise this vision, Google needs a wealth of data about us. Knowing what we search for helps – but so does knowing about our movements, our surroundings, our daily routines and our favourite cat videos.
Some of this information has been collected through our browsers but in a messy, disaggregated form. Back in 1996, Google didn’t set out with a strategy for world domination. Its acquisition of services such as YouTube was driven by tactics more than strategy. While it was collecting a lot of data from its many services, from email to calendar, such data were kept in separate databases – which made the implant scenario hard to accomplish.
But there is another reason, of course – and it has to do with the Grand Implant Agenda: the more Google knows about us, the easier it can make predictions about what we want – or will want in the near future. Google Now, the company’s latest offering, is meant to do just that: by tracking our every email, appointment and social networking activity, it can predict where we need to be, when, and with whom. Perhaps, it might even order a car to drive us there – the whole point is to relieve us of active decision-making. The implant future is already here – it’s just not evenly resisted.
This week, data protection authorities from six European countries showed some such resistance when they announced an effort to investigate if Google’s policy violates their national privacy laws. This announcement follows several months of consultation – preceded by a letter that EU data regulators sent to Mr Page in October – which yielded little response from Google. The letter urged the company to disclose how it processes personal data in each service and to clarify why and how it combines data that come from its multiple services...
President Obama on Tuesday outlined a government-sponsored initiative to map the human brain, casting the proposal as a way to discover new cures for neurological disease and strengthen the economy.
“Ideas are what power our economy,” Obama said as he announced the proposal from the East Room of the White House. “When we invest in the best ideas before anybody else does, our businesses and our workers can make the best products and deliver the best services before anybody else.”
The project would use about $100 million in federal money over the next fiscal year to begin a long-term effort to better understand the brain. Those funds will be included in Obama’s budget proposal, scheduled for release next week, and would be combined with annual private-sector investments of roughly an equal amount.
Obama has spoken frequently during his presidency, including in his most recent State of the Union address, about using federal money in partnership with academia and business to foster projects with broader economic and social benefits. And the Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative represents one of Obama’s most ambitious efforts to do so...
Researchers at Brown University have succeeded in creating the first wireless, implantable, rechargeable, long-term brain-computer interface. The wireless BCIs have been implanted in pigs and monkeys for over 13 months without issue, and human subjects are next.
We’ve covered BCIs extensively here on ExtremeTech, but historically they’ve been bulky and tethered to a computer. A tether limits the mobility of the patient, and also the real-world testing that can be performed by the researchers. Brown’s wireless BCI allows the subject to move freely, dramatically increasing the quantity and quality of data that can be gathered — instead of watching what happens when a monkey moves its arm, scientists can now analyze its brain activity during complex activity, such as foraging or social interaction. Obviously, once the wireless implant is approved for human testing, being able to move freely — rather than strapped to a chair in the lab — would be rather empowering.
Brown’s wireless BCI, fashioned out of hermetically sealed titanium, looks a lot like a pacemaker. Inside there’s a li-ion battery, an inductive (wireless) charging loop, a chip that digitizes the signals from your brain, and an antenna for transmitting those neural spikes to a nearby computer. The BCI is connected to a small chip with 100 electrodes protruding from it, which, in this study, was embedded in the somatosensory cortex or motor cortex. These 100 electrodes produce a lot of data, which the BCI transmits at 24Mbps over the 3.2 and 3.8GHz bands to a receiver that is one meter away. The BCI’s battery takes two hours to charge via wireless inductive charging, and then has enough juice to last for six hours of use.
One of the features that the Brown researchers seem most excited about is the device’s power consumption, which is just 100 milliwatts. For a device that might eventually find its way into humans, frugal power consumption is a key factor that will enable all-day, highly mobile usage. Amusingly, though, the research paper notes that the wireless charging does cause significant warming of the device, which was “mitigated by liquid cooling the area with chilled water during the recharge process and did not notably affect the animal’s comfort.” Another important factor is that the researchers were able to extract high-quality, “rich” neural signals from the wireless implant — a good indicator that it will also help human neuroscience, if and when the device is approved...