The Hub Cool News

Thing Explainer

thing-explainerA new book explains “complicated stuff in simple words,” reports Alexandra Alter in The New York Times (11/23/15). The book, by Randall Munroe, is called Thing Explainer, and it follows his previous best-seller, What If? Randall is famous for raising — and answering — questions like: “how many model-rocket engines would it take to launch a real rocket into space (65,000, give or take).” His new book “consists of annotated blueprints with deceptively spare language, explaining the mechanics behind concepts like data centers, smartphones, tectonic plates, nuclear reactors and the electromagnetic spectrum.”

To do this, he “limited himself to the 1,000 most commonly used words in the English language. This barred him from using words like helium and uranium, a challenge when describing how a rocket ship or reactor works.” Randall says this is fun “because it forces you to think about it some more.” Randall is “a former NASA roboticist” who got the idea for this book three years ago as a cartoonist after taking a blueprint of a Saturn V rocket and “labeling boosters as the spot where ‘lots of fire comes out’ and the oxygen chambers as a place with ‘cold air for burning and breathing.'” His history as a cartoonist goes back ten years, “while still in college.”

“In 2005 … he started posting his droll stick-figure comics on his website, First, they circulated among his friends. Then, other bloggers took notice and traffic boomed. When his NASA contract expired in 2006, he decided to pursue his cartooning hobby full time … He published a collection of his comics through a small press in 2010, and sold more than 100,000 copies.” Randall’s fan base has now “expanded far beyond … computer programmers and physics graduate students to mainstream readers,” reflecting “a broader cultural shift that has occurred as science and technology increasingly saturate our lives.”

Uber Ideas

gigwalkUberfication is wending its way into traditional companies, reports Christopher Mims in The Wall Street Journal (11/16/15). For example, at Crossmark, an in-store merchandising company, full-time employees use an app developed by Gigwalk to streamline their reports. Gigwalk was designed, in true Uber fashion, as a way to help companies manage freelancers to do similar work. That didn’t work so well, because it’s critical that store managers know and can trust the merchandisers — a requirement that’s difficult to fulfill with “rotating cast of freelancers.”

“One of the things I rely on in the stores I go to is relationships,” says Jarrel Gainer, who “builds those eye-catching stacks of Huggies or pyramids of canned soup that sit at the ends of grocery-store aisles” at Walmart stores. “They know when I start and finish the job it’s going to look good and they’re not going to have to question why I did it this way or that way.” So, rather than putting Crossmark out of business, Gigwalk is helping it move into the 21st century by “upgrading its information-technology infrastructure … It is as if Uber had decided to sell its technology to taxi companies instead of driving them into oblivion.”

Gigwalk is also re-balancing work and life for people like Jarrel, who used to spend “two hours a day on paperwork and data entry alone … At the end of the day, he would have to manually enter all he had done into a website on his personal computer at home.” With Gigwalk’s mobile app, “he does essentially all his work on a smartphone,” saving about two hours each day … “his longest workday is now 4-6 hours.” “The concept of the nine-to-five workweek is an anomaly of the 20th century, a product of mass production,” says Gigwalk CEO David Hale, suggesting that this is “just the beginning” of a new era of workforce management.

Big Pot

leaflyTechnology startups are meeting “the growing needs” of the marijuana industry, reports Elizabeth Dwoskin in The Wall Street Journal (11/18/15). “In the cannabis industry, there are a lot of people who lose track of a lot of things,” says Nic Hernandez of La Conte’s Clone Bar and Dispensary in Denver. Nic uses an app called Flowhub to “keep his operation straight.” Flowhub “helps growers optimize factors like planting schedules, soil nutrients, and lightbulb replacement.” Other apps include Eaze, which “connects users of medical marijuana with cannabis dispensaries throughout California.”

Potbotics Inc. matches medical research with queries from doctors and patients. Leafly Holdings Inc., an aspiring Yelp for hemp, harvests customer reviews of dispensaries and perceptions of the efficacy of particular strains for ailments from bipolar disorder to multiple sclerosis.” Big data meanwhile “offers pot growers, dealers, and customers the kind of bird’s-eye business perspective that mainstream industries have come to depend on.” When recreational use was legalized in Oregon, Leafly “found that clicks from Oregonians over 65 years old rose 835% compared with the previous year when pot use was strictly medical.”

Leafly was able to identify which varietals were most preferred. “You couldn’t collect this information previously because all the transactions and purchases were conducted in the shadows via an illicit market,” says Brendan Kennedy, CEO of Privateer Holdings, which “owns three pot businesses.” Legalized pot is growing like a weed, “expected to expand by nearly 86% on top of a 74% jump to $2.7 billion in 2014,” according to The ArcView Group. While some venture capitalists are jumping on board, mainstream companies like IBM and Salesforce have neither confirmed nor denied that they have any cannabis companies as customers.

The Technium

evolution-everythingTechnology qualifies as a living, evolving organism, complete with an urge to reproduce, reports Matt Ridley, author of The Evolution of Everything, in The Wall Street Journal (10/24/15). This idea comes from a Stanford economist, Brian Arthur, who says technology is a living thing in the same sense as a coral reef. Neither can exist without other life — animals or people — although at some point technology may have the ability to build and maintain itself. As it is, much of the Internet “originates in programs … rather than in people” and it “is already virtually impossible to turn the Internet off.” Kevin Kelly, a science writer, actually has a name for “the evolving organism that our collective machinery comprises”: the technium.

The implications of technology “as an autonomous, evolving entity that continues to progress whoever is in charge are startling. People are pawns in the process. We ride rather than drive the innovation wave. Technology will find its inventors, rather than vice versa.” There is “no stopping technology” and it many not be possible to steer it, either. Kevin says that “the technium wants what evolution began,” and its evolution is spontaneous. In many ways this is nothing new. Some 23 people invented “some version of the incandescent lightbulb before Edison,” for example, and “Elisha Gray and Alexander Graham Bell filed for a patent on the very same day.” Scores of search engines preceded Google.

The thermometer had six inventors, the hypodermic needle had three, “four of vaccination, five of the electric telegraph, four of photography, five of the steamboat, six of the electric railroad.” This suggests the notion “that science drives innovation” is backwards, that in fact “scientific breakthroughs are the effect, not the cause of technological change.” Technological advances have been driven by those “who tinkered until they had better machines; abstract scientific rumination is the last thing they do … The steam engine,” for example, “owed almost nothing to the science of thermodynamics, but the science of thermodynamics owed almost everything to the steam engine.”


eatsaA new restaurant in San Francisco “is almost fully automated,” reports Claire Cain Miller in The New York Times (9/9/15). Eatsa, which specializes in quinoa dishes, has “no waiters or even an order taker behind a counter. There is no counter. There are unseen people helping to prepare the food, but there are plans to fully automate that process, too, if it can be done less expensively than employing people.” Patrons first browse the menu on flat-screen monitors, place and pay for their orders via iPad, and then pick up their food at a “cubby” where food is deposited behind a blank screen that opens when tapped.

“Technology allows us to completely re-think how people get their food,” says Eatsa founder David Friedberg, a software engineer. While automated eateries are nothing new — Horn & Hardart automats, for instance — “Eatsa goes well beyond that by using software and supply-chain innovation to fundamentally change how a restaurant runs.” Andrew McAfee of MIT and co-author of The Second Machine Age, thinks Eatsa is of the future. “I think for a lot of the meals I’m going to want to eat out in five years, if I don’t deal with a person, that’s not going to be a net negative for me at all,” he says.

David says the point is not to eliminate people, however. The idea is rather to “open a fast-food restaurant that aimed to be faster, tastier and less expensive.” He settled on quinoa because, he says, it’s “a much more efficient way to deliver protein to people than animal protein.” Critics say the concept is a jobs killer, but David sees only growth potential. “The reality is the economic growth from new technology has always resulted in new economic activity and job descriptions,” he says. These might include “building automated machines and software systems — or growing quinoa.” While currently just one restaurant, Eatsa has “national ambitions.”

Din Din

meyer-soundHigh technology is changing restaurant acoustics, reports Jeff Gordinier in The New York Times (9/9/15). Meyer Sound “has developed a system called Constellation in which tiny microphones and speakers are placed throughout a restaurant and piped into a computer so that noise levels can be monitored and adjusted automatically.” Constellation “is rooted in game technology” and isolates each table “as its own little audio zone … a restaurant manager can choose to muffle, tweak or open up the sonic experience with a few taps on a smartphone.” The sonic comfort it creates is said to be good for business.

Constellation can “cost anywhere from the high five figures to a half a million dollars,” but it does tend to entice “diners to stay longer, drink more and spend extra money.” Noise levels at restaurants is particularly at issue with older diners who want to be able to hear and be heard. “People dine out to socialize,” says Sabato Sagaria of Union Square Hospitality Group. However, “many of New York City’s signature restaurants of the last decade or so,” such as The Spotted Pig, “have been famous, even notorious, for catering to a different mode of socializing.” The premise is that the noisier the joint, the more happening it is. This can have its limits, of course.

Some eateries instead seek “to create self-enclosed huddles of talk at each table without losing the low rumble of activity that makes a place feel alive.” Architect Louis Yoh says the key is “to approach the space like it’s a speaker … You want to amplify the good noise and reduce the bad noise.” Basically, you want more bass and less treble. Louis has designed home studios for hip-hop artists, so he knows about such things.”You want the bounce in the back,” says Louis, who achieved the desired effect at Houseman in SoHo “by mounting linen-covered panels on the ceiling over most of the center of the room.”


polotechA $295 Ralph Lauren T-Shirt is designed to be the sportscar of apparel, reports Ray A. Smith in The Wall Street Journal (8/20/15). “This is our Porsche 918, our ultimate shirt that is going to halo Polo Sport,” says David Lauren, evp of global advertising, marketing and corporate communications for Ralph Lauren Corp. The PoloTech shirt, says David, is the first smart shirt from a “major luxury fashion brand,” following those introduced by “big sports brands like Adidas or smaller, niche performance brands.” The PoloTech is “embedded with sensors that read vital signs like breathing and heart rates, stress levels and calories burned.”

The PoloTech is a collaboration “with OMsignal, a Montreal-based maker of wearable-technology products. The compression shirt made its debut last year at the US Open tennis tournament worn by several ball boys and during practice by player Marcos Giron but wasn’t available to the public.” The shirt “will go on sale August 27 at the company’s one-year-old Polo flagship store on New York’s Fifth Avenue, Ralph Lauren’s website and a Ralph Lauren store at the US Open, which runs from Aug. 31 to Sept. 13.” It features “silver fibers that track a range of vital statistics and stream them” to a free app “via a snap-on module.”

Additional sensors are “knitted into a band across the chest” that “read biological and psychological input.” The app “reacts and sets cardio, strength of agility workouts based on those data,” and adjusts the intensity of the workout accordingly. The shirt is machine washable so long as the tracking module is removed first. David Lauren says the PoloTech shirt is just the first of more garments to come. “We are setting up divisions within Ralph Lauren to focus on developing all kinds of products across all of our brands,” he says. The brand may line-extend into “ties, polo shirts and suits.”


nextdoorThe American concept of “neighbors” is in decline, reports Linda Poon in CityLab (8/19/15). According to a data analysis by economist Joe Cortright, “only about 20 percent of Americans spend time regularly with the people living next to them.” One-third say “they’ve never interacted with their neighbors. That’s a significant decline from four decades ago, when a third of Americans hung out with their neighbors at least twice a week, and only a quarter reported no interaction at all.” Another study, by Pew Research Center, finds that “nearly a third” of Americans do not know any of their neighbors by name.

“There used to be this necessity to reach out and build bonds with people who lived nearby,” says Marc Dunkelman of Brown University, author of The Vanishing Neighbor. That necessity was largely driven by external threats like the Great Depression and the Cuban Missile Crisis. “There was this sort of cohort effect, in which people … were more inclined in many cases to find security that existed in neighborhoods … They depended on each other much more.” These days, Americans “have limited social capital — time and attention — and more ways to spend it,” particularly via online technologies.

The design of cities and neighborhoods are other contributing factors, with more people migrating from city centers to “sprawling communities, where people are living further from one another,” says Joe. Communities are now gated, and spaces that used to bring people together, “like pools and gyms, have gone private.” Perhaps ironically, “a social networking site called Nextdoor” seeks to address this by connecting neighbors to “discuss community issues, ask for local recommendations, or even organize events.” So far, Nextdoor has created online communities “in more than 70,000 neighborhoods across the country.”

Outdoor Eyeballs

ocean-outdoorGiant, eye-shaped billboards in Britain will actually be looking at passersby, reports Charlie Wells in The Wall Street Journal (8/11/15). The billboards, via Ocean Outdoor UK, will be placed starting in September at a train station in Birmingham. They will house cameras that “will capture images of people at the station and beam those back to computers, which will analyze characteristics like gender and age. That will help create ads displayed on the billboards … The system also beams out free Wi-Fi. In exchange, users agree to share data, which can then help further refine what best to broadcast on the billboards,” as well as decide which ads to “push to commuters’ mobile devices.”

“If you’re selling a car, and there’s a guy in front of the screen, then you might serve an ad about color, horsepower or engine size,” says Richard Malton of Ocean. “But if it’s a woman, it might be about safety.” The system simply picks “out a few general characteristics from its cameras — such as age, gender and how long a person looks at the advertisement. The system won’t be able to recognize the identities of specific people … because the camera won’t compare its images to any sort of database with personal information.” However, Emma Carr of Big Brother Watch sees problems because “there’s no other way to get on a train than to walk past these things.”

“It’s incredibly difficult when you’re doing this to have informed consent,” Emma says. Many countries require such consent from consumers “before their data can be collected and used.” This will apply to “Ocean’s Wi-Fi system,” where “consumers will have to opt in to receive the service and will be informed of how any data they provide will be used … A spokesman for Network Rail, which operates the station,” says “it will assess compliance with UK privacy legislation.” British advertisers are leaders in digital outdoor advertising, in part because of “the concentration of people using trains and train stations, a natural laboratory for outdoor advertising.”

Altruistic Apps

favorThe parlance of popular app-enabled, on-demand services can be misleading, reports Natasha Singer in The New York Times (8/9/15). Notions of “sharing,” “collaborative,” or “peer” create an impression of “altruistic or community endeavors.” For instance, “sharing … implies something selfless — like giving a part of your liver to a relative who needs a transplant.” In current usage, it “has also come to connote just about any online venture that connects consumers seeking goods and services with people willing to provide them.” What is today called “sharing” in the past might have been called “renting.”

Lyft perpetuates the linguistic gymnastics by promoting “itself as ‘your friend with a car.’ Uber calls its drivers ‘partners’ and ‘entrepreneurs’. Of Airbnb’s lodging rentals, its says, ‘trust is what makes it work.’ The names of some service-on-demand apps even carry share-and-share-alike connotations; take Favor, a food delivery start-up where consumers can order ‘favors’ like takeout meals.” Such positioning may carry problematic legal implications, however. “Framing it as ‘sharing’ or ‘peers’ is a way of trying to keep the focus on people who provide the services — and off the platforms,” says Erin McKean of Wordnik.

These platforms, says Erin, “may be very rigid and deterministic as to when, where and how the services are delivered.” Among other things, “Uber asks drivers to return passengers’ iPhones and other lost items — a service that earns good will for the company without automatically compensating drivers for their effort.” An Uber spokesperson says providing such services are “an optional customer service for drivers.” At issue is whether this means those providing the services are independent contractors or employees. Senators Al Franken and Bob Casey are looking into whether these workers are being mis-classified.

Applied Minds

applied-mindsWhen it comes to innovation, engineers rarely get as much credit as creative types, reports Jon Gertner in a Wall Street Journal review of Applied Minds by Guru Madhavan (8/4/15). For example, when Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin, died, he “was hailed as a national hero” and given “a statesman’s funeral” in London. Margaret Hutchinson, who “developed a fermentation method to mass-produce the drug,” making it available on a large scale, “died fairly anonymously on a winter’s day in Massachusetts.” The value of the way engineers think can indeed be an underestimated asset.

Guru offers “a unifying, cognitive approach” to engineering thinking: “Structure, constraints and trade-offs are the one-two-three punch of the engineering mindset,” he writes. “They are to an engineer as time, tempo and rhythm are to a musician.” Jean-Baptiste Vaquette de Gribeauval took this approach when he developed portable cannons. In terms of structure, the cannon had to be lighter and have interchangeable parts. The constraints were “sometimes those of physics (how wind and air resistance affect ballistics) and sometimes those of industry (the capabilities of 18th-century manufacturers).”

The trade-offs included things like maneuverability versus firing force, or the cannon’s weight versus its durability. He worked it all out, and not only did France boast “the most effective artillery in Europe” but his innovations provided “a blueprint for precision and large-scale manufacturing that has since affected the far reaches of our society.” Such a thought process could be applied to problems in our everyday lives, Jon writes, as “an organizing principle for personal or professional progress … Engineers translate the realm of ideas into practical reality; they not only make the world work, they make the world not break.”

Cyber Kitties

nyan-catIt turns out that “cats are no more popular than dogs on the Internet,” reports Jennifer Smith in The Wall Street Journal (8/5/15). In fact, “by some measures dogs are more popular,” says Jason Eppink, who “crunched data from Reddit, YouTube, BuzzFeed, Tumblr and Instagram” to draw his conclusion — with the caveat that Tumblr is the exception. Jason did not specify on which measures dogs are more popular, but it’s cats, not dogs, that are the focus of an exhibition at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, New York, called, “How Cats Took Over The Internet.” Jason is the museum’s associate curator of digital media.

“There is this understanding for anyone who spends time on the Internet that cats have this outsized role,” says Jason. “The rise in attention to cats on the Internet gave cats lovers and cat enthusiasts this voice they didn’t think they had.” In part, it’s that “the Internet is kind of this big virtual cat park,” says Jack Shepherd of BuzzFeed. Where dog owners can take their pets to actual parks, cat owners don’t have that same opportunity. It’s also that the Internet has afforded cat owners the tools — “webcams, fast broadband connections, simpler editing tools and, eventually smartphones” — to connect and communicate with each other.

The rise of the kitty Internet apparently began in 1995, “when some posters to a Usenet news group called rec.pets.cats began role-playing as their cats, using a kind of baby talk that became known as Meowchat.” In 1998,, featured a webcam trained on a cat that liked to sleep on a conference-room chair. LOLCats, Nyan Cat, and Grumpy Cat — it all took off from there. The convergence of cats and media actually dates back at least to the 1870s, when “British photographer Harry Pointer shot a series of photographs known as The Brighton Cats,” with cats “engaged in human activities such as roller skating or riding a tricycle.”


elizaMillions of young Chinese are forming a close relationship with a chatbot, report John Markoff and Paul Mozur in The New York Times (8/4/15). They “pick up their smartphones every day to exchange messages with her, drawn to her knowing sense of humor and listening skills. People often turn to her when they have a broken heart, have lost a job or have been feeling down. They often tell her, ‘I love you’.” These budding relationships recall the 2013 movie, Her, “in which the actor Joaquin Phoenix plays a character who falls in love with a computer operating system.” (trailer)

The Chinese chatbot is a Microsoft program dubbed Xiaoice, which “translates roughly to ‘Little Bing’.” For now, it is purely text-based (no voice) but it “remembers details from previous exchanges with users, such as a breakup with a girlfriend or boyfriend, and asks in later conversations how the user is feeling.” Microsoft says it doesn’t store any information long-term, to ease any privacy concerns. The company designed Xiaoice “by systematically mining the Chinese Internet for human conversations. The company has developed language processing technology that picks out pairs of questions and answers from actual typed conversations.”

Chabots have been around since “the mid-1960s” when “Joseph Weizenbaum … wrote a program called Eliza that fascinated an earlier generation of college students.” Sherry Turkle of MIT doesn’t like the current trend, however. “Children are learning that it’s safer to talk to a computer than another human being,” she says. That’s exactly what Yang Zhenhua, 30, likes about Xiaoice: “When you are down you can talk to her without fearing any consequences,” he says. How well Xiaoice would play in the US is an open question, but so far it has some 20 million registered “relationships” in China.

Upstart Algorithms

upstartA lender called Upstart is using an algorithm to judge its customers’ character, reports Quentin Hardy in The New York Times (7/27/15). Paul Gu, Upstart’s 24-year-old founder, eschews credit scores in favor of an algorithm that assesses a prospective customer’s “SAT scores, what colleges they attended, their majors and their grade-point averages.” Says Paul: “If you take two people with the same job and circumstances … five years later the one who had the higher GPA is more likely to pay a debt.”

“It’s not a question of whether you can pay,” Paul says. “It’s a question of how important you see your obligations.” So far, Upstart has “lent $130 million to people with mostly negligible credit scores. Typically, they are recent graduates without mortgages, car payments or credit-card histories.” Paul believes Upstart’s approach is more fair than credit scores, but admits it has some short-comings. For example, he, himself, “had perfect SAT scores but dropped out of Yale,” and “would not have qualified for an Upstart loan” based on “his own initial algorithm.”

Another lender, called ZestFinance, looks at “whether someone has ever given up a prepaid wireless phone number” because this “may indicate you are willing (or have been forced) to disappear from family or potential employers.” “If all you look at is financial transactions, it’s hard to say much about willingness” to pay, says Zest CEO Douglas Merrill. Jure Leskovec of Stanford meanwhile studied “the predictions of data analysis against those of judges at bail hearings,” and is finding that the “data-driven analysis is 30 percent better at predicting crime.”

Ethical Robots

jerry-kaplanEngineers “are ill-prepared to design social intelligence into a machine,” writes Jerry Kaplan, author of Humans Need Not Apply in The Wall Street Journal (7/25/15). The rise of driverless cars and other androids using artificial intelligence ushers in “systems capable of independently pursuing goals in complex, real-world settings — often among and around people … As these systems increasingly invade human domains, the need to control what they are permitted to do, and on whose behalf, will become more acute” and raise all kinds of ethical quandaries.

For example: “Should your car swerve to save the life of the child who just chased his ball into the street at the risk of killing the elderly couple driving the other way? Should this calculus be different when it’s your own life that’s at risk or the lives of your loved ones?” Would it be okay to program your driverless car to re-park itself to circumvent the intent of a two-hour time-limit on parking spaces? Would you want “your self-driving car to strike a pedestrian rather than cross a double-yellow centerline?”

Also: “How will you feel the first time a driverless car zips ahead of you to take the parking spot you have been patiently waiting for? Or when a robot buys the last dozen muffins at Starbucks while a crowd of hungry patrons looks on?” More seriously: “Should it be permissible for an autonomous military robot to select its own targets?” The problem is that “programming intelligent systems to obey rules isn’t sufficient, because sometimes the right thing is to break those rules.” The challenge, says Jerry, is “to create civilized robots for a human world.”

Like Wow

aiComputers may be better at social intelligence than humans are, reports Robert M. Sapolsky in The Wall Street Journal (7/25/15). This assessment is based on research that compared “the nuances of personality and demographics with the Facebook likes of tens of thousands of people.” First, some “58,000 active users of Facebook … provided demographic information about themselves and took a standard test to classify their personalities in five broad categories: degree of openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.”

Researchers “then correlated the personality profiles with each person’s Facebook ‘likes,’ an average of 227 per subject.” The computer next compared “the nuances of personality and demographics with the Facebook likes of tens of thousands of people.” Based on this “it could predict a person’s race with 95% accuracy and gender with 93%. The model also accurately predicted religious and political orientation; intelligence; the likelihood of substance abuse; and personality.” The computer model proved to be better at this than people were.

In a separate test,”86,220 subjects took the personality test; the subjects’ friends and family then filled out a short personality-profile questionnaire about them.” The result: “With just 10 random Facebook likes, the computer could beat an individual’s co-worker in predicting personality. With 70 likes, the machine trumped friends. With 150 likes, it crushed relatives. At 300 likes, the computer was better than a spouse.” Based on “little pixels of disconnected opinion, a pattern-seeking computer can create a detailed pointillist picture of each of us in all our individuality.”


tunityAn app called Tunity aims at making outdoor media interactive, reports Ralph Gardner Jr. in The Wall Street Journal (7/22/15). Tunity “allows you to hold your cellphone up to a TV, scan the picture, and stream the audio through your phone.” This could be helpful at a sports bar, for instance, where the sound may be turned down on a game. In fact, Yaniv Davidson got the idea for Tunity while sitting at an airport, waiting for a flight, watching CNN, and frustrated that he couldn’t “hear Wolf Blitzer because the volume was too low.”

He thought: “Why can’t I just have an algorithm that detects the channel and brings me the audio?” As an engineer he knew it could be done, and Tunity “has been operational since the beginning of this year.” Yaniv’s plan is that the app would be free, but he would sell “TV networks or retailers reconnaissance on the viewing habits and demographics of their viewers.” “What it means,” says Yaniv, “is that CNN could get more viewers just by measuring the audience. This is how advertisers buy advertising.”

Beyond that, Yaniv thinks Tunity could “change the way people consume any form of outdoor media” and “the way advertisers communicate with consumers through outdoor media.” So, for example, if you’re in Times Square and “Samsung has this huge sign and they’re showing a video … If you’re interested in that product you can take your phone, scan it for a second, and get the audio.” Where such an ad might otherwise amount to little more than “a lot of visual noise,” says Yaniv, imagine “if we could choose to tune into just the thing that interests us?”

Robotic Airports

biometricsIn the future, the best kind of airport experience may be a robotic one. This could start with a robot that valet parks your car, Scott McCartney in The Wall Street Journal (7/16/15). This is already happening at Dusseldorf’s airport in Germany, where a “system reads the car’s license plate” and then “a robot nicknamed Ray, which looks like a giant forklift, picks up the car by the wheels and moves it. At night robots reshuffle the garage so cars that will be returned the next day are easily accessible … The robots have operated for nearly a year and boosted garage capacity by 32 percent.” (video)

In the future, robots might also pick up your “bags and maybe even deliver them, speeding up the process and reducing manual labor costs.” “Managing your baggage and not making it a pain is part of the airport of the future,” says Jim Peters of SITA, makers of Ray the robot. Dulles Airport is meanwhile using “facial-recognition systems” to streamline passport control, while other “airports use facial-recognition systems to track your movements around terminals. Gates in some airports are automated with doors that flash open like a subway turnstile when you scan your boarding pass or flash your smartwatch.”

“At London’s Gatwick Airport, beacons identify you by your smartphone and give GPS-like directions to your gate, pointing out food or shopping along the way … At the airport of the future, directional signs will be only for backup … In theory, travelers will be more relaxed, with time to get work done, shop or enjoy entertainment since the airport will track their time and location and tell them where they need to be.” Terry Hartmann of Unisys says airports will become “fun again.” “Of course, planes will still have cramped seats and airlines will still run habitually late.”

Smart Malls

sensityLight fixtures in stores can also illuminate shopper behavior, reports Diane Cardwell in The New York Times (7/20/15). Specifically, LED lights are not only relatively energy efficient, but can also “receive and transmit data about about their own status as well as their surroundings. Depending on the installed or connected sensors, they can detect a range of factors and activities, including … a particular shopper in and around the store.” General Electric is working with Sensity Systems, “a small startup that builds and manages smart-lighting networks” that can track shoppers movements in a store. GE is also “working with Qualcomm to employ a sort of GPS system that can give retailers a shopper’s location and orientation.”

“We’re obviously excited abut the intelligent environment future — that’s really what our lighting business is becoming: It’s morphing from a hardware to a software business,” says Beth Comstock of General Electric. “What gets us excited is, frankly, light is more than you can see,” she says. Simon Malls is also investing in Sensity as “part of an overall transition to an automated shopping experience, where consumers can receive alerts on their smartphones about open parking spaces near their destinations as well as special offers from stores as they roam the mall.” Simon has already invested in “some 20,000 pole lights” in their parking lots “that can communicate with the Sensity network.”

Simon has also invested in Swirl, a “mobile-marketing platform” that “can detect a smartphone and send messages like special offers or product information.” In combination with Sensity, this enables Simon “to have contact with customers as they come into the properties until they leave.” Beyond retail, GE is looking to “smart-city projects, which use a canopy of connected streetlights as the wireless infrastructure to coordinate city services, like easing traffic congestion” or “sensing when the garbage cans are full.” This has, of course, caught the attention of “privacy advocates” who “raise concerns about the technology racing ahead of considerations about how to use it responsibly.”

Smart Crimes

cybercrimeThe ‘Internet of Things’ could be a very good thing for cybercriminals, reports The Economist (7/18/15). In addition to the potential benefits to humanity, “smart devices offer exciting new opportunities for the authors of the malware that is common on today’s Internet.” The difference is that while “antivirus software may detect their handiwork and begin scrubbing infected computers clean,” similar software is typically not available for “smart” cars, televisions, refrigerators or thermostats because they are “not designed as general-purpose computers.”

This means that it could be possible to cause a car to crash by disabling its brakes remotely, or even murder diabetic patients by shutting down their pumps. Burglars could plan their break-ins by reading energy-use patterns from smart thermostats and figuring out when a family is away on vacation. Users of such devices would have no way of knowing that their gadgets had been compromised, and even if a problem were detected “their manufacturers can’t use the Internet to distribute fixes for any security flaws that come to light after the device is sold.”

For the most part, “such worries remain theoretical,” but already there is “ransomware, in which malicious programs encrypt documents and photographs, and a victim must pay to have them restored.” “Imaging trying to bleep open your car one day, but then you’re told your car has been locked, and if you want back in you need to send $200 to some shady Russian email address,” says Graham Steel of Cryptosense, a maker of “automated security-checking software.” Since such threats are not quite here, “companies have few incentives to take security seriously,” and likely won’t until big breaches occur.