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Surveillance Keiretsu

I stumbled across some near-term plans for the Amazon Corporation. It’s funny to think that they started as an online bookstore. Now it’s hard to say exactly what they are. They’ve purchased other companies, branched off into space exploration and are even pioneering delivery by drone.

I think everyone will agree that the new set of services they’re working on will move online commerce to a whole new level. The last mile problem has been there since the beginning. An order can be placed at the speed of light and the large national distribution networks get the goods quite close to where the customer lives very quickly. But getting packages from a local distribution warehouse to a specific residence ends up being the most expensive part of the distribution process.

Even if the packages arrive on schedule and are placed on the doorstep, they are often stolen by criminals cruising neighborhoods. These crooks trail delivery vans and pick off packages that look like they might have resale value on the black market. Customers are always complaining about stolen packages.

This is why Amazon bought Ring, the home security company. Ring puts video cameras on your front door and around your property. If a thief approaches, intending to steal a package, the video cameras capture an image of the person’s face. Recently Ring customers within particular neighborhoods have started sharing these photos. “Watch out for this guy, he’s stealing packages.” Often the photos are also shared with the local police.

Here’s where Amazon can really add value through its network of companies and infrastructure services. Imagine a future with even faster delivery and free of package thieves. By combining drone delivery and Ring’s home surveillance technology, you’ll never lose another package.

Here’s a typical scenario. The customer places an order. The item is picked and packed, and moved into the distribution chain. The package arrives at a local distribution center and is assigned to a drone for home delivery. The drone races to your house and places the package on the designated receiving location. What this? A thief sees the delivery, waits until the drone is out of sight, then moves in to steal the package. Here’s where Ring’s network-connected cameras kick in. The cameras are watching the receiving area—having been notified by the drone that a delivery was imminent. The images of the thief are sent to the Amazon Cloud for processing. The photo of the thief is compared to the family of consumers occupying the house. If there’s no match, the algorithm goes through the extended family, work colleagues and friends. It looks through address books and photo albums to see if there’s any possible match. Given what’s coming next, Amazon doesn’t want to make a mistake.

It looks like there’s no match. This person is stealing your package. The image is now compared to outstanding arrest warrants and neighborhood watch photos. Based on several year’s worth of video footage, the algorithm produces a list of people who have no regular pattern of activity in your neighborhood to determine if this person has been casing the neighborhood. All the while, Amazon’s facial recognition systems are attempting to identify the individual. As a courtesy, Amazon shares the information with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) to determine whether enforcement action should be coordinated.

At the same time, Amazon’s drones working in the area are alerted to the theft and they begin to gather into a swarm. The swarm tracks the thief as he tries to make his escape. Since Ring cameras are installed in almost every home in the neighborhood, it’s straightforward to track his route. The thief’s location is transmitted to the drone swarm and the cameras on the drones make an identification and lock in and begin tracking the thief. Amazon echo nodes in neighborhood homes notify residents via Alexa to shelter in place while the action is executed.

We’re Watching.

Ideally, the drone swarm will want to take action before the thief enters a vehicle. Even if full identification hasn’t been completed, the drone swarm will move in to herd the thief toward a designated location that has been communicated to local police. Since the police can’t always immediately respond to this kind of incident, the drone swarm is equipped to keep the “suspect” in the designated location for up to 12 hours.

If the thief has abandoned the package, and it appears undamaged, a drone will break off from the swarm and re-deliver it to your home. Damaged packages are taken by drone back to the local distribution warehouse and a request for a replacement item is automatically generated.

Once the police arrive on the scene, all video and audio evidence, along with any background profile data, is transmitted. Generally this results in an open-and-shut case when delivered to the District Attorney’s office. A permanent record is created in Amazon’s central data warehouse to make sure once this person has served their time in prison they receive heightened surveillance on release and for the rest of their lives.

Recidivism is the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend. Using the vast resources of the Amazon family of companies, we can often deter a person from reoffending by foregrounding the surveillance apparatus at a key moment prior to a criminal act. Sometimes all it takes is a reminder that someone is watching, and that any criminal act will be swiftly and surely punished.

That’s the future, but here’s some things Amazon is working on today…

Adding Face Recognition to Your Front Door

Test Your Strength

test-strength

Sometimes there’s just a little glint of something in the sand. A quotation is brought in to the stream of the conversation and it’s meant to provide support for some point being put across in an answer to an interviewer’s question.

In Tim Bradshaw’s Financial Times interview with Larry Harvey, one of the founders of Burning Man, it’s the moment when he pulls Milton Friedman into the conversation. The question has to do with whether or not ideas from Burning Man have entered the larger culture. Harvey responds:

I’d like to mischievously quote Milton Friedman. He said change only happens in a crisis, and then that actions that are undertaken depend on the ideas that are just lying around.

I don’t know the origin of the quote or whether it’s accurate or not. While I didn’t have much use for the rest of the article, I did find the Friedman quote intriguing. On the one hand we could make the case that the ideas we find lying around are the result of some historical process and therefore predetermined by their predecessors. The other case is that these ideas are lying around for a variety of reasons. Some are bought and paid for, others are the result of conspiracy theories, some are just random trends. Probably the truth lies somewhere between the two. As I look around me at the ideas lying around, that one seems to fit the bill.

When we consider Friedman’s idea about crisis and action and apply it to global warming, we run into a problem of scale. According to Friedman, action occurs when we perceive the crisis. As the crisis reveals itself, we humans look to the ideas lying around and hope to find something that might serve to blunt its force. Global warming is a large wave overwhelming the biosphere. While it may not be possible to pinpoint the exact moment this wave began gathering its force, certainly it’s a trans-generational event. The patenting of the steam engine (1781) serves as a useful marker of global warming’s beginning.

Objects of this size and complexity have been given the name hyperobjects by philosopher Timothy Morton. Even our ability to directly detect the crisis is limited. We require a global network of sensors, computer climate models and a good measure of inference. The size and momentum of the global warming wave begs the question as to whether the ideas we might find lying around could possibly counter something of this size.

We look for an idea to counter strength with strength. We might believe through the use of leverage, physics and ingenuity we can create a force sufficient to provide an answer. Our instinct tells us that size and momentum of global warming must be overmastered.

In addition to the word “hyperobjects” Timothy Morton also has given us an idea of the value of “hypocrisy, weakness and lameness.” When confronted with something as large and powerful as global warming, perhaps we should take a different tack. Dinosaurs were the most powerful animals on earth during another global climate event. Strength didn’t result in survival. Perhaps as we look at the ideas lying around, we shouldn’t assume that it’s strength that will get us out of this crisis. To evade the power of a hyperobject, we may need to reverse our instincts and get small.

McBurney’s Encounter: Real-Time Complicity

simon

You are complicit. Or, you could be. We say this phrase from a stance of pure innocence. You didn’t personally commit an evil act, but some of your actions and attitudes are so resonant with this evil, that you must be complicit. Because I am not complicit, I can say that you are. But complicity is a slippery thing. It jumps the gaps and implicates us when we least expect it.

I like this definition:

Involvement as an accomplice in a questionable act or a crime.

As an “accomplice” your participation may be direct or indirect, but what I particularly like is this idea of a “questionable act.” An act of uncertainty—is it an evil act or not? “The Encounter?” Is it a questionable act?

We all have the opportunity to be complicit, in real time, on Tuesday, March 1, 2016, at 7:30pm GMT (11:30am PT). That’s when Simon McBurney’s extraordinary theater company, “Complicite” will perform “The Encounter” via live stream.

The cutting-edge technology of the virtual reality headset attempts to give you a virtual world in a bottle. But what McBurney and Complicite offer is more than that, they’re playing with the stuff of reality itself. The audience is required to wear a headset, but in this case, it’s a pair of headphones.

“…my hand, groping around the universe, has torn a corner open… why did I tear the corner open, if I’m not prepared for the encounter?”

Twenty years ago Simon McBurney was given a book.

Written by a Romanian who escaped the Ceaușescu regime to reinvent himself as a Los Angeles screenwriter, the book, Amazon Beaming, tells the story of photographer Loren McIntyre, who, in 1969, found himself lost amongst the remote people of the Javari Valley, on the border between Brazil and Peru. It was an encounter that changed his life: bringing the limits of human consciousness into startling focus.

Complicite’s technical team has wired the performance space with 600 pairs of headphones. Simon McBurney performs to a microphone that looks like your head. He whispers in this ear, then he moves around the space, and whispers in the other ear. (If you tune in to the live stream, be sure to wear headphones. That way you can experience “spooky action at a distance.”)

Here is a clip from The Guardian to give you an idea of what it’s like:

Judged purely as a sonic experiment, the show is an astonishing technical feat. Amiably chatting to the audience and asking us to put ourselves in the mind of McIntyre, McBurney asks us to don headphones that relay information from a binaural microphone. This results in a complex aural mix of live and recorded sound. At one point, we hear the whirr of the Cessna aircraft that deposits McIntyre in the jungle. At another, McBurney simulates the sound of walking through the forest by trampling on a mass of recording tape. But the heart of the story concerns McIntyre’s encounter with the nomadic Mayoruna tribe, and his dependence on his close relationship with the head shaman, known as Barnacle, with whom he communicates in a way that transcends language.

This is what real-time technology has the capability to create. But technology only gives what we ask of it. McBurney and the Complicite team ask for the moon, the stars, and the jungle. A work of this magnitude begs the question, who should be asking technology for the next new thing? Should it really be the technologists themselves?

Monetizing the Backchannel

One of the best uses for enterprise instant messaging apps is to engage in a backchannel conversation while engaged in a tedious conference call. It's an excellent stage for comedy. Talking back to the screen has a long and entertaining history.

Social media, when it's not just a curated newsfeed, is a backchannel. It's a hallway conversation that comments about what's going on. Slipping advertisements into a newsfeed is what television and radio have been doing all along. It's what newspapers do. No one has really successfully monetized the backchannel.

The various social media provide backchannel tools. When a presidential election debate is on television, the backchannel is sometimes the most amusing way to watch it. The jokes are quick, in real time, and sometimes really provide the best insights into what's going on. The regular news media generally waits until the event is over before weighing in with their official analysis. But during the show, they've got their own backchannel going.

We're not really meant to see the backchannel. It's a private joke, just between us. When an attempt is made to foreground the backchannel and monetize it through advertising or some other data sale, the backchannel creates another backchannel to comment on what just happened.

The backchannel must constantly step out of the light in order to provide the proper cover for the kind of conversations it hosts. The best hope of those trying to monetize the backchannel is to create a front channel and call it a backchannel.

Of course, the best place to learn about those kind of efforts is on the backchannel–that's where you'll hear the best jokes about them…

 

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