All items by Alex Bowyer

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Increasingly, our everyday lives are influenced by computing algorithms that we cannot see or control.

This is the somewhat alarmist but nonetheless grounded in truth statement by Kevin Slavin in his recent TED talk (shown in the embedded player to the right). It’s not just financial markets, but movie scripts, book recommendations and advertising selections… the online and media world is increasing using software algorithms to tailor itself to what a mathematical equation thinks we want.

I find one of the most alarming examples is Facebook’s algorithm to determine what warrants “top news”. Effectively, Facebook is deciding for you which of your many friends’ updates is most important. And the implications of that are quite scary.. What if a friend thinks you are not listening because Facebook filtered out their update? Or what if you miss an opportunity for a future romantic involvement because Facebook hides a party update from what it thinks is someone you don’t care about?

Increasingly in the future we are going to have to think carefully about what decisions we allow software to make for us, and what things we should keep full control of ourselves.

Watch the TED video here or embedded above, or read the BBC News article for more information.

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You know that scene in Bladerunner where Harrison Ford uses a computer to zoom, refocus and travel in 3D space within a photograph? For years we’ve all thought that would be forever impossible, but new technology from Lytro suggests that this sort of thing may soon be possible.

Their forthcoming light field camera captures not just one perspective of a scene, but uses a lenticular array to capture the entire light field, meaning that the 3D space from which the light originated can be explored after the photo is taken – so you can change which part of the scene is in focus, generate 3D images or even peek “behind” foreground objects.

The Silicon Valley startup clearly faces technical and financial challenges to change their prototypes into an affordable consumer product – but the cat is out of the bag on the idea, and we can expect camera manufacturers to race to catch up and enter this brand new market. This is a disruptive technology with huge potential to change the way we think about photography. Soon we may have a completely new kind of camera, which can truly capture a moment in a way we never thought possible. Some are wondering if it will take the skill out of photography, while others are already speculating about what this might do to re-ignite 3D film-making.

Read more details at AllThingsDigital and try refocussing images for yourself in Lytro’s Picture Gallery.

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Zdenek Kalal, a PhD at the University of Surrey, has developed an impressive real-time system which looks within a live camera feed for an identified object or person, then watches and learns to track that object as it rotates, moves or disappears, reappears. He demonstrates a prototype of the system in the video shown to the right.

The project won him the ICT Pioneer award and has attracted a great deal of attention from press and industry alike, as this could enable a plethora of image-tracking applications, from security systems to video stablization and control systems for the handicapped.

What is remarkable about the system is that it needs no special training (for example learning what a face is), you can simply identify an object on screen and the system will learn to track it. It looks like the stuff of science-fiction, but it’s very real. Read more on his project page.

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The non-profit grassroots organization ahumanright.org recently launched a bold new campaign to help to bring Internet access to some of the 5 billion people who aren’t online. They hope to raise sufficient funds to buy the abandoned TerreStar-1 satellite and offer free Internet access to citizens of impoverished nations, funded by renting usage of the satellite to other communications companies.

If it succeeds, it could become a lot harder for governments to shut down the Internet in their countries during civil unrest, as the satellite coverage would span international boundaries and the organization would be managed with a human right to information at its core.

If you have a spare $1m lying around you can make a donation at http://www.buythissatellite.org/. Read more at TIME or watch the TEDx talk.

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One step away from lost privacy?

Cafe Couple (cc) by iFovea on Flickr

Imagine you’re out in town one day. You feel free and anonymous, so when the opportunity arises and you have an illicit cigarette, pop into a sex shop or have coffee with an ex, you assume no-one will know. But with technology that already exists today, this basic right to keep your actions secret could be gone. Here’s how it will happen: Read more »

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Leon Walker could face up to 5 years in prison for reading his wife's e-mail, despite uncovering her affair.

In Michigan, a man has been charged with a felony after reading his wife’s email without permission. If convicted, this could set the precedent that anyone reading a family member’s private mail would be committing a crime.

In some cases this might seem reasonable, but could it mark the beginning of a slippery slope? What about parents who have legitimate reasons to monitor their childrens’ internet usage – could they soon be deemed criminals?

Read the full story at the Detroit Free Press.

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Memories in the Facebook Age

Richard Rushfield has spent the last few years writing the memoirs of his college years in the mid-1980s. As it happens, just as he needed to find more material to expand on the fragments he remembered, Facebook exploded, and suddenly his past was alive again, all those people he remembered could be consulted and could contribute to the memoir. But soon, the book and the discussions of it on Facebook re-ignited old feuds and the past he was trying to memorialize was alive and kicking again.

Facebook encourages us to hold on to our past, and in a way, it lives on there for ever. As Richard writes:

No memoirist can write without making every effort to doublecheck one’s own past. But when the past becomes a moving target, how is one to nail it down?

Read the full article at The Daily Beast.

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Human 2.0 Holiday Highlights

What better way to ring in the New Year than to put your feet up and enjoy a few re-runs? Here are some of our most popular posts from the last year or so as well as a few you might have missed…

1. Posthumanity and digital superpowers

From http://www.flickr.com/photos/jdm1979uk/3607288494

We’ve been blogging about Human 2.0 for over two years now, but it was this April that we split off from Bitcurrent and launched this site. We kicked off with two launch posts… a high-level scene-setter called Welcome to posthumanity:

“We’re becoming a new species–one that can hack its own cognition and edit its own biology. We’re all getting an upgrade, like it or not. This is the most important subject of the century, but it’s still hiding in academia and science fiction. We hope to change that.”

Ten superpowers the Internet gave us

…and a look at some of the tangible ways in which the Internet gives us superpowers:

We may not realize it, but the Internet has given us superhuman abilities. Technology lets us to do things that were impossible 30 years ago – from speaking foreign languages and armchair travel to global messaging and virtual worlds. Welcome, Human 2.0, these are your superpowers.

2. It’s all about the data

Read more »

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File-sharing in the great outdoors

A "Dead Drop" in New York City

Inspired by geocaching and a desire to get technology out into the physical world, media artist Aram Bartholl has spawned a new Internet phenomenon. “Dead drops” are USB sticks cemented into walls of public buildings, with their locations plotted online at deaddrops.com, the site which invites you to “un-cloud your files in cement”. Together the drops form “an anonymous, offline, peer to peer file-sharing network in public space”.

The idea is that anyone can upload or download files by plugging their laptop into the wall. The project has sparked a great deal of controversy with some describing the drops as “electronic glory holes”, but as Bartholl says “It’s very much about the thrill and the idea of what could be on there.”

Read an interview with Aram Bartholl at .net.

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39 years after it began, Internet-based electronic mail has finally been granted the same recognition as other forms of communication, meaning that it cannot be intercepted by authorities without a warrant. It’s nice to see some privacy rights being given back in a time when much of our privacy is being eroded in the name of fighting terrorism. The interesting question now is whether this will affect Project Echelon and its routine monitoring of e-mail traffic. It will also be interesting to see if it serves as a precedent for other countries.

Read more at Geekosystem.

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