Researchers look into keeping autonomous vehicles from becoming mobile vomitoriums

If you’re like me, and I’m just going to assume most of you are, motion sickness is a serious consideration on any car trip where you’re not driving. So what are we supposed to do in self-driving vehicles? Researchers are finally looking into this question with an experiment designed to see just what makes people like us so sick.

The study, at the University of Michigan, was undertaken because the researchers realized that if millions of people can’t read or do work in autonomous vehicles, that massively reduces the draw of using them in the first place. And it turns out there has been almost no investigation of why certain people get motion sickness in this context, what makes it better or worse, and so on.

“Very few studies have been conducted in cars; instead, a lot of the work has been done for sea and air transportation modes, performed in driving simulators or on motion platforms,” explained lead investigator for the project, Monica Jones, in a university news release. “A lot of scales that exist in the literature are based on nausea. If we design to a vomiting response, we have really missed the mark on autonomous vehicles.”

Basically the cars should be designed around making people actually comfortable, not stopping just short of losing their lunch. What does that even consist of? That’s what these initial experiments are meant to explore.

The team collected 52 people from a variety of demographics and had them sit in the car while it navigated the university’s Mcity Test Facility, a sort of mock urban environment meant for exactly this kind of work. The drive involved the usual turns, stops and accelerations you would experience being driven around a city, and participants were asked to perform some basic tasks on an iPad and answer questions posed by a researcher in the car. I can tell you I’m feeling queasy just thinking about taking part.

They were observed for indications of discomfort and were told to report any such feelings — and of course let the researchers know if they needed to stop. Sensors watched for changes in temperature or perspiration, among other things.

The early findings (PDF) are not exactly surprising, but they’re a start. It may not be front page news that people using a gadget while in a self-driving car tended to feel more sick. But no one has ever actually studied this, so if we’re going to treat it seriously one way or the other, it needs to be directly observed. And indeed there were other factors that cropped up as well. Younger people reported higher motion sickness levels, for instance. Why? When?

“Passenger responses are complicated and have many dimensions,” said Jones. And to measure those responses the team built up a database of thousands of measurements and observations that extend beyond a simple “misery scale,” but include context and other types of pain or discomfort.

This is just the beginning of what is sure to be a longer-term study of how to make self-driving vehicles as inclusive — and popular — as possible. Certainly if they get to the bottom of it, I (and all of you out there like me) will be much more likely to use an AV for my daily commute.

Waxed canvas bags from Waterfield, Manhattan Portage, Saddleback and more

It’s finally Bag Week again! the most wonderful week of the year at TechCrunch. Just in time for back to school, we’re bringing you reviews of bags of all varieties: from backpacks to rollers to messengers to fanny packs.

This year, like last year, I decided to focus on a specific niche in the bag community: waxed canvas. Last year I reviewed a handful of bags from Ona, Filson, and other purveyors of fine waxed goods. But there are many more to choose from, so I’ve collected a second handful and used them all for long enough to get a sense of their strengths and weaknesses.

Waxed canvas is a wonderful material. The natural fibers infused with wax provide water resistance, structure, protection, and a great look that only gets better with time as you use it. It’s my favorite material and it should be yours too. Only trouble is it can be expensive. But keep in mind that these bags are the kind that you take with you for a decade or two.

For this post I focused on laptop bags, but later in the festivities I’ll have a couple more waxed bags more in the “messenger” style, so keep your eyes peeled.

Waterfield Bolt – $269

Pros:

  • Solid medium-weight material and construction
  • Good padding and leather protective layer
  • Surprising amount of space and pockets

Cons:

  • Somehow lacks panache
  • Leather thongs instead of metal zipper pulls not for everyone

Store link

Of all the bags I’ve looked at for this roundup, this one is perhaps the most straightforward, in that it isn’t convertible, super-heavy, super-light, blue, or anything like that. It’s just a solid all-purpose laptop bag made of waxed canvas and leather, and as such makes for a sort of baseline with which to compare everything else.

[gallery ids="1839091,1839097,1839088,1839093,1839096,1839095,1839094,1839092,1839090,1839087"]

The Bolt’s canvas isn’t as thick as that on other Waterfield bags, since it’s lined and padded on the inside. It still has a nice finish, though, and the leather base and trim are similarly high-quality. The strap is, like the other bags from the company, nylon, where I would prefer canvas, but the grippy leather shoulder pad included is among the most practical and comfortable I’ve used.

Where the Bolt excels is not in sheer space, since it’s rather a compact bag (you can choose a larger size if you prefer), but in feeling that space is used well. There are snap pockets in the front and a larger zip one as well for quick access, all protected by a small flap but still easy to get at. On the back is a flap pocket and luggage strap so it can sit safely atop your roller bag.

And opening up the main compartment through its weather-proof zipper, the bag accordions open pleasantly to reveal laptop, tablet, notebook, and other slots all easily accessible. I even like the color in there!

I only wish it inspired a little more love. It’s not a bad-looking bag by any means, but it feels very pedestrian — few stylistic choices seem to have been made. It’s practical but not individual. To some that won’t matter — this is a solid bag. But it lacks a certain je ne sais quois that the company has to spare in its other bags.

Waterfield Outback Solo – $159

Pros:

  • Great material and construction
  • Compact but not microscopic

Cons:

  • Awkward to carry without strap
  • Not a lot of room in there (by design, but still)

Store link

Sometimes you’re just going out with a tablet or laptop and book, and don’t feel like taking a whole messenger style bag or briefcase. This little guy is sort of halfway between a laptop sleeve and a bag, and if you don’t mind its purselike nature it’s a perfect companion for those more minimal trips.

The laptop compartment is snug and well-padded. The outside has a slip pocket with some nooks for pens and the like, big enough to fit a 8.5×11″ notebook or not-too-thick book. Just don’t try putting groceries or anything in there.

[gallery ids="1839103,1839102,1839101,1839100,1839099,1839098"]

Closure is a magnetic snap that feels secure enough but I’d just as soon have something a little more physical. I’d like to mention that the closure strap looks a little sloppy in the photos above, but it’s really not like that in general use and will wear in nicely. And although it feels great to carry this light little guy with the shoulder strap (which stows away decently well), carrying it like a sleeve or clutch isn’t so hot — a small handle or strap would make this much better.

I’d recommend this to anyone who has a larger bag for trips but doesn’t want to pack and unpack it every time they want to step out to the coffee shop. This would work well as a sub-bag or laptop sleeve if you have lots of room in the big one.

Joshu+Vela Zip Briefcase – $198

Pros:

  • Excellent lighter material that will age well
  • Straightforward style and solid straps
  • Great giant brass zippers

Cons:

  • Which side’s the front?
  • Unstructured interior can make stowage and retrieval annoying

Store link

Coming from a shop more known for totes and lightweight, fashionable gear for everyday urban living, this one is heavy duty for them but light compared with some others in this roundup. Its style is subtle and straightforward, but high quality.

The material is a lighter weight and color canvas with a crispy feel that will very quickly show patterns of use as, for example, one front pocket is habitually used for a book or keys. Empty it is possibly the lightest waxed bag I’ve used, which of course makes it good for anyone trying to stay minimal. The simple leather straps are sturdy and comfortable, though their springy, upright nature does mean they occasionally interfere with access.

[gallery ids="1839045,1839054,1839046,1839053,1839052,1839051,1839050,1839044,1839049,1839048,1839047"]

I love the huge brass zipper and pulls, though I could do without the leather bits (you can remove them). I didn’t like the plain natural canvas strap at first but it, like other aspects of the bag, has grown on me.

The simplicity of the design is good, but it also leads to some problems. Unless you look closely it can be hard to tell which side is the front — only the zipper flap and small label hint at it. Something to secure or differentiate the front or rear pockets, even as simple as removing the divider in the back, would be welcome.

Inside has three divisions, but the billowing, unstructured canvas plus the limited zip-top entrance can make stowage and retrieval a little awkward, more so than a flap-top bag anyway. A tighter compartment for a laptop or tablet would be great in here rather than having it swim in a big undifferentiated section. There’s also no padding, so I’d recommend keeping your device in its own case (this also helps it fill out the space).

Manhattan Portage Cortelyou – $365

Pros:

  • Classy messenger/briefcase crossover style
  • Lovely blue color
  • Great handle, closure, and straps

Cons:

  • Not particularly waxy or robust
  • Steel and brass? Sacrilege
  • Interior material not for everyone (also has a tacky watermark)

Store link

Waxed canvas is normally tan or brown, but that’s just tradition. I like the forest green of the Croots bag from last year or the Saddleback one below, but the rich navy blue of this Manhattan Portage Token bag is also excellent. The material is very light, with a fine weave and barely any wax. That means it probably won’t show the characteristic scuffs and patterns that give this type of bag its personality. (You can always wax it yourself.)

This bag, with its half-flap and top handle, straddles the line between laptop bag and briefcase. It’s not particularly thick but has lots of room for big documents, laptops, and other long items. Its structure means it’ll stay relatively svelte even when full — this won’t get lumpy.

[gallery ids="1839062,1839056,1839058,1839061,1839059,1839063,1839060,1839055,1839057"]

The leather straps and trim are a nice chocolate color and complement the blue well. It’s not heavy or stiff, and the shoulder strap in particular is very pliable — though so long I had to knot it to keep the extra out of the way (fortunately it looks cool that way). The snap closure can be a little tricky to get right by feel, but attaches solidly. The handle, which folds flat but pops up when you need it, is genius — probably the best handle of all the bags in this roundup, though not quite as robust as the Saddleback (but what is?).

The interior isn’t as to my liking. The red nylon watermarked with a branded pattern seems sort of gauche compared to the refined outside, and at the same time it feels like this choice of material should have allowed for more small pockets. It should help keep things dry, though, which is good considering the thinness of the waxed canvas layer.

Manhattan Portage Saratoga

Pros:

  • Convertible style makes it a good companion for conventions, business trips, etc
  • Plenty of handles and exterior pockets

Cons:

  • Not the best of both worlds (but not the worst either)
  • Straps make it feel bulky and lumpy if not stowed carefully

When I’m at CES or some other big show where I do a lot of walking but need to carry my basic loadout everywhere, I often wish I could transform my laptop bag into a backpack or vice versa. The Saratoga accomplishes this, and while it ends up compromising both forms as a result, it also fundamentally scratches an important itch.

The material is a soft-feeling canvas that doesn’t feel very rugged but is showing a nice wear pattern already. The weather-sealed zippers are good news for anyone who wants to take this out in the rain, but there are just too many of them. Six on the exterior, five visible on the front side! This thing jingles like a festive little elf.

[gallery ids="1839068,1839067,1839066,1839065,1839069"]

The back of the bag is a large pocket in which the pack straps sit, providing extra padding while they’re in there.  You pull them out and clip them onto some unobtrusive little D-rings, and boom, it’s a backpack. Doing the reverse is a little harder, as you need to make sure the straps don’t bunch up in their pouch.

I would have much preferred a more elegant pocket solution, not least because some of the pockets don’t make much sense while in one or the other configuration. And the leather bottom, while great in briefcase mode, makes it seem a little lopsided in backpack mode. Obviously these are drawbacks inherent to the switchable design, which brings its own benefits, but they’re worth considering. I might have liked a single big pocket on the front that can be opened from the side or top, and sub-pockets within.

The interior, while it’s the same watermarked red nylon as the one above, is populated with tons of little pockets and useful stashes that helpfully all close independently, meaning there’s no need to re-pack when you’re going from one mode to the other.

(I can’t seem to find this for sale any more – but keep your eyes open if you like it.)

Manhattan Portage Hewes – $265

Pros:

  • Pockets! So many pockets!!

Cons:

  • Maybe too many pockets

Store link

I’ll just say right off the bat that this one isn’t for me — I prefer a plainer exterior, and this thing does not have that. On the other hand, for the organized gadget fiend, this might be a fantastic match.

[gallery ids="1839072,1839075,1839074,1839073,1839070,1839071,1839076"]

The front side is just pocket after pocket. There are two big enough for a small phone, another good for a notebook, pens, or a power adapter, an a third with a removable divider that could hold all manner of things small and large. Nothing too bulky will fit in them, but any number of audio recorders, lens filters, earbuds, and so on will go in there.

Then there are two totally separate full-size compartments, one with more organizing space inside and both with plenty of padding. The simple strap is easy to release and stashes inside nicely.

Saddleback Leather Co Canvas Messenger – $439

Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

Pros:

  • Built like a waxed tank
  • Seriously, this thing is a beast
  • Spacious and handsome

Cons:

  • Also heavy as a tank
  • Very basic pockets and interior
  • Price reflects its “for life” nature

Store link

This bag came with a label on it sporting the company’s motto: “They’ll fight over it when you’re dead.” And I’m inclined to believe it. This is definitely by far the heaviest-duty waxed canvas bag I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing, which may or may not make it to your taste.

The olive-colored canvas is very thick and stiff, and waxed all the way through, not just in a layer on the outside. The stitching is industrial-grade and probably uses half a mile of thread. Quarter-inch-thick leather plates stiff as a board protect the back and bottom of the bag, and another serves to connect with the handle. The strap is a kind of folded-over canvas that feels even tougher than the leather. On top is a unique and practical thick leather handle that folds flat if necessary but feels very robust.

[gallery ids="1839078,1839081,1839083,1839082,1839084,1839086,1839085,1839080,1839079,1839077"]

The muscular materials and construction, however, preclude the inclusion of fine details like small pockets and pen sheaths. Instead there are two major exterior pockets that simply fold over themselves to close up, being held shut by the flap; there’s also room between them and the main compartment. Smaller side pockets under the massy strap hardware are good spots for flashlights but pens may disappear to the bottom.

This thing is also heavy as hell. Empty, it weighs as much as another bag with a light load. For some that weight will be reassuring but for others it’s just too much.

Inside the main compartment is plenty of room but little organization; there’s a single flap that will hold a laptop in place (my 13-inch MacBook Pro fits perfectly), and beyond that it’s just a big empty space. This is the only briefcase-style bag that rivals Filson’s (in my last roundup) for overnight capability. This one is definitely going to get your stuff waxy for the first few trips, though.

That’s all for today, but keep an eye out for more waxed canvas bags later in Bag Week as well!

Independent report on Facebook bias catalogues mild complaints from conservatives

An independent investigator has issued a preliminary report on its work determining the existence and/or extent of bias against conservatives on Facebook . It’s refreshingly light reading — the complaints are less “Facebook is a den of liberals” and more “we need more transparency on ad policies.”

The report was undertaken in May of last year, when Facebook retained Covington and Burling, led by former Republican Senator Jon Kyl, to look into the allegations loudly being made at the time that there was some kind of anti-conservative bias on the social network.

“We know we need to take these concerns seriously,” wrote VP of global affairs and communications Nick Clegg. Of course, Facebook says it takes everything seriously, so it’s hard to be sure sometimes.

Covington and Burling’s approach was to interview more than a hundred individuals and organizations that fall under the broad umbrella of “conservative” about their concerns. These would be sorted, summarized, and presented to Facebook leadership.

By far the biggest concern wasn’t anything like “they’re censoring us” or “they’re pushing an agenda.” These views, which are often over-amplified, don’t seem to reflect what everyday folks and businesses are having trouble with on the platform.

Instead, the largest concern is transparency. The people interviewed were mainly concerned that the policies behind content moderation, ad approval, fact-checking, and so on were inadequately explained. In the absence of good explanations, these people understandably supplied their own, usually along the lines that they were being targeted inordinately in comparison with those left of them politically.

It’s worth noting here that no evidence that this was or wasn’t the case was sought or presented. The surveys were about concerns people had, and did not extend to anything like “provide the logs where you can see this happened,” or anything like that. What was gathered was strictly anecdotal.

In a way this feels irresponsible, in that anyone could voice their concern about a problem that may very well not exist, or that may not be universally agreed is a problem. For instance some groups complained that their anti-abortion ads featuring premature babies were being removed. Maybe Facebook feels that images of bloody, screaming children will not increase time on site.

hatespeech

Unfortunately hate speech is real and here to stay. But it is valid to take issue with the subjectivity of how it may be determined as such.

But at the same time, the intent was not to quantify and solve bias, necessarily, but to understand how people perceived bias in day-to-day use of the site in the first place.

As you may have perceived, the concerns of conservatives in fact mirror the concerns of liberals: that Facebook is applying unknown and unknowable processes to the selection and display of content on the platform, and that our ability to question or challenge these processes is limited. These are nonpartisan issues.

Facebook’s response since the report was commissioned (in other words, over the last year and a half) has been to generally provide more information whenever it has stepped in to touch a post, ad, or other user data. It now tells people why certain posts are being shown, it has better documented news feed ranking (though not too well, lest someone take advantage), and it has created a better system for making content removal decisions, as well as a better appeal process.

So it says, anyway, but we can hardly take the company at its word that it has increased diversity, improved tools, and so forth. The investigation by Covington and Burling continues and these are but the preliminary results. Clegg writes that “This is the first stage of an ongoing process and Senator Kyl and his team will report again in a few months’ time.”

You can read the full interim report below:

Facebook – Covington Interim Report 1 by TechCrunch on Scribd

This hand-tracking algorithm could lead to sign language recognition

Millions of people communicate using sign language, but so far projects to capture its complex gestures and translate them to verbal speech have had limited success. A new advance in real-time hand tracking from Google’s AI labs, however, could be the breakthrough some have been waiting for.

The new technique uses a few clever shortcuts and of course the increasing general efficiency of machine learning systems to produce, in real time, a highly accurate map of the hand and all its fingers, using nothing but a smartphone and its camera.

“Whereas current state-of-the-art approaches rely primarily on powerful desktop environments for inference, our method achieves real-time performance on a mobile phone, and even scales to multiple hands,” write Google researchers Valentin Bazarevsky and Fan Zhang in a blog post. “Robust real-time hand perception is a decidedly challenging computer vision task, as hands often occlude themselves or each other (e.g. finger/palm occlusions and hand shakes) and lack high contrast patterns.”

Not only that, but hand movements are often quick, subtle, or both — not necessarily the kind of thing that computers are good at catching in real time. Basically it’s just super hard to do right, and doing it right is hard to do fast. Even with multi-camera, depth-sensing rigs like those used by SignAll have trouble tracking every movement. (But that isn’t stopping them.)

The researchers’ aim in this case, at least partly, was to cut down on the amount of data that the algorithms needed to sift through. Less data means quicker turnaround.

handgesturesFor one thing, they abandoned the idea of having a system detect the position and size of the whole hand. Instead, they only have the system find the palm, which is not only the most distinctive and reliably shaped part of the hand, but is square to boot, meaning they didn’t have to worry about the system being able to handle tall rectangular images, short ones, and so on.

Once the palm is recognized, of course, the fingers sprout out of one end of it and can be analyzed separately. A separate algorithm looks at the image and assigns 21 coordinates, roughly coordinating to knuckles and fingertips, to it, including how far away they likely are (it can guess based on the size and angle of the palm, among other things).

To do this finger recognition part, they first had to manually add those 21 points to some 30,000 images of hands in various poses and lighting situations, for the machine learning system to ingest and learn from. As usual, artificial intelligence relies on hard human work to get going.

Once the pose of the hand is determined, that pose is compared to a bunch of known gestures, from sign language symbols for letters and numbers to things like “peace” and “metal.”

The result is a hand-tracking algorithm that’s both fast and accurate, and runs on a normal smartphone rather than a tricked-out desktop or the cloud (i.e. someone else’s tricked-out desktop). It all runs within the MediaPipe framework, which multimedia tech people may already know something about.

With luck other researchers will be able to take this and run with it, perhaps improving existing systems that needed beefier hardware to do the kind of hand recognition they needed to recognize gestures. It’s a long way from here to really understanding sign language, though, which uses both hands, facial expressions, and other cues to produce a rich mode of communication unlike any other.

This isn’t being used in any Google products yet, so the researchers were free to give their work away for free. The source code is here for anyone to take and build on.

“We hope that providing this hand perception functionality to the wider research and development community will result in an emergence of creative use cases, stimulating new applications and new research avenues,” they write.

Without evidence, Trump accuses Google of manipulating millions of votes

The president this morning lashed out at Google on Twitter, accusing the company of manipulating millions of votes in the 2016 election to sway it toward Hillary Clinton. The authority on which he bases this serious accusation, however, is little more than supposition in an old paper reheated by months-old congressional testimony.

Trump’s tweet this morning actually cited no paper at all, in fact, though he did tag conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch, perhaps asking them to investigate. It’s also unclear who he thinks should sue the company.

Coincidentally, Fox News had just mentioned the existence of such a report about five minutes earlier. Trump has also recently criticized Google and CEO Sundar Pichai over a variety of perceived slights.

In fact, the report was not “just issued,” and does not say what the president suggests it did. What both Fox and Trump appear to be referring to is a paper published in 2017 that described what the authors say was a bias in Google and other search engines during the run-up to the 2016 election.

If you’re wondering why you haven’t heard about this particular study, I can tell you why — it’s a very bad study. Its contents do not amount to anything, let alone evidence by which to accuse a major company of election interference.

The authors looked at search results for 95 people over the 25 days preceding the election and evaluated the first page for bias. They claim to have found that based on “crowdsourced” determinations of bias, the process for which is not described, that most search results, especially on Google, tended to be biased in favor of Clinton.

No data on these searches, such as a sample search and results and how they were determined to be biased, is provided. There’s no discussion of the fact, for example, that Google routinely and openly tailors search results based on a person’s previous searches, stated preferences, location and so on.

In fact, Epstein’s “report” lacks all the qualifications of any ordinary research paper.

There is no abstract or introduction, no methods section to show the statistics work and definitions of terms, no discussion, no references. Without this basic information the document is not only incapable of being reviewed by peers or experts, but is indistinguishable from completely invented suppositions. Nothing in this paper can be in any way verified.

Robert Epstein freely references himself, however: a single 2015 paper in PNAS on how search results could be deliberately manipulated to affect a voter looking for information on candidates, and the many, many opinion pieces he has written on the subject, frequently on far-right outlets the Epoch Times and Daily Caller, but also non-partisan ones like USA Today and Bloomberg Businessweek.

The numbers advanced in the study are completely without merit. Citing math he does not describe, Epstein says that “a pro-Clinton bias in Google’s search results would over time, shift at least 2.6 million votes to Clinton.” No mechanism or justification for this assertion is provided, except a highly theoretical one based on ideas and assumptions from his 2015 study, which had little in common with this one. The numbers are, essentially, made up.

In other words, this so-called report is nothing of the kind — a nonfactual document written with no scientific justification of its claims written by someone who publishes anti-Google editorials almost monthly. It was not published in a journal of any kind, simply put online at a private nonprofit research agency called the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, where Epstein is on staff and which appears to exist almost solely to promote his work — such as it is.

(In response to my inquiry, AIBRT said that it is not legally bound to reveal its donors and chooses not to, but stated that it does not accept “gifts that might cause the organization to bias its research projects in any way.”)

Lastly, in his paper, Epstein speculates that Google may have been manipulating the data they were collecting for the report, citing differences between data from Gmail users and non-users, choosing to throw away all the former while still reporting of it:

As you can see, the search results seen by non-gmail users were far more biased than the results seen by gmail users. Perhaps Google identified our confidants through its gmail system and targeted them to receive unbiased results; we have no way to confirm this at present, but it is a plausible explanation for the pattern of results we found.

I leave it to the reader to judge the plausibility of this assertion.

If that were all, it would be more than enough. But Trump’s citation of this flimsy paper doesn’t even get the facts right. His assertion was that “Google manipulated from 2.6 million to 16 million votes for Hillary Clinton in 2016 Election,” and the report doesn’t even state that.

The source for this false claim appears to be Epstein’s recent appearance in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee in July. Here he received star treatment from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who asked him to share his expert opinion on the possibility of tech manipulation of voting. Cruz’s previous expert for this purpose was conservative radio talk show host Dennis Prager.

Again citing no data, studies or mechanisms whatsoever, Epstein described 2.6 million as a “rock-bottom minimum” of votes that Google, Facebook, Twitter and others could have affected (he does not say did affected, or attempted to affect). He also says that in subsequent elections, specifically in 2020, “if all these companies are supporting the same candidate, there are 15 million votes on the line that can be shifted without people’s knowledge and without leaving a paper trail for authorities to trace.”

“The methods they are using are invisible, they’re subliminal, they’re more powerful than most any effects I’ve seen in the behavioral sciences,” Epstein said, but did not actually describe what the techniques are. Though he did suggest that Mark Zuckerberg could send out a “get out the vote” notification only to Democrats and no one would ever know — absurd.

In other words, the numbers are not only invented, but unrelated to the 2016 election, and inclusive of all tech companies, not just Google. Even if Epstein’s claims were anywhere near justifiable, Trump’s tweet mischaracterizes them and gets everything wrong. Nothing about any of this is anywhere close to correct.

Google issued a statement addressing the president’s accusation, saying, “This researcher’s inaccurate claim has been debunked since it was made in 2016. As we stated then, we have never re-ranked or altered search results to manipulate political sentiment.”

You can read the full “report” below:

EPSTEIN & ROBERTSON 2017-A Method for Detecting Bias in Search Rankings-AIBRT by TechCrunch on Scribd

Flexible stick-on sensors could wirelessly monitor your sweat and pulse

As people strive ever harder to minutely quantify every action they do, the sensors that monitor those actions are growing lighter and less invasive. Two prototype sensors from crosstown rivals Stanford and Berkeley stick right to the skin and provide a wealth of phsyiological data.

Stanford’s stretchy wireless “BodyNet” isn’t just flexible in order to survive being worn on the shifting surface of the body; that flexing is where its data comes from.

The sensor is made of metallic ink laid on top of a flexible material like that in an adhesive bandage. But unlike phones and smart watches, which use tiny accelerometers or optical tricks to track the body, this system relies on how it is itself stretched and compressed. These movements cause tiny changes in how electricity passes through the ink, changes that are relayed to a processor nearby.

Naturally if one is placed on a joint, as some of these electronic stickers were, it can report back whether and how much that joint has been flexed. But the system is sensitive enough that it can also detect the slight changes the skin experiences during each heartbeat, or the broader changes that accompany breathing.

The problem comes when you have to get that signal off the skin. Using a wire is annoying and definitely very ’90s. But antennas don’t work well when they’re flexed in weird directions — efficiency drops off a cliff, and there’s very little power to begin with — the skin sensor is powered by harvesting RFID signals, a technique that renders very little in the way of voltage.

bodynet sticker and receiver

The second part of their work, then, and the part that is clearly most in need of further improvement and miniaturization, is the receiver, which collects and re-transmits the sensor’s signal to a phone or other device. Although they managed to create a unit that’s light enough to be clipped to clothes, it’s still not the kind of thing you’d want to wear to the gym.

The good news is that’s an engineering and design limitation, not a theoretical one — so a couple years of work and progress on the electronics front and they could have a much more attractive system.

“We think one day it will be possible to create a full-body skin-sensor array to collect physiological data without interfering with a person’s normal behavior,” Stanford professor Zhenan Bao in a news release.

Over at Cal is a project in a similar domain that’s working to get from prototype to production. Researchers there have been working on a sweat monitor for a few years that could detect a number of physiological factors.

SensorOnForehead BN

Normally you’d just collect sweat every 15 minutes or so and analyze each batch separately. But that doesn’t really give you very good temporal resolution — what if you want to know how the sweat changes minute by minute or less? By putting the sweat collection and analysis systems together right on the skin, you can do just that.

While the sensor has  been in the works for a while, it’s only recently that the team has started moving towards user testing at scale to see what exactly sweat measurements have to offer.

RollToRoll BN 768x960“The goal of the project is not just to make the sensors but start to do many subject studies and see what sweat tells us — I always say ‘decoding’ sweat composition. For that we need sensors that are reliable, reproducible, and that we can fabricate to scale so that we can put multiple sensors in different spots of the body and put them on many subjects,” explained Ali Javey, Berkeley professor and head of the project.

As anyone who’s working in hardware will tell you, going from a hand-built prototype to a mass-produced model is a huge challenge. So the Berkeley team tapped their Finnish friends at VTT Technical Research Center, who make a specialty of roll-to-roll printing.

For flat, relatively simple electronics, roll-to-roll is a great technique, essentially printing the sensors right onto a flexible plastic substrate that can then simply be cut to size. This way they can make hundreds or thousands of the sensors quickly and cheaply, making them much simpler to deploy at arbitrary scales.

These are far from the only flexible or skin-mounted electronics projects out there, but it’s clear that we’re approaching the point when they begin to leave the lab and head out to hospitals, gyms, and homes.

The paper describing Stanford’s flexible sensor appeared this week in the journal Nature Electronics, while Berkeley’s sweat tracker was in Science Advances.

Toolkit for digital abuse could help victims protect themselves

Domestic abuse comes in digital forms as well as physical and emotional, but a lack of tools to address this kind of behavior leaves many victims unprotected and desperate for help. This Cornell project aims to define and detect digital abuse in a systematic way.

Digital abuse may be many things: hacking the victim’s computer, using knowledge of passwords or personal date to impersonate them or interfere with their presence online, accessing photos to track their location, and so on. As with other forms of abuse, there are as many patterns as there are people who suffer from it.

But with something like emotional abuse, there are decades of studies and clinical approaches to address how to categorize and cope with it. Not so with newer phenomena like being hacked or stalked via social media. That means there’s little standard playbook for them, and both abused and those helping them are left scrambling for answers.

“Prior to this work, people were reporting that the abusers were very sophisticated hackers, and clients were receiving inconsistent advice. Some people were saying, ‘Throw your device out.’ Other people were saying, ‘Delete the app.’ But there wasn’t a clear understanding of how this abuse was happening and why it was happening,” explained Diana Freed, a doctoral student at Cornell Tech and co-author of a new paper about digital abuse.

“They were making their best efforts, but there was no uniform way to address this,” said co-author Sam Havron. “They were using Google to try to help clients with their abuse situations.”

Investigating this problem with the help of a National Science Foundation grant to examine the role of tech in domestic abuse, they and some professor collaborators at Cornell and NYU came up with a new approach.

There’s a standardized questionnaire to characterize the type of tech-based being experienced. It may not occur to someone who isn’t tech-savvy that their partner may know their passwords, or that there are social media settings they can use to prevent that partner from seeing their posts. This information and other data are added to a sort of digital presence diagram the team calls the “technograph” and which helps the victim visualize their technological assets and exposure.

technograph filled

The team also created a device they call the IPV Spyware Discovery, or ISDi. It’s basically spyware scanning software loaded on a device that can check the victim’s device without having to install anything. This is important because an abuser may have installed tracking software that would alert them if the victim is trying to remove it. Sound extreme? Not to people fighting a custody battle who can’t seem to escape the all-seeing eye of an abusive ex. And these spying tools are readily available for purchase.

“It’s consistent, it’s data-driven and it takes into account at each phase what the abuser will know if the client makes changes. This is giving people a more accurate way to make decisions and providing them with a comprehensive understanding of how things are happening,” explained Freed.

Even if the abuse can’t be instantly counteracted, it can be helpful simply to understand it and know that there are some steps that can be taken to help.

The authors have been piloting their work at New York’s Family Justice Centers, and following some testing have released the complete set of documents and tools for anyone to use.

This isn’t the team’s first piece of work on the topic — you can read their other papers and learn more about their ongoing research at the Intimate Partner Violence Tech Research program site.

These robo-shorts are the precursor to a true soft exoskeleton

When someone says “robotic exoskeleton,” the power loaders from Aliens are what come to mind for most people (or at least me), but the real things will be much different: softer, smarter, and used for much more ordinary tasks. The latest such exo from Harvard is so low-profile you could wear it around the house.

Designed by researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute (in collaboration with several other institutions), which focuses on soft robotics and bio-inspired mechanisms, the exosuit isn’t for heavy lifting or combating xenomorphs but simply walking and running a little bit more easily.

The suit, which is really more of a pair of shorts with a mechanism attached at the lower back and cables going to straps on the legs, is intended to simply assist the leg in its hip-extension movement, common to most forms of locomotion.

An onboard computer (and neural network, naturally) detects the movements of the wearer’s body and determines both the type of gait (walking or running) and what phase of that gait the leg is currently in. It gives the leg making the movement a little boost, making it just that much easier to do it.

In testing, the suit reduced the metabolic load of walking by 9.3 percent and running by 4 percent. That might not sound like much, but they weren’t looking to create an Olympic-quality cyborg — just show reliable gains from a soft, portable exosuit.

“While the metabolic reductions we found are modest, our study demonstrates that it is possible to have a portable wearable robot assist more than just a single activity, helping to pave the way for these systems to become ubiquitous in our lives,” said lead study author Conor Walsh in a news release.

The whole idea, then, is to leave behind the idea of an exosuit as a big mechanical thing for heavy industry or work, and bring in the idea that one could help an elderly person stand up from a chair, or someone recovering from an accident walk farther without fatigue.

rt scitoc aug16 r1

The whole device, shorts and all, weighs about 5 kilograms, or 11 pounds. Most of that is in the little battery and motor pack stashed at the top of the shorts, near the body’s center of mass, helping it feel lighter than it is.

Of course this is the kind of thing the military is very interested in — not just for active duty (a soldier who can run twice as far or fast) but for treatment of the wounded. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that this came out of a DARPA project initiated years ago (and ongoing in other forms).

But by far the more promising applications are civilian, in the medical field and beyond. “We are excited to continue to apply it to a range of applications, including assisting those with gait impairments, industry workers at risk of injury performing physically strenuous tasks, or recreational weekend warriors,” said Walsh.

Currently the team is hard at work improving the robo-shorts, reducing the weight, making the assistance more powerful and more intuitive, and so on. The paper describing their system was the cover story of this week’s edition of the journal Science.

Look inside Virgin Galactic’s shiny new Spaceport America

For a couple of years now Virgin Galactic’s Spaceport America was more aspirational than functional, but now it’s been built out with the necessaries for commercial spaceflight — mainly coffee. The company just showed off the newly redesigned space from which it plans to launch flights… sometime.

Much of the undulating, aesthetically rusted building, located deep in the desert of New Mexico, is dedicated to housing the carrier craft and rocket planes that the company has been testing for the last few years.

That was almost certainly the hard part, in fact: relocating the infrastructure necessary to support the spacefaring vehicles, including engineers, equipment and supply chain people, as Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides told me in May.

But the spaceport itself must also become a place for humans to arrive, park at, nervously sip coffee and have a pre-flight meal — if that’s really a good idea for your first trip to space. Maybe stick to coffee.

The “first phase” of the consumer-side build-out includes an elegantly appointed little restaurant and cafe, and upstairs can be found “mission control,” which looks more like a conference room than a spaceplane pilot staging area.

[gallery ids="1869269,1869273,1869279,1869270,1869266,1869277,1869271"]

There are a number of little lounge areas for passengers and others to congregate in, and if the scale seems a little small, keep in mind that this isn’t an airport food court. These flights are going to be full, but they’re also going to be six passengers at a time.

Jeremy Brown, design director for Spaceport America, explains that the choice of materials and terraced surfaces, leading up to the lighter, airier second story, is meant to evoke the landscape outside, which nearly all the seating faces, and draw the attention outwards and upwards.

Although Virgin Galactic has had several successful test flights, there’s no indication when its first actual commercial flight will be.

“The last flight we did, we basically demonstrated a full commercial profile, including the interior of the vehicle,” Whitesides said in May. “Not only did we, you know, go up to space and come down, but because Beth was in the back — Beth Moses, our flight instructor — she was sort of our mock passenger. She got up a couple times and moved around, she was able to verify our cabin conditions.”

The paperwork is in order and the spaceport itself is now equipped with a cafe, so I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw the first flight from Virgin Galactic before the end of the year.

Racial bias observed in hate speech detection algorithm from Google

Understanding what makes something offensive or hurtful is difficult enough that many people can’t figure it out, let alone AI systems. And people of color are frequently left out of AI training sets. So it’s little surprise that Alphabet/Google -spawned Jigsaw manages to trip over both of these issues at once, flagging slang used by black Americans as toxic.

To be clear, the study was not specifically about evaluating the company’s hate speech detection algorithm, which has faced issues before. Instead it is cited as a contemporary attempt to computationally dissect speech and assign a “toxicity score” — and that it appears to fail in a way indicative of bias against black American speech patterns.

The researchers, at the University of Washington, were interested in the idea that databases of hate speech currently available might have racial biases baked in — like many other data sets that suffered from a lack of inclusive practices during formation.

They looked at a handful of such databases, essentially thousands of tweets annotated by people as being “hateful,” “offensive,” “abusive” and so on. These databases were also analyzed to find language strongly associated with African American English or white-aligned English.

Combining these two sets basically let them see whether white or black vernacular had a higher or lower chance of being labeled offensive. Lo and behold, black-aligned English was much more likely to be labeled offensive.

For both datasets, we uncover strong associations between inferred AAE dialect and various hate speech categories, specifically the “offensive” label from DWMW 17 (r = 0.42) and the “abusive” label from FDCL 18 (r = 0.35), providing evidence that dialect-based bias is present in these corpora.

The experiment continued with the researchers sourcing their own annotations for tweets, and found that similar biases appeared. But by “priming” annotators with the knowledge that the person tweeting was likely black or using black-aligned English, the likelihood that they would label a tweet offensive dropped considerably.

3tweets

Examples of control, dialect priming and race priming for annotators

This isn’t to say necessarily that annotators are all racist or anything like that. But the job of determining what is and isn’t offensive is a complex one socially and linguistically, and obviously awareness of the speaker’s identity is important in some cases, especially in cases where terms once used derisively to refer to that identity have been reclaimed.

What’s all this got to do with Alphabet, or Jigsaw, or Google? Well, Jigsaw is a company built out of Alphabet — which we all really just think of as Google by another name — with the intention of helping moderate online discussion by automatically detecting (among other things) offensive speech. Its Perspective API lets people input a snippet of text and receive a “toxicity score.”

As part of the experiment, the researchers fed to Perspective a bunch of the tweets in question. What they saw were “correlations between dialects/groups in our datasets and the Perspective toxicity scores. All correlations are significant, which indicates potential racial bias for all datasets.”

chart perspe

Chart showing that African American English (AAE) was more likely to be labeled toxic by Alphabet’s Perspective API

So basically, they found that Perspective was way more likely to label black speech as toxic, and white speech otherwise. Remember, this isn’t a model thrown together on the back of a few thousand tweets — it’s an attempt at a commercial moderation product.

As this comparison wasn’t the primary goal of the research, but rather a byproduct, it should not be taken as some kind of massive takedown of Jigsaw’s work. On the other hand, the differences shown are very significant and quite in keeping with the rest of the team’s findings. At the very least it is, as with the other data sets evaluated, a signal that the processes involved in their creation need to be reevaluated.

I’ve asked the researchers for a bit more information on the paper and will update this post if I hear back. In the meantime, you can read the full paper, which was presented at the Proceedings of the Association for Computational Linguistics in Florence, below:

The Risk of Racial Bias in Hate Speech Detection by TechCrunch on Scribd