London show explores hidden world of facial recognition
By JILL LAWLESS
Monday, September 3
LONDON (AP) — Don’t judge by appearances. It’s an age-old piece of advice that is being roundly ignored by corporations, governments and law-enforcement agencies around the globe.
British police use facial-recognition technology to scan crowds for suspects. Owners of the latest iPhones can unlock their phones with face ID. Whole Foods and other retailers are testing facial recognition as a way of eliminating check-out tills in stores.
Modern technology means your face is both your identity and a commodity — but as an exhibition going on display in London shows, that technology is far from perfect.
“Face Values,” the U.S. entry at the multinational London Design Biennale, explores how computers’ ability to read faces is changing the world, with implications for privacy and individuality that we still don’t fully understand.
“We are on camera 50 times a day and there are all these software companies that are deriving information from us,” said R. Luke DuBois, one of the exhibition’s designers.
Curated by New York’s Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum , “Face Values” includes two interactive pieces that explore the scope and limits of what technology can learn about you from your face.
Artist and computer programmer Zachary Lieberman invites visitors to sit in front of a screen as a computer maps their expressions, compares them to others’ and produces an analysis of the sitter’s emotion.
“It’s a kind of fingerprint of your facial expression,” said Lieberman, who has helped design an eye-tracking system for people with paralysis.
“This project involved a lot of trying to understand, how do you quantify expression?” he said at a preview of the exhibition on Monday. “How do you turn expression into numbers,” in order to compare one expression to another.
The limits of such technology become clearer in the accompanying piece by DuBois, director of the Brooklyn Experimental Media Center at New York University’s engineering school.
Visitors sit in front of a screen and are asked to display a specific emotion. Using technology similar to that deployed by some police forces, the system calculates the individual’s age, gender, race and emotional state. The results are both intrusive and sometimes inaccurate. One visitor, attempting to project calmness, registered as afraid. Another, asked to look disgusted, was told she appeared happy.
DuBois said the technology is only as good as the data that goes into it — and the sets of images that companies and organizations use to compare emotions are often inadequate.
The rules governing the use of such technology vary widely around the world. In China, facial recognition is being used with few restrictions for everything from advertising to law-enforcement. In the European Union, data-protection rules mean personal information can’t be collected without the subject’s consent. The U.S. has no such limits, although California recently passed a similar law.
DuBois says he wants to increase awareness about this powerful and fast-developing technology.
“In an older era — like 10 years ago — we should have been paying a lot more attention to what kind of data Facebook was taking from us,” he said. “And now it’s a little too late.”
Cooper Hewitt hopes to take its exhibit to the United States after its run in London.
The Design Biennale, which runs Tuesday to Sept. 23 at London’s Somerset House, includes exhibits from 40 countries, cities and territories under the loose theme “Emotional States.” They include Latvia’s birch- and pine-scented room, where visitors can write on a green wall of condensation; Australia’s rainbow-colored installation celebrating same-sex marriage; and Hong Kong’s room plastered with scratch-and-sniff wallpaper scented like roast duck, egg tarts, incense and opium.
Follow Jill Lawless on Twitter at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless
How will Google’s innovation continue beyond its 20th year?
September 4, 2018
Professor of Information and Library Science, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Gary Marchionini owns a small amount of Google stock (2 shares I bought for my grandchildren) and of course through various funds in my retirement accounts. I have had grants from NSF to study information retrieval research over the past 25 years and my students and I have had research grants from Google (most recent was about 5 years ago).
University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.
As millions of people came online in the late 1990s they needed help figuring out what each webpage was about, and how to find what they were looking for. Web indexes and search engines sprang up. When Google was founded in September 1998, it had to compete with the information retrieval algorithms and techniques – nicknamed “secret sauce” – used by Lycos, Yahoo and other companies.
Technically speaking, Google added two innovations: highly efficient processes for crawling webpages to index their text, and a new way of ranking a page’s relevance based on the number and quality of pages that linked to it. In addition, its interface was refreshingly clean: In an internet then pervaded by pages with lists of lists, Google offered a spare alternative, with just a box to type search terms and a “Search” button.
Even more startling was Google’s confidence in its abilities. The company offered a second button, whimsically labeled “I’m feeling lucky,” which would take users directly to the webpage that was the top result – skipping the step of listing possible search results for a user to choose from. It also sought to be a different kind of technology company, early on adopting a straightforward corporate motto: “Don’t be evil.” Two decades into Google’s history, the power of search is still paramount: Entire businesses and professions are built around crafting internet content that will rise to the top of its search results.
But there are signs of trouble. The company’s role in providing misleading information to U.S. voters is under scrutiny. More than 3,100 Google employees signed a public letter protesting the use of their work in warfare technologies – and about a dozen of them resigned in protest. Even more recently, 1,600 Googlers signed a petition to stop their employer from opening a government-restricted search service in China. Additionally, President Donald Trump has questioned whether its rankings for news stories are fair. What might the next 20 years of Google bring?
Google is used to being under scrutiny. In late July 2004 in Sheffield, England, I recall the buzz the company created at the 27th Annual Association of Computing Machinery Special Interest Group in Information Retrieval Research Conference. There were betting pools about when Google would offer its stock for public purchase, and at what price. The Google employees were easy to spot, only using their laptops while sitting with their backs to a wall, so nobody could see what they were reading or typing.
The company founded by two Stanford graduate students in 1998, which went public on Aug. 19, 2004, at US$85 a share, still gets the vast majority of its annual revenue from selling search-related advertising.
Yet Google has grown too, in part thanks to a policy giving employees the freedom to work one day a week on side projects that catch their fancy. Now reorganized into an umbrella company called Alphabet, the company has expanded into industries as diverse as smartphone operating systems, mapping apps and self-driving vehicles.
Many of the company’s efforts to diversify build on strengths it has developed providing search, such as cloud computing systems that take advantage of Google engineers’ experience managing massive data centers and huge amounts of traffic from – and to – sites all around the world.
The company’s massive index of information in many languages is what enabled Google to build a machine-translation system between any of 100 languages. That will help Google remain globally valuable even as Baidu dominates Chinese-language searches.
Google’s future depends on continuing to create and leverage indexes on features beyond the words on webpages. Combining the ability to identify a user performing the search with its knowledge of that person’s search history and their current location, Google can already provide finely tuned personalized results. A new company effort is already planning to use health devices people wear, implant or carry on their bodies to provide useful nutrition and fitness tips.
Google is no doubt planning to add to its special sauce indexes of social media posts, data from sensors in the environment – including cameras, microphones and all sorts of connected “internet of things” devices.
Google is already applying its expertise to its line of smart speakers and personal assistants, offering its well-regarded search results through voice recognition and spoken responses. One day typing text onto a screen may seem as quaint as rotary phones.
A next category of features might be called anticipatory search, providing information or suggesting action without a user even specifying a query. For instance, some cars already go beyond alerting the driver to low fuel levels, locating and providing directions to nearby gas stations. One day a personal fitness tracker might note that a user’s resting heart rate is 15 percent higher this week than the average over the past six months. From there, it might offer up research or doctors’ advice about cardiovascular health.
Google may even ramp up its efforts to distinguish people from machines – such as “captcha” challenges and multi-factor authentication processes. From there, it may work to eliminate the increasing efforts from both humans and computers – such as Russian government agents and Twitter bots – to secretly influence search results for malicious purposes.
These features may sound exciting and useful, but they also carry important ethical concerns, about who can access people’s personal data, and for what purposes. It will be interesting to see whether the concerns Google employees are currently expressing about political uses of their work will extend to personal privacy, and whether – and how – any objections might influence searches in the future.
TV’s first interracial kiss launched a lifelong career in activism
September 3, 2018
Professor of History, Arizona State University
Matthew Delmont does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Arizona State University provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.
On Nov. 22, 1968, an episode of “Star Trek” titled “Plato’s Stepchildren” broadcast the first interracial kiss on American television.
The episode’s plot is bizarre: Aliens who worship the Greek philosopher Plato use telekinetic powers to force the Enterprise crew to sing, dance and kiss. At one point, the aliens compel Lieutenant Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) and Captain Kirk (William Shatner) to embrace. Each character tries to resist, but eventually Kirk tilts Uhura back and the two kiss as the aliens lasciviously look on.
The smooch is not a romantic one. But in 1968 to show a black woman kissing a white man was a daring move.
The episode aired just one year after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Loving v. Virginia decision struck down state laws against interracial marriage. At the time, Gallup polls showed that fewer than 20 percent of Americans approved of such relationships.
As a historian of civil rights and media, I’ve been fascinated by the woman at the center of this landmark television moment. Casting Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura created possibilities for more creative and socially relevant “Star Trek” story lines.
But just as significant is Nichols’s off-screen activism. She leveraged her role on “Star Trek” to become a recruiter for NASA, where she pushed for change in the space program. Her career arc shows how diverse casting on the screen can have a profound impact in the real world, too.
‘A triumph of modern-day TV’
In 1966, “Star Trek” creator Gene Rodenberry decided to cast Nichelle Nichols to play Lieutenant Uhura, a translator and communications officer from the United States of Africa. In doing so, he made Nichols the first African-American woman to have a continuing co-starring role on television.
The African-American press was quick to heap praise on Nichols’s pioneering role.
The Norfolk Journal and Guide hoped that it would “broaden her race’s foothold on the tube.”
The magazine Ebony featured Nichols on its January 1967 cover and described Uhura as “the first Negro astronaut, a triumph of modern-day TV over modern-day NASA.”
Yet the famous kiss between Uhura and Kirk almost never happened.
After the first season of “Star Trek” concluded in 1967, Nichols considered quitting after being offered a role on Broadway. She had started her career as a singer in New York and always dreamed of returning to the Big Apple.
But at a NAACP fundraiser in Los Angeles, she ran into Martin Luther King Jr.
Nichols would later recount their interaction.
“You must not leave,” King told her. “You have opened a door that must not be allowed to close…you changed the face of television forever…For the first time, the world sees us as we should be seen, as equals, as intelligent people.”
King went on to say that he and his family were fans of the show; she was a “hero” to his children.
With King’s encouragement, Nichols stayed on “Star Trek” for the original series’ full three-year run.
Nichols’ controversial kiss took place at the end of the third season. Nichols recalled that NBC executives closely monitored the filming because they were nervous about how Southern television stations and viewers would react.
Nichelle Nichols recounts the reaction to filming the first interracial kiss on television.
After the episode aired, the network did receive an outpouring of letters from viewers – and the majority were positive.
In 1982, Nichols would tell the Baltimore Afro-American that she was amused by the amount of attention the kiss generated, especially because her own heritage was “a blend of races that includes Egyptian, Ethiopian, Moor, Spanish, Welsh, Cherokee Indian and a ‘blond blue-eyed ancestor or two.’”
But Nichols’s legacy would be defined by far more than a kiss.
After NBC canceled Star Trek in 1969, Nichols took minor acting roles on two television series, “Insight” and “The D.A.” She would also play a madame in the 1974 blaxploitation film “Truck Turner.”
She also started to dabble in activism and education. In 1975, Nichols established Women in Motion, Inc. and won several government contracts to produce educational programs related to space and science. By 1977, she had been appointed to the board of directors of the National Space Institute, a civil space advocacy organization.
That year she gave a speech at the institute’s annual meeting, “New Opportunities for the Humanization of Space, or Space: What’s in it for Me?” In it, she critiqued the lack of women and minorities in the astronaut corps, challenging NASA to “come down from your ivory tower of intellectual pursuit, because the next Einstein might have a Black face – and she’s female.”
Several of NASA’s top administrators were in the audience. They invited her to lead an astronaut recruitment program for the new space shuttle program. Soon, she packed her bags and began traveling the country, visiting high schools and colleges, speaking with professional organizations and legislators, and appearing on national television programs such as “Good Morning America.”
“The aim was to find qualified people among women and minorities, then to convince them that the opportunity was real and that it also was a duty, because this was historic,” Nichols told the Baltimore Afro-American in 1979. “I really had this sense of purpose about it myself.”
In her 1994 autobiography, “Beyond Uhura,” Nichols recalled that in the seven months before the recruitment program began, “NASA had received only 1,600 applications, including fewer than 100 from women and 35 from minority candidates.” But by the end of June 1977, “just four months after we assumed our task, 8,400 applications were in, including 1,649 from women (a 15-fold increase) and an astounding 1,000 from minorities.”
Nichols’s campaign recruited several trailblazing astronauts, including Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, Guion Bluford, the first African-American in space, and Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space.
Relentless advocacy for inclusion
Her advocacy for inclusion and diversity wasn’t limited to the space program.
As one of the first black women in a major television role, Nichols understood the importance of opening doors for minorities and women in entertainment.
Nichols continued to push for African-Americans to have more power in film and television.
“Until we Blacks and minorities become not only the producers, writers and directors, but the buyers and distributors, we’re not going to change anything,” she told Ebony in 1985. “Until we become industry, until we control media or at least have enough say, we will always be the chauffeurs and tap dancers.”
It’s an issue that, unfortunately, remains relevant today. In February of this year, UCLA’s annual Hollywood Diversity Report found that women and people of color continue to be underrepresented as directors and in studio board rooms. It concluded that “Hollywood studios are leaving money on the table by not developing films and TV shows with more diverse casts.”
Fifty years ago, Nichols’s kiss may have broken an important cultural barrier. But as Nichols well knows, the quest to secure opportunities for women and minorities persists to this day – an effort that requires relentless pressure.