How can I force Picasa to rescan faces?

London 2010 Basketball arena

Picasa is Google’s free photo management application.  It appears to be an experimental project rather than a flagship product, but its extremely useful and versatile.  In particular, it allows management of photos without making a copy of each photograph inside the application.  This was the feature that prompted me to move my photo management into Picasa from Apple’s iPhoto (now discontinued) and why I have not moved on to its new ‘Photos’ offering.

Like those other programmes, Picasa has a powerful facial recognition feature.  Set it loose on your photos and it will recognise faces within them.  The software if powerful enough to identify blurred, grainy faces as well as in-focus portraits.  If you give a face a name, it will identify other similar faces and suggest that they are the same person.  I began tagging all my photographs like this.  Continue reading “How can I force Picasa to rescan faces?”

Google's Sochi Rainbow Doodle is Not All That

My social media stream is full of people praising Google for taking a ‘brave’ stand against the Russian state.  Why?  Well, today’s Google Doodle is a rainbow themed Winter Olympics Graphic.

The Russian Government has recently passed blasphemy laws and other measures that restrict freedom of expression.  They have also passed a ‘gay propaganda’ law which bans discussion of homosexuality around minors – an attack on the already embattled homosexual community in Russia.
Continue reading “Google's Sochi Rainbow Doodle is Not All That”

Driverless Cars

The driverless cars developed by Stanford University are an innovation to behold:

It is easy to understand how driverless cars would be safer.  Maintaining a constant speed on the motorways will reduce chaotic braking, and the small variations in spaces and speed that create phantom traffic jams will be eliminated.  And with a little bit of linking technology between a group of driverless cars, hazards in one place can be communicated to the other cars on the road much quicker than human drivers with their relatively poor reaction times.

Koushik Dutta runs through some of the implications of a driverless car:

The operating percent of a car will go from 4% to that 96%. But back to my leading statement: there are unintended consequences. Parked cars will be a relic from the past. What happens to car insurance prices if a driver is no longer part of the equation? And if cars are receiving 20 times more actual use, that would imply that there would be 20 times less cars sold. This is the kind of disruptive change that can reshape the automotive industry. The recent GM/Chrysler bailout may have been for naught. … Of course, car companies realize this. And I can guarantee you, they will lobby against driverless cars.

Despite the clear benefits of such driverless technology, one can also see how winning changes in legislation to operate driverless cars may lag far behind the technology. Aside from the active lobbying against such schemes from car companies (and haulage unions, taxi drivers, &ct) I imagine people and legislators would be slightly squeamish about letting automated cars out onto the road.  Even though we know that auto-pilots do most of the commercial airline flying, there is something reassuring about the fact that the pilot is on board, sharing the ‘danger’ of flying with you.  Presumably, a passenger in a driverless car would be able to take control of the vehicle if they needed to… but the real benefit of such a car is precisely that it can drive itself home (or, come and pick you up), making a portion of the journey with no-one in the vehicle.

There is also the problem of mixing human driven cars, with driverless cars.  The safety benefit of the new technology is surely at its greatest when everyone is using the driverless technology.  All vehicles can travel at a constant speed and there would not be any crashes.  But in order to introduce such technology, and to get it widely adopted, you have to go through an intermediate stage where early adopters have to share the roads with the human muggles who still insist on actually driving their cars.  Perhaps legislators will demand that the driverless vehicles are specially painted, or have flashing lights on them, to warn other drivers that their is something on the road that will not behave in the way you might expect, much like ‘Long Vehicle’ and ‘Wide Load’ livery on haulage vehicles.

A related problem is that when there is no actual person in the vehicles we share the road with, the moral duty we feel we owe to other drivers to stay safe will dissipate.  Driverless vehicles will not be given right of way, and human drivers will cut in front of driverless cars more frequently.   Young joyriders on bikes or in cars could start ‘teasing’ the driverless vehicles, deliberately driving erratically to test the avoidance capabilities of the software.

There is also a civil liberties concern, in that driverless cars will presumably log every journey they make somewhere, for diagnostic and ‘learning’ purposes, but this information could be exploited by the state, companies or anyone else who wants to invade your privacy.  Governments or commercial interests could programme cars to refuse to take you to certain locations, or to drive you via advertising hoardings.  This would be undesirable… but appropriate technological checks could easily guard against such abuse.

The way to introduce such technology is in a closed system, where the entire road infrastructure can be controlled. The DLR operates without drivers, and a new pod system has been introduced at Heathrow Airport, where driverless pods operate on dedicated lanes. Perhaps Heathrow or another airport, one out of the city centre and with a spur road serving it, could invest in dedicated driverless lanes, plus detailed road mapping, and some sort of API for their traffic lights? This would allow driverless cars to operate efficiently to-and-from the airport, and provide a ‘proof of concept’ to legislators and regulators.

Finally, there will be car enthusiasts who insist that driving a car is one of the joys of life. Why surrender it to a machine? Well, yes, but even though horse riding was made obsolete as a system of mass transit when engines (steam, internal combustion) were invented, enthusiasts can still do it for fun. But for those who only drive out of necessity, driverless cars offer a tantalising glimpse of a congestion free future.

Through A Web Darkly: The Dangers of Facebook and Google

Reading this article about the genesis and project management of Google+, a new social network, reminded me of the Through A Web Darkly event I attended at Demos last month. They’ve uploaded a helpful video outlining the main theme of the event – the idea that the ‘personalisation’ of the web might be a problem.

Its interesting that, as we move into an era where all the HTML code on our websites have been crafted for you us by the social networking companies, we are are nevertheless still the creators, or maybe the curators, of our online world. As Tom Chatfield put it (paraphrasing Alexis Madrigal) “Twitter is a human recommendation engine of which I am the algorithm.” The same is true of Facebook too, of course, which prioritises those people whose content you most frequently ‘like’. It is also true of Google, which is starting to take your location and your past browsing history into account when delivering search results. The danger with this, well documented with respects to Twitter, is that opinions that differ from your own are eventually weeded out of your personalised stream of information. Mistaken or ill-thought out beliefs are affirmed and not challenged, and our knowledge is weaker as a result. On a macro level, our democracies can become more polarised, with less consusus and a smaller space for compromise.

Once we are aware of this phenomenon, we can of course guard against it ‘manually’, by following people we disagree with, deliberately mixing up our RSS feeds, and otherwise introducing disruptions into the stream. There are two problems with this approach. The first, is that by confusiong or confounding the machines at Google and Facebook (to ensure that they serve you more diverse content) you are actually breaking their business model, because they can no longer target relevant adverts at you. If everyone did this, then advertisers will find other places to spend their pounds and dollars and the social internet services we rely upon may disappear. This is not necessarily our concern, and many people argue that essential web tools should not be provided by corporate bodies at all.

The second problem is that not everyone will introduce these disruptions into their stream. So while I may be reading all manner of different people with different views, they may not be reading me (or people like me) in return!

The worry, therefore, is that the liberating and equalising effects of the internet may begin to fizzle out. So far, we have been trumpeting the fact that anyone can become a global publisher with just a few keystrokes and clicks of a mouse. In recent years, once a website has been published, the author had the reasonable expectation that the site would have an equal chance of appearing, when a person looked for that subject matter on Google or other search engines. In the near future, this is unlikely to be so.

My final thought: I wonder what moral obligations Facebook etc have to me, to not filter what I publish on the web… Is there a free speech issue at stake here?

The panel at the Through A Web Darkly event.  Dan Hind, Evgeny Morozov, Ben Hammersley, Tom Chatfield
The panel at the Through A Web Darkly event. Dan Hind, Evgeny Morozov, Ben Hammersley, Tom Chatfield