Also, how digital assistants bring technology closer to our level and new concerns about hardware hacks.
Editor’s note: Elsewhere is a column that highlights ideas from other media platforms we believe are worth your attention.
In the 20th century, it became cheaper for companies in developed countries to employ workers full time than it was for them to find the right people “on demand” for each task that needed doing. But the so-called gig economy has changed that. Today, there are people out there ready and willing to do almost any task: drive you to appointments, bring you a take-out meal, assemble your new Ikea sofa, even clear spiders out of your house. So both individual customers and hiring organizations have just-in-time options aplenty.
As a recent article in The Economist notes, the gig economy is growing, even though many of the jobs may not pay very well. Many workers value the flexibility and income that gig work provides; customers like being able to find people to do things they want done. Still, the extent to which gig workers, typically self-employed individuals, should be afforded the legal rights of employees has yet to be fully resolved in many jurisdictions. Tribunals and courts in England and California have recently ruled in favor of giving gig workers some protections (such as a minimum wage), but decisions in Italy and Australia have gone the other way. “The battle over the gig economy has a long way to run,” The Economist notes, and the outcome of that battle could have implications for both innovation and jobs.
The Distinct Charm of Voice
The number of “smart” speakers connected to the internet and capable of looking up information and performing various tasks is on track to reach an estimated 100 million by the end of 2018. Some analysts expect the number of digital assistants to grow more than 75-fold in the coming years as tech giants like Amazon and Google look for ways to extend voice activation into new areas.
As writer Judith Shulevitz points out in The Atlantic, pursuing voice is a way for the big companies to “colonize space” — to pull appliance and device makers, app developers, and consumers into their ecosystems of products and services. But it’s more than that, too. Amazon’s Alexa, for example, doesn’t simply help people do things they already do (albeit in a different way, “replacing fingers and eyes with mouths and ears”). It also brings technology “closer to our own level” through the highly personal act of conversation, Shulevitz suggests.
The article looks at some of the new research academics and corporate R&D labs are conducting on human speech and the nonverbal aspects of communication. It also explores the question of whether computers will eventually be able to develop something resembling empathy. Today’s smart devices aren’t really hearing us yet. They are “as likely to botch your request as they are to fulfill it,” Shulevitz writes. But over time they will get better.
Frightening if True
We have become all too accustomed to software-based hacks and large-scale data thefts — despite increasing efforts by companies to protect themselves. Fortunately, hardware hacks are exceedingly rare. While the potential for damage is staggering, they are much harder to carry out.
So when Bloomberg Businessweek reported in October that Chinese military operatives had somehow planted tiny spy-chips on China-built servers purchased by Apple, Amazon, and more than two dozen other organizations, the shock waves could be felt from Silicon Valley to the Pentagon and the CIA. The article claims that rogue, rice-sized microchips were attached to server motherboards supplied by Supermicro, based in San Jose, California. Once those tiny chips were in place, attackers could gain access to any network that used the compromised servers.
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Reporters Jordan Robertson and Michael Riley say the story was based on information provided by 17 unnamed sources, including high-level people at Apple and U.S. security agencies. But basic details have been strongly disputed by Apple, Amazon, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and the U.S. director of national intelligence, and other news organizations have not been able to confirm the information. Both Apple and Amazon Web Services have asked Bloomberg for a retraction. In the face of these challenges, Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple reports that Bloomberg has committed additional resources to investigating the story.