Friday Brief for 12 November 2021
The metaverse gets Seoul; Israel's new FaceRec tech; & the Air Force wants a new AI
Digital “Realities” — Augmented Reality (AR) adds digital elements to a live view often by using the camera on a smartphone. Virtual Reality (VR) implies a complete immersion experience that shuts out the physical world. Mixed Reality (MR) combines elements of both AR and VR, where real-world and digital objects interact. And, Extended Reality (XR) is an umbrella term that covers all of the various technologies that enhance our senses, whether they’re providing additional information about the actual world or creating totally unreal, simulated worlds for us to experience.
The Metaverse Will Have Seoul
What’s New: The city government of Seoul, South Korea announced that it will host cultural events and a variety of public services in the burgeoning virtual reality (VR) world of the metaverse, according to Quartz.
Why This Matters: Once deployed, “Seoulites”(?) can head to city hall, tour historic sites, and register a civil complaint — while still wearing their PJs — by simply strapping on their VR headset or goggles.
The planned deployment fits within the nation’s “Digital New Deal” — a plan to deploy digital tools like AI to improve South Korea’s economy, infrastructure, and healthcare — and Mayor Oh Se-hoon’s 10-year plan to raise the city’s international profile and to improve social mobility.
Seoul is planning to invest $3.3 million (3.9 billion won) to develop its own metaverse platform by the end of next year, with full operational capability slated by 2026.
The city already uses an AI chatbot to field questions and complaints about city services and is planning a public internet of things (IoT) network for monitoring environmental, public safety, traffic, and other data.
What I’m Thinking:
Smart cities will be great. The deployment of next-generation telecommunications networks (like 5G) are enabling the creation of “smart cities”— urban areas where IoT, AI, and other tech allows governments to collect and understand more data about essential services and citizen welfare. For example, the city of Pittsburgh has installed a system of “smart” traffic lights that adapt to changing traffic patterns. This reduced aggregate waiting times at intersections by 40% and vehicle emissions by 21%. More than 300 cities around the world have smart city proposals and more are sure to follow as these technologies mature.
Smart cities will also be terrible. As I often say, we’re innovating faster than we can secure. There’s a lot about smart cities to look forward to. But these digitized urban areas will also be yet another vector for disruption, hacking, and other attacks. This is one of the reasons I’m so hawkish on things like ransomware — we have to decisively deter these actions now, before our challengers have the opportunity to conduct attacks at scales that are truly terrible to imagine.
Ready Player One? In Ernest Cline’s novel, Ready Player One, most of humanity plugs into the OASIS — the author’s imagined metaverse — to escape the difficulties of the real world. The blurring of reality and the deepening isolation of individuals (despite being ubiquitously “connected”) is a key theme of the book. I’m currently playing with a number of VR and augmented reality (AR) technologies and it’s not difficult to see how this tech can make life better and more fun. But, it would be naive to deny that the metaverse and related technologies are also likely to accelerate our societies’ growing atomization and the attendant depression, drug use, and other negative outcomes. Stopping the metaverse and rolling back our online lives seems unlikely. Adopting these innovations responsibly and carefully, unfortunately, appears equally unlikely.
Israel Deploys FaceRec Program in the West Bank
What’s New: Israel is using an expansive facial recognition program in the West Bank, according to the Washington Post.
Why This Matters: The reporting highlights both the rationale and the risks of such programs, which are likely to be deployed in cities around the world.
New details of the program were disclosed by a group of former Israeli soldiers who are skeptical of its ethicalness.
Deployed over the last two years, the program includes a mobile phone technology called Blue Wolf that matches faces with an Israeli army database that one of the soldiers called, “Facebook for Palestinians.”
Blue Wolf alerts a soldier to the presence of known terrorist, person of interest, or someone who should be left alone, by flashing different colors on the soldier’s mobile phone.
The program also includes facial recognition cameras and other closed circuit cameras in the city of Hebron, which reportedly provide real-time monitoring of the city’s population.
“I wouldn’t feel comfortable if they used it in the mall in [my hometown], let’s put it that way,” said a recently discharged Israeli soldier who served in an intelligence unit. “People worry about fingerprinting, but this is that several times over.” She told The Post that she was motivated to speak out because the surveillance system in Hebron was a “total violation of privacy of an entire people.”
When asked, the Israel Defense Force (IDF) said, “Naturally, we cannot comment on the IDF’s operational capabilities in this context,” but that “routine security operations” were “part of the fight against terrorism and the efforts to improve the quality of life for the Palestinian population in Judea and Samaria.”
What I’m Thinking:
The utility of this tech is obvious. Automating the ability of soldiers to proactively identify criminals and terrorists not only improves the safety of these solders, but can also lessen suspicions and tensions associated with innocent, law-abiding people — helping to deescalate inherently risky operations at border crossings and busy city centers. Making it harder for bad guys to hide among the innocent and giving good guys early-warning of their presence is obviously a good thing.
But fears of abuse are well-grounded. China’s gross human rights violations against Uyghurs and other ethnic and political minorities is critically enabled by the country’s vast surveillance capabilities — demonstrating how programs like these can be abused. It is also true that many people’s reaction would be different if, for example, it were discovered that the Palestinian Authority (PA) were using facial recognition to identify and track Israeli soldiers. That is not to draw a moral equivalency between the IDF and the PA, but only to illustrate that institutional legitimacy is a fundamental consideration in determining one’s comfort with these programs. If governments want to use these technologies without undermining their credibility, they must demonstrate real transparency and accountability.
Israel isn’t alone. Facial recognition programs for law enforcement and the military are rolling out around the world — often with good results. The U.S. military has and will use similar capabilities, and face-scanning will soon be a normal part of international air travel and other services. While many think these programs are “creepy,” thus far, we are largely accepting them and there is little reason to think they will not continue to grow.
Air Force Wants an AI for Air Battle Management
What’s New: The Air Force is looking for help in developing an AI to help manage high-intensity battles, according to Intelligent Aerospace.
Why This Matters: The Air Force is in the midst of a massive modernization effort of its ability to collect and provide real-time information to warfighters and it has identified AI as a critical technology for this upgrade.
The Force issued a broad agency announcement (FA875020S7007) for “Stratagem: Applying State-of-the-Art Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning Approaches to Air Battle Management project.”
The goal, according to the reporting, is to have an AI that can “reason in real-time about developments in the battlespace during wartime engagements and assist with battle planning and decision making in reacting to those developments.”
The Stratagem project fits within a broader Air Force effort to leverage AI and IoT for a joint all-domain command and control concept (JADC2). In English this means the military services want to use new technologies to better understand and share information about what’s going on, where it’s happening, who’s doing it, and what can be done about it.
Air Force Assistant Secretary for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, Will Roper, says this is about giving the military the same capabilities that most civilians enjoy.
“Your data on your phone is shared machine-to-machine going through the cloud but that is not how our military works,” said Roper. “Most of the data that we share is via radios — people talking with each other and classified chat capabilities … It is a shame that people come into our service connected to almost everything in their personal lives, and they come work in a military where they’re connected to almost nothing.”
What I’m Thinking:
Roper is right. Our military’s digital infrastructure is nowhere near what it should be considering our defense spending and constantly expanding mission requirements.
Fortunately, progress is being made. The Air Force has already used AI for better targeting and a group of airmen and Space Force guardians (worst name ever) are at MIT working on new AI capabilities and applications. Relatedly, Senators Portman and Rosen have introduced the Advancing American AI Innovation Act, which would create DoD AI data libraries that would be available for private companies, allowing them to better understand and meet the Pentagon’s needs. I suspect there’s a good chance this legislation will be folded into the next National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
Let’s Get Visual: 15 Data Fallacies
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