Intermediary Protocols and Google Duplex

There’s a story that young network engineers are sometimes told to help them understand network stacks and/or the OSI model, and it goes something like this:

You overhear a conversation between two scientists on the subject of some topic relevant to thier field of interest. But as you listen more-closely, you realise that the scientists aren’t in the same place at all but are talking to one another over the telephone (presumably on speakerphone, given that you can hear them both, I guess). As you pay more attention still, you realise that it isn’t the scientists on the phone call at all but their translators: each scientist speaks to their translator in the scientist’s own language, and the translators are translating what they say into a neutral language shared with the other translator who translate it into the language spoken by the other scientist. Ultimately, the two scientists are communicating with one another, but they’re doing so via a “stack” at their end which only needs to be conceptually the same as the “stack” at the other end as far up as the step-below-them (the “first link” in their communication, with the translator). Below this point, they’re entrusting the lower protocols (the languages, the telephone system, etc.), in which they have no interest, to handle the nitty-gritty on their behalf.

The OSI model reflected using the "scientists conversation" metaphor. Based upon original art by Yuki Fujimura, used under a Creative Commons License.
The two scientists are able to communicate with one another, but that communication is not direct.

This kind of delegation to shared intermediary protocols is common in networking and telecommunications. The reason relates to opportunity cost, or – for those of you who are Discworld fans – the Sam Vimes’ “Boots” Theory. Obviously an efficiency could be gained here if all scientists learned a lingua franca, a universal shared second language for their purposes… but most-often, we’re looking for a short-term solution to solve a problem today, and the short-term solution is to find a work-around that fits with what we’ve already got: in the case above, that’s translators who share a common language. For any given pair of people communicating, it’s more-efficient to use a translator, even though solving the global problem might be better accomplished by a universal second language (perhaps Esperanto, for valid if Eurocentric reasons!).

1950s illustration of "driverless cars of the future". The car follows a series of electronic markers down the middle of the highway.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the concept of a self-driving car was already well-established… but the proposed mechanism for action was quite different to that which we see today.

The phenomenon isn’t limited to communications, though. Consider self-driving cars. If you look back to autonomous vehicle designs of the 1950s (because yes, we’ve been talking about how cool self-driving cars would be for a long, long time), they’re distinctly different from the ideas we see today. Futurism of the 1950s focussed on adapting the roads themselves to make them more-suitable for self-driving vehicles, typically by implanting magnets or electronics into the road surface itself or by installing radio beacons alongside highways to allow the car to understand its position and surroundings. The modern approach, on the other hand, sees self-driving cars use LiDAR and/or digital cameras to survey their surroundings and complex computer hardware to interpret the data.

This difference isn’t just a matter of the available technology (although technological developments cetainly inspired the new approach): it’s a fundamentally-different outlook! Early proposals for self-driving cars aimed to overhaul the infrastructure of the road network: a “big solution” on the scale of teaching everybody a shared second language. But nowadays we instead say “let’s leave the roads as they are and teach cars to understand them in the same way that people do.” The “big solution” is too big, too hard, and asking everybody to chip in a little towards outfitting every road with a standardised machine-readable marking is a harder idea to swallow than just asking each person who wants to become an early adopter of self-driving technology to pay a lot to implement a more-complex solution that works on the roads we already have.

LiDAR unit on a Google Self-Driving Car
In real life, these things spin much faster.

This week, Google showed off Duplex, a technology that they claim can perform the same kind of delegated-integration for our existing telephone lives. Let’s ignore for a moment the fact that this is clearly going to be overhyped and focus on the theoretical potential of this technology, which (even if it’s not truly possible today) is probably inevitable as chatbot technology improves: what does this mean for us? Instead of calling up the hairdresser to make an appointment, Google claim, you’ll be able to ask Google Assistant to do it for you. The robot will call the hairdresser and make an appointment on your behalf, presumably being mindful of your availability (which it knows, thanks to your calendar) and travel distance. Effectively, Google Assistant becomes your personal concierge, making all of those boring phone calls so that you don’t have to. Personally, I’d be more than happy to outsource to a computer every time I’ve had to sit in a telephone queue, giving the machine a summary of my query and asking it to start going through a summary of it to the human agent at the other end while I make my way back to the phone. There are obviously ethical considerations here too: I don’t like being hounded by robot callers and so I wouldn’t want to inflict that upon service providers… and I genuinely don’t know if it’s better or worse if they can’t tell whether they’re talking to a machine or not.

Process of having Google Assistant order a pizza, by phone, on your behalf.
I, for one, welcome our pizza-ordering overlords.

But ignoring the technology and the hype and the ethics, there’s still another question that this kind of technology raises for me: what will our society look like when this kind of technology is widely-available? As chatbots become increasingly human-like, smarter, and cheaper, what kinds of ways can we expect to interact with them and with one another? By the time I’m able to ask my digital concierge to order me a pizza (safe in the knowledge that it knows what I like and will ask me if it’s unsure, has my credit card details, and is happy to make decisions about special offers on my behalf where it has a high degree of confidence), we’ll probably already be at a point at which my local takeaway also has a chatbot on-staff, answering queries by Internet and telephone. So in the end, my chatbot will talk to their chatbot… in English… and work it out between the two of them.

Let that sink in for a moment: because we’ve a tendency to solve small problems often rather than big problems rarely and we’ve an affinity for backwards-compatibility, we will probably reach the point within the lifetimes of people alive today that a human might ask a chatbot to call another chatbot: a colossally-inefficient way to exchange information built by installments on that which came before. If you’re still skeptical that the technology could evolve this way, I’d urge you to take a look at how the technologies underpinning the Internet work and you’ll see that this is exactly the kind of evolution we already see in our communications technology: everything gets stacked on top of a popular existing protocol, even if it’s not-quite the right tool for the job, because it makes one fewer problem to solve today.

Hacky solutions on top of hacky solutions work: the most believable thing about Max Headroom’s appearance in Ready Player One (the book, not the film: the latter presumably couldn’t get the rights to the character) as a digital assistant was the versatility of his conversational interface.

A man and a woman look at a laptop screen in a cafe/bar.
“See? My laptop says we should hook up.”

By the time we’re talking about a “digital concierge” that knows you better than anyone, there’s no reason that it couldn’t be acting on your behalf in other matters. Perhaps in the future your assistant, imbued with intimate knowledge about your needs and interests and empowered to negotiate on your behalf, will be sent out on virtual “dates” with other people’s assistants! Only if it and the other assistant agree that their owners would probably get along, it’ll suggest that you and the other human meet in the real world. Or you could have your virtual assistant go job-hunting for you, keeping an eye out for positions you might be interested in and applying on your behalf… after contacting the employer to ask the kinds of questions that it anticipates that you’d like to know: about compensation, work/life balance, training and advancement opportunities, or whatever it thinks matter to you.

We quickly find ourselves colliding with ethical questions again, of course: is it okay that those who have access to more-sophisticated digital assistants will have an advantage? Should a robot be required to identify itself as a robot when acting on behalf of a human? I don’t have the answers.

But one thing I think we can say, based on our history of putting hacky solutions atop our existing ways of working and the direction in which digital assistants are headed, is that voice interfaces are going to dominate chatbot development a while… even where the machines end up talking to one another!

Tory Momentum clone Activate at war as ‘hackers’ back Jacob Rees-Mogg for PM | Politics | The Guardian

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

It’s the grassroots political movement whose launch nobody could envy. Now, social media channels for Activate, the centre-right attempt to emulate Momentum’s youth appeal, appear to be at war with each other over backing for Jacob Rees-Mogg to be Britain’s next prime minister.

On Twitter, the @ActivateBritain account has tweeted a string of anti-Theresa May images and issued an “official statement” endorsing the MP for North East Somerset as the next Conservative leader…

A hacker stole $31M of Ether – how it happened and what it means for Ethereum

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

Yesterday, a hacker pulled off the second biggest heist in the history of digital currencies.

Around 12:00 PST, an unknown attacker exploited a critical flaw in the Parity multi-signature wallet on the Ethereum network, draining three massive wallets of over $31,000,000 worth of Ether in a matter of minutes. Given a couple more hours, the hacker could’ve made off with over $180,000,000 from vulnerable wallets.

But someone stopped them…

Hacker figure among code

Tory MP ‘told schoolgirl to “f*** off back to Scotland” when she said she’d vote for independence’ | The Independent

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

James Heappey MP

A Tory MP told a girl to “f*** off back to Scotland” when she said she’d vote for independence if a second referendum was triggered.

James Heappey’s outburst came as he addressed sixth-formers at the £12,000-a-year Millfield School in Somerset…

Just One Q

When Claire and I changed our surnames to the letter Q, six and a quarter years ago, I was pretty sure that we were the only “Q”s in the world. Ah Q‘s name is a transliteration into the Latin alphabet; Stacey Q is a stage name that she doesn’t use outside of her work (she uses Swain in general); Suzi Q‘s “Q” is short for Quatro (perhaps popularised because of the similarly-named song, which came out when she was aged 7; Maggie Q‘s “Q” is short for Quigley (she finds that her full name is almost impossible for her fans in East Asia to pronounce); and both Q and Q are fictional. We were reasonably sure that we were the only two people in the world with our surname, and that was fine by us.

Q from James Bond.
Fictional, as much as we love them.

After Claire and I split up, in 2009, we both kept our new names. In my case, the name felt like it was “mine”, and represented me better than my birth name anyway. Plus, I’d really gotten to enjoy having a full name that’s only four letters long: when my poly-tribe-mates Ruth and JTA (each of whom have almost 30 letters in their full names!) were filling out mortgage application forms recently, I was able to get through the pages I had to fill significantly faster than either of them. There are perks to a short name.

Q from Star Trek.
Also fictional. But we’re less-upset about that.

I can’t say why Claire kept her new name, but I’m guessing that some of our reasons overlap. I’m also guessing that laziness played a part in her decision: it took her many months to finally get around to telling everybody she’d changed her name the first time around! And while I’ve tried to make it possible to change your name easily when I launched freedeedpoll.org.uk, there’s still at least a little letter-writing involved.

Now, though, it looks like I may soon become the only Q in the world:

@Poobar: She said yes! We are going to be the Drs Carter :-) @Eskoala: @poobar proposed (and I said yes!) so we are engaged! :D

Personally, I thought that after she passed her PhD she’d have even more reason to be called “Q”. I mean: “Dr. Q”: how cool is that? It sounds like a Bond villain or something. But on the other hand: if she wants to downgrade to an everyday name like “Carter” then, well, I guess that’s up to her. I shan’t blame them for not opting to hyphenate, though: “Carter-Q” sounds like a brand of ear bud.

U.S. President Jimmy Carter
It’s not like there was ever anybody famous called “Carter”. Except for this guy, I suppose. But he was more of a “brave politician in the face of international crises” character than a “Bond villain” character. Not fictional.

Seriously, though: good for them. If those crazy kids feel that marriage is for them, then I wish them the best of luck. And let’s face it, we’re approaching a bit of a lull in this run of all-of-our-friends-getting-married, so it’ll be nice to have an excuse for yet another wedding and a fabulous party (I’m jumping to conclusions and assuming that they’re going to invite me, especially after this blog post!).

Jimmy and Claire.
Aww. It’s a sweet photo, but somebody should probably buy them a tripod as a wedding present: it’s hard to keep the horizon level in an arms-length selfie.

In other name-related news, look out for me in the Money section of tomorrow’s Guardian, where I’ll be talking about deeds poll, as part of their series of articles on scammy websites. I always knew that it was only a matter of time before my photo appeared in a national newspaper: I guess I should just be thankful that it’s for something I’ve done right, rather than for something I’ve done wrong!

Update: Here’s the online version of the Guardian Money article.

London’s Olympic “Missile Defence”

I gather that we’re going to be deploying surface-to-air missiles in London during the Olympic Games this year. I can’t help but feel that this could be a really bad idea.

The CAA chart for VFR restricted airspace during the Olympic Games. Basically: don't fly over London without IFR.

Do we really want to shoot down an aircraft over one of the areas of highest population density in the country? Even if you know that AirBus is exclusively filled with evil, nasty terrorists, I’m not sure that raining burning aircraft onto the city is necessarily an improvement.

Furthermore, is the solution to terrorism in Britain really to put even more dangerous weapons into the affected area? Isn’t there a risk that these powerful rocket-propelled explosives could be turned against our own targets?

I’m sure that somebody must know what they’re doing. I’m just not convinced that it’s the people making the decisions.

Showing Some Pride

Paul and I seem to be featured in today’s Oxford Mail.

"Gay Pride March Ends City Celebration", in the Oxford Mail

From the article –

Friends Dan Q and Paul Mann, of Kennington, decided to mark the [superheroes] theme by dressing as characters from the silver age of comic book heroes, the Flash and Kickass, far left.

Mr Q, 30, said: “We wanted to take part in the march because first of all it’s an excuse to dress up, and also to show that Oxford is home to gay, lesbian, and bisexual people and they should be represented.”

Apart from the obvious fault with the age of our characters – Kick-Ass (here correctly hyphenated) is a very new comic book character, designed in from only 2008 – which could have been corrected with a quick Wikipedia search, the article’s not bad. I’m reasonably pleased with my soundbite quotation, there: the journalist we spoke to caught me off-guard so I just reeled off the first thing I thought of, but it’s not bad, at least.

Ruth managed to carefully avoid appearing in any press photographs, but I think she’ll have been hard-pressed to avoid all of the shots my the Pride photographer, who ran around enthusiastically in a pink day-glow jacket, snapping away.

Dan and Paul.

The Oxford Pride parade was fun, with the exception of the Catholic protest on Cornmarket, with their calls to “repent” from our “sinful lives”, and it was nice to lounge on the grass at Oxpens and listen to the music at the fair. Paul came second, by my estimation, in the fancy dress competition, and then I leapt around on a bouncy-castle/slide-thingy and sent all of the alcohol in my bloodstream rushing to my head.

Later, it rained, and I was too drunk to care.

Fox News on IPv6

Here’s what Fox News have to say about IPv6:

Web developers have tried to compensate for [the IPv4 address shortage] by creating IPv6 — a system that recognizes six-digit IP addresses rather than four-digit ones.

I can’t even begin to get my head in line with the level of investigative failure that’s behind this sloppy reporting. I’m not even looking at the fact that apparently it’s “web developers” who are responsible for fixing the Internet’s backbone; just the 4/6-digits thing is problematic enough.

Given that Wikipedia can get this right, you’d hope that a news agency could manage. Even the Daily Mail did slightly better (although they did call IPv4 addresses 16-bit and then call them 32-bit in the very next sentence).

Oh; wait: Fox News. Right.

For the benefit of those who genuinely want to know, one of the most significant changes between IPv4 and IPv6 is the change from 32-bit addresses to 128-bit addresses: that’s the difference between about 4 billion addresses and 340 undecillion addresses (that’s 34 followed by thirty-eight zeros). Conversely, adding “two digits” to a four-digit number (assuming we’re talking about decimal numbers), as Fox News suggest, is the difference between a thousand addresses and a hundred thousand. And it’s not web developers who are responsible for it: this change has nothing to do with the web but with the more fundamental architecture of the underlying Internet itself.

Cerrie Burnell – All About Me

This morning, I saw the BBC News Magazine article about Cerrie Burnell, who’s apparently a children’s television presenter (I’d never heard of her before, but that doesn’t mean anything – I can’t remember the last time I watched any kids’ TV). The article centres on the fact that Cerrie was born without a right hand (her right arm stops at the elbow), and states that some parents are finding it awkward to answer the questions that their inquisitive children are asking about it (“Where did her arm go?” etc.).

After reading most of the (brilliant, really supportive) comments in the Have Your Say at the end of the article, I thought I’d look up some more information about this presenter I’d never heard of (y’know, because that’s what you do). Her Wikipedia page was a little sparse, so I tried the link on it to her homepage (as provided by CBBC).

There, it lists a handful of questions that kids will ask, along with fun answers. Do you have any brothers and sisters? Yes, I have a younger brother and a cousin I’m close to as well. When is your birthday? It’s the 30th August. If you had a super-power, what would it be? I’d like to be able to grow a tail and turn into a mermaid. You see the kinds of things I’m talking about.

What’s your favourite game? Twister.

I laughed out loud. And then I felt bad about it.

And then I blogged.

OMG Child Pr0n (or is it?)

What a mess this is turning into! I am of course referring to the UK-wide internet censorship of a Wikipedia page (the one about the Scorpions album, Virgin Killer – if that last link doesn’t work, you’re among those affected).

The thinking is, according to the Internet Watch Foundation, that the cover of the 1976 album constitues child pornography and therefore we all need to be protected from it. It’s all a little controversial, though, because they’re not suggesting that Amazon US be blocked, for example.

But the worst of it is the amount of news exposure it’s generating is actually drawing traffic to the banned content. I wouldn’t ever have seen the album cover if it weren’t for the ban, for example, after which I realised how trivial it is to see the offending Wikipedia page. And that without the offending content appearing in a Wikinews article about the ban!

It’s hard to justify this kind of policing. In accordance with Wikipedia’s own policies, it is not a creator of content so much as a distributor: it takes content that is already “out there” and, in theory at least, legal, and disseminates it in an approachable form.

I’ll be interested to see how this plays out.

Firefox 3 “Download Day”

Download Day 2008

Downloaded your copy of Mozilla Firefox 3 yet to help them make the world record? I’ve been using Firefox 3 since the early betas and I’ve got no qualms about recommending it wholeheartedly. The awsomebar is simply that: awesome, the speed and memory usage have become far better than the previous version, and the care and attention that have gone into the little things – like the fact that it now asks you if you want to save passwords after you’ve seen if they were correct, not before – really do make this the best web browser I’ve ever used.

Go download it already.