Tag Archives: technology

My review of the Amazon Echo (Second Generation)

This review is of the Amazon Echo (Second Generation), which retails in the UK for £89.99 (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Amazon-Echo-2nd-Generation-Heather-Grey-Fabric/dp/B0749YXKYZ).

I first used the Echo in late September while visiting family in Liverpool. I was so impressed with the technology that on my return to London I purchased my own Echo.

As a registered blind person I was drawn to the Echo as one can control the device by voice. I have, thus far had the Echo read titles from my Kindle library, search for (and play) samples from audible.co.uk, find and play music and carry out searches in response to questions posed by me.

In order to gain access to the widest range of music, I signed up for Amazon Music at a cost of £3.99 a month (the first 30 days being free with the ability to cancel, without charge within that time-frame). I’ve found the selection of music extremely varied and the fact that one can simply say “play “No Angel” by Dido) and the Echo does so is wonderful.

The sound quality in terms of music, Kindle and audio books is good, however for those who wish to further enhance their experience there is (I understand) a means of attaching an additional speaker.

The Echo’s ability to respond to questions is reasonable but, on balance I think that this is one of its weaker points. For example (as someone who is interested in politics) I asked it “what was the British Union of Fascists?” and Alexa read out a relevant snipet from the web. However on asking “what is the Socialist Worker’s Party?” Alexa provided information on the US-based far-left party (with no mention of the UK-based organisation). So anyone wishing to find out about the (UK-based) SWP would be better served by trusting to Google or another search engine.

Notwithstanding the above, asking questions such as “what is the weather in central London” will render an accurate result, as will questions such as “what is the capital of Germany?”

The Echo can control smart devices. However I have no such devices in my home, therefore I was unable to put the device through it’s paces here.

When purchasing an Echo, the user should be aware that all information is being sent through to Amazon’s servers. I looked back at my interactions with Alexa on the Amazon site and saw a record of all the questions I had posed to the device (although not the answers provided). One can delete this record. However there is a risk (as with any web based activity) of one’s interactions being intercepted (although this is no greater than the danger of one’s computer being hacked when using Google or another search engine).

I was able to sign up to Amazon Music by voice (without the need to enter my Amazon password as the device is already logged into my account). On the one hand this is extremely convenient as there is no need to log on to one’s computer etc. However anyone with children should, in my view seriously consider disabling this feature (there are many stories in the media of teenagers running up bills on smart devices due to their parents not having disabled or password protected the ability to make purchases without first having to enter security credentials).

All in all I highly recommend the Echo.

Kevin

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The Myth of “Free Will”

According to the author of this article, (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/sep/14/yuval-noah-harari-the-new-threat-to-liberal-democracy) “free will” is a “myth”. While we can choose who to vote for, our choices are, for the most part products of our biology and societal influences (E.G. family upbringing). The author contends that governments and corporations will, in the future be able to “hack” us and know us better than we know ourselves for, in his view we are “hackable animals”.

The author is right that we are not free in some respects. For example there is considerable evidence that one’s sexual preferences are biologically determined (I.E. gay people have a natural/biological attraction for the same sex, while straight people have a natural/biological attraction to people of the opposite sex). For this reason it is, in my view cruel to try to change a gay person, by religious or other means into a straight individual. It doesn’t work and one is forcing them to adopt a way of life which goes against their natural inclinations.

I do, however fundamentally disagree with the author’s assertion that “free will” is a “myth”. Take, for example the young man attracted to a pretty girl. It can be argued that he lacks “free will” in the sense that he can not help being attracted to the beautiful woman. However where that same man to pester that young woman for sex or, god forbid sexually assault her, can we really say that he lacked “free will” and his actions where predetermined? We can not, for the overwhelming majority of men attracted to beautiful women do not make inappropriate advances or force themselves on the object of their desire. Where there no such thing as “free will” the number of sexual assaults would increase massively. It is moral precepts and the existence of “free will” that makes us human.

The author is correct that corporations and individuals can (and do) try to (and sometimes succeed) in influencing our behaviour. For example a person who frequently searches for news stories with a particular political bias may well find himself confronted by only those kinds of articles. However the educated person does (in my experience) go out of their way to find stories which challenge their preconceptions and its through education that we can help to combat the danger of “echo chambers” in which people only find themselves exposed to views that reinforce their existing view of the world.

With the growth of artificial intelligence, we do need to think seriously about the hacking of humans (the author is undoubtedly right here). However his view of “free will” (the lack thereof) is, in my opinion wrong and dangerous.

(My thanks to my friend Brian for drawing the above article to my attention).

Skim Reading Is The New Normal

My thanks to my friend, Brien for drawing the below article to my attention.

“We need to cultivate a new kind of brain: a “bi-literate” reading brain capable of the deepest forms of thought in either digital or traditional mediums. A great deal hangs on it: the ability of citizens in a vibrant democracy to try on other perspectives and discern truth; the capacity of our children and grandchildren to appreciate and create beauty; and the ability in ourselves to go beyond our present glut of information to reach the knowledge and wisdom necessary to sustain a good society”.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/aug/25/skim-reading-new-normal-maryanne-wolf

How The Enlightenment Ends

Yesterday (18 May) I read a thought provoking article by Henry Kissinger on the subject of artificial intelligence or AI. The gist of Kissinger’s article is that the enlightenment liberated humanity while we are in danger (by relying on AI) of becoming slaves to the emerging technology and loosing our ability to think critically. The below quote from Kissinger’s article strikes me as containing much wisdom, particularly his point about many technophiles taking refuge from solitude in technology:

“Users of the internet emphasize retrieving and manipulating information over contextualizing or conceptualizing its meaning. They rarely interrogate history or philosophy; as a rule, they demand information relevant to their immediate practical needs. In the process, search-engine algorithms acquire the capacity to predict the preferences of individual clients, enabling the algorithms to personalize results and make them available to other parties for political or commercial purposes. Truth becomes relative. Information threatens to overwhelm wisdom.

Inundated via social media with the opinions of multitudes, users are diverted from introspection; in truth many technophiles use the internet to avoid the solitude they dread. All of these pressures weaken the fortitude required to develop and sustain convictions that can be implemented only by traveling a lonely road, which is the essence of creativity”.

To read the article please visit https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/06/henry-kissinger-ai-could-mean-the-end-of-human-history/559124/.

Forever Frozen

When he awoke
The folk
He could neither understand
Nor command.

They looked at him with pitty
And made witty
Observations he could not comprehend.
Having no friend
He pondered on whether all that expense
Made sense.

When he had handed over his gold
They had told
Him that “centuries hence
You will be forever free
To be
Whoever you wish to be.
What matter the expense
When you can shatter
This human clay
And forever as a god stay?”

Alone
On his eternal throne
He sits
As wits
Come and go.
I know
Not whether he is content
Nor whether ‘tis the acent
Or the descent of mankind.

Or perhaps many centuries hence
Our descendants will laugh over the expense
Of the vain
Who remain
Frozen in ice.
For the dead can not be broken hearted
And a fool and his money are soon parted.

Dogbotics

A friend, who works in the field of the biological sciences, informs me of a breakthrough in the sphere of human to animal communication. The development in question pertains to our canine friends and, as a dog lover of many years, I am delighted to be able to launch this exciting story upon the world.

My friend works in the little known field of Dogbotics. I must confess to not having heard of Dogbotics until I had the good fortune to become acquainted with my friend who, being of a shy and retiring disposition wishes to remain anonomous. Obviously being, as I am a man of the upmost integrity I will, of course respect the wishes of my dear friend and not reveal her identity.

Anyway, returning to the matter in hand, Dogbotics have developed a tiny chip which (when implanted into the neck of a canine) allows said animal to speak. I must confess to having been sceptical of this development until I heard it with my own ears. Imagine my surprise (I mean shock) when my own four-legged friend, Trigger (after having had the chip implanted) addressed me in the following manner:

“Hello, I’m Fido”.

Admittedly, his name is not Fido but (as mentioned above) Trigger. However his ability to voice in any manner (other than a growl, woof or whine) is truly staggering and will improve over time (or so my friend in Dogbotics informs me). In the meantime, I must remain content with such statements as that quoted above, together with such gems as

“Woof, I feel rough, that six day old pie I found in the street earlier is giving me a sore belly. Quick, I need to go outside!”.

I shall, of course keep you fully informed of the progresss of this exciting and innovative technology.

Kevin