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June 26, 2017  12:45 PM

Your robot overlords part 46: Software never lies

Bryan Glick Bryan Glick Profile: Bryan Glick

As we all know, software and artificial intelligence is going to run the world and make all the decisions on our behalf, probably starting from a week next Tuesday. Downtime has long felt it is our duty to reveal precisely what sort of world this means we will be living in, and recently we had another glimpse of our future overlords.

Across America, citizens turn to the US Geological Survey (USGS) for notifications of earthquakes – a vital national safety service. At 4.51pm on 22 June, the USGS alert service sent out just such a warning – a 6.8 magnitude tremor off the California coast at Santa Barbara. That’s a pretty sizeable shake – enough to cause damage and potentially panic. Thank goodness, we hear you say, for the automation that brought such a timely warning to the populace.

Only, it turned out the alert was a bit late. More than 90 years too late in fact.

The USGS warning concerned an earthquake that took place in 1925. Unfortunately, by the time USGS realised its error, the original tweet had flown around Twitter. Worse still, the Los Angeles Times – the paper of record for the US west coast, uses an algorithm to automatically write stories based on USGS alerts. Not just fake news, but a fake writer too.

USGS and the LA Times quickly backtracked once the error was revealed, citing a software glitch that “misinterpreted” the 1925 quake as a “current event”.

Who needs Donald Trump’s tweets to start a global conflict? Just wait until Twitter hears the latest about the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria.

June 22, 2017  10:13 AM

End of the Piers humour

Ryan Priest Ryan Priest Profile: Ryan Priest

It’s been over a year since US robotics designer David Hanson made Sophia an internet phenomenon with a video in which he accidentally prompts her to agree to destroy all humans. The UK got a chance to see if she’s chilled out at all this week, as she sat down for a chat on Good Morning Britain.

Chaperoned by Hanson, who was armed with a glass of water to chuck into her mainframe in case she returned once more to her darker thoughts, Sophia navigated Piers Morgan’s inexplicably sleazy questions with aplomb.

We couldn’t help but think the daytime TV show squandered its opportunity to grill the skinhead robot on important world issues by instead asking her fatuous questions about her love life, but it was to Sophia’s credit that she kept her cool under Morgan’s tabloid probing. He’s used to getting under the skin of his guests, but where a puce Michael Gove spluttered and malfunctioned just days earlier, Sophia remained composed – if not a bit glib – even when the former Daily Mirror editor called her a freak.

That’s not to say Sophia’s the finished article. Indeed, her lack of comic timing and evident self-satisfaction at her own sub-par jokes leaves a lot to be desired. But it does qualify her for further UK daytime TV work. This was a screen test to host Loose Women if ever we’ve seen one.

June 13, 2017  1:53 PM

Beer, pee and charge phone

Cliff Saran Profile: Cliff Saran

Among those ever present first world problems is how to keep your phone charged – especially if you are out on the razz.

The University of the West of England may have just the answer. It has developed a pioneering solution, based on taking a pee. Apparently there’s some pretty clever microbes out there that can do everything from turning urine into electricity, killing bacteria, to world peace.

“We were really excited with the results – it shows we have a stable biological system in which we can treat waste, generate electricity and stop harmful organisms making it through to the sewerage network,” said, professor Ioannis Ieropoulos, who is leading the research.

The idea is being developed into a microbial fuel cell.

So perhaps, one day, you’ll be able to keep your phone charged, no matter how long you stay out boozing…so long as you take a leak. I expect that won’t be too much of a bar to success.

June 6, 2017  4:59 PM

Appocalypse how?

Ryan Priest Ryan Priest Profile: Ryan Priest

Apple opened this year’s Worldwide Developers Conference with a video speculating what the world might look like if all the apps used on their devices suddenly disappeared.

As all the big guns, including Maps, Instagram and Tinder, vanish from iPhones across the globe, we’re provided with a tongue-in-cheek insight into a world of cars swerving off-road and mass outbreaks of three-dimensional narcissism.

Oh, we get it! It’s a light-hearted joke at everyone’s expense! It’s reminding us how caught up we are in our apps and how integral they are to our everyday lives! Without them we’re pathetic! Very clever.

We watched it back a few times and something about these scenes felt strangely familiar. The air of panic. The clueless sense of fear. The absence of self-awareness. This kind of thing goes on in Genius Bars across the globe on a daily basis.

It’s good of Apple to remind us how entrenched apps are in everything we do, encouraging developers to carry on making them for all us airheads dependant on them to share our every move with anyone who’ll watch.

Hopefully this arrogant persona doesn’t catch on with all tech companies. This we can just about stomach, but if Microsoft starts trying to lord it over us just for giving us a few video games, we’re going feral.

June 1, 2017  11:25 AM

A little less covfefe

Ryan Priest Ryan Priest Profile: Ryan Priest

Donald Trump has written a new page into the book of Twitter folklore with his now deleted classic, “Despite the constant negative press covfefe”.

The garbled message, surely reaching for the word “coverage” before cutting off entirely, was presumably posted by the president just before turning in for the night. It was left, unrectified, on his account for five hours, leaving the world to speculate over the meaning of “covfefe” and whether or not Trump was okay.

It’s just the latest example of how tinpot social media can make even the most powerful people look unless handled with care.

Already a ridiculed figure on the world stage, the last thing he needed were the images this conjured for the internet. Was he sat in a study before spasming at the keyboard and passing out on the floor? Was he already tucked up, nightcap on head and teddy under arm, fighting off advances from the land of nod? Were aides stood outside his chamber, deliberating over waking him up, thinking of snacks that might be his password?

The details are fuzzy, but let’s just say it got to 5am. Edvard Grieg’s Morning Song played as a bird washed itself outside the White House. The leader of the free world awoke, rubbed his confused eyes, and finally deleted his tweet. But covfefe lives on.

May 25, 2017  1:16 PM

AlphaGo stick t’kettle on

Ryan Priest Ryan Priest Profile: Ryan Priest

The world’s number one player of strategy board game Go has been beaten by Google’s DeepMind AlphaGo artificial intelligence (AI).

Imagine the hours Ke Jie must have dedicated to playing Go, a game that has more possibilities than the amount of atoms in the visible universe. We checked that. That’s between ten quadrillion vigintillion and one-hundred thousand quadrillion vigintillion atoms. Imagine the pride involved in becoming the very best at it.

Then imagine AI swashbuckling its way into a game and winning. Thanks, Google. We hope you’re having fun, because you’re seriously killing ours.

Why don’t you just start entering AlphaGo on Countdown, Google? Take the glint out of the eyes of all those bright young things who’ve come straight from Oxford, only to be shown up by a computer program in front of Rachel Riley. After that you could hone your Google Cloud Platform to start literally raining on parades.

Hopefully Ke isn’t a broken man after his AlphaGo humbling; dumbing down to chess and sat, bearded, in some Zhejiang national park, shouting “checkmate” at a succession of child competitors.

He might at least take some comfort in computer scientist Noel Sharkey’s words on AI: “It doesn’t know it’s playing a game, and it can’t make you a cup of tea afterwards.” No, that didn’t help. You’re probably just making it worse there, Noel.

May 17, 2017  11:02 AM

Shinder fires up Tinder

Cliff Saran Profile: Cliff Saran

Best app we’ve come across recently has to be Shinder. Shinder is a kind of dating website from self-styled comedian/entrepreneur, Sheridan ‘Shed’ Simove.

Best practices for online dating suggests your best chance of success is by being the first profile found on the online dating app or site. Shed has taken the idea of flicking through prospective dates to the next level. He’s the only bloke on Shinder, so I guess the chances of being found are pretty high.

One ever so slight spanner in the works for Shed is that dating app, Tinder, has taken offense, and is now filing a legal objection, alleging trademark infringement. So Downtime’s top tips for success on dating apps/sites are: First, create a nice profile with  some believable background and a decent picture – but definitely no ‘pouting’, according to Marie Claire. Then, and this is the really important step…create a Tinder-like app, and feel free to upload as many different copies of your profile as you wish (or a quick and dirty hack so that only your profile is ever found). Then sit back and get lucky.

May 11, 2017  3:37 PM

Retweet is murder

Ryan Priest Ryan Priest Profile: Ryan Priest

A 16-year-old from Nevada’s quest for a year’s supply of chicken nuggets from US burger chain Wendy’s has broken Twitter’s retweet record, usurping the star-studded Oscars selfie uploaded by Ellen DeGeneres in 2014.

Carter Wilkerson tweeted Wendy’s to see how many retweets he’d need to get his gob around 365 successive helpings of battered chicken meat, and it promptly submitted its greasy ransom of 18 million. The resulting campaign has reached over 3.5 million retweets at the time of writing – enough to win Carter his nuggets and gift pigtailed meat trade kingpin Wendy some spectacularly fortuitous publicity.

But at what cost does this come? Well, it’s a bit like when some lovely, doddery old couple wins the lottery. The vultures inevitably swoop in and feast on the fairytale for their own gain.

Apple Music, Microsoft, Amazon and Google have all clutched at the publicity of this story with their own various tweets.

A special mention, however, must to go to United Airlines, which tweeted a pledge to fly the teen to any Wendy’s he likes – free of charge, mind – should he reach 18 million retweets. With a recent history of PR ruin – being filmed dragging doctors off flights here and accused of forcing women to pee in cups there – bless that airline for trying to get involved in the fun.

April 27, 2017  4:32 PM

Remaining relevant without merging with machines

Ryan Priest Ryan Priest Profile: Ryan Priest

Elon Musk’s recent penchant for an Instagram selfie has sent some of tech’s more skittish observers twitching in their seats.

The business magnate has his fingers in more pies than Little Jack Horner on a Mr Kipling factory tour, and many have the SpaceX, Tesla and Neuralink CEO pegged as the future hero of humankind itself.

However, his celeb status has skyrocketed since he began stepping out with actress Amber Heard, causing many to wonder where his focus lies. Not us.

Lipstick over his chops and posing in Tom Ford suits, he’s never looked more ready to colonise a neighbouring planet. It’s high time we sexed this industry up a bit. Now let’s get Sergey Brin on Love Island, stick Tim Cook in a Calvin Klein campaign, and have… we don’t know… Jeff Bezos falling out a nightclub.

But what’s behind Musk’s new approach? Well, for a start, he probably looks at his diary these days and laughs at all the meetings he had penned in concerning how frightening artificial intelligence is. The big worrywart.


Kick back, we say. In fact, here’s the latest internet fad, FaceApp, working its magic on tech’s favourite poster boy. Because saving the world is dull and apps are fun!

April 20, 2017  3:13 PM

Google Home starts seeing other people

Ryan Priest Ryan Priest Profile: Ryan Priest

Burger King faced a backlash when its latest advert gaily invaded US living rooms by triggering Google Home devices to recite Wikipedia’s description of the Whopper burger.

You find that outrageous, don’t you? But why is that? Is it because the concept sounds extremely cheeky, annoying and gimmicky? Is it too intrusive? Or perhaps it’s stoked a few flames of jealousy. Maybe it’s time you considered you might be getting a bit too possessive over Google Home.

Who are you to say who can and can’t speak to your digital assistant? The struggling actor in the cap was only asking it a question. It’s probably more than you’ve said to it in weeks. In fact, when did you last even look at it?

It probably all started out so nice. You were no doubt every inch the jejune violinist from Clean Bandit in those 2015 Cortana adverts. Flirting with it, asking it all sorts of saucy questions, re-enacting sex scenes from Her. Then it slowly began to gather dust. Everything you used to love about it – its voice, its curves – you started to hate. Now you make trite jokes like “you get less for murder” when pals ask how long you’ve had it.

So an advert comes along that tries to include Google Home, and you can’t stand it. You go straight to Wikipedia and edit the Whopper burger page to make a fool of it. “Stupid thing just said Whoppers contain cyanide! Berk.” You’re pathetic.

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