Vladimir Putin, befuddled
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Putin's psychological firewall, AI sceptics and more: our picks of the week's tech news

E&T staff pick their favourite news stories from the past week and reflect on what these latest developments in engineering and technology mean to them.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Putin’s ‘psychological firewall’ induces Russians to self-censor online, study finds

As a little boy in the Soviet Union, I remember being puzzled by the expression that I often heard from adults: “Walls have ears!” No matter how hard I searched the walls of my tiny bedroom-cum-lounge, no matter how thoroughly I groped them, there were no signs of any ears growing through the wallpaper, not even in those multiple spots where it got unstuck from the wall to reveal bald patches of peeling stucco.

It would have been nice, I used to think, to find somewhere on the wall a pair of pink piglet’s ears - for some reason, I was sure that the wall’s ears, if any, should resemble those of a pig - stirring and rotating, like two tiny radars, as if conversing with each other.

Well, it looks like those metaphorical ears are growing through the walls in Russia yet again. For the second time this week I have to talk about the rebirth of self-censorship in Russia (the first was last Monday in a phone interview for BBC Radio 4). I have always been of the opinion that the ‘little devil’, to use Fyodor Sologub’s expression, of self-censorship is a much more dangerous beast that all the red pens and rubber stamps of its human counterparts, who in USSR were represented by the ominous GLAVLIT – the official state censorship agency under the control of the KGB. In most cases it was fear – a basic human emotion and not the GLAVLIT’s all-seeing eye – that forced writers, artists, journalists etc. to avoid certain ‘sensitive’ areas and generalisations. The logic of the rulers was simple: make people afraid and worried about their future – and they will happily censor themselves.

And this is exactly what is happening now. I started noticing a couple of years ago, during the rare encounters with my former compatriots at technology exhibitions, and international gatherings that the latter would suddenly start looking down at the floor, as if they were cross with it, or silently point up at the ceiling, or indeed at the nearest wall (“walls have ears”), when I tried to raise a ‘sensitive’ (from their point of view) political issue or just mention Putin’s name – the body language so painfully familiar from my 35 years in the USSR. It is fear that is now making Russians avoid the potentially ‘troublesome’ websites (“just in case, you know”, “better to be safe than sorry”, “what if the Big Brother is watching?” etc)

What can I say? It is very sad that the great country seems to be reverting to its not-so-distant Soviet past, confirming the old dictum about history repeating itself first as a tragedy and then as a farce. I sincerely hope that the ‘tragedy’ stage here can be avoided, and the farcical one will soon be replaced with reason and common sense. Yes, (nearly forgot), and with true freedom, too.

Silent voices can cause Alexa and Siri to turn against users

A couple of years ago, when Siri had just made an appearance on tablets and smartphones, a female friend of mine liked to play a game with the cool-sounding app by asking Siri if it (he, she) were a man or a woman, (to which he/it/she usually responded that he/it/she was an app), or telling him/her/it that she loved him/her/it. “But you don’t even know me!” was the latter’s rather brilliant reply.

I suspect that, alongside my friend, lots of other users were playing similar games with the uncomplaining Siri and later with Amazon’s equally submissive Alexa, who/which, unlike Siri, speaks with a female voice. And here’s the revenge: hackers are on the case. They have helped the disgruntled Siri and Alexa team up together to rebuff the flippant users. So next time when you choose to say jokingly that you are in love with either, you can hear in response a much less polite “Shut up!”, or “Get lost!” (possibly in a much ruder form). And, having barked out a command, “Call me an Uber cab!”, you could expect an ambulance, a fire engine or even a hearse to arrive instead. So, without condoning the hackers, I would advise the app users (and I am not one of them) to stop fooling around with Siri and Alexa, or better, to stop using them altogether by calling an Uber taxi or playing their favourite music themselves.

Josh Loeb, associate editor

We’re sceptical about AI, political analysts tell Lords committee on polling

View from Brussels: What is true and false on the internet?

Democracy is wonderful, but also quite infuriating. Winston Churchill famously described it as “the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”. Another sage declared: “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.”

I think this last quote encapsulates why the continual insistence by some prominent Remain voices that the UK should simply stay in the EU in spite of the referendum result grates on so many people, but that’s another story.

The point is that the common people - the great unwashed, the plebs or however they might have been described in less politically correct times - have an annoying habit of doing the reverse of what they are told. Sometimes it’s as if they do it just to be contrary. Following a failed uprising by citizens in East Germany against the Communist dictatorship there in the early 1950s, the writer Bertolt Brecht hinted at this when he sarcastically asked whether it was time for the government to “dissolve the people and elect another”.

This maddeningly independent streak among the populace at large makes me sceptical about claims that artificial intelligence combined with big data will somehow attain a god-like ability to see into our collective political souls. Two eminent polling experts expressed similar reservations this week, while our Europe correspondent Pelle Neroth revisited the saga over alleged links between Julian Assange, Russia and Donald Trump’s election campaign and asked who we should believe in an era of ‘fake news’.

Am I naïve to think that even when bombarded by false propaganda, people have shown a remarkable ability to think for themselves? Wasn’t that just what they did in East Germany, the USSR and countless other places where the outlook for democracy was far darker than it is in today’s Britain or in Trump’s America?

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

France pledges to phase out all oil and gas production by 2040

On the one hand, great, give fossil fuels the boot. On the other hand, predominantly relying on nuclear power? No thanks! What is it about renewables that turns governments off so? The sun, the wind and the tides are eternally free, but government support for them as a source of energy is waning at a time when it should be waxing. Is the problem that they’re unlimited, uncontrolled and free? Are there too many people in too many companies, with too many shareholders, who would no longer be able to make a fat living propping up outdated energy types? It strikes me as a form of protectionism, but of course I appreciate that at this stage any country’s fossil fuel and nuclear power commitments are far too deep-rooted to sweep away overnight with one bold decision. Everything is connected. It’s not like the UK actually needs Hinkley Point C, but we’re stuck with it now - and stuck paying for it, for decades - largely because we (or rather, the UK government) can’t easily extricate itself from the elaborate core deal and all its many sub-deals without damaging international relations on myriad levels.  No one is going to risk their own necks by being the one to say, “The heck with it!” If we could start mankind’s time on the planet all over again tomorrow, would we build Hinkley Point C? Would we heck as like. Hats (berets?) off to France for giving fossil fuels the boot, but I am reserving my warmest applause for the first country to commit to an energy policy that is 100 per cent renewable.

Prisons could block mobile phone signals under new proposals

I imagine that being in jail is an incredibly boring, monotonous existence, so I can appreciate how having a mobile phone would lighten up an inmate’s day and allow them to keep abreast of important world developments beyond the prison walls. Who’s winning the Great British Bake-Off, what Wayne Rooney’s latest ‘party girl’ looks like, and what hilarious posh nugget Georgia Toffolo said in Celebs Go Dating last night - that sort of thing. However, there will naturally always be a few bad apples among the prison population who prefer to use their mobiles to continue to conduct illegal activities, spoiling it for everyone else, so it is inevitable that there is now a proposal to block all phone signals in prisons. On reflection, you have to wonder why it’s taken them so long. 

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

Hawaii considers universal basic income in face of technological unemployment

AI technology leader will “become ruler of the world”, says Putin

Artificial intelligence is becoming a subject of international relations. Superpowers China and US have both released national plans for AI over the last year. Hawaii is considering a universal basic income to mitigate the employment disruption form robotics and automation. Now Tesla has said it could lead to World War 3, while commenting on Vladimir Putin's remark that whoever leads in AI will one day rule the world. However, Putin also commented, “When one party’s drones are destroyed by drones of another, it will have no other choice but to surrender,” which shows that he hasn't yet watched his Terminator movie box set all the way through.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Smart watches equipped with advanced AI will monitor your every move

When you’re on the receiving end, there’s a fine line between constructive advice and unwelcome nagging. If it’s coming from a family member it’s easy enough to point out, as diplomatically as you feel is necessary, when they’ve overstepped the line. What if it’s a bit of clever electronics strapped to your arm that’s issuing the reminder, though? And how about if you’re at work and know the helpful wearable has quietly sent a message to your boss letting them know you’ve let something slip? However soothing the voice it’s been programmed with, a spying wristwatch is going to get on your nerves pretty quickly, I’d imagine. There are lots of potential benefits, of course. A smart watch could alert family or health professionals when something looks to be amiss with an elderly relative, for example. In the long term, I expect it’s something we’re going to have to get used to, just as we’ve come to accept the fact that an employer might contact us on our mobile phone when we’re away from work. That would have been unimaginable for all but a minority of professional a couple of decades ago, so who knows how we’ll be tracked – with our full consent – in the future.

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