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Emerging technology: Cool or creepy innovation?

Aug 30, 20125 mins
Data and Information SecurityMicrosoftSecurity

A look at emerging technology, some with potential privacy issues, but what otherwise seems like either cool or creepy innovation: Crowdsourcing Kinect scans can make robots smarter. Kiss your mouse and keyboard goodbye and instead use your hand and finger movements for navigation like the UI from Minority Report. There's a futuristically freaky remote-controlled toilet with user profiles. A California bill is pushing for more autonomous vehicles on public roads. Lastly, there's a super cool prototype of a self-propelled underwater wheelchair.

Our world is changing; resistance is futile. Adapt or die. I’m not in the mood for bad news today and would rather look at emerging technology and what seems like either cool or creepy innovation.

If you have a Microsoft Kinect, how would you like to help make robots a bit smarter? Kinect@Home is crowdsourcing, asking people to scan something, anything at all in your home or office environment, and then upload it the Kinect@Home database. “There are approximately 975 bajillion different objects out there in the world that robots need to know how to interact with,” according to IEEE Spectrum.

Let’s say that we want to teach a robot to open a refrigerator. To do that, a robot first has to recognize a refrigerator, but there are all kinds of different refrigerators and we have no idea what particular sort our robot is going to be asked to deal with. With a Kinect@Home dataset, it might be possible to go check out models of thousands of refrigerators in people’s homes, and use those models to teach our robot how to locate (and even open) a generalized fridge.

In return for volunteering scans, Kinect@Home will give you “3D models of your room, office or whatever you want in return, right in your browser!” The website has a plugin you use while pointing the Kinect at the object you are scanning. Wired has a detailed review of the installation and scanning process.

While this next one on the list is not a gaming system, I’d love to try out pointing a finger to shoot in a first person shooter game. If you ever wanted to toss out your keyboard and mouse, and instead interact with your computer in a holographic manner with hand gestures like Tony Stark does in Iron Man, then you might be interested in Leap. The hologram portion is not a reality yet, but an affordable $70 can let you interact with your computer “using natural hand and finger movements.” No more clicking, scrolling, tapping or swiping. You instead would interact by pinching or otherwise grabbing in “three dimensions” with this flash drive-sized Leap technology that is “200 times more accurate than anything else on the market” regardless of price.

“This is like day one of the mouse. Except, no one needs an instruction manual for their hands.” We saw this type of computer interactive user interface in Minority Report. Leap Motion explains, “The Leap is a small iPod-sized USB peripheral that creates a 3D interaction space of 8 cubic feet to precisely interact with and control software on your laptop or desktop computer. It’s like being able to reach into the computer and pull out information as easily as reaching into a cookie jar.”

Now from the futuristically freaky innovation department, Kohler has an advanced technology toilet called Numi. The user interface demo for the Numi touchscreen remote control shows how to setup new users and user profiles, as well configure system, feature, cleaning, and maintenance settings. The plethora of features to control the motion-activated seat, flushing, music, heating for feet and seat, lighting, deodorizing and integrated air dryer can also be defined per user, or use the default user toilet settings. While I’m not sure I even want to delve into the trippy world of how toilet privacy is safeguarded from big data or third parties, the video showcases this $6,390 remote-control toilet in a house with glass walls. Yikes!

While there were plenty of creepy factors to Minority Report, the self-driving cars seemed cool. Google’s self-driving cars seem to be the most famous autonomous vehicles, but Consumer Watchdog expressed concerns that “Google cannot be trusted to handle our data nor to respect our privacy,” and Google’s driverless cars “should not be allowed on highways without adequate privacy protections.” Yet the “collective odometer” of Google’s self-driving car fleet passed the 300,000 mile mark.

“Self-driving is a lot closer than most people realize,” Forbes reported. A push in that direction comes from a new California bill, SB 1298; it encourages “the current and future development, testing, and operation of autonomous vehicles on the public roads of the state,” and has made its way to the governor. While there are surely privacy issues, if you have someone in your life who cannot drive, perhaps due to a disability, then it’s easy to see how vehicles that can safely drive themselves could improve their independence and quality of life.

Speaking of a person with a disability and emerging technology, artist Sue Austin, “who has been a wheelchair user since 1996,” has created a super cool prototype of a “self-propelled underwater wheelchair.” A video shows her gracefully “flying” through the water, doing acrobatic stunts. She’s been practicing for the Paralympics and BBC reported that “able-bodied divers are unable to keep up with her.”

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ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.