Well, I have now fully grabbed the reigns of its Inspect-a-Gadget column, where my remit will be regular stories covering where emerging technology and business IT intersect. Or, less elegantly, what the latest gadgets and consumer tech mean for the workplace.
Among my recent stories there, I have looked at how the all-new Bluetooth 5 standard ups the ante for the Internet of Things, got an early hands-on with the QWERTY-equipped BlackBerry KEYone smartphone, and visited London Tech Week to meet a UK startup that claims to have cracked Siri for the office:
Earlier this week, I began looking at some new entries to Gartner Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies 2017.
In today’s Metro, I ask how the tech firms are tackling online abuse.
Despite the efforts of social networks such as Twitter and Facebook, many of the internet’s most popular destinations remain troubled by trolls.
When the trolls are in town, popular social platforms become unpleasant, unsocial places, not a carefree online destination to catch up with family and friends.
Some of those accused may claim they are exercising free-speech, but that doesn’t wash if the intent is to cause alarm or distress. Hurling abuse at somebody isn’t free speech, it’s hurling abuse at somebody.
So, isn’t it high time that tech firms stepped up their game to tackle the online abuse that runs riot on their platforms?
That’s what I examine in How tech is tackling trolls: how artificial intelligence, machine learning and image recognition are being deployed to disarm the trolls who terrorise the web.
However, there’s another angle to this that I’d like briefly to expand upon here: social networks need to tackle online abuse not only for their users’ sakes but for their investors’.
You see, for online social platforms driven by advertising – which is most of them – it is impossible to ignore the economics of trolling.
Economics of Trolling
Social networks are based on the principle that we humans are social creatures who like to express ourselves. The more we share, the more the networks know about us, and the more able they are to sell targeted advertising (ads that are, in theory, more relevant to us) on behalf of their partners.
Overall, it’s a happy relationship, and the numbers speak for themselves: almost 2 billion of us log in to Facebook every month to share status updates, likes and photos, from which it made almost $10 billion in 2016.
However, fear of unsocial behaviour on social platforms makes us more reluctant to express ourselves online; the less we share, the less they know and the less we visit, so the more it hurts the online platform’s ad revenues. The likes of Facebook and Twitter make nothing if we’re too afraid to use them.
Facebook and Twitter make nothing if we’re too afraid to use them
Twitter: We Suck
There are other ways in which the economics of online abuse can hurt too. Last year, Disney dropped its plans to buy Twitter over concerns that widespread trolling and bullying on the platform might, according to Bloomberg, ‘soil the company’s wholesome family image’.
Months before, Twitter boss Dick Costolo wrote, “We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls,” adding “It’s no secret, and the rest of the world talks about it every day.”
It does: just ask Leslie Jones, Katie Price, Zelda Williams, Katie Price, and countless others who have made the news after leaping from the toxic platform, having unwittingly stirred the trolls’ nest.
So, clamping down on unsocial behaviour is an obvious investment for businesses that rely on us being socially generous.
As I explore in the Metro feature, technology can go some way to weeding out abuse, but the trouble with automated tools is where the boundaries blur between abuse and robust argument. Even human moderators struggle with this and, for a while yet in my opinion, it’s likely AIs will too.
In today’s Metro I investigate whether the CIA really can ‘hackcess all areas’. Plus, I ask if wearable tech has fallen from fashion. Hold on tight, it’s time to Connect…
Last week’s WikiLeaks document dump professes to reveal how the CIA has – with help from agencies including MI5 – been collecting and developing an arsenal of hacking tools, exploits and cyber skeleton keys to pick its way into the devices we use every day.
We shouldn’t be surprised. Covert surveillance is a tool widely used by intelligence agencies to maintain national security and counter terrorism.
But if the good guys can find a backdoor into our connected kit, surely the bad guys can too? Read on in the Metro e-edition…
The Apple Watch launched less than two years ago. I know this because on the day of the launch I confidently declared that ‘wearable tech is the next big thing’ on stage at the Gadget Show Live, enthusing about the upcoming Pebble Time smartwatch and the latest Jawbone and Fitbit gear.
How times change.
Less than two years on and the wearables phenomenon has failed to catch on, leading analysts to rein in their optimism.
Back to the Apple Watch.
Many – myself included – saw the launch of Apple’s highly-anticipated wearable as a watershed moment. Indeed it was, but rather than sparking a wearables revolution it had the opposite effect. ‘Oh, is that it?’, was the consensus.
However, as Bill Gates once quipped, we tend to over-estimate the impact of a technology in its first two years but underestimate its impact in ten. It might be in the depths of the trough of disillusionment but I can’t see anything other than wearable tech to playing a huge part in our future.
In today’s Metro I embark on a tour of Soho to see how London’s Oscar-winning visual effects firms are lighting up cinema screens around the world.
Central London is home to many of the movie world’s most innovative visual effects firms. With the 89th Academy Awards this Sunday I wanted to understand more about what goes into making VFX-heavy Hollywood films.
In researching the feature I spoke to Foundry co-founder Simon Robinson. His company’s software titles Nuke, Mari and Katana are used by post-production houses the world over – in fact, every film nominated for a best VFX Oscar in the last six years has used its software.
As well as talking technology I also learnt about the immense manpower required to turn around a typical movie, and ethics around the digital character resurrection that saw Peter Cushing and Paul Walker brought back to life for the big screen.
The 2017 Oscars take place this Sunday 26th February 2017, with five films nominated for Best Visual Effects: Doctor Strange, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Deepwater Horizon, The Jungle Book, and Kubo and the Two Strings.
Read the full story in the Metro e-edition here.
My feature on how to secure your Amazon Echo was published in TechRadar last week. Here is my take on why securing these intelligent home hubs is of vital importance.
Buttons are obsolete. Simply by conversing with my Alexa I can control my central heating and the lighting around my house and garden; I can buy products with my voice, check my personal calendar, set alarms or reminders, update my things to do list, read my favourite book or play any song, album or playlist on Spotify. With my voice.
Hear no Evil
The convenience this offers is staggering and, in a little over three months since I plugged it in and powered it on, my Amazon Echo has already changed many behaviours in our household. For the better? I think so. However…
With convenience comes compromise, especially when it comes to security. We should never be blinded by the utility of any new piece of technology.
I made one mistake in extolling the virtues of our Amazon Echo above. You see, all of these amazing things and more can be commanded not only with my voice, they can be asked by anybody’s voice.
Voice Recognition versus Speech Recognition
While Alexa has enviable speech recognition – the ability to understand and interpret natural language input by speech – she has yet to learn the skill of voice recognition. Often confused, voice recognition is the ability to uniquely distinguish between different people’s voices by analysing physical and behavioural characteristics.
With voice recognition Alexa would know whether it was me (ie authorised) ordering that Nintendo Switch console from Amazon Prime, or if it was my Mario Kart-loving daughter trying her luck (sorry, denied). Did I just ask Alexa for a 2am alarm call or was somebody outside my living room window attempting to play a prank?
Amazon has no plans to introduce voice recognition into the Amazon Echo just yet. Nevertheless, there are steps that Echo owners can take to make sure they enjoy the convenience of a virtual assistant without the worry of being woken up by a 2am prank alarm call.
Pop over to TechRadar to read my 8 top tips to lock down your Alexa.
It’s a familiar tale: any time I once made to play Metal Gear Solid, Pro Evolution Soccer or PaRappa the Rapper has long since been eroded by the glamours of parenthood and an erratic work schedule. Mario Kart Wii still gets spun up, as much of an occasional treat for me as it is for my kids.
I am the ‘lapsed gamer’.
But I do still play games. Armed with my smartphone or tablet, pocket puzzlers like the stunning Monument Valley, gory graphic novel epics such as The Walking Dead or riddlers including Mr Robot help ensure that train platform dead-time can still be game-time.
I’ve yet to tire of exploring new places with Pokémon Go, and I stand firm that the Swift Playgrounds lessons are every bit as satisfying as a good Sudoku puzzle – plus I get to learn a valuable skill.
I am the ‘on-the-go gamer’. Living the smartphone gaming dream I am part of the fastest area of revenue growth in the games industry.
So, when Nintendo formally announced its latest console last Friday I wondered if it was an attempt to appeal to gamers like me.
Nintendo Switch is a hybrid tablet/TV games console, as comfortable in your hands as it is hooked up to your television. Accompanying the hardware is a strong first year line-up of titles including new the Zelda Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey adventures.
But the big question is whether Nintendo has given itself enough of a fighting chance with the Switch to emerge from the shadow of the debacle that was the Wii U, to overcome the console behemoths that are Microsoft and Sony, and to take on the smartphone gaming market.
That was the topic of the story I wrote this week for Mobile World Live: “Will Nintendo fanboys make the Switch?”.
After going hands on with the Nintendo Switch at the London launch event, including playing the new fun fighting game Arms, I headed over to BBC Broadcasting House to report back for two live spots with the BBC News Channel and BBC World News:
A challenge as a technology journalist is making sure more complex material remains accessible to your audience without compromising accuracy. With a daily UK readership of 1.895 million the Metro newspaper’s audience is broader than most, so when writing here I’m at pains to check that I’m maintaining clarity without sacrificing substance.
An example: faced with an assignment on Digital-to-Analogue Converters for this week’s Connect section of the paper I pitched hard with my editor to include an introductory paragraph to give some background. The format doesn’t normally allow for this, and even though we knew we would lose word-count elsewhere in the piece she agreed. It was the right decision.
A bit more about DACs:
A DAC or Digital-to-Analogue Converter takes the 0s and 1s from your digital music source – a CD, mp3 or Spotify stream for example – and pumps out the analogue signal necessary for speakers, subwoofers and headphones to function*. You’ll find them in phones, PCs, TVs, DVDs, games consoles, even digital radios – anything that plays audio from a digital source.
While this sounds like it should be a consistent digital activity there is variation in the specification of DACs which can result in audio quality differences. Bluntly, the DACs integrated into our devices may not be making the most of the audio source, particular if from high-resolution or lossless audio formats.
That’s where an external DAC comes into play, squeezing as much detail as possible from good quality digital audio files. They can also add some extra power to the output too – I for one find the volume on my Apple iPhone 6 Plus a little too soft when on the train, tube or in other noisy environments. There is additional significance here for iPhone owners given that Apple has pulled the plug on the ubiquitous 3.5 mm headphone jack in its newer phones – something these jack-equipped headphone amps can help to work around.
I did try to name the feature ‘What’s Up DAC?’ but my editor overruled me. A shame, but once again it was probably the right decision : )
* I was curious to discover whether purely digitally-driven speakers exist: it turns out they do in theory but are impractical for mass adoption – there are precious few resources online but here’s what Wikipedia has to say about them.
A lot of my work right now is around cyber crime and cyber safety. My Hackageddon feature this week’s Connect section in The Metro illustrates some ways in which our online data might be vulnerable.
While there are precautions we can all heed and best practices we can each adopt when online – good password hygiene among the most important – we are still at the mercy of the organisations we trust to safeguard our data. Sadly, too many of these have been found wanting, with poor security contributing to the estimated 500,000,000 personal records that were leaked or lost in 2015 alone (source: Symantec).
In the Metro feature I look at passwords and password managers, the rise of ransomware, and how to check if your data has already been leaked. We also see how Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg may take care to keep his details safe now, but how his previous poor security choices recently came back to bite him.
Read the full feature in the Metro e-edition here.
As a side note, the feature coincides with season two of Golden Globe-winning cybercrime drama Mr Robot airing on Amazon Prime Video. I enjoyed the first series – it’s a good drama with plenty of technical authenticity – and can’t wait now to get stuck into the second.