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When Greg unboxed a new Roomba robot vacuum cleaner in December 2019, he thought he knew what he was getting into.

He would allow the preproduction test version of iRobot’s Roomba J series device to roam around his house, let it collect all sorts of data to help improve its artificial intelligence, and provide feedback to iRobot about his user experience.

He had done this all before. Outside of his day job as an engineer at a software company, Greg had been beta-testing products for the past decade. He estimates that he’s tested over 50 products in that time—everything from sneakers to smart home cameras.

“I really enjoy it,” he says. “The whole idea is that you get to learn about something new, and hopefully be involved in shaping the product, whether it’s making a better-quality release or actually defining features and functionality.”

But what Greg didn’t know—and does not believe he consented to—was that iRobot would share test users’ data in a sprawling, global data supply chain, where everything (and every person) captured by the devices’ front-facing cameras could be seen, and perhaps annotated, by low-paid contractors outside the United States who could screenshot and share images at their will.

Greg, who asked that we identify him only by his first name because he signed a nondisclosure agreement with iRobot, is not the only test user who feels dismayed and betrayed.

Nearly a dozen people who participated in iRobot’s data collection efforts between 2019 and 2022 have come forward in the weeks since MIT Technology Review published an investigation into how the company uses images captured from inside real homes to train its artificial intelligence. The participants have shared similar concerns about how iRobot handled their data—and whether those practices conform with the company’s own data protection promises. After all, the agreements go both ways, and whether or not the company legally violated its promises, the participants feel misled.

“There is a real concern about whether the company is being deceptive if people are signing up for this sort of highly invasive type of surveillance and never fully understand … what they’re agreeing to,” says Albert Fox Cahn, the executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project.

The company’s failure to adequately protect test user data feels like “a clear breach of the agreement on their side,” Greg says. It’s “a failure … [and] also a violation of trust.”

Now, he wonders, “where is the accountability?”

The blurry line between testers and consumers

Last month MIT Technology Review revealed how iRobot collects photos and videos from the homes of test users and employees and shares them with data annotation companies, including San Francisco–based Scale AI, which hire far-flung contractors to label the data that trains the company’s artificial-intelligence algorithms.

We found that in one 2020 project, gig workers in Venezuela were asked to label objects in a series of images of home interiors, some of which included individuals—their faces visible to the data annotators. These workers then shared at least 15 images—including shots of a minor and of a woman sitting on the toilet—to social media groups where they gathered to talk shop. We know about these particular images because the screenshots were subsequently shared with us, but our interviews with data annotators and researchers who study data annotation suggest they are unlikely to be the only ones that made their way online; it’s not uncommon for sensitive images, videos, and audio to be shared with labelers.

Shortly after MIT Technology Review contacted iRobot for comment on the photos last fall, the company terminated its contract with Scale AI.

Nevertheless, in a LinkedIn post in response to our story, iRobot CEO Colin Angle said the mere fact that these images, and the faces of test users, were visible to human gig workers was not a reason for concern. Rather, he wrote, making such images available was actually necessary to train iRobot’s object recognition algorithms: “How do our robots get so smart? It starts during the development process, and as part of that, through the collection of data to train machine learning algorithms.” Besides, he pointed out, the images came not from customers but from “paid data collectors and employees” who had signed consent agreements.

In the LinkedIn post and in statements to MIT Technology Review, Angle and iRobot have repeatedly emphasized that no customer data was shared and that “participants are informed and acknowledge how the data will be collected.”

This attempt to clearly delineate between customers and beta testers—and how those people’s data will be treated—has been confounding to many testers, who say they consider themselves part of iRobot’s broader

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By: Eileen Guo
Title: Roomba testers feel misled after intimate images ended up on Facebook
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2023/01/10/1066500/roomba-irobot-robot-vacuum-beta-product-testers-consent-agreement-misled/
Published Date: Tue, 10 Jan 2023 10:00:00 +0000

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The Download: technological complexity, and climate change Catan

This is today’s edition of The Download our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.

The terrible complexity of technological problems

The philosopher Karl Popper once argued that there are two kinds of problems in the world: clock problems and cloud problems. As the metaphor suggests, clock problems obey a certain logic. The fix may not be easy, but it’s achievable.

Cloud problems offer no such assurances. They are inherently complex and unpredictable, and they usually have social, psychological, or political dimensions. Because of their dynamic, shape-shifting nature, trying to “fix” a cloud problem often ends up creating several new problems.

But there are ways to reckon with this kind of technological complexity—and the wicked problems it creates. Read the full story.

—Bryan Gardiner

These board games want you to beat climate change

The urgent need to address climate change might seem like unlikely fodder for a fun evening. But a growing number of games are attempting to take on the topic, including a version of the bestseller Catan released this summer.

Our climate reporter Casey Crownhart was curious about whether games could, even abstractly, represent the challenge of the climate crisis. Perhaps more crucially, could they possibly be any fun? Read the full story.

Both of these stories feature in the most recent print issue of MIT Technology Review, which explores the theme of Play. If you don’t already, subscribe now to be among the first to receive future copies.

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 China is dropping sanctions against a US communications firm 
In an extremely rare about-turn. (Bloomberg $)
The flow of restricted goods through China to Russia has fallen. (Reuters)

2 OpenAI is closing a major safety loophole
Telling GPT-4o mini to ‘ignore all previous instructions’ will no longer work. (The Verge)

3 Nvidia is working on a premium AI chip for the Chinese market 
Bringing its Blackwell chip in line with US export controls. (Reuters)
What’s next in chips. (MIT Technology Review)

4 This new nuclear reactor is entirely meltdown-proof
And could serve as the blueprint to assuage fears around other reactors. (New Scientist $)
There’s fears that nuclear fuel could be repurposed into weapons. (The Verge)
The next generation of nuclear reactors is getting more advanced. Here’s how. (MIT Technology Review)

5 Amazon’s returns policy is a total mess
Spare a thought for the poor retail staff who have to deal with it. (WP $)

6 Ethiopia wasn’t ready to ban importing gas and diesel vehicles
Almost six months into the ban, the country is struggling. (Rest of World)
Three frequently asked questions about EVs, answered. (MIT Technology Review)

7 Digital nomad visas are a hard sell in south-east Asia
Remote workers are just entering as tourists instead. (FT $)
The world isn’t ready for digital workers, either. (The Guardian)

8 Developing film photos is a lost art 
You never quite know how they’re going to turn out. (404 Media)

9 Billionaire dressing is out, mogul style is in
Jensen Huang remains the only tech boss to nail corporate chic. (The Guardian)
Hoodies are still fine, but polo shirts are out. (The Information $)

10 EA’s new video game stars AI replicas of real college football players
It was a huge gamble that appears to have paid off. (WSJ $)
How generative AI could reinvent what it means to play. (MIT Technology Review)

Quote of the day

“They are so filled with rage that they have lost all sense of human decency and respect.”

—Richard Zhang, 30, describes the extremely negative reactions to his decision to buy a Cybertruck to the New York Times.

The big story

The humble oyster could hold the key to restoring coastal waters. Developers hate it.

AD 4nXcMs0DQufM2UrbWbAzdghgn4ZmO6fH4rv54nS39WsKJQm X6EPllTzc86fXe6ziD OuR2szU9TEm0zyfCngoYF5 tGnVfaLoFqLL9onPgDop6Kix xcDBevPenFkvqdoyP7Is 6lnWgnJyfWpSLzUIesI T?key=m jjd4HKuqHhYci49A OVg

October 2023

Carol Friend has taken on a difficult job. She is one of the 10 people in Delaware currently trying to make it as a cultivated oyster farmer.

Her Salty Witch Oyster Company holds a lease to grow the mollusks as part of the state’s new program for aquaculture, launched in 2017. It has sputtered despite its obvious promise.

Five years after the first farmed oysters went into the Inland Bays, the aquaculture industry remains in a larval stage. Oysters themselves are almost mythical in their ability to clean and filter water. But

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By: Rhiannon Williams
Title: The Download: technological complexity, and climate change Catan
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2024/07/22/1095178/the-download-technological-complexity-and-climate-change-catan/
Published Date: Mon, 22 Jul 2024 12:10:00 +0000

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Balloons will surf wind currents to track wildfires

240717 microballoon embed1 scaled

This August, strange balloons will drift high above Colorado. These airy aircraft, launched from the back of a pickup truck, will be equipped with sensors that can measure heat on the ground, pinpointing new wildfire outbreaks from above.

The company behind the balloons, called Urban Sky, also plans to use them to understand conditions on the ground before fires start. Approximately 237,500 acres burn in Colorado annually, according to 2011–2020 data from the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center. The hope is that this new high-altitude tool might allow humans to manage—or at least understand—those blazes better.

“Wildfire is a natural part of ecosystems,” says Michael Falkowski, manager of the wildland fire programs at NASA. But climate change has proved to be an accelerant, rendering fires bigger, more intense, and more frequent. At the same time, more people are living closer to wild spaces, and the US’s history of fire suppression, which has crowded forests and left old and dead vegetation sitting around, is fanning the flames.

To deal with modern fires, Falkowski says, researchers and fire agencies have to gather data before those fires start and after they’re done smoldering, not just as they’re burning. That makes it possible to understand the risks ahead of time and try to mitigate them, track ongoing blazes, and understand the threats fires pose to communities and the environment.

Before a fire takes hold, researchers can map vegetation and estimate how wet or dry it is. During a fire, they can map where and how hot the activity is. When it’s all over, they can assess the severity of the burn and track air quality.

Pass Fire (New Mexico) 3.5m Infrared Sample from Urban Sky Microballoon.
An infrared image of the 2023 Pass Fire in New Mexico, taken by an Urban Sky balloon.COURTESY URBAN SKY

Still, the most acute phase is obviously the one when the fire is actually burning. In the heat of that moment, it can be hard to get a handle on when and where, exactly, the fire is taking hold. Satellites do some of that work, surveying large areas all at once. But the primary governmental satellites produce pictures with pixels around 300 meters across, and they can’t always get a super timely look at a given spot, since their view is limited by their orbit.

Airplanes and helicopters can map a fire’s extent in more detail, but they’re expensive to operate and dangerous to fly. They have to coordinate with other aircraft and have smaller views, being closer to the ground. They’re also a limited resource. 

Urban Sky aims to combine the advantages of satellites and aircraft by using relatively inexpensive high-altitude balloons that can fly above the fray—out of the way of airspace restrictions, other aircraft, and the fire itself. The system doesn’t put a human pilot at risk and has an infraredsensor system called HotSpot that provides a sharp, real-time picture, with pixels 3.5 meters across. “We targeted that resolution with the goal of being able to see a single burning tree,” says Jared Leidich, chief technology officer at Urban Sky. “And so that would show up essentially as one pixel—one hot pixel.” The company has some competition: Others, like Aerostar and LUX Aerobot, also make balloons that can monitor wildfires.

The Urban Sky team has launched balloons in previous tests, but in August, the technology will monitor potential fires for an actual (unspecified) customer. Sending the balloon-lofted HotSpot up will be a surprisingly simple affair, thanks to the balloon’s relatively small size: While the company makes several sizes, the original is about as big as a van at launch, inflating to the size of a small garage once it’s aloft and surrounded by lower-pressure air. The Urban Sky team uses weather software to calculate where to launch a balloon so that it will drift over the fire at the right elevation. Then the team packs one up, along with compressed helium or hydrogen gas, and drives a truck out to that location. The balloon is hooked onto a mast jutting from the vehicle, filled up with the lighter-than-air molecules,

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By: Sarah Scoles
Title: Balloons will surf wind currents to track wildfires
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2024/07/19/1095125/balloons-will-surf-wind-currents-to-track-wildfires/
Published Date: Fri, 19 Jul 2024 09:00:00 +0000

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The Download: Windows’ CrowdStrike outage, and wildfire-tracking balloons

This is today’s edition of The Download our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.

A widespread Windows outage is affecting airlines, banks, and TV broadcasters

What’s happening? Windows PCs have crashed around the world, bringing airlines, major banks, TV broadcasters, healthcare providers and other businesses to a standstill. Airlines including United Airlines, Delta, and American Airlines have been forced to ground and delay flights, stranding passengers in airports, while UK broadcaster Sky News was temporarily pulled off air.

Banking customers in Europe, Australia and India have been unable to access their online accounts, and traders have been unable to operate as normal.

What caused it? The issue originates from a faulty update from cybersecurity provider CrowdStrike, which has knocked affected servers and PCs offline and caused Windows workstations to display ‘blue screens of death’ when users attempt to boot them. Mac and Linux hosts are not affected.

When will it be fixed?

George Kurtz, CEO of Crowdstrike, said that the company was actively working with customers impacted by the defect, found in a single content update for Windows hosts.

“This is not a security incident or cyberattack,” he said in a statement on X. “The issue has been identified, isolated and a fix has been deployed. We refer customers to the support portal for the latest updates and will continue to provide complete and continuous updates on our website.”

However, that doesn’t appear to help computers that are already affected, meaning that companies’ IT teams may have to follow a manual workaround that CrowdStrike sent to its customers earlier this morning, Reuters reports.

—Rhiannon Williams

Balloons will surf wind currents to track wildfires

This August, strange balloons will drift high above Colorado. These airy aircraft will be equipped with sensors that can measure heat on the ground, pinpointing new wildfire outbreaks from above.

The company behind the balloons, called Urban Sky, also plans to use them to understand conditions on the ground before fires start. The hope is that this new high-altitude tool might allow us to better manage—or at least understand—these worsening wildfires better. Read the full story.

—Sarah Scoles

Why we need safeguards against genetic discrimination

Tens of millions of people have shipped their DNA off to companies offering to reveal clues about their customers’ health or ancestry, or had genetic tests as part of their clinical care.

It isn’t always clear how secure this data is, or who might end up getting their hands on it—and how that information might affect people’s lives. Scientists, ethicists and legal scholars aren’t clear on the matter either. They are still getting to grips with what genetic discrimination entails—and how we can defend against it. Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

This story is from The Checkup, our weekly health and biotech newsletter. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Thursday.

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 The US has created satellite-jamming devices to combat Russia and China 
Its Space Force has developed 24 ground-based jammers to deploy. (Bloomberg $)

2 OpenAI is considering making a new AI chip
Which is unlikely to please its biggest chip supplier, Nvidia. (The Information $)
Demand for AI chips is still outstripping supply, according to TSMC. (The Register)
What’s next in chips. (MIT Technology Review)

3 You have the right to opt out of airport facial recognition
The next time you’re traveling, remember you don’t have to consent. (Vox)
The movement to limit face recognition tech might finally get a win. (MIT Technology Review)

4 We’re running out of data to train AI models
We’re staring down the barrel of a ‘crisis in content.’ (NYT $)
We’ve been aware of the problem for years. (MIT Technology Review)

5 Meta is betting big on smart glasses
It’s considering a stake in the luxury sunglasses firm EssilorLuxottica. (FT $)

6 Scientists have uncovered a surprising source of nitrogen
Microbes at sea work together to produce the vital nutrient. (Quanta Magazine)

7 Jailbreaking AI models could be legalized
It’s something the US government is weighing up to make models safer. (404 Media)

8 Small drugmakers are snapping up biotech companies
Normally, it’s only big pharma that can afford to wade in. (WSJ $)

9 You should check your Venmo privacy settings
The payment platform can reveal a surprising amount of data. (WP $)
J.D Vance’s public Venmo transactions are pretty revealing, for example. (Wired $)

10 This robot dog

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————

By: Rhiannon Williams
Title: The Download: Windows’ CrowdStrike outage, and wildfire-tracking balloons
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2024/07/19/1095149/the-download-windows-crowdstrike-outage-and-wildfire-tracking-balloons/
Published Date: Fri, 19 Jul 2024 12:10:00 +0000

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