Here's a question to ponder: would you feel safer in a computer-driven car than you do in one you drive yourself? A self-driving car could succumb to software errors or poor programming -- but on the other hand, it also couldn't fall asleep at the wheel, get lost, or fail to see another vehicle in its blind spot.
The choice between the two is hypothetical for now, but maybe not for much longer.
Autonomous cars aren't on the roads yet, but the technological hurdles have mostly been met by now: Google, BMW, Toyota, and other companies have been working on prototype vehicles for years, and they've even been tested on public roads (in fact, BMW showed off a new self-driving Series 5 vehicle a few days ago). The questions surrounding driverless cars now aren't so much "Are they safe?" and "How do they work?"; rather, they're things like "Would a driverless car need insurance?" and "How would these cars yield right-of-way to each other?"
Those sorts of questions were the focus of a Silicon Valley symposium last week, at which government regulators and technologists tried to sort through some of the legal and policy challenges posed by autonomous cars. Take, for example, the routine traffic stop: how would a police officer pull over a driverless vehicle? Would that even be necessary, if the vehicles were programmed to always obey traffic laws?
Or, another example: surely everyone reading this has bent traffic laws at one point or another. A rolling stop, perhaps, or cruising a bit above the speed limit. How would a computer, programmed to play by the rules, respond to other drivers who don't always do the same? A car that's too "polite" to go with the flow of traffic might put its passenger at a disadvantage.
There are a lot of very human questions that remain to be answered, and the symposium was only the first few baby steps. But Google and other companies have already made a lot of progress toward a driverless future. Lots of vehicles already come with driver-assisting sensor systems that help to limit human error -- things such as blind-spot cameras and even infrared systems for detecting pedestrians at night. BMW and Volkswagen both plan to offer semi-autonomous cars in the near future -- models that can perform relatively simple tasks, such as passing slower vehicles, on their own.
There's also a growing body of evidence that driverless cars could cut down on automotive injuries and deaths. Google's autonomous driving program, for example, recently completed 200,000 miles of unassisted driving on public highways without an accident. And computers can cut down on the human error that causes the great majority of highway injuries and fatalities.
So how far away is a driverless future? It's tough to say when the policy and legal hurdles – and lingering technical challenges – will be cleared. The New York Times' John Markoff quotes Sven. A Beiker, the director of Stanford University's Center for Automotive Research, as saying autonomous vehicles might be available "twenty years from now ... maybe on limited roads." But others, including Google's own engineers, think the cars could be made safe for public use sooner than that. (Markoff also mentions that Google is apparently lobbying for state laws that would enable driverless delivery vans within two or three years.)
Readers, what's your take? Would you welcome a future with autonomous vehicles -- or is driving too much fun for you to relinquish control? Let us know how you feel in the comments.
But as Cecilia Kang notes over at the Washington Post, the new policies have critics worried – not least because the new policies will not come with an opt-out provision. A user signing up for Gmail, might not know the "content of his or her messages could affect the experience on seemingly unrelated Web sites such as YouTube," Kang writes.
And plenty of lawmakers agree.
"The lack of opt-out means users cannot pick and choose which data they want integrated into their Google profiles," Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, wrote this week in a blog post (hat tip to Politico). "Private email messages might contain any number of personal, embarrassing or otherwise damaging information, and Google's attempts to amplify and contextualize this information through targeted ads, maps suggestions or calendar reminders could have negative consequences for users."
Over at Computerworld, Barbara Krasnoff points out that the new policies will be of particular interest to owners of devices such as the Galaxy Nexus smart phone, "which is pretty much useless outside of the Google netverse." Galaxy Nexus owner with a strong objection to the recent changes instituted by Google? Well, you're in trouble.
"I must admit, the idea of being completely unable to opt out of specific privacy issues has me very troubled," Krasnoff writes. "My immediate reaction is to read Google's policies, check out some of the more knowledgeable commentators on the subject, and if I find that I do agree with those privacy activists who believe that Google has stepped too far over the line, to join those hoping to pressure the company to alter its new policy."
Demand for the Apple iPhone hit a new high over the holidays, to the tune of 37 million handsets unloaded in the first quarter of 2012. During the same period – the last 14 weeks of 2011 – Apple sold more than 15 million iPad tablet computers. Those combined sales figures helped drive Apple's quarterly revenue to $46.33 billion, a company record. (Net profit for Apple during Q1 of 2012 was about $13 billion.)
"We’re thrilled with our outstanding results and record-breaking sales of iPhones, iPads and Macs," Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, said in a statement. "Apple’s momentum is incredibly strong, and we have some amazing new products in the pipeline."
Meanwhile, according to TechCrunch, Apple has a whopping $97.6 billion in cash on hand, $64 billion of which is offshore. The Huffington Post has assembled a pretty amusing list of things that Apple's $97 billion could pay for, including 216 missions to Mars, 17 years of foreign aid, and Facebook, which is rumored to be valued around $100 billion.
More likely, of course, is that Apple will use some of that cash to bolster its software and hardware. Remember, back in 2010, Apple purchased Siri – the well-liked voice-powered personal assistant – and subsequently incorporated the software into its iPhone 4S. As Apple's Peter Oppenheimer said during a conference call with reporters recently, the company has no intention of "letting [the cash] burn a hole in [its] pocket”
So what's the takeaway here? Well, over at ZDNet, Adrian Kingsley-Hughes notes that it sure doesn't seem "anybody or anything is a threat to Apple."
"Sure, Microsoft has the upper hand when it comes to the desktop, and Android is certainly hot, but Apple’s business is an absolute financial and sales juggernaut. After a mildly disappointing Q4 2011 (which was really only disappointing thanks to crazy predictions made by analysts), the company is back to having record-breaking quarters. With new devices and refreshes on the way," he added. "I don’t see Apple’s fortunes changing any time soon."
Sales were down across the board, stock shares plummeted, and the BlackBerry steadily lost market share to Android and Apple. (Not to mention that whole three day outage thing.) Now comes news that Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis, the current co-CEOs of RIM will step down, handing over the reins to Thorstein Heins, the current RIM chief operating officer.
In a joint statement, Jim Balsillie said he would remain a member of the RIM board, while Lazaridis said he would become the board's vice chair. Lazaridis pledged to focus on "the great company we have built, its iconic products, global brand and its talented employees."
So does Heins have what it takes to reverse the RIM slide? Maybe, Larry Dignan writes over at ZDNet, but it's more likely that Heins ascension will just lead to more of the same. "[T]he removal of Balsillie and Lazaridis looks like a move to appease shareholders for a bit without changing the strategy overall," Dignan notes. Moreover, what RIM needs now is a couple blockbuster products, and it's far from clear that anything close to blockbuster is in the works.
"The problem: RIM’s booth didn’t do all that hot at CES based on anecdotal reports. In fact, RIM had nothing to show. RIM touted its new PlayBook OS, but all that does is add the stuff—email and calendar—that should have been in the company’s first tablet," Dignan writes. Late last year, RIM wrote off the value of hundreds of millions of dollars in PlayBook stock, essentially an admission that the device was a market stinker.
Speaking to Bloomberg, Ehud Gelblum, an analyst for Morgan Stanley, agreed that the slope would be steep for Heins. "Heins is a product execution guy, he’s not a visionary. Heins has to give people a reason why they need a BlackBerry. It’s going to be very difficult for him," Gelblum said.
December was a very good month for the tablet computer and e-reader industries, according to the Pew Research Center.
In a new report released this week, Pew estimated that the share of American adults who owned tablet computers almost doubled between mid-December and early January, surging from 10 percent to 19. Meanwhile, during that same time frame, e-reader ownership also leaped from 10 percent to 19 percent.
"These findings are striking because they come after a period from mid-2011 into the autumn in which there was not much change in the ownership of tablets and e-book readers," Lee Rainie wrote on the Pew Research blog. "However, as the holiday gift-giving season approached, the marketplace for both devices dramatically shifted."
Analysts attributed the growth in part to price drops on the entry-level Kindle and Nook e-readers, and the price-tag of the Amazon Kindle Fire, which retails for $200, three hundred bucks cheaper than the cheapest iPad. As we noted back in November, it costs Amazon $201.70 to build each Fire, meaning the company is actually losing money on each device it sells.
It's a gamble, essentially: Amazon is betting that you'll use the Fire to buy a whole lot of Amazon content, such as e-books and videos. Some even predict that this is the year that Amazon begins selling an e-reader for nothing, thus removing one of the last hurdles to e-reading bliss. Sound possible to you? Drop us a line in the comments section.
When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg first used the phrase "frictionless sharing" at the company's F8 conference last September, it raised some eyebrows among online-privacy advocates. Now that Timeline apps (also known as Open Graph apps) have become a reality, we're getting a better idea of what "frictionless" really means.
Bottom line: the new features make hiding your online identity and activity harder, but if that wasn't your primary concern to begin with, you'll probably be excited about the new ways in which you can broadcast your activities (both online and off) to your friends.
The apps allow these companies to hook into and share users' real-world interactions. Most of us are probably already used to seeing Spotify announce, in real time, what songs our friends are listening to. Now we'll also be able to see where people are running, what they're reading, what recipes they're cooking, and more.
Facebook bills the apps as a way to "express who you are -- a runner, foodie, traveler, music fan, movie buff and more." That may be so -- but there are a few things to keep in mind before you dive in.
One part of "frictionless sharing" is ubiquitous posts: for example, when you begin listening to a song on Spotify, that information will now appear in your friends' News Feed, Ticker, and on your Timeline profile page. Each app gets its own square of real estate on your Timeline (rather than splattering updates hither and yon), but you may still want to consider sorting your friends into lists, so you can better determine what gets shared with whom.
The permission process for apps has also been streamlined, so each one only needs a one-time initial approval to post updates for you. It's a thoughtful touch for those interested in sharing their lives more easily -- but also another cause for concern if you don't want your activities firehosed to all your friends.
Timeline apps are welcome news for social mavens, but they're also a big deal for both Facebook and the app developers. With real time data, companies will be better able to chart how people are using their products -- whether that's news stories, books, or music -- and weave themselves more tightly into users' everyday activities. New insight into consumer behavior also lets Facebook offer up more closely targeted ads than before. The social network knows not only what services you use, but how and when you use them. That can translate into big profits for the companies, and more advertising revenue for Facebook.
Readers, have you tried Timeline apps yet? What do you think? Let us know in the comments section below -- we're listening.
The carrier currently offers three tiered smartphone plans: 200 MB for $15 a month, 2 GB for $25 a month, and 4 GB for $45. Beginning on Sunday, new users will be forced to pick from one of the following new options: $20 for 300 MB, $30 for 3 GB, and $50 for 5 GB. So, yes, you'll be getting more data, but you'll also be paying a larger price. Good news for power users – bad news for casual owners.
Meanwhile, tablet data plans will now run at two price points: $30 for 3 GB and $50 for 5 GB.
Importantly, current AT&T consumers won't see their data plans change.
So what's behind the rate hike?
Increased usage, according to AT&T.
"More content downloading, more video streaming, more apps. Connecting with family and friends 24-7. Mobile broadband has become part of our daily lives –and data usage has skyrocketed," AT&T exec Mark Collins wrote on the AT&T blog. "And as the AT&T network gets even faster with 4G LTE deployment – up to 10 times faster than 3G – and devices and applications become even more sophisticated, it’s clear that data usage will surge even more."
Indeed, as analyst Jack Gold told Computerworld today, there's little reason to doubt that AT&T will again hike rates. "AT&T can charge higher prices because consumer demand is there, and there really is very little price pressure," Gold said. "I don't think this will be the last increase consumers see."
SOPA and PIPA protests reached fever pitch yesterday, as hundreds of thousands of Web users raged against two proposed bills that have been criticized as heavy-handed and intrusive. Among the protesters? Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook.
In a post to his Facebook wall, Zuckerberg called SOPA and PIPA "poorly thought out" and encouraged readers to get in touch with their local representatives.
RECOMMENDED: How five websites are protesting SOPA
"The internet is the most powerful tool we have for creating a more open and connected world. We can't let poorly thought out laws get in the way of the internet's development," Zuckerberg wrote. "Facebook opposes SOPA and PIPA, and we will continue to oppose any laws that will hurt the internet. The world today needs political leaders who are pro-internet."
As of this writing, the post had been "liked" by almost half a million Facebook users, and garnered close to 100,000 shares.
Of course, as Chris Taylor points out over at Mashable, if Zuckerberg really wanted to protest SOPA, he would do more than post a rant to his Facebook wall. Facebook chose not to follow in Wikipedia's footsteps, which imposed a blackout yesterday. Or, Facebook could have copped a move from Google, and display some sort of protest art on the Facebook homepage.
"So why hasn’t it? Doubtless the main argument against such a move is financial," Taylor admits. "Facebook made about $4.25 billion last year; by that reckoning, a single day of outage would cost the site nearly $12 million in revenue. Advertisers would be furious; space they bought in good faith would either be blacked out or appear next to blacked-out text."
Money is an issue, sure. But more pressing is what the world would do if they couldn't idly flick through pictures from the birthday party of their third cousin, twice removed...
RECOMMENDED: How five websites are protesting SOPA
A week or so back, Nokia introduced the Lumia 710, a budget smartphone equipped with Windows Phone 7.5 Mango software, a 3.7-inch screen, and a $50 price tag. Today, the Lumia 710 made news again – this time thanks to Wal-Mart, which is literally giving away 710 handsets, provided consumers sign a two-year voice and data contract. So how does the Lumia 710 stack up? Let's go to the scorecards.
The opening assessment
"After a week of testing the Lumia 710, my verdict is that it's a good value for the money, and a good choice for people moving up to their first smartphone, or those looking for an alternative to Android and Apple," Walt Mossberg writes in The Wall Street Journal. "It has some notable weaknesses and drawbacks, and it doesn't compare with the iPhone 4S or elite Android models like the Samsung Galaxy S II. But it's a decent phone that gets the most common smartphone tasks done."
"The Lumia 710 looks and feels like a decent device," writes Todd Haselton at Boy Genius Report. "The back cover is plastic but it has a nice soft-touch rubber feel and the entire face is glossy black, although a white version is also available from T-Mobile. There are three hardware buttons below the phone’s 3.7-inch display, which actually isn’t that impressive. While the curved glass AMOLED ClearBlack display on the Lumia 800 was very impressive, the standard ClearBlack display on T-Mobile’s Lumia 710 is not. Colors are washed out and the brightness is not where it needs to be, but this was likely required in order to keep the cost of the phone down."
The hardware, part two
"One differentiator I liked is the fact that, unlike on other Windows Phones I've tried, the main navigation bar beneath the display uses physical keys," writes Paul McDougall at Information Week. "Call me a sucker for tactile feedback. What I didn't like is that the side buttons, for power, volume, and camera, are virtually flush to the casing. This was particular irksome when trying to depress the camera button for a quick pic."
"The Lumia 710 has a 5-megapixel camera capable of capturing video at resolutions of up to 720 pixels," writes Ginny Mies at PC World. "The Lumia 800 definitely has the upper hand in the camera department with its 8-megapixel camera featuring a Carl Zeiss lens. The Lumia 710's photos were mediocre. My indoor photos looked hazy and washed out; and though my outdoor photos looked a little better, they still had that hazy effect. The Lumia doesn't have a front-facing camera for video calls or self-portraits. This omission is somewhat surprising because the Mango update adds support for front-facing cameras."
"I was able to use all the main features of Mango, which distinguishes itself from its competitors with a user interface made up of bright tiles that can show live data, like the weather or favorite photos, even before you tap them to open apps," notes Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal. "Mango's 'hubs'–features that aggregate information such as your friends' contact info and social-networking status–also worked fine." However, Mossberg warns, consumers would do well to remember that "Windows Phone has about ten percent of the third-party apps as the iPhone."
Mango, part 2
"One benefit of the Windows Phone OS is that the live tiles and icons are large and the design is clear-cut, so a smaller screen isn't as much of a hindrance as it could be, at least in terms of navigation," writes Stephen Shankland of CNET. "While on the compact side, the 3.7-inch screen didn't feel claustrophobic in the hour or so I had the phone in hand."
The bottom line
"Contrast the 710 with its other budget [Windows Phone] 7.5 peers, factor in that super affordable $50 on contract pricing and, hands down, it's easily the most attractive of the single-core lot," writes Joseph Volpe of Engadget. "Will it succeed in giving Nokia the US market traction it's long sought after? Probably not. The Mr. and Mrs. Johnny-come-latelies of the mobile world will neither make nor break the company's stateside success. That heavy lifting will surely fall to future Lumia progeny of the higher-end sort. No, the 710 is a solid smartphone for first-timers marred only by its faltering camera and nondescript construction. If you're just learning how to surf the internets and / or send a text, this phone's for you."
Wikipedia went dark Wednesday. The online encyclopedia blacked out almost all of its English entries in protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which is currently working its way through the US House of Representatives.
"Right now, the U.S. Congress is considering legislation that could fatally damage the free and open Internet," says the website. "For 24 hours, to raise awareness, we are blacking out Wikipedia."
This SOPA blackout is a bold stand, but it doesn't cut off Wikipedia altogether. If you rely on the encyclopedia for quick answers, here are five ways to get around the protest.
1) Use your phone
The SOPA blackout doesn't affect Wikipedia's mobile edition.
You can actually take advantage of this trick on PCs, as well. When faced with Wikipedia's "Imagine a World Without Free Knowledge" blackout page, take a look at the Web address. They all start the same way – with the letters "en" and then a dot, signifying that the page is written in English. For example, the Wikipedia page on the Monitor is:
You can switch this to the mobile version by adding just two characters, an "m" and another period. Like so:
That's all it takes. Wikipedia attached a black box to the top of each mobile page, so you can still learn why the website opposes SOPA. But the rest of the text will appear as normal – although the formatting may look a little weird, since it's designed for smart phones, not computer monitors.
3) Download all of Wikipedia
This is easier said than done. The online encyclopedia offers a way to download every Wikipedia page, picture, link, and even every user edit. However, this process takes a really long time. "Because of the size of some files (TERAbytes), downloads can take days, or even weeks, NOT including queueing time for your request," says Wikipedia. It estimates that downloading every English article will take 8 to 9 days.
Have a week to spare? The process starts at Wikimedia's Downloads page.
4) Turn to Google cache
Sure, Google links to websites, but it also takes a snapshot of many sites for later reference. This process is called caching. Former Adobe designer Philip Bump programmed a way to tap into that cache and retrieve individual Wikipedia pages. These saved articles can be several days old, but that won't be a problem for most pages. The entry on, say, Nicolas Steno won't change much over the course of a week.
Also, while the service works well in a pinch, most of the Wiki functionality is broken. For example, cross references all link to Wikipedia.org, which, of course, is blacked out today.
If Mr. Bump's workaround – http://pbump.net/wiki/ – comes back with an error message, try again. These occasional hiccups are most likely due to increased demand today.
5) Switch encyclopedias
Yes, Wikipedia is down, but you still have the Internet! Consider turning to the Encyclopedia Britannica Online, Scholarpedia, Citizendium, Encyclopedia.com, Google, Bing, Yahoo, Answers.com, One Look, The Oxford English Dictionary – you get the idea.
Wikipedia should be back to normal on Thursday. However the SOPA debate will continue at least into next month, since the House delayed its vote on the controversial bill. Perhaps this is a good time to read up on SOPA. In fact, you can look it up on Wikipedia without employing any of these new tricks. Wikipedia's page on SOPA is one of the only English entries not affected by this blackout.
For more on how technology intersect daily life, follow Chris on Twitter @venturenaut.