Beware What You Download, Internet Police Coming To Computer Near You

There is some serious stuff going on in the world of internet piracy. So much so that a consumer group has warned that everyday internet customers who download TV shows, movies and music for free could soon be hit with massive fines, legal threats and skyrocketing internet bills. Ok. We’re talking Australia but it would be naïve to think the same thing or worse is not being contemplated elsewhere.

Consumer advocate Choice has attacked what it described as a “truly scary” plan from Australia’s Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that could result in average customers being sued by Hollywood studios. Australia’s biggest ISPs — including Telstra, Optus and iiNet — have joined forces to establish the Copyright Notice Scheme Industry Code, which is aimed at reducing the incidence of online piracy. At the request of the Australian Government, the companies have formulated a three strikes notice, to try and change the behaviours of customers and steer them towards lawful (read that as paid for) sources of content. But Choice says it is a “heavy handed scheme” that will “drive average Australians into the legal system”. “The scheme reads like the script of a Hollywood horror film,” Choice campaigns manager, Erin Turner said. “It would see average teenagers, mums and dads facing uncapped fines and legal threats. It’s truly scary.”

Under the draft code released last week, customers suspected of illegally downloading content will be hit with a series of escalating infringement notices from the ISPs. After the first breach, a customer is promptly emailed a standardized “Education” notice but if they continue to breach copyright laws, they are then sent a “Warning” notice followed by a “Final” notice.

The ISPs plan to detect illegal downloading through their customers’ internet protocol (IP) addresses, which every computer has. Official warning notifications are then sent to the account holder. The warning must be emailed within seven days of the infringement and include the title of the work, as well as the date and time when the downloading occurred. The final notice, which does not have to carry the ISP’s branding, warns the account holder they could be taken to court and recommends they “seek independent legal advice”. The “three strikes and you’re out” scheme could then kick off a “facilitated preliminary discovery process”, which obliges the ISP to reveal the customer’s identity to the rights holder. If a customer receives three notices within 12 months, the owners of the content — such as a Hollywood studio or a record company — can then apply to a court to access the customer’s name, address and contact details and launch legal action against them. “Any rights holder whose copyright work has been the subject of an Education, Warning or Final Notice will be provided with assistance to take direct copyright infringement action against an account holder,” the code says.

The code is still in draft form, but ISPs hope to implement it by September 1, 2015. Like I said this is serious stuff if you happen to be someone who regularly downloads copyright protected content.

A spokesman for the industry body behind the scheme, says it is primarily focused on public education, rather than punishment. “Ultimately we’re trying to strike a balance. We’re trying to ensure privacy and personal details are protected, that any allegation (of copyright infringement) will be independently reviewed, that customers don’t face sanctions,” the spokesman says. But Choice calls the scheme “heavy handed. ” The group says it fails to protect Australians consumers. “What we’re worried about is the final notice step that would funnel people into legal action,” Choice’s Erin Turner said. “There’s no limit on how much people can be fined and it opens up a whole bunch of risks. The scheme also forces internet service provides to act as an antipiracy police force on behalf of Hollywood rights holders, handing over personal contact details on the basis of unproven allegations.”

Turner said similar schemes overseas led to rights holders sending “speculative invoices” to account holders. “We’ve heard reports of customers being sent letters that say, ‘Pay this amount of money or we will take legal action’. Customers usually just paid the amount to “make the very scary process go away”, she said.

Choice points out that the “discovery process” clause in the code is concerning because it requires ISPs to participate and comply with any court actions, rather than protect their customers.

And there has been an ongoing court case that has, so far, said the discovery process was a legal right available to copyright holders. That case is one of the most important for the future of Australian piracy laws. It revolves around Dallas Buyers Club LLC, the copyright holders for the film Dallas Buyers Club, wanting ISP, iiNet, to provide information on its customers who Dallas Buyers Club believe pirated the film.

Late last year it was revealed that Dallas Buyers Club used a German software tool known as MaverickEye to detect torrent users who were illegally downloading the movie. The software allegedly revealed a number of Australians who had ‘seeded the film online’ or made it available to be downloaded from their computer using peer-to-peer programs. That software disclosed the IP addresses of 4800 Australian computers, with Dallas claiming in court that it could find a further 6000 if it ran the MaverickEye software again. Currently those IP addresses don’t disclose specific details about any particular person, which is why Dallas is in court trying to force iiNet to hand over this information. Both the courts and iiNet are worried that Dallas Buyers Club will use a technique known as speculative invoicing. This involves sending a legal threat to someone saying that unless they pay a sum of money they will take them to court. Often that sum of money is a few thousand dollars, when the actual loss to the rights holders would have been no more than a few hundred, or even as low as $5 according to iiNet’s lawyers. People are more likely to choose to settle, whether the sum is fair or not, because it will cost even more than that to argue the case court. There is no doubt piracy is becoming a big issue everywhere. But how this case resolves itself will, in all likelihood set a precedent for future cases and how piracy is dealt with in Australia.

Choice says the code ignores the real crux of the problem, the causes of illegal downloading in Australia. “We’ve looked into the reasons people pirate, and it’s due to cost and availability,” Erin Turner said. “There’s still massive delays when content is available in Australia. It’s a market failure. Consumers know this.” Turner acknowledges that infringing copyright is wrong, but Choice research shows that customers mostly turn to illegal means when they can’t find the content they want. “It doesn’t excuse it, but it does explain it,” she said.

The industry body leading the copyright crackdown admits that “more needs to be done” to address the problems of access and affordability of content in Australia. But they dispute Choice’s claim that average customers should be worried about the code. “I can understand that this may not be a popular move with some customers but we’ve genuinely tried to strike a reasonable balance,” the industry group spokesman said. “I don’t expect there to be universal acclaim, but it’s a scheme that’s fair, that’s not punitive and that balances competing interests.”

Choice is concerned that customers will be made to bear the cost of the scheme, which could drive up internet bills. “If ISPs end up paying the lion’s share of administration costs, these are likely to be passed on to their consumers,” Choice’s Erin Turner said. “We don’t think consumers should be footing the bill for an ineffective industry initiative.”

As if you didn’t have enough to worry about already, technology could turn the 21st century into a new dark age, lost to history, according to a leading internet pioneer. As computer operating systems and software get upgraded, documents and images stored using older technology are becoming increasingly inaccessible, says Dr Vinton Cerf, the Vice-President of Google. He say in the coming centuries, historians looking back on the present era could well be confronted with what he describes as a digital desert comparable with the dark ages. The Dark Ages was the post Roman period in Western Europe about which relatively little is known because of the scarcity of written records. Dr Cerf, who also has the title of chief internet evangelist at Google, says : “If we’re thinking 1000 years, 3000 years ahead in the future, we have to ask ourselves, how do we preserve all the bits that we will need in order to correctly interpret the digital objects we created? ” We are nonchalantly throwing all of our data into what could become an information black hole without realising it. ” The 22nd century, and future centuries after that, will wonder about us but they’ll have great difficulty knowing anything much because so much of what we’ve left behind will be bits and pieces that are uninterpretable.”

Cerf urged people to print out everything, especially treasured photos and not rely on storing them as memory files. “In our zeal to get excited about digitising, we digitise photographs thinking it’s going to make them last longer, and we might turn out to be wrong,” he said. “I would say if there are photos you are really concerned about, (then) create a physical instance of them. Print them out.”

Cerf was speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in the Silicon Valley capital, San Jose, California.

To illustrate his point, he referred to an “amazing book” by American Pulitzer Prize winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, called ‘Team Of Rivals: The Political Genius Of Abraham Lincoln.’ Goodwin’s material was obtained by scouring libraries for copies of written correspondence between Lincoln and the people he associated with. “Let us imagine that there’s a 22nd century Doris Kearns Goodwin, and she decides to write about the beginning of the 21st century, and seeks to reproduce the conversations of the time,” Cerf says. “She discovers there’s an awful lot of digital content that has either evaporated because nobody saved it, or it’s around but it’s not interpretable because it was created using software that’s 100 years old.”

The Google boss believes the problem has serious implications for the storage of legal documents, needed to be kept for long periods. One possible solution is what he calls “digital vellum”, a concept now being explored by computer scientists at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. This involves taking a digital “snapshot” of an item, when it is stored, as well as all of the processes needed to reproduce it at a later date, including the software and operating system. The snapshot could then be used to reproduce the information, on a computer, in perhaps centuries from now.

They should be calling this, back to the future.

Is Artificial Intelligence A Threat To Mankind? Stephen Hawking Thinks It Is.

The brave new world is no longer some Aldous Huxley flight of fancy or even fantasy. It’s here. And it’s with us now. It’s called Artificial Intelligence and it’s spawning a flourishing new, and what its advocates hope, will be a massively, profitable industry. Those involved in its development say Ai is nothing more than a benign computer program that does human quality analysis. In other words, it is designed to replace the human element in many tiring, dangerous or time-consuming jobs. Companies like IBM, Google and Apple are spending huge sums of money developing Ai. They say it will be used to manufacture very specific programs designed to improve our society.

Nevertheless, there is widespread fear and distrust of Ai. Who can forget the talking red light called HAL 9000 in 2001 A Space Odyssey. HAL, short for Heuristically programed Algorithmic computer. HAL became a living, not quite breathing personification of evil. A computer, who could talk and was capable of independent, rational thought and ultimately a threat to the human race. So is that what Ai really is? Its supporters say Ai is not alive and never will be. And while it might be capable of performing tasks that a human being would do, it has no genuine creativity, emotions, ambitions or desires other than what is programed into it or what it detects from the environment. Unlike science fiction, or what’s made into movies, Ai has no desire to mate, reproduce or have a large family of little Ai’s running around causing havoc. But in a limited context, Ai can think like us and set tasks for itself. But just like any other computer program or technology, its creators decide its role in society. And we are told those creators have no intention of using it to enslave humanity. They point to the fact that Artificially intelligent computer programs, operate as specialists. There is a network of Ai sub programs each of them individually handling tasks like computer vision, language, machine learning and robotic movement. So Ai is not a ‘he’ or a ‘she’ or even an ‘it’ but a ‘they.’

Supporters of Ai do acknowledge and concede that, like all other computer programs, Artificial Intelligence is ultimately controlled by human beings. It can be designed as a war machine, creating weapons that carry a nuclear or biological payload capable of wiping out the human race. But, they say, that is nothing new. We’ve been able to do that in the past without the need of Ai. In any case it’s not the fault of science. We human beings are to blame. We shouldn’t fear Ai but we should fear the people who might want to misuse it.

I don’t know about you but I don’t find the words and thoughts of Ai supporters particularly comforting or reassuring. And, as it turns out I’m not alone. Two eminent thinkers, Stephen Hawking, a world renowned Astrophysicist and Elon Musk, the guy behind electric car manufacturer, Tesla Motors, PayPal and rocket manufacturer, Space X. Both of these prominent individuals believe Ai is a doomsday prophecy. And while they are not talking about robotic armies rising up to take over the world, they talk of a cataclysmic event called Singularity. Hawking and Musk say ‘singularity’ could only be decades away and what will happen is that the network of world computers and Ai will have a kind of explosion of machine intelligence. By then, most of the world’s food distribution, banking and other vital systems will all be conducted through that network. So the explosion will cause all of the systems to malfunction and that will bring the world to its knees. Now you might be ready to dismiss this as something fanciful. Just as a reminder, this is not a couple of crackpot scientists talking. These two guys are highly intelligent men who the world takes very seriously. In fact, in an interview with the BBC, Hawking went further. He said the development of full Artificial Intelligence would spell the end of the human race. He called for all research into Ai to be aborted immediately, which is kind of ironic coming from someone who relies on Artificial Intelligence to communicate.

Hawking suffers from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease). For decades he has been scrolling a cursor through the alphabet, laboriously building words so that he can communicate through twitching his cheek. He was asked to express his thoughts on a recent revamp of his computer-assisted speech system by the computer company, Intel, and machine-learning software company, Swiftkey. Hawking is working with Intel to integrate new features such as predictive text with his existing suite of sensors to help him “speak” through a voice synthesiser. The astrophysicist has embraced a wide range of technologies in his quest to communicate and research.

But it was the ability of the software to “learn” and “predict” his preference in words that completely spooked him. He says while such primitive forms of artificial intelligence have proven to be very useful, he fears the consequences of creating something smarter than a human being. It could take off on its own, and redesign itself at an ever-increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, would be superseded because they couldn’t compete.

Elon Musk thinks exactly the same way and his language is even more colourful than Hawking. Musk says ‘summoning the demon’ of self-learning, which is what he calls artificial intelligence, would ‘potentially be more dangerous’ than nuclear weapons.

“I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence, Musk said. “If I were to guess what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that … with artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon. In all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water, it’s like yeah he’s sure he can control the demon. (but it) didn’t work out.”

Ai definitely has a lot of people talking. It has caused the formation of ethics panels and UN investigations, university reviews and consumer protection reports. They are saying it is a potential threat but not a clear and present danger.

Supporters of Artificial Intelligence are adamant it will benefit mankind but thinking machines are already rapidly displacing humans in the workforce: Sleepless, never tiring, performing repetitive but complex tasks in an indefatigable manner. If you are in business and don’t think beyond the size of your wallet, you’d have to be asking yourself where is the downside?

World’s First Computer From Ancient Greece Discovered In Aegean Sea

Some time ago, I first wrote about a mystery unfolding in the Aegean Sea. To be more specific an underwater area off the island of Antikythera. A mystery slowly revealing more and more of its secrets.

An extraordinary mystery that really begins in 200 BC, when a Roman ship sailed on a voyage. Where it came from and where it was going nobody knows for certain. But somewhere between Greece and Crete, it ran into a storm and sank. And for more than two thousand years the treasures it carried literally faded into history. Entombed in the sandy bottom of the ocean.

Fast forward to only 100 years ago, when a group of sponge divers make a chance discovery. They see the hand of an ancient statue protruding eerily from the silt. These sponge divers stumbled on the wreck of that ancient Roman ship. It is the largest ancient ship wreck to be discovered. Even though they could only spend a short time on the bottom, because of the depth, they still managed to collect a vast array of artefacts. It was an amazing but eclectic collection of bits and pieces: bronze and marble statues, jewellery, glass and coins. The statues were beautifully crafted and life-like despite the ravages of time and the sea. The glassware crafted to an exacting standard and brightly coloured. The treasure is the sum of many parts but not the whole. Very few items were complete. And of course that led to much speculation about what kind of ship she was. Was it a treasure ship making a delivery to a King or High Priest? Was it a plunder ship carrying the spoils and trophies of war? Or, was it just laden with an assortment of trinkets destined for sale in some distant market?

But one particular item they discovered, at first glance looked like a corroded lump of bronze cogs and wheels. Because it was bronze, it survived well in the sea but didn’t look like anything, anyone had seen before. A lot of years passed before scientists finally took a closer look to see if it could be identified.

The first job, get it X-rayed. And when they did. it looked way more complicated than first thought. There were wheels within wheels. But what exactly was it? It slowly dawned on scientists this was one of the most sophisticated devices ever discovered from ancient times. Forget about Apple and Microsoft. They were looking at the world’s first computer, an analogue computer that did calculations. As far as anyone knows, the only example of its kind anywhere in the world. But how did it work? After further examination, the scientists determined it was an ancient timepiece working as an astronomical calculator. A calculator, or mechanical device, predicting movement of stars and planets. As one astrophysicist said, the device makes mechanical what was known for centuries about astronomical cycles. These cycles predict eclipses by the moon and the sun and are used to produce workable calendars. This hand-cranked device, more than likely predicted which city would host the Olympic Games, as well as tracking movement of planets, for prophecies and religious ceremonies.

Just to put this into context. This is something built more than two thousand years ago. The kind of skill and complexity needed for manufacture would not become evident until the 14 Century. Beyond being ahead of its time, the device could well be one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time. Scientists think it was built for a wealthy person, for a bit of fun.

The scientific community is very excited principally because they believe they only have half the story. Another half of the device or devices, remains on the bottom of the Aegean sea, waiting to be found. So scientists have no idea how complicated this device could potentially be, or even how many there are until they discover the rest of it. One set of gears and cogs doesn’t match the rest so there is more of the device or devices to be discovered.

But as time goes on scientists are learning more and more about what is being called the Antikythera mechanism. Some of the bronze work contains inscriptions and one word stands out. The Greek word for Cosmos. Scientists believe another metal plate may actually contain an instruction manual for using the device because it details different gear settings.

In a very recent development, scientists now say the device may be much older than first thought. The latest theory it dates from around 200 BC, and not 60 BC as first thought, which ties the device to two of history’s greatest minds, Archimedes and Hipparchus, both astronomers and mathematicians.

But one of the great ironies of this discovery is that true cutting edge technology is being invented for the express purpose of discovering the rest of this ancient example of high tech wizardry and whatever else might be lurking at the site. A $1.7 million diving suit, which acts like a wearable submarine, developed so an archaeologist can use it to explore the wreck site. There are pedals at the feet of the suit to allow the wearer to literally fly through the water powered by thrusters built into the suit’s backpack. The suit’s arms allow for free movement and instead of using their hands, archaeologists recover objects using mechanical pincers. The suit has breathing and communication systems and a carbon dioxide scrubber, which means a diver can stay at depth for long periods.

The whole expedition is costing millions of dollars, partly sponsored by a Swiss watchmaker. The Swiss are people used to dealing with complicated machinery so no surprise they are curious to know more about what makes this device tick.

So far 82 fragments of the Antikythera mechanism were recovered from the wreck. If it turns out to be some rich person’s toy it will be one the most complicated toys ever devised, a genuine forerunner of today’s modern computers. Move over Apple and Microsoft. Forget California, the first Silicon Valley was Ancient Greece.

Has The Rot Set In For Apple?

Something very serious is happening to Apple. I am not given to melodrama or overstatement. And it would be overstating by a considerable margin to describe Apple as rotten to the core. But the fruit of a once great company is looking seedy, tarnished and blighted of late. It certainly isn’t the way Steve Jobs would have done business.

Apple was once a brand synonymous with reliability and innovation. It drew in customers with its magical, consumer friendly, wizardry. Gadgets, that looked state-of-the-art, attractive and did phenomenal things. But I think it’s now safe to say the magic has left the building. It’s been replaced by one blunder after another. And the product launches, proudly proclaiming the latest innovation, are looking more like catch-up than innovation.

The company keeps doing dumb things. Firstly, there were the holes in its security you could literally drive a truck through. Hackers were able to exploit the security weakness and gain access to the private photos of celebrities. Many of the photos showed people in a state of undress. These photos were then scattered over the internet. Things got a whole lot worse for Apple when it was revealed it knew about the security hole in its system, for six months, but did nothing about it. The carefully crafted Apple image of being an impenetrable fortress where all of your very private information could be kept securely, evaporated overnight.

Then just recently, the launch of the much, hyped iPhone 6. This was touted as Apple’s answer to the market gains of its major competitor, the Korean giant Samsung. Once again a very different Apple fell from the tree literally. A technical glitch meant the live streaming of the event didn’t work. Oh my God. The old Apple would never have allowed this to happen. It would have worked flawlessly just like their products. But in keeping with all Apple announcements, there was that expect the unexpected moment: the release of the new Apple watch. This was more like the Apple of old. The kind of breakthrough innovation that Steve Jobs would have been proud to put his name to. It is a device that takes all of the shortcomings already known about these kinds of devices and fixed them in one gorgeously designed bundle. Then Apple dropped the ball completely. It did not say you can go immediately into any Apple retail and online store and buy the Apple watch. That would have got everyone excited and believing again. Instead, the watch won’t be available for six months. Talk about an anti-climax. What were they thinking?

Then Apple delivered the coup de grace. It was a PR disaster of epic proportions. I am talking about their not so great, U2 music promotion. What seemed like the most generous music giveaway in history, installing the new U2 album, Songs of Innocence, directly into the library of the company’s half a billion iTunes subscribers, very quickly turned to custard. Social media was awash with people complaining they were getting a product they didn’t want or ask for. It was meant to benefit both Apple and the band but Apple was forced into creating and releasing a tool so that iTunes customers could remove the album from their library.

The next major cock-up is something I would never have thought possible. Apple has always done very well with the release of their iPhones. So no surprise iPhone 6 and 6 plus prompted consumers to line up for days to get their hands on the new devices. But it wasn’t long before the complaints started rolling in. Some of them unjustified but others were inexcusable. There were complaints that the iPhone 6 was prone to bending. To be frank so would anything if you apply enough direct force. The second complaint was sadly all Apple’s fault. The company released a phone update that, of all things, took away the device’s fundamental feature: the ability to use it as a phone. The other key feature of iPhone 6, Touch ID also didn’t work. The old Apple would never have allowed something so fundamentally flawed to pass quality control. Maybe it was an indication of how badly Apple has slipped in its market share that it felt the need to rush the release of a product that still had major flaws in its design. Then Apple compounded what was already a disaster by releasing a software fix that didn’t fix the problem.

So where does that now leave people like me who are lovers of everything Apple? Sadly I hear a little voice inside me asking the question: Do I still want to buy this fruit?