Monday, January 26, 2015

Millions of GMO insects could be released in Florida Keys

Jan 25, 8:24 PM EST

Millions of GMO insects could be released in Florida Keys

By JENNIFER KAY Associated Press
KEY WEST, Fla. (AP) -- Millions of genetically modified mosquitoes could be released in the Florida Keys if British researchers win approval to use the bugs against two extremely painful viral diseases.

Never before have insects with modified DNA come so close to being set loose in a residential U.S. neighborhood.

"This is essentially using a mosquito as a drug to cure disease," said Michael Doyle, executive director of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, which is waiting to hear if the Food and Drug Administration will allow the experiment.

Dengue and chikungunya are growing threats in the U.S., but some people are more frightened at the thought of being bitten by a genetically modified organism. More than 130,000 people signed a petition against the experiment.

Even potential boosters say those responsible must do more to show that benefits outweigh the risks of breeding modified insects that could bite people.

"I think the science is fine, they definitely can kill mosquitoes, but the GMO issue still sticks as something of a thorny issue for the general public," said Phil Lounibos, who studies mosquito control at the Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory.

Mosquito controllers say they're running out of options. With climate change and globalization spreading tropical diseases farther from the equator, storm winds, cargo ships and humans carry these viruses to places like Key West, the southernmost city in the continental U.S.

There are no vaccines or cures for dengue, known as "break-bone fever," or chikungunya, so painful it causes contortions. U.S. cases remain rare.

Insecticides are sprayed year-round in the Keys' charming and crowded neighborhoods. But Aedes aegypti, whose biting females spread these diseases, have evolved to resist four of the six insecticides used to kill them.

Enter Oxitec, a British biotech firm that patented a method of breeding Aedes aegypti with fragments of genes from the herpes simplex virus and E. coli bacteria as well as coral and cabbage. This synthetic DNA is commonly used in laboratory science and is thought to pose no significant risks to other animals, but it kills mosquito larvae.

Oxitec's lab workers manually remove modified females, aiming to release only males, which don't bite for blood like females do. The modified males then mate with wild females whose offspring die, reducing the population.

Oxitec has built a breeding lab in Marathon and hopes to release its mosquitoes in a Key West neighborhood this spring.

FDA spokeswoman Theresa Eisenman said no field tests will be allowed until the agency has "thoroughly reviewed all the necessary information."

Company spokeswoman Chris Creese said the test will be similar in size to Oxitec's 2012 experiment in the Cayman Islands, where 3.3 million modified mosquitoes were released over six months, suppressing 96 percent of the targeted bugs. Oxitec says a later test in Brazil also was successful, and both countries now want larger-scale projects.

But critics accused Oxitec of failing to obtain informed consent in the Caymans, saying residents weren't told they could be bitten by a few stray females overlooked in the lab.

Instead, Oxitec said only non-biting males would be released, and that even if humans were somehow bitten, no genetically modified DNA would enter their bloodstream.

Neither claim is entirely true, outside observers say.

"I'm on their side, in that consequences are highly unlikely. But to say that there's no genetically modified DNA that might get into a human, that's kind of a gray matter," said Lounibos.

Creese says Oxitec has now released 70 million of its mosquitoes in several countries and received no reports of human impacts caused by bites or from the synthetic DNA, despite regulatory oversight that encourages people to report any problems. "We are confident of the safety of our mosquito, as there's no mechanism for any adverse effect on human health. The proteins are non-toxic and non-allergenic," she said.

Oxitec should still do more to show that the synthetic DNA causes no harm when transferred into humans by its mosquitoes, said Guy Reeves, a molecular geneticist at Germany's Max Planck Institute.

Key West resident Marilyn Smith wasn't persuaded after Oxitec's presentation at a public meeting. She says neither disease has had a major outbreak yet in Florida, so "why are we being used as the experiment, the guinea pigs, just to see what happens?"


Follow Jennifer Kay on Twitter at .

© 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

All signs point to the demise of Microsoft's Surface RT tablet

All signs point to the demise of Microsoft's Surface RT tablet

Microsoft can finally put its billion-dollar mistake behind it
By Gregg Keizer  FOLLOW
Computerworld | Jan 26, 2015 8:27 AM PT

Microsoft seems to be within a whisker of calling it quits on its failed experiment with the Surface tablet, the device powered by the ARM architecture and Windows RT, an offshoot of Windows 8.

Last week, the company's own online store showed all configurations of the Surface 2 -- the lone Windows RT tablet still sold -- as out of stock, and that held as of early Monday. Best Buy, Microsoft's U.S. retail partner, also showed no Wi-Fi models available for online ordering, although spot checks had some stores with inventory for in-store pickup. And while giant e-tailer Amazon listed some Surface 2 tablets for sale, many were refurbished units, not new devices.

"It is currently out of stock [and] unfortunately we do not have specific dates on when products are back in stock, [so] you would have to check back on the site regularly," said a Microsoft Store sales representative in an online chat Friday.

Another tip-off that the Surface 2 line will be dead-ended: Microsoft will not offer an upgrade to Windows 10 for either that tablet or its predecessor, originally called Surface RT and then renamed simply Surface.

Instead, Microsoft will provide an unspecified update at some point in the future. But there will not be a path to Windows 10, the operating system slated to release later this year and which will, by Microsoft's telling, be its sole client OS for years to come.

Microsoft declined to answer questions about the Surface 2's future and whether sales had officially stopped. "There is still availability at Best Buy," a Microsoft spokeswoman said.

Analysts agreed that the Surface 2 and Windows RT are goners.

"It's pretty clear that we're not going to see any non-Surface Pro devices," said Stephen Baker of the NPD Group, referring to the Redmond, Wash. company's it's-a-tablet-it's-a-notebook device that runs the full Windows.

"Yes, it's dead," echoed Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research.

The Surface RT was troubled from its release, and bled money almost from the start. Within nine months, Microsoft had taken a $900 million write-off to account for a glut of tablets it had to heavily discount. And even though Microsoft aggressively promoted Windows RT, it was adopted by few OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) and then quickly dropped by those who did.

But if Windows RT and the Surface 2 are dead, or nearly so, what happened? How did Microsoft make such a big blunder?

"They made enormous mistakes with both Windows 8 and what they tried to do with Surface," said Bob O'Donnell, chief analyst at Technalysis Research. "The fundamental mistake with the Surface RT was that they missed that the most important thing about a PC is that it's compatible. The Surface was incompatible with the PC, and couldn't run all the customer's legacy applications."

That was a problem: Microsoft never made clear to consumers that Windows 8 and Windows RT were entirely different beasts, and that the latter was, in fact, incapable of running -- with the exception of Microsoft's own scaled-back Office -- anything but the new "Metro" apps.

Gottheil agreed. "The single biggest mistake was that Microsoft did not clearly tell the world what the Surface was and what it wasn't," he said. "It was essentially a communication problem. But the dearth of software for the modern interface didn't help."

Microsoft's bad timing

Baker had a different explanation for the Surface RT's and Surface 2's failure: Timing.

"I don't think it was the hardware or the operating system," Baker said. "They did all of that well. But it was launched in the teeth of the iPad explosion. Nothing in the 10-in. form factor would have been successful. All everyone wanted then was an iPad."

Baker also disagreed with the others who said that Microsoft's failure was its own making. "You can ding them on all that stuff, but they clearly differentiated the Surface RT from the Surface Pro on price and marketing and positioning," Baker said. "It didn't make a difference. If someone wanted a slab of glass then, the iPad was the only thing they were going to want."

Microsoft cast the Surface RT, but the Surface Pro even more, as necessary, saying that it had to jump into the device business because, said then-CEO Steve Ballmer, "What our software could do would require us to push hardware, sometimes where our partners hadn't envisioned."

Some analysts weren't so sure. While they unanimously applauded the Surface Pro 3, the current incarnation of Microsoft's 2-in-1, they weren't convinced that Microsoft had to get involved.

"A lot of OEMs would have done interesting designs, even without Surface," argued O'Donnell.

But Baker, whose job at the NPD Group is to track U.S. device sales and trends, countered. "They had to do the Surface. With all the growth then going on in tablets, they had to have a solution," he said. "They acknowledged that they needed something in the market. But the [OEM] partners have caught up. In any case, you can't really point to a huge, overwhelming support for 2-in-1s. They're getting better and will get much better with Windows 10, but 2-in-1s are still a niche."

Although the already-sold Surface RT and Surface 2 won't have an upgrade path to Windows 10, there's no reason why Microsoft couldn't revive the pure tablet form factor with or after the launch of the new OS. "If they could find a way to differentiate a pure tablet from the Surface Pro, [the Surface] could come back with Windows 10," speculated Gottheil.

Last year, Microsoft was on the verge of releasing a smaller-sized Surface, dubbed the Surface Mini, but at the last minute decided not to launch the 7-in. or 8-in. device, afraid that the tablet would not sell.

Neither O'Donnell or Baker were going to hold their breath for a return of the Mini. "I see very little opportunity for a smaller tablet, I don't care who it is," said O'Donnell.

Tablet sales, especially in the U.S., where Microsoft has done its best business with the Surface line, have stalled; most who wanted one already have one, and those with one see little need for regularly replacing the device. And if nothing else, the demise of the Surface has shown that tablets are harder to sell than two years ago.

"I think they've simply burned through their inventory of the Surface," said O'Donnell, when asked about the out-of-stock messages on Microsoft's e-store. "When you build a device you have to buy a whole bunch of parts, you pick some number and you build them. Because there was only one model, they just built a bunch. And now they've finally gone through all of them. So they've called it a day."

Later today, Microsoft will release its 2014 fourth quarter financial figures and reveal sales of the Surface line for the three months ending Dec. 31. The previous period was the first that Microsoft claimed a profit for the tablet and 2-in-1.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Cutting the cord: Dish's Sling TV could win older fans

Cutting the cord: Dish's Sling TV could win older fans

By Mike Snider, USA TODAY 8:01 a.m. EST January 25, 2015

Now that we know what's on Sling TV, it's time to figure out who will pay for it. The answer may be a surprise — even to its creators.

Sling TV is Dish Network's new subscription Net video service. It's likely to become available by the end of the month and will cost $20 monthly for about a dozen live TV channels, including ABC Family, Cartoon Network, CNN, Disney Channel, ESPN and ESPN 2, the Food Network, HGTV, TBS, TNT, The Travel Channel and Adult Swim.

As the cable cord-cutting movement has advanced, many have held back because pay-TV alternatives such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Instant Video don't have live sports. Having ESPN and ESPN 2 available on Sling TV may lure some to join the cord-cutting conga line.

Sling TV CEO Roger Lynch says the new offering targets Millennials who are less likely to subscribe to pay TV.

Not so fast, says David Lieberman, executive editor at In a Jan. 19 column, Lieberman says he suspects Sling TV "may appeal more to cash-strapped cable and satellite subscribers than it will to young adults."

That's because the Sling TV programming channels skew more toward older viewers than Millennials, Lieberman says.

Dish Chairman Charlie Ergen may be soft-selling Sling TV so as not to upset the "Golden Goose" that is the pay TV industry — which has 100 million or so homes paying on average $70 a month, and many $100 or more.

At The Diffusion Group, a tech consulting firm that has provided plenty of fodder for this column, Alan Wolk says Sling TV may attract some cord-cutters, but "it is Millennial cord-nevers who will be the ones ponying up $20 a month for the app."

The main factor, he says, is the importance of live news (CNN) and sports (ESPN) to Millennials. "Cord-never Millennials will quickly figure out that most of the other programming on Sling TV is also available on Netflix or Hulu Plus — and without eight minutes of commercials," Wolk reasons.

I'm interested in how important the lack of a two-year contract is to consumers. As opposed to traditional pay TV service, Sling TV is like Spotify, Lynch says. "I put in my credit card and can cancel whenever I want, and I can take it wherever I go."

Combine Sling TV with HBO's as-yet-undefined standalone Net service — and your choice of Amazon, Hulu or Netflix — and cord-cutting probably becomes even more attractive.

Nearly one in five broadband homes (17%) are likely to subscribe to HBO's service, which is due to begin operation this year, according to research firm Parks Associates. Many (91%) of those broadband homes are also pay-TV customers, and half would cancel pay TV once they get the new HBO service, the firm found.

"The percentage of subscribers interested in (Net-delivered, over-the-top) video services is trending upward, and more industry players are planning to launch their own OTT services," says Parks' research analyst Glenn Hower.

Although Net TV can be watched on computers, tablets and smartphones, viewing on TV remains important. But, Hower said, "the age of appointment television is coming to a close, and programming will need to adapt to an on-demand environment."

Sling TV represents an important step in that evolution.

"Cutting the Cord" is a regular column covering Net TV and ways to get it. If you have suggestions or questions, contact Mike Snider via e-mail. Follow Mike Snider on Twitter: @MikeSnider.

Bidding war between networks, sports leagues will increase price of cable TV

Bidding war between networks, sports leagues will increase price of cable TV

By Cecilia Kang January 23 at 8:38 PM 

Cable TV is about to get more expensive for millions of consumers because of a bidding war between networks and the country’s most powerful sports leagues.

Time Warner Cable, Cablevision and scores of rural cable providers are tacking on sports surcharges each month, the direct result of higher fees they are paying to ESPN and other sports networks to carry their channels. Beginning Feb. 5, DirecTV will raise fees by 5.7 percent.

The rise in cable prices is likely to test the patience of customers, who may already be tempted to cut their cords in exchange for streaming options that will soon be available to them. For providers and customers, the creeping prices amount to a test — at what point will viewers decide it isn’t worth paying for cable anymore?

A flood of new options for watching TV are about to arrive this year, from HBO’s standalone service, set to launch this spring, to SlingTV, the new streaming option that will include ESPN, CNN and other popular channels.

The catalyst for the price increases is a slew of dealmaking between ESPN and the biggest professional sports leagues. Based on a recent deal, ESPN is estimated to pay $1.9 billion each year just for National Football League games. ESPN and TNT have signed a new $2.6 billion annual contract to carry National Basketball Association games. Analysts say these costs will get passed on to customers — slowly and steadily over the next decade.

“How far will consumers go with how much they are willing to pay for sports on cable, even if wildly popular?” said Matt Polka, president of the small cable trade group the American Cable Association. He noted that cable and satellite firms have long seen a decline in subscribers, down 150,000 subscribers in the last quarter alone.

“In a weird way, the sports programmers are going to harm themselves if they keep going this way,” Polka said.

The monthly increase is small — from $2 to $5 a month for customers of Time Warner Cable, Cablevision and other smaller providers. But analysts say the trend will last for years.

The most powerful force behind the price changes is ESPN, which is by far the most popular and expensive network in cable. Cable subscribers are paying about $6 per month out of their total cable bills to watch ESPN, the most of any non-premium cable channel because of its massive reach into audiences only the big broadcast networks enjoy.

“ESPN is hugely popular and delivers the most value of any programming network in America,” said Katina Arnold, a spokeswoman for ESPN.

It drew the biggest audiences ever for cable television with the college football championship game between Oregon and Ohio State this month. Its multibillion deals with the NFL and NBA keep viewers subscribing to cable, even if sports fans watch only a few other channels on TV. And ESPN’s dominance is set to last for years.

“ESPN has locked down an extraordinary portfolio of sports rights well into the next decade,” said Disney chief executive Bob Iger in the company’s latest earnings call.

Other networks such as CBS and Fox have also paid sky-high rights for sports broadcast deals, which they then pass on to cable operators in the form of massive retransmission fees.

The audiences for broadcast networks are also enormous. Saturday’s NFC championship game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers drew 55.9 million viewers in the United States. Sports have so reliably delivered huge advertising revenues and retransmission fees, CBS last week renewed its contract for NFL games on Thursday night for $300 million.

But by driving prices higher for all cable customers, ESPN and other networks could be undermining their main profit engine.

Cable operators are openly airing their frustration with sports networks and unveiling details of negotiations that are normally undisclosed in private deals. Time Warner Cable has a “sports programming surcharge” on customer bills for the first time. “We introduced the sports programming surcharge to make it even more clear to customers what exactly is driving the cost of TV higher,” said Rich Ruggiero, a Time Warner Cable spokesman.

He said the cost of carrying broadcast networks such as ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox has increased 60 percent. Ruggiero said that the amount of money Time Warner Cable must pay to continue running sports programming has increased 91 percent since 2008.

“It’s not just one sports network, it’s the overall increase of sports programming that’s been happening for some time now,” Ruggiero said.

Indeed, one of the factors driving up prices is the growing number of sports channels all bidding for the right to air popular events.

“There have been an increasing number of bidders in recent years for large sports rights deals as cable networks have become more and more profitable,” SNL Kagan analysts Derek Baine and John Fletcher wrote in a report this week. “With FOX Sports 1 and FOX Sports 2, NBC Sports and the Turner Networks now in the market bidding on sports rights along with ESPN and the broadcast networks, the market has gotten fiercer than ever.”

Small cable operators are venting in blog posts and in letters to consumers that sports programming fees at ESPN are out of control. They’ve complained that the sports network forces them to take all-or-nothing bundles of ESPN channels, even if their customers aren’t interested in them.

In Northern Iowa, CLTel was required to carry the ESPN’s SEC Network, which covers college football’s Southeastern Conference.

“We don’t have those teams here, and maybe some of customers care, but we are required to carry SEC in order to get ESPN and it all adds up,” said Tom Lovell, general manager of CLTel.

Hargray Communications, which serves about 40,000 customers in Hilton Head, S.C., paid a much higher contract fee in its deal with Disney last summer. It broke out in consumer bills a “broadcast TV surcharge” that Hargray explained to customers was mainly because of higher sports programming fees, said Gerrit Delbert, vice president of sales at Hargray.

Two years ago, Hargray pulled Fox Sports because the network was demanding too much money for a channel few of its customers were watching.

Hargray is preparing for even higher demands when it renegotiates in a few years for a new contract with ESPN.

“Costs have exploded in the past four years, and we share the view of others in the industry that those costs are only going to go higher,” Delbert said.

Disney, which owns ESPN, has defended its lavish spending on exclusive sports contracts as key to ESPN’s future. The network has touted its ability to bring new customers online and continue to grow its cable audience. Later this month, ESPN and ESPN2 will be available to online customers through Dish Network’s SlingTV — a service that doesn’t require a cable subscription.

It’s a high-stakes bet that ESPN’s online service won’t lure too many of its cable customers away from the TV bundle.

Indeed, ESPN has put some limits to how many subscribers it will take for Dish’s Sling TV service, but the sports network is putting great faith in the survival of the cable model.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Privacy is dead, Harvard professors tell Davos forum

Privacy is dead, Harvard professors tell Davos forum

AFP By Richard Carter January 22, 2015 9:46 AM

Imagine a world where mosquito-sized robots fly around stealing samples of your DNA - hat is the terrifying dystopian world portrayed at Davos
Davos (Switzerland) (AFP) - Imagine a world where mosquito-sized robots fly around stealing samples of your DNA. Or where a department store knows from your buying habits that you're pregnant even before your family does.

That is the terrifying dystopian world portrayed by a group of Harvard professors at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Thursday, where the assembled elite heard that the notion of individual privacy is effectively dead.

"Welcome to today. We're already in that world," said Margo Seltzer, a professor in computer science at Harvard University.

"Privacy as we knew it in the past is no longer feasible... How we conventionally think of privacy is dead," she added.

Another Harvard researcher into genetics said it was "inevitable" that one's personal genetic information would enter more and more into the public sphere.

Sophia Roosth said intelligence agents were already asked to collect genetic information on foreign leaders to determine things like susceptibility to disease and life expectancy.

"We are at the dawn of the age of genetic McCarthyism," she said, referring to witch-hunts against Communists in 1950s America.

What's more, Seltzer imagined a world in which tiny robot drones flew around, the size of mosquitoes, extracting a sample of your DNA for analysis by, say, the government or an insurance firm.

Invasions of privacy are "going to become more pervasive," she predicted.

"It's not whether this is going to happen, it's already happening... We live in a surveillance state today."

- 'Nasty little cousin' -

Political scientist Joseph Nye tackled the controversial subject of encrypted communications and the idea of regulating to ensure governments can always see even encrypted messages in the interests of national security.

"Governments are talking about putting in back doors for communication so that terrorists can't communicate without being spied on. The problem is that if governments can do that, so can the bad guys," Nye told the forum.

"Are you more worried about big brother or your nasty little cousin?"

However, despite the pessimistic Orwellian vision, the academics were at pains to stress that the positive aspects of technology still far outweigh the restrictions on privacy they entail.

In the same way we can send tiny drones to spy on people, we can send the same machine into an Ebola ward to "zap the germs," Seltzer said.

"The technology is there, it is up to us how to use it," she added.

"By and large, tech has done more good than harm," she said, pointing to "tremendous" advances in healthcare in some rural areas of the developing world that have been made possible by technology.

And at a separate session on artificial intelligence, panellists appeared to accept the limit on privacy as part of modern life.

Rodney Brooks, chairman of Rethink Robotics, an American tech firm, took the example of Google Maps guessing -- usually correctly -- where you want to go.

"At first, I found that spooky and kind of scary. Then I realised, actually, it's kind of useful," he told the forum.

Anthony Goldbloom, a young tech entrepreneur, told the same panel that what he termed the "Google generation" placed far less weight on their privacy than previous generations.

"I trade my privacy for the convenience. Privacy is not something that worries me," he said.

"Anyway, people often behave better when they have the sense that their actions are being watched."

The World Economic Forum in the swanky Swiss ski resort of Davos brings together some 2,500 of the global business and political elite for a meeting that ends Saturday.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Robot wars: New film explores limits of AI...

Alex Garland's film Ex Machina explores the limits of artificial intelligence - but how close are we to machines outsmarting man?
Having watched the new film, Rhodri Marsden found himself celebrating the joys of humanity

By Rhodri Marsden   Author Biography

Thursday 22 January 2015

My girlfriend casually informed me, apropos of nothing, that she'd washed her hair using shower gel rather than shampoo. I raised an eyebrow. "Well, I guess it's all the same," I said. "It's all detergent, isn't it? Shampoo, shower gel…" "Cillit Bang," she added, prompting 30 seconds of sporadic giggling at the very idea. At that moment, I could be pretty certain that neither of us were robots. Such exchanges feel like the essence of being human: unpredictable behaviour, saying things that don't need saying, reaching absurd conclusions and experiencing joy as a consequence. Good times.

In the film Ex Machina, released this week, a young coder finds himself in the company of an attractive robotic female entity named Ava, built by his boss. The film's narrative hangs around the apparent self-awareness possessed by Ava; at times, it's evident that she passes the Turing Test, the term given to the various ways in which artificial intelligence (AI) is measured against that of humans.

But is Ava actually experiencing consciousness? Can she feel? Is she capable of making light-hearted quips about bathroom cleaner and enjoying the reaction said quip prompts in others? Many scientists doubt, even given the extraordinary advances in technology awaiting us, that AI can realistically match the combined intelligence and consciousness of human beings. Others believe fervently that it can, and that it poses profound questions for the future of humanity. That moment of attainment is known as The Singularity.

One of the inherent difficulties of debating The Singularity is that humans are incapable of predicting the nature of an intellect that will exceed our own. We have no real idea of what The Singularity means for us. That doesn't, of course, stop scientists, radical thinkers, philosophers and AI experts making best guesses, and their visions range from the utopian to the hellish.

Ray Kurzweil, Google's director of engineering and the man perhaps most closely associated with The Singularity term, is almost evangelical in his optimism. He excitedly outlines a vision of the future where man and machine combine, extending our lifespans indefinitely and making optimum use of everything around us. Science fiction writers and film-makers have, over the years, sounded a more cautious note in the interest of dramatic tension.

Some scientists, meanwhile, warn that any entity with greater intelligence than ours is unlikely to have our best interests at heart. "If we're lucky, they'll treat us as pets," says Dr. Paul Saffo of Stanford University in The Singularity, a documentary film by Doug Wolens. "If we're very unlucky, they'll treat us as food."

The speed at which The Singularity is approaching is, according to Kurzweil, driven by the nature of the growth in technological power – "exponentials" – in relation to our own relatively static intelligence. For example, Moore's Law, formulated in 1965 by the co-founder of Intel, Gordon Moore, broadly states that computer speed doubles every two years, and that's still holding true.

Some argue that the overall rate of growth is slowing, some say it's speeding up, but there's enough confidence knocking about for a few dates to have been assigned to The Singularity.

Kurzweil pegs it to the year 2045, by which time he believes that one computer will possess equivalent intelligence to every human being on the planet combined. These kinds of comparisons, however, rely on the assumption that the brain can be represented in terms of computing hardware – a philosophy known as Strong AI.

Advocates say there's nothing intrinsically special about living matter that prevents it from being modelled; the brain, after all, processes inputs, delivers outputs and possesses memory – though, yes, with somewhere approaching 100 billion neurons in a human brain and more possible connections than there are atoms in the universe, that would be a formidable computational task. However, that task is made even more complex by those thorny questions of sentience, self-awareness and consciousness, described by Sir Nigel Shadbolt, professor of artificial intelligence at the University of Southampton, as the "Hard Problem".

"We have no idea how much sentience has to do with being ensnared in the body we have," he says. "We can't even come to an agreement about where, in the evolution of actual organic life, anything like self-awareness kicks in. We're building super-smart micro-intelligences – we call them AI – that can recognise your face, translate from one language to another, learn to play games and get better at them. But we have no clue about what a general theory of intelligence is, let alone self-awareness. Why, come 2045, that should that suddenly change... I don't think that matching the processing power of the computer to the brain is going to give us any better insight."

Mark Bishop, professor of cognitive computing at Goldsmiths, is on the same side. "If you accept the premise that everything about the brain is explainable by a computer program," he says, "then Kurzweil is absolutely right. But I believe that there are many strong grounds for doubting that claim. No matter how good the AI, the computer will never genuinely understand. It might appear to, but only in the sense that a small child might appear to understand an adult's joke when it laughs appropriately at a dinner party."

Bishop outlines three arguments that address the question of consciousness and computing. The first, by John Searle, dates from 1980 and is known as the Chinese Room; if a computer convinces a Chinese speaker that it understands Chinese by responding perfectly to their questions, it has passed the Turing Test. But does it really understand Chinese, or does it only simulate understanding? The second is Bishop's own argument from his 2002 paper, Dancing With Pixies. "If it's the case that an execution of a computer program instantiates what it feels like to be human," he says, "experiencing pain, smelling the beautiful perfume of a long-lost lover – then phenomenal consciousness must be everywhere. In a cup of tea, in the chair you're sitting on."

This philosophical position – known as "panpsychism" – that all physical entities have mental attributes, is one that Bishop sees as Strong AI's absurd conclusion. Shadbolt agrees. "Exponentials have delivered remarkable capability," he says, "but none of that remarkable capability is sitting there reflecting on what very dull creatures we are. Not even slightly."

The third argument Bishop makes is that there's something about human creativity that computers just don't get. While a computer program can compose new scores in the style of JS Bach, that sound plausibly like Bach compositions, it doesn't design a whole new style of composition. "It might create paintings in the style of Monet," he says, "but it couldn't come up with, say, Duchamp's urinal. It isn't clear to me at all where that degree of computational creativity can come from."

By contrast, one of the scientific advisers for Ex Machina, geneticist Adam Rutherford, describes the consciousness of Ava's character as being a mere "couple of conceptual breakthroughs" away. So it's evident that there's profound disagreement and some deeply entrenched opinions about the likelihood, let alone the timing, of The Singularity. Kurzweil rejects the views of many of his critics, saying that they can't comprehend the exponential rate of technological change, and those who subscribe to his views dismiss counter-arguments as being weighed down by religious baggage. However, ironically, Kurzweil's vision of eternal life (where realigning misaligned molecules can prevent disease, and where we can be physically augmented by technology) almost seems to be driven by a semi-religious instinct – specifically, a fear of death.

"People who reject religion are often very scared of death," says Bishop. "It seems there's a deep lack, and some people replace that by buying uncritically into a computational dream, a dream of robot minds and silicon heaven."

Bishop also stresses that there are emergent ways of looking at the problem of consciousness that bypass that dream. "The dominant metaphor for the mind over the past 50 years has been the computer, but there are many exciting new avenues where scientists are looking at the way consciousness arises without buying into this computational metaphor – which, in my view, has had its time."

The Singularity and its consequences are almost inevitably addressed in the media with slightly hysterical overtones. When the co-founder of Paypal, Elon Musk, recently donated $10m (£6.6m) towards research into the safety of AI, it was described in one newspaper as a move to "prevent a robot uprising". And while a post-Singularity world is by its very nature unfathomable, Shadbolt stresses the need for care, even among those who don't believe in the concept.

"There are lots of ways of being smart that aren't smart like us," he says. "A robot doesn't have to have self-awareness to be autonomous and capable of creating havoc. It's right to come out and say, for example, that you shouldn't build a self-replicating, single-mission system." Philosopher Nick Bostrom outlined one such system: a superintelligence whose goal is the manufacture of paperclips. Let loose, it would have no reason not to transform the solar system into a giant paperclip manufacturing facility.

"And I'd suggest," laughs Shadbolt, "that Earth would be a duller place as a result."

The arguments surrounding The Singularity are deeply compelling, not least because they ask us to assess what it means to be human. In a landmark essay for Wired magazine in 2000, Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, wrote a heartfelt and somewhat anxious response to Kurzweil's vision, during which he recalled the penultimate scene in Woody Allen's film, Manhattan. Allen considers why life is worth living: for him, it's Groucho Marx, the second movement of the Jupiter Symphony, Swedish movies, the crabs at Sam Wo's and so on.

"Each of us has our precious things," wrote Joy, "and as we care for them we locate the essence of our humanity."

I briefly glimpsed my own humanity in a joke about washing one's hair using Cillit Bang – and unlike The Singularity, it was a very small thing. But maybe it's the small things, not the big ones, that are most important.

'Ex Machina' is on general release from today

Google Chairman Eric Schmidt: "The Internet Will Disappear"

Google Chairman Eric Schmidt: "The Internet Will Disappear"

Christopher Patey

•He also discusses online dominance on a World Economic Forum panel with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, while Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer is asked about privacy issues.

by Georg Szalai

1/22/2015 11:10am PST

Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt on Thursday predicted the end of the Internet as we know it.

At the end of a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where his comments were webcast, he was asked for his prediction on the future of the web. “I will answer very simply that the Internet will disappear,” Schmidt said.

“There will be so many IP addresses…so many devices, sensors, things that you are wearing, things that you are interacting with that you won’t even sense it,” he explained. “It will be part of your presence all the time. Imagine you walk into a room, and the room is dynamic. And with your permission and all of that, you are interacting with the things going on in the room.”

Concluded Schmidt: “A highly personalized, highly interactive and very, very interesting world emerges.”

The panel, entitled The Future of the Digital Economy, also featured Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and others.

Earlier in the debate, Schmidt discussed the issue of market dominance. The European Union has been looking at Google’s search market dominance in a long-running antitrust case, and the European parliament late last year even called for a breakup.

“You now see so many strong tech platforms coming, and you are seeing a reordering and a future reordering of dominance or leaders or whatever term you want to use because of the rise of the apps on the smartphone,” Schmidt said Thursday. “All bets are off at this point as to what the smartphone app infrastructure is going to look like” as a “whole new set” of players emerges to power smartphones, which are nothing but super-computers, the Google chairman argued. “I view that as a completely open market at this point.”

Asked about his recent trip to North Korea, Schmidt said the country has many Internet connections through data phones, but there is no roaming and web usage is “heavily supervised.” Schmidt said “it’s very much surveillance of use,” which he said was not good for the country and others.

Sandberg and Schmidt lauded the Internet as an important way to give more people in the world a voice. Currently, only 40 percent of people have Internet access, the Facebook COO said, adding that any growth in reach helps extend people’s voice and increase economic opportunity. “I’m a huge optimist,” she said about her outlook for the industry. “Imagine what we can do” once the world gets to 50 percent, 60 percent and more in terms of Internet penetration.

She cited women as being among the beneficiaries, saying the Internet narrows divides.

Schmidt similarly said that broadband can address governance issues, information needs, personal issues, women empowerment needs and education issues. “The Internet is the greatest empowerment of citizens … in many years,” he said. “Suddenly citizens have a voice, they can be heard.”

During another technology panel at the World Economic Forum on Thursday, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, Liberty Global CEO Mike Fries and others answered questions on the need to regulate privacy standards on the Internet and for tech companies following the Snowden case, the Sony hack and the like.

Mayer said that the personalized Internet “is a better Internet,” emphasizing: “We don’t sell your personal data … We don’t transfer your personal data to third parties.” She said users own their data and need to have control, adding that people give up data to the government for tax assessment, social services and other purposes.

Fries said Liberty Global subscribers view billions of hours of content and generate billions of clicks, but added that “today we do nothing.” He explained: “We generate zero revenue from all of that information.” But he acknowledged that big data was big business for a lot of people.

Both executives said transparency was important to make sure users know privacy standards and the like.

Gunther Oettinger, a conservative German politician serving as the European Union’s commissioner for digital economy and society, said on the panel that “we need a convincing global understanding, we need a UN agency for data protection and security.” Asked what form that “understanding” should have, he said he was looking for “clear, pragmatic, market-based regulation.” Explained Oettinger: “It’s a public-private partnership.”

Fries said such a solution was likely not to happen in the near term, given the size of the EU. “I think it is going to take several years,” he said, adding that some countries’ parliaments would likely take a stab at it.

But he warned that a joint solution would make more sense. “We don’t want Germany to have its own Internet,” Fries said. “Some countries may build their own Internets” and “balkanize” the web, he warned.

Mayer said on the issue of regulation: “I like Tim’s idea better of the beneficent marketplace.” She spoke of fellow panelist and computer specialist Tim Berners-Lee, known as the inventor of the World Wide Web.

Asked how Yahoo stores and handles client records, she said the online giant “changed the way we store and communicate data” after Snowden and also changed encryptions between data centers. And the company protects users through encryption methods, she added. Mayer said that trust and confidence of Yahoo users has rebounded since.

Mayer was also asked what happens if a government asks for a user’s data, a question that has new significance after the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, which have led some to call for increased surveillance powers of the Internet for governments. Mayer said Yahoo always assesses if such a request is reasonable. “We have a very good track record for standing up to what’s not reasonable,” she said.