Grass, Bugs, and Apple

The Drone Papers put together by journalists from The Interception are indeed a terrible read in its own right, demonstrating how much resources the US has used in order to find and kill suspected terrorists which also has led to the death of a vast number of innocent civilians.

"The White House and Pentagon boast that the targeting killing program is precise and that civilian deaths are minimal. However, documents detailing a special operations campaign in northeastern Afghanistan, Operation Haymaker, show that between January 2012 and February 2013, U.S. special operations airstrikes killed more than 200 people. Of those, only 35 were the intended targets. During one five-month period of the operation, according to the documents, nearly 90 percent of the people killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets. In Yemen and Somalia, where the U.S. has far more limited intelligence capabilities to confirm the people killed are the intended targets, the equivalent ratios may well be much worse." From The Huffington Post

However, you get another kind if insight reading the story written by one of the people on the death list, Malik Jalal:

"I am in the strange position of knowing that I am on the ‘Kill List’. I know this because I have been told, and I know because I have been targeted for death over and over again. Four times missiles have been fired at me. I am extraordinarily fortunate to be alive.

I don’t want to end up a “Bugsplat” – the ugly word that is used for what remains of a human being after being blown up by a Hellfire missile fired from a Predator drone. More importantly, I don’t want my family to become victims, or even to live with the droning engines overhead, knowing that at any moment they could be vaporized."

The Drone Papers form the basis of the recently published book The Assassination Complex by Jeremy Scahill and The Staff of The Intercept. The foreword is written by Edward Snowden.

"We are witnessing a compression of the working period in which bad policy shelters in the shadows, the time frame in which unconstitutional activities can continue before they are exposed by acts of conscience. And this temporal compression has a significance beyond the immediate headlines; it permits the people of this country to learn about critical government actions, not as part of the historical record but in a way that allows direct action through voting — in other words, in a way that empowers an informed citizenry to defend the democracy that “state secrets” are nominally intended to support. When I see individuals who are able to bring information forward, it gives me hope that we won’t always be required to curtail the illegal activities of our government as if it were a constant task, to uproot official lawbreaking as routinely as we mow the grass. (Interestingly enough, that is how some have begun to describe remote killing operations, as “cutting the grass.”)"

From Sundsby Säteri 2016
There have been several attempts to publish apps tracking the number of deaths caused by US drone strikes such as Metadata+ and Ephemeral+. However, they have been removed by Apple as noticed by The Guardian. This made Mike Elgan at Computerworld wonder if Apple and Facebook are bad for democracy:

"This trend transfers the job of gatekeeper of what political information reaches the public from publications, editors or news directors to the likes of Apple and Facebook -- the companies that choose, in Apple's case, which apps are allowed and which are banned or, in Facebook's case, which news stories or sources are favored by its secret algorithms.

What that means -- and there's no gentle way to put this, so I'm just going to say it -- is that the people in charge of what voters and citizens know are people motivated by selling tiny computers with "selfie cameras" or ads for tiny computers with "selfie cameras" (Samsung is currently the biggest advertiser on Facebook)."

With the US presidential election coming up, it is interesting to see that the drone programme is not a major theme for the debates between Clinton and Trump. Maybe that's because they both agree on lawn mowing or because it's been filtered out by Apple and Facebook.


Plant Communication

It took a while for the research area "plant communication" to be accepted. In the beginning, researchers in this field were frowned upon and ridiculed, now there are whole book series about the topic. According to an article in Wired, "the debate is no longer whether plants can sense one another’s biochemical messages — they can — but about why and how they do it." As picked up by the BBC, many studies now indicate that the "wood wide web", beautifully illustrated in the Avatar movie, is real and that fungi play a big part.

Part of the controversy is probably the use of words. Are plants intelligent? Do they have emotions? Can they think and learn? Do they have memory, will and consciousness? Can they feel pain?
“Plant neurobiology” is obviously a metaphor—plants don’t possess the type of excitable, communicative cells we call neurons. Yet the introduction of the term has raised a series of questions and inspired a set of experiments that promise to deepen our understanding not only of plants but potentially also of brains. If there are other ways of processing information, other kinds of cells and cell networks that can somehow give rise to intelligent behavior, then we may be more inclined to ask, with Mancuso, “What’s so special about neurons?” From The Intelligent Plant, by The New Yorker
Knowing that plants can somehow interact is one thing but how can this knowledge be utilised? Researchers at Chalmers are looking into how to save energy in green houses by checking how much and what kind of light the plants want. Other researchers have managed to build electrical networks inside plants which in the future might lead to new sources of energy.

Of course, we can also use ICT in connection with plants in other ways. For those who would like a smart garden, there are several appliances around telling you when to provide more water, sunlight and fertiliser. Sensors used in agriculture can help farmers match the crops to different soils and weather conditions, detect parasites

My favourite example of plant communication is however something completely different. In "Operation Christmas" the Colombian Army installed a giant Christmas tree in the jungle in Farc rebel territory. Movement sensors made the tree light up when people approached it. It was decorated with slogans such as "Demobilise, at Christmas everything is possible" and "If Christmas can come to the jungle, you too can come home". The campaign was designed by the Lowe SSP3 ad agency who's been telling their story on TED and on This American Life, which is where I picked it up.


In Sickness and in Health

About a year ago I participated in the development of a new routine for introducing new employees at Chalmers University of Technology where I work. The concept was brilliant, namely to take a group of new people on a tour of the campus stopping at certain places and telling exciting stories about the buildings and the people who had worked there as well as what's going on there now.

My workplace is in an old building in the so-called Vasa Area at Vera Sandbergs allé. Many years ago it was a hospital for poor, old and mentally ill people in Gothenburg. When my Mum visited me at my office, she told me about the last time she had been there.

For many years my father was the chairman of the Gothenburg Police Male Voice Choir. Then, as well as now, the choir consisted of both active and retired policemen. Before I was born, my parents became friends with an former policeman and his wife. He was an old-school patrolling policeman, tall and sturdy, and he sang in the choir. When his wife died, my parents took extra care to make sure he was all right and kept visiting him. He carved walking sticks and tobacco pipes out of strangely shaped pieces of wood, a bit scary but also fun to look at for a small child.

Then suddenly, but not totally unexpectedly, he fell ill and was taken to the hospital at Vasa. My parents got notice and my Mum went to see him. When she arrived, the nurses told her that he had passed away the day before. Alone. 

The text I provided for the introductory tour roughly translates to this:

"VeraSandberg was the first woman at Chalmers and indeed in Sweden to get an engineering degree in 1917. When she started her education in 1914, she was the only female among 500 male fellow students. It probably took a whole lot of courage and determination for her to take on such a task. This is why it feels extra good for the Innovation Office to be positioned at this particular street, since the utilisation of research also requires a lot of audacity and resolution in order to be successful. In addition, the most important channel for utilisation is probably education, why it feels great to be at a location that puts the spotlight on a former student.

The Vasa Area used to be a hospital, where the chronically and mentally ill were treated. Its first name was ”Gibraltar Fattigvårds- och Försörjningsanstalt” and the decision to build it was made by the city council in April 26 1883. One of the Areas of Advance at Chalmers is Life Science Engineering, an area with opportunities to improve the quality of life for many of those who suffer from similar illnesses today. As a university we have the opportunity to contribute to create a positive impact on society, to help create a sustainable future. It's nice to be in an environment that reminds you of the value our research and education create and can create in the future."


Internet of Animals

While the Internet of Things is yesterday's news, the Internet of Animals is on the rise. When it comes to pets, several products have been on the market for those who would like to keep an eye on the mysterious ways of their cat or dog such as Wistle and Pawtrack.

But animals are also taking over social media and many animals have their own Instagram account.
In Japan, they have taken it a bit further introducing Anicall, a social website for animals where you can track not only movement but fitness too.

From Budapest 2013
The Scenario Magazine presents other examples such as tail lights for horses, and dog collars providing the owner with the opportunity to give commands from a distance (digitalisation may change sheepdog trials). They list five areas where wearable technology today is used in connection with animals:
  • Identification of individual animals, e.g. through implanted chips
  • Tracking of an animals’ position and movement, e.g. through GPS
  • Monitoring health
Mechanisms that regulate behaviour
  • Communication between animals and people or things
Of course also the management of life stock and wild animals can and is digitalised. For example, in the Happy Healthy Cow project, the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at Utrecht University is working together with scientists, engineers, ICT specialists and parties from the dairy sector to develop a sensor for cows that can promote their health and welfare. Already in 2013, Fujitsu introduced their GyuHo SaaS product, monitoring when the cow is in heat.

But I think that maybe the use of ICT when it comes to wild animals is the most exciting. The Wildlife Tracking and Poaching Prevention XPRIZE tries to incentivize teams to develop low-cost, easily deployable, and highly reliable tracking devices for protected species that contain the highest levels of cybersecurity to prevent hacking.  I'm sure that we will se much more ICT in use in the EDGE of Existence programme!

However, as always it's not the technology that is lacking but the business models, as pointed out by Gautan Shah. He has started the company Internet of Elephants where they attempt to engage a worldwide audience with wild animals through a combination of technologies that include GPS hardware, data, games, and social media. The objective is to create a stronger, more vested connection between people and animals that directly influences consumer attitudes and behavior in a way that has a positive impact on wildlife populations worldwide while at the same time generating revenue for the sector.

As pointed out by the Sydney Morning Herald, researchers Edewede Oriwoh and Marc Conrad from the University of Bedfordshire in Britain published an paper titled 'Things' in the Internet of Things: Towards a Definition. In it they attempt to "accurately define the broad categories of interacting objects that will form matrixes in the rapidly approaching tech revolution that seeks to build internet connectivity into pretty much everything henceforth manufactured – or, indeed, born." One of the categories is the "Internet of Animals". The article also points out that this use of ICT raises a number of ethical questions. For example, it might no longer be possible to claim that you didn't know about how the animals you eat were treated since their every movement (or lack of) can be traced.

Of course, humans are animals too, why it's interesting to see if we'll see if more applications used on animals first will be applied to humans than the other way around. Maybe also it's not the robots we should be worried about, but augmented animals. Remember the lyrics by King Louie in the Jungle Book: I wanna be like you!

See this excellent visual overview of the Internet of things for animals from Visually Content:
The Internet of Things for Animals