Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Are Your Kids Oversharing On Facebook? App Offers Informed Answer

I continue to come across interesting software applications that I would definitely evaluate if I was a parent in this confusing age of privacy. The one I'm reading about today -- called AVG PrivacyFix Family -- is specifically focused on helping parents know when their children are "oversharing" on Facebook, without necessarily spying on all their interactions.

The software builds on the AVG PrivacyFix service, which helps you understand who can see the information you're posting on Facebook, Google or LinkedIn, and manage the settings accordingly. For example, it will tell you if you're inadvertently allowing marketers to use your information without realizing it, because, as we know "opt-in" or "opt-out" can be kind of sneakily handled. AVG PrivacyFix also keeps up with all those surprise privacy updates that seem to happen behind-the-scenes on a regular basis, which you may or may not be able to follow based on the fact that you have something call real life going on.

The Family edition extends these services further to your family's collective identity, specifically for Facebook (at least right now) -- to make sure your parents, kids, siblings, cousins, whomever aren't communicating things that aren't for public consumption. It will probably be just your immediate family, but you get the idea. 

Some of the specific features include a Wi-Fi Do No Track feature that shuts down Android devices and prevents them from transmitting MAC addresses when they're transmitting wirelessly, a data calculator that shows how much your data is "worth" to Facebook or Google, and blockers to thwart more than 1,200 trackers and advertising spam services. You can manage the settings for everyone in your family as part of a central dashboard.

The software comes as an extension for Web browsers (I just downloaded the Google Chrome one), ore as a mobile app for Apple iOS or Android. (A sample interface image for the Apple app appears in this post to the right.)

Did I mention this software is free? At the very least, it will help your family start having much more informed discussions about social network privacy. It might not change what your children think it's OK to share, but at least they'll be able to protect themselves should they choose.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Are You Ready To Take Artificial Intelligence Home?

In the realm of sometimes cool, sometimes creepy technology, I've just heard about something called EmoSPARK, which is being billed as "the first home A.I. console." With A.I. standing for "artificial intelligence, of course. Although the developers prefer to call it "emotional intelligence."

The computer (pictured to the left), which could be available to early adopters by May 2014, is capable of detecting human emotions by monitoring facial expressions. The creators are involved with a design group called Emoshape from London, which is trying to raise $100,000 toward EmoSPARK's development through an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign.

One of the initial applications will be gaming. But Emoshape is trying to attract developers who might create a range of other applications, such as information alerts or social media monitoring. The conversational features that are shown off on the company's Web information are far superior to what you'd hear from your average GPS. Some of the potential uses are depicted in the video below:



The technology that underlies EmoSPARK comes from various resources such as the NASA Modis satellite and the Freebase database. The "cube" uses the Android operating system (the same software that runs certain smartphones, such as the Samsung Galaxy) and it can connect to the Internet and to other computers, smartphones and devices via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi wireless connections.

With 22 days left as of when I'm posting this article, the campaign for EmoSPARK had raised more than three-quarters of its funding goal. And the comments on the site mention that the company now is in talks with IBM about how to integrate its technology with Watson, which is IBM's highly publicized AI technology (the same stuff behind the computer that plays Jeopardy and chess with such expertise against human rivals).

Those kicking in $1,000 will get to be a beta-tester of the technology. Those contributing $224 will get $25 off the cube (the list price looks to be around $250), along with one free mobile app. (You have to tack on $35 for shipping.)

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Software Developers to Kids: Let Me Entertain (and Educate) You!


Given how many children now have their hands on tablet computers, smartphones and other mobile gadgets, it's not surprising that more educational software developers are targeting these platforms. The buzz-phrase for this category of software is "edutainment."

These trend was a big deal at the recent International CES show in Las Vegas, and Microsoft uses a similar idea to encourage young developers in a competition called the ImagineCup. (The latest edition, called the Kodu Cup, was focused on environmental issues and you can read about the winners here.) If children are interested in engaging this way, why not play on that?

This thinking is behind a new series of applications and games from the Center for Autism and Related Disorders (CARD) called Autism Learning Games: Camp Discovery. (A screenshot of the interface appears above.)

The app uses voice narration to encourage exploration: the child answers by touching flashcards or dragging and dropping items around the environment. The interaction is all based on applied behavior analysis, which has been used in the treatment of autism for the past 20 years. Right now, the game works on an iPad, although there are versions coming for iPhones, Android gadgets, and Kindle e-readers.

"Camp Discovery incorporates preference assessments, which sets it apart from other children's learning apps," said Dennis Dixon, chief strategy officer at CARD, in a press release about the technology. "The app addresses the demand for mobile educational solutions that use proven techniques."

CARD is an organization in Los Angeles that was founded in 1990 by a clinical psychologist who specializes in autism disorders. It runs 26 treatment centers around the globe and works with individuals of all ages who have been diagnosed with autism.





Friday, December 27, 2013

How Tech Helps Charitable Causes Get Social

This morning, along with the normal flood of newsletters and spam in my personal email inbox, was a message from Charity: Water with this subject line: "The proof is here!"

To explain, last spring, my husband and I donated toward this charity in memory of our friend's late father, who was passionate about bringing clean drinking water to emerging economies and communities. (He was an engineer who actually constructed water and wastewater systems.)

I was thrilled to hear where the money went: in this case, to the Afraie Community in Ethiopia, which got a new well thanks to the donations made on his behalf. (The villagers used to have to walk up to two hours to collect just two liters of water; now they can use up to 15 liters per person per day, traveling a much shorter distance to collect it.)

Photo courtesy of Charity: Water
Internet sites that help charity-minded individuals donate to causes have been around for a long time. (We've been using FirstGiving.com to raise money for Special Olympics on an annual basis for as long as I can remember.) But this is the first time that an organization ever reported back on the impact. Here's an example of a completion report.

For me, this is huge: No one wants to see their donations float off into a void, especially during an age where the value of keeping a trust seems under-appreciated. It definitely offers a model of how charitable organizations can stand out, when so many of them are vying for out attention.

How else can technology help when it comes to offering money or volunteering your talent? If you've got charity on the mind as 2013 draws to a close, you might want to check out two other new resources that got off the ground over the past year.

GivingCommunities.org - The idea behind this site is to match your charitable interests with networks of others with similar views, so that you can connect with causes or other people that share your values. The site includes more than 60 communities, including Giving What We Can (dedicate to eliminating poverty), Play BIG (for individuals who have large capital resources to offer), Natives in Philanthropy, and so on.

Causora - If you want to donate to a cause, but aren't flush with cash, Causora is an online marketplace hailing from California that lets you barter skills or time on their behalf. Here's how it works: say you are a lawyer or accountant who wants to donate an hour of your time. Set a price on that service, and make it available on the marketplace. When someone else purchases it, the proceeds go to the cause: there are more than 150 supported. (Kind of when you make a donation to a local fund-raising raffle or silent auction.) The donor gets some in-kind thank you rewards for more than 150 local merchants, to boot. Most of the activity is centered around San Francisco and Los Angeles.


Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Autonomous This and That. Where Will Google's Robot Obsession Lead?

While I was contemplating my snow-shoveling duties last weekend, I was intrigued to stumble across a New York Times piece about a quiet acquisition made by Google. Apparently, the company now owns Boston Dynamics, which makes robots that are being designed to run faster than humans.

A video of one of them, called WildCat, appears below. (This one has been clocked at about 16 miles per hour so far.)


What's just as intriguing is that this is the EIGHTH robotics company that Google has picked up over the past year, reports the Times. All of this stuff rolls up under Andy Rubin, the executive who was in charge of the Android smartphone operating system.

Veteran tech reporter John Markoff notes:
Boston Dynamics’ walking robots have a reputation for being extraordinarily agile, able to walk over rough terrain and handle surfaces that in some cases are challenging even for humans.

The speculation is that Google is trying to build autonomous systems that could handle everything from package delivery to eldercare. It already has been playing around with self-driving cars for years. A video of a test drive is below.


This all got me thinking about a study by research firm Latitude I squirreled away almost 11 months ago exploring how children perceive robots. Called Robots @ School, the research was published in collaboration with LEGO Learning Institute and Project Synthesis. It surrounds the central question: "What if robots were a part of your everyday life -- at school and beyond?"

Among the findings:


  • Nearly two-thirds of the participating children perceived robots as potential human friends, "humanoid peers that they could identify with and aspire to be like." 
  • When asked to imagine what their robots would be like, many of the children imagined ones that would be "patient and supportive" teachers. And they viewed robots both as potential playmates and study buddies.
"Robots support and encourage but don't judge," said Ian Schulte, director of technology and business development at Latitude, commenting on the research. "They don't run into scheduling conflicts, and they certainly don't ostracize kids for wrong answers or unconventional thinking. Because they're just mechanical enough, robots enable kids to grow and explore without regard for social stigmas that so often stifle learning and creativity."

The research centered on 350 "kid-innovators" in Australia, France, Germany, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States, ages 8 to 12. (Asia is the subject of a separate study.) As part of the research activities, the children were asked to draw pictures of their "imagined experiences. You can find some of the drawings on the link above.

While many of us probably find Google's attention to robotics a little disconcerting, it seems that the next generation is more to the idea of more autonomous systems that support the daily activities of humans. Should be interesting to see where this all goes.


Friday, December 13, 2013

This Document Will Self-Destruct

If you're like me, you probably purge your paper filing cabinet at least twice a year (I'm sensing some snow-time activity this weekend, as a matter of fact). But you probably forget to do the same sort of purging when it comes to files on your computer, and that's not a very good thing if you're concerned about privacy.

That's why I appreciate the "Ephemeral File Sharing" feature that's being beta-tested by "personal cloud" content service provider, Younity

This option works by allowing you to create a "Friends" list, with which you can share photos, documents, videos and such. The twist is that the content will be "unshared" in seven days (or before then, if you deem it necessary). The list makes it easier to share stuff with a set of predefined people, but also easier to cut off access if you have a change of heart or you want to make the information private again or you're just the sort of person who forgets this sort of thing. 

Younity likens this option to SnapChat, which deletes images from its servers after recipients open them. Except that with Younity, the files aren't actually downloaded to the people you share them with, you use the service to stream them. If it's a big file, Younity takes care of optimizing the transfer process depending on what sort of gadget you're using and how good the Internet connection happens to be. You can share files -- including iTunes playlists -- from computers, tablets and smartphones.

Right now, the service is available for iPhones, iPads and iPod touch devices. You also have to download an application for your desktop computer in order to set it up.

The video explains the service in more detail:




Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Finding Some Clarity

Hopefully I may be forgiven for neglecting this personal blog since the summer, as my focus has been on making sure my "real life" remained healthy while balancing a serious work overload. Note to self: always assume projects for corporate clients will take twice as long as they anticipate.

Fortunately, during the past three months, I have become much better at saying "no" to work that doesn't match my main journalistic focus. Even when doing so has a potentially negative impact on my bank account.

That leaves me more time for relationships that I'm excited to develop, such as my new Contributor status for the blogging network at business publication Forbes. Since more of my writing has become focused on the intersection between sustainable business and technology, this is a great place for me to write about exciting new innovation -- both from a product standpoint as well as when it comes to practical applications of same.

My two latest posts represent examples of each.

The most recent, "Need Solar in a Hurry?" highlights what NRG Energy is doing to help make solar canopy installations simpler for schools, banks, hotels and other businesses. Hint: it has to do with preconfigured kits that contain just enough wiggle room for customization that they are compelling for companies investing in on-site clean energy.

Before that, I highlighted Walmart's investments in energy-efficient lighting -- its new store in Ohio is 100 percent LED. There are plenty of other green design measures it is using there that other retailers might choose to emulate.

Can't promise that I'll write here daily: but hope to get back to highlighting cool technologies that have a benefit for society. I've been collecting pitches for a number of new Web sites and mobile applications that I'll start highlight later this week.