Cell phones that can identify you by how you walk. Fingerprint scanners that work from 25 feet away. Radars that pick up your heartbeat from behind concrete walls. Algorithms that can tell identical twins apart. Eyebrows and earlobes that give you away. A new generation of technologies is emerging that can identify you by your physiology. And unlike the old crop of biometric systems, you don’t need to be right up close to the scanner in order to be identified. If they work as advertised, they may be able to identify you without you ever knowing you’ve been spotted.
Biometrics had a boom after 9/11. Gobs of government money poured into face and iris recognition systems; the Pentagon alone spent nearly $3 billion in five years, and the Defense Department was only one of many federal agencies funneling cash in the technologies. Civil libertarians feared the worst as face-spotters were turned on crowds of citizens in the hopes of catching a single crook.
But while the technologies proved helpful in verifying identities at entry points from Iraq to international airports, the hype — or panic — surrounding biometrics never quite panned out. Even after all that investment, scanners still aren’t particularly good at finding a particular face in the crowd, for example; variable lighting conditions and angles (not to mention hats) continue to confound the systems.
Eventually, the biometrics market — and the government enthusiasm for it — cooled off. The technological development has not. Corporate and academic labs are continuing to find new ways to ID people with more accuracy, and from further away. Here are 11 projects.
My, what noticeable ears you have. So noticeable in fact that researchers are exploring ways to detect the ears’ features like they were fingerprints. In 2010, a group of British researchers used a process called “image ray transform” to shoot light rays at human ears, and then repeat an algorithm to draw an image of the tubular-shaped parts of the organ. The curved edges around the rim of the ear is a characteristic — and most obvious — example. Then, the researchers converted the images into a series of numbers marking the image as your own. Finally, it’s just a matter of a machine scanning your ears again, and matching it up to what’s already stored in the system, which the researchers were able to do accurately 99.6 percent of the time. In March of 2012, a pair of New Delhi scientists also tried scanning ears using Gabor filters — a kind of digital image processor similar to human vision — but were accurate to a mere 92 to 96.9 percent, according to a recent survey (pdf) of ear biometric research.
It may even be possible to develop ear-scanning in a way that makes it more reliable than fingerprints. The reason is because your fingerprints can callous over when doing a lot of hard work. But ears, by and large, don’t change much over the course of a lifespan. There’s a debate around this, however, and fingerprinting has a much longer and established history behind it. A big question is whether ear-scanning will work given different amounts of light, or when covered (even partially) by hair or jewelry. But if ear-scanners get to the point of being practical, then they could possibly work alongside fingerprinting instead of replacing them. Maybe in the future we’ll see more extreme ear modification come along as a counter-measure.
Money Pit: The Monstrous Failure of US Aid to Afghanistan
More than half of Afghanistan’s population is under twenty-five, which shouldn’t be surprising since the average life span there is forty-nine. But the United States Agency for International Development looked at this group and decided it needed help because, it said, these young people are “disenfranchised, unskilled, uneducated, neglected—and most susceptible to joining the insurgency.” So the agency chartered a three-year, $50 million program intended to train members of this generation to become productive members of Afghan society. Two years into it, the agency’s inspector general had a look at the work thus far and found “little evidence that the project has made progress toward” its goals.
The full report offered a darker picture than this euphemistic summary, documenting a near-total failure. It also showed that USAID had handed the project over to a contractor and then paid little attention. Unfortunately, the same can be said for almost every foreign-aid project undertaken in Afghanistan since the war began eleven years ago.
In a recent quarterly report, the US special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction said that, when security for aid workers is figured in, the total amount of nonmilitary funds Washington has appropriated since 2002 “is approximately $100 billion”—more than the US has ever spent to rebuild a country. That estimate came out in July. Since then, Congress has appropriated another $16.5 billion for “reconstruction.” And all of that has not bought the United States or the Afghans a single sustainable institution or program.
New dinosaur fossil challenges bird evolution theory
The discovery of a new bird-like dinosaur from the Jurassic period challenges widely accepted theories on the origin of flight. Co-authored by Dr Gareth Dyke, Senior Lecturer in Vertebrate Palaeontology at the University of Southampton, the paper describes a new feathered dinosaur about 30 cm in length which pre-dates bird-like dinosaurs that birds were long thought to have evolved from.
Over many years, it has become accepted among palaeontologists that birds evolved from a group of dinosaurs called theropods from the Early Cretaceous period of Earth’s history, around 120-130 million years ago. Recent discoveries of feathered dinosaurs from the older Middle-Late Jurassic period have reinforced this theory.
The new ‘bird-dinosaur’ Eosinopteryx described in Nature Communications this week provides additional evidence to this effect.
“This discovery sheds further doubt on the theory that the famous fossil Archaeopteryx — or “first bird” as it is sometimes referred to — was pivotal in the evolution of modern birds,” says Dr Dyke, who is based at the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton.
“Our findings suggest that the origin of flight was much more complex than previously thought.”
George Packer’s recent New Yorker comments on the South made me sort out my own complicated feelings about the region. Both sides of my family are from the South: my mother’s from Georgia, my father’s from Virginia. Though my parents left Atlanta soon after I was born there, we often visited southern relatives in Atlanta, Louisville, and Birmingham. I preferred those who had stayed in the South to those who moved north. My Irish grandmother in Atlanta was a warm-hearted Catholic, while my English grandmother in Chicago was a pinched Christian Scientist always correcting her family. But even apart from the contrast in grandmothers, I always liked the South, though my northern accent made me an outsider there as a child (the family “Yankee”).
One reason I like the South is that I am conservative by temperament—multa tenens antiqua, as Ennius put it, “tenacious of antiquity.” A sense of the past helps explain why America’s southern writers were to the rest of America, in the twentieth century, what Irish writers were to England. The English had Oscar Wilde, William Butler Yeats, Sean O’Casey, Bernard Shaw, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. We (whose relevant region is larger) had Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, Richard Wright, Eudora Welty, Ralph Ellison, Robert Penn Warren, Truman Capote, Harper Lee, John Crowe Ransom, Erskine Caldwell, Andrew Lytle, and Carson McCullers.
The South escaped one of the worst character traits of America, its sappy optimism, its weakness of positive thinking. The North puffed confidently into the future, Panglossian about progress, always bound to win. But the South had lost. It knew there was an America that could be defeated. That made it capable of facing tragedy, as many in America were not. This improved its literature, but impoverished other things. Yet poverty did not make the South helpless. In fact, straitened circumstances made it readier to grab what it could get. In its long bargain with the Democratic party, for instance, it not only fended off attacks on its Jim Crow remnant of the Old Confederacy, but gamed the big government system through canny old codgers in Washington—the chairmen of the major congressional committees, who sluiced needed assistance to the South during the Great Depression.
Under the tattered robes of Miss Havisham were hidden the preying hands of the Artful Dodger. Southerners were not really trapped in the past, since they were always scheming to get out of the trap. They were defeated but not dumb. With dreams of an agrarian society, they might denounce the industrial north, but they got the funds to bring electricity to large parts of the South from the government’s Tennessee Valley Authority. They wanted and got government-funded port facilities, oil subsidies in Louisiana, highways and airports and military bases.
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