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Axon adds license plate recognition to police dash cams, but heeds ethics board’s concerns

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Law enforcement tech outfitter Axon has announced that it will include automated license plate recognition in its next generation of dash cams. But its independent ethics board has simultaneously released a report warning of the dire consequences should this technology be deployed irresponsibly.

Axon makes body and dash cams for law enforcement, the platform on which that footage is stored (Evidence.com), and some of the weapons officers use (Taser, the name by which the company was originally known). Fleet 3 is the new model of dash cam, and by recognizing plate numbers will come with the ability to, for example, run requested plates without an officer having to type them in while driving.

The idea of including some kind of image recognition in these products has naturally occurred to them, and indeed there are many situations where law enforcement where such a thing would be useful; Automated icense plate recognition, or ALPR, is no exception. But the ethical issues involved in this and other forms of image analysis (identifying warrant targets based on body cam footage for instance) are many and serious.

In an effort to earnestly engage with these issues and also to not appear evil and arbitrary (as otherwise it might), Axon last year set up an independent advisory board that would be told of Axon’s plans and ideas and weigh in on them in official reports. Today they issued their second, on the usage of ALPR.

Although I’ll summarize a few of its main findings below, the report actually makes for very interesting reading. The team begins by admitting that there is very little information on how police actually use ALPR data, which makes it difficult to say whether it’s a net positive or negative, or whether this or that benefit or risk is currently in play.

That said, the very fact that ALPR use is largely undocumented is evidence in itself of negligence on the part of authorities to understand and limit the potential uses of this technology.

axon camera

“The unregulated use of ALPRs has exposed millions of people subject to surveillance by law enforcement, and the danger to our basic civil rights is only increasing as the technology is becoming more common,” said Barry Friedman, NYU law professor and member of the ethics board, in a press release. “It is incumbent on companies like Axon to ensure that ALPRs serve the communities who are subject to ALPR usage. This includes guardrails to ensure their use does not compromise civil liberties or worsen existing racial and socioeconomic disparities in the criminal justice system.”

You can see that the ethics board does not pull its punches. It makes a number of recommendations to Axon, and it should come as no surprise that transparency is at the head of them.

Law enforcement agencies should not acquire or use ALPRs without going through an open, transparent, democratic process, with adequate opportunity for genuinely representative public analysis, input, and objection.

Agencies should not deploy ALPRs without a clear use policy. That policy should be made public and should, at a minimum, address the concerns raised in this report.

Vendors, including Axon, should design ALPRs to facilitate transparency about their use, including by incorporating easy ways for agencies to share aggregate and de-identified data. Each agency then should share this data with the community it serves.

And let’s improve security too, please.

Interestingly the board also makes a suggestion on the part of conscientious objectors to the current draconian scheme of immigration enforcement: “Vendors, including Axon, must provide the option to turn off immigration-related alerts from the National Crime Information Center so that jurisdictions that choose not to participate in federal immigration enforcement can do so.”

There’s an aspect of state’s rights and plenty of other things wrapped up in that, but it’s a serious consideration these days. A system like this shouldn’t be a cat’s paw for the feds.

Axon, for its part, isn’t making any particularly specific promises, partly because the board’s recommendations reach beyond what it is capable of promising. But it did agree that the data collected by its systems will never be sold for commercial purposes. “We believe the data is owned by public safety agencies and the communities they serve, and should not be resold,” said Axon founder and CEO Rick Smith in the same press release.

I asked for Axon’s perspective on the numerous other suggestions made in the report. A company representative said that Axon appreciates the board’s “thoughtful guidance” and agrees with “their overall approach.” More specifically, the statement continued:

In the interest of transparency, both with our law enforcement customers and the communities they serve, we have announced this initiative approximately a year ahead of initial deployments of Axon Fleet 3. This time period will give us the opportunity to define best practices and a model framework for implementation through conversations with leading public safety and civil liberties groups and the Ethics Board. Prior to releasing the product, we will issue a specific and detailed outline of how we are implementing relevant safeguards including items such as data retention and ownership, and creating an ethical framework to help prevent misuse of the technology.

It’s good that this technology is being deployed amidst a discussion of these issues, but the ethics board isn’t The Board, and Axon (let alone its subordinate ethics team) can’t dictate public policy.

This technology is coming, and if the communities most impacted by it and things like it want to protect themselves, or if others want to ensure they are protected, the issues in the report should be carefully considered and brought up as a matter of policy with local governments. That’s where the recommended changes can really start to take root.

Axon Ethics Report 2 v2 by TechCrunch on Scribd

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This ultrasonic gripper could let robots hold things without touching them

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If robots are to help out in places like hospitals and phone repair shops, they’re going to need a light touch. And what’s lighter than not touching at all? Researchers have created a gripper that uses ultrasonics to suspend an object in midair, potentially making it suitable for the most delicate tasks.

It’s done with an array of tiny speakers that emit sound at very carefully controlled frequencies and volumes. These produce a sort of standing pressure wave that can hold an object up or, if the pressure is coming from multiple directions, hold it in place or move it around.

This kind of “acoustic levitation,” as it’s called, is not exactly new — we see it being used as a trick here and there, but so far there have been no obvious practical applications. Marcel Schuck and his team at ETH Zürich, however, show that a portable such device could easily find a place in processes where tiny objects must be very lightly held.

A small electric component, or a tiny oiled gear or bearing for a watch or micro-robot, for instance, would ideally be held without physical contact, since that contact could impart static or dirt to it. So even when robotic grippers are up to the task, they must be kept clean or isolated. Acoustic manipulation, however, would have significantly less possibility of contamination.

Another, more sinister-looking prototype.

The problem is that it isn’t obvious exactly which combination of frequencies and amplitudes are necessary to suspend a given object in the air. So a large part of this work was developing software that can easily be configured to work with a new object, or programmed to move it in a specific way — rotating, flipping or otherwise moving it at the user’s behest.

A working prototype is complete, but Schuck plans to poll various industries to see whether and how such a device could be useful to them. Watchmaking is of course important in Switzerland, and the parts are both small and sensitive to touch. “Toothed gearwheels, for example, are first coated with lubricant, and then the thickness of this lubricant layer is measured. Even the faintest touch could damage the thin film of lubricant,” he points out in the ETHZ news release.

How would a watchmaker use such a robotic arm? How would a designer of microscopic robots, or a biochemist? The potential is clear, but not necessarily obvious. Fortunately, he has a bit of fellowship cash to spend on the question and hopes to spin it off as a startup next year if his early inquiries bear fruit.

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Unearth the future of agriculture at TC Sessions: Robotics+AI with the CEOs of Traptic, Farmwise and Pyka

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Farming is one of the oldest professions, but today those amber waves of grain (and soy) are a test bed for sophisticated robotic solutions to problems farmers have had for millennia. Learn about the cutting edge (sometimes literally) of agricultural robots at TC Sessions: Robotics+AI on March 3 with the founders of Traptic, Pyka, and Farmwise.

Traptic, and its co-founder and CEO Lewis Anderson, you may remember from Disrupt SF 2019, where it was a finalist in the Startup Battlefield. The company has developed a robotic berry picker that identifies ripe strawberries and plucks them off the plants with a gentle grip. It could be the beginning of a new automated era for the fruit industry, which is decades behind grains and other crops when it comes to machine-based harvesting.

Farmwise has a job that’s equally delicate yet involves rough treatment of the plants — weeding. Its towering machine trundles along rows of crops, using computer vision to locate and remove invasive plants, working 24/7, 365 days a year. CEO Sebastian Boyer will speak to the difficulty of this task and how he plans to evolve the machines to become “doctors” for crops, monitoring health and spontaneously removing pests like aphids.

Pyka’s robot is considerably less earthbound than those: an autonomous, all-electric crop-spraying aircraft — with wings! This is a much different challenge from the more stable farming and spraying drones like those of DroneSeed and SkyX, but the choice gives the craft more power and range, hugely important for today’s vast fields. Co-founder Michael Norcia can speak to that scale and his company’s methods of meeting it.

These three companies and founders are at the very frontier of what’s possible at the intersection of agriculture and technology, so expect a fruitful conversation.

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Your Sonos system will stop receiving updates if you have an old device

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Smart speaker manufacturer Sonos has announced that the company is going to drop support for some of its products. Sonos stopped selling these devices a few years ago. While nothing lasts forever, dropping support is going to have a lot of implications and shows once again that the connected home isn’t as future-proof as expected.

Sonos points out that 92% of the products that it has ever sold are still in use today. It means that some people are still happily using old Sonos devices even though production has stopped since then.

“However, we’ve now come to a point where some of the oldest products have been stretched to their technical limits in terms of memory and processing power,” the company writes.

If you use a Zone Player, Connect, first-generation Play:5, CR200, Bridge or pre-2015 Connect:Amp, Sonos is basically going to make your Sonos experience worse across the board.

The company is going to stop shipping updates to those devices. If Spotify and Apple Music update their application programming interface in the future, your devices could stop working with those services altogether.

But Sonos has decided that your entire ecosystem of Sonos devices is going to stop receiving updates so that all your devices are on the same firmware version. For instance, if you just bought a Sonos One but you’re still using an old Sonos Play:5, your Sonos One isn’t going to receive updates either.

The company says that you can get a discount if you replace your old device. But it will still cost you some money. It’s also ironic as the company promises a seamless music experience but then requires you to swap out speakers altogether.

Sonos should use this opportunity to rethink its product lineup. Planned obsolescence due to end-of-life is a great business model for sure. But it’s time to think about ways to keep your speakers for 10, 20 or even 30 years.

People in the 1980s would buy beautiful speakers and keep them for decades. Sure, they’d have to add a CD player in their system at some point. But modularity is a great feature.

Sonos should add a computing card slot to its devices. As systems on a chip, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth get faster and more efficient, users should be able to swap out the computing card for a new one without replacing the speaker altogether.

That would be a more environmental-friendly process than bricking old devices with their questionable recycle mode.

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