Geek Stuff

DARPA Developing the Ultimate Auto-Pilot Software

Slashdot -

coondoggie (973519) writes "Call it the ultimate auto-pilot — an automated system that can help take care of all phases of aircraft flight-even perhaps helping pilots overcome system failures in-flight. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) will in May detail a new program called Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) that would build upon what the agency called the considerable advances that have been made in aircraft automation systems over the past 50 years, as well as the advances made in remotely piloted aircraft automation, to help reduce pilot workload, augment mission performance and improve aircraft safety."

Read more of this story at Slashdot.








SpaceX Lands Launches Load to ISS, Successfully Tests Falcon 9 Over Water

Slashdot -

mosb1000 (710161) writes "SpaceX is reporting that they've successfully landed the first stage of their CRS3 Falcon 9 rocket over the Atlantic Ocean today. This is potentially a huge milestone for low-cost space flight." In another win for the company, as the L.A. Times reports, SpaceX also has launched a re-supply mission to the ISS.

Read more of this story at Slashdot.








Bookies Predict the Future of Tech

Slashdot -

First time accepted submitter machineghost (622031) writes "It's one thing to make predictions about the future of tech; that happens all the time on Slashdot. But it's quite a different thing to put money on the line to back up those predictions, which is exactly what this British bookie has done. Think you know whether Google Glass will beat the iPhone, or whether we'll be ready to go to Mars and back by 2020? Now's your chance to capitalize on those predictions!" Or you could, y'know, invest money in at least some of them, and thereby increase their chances of succeeding.

Read more of this story at Slashdot.








Minerva CEO Details His High-Tech Plan To Disrupt Universities

Slashdot -

waderoush (1271548) writes "In April 2012, former Snapfish CEO Ben Nelson provoked both praise and skepticism by announcing that he'd raised $25 million from venture firm Benchmark to start the Minerva Project, a new kind of university where students will live together but all class seminars will take place over a Google Hangouts-style video conferencing system. Two years later, there are answers – or the beginnings of answers – to many of the questions observers have raised about the project, on everything from the way the seminars will be organized to how much tuition the San Francisco-based university will charge and how it's gaining accreditation. And in an interview published today, Nelson share more details about how Minerva plans to use technology to improve teaching quality. 'If a student wants football and Greek life and not doing any work for class, they have every single Ivy League university to choose from,' Nelson says. 'That is not what we provide. Similarly, there are faculty who want to do research and get in front of a lecture hall and regurgitate the same lecture they've been giving for 20 years. We have a different model,' based on extensive faculty review of video recordings of the seminars, to make sure students are picking up key concepts. Last month Minerva admitted 45 students to its founding class, and in September it expects to welcome 19 of them to its Nob Hill residence hall."

Read more of this story at Slashdot.








Peoria Mayor Sends Police To Track Down Twitter Parodist

Slashdot -

New submitter rotorbudd (1242864) writes with an article at Reason about Jim Ardis, mayor of Peoria, Illinois, who ordered police to track down whoever was responsible for a parody Twitter account mocking him."Guess the good Mayor has never heard of the Streisand Effect. 'The original Twitter account had a total of 50 followers. The new account has over 200.'"

Read more of this story at Slashdot.








California Utility May Replace IT Workers with H-1B Workers

Slashdot -

dcblogs writes: "Southern California Edison is preparing to offshore IT jobs, the second major U.S. utility in the last year to do so. It will be cutting its staff, but it hasn't said by how much. The utility is using at least two offshore outsourcing firms, according to government records. SCE's management culture may be particularly primed for firing its IT workers. Following a workplace shooting in SCE's IT offices in 2011, the utility conducted an independent audit of its organizational and management culture. One observation in this report, which was completed a year later, was that 'employees perceive managers to be more concerned about how they 'look' from above, and less concerned about how they are viewed by their subordinates. This fosters an unhealthy culture and climate by sending a message to employees that it is more important to focus on how things look from the top than how they actually are down below.'"

Read more of this story at Slashdot.








How Nest and FitBit Might Spy On You For Cash

Slashdot -

Nerval's Lobster writes: "Forbes offers up a comforting little story about how Nest and FitBit are planning on turning user data in a multi-billion-dollar business. 'Smart-thermostat maker Nest Labs (which is being acquired by Google for $3.2 billion) has quietly built a side business managing the energy consumption of a slice of its customers on behalf of electric companies,' reads the article. 'In wearables, health tracker Fitbit is selling companies the tracking bracelets and analytics services to better manage their health care budgets, and its rival Jawbone may be preparing to do the same.' As many a wit has said over the years: If you're not paying, you're the product. But if Forbes is right, wearable-electronics companies may have discovered a sweeter deal: paying customers on one side, and companies paying for those customers' data on the other. Will most consumers actually care, though?"

Read more of this story at Slashdot.








Lilbits (4-18-2014): HTC smartphones with optical zoom camera lenses?

Liliputing -

Smartphone cameras might not have all the bells and whistles you get with a high-quality DSLR. But the camera you use the most is probably going to be the one that’s always with you… so lots of folks snap lots of photos with their phones. And device makers have been coming up with ways to help […]

Lilbits (4-18-2014): HTC smartphones with optical zoom camera lenses? is a post from: Liliputing

Americans Uncomfortable With Possibility of Ubiquitous Drones, Designer Babies

Slashdot -

alphadogg writes: "Americans are optimistic about scientific inventions on the horizon, though are cautious about future uses of DNA, robots, drones and always-on implants, according to the latest Pew Research Center survey on future technology (PDF). Asked about the likelihood of certain advances 50 years from now, survey respondents were most sure that lab-grown custom organs for transplant will happen (81%). Only 19% expect humans will be able to control the weather by then. When asked how they felt about possible near-term advances, 65% thought robot caregivers for the elderly is a bad idea, 63% didn't want to see personal drones in U.S. airspace, and 66% thought parents altering the DNA of prospective children was a bad idea."

Read more of this story at Slashdot.








Dear Web Developers: Thank You, You’re Awesome, and Wow Did That Really Just Happen?

EFF's Deeplinks -

Two days ago, we asked web developers for help.

EFF and Sunlight Foundation published an open call for help testing a tool and populating an open data format that would make it easier for everyday people to contact members of Congress. We already had a prototype, but we needed volunteers to conduct tests on each and every Congressional website.

We expected the project would take about two weeks to complete, but feared it might take a month or longer. We worried that web developers wouldn’t want to spend hours working on a boring, frustrating, often technically complex task.

Instead, volunteers conquered the project in two days.

Within hours of publishing our blog post, we were flooded by offers of support. People from all over the world contacted us, and many immediately jumped in and started contributing. By 2:30 AM the day we launched, 70 people were already hacking on the project and had submitted over 420 commits.

The following morning, we found even more people had gotten involved.  More than a hundred people were helping us write the code after hearing about our project on Hacker News, reddit, and BoingBoing.

Today, we’re declaring victory. Thanks to the hard work of over a hundred volunteers around the globe, we’re incredibly proud to announce the first-ever public domain database for submitting emails to members of Congress.

142 authors helped us build the code. There were over 1,600 commits to the Github repo in the last few days. And we now have pathways for contacting 530 members of Congress1

We did it. We just made democracy a little more functional.

Why Everyone Should Be Able to Contact Congress

We wanted to build a tool for contacting congress so that we could ensure that the voices of Internet users would be heard in the halls of Congress. We wanted to feel confident that messages were being delivered when EFF supporters spoke out against bills like SOPA or demanded reform to NSA spying or software patents. We wanted a system that reflected our values—public domain, as secure as possible, and built with free software.

But we didn’t just want to build something for EFF. We wanted to create an open dataset that anybody could use to create similar tools. We wanted to fundamentally make elected officials more accountable to the people by lowering the bar to sending messages to Congress. We hope developers will use the dataset we’ve made for other projects, establishing new ways of interacting with Congress that we might not even have considered.

Today, that dataset exists.

Why People Got Involved

There were a lot of volunteers who worked long hours to finish this tool. Here are some thoughts they shared:

Darrik Mazey, who contributed over 59 commits to the project, said:

"I got involved with this project simply because when you get the opportunity to help an organization that has done so much for digital privacy rights, you don't pass it up. It felt like a chance to do something real to support a cause I strongly believe in, and facilitating communication between the public and their representatives is absolutely necessary for any sort of social improvement."

“It is crucial to support projects to help restore the voice of the public, especially at this moment in history of overwhelming influence of corporate, economic and political elites,” said Moiz Syed, who made 67 commits to the Github repo over the course of two days. "Being a part of this huge collaborative effort, working with people staying up till all hours of the night helping each other, was both an exhilarating and empowering experience."

Lucas Myer, who made 57 commit to the Github repo, said: “The community effort to help with Contact Congress was nothing short of amazing.  I think, like me, a lot of developers see the vital role the EFF serves in defending digital rights and civil liberties. Contributing to Contact Congress was a great opportunity to give something back to the EFF while helping build tools to help people more easily contact their representatives.”

Everyone who made over 55 commits to Github will be recognized on the EFF website under a new page we’re creating for volunteer technologists.

Let’s Do This Again Sometime!

We were completely floored by the outpouring of support we got from developers. In less than two days, we accomplished an enormous project that will benefit EFF and democracy. In fact, the experience has us brainstorming about other volunteer projects that could have a dramatic impact on our digital rights.

Here’s an obvious one: every two years, there’s an election that will necessitate us cleaning up our Contact Congress code. If you want to be on an email list that gets contacted to help out with that and other web development projects, just send an email rainey@eff.org and let us know to add you to the mailing list. Whenever we have a challenging project that needs tech volunteers, we’ll let you know.

But there are other ways you can stay involved. If you want to help us build a more secure Web, please help us maintain our free browser add-on, HTTPS Everywhere. Take a look.

And if you’re interested in building cool action campaigns that benefit the freedom online, consider joining the volunteer team at Taskforce.is. EFF has been teaming up with them for the last several months on technology and advocacy projects, and they could use the help of dedicated, skilled, and passionate developers.

And finally, if you really love working on these projects, you should know that EFF is hiring—we’re looking for a web developer with lovely, edgy front-end design skills and a passion for digital rights. Join us.

Big thanks

A ton of people contributed to this project, more than we can name in this blog post. But we want to extend a special thanks to:

  • Dan Drinkard, Eric Mill, and the rest of the team at the Sunlight Foundation. They labored on this project for months and months, and created both the original code and bookmarklet for this project.
  • Thomas Davis, the sleepless hacker in Australia who single-handedly managed dozens of volunteers through the nights while the US crew slept.
  • Moez Syed, Darrick Mazey, Lucas Myers, Corey Garnett, Aaron Griffith, Steve Crozier, and everyone else who worked late into the night to pull this project together.
  • Jason Rosenbaum and the rest of the Action Network team, who dove in and helped both test our tools and manage volunteers.
  • David Moore at the Participatory Politics Foundation, whose original project was the inspiration for this project.
  • Bill Budington, our staff technologist, who single-handedly wrote our congress-forms tool and without whom none of this would have happened.

And of course, our deepest thanks go to Sina Khanifar, leader of exhausted web developers everywhere and the organizer of this effort.  If you have a minute, tweet your thanks to Sina: @sinak.

Thanks, everybody. See you next time!

  • 1. The last few members of Congress have buggy forms, and EFF’s staff technologists will be hacking a solution to those in the coming days.

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MediaGoblin and FSF Successfully Raise Funds For Federation, Privacy Features

Slashdot -

paroneayea writes: "GNU MediaGoblin and the Free Software Foundation have jointly run a campaign for privacy and federation on the web. The campaign is in its last day but has already passed the first two funding milestones, and is hoping to raise more with the possibility of bringing in multiple dedicated resources to the project. The project has also released a full financial transparency report so donors can know how they can expect their money to be used!"

Read more of this story at Slashdot.








BeagleBone Black Rev C features Debian Linux, 4GB storage

Liliputing -

The BeagleBone Black is an inexpensive computer-on-a-module that’s kind of like a cross between a Raspberry Pi and a Arduino board. You can use it as the brains of a low-power computer, or as the heart of a robot, home automation system, or other hardware project. The first version of the BeagleBone Black launched about […]

BeagleBone Black Rev C features Debian Linux, 4GB storage is a post from: Liliputing

VA Supreme Court: Michael Mann Needn't Turn Over All His Email

Slashdot -

RoccamOccam sends news that the Virginia Supreme Court has ruled that Michael Mann, a climate scientist notable for his work on the "hockey stick" graph, does not have to turn over the entirety of his papers and emails under Freedom of Information laws. Roughly 1,000 documents were turned over in response to the request, but another 12,000 remain, which lawyers for the University of Virginia say are "of a proprietary nature," and thus entitled to an exemption. The VA Supreme Court ruled (PDF), "the higher education research exemption's desired effect is to avoid competitive harm not limited to financial matters," and said the application of "proprietary" was correct in this case. Mann said he hopes the ruling "can serve as a precedent in other states confronting this same assault on public universities and their faculty."

Read more of this story at Slashdot.








AMD’s low-power Beema chips for notebooks, tablets on the way

Liliputing -

Notebooks with AMD’s new low-voltage “Beema” processors should start to arrive during the second quarter of 2014. AMD officials say we could also see Beema-powered tablets soon, along with tablets featuring lower-power AMD Mullins chips. AMD officials confirmed that devices with Beema chips are on the way during the chip-makers quarterly earnings call. According to CPU-World, […]

AMD’s low-power Beema chips for notebooks, tablets on the way is a post from: Liliputing

Ask Slashdot: What Tech Products Were Built To Last?

Slashdot -

itwbennett writes: "When you think about tech products these days, you probably think 'refresh cycle' more than 'built to last.' But there are plenty of tech products that put up with hard, daily use year after year. Here's a few to get you started: Logitech MX510 mouse, Brother black & white laser printer, Casio G-Shock watch, Alvin Draf-Tec Retrac mechanical pencil, Sony Dream Machine alarm clock. What's your longest-lasting, hardest-working device?"

Read more of this story at Slashdot.








Samsung's Position On Tizen May Hurt Developer Recruitment

Slashdot -

CowboyRobot sends in an article about how Samsung's constantly shifting plans for its smartwatches are making it hard for developers to commit to building apps. Quoting: "Samsung's first smartwatch, released in October last year, ran a modified version of Google's Android platform. The device had access to about 80 apps at launch, all of which were managed by a central smartphone app. Samsung offered developers an SDK for the Galaxy Gear so they could create more apps. Developers obliged. Then Samsung changed direction. Samsung announced a new series of smartwatches in February: the Gear 2, Gear 2 Neo, and Gear Fit. Unlike the first device, these three run Samsung’s Tizen platform. ... This week, Samsung made things even more interesting. Speaking to Reuters, Yoon Han-kil, senior vice president of Samsung’s product strategy team, said the company is working on a watch that will use Google’s Android Wear platform. In other words, Samsung will bring three different watches to market with three different operating systems in under a year."

Read more of this story at Slashdot.








Lubuntu, Xubuntu, and Kubuntu also hit 14.04 LTS

Liliputing -

Popular Linux distro Ubuntu launched version 14.04 this week, offering a new Long Term Support release that will be supported for the next 5 years. But it’s not just the main branch of Ubuntu that’s been updated. Other members of the Ubuntu family include Lubuntu, Xubuntu, Kubuntu, Ubuntu GNOME, and more. These operating systems have the […]

Lubuntu, Xubuntu, and Kubuntu also hit 14.04 LTS is a post from: Liliputing

Detroit: America's Next Tech Boomtown

Slashdot -

jfruh writes: "Over the past few years, the growth rate in Detroit tech jobs has been twice the natural average. The reason is the industry that still makes Detroit a company town: U.S. automotive companies are getting into high tech in a big way, and need qualified people to help them do it. Another bonus: the rent is a lot cheaper than it is in San Francisco. '[A]ccording to Automation Alley's 2013 Technology Industry Report, the metro Detroit area grew to a total of 242,520 technology industry jobs in 2011, representing a 15% increase from the 2010 level of 210,984 technology industry jobs. No other benchmarked region had greater technology industry growth than metro Detroit in this period. Further, according to the report, this growth helped propel metro Detroit to a ranking of fourth among the 14 benchmarked regions, passing San Jose."

Read more of this story at Slashdot.








Answers and Questions About Military, Law Enforcement and Intelligence Agency Chatbots

EFF's Deeplinks -

You Asked: Tell us all your secrets.

SGT STAR: Good question. I'm not sure how to answer that. Please try rewording your question. I understand simple questions best.

You Asked: In that case, tell us everything.

SGT STAR: That is a good question, however, I am not positive that I understand what you're asking. Try rephrasing your question. I understand simple questions best.

Sgt. Star is the U.S. Army’s dedicated marketing and recruitment chatbot, and he isn’t going to turn whistleblower any time soon. There’s no use threatening him for answers either—he’s programmed to report that kind of hostility to the Army Criminal Investigation Division.

Last year, EFF began to look at how the government deploys chatbots to interact with and collect information from the public. Sgt. Star was a natural place to start, since he’s almost famous. Serving as the Army’s virtual public spokesperson, each year he guides hundreds of thousands of potential recruits through goarmy.com and fields their questions on Facebook.

(On the Media’s TLDR recorded an informative and entertaining podcast about Sgt. Star, our research and the issues AI chatbots raise—listen here.)

Since Sgt. Star wasn’t going to tell us everything he knows without us breaking it down into a thousand simple questions, we decided to just use the Freedom of Information Act to get it all at once. At first the Army ignored our inquiries, but with a little digging and pressure from the media1, we have been able to piece together a sort of personnel file for Sgt. Star.

We now know everything that Sgt. Star can say publicly as well as some of his usage statistics. We also learned a few things we weren’t supposed to: Before there was Sgt. Star, the FBI and CIA were using the same underlying technology to interact with child predators and terrorism suspects on the Internet. And, in a bizarre twist, the Army claims certain records don't exist because an element of Sgt. Star is “living.”

Everything We Know About Sgt. Star

Chatbots are computer programs that can carry on conversations with human users, often through an instant-message style interface. To put it another way: Sgt. Star is what happens when you take a traditional “FAQ” page and inject it with several million dollars worth of artificial intelligence upgrades.

Sgt. Star’s story dates back to the months after the 9/11 attacks, when the Army was experiencing a 40-percent year-over-year increase in traffic to the chatrooms on its website, goarmy.com.  By the time the U.S. invaded Iraq, analysts predicted that the annual cost to staff the live chatrooms would be as high as $4 million.

A cost-cutting solution presented itself in late 2003 in the form of an artificial intelligence program called ActiveAgent, developed by a Spokane, Washington-based tech firm called Next IT.  After years of trial runs and focus groups, the Army debuted Sgt. Star2 in 2006.

Technology and law scholars, such as Ryan Calo of the University of Washington School of Law and Ian Kerr of the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law, have warned of the threats to privacy posed by bots that combine social manipulation with mass data gathering. As Calo wrote of Sgt. Star in his paper, “Peering HALs: Making Sense of Artificial Intelligence and Privacy”:

As in the context of data mining, a computer equipped with artificial intelligence is capable of engaging thousands of individuals simultaneously, twenty-four hours a day.  But here the agent is able to leverage the power of computers to persuade via carefully orchestrated social tactics known to elicit responses in humans.  In an age of national security and targeted advertising, citizen and consumer information is at an all time premium. Techniques of AI and HCI [Human-Computer Interaction] create the opportunity for institutions to leverage the human tendency to anthropomorphise and other advantages computers hold over humans (ubiquity, diligence, trust, memory, etc.) to facilitate an otherwise impracticable depth and breadth of data collection.

Through a FOIA request, we were able to quantify Sgt. Star’s reach. According to a spreadsheet provided by the Army, Sgt. Star does the work of 55 human recruiters.  Over the last five years, he has answered 10.5 million questions (94 percent of them correctly) in 2.8 million chat sessions. That means, on average, that Sgt. Star is engaging more than 1,550 people each day.

Sgt. Star is currently operated by the Army Marketing and Research Group, a division created in 2012 that operates out of the Pentagon. According to contracting documents, as of 2011, the Army had spent $5 million on the program, plus another couple of million in maintenance contracts3 in the years since.

The Army does not have a privacy policy specific to Sgt. Star, but officials say they are not tracking cookies or retaining personal information beyond IP address traffic to goarmy.com. But Sgt. Star is recording the questions he’s asked, which the Army acknowledged in an interview with TLDR are often more personal than what someone would ask a real recruiter (for example, a potential recruit might be afraid he’ll be seen as “soft” if he asks if he has to shower in front of other people or if there are jobs where he won’t have to be deployed).

The Army also revealed to TLDR that Sgt. Star is not so smart that he can increase his own knowledge base. Instead, the Army and Next IT hold monthly meetings to assess and adjust how Sgt. Star responds to questions.

While Sgt. Star may seem innocuous enough, he provides a window into how other agencies may use the technology for far more invasive purposes. 

Sgt. Star’s Family

You Asked: Are there other government chatbots?

Sgt Star: I'm here to help you navigate though goarmy.com and answer your questions about the Army. I'm not here to discuss politics.

Sgt. Star has a large family of “intelligence virtual assistants” at Next IT. His brother Spike assists incoming students at Gonzaga University. Ann helps health consumers at AETNA. Travelers interact (and flirt) with Jenn at Alaska Airlines, Alex at United Airlines, and Julie at Amtrak. Next IT’s newest addition is Alme, a healthcare AI designed to help physicians interface with patients. But so far, Sgt. Star is the only federal government chatbot acknowledged on Next IT’s website.

Secretly, however, Sgt. Star does have family at law enforcement and intelligence agencies.  According to an inadequately redacted document publicly available on the federal government’s contracting site, FBO.gov, Sgt. Star is built on technology developed for the FBI and CIA more than a decade ago to converse with suspects online. From the document:

LTC Robert Plummer, Director, USAREC PAE, while visiting the Pacific Northwest National Laboratories (PNNL) in late 2003, discovered an application developed by NextIt Corporation of Spokane, WA, that PNNL identified for the FBI AND CIA. The application used chat with an underlying AI component that replicated topical conversations. These agencies were using the application to engage PEDOPHILES AND TERRORISTS online, and it allowed a single agent to monitor 20-30 conversations concurrently.

The bolded text was redacted, but still legible in the document.  At this point we don’t know whether the CIA and FBI are still using these bots.4 That will likely take a much longer FOIA process and, considering the redaction, the agencies may not be willing to give up the information without a fight.  

Some food for thought: Sgt. Star engaged in almost 3 million conversations over the last five years, and those were people who actually wanted to talk to him. How many people could two CIA and FBI covert bots converse with over 10 years? What happens to conversations that aren’t relevant to an investigation, and how do the agencies weed out the false positives, such as when a chatbot misinterprets a benign conversation as dangerous? 

We also know that Next IT developed an artificial intelligence program called ActiveSentry5, specifically designed to identify and neutralize threats to data security within a computer network. According to promotional materials, ActiveSentry’s origin story is very similar to Sgt. Star’s:

Our solution, ActiveSentry, is evolved from a proven technology we developed that has been deployed by government agencies to monitor Internet Relay Chat (IRC) rooms for such suspicious behavior as potential threats to national security, child exploitation, and drug trafficking.

ActiveSentry is not a chatbot, but a kind of patrol guard, watching keystrokes, conversations and monitoring network activity, looking for employee misbehavior and then springing into action. Here’s how Next IT’s founder and CEO described its investigative and evidence-gathering capabilities in a presentation at a homeland security technology showcase:

If bad behavior occurs, ActiveSentry can respond with real-time proactive steps to block the action. It might shut down the computer, shut down the application, alarm a security officer, or give the user a warning. If the security breach is sufficient, ActiveSentry creates a detailed record of everything the user does, stores all the action with date/time stamps, and secures the data for foolproof evidentiary material.

So far, we are unaware of any criminal cases where information gathered by a Next IT bot has been used as evidence. If you do know of such a case, please get in touch with us.

Is Sgt. Star Alive?

You Asked: Are you alive?

SGT STAR: I am a dynamic, intelligent self-service virtual guide, created by the Army, that will help you quickly navigate the GoArmy Web site and retrieve Army-related subject matter, while simultaneously answering questions and directing communication based on interaction with the user.

Generations upon generations of folklorists, philosophers, futurists and science fiction authors have asked the question: at what point does a machine become a living being?

Sorry, we can’t settle that debate. That said, the Army’s FOIA office did use some rather strange language in describing one piece of Sgt. Star’s programming.

In our request, we sought his output script (every possible response in his database) as it stands now, but also for each year since he went live. That way, we could compare how his answers have evolved and grown through military policy changes, such as the end of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the ban on women in combat. The Army gave us the 835 current responses, but could not give us the rest. Apparently, the historical scripts don’t exist because the script is a “living body.” The Army’s exact words in describing the spreadsheet of 835 responses:  

This collection is the current running content that appears on the site and represents a “living body” of content that reflects the additions and updates to answers that have evolved since the introduction of the Sgt. Star feature.

Do they mean, “living” like the Constitution is said to be a living document? Or are they using it in the sense of Johnny 5 from Short Circuit?  We plan to file a FOIA appeal to learn more. Likely what they mean is that they don’t maintain older versions of Sgt. Star’s script because they constantly update a single file. If that’s the case, then that indicates poor record-keeping by the Army. If the FBI treats their bots in the same way, that would raise serious questions about the ability of defendants to challenge the reliability of a bot if they are charged with a crime after the bot’s programming has changed.

The Army also refused to provide us with Sgt. Star’s input patterns, i.e. all the phrases and keywords that he is programmed to recognize, claiming that this information is Next IT’s proprietary material and therefore exempt from FOIA. We will address this in our FOIA appeal; we are not seeking Sgt. Star's underlying off-the-shelf ActiveAgent code, but we would like to see the customization details that give Sgt. Star his distinct Army flavor. It's also worth knowing what Sgt. Star is programmed to flag, even if he’s not programmed to actually respond to it.

Everything Sgt. Star Knows

You can view all of Sgt. Star’s current responses here. It's 288 pages.

Sgt. Star has a seemingly exhaustive supply of answers to questions about military service, from opportunities for dentists and veterinarians to whether soldier are allowed to use umbrellas (only women and under certain conditions). He also has answers that simply exist to deepen his personality, such as his music and film preferences, and information about his Rottweiler, "Chomp." He will also deliver rather in-depth, scientific answers to throwaway questions, including "why is the sky blue?" and "why is grass green?"

For all his character quirks, a user would never mistake Sgt. Star for human—that's just not how he was designed. That can’t necessarily be said for other government bots. Military, law enforcement and intelligence agencies have employed virtual people capable of interacting with and surveilling the public on a massive scale, and every answer raises many, many more questions.

You Asked: Until next time.

SGT STAR: Goodbye.

  • 1. Special thanks to Alex Goldman of On The Media for following up with the Army, and journalist Jason Leopold for firing off a supporting FOIA request.
  • 2. Technically, he is SGT STAR, with STAR as an acronym for “Strong, Trained And Ready,” which Sgt. Star says all soldier must be before being assigned to a unit or deployed. However, in the development stages, the program used the name “Sgt. Rock.”
  • 3. While the Army does work directly with Next IT, it has also contracted out maintenance to two defense contractors—Nakuuruq Solutions and Truestone Communications—both subsidiaries of a corporation owned by the Iñupiat people of Northwest Alaska.
  • 4. Next IT is no longer the only company offering pedophile-hunting chatbots. In 2004, a British programmer introduced a product he called “NetNannies.” Last year, Spanish researchers announced another AI, called Negobot.
  • 5. ActiveSentry is now marketed by Next IT's affiliate, NextSentry Corporation.
Files:  sgt_star_answers_current_-_stateless.pdf sgt_star_usage_data_-_chat_session_totals.pdf foia_closing_letter.pdf ja_redacted.pdf
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