A technology blog for The Economist Group IT team

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Issue 5

Joshua Goodman, David Heckerman and Robert Routhwaite have spent many years (since 1997) working on the problem of illicit email. The techniques they and informatics scientists around the world have developed and tested are artfully published in this month's Scientific American. The gist of their article, which is recommended reading for all professionals who deal with the problem of spam, is that not one way exists that can eliminate the thousands of emails that flood both individual and corporate mailboxes. A clever combination of a number of techniques is a preferred option. At the end of the article there is a list of sources that can be found online and are free to view (unlike the said article, which is for Scientific American subscribers only). One of the most thorough presentations of the algorithms that try to detect the various ploys spammers use can be found in an article (in pdf form) at the Demokritos National Centre for Scientific Research in Athens, Greece.

Apart from the usual mail, nowadays there is unsolicited instant messaging (spIM), another form of intrusion via the various instant messaging programmes, mostly containing links to phishing and pornography urls. In order to be able to find if a message, website, email or any other form (sms) of unsolicited electronic communication contains material which is of adult nature or simply criminal, new algorithms have been employed which scan images to see whether there is too much flesh tone in them and if so, to reject the email as pornographic. These algorithms scan the photograph, analyse the tone frequency and the shapes of the outlines of the objects depicted and make decisions as to whether the pictures should not reach the recipient. The techniques that are used for this kind of scanning are prone to error as a medical photograph may be mistaken for the wrong kind, inasmuch as a photograph of an animal may contain the wrong type of curves. So far the success of these filtering techniques is no better than 50/50. The software they are based on, was originally developed for pattern recognition and has been used by the likes of CIA, the FBI and police forces around the world in order to scan CCTV footage and recognise a criminal suspect.

A single spam email costs a hundredth of a cent to send, so, spammers make money even if only one in 100,000 emails has a positive response, i.e., one in 100,000 recipients buys something. A way that this could be made unfeasible, argue Goodman, Heckerman and Routhwaite is to make email too expensive for the spammers to use. Unfortunately, this would mean making it very expensive for everyone else as well.

Apparently there is no easy solution in sight, especially as spammers find more and more advanced ways of bypassing the various learning engines and filtering mechanisms years of research have put in place. Common sense practices, as in never open email if you do not recognise the source, do not accept (or send) mass emails, virus scanning of downloads and the certainty that your bank will never ask you for your account details online, can make life easier; until the day when fr$ durgs and Persc®1pti0ns will be a memory of the past. If only something could be done about cold calls too...

Big in Japan
The Japanese have devised a new way to look after the elderly, infirm and lonely. They sell them a pet, which is a robot trained to simulate emotions, wants to be cuddled, and even holds limited conversations with its owner. It is also equipped with a microchip which monitors the health of the elderly person and is even capable of learning the subject's moving habits, so, if that person stops moving in the wrong time of the day, or one of his/her vital signs shows as too low or too high, the robot places a call to a call centre that would dispatch a paramedic or a close relative to check on the infirm person. The robot was initially designed to be sold as a companion to teenage girls who did not have a boyfriend. In Italy, a similar scheme for the elderly involves a volunteer who adopts an elderly person and will be responsible to look after them; more humane than the robot, whose batteries may run out or which may be incapacitated by a bug. If you want to see how literature has hinted at this socio-technological phenomenon, you could enjoy reading Isaac Asimov's I, Robot collection of short stories (there is a lot more to it than the lame rendition of one story by commercial cinema).
Two days ago, it was also announced that whale hunting (for research purposes) will be expanded by the Japanese government, in an attempt to understand the genes of the giant mammal. The genetic research will take place in specially designed high tech laboratories. The meat that will not be used from the dead animals will be sold at a high price as it is considered a delicacy. So, the Japanese have put all their faith and trust in technology, both to look after old and young as well as understand nature.

Moore's Law
Gordon Moore wrote 11 words 40 years ago, and they still hold true. The co-founder of Intel wrote these now infamous words in an article which appeared on page 114 of Electronics magazine, in 1965. Moore himself did not believe then that this article would have the monumental importance it acquired. Now, predictions put the demise of the law in 2010, unless nanotechnology allows for further reduction in chips. A more complete discussion of the subject can be found at cnet.

Sun saver
This one is a clever way of looking at world time, sun and moon positions and also to be able to tell at a glance whether it is night or day in any part of the world. It can be used as a screen saver or a stand alone application, and you can even move forward or turn back the time... more or less in the fashion of The Island of the Day Before.

Adventure games over
Funcom do not think that adventure games should be a thing of the past at all. They have developed a new game which will be out in Autumn and which involves puzzle solving in a wonderful environment, which is photorealistic. The only problem with the graphics is that the main character is two dimensional or it feels like it. The game, which is called Dreamfall (the longest journey), is designed so that it is not impossible to play, has regular and many saves and is supposed to enhance the players' entertainment. A more complete review and screenshots can be found in Yahoo games.

Fly to your house
One of the recent Google acquisitions is Keyhole, a company which has a huge database of satellite images and allows you to fly from one place to another, with a view of the town and any landscape in the process. It can get down to street level detail. The software is not free although you can download a limited -- few days -- free trial.
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