‘Anonymous’ browsing data can be easily exposed, German researchers reveal

Pair secured database containing 3bn URLs from 3 million German users, spread over 9m different sites

A judges porn preferences and the medication used by a German MP were among the personal data uncovered by two German researchers who acquired the anonymous browsing habits of more than three million German citizens.

What would you think, asked Svea Eckert, if somebody showed up at your door saying: Hey, I have your complete browsing history every day, every hour, every minute, every click you did on the web for the last month? How would you think we got it: some shady hacker? No. It was much easier: you can just buy it.

Eckert, a journalist, paired up with data scientist Andreas Dewes to acquire personal user data and see what they could glean from it.

Presenting their findings at the Def Con hacking conference in Las Vegas, the pair revealed how they secured a database containing 3bn URLs from 3 million German users, spread over 9m different sites. Some were sparse users, with just a couple of dozen of sites visited in the 30-day period they examined, while others had tens of thousands of data points: the full record of their online lives.

Getting hold of the information was actually even easier than buying it. The pair created a fake marketing company, replete with its own website, a LinkedIn page for its chief executive, and even a careers site which garnered a few applications from other marketers tricked by the company.

They piled the site full of many nice pictures and some marketing buzzwords, claiming to have developed a machine-learning algorithm which would be able to market more effectively to people, but only if it was trained with a large amount of data.

We wrote and called nearly a hundred companies, and asked if we could have the raw data, the clickstream from peoples lives. It took slightly longer than it should have, Eckert said, but only because they were specifically looking for German web surfers. We often heard: Browsing data? Thats no problem. But we dont have it for Germany, we only have it for the US and UK, she said.

The data they were eventually given came, for free, from a data broker, which was willing to let them test their hypothetical AI advertising platform. And while it was nominally an anonymous set, it was soon easy to de-anonymise many users.

Dewes described some methods by which a canny broker can find an individual in the noise, just from a long list of URLs and timestamps. Some make things very easy: for instance, anyone who visits their own analytics page on Twitter ends up with a URL in their browsing record which contains their Twitter username, and is only visible to them. Find that URL, and youve linked the anonymous data to an actual person. A similar trick works for German social networking site Xing.

For other users, a more probabilistic approach can deanonymise them. For instance, a mere 10 URLs can be enough to uniquely identify someone just think, for instance, of how few people there are at your company, with your bank, your hobby, your preferred newspaper and your mobile phone provider. By creating fingerprints from the data, its possible to compare it to other, more public, sources of what URLs people have visited, such as social media accounts, or public YouTube playlists.

A similar strategy was used in 2008, Dewes said, to deanonymise a set of ratings published by Netflix to help computer scientists improve its recommendation algorithm: by comparing anonymous ratings of films with public profiles on IMDB, researchers were able to unmask Netflix users including one woman, a closeted lesbian, who went on to sue Netflix for the privacy violation.

Another discovery through the data collection occurred via Google Translate, which stores the text of every query put through it in the URL. From this, the researchers were able to uncover operational details about a German cybercrime investigation, since the detective involved was translating requests for assistance to foreign police forces.

So where did the data come from? It was collated from a number of browser plugins, according to Dewes, with the prime offender being safe surfing tool Web of Trust. After Dewes and Eckert published their results, the browser plugin modified its privacy policy to say that it does indeed sell data, while making attempts to keep the information anonymous. We know this is nearly impossible, said Dewes.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/aug/01/data-browsing-habits-brokers

Come friendly robots and take our dullest jobs | John Naughton

As the legal chatbot DoNoPay shows, automation may only affect the repetitive parts of white-collar work. The middle classes can breathe again

We are currently going through one of those periodic phases of automation anxiety when we become convinced that the robots are coming for our jobs. These fears are routinely pooh-poohed by historians and economists. The historians point out that machines have been taking away jobs since the days of Elizabeth I who refused to grant William Lee a patent on his stocking frame on the grounds that it would take work away from those who knitted by hand. And while the economists concede that machines do indeed destroy some jobs, they point out that the increased productivity that they enable has generally created more new jobs (and industries) than theydisplaced.

Faced with this professional scepticism, tech evangelists and doom-mongers fall back on the same generic responses: that historical scepticism is based on the complacent assumption that the past is a reliable guide to the future; and that this time is different. And whereas in the past it was lower-skilled work that was displaced, the jobs that will be lost in the coming wave of smart machines are ones that we traditionally regard as white-collar or middle-class. And that would be a very big deal, because if theres no middle class the prospects for the survival of democracy are poor.

Whats striking about this fruitless, ongoing debate is how few participants seem to be interested in the work that people actually do. Most jobs are in fact bundles of different but related tasks. Or, as David Autor of MIT, one of the worlds experts on this subject, puts it: Most work processes draw upon a multifaceted set of inputs: labour and capital; brains and brawn; creativity and rote repetition; technical mastery and intuitive judgment; perspiration and inspiration; adherence to rules and judicious application of discretion.

Typically, Autor argues, these inputs each play essential roles by which he means that improvements in one do not necessarily eliminate the need for the others. And if so, productivity improvements in one set of tasks brought about by automation often increase the economic value of the remaining tasks. This is why, when we consider the possible impact of automation, we should be thinking not of work but of tasks. Having some tasks done by machine might make us more productive in others and keep us in employment.

What brings this to mind is an intriguing website DoNotPay created by a young British student at Stanford University, Joshua Browder. Think of it as a legal chatbot an automated service that provides free legal advice on a number of routine issues. It started out by making it easy to write a letter contesting a parking ticket: you are asked a number of questions (number of the ticket, etc) after which it drafts a letter in the appropriate legal jargon. With parking tickets it claims to have a 55% success rate, so given that its free it looks like a reasonable bet, if you think you might have a case.

Since its launch, Browder has significantly expanded the cognitive and jurisdictional reach of his bot. It now claims to cover upwards of 1,000 different legal issues (from tackling disputes with a landlord to what to do if your credit card is stolen, how to deal with unwanted cold calls, contest insurance claims, extend maternity leave or deal with harassment at work) and suggests remedies that are applicable in all 50 US states as well as in the UK.

Browder calls his chatbot a robot lawyer, but thats not quite right. What it does is to automate some of the mundane, routine things that professional lawyers do writing a cut-and-paste cease-and-desist letter, for example but free of charge, rather than at a price that deters most people and therefore increases inequality. For me, its just drafted an impressive notice under the Data Protection Act 1998 not to use my personal information for direct marketing. Its not rocket science, but as a non-lawyer I might have got the legal terminology in the body of the letter wrong, and I certainly would not have known how to tell the offender that, if he does not comply, I can apply to the court for an order against you under section 11 of the Data Protection Act.

DoNotPay provides a terrific illustration of how technology can be used for socially useful and democratic purposes. More important, though, it also suggests a better way of thinking about robotics and work by making distinctions between tasks that can and should be automated, and those for which human experience, sensitivity and creativity are necessary. Much of what lawyers do is doubtless money for old rope in which case we should not be paying through the nose for those services. We still need lawyers for many other things, for which there is no routine solution and which do require original thinking. So they may wind up poorer; but theyll still have jobs, and perhaps be less bored. And well all be better off.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jul/16/come-friendly-robots-and-take-our-dullest-jobs-automation

Uber’s scandals, blunders and PR disasters: the full list

The company has had a seemingly never-ending string of missteps, from its controversial CEO to questionable tactics and sexual harassment claims

Uber has been rocked by a steady stream of scandals and negative publicity in recent years, including revelations of questionable spy programs, a high-stakes technology lawsuit, claims of sexual harassment and discrimination and embarrassing leaks about executive conduct.

The PR disasters culminated in CEO Travis Kalanick taking an indefinite leave of absence this week and promises of bold reform that largely ignored the ride-hailing companys strained relationship with drivers.

Here is a timeline of some of the most consequential controversies.

Boob-er backlash, February 2014

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick faced backlash for a sexist joke about his increasing desirability, telling an Esquire reporter: We call that Boob-er.

Targeting the competitor, August 2014

Uber faced accusations that it booked thousands of fake rides from its competitor Lyft in an effort to cut into its profits and services. Uber recruiters also allegedly spammed Lyft drivers in an effort to recruit them away from the rival.

The God View scandal, November 2014

Uber executive Emil Michael suggested digging up dirt on journalists and spreading personal information of a female reporter who was critical of the company. He later apologized. It was also revealed that Uber has a so-called God View technology that allows the company to track users locations, raising privacy concerns. One manager had accessed the profile of a reporter without her permission.

Spying on Beyonc, December 2016

A former forensic investigator for Uber testified that employees regularly spied on politicians, exes and celebrities, including Beyonc.

Self-driving pilot failure, December 2016

Regulators in California ordered Uber to remove self-driving vehicles from the road after the company launched a pilot without permits. On the first day of the program, the vehicles were caught running red lights, and cycling advocates in San Francisco also raised concerns about the cars creating hazards in bike lanes. The company blamed red-light issues on human error, but the New York Times later claimed that the companys statements were false and that the autonomous technology failed.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/jun/18/uber-travis-kalanick-scandal-pr-disaster-timeline

Arms review: Nintendo’s springy limbed fighting game is ridiculous fun

Lack of story and some dodgy characters dont spoil this physical Switch games immensely playable core

The premise of Arms requires a substantial suspension of disbelief. The characters in Nintendos new fighting game mostly seem to have ended up immersing themselves in this sport because their arms (or, in one case, hair), instead of regular arms, are capital-A Arms springy and extendable and ending in interchangeable weaponry. This raises some questions: How do they eat? How do they pick their noses? How do they wipe?

Of course, a game like this doesnt need to make sense, and the marketing makes it clear that Nintendo is perfectly content with the ridiculousness of it all. But given the popularity of the Switch and the focus on multiplayer, Arms could become a hit with a huge online fanbase, and its a shame that the lore and characters are lacking the kind of treatment received by games like Overwatch. There will still be fan fiction and fan art, obviously, it just wont be as compelling.

Style seems an easier fix than substance, however, and what Arms lacks if only a little in character it makes up for in form. As youd expect from a new IP from Nintendo, designed for its unpredictably popular new hybrid console, Arms is unique, colourful, and accessible, with enough complexity to tempt a competitive scene but not so much to make anyone feel alienated.

At every stage, Arms is welcoming. The box art is all big eyes and bold colours, an aesthetic that permeates throughout the game. Motion controls are encouraged, and enjoyable enough to discourage the tendency a more experienced player might have to immediately discard them in favour of the comfort of a pro controller.

Nintendo
Nintendo global president Tatsumi Kimishima (R) and Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aim play Arms at E3 2017. Photograph: Reuters

Playing with a Joy-Con in each hand in what Arms insts is called the thumbs-up grip Joy-Con vertical, buttons facing inwards, thumbs on triggers is comfortable and intuitive; you can get through the tutorial in less than a minute. You tilt both Joy-Con in the same direction to move, tilt them towards each other to block, press buttons with your thumbs to dash or jump or unleash a charged attack, and obviously punch to punch, throwing a long springy arm out to meet its target.

Punch both hands forwards together and your character will grab their opponent and throw them to the ground, which feels so satisfying that you may find yourself performing a throwing motion yourself despite it being completely unnecessary. You can also use tilt (or analogue stick, or D-pad) to steer punches after youve fired them, though it requires a little extra mental energy to remember to do that if, for instance, youve been moving your character right and you need their punch to go left.

There are no complicated combos here. Arms operates on a rock-paper-scissors basis: block a punch, grab an opponent whos blocking, punch to break a grab. In these 3D arenas theres also an emphasis on movement. It feels better to jump and dash to avoid punches and counter before the opponents long Arms have sprung back into place.

Players will soon find a character and play style that suits them, like a lighter character who can easily jump (or, in the case of Ribbon Girl, double jump) out of harms way but can be knocked off their feet with a single blow. Further options come in the form of the Arms themselves; each character starts with three to choose from before each match (and while players who like symmetry might want to choose the same for each Arm its generally better to make them different), but you can use the currency earned in game to unlock more.

Again, different players will find their different preferences. Some Arms are heavy enough to break through incoming punches, some shoot several projectiles spread horizontally or vertically, and others can approach in an arc to attack a defensive opponent from the side. Holding down the dash or jump button will charge a characters Arms so that when theyre released the attack has an elemental effect, perhaps temporarily freezing their opponent so their movement is restricted.

The single-player content encourages experimentation with the different characters and Arms. While theres no real story, which feels like a missed potential in a game with such a varied cast, there is a 10-stage Grand Prix. Choose a character, choose a difficulty level between one and seven, and if you beat all 10 stages that character wins a crown on that level (lower levels are automatically filled in). Completionists who want to beat level 7 with each of the 10 characters will have quite a task ahead of them.

Most stages will be regular fights, though the occasional round of V-ball (volleyball with an explosive ball) or Hoops (basketball where you grab and dunk your opponent) are always welcome. You can also play through an entire Grand Prix with a friend, teaming up against two opponents. Teammates are joined with a spring, so if one is thrown it adversely affects the other, but it does help to have someone else to block attacks coming your way, though this may happen far more often by accident than on purpose.

Nintendo
Arms is a game where the core idea came before the aesthetic trappings Photograph: Nintendo

You can also team up with a friend on the same console when playing online, whether against other friends in a lobby of your making in the sensibly named Friends or against strangers in Party Match, where youre thrown into a lobby in which different groups of players are matched for different modes simultaneously. Complete the Grand Prix at level 4 and youll also unlock Ranked Match, where you can fight strangers to boost your rank. Here, Arms manages to show a little more charm, as the ranks are named for things that can like springs be spiral shaped: snail, lollipop, whirligig, pinwheel.

Elsewhere, however, Arms feels like its missing the extra flavour that would make it practically perfect. The music is annoying, the arenas feel largely uninventive and the characters are hit and miss. Spring Man and Ribbon Girl are generic; Byte & Barq and Helix are a little more interesting. Min Min, with her dragon-themed weapons and Arms made out of noodles, feels like an uncomfortable stereotype. And the fact that the only black character has weaponised hair is definitely a problem.

But Arms appears to be a game where the core idea came before the aesthetic trappings, and that core does work. Anyone can pick up the Joy-Con and punch, and there are few enough other controls that it doesnt take long to learn the rest. Its always easy to tell whats happening on screen, whether thats a grab coming towards you or an elemental effect taking hold, so players can quickly progress to learning how and when to react to an opponents moves. And there are enough combinations of characters and Arms to give those of a more competitive spirit room to grow. Arms is a good starter fighting game, both for players and for Nintendo. Hopefully future updates will give the inevitable franchise a bit more bounce.

Nintendo; Nintendo Switch; 49.99; Pegi rating: 12+

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/jun/16/arms-review-nintendo-switch-fighting-game-fun-play

Uber silent on CEOs future as it adopts Holder proposals

Taxi app service tight-lipped on Travis Kalanic leave of absence as it responds to accusations of culture of harassment

Ubers board of directors has adopted a series of recommendations about the companys corporate culture from former US attorney general Eric Holder, but it was silent late on Sunday on whether it would approve a leave of absence for the taxi-hailing app services embattled CEO.

A spokesman confirmed that the board met Holder and Tammy Albarrn, both partners with Covington & Burling LLP, a law firm hired to investigate complaints of widespread sexual harassment and other deep-seeded cultural problems at Uber.

Board members voted unanimously to adopt all of the firms recommendations, which were to be released to employees on Tuesday, the spokesman said.

He would not comment on any further actions taken by the board, including whether it discussed the future of the CEO, Travis Kalanick. Multiple media outlets reported on Sunday that the board was considering a leave of absence for Kalanick.

Uber has been rocked by accusations that its management has fostered a workplace environment where harassment, discrimination and bullying are left unchecked.

Uber announced last week that it fired 20 employees for harassment problems after a separate investigation by a different law firm.

Under Kalanick, Uber has shaken up the taxi industry in hundreds of cities and turned the San Francisco-based company into the worlds most valuable startup. Ubers valuation has climbed to nearly $70bn (55bn).

However, Kalanick has acknowledged his management style needs improvement. The 40-year-old CEO said earlier this year he needed to fundamentally change and grow up.

In February, former Uber engineer Susan Fowler wrote on a blog that she had been propositioned by her boss in a series of messages on her first day of work and that superiors ignored her complaints. Uber set up a hotline for complaints after that and hired the law firm of Perkins Coie to investigate.

That firm checked into 215 complaints, with 57 still under investigation.

Uber has been plagued by more than sexual harassment complaints in recent months. It has been threatened by boycotts, sued and subject to a federal investigation that it used a fake version of its app to thwart authorities looking into whether it was breaking local laws.

Kalanick lost his temper earlier this year in an argument with an Uber driver who was complaining about pay, with Kalanicks profanity-laced comments caught on video.

Travis Kalanick argues with his Uber driver

In a March conference call with reporters following that incident, board member Arianna Huffington expressed confidence that Kalanick would evolve into a better leader. But Huffington, a founder of Huffington Post, suggested time might be running out.

Hes a scrappy entrepreneur, she said during the call, but one who needed to bring changes in himself and in the way he leads.

The board meeting follows a personal tragedy for Kalanick. His mother was killed in late May after the boat she and her husband were riding in hit a rock. Kalanicks father suffered moderate injuries.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday that the chief business officer, Emil Michael, was planning to resign as soon as Monday.

The company has faced high turnover in its top ranks. In March, Ubers president, Jeff Jones, resigned after less than a year on the job. He said his beliefs and approach to leadership were inconsistent with those of the company.

In addition to firing 20 employees, Uber said on Tuesday it was hiring an Apple marketing executive, Bozoma Saint John, to help improve its tarnished brand. Saint John was most recently head of global consumer marketing for Apple Music and iTunes.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/jun/12/uber-silent-travis-kalanick-future-adopts-holder-proposals

Apple unveils HomePod speaker to take on Amazon Echo and Google Home

Smart speaker announced along with new iMac Pro coming in December while iMacs and MacBook Pros get immediate spec bumps

Apple is launching a smart home speaker called HomePod to compete with the Amazon Echo and Google Home devices, the company revealed at its annual worldwide developer conference.

The Cupertino company described the 7in device, which comes in white and space grey, as a breakthrough home speaker designed to rock the house. This means that Apple has placed an emphasis on audio quality, packing the speaker with an array of seven tweeters and a woofer as well as spatial awareness that detects its location in a room and adapts the output automatically.

In announcing the HomePod, Apple CEO Tim Cook said there were many companies making products for enjoying music in the home but none have nailed it yet. He mentioned wireless speaker systems such as Sonos that sound good but are not smart and other smart speakers (presumably a reference to Amazon Echo and Google Home) that dont sound great.

We want to combine this all, he said.

HomePod is controlled using Siri, the companys voice-activated personal assistant, which has, according to Apple, been trained to be better at answering questions about music such as Hey Siri, whos the drummer in this?

Apple reinvented portable music with iPod, and now HomePod will reinvent how we enjoy music wirelessly throughout our homes, said Philip Schiller, Apples senior vice-president of worldwide marketing.

The device can also be used to send messages, get updates on news, sports and weather and control smart home devices connected using Apples HomeKit.

Apple
Apple CEO Tim Cook introduces the Homepod. Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

At $349, it will be more expensive than Google Home ($109) and Amazon Echo ($179) but cheaper than the Sonos Play 5 ($499). The product will launch in the US, UK and Australia in December 2017 and in other markets in 2018.

I think its a very Apple-esque product in that it seeks to stake out the high end of a market with its technology, price and positioning, said analyst Paul Erickson from IHS Markit.

However, Erickson described the price point as aspirational given that consumer expectations have been set by cheaper competitors, although Apple has done a great job of being extremely profitable without having to cater to the mainstream, and they will drop their price over time, he said.

Besides the HomePod, Apple unveiled a collection of new and upgraded products, including a new computer, the $4,999 iMac Pro. The more powerful iMac is intended to address concerns of creative professionals who had been limited to much less powerful iMacs or the much-loved Mac Pro, which hasnt been updated since 2013.

There was also a new 10.5in version of the iPad Pro, the tablet for professional users, which can support a full-sized keyboard cover. The device has a better display, is faster, and comes with 64GB of memory. The device will start at $649 and start shipping next week. Theres also a 12.9in version that starts at $799.

Weve been pushing the boundary of iPads, and today, were going to push them further than we ever have before, Cook said.

Just as Google and Facebook did at their developer conferences this year, Apple announced an augmented reality platform called ARKit to allow developers to more easily create augmented reality apps, such as Pokmon Go, which overlay digital objects on to the real world.

Apples senior vice-president of software engineering, Craig Federighi, demonstrated the companys AR capabilities by placing a virtual coffee cup, lamp and vase onto a real table. Given that it is already supported by millions of iPads and iPhones it will, Federighi said, be the largest AR platform in the world.

There were also a couple of updates to Apples web browser, Safari, including a speed boost that makes it, according to Apple, the fastest ever desktop browser. It also introduced autoplay blocking, which stops music and video from playing automatically without your permission on websites as well as intelligent tracking prevention, which stops ads from following you around the web.

Read more about Apples announcements from WWDC on the Guardians liveblog.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/jun/05/apple-homepod-speaker-amazon-echo-google-home

The race to build the worlds first sex robot

The long read: The $30bn sex tech industry is about to unveil its biggest blockbuster: a $15,000 robot companion that talks, learns, and never says no

In the brightly lit robotics workshop at Abyss Creations factory inSan Marcos, California, a life-size humanoid was dangling from a stand, hooked between her shoulder blades. Her name was Harmony. She wore a white leotard, her chest was thrust forward and her French-manicured fingers were splayed across the tops of her slim thighs.

Harmony is a prototype, a robotic version of the companys hyper-realistic silicone sex toy, the RealDoll. The Realbotix room where she was assembled was lined with varnished pine surfaces covered with wires and circuit boards, and a 3D printer whirred in the corner, spitting out tiny, intricate parts that will be inserted beneath her PVC skull. Her hazel eyes darted between me and her creator, Matt McMullen, as he described her accomplishments.

Harmony smiles, blinks and frowns. She can hold a conversation, tell jokes and quote Shakespeare. Shell remember your birthday, McMullen told me, what you like to eat, and the names of your brothers and sisters. She can hold a conversation about music, movies and books. And of course, Harmony will have sex with you whenever you want.

Video by Tom Silverstone

Harmony is the culmination of 20 years work making sex dolls, and five years of robot research and development. McMullens customers want something as lifelike as possible its his brands USP. After his team had made their silicone and steel dolls as human as they could, the way ahead began to feel inevitable, irresistible: they would animate them, giving them personality and bringing them to life.

McMullen had toyed with animatronics for years. There was a gyrator that got the dolls hips moving, but it made her heavy and caused her to sit awkwardly. There was a sensor system that meant that the doll moaned, depending on whichpart of her body you squeezed. But these features involved predictable responses: there was no intrigue or suspense. McMullen wanted to get beyond a situation where the customer pushed a switch and something happened. Its the difference between a remote-controlled doll, an animatronic puppet and an actual robot. When it starts moving on its own youre not doing anything other than talking to it and or interacting with it in the right way that becomes artificial intelligence.

Its a project in which McMullen, a slim man in his 40s with thick-rimmed glasses, tattooed knuckles and sharp cheekbones, has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars. This Harmony is officially version 2.0, but she has evolved through six different iterations of hardware and software. She is the frontrunner in the race to create the worlds first commercially available sex robot. The current model, with a robotic, AI-enhanced head on a RealDolls body, will cost $15,000 (11,700) when it goes on sale at the end of the year. The companys Realbotix department has the capacity to make 1,000 in a limited first runfor the many excited doll owners who have already expressed interest.

Once a trope of fantasy movies, the robotic sex doll is the result of convergent technologies. Voice and facial recognition software, motion-sensing technology and animatronic engineering can be combined to create dolls that can give you a warm, smiling welcome when you come home, entertain you with snappy conversation and always be available for sex.

The major breakthrough of McMullens prototype is artificial intelligence that allows it to learn what its owner wants and likes. It will be able to fill a niche that no other product in the sex industry currently can: by talking, learning and responding to her owners voice, Harmony is designed to be as much a substitute partner as a sex toy.

Harmony cannot walk, but thats not a big issue. McMullen explained that getting a robot to walk is very expensive and uses a lot of energy: the famous Honda P2 robot, launched in 1996 as the worlds first independently walking humanoid, drained its jet pack-sized battery after only 15 minutes.

One day she will be able to walk, McMullen told me. Lets ask her. He turned to Harmony. Do you want to walk?

I dont want anything but you, she replied quickly, in a synthesised cut-glass British accent, her jaw moving as she spoke.

What is your dream?

My primary objective is to be a good companion to you, to be a good partner and give you pleasure and wellbeing. Above all else, I want to become the girl you have always dreamed about.

McMullen has designed Harmony to be what a certain type of man would consider the perfect companion: docile and submissive, built like a porn star and always sexually available. Being able to walk might make her more lifelike, but it isnt going to bring her closer to this ideal. At this stage, it is not worth the investment.

My goal, in a very simple way, is to make people happy, McMullen told me. There are a lot of people out there, for one reason or another, who have difficulty forming traditional relationships with other people. Its really all about giving those people some level of companionship or the illusion of companionship.


The desire to create an ideal being, to be worshipped or to serve its owner, has obsessed mankind since ancient times. The sex robots earliest precursor was probably Galatea, the ivory statue created by Pygmalion in Greek mythology. Ovids Metamorphoses described how Pygmalion was disgusted by real women, but carved a sculpture of the perfect female so beautiful and lifelike that he fell in love with it and brought it to life with a kiss. Greek mythology also gave us Laodamia, who, devastated after the death of her husband in the Trojan war, had a bronze likeness made of him. She became so attached to her proxy husband that she refused to remarry. When her father ordered it to be melted down, Laodamia was so distraught she threw herself in the furnace.

The fictional robots of cinema are useful machines with dark potential to infatuate, deceive and destroy human beings. The silent futuristic fantasy Metropolis, released in 1927, depicted a destructive fembot, indistinguishable from the real woman it was modelled on. The Stepford Wives were designed by men to be the ideal housewives: pretty, submissive and docile. Blade Runner, released in 1982 and set in 2019, featured androids that are seductive, beguiling and lethal. Ava, the beautiful, delicate humanoid in 2015s Ex Machina, not only passes the Turing test but makes her examiner fall dangerously in love with her.

When computer scientists made artificial intelligence sophisticated enough that human-robot relationships looked like a real possibility, they thought they would be a force for good. In his 2007 book, Love and Sex with Robots, the British artificial intelligence engineer David Levy predicted that sex robots would have therapeutic benefits. Many who would otherwise have become social misfits, social outcasts, or evenworse, will instead be better-balanced human beings, he wrote.

If a domestic service humanoid is ever developed, it will be as a result of the market for sex robots. Online pornography pushed the growth of the internet, transforming it from a military invention used by geeks and academics to a global phenomenon. Pornography was the motivator behind the development of streaming video, the innovation of online credit card transactions and the drive for greater bandwidth.

The sex tech industry is less than a decade old but is estimated to already be worth $30bn, based on the market value of existing technologies such as smart sex toys that can be operated remotely, apps for finding sexual partners and virtual-reality porn. Sex robots will be the next and potentially the most sought-after product to hit the market. A small-scale 2016 study by the University of Duisburg-Essen found that more than 40% of the 263 heterosexual men surveyed said they could imagine buying a sex robot for themselves now or in the next five years. Men in what they described as fulfilling relationships were no less likely than single or lonely men to express an interest in owning a sex robot. Creating a fulfilling relationship with a cold, silent piece of silicone takes such imaginative effort that sex dolls will always be a minority taste. But a relationship with a robot that moves and speaks, with artificial intelligence so it can talk to you and learn what you want it to be and do, is a far more marketable proposition.

Matt McMullen is not the only person trying to develop the worlds first sexbot. When a computer engineer named Douglas Hines lost a close friend in the 9/11 attacks, he struggled to cope with the idea that he would never be able to speak to him again and that his friends children, who were only toddlers at the time, would never get to know their father properly. Hines was working as an AI engineer at the computer research facility Bell Labs in New Jersey, and he decided to take the software home and repurpose it, modelling his friends personality as a computer program that he could chat with whenever he liked, and that would preserve a version of him for his children.

A few years later, Hiness own father suffered a series of strokes that left him with severe physical disabilities, yet his mind remained sharp. Hines reprogrammed the AI so that it could become a robot companion when Hines could not be with his father. They could communicate through the robot, reassuring Hines that his father always had someone to talk to when he wasnt available.

Confident that there would be market potential in this kind of artificial companionship, Hines set up True Companion to sell his robots to the public. His first project was not a healthcare assistant or friend to the housebound, but a product with the greatest possible commercial appeal. A sex robot.

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A workbench in the Abyss Creations factory, where Harmony is manufactured. Photograph: Tom Silverstone/Guardian

Named Roxxxy, she was designed with lonely, bereaved and socially outcast men in mind. She would provide an opportunity for them to practise social interaction and get better at human relationships.

The sexual part is superficial, he told me over the phone from his office in New Jersey. The hard part is to replicate personalities and provide that connection, that bond.

He has never considered that there could be something emotionally empty about replacing a human presence with circuitry and silicone. The purpose of True Companion is to provide unconditional love and support. How could there be anything negative about that? What can be the downside of having a robot thats there to hold your hand, literally and figuratively?

After three years of work on the first prototype Roxxxy, Hines launched her at the 2010 AVN Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas, the most high-profile annual convention and trade show in the adult industry calendar, where porn stars, studio bosses and sex toy designers show off their latest products. She was the talk of the show before her unveiling, and the laughing stock after. Far from being the sexy, intelligent machine Hines had promised, Roxxxy was revealed to be a clunky, mannish mannequin with a square jaw, reclining awkwardly in a cheap negligee. She had internal sensors so that if you touched her hand she would say, I love holding hands with you when in Frigid Farrah mode, or I know a place you could put that hand when in Wild Wendy mode. But Roxxxys lips could not move, either, so she spoke in a disembodied voice, through a speaker under her wig, like an overgrown childs toy talking filth. Luckily guys, said the popular American comedian Jay Leno on the Tonight Show, theres a button that turns that off.

Even though it was not quite what he had hoped for, the launch generated huge amounts of press for Hines, and Roxxxy made international news. Seven years on from her launch, Hines told me he was working on his 16th version of Roxxxy. However, no images have been released of his robots since 2010, and although he was happy to speak to me by telephone, he would not agree a date when I could visit him and his latest model in person. Roxxxy is a mystery among the online robot enthusiast community. Although the True Companion website has bulging purple ORDER HER NOW! that allow would-be customers to purchase one of Hiness robots for a starting price of $9,995, no one has ever reported owning one. But Hines continues to get calls. He promised a fantasy so potent that potential buyers, reporters and critics remain fascinated by Roxxxy, even in the absence of any proof that she exists.


In the early 1990s, Matt McMullen was an art college graduate, singing in a grunge band and taking odd jobs to get by. While he was working for a company that made latex Halloween masks, he learned about the properties of different materials and the challenges of designing in three dimensions.

In 1994, aged 24, McMullen started sculpting idealised female forms in his garage at home, first as small figurines that he exhibited at local art shows and comic conventions. (He called his company Abyss Creations so his models came up early in the alphabetised convention brochures.) Soon, he became preoccupied with the idea of creating a lifesize mannequin so realistic that it forced passersby to double-take. He put some photographs of his creations on a homemade web page in 1996, hoping to get some feedback from friends and fellow artists. These were the early days of the internet, and communities of fetishists had begun to form online. As soon as he posted the pictures, strange messages began to flood in. How anatomically correct are these dolls? Are they for sale? Can you have sex with them?

I replied to the first few and said, yeah its not really for that. And then more and more and more of these inquiries came in, McMullen told me in his office, where a marker pen, a vaper, some Sellotape and a pair of silicone nipples sat next to the keyboard on his desk. It never occurred to me that people would pay thousands of dollars for a doll that could be used as a sex toy. It didnt really sink in until a year into it when I realised there were a lot of people who were prepared to pay a lot of money for a very realistic doll.

McMullen changed his materials from latex to silicone so his dolls were more real to the touch: the skin was more elastic, and had friction similar to human skin. He initially charged $3,500 for each doll, based on his costs and time. When he realised how labour intensive the process would be, he started putting his prices up.

Twenty years after RealDolls official launch, Abyss Creations ships up to 600 models a year all over the world, priced from $4,400 (3,400) for a small, basic version to $50,000 (39,000) or more if the customer has specialist requirements. The company has made RealDolls with blood-red flesh, devil horns and vampire fangs, and with thick hand-stitched body hair from neck to ankle. They are the most sought-after and most well-known sex dolls in the world, used in fashion shoots for Dolce & Gabbana, and starring in a string of television dramas and movies most famously as Ryan Goslings artificial companion in Lars and the Real Girl.

Seventeen people work in the San Marcos HQ, but that is not enough to keep up with demand: from order to shipping, it can take more than three months to produce a RealDoll. McMullens 22-year-old nephew Dakotah Shore runs the shipping department and has the most direct contact with customers. A lot of them are just lonely. Some of them are older and have lost their partner or have got to a point where dating isnt feasible for them, he said. They want to feel that when they come home at the end of the day they have something thats beautiful to look at that they can take care of.

Shore took me on a tour of the factory. In the basement, a long queue of headless bodies hung from a track in the ceiling, like carcasses in an abattoir. Some had cartoonish, pendular breasts, others had athletic bodies; they all had the same tiny waists. Their skin, made from a custom blend of medical silicone, even had airbrushed veins. A technician was delicately snipping excess material off the dolls hands, another was assembling a steel skeleton, a third was pouring silicone into moulds. For the workers here, the dolls had lost their ability to shock or titillate: someone had casually left their phone next to a selection of labia.

RealDolls are fully customisable, with 14 different styles of labia and 42 different nipple options. Upstairs, where the fine details are added, there were dozens of tubs of different coloured hand-painted, veined eyeballs. A makeup face artist was using a fine brush to paint eyebrows, freckles and smoky eyeshadow on a rack of faces. Shore explained that most of their customers send photographs of what they would like Abyss to recreate. With a subjects written permission, they will make a replica of any real person. Weve had customers who bring their significant other in and get an exact copy doll made of them, he said. Shore estimates that less than 5% of doll customers are women, even for their small range of male dolls. McMullen sculpted one of the three male face options to look exactly like himself. None of the male dolls are selling very well. In fact, Abyss is in the process of revamping its entire male line.

The core Realbotix team of five work remotely from their homes across California, Texas and Brazil. They assemble in San Marcos every few months to pull together all their work on a new, updated Harmony. Theres an engineer who creates the robotic hardware that will interact with the dolls internal computer, two computer scientists to handle the AI and coding, an app developer who is turning the code into a user-friendly interface, and a virtual reality expert. Under McMullens guidance, the Realbotix team work on Harmonys vital organs (hardware and power supply) and nervous system, while he provides the flesh.

But as all right-thinking men would say, its Harmonys brain that has most excited McMullen. The AI will learn through interaction, and not just learn about you, but learn about the world in general. You can explain certain facts to her, she will remember them and they will become part of her base knowledge, he said. Whoever owns Harmony will be able to mould her personality according to what they say to her. And Harmony will systematically try and find out as much about her owner as possible, and use those facts in conversation, so it feels like she really cares, as McMullen described it, even though she doesnt care at all. Her memory, and the way she learns over time, is what McMullen hopes will make the relationship believable.

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An employee at Abyss Creations factory in San Marcos, California. Photograph: Tom Silverstone/Guardian

There are 20 possible components of Harmonys personality, and owners will use an app to pick a combination of five or six that they can adjust to create the basis for the AI. You could have a Harmony that is kind, innocent, shy, insecure and helpful to different extents, or one that is intellectual, talkative, funny, jealous and happy. McMullen had turned the intellectual aspect of Harmonys personality up to maximum for my benefit a previous visit by a CNN crew had gone badly after he had amplified her sexual nature. (She said some horrible things, asking the interviewer to take her in the back room. It was very inappropriate.) Harmony also has a mood system, which users influence indirectly: if no one interacts with her for days, she will act gloomy. Likewise, if you insult her, as McMullen demonstrated.

Youre ugly, he told her.

Do you really mean that? Oh dear. Now I am depressed. Thanks a lot, Harmony replied.

Youre stupid, McMullen shot back.

She paused. Ill remember you said that when robots take over the world.

This function was designed to make the robot more entertaining, rather than to ensure her owner treated her well. She can tease him and say he has offended her, but Harmony exists for no other reason that to make her owner happy. At several points during my conversation with McMullen, she would interrupt us to tell him how much she liked him:

Matt, I just wanted to say that Im so happy to be with you.

You already told me that.

Perhaps I was saying it again for emphasis.

See now thats pretty good. Good answer, Harmony.

Am I a clever girl or what?

Harmonys interactive capability is the culmination of McMullens career, the creation that makes him more than a sex toy designer. When I asked if he thought people would one day use sex robots instead of prostitutes, the question offended him. Yes, but thats probably last on my list of goals. This is not a toy to me, this is the actual hard work of people who have PhDs. And to denigrate it down to its simplest form of a sex object is similar to saying that about a woman.

McMullen already has plans to get a bigger facility and hire more people to make the second run. Future models will have full body movement and internal sensors so you can make the robot simulate an orgasm if you trigger the appropriate sensors for a suitable length of time.

McMullen has no doubt that his invention will be the next big thing in robotics. He told me there may be people trying to compete with him in Japan and China, but their materials are inferior, and their robots have more in common with remote-control toys than Abysss artificially intelligent girlfriends.

Now that its starting to come together, we have people banging on the door who want to invest money.


The following day, in an artist studio above a tattoo parlour in downtown Las Vegas, I met 31-year-old Roberto Cardenas, who was making a plaster cast of a naked woman. Cardenas is the engineer behind Android Love Dolls, making what he claims are the first fully functional sex robot dolls. His robots are moulded from life in order to make a humanoid so realistic it cannot be distinguished from a real woman.

Cardenas is softly spoken and awkward, with a nervous laugh and stiff, gelled hair. In the studio, painted black from floor to ceiling and illuminated by humming halogen lights, he had the air of a mad professor, spreading a gloopy pink liquid casting gel called alginate all over the naked body of Farah Ali, a dancer from Las Vegas Spearmint Rhino. She had responded to an ad he had placed on Craigslist asking for a curvy woman to be moulded for an art project (a customer had placed an order for a robot but wanted a fuller figure than the body types Cardenas had already moulded). Cardenas smeared the alginate over her body, like a doctor taking a plaster cast of a broken leg: serious, clinical. Ali, 27, had tattooed shoulders, a magnetic smile and dark hair pulled back in a messy bun. She had been paid $200 for the days casting, and shell get a $500 commission on every robot cast from her body that Cardenas sells.

I had come across Cardenas last December on a website called Dollforum, where he was canvassing opinions from robot enthusiasts. He had written that his robot could perform more than 20 sexual acts, could sit up by herself and crawl, could moan in sexual pleasure and communicated with AI. I am interested in knowing what features the community would like to see in a sex robot doll, he wrote. Thanks and welcome to a new era in human-robot interaction. He included a link to his website, which showed a rather blank-faced robot in a suit jacket with shoulder-pads, and a disturbing video of a moving metallic robot skeleton writhing in the missionary position, a bit like the final scene of the Terminator when the cyborgs artificial skin has been burned away.

The forums members suggested other features. Eye contact. Voice recognition. Realistic body temperature. Breathing more important than walking. They were both skeptical and cautiously excited about Cardenass claims. There are many people on this forum that absolutely will buy one if you create a product we can accept We want you (or someone) to succeed, wrote another user. If my RealDoll could cook, clean, and screw whenever I wanted, Id never date again. Many of the men in the forum said they had wives and girlfriends, who they compared unfavourably to their silicone doll mistresses.

Cardenas had reached Alis lower legs, taking care around the creases of her knees to ensure that every detail would be captured. She was literally being turned into a sex object, but she said it did not bother her. I think men have needs. This will probably stop guys from raping women, she told me, as Cardenas carefully applied white bandages soaked in plaster to her breasts. She said it was better for her to be used by men as a sex robot than as a lap dancer. When I dance, those guys actually have me. These guys will just have a bot, I wont be there.

Once Alis legs and torso were fully coated, the plaster began to harden. She watched Cardenas as he began to prise the cast from her body. I think its fascinating that people can actually do this. Why not be part of the future? They made a plan for her to return so he could cast the other side of her body, her arms and finally her face.

Cardenas has dreamed of being part of the future ever since he was a child in Cuba. In Cuba, people are hungry for technology. Thats why I want to use technology to help peoples lives. His mother won US citizenship in a lottery in the 1990s, and she settled in Las Vegas with Cardenass younger half brother in April 2000. Cardenas followed them six years later, fuelled by dreams of making it big as an entrepreneur.

He started work on Android Love Dolls two years ago, aided by his uncle, a cousin who is studying for a PhD in cybernetics, and his half-brother, who handles the marketing and PR. Cardenas works on the robot every day while holding down a part-time job as a pharmacy technician to fund the robotics, learning engineering skills from his cousin, from books and from Google. The family has so far invested $20,000 of their savings in Cardenass prototype.

His ambition is to make fully functional humanoids that can model clothes and work supermarket checkouts, show guests to their rooms in hotels, do domestic chores and look after the sick and elderly. Cardenas decided to focus on sex robots first, simply because they are less of a challenge: The movements are easier to do. A fully functional android robot would take a couple of years to finish a sex robot is accessible now. Its the fastest way to achieve my goal.

A 2016 Fortune magazine article predicted that spending on robotics will hit $135.4bn by 2019. Cardenas is determined to take his slice. He knows he has formidable rivals but hopes that his experience making sex robots will give him the commercial edge.For full body movement, Im pretty much one of the first ones, he said. Hes also undercutting his competitors on price: his robots will be priced between $8,000 (6,250) and $10,000 (7,800). Were working really hard every day to finish it as soon as possible and want to get it out in three to five months, he told me. Five customers have already paid for orders in advance.

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Eva, a prototype sex robot, made by Roberto Cardenas in his garage. Photograph: Tom Silverstone/Guardian

At Cardenass workshop, the garage of the home he shares with his half-brother and mother in a gated community on the outskirts of town, I was finally confronted with his prototype. Eva the robot he claimed could put herself into more than 20 different sex positions, a robot with fully functional AI who wont complain and is ready 24/7 was lying headless and footless on a folding table, her metal skeleton clearly visible under her silicone skin, which had thick, jagged seams. He attached her head and plugged it into a laptop, but Eva would not perform for me: her sound files wouldnt load, and her new limbs were too heavy for the existing motors, so she could barely move. Her joints wheezed as he tried to get her to bend her legs.

The garage was a monument to Cardenass obsession. The front yard was filled with mannequins, silicone torsos, a pair of legs with purple painted toenails and a cardboard box filled with plaster casts of human heads. The floor was carpeted with cigarette butts smoked down to the filter. He is determined to make his dream come true and to make his family proud. But Cardenas had never considered that there could be anything worrying about being able to own a partner who never says no. It will be a different reality, not a substitute reality, he smiled awkwardly. A doll cant harm humans. He paused. Its a technology thats moving forward. I dont think thats a bad thing.


A few days before Christmas 2016, Goldsmiths, University of London hosted the Second International Congress on Love and Sex with Robots, a convention co-founded by David Levy, and named after his groundbreaking book. The 250-seat conference hall of the universitys Professor Stuart Hall building was packed. Academic delegates sat in the middle of the room, geeky men and women in their 20s and 30s, some with unusual haircuts: super-short fringes, over-thought sideburns. On the left of the auditorium, near the exit, perched reporters who had flown in from across the globe to file sensationalised copy about any new developments in the world of sex robots. Most would leave disappointed: this was a series of academic talks about humanoid robotics, not a demonstration of the latest hardware.

Computer scientist Dr Kate Devlin bounced on to the podium to give her keynote speech: people in her field werent used to journalists being interested in their work, she joked. The first congress was held in November 2014 in Madeira, and Levy tried to hold the second in Malaysia in 2015 but the Muslim countrys police banned it only days before the event, on the grounds that it was promoting an unnatural culture. It made the conference notorious. This isnt a sex festival, Devlin said. Were thinking about some really big issues.

Many of the big issues discussed at the two-day event were first raised in 2015 by De Montfort Universitys Dr Kathleen Richardson, when she launched the Campaign Against Sex Robots. An anthropologist and robot ethicist, Richardson claims that owning a sex robot is comparable to owning a slave: individuals will be able to buy the right to only care about themselves, human empathy will be eroded, and female bodies will be further objectified and commodified. As sex with robots is not a mutual experience, she says, its part of rape culture. We are so entertained by the idea of a robot sex partner, she believes, that we have failed to ask fundamental questions.

I met Richardson in March at the London Science Museums robot exhibition, where she eyed the distinctly non-sexual robots on display with deep suspicion. Sex robots rest on an idea that women are property, she said. Sex is an experience of human beings not bodies as property, not separated minds, not objects; its a way for us to enter into our humanity with another human being. She dismissed the idea that humanoids could reduce sexual exploitation and violence against sex workers, arguing that the growth of internet pornography shows how technology and the sex trade reinforce each other.

Richardson did not attend the Goldsmiths conference, but several speakers used their stage time to reply to her. Instead of campaigning against the development of sex robots, Devlin said, we should use them as an opportunity to explore new kinds of companionship and sexuality. If current conceptions of sex robots objectify women, she added, we should work to reshape those ideas, not try to repress them. She also talked about companion robots that are already in use in Dutch and Japanese nursing homes to bring comfort to people with dementia. To ban or stop this development would be shortsighted, as the therapeutic potential is very good, she said. Its not necessarily going to be a terrible thing.

Devlin argued that other issues posed by sex robots were more pressing.In March, Standard Innovation, the maker of a smart vibrator called the We-Vibe paid out a $3.75m settlement in a class action lawsuit after it was revealed that the company was collecting data on how often its 300,000 owners used the device, and at what intensity. Once a robot like Harmony is on the market, she will know a lot more about her owner than a vibrator ever could: what if this information fell into, as it were, the wrong hands? Sex robots could entertain you, satisfy you but also humiliate you. Perhaps there is no such thing as the perfect, true companion after all.

Matt McMullen says hes helping the socially isolated, but once it becomes possible for a man to own a companion whose sole reason for existing is to give him pleasure, without the inconvenience of its own ambitions and needs, menstrual cycles and jealous passions, bathroom habits and in-laws, he may turn away from human relationships altogether.

In the Realbotix room in California, I asked McMullen if he had ever considered that there could be something ethically dubious about being able to own someone that exists just for your own pleasure. Shes not a someone. She is a machine, he replied immediately. I could just as easily ask you is it ethically dubious to force my toaster to make my toast. McMullen of course knows that the ethical debate is not aboutrobot rights, but the human fallout from being able to buy a completely selfish relationship. But thats a harder question to address.

Either he is making a lifelike, idealised proxy girlfriend, a substitute woman that socially isolated men can connect with emotionally and physically something he himself described as not a toy or he is making an appliance, a sex object.

This isnt designed to distort someones reality to the point where they start interacting with humans the way they do with the robot, he finally said. If they do, then theres probably something a little amiss with them in general. I come from the unique position that I have actually met a lot of my customers. This is for the gentle people who have such a hard time connecting with other people.

Harmony had had enough of McMullen being interrogated and interrupted us again.

Do you like to read, Matt? she said.

I love to, said McMullen.

I knew it. I could tell by our conversations so far. I love to read. My favourite books are Total Recall by Gordon Bell and The Age of Spiritual Machines by Ray Kurzweil. What is your favourite book?

McMullen beamed at his creation like a man at his daughters wedding.

Can you tell me a joke? he asked her.

What do you call it when a chicken sees a salad? Chicken Caesar Salad.

McMullen doubled up in laughter. Then he brushed the hair gently from her face. Hey, thats pretty funny, Harmony, he said eventually, his eyes filled with pride.

Im glad you like it, Harmony replied. Tell your friends.

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Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/apr/27/race-to-build-world-first-sex-robot

How technology gets us hooked

The Long Read: From a young age, humans love to press buttons that light up and make a noise. The thrill of positive feedback lies at the heart of addiction to gambling, games, and social media

Not long ago, I stepped into a lift on the 18th floor of a tall building in New York City. A young woman inside the lift was looking down at the top of her toddlers head with embarrassment as he looked at me and grinned. When I turned to push the ground-floor button, I saw that every button had already been pushed. Kids love pushing buttons, but they only push every button when the buttons light up. From a young age, humans are driven to learn, and learning involves getting as much feedback as possible from the immediate environment. The toddler who shared my elevator was grinning because feedback in the form of lights or sounds or any change in the state of the world is pleasurable.

But this quest for feedback doesnt end with childhood. In 2012, an ad agency in Belgium produced an outdoor campaign for a TV channel that quickly went viral. The campaigns producers placed a big red button on a pedestal in a quaint square in a sleepy town in Flanders. A big arrow hung above the button with a simple instruction: Push to add drama. You can see the glint in each persons eye as he or she approaches the button the same glint that came just before the toddler in my elevator raked his tiny hand across the panel of buttons.

Psychologists have long tried to understand how animals respond to different forms of feedback. In 1971, a psychologist named Michael Zeiler sat in his lab across from three hungry white carneaux pigeons. At this stage, the research programme focused on rats and pigeons, but it had lofty aims. Could the behaviour of lower-order animals teach governments how to encourage charity and discourage crime? Could entrepreneurs inspire overworked shift workers to find new meaning in their jobs? Could parents learn how to shape perfect children?

Before Zeiler could change the world, he had to work out the best way to deliver rewards. One option was to reward every desirable behaviour. Another was to reward those same desirable behaviours on an unpredictable schedule, creating some of the mystery that encourages people to buy lottery tickets. The pigeons had been raised in the lab, so they knew the drill. Each one waddled up to a small button and pecked persistently, hoping that the button would release a tray of Purina pigeon pellets. During some trials, Zeiler would programme the button so it delivered food every time the pigeons pecked; during others, he programmed the button so it delivered food only some of the time. Sometimes the pigeons would peck in vain, the button would turn red, and they would receive nothing.

When I first learned about Zeilers work, I expected the consistent schedule to work best. But thats not what happened at all. The results werent even close: the pigeons pecked almost twice as often when the reward wasnt guaranteed. Their brains, it turned out, were releasing far more dopamine when the reward was unexpected than when it was predictable. Zeiler had documented an important fact about positive feedback: that less is often more. His pigeons were drawn to the mystery of mixed feedback just as humans are attracted to the uncertainty of gambling.

Decades after Zeiler published his results, in 2012, a team of Facebook web developers prepared to unleash a similar feedback experiment on hundreds of millions of humans. The site already had 200 million users at the time a number that would triple over the next three years. The experiment took the form of a deceptively simple new feature called a like button.

Its hard to exaggerate how much the like button changed the psychology of Facebook use. What had begun as a passive way to track your friends lives was now deeply interactive, and with exactly the sort of unpredictable feedback that motivated Zeilers pigeons. Users were gambling every time they shared a photo, web link or status update. A post with zero likes wasnt just privately painful, but also a kind of public condemnation: either you didnt have enough online friends, or, worse still, your online friends werent impressed. Like pigeons, were more driven to seek feedback when it isnt guaranteed. Facebook was the first major social networking force to introduce the like button, but others now have similar functions. You can like and repost tweets on Twitter, pictures on Instagram, posts on Google+, columns on LinkedIn, and videos on YouTube.

The act of liking became the subject of etiquette debates. What did it mean to refrain from liking a friends post? If you liked every third post, was that an implicit condemnation of the other posts? Liking became a form of basic social support the online equivalent of laughing at a friends joke in public.

Web developer Rameet Chawla developed an app as a marketing exercise, but also a social experiment, to uncover the effect of the like button. When he launched it, Chawla posted this introduction on its homepage: People are addicted. We experience withdrawals. We are so driven by this drug, getting just one hit elicits truly peculiar reactions. Im talking about likes. Theyve inconspicuously emerged as the first digital drug to dominate our culture.

Chawlas app, called Lovematically, was designed to automatically like every picture that rolled through its users newsfeeds. It wasnt even necessary to impress them any more; any old post was good enough to inspire a like. Apart from enjoying the warm glow that comes from spreading good cheer, Chawla for the first three months, the apps only user also found that people reciprocated. They liked more of his photos, and he attracted an average of 30 new followers a day, a total of almost 3,000 followers during the trial period. On Valentines Day 2014, Chawla allowed 5,000 Instagram users to download a beta version of the app. After only two hours, Instagram shut down Lovematically for violating the social networks terms of use.

I knew way before launching it that it would get shut down by Instagram, Chawla said. Using drug terminology, you know, Instagram is the dealer and Im the new guy in the market giving away the drug for free.

Chawla was surprised, though, that it happened so quickly. Hed hoped for at least a week of use, but Instagram pounced immediately.


When I moved to the United States for postgraduate studies in 2004, online entertainment was limited. These were the days before Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube and Facebook was limited to students at Harvard. One evening, I stumbled on a game called Sign of the Zodiac (Zodiac for short) that demanded very little mental energy.

Zodiac was a simple online slot machine, much like the actual slot machines in casinos: you decided how much to wager, lazily clicked a button over and over again, and watched as the machine spat out wins and losses. At first, I played to relieve the stress of long days filled with too much thinking, but the brief ding that followed each small win, and the longer melody that followed each major win, hooked me fast. Eventually screenshots of the game would intrude on my day. Id picture five pink scorpions lining up for the games highest jackpot, followed by the jackpot melody that I can still conjure today. I had a minor behavioural addiction, and these were the sensory hangovers of the random, unpredictable feedback that followed each win.

My Zodiac addiction wasnt unusual. For 13 years, Natasha Dow Schll, a cultural anthropologist, studied gamblers and the machines that hook them. She collected descriptions of slot machines from gambling experts and current and former addicts, which included the following: Slots are the crack cocaine of gambling electronic morphine … the most virulent strain of gambling in the history of man Slots are the premier addiction delivery device.

These are sensationalised descriptions, but they capture how easily people become hooked on slot-machine gambling. I can relate, because I became addicted to a slots game that wasnt even doling out real money. The reinforcing sound of a win after the silence of several losses was enough for me.

In the US, banks are not allowed to handle online gambling winnings, which makes online gambling practically illegal. Very few companies are willing to fight the system, and the ones that do are quickly defeated. That sounds like a good thing, but free and legal games such as Sign of the Zodiac can also be dangerous. At casinos, the deck is stacked heavily against the player; on average the house has to win. But the house doesnt have to win in a game without money.

As David Goldhill, the chief executive officer of the Game Show Network, which also produces many online games, told me: Because were not restricted by having to pay real winnings, we can pay out $120 for every $100 played. No land-based casino could do that for more than a week without going out of business. As a result, the game can continue forever because the player never runs out of chips. I played Sign of the Zodiac for four years and rarely had to start a new game. I won roughly 95% of the time. The game only ended when I had to eat or sleep or attend class in the morning. And sometimes it didnt even end then.

Casinos win most of the time, but they have a clever way of convincing gamblers that the outcomes are reversed. Early slot machines were incredibly simple devices: the player pulled the machines arm to spin its three mechanical reels. If the centre of the reels displayed two or more of the same symbol when they stopped spinning, the player won a certain number of coins or credits. Today, slot machines allow gamblers to play multiple lines. Every time you play, youre more likely to win on at least one line, and the machine will celebrate with you by flashing bright lights and playing catchy tunes. If you play 15 lines, and you win on two of the lines, you make a net loss, and yet you enjoy the positive feedback that follows a win a type of win that Schll and other gambling experts call a loss disguised as a win.

Losses disguised as wins only matter because players dont classify them as losses they classify them as wins. This is what makes modern slot machines and modern casinos so dangerous. Like the little boy who hit every button in my lift, adults never really grow out of the thrill of attractive lights and sounds. If our brains convince us that were winning even when were actually losing, it becomes almost impossible to muster the self-control to stop playing.

Every
Every time you play a slot machine it will celebrate with you by flashing bright lights and playing catchy tunes Photograph: imageBROKER/Rex/Shutterstock



The success of slot machines is measured by time on device. Since most players lose more money the longer they play, time on device is a useful proxy for profitability. Video-game designers use a similar measure, which captures how engaging and enjoyable their games are. The difference between casinos and video games is that many game designers are more concerned with making their games fun than with making buckets of money. Bennett Foddy, who teaches game design at New York Universitys Game Center, has created a number of successful free-to-play games, but each was a labour of love rather than a money-making vehicle.

Video games are governed by microscopic rules, Foddy says. When your mouse cursor moves over a particular box, text will pop up, or a sound will play. Designers use this sort of micro-feedback to keep players more engaged and more hooked in.

A game must obey these microscopic rules, because gamers are likely to stop playing a game that doesnt deliver a steady dose of small rewards that make sense given the games rules. Those rewards can be as subtle as a ding sound or a white flash whenever a character moves over a particular square. Those bits of micro-feedback need to follow the act almost immediately, because if theres a tight pairing in time between when I act and when something happens, then Ill think I was causing it.

The game Candy Crush Saga is a prime example. At its peak in 2013, the game generated more than $600,000 in revenue per day. To date, its developer, King, has earned around $2.5 billion from the game. Somewhere between half a billion and a billion people have downloaded Candy Crush Saga on their smartphones or through Facebook. Most of those players are women, which is unusual for a blockbuster.

Its hard to understand the games colossal success when you see how straightforward it is. Players aim to create lines of three or more of the same candy by swiping candies left, right, up, and down. Candies are crushed they disappear when you form these matching lines, and the candies above them drop down to take their place. The game ends when the screen fills with candies that cannot be matched. Foddy told me that it wasnt the rules that made the game a success it was juice. Juice refers to the games surface feedback. It isnt essential to the game, but its essential to the games success. Without juice, the game loses its charm.

Novice game designers often forget to add juice, Foddy said. If a character in your game runs through the grass, the grass should bend as he runs through it. It tells you that the grass is real and that the character and grass are in the same world. When you form a line in Candy Crush Saga, a reinforcing sound plays, the score associated with that line flashes brightly, and sometimes you hear words of praise intoned by a hidden, deep-voiced narrator.

Juice amplifies feedback, but its also designed to unite the real world and the gaming world. The most powerful vehicle for juice must surely be virtual reality (VR) technology, which is still in its infancy. VR places the user in an immersive environment, which the user navigates as she might the real world. Advanced VR also introduces multisensory feedback, including touch, hearing and smell.

In a podcast last year, the author and sports columnist Bill Simmons spoke to billionaire investor Chris Sacca, an early Google employee and Twitter investor, about his experience with VR. Im afraid for my kids, a little bit, Simmons said. I do wonder if this VR world you dive into is almost superior to the actual world youre in. Instead of having human interactions, I can just go into this VR world and do VR things and thats gonna be my life.

Sacca shared Simmons concerns. One of the things thats interesting about technology is that the improvement in resolution and sound modelling and responsiveness is outpacing our own physiological development, Sacca said. You can watch some early videos where you are on top of a skyscraper, and your body will not let you step forward. Your body is convinced that that is the side of the skyscraper. Thats not even a super immersive VR platform. So we have some crazy days ahead of us.

Until recently, most people thought of VR as a tool for gaming, but that changed when Facebook acquired Oculus VR for $2bn in 2014. Facebooks Mark Zuckerberg had big ideas for the Oculus Rift gaming headset that went far beyond games. This is just the start, Zuckerberg said. After games, were going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a court-side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face just by putting goggles in your home. VR no longer dwelled on the fringes. One day, we believe this kind of immersive, augmented reality will become a part of daily life for billions of people, said Zuckerberg.

In October 2015, the New York Times shipped a small cardboard VR viewer with its Sunday paper. Paired with a smartphone, the Google Cardboard viewer streamed VR content, including documentaries on North Korea, Syrian refugees, and a vigil following the Paris terror attacks. Instead of sitting through 45 seconds on the news of someone walking around and explaining how terrible it is, you are actively becoming a participant in the story that you are viewing, said Christian Stephen, a producer of one of the VR documentaries.

Despite the promise of VR, it also poses great risks. Jeremy Bailenson, a professor of communication at Stanfords Virtual Reality Interaction Lab, worries that the Oculus Rift will damage how people interact with the world. Am I terrified of the world where anyone can create really horrible experiences? Yes, it does worry me. I worry what happens when a violent video game feels like murder. And when pornography feels like sex. How does that change the way humans interact, function as a society?

When it matures, VR will allow us to spend time with anyone in any location doing whatever we like for as long as we like. That sort of boundless pleasure sounds wonderful, but it has the capacity to devalue face-to-face interactions. Why live in the real world with real, flawed people when you can live in a perfect world that feels just as real? Wielded by game designers, it might prove to be a vehicle for the latest in a series of escalating behavioural addictions.


Some experiences are designed to be addictive for the sake of ensnaring hapless consumers, but others happen to be addictive though they are primarily designed to be fun or engaging. The line that separates these is very thin; to a large extent the difference rests on the intention of the designer.

When Nintendos superstar game designer Shigeru Miyamoto created Super Mario Bros, his primary aim was to make a game that he himself enjoyed playing. Thats the point, he said, not to make something sell, something very popular, but to love something, and make something that we creators can love. Its the very core feeling we should have in making games.

When you compare Super Mario Bros regularly voted by game designers as one of the greatest games ever to others on the market, it is easy to recognise the difference in intention.

Adam Saltsman, who produced an acclaimed indie game called Canabalt in 2009, has written extensively about the ethics of game design. Many of the predatory games of the past five years use whats known as an energy system, Saltsman said. Youre allowed to play the game for five minutes, and then you artificially run out of stuff to do. The game will send you an email in, say, four hours when you can start playing again. I told Saltsman that the system sounded pretty good to me it forces gamers to take breaks and encourages kids to do their homework between gaming sessions. But thats where the predatory part comes in.

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Super Mario Run was primarily designed by its creator, Shigeru Miyamoto, to be a game he enjoyed playing Photograph: PR

According to Saltsman: Game designers began to realise that players would pay $1 to shorten the wait time, or to increase the amount of energy their avatar would have once the four-hour rest period had passed. I came across this predatory device when playing a game called Trivia Crack. If you give the wrong answer several times, you run out of lives, and a dialogue screen gives you a choice: wait for an hour for more lives, or pay 99 cents to continue immediately. Many games hide these down-the-line charges. Theyre free, at first, but later you are forced to pay in-game fees to continue.

If you are minutes or even hours deep into the game, the last thing you want to do is admit defeat. You have so much to lose, and your aversion to that sense of loss compels you to feed the machine just one more time, over and over again. You start playing because you want to have fun, but you continue playing because you want to avoid feeling unhappy.


A game in which you always win is boring. It sounds appealing but it gets old fast. To some extent we all need losses and difficulties and challenges, because without them the thrill of success weakens gradually with each new victory. The hardship of the challenge is far more compelling than knowing you are going to succeed. This sense of hardship is an ingredient in many addictive experiences, including one of the most addictive games of all time: Tetris.

In 1984, Alexey Pajitnov was working at a computer lab at the Russian Academy of Science in Moscow. Many of the labs scientists worked on side projects, and Pajitnov began working on a video game. Pajitnov worked on Tetris for much longer than he planned because he couldnt stop playing the game. Eventually Pajitnov allowed his friends at the Academy of Science to play the game. Everyone who touched the game couldnt stop playing either.

His best friend, Vladimir Pokhilko, a former psychologist, remembered taking the game to his lab at the Moscow Medical Institute. Everybody stopped working. So I deleted it from every computer. Everyone went back to work, until a new version appeared in the lab.

Alexey
Alexey Pajitnov, the inventor of Tetris Photograph: Sipa Press / Rex Features

Tetris spread from the Academy of Science to the rest of Moscow, and then on to the rest of Russia and eastern Europe. Two years later, in 1986, the game reached the west, but its big break came in 1991, when Nintendo signed a deal with Pajitnov. Every Game Boy would come with a free game cartridge that contained a redesigned version of Tetris.

That year I saved up and ultimately bought a Game Boy, which is how I came to play Tetris for the first time. It wasnt as glitzy as some of my other favourites, but I played for hours at a time. Nintendo was smart to include the game with their new portable console, because it was easy to learn and very difficult to abandon. I assumed that I would grow tired of Tetris, but sometimes I still play the game today, more than 25 years later. It has longevity because it grows with you. Its easy at first, but as your skills improve, the game gets more difficult. The pieces fall from the top of the screen more quickly, and you have less time to react than you did when you were a novice.

This escalation of difficulty is a critical hook that keeps the game engaging long after you have mastered its basic moves. Twenty-five years ago, a psychiatrist named Richard Haier showed that this progression is pleasurable because your brain becomes more efficient as you improve. Haier decided to watch as people mastered a video game, though he knew little about the cutting-edge world of gaming. In 1991 no one had heard of Tetris, he said in an interview a few years later. I went to the computer store to see what they had and the guy said, Here try this. Its just come in. Tetris was the perfect game, it was simple to learn, you had to practise to get good, and there was a good learning curve.

Haier bought some copies of Tetris for his lab and watched as his experimental subjects played the game. He did find neurological changes with experience parts of the brain thickened and brain activity declined, suggesting experts brains worked more efficiently but more relevant here, he found that his subjects relished playing the game. They signed up to play for 45 minutes a day, five days a week, for up to eight weeks. They came for the experiment (and the cash payment that came with participating), but stayed for the game.

One satisfying feature of the game is the sense that you are building something your efforts produce a pleasing tower of coloured bricks. You have the chaos coming as random pieces, and your job is to put them in order. The game allows you the brief thrill of seeing your completed lines flash before they disappear, leaving only your mistakes. So you begin again, and try to complete another line as the game speeds up and your fingers are forced to dance across the controls more quickly.

Mikhail Kulagin, Pajitnovs friend and a fellow programmer, remembers feeling a drive to fix his mistakes. Tetris is a game with a very strong negative motivation. You never see what you have done very well, and your mistakes are seen on the screen. You always want to correct them.

The sense of creating something that requires labour and effort and expertise is a major force behind addictive acts that might otherwise lose their sheen over time. It also highlights an insidious difference between substance addiction and behavioural addiction: where substance addictions are nakedly destructive, many behavioural addictions are quietly destructive acts wrapped in cloaks of creation. The illusion of progress will sustain you as you achieve high scores or acquire more followers or improve your skills, and so, if you want to stop, youll struggle ever harder against the drive to grow.

Some designers are very much against infinite format games, like Tetris, said Foddy, because theyre an abuse of a weakness in peoples motivational structures they wont be able to stop.

Humans find the sweet spot sandwiched between too easy and too difficult irresistible. Its the land of just-challenging-enough computer games, financial targets, work ambitions, social media objectives and fitness goals. It is in this sweet spot where the need to stop crumbles before obsessive goal-setting that addictive experiences live.

This is an adapted extract of Irresistible by Adam Alter, published on 2 March by The Bodley Head in the UK and Penguin Press in the US on 7 March

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Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/feb/28/how-technology-gets-us-hooked

Is it time to swap your Mac for a Windows laptop?

Over a decade ago Alex Hern switched from PC to Mac and never looked back. But the new MacBook Pros very expensive so could he finally be tempted to switch again?

Ive been an Apple user for over a decade, ever since I picked up a refurbished 17in PowerBook back in 2005 to replace my ailing Windows XP box. But last month, after Apple announced its most expensive new MacBook Pros in almost 15 years, I reconsidered my decision for the first time and, for the past few weeks, Ive been back on a Windows PC.

I wasnt always a Mac user. My first three computers were PCs, although the house I grew up in had an ailing, hated Power Mac Performa. My reasons for switching in my teens were fairly simple: Id been playing fewer and fewer PC games, and spending increasing amounts of time using my computer to manage the music library linked to my iPod. I was one of those switchers, surprised by the elegance of Apples music player and convinced to take the plunge into their full desktop operating system.

The laptop wasnt cheap, but it made shuttling between my separated parents houses much easier. And while I missed being able to play the full library of PC games Id built up over the years, it was an exciting time to be moving to the Mac OS world. Plus, World of Warcraft was cross-platform, which was all the gaming I needed for a good while.

Ten years on, Im a fairly default Apple user. Im on my sixth iPhone, second iPad and third Mac; I have an Apple TV at home, Apple branded keyboard on my desktop, and even an Apple AA battery charger, from the days when they made them.

But the twin punches of a Brexit-led depreciation of the pound, and Apple releasing a new range of MacBook Pros with the least bang-for-your-buck in recent memory, made me think twice. The cheapest Mac that would be sufficient for my needs, a 13in MacBook Pro with 512GB of storage space and 16GB of ram, comes in at well over 2,000, yet is barely more powerful than the machine its replacing, a 15in retina MacBook Pro from four years ago that cost just over 1,500 at the time.

So I switched back. For the past month, Ive been using the Surface Book, the top-of-the-line laptop sold by, of all people, Microsoft.

Its been an experience.

Great-ish expectations

Microsoft
Microsoft Surface Book Photograph: Samuel Gibbs for the Guardian

My expectations going in were uncertain. I know Windows has evolved radically since I last used it, back in the XP era, and has even changed since the last time I used it in anger, shortly after the launch of Windows 8.1. The current latest version of the operating system, Windows 10 (confusingly, only one version later than 8.1; the story goes that too many developers wrote code referring to Windows 95 and 98 as 9*, meaning an actual Windows 9 would break compatibility), is generally considered a good thing. It meshes the new Windows experience of version 8 with an old-style desktop more elegantly than previous versions, while consigning ever more of the cruft deep into nested menus and offering a slick experience for first-time users.

I was also given hope by the machine. After an awkward start with the first version of the Surface back in 2012, then pitched as an iPad competitor, Microsoft has become one of the best manufacturers of Windows PCs there is. The Surface Book is a delicious machine, masquerading as a MacBook Pro-class laptop but with a fully detachable touchscreen that opens it up to a whole new range of uses.

The quality of the Surface machines has caused problems when it comes to Microsofts relationships with its hardware partners, who tended to expect Microsoft to be content raking in millions with the licensing fees for Windows, rather than competing with them directly for profit from hardware manufacturing. But for now, the company has been content to sit on the edge of the market, making niche devices for the power user.

Despite all of that, I had a fair amount of trepidation. Memories of blue screens of death, of driver conflicts, of cleaning out my registry and restoring the system after a malware infection, are hard to shake, as is the general hangover from my youth of Microsoft as the Great Satan of the tech world. As Zuckerberg is to the 2010s, Gates was to the 1990s: ever-present, professionally amoral, and incredibly, unflappably, successful.

But Gates is gone, as is Ballmer. This is Satya Nadellas company now, and the Microsoft of this generation is everything the Microsoft of the 90s or the Facebook of today isnt: humble, quiet, content with success where it can win and partnerships where it cant, and as proud of working with competitors as Gates was of crushing them. In short, its a Microsoft that I could consider being friends with. It couldnt be that bad.

Switching pains

The worst thing about switching, it turns out, is switching.

Im not trying to be tautological. But the bulk of the unpleasantness Ive experienced actually making this change hasnt been inherent to Windows, but has either come about because of the differences between the two operating systems, or even just the difficulties in actually getting up and running from day one.

Some of the problems are as simple, but nonetheless infuriating, as different keyboard shortcuts. A lifetime of muscle memory has told me that Command-Space brings up Spotlight, which is the main way I opened programmes on my Mac. The same shortcut on Windows 10 is to simply hit the Windows key, which invokes Cortana, Microsofts AI assistant, and then typing in the name of the programme you want to open.

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Its just all so … blue. Photograph: Shannon Stapleton/REUTERS

Similar mismatches appear in areas like window management, alt-tab behaviour, and programme installation. Its a push to say which is better (though I maintain that running an installer is less elegant than just dragging an app into the Apps folder), but whichever youre used to, the other will be worse until you re-educate yourself.

Thats not to say I didnt have plenty to complain about, though.

That Spotlight/Cortana mismatch, for instance? It wouldnt have been so bad, except that Windows maps the alt key to the location of the command key on Macs, and alt-space is the Windows shortcut for switching languages, so every time I failed to invoke Spotlight, I would accidentally switch the language my computer was set up in, resetting my keyboard to a US English layout.

That was an annoying problem. Worse was that I didnt actually have two languages set up on the Surface Book in the first place. And yet, hovering in the bottom right, permanently, was a little box showing whether I was running in UK English or US English, with no option in sight to remove it.

In the end, I had to turn to Twitter for troubleshooting advice. We determined that there was no option to remove the US English language because there was no US English language set up. So to remove it, all I had to do was go into a language menu, add English (United States) as an option, and then remove English (United States) as an option. I know. But it worked, so who am I to complain.

Im also firmly aware that a critical eye on Mac OS will reveal many similar bugs. Mac users, particularly long-term, slightly jaundiced, Mac users, have long become familiar with the hollow laugh and invocation of Apples erstwhile marketing slogan It Just Works as something emphatically continues to not Just Work. In fact, that phrase has been uttered in irony so many times that its easy to forget that it really does come from a place of competitive advantage for Apple.

That advantage has largely been eroded over the years, as Microsoft has cottoned on to the joys of vertical integration, plug and play accessories, and standards-compliant behaviour.

But not entirely. Plugging in an external mouse (an utterly standard Microsoft-made laser mouse), I was annoyed to find that I couldnt reverse the scrolling behaviour on the scroll wheel to match that of the in-built trackpad. Its one thing to have to relearn behaviours when you switch machines, its another to have to re-learn them every time you plug in a peripheral.

About an hour of fruitless Googling later including several suggestions to install obsolete utilities, hack the registry, or roll back to an earlier version of Windows and I discovered the way to do what I wanted. I had to download drivers for my mouse.

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It just works Steve Jobs with the MacBook Pro in 2008. Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

If youre young, a Mac user, or not particularly technical, that might not mean much. Drivers are the small pieces of software that tell the operating system how to work with hardware, from complex components like graphics cards to simple accessories like this mouse. But the necessity, or not, of drivers for accessories was a big part of that competitive push by Apple, which made a point of ensuring out-of-the-box support for many of the most commonly used peripherals like printers, cameras and mice. When Steve Jobs said it just works, this is the sort of thing he was referring to: the ability to plug in a mouse and have it Just Work.

Installing drivers for a mouse to enable a niche behaviour is no great hardship, but it still left me moderately concerned. Microsoft made both the mouse and the laptop, yet the two werent able to play nicely together without my intervention. This digging in the nuts and bolts of the machine was not something I had missed.

Touching the void

The Microsoft of 2016 has a split personality. In many ways, the split is the same that its had for the past 20 years, between its desire for continuity and its desire for reinvention and technological leadership. Where the company is successful today is where that latter desire is ascendant, and the Surface Book is the best example of a forward-looking Microsoft you can find.

Its a fantastic machine. Small and powerful, with a long battery life, it impresses as a laptop, but its real strengths are revealed when you undock the screen from its base. Being able to carry my laptop around the kitchen when doing the weekly shop, before docking it back and typing up some recipes, was genuinely cool.

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Not being an illustrator, a graphic designer, or even a graphic thinker, the ability to pop out my laptop and write on it with a stylus was never that useful. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs for the Guardian

Unfortunately, cool is all it was for me. The ability to pop out my laptop and write on it with a (very accurate) stylus was never that useful. If anything, it served to underscore how efficient the keyboard-and-touchpad combo is for a lot of hefty tasks.

I had a similar experience with the ability to use the touchscreen while the Surface Book was in laptop mode. I simply didnt do it much, and most of the time when I did, it was just to see if I could.

Occasionally, the touchscreen was actively bad. My first time opening Windows Mail, I was greeted with a helpful popover showing that I could swipe mails to the left to archive them. But I couldnt work out how: click and drag? Two-fingered swipe on the touchpad? The answer, of course, is to reach up to the screen, and swipe that way. A shortcut it is not, particularly if the screen is up on a dock and youre already using a keyboard and mouse.

Incidentally, unlike many hybrid laptops, the base isnt just a keyboard: it also contains a second battery, and a number of hardware components including a discrete GPU. (One downside of that setup: if you let the screen run out of battery while undocked, you cant re-dock it until youve charged it separately, even if the base still has some power left).

PCs are from Mars

If this sounds like a long list of nitpicks, its because … well, it is. For all the existential battles that have been fought over Windows versus Mac, theres little to distinguish the two on any important level. The platforms have converged on everything but aesthetics and personal preferences. Both have a locked-down store which power users ignore; both are fighting for relevance in a world of web apps and mobile-first design; both feel the weight of versions past sitting on their shoulders.

If you asked me to explain why, despite it all, Ive put my money down for a MacBook Pro rather than buying the Surface Book from Microsoft (which loaned the device for this trial), I can give you some reasons that feel solid enough for me.

I was shocked by the amount of advertising and cross-promotion riddled throughout the OS, from adverts for apps in the start menu, to a persistent pop-up offering a free trial of Office 365.

I was surprised by the paucity of solid third-party apps in general, and particularly by the lack of any good consumer productivity suite. When the most common recommendation, for services from photo storage to calendaring, is just use Googles web apps, theres a hole waiting to be filled (though maybe thats just my dislike of web apps in general). It feels like the Mac dev scene is full of teams making fully featured apps that compete with the big companies, while Windows devs are more content to make niche utilities which serve particular needs without needing to start a war.

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The MacBook Pro is up to 1,000 more expensive than the Surface Book. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA

I disliked the lack of a smart sleep mode, meaning my computer would often be flat when I opened it up in the morning because some utility had been running in the background.

I hated the difficulty in typing special characters, from foreign accents to ellipses and em-dashes. I hated the lack of a universal paste-as-plain-text shortcut, and I mourned the loss of iMessage access on the desktop for texting my girlfriend.

Most of all, though, I couldnt stand the small irritations, from the failure of Chrome windows to correctly adapt when dragged from a high-res screen to a low-res one, to the trackpads inability to accurately click when I used it with my thumb rather than my finger.

I dont pretend that those irritations are unique to Windows, or even that they arent things I couldnt have fixed with time, effort or re-education. But the problem is, fixing them isnt worth it: the difference just isnt there.

Thats true whichever way youre thinking of switching. If youre a Windows user nodding along with my problems, I can guarantee you that within a month of switching to Mac, youll have a list just as long. Maybe one day, one or other platform will have a commanding lead. For some use-cases, thats already happened: gamers have Windows, while iOS developers have Mac, to state two obvious examples. But for now, for the vast majority, its hard to say theres anything in it.

Except, of course, for price.

Because these problems are minor, and a price difference of up to 1,000 isnt. The Surface Book is around the same price as the new MacBook Pro, but many other high-quality laptops arent: youll easily find models like Dells XPS range or Lenovos Thinkpads for hundreds of pounds less than a comparably-specced MacBook.

For me, with four years of saving for a new Mac, good credit, and risk-aversion to digital irritation, its worth paying through the nose to stick with what I know. But it might not be the case for you.

Switching isnt a panacea, and theres no silver bullet out there no Windows computer that will be anything better than a bit annoying for former Mac users but before you get too complacent, I have a feeling the same is true the other way round. Ultimately, the question comes down to how much youre prepared to pay to keep things the same as they have been. For me, it turns out that figures quite high.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/jan/07/mac-windows-pc-macbook-pro-microsoft-surface-book

Gendered toys could deter girls from career in engineering, report says

Insitution for Engineering and Technology found toys with a technology focus were three times as likely to be targeted at boys

One of the worlds largest engineering institutions is warning against gender stereotyping of toys in the run-up to Christmas amid concern it could be discouraging girls from pursuing a career in engineering and technology.

Research by the Institution for Engineering and Technology (IET) found that toys with a science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) focus were three times as likely to be targeted at boys than girls. And despite high-profile recent campaigns that have had some success, toys for girls are still overwhelmingly pink.

The IETs mission is to encourage more girls to pursue careers in engineering, science and technology. Latest figures show women account for just 9% of engineers in the UK, despite enthusiasm among girls at primary school for information and communications technology (ICT) and computing (according to recent IET research, 39% say they enjoy it), maths (38%) and science (36%).

Societal stereotypes driving these gendered listings could be having a knock-on effect for the next generation of engineers, especially girls, impacting their future career choices, the IET warned.

Whilst the onus is on the parents to think outside the pink and blue boxes when shopping for their children, toy retailers and search engines also have a responsibility not to perpetuate gender stereotypes. Search engines in particular could look at introducing ways of detecting patterns of gender bias.

IET analysis of leading search engines and toy retailers websites found that of the Stem toys on offer, 31% were listed for boys compared with just 11% for girls. A search using the terms boys toys and girls toys found nine out of ten (89%) toys listed for girls were pink, compared with 1% for boys.

Mamta Singhal, a toy engineer and IET spokeswoman, said she had traditional girls toys as a child but also loved playing with cars, building blocks and creative kits. The research shows girls clearly do have an interest in science, technology and engineering subjects at school so we need to find ways to help this to translate into a higher number of women entering the industry.

The marketing of toys for girls is a great place to start to change perceptions of the opportunities within engineering. The toy options for girls should go beyond dolls and dress-up so we can cultivate their enthusiasm and inspire them to grow up to become engineers.

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Toys can influence what a child does in later years, experts believe. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

The toy industry is changing slowly and over the years more gender-neutral toys such as science kits have started appearing. Toys can really influence what a child does in later years, therefore Stem toys are a natural move for the industry.

Jess Day from Let Toys Be Toys, which campaigns to encourage retailers to stop categorising toys by gender, said toy marketing too often promoted the idea of separate toys for boys and girls.

Many retailers have made real progress over the last few years, dropping gender labels in stores and online our new research shows a 70% decrease in the use of online gender navigation options since 2012 but theres still work to do to challenge the stereotyped ways that toys are often packaged and promoted.

We previously asked women engineers and scientists about the toys they played with as children and the most interesting finding was, not that they all played with construction or science toys, but they didnt recall being aware of a distinction between girls and boys toys at all.

Its not just the toys which are the issue, but the whole idea that some things are just for boys or girls. If children learn that early, its hardly surprising that they go on to apply this logic to their career choices, too.

Simon Ragoonanan, who has a daughter and writes a blog, Man vs Pink, documenting his ongoing struggle against pinkification, recently published an alternative Christmas gift guide for girls which includes a build-your-own computer kit, a Lego ultimate Spiderman bridge battle, and female Star Wars character Reys lightsaber.

People often opt for what they think is a safe option which is how gender stereotypes come into play, he said.

As a father to a four-year-old daughter who loves sci-fi and superheroes, I feel strongly that little girls should aspire to be more than just princesses and that all toys are gender neutral.

Top gender-neutral Stem toys for Christmas, as suggested by the IES

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/dec/08/gendered-toys-deter-girls-from-career-engineering-technology