The Pleasure and Danger of Augmented Reality

Smart phones. One can’t imagine life without them.  Ah, the endless convenience: looking up a restaurant on Yelp, finding out a movie’s rating on Rotten Tomatoes, seeing that cute guy’s profile on Facebook. But to be honest, they’re not really that convenient.  Every time you need information, you have to take out your phone, open the browser, type in a search, browse the results...after a while, even a smart phone can seem like a heavy dumb tool. Wouldn’t it be better to just look at a movie poster at the cinema and see its ratings appear next to it? When a beautiful woman talks to you at a party, wouldn’t it be great if her Facebook page with her interests and background pops up on the side too?  You needn’t pine in despair: augmented reality will make these scenarios possible for you within a decade.  


Augmented reality adds a layer of information on top of everything in front of your eyes. How? By making you wear glasses that have tiny video cameras in them. These cameras “see” the world on your behalf and livestream it to the inside of your glasses. You feel like you’re watching the world through transparent glasses, but in fact you’re seeing a movie of the scene in front of your eyes. You could run around the whole day and never notice the difference between wearing these glasses and not wearing them: the glasses show you an exact replica of what your eyes would see. However, the advantage of having glasses is that now you can add software intelligence to them. These glasses can recognize an object in front of your eyes using image recognition software, search the Internet for information on that object and add it to the image display you see. The process of "recognize, search, add" is almost instantaneous. 

One can immediately see the value of augmented content. Just imagine being a tourist in Paris and having a quick history of the Eiffel Tower displayed next to it. You’d never need holiday guidebooks like Lonely Planet again! The potential to transform the experience of education is full of promise. Instead of just reading about dinosaurs, your children could actually see small 3D dinosaurs walking on the table in front of them. But having augmented reality also has its cons. If a violent homophobe walks into a bar and his augmented reality glasses identify a person as being gay, it could become a potentially dangerous situation for that person. (To learn more about the latest augmented reality glasses priced at $2000 work, see this article and associated video on Singularity Hub)

Augmented reality adds content to a live streaming video, but it could just as easily remove content as well. This is known as diminished reality, and researchers at the Technical University of Ilmenau in Germany have developed software that can remove objects from live videos. So for example, say you had a massive fight with your ex-boyfriend and never want to see him again. You could program your glasses to remove him from your line of vision. If you walked into a restaurant where he was sitting with his new lover, the software in the glasses would remove him from the scene so that you would never know he was even there. (For technical details on how the software works, see a brief article here). Definitely watch this amazing video on how the software in action: 

Diminished reality can have many productive applications. Architects can imagine what a site will look like after a building has been demolished, for instance. At the same time, it can also become a destructive tool for spreading apathy in society. “I don’t want to see any homeless people on the street,” you may decide, and the software will keep deleting the poor lying on the sidewalks and you will never feel compelled to do anything about the stark income disparity in your city.

Augmented and diminished realities are going to become commonplace as image recognition becomes more sophisticated, and the circuitry and cameras become smaller and cheaper so that they can be embedded in the eye as contact lenses and become affordable for everyone. (See this article by Babak A. Parviz whose lab at University of Washington is working on augmented reality contact lenses.) These technologies can enrich our lives in a multitude of ways, but they can also forever lock each of us into an alternate reality of our own making. 

Ayesha and Parag Khanna explore human-technology co-evolution and its implications for society, business and politics at The Hybrid Reality Institute.

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Kosovo land swap could end conflict - or restart war

Best case: redrawing borders leads to peace, prosperity and EU membership. But there's also a worst case

Image: SRF
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  • The Yugoslav Wars started in 1991, but never really ended
  • Kosovo and Serbia are still enemies, and they're getting worse
  • A proposed land swap could create peace - or reignite the conflict

The death of Old Yugoslavia

Image: public domain

United Yugoslavia on a CIA map from 1990.

Wars are harder to finish than to start. Take for instance the Yugoslav Wars, which raged through most of the 1990s.

The first shot was fired at 2.30 pm on June 27th, 1991, when an officer in the Yugoslav People's Army took aim at Slovenian separatists. When the YPA retreated on July 7th, Slovenia was the first of Yugoslavia's republics to have won its independence.

After the wars

Image: Ijanderson977, CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Map of former Yugoslavia in 2008, when Kosovo declared its independence. The geopolitical situation remains the same today.

The Ten-Day War cost less than 100 casualties. The other wars – in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo (1) – lasted much longer and were a lot bloodier. By early 1999, when NATO had forced Serbia to concede defeat in Kosovo, close to 140,000 people had been killed and four million civilians displaced.

So when was the last shot fired? Perhaps it wasn't: it's debatable whether the Yugoslav Wars are actually over. That's because Kosovo is a special case. Although inhabited by an overwhelming ethnic-Albanian majority, Serbians are historically very attached to it. More importantly, from a legalistic point of view: Kosovo was never a separate republic within Yugoslavia but rather a (nominally) autonomous province within Serbia.

Kosovo divides the world

Image: public domain

In red: states that recognise the independence of Kosovo (most EU member states – with the notable exceptions of Spain, Greece, Romania and Slovakia; and the U.S., Japan, Turkey and Egypt, among many others). In blue: states that recognise Serbia's sovereignty over Kosovo (most notably Russia and China, but also other major countries such as India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Iran).

The government of Serbia has made its peace and established diplomatic relations with all other former Yugoslav countries, but not with Kosovo. In Serbian eyes, Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008 was a unilateral and therefore legally invalid change of state borders. Belgrade officially still considers Kosovo a 'renegade province', and it actually has a lot of international support for that position (2).

The irony is that on the longer term, both Kosovo and Serbia want the same thing: EU membership. Ironically, that wish could lead to Yugoslav reunification some years down the road – within the EU. Slovenia and Croatia have already joined, and all other ex-Yugoslav states would like to follow their example. Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia have already submitted an official application. The EU considers Bosnia and Kosovo 'potential candidates'.

Kosovo is the main stumbling block on Serbia's road to EU membership. Even after the end of hostilities, skirmishes continued, between the ethnically Albanian majority and the ethnically Serbian minority within Kosovo, and vice versa in Serbian territories directly adjacent. Tensions are dormant at best. A renewed outbreak of armed conflict is not unthinkable.

Land for peace?

Image: BBC

Mitrovica isn't the only area majority-Serb area in Kosovo, but the others are enclaved and fear being abandoned in a land swap.

In fact, relations between Kosovo and Serbia have deteriorated spectacularly in the past few months. At the end of November, Kosovo was refused membership of Interpol, mainly on the insistence of Serbia. In retaliation, Kosovo imposed a 100% tariff on all imports from Serbia. After which Serbia's prime minister Ana Brnabic refused to exclude her country's "option" to intervene militarily in Kosovo. Upon which Kosovo's government decided to start setting up its own army – despite its prohibition to do so as one of the conditions of its continued NATO-protected independence.

The protracted death of Yugoslavia will be over only when this conflict is finally resolved. The best way to do that, politicians on both sides have suggested, is for the borders reflect the ethnic makeup of the frontier between Kosovo and Serbia.

The biggest and most obvious pieces of the puzzle are the Serbian-majority district of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, and the Albanian-majority Presevo Valley, in southwestern Serbia. That land swap was suggested previous summer by Hashim Thaci and Aleksandar Vucic, presidents of Kosovo and Serbia respectively. Best-case scenario: that would eliminate the main obstacle to mutual recognition, joint EU membership and future prosperity.

If others can do it...

Image: Ruland Kolen

Belgium and the Netherlands recently adjusted out their common border to conform to the straightened Meuse River.

Sceptics and not a few locals warn that there also is a worst-case scenario: the swap could rekindle animosities and restart the war. A deal along those lines would almost certainly exclude six Serbian-majority municipalities enclaved deep within Kosovo. While Serbian Mitrovica, which borders Serbia proper, is home to some 40,000 inhabitants, those enclaves represent a further 80,000 ethnic Serbs – who fear being totally abandoned in a land swap, and eventually forced out of their homes.

Western powers, which sponsored Kosovar independence, are divided over the plan. U.S. officials back the idea, as do some within the EU. But the Germans are against – they are concerned about the plan's potential to fire up regional tensions rather than eliminate them.

In principle, countries consider their borders inviolate and unchanging, but land swaps are not unheard of. Quite recently, Belgium and the Netherlands exchanged territories so their joint border would again match up with the straightened course of the Meuse river (3). But those bits of land were tiny, and uninhabited. And as the past has amply shown, borders carry a lot more weight in the Balkans.

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