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Initially, heart pacemakers were as big as ovens and external. Soon enough, they shrunk and found a home inside our bodies. Right now, most non-drug performance-enhancement methods are similarly external hardware, but they too will have their day to move within.

One example of that exterior computing power now being used to help athletes train smarter and perform better is IBM’s Watson, in one of its many post-Trebek roles. From Dominic Basulto at the Washington Post:

ORRECO, which has been working with the Oregon Track Club for more than six years and which recently joined the growing IBM Watson ecosystem, will teach Watson how to combine physiological test data, biomarker data, and data on nutrition and sleep into an individualized training program that the Oregon Track Club can use to optimize the schedules and performance of its runners. In addition, Coach Watson will be able to analyze the latest research findings from medical journals.

In doing so, Coach Watson will help to answer questions like “how hard” or “how long” a workout should be, whether an athlete experiencing fatigue should lower the intensity of workouts or take a few days off to recover, and how to optimize sleep schedules around travel. Coach Watson might also be able to spot signs of an upcoming injury weeks in advance through the continuous monitoring of biomarker data (e.g. an iron deficiency in the blood).

It’s still a work in progress — ORRECO chief executive Brian Moore told me that Watson is still a “junior coach coming up through the ranks” — but based on Watson’s previous success at extracting unexpected relationships from the data and proven ability to do trade-off analysis – there’s definitely potential for Coach Watson to provide an extra layer of knowledge for coaches.•

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Although it has far greater implications, I don’t know if gene manipulation will eventually be viewed very differently than plastic surgery. The timeline is undefined, but it will start with animals, then be used to treat diseases in humans, finally becoming a performance-enhancement tool for our friends and neighbors (and us). It’s easy to say now that we’d opt out, but that won’t be so simple since such changes won’t be merely cosmetic.

In China, gene-editing is being used to design micropigs that permanently remain lap-size and make great pets. From David Cyranoski at Nature:

Cutting-edge gene-editing techniques have produced an unexpected byproduct — tiny pigs that a leading Chinese genomics institute will soon sell as pets.

BGI in Shenzhen, the genomics institute that is famous for a series of high-profile breakthroughs in genomic sequencing, originally created the micropigs as models for human disease, by applying a gene-editing technique to a small breed of pig known as Bama. On 23 September, at the Shenzhen International Biotech Leaders Summit in China, BGI revealed that it would start selling the pigs as pets. The animals weigh about 15 kilograms when mature, or about the same as a medium-sized dog.

At the summit, the institute quoted a price tag of 10,000 yuan (US$1,600) for the micropigs, but that was just to “help us better evaluate the market”, says Yong Li, technical director of BGI’s animal-science platform. In future, customers will be offered pigs with different coat colours and patterns, which BGI says it can also set through gene editing.

With gene editing taking biology by storm, the field’s pioneers say that the application to pets was no big surprise. Some also caution against it. “It’s questionable whether we should impact the life, health and well-being of other animal species on this planet light-heartedly,” says geneticist Jens Boch at the Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg in Germany.•


Even in the twentieth century, Philippe Petit was living in the wrong time.

The high-wire artist, a Marcel Marceau of mid-air, practiced a timeless art in an age when the clock had ascended, quantifying human activity, eclipsing slow progress. In scaling the Twin Towers, one of the major symbols of what Industrialization had created, he briefly chastened the new reality with his old-world acrobatics, conferring upon it a dignity and romance it hadn’t previously known.

As The Walk is released, here’s a piece from a 2014 New York Times Magazine interview Petit did with Jessica Gross, explaining his dual feelings about this century’s technology:


You seem to have an ambivalent relationship with your computer. In the book, you call it your “necessary evil tool.”

Philippe Petit:

I hate all electronic things that are supposed to help the human being. You don’t smell, you don’t hear, you don’t touch anymore. All our senses are being controlled. At the same time, I am a total imbecile because to have a little iPhone that can take pictures, that can find the nearest hospital, that can tell you the weather in Jakarta — it’s probably fabulous. I’m supposed to be a man of balance, but my state of mind in those things is very unbalanced. I love or I hate.•


“We observed a type of dancer because you couldn’t call him a walker.”

From the November 19, 1903 New York Times:

Philadelphia–Dr. Andrew L. Nelden of New York to-day performed the operation of grafting an ear upon the head of a Western millionaire, who the surgeon says he is under bond not to reveal. The operation was to have been performed in New York, but District Attorney Jerome is said to have interfered.

Dr. Nelden advertised for a man willing to sell an ear for $5,000, and from more than 100 applicants he selected a young German, who at one time conducted a restaurant in New York.

Dr. Nelden said to-day:

“The operation has been performed and promises to be successful. It took place at a private hospital here, where I was assisted by a Philadelphia physician and one from New York. I think they will be willing to have their names known later.

“The two men were placed in opposite directions upon an elongated bed. One-half of a volunteer’s ear –the upper half–was cut off, together with about four inches of the skin behind the ear.

“This was twisted around and fitted to a freshly prepared wound upon my patient’s head. The half ear was held in place by bandages, and the two men were bound so that they could not move their heads. They must retain this position for at least twelve days to allow the circulation to come through the flap of skin that still remains as part of the volunteer’s scalp.

“If this half ear starts to unite properly the lower half of the ear will be grafted in the same manner.”•


Stephen Hawking fears the unknown, whether it be aliens from other planets or intelligent machines on Earth. In that sense, he’s a physicist operating as a risk manager, though despite his warnings, we probably can only do so much in our time to govern what happens in the future, as questions we can’t anticipate now will arise.

The scientist uses the example of Native Americans being interrupted unexpectedly by Columbus to illustrate what may happen if extraterrestrials descended upon us. But wouldn’t a truer analogy be something completely unforeseen wreaking havoc, a thing that goes far beyond our current imaginations? And while we have more information in our interconnected world than Natives did then, are we really be any more prepared for the darkest of black swans?

Hawking speaks to these issues in a new El Pais interview conducted by Nuño Domínguez and Javier Salas. Two excerpts below.



You recently launched a very ambitious initiative to search for intelligent life in our galaxy. A few years ago, though, you said it would be better not to contact extraterrestrial civilizations because they could even exterminate us. Have you changed your mind?

Stephen Hawking:

If aliens visit us, the outcome could be much like when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they can reach. To my mathematical brain, the numbers alone make thinking about aliens perfectly rational. The real challenge is to work out what aliens might actually be like.



Why should we fear artificial intelligence?

Stephen Hawking:

Computers will overtake humans with AI at some point within the next 100 years. When that happens, we need to make sure the computers have goals aligned with ours.


What do you think our fate as a species will be?

Stephen Hawking:

I think the survival of the human race will depend on its ability to find new homes elsewhere in the universe, because there’s an increasing risk that a disaster will destroy Earth. I therefore want to raise public awareness about the importance of space flight. I have learnt not to look too far ahead, but to concentrate on the present. I have so much more I want to do.•

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As has been said before, the problem with technology is one of distribution, not scarcity. Not a small challenge, of course.

We’ll need to work our way through what will likely be a wealthier if lopsided aggregate, but we all stand to gain in a more vital way: environmentally. The new tools, through choice and some fortuitousness, are almost all designed to make the world greener, something we desperately need to snake our way through the Anthropocene. 

In Andrew McAfee’s latest post at his excellent Financial Times blog, he pivots off of Jesse Ausubel’s “The Return of Nature,” an essay which says that technological progress and information becoming the coin of the realm have led to a “dematerialization process” in America that is far kinder ecologically. Remember during the 1990s when everyone was freaking out about how runaway crime would doom society even as the problem had quietly (and mysteriously) begun a marked decline? Ausubel argues that a parallel situation is currently occurring with precious resources.

Two excerpts follow: 1) Ausubel asserts that a growing U.S. population hasn’t led to a spike in resource use, and 2) McAfee writes that the dematerialization process may explain some of the peculiarities of the economy.


From Ausubel:

In addition to peak farmland and peak timber, America may also be experiencing peak use of many other resources. Back in the 1970s, it was thought that America’s growing appetite might exhaust Earth’s crust of just about every metal and mineral. But a surprising thing happened: even as our population kept growing, the intensity of use of the resources began to fall. For each new dollar in the economy, we used less copper and steel than we had used before — not just the relative but also the absolute use of nine basic commodities, flat or falling for about 20 years. By about 1990, Americans even began to use less plastic. America has started to dematerialize. 

The reversal in use of some of the materials so surprised me that Iddo Wernick, Paul Waggoner, and I undertook a detailed study of the use of 100 commodities in the United States from 1900 to 2010. One hundred commodities span just about everything from arsenic and asbestos to water and zinc. The soaring use of many resources up to about 1970 makes it easy to understand why Americans started Earth Day that year. Of the 100 commodities, we found that 36 have peaked in absolute use, including the villainous arsenic and asbestos. Another 53 commodities have peaked relative to the size of the economy, though not yet absolutely. Most of them now seem poised to fall. They include not only cropland and nitrogen, but even electricity and water. Only 11 of the 100 commodities are still growing in both relative and absolute use in America. These include chickens, the winning form of meat. Several others are elemental vitamins, like the gallium and indium used to dope or alloy other bulk materials and make them smarter. …

Much dematerialization does not surprise us, when a single pocket-size smartphone replaces an alarm clock, flashlight, and various media players, along with all the CDs and DVDs.

But even Californians economizing on water in the midst of a drought may be surprised at what has happened to water withdrawals in America since 1970. Expert projections made in the 1970s showed rising water use to the year 2000, but what actually happened was a leveling off. While America added 80 million people –– the population of Turkey –– American water use stayed flat.•


From McAfee:

Software, sensors, data, autonomous machines and all the other digital tools of the second machine age allow us to use a lot fewer atoms throughout the economy. Precision agriculture enables great crop yields with much less water and fertiliser. Cutting-edge design software envisions buildings that are lighter and more energy efficient than any before. Robot-heavy warehouses can pack goods very tightly, and so be smaller. Autonomous cars, when (not if) they come, will mean fewer vehicles in total and fewer parking garages in cities. Drones will replace delivery trucks. And so on.

The pervasiveness of this process, which Mr Ausubel labels “dematerialisation,” might well be part of the reason that business investment has been so sluggish even in the US, where profits and overall growth have been relatively robust. Why build a new factory, after all, if a few new computer-controlled machine tools and some scheduling software will allow you to boost output enough from existing ones? And why build a new data centre to run that software when you can just put it all in the cloud?•


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So many things are at play in the race for the perfected driverless vehicle: economics, environment, geopolitics. There likely won’t be one company or nation that fully wins, though you don’t want to be on the outside looking in. And you need to have ready answers for the what’s likely to be resulting unemployment.

Japan announced it will be testing robo-cabs in 2016, while China reports it has already tested driverless buses. 


From Jun Hongo at the WSJ:

Japan’s cabinet office, Kanagawa prefecture and Robot Taxi Inc. on Thursday said they will start experimenting with unmanned taxi service beginning in 2016. The service will be offered for approximately 50 people in Kanagawa prefecture, just south of Tokyo, with the auto-driving car carrying them from their homes to local grocery stores.

According to the project organizers, the cabs will drive a distance of about three kilometers (two miles), and part of the course will be on major avenues in the city. Crew members will be aboard the car during the experiment in case there is a need to avoid accidents. …

Shinjiro Koizumi, son of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and a vice minister in the current government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, appeared at an event Thursday afternoon to promote the driverless-taxi effort. “There are a lot of people who say it’s impossible, but I think this will happen faster than people expect,” he said.•


From The Economic Times:

BEIJING: A Chinese bus-maker has claimed that its driverless bus has completed a successful trial operation on an intercity road in central China’s Henan Province, where it automatically changed lanes and stopped at traffic signals.

The 10.5-metre hybrid bus by Yutong Bus Co. Ltd. ran around 32.6 kilometres on the intercity road linking Zhengzhou City with Kaifeng City in late August, state-run Xinhua news agency reported today.

The driverless bus has passed all tests, including identifying all 26 traffic lights on the road, automatically changing lanes and overtaking vehicles in neighboring lanes, the company said.

The bus is installed with two cameras, four laser radars, one set of millimetre wave radar and integrated navigation system.•


The Economist has a good if brief review of three recent titles about Artificial Intelligence and what it means for humans, John Markoff’s Machines of Loving GracePedro Domingos’ The Master Algorithm and Jerry Kaplan’s Humans Need Not Apply.

I quote the opening of the piece below because I think it gets at an error in judgement some people make about technological progress, in regards to both Weak AI and Strong AI. There’s the idea that humans are in charge and can regulate machine progress, igniting and controlling it as we do fire. I don’t believe that’s ultimately so even if it’s our goal.

Such decisions aren’t made in cool, sober ways inside a vacuum but in a messy world full of competition and differing priorities. If the United States decided to ban robots or gene editing but China used them and prospered from the use, we would have to also enter the race. It’s similar to how America was largely a non-militaristic country before WWII but since then has been armed to the teeth.

The only thing that halts technological progress is a lack of knowledge. Once attained, it will be used because that makes us feel clever and proud. And it gives us a sense of safety, even when it makes things more dangerous. That’s human nature as applied to Artificial Intelligence.

An excerpt:

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (AI) is quietly everywhere, powering Google’s search engine, Amazon’s recommendations and Facebook’s facial recognition. It is how post offices decipher handwriting and banks read cheques. But several books in recent years have spewed fire and brimstone, claiming that algorithms are poised to obliterate white-collar knowledge-work in the 21st century, just as automation displaced blue-collar manufacturing work in the 20th. Some people go further, arguing that artificial intelligence threatens the human race. Elon Musk, an American entrepreneur, says that developing the technology is “summoning the demon.”

Now several new books serve as replies. In Machines of Loving Grace, John Markoff of the New York Times focuses on whether researchers should build true artificial intelligence that replaces people, or aim for “intelligence augmentation” (IA), in which the computers make people more effective. This tension has been there from the start. In the 1960s, at one bit of Stanford University John McCarthy, a pioneer of the field, was gunning for AI (which he had named in 1955), while across campus Douglas Engelbart, the inventor of the computer mouse, aimed at IA. Today, some Google engineers try to improve search engines so that people can find information better, while others develop self-driving cars to eliminate drivers altogether.•

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I’m firmly of the camp that believes humans shouldn’t currently be involved in space exploration beyond building rockets and robots. There’ll be time for us to take small steps and giant leaps later on, after our machine friends have conducted reconnaissance and at least semi-civilized these alien lands.

But no one is listening to me, as the new Space Race, being waged between private and public entities across the globe, is rushing to plant humans and flags on Mars ASAP. It’s a far cry from 1991, when the revived Life magazine wrote of a 150-year plan to gradually terraform our neighbor with orbiting solar reflectors and other far-flung equipment, making Mars hospitable ahead of our arrival. The due date has clearly been pushed up, complicating what will be a long and lonely trip under any circumstances.

From Sidney Perkowitz at h+:

Making it to Mars won’t be easy. It’s the next planet out from the sun, but a daunting 140 million miles away from us, on average – far beyond the Earth’s moon, which, at nearly 250,000 miles away, is the only other celestial body human beings have set foot on.

Nevertheless, NASA and several private ventures believe that by further developing existing propulsion methods, they can send a manned spacecraft to Mars.

One NASA scenario would, over several years, pre-position supplies on the Martian moon Phobos, shipped there by unmanned spacecraft; land four astronauts on Phobos after an eight-month trip from Earth; and ferry them and their supplies down to Mars for a 10-month stay, before returning the astronauts to Earth.

We know less, though, about how a long voyage inside a cramped metal box would affect crew health and morale. Extended time in space under essentially zero gravity has adverse effects, including loss of bone density and muscle strength, which astronauts experienced after months aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

There are psychological factors, too. ISS astronauts in Earth orbit can see and communicate with their home planet, and could reach it in an escape craft, if necessary.

For the isolated Mars team, home would be a distant dot in the sky…•




No contemporary authoritarian ruler would think the Internet an ideal tool for propaganda. For all its deficits, it’s still too anarchic to be controlled. Kim Jong-un, for one, just blocks it. Cinema in another era, however, offered fascists larger-than-life spin-machine opportunities.

From early on, Benito Mussolini, Italy’s vulgar, murderous clown, knew film could be manipulated and controlled in a world of limited home technology. He planned to open a sprawling movie studio in 1937 which was to surpass Hollywood, and like his trains were purported to do, it arrived on time, turning Italy into an insane asylum with a studio system. After Il Duce met the business end of a meat hook atop an Esso gas station and the nation was defeated in WWII, the lots served briefly as a refugee camp. Later, Cinecittà, as it was known, became the backbone of a rebuilt Italy’s film industry, acting as the backdrop to American-produced epics like Ben-Hur as well as numerous Federico Fellini projects. 

An article in the April 16, 1936 Brooklyn Daily Eagle covered the massive studio’s construction, among other things. An excerpt from it is embedded below.



Why hasn’t someone like myself who loves books–reading them, not collecting them–yet switched to a Kindle? I don’t quite know because despite having issues with Amazon’s impact on the pricing of digital books and what that means for the future of publishing, I’m awed the company has made it possible to easily carry a universal library anywhere in the world. That’s amazing, though it would seem, no sufficiently so for me to “go electric.”

While Bezos’ e-reader can hold everything from Henry James to the King James Bible, Craig Mod is losing his religion in the tool. In an Aeon essay, the writer explains he grew disenchanted (unconsciously, at first) with the Kindle’s lack of development, how the device which seemed poised to surpass the experience of paper reading, has instead become complacent the way monopolies often do. Virtual books were going to have a tough time competing with the physical kind in terms of sheer beauty, but so far they trail in key ways even in functionality. As Mod writes, Amazon’s dominance has made for an isolated infrastructure and the “closed nature of digital book ecosystems hurts designers and reader.”

An excerpt:

In the past two years, something unexpected happened: I lost the faith. Gradually at first and then undeniably, I stopped buying digital books. I realised this only a few months ago, when taking stock of my library, both digital and physical. Physical books – most of all, works of literary fiction – I continue to acquire voraciously. I split my time between New York and Tokyo, and know that with each New York trip I’ll pick up a dozen or more volumes from bookstores or friends. My favourite gifts, to give and to receive, are still physical books. The allure of the curated front tables at McNally Jackson or Three Lives and Company is too much to resist.

The great irony, of course, is that I’ve never read more digitally in my life. Each day, I spend hours reading on my iPhone – news articles, blog posts and essays. Short to mid-length content feels indigenous to the size, resolution and use cases of smartphones, and many online publications (such as this very site) display their content with beautiful typography and layouts that render consistently on any computer, tablet or smartphone. Phones also allow us to share articles with minimal effort. The easy romance between our smartphones and short-to-mid-length articles and video is part of the reason why venture capitalists have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into New York publishing upstarts such as Vox, Vice and Buzzfeed. The smartphone coupled with the open web creates a near-perfect container for distributing journalism at a grand scale.

But what of digital books? What accounts for my unconscious migration back to print?•

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The semantics of the Second Machine Age can be tricky. In trying to name hands-free driving, we’ve dreamed up “driverless,” “robocar” and “autonomous car.” Funny thing is, the term “auto” (“by oneself or spontaneous” and “by itself or automatic”), one we already use, would be particularly apt. We held on to the word “computer” when that job transitioned from humans to machines, and the same pattern seems warranted here. The word doesn’t need change–the definition will. 

In the same vein, Kevin Roose of Fusion makes a good point about the word “robot”: Our application of the term is currently so inconsistent, it’s lost its value. Additionally, if (almost) everything in our lives becomes robotic, isn’t the term redundant?

From Roose:

Today, many of the devices in our lives are really robots working under pseudonyms. A “smart thermostat” is a robot that raises and lowers the temperature of your house. A “smart home security system” is a robot that keeps you safe. A coffee maker with a Bluetooth chip is a robot that keeps you caffeinated. And then there are all the so-called software robots”: personal assistants like Siri and Cortana, financial “robo-advisors,” and apps that translate foreign languages on the fly.

As more and more household tasks become automated, the number of robots in our lives is growing rapidly. And the rise of connected devices raises a thorny semantic question: namely, where does “automated process” stop and “robot” begin? Why is a factory machine that moves car parts considered a “robot,” but a Volkswagen with a much more sophisticated code base is just a Jetta?

Instead of trying to gerrymander a definition for “robot” that could account for the differences between all of the varied types of machine intelligence, I propose a different solution: what if we just stopped saying “robot” altogether?•


In a sense, we may be those superintelligent robots of the future we so fear, as carbon and silicon become strange bedfellows. A byline-less Financial Times essay explores the coming age of cyborgism, detailing a few of the challenges that will attend human enhancement and medical miracles. An excerpt:

Beyond resource allocation and patient selection lie broader questions about human identity as computerised implants enter our minds and bodies. Although human-machine hybrids worthy of the name “cyborg” are unlikely to appear in the real world for decades, even if research continues to accelerate and the cost of the technology begins to fall, it is not too soon to think about the implications of electronic enhancement of the healthy as well as the sick.

Some of the questions are similar to those that people have been asking for some time about future genetic enhancement. For instance, there will be issues of equity if a privileged few can afford to implant an electronic memory and mental performance booster beyond the means of the majority. On the other hand, human computerisation will raise some problems of its own, above all security and privacy. Sooner or later we will have to face up to the threat of malicious hacking into personal memories.•

I think we’ve had a good run, but Christopher Mims of the Wall Street Journal insists humans can flourish in an increasingly machine-centric age if we exploit software and such to overhaul our education system, a process stuck not only in the twentieth century but the nineteenth as well.

It is shocking that in 2015 we haven’t utilized computers to reduce the teacher-student ratio to 1:1 or video games to make education more fun as well as more effective. Mims writes that Silicon Valley figures, now with children of their own, aim to bring algorithms to the academic setting. One idea that seems too good to pass up is real-time textbooks.

An excerpt:

At the core of the coming revolution in how schools should function and what classrooms should look like is this simple observation: It is a waste of time to ask teachers to deliver information and test students on it when that task can be reassigned, at least in part, to software.

Countless startups are working on this problem, among them Testive, which produces a cloud-based service to help students prepare for college entrance exams.

“We need to just unburden the teacher from having to disseminate content,” says Testive Chief Executive Tom Rose. “It’s such a reductive way to use a person.”

That machines can be better tutors than humans, in certain circumstances, is a hypothesis with a great deal of intuitive appeal, though data to prove it remain largely anecdotal. That hasn’t stopped schools all across America from adopting “blended learning,” in which traditional instruction is mixed with lessons delivered on PCs and tablets.

But the vision of many entrepreneurs in educational technology is to take those systems to a whole new level.

“The idea that everyone gets the same textbook is a ludicrously archaic idea,” says Jose Ferreira, chief executive of Knewton, a software company that uses adaptive learning to decide exactly which lessons and problems to deliver to students. “In the future, everybody is going to have materials—textbooks, games, whatever—in a materials portfolio that updates in real time, that generates in real time, based on what you know and how you learn best.”•

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Outside of governments largely deregulating drones, the easiest way to bring about their proliferation would be for private companies to purchase fleets of them to rent out. That would remove the risk for individuals and small businesses who have a need for them but are reluctant to purchase. Such large-scale outfits making large purchases would spur further development and diminish costs, which in turn would lead to more private ownership. It’s worth remembering, however, that privacy will suffer further if the sector thrives.


The business of drones has ascended into the stratosphere, as investors have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the tiny unmanned aircraft in hopes of turning them into big business.

Now Robert Wolf, the financier who is a confidant of President Obama, is raising his bet on an industry that has already drawn names like Amazon and GoPro and top venture capital firms like Accel Partners and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

Mr. Wolf’s advisory firm plans to announce on Wednesday that it is spinning off its drone-services arm into a separate company. The business, Measure, is betting that its ability to fly the devices to take pictures of farmland and oil rigs will draw interest, and dollars, from a potentially huge number of customers.

Nearly two years ago, Mr. Wolf’s 32 Advisors set up Measure to capture that opportunity. Rather than focus on making the drones or the accessories and software that power them, he has banked on creating a fleet of aircraft that can be flown on behalf of customers. For Measure, it is “drones as a service.”

“We think that over the next 24 to 36 months, we’ll be able to fulfill something that doesn’t exist around the world,” Mr. Wolf, Measure’s chairman, said in a telephone interview.•

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Following up on the post about Virtual Reality being utilized to treat PTSD and other disorders, here’s a passage from a 52 Insights Magazine interview with San Francisco-based neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley, who’s working on the bleeding edge of video-game therapy. The doctor wants to use the medium to exploit the plasticity of the brain and “retrain” troubled minds. Of course, the potential for the abuse of such tools in the hands of terrorists, sects or authoritarian states is pretty obvious, though those entities have done fairly well without them.

An excerpt:

The Insight:

So what will it look like, say 30 years from now? Would there be something that you can go to your doctor and get or is there something you can go to a healthcare practitioner and talk to about?

Adam Gazzaley:

I would hope that this would be in the next 4 years; this is the immediate future. We’ll start seeing a different class of medicine, what I would call a ‘digital medicine’ that builds on experience and interactivity, being part of what doctors feel comfortable prescribing. I would hope that future is within the next 5 years.

The Insight:

You’re talking about the games specifically?

Adam Gazzaley:

Yes. …

The Insight:

Because you work so deeply in the core of the brain, has there ever been a discussion with you around tackling mental illness? I know that sits a bit on the periphery of what you do, but you do work within multitasking, focus and attention, so I wondered if that was part of what you do?

Adam Gazzaley:

Yeah, that’s pretty much what our main objectives are. If we could use our knowledge of the system to create a relationship through interactivity and the other technologies I’ve described to you. And to improve the function and to minimise the limitation, we think that it could have great impact in the mental health world. That’s a conversation I have daily with the scientists that are in the psychiatric or neurological domain; how these tools could be part of the medicine they are using in the near future.

The Insight:

Could you give us an idea of how that discussion looks, what would be the implementation in an ideal world?

Adam Gazzaley:

The most concrete one would be where a doctor would feel comfortable pulling out a prescription pad and writing down an iPad game for 1 month with the data streaming into their office during each gameplay, with or without a medication as a drug along side it. I think that would be an exciting future, to understand how these worlds will interact with each other; will they be prescribed together or independently? Would you start with the game because it had no side-effects then come in with a drug if needed? All of these are unknowns but very exciting.•



From Bernie Sanders to Charles Murray, strange bedfellows are expressing support for Universal Basic Income, a way to defeat poverty and eliminate bureaucracy. It’s something Richard Nixon tried for futilely more than four decades ago and has gained currency now mostly because of the fear of technological unemployment. Andrew McAfee, Eric Brynjolfsson and Martin Ford, leading chroniclers of the Second Machine Age who fear robots are coming for too many jobs to replace, have all suggested it as one salve for an American Labor force that may be in steep decline.

In a Fast Company piece, Ben Schiller details reasons the idea’s ascendancy. An excerpt:

The first is that work isn’t what it used to be. Many people now struggle through a 50-hour week and still don’t have enough to live on. There are many reasons for this—including the heartlessness of employers and the weakness of unions—but it’s a fact. Work no longer pays. The wages of most American workers have stagnated or declinedsince the 1970s. About 25% of workers (including 40% of those in restaurants and food service) now need public assistance to top up what they earn.

The second: it’s likely to get worse. Robots already do many menial tasks. In the future, they’ll do more sophisticated jobs as well. A study last year from Carl Frey and Michael Osborne at Oxford University found that 47% of jobs are at risk of computerization over the next two decades. That includes positions in transport and logistics, office and administration, sales and construction, and even law, financial services and medicine. Of course, it’s possible that people who lose their jobs will find others. But it’s also feasible we’re approaching an era when there will simply be less to do.

The third is that traditional welfare is both not what it used to be and not very efficient. The value of welfare for families with children is now well below what it was in the 1990s, for example. The move towards means-testing, workfare—which was signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1996—and other forms of conditionality have killed the universal benefit. And not just in the U.S. It’s now rare anywhere in the world that people get a check without having to do something in return. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this, that makes the income assistance system more complicated and expensive to manage. Up toup to 10% of the income assistance budget now goes to administrating its distribution.•


  • The human brain is the most amazingly complex machine, until the day it becomes a simple one. If we last long enough, that moment will arrive, and consciousness will no longer be the hard problem or any problem at all.
  • I don’t think intelligent machines are happening anytime soon, but they’re likely if the Anthropocene or some other age doesn’t claim us first. In fact, we may ultimately become them, more or less. But I’m not talking about today or tomorrow. In the meanwhile, Weak AI will be enough of a boon and bane to occupy us.
  • The problem I have with concerned technologists attempting to curb tomorrow’s superintelligence today is that any prescripts we create now will become moot soon enough as realities shift. New answers will alter old questions. It’s better to take an incremental approach to these challenges, and try to think through them wisely in our era and trust future humans to do the same in theirs.

From Jane Wakefield’s BBC article “Intelligent Machines: Do We Really Need to Fear AI?“:

Already operating on the South Korean border is a sentry robot, dubbed SGR-1. Its heat-and-motion sensors can identify potential targets more than two miles away. Currently it requires a human before it shoots the machine gun that it carries but it raises the question – who will be responsible if the robots begin to kill without human intervention?

The use of autonomous weapons is something that the UN is currently discussing and has concluded that humans must always have meaningful control over machines.

Noel Sharkey co-founded the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots and believes there are several reasons why we must set rules for future battlefield bots now.

“One of the first rules of many countries is about preserving the dignity of human life and it is the ultimate human indignity to have a machine kill you,” he said.

But beyond that moral argument is a more strategic one which he hopes military leaders will take on board.

“The military leaders might say that you save soldiers’ lives by sending in machines instead but that is an extremely blinkered view. Every country, including China, Russia and South Korea is developing this technology and in the long run, it is going to disrupt global security,” he said.

“What kind of war will be initiated when we have robots fighting other robots? No-one will know how the other ones are programmed and we simply can’t predict the outcome.”

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Virtual Reality is usually spoken of in terms of how it will aid work or play, but its greatest efficacy, at least in its nascency, might be in the area of therapy. In the same way that video games seem destined to be a great education tool (but have yet to be properly exploited in this way), VR holds huge promise for creating safe, immersive environments for those trying to put PTSD and other disorders behind them. 

From Amy Westervelt at WSJ:

Virtual-reality headsets have long been thought of as the ultimate gaming accessory. Now, therapists increasingly are embracing them as an effective therapeutic tool.

The use of immersive virtual reality in mental-health treatment—placing patients in various simulated situations designed to help them deal with their difficulties—has been booming over the past two decades. Therapists, school counselors and even the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs have adopted the technology in the treatment of everything from phobias to depression to substance abuse.

“Virtual reality offers the promise of a fundamentally new way to treat certain psychiatric disorders,” says Elias Aboujaoude, a Stanford University psychiatrist. For instance, he says, it can be used to simulate fear-inducing situations—an encounter with a snake, perhaps, or flying in an airplane—that would be difficult or impossible to reconstruct in a therapist’s office. Such simulations can help people work through their phobias by confronting the situations that disturb them and learning new ways to react, a process known as exposure therapy.

Virtual reality also has proved effective in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, by allowing veterans to safely revisit the kinds of situations they faced in the field, and therapists have found it to be a useful tool in teaching autistic children and adults how to identify certain social cues.•

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Speaking of Minority Report, Hitachi says it’s created a system that crunches disparate data (tweets, weather patterns, etc.) and predicts where and when future crimes will occur. Of course, right now it will do so on a macro level as traditional crime-prediction models do, not trying to pinpoint particular people, but as these kinds of tools grow more sophisticated and proliferate, it seems likely they’ll try to operate more and more on a micro one. That could be all kinds of trouble. On the surface, it would be less invasive than stop-and-frisk, but systems, like people, contain all sorts of biases and assumptions.

From Sean Captain at Fast Company:

No one has found a trio of psychic mutant “precogs” who can unanimously foresee future crimes, but Hitachi today introduced a system that promises to predict where and when crime is likely to occur by ingesting a panoply of data, from historical crime statistics to public transit maps, from weather reports to social media chatter. Hitachi says that “about half a dozen” U.S. cities will join a proof of concept test of the technology beginning in October, and though Hitachi hasn’t yet named them, Washington, D.C. could well be on the list. It’s one of several dozen cities in the U.S. and Caribbean countries where the company already provides video surveillance and sensor systems to police departments with its Hitachi Visualization Suite. Hitachi execs provided several examples—even screenshots of the software—featuring D.C. in my conversations with them.

“We don’t have any precogs as part of our system,” says Darrin Lipscomb, cofounder of companies Avrio and Pantascene, which developed crime-monitoring tech that Hitachi later acquired. “If we determined that the precogs were actually somewhat accurate, we could certainly use their predictions to feed into our model,” he says with perfect deadpan. What the new technology, called Hitachi Visualization Predictive Crime Analytics (PCA), does have is the ability to ingest streams of sensor and Internet data from a wide variety of sources.•

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In this 1960 clip, Arthur C. Clarke acknowledges the “only thing that is sure about the future is that it will be absolutely fantastic,” before promising by the year 2000 we would genetically engineer servant monkeys, abolish cities and utilize instant-communication devices.

He was right, of course, in believing the transistor would allow us to immediately reach one another at all times as well as telecommute, though he felt these changes might mean the end of city living, which, of course, was far off the mark. He was too bold in his predictions about bioengineering, though he’ll likely be right should Homo sapiens survive potential climate-change disaster. (I don’t, however, think that “servant monkeys” will be the direction we go.) Clarke further thought we would tinker with the human brain so that we could learn Chinese overnight and erase bad memories. Unsurprisingly, the co-creator of HAL-9000 envisioned conscious machines zooming past our intelligence, biological evolution reaching its endgame and organic life having served its purpose as a stepping stone to greater knowledge. 


In this clip, philosopher, LSD guru and countercultural icon Dr. Timothy Leary and his wife Rosemary deplane in Algeria and, after a few words with reporters, walk into the waiting of arms of fugitive Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver.

The backstory: During his 1970 gubernatorial race against Ronald Reagan in California, Leary was railroaded into a 20-year prison sentence for the dubious charge of possession of two joints. He escaped from the penitentiary, spent time in Algeria with Cleaver before the two had a falling out and was finally recaptured at an airport in Afghanistan. Leary was returned to the states to continue his sentence at Folsom Prison.

California Governor Jerry Brown released Leary in 1976 and the controversial figure spent the last two decades of his life encouraging the construction of space colonies and being an early Internet enthusiast.


Below is a trailer for Lord of the Universe, a 1974 documentary about adolescent guru Maharaj Ji, who came to some fame in those days for promising to levitate the Houston Astrodome, a plot that never got off the ground. More than any other holy-ish person of the time, the Indian tennager would have fit in quite nicely in Silicon Valley of 2015. He was a technocrat who believed he could disrupt and improve the world. Sound familiar?

The former child preacher Marjoe Gortner was hired by OUI, a middling vagina periodical of the Magazine Age, to write a deservedly mocking article about the American visit of the self-appointed messiah. Two excerpts from the resulting report.

The guru’s people do the same thing the Pentecostal Church does. They say you can believe in guru Maharaj Ji and that’s fantastic and good, but if you receive light and get it all within, if you become a real devotee-that is the ultimate. In the Pentecostal Church you can be saved from your sins and have Jesus Christ as your Saviour, but the ultimate is the baptism of the Holy Ghost. This is where you get four or five people around and they begin to talk and more or less chant in tongues until sooner or later the person wanting the baptismal experience so much-well, it’s like joining a country club: once you’re in, you’ll be like everyone – else in the club.

The people who’ve been chanting say, “Speak it out, speak it out,” and everything becomes so frenzied that the baptismalee will finally speak a few words in tongues himself, and the people around him say, “Oh, you’ve got it.” And the joy that comes over everybody’s faces! It’s incredible. It’s beautiful. They feel they have got the Holy Spirit like all their friends, and once they’ve got it, it’s forever. It’s quite an experience.

So essentially they’re the same thing pressing on your eyes while your ears are corked, and standing around the altar speaking in tongues. They’re both illuminating experiences. The guru’s path is interesting, though. Once you’ve seen the light and decided you want to join his movement, you give over everything you have–all material possessions. Sometimes you even give your job. Now, depending on what your job is, you may be told to leave it or to stay. If you stay, generally you turn your pay checks over to the Divine Light Mission, and they see that you are housed and clothed and fed. They have their U. S. headquarters in Denver. You don’t have to worry about anything. That’s their hook. They take care of it all. They have houses all over the country for which they supposedly paid cash on the line. First class. Some of them are quite plush. At least Maharaj Ji’s quarters are. Some of the followers live in those houses, too, but in the dormitory-type atmosphere with straw mats for beds. It’s a large operation. It seems to be a lot like the organization Father Divine had back in the Thirties. He did it with the black people at the Peace Mission in Philadelphia. He took care of his people-mostly domestics and other low-wage earners–and put them up in his own hotel with three meals a day.

The guru is much more technologically oriented, though. He spreads a lot of word and keeps tabs on who needs what through a very sophisticated Telex system that reaches out to all the communes or ashrams around the country. He can keep count of who needs how many T-shirts, pairs of socks–stuff like that. And his own people run this system; it’s free labor for the corporation.

· · · · · · · · · ·

The morning of the third day I was feeling blessed and refreshed, and I was looking forward to the guru’s plans for the Divine City, which was soon going to be built somewhere in the U. S. I wanted to hear what that was all about.

It was unbelievable. The city was to consist of ‘modular units adaptable to any desired shape.’ The structures would have waste-recycling devices so that water could be drunk over and over. They even planned to have toothbrushes with handles you could squeeze to have the proper amount of paste pop up (the crowd was agog at this). There would be a computer in each communal house so that with just a touch of the hand you could check to see if a book you wanted was available, and if it was, it would be hand-messengered to you. A complete modern city of robots. I was thinking: whatever happened to mountains and waterfalls and streams and fresh air? This was going to be a technological, computerized nightmare! It repulsed me. Computer cards to buy essentials at a central storeroom! And no cheating, of course. If you flashed your card for an item you already had, the computer would reject it. The perfect turn-off. The spokesman for this city announced that the blueprints had already been drawn up and actual construction would be the next step. Controlled rain, light, and space. Bubble power! It was all beginning to be very frightening.•

Just a few decades back, the painter Erik Sandberg-Diment was worried about providing for his family so he became a journalist to make money. In 2015, that sentence is enough to make you laugh and cry.

He ended up focusing on computers, tested out so-so cooking software, reviewed the Macintosh with less-than-full appreciation and famously whiffed on the future of laptops. Right or wrong, he was always an entertaining curmudgeon throughout the early PC period, with all its pre-Web frustrations.

Here’s what he said in the NYT in 1985 about computer banking and email:

Central to the new videotex is the concept of home banking. For the vast majority of people and businesses, however, banking-by-computer is about as convenient as fishing pickles out of the barrel with a toothpick. Home banking programs, even the heavily promoted Pronto sponsored by Chemical Bank, have grown far slower than predicted. V IDEOTEX services claim they will eventually include such features as stock brokerage, travel services, catalogue shopping and even housing exchanges. I doubt, however, that many people will give up shopping in person for the chance to buy a new refrigerator or washing machine by pressing a few keys on a personal computer.

This is a nation of tire kickers, after all. I can’t help but shake my head at the millions of dollars being spent on the development of videotex applications by companies that simply do not seem to grasp the fundamental tenets of personal computing. Personal computing is timesaving, money saving and fun. Videotex is none of the above. ”There have been a lot of very high expectations for information services that have not been met by either teletext or videotex,” says Michelle Preston, the technology industry analyst at the investment firm of L. F. Rothschild, Unterberg, Towbin. ”They simply do not offer enough value to really take off.”

Then there is electronic mail, that thoroughly modern offspring of a calcified postal service and a splintered Ma Bell. Currently, the companies promoting this service, nicknamed e-mail, are also offering such added services as a hookup of the subscriber’s personal computer to the Telex network and a two-hour delivery of letter-quality documents to many parts of the country. They have all discovered that electronic mail alone cannot at this stage attract enough customers to stem the tide of red ink.

Electronic mail allows a message to be typed into a personal computer or a terminal and then transmitted variously through cable, telephone-cum-modem, or satellite link to a receiving personal computer or terminal. One of its alleged advantages is the so-called store and forward message. A user may send messages at any time and, unlike a telephone connection, e-mail does not require the recipient to be on the other end of the line. Then again, the old-fashioned postal service does not require that the recipient be there at the time of delivery either.

When all is said and done, electronic mail is no more efficient, in the vast majority of cases, than the telephone or the postal service it is supposed to replace. Nor does it have the flexibility to be able to deliver packages such as spare parts, in the manner of another innovation, the overnight express service pioneered by Federal Express.

In addition, electronic mail faces the problem of compatibility that has plagued the entire personal computer industry since its inception. At the moment, there are about a dozen services, among them MCI Mail, Western Union’s EasyLink, the ITT Corporation’s Dialcom and General Electric’s Quick-Comm – none of which can be linked with any of the others.

The situation is comparable to there being a dozen different postal services, any one of which may or may not be capable of delivering a message to the particular company for which it is intended. Before even sending the message, a company has to determine whether it can indeed be delivered.

The problem is compounded by the fact that there is no e-mail central. Nor is there any universal directory of subscribers to the different services to help a business determine which potential recipient of its electronic letter subscribes to which service. For now, electronic mail’s solution to the dilemma seems to be the hybrid half e-mail, half regular mail represented by MCI’s now familiar orange envelopes.

Chances are that before a universal e-mail network is ever developed, the whole idea of electronic mail, along with those of teletext and videotex, will have been reduced to the span of a few specialized applications. As a general means of information exchange, the concepts are technologically intriguing. But they are economically naive and, more importantly, no more convenient than the existing alternatives.•



The Economist has a report on the booming drone industry, which has grown many times faster than even most enthusiasts supposed it could, with 15,000 units now sold each month. Legislation clearly hasn’t kept pace with the innovation, so the article suggests the easiest way to arrive at proper rules of the “road” might be to allow the new tools to launch relatively undeterred, enabling us to “lead from behind” with experience as our guide. It certainly worked that way with the fledgling aviation industry of the early twentieth century, when thousands of startups attempted to build on and commodify the Wright brothers’ soaring success.

A hammer, however, is a tool or a weapon depending on how you swing it, and terrorists as well as Taco Bell would like to employ delivery drones. But while criminals might benefit from crowded skies in avoiding early detection, they’re also the least likely to remain within the boundaries of the law, so they can’t be the only priority when drawing up such guidelines. Such concerns probably need to be addressed with myriad approaches.

From a practical standpoint, the Economist identifies the industry’s two key needs: drones able to stay in the air for at least an hour and the development of sense-and-avoid technology.

The opening:

THE scale and scope of the revolution in the use of small, civilian drones has caught many by surprise. In 2010 America’s Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) estimated that there would, by 2020, be perhaps 15,000 such drones in the country. More than that number are now sold there every month. And it is not just an American craze. Some analysts think the number of drones made and sold around the world this year will exceed 1m. In their view, what is now happening to drones is similar to what happened to personal computers in the 1980s, when Apple launched the Macintosh and IBM the PS/2, and such machines went from being hobbyists’ toys to business essentials.

That is probably an exaggeration. It is hard to think of a business which could not benefit from a PC, whereas many may not benefit (at least directly) from drones. But the practical use of these small, remote-controlled aircraft is expanding rapidly. After dragging its feet for several years the FAA had, by August, approved more than 1,000 commercial drone operations. These involved areas as diverse as agriculture (farmers use drones to monitor crop growth, insect infestations and areas in need of watering at a fraction of the cost of manned aerial surveys); land-surveying; film-making (some of the spectacular footage in “Avengers: Age of Ultron” was shot from a drone, which could fly lower and thus collect more dramatic pictures than a helicopter); security; and delivering things (Swiss Post has a trial drone-borne parcel service for packages weighing up to 1kg, and many others, including Amazon, UPS and Google, are looking at similar ideas).•  

A Vice story pointed me to a 1976 NASA study of space settlements, which considered, among other things, the psychological ramifications of living in relative darkness and seclusion out there. What struck me about it is that it seems (to a degree) a commentary for life on Earth during a time of Reality TV and smartphones, for how denatured life can feel now. The line about the danger of fulfilling every wish by pushing a button seems particularly meaningful. An excerpt:

The Solipsism Syndrome in Artificial Environment

Some environments are conducive to the state of mind in which a person feels that everything is a dream and is not real. This state of mind occurs, for example, in the Arctic winter when it is night 24 hr a day. It is also known to occur in some youths who have been brought up on television as a substitute to reality.

Solipsism is a philosophical theory that everything is in the imagination, and there is no reality outside one’s own brain. As a philosophical theory it is interesting because is is internally consistent and, therefore, cannot be disproved. But as a psychological state, it is highly uncomfortable. The whole of life becomes a long dream from which an individual can never wake up. Each person is trapped in a nightmare. Even friends are not real, they are a part of the dream. A person feels very lonely and detached, and eventually becomes apathetic and indifferent.

In the small town of Lund, Sweden, the winter days have 6 hr of daylight and 18 hr of darkness. Most of the time people live under artificial light, so that life acquires a special quality. Outdoors, there is no landscape to see; only street corners lit by lamps. These street corners look like theater stages, detached from one another. There is no connectedness or depth in the universe and it acquires a very unreal quality as though the whole world is imagination. Ingmar Bergman’s film Wild Strawberries expresses this feeling very well.

This state of mind can be easily produced in an environment where everything is artificial, where everything is like a theater stage, where every wish can be fulfilled by a push-button, and where there is nothing beyond the theater stage and beyond an individual’s control.

There are several means to alleviate the tendency toward the solipsism syndrome in the extraterrestrial communities:

  1. A large geometry, in which people can see far beyond the “theater stage” of the vicinity to a view which is overwhelmingly visible.

  2. Something must exist beyond each human’s manipulation because people learn to cope with reality when reality is different from their imagination. If the reality is the same as the imagination, there is no escape from falling into solipsism. In extraterrestrial communities, everything can be virtually controlled. In fact, technically nothing should go beyond human control even though this is psychologically bad. However, some amount of “unpredictability” can be built in within a controllable range. One way to achieve this is to generate artificial unpredictability by means of a table of random numbers. Another way is to allow animals and plants a degree of freedom and independence from human planning. Both types of unpredictability must have a high visibility to be effective. This high visibility is easier to achieve in a macrogeometry which allows longer lines of sight.

  3. Something must exist which grows. Interactive processes generate new patterns which cannot be inferred from the information contained in the old state. This is not due to randomness but rather to different amplification by mutual causal loops. It is important for each person to feel able to contribute personally to something which grows, that the reality often goes in a direction different from expectation, and finally that what each person takes care of (a child, for example) may possess increased wisdom, and may grow into something beyond the individual in control. From this point of view, it is important personally to raise children, and to grow vegetables and trees with personal care, not by mechanical means. It is also desirable to see plants and animals grow, which is facilitated by a long line of sight.

  4. It is important to have “something beyond the horizon” which gives the feeling that the world is larger than what is seen.•

Donald Trump, a shrimp-boat barnacle who’s managed to stain adultery’s good name, believes China has “created” the concept of climate change to prevent America from competing in manufacturing. China, with the world’s highest cancer and air-pollution rates, clearly disagrees, finally bowing to political pressure and agreeing to institute cap-and-trade.

It’s breathtaking news with a caveat: The process won’t be easily enforceable in a country rife with corruption and political opaqueness. But it’s a critical first step, and one that will hopefully make the type of impact that America’s Clean Air Act has. From Michael Greenstone’s NYT Upshot post about that U.S. legislation and how it relates to China’s bold move:

The history and impact of the Clean Air Act can serve as a valuable case study for countries that are struggling today with the extraordinary pollution that we once faced. In Northern China, where pollution is curtailing lives by an average of five years, the government has at last declared a “war on pollution.” While enforcement is not perfect, the government has improved transparency and amended environmental protection laws to impose stricter punishments against polluters.

In India, pollution is abridging the average person’s life by about three years. But the growing outrage has not yet coalesced into forceful action, although it’s possible that pressure to take steps against climate change will also have an effect on improving air quality.

The hundreds of millions of life-years saved from improved air quality in our country didn’t happen by accident or overnight. This happened because a collective voice for change brought about one of the most influential laws of the land.

As the United States and other nations continue to debate the costs of environmental regulation, they can do so with the knowledge that the benefits can be substantial. As proof, we need look no further than the five extra years residents of Weirton-Steubenville are living and the hundreds of millions of years gained by Americans throughout the nation.•


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