Science/Tech

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Knowing the present isn’t knowing the future. At best, we make educated guesses uncolored by personal beliefs or wants. Even then, we’re often wrong, unprepared for the black swans and their lovely necks. When William Masters and Virginia Johnson sat down for this Good Morning America interview, with the AIDS crisis at its height, it seemed monogamy, not Tinder, would be the future. How quickly things change.

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As I’ve mentioned before, I doubt we’ll survive as a species without AI and brain-enhancement, though those things could potentially end us as well. It’s a gambit. The opening of Kevin Loria’s Business Insider article about the future of souped-up brains, which I would guess are probably still a long way off:

With a jolt of electricity, you might be able to enter a flow state that allows you to learn a new skill twice as fast, solve problems that have mystified you for hours, or even win a sharpshooting competition.

And this just scratches the surface in terms of what we might be able to do to improve cognition as our understanding of the brain improves. With an implanted chip, the possibilities might be close to limitless.

Researchers think that as we learn more about the brain, we’ll be able to use electricity to boost focus, memory, learning, mathematical ability, and pattern recognition. Electric stimulation may also clear away depression and stave off cognitive decline. We’ll eventually even implant computer chips that allow us to directly search the web for information or even download new skills — like Neo learning Kung-fu in The Matrix.

We’re heading down a path that will allow us to supercharge the brain.

The key is decoding how the brain works. That’s the hurdle in the way, and the one that billions of dollars in research are going towards right now.

‘I don’t think there’s any doubt we’ll eventually understand the brain,’ says Gary Marcus, a professor of psychology at New York University, and an editor of the upcoming book The Future of the Brain: Essays by the World’s Leading Neuroscientists.

‘The big question is how long it’s going to take,’ he says.”

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We have to learn how to use words, and even when we do they don’t always translate, but facial expressions seem pretty natural and universal. Why? In a great Aeon essay, Michael Graziano, Princeton psychology and neuroscience professor, attempts to explain. The opening:

“About four thousand years ago, somewhere in the Middle East — we don’t know where or when, exactly — a scribe drew a picture of an ox head. The picture was rather simple: just a face with two horns on top. It was used as part of an abjad, a set of characters that represent the consonants in a language. Over thousands of years, that ox-head icon gradually changed as it found its way into many different abjads and alphabets. It became more angular, then rotated to its side. Finally it turned upside down entirely, so that it was resting on its horns. Today it no longer represents an ox head or even a consonant. We know it as the capital letter A.

The moral of this story is that symbols evolve.

Long before written symbols, even before spoken language, our ancestors communicated by gesture. Even now, a lot of what we communicate to each other is non-verbal, partly hidden beneath the surface of awareness. We smile, laugh, cry, cringe, stand tall, shrug. These behaviours are natural, but they are also symbolic. Some of them, indeed, are pretty bizarre when you think about them. Why do we expose our teeth to express friendliness? Why do we leak lubricant from our eyes to communicate a need for help? Why do we laugh?

One of the first scientists to think about these questions was Charles Darwin. In his 1872 book,The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Darwin observed that all people express their feelings in more or less the same ways. He argued that we probably evolved these gestures from precursor actions in ancestral animals. A modern champion of the same idea is Paul Ekman, the American psychologist. Ekman categorised a basic set of human facial expressions — happy, frightened, disgusted, and so on — and found that they were the same across widely different cultures. People from tribal Papua New Guinea make the same smiles and frowns as people from the industrialised USA.

Our emotional expressions seem to be inborn, in other words: they are part of our evolutionary heritage. And yet their etymology, if I can put it that way, remains a mystery. Can we trace these social signals back to their evolutionary root, to some original behaviour of our ancestors? To explain them fully, we would have to follow the trail back until we left the symbolic realm altogether, until we came face to face with something that had nothing to do with communication. We would have to find the ox head in the letter A.

I think we can do that.”

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German chemist Michael Braungart is an environmentalist who wants us to consume as much as we’d like, to live richly and abundantly, to not trouble ourselves about conservation, so he’s dedicated himself to creating materials which will never truly become trash. It sounds like a wonderful world, all our greed biodegrading into natural beauty, provided we’re all not living below sea level before we’ve achieved this post-waste idyll. From Michaela Schiessl at Spiegel:

“‘Our current world of products is totally primitive,’ says Braungart. We produce things, often filled with pollutants, and we eventually throw them away. The toxins escape into the soil, air and water. In his view, our practices are completely underdeveloped — part of a dark, Neanderthal-like world. ‘A product that becomes waste is simply a bad product. Bad chemistry.’

Braungart wants to apply good chemistry, and make products without any pollutants, which either end up as compost or are returned into the technical cycle as a pure, unadulterated raw material. If this were achieved on a large scale, many things would change. Wastefulness would no longer be bad but would in fact be a virtue, and we would be living in a world filled with abundance instead of restrictions. Our world would mimic nature, in which, for example, the blossom on a cherry tree turns into fruit, humus or a new tree – an elixir of life in all three cases. This eco-hedonism is Braungart’s creed. ‘I want people to live extravagantly,’ he says.

Austerity and sacrifice, the favorite disciplines of many environmentalists, are anathema to him. The German environmental movement? ‘A club of guilt managers deprived of enjoyment.’ The proponents of sustainability? ‘They’re optimizing the wrong thing.’

To turn his theory into practice, Braungart has established a company, EPEA. His German clients include personal care products giant Beiersdorf and lingerie maker Triumph, mail order company Otto and cosmetics maker Aveda. Braungart advises Volkswagen, Unilever and BMW. With his help, HeidelbergCement developed a special cement that purifies the air once its been processed into concrete. And, in 2013, Puma introduced the first fully recyclable athletic clothing collection, which includes compostable shoes.”

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Iran’s theocracy is one thing, and its people seem another altogether. It’s a strange state where the rules can be broken as long as everyone pretends otherwise. From an Economist report about a Middle Eastern Masters and Johnson-ish sex survey:

“An 82-page document recently issued by Iran’s parliamentary research department is stark in its findings. Not only are young adults sexually active, with 80% of unmarried females having boyfriends, but secondary-school pupils are, too. Illicit unions are not just between girls and boys; 17% of the 142,000 students who were surveyed said that they were homosexual.

In Tehran, the capital, long known for its underground sex scene, chastity is plainly becoming less common. The scope and pace of change are challenging the government and posing a headache for the clerics who dispense guidance at Friday prayers.

The report is also a rare official admission of the unspoken accord in Iran: people can do what they want so long as it takes place behind closed doors. Parliament’s researchers, on this occasion, were allowed to say the unsayable.

Their suggestion for stopping unsanctioned sex is remarkably liberal. Instead of seeking to cool the loins of the youngsters altogether, they should be allowed publicly to register their union by using sigheh, an ancient practice in Shia Islam that lets people marry temporarily. A legal but loose and much-deprecated arrangement, which can last from a few hours to decades, sigheh is often viewed as a cover for promiscuity or prostitution. Clerics themselves have long been suspected of being among its biggest beneficiaries, sometimes when they are on extended holy retreats in ancient religious cities such as Qom.”

The image of the robot I used in this post and the one in the news articles above are of a 1949 machine named “George,” a creation of then-20-year-old British military pilot Tony Sale, who was a crack codebreaker. Here’s some footage of George in action from British Pathé.

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Ferguson, Missouri, August 2014.

Ferguson, Missouri, August 2014.

The Iraq War is one that keeps on giving–grief–and not only overseas. The fog of that war has clouded American neighborhoods as the weapons and tools used by soldiers there have come home to roost in a neighborhood near you. Militarized police forces have drones and AR-15s, a dubious dividend, and every officer can be a Robocop now. It’s overkill that leads to actual killing, especially when the ugliness of racism shows its teeth.

Some of these arms and armor might have happened eventually anyhow in our high-tech society, but the often-misguided War on Terror has rebounded furiously back at us with weaponry the way the mission to the moon brought us memory foam and freeze-dried food. We’re all on the moon now. A brief excerpt from Sadhbh Walshe in the Guardian:

“What is happening in Ferguson is exactly what opponents of the rise in military-style policing across America have long feared: when the feds arm white local cops with weapons of war and their superiors encourage them not to just play dress-up but to use their new war toys, it is inevitable that ordinary citizens – especially citizens of color – will get treated as the enemy. As we’ve seen in Ferguson, when military might comes to Main Street, ‘hands-up, don’t shoot quickly turns into a quasi-declaration of war on a grieving community.

How the hell do we stop equipping and training suburban cops as warriors?”

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A couple of entries from one argument in the new Pew Research Center report, “AI, Robotics, and the Future of Labor,” which tries to divine how automation will alter the workforce by 2025. 

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Argument #2: The consequences for income inequality will be profound

For those who expect AI and robotics to significantly displace human employment, these displacements seem certain to lead to an increase in income inequality, a continued hollowing out of the middle class, and even riots, social unrest, and/or the creation of a permanent, unemployable “underclass.”

Justin Reich, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, said, “Robots and AI will increasingly replace routine kinds of work—even the complex routines performed by artisans, factory workers, lawyers, and accountants. There will be a labor market in the service sector for non-routine tasks that can be performed interchangeably by just about anyone—and these will not pay a living wage—and there will be some new opportunities created for complex non-routine work, but the gains at this top of the labor market will not be offset by losses in the middle and gains of terrible jobs at the bottom. I’m not sure that jobs will disappear altogether, though that seems possible, but the jobs that are left will be lower paying and less secure than those that exist now. The middle is moving to the bottom.”

Stowe Boyd, lead researcher at GigaOM Research, said, “As just one aspect of the rise of robots and AI, widespread use of autonomous cars and trucks will be the immediate end of taxi drivers and truck drivers; truck driver is the number-one occupation for men in the U.S.. Just as importantly, autonomous cars will radically decrease car ownership, which will impact the automotive industry. Perhaps 70% of cars in urban areas would go away. Autonomous robots and systems could impact up to 50% of jobs, according to recent analysis by Frey and Osborne at Oxford, leaving only jobs that require the ‘application of heuristics’ or creativity…An increasing proportion of the world’s population will be outside of the world of work—either living on the dole, or benefiting from the dramatically decreased costs of goods to eke out a subsistence lifestyle. The central question of 2025 will be: What are people for in a world that does not need their labor, and where only a minority are needed to guide the ‘bot-based economy?”

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In a 1979 Omni interview, Dr. Christopher Evans spoke with chess player, businessman and AI enthusiast David Levy, who defeated a computer-chess competitor that year but was unnerved by his hard-fought victory. Just six years earlier, he had confidently said: “I am tempted to speculate that a computer program will not gain the title of International Master before the turn of the century and that the idea of an electronic world champion belongs only in the pages of a science fiction book.” Levy knew before the matches at the end of the ’70s were over that our time of dominance was nearing completion. An excerpt:

Omni:

When did you first begin to feel that computer chess programs were really getting somewhere?

David Levy:

I think it was at the tournament in Stockholm in 1974. One of the things that struck me was a game in which one of the American programs made the sacrifice of a piece, in return for which it got a very good positional advantage. Now, programs don’t normally give up pieces unless they can see something absolutely concrete, but in this case the advantages that it got were not concrete but rather in the structure or nature of the position. It wasn’t a difficult sacrifice for a human player to see, but it was something ! hadn’t expected from a computer program. I was giving a running commentary on the game, and I remember saying to the audience that i would be very surprised indeed if the program made this sacrifice, whereupon it went and made it. I was very, very impressed, because this was the first really significant jump that I’d seen in computer chess.

Omni:

So somewhere around that time things began to stir. To what do you attribute this?

David Levy:

Interest in computer chess generally was growing at a very fast rate, for a number of reasons. First of all, there were the annual tournaments in the United States at the ACM conferences, and these grew in popularity They inspired interest partly because there was now a competitive medium in which the programs could take part. Also, there was my bet, which had created a certain amount of publicity and, I suppose, made people wish that they could write the program that would beat me.

Omni:

How much of this has gone hand in hand with the gradually greater availability of computers and the fact that it no longer costs the earth to get access to one?

David Levy:

Quite a lot. As recently as 1972, in San Antonio, I met some people who were actually writing a clandestine computer program to play chess. They hadn’t dared tell their university department about it because they would have been accused of wasting computer time. They were even unable to enter their program in the tournament, because. If they had they would have lost their positions at the university. Today the situation is dramatically changed, because it is so much easier to get machine time. Now, with the advent of home computers, I think it’s only a matter of time before everyone interested in computer chess will have the opportunity to write a personal chess program.

Omni:

Times have changed, haven’t they? Not very long ago you’d see articles by science journalists saying that computers could never be compared with brains, because they couldn’t play a decent game of chess. There was even some jocular correspondence about what would happen if two computers played each other, and it was argued that if white opened with pawn to king four, black would immediately resign.

David Levy:

This presupposes thai chess is, in practical terms, a finite game. In theoretical terms it is because there is a limit to the number of moves you can make in any position, and the rules of the game also put an upper limit on the total number of moves that any game can involve. But the number of possible different chess games is stupendous — greater than the number of atoms in the universe, in fact. Even if each atom in the universe were a very, very fast computer and they were all working together, they still would not be able to play the perfect game of chess. So the idea that pawn to king four as an opening move could be proved to be a win for white by force is nonsense. One reason you hear these kinds of things is that most people do not understand either the nature of computer programs or the nature of chess. The man in the street tends to think that because chess grand masters are geniuses, their play is beyond the comprehension of a computer. What they don’t understand is that when a computer plays chess, it is just performing a large number ol arithmetic operations. Okay, the end result is typed out and constitutes a move in a game of chess. But the program isn’t thinking. It is just carrying out a series of instructions.

Omni:

One sees some very peculiar, almost spooky moves made by computers, involving extraordinary sacrifices and almost dashing wins, Could they be just chance?

David Levy:

No. Wins like that are not chance. They are pure calculation, The best way to describe the situation is to divide the game of chess into two spheres, strategy and tactics. When I talk about tactics I mean things such as sacrifices with captures, checks, and threats on the queen or to force mate, When I talk about strategy I mean subtle maneuvering to try and gradually improve position. In the area of tactics, programs are really very powerful because of their ability to calculate deeply and accurately. Thus, where a program makes a spectacular move and forces mate two moves later, it is quite possible that the program has calculated the whole of that variation. These spectacular moves look marvelous, of course, to the spectator and to the reader of chess magazines’ because they are things one only expects from strong players. In fact, they’re the easiest things for a program to do.

What is very difficult for a. program is to make a really good, subtle, strategic move, because that involves long-range planning and a kind of undefinable sixth sense for what is ‘right in the position.’ This sixth sense, or instinct, is really one of the things that sorts out the men from the boys on the chessboard. The top chess programs may look at as many as two million positions every time they make a move. Chess masters, on the other hand, look at maybe lifty, so it’s evident that the nature of their thought processes, so to speak, are completely different. Perhaps the best way to put it is that Ihe human knows what he’s doing and the computer doesn’t.

I can explain this with an example from master chess. The Russian ex-world champion Mikhail Tal was. explaining after one game his reasons behind particular moves. In one position his- king was in check on king’s knight one. and he had a choice between moving it to. the corner or moving it nearer to the center of the board. Most players, without very much hesitation, would immediately put the king in the corner, because it’s safer there. But he rejected this move, and somebody in the audience said, ‘Please, Grand Master, can you tell us, Why did you move the king to the middle of the board when everybody knows, that it is safer in the comer?’ And he said, ‘Well, I thought that when we reached the sort of end game- which I anticipated, it would be very important to have my king near the center of the board.’ When they reached the end game, he won it by one move, because his king was one square nearer the vital part of the board than his opponent’s. Now this was something that he couldn’t have seen through blockbusting analysis and by looking ten or even twenty moves ahead. It was just feel.

Omni:

This brings us up against the question of whether or not a computer will ever play a really great game of chess. How do you feel about I. J. Good’s suggestion that a computer could one day be world champion?

David Levy:

Well, ten years ago I would have said, ‘Nonsense.’ Now I am absolutely sure that in due course a computer will be a really outstanding and terrifyingly good world champion. It’s almost inevitable that within a decade computers will be maybe a hundred thousand or a million times faster than they are now. And with many, many computers working in parallel, one could place enormous computer resources at the disposal of chess programs. This will mean that the best players in the world will be wiped out by sheer force of computer power. Actually, from an aesthetic and also an emotional point of view, it would be very unfortunate if the program won the world championship by brute force. I would be much happier to see a world-champion program that looked at very small combinations of moves but looked at them intelligently. This would be far more meaningful, because it would mean that the programmer had mastered the technique of making computer programs ‘think’ in rather the same way that human beings do, which would be a significant advance in artificial intelligence.

Omni:

Which brings us around to the tactics you adopt when playing computers. When did you play your first game against a chess program?

David Levy:

The first one that I remember was against an early version of the. Northwestern University program, and it presented no problems at all. These early programs were rather dull opponents, actually.

The latest ones, of course, are much more intelligent, particularly as they exhibit what you might also describe as psychological characteristics or even personal traits.

Omni:

Could you give an example?

David Levy:

Well, there is this thing called the horizon effect. Say a program is threatened with the loss of a knight which it does not want lo lose. No matter what it does, it cannot see a way to avoid losing the knight within the horizon that it is looking at — say, four moves deep. Suddenly it spots a variation where by sacrificing a pawn it is not losing the knight anymore. It will go into this variation and sacrifice the pawn, but what it does not realize is that after it has lost the pawn, the loss of the knight is still inevitable. The pawn was merely a temporary decoy. But the program is thinking only four moves ahead and the loss of the knight has been pushed beyond its horizon of search, so it is content. Later on, when the pawn has been lost, it will see once again that the knight is threatened and it will once again try to avoid losing the knight and give up something else. By the time it finally does lose the knighl, il has lost so many other things as well that it wishes it had really given up the piece at the beginning. This often brings about a reeling in the program that can best be described as ‘apathy.’ If a program gets into a position that is, extremely difficult because–it is absolutely bound to lose something, it starts to make moves of an apparently reckless kind. It appears to be saying, ‘Oh, damn you! You’re smashing me off the board. I don’t care anymore. I’m just going to sacrifice all my pieces.’ Actually, the program is fighting as hard as it can to avoid the inevitable.

Omni:

That sounds very much like The way beginners get obsessed with defending pieces. But it also sounds as though you’re saying that you feel the program has a
mood.

David Levy:

Almost. One tends.to come to regard these things as being almost human, particularly when you can see that they have understood what you. are doing or you can see they are trying to do something clever; In fact, as with human beings, certain tendencies repeat themselves time and again. For example, there are definite idiosyncrasies of Ihe Northwestern University program that one soon comes to recognize. In a particular variation of the Sicilian defense, white oiten has a knight on his queen four square and black often has a knight on black’s queen bishop three square. Now, it’s quite well known among stronger players that white does not exchange knights, because black can launch a counterattack along ihe queen-knight tile. Now, I noticed quite often that when playing against the Sicilian defense, the Northwestern University program- would exchange knights. Its main reason was that this maneuver leads to black having what we call an isolated pawn, which, as a general principle, is a ‘bad thing,’ So the Northwestern University program, when in doubt, used to say, ‘I’ll take his knight. And when he recaptures with the knight’s pawn, he has got an isolated rook’s pawn. Goody.’ What it didn’t realize is that in the Sicilian defense, the. isolated rook’s pawn doesn’t actually matter, but having the majority of pawns in the center for black does. So when I played my first match against CHESS 4.5 in Pittsburgh, on April 1, 1977, I deliberately made an inferior move in the opening, so that the program would no longer be following its opening book and wouldn’t know what to do. I was confident that after I made this inferior move the program would exchange knights., which it did, and this presented me with the sort of position that I wanted.”

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I can’t name one economist I respect who thinks putting even a single Susan B. Anthony dollar into Bitcoin is a capital idea, but the Lone Start State, forever rushing toward the next gusher and away from regulation, is knee-deep in the cryptocurrency. The opening of Loren Steffy’s new Texas Monthly article on the boom that could go bust:

“‘Texas,’ says Jeremy Kandah, ‘is the most Bitcoin-friendly state in the union.’ Kandah, a member of the Austin venture capital group Bit-Angels Network, has his reasons for asserting that the Lone Star State is bullish on the headline-making virtual currency. BitAngels, after all, is in the business of convincing Bitcoin-related start-ups that Texas is where they should be turning for capital. But once you start paying attention, you notice that Kandah’s enthusiasm is more than just your typical chamber-of-commerce boosterism. Texas dwarfs even Silicon Valley as a Bitcoin pioneer, which is one reason Kandah, like many others who want a piece of tech’s new big thing, recently moved here from California. ‘We have one of the biggest concentrations in the country of Bitcoin users and Bitcoin technology companies,’ says David Johnston, the managing director of BitAngels’ sister company, the Decentralized Applications Fund.

Though Kandah notes that New Jersey is gaining on us, there are plenty of signs of Bitcoin’s unusually heavy presence in Texas. In April the state’s Department of Banking became the first state regulator in the country to issue guidelines for virtual currencies. That same month Steve Stockman, the Republican congressman from Clear Lake who was one of the first politicians in the country to accept Bitcoin donations, introduced a bill that would require the Internal Revenue Service to treat Bitcoins like any other currency. Even the Second Amendment contingent is getting in on the game: in January Austin’s Central Texas Gunworks began accepting payment in Bitcoins, making it the first firearms shop in the country to do so. A month later, after the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission approved the use of Bitcoins to buy booze, downtown Austin beer and cocktail joint the HandleBar installed the country’s first Bitcoin ATM.

Why is Texas so attached to Bitcoin? Our hands-off regulatory philosophy, which could encourage entrepreneurs to take a chance on a virtual currency, likely has something to do with it. And there’s no doubt that the state’s libertarian leanings play a role; embracing Bitcoin is the ultimate statement of disdain for the Federal Reserve, the bête noire of Texas’s Libertarian party standard-bearer Ron Paul. As Stockman said in an online video, ‘Digital currency’s more about freedom. . . . Freedom to choose what you do with your money and freedom to keep your money without people influencing it by printing money or through regulation.’ Texas Bitcoin Association president Paul Snow likes to throw around libertarian boilerplate phrases like ‘the crumbling, diminishing dollar.’

Yet Bitcoin is in many ways Ron Paul’s worst nightmare: it’s the ultimate example of fiat money, a currency backed not by a tangible commodity like gold but by software code and the faith and labor of thousands of hard-core believers.”

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It’s odd that Dick Tracy, a strip loaded with forensics and retrofuturism, hasn’t translated into our gadget-happy world which loves crime-scene entertainments and cartoon-driven blockbusters. Here’s the strip’s creator, Chester Gould, who penned its panels from 1931 to 1977, on To Tell the Truth in 1965.

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The New Republic has republished “The Billion-Dollar Fight Over Who Owns the Sun,” a 1975 article by Peter Barnes about the city of Santa Clara working to ensure our brightest star would be a public utility. The opening:

“The city of Santa Clara lies 50 miles south of San Francisco in a robustly sunny valley. As in much of California, rain is concentrated in the winter months, leaving nearly 300 days a year of clear skies. Until now no one paid much attention to the economic value of all that sunshine. But things are changing. By July the city will have completed a new recreation building that will draw about 80 percent of its heating and cooling energy from solar collectors mounted on the roof. After that the city itself will plunge into the solar energy business. ‘What we see is a city-owned solar utility,’ says City Manager Donald Von Raesfeld. ‘The city will finance and install solar heating and cooling systems in new buildings. Consumers will pay a monthly fee to cover amortization and maintenance of the solar units. This will be done on a nonprofit basis, with the capital raised through municipal bonds.’

Santa Clara isn’t alone in its effort to convert sunshine into useful energy. A recent survey listed 68 US buildings, either completed or near completion, that are getting some or all of their energy from the sun. Dozens of corporations are involved in solar research. The federal government is pouring millions of dollars into solar research and development projects. And while the big commitment of government and industry is still to fossil fuels and nuclear fission, energy from the sun is no longer dismissed as farfetched or far off. According to a Westinghouse study funded by the National Science Foundation, solar heating and cooling of buildings will be economically competitive in most parts of the country by 1985-90, and are already almost competitive in sunny regions like California and Florida. By the end of the century, says the NSF, the sun could provide more than one-third of the energy we use to heat and cool buildings, plus 20 to 30 percent of our electricity needs. It could dramatically reduce peak demands for electricity—mainly for summer air-conditioning — and conserve fossil fuels for petro-chemical uses for which there are no ready substitutes. Congress is equally enthused. Last year it passed five laws dealing wholly or partly with solar energy research, spreading money somewhat chaotically among the NSF, NASA, HUD and a new energy research and development agency.

The attractions of solar energy are apparent. It doesn’t pollute or otherwise damage the environment. It creates no dangerous waste products such as plutonium. It won’t run out for a few billion years. It can’t be embargoed by Arabs or anyone else. It’s virtually inflation proof once the basic set-up costs are met, and would wondrously improve our balance of payments. The technology involved, while still not perfected, is much less complex than nuclear technology. And of all energy sources the sun is the least amenable to control by cartel-like energy industry.

Why then has it taken so long to discover the sun? One reason is that the energy contained in sunshine is diffuse and fickle compared to the concentrated energy found in fossil fuels. As long as fossil fuels were plentiful and fairly easy to get at, it was considerably more profitable to collect and sell these stored forms of solar energy than to capture the sun’s current energy emissions. Another reason is the massive commitment of dollars and scientists the US made after World War II to the development of nuclear energy, a commitment that in retrospect appears to have derived at least partly from guilt over having unleashed the atom for destructive purposes, (‘If sunbeams were weapons of war, we would have had solar energy centuries ago,’ chemist George Porter has observed,) Solar energy is finally looking attractive because fossil fuels are no longer cheap, and because the drawbacks of nuclear fission—its hazards, huge capital costs, and low gains in net energy terms (it takes enormous amounts of energy to build reactors and prepare their fuel)—are now more widely appreciated.”

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Information may not want to be free from a financial standpoint, but it does want to be unfettered, with centralized, controlled data no longer a possibility in this connected age. That’s the reality made clear by the Edward Snowden leaks, even if his NSA revelations weren’t exactly a shocker to anyone with open eyes. In many cases this new normal will be a good thing and in some a bad one. But no legislation will really stop it.

Further complicating matters is that most Americans don’t seem to mind if their government snoops on them in the (supposed) name of protecting them. In these scary times, they want a big brother, even if it’s Big Brother.

From “The Most Wanted Man in the World,” James Bamford’s Wired cover article, a passage about a possible second leaker, which is likely though Snowden neither confirms nor denies:

“And there’s another prospect that further complicates matters: Some of the revelations attributed to Snowden may not in fact have come from him but from another leaker spilling secrets under Snowden’s name. Snowden himself adamantly refuses to address this possibility on the record. But independent of my visit to Snowden, I was given unrestricted access to his cache of documents in various locations. And going through this archive using a sophisticated digital search tool, I could not find some of the documents that have made their way into public view, leading me to conclude that there must be a second leaker somewhere. I’m not alone in reaching that conclusion. Both Greenwald and security expert Bruce Schneier—who have had extensive access to the cache—have publicly stated that they believe another whistle-blower is releasing secret documents to the media.

In fact, on the first day of my Moscow interview with Snowden, the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel comes out with a long story about the NSA’s operations in Germany and its cooperation with the German intelligence agency, BND. Among the documents the magazine releases is a top-secret ‘Memorandum of Agreement’ between the NSA and the BND from 2002. ‘It is not from Snowden’s material,’ the magazine notes.

Some have even raised doubts about whether the infamous revelation that the NSA was tapping German chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone, long attributed to Snowden, came from his trough. At the time of that revelation, Der Spiegel simply attributed the information to Snowden and other unnamed sources. If other leakers exist within the NSA, it would be more than another nightmare for the agency—it would underscore its inability to control its own information and might indicate that Snowden’s rogue protest of government overreach has inspired others within the intelligence community. ‘They still haven’t fixed their problems,’ Snowden says. ‘They still have negligent auditing, they still have things going for a walk, and they have no idea where they’re coming from and they have no idea where they’re going. And if that’s the case, how can we as the public trust the NSA with all of our information, with all of our private records, the permanent record of our lives?’”

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In the earlier post about Freeman Dyson’s outré dreams for space colonization, I mentioned he thought too restrained the planetary-settlement plans of fellow Princeton physicist Gerard K. O’Neill. Here’s a bit from a 1975 interview Stewart Brand conducted with O’Neill on the topic:

“Stewart Brand::

What would it take for you to become a fulltime space colonizer?

Gerard O’Neill:

Well, if the president came to me and said, ‘Here is X-billion dollars, we’re going to go ahead with the thing and we want you to be involved with it.’ That would sure fetch me.

Stewart Brand:

Suppose NASA said ‘Here’s 5 years of personal salary to administer the growth of this program?’

Gerard O’Neill:

That’s not enough. I have a deep suspicion of governments, and really – although I’m not politically active-I know enough about politics to be very suspicious of it; I think I would have to see a really substantial committed kind of program going. I don’t mean at the spending level of billions of dollars, but I’d like to see something where there’s a very solid commitment to continue in the same sense as there was in the Apollo program.

Stewart Brand:

Of the level of Kennedy saying, ‘We’re going to be on the Moon in this decade’ For some politician to make this go, he’s going to have to say ‘by the year so-and so.’ What year is that?

Gerard O’Neill:

Arthur Kantrowitz, the president of AFCO-Everett was out visiting us a few days ago. He happens to be quite enthusiastic about this work, and he says that his answer for things of that kind is to say, ‘You’ll have the result ten years after you’ve stopped laughing,’ which is I think, a pretty good answer. The most responsible answer I could give is to say that if I really had the responsibility for getting it done by a certain time and the authority to do it in what I would consider the right way, then I would be willing to make a very strong commitment that it could be done in 15 years from time-zero. Whatever that time-zero is.

Stewart Brand:

This is Model One with an extra-territorial population of what?

Gerard O’Neill: 

Yes, Model One. Roughly 10,000 people. If you look at the growth rates that you could get from that first one, then you’d probably be talking about a quarter of a million people by the year 2,000. Because you’ll be going up very fast after you get the first beachhead.

Stewart Brand:

And your graph I saw in Washington suggested a net population decrease on the planet’s surface by…

Gerard O’Neill:

I think the turn-over there is about 2018. Now that was based – first of all, I don’t make it as a prediction – it was indicated as a technical possibility, and it was based on a time-zero of essentially now, which is certainly unrealistic politically, and a completion date of 13 years, so that would put Model One in place by 1988. Maybe you could even do it from now, technically, but it’s probably more reasonable to say 13-20 years from a time of decision.

Stewart Brand:

Do you think there’s no way to get the toothpaste back in the tube at this point…. that the idea is inevitable?

Gerard O’Neill:

There are other possibilities. Civilization could tear itself apart with energy shortages, population pressures, and running out of materials. Everything could become much more militaristic, and the whole world might get to be more of an armed camp. Things of this kind might just not be done because no nation would dare to divert that much money away from military efforts. or without war, it could be that the world will become poor, to the point where it can’t afford to try things like this.

Of course, if neither of those possibilities occurs, then I do think there is some sort of inevitability about it. With that, of course, you can’t associate a time-scale. It could be a long time.

Stewart Brand:

Who resists the idea in any large way? If anyone.

Gerard O’Neill:

Well there was a while when I thought that elderly and famous professors of physics were the greatest opponents. . . In fact of all the mail I’ve gotten only about 1% has been in opposition to it.

Stewart Brand:

And what’s your short roster of planetary problems that will be solved by this particular technique? Energy, population. . .

Gerard O’Neill:

Well, yes, but by phrasing the question in that way it’s difficult for me to answer except with a prediction or promise, and that’s something that no decent scientist likes to make. I think it’s very wrong to assume that something like this is going to promise happiness to all people, because people manage to make themselves unhappy in almost any circumstances.”

 

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A Marketwatch article by Ariana Tobin pointed me to the New York Times’ 1993 coverage of the first online retail purchase–a Sting CD. Here’s the opening of that piece, “Attention Shoppers: Internet Is Open,” by Peter H. Lewis:

“At noon yesterday, Phil Brandenberger of Philadelphia went shopping for a compact audio disk, paid for it with his credit card and made history.

Moments later, the champagne corks were popping in a small two-story frame house in Nashua, N.H. There, a team of young cyberspace entrepreneurs celebrated what was apparently the first retail transaction on the Internet using a readily available version of powerful data encryption software designed to guarantee privacy.

Experts have long seen such iron-clad security as a necessary first step before commercial transactions can become common on the Internet, the global computer network.

From his work station in Philadelphia, Mr. Brandenburger logged onto the computer in Nashua, and used a secret code to send his Visa credit card number to pay $12.48, plus shipping costs, for the compact disk Ten Summoners’ Tales by the rock musician Sting.

‘Even if the N.S.A. was listening in, they couldn’t get his credit card number,’ said Daniel M. Kohn, the 21-year-old chief executive of the Net Market Company of Nashua, N.H., a new venture that is the equivalent of a shopping mall in cyberspace. Mr. Kohn was referring to the National Security Agency, the arm of the Pentagon that develops and breaks the complex algorithms that are used to keep the most secret electronic secrets secret.

Even bigger organizations working on rival systems yesterday called the achievement by the tiny Net Market a welcome first step.

‘It’s really clear that most companies want the security prior to doing major commitments to significant electronic commerce on the Internet,’ said Cathy Medich, executive director of Commercenet, a Government and industry organization based in Menlo Park, Calif., that hopes to establish standards for commercial transactions on the Internet and other networks.

The idea is to make such data communications immune to wiretaps, electronic eavesdropping and theft by scrambling the transmissions with a secret code — a security technique known as data encryption.”

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Atop the list of overhyped technologies from a new Gartner report: the Internet of Things. Defining common standards is the main problem. Speech recognition, however, is now ready for the masses, the research argues. From Alex Hern at the Guardian:

“Initially, a new technology enters the public’s awareness with low expectations, which slowly rise as the potential becomes clear. Quantum computing, holographic displays and human augmentation are all at that period of the cycle, although the firm puts all three of them at well over 10 years from general use.

Eventually, expectations hit a peak, where the technology is predicted to solve almost every problem known to humanity. As well as the internet of things, autonomous vehicles, consumer 3D printing and wearable computing are all innovations that Gartner thinks are over-hyped at the moment.

Then comes what Gartner calls the ‘trough of disillusionment’: the period when the realisation hits on that the technology is never going to perform as well as its proponents hoped. Examples include gamification, augmented reality, and near-field communication.

Importantly, however, the tech doesn’t disappear from use, and continues to be refined throughout the trough of disillusionment. As the innovation finds its niche, it enters the ‘slope of enlightenment,’ where the public realises the actual potential of the product, as with enterprise 3D printing and gesture control.

Finally, the new technology hits the ‘plateau of productivity.’ It has become good enough to carry out its functions, and the period of hype is far enough in the past that people are willing to give it a second chance. For Gartner, speech recognition has hit that plateau, and is now ready for real world use.”

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Is it chauvinism that makes us measure what AI an do according to human abilities, or is that the most valid scale? From a Why Boost IQ? post by Douglas Heingartner, the results of a Chinese study which asserts that a child has pattern-recognition powers superior to the best search engines:

“None of the search engines came anywhere close to a 6-year-old child in terms of reasoning ability. The search engines outperformed humans in common knowledge, translation, and calculations, but did poorly in discovering patterns and making speculations.

For example, the engines were stumped when confronted with ’20/5=4, 40/10=4, 80/20=4, 160/40=4: observe the rules, then design the fifth question,’ or ‘If there are many animals in one place, but they are all in cages and many people are looking, then where is it?’

‘The current abilities of search engines in these areas,’ wrote the researchers, is ‘close to zero.’

Their research was partially in response to claims about artificial intelligence soon surpassing the human kind. Though that oft-prophesied moment of singularity has yet to arrive, the researchers hope their test will help chart the Internet’s intellectual development over time, and show how quickly (or slowly) the gap between human and machine intelligence is closing.”

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McDonald’s recently reported poor global sales, hurt mostly by dips in the United States and Asia, so perhaps health information and the reality of factory farming are starting to make a dent. But there’s a way on the horizon for fast-food franchises–and even slower-meal places–to save money: robotics. Employee-less service in a consumer environment is nothing new, but perhaps this time it’s real. From Jason Dorrier at Singularity Hub:

“I saw the future of work in a San Francisco garage two years ago. Or rather, I was in proximity to the future of work, but happened to be looking the other direction.

At the time, I was visiting a space startup building satellites behind a carport. But just behind them—a robot was cooking up burgers. The inventors of the burger device? Momentum Machines, and they’re serious about fast food productivity.

‘Our device isn’t meant to make employees more efficient,’ cofounder Alexandros Vardakostas has said. ‘It’s meant to completely obviate them.’

The Momentum burger-bot isn’t remotely humanoid. You can forget visions ofFuturama’s Bender. It’s more of a burger assembly line. Ingredients are stored in automated containers along the line. Instead of pre-prepared veggies, cheese, and ground beef—the bot chars, slices, dices, and assembles it all fresh.

Why would talented engineers schooled at Berkeley, Stanford, UCSB, and USC with experience at Tesla and NASA bother with burger-bots? Robots are increasingly capable of jobs once thought the sole domain of humans—and that’s a huge opportunity.

Burger robots may improve consistency and sanitation, and they can knock out a rush like nobody’s business. Momentum’s robot can make a burger in 10 seconds (360/hr). Fast yes, but also superior quality. Because the restaurant is free to spend its savings on better ingredients, it can make gourmet burgers at fast food prices.

Or at least, that’s the idea.”

 

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Once valuable print properties at Time Inc. and Gannett and Tribune and elsewhere have been spun off from their parent companies, formerly favored children now grown awkward and cast aside. Weren’t they only recently beloved?

These and other print-based corporations hope to remake themselves as Buzzfeed or some other bullshit that works financially, but it’s unlikely. From David Carr at the New York Times:

“At Gannett newspapers, reader metrics will drive coverage and journalists will work with dashboards of data to guide reporting. After years of layoffs, many staff members were immediately told that they had to reapply for jobs when the split was announced. In an attempt to put some lipstick on an ugly pivot, Stefanie Murray, executive editor of The Tennessean, promised readers ‘an ambitious project to create the newsroom of the future, right here in Nashville. We are testing an exciting new structure that is geared toward building a dynamic, responsive newsroom.’ (Jim Romenesko, who blogs about the media industry, pointed out that Gannett also announced ‘the newsroom of the future’ in 2006.)

The Nashville Scene noted that readers had to wait only one day to find out what the news of the future looks like: a Page 1 article in The Tennessean about Kroger, a grocery store and a major advertiser, lowering its prices.

If this is the future — attention news shoppers, Hormel Chili is on sale in Aisle 5 — what is underway may be a kind of mercy killing.

So whose fault is it? No one’s. Nothing is wrong in a fundamental sense: A free-market economy is moving to reallocate capital to its more productive uses, which happens all the time. Ask Kodak. Or Blockbuster. Or the makers of personal computers. Just because the product being manufactured is news in print does not make it sacrosanct or immune to the natural order.

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When I first started taking autonomous vehicles seriously four years ago, I had two hesitations about them even if the software could be worked out:

1) Would Americans, who have long loved the power of being kings of the road, surrender the wheel any sooner than they’d surrender their guns?

2) Couldn’t a hacker force 300 robocars on a Los Angeles freeway to simultaneously suddenly turn left when they weren’t supposed to?

I think number one has been answered in the affirmative, with driverless vehicles so incentivized financially that the majority of us will choose autonomous and use fleets of robocabs, perhaps sacrificing not just the steering wheel but ownership of the whole car.

The answer to the second question is still in flux and likely always will be, with automakers and software developers needing to stay a mile ahead of the hackers. From Danny Yadron at the Wall Street Journal:

“Tesla is one of the only household corporate names with an official presence this year at Def Con, an annual security conference held in Las Vegas, where attendees try to hack the hotel elevators and press room. The company is here courting hackers who can help it find holes in the software that controls its cars. It’s looking to hire 20 to 30 security researchers from Def Con alone, Ms. Paget says. Moreover, hackers who report bugs to Tesla get a platinum-colored ‘challenge coin.’ If they show up at a Tesla factory and give the security team a heads-up, they get a free tour.

Tesla’s presence at Def Con points to a growing concern among automakers: As they connect vehicles to the Internet, bad guys could find a way in.

In one presentation this week, two researchers showed how some cars, such as Chrysler Group’s 2014 Jeep Cherokee, have Wi-Fi and Bluetooth communication systems on the same network as their brakes or automatic parallel parking programs. In theory, hackers could infiltrate a car’s communication system to control its physical maneuvers, said Charlie Miller, one of the researchers who has hacked cars in the past.”

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Here’s a scary development from our big-data reality: predictive sentencing for defendants based on statistics which suggest future-crime risk. The actual offense committed is only part of the equation, with much thornier things, like race and class, considered. It’s often referred to as “smart sentencing,” but you might not agree if you happen to fit into the wrong statistical quadrant. It’s math run amok. From Sonja B. Starr at the New York Times:

“ANN ARBOR, Mich. — IN a recent letter to the United States Sentencing Commission, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. sharply criticized the growing trend of evidence-based sentencing, in which courts use data-driven predictions of defendants’ future crime risk to shape sentences. Mr. Holder is swimming against a powerful current. At least 20 states have implemented this practice, including some that require risk scores to be considered in every sentencing decision. Many more are considering it, as is Congress, in pending sentencing-reform bills.

Risk-assessment advocates say it’s a no-brainer: Who could oppose ‘smarter’ sentencing? But Mr. Holder is right to pick this fight. As currently used, the practice is deeply unfair, and almost certainly unconstitutional. It contravenes the principle that punishment should depend on what a defendant did, not on who he is or how much money he has.

The basic problem is that the risk scores are not based on the defendant’s crime. They are primarily or wholly based on prior characteristics: criminal history (a legitimate criterion), but also factors unrelated to conduct. Specifics vary across states, but common factors include unemployment, marital status, age, education, finances, neighborhood, and family background, including family members’ criminal history.”

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The dominant idea in space colonization today is that we’ll fill up the moon or Mars in a large-scale settlement of 4D cities, try to make it approximate another Earth, with all the comforts of home. But while something with such familiarity may appeal to the masses, Freeman Dyson has long dreamed of exploration on the margins, of something stranger, more diffuse and, perhaps, more dangerous: He wants pioneers to grow vegetables on asteroids.

In a 1978 interview with Omni’s Monte Davis about artificial biodomes and smart clouds, the physicist stood in contrast to his fellow Princeton professor Gerard K. O’Neill, who envisioned massive, standardized space habitats. Regardless of which schemes are superior, Dyson presciently realized at the time that the future of space settlements might be powered by private interests, and in 2014 those entrepreneurs favor O’Neill’s view over his. An excerpt:

Freeman Dyson:

I’ve done some historical research on the costs of the Mayflower’s voyage, and on the Mormon’s emigration to Utah, and I think it’s possible to go into space on a much smaller scale. A cost on the order of $40,000 per person would be the target to shoot for; in terms of real wages that would make it comparable to the colonization of America. Unless it’s brought down to that level, it not really interesting to me, because otherwise it would be a luxury that only governments could afford.

Omni:

Where would your Mayflower-style colonists go?

Freeman Dyson:

I’d put my money on the asteroids. Dandridge Cole and others suggested using a solar mirror to melt and hollow out an iron asteroid, and in O’Neill’s book his homesteaders build their own shells from the minerals available out there. I wouldn’t accept either of those as the most sensible course: I think you should find an asteroid which is not iron or nickel, but some kind of soil you could grow things in.

Omni:

What do you mean by soil?

Freeman Dyson:

Well, we have specimens of meteoritic mineral called carbonaceous chondrite, which looks like soil–it’s black, crumbly stuff containing a good deal of water; it has enough carbon, nitrogen, oxygen so that there’s some hope you could grow vegetables in it, and it’s soft enough to dig without using dynamite.

Omni:

So you think it would be worth looking for an asteroid like that rather than trying to transform a raw stone or metal asteroid?

Freeman Dyson:

Yes, if it’s to be done on a pioneer basis, you’d jolly well better find a place where you can grow things right away. Otherwise it’s inevitably a much slower and more expensive job.

Omni:

Is the sunlight at a distance adequate to grow plants?

Freeman Dyson:

I think so. Plants are very flexible in their requirements, you know, and they could be genetically altered if it’s needed. After all, a lot of things grow very well even in England…

Omni:

What about colonizing the moon? Too much gravity?

Freeman Dyson:

That…and it’s simply too close to home. Too easy for the tax man to find you. And choosing a place to go is not just a question of freight charges. There have always been minorities who valued their differences and their independence enough to make very great sacrifices, and it seems obvious to me that it’s going to happen again.

Omni:

So you think we may not go in for the big O’Neill-type colonies after all?

Freeman Dyson: 

We may not, but others may. I was in Russia two years ago for a conference on telescopes, and all that anyone there wanted to hear about was O’Neill’s ideas. They knew that he and I were both at Princeton, and assumed I could tell them everything about space colonies. The point is that in Russia, they have very little of our current mistrust of technology on the grand scale–in fact, it fits very well with their ideas about our relationship to nature. Thousands of engineers working on a giant framework floating in space, that’s a picture that excited them very much. I wouldn’t be surprised if they choose that.

If they do, the historical analogy becomes very strong: the Russians play the role of Spanish colonies in the New World, and people like me are more like the English, with smaller, scattered, decentralized colonies. Of course, it took the English much longer to get going, but when we did go we did a better job.”

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When I mentioned that I didn’t think that Ebola virus would become a pandemic–though it’s certainly horrible for those who have it–that’s because the next big thing will likely catch us unawares. We’ll have to spend time figuring out what it is and how to deal with it. That will allow the threat to spread, give it time to take hold. If enough people become carriers before we truly know what hit us, that’s when we see mass suffering on a global scale. For all the terror of Ebola, it’s already “announced” itself.

One exchange from “How to Survive the Next Plague,” Joanna Rothkopf’s Salon interview with epidemiologist Dr. Stephen Morse:

Salon:

Moving into the theoretical future, what kinds of emerging viruses could we see? How well are we prepared to handle a virus that comes as a surprise?

Dr. Stephen Morse:

It’s always easier to prepare for the known, especially when you have warning from somebody else experiencing it and suffering through it. People always ask me which emerging viruses do I worry the most about, and I always say the ones we haven’t found yet, because we’re least prepared for that. If they show infectious signs, like a seizure or severe flu-like illness — these all start like flu-like illnesses and sort of rapidly get worse — hopefully in North American and Western Europe we would all have the awareness to take the appropriate infection control precautions and, as we do with Ebola, treat the patient symptomatically, give them the best supportive treatment until hopefully they get better or whatever.

Obviously we would be trying to identify the virus in the laboratory. There are some more generic ways to do that now with sequencing, and there are some broad-based techniques that will identify even some viruses of known families but which are themselves unknown. But as for the precautions, I think they would generally be fairly similar. These are fairly generic and that’s the good news: that people are careful and take basically similar precautions as they would for SARS or Ebola and try to find out what the patient has.

I have no idea, truthfully. We’ve never successfully predicted any emerging infection or pandemic before it happens — that is, before it actually started to appear in humans. And even with influenza, every prediction we’ve made about the next influenza pandemic has been wrong. So I’m always very cautious about making predictions, but I think many of the generic things you do at the beginning would be useful.

As for the public health systems? I think certainly that’s an area that is stretched pretty thin. New York City is excellent and they work very hard. Even they would tell you that they’re understaffed and many other places have even less. One of the issues in Africa, of course, is the lack of real public health infrastructure in many countries. Not much information sharing across those borders, although the people and the microbes cross the borders quite regularly.”

 

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As an outsider, I’ve never understood UK privacy laws, which are supposed to be more stringent than America’s free-market melee, yet seem to have absolutely no impact on how tabloids can tarnish the reputation of whomever they please. These rules seem to have done little good in protecting “memory.”

Of course, in a globalized world, when information can travel across borders instantly, there’s little practicality in attempting to be “forgotten,” even though the exposure sometimes pains us. As a very private person, I wish it were different. It’s not.

Maybe I feel that way because I’m from the U.S., or maybe it’s because I’m pragmatic about privacy in the wake of the tools we’ve developed–and the ones that will come soon enough.

Julia Powles of the Guardian has a very different take. The opening of her article:

“Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, has a particular cultural and economic perspective on free speech – reflected in comments made both by him and by the Wikimedia Foundation.

Free speech is undoubtedly a cornerstone of freedom, but it cannot always be fought or guarded in the court of public opinion; the free market of ideas.

To Wales, bad speech is defeated by more speech. Such a solution does not guarantee a defence to the weak and the marginalised. Here, in particular, the human rights that benefit all of us serve a fundamental purpose.

In the UK – where a serious legal commitment to human rights is wavering – we cannot afford to be loose with terminology. Wales refers, inaccurately, to ‘history as a human right,’ to ‘the right to remember,’ to ‘the right to truth.’

Of course, memory is at the foundation of humanity. Memory builds truth, truth brings justice, and justice brings peace. These are the fundamental pillars of human society.

Within these pillars, the right to privacy and, in Europe, the right to personal data, are embedded, harmonised, legally-recognised human rights.

And so we come to the hard sociopolitical problem at the heart of the so-called ‘right to be forgotten.’ It is not about the search engines, online services, Google, or Wikipedia. It is about the value humanity ascribes to them as purveyors of ‘truth,’ of ‘history,’ and of ‘memory.’

It is about confronting what they really are.”

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If Silicon Valley and Alley are now the preeminent Dream Factories, it makes sense that tech start-ups are identified by pithy, cross-pollination pitches worthy of Hollywood blockbusters, so Pager, a service that delivers medical professionals to your doorstep when beckoned by a smartphone, is, of course, “Uber for doctors.” A couple of exchanges from Sarah Kliff’s Vox interview with company founder Richard Baker:

Sarah Kliff:

Can you tell a little bit about the theory behind Pager, and how it fits into the current system of how we deliver health care?

Richard Baker:

Pager began with the idea that health care needs to be delivered in a more efficient and convenient way. We do already have a connected world, with telemedicine, but Pager and its founders thought there could be a better way of delivering health care by actually delivering it to people. If you can deliver groceries, why not deliver health care as well? Why not have urgent care on wheels?

If a person is living alone — and 32 million Americans are — or if you have a child who is home with a nanny, why not bring a doctor to that individual?

Oscar Salazar [an original engineer behind Uber], Philip Eytan, and Gaspard de Dreuzy, are all technology entrepreneurs who thought if we could use technology to make it really simple for patients, it could work. And you can see the app has a lot of Uber finger prints all over it.

Sarah Kliff:

One of the things I find interesting about Pager is that, even though it uses new technology, its almost like a throw-back to an older era of medicine when doctors did lots of house calls. But house calls faded away as it became more convenient for doctors to see their patients in the office. What makes right now the right time to bring back the house call?

Richard Baker:

This is a bit of a ‘back to the future’ situation. My father was what at the time was called a GP, or general practitioner, and was doing house calls in the 1950s and 1960s. He liked it very very much. He got a great deal of satisfaction with the personal interaction. But it ultimately fell out of favor with specialization, and enormous pressure of having things done in the office.

I think at this point, doctors have evolved in what they think is important. This can potentially be more fulfilling than simply running an emergency room or through a very busy office practice. And this is also a supplement to their income. Even though doctors do tend to do very nicely, primary-care doctors may be interested in that.”

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