Science/Tech

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It’s fun staying at hotels but not at hospitals. Both, however, are starting the process of automating delivery services. Aloft Hotels began experimenting with robot butlers last year and the new Henn na Hotel in Nagasaki hopes to employ enough AI to halve its service force. People making these machines (while they’re still made by people) will have good jobs, but other fields will be wiped away almost entirely, disappeared along with travel agencies and video stores.

A Scottish university hospital has just invested a couple of million dollars in delivery drones. It will probably be a good thing for the facility and its patients, but we’ll likely have to eventually reckon with Labor destabilized by automation.

From Margi Murphy at Techworld:

South Glasgow University will task a fleet of 22robotswith trolleying medical equipment, food and linen around the hospital form next week.

The brand new hospital, which cost £842 million, spent £1.3 million on the drones – which have a lift to shuttle up and down the 14 storeys.

In a post on the hospital’s website, facilities manager Jim Magee said the robots would help boost patient services.

“The technology is brilliant. For example, the Swisslog Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) will return themselves to a charging station if their power is running low.

The robots sit together at pick-up points waiting until they are needed, replacing each other when necessary.•

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“Safe and accurate navigation”:

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The next thousand years or so are sort of important for human beings. At the conclusion of that time period, if we survive, there will probably only be vestigial elements remaining of who we are today, but we will have created the next life forms. And I do mean create, as genetic engineering, nanotechnology and space colonization will put evolution in our hands.

Or we could all die. Climate change, plague, asteroid impact, superintelligence or some other calamity could wipe out the lot of us before we have the opportunity to spread out among the stars. One person who’s working on this global-scale risk management is Jaan Tallinn, a Skype founder who co-created the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at Cambridge. At Edge.org, he’s interviewed about his work in this area, which might seem marginal to some but is chasing our biggest ghosts. An excerpt:

Over the last six years or so there has been an interesting evolution of the existential risk arguments and perception of those arguments. While it is true, especially in the beginning, that these kinds of arguments tend to attract cranks, there is an important scientific argument there, which is basically saying that technology is getting more and more powerful. Technology is neutral. The only reason why we see technology being good is that there is a feedback mechanism between technology and the market. If you develop technology that’s aligned with human values, the market rewards you. However, once technology gets more and more powerful, or if it’s developed outside of market context, for example in the military, then you cannot automatically rely on this market mechanism to steer the course of technology. You have to think ahead. This is a general argument that can apply to both synthetic biology, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and so on.

One good example is the report LA-602, that was developed by the Manhattan Project. During the Manhattan project, it was six months before the first nuclear test. They did a scientific analysis of what is the probability, what are the chances of creating a runaway process in the atmosphere that would burn up the atmosphere and thus destroy the earth? It’s the first solid example of existential risk research that humanity has done.                                 

Really, what I am trying to advance is more reports like that. Nuclear technology is not the last potentially disastrous technology that humans are going to invent. In my view, it’s very, very dangerous when people say, “Oh, these people are cranks.” You’re basically lumping together those Manhattan Project scientists who developed solid scientific analysis that’s clearly beneficial for humanity, and some people who are just clearly crazy and are predicting the end of the world for no reason at all.

It’s too early to tell right now what kind of societal structures we need to contain the technology once the market mechanism is no longer powerful enough to contain them. At this stage, we need more research. There’s a research agenda coming out pretty soon that represents a consensus between the AI safety community and the AI research community, of things that are not necessarily commercially motivated research, but the research that needs to be done if you want to steer the course, if you want to make sure that the technology is beneficial in the sense that it’s aligned with human values, and thus giving us a better future the way we think the future should be. The AI should also be robust in the sense that it wouldn’t accidentally create situations where, even though we developed it with the best intentions, it would still veer off the course and give us a disaster.

There are several technological existential risks. An example was the nuclear weapons before the first nuclear test was done. It wasn’t clear whether this was something safe to do on this planet or not. Similarly, as we get more and more powerful technology, we want to think about the potentially catastrophic side effects. It’s fairly easy for everyone to imagine that once we get synthetic biology, it becomes much easier to construct organisms or viruses that might be much more robust against human defenses.

I was just talking about technological existential risks in general. One of those technological existential risks could be potentially, artificial intelligence.•

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Whenever I see the parent of a grade-school athlete cursing at an umpire or encouraging the child to play very aggressively, I always make a mental note that in a couple decades society will have another terrible middle manager in its midst.

Even worse for these paper pushers of tomorrow, the working world will probably not need them–it doesn’t even really need them now. In a Wall Street Journal piece, Christopher Mims writes of startups replacing the middle-management level with data, allowing the numbers to make decisions humans used to make. The practice disappears some costs–and jobs. The opening:

Something potentially momentous is happening inside startups, and it’s a practice that many of their established competitors may be forced to copy if they wish to survive. Firms are keeping head counts low, and even eliminating management positions, by replacing them with something you wouldn’t immediately think of as a drop-in substitute for leaders and decision-makers: data.

“Every time people come to me and ask for new bodies it turns out so much of that can be answered by asking the right questions of our data and getting that in front of the decision-makers,” says James Reinhart, CEO of online secondhand clothing store thredUP. “I think frankly it’s eliminated four to five people who would [otherwise] pull data and crunch it,” he adds. …

The result isn’t really “big data,” just more data, more readily available, says Mr. Bien. The only “algorithm” processing the data and using it to make predictions is simply the humans scanning it for correlations. And now that every employee can have the tools to monitor progress toward any goal, the old role of middle managers as people who gather information and make decisions doesn’t fit into many startups. Nor do the leaders who remain need to poll middle managers to find out how employees are doing, since transparency and accountability are the essence of the data-driven company.

It isn’t the end of middle management, but it is an evolution.•

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Albert Einstein deservedly wrested the “greatest Jew since Jesus” title from the far inferior Leon Trotsky, but having such a beautiful mind came with costs, and it’s been well-documented that the scientist’s brain had a bumpy life of his own after his passing in 1955. Steven Levy, the best tech reporter of the personal-computing era, located the great man’s gray matter, in 1978, for New Jersey Monthly. He recalls the strange reconnaissance mission in the Backchannel piece “Yes, I Found Einstein’s Brain“:

The reporters who by then had heard of the news and begun gathering in Princeton did not have access to the body. According to his wishes, Einstein’s body was incinerated. The cremation took place at 4:30 that day in Trenton. Nathan disposed of the ashes in the Delaware River.

But not all of the body was cremated. According to an article in the New York Times that ran on April 20, the brain was saved for study. The headline was “KEY CLUE SOUGHT IN EINSTEIN BRAIN.” That article was the last piece of actual news regarding Einstein’s brain that would appear for over 20 years.

The next piece of news would come from me.

“I want you to find Einstein’s brain.”

My editor was giving me the weirdest assignment in my young career. It was the late spring of 1978. I was working for a regional magazine calledNew Jersey Monthly, based in Princeton, New Jersey. It was my first real job. I was 27 years old and had been a journalist for three years.

The editor, a recent hire named Michael Aron, had come to New Jersey with a white whale of a story idea, one that he once had begun himself but gotten nowhere on. Years earlier, he had put together a package at Harper’smagazine on brain science. He had read Ronald Clark’s magisterial biography of Albert Einstein, and had been fascinated by one phrase at the end.

“He had insisted his brain be used for research…”

What had happened to the brain? Aron wondered. He had seen that April 20New York Times article. But that seemed to be the last mention of the brain. He looked at all sorts of indexes of publications and journals for any hint of a study and couldn’t find a thing. He wrote to Ronald Clark; the biographer didn’t know. Clark referred Aron to Nathan, the executor of the estate. Nathan’s prompt response was a single terse paragraph. He confirmed that the brain had been removed during the autopsy, and the person performing the procedure had been a pathologist named Thomas Harvey. “As far as I know,” Nathan wrote, “he is no longer with the hospital.” And that was it. Aron had hit a dead end.

But Aron never gave up on the idea, and when he got to New Jersey — where Einstein had lived and died, right there in Princeton — he immediately assigned me the story. He scheduled it for our August cover story. It was late spring. I had about a month.

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Prophecies can fulfill themselves, which is the hope of Angelenos as nation’s largest city hopes to remake itself as something like an ecotopia despite it’s ever-growing population and density of automobiles. Before the middle of last century, locals began to have their streetcars and trolleys taken away, hearing relentlessly that L.A. was a car city, and it had to be that way. It didn’t have to be that way then and doesn’t need to (completely) be that way now. But first hearts and minds must be won, and many projects successfully completed. From Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow at Slate:

In recent years, Los Angeles has made headway on its most infamous environmental problems, and is even trying to position itself as a green leader. Smog has greatly diminished. Despite adding 1 million people to its population, the city claims to use the same amount of water as it did 30 years ago. Los Angeles is also heavily investing in mass transit while growing denser. (An EPA report found that between 2005 and 2009, the metropolitan area grew significantly more compact, as two-thirds of new housing was built on already developed land.) And Mayor Eric Garcetti’s new sustainability “pLAn” could have been drafted by Al Gore. It lays out a comprehensive suite of goals, such as eliminating coal from the city’s energy portfolio and diverting 90 percent of waste from landfills, both by 2025. In short, a place long known for its suburban character is becoming more of a city. And a place known for defying natural limitations is beginning to try to honor them—a goal that’s at once humbler and more ambitious.

Readers outside the region may have already seen an article or two about how this or that aspect of L.A. isn’t so terrible anymore. Within the region, these changes have collectively contributed to a sense of a new and improved L.A.—an emerging mythology of a more sustainable, responsible, and communal city. Granted, it’s a myth in more than one sense. To apply those adjectives to L.A. requires some squinting (and perhaps politely ignoring the Lexus that just cut you off on the 405). And the drought has the potential to pit water-consumers against each other rather than pulling them together. But this narrative could nevertheless reshape the city’s self-image. Indeed, outsiders who cling to the old clichés about L.A. have themselves become a target of ridicule. As the real-estate blog Curbed LA put it, New York Times stories about Los Angeles are amazing because they’re like seeing the city through the eyes of a dorky time traveler from 1992.”

The most explicit attempt to capture the shift in the zeitgeist is the notion of the “Third Los Angeles,” a term coined by Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne. In an ongoing series of public events, Hawthorne has proposed that L.A. is moving into a new phase of its civic life. In his formulation, the first Los Angeles, a semi-forgotten prewar city, boasted a streetcar, active street life, and cutting-edge architecture. The second Los Angeles is the familiar auto-dystopia that resulted from the nearly bacterial postwar growth of subdivisions and the construction of the freeway system. Now, Hawthorne argues, this third and latest phase harks in some ways back to the first, in its embrace of public transit and public space (notably the billion-dollar revitalization of the concrete-covered Los Angeles River). Hawthorne’s focus is not specifically environmental. But a more publicly oriented city also tends to be a greener one. This is partly because mass transit and walking mean lower carbon emissions. And more broadly, willingness to invest in the public realm tends to coincide with political decisions that prioritize the public good, including ecological sustainability.

Any great city has its own mythologies. But perhaps in Los Angeles, as in California generally, myths loom particularly large.•

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In “The Machines Are Coming,” Zeynep Tufekci’s NYT op-ed piece, the writer doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know about the general specter of technological unemployment, but she does provide some excellent concrete examples that go far beyond the warehouse floor. Developments in voice and facial recognition have allowed robots to cause distress for collars white as well as blue. Outsourcing now means not sending jobs beyond borders but beyond species. The opening:

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — THE machine hums along, quietly scanning the slides, generating Pap smear diagnostics, just the way a college-educated, well-compensated lab technician might.

A robot with emotion-detection software interviews visitors to the United States at the border. In field tests, this eerily named “embodied avatar kiosk” does much better than humans in catching those with invalid documentation. Emotional-processing software has gotten so good that ad companies are looking into “mood-targeted” advertising, and the government of Dubai wants to use it to scan all its closed-circuit TV feeds.

Yes, the machines are getting smarter, and they’re coming for more and more jobs.

Not just low-wage jobs, either.

Today, machines can process regular spoken language and not only recognize human faces, but also read their expressions. They can classify personality types, and have started being able to carry out conversations with appropriate emotional tenor.

Machines are getting better than humans at figuring out who to hire, who’s in a mood to pay a little more for that sweater, and who needs a coupon to nudge them toward a sale.

To crack these cognitive and emotional puzzles, computers needed not only sophisticated, efficient algorithms, but also vast amounts of human-generated data, which can now be easily harvested from our digitized world. The results are dazzling.•

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Not everyone believes in Disruption, a theory developed and articulated by Harvard Business School’s Clayton Christensen. It is interesting to wonder, however, if Tesla, which explicitly aims to disrupt Big Auto, will achieve its goal. The professor had some colleagues study Elon Musk’s outfit, and they don’t consider it to be truly disruptive. They do feel, however, that a short-range, golf cart-ish EV might be.

I doubt one blanket solution will emerge. Tesla, other EV makers (including those manufacturing “community cars”), autonomous vehicles, ridesharing, etc., will probably be a collective force for change.

From a Harvard Business Review piece:

As the theory of disruptive innovation celebrates its 20th birthday—it was first articulated in a 1995 HBR article—recognition is growing that it has been co-opted as a trendy buzzword and applied to businesses that aren’t truly disruptive. “The word is [now] used to justify whatever anybody—an entrepreneur or a college student—wants to do,” Christensen told Bloomberg last year, responding to criticism of his work in the New Yorker. Bartman says that the popular press routinely cites Tesla and Airbnb as examples of disruptive innovations. Airbnb’s business model seems to fit the definition, he adds—but does Tesla’s?

To investigate, Bartman’s team posed five questions it uses to evaluate disruptive innovations. First, does the product either target overserved customers (by offering lower performance at a lower price) or create a new market (by targeting customers who couldn’t use or afford the existing product)? Second, does it create “asymmetric motivation,” meaning that while the disrupter is motivated to enter higher performance segments over time, existing players aren’t motivated to fight it? Third, can it improve performance fast enough to keep pace with customers’ expectations while retaining its low cost structure? Fourth, does it create new value networks, including sales channels? Fifth, does it disrupt all incumbents, or can an existing player exploit the opportunity?

As Bartman worked through the questions, it became clear that Tesla is not a disrupter. It’s a classic “sustaining innovation”—a product that, according to Christensen’s definition, offers incrementally better performance at a higher price. There’s nothing rudimentary about Teslas, which compete on price against cars by BMW and Mercedes. …

If Tesla won’t disrupt the industry, what could? [Tom] Bartman’s research points to the “neighborhood electric vehicle”—a low-speed vehicle that resembles a souped-up golf cart.•

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We will all be counted, every one of us. We will all count! There’ll be no unplugging and off-gridding once the Internet of Things has snaked its way into our lives–into our bodies. With all the good health quantification will do, it will be impossible to avoid, and that makes for many ethical quandaries. From Grady Johnson at Slate

Opting out comes with an alluring sensibility: If you don’t like it, don’t use it—whatever it is. But the proliferation of consumer medical devices is changing the landscape. Today’s companies aren’t just mining our contact lists, calendars, and search histories anymore: They’re checking our blood pressure and heart rate, tracking our diet and exercise habits, and even digging into our genetic heritage—all things once reserved for the privileged relationship between doctor and patient.

We may have become comfortable with sharing our personal information, but these data are different, and the information they reveal about us may be extremely valuable—and dangerous. Companies won’t just be mining our data to determine if we’re in the market for a new car, but a new kidney. They’ll be hunting for the most lucrative kind of customer: the desperate.

And it won’t just be the device manufacturers themselves who will have access to these insights. These data can be leaked in unexpected ways. Merely trying to interpret your own health data, say by typing “blood glucose 154 mg/dl” orBRCA1into a search engine or email, can put you at risk.

And that’s the problem. Opting out may no longer be a choice between privacy and convenience, but a choice between privacy and living long enough to know one’s grandchildren. That is no choice at all. Opting out is not an option.•

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The Woodlands, a master-planned suburb of Houston established in 1974, was the bleeding edge of quantified smart homes, as each unit was wired and connected. The monitoring was still external then, the way pacemakers originally were.

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indexfinger123

From the August 6, 1911 New York Times:

Chicago –- Mrs. Minnie O’Herrin says she will gladly sacrifice the index finger on her right hand in order to give her six-year-old daughter Isla a musical education.

Mrs. Reginald Waldorf of Philadelphia recently injured the index finger on the right hand by a cut from a rusty nail. Blood poisoning resulted, and the finger was amputated. ‘There is but one thing that can restore your hand to its former condition,’ said the surgeon who amputated the digit. ‘Some other woman whose finger will fit and who is willing to sell her finger must be found. The new finger can be amputated and grafted on.’

An advertisement was published in the Philadelphia papers, inviting proposals for a finger. Mrs. O’Herrin saw the advertisement, and yesterday wrote that she would make the sacrifice.•

It’s not silly on the order of trying to color code terrorism as we did in the wake of 9/11, but metal detectors installed at stadiums by Major League Baseball the season after the Boston Marathon bombing, aren’t likely to do much good. Bruce Schneier, security expert in matters both online and off, writes of the new measure at the Washington Post. The opening:

Fans attending Major League Baseball games are being greeted in a new way this year: with metal detectors at the ballparks. Touted as a counterterrorism measure, they’re nothing of the sort. They’re pure security theater: They look good without doing anything to make us safer. We’re stuck with them because of a combination of buck passing, CYA thinking and fear.

As a security measure, the new devices are laughable. The ballpark metal detectors are much more lax than the ones at an airport checkpoint. They aren’t very sensitive — people with phones and keys in their pockets are sailing through and there are no X-ray machines. Bags get the same cursory search they’ve gotten for years. And fans wanting to avoid the detectors can opt for alight pat-down searchinstead.

There’s no evidence that this new measure makes anyone safer. A halfway competent ticketholder would have no trouble sneaking a gun into the stadium. For that matter, a bomb exploded at a crowded checkpoint would be no less deadly than one exploded in the stands. These measures will, at best, be effective at stopping the random baseball fan who’s carrying a gun or knife into the stadium. That may be a good idea, but unless there’s been a recent spate of fan shootings and stabbings at baseball games — and there hasn’t — this is a whole lot of time and money being spent to combat an imaginary threat.•

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Last week, I read Freeman Dyson’s 1997 book, Imagined Worlds, and I wanted to present one excerpt which seems more salient now than when it was written (although that pertains to a lot of the volume). The scientist assailed the way technology was destabilizing society and creating income inequality. That process has only accelerated since.

Two things about the excerpt below:

  1. Dyson did not realize how quickly computing power would become relatively affordable.
  2. That affordability hasn’t mitigated homelessness or income gaps in America.

The passage:

Today science has once again turned good into evil. This time the evil is not a war, but a civilian technology that systematically widens the gulf between rich and poor, deprives uneducated young people of jobs, and leaves large numbers of young mothers and children hopeless and homeless. The evil is to be seen in many places around the world, especially in the great cities of North and South America. When one walks through the streets of New York after dark during the Christmas season, one sees the widening gulf at its starkest. The brightly lit shop windows are filled with high-tech electronic toys for the children of the rich, and a few yards away, the dark corners of subway entrances are filled with the dim outlines of derelict human beings that the new technology has left behind. In every large American city such contrasts have become a part of everyday life.

When I arrived in America fifty years ago, rich and poor people were less estranged and less afraid of one another, the feeling of belonging to a community was stronger, the rich had fewer locks on their doors, and the poor had roofs over their heads. Since those days, wealth has accumulated and society has decayed. It is as Haldane said, “The tendency of applied science is to magnify injustices until they become too intolerable to be borne, and the average man, whom all the prophets and poets could not move, turns at last and extinguishes evil at its source.”

My scientist friends may justly protest that the calamities of American society are caused by drugs, or by guns, or by racial intolerance, or by illiteracy, or by bad schools, or by broken families, rather than by science. It is true that the immediate causes of social disintegration are moral and economic rather than technical. But science must bear a larger share of responsibility for these evils than the majority of scientists are willing to admit.•

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Fresh from his Reddit Ask Me Anything, moral philosopher Peter Singer discusses his new book about altruism in a Gawker Q&A conducted by Hamilton Nolan, a consistently intelligent and passionate voice on the New York media scene. Among other topics, the two discuss the continued viability of capitalism and the validity of revolutions predicated on income inequality. An excerpt:

Gawker:

Can capitalism solve these problems, ultimately? Is capitalism equipped to address human poverty in the long run?

Peter Singer:

I don’t think capitalism alone is going to solve the problems, but capitalism supplemented by enough concerned individuals who would both donate some of their resources and lobby governments to prevent some of the possible abuses of capitalism, I think that could deal with the problem of poverty. If we’re going to wait for capitalism to disappear, people are going to wait a long time. I think most of them will be dead before that happens. So I don’t think that’s the right approach. We have to try to do things within the framework we have.

Gawker:

With the U.S. presidential election coming up, do you have any endorsements? Any issues you’d like to see get attention?

Peter Singer:

I don’t know that any candidate wants my endorsement! I certainly think that America’s aid to the global poor is shamefully low, and most Americans have no idea how low it is. All the surveys that ask Americans “How much of the federal budget do you think goes to foreign aid?” they come back with a median figure of 15%. And if you ask them what they think would be the right level, they’re somewhere between 5-10%. And the actual level, of course, is 1%… The other big issue is climate change. Climate change needs to come up. That’s one of the critical moral challenges we face in this century.

Gawker:

Economic inequality has become a big part of the political conversation in America. How does that tie into the poverty and altruism issues you’re writing about?

Peter Singer:

I agree that inequality in America is a problem, but I think that what a lot of Americans don’t realize is that if you look at the picture globally, they’re the top 1%. Not all Americans, but if you’re $52,000 a year, that puts you in the top 1% globally. So if people think it’s bad that there’s this top 1% in the United States, they should think it’s much worse that there is this much steeper inequality.•

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I’m still haunted by You’re Gonna Miss Me, Keven McAlester’s 2007 documentary about Roky Erickson, a singer-songwriter of growing repute during the 1960s who was “interrupted” by schizophrenia. The musician’s plight was difficult enough to witness, but what really struck me was how his brother, Sumner, a talented musician himself, also drifted into mental illness while trying to care for his sibling. In a reveal on a DVD extra, Sumner seemingly “caught” serious psychiatric problems, triggered it appeared by the close proximity to his besieged brother. It’s one of the more devastating things I’ve ever seen on film.

In Andrew Curry’s new Nautilus piece, “Yes, You Can Catch Insanity,” the journalist investigates a completely different type of contagion which can cause erratic behavior, a seemingly biological source of mental illness, especially in children who have endured infections, which is pretty much every child. The opening:

One day in March 2010, Isak McCune started clearing his throat with a forceful, violent sound. The New Hampshire toddler was 3, with a Beatles mop of blonde hair and a cuddly, loving personality. His parents had no idea where the guttural tic came from. They figured it was springtime allergies.

Soon after, Isak began to scream as if in pain and grunt at his parents and peers. When he wasn’t throwing hours-long tantrums, he stared vacantly into space. By the time he was 5, he was plagued by insistent, terrifying thoughts of death. “He would smash his head into windows and glass whenever the word ‘dead’ came into his head. He was trying to drown out the thoughts,” says his mother, Robin McCune, a baker in Goffstown, a small town outside Manchester, New Hampshire’s largest city.

Isak’s parents took him to pediatricians, therapy appointments, and psychiatrists. He was diagnosed with a host of disorders: sensory processing disorder, oppositional defiance disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). At 5, he spent a year on Prozac, “and seemed to get worse on it,” says Robin McCune.

The McCunes tried to make peace with the idea that their son might never come back. In kindergarten, he grunted and screamed, frightening his teachers and classmates. “He started hearing voices, thought he saw things, he couldn’t go to the bathroom alone,” Robin McCune says. “His fear was immense and paralyzing.”

As his behaviors worsened, both parents prepared themselves for the possibility that he’d have to be home-schooled or even institutionalized. Searching for some explanation, they came across a controversial diagnosis called pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorders associated with streptococci, or PANDAS. First proposed in 1998, PANDAS linked the sudden onset of psychiatric symptoms like Isak’s to strep infections.

They didn’t give it much thought. Periodic strep tests on Isak had always come back negative. And his symptoms seemed too dramatic to be the result of a simple, common childhood infection.

But as Isak’s illness dragged into its fourth year, they reconsidered the possibility. The year before the epic meltdowns began, his older brother had four strep infections; perhaps it was more than coincidence. In September 2013, three and a half years after his first tics appeared, a pediatric infectious-disease specialist in Boston put Isak on azithromycin, a common antibiotic used to treat food poisoning, severe ear infections, and particularly persistent cases of strep throat.

The results were dramatic. Isak’s crippling fear vanished within days. Then he stopped grunting. Less than a week after starting his son on the antibiotic, Adam McCune saw Isak smile for the first time in nearly four years. After a few weeks, the tantrums that had held the family hostage for years faded away.•

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I think it’s been clear for a while that Elon Musk wants humans to colonize Mars not to win money or glory but because our best bet for the species to avoid extinction is for us to populate the universe. But Phil Plait of Slate was taken aback, energized even, by the urgency of the SpaceX founder’s goals when he discussed the prospect with him face to face. The columnist believes the first Martian immigrant has already been born.

What’s left unsaid in the piece is that living on other planets, asteroids and such will still kind of be the end of Homo sapiens. It will likely “evolve” us in a number of ways, and any element of our former humanness may be vestigial. 

From Plait:

We talked about various topics for a while—the movie Interstellar, the history of SpaceX, terraforming Mars … and that was when I said something dumb.

“I know Mars is a long-term goal for SpaceX,” I started. Then, pretty much as an aside, I said, “because you want to retire on Mars … ”

Musk got a pained look on his face. “No, that’s wrong. That’s not why I want to get to Mars. That quote is from an article in the Guardian. They pushed me for a sound bite, asking if I wanted to retire on Mars. I eventually said yes. When I retire—hopefully before I go senile—and eventually die, then Mars is as good a place to die as any.”

That line made me laugh; it’s far better than anything printed in the Guardian article.

But still, I was taken aback. “OK then, the article wanted a sexy quote and got one. But if that’s not the reason, what is it?”

Musk didn’t hesitate. “Humans need to be a multiplanet species,” he replied.

And pretty much at that moment my thinking reorganized itself. He didn’t need to explain his reasoning; I agree with that statement, and I’ve written about it many times. Exploration has its own varied rewards … and a single global catastrophe could wipe us out. Space travel is a means to mitigate that, and setting up colonies elsewhere is a good bet. As Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (the father of modern rocketry) said, “The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in the cradle forever.”•

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Every day hundreds of millions of us work for free for Facebook and Twitter and the like, producing tons of content without getting paid. The Mark Zuckerbergs are the ones who collect the cash while we get the attention we crave, our egos stroked while our pockets picked. Creative companies have often operated on a similar principle, offering freedom of expression in lieu of a good paycheck, but the new social-media firms and the tools that enable them have completely erased remuneration from the equation. Facebook would be the largest sweatshop in the world, except that even those factory laborers get paid a nominal amount.

In “The Smartphone Society,” a sprawling Jacobin article about our beloved, ubiquitous “hand machines,” Nicole Aschoff speaks to the way these new tools have reordered labor. An excerpt:

The expansion and reproduction of capital is dependent on the development of these new commodities, many of which emerge from capital’s incessant drive to enclose new spheres of social life for profit, or as political economist Massimo De Angelis says, to “put [these spheres] to work for [capital’s] priorities and drives.”

The smartphone is central to this process. It provides a physical mechanism to allow constant access to our digital selves and opens a nearly uncharted frontier of commodification.

Individuals don’t get paid in wages for creating and maintaining digital selves — they get paid in the satisfaction of participating in rituals, and the control afforded them over their social interactions. They get paid in the feeling of floating in the vast virtual connectivity, even as their hand machines mediate social bonds, helping people imagine togetherness while keeping them separate as distinct productive entities. The voluntary nature of these new rituals does not make them any less important, or less profitable for capital.

[Harry] Braverman said that “the capitalist finds in [the] infinitely malleable character of human labor the essential resource for the expansion of his capital.” The last thirty years of innovation demonstrate the truth of this statement, and the phone has emerged as one of the primary mechanisms to activate, access, and channel the malleability of human labor.

Smartphones ensure that we are producing for more and more of our waking lives. They erase the boundary between work and leisure. Employers now have nearly unlimited access to their employees, and increasingly, holding even a low-paid, precarious job hinges on the ability to be always available and ready to work. At the same time, smartphones provide people constant mobile access to the digital commons and its gauzy ethos of connectivity, but only in exchange for their digital selves.

Smartphones blur the line between production and consumption, between the social and the economic, between the pre-capitalist and the capitalist, ensuring that whether one uses their phone for work or pleasure, the outcome is increasingly the same — profit for capitalists.•

Sentient computers aren’t theoretically impossible, but no one–no one–can say when they’ll be a reality, not with any real confidence. In a Genetic Literacy Project piece about sexbots coming to (and in) your bedroom, David Warmflash stresses this very point. An excerpt:

Now, when we really imagine androids, most of us think of the super-intelligent human-looking beings that science fiction has dreamed up, such as Star Trek’s Data. To get there the field of AI needs to advance significantly. It is common these days for futurists to predict how much time it will be until humans create certain technologies imagined by science fiction. The predictions are made by calculating the present rate of technological progress in phenomena, such as computing power and speed. However, since they cannot really know anything about the obstacles that programmers and engineers will face along the way, the predictions are often wrong. In 2000, the popular futurist, transhumanist author Ray Kurzweil predicted this:

By 2009, computers will disappear. Visual information will be written directly onto our retinas by devices in our eyeglasses and contact lenses. In addition to high resolution virtual monitors appearing to hover in space, these intimate displays will provide full-immersion visual virtual reality. We will have ubiquitous very high bandwidth wireless connection to the Internet at all times. “Going to a Website” will mean entering a virtual reality environment–at least for the visual and auditory senses–where we will meet other real people. There will be simulated people as well, but these virtual personalities will not be up to human standards, at least not by 2009. The minuscule electronics powering these developments will be invisibly embedded in our glasses and clothing. Thus we won’t be searching for our misplaced mobile phones, Palms, notebooks, and other gadgets.

Becoming an android: Human mind uploading

While many of those predictions certainly could come true in the years to come true in the years to come, clearly they were too optimistic in 2000. When it comes to predicting when sentient computers will appear, things get even harder. Conventional computer programming is advancing at warp speed and works very well for a wide range of applications, from interpreting medical imaging data to controlling spacecraft, but the programmer needs to understand the system that the programing is designed to control. That simply does not work when the goal is to build a mind that learns, develops, and eventually thinks for itself. For this reason, AI scientists are using strategies inspired by evolutionary biology and neuroscience.

At the time of the Wright brothers, nobody could predict how long it would take before the first human moon landing. Similarly, today, we don’t know how long it will take for sentient machines to appear. All we can say is that, at some point, a sentient, artificial mind will probably be created.•

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No one with stock options would want to die, so Silicon Valley technologists are earnestly pursuing radical life-extension methods–even immortality. I mock, but I also wish them well and hope there are eventual results. However, anyone professing that successful head transplantations and hundreds-year lifespans are on the horizon is sort of overpromising. Theoretically not impossible but nowhere near ready. From Charlotte Lytton’s Daily Beast piece about the fountain of youth’s new splash:

If a successful, life-extending surgery does arise—and prove successful—its implications would be revolutionary. After announcing his intentions to carry out the procedure several months ago, [head-transplant enthusiast Sergio] Canavero was inundated with volunteers offering themselves up for the project—a testament to how prevalent the notion of extending one’s life really is.

Canavero’s ideology is one keenly shared by Silicon Valley hedge fund manager, Joon Yun, founder of the Palo Alto Longevity Prize. A $1 million reward for those who can successfully “hack the code of life and cure aging,” Yun is hoping to find scientists able to extend the lives of mice by 50 percent, which he believes will be demonstrative in efforts to push the human life span beyond its current U.S. average of 78.7 years.

While Yun’s efforts might resemble a Death Becomes Her-esque bid to uncover an elixir of eternal youth, he is not the first wealthy businessman to make a serious financial donation to the prevention of aging. Peter Thiel, one of PayPal’s co-founders, has donated millions to researchers leading the charge, while Larry Ellison, who co-founded computer hardware company Oracle, has given some $430 million to the cause. “Death has never made any sense to me,” says Ellison.

The government used to fund two-thirds of medical research, with private backers accounting for the other 33 percent of studies, but that ratio has now been flipped, with the major cash injections supplied by entrepreneurs with life-prolonging pet projects far surpassing money pumped in by the state. Some of the ideas being explored by Thiel-backed researchers include technology that can cool human organs at a high speed, allowing them to be preserved long term, and using stem cells to grow bone replacements for broken ones. One more involves analyzing molecular and cell damage throughout our lifetimes in a bid to better understand how we might rejuvenate deteriorating bodies.•

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In an interview with Seung-yoon Lee of Byline, Noam Chomsky expresses his belief that the foundering of the traditional news and the democratization of the media hasn’t really changed for the better the public dialogue. Perhaps. Income inequality, for instance, has only gotten worse since the media came into the hands of the masses, though that also has to do with myriad other issues. But we won’t be leading the conversation as long as people are satisfied with bread and Kardashians.

As for Chomsky saying he learns about what’s happening in Ukraine or Syria by reading the New York Times, Associated Press and British press rather than by looking at social media and search engines, I would only suggest his news-reading habits are vastly different than the majority. It doesn’t mean he’s wrong, but he’s likely an outlier. 

Two exchanges follow, one about the state of modern media and the other about Charlie Hebdo.

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Seung-yoon Lee:

Twenty-seven years ago, you wrote in Manufacturing Consent that the primary role of the mass media in Western democratic societies is to mobilise public support for the elite interests that lead the government and the private sector. However, a lot has happened since then. Most notably, one could argue that the Internet has radically decentralised power and eroded the power of traditional media, and has also given rise to citizen journalism. News from Ferguson, for instance, emerged on Twitter before it was picked up by media organisations. Has the internet made your ‘Propaganda Model’ irrelevant? 

Noam Chomsky:

Actually, we have an updated version of the book which appeared about 10 years ago with a preface in which we discuss this question. And I think I can speak for my co-author, you can read the introduction, but we felt that if there have been changes, then this is one of them. There are other [changes], such as the decline in the number of independent print media, which is quite striking.

As far as we can see, the basic analysis is essentially unchanged. It’s true that the internet does provide opportunities that were not easily available before, so instead of having to go to the library to do research, you can just open up your computer. You can certainly release information more easily and also distribute different information from many sources, and that offers opportunities and deficiencies. But fundamentally, the system hasn’t changed very much. 

Seuny-yoon Lee:

Emily Bell, Director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School, said the following in her recent speech at Oxford: “News spaces are no longer owned by newsmakers. The press is no longer in charge of the free press and has lost control of the main conduits through which stories reach audiences. The public sphere is now operated by a small number of private companies, based in Silicon Valley.” Nearly all content now is published on social platforms, and it’s not Rupert Murdoch but Google’s Larry Page and Sergei Brin and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg who have much more say in how news is created and disseminated. Are they “manufacturing consent” like their counterparts in so-called ‘legacy’ media?

Noam Chomsky:

Well, first of all, I don’t agree with the general statement. Say, right now, if I want to find out what’s going on in Ukraine or Syria or Washington, I read the New York Times, other national newspapers, I look at the Associated Press wires, I read the British press, and so on. I don’t look at Twitter because it doesn’t tell me anything. It tells me people’s opinions about lots of things, but very briefly and necessarily superficially, and it doesn’t have the core news. And I think it’s the opposite of what you quoted – the sources of news have become narrower.•

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Seung-yoon Lee:

Also, regarding the specific incident of Charlie Hebdo, do you think the cartoonists lacked responsibility?

Noam Chomsky:

Yes, I think they were kind of acting in this case like spoiled adolescents, but that doesn’t justify killing them. I mean, I could say the same about a great deal that appears in the press. I think it’s quite irresponsible often. For example, when the press in the United States and England supported the worst crime of this century, the invasion of Iraq, that was way more irresponsible than what Charlie Hebdo did. It led to the destruction of Iraq and the spread of the sectarian conflict that’s tearing the region to shreds. It was a really major crime. Aggression is the supreme international crime under international law. Insofar as the press supported that, that was deeply irresponsible, but I don’t think the press should be shut down.•

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Science is providing hard evidence to support what is a pretty obvious guess: Geoengineering our way out of climate change might not work and would have unintended consequences. It still might end up being our only chance. From Simon Redfern’s BBC report about the European Geosciences Union General Assembly:

It is not at all obvious what the other consequences of global geoengineering approaches might be. For example, Patrick Applegate from Pennsylvania State University, reported that solar radiation management may yet fail to prevent sea-level rise from melting ice sheets, which respond on much longer time scales than the temperature effects of solar shielding.

Aside from being ineffective in stemming sea-level rise, solar radiation management – according to results from Jerry Tjiputra at Bergen University – would lead to increased ocean acidification in the North Atlantic.

These results also suggest that climate engineering could not offer a long-term solution, with the world eventually being in the same place, by 2200, as it would reach without any geoengineering interventions.

Asked whether he believed solar radiation management would be deployed, Prof [Ken] Caldeira responded: “A lot has to do with how bad climate change will end up being. Humans are quite adaptable as a species.

“On the other hand, projections for summers in the tropics suggest almost every summer will be hotter than the hottest summer yet on record, associated with crop failures. There is the possibility that there would be widespread crop failures in the tropics in the summer.

“The only thing a politician can do to start the planet cooling is solar geoengineering. If a catastrophic outcome does occur, the pressure to deploy a scheme could be overwhelming.•

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Lawns are pretty to look at but dubious environmentally and imprisoning socially. As long as we have them, however, it’s no surprise the makers of Roomba would like to extend their robot helpers to the out of doors as automatic mowers–lawnbots. The problem is that the proposed system would make it difficult for astronomers to conduct their work with ginormous radio telescopes. From Davey Alba at Wired:

WHO CAN HATE a Roomba? Astronomers, that’s who.

The robotic vacuums we all know and love ensure we don’t have to clean our own homes ourselves to get them spotless. (God forbid.) Now, the Roomba’s maker, iRobot, wants to do for lawn care what it did for vacuuming. According to filings with the FCC spotted by IEEE Spectrum, iRobot is designing a robotic mower—news that should elate lazy people the world over.

But one group is really, really unhappy about this boon to the slothful: Astronomers. Some of them are so upset, in fact, that their objections might put the kibosh on the whole thing. How could this be? In a scenario that sounds straight out of the Golden Age of scifi, it all comes down to robots versus telescopes, and how they all communicate.•

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The kitchen of 1985, as predicted in 1964: fast-growing indoor gardens, self-sufficient power supply, closed-circuit televisions, automated cleaning, etc. The above photo is an Avedon from Harper’s Bazaar of the ’60s.

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Oculus Rift, the VR firm acquired by Facebook, may end up being an educational tool, but its value will depend on if we learn lessons good or bad. Of course, we’ve managed to perpetrate genocide, slavery and other atrocities without any aid from virtual reality. Mark Zuckerberg recently spoke to the efficacy of his new toy, though his words unintentionally came out sounding as much like a threat as a promise, not a first for him. From Kerry Flynn at International Business Times:

Facebook Inc. spent $2 billion to buy Oculus VR, a maker of virtual reality wearables, in March 2014. Over a year later, CEO Mark Zuckerberg is still trying to justify the deal. With the Oculus Rift headset, which has yet to hit the consumer market, Facebook wants togive people the power to experience anything,” Zuckerberg said during a public Q&A held on his Facebook page Tuesday.

“Even if you don’t have the ability to travel somewhere or to be with someone in person, or even if something is physically impossible to build in our analog world, the goal is to help build a medium that will give you the ability to do all of these things you might not otherwise be able to do,” Zuckerberg wrote.•

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In freestyle chess and in factories alike, carbon and silicon make for a great combination–it’s win-win. But in the long run (and perhaps not even too long from now), if humans or robots are going to be ejected from the workforce, which is more likely to go? From Matt McFarland at the Washington Post, a report about YuMi, your new coworker:

YuMi was designed to require about the same amount of space as a human worker, so it can easily slide into roles alongside humans in factories. YuMi is safe enough that ABB chief executive Ulrich Spiesshofer encouraged German chancellor Angela Merkel to put her finger in YuMi’s grip at an event Monday.

These companies see a huge opportunity in manufacturing to grow their businesses. A Boston Consulting Group report from earlier this year found that only 10 percent of manufacturing tasks are automated.

They say they have strong interest from China’s massive manufacturing sector. One of Rethink Robotics’ clients in China loses 25 percent of its workforce a month. That churn rate requires it to constantly retain workers, which hampers its efficiency.

“We will get to a point in time, whether it’s five years from now or 10 year from now, where you will not be a successful manufacturer if you do not have collaborative robots in your environment,” said Jim Lawton, chief product and marketing officer at Rethink Robotics. “They allow you to do things in fundamentally different and better ways.” …

The robotic elephant in the room is this: What happens to employment? Won’t jobs be swept away by the tide of automation?

“If you look at the countries with the highest level of robotization and automation, these are the countries with the lowest unemployment rates in the world,” Spiesshofer said. “Germany, Japan and South Korea have the highest robotization and the lowest unemployment rates. So for me, a smart application of a robot is a job security measure, it’s a job creation machine, if you do it right. The combination between human beings and robots to add additional jobs rather than destroy them.”•

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Noah Rayman of Time wonders whether Wikipedia, one of the Internet’s great triumphs, can remain relevant. The nonprofit reference guide, currently under the leadership of Soviet-born, Berkeley-educated executive director, Lila Tretikov, faces myriad challenges, but it certainly has a better shot at continued pertinency than Time does. An excerpt:

In many ways, Wikipedia represents the utopian ideals of the early Internet as conceived by the researchers and academics who created it: a vast database of knowledge, available to all humanity, for free, forever. For millennia, encyclopedias have been a hallmark of civilization, from the enormous Four Great Books of Song of 11th-century China to the crowning intellectual achievement of the Enlightenment Era, the humanist Encyclopédie banned by monarchs across Europe. It is the original cloud. Or as Wikimedia’s “vision statement” puts it: “Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge. That’s our commitment.” But as the Web has spread around the globe, becoming an engine of commerce more than an academic or literary paradise, the place of a free website run by a nonprofit and largely curated by a handful of volunteers is far from certain.

Indeed, the future of Wikipedia has increasingly come into doubt over the past few years. Some observers question how long the website can stay relevant. Behemoths like Google and Facebook—the first and second largest websites, respectively—have billions of dollars at their disposal to pursue lofty goals like cataloguing the sum of knowledge or connecting every human being to the Internet. By contrast, Tretikov heads a non-profit with a relatively meager annual budget of $59 million that comes almost entirely from donations. A team of about 215 full-time employees headquartered in San Francisco oversees the work of roughly 85,000 active volunteer editors who seem to have divergent views about almost everything, from proper punctuation to the role that the Foundation should play in the operation of the site. “I do not envy Lila Tretikov’s position,” says William Beutler, a Wikipedia editor since 2006 and author of The Wikipedian, a blog that reports on the goings-on of the website and its army of editors.

Lack of resources is not Wikipedia’s only challenge.•

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Reconciling free-market capitalism and a highly automated society is one of the great challenges we’re likely to face in the near future. In a Medium essay, Sean Lester doesn’t believe reconciliation is possible. An excerpt:

To summarize, we’re automating the SHIT out of work right now with simple AI and robotics. With technological progress being exponential as it is (stop thinking linearly you dufus) robots you MAY hear about as being wacky and impractical and expensive today will be cheaper, faster, and better than your average human tomorrow. With AI advancements, even creative work is at risk (as the above video will explain). Even outside the more sci-fi sounding stuff, there’s a growing trend for companies with a fraction of the employees of their competition rivaling and crushing them. The examples thrown around a lot are the handful of people at Instagram today versus the many thousands of yesterday’s Kodak — or the Ubers and Lyfts rivaling taxi companies and other forms of public transport.

Which is dumb as hell. Work is being eliminated because corporations want to cut costs, not because they want a future where humans don’t have to get up and go to pointless jobs every day for diminishing wages only to not be able to cover their expenses or pay off their college loans. However, what worries me is that in the face of overwhelming evidence that we’re eliminating work on a very short timeline (shorter than the average person imagines or is prepared for) the conversation is never “We did it fellas. Time to pack up, we finally killed work!” No, that isn’t what people are saying. People are saying, “WHAT ABOUT THE JOBS!?” because we continue to cling to a model that doesn’t support this kind of revolutionary progress. The fact I can’t start writing an article that criticizes this failing of capitalism at all without fearing knee-jerk reactions by dogmatic capitalists is the problem. We can’t even begin having a conversation about it, because to propose a criticism of a thing is similar to saying “Hey tribe, I’m in THIS tribe now, fuck you!” This isn’t about being on this side or that side, though. This is about looking objectively at the reality standing in front of us and confronting it honestly.•

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