Society, Science & Technology

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PBS Newshour Science with Miles O’Brien
The Administration’s 2016 Report on the Future of Artificial Intelligence

Winston Churchill on alien life. Archivists have unearthed an unpublished 1939 essay by Britain’s soon-to-be prime minister on astronomy and the probability of life around other stars. Mario Livio got a look at it, and writes in Nature that it was not only remarkably prescient but shows Churchill’s close relationship with science—a rarity in today’s political leaders.

(NYT evening brief) Google will stream a private, all-hands meeting from its California headquarters, above, to its 60,000 workers around the world this evening. Company officials will discuss the firing of an engineer over a memo in which he argued that biological differences explained the tech industry’s gender gap.
Our tech writer says an outcry in defense of the engineer is low-hanging fruit for far-right activists, who are mounting an aggressive political campaign against some of Silicon Valley’s biggest players.

8 August
Debra Soh: No, the Google manifesto isn’t sexist or anti-diversity. It’s science
(Globe & Mail Opinion) By now, most of us have heard about Google’s so-called “anti-diversity” manifesto and how James Damore, the engineer who wrote it, has been fired from his job.
Titled Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber, Mr. Damore called out the current PC culture, saying the gender gap in Google’s diversity was not due to discrimination, but inherent differences in what men and women find interesting. Danielle Brown, Google’s newly appointed vice-president for diversity, integrity and governance, accused the memo of advancing “incorrect assumptions about gender,” and Mr. Damore confirmed last night he was fired for “perpetuating gender stereotypes.”
Despite how it’s been portrayed, the memo was fair and factually accurate. Scientific studies have confirmed sex differences in the brain that lead to differences in our interests and behaviour.
As mentioned in the memo, gendered interests are predicted by exposure to prenatal testosterone – higher levels are associated with a preference for mechanically interesting things and occupations in adulthood. Lower levels are associated with a preference for people-oriented activities and occupations. This is why STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields tend to be dominated by men.

22 July
(Quartz Daily Brief) Google just rolled out a new news feed driven by your particular search history. Amazon launched its Spark shopping tool, an Instagram-like mobile app that combines the company’s personalization algorithm with the power of social “likes.” Netflix, its stock soaring, uses a thumbs-up, thumbs-down feature to better match viewers to what they’ve enjoyed in the past, ensuring we’ll be unchallenged by the kind of movies we rarely watch—and undelighted by random discoveries. On Twitter and Facebook, algorithms collect all the updates from the people you’re already talking to, fortifying social-filter bubbles. (Sorry, town-crier types, you’re probably still posting to the proverbial choir.)
Some critics argue that it’s time to rein in the code-making behind those filters. Alternatively, we could leave the internet giants free to experiment, and hope that digital literacy saves us. (We may be more curious and concerned about the experiences of others than we’ve acknowledged, and more than our tech masters would like.) For now, though, be prepared for one version of the future, that each of us creates in our own image. Deep-learning powered services promise to become even better custom-content tailors, limiting what individuals and groups are exposed to even as the universe of products and sources of information expands

A Marshall McLuhan expert annotates the Google Doodle honoring the internet visionary
(Quartz) Today (July 21) Google honored what would have been McLuhan’s 106th birthday with a Doodle highlighting his ideas about the evolution of media.

20 July
China aims to become world leader in AI, challenges U.S. dominance
(Reuters) China released a national AI development plan late on Thursday, aiming to grow the country’s core AI industries to over 150 billion yuan ($22.15 billion) by 2020 and 400 billion yuan ($59.07 billion) by 2025, the State Council said. With this major push into AI, China is looking to rival U.S. market leaders such as Alphabet Inc’s Google and Microsoft Corp, as it is keen not to be left behind in a technology that is increasingly key from smart cars to energy.

3 July
We’ve been worrying about the end of work for 500 years
(Quartz) Today many worry that strides in artificial intelligence—new machines that can parse legal documents, diagnose diseases, drive trucks, and complete other jobs once thought too complex to automate—will result in widespread unemployment, just as, in the late 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I denied a patent to the inventor of a new automated knitting machine because she feared it would take the jobs of “young maidens who obtain their daily bread by knitting.”
Technology has, of course, transformed the world since the 16th century. But the debate around how it will impact jobs in the future has evolved remarkably little in the process.
As is the case today, pessimists throughout history have fretted about the impact of new inventions on the value of human labor, while optimists have pointed to past examples of how technology has improved the human condition. In our current discussion, there’s also a common counter-argument to this point. “Those weren’t thinking machines,” summarizes Vasant Dhar, a data scientist and professor at NYU. “This is not the same as last time, not the same as previous kinds of technology that changed the nature of work.”

9 June
There’s An AI Revolution Underway And It’s Happening In Canada
(Forbes) Canada has recognized that any new generation of startups will require some level of AI. Thus Canadian universities are lining up to produce graduates with degrees in computer science and analyticals—foundational skills for AI.
In Toronto, the recently announced Vector Institute aims to produce more deep learning grads than any other institution in the world. Not only did the institute get a more than $100 million boost from the government as part of Canada’s Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, more than 30 companies invested over $80 million to support Vector’s success. Vector joins other already strong institutions in Toronto, including Waterloo and Hamilton.
Montreal already had bragging rights as the home of one of the three “co-fathers” of deep learning technology, Yoshua Bengio. His work at the Université de Montréal gave birth to an AI ecosystem that is unrivalled. It includes the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms (MILA), the Institute for Data Valorisation (IVADO) and the recently launched Element AI (an artificial intelligence startup factory). These combined resources have made companies, including Google and Microsoft, take note and begin setting up shop in the northern city.

15 May
Global cyber attack slows; search on for hackers, motive
The global WannaCry “ransomware” cyber attack slowed on Monday, with no major infections reported, as global law enforcement agencies shifted their attention to finding the hackers who unleashed it.
The attack infected 300,000 machines in 150 countries, said Tom Bossert, U.S. President Donald Trump’s homeland security adviser. That would make it one of the fastest-spreading online extortion campaigns in history.
Stocks of cyber security companies surged as investors bet on governments and corporations spending to upgrade their defenses.

13 May
What We Know and Don’t Know About the International Cyberattack
Right Now: Computer security experts in up to 100 countries struggled on Saturday to contain the fallout from the audacious cyberattacks that demanded ransom from users with the threat that their data would be destroyed.
■ The spread of a “ransomware” attack against computer systems around the world affected the United States much less than other nations because a British cybersecurity researcher accidentally stopped the attack from spreading more widely, according to cybersecurity experts.
■ Hackers appeared to have exploited a flaw in Microsoft’s Windows operating system that was first discovered by the United States National Security Agency. The flaw and a tool to exploit it with malicious software were made public in April by a hacker collective known as Shadow Brokers.
■ Cybersecurity experts identified the malicious software as a variant of ransomware known as WannaCry. Workers at hospitals and companies across the globe were confronted with a message on their monitors that read, “Oops, your files have been encrypted!” and demanded $300 in Bitcoin, an anonymous digital currency preferred by criminals, to restore access.
With New Digital Tools, Even Nonexperts Can Wage Cyberattacks

12 May
Hackers Hit Dozens of Countries Exploiting Stolen N.S.A. Tool
(NYT) Hackers exploiting malicious software stolen from the National Security Agency executed damaging cyberattacks on Friday that hit dozens of countries worldwide, forcing Britain’s public health system to send patients away, freezing computers at Russia’s Interior Ministry and wreaking havoc on tens of thousands of computers elsewhere.
The attacks amounted to an audacious global blackmail attempt spread by the internet and underscored the vulnerabilities of the digital age.
By late Friday the attacks had spread to more than 74 countries, according to security firms tracking the spread. Kaspersky Lab, a Russian cybersecurity firm, said Russia was the worst-hit, followed by Ukraine, India and Taiwan. Reports of attacks also came from Latin America and Africa.

24 April
A startup invented this $10,000 house that can be built in one day
(Business Insider) A San Francisco-based housing startup called Apis Cor … recently built its first home near Moscow in just one day with $10,134 worth of materials.
The secret? A 3D-printing robot.
The company says building homes with the bot is more efficient and less expensive than relying on humans.

21-24 April
Every continent, and one Time Lord, turned out for the March for Science
(WaPost) Part celebration, part protest, the march stretched from the equator to the poles. In Uganda, marchers sported signs like “Science Rocks!” and “Science Is Nature.” Three days before the march, climate researchers held a March for Science banner aloft at the North Pole.

March for Science puts Earth Day focus on global opposition to Trump
More than 600 marches held around the world, with organizers saying science ‘under attack’ from a White House that dismisses the threat of climate change
(The Guardian) Hundreds of thousands of climate researchers, oceanographers, bird watchers and other supporters of science rallied in marches around the world on Saturday, in an attempt to bolster scientists’ increasingly precarious status with politicians.
The main March for Science event was held in Washington DC, where organizers made plans for up to 150,000 people to flock to the national mall, although somewhat fewer than that figure braved the rain to attend. Marchers held a range of signs. Some attacked Donald Trump, depicting the president as an ostrich with his head in the sand or bearing the words: “What do Trump and atoms have in common? They make up everything.”
More than 600 marches took place around the world, on every continent bar Antarctica, in events that coincided with Earth Day.
Trump released a statement that insisted his administration was committed to preserving the “awe-inspiring beauty” of America, while protecting jobs.
“Rigorous science is critical to my administration’s efforts to achieve the twin goals of economic growth and environmental protection,” Trump said. “My administration is committed to advancing scientific research that leads to a better understanding of our environment and of environmental risks.”

Global March for Science raises concern over Trump policies
(CBC) Marchers worried about what they see as an anti-science bias in U.S. administration
Canadian cities prepare to march for science
One of the key themes in the March for Science is that it is non-partisan but political. While that may seem like a contradiction, one of the organizers in Vancouver, explains:
“The erosion of science, or the denial of science isn’t a partisan issue,” said Sarah Topps. “Science isn’t something you can cherry pick; you have to take it as it is … we are appealing to politicians but we’re not specifically trying to target politicians of one group. We want all politicians to listen to this message.”

4 April
Canada aims to lead world in artificial intelligence
Government and private companies to invest C$170m in Toronto research institute
(Financial Times) The Vector Institute, which will be hosted by the University of Toronto, is backed by the governments of Ontario and Canada, and a string of private-sector companies.
Montreal’s fledgling AI community foresees billion dollar industry on horizon
Quebec injects seed money, aiming to become worldwide hub of artificial intelligence

Artificial Intelligence and Artificial Problems
By J. Bradford DeLong
The lesson from history is not that the robots should be stopped; it is that we will need to confront the social-engineering and political problem of maintaining a fair balance of relative incomes across society. Toward that end, our task becomes threefold.
(Project Syndicate) Former US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers recently took exception to current US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin’s views on “artificial intelligence” (AI) and related topics. The difference between the two seems to be, more than anything else, a matter of priorities and emphasis.
Mnuchin takes a narrow approach. He thinks that the problem of particular technologies called “artificial intelligence taking over American jobs” lies “far in the future.” And he seems to question the high stock-market valuations for “unicorns” – companies valued at or above $1 billion that have no record of producing revenues that would justify their supposed worth and no clear plan to do so.
Summers takes a broader view. He looks at the “impact of technology on jobs” generally, and considers the stock-market valuation for highly profitable technology companies such as Google and Apple to be more than fair.
In fact, it is profoundly unhelpful to stoke fears about robots, and to frame the issue as “artificial intelligence taking American jobs.” There are far more constructive areas for policymakers to direct their focus. If the government is properly fulfilling its duty to prevent a demand-shortfall depression, technological progress in a market economy need not impoverish unskilled workers.
This is especially true when value is derived from the work of human hands, or the work of things that human hands have made, rather than from scarce natural resources, as in the Middle Ages. Karl Marx was one of the smartest and most dedicated theorists on this topic, and even he could not consistently show that technological progress necessarily impoverishes unskilled workers.

18 March
Creative Destruction (CDL)
Billion-dollar breakout
Has this man discovered the formula for creating high-tech superstars? Sean Silcoff goes inside a bold experiment at the University of Toronto to find out
Ajay Agrawal [is] one of Canada’s foremost business academics and founder of Creative Destruction Lab (CDL), a ground-breaking program for startups housed at Rotman.
CDL has accomplished what few incubators of technology startups in Canada have managed to do, already making a major impact on a teeming startup ecosystem. Now in its fifth year, it has developed a promising method for helping early stage companies- many of them using AI and other leading-edge technology – to grow, flourish and attract private capital.

1 March
Oldest traces of life on Earth found in Quebec, dating back roughly 3.8 billion years
May aid in search for traces of life elsewhere in our solar system
(CBC) A team of international scientists has found the oldest record of life on Earth in Northern Quebec, dating back at least 3.8 billion years.
Our solar system formed about 4.6 billion years ago. Scientists believe that about 4.3 billion years ago, water already existed at the surface. However, what isn’t known is when the earliest life emerged. Recent research has found life at 3.4 billion years and, most recently 3.7 billion years.

The discovery was made in the Nuvvuagittuq Greenstone Belt in Northern Quebec in rock known as “banded iron formations.” These formations existed billions of years ago, a result of organisms reacting with dissolved iron in the water that covered the planet. They appear in rock as red or white layers.

15 February
These are the science concepts you need to know to understand political life in 2017
Faced with a bombardment of environmental data, our brains make constant unconscious judgments about what’s worth our attention. Confirmation bias is the flaw in our reasoning that impels us to seek information that supports our beliefs and discount or ignore that which doesn’t. It’s a constant presence in our politics, media, and personal relationships.
When it comes to science, confirmation bias can lead to flawed research and disastrous results. It’s the reason doctors are prone to overlook symptoms that undermine their diagnoses, or researchers dismiss as errors results that don’t support their hypotheses.

(Quartz) The move science is making from the ivory tower to the polis is not limited to the US; labs across the world are already taking in scientists made homeless (in the institutional sense) by Donald Trump’s immigration policies. And since Trump’s policies will inevitably impact global concerns ranging from climate change to the free movement of scientists who rely on cross-border collaborations, we should expect to see science take on a more political flavor all across the world in 2017.
Quartz has put together a compendium of the scientific concepts and terms that will be at the heart of these conversations—and will characterize the world of scientific discovery through the rest of the year.
“Skepticism,” according to the Skeptic Society, “is the application of reason to any and all ideas—no sacred cows allowed.” Reason in this context is the scientific kind. Skeptics don’t take claims at face value. They demand proof in the form of concrete evidence and replicable results. In that sense, every scientist is a skeptic.
Iatrogenesis, Greek for “brought forth by the healer,” … The phrase refers to any negative health effect on a person resulting from doctors or other health care workers promoting or applying services as beneficial to their health. … By some estimates, medical error is the third-leading cause of death in the US—and it has nothing to do with incompetence, laziness, or malevolence. Instead, it’s the result of doctors applying medical practices they think will work, but don’t.
the social cost of carbon is the measure of economic damage that each ton of carbon dioxide causes to society.
Clean coal is not a thing, it’s a process. … Clean-coal technology captures the carbon dioxide and buries it underground or puts it to some use. So far, carbon capture and storage, also called CCS, hasn’t taken off because it’s too expensive for commercial viability. But if the Trump administration is willing to admit climate change is real, and buys into the idea of a carbon tax—which takes into account the social cost of carbon, and which other Republicans are loudly supporting—it could make clean coal a realistic possibility.
We discovered the structure of DNA in 1953, and now we can manipulate it to create plants with exquisite properties, pig-human hybrids, and genetically modified babies. Next up: outsmarting evolution through a new technology called gene drives. If they are successful (and pass stringent ethics tests), we could use gene drives to wipe out whole species of mosquitoes. But as with any powerful technology, it’s also possible to use gene drives to do ill.

3 February
China’s Intelligent Weaponry Gets Smarter
(Futurist & NYT) Robert O. Work, the veteran defense official retained as deputy secretary by President Trump, calls them his “A.I. dudes.” The breezy moniker belies their serious task: The dudes have been a kitchen cabinet of sorts, and have advised Mr. Work as he has sought to reshape warfare by bringing artificial intelligence to the battlefield.
… the dudes told him, “the smartest guys are at Facebook and Google,” Mr. Work recalled in an interview.
Now, increasingly, they’re also in China. The United States no longer has a strategic monopoly on the technology, which is widely seen as the key factor in the next generation of warfare. Read more

5 January
IBM Reveals Five Innovations that will Help Change our Lives within Five Years
IBM Predicts New Scientific Instruments to Make the Invisible Visible
IBM unveiled today the annual “IBM 5 in 5”  – a list of ground-breaking scientific innovations with the potential to change the way people work, live, and interact during the next five years.
With AI, our words will open a window into our mental health
Hyperimaging and AI will give us superhero vision
Macroscopes will help us understand Earth’s complexity in infinite detail
Medical labs “on a chip” will serve as health detectives for tracing disease at the nanoscale
Smart sensors will detect environmental pollution at the speed of light

2016

2 November
The Atlantic Magazine November issue publishes an illustrated Pocket Guide to the Robot Revolution
Sorting the good from the bad, the creepy from the adorable

31 October
No One Saw Tesla’s Solar Roof Coming
The roof tiles are actually made of textured glass. From most viewing angles, they look just like ordinary shingles, but they allow light to pass through from above onto a standard flat solar cell. The plan is for Panasonic to produce the solar cells and for Tesla to put together the glass tiles and everything that goes along with them. That’s all predicated on shareholders approving the $2.2 billion acquisition of SolarCity, the biggest U.S. rooftop installer, on Nov. 17.
… The audience was able to step into a future powered entirely by Tesla: a house topped with sculpted Tuscan solar tiles, where night-time electricity is stored in two sleek wall-hung Powerwall batteries, and where a Model 3 prototype electric car sits parked out front within reach of the home’s car charger.

Strawmen and selective statistics: Did The New York Times botch its critique of GMO crops
(Genetic Literacy Project) A new article in the New York Times [“Doubts About the Promised Bounty of Genetically Modified Crops” by Dany Hakim”] has questioned the benefits associated with genetically engineered crops (which I’ll call GMOs for brevity). The response to the article has been pretty predictable; folks who don’t like GMOs are circulating it to say “I told you so.” And ag-twitter has exploded with claims that the New York Times is biased against the technology.
The article makes some reasonable points that GMO crops are not a ‘silver bullet’ cure all technology. But almost any reasonable person has already acknowledged that. In a nutshell, the article has 2 main conclusions: GMO crops don’t yield more, and GMO crops haven’t reduced pesticide use. These two items were initially claimed as reasons to invest in and adopt GMO crops, and for many years, we’ve been hearing about how these crops either have or have not met the initial expectations. Danny Hakim looked at some data and has come down pretty solidly on the side of “have not” met expectations. See also NPR: NY Times’ Danny Hakim under fire from scientists, farmer critics of his “GMOs are failing” report

25 October
Excellent news from our OWN good friend Bert Revanez of Ecometrica
Space data outfit boosts environmental monitoring
A Scottish software business is aiming to take the guesswork out of environmental monitoring after tapping into satellite data technology developed at the University of Edinburgh. Edinburgh-based Ecometrica has acquired the technology to interpret data collected by Europe’s Sentinel-1 satellite mission in a bid to predict floods, crop yields, forest protection and water stewardship.
Ecometrica chief executive Gary Davis said: “Imagery and data from Sentinel-1 has tremendous potential to be used commercially and for earth conservation. By making this data easily accessible, the possibilities are limitless.

24 October
With the failure of any expeditious clean-up of the October 13th Bella Bella Oil Spill, Pedro Gregorio reminds us that “there is a Canadian-invented oil spill cleaning technology that is easy to deploy and recovers up to 95% of spilled fuel without using any surfactants or other nasty additives. The system is a clever — purely mechanical — separation system that exploits natural buoyancy as a driving mechanism for separation of oil from water. It is scalable, can be retrofitted into a dedicated ship or deployed as a tow-behind barge. The technology has been in development for more than 20 years with excellent results including full-scale deployment in open waters. The system has yet to come to market for lack of investment. Meanwhile we pour tons of money into ineffective mitigation strategies that leave coastlines and ecosystems destroyed.” Extreme Spill Technology — Immediate Definitive Recovery of Oil Spills

14 October
Look up. There are 10 times more galaxies than once thought
(PBS) You think your attic’s full of stuff – try the universe. By remapping the deepest corners of the universe, scientists at Nottingham University in the U.K. now believe there are 10 times as many galaxies in the universe than previously thought. Their findings, reported this week in The Astrophysical Journal, recycle data collected over 20 years by one of the oldest man-made sentinels in space — the Hubble telescope — to offer new perspective on the observable universe.
“It boggles the mind that over 90 percent of the galaxies in the universe have yet to be studied. Who knows what interesting properties we will find when we observe these galaxies with the next generation of telescopes,” Christopher Conselice, an astrophysicist who led the study, said in a statement.

12 October
Dave Gershgorn on how the Obama administration sees the future of AI. “The White House imagines virtual personal assistants housed in smart glasses, automated factories that assist humans in complex building tasks, and systems that provide better data for farmers, all in the context that these could be job creators and not job stealers.”
The US government has been funding AI for 50 years, and just came up with a plan for its future
(Quartz) In two reports today, the White House outlined its strategy for promoting artificial intelligence research and development in the US. While most of the bigger questions were punted to future legislators (“more research is needed” is a key phrase), the executive branch did draw some lines in the sand. And most importantly to the research community, the White House is not pushing for AI to be broadly regulated—instead, the use of the technology will be held to specific standards in the automotive, aviation, and finance industries.
Three key guiding philosophies were presented across the reports: AI needs to augment humanity instead of replacing it, AI needs to be ethical, and there must be an equal opportunity for everyone to develop these systems.
wired-potus_cover-1These are subjects on US president Barack Obama’s mind, too—as he says in a well-timed feature in Wired magazine. “Most people aren’t spending a lot of time right now worrying about singularity—they are worrying about ‘Well, is my job going to be replaced by a machine?’” Obama said in the interview.
The President in Conversation With MIT’s Joi Ito and WIRED’s Scott Dadich
(Wired) IT’S HARD TO think of a single technology that will shape our world more in the next 50 years than artificial intelligence. As machine learning enables our computers to teach themselves, a wealth of breakthroughs emerge, ranging from medical diagnostics to cars that drive themselves. A whole lot of worry emerges as well. Who controls this technology? Will it take over our jobs? Is it dangerous? President Obama was eager to address these concerns. The person he wanted to talk to most about them? Entrepreneur and MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito. So I sat down with them in the White House to sort through the hope, the hype, and the fear around AI. That and maybe just one quick question about Star Trek. —Scott Dadich

27 August
It’s ‘digital heroin’: How screens turn kids into psychotic junkies
(New York Post) There’s a reason that the most tech-cautious parents are tech designers and engineers. Steve Jobs was a notoriously low-tech parent. Silicon Valley tech executives and engineers enroll their kids in no-tech Waldorf Schools. Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page went to no-tech Montessori Schools, as did Amazon creator Jeff Bezos and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales.
Many parents intuitively understand that ubiquitous glowing screens are having a negative effect on kids. We see the aggressive temper tantrums when the devices are taken away and the wandering attention spans when children are not perpetually stimulated by their hyper-arousing devices. Worse, we see children who become bored, apathetic, uninteresting and uninterested when not plugged in.
But it’s even worse than we think.
We now know that those iPads, smartphones and Xboxes are a form of digital drug. Recent brain imaging research is showing that they affect the brain’s frontal cortex — which controls executive functioning, including impulse control — in exactly the same way that cocaine does. Technology is so hyper-arousing that it raises dopamine levels — the feel-good neurotransmitter most involved in the addiction dynamic — as much as sex.
This addictive effect is why Dr. Peter Whybrow, director of neuroscience at UCLA, calls screens “electronic cocaine” and Chinese researchers call them “digital heroin.” In fact, Dr. Andrew Doan, the head of addiction research for the Pentagon and the US Navy — who has been researching video game addiction — calls video games and screen technologies “digital pharmakeia” (Greek for drug).

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