Society, Science & Technology August 2016-April 2020

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1 April 2020
Covid-19 Changed How the World Does Science, Together
(NYT) Never before, scientists say, have so many of the world’s researchers focused so urgently on a single topic. Nearly all other research has ground to a halt.
While political leaders have locked their borders, scientists have been shattering theirs, creating a global collaboration unlike any in history. Never before, researchers say, have so many experts in so many countries focused simultaneously on a single topic and with such urgency. Nearly all other research has ground to a halt.
Normal imperatives like academic credit have been set aside. Online repositories make studies available months ahead of journals. Researchers have identified and shared hundreds of viral genome sequences. More than 200 clinical trials have been launched, bringing together hospitals and laboratories around the globe.
“I never hear scientists — true scientists, good quality scientists — speak in terms of nationality,” said Dr. Francesco Perrone, who is leading a coronavirus clinical trial in Italy. “My nation, your nation. My language, your language. My geographic location, your geographic location. This is something that is really distant from true top-level scientists.”

26 March
Anthony Fauci Shows Us the Right Way to Be an Expert
He’s grounded in humility and humanity; he uses plain language; he admits uncertainties and failings; and he refuses to make the science overtly political
(Scientific American) Anthony Fauci has been an extraordinary presence during the COVID-19 crisis: calm yet urgent, informative yet plain-spoken. Along the way, he’s doing something even more difficult than explaining COVID-19. He’s providing insight about the role of the scientific expert in a liberal democracy.
Scientific experts are considerably diminished from what they were some decades ago, as our debates about climate change, vaccinations, genetically modified organisms and many other topics reveal. Archon Fung, a scholar of democratic governance at Harvard’s Kennedy School, describes our state of affairs as “wide aperture, low deference democracy”: almost everything is now up for public debate, even climate science, and those who have traditionally led such debates are losing their influence.
There are many reasons for the decline of experts. The new media environment, political polarization and growing economic inequality have all helped make the public suspicious of people seen as belonging to the existing power structure. We’re in an increasingly revolutionary mood. In politics and elsewhere, we’re attracted to ideas that seem to flout the rules.

16 March
Downloading the Human Brain to a Computer: Elon Musk’s Neuralink
Human testing of the noninvasive device could start as early as this year.
Neuralink is a company set up by Elon Musk in 2016 that is exploring the human brain and how it can be connected to a computer interface. Operating at a much smaller scale than Tesla or SpaceX, this conceptual startup aims to use this brain-machine interface to integrate humans with artificial intelligence by surgically implanting processors into our brains with a procedure that is said to be no more invasive than something like LASEK surgery.
… Brain-machine interfaces could help those who suffer from mobility disabilities gain better control of their lives, allowing them to communicate with loved ones in more dynamic ways or complete daily tasks that are otherwise almost impossible. Paralyzed humans would be able to control smart devices and computers.

A long, worthwhile read
Artificial intelligence in America’s digital city
(Brookings) Technology is essential to make cities work. While putting people in close proximity has certain advantages, there are also costs associated with fitting so many people and related activities into the same place. Whether it’s multistory buildings, aqueducts and water pipes, or lattice-like road networks, cities inspire people to develop new technologies that respond to the urban challenges of their day.
This brief explores how AI and related applications can address some of the most pressing challenges facing cities and metropolitan areas. Like every form of technology to proceed it, society must be intentional with the exact challenges we want AI to solve and be considerate of the social groups and industries who stand to benefit from the applications we deliver. While AI is just in its early development, now is the ideal time to bring that intentionality to urban applications. (30 July 2019)

“I think we’re named after computer passwords.”
Cartoon by Kaamran Hafeez and Al Batt

29 January
Automation and AI sound similar, but may have vastly different impacts on the future of work
As policymakers draw up potential solutions to protect workers from technological disruption, it’s important to keep in mind the differences between artificial intelligence and automation. Michael Gaynor provides an overview of each technology and their potential impacts on the labor market.
Last November, Brookings published a report on artificial intelligence’s impact on the workplace that immediately raised eyebrows. Many readers, journalists, and even experts were perplexed by the report’s primary finding: that, for the most part, it is better-paid, better-educated white-collar workers who are most exposed to AI’s potential economic disruption.
The difference in how we define automation versus AI is important in how we judge their potential effects on the workplace.
Automation is a broad category describing an entire class of technologies rather than just one, hence much of the confusion surrounding its relationship to AI. Artificial intelligence can be a form of automation, as can robotics and software—three fields that the automation report focused on. Examples of the latter two forms could be machines that scurry across factory floors delivering parts and packages, or programs that automate administrative duties like accounting or payroll.

28 January
Facebook will now show you exactly how it stalks you — even when you’re not using Facebook
(WaPo) The new ‘Off-Facebook Activity’ tool reminds us we’re living in a reality TV program where the cameras are always on. Here are the privacy settings to change right now.
You can see how Facebook is stalking you, too. The “Off-Facebook Activity” tracker will show you 180 days’ worth of the data Facebook collects about you from the many organizations and advertisers in cahoots with it. This page, buried behind lots of settings menus (here’s a direct link), is the product of a promise CEO Mark Zuckerberg made during the height of the 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal to provide ways we can “clear the history” in our accounts.

1 January
No imminent ‘doomsday’ threat of AI, robots replacing Canadian workers but report cites concerns
(CBC) Challenges include rural towns, online streaming, as 11% of jobs could be automated over next 15-20 years


30 December
10 AI trends to watch in 2020
What’s happening in artificial intelligence in the year ahead? Look for modeling at the edge, new attention to data governance, and continued talent wars, among key AI trends

Value in the Age of AI
Much has been written about Big Data, artificial intelligence, and automation. The Fourth Industrial Revolution will have far-reaching implications for jobs, ethics, privacy, and equality. But more than that, it will also transform how we think about value – where it comes from, how it is captured, and by whom.
In “Value in the Age of AI,” Project Syndicate, with support from the Dubai Future Foundation, GovLab (New York University), and the Centre for Data & Society (Brussels), will host an ongoing debate about the changing nature of value in the twenty-first century. In the commentaries below, leading thinkers at the intersection of technology, economics, culture, and politics discuss how new technologies are changing our societies, businesses, and individual lived experiences, and what that might mean for our collective future.

20 December
CBC Radio Spark:
How making AI do goofy things exposes its limitations
Musician-turned-researcher David Usher is exploring the human side of artificial intelligence
This exploration of the more philosophical side of artificial intelligence is at the heart of ReImagine AI, the Montreal-based artificial intelligence creative studio that Usher founded. The studio collaborates with university research labs and science centres across Canada to integrate human interaction into AI.

18 December
Get thee behind me, tech: putting humans before social media
Digital media theorist Douglas Rushkoff argues technology needs to optimize ‘human flourishing’

1 November
Google will acquire Fitbit for $2.1 billion in direct challenge to Apple
The deal puts Alphabet, Google’s parent company, in a race against Apple when it comes to tracking fitness and health data. Fitbit’s stock had surged as much as 30 percent earlier this week on reports that Alphabet had put in an offer. The deal is expected to close in 2020.
Regulators could be particularly interested in privacy: Google collects a trove of data about the users of its services — including its search and email systems — and smartphones and smart-home devices. In doing so, the company often has found itself in the crosshairs of Congress and a slew of government agencies around the world for failing to protect that personal information.
Fitbit, however, stressed that health and wellness data will not be used for Google ads.

31 October
Facebook and the “Free Speech” Excuse
(The New Yorker) For the first decade or so of his career, which also happened to be the first decade or so of his adult life, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and C.E.O. of Facebook, was able to move fast and break things—the news industry, for example—without being held to account for what he’d broken. He insisted repeatedly that Facebook was a platform, not a publisher. A publisher, after all, could be expected to make factual, qualitative, even moral distinctions; a publisher would have to stand behind what it published; a publisher might be responsible, reputationally or even legally, for what its content was doing to society. But a platform, at least according to the metaphor, was nothing but pure, empty space.
The metaphor doesn’t bear out, of course. Facebook has never been a neutral platform; it is a company whose business model depends on monitoring its users, modifying and manipulating their behavior, and selling their attention to the highest bidder.
Last month, Facebook announced a new policy regarding political ads. The policy is that politicians can say more or less whatever they want. “Our approach is grounded in Facebook’s fundamental belief in free expression,” Katie Harbath, the company’s policy director for global elections and a former employee of Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 Presidential campaign, wrote. Last week, testifying before Congress, Zuckerberg said, “Our policy is that we do not fact-check politicians’ speech. And the reason for that is that we believe that in a democracy it is important that people can see for themselves what politicians are saying.”
This rhetoric sounds nice—“free expression” and “in a democracy” are the phrasal equivalents of American-flag lapel pins—but it doesn’t amount to much. It’s one thing for Zuckerberg to build the world’s biggest microphone and then choose to rent that microphone to liars, authoritarians, professional propagandists, or anyone else who can afford to pay market rate. It’s another, more galling thing for him to claim that he is doing so for everyone’s benefit.

9 August
Huawei unveils smartphone OS to rival Google’s Android amid worldwide mistrust
(AP via Global) Huawei on Friday unveiled a smartphone operating system that it said can replace Google’s Android, adding to the Chinese tech giant’s efforts to insulate itself against U.S. sanctions.
The announcement of HarmonyOS highlights the growing ability of Huawei, the No. 2 global smartphone brand and biggest maker of network gear for phone carriers, to create technology and reduce its reliance on American vendors.

30 March
E is for ethics in AI — and Montreal’s playing a leading role
(Montreal Gazette) Montreal has already positioned itself as a global artificial intelligence hub. Now the push is on to make it the place where the ethical framework for its responsible development is shaped.
The use of AI is growing rapidly and the technology is becoming more sophisticated. As it is adopted into more and more areas, the risk that AI could cause harm is growing. Some of those risks, experts say, are already here.
The ethical AI movement is being fuelled by both the private sector and people affiliated with universities — although in the world of AI, those two spheres tend to overlap.
It’s partially an effort to encourage the people developing AI systems, and the companies commercializing them, to start thinking about the ethical implications of their work. It’s also a way to get out ahead of government in an effort shape the regulatory framework that could eventually govern the use of AI.

21 March
(The Hatley Report) Every year, it’s become an informal tradition for one industry to be chosen to receive a large amount attention and cash in the budget. This year, that industry is *drum roll* artificial intelligence. The government of Quebec has allocated $329.3 million to, among other things, speed up the adoption of artificial intelligence in Quebec companies. In addition, IVADO LABS, SCALE.AI and MILA are all going to receive government support. The goal is to consolidate Quebec’s leadership in the AI global ecosystem.

The Economist: Silicon Valley is where the brainiest ideas meet the smartest money. Even so, if you want to understand where the world’s most powerful industry is heading, look not to Washington and California, but to Brussels and Berlin. Our cover this week reports on how the European Union is pioneering a distinct tech doctrine that aims to give individuals control over their own information and the profits from it, and to prise open tech firms to competition. The EU is edging towards cracking the big-tech puzzle in a way that empowers consumers, not the state or secretive monopolies. If it finds the answer, Americans should not hesitate to copy it.

What if AI isn’t taking your job but doing the drudge work so you can work on the stuff you enjoy?
(The Atlantic: sponsored content)  A recent survey of manufacturing and service industries from Tata Consultancy Services found that companies currently use AI more often in computer-to-computer activities than in automating human activities. One common application? Preventing electronic security breaches, which, rather than eliminating IT jobs, actually makes those personnel more valuable to employers, because they help firms prevent hacking attempts. … “Every white-collar job can be done better with the aid of AI,” says Pedro Domingos, author of The Master Algorithm: How the Quest for the Ultimate Learning Machine Will Remake Our World and a computer science professor at the University of Washington. “AI replaces the boring parts — the part of your job that’s routine grunt work,” he says, while it also allows for more scale. “If you’re doing research, you can have AI go out and look for relevant sources and information that otherwise you just wouldn’t have time for.”

24 January
Automation and Artificial Intelligence: How machines are affecting people and places
(Brookings) The report focuses on areas of potential occupational change rather than net employment losses or gains. Special attention is applied to digging beneath national top-line statistics to explore industry, geographical, and demographic variations. Finally, the report concludes by suggesting a comprehensive response framework for national and state-local policymakers.

10 January
Trump shutdown hits science with stalled research, missed conferences
(Axios) The partial government shutdown, now in its third week, is taking an increasingly heavy toll on some of the nation’s premier science agencies and those that depend on them for their work, funding and in some cases, safety.
Why it matters: The U.S. faces increasing pressure from abroad, particularly from China, to maintain its leadership edge in innovation. The shutdown is hitting numerous science-focused agencies, including the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Standards and Technology, NOAA, NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey.
Between the lines: This week, there are two annual scientific conferences taking place in the U.S. that typically draw top federal science experts: The American Meteorological Society’s annual meeting, and the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society.
The impact on the weather conference in particular is notable: Out of about 4,000 participants, 700 federal experts were forced to cancel their trips at the last minute due to lack of funding, resulting in about 800 canceled presentations.


7 Arguments Against the Autonomous-Vehicle Utopia
All the ways the self-driving future won’t come to pass
(The Atlantic) Self-driving cars are coming. Tech giants such as Uber and Alphabet have bet on it, as have old-school car manufacturers such as Ford and General Motors. But even as Google’s sister company Waymo prepares to launch its self-driving-car service and automakers prototype vehicles with various levels of artificial intelligence, there are some who believe that the autonomous future has been oversold—that even if driverless cars are coming, it won’t be as fast, or as smooth, as we’ve been led to think. The skeptics come from different disciplines inside and out of the technology and automotive industries, and each has a different bear case against self-driving cars. Add them up and you have a guide to all the ways our autonomous future might not materialize.

13 June
Carolina A. Miranda: The Unbearable Awkwardness of Automation
The machine age is changing the nature of work. In the process, it is also transforming buildings, and making them less hospitable for human use.
(The Atlantic) The ATM is one of the most visible and familiar symbols of automation, its 24-hour service demanding neither coffee breaks nor health insurance. Two years after the first one appeared in England, a similar machine debuted at a branch of Chemical Bank (now Chase) on Long Island. Today there are more than 3 million globally, according to the ATM Industry Association. They have reshaped how people bank: anytime and anywhere, and mostly in locations that aren’t even banks.
It’s not just banks. Automation has also changed how people shop, park, fly, and more. In the process, it has reshaped the architecture that contains those experiences—making them more efficient, often, but also putting machines above people.

18 May
The robots are coming. Artificial intelligence and digital automation are no longer science fiction—and they’re changing the concept of jobs. In a new Brookings Cafeteria Podcast, Darrell West raises important questions about how new technologies will transform society, the economy, and politics. Take a deeper dive on the transition to a digital economy with his new book, “The Future of Work.”

5 March
Nouriel Roubini really does not like blockchain technology!
The Blockchain Pipe Dream
(Project Syndicate) Even after a sharp correction earlier this year, the price of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies has remained unsustainably high, and techno-libertarians have continued to insist that blockchain technologies will revolutionize the way business is done.
In reality, blockchain is one of the most . For starters, blockchains are less efficient than existing databases. When someone says they are running something “on a blockchain,” what they usually mean is that they are running one instance of a software application that is replicated across many other devices.

26 January
Blockchain’s Broken Promises
By Nouriel Roubini
(Project Syndicate) Boosters of blockchain technology compare its early days to the early days of the Internet. But whereas the Internet quickly gave rise to email, the World Wide Web, and millions of commercial ventures, blockchain’s only application – cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin – does not even fulfill its stated purpose.

19 January
The high-tech coating that makes ketchup, toothpaste and glue glide out of the container
(PBS Newshour) Getting ketchup out of the bottle wasn’t always so smooth or easy. But a coating material called LiquiGlide, originally invented to solve a problem in the oil industry, cuts the natural friction and tension between liquids and solids, allowing you to get out every last drop of toothpaste, cream cheese or paint. …
Smith developed a formula that can predict and build coatings for any solid surface. Once sprayed, LiquiGlide adheres so firmly to the bottle that it can’t seep into the container’s contents.
But, as a precaution, the coatings they use for food applications are edible and FDA-approved. They founded a start-up in 2012 and their sprayable coatings now help squeeze out the stickiest stuff, toothpaste, cream cheese, paint. Even Elmer’s Glue uses LiquiGlide.
LiquiGlide won’t work for every pocketbook. Uniformly applying a coating becomes tricky for larger containers. And specialized coatings are more expensive than materials like plain old glass. So, right now, LiquiGlide is best suited for smaller containers or situations where you can easy respray it, like with industrial bins.
Back at Kripa’s lab, a new legion of grad students is conquering other interfaces. Say you’re tired of flight delays due to ice-covered planes.
Henri-Louis Girard:
“If you have icing rain, for instance, on a wing, the time that it’s going to spend on the surface will determine whether it ices or it doesn’t.
So we want to minimize the time that it spends on the surface. And the way we do that is that we create microscopic ridges on the surface. And if we impact a drop now on the middle of the ridge, we can see that it breaks up in two parts that will bounce off independently.
And because these two parts are smaller than the initial drop, they bounce off faster. And this is because when the drop bounces, it actually acts like a spring that gets compressed when it expands and then retracts. And smaller drops act like smaller springs that are actually stiffer than the larger drop. And stiffer springs will bounce off faster.”

16 January
Beyond the Bitcoin Bubble
Yes, it’s driven by greed — but the mania for cryptocurrency could wind up building something much more important than wealth.
(NYT Magazine) … after a period of experimentation in which we dabbled in social-media start-ups like Myspace and Friendster, the market settled on what is essentially a proprietary standard for establishing who you are and whom you know. That standard is Facebook. With more than two billion users, Facebook is far larger than the entire internet at the peak of the dot-com bubble in the late 1990s. And that user growth has made it the world’s sixth-most-valuable corporation, just 14 years after it was founded. Facebook is the ultimate embodiment of the chasm that divides InternetOne and InternetTwo economies. No private company owned the protocols that defined email or GPS or the open web. But one single corporation owns the data that define social identity for two billion people today — and one single person, Mark Zuckerberg, holds the majority of the voting power in that corporation.


The 25 Most High-Tech Cities in the World
(Fortune, August 2017)

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.

2 November
The Next Big Cyberattack Could Turn America’s Lights Off
Security experts say there’s evidence Russian hackers have breached U.S. utilities and nuclear power plants
(Bloomberg) …the kind of attack that companies will finally take seriously, something like the one in Ukraine, is coming. Security experts call such a hack cyberphysical, meaning it spills into the real world, causing property damage and perhaps deaths. Experts have already found evidence that the hackers responsible for Ukraine’s outages have been quietly rolling into the systems that run U.S. energy grids. On Oct. 20, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security issued an alert warning of a “multistage intrusion campaign” aimed at industrial control systems in critical infrastructure, including in “the energy, water, aviation, nuclear, and manufacturing sectors.”
U.S. companies are woefully unprepared. Industrial control systems have been connected to the internet in recent years, with little thought given to securing them. Many software systems patch security holes daily; at power plants, well-known vulnerabilities may not be fixed for years, partly because there still isn’t a consensus on whether the manufacturer, installer, or utility operator bears responsibility for updating the software, says Marina Krotofil, a Ukrainian-born FireEye analyst. “There was no security in the past, because there was no need,” she says. Many critical infrastructure systems, including natural gas pipelines and storage, are almost entirely unregulated in the digital realm.

18 October
New ETF has robots pick investments
(Reuters) The AI Powered Equity Exchange-Traded Fund, which launched in the United States on Wednesday, will use IBM Corp’s Watson artificial intelligence technology to pick several dozen stocks with potential to beat the market, the fund’s backers say.
The actively managed fund chooses stocks based on a set of rules created by EquBot LLC that uses artificial intelligence to analyze up to 10 years of data on thousands of stocks, including market sentiment, regulatory filings, news articles and social media posts.

12 September
We rely on the internet during a crisis. So what if the next crisis threatens the internet?
The work of technologists and activists in this particular moment requires a careful, crucial balancing act: to use technology to simultaneously attend to the real-time urgent needs of day-to-day crisis while demanding and building something more than a politics of perpetual triage.
(Quartz) During Hurricane Harvey, cell service and 4G/LTE were crucial to rescue efforts, which were in part facilitated on social-media platforms like Facebook and a walkie-talkie emulating app called Zello. Through these digital tools, decentralized networks of volunteers emerged to quickly provide the support that federal agencies and the Red Cross all too often fail to deliver.
While it’s inspiring to see individuals with smartphones step in as first responders, in the absence of a functional network and electricity, those smartphones aren’t much more than a neat assembly of toxic rocks. There’s an eerie irony to the promise that consumer electronics make in helping navigating volatile environments: Though these devices and platforms are intrinsic to the physical world, they tend to be marketed and perceived as entirely external to the environment. Advertising campaigns promote laptops and phones as tools that float in an infinite void, divorced from the realities of manufacturing, infrastructure, and politics. In the face of an uncertain world, the charismatic megainfra of the Google data center endures, an alien stalwart among fields and forests.

7 September
Equifax Says Cyberattack May Have Affected 143 Million in the U.S.
(NYT) Equifax, one of the three major consumer credit reporting agencies, said on Thursday that hackers had gained access to company data that potentially compromised sensitive information for 143 million American consumers, including Social Security numbers and driver’s license numbers.
The attack on the company represents one of the largest risks to personally sensitive information in recent years, and is the third major cybersecurity threat for the agency since 2015.
Equifax, based in Atlanta, is a particularly tempting target for hackers. If identity thieves wanted to hit one place to grab all the data needed to do the most damage, they would go straight to one of the three major credit reporting agencies. (CBC) Equifax says 143 million U.S. consumers may have been affected in cyberattack – Personal information of some Canadians accessed

10 August
(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


The Administration’s 2016 Report on the Future of Artificial Intelligence

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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