|Volume 20, Number 11 – 08/01/17 |
FUTURE FACTS – FROM THINK LINKS
DID YOU KNOW THAT–
Reaching toward a cure for major types of blindness, researchers have hacked the cells of a mouse retina to grow new neurons and wire those neurons up to other neurons that send signals to the brain.
Self-driving cars may soon be able to make moral and ethical decisions as humans do.
Half of all plastic that has ever existed was made in the past 13 years
The U.S. military believes people have a sixth sense.
India Is Digitalizing Everything from Cash to Citizen Identification – (Futurism – July 3, 2017)
Last November, as part of a controversial master plan to make India a cashless and digitized society, the Prime minister Narendra Modi announced that Rs500 and Rs1,000 (worth about $7 and $14 respectively) notes were to be demonetized, which effectively stripped the value of 86% of the country’s circulating cash. The move was one of the last stages of the plan, after the groundwork had been laid by introducing the Aadhaar biometric (fingerprints and retinal scans) database, which gave 95% of the population a digital proof of identity in 2016. Aadhaar was augmented by India Stack, which allowed people to store and share information such as addresses, bank statements, employment records, and tax filings — all of which were ratified by the Aadhaar system. The key aspect of India Stack was giving everyone in the country access to one of 11 Payment Banks which could manage payments and transfers but not issue loans. Eliminating cash forced people to adopt this new digital infrastructure, causing 270 million people to open bank accounts and 10 billion dollars to be deposited in the first three years — this generated momentum for what may evolve into the first cashless society in the world. The worldwide ramifications of India’s digitization are serious. Raoul Pal, former manager of GLG Global Macro Fund, wrote in an editorial for Mauldin Economics, “It may well be a bitcoin killer or at best provide the framework for how blockchain technology could be applied in the real world.” Even if it does not herald the end of bitcoin, the move will prove an interesting experiment to observe for other countries looking to go cashless, such as Sweden, which has seen a 40% reduction in cash and coin in circulation. See also this article in the Washington Post: What the U.S. can learn from India’s move toward a cashless society. (Editor’s note: This is a much more significant issue/trend than it might seem at first glance: this creates an integrated, totally cross-referencing, and traceable system for all electronic activity and forces people to use it – and in India there are already issues around the potential for identity theft. If you have time for only one article in this issue, read the Washington Post article.)
An Amazon Echo Can’t Call the Police—But Maybe It Should – (Wired – July 16, 2017)
Despite what you may have heard, an Amazon Echo did not call the police earlier this week, when it heard a husband threatening his wife with a gun in New Mexico. The Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department reported, specifically, that when a man drew a gun on his wife in a home where an Amazon Echo was placed, he said to her, “Did you call the sheriffs?” and the Echo misinterpreted that as a command to call the sheriffs, who then showed up at the front door. The authorities later clarified that someone in the house could be heard in the 911 recording yelling, “Alexa, call 911.” This could not have happened as described. While they can make calls, an Alexa-powered device can only call another Alexa-powered device. Not only that, but it can only call other Alexa devices that have enabled calling, and have been added to your contact list. Most importantly, these exchanges don’t take place over the public switched telephone network, the worldwide network that allows wireless or land phones to actually make calls. Someone did call the police that day. It just wasn’t Alexa. That doesn’t invalidate a central question though, especially as Amazon Echo, Google Home, and their offshoots increasingly gain abilities and become more integral to everyday life: How intrusive do you want to let these devices be? Should they be able to call the police? Maybe not even just when specifically prompted, but because they may have heard, for instance, a gunshot? Alexa’s current calling limitations won’t last forever. The Echo’s biggest competitor, Google’s Home, will soon allow you to call any number in the US using the device–except for 911, or 1-900 numbers. The holdup seems to be largely regulatory; according to Federal Communications Commission spokesman Mark Wigfield, providing 911 services means adhering to a host of technical regulations, everything from making sure all 911 calls route through the right call center, to making sure each one transmits the correct location of the caller. Additionally, devices that make 911 calls must also be able to receive incoming calls, so police can call back. Those hurdles currently prevent Google and Amazon from offering a direct emergency line. But they can, and likely will, be overcome at some point.
Ravens Are Ridiculously Smart, Seem to Be Able to Plan for the Future – (Huffington Post – July 15, 2017)
The dazzling intelligence of corvids — the family that includes ravens and crows — is well-documented. Studies have suggested that corvids rival chimps in cognitive self-control. Ravens can imagine being spied on, and crows display puzzle-solving skills comparable to those of apes and human children. Research published in the journal Science adds even more evidence to the pile. Scientists from Sweden’s Lund University found that ravens appear to have the ability to plan for the future. The researchers note in their paper that the ravens’ performance bore “conspicuous similarities” to the abilities of great apes in similar tasks. One major reason all of this is so interesting ― besides the sheer awesomeness of how smart ravens are ― is that it suggests these complex cognitive abilities would have to have evolved independently of the abilities of mammals like apes and humans. That’s because apes and ravens have not shared a common ancestor for around 320 million years. For that reason, the scientists wrote that their research “opens up avenues for investigation into the evolutionary principles of cognition and shows what the brains of some birds are capable of.”
Ravens Are So Smart, One Hacked This Researcher’s Experiment – (Motherboard – July 13, 2017)
Here’s a post script to the article above: The researchers from Lund University in Sweden trained ravens to use a simple machine where they dropped a rock in a tube to earn a food reward. Later, they were put in a room with the puzzle box (but no rock), which was then removed. An hour later, the birds were presented with a row of objects: the rock, and several distractions. Nearly all of them chose the rock, and 86% managed to successfully use it to open the machine when it was presented to them 15 minutes later. But at one point, the experiment took an eerie turn: One raven figured out how to work the rock/box contraption first, then began teaching the method to other ravens, and finally invented its own way of doing it. Instead of dropping a rock to release a treat, the future Ruler of the Raven Kingdom constructed a layer of twigs in the tube, and pushed another stick down through the layer to force it open. The bird had to be removed from the experiment before it could teach any other birds how to do it.
Scientists Find Key ‘Friendliness’ Genes That Distinguish Dogs from Wolves – (LA Times – July 21, 2017)
Your dog is basically a super social wolf, and scientists may have found the gene that makes him want to cuddle with you. A new study shows that friendliness in dogs is associated with the same genes that make some people hyper-social. The study, published in the journal Science Advances, found that structural variations in three genes on chromosome 6 are correlated with how much canines socialize with humans. An analysis of DNA from two dozen animals revealed that these genes look very different in dogs than they do in wolves. Mutations in the same genes are also linked with a rare developmental disorder in humans called Williams-Beuren Syndrome, or WBS. People with WBS are typically hyper-social, meaning they form bonds quickly and show great interest in other people, including strangers. Other symptoms include developmental and learning disabilities as well as cardiovascular problems. “Many dogs maintain their puppy-like enthusiasm for social interactions throughout their life, whereas wolves grow out of this behavior and engage in more mature, abbreviated greetings as they age,” said Monique Udell, who studies animal behavior at Oregon State University and co-authored the new study. “One might think of how a young child greets you versus a teenager or adult relative.” These behaviors are typical of what scientists call domestication syndrome, and researchers have noticed them in other kinds of domesticated animals as well. But they don’t fully understand how the underlying genetic changes develop.
3D-printed Artificial Heart Beats Just Like the Real Thing – (New Atlas – June 14, 2017)
The devices currently used to pump blood around the body in lieu of a healthy heart have their drawbacks. Whether huge washing machine-sized devices that keep patients anchored to a hospital bed or mechanical implants that cause other complications, there is plenty of room for improvement. With this in mind, scientists have now developed a soft silicone heart that beats much like the real thing, and could provide a safer and more comfortable way to keep the blood pumping. Artificial hearts and other devices designed to keep blood flowing typically take the place of damaged heart, while the patient awaits a donor organ or for their own heart to recover. There is a great need for new devices in this area, as on any given day, around 3,000 people in the US alone sit on the waiting list for a heart transplant. This led scientists at ETH Zurich to create an artificial heart out of silicone that is designed to mimic the natural heart as closely as possible. Just like the real thing, it has a right and left ventricle, which is separated by a chamber that serves as the organ’s muscle. As the chamber is inflated and deflated by pressurized air, it pumps the fluid from the chambers. There is one pretty serious limitation, however, in that the material can only withstand around 3,000 beats which equates to around 30 to 45 minutes of usage. With that said, the team says this proof of concept shows a possible path forward when it comes to artificial hearts. Click here for more information on the technical aspects of printing a heart.
Humans Enter a Vulcan-like Mind Meld When Conversing – (New Atlas – July 20, 2017)
In the Star Trek universe, Vulcans would sometimes bust out one of their most impressive abilities: the mind meld. In this maneuver, the Vulcan would form a mental bond with someone else, and the two would sync up to the point that they basically shared one consciousness. Researchers at the Basque Centre on Cognition, Brain, and Language (BCBL) in Spain have now shown that humans do something a bit similar – just by having a conversation. While the team there didn’t quite uncover our latent psychic abilities, they did discover that when two people hold a conversation, their brain waves synchronize. To carry out its research, the team placed pairs of people on either side of an opaque partition and had them hold a scripted conversation. The people in the study were strangers to each other and they were all same-sex pairs. They also took turns as both the listener and the speaker. All the participants were connected to electroencephalography (EEG) machines which monitored the electrical activity of their brains through electrodes placed on their scalps. Sure enough, once the conversation began, the researchers were able to see that the pair’s brainwaves fell in synch. The effect was so pronounced, in fact, that the researchers say they can now actually tell if two people are communicating simply by looking at their EEG results. While we might never achieve Vulcan-like psychic abilities, studies like these are indeed slowly unraveling the brain’s complex role in our ability to communicate. A technique known as transcranial magnetic stimulation, which involves the application of a painless magnetic coil to the back of the skull has already been shown to be effective in direct brain-to-brain communication, as well as allowing test subjects the seemingly superhuman ability of playing a video game without even looking at the screen.
First Evidence for Higher State of Consciousness Found – (Medical Express – April 19, 2017)
Scientific evidence of a ‘higher’ state of consciousness has been found in a study led by the University of Sussex. Neuroscientists observed a sustained increase in neural signal diversity – a measure of the complexity of brain activity – of people under the influence of psychedelic drugs, compared with when they were in a normal waking state. The diversity of brain signals provides a mathematical index of the level of consciousness. For example, people who are awake have been shown to have more diverse neural activity using this scale than those who are asleep. This, however, is the first study to show brain-signal diversity that is higher than baseline, that is higher than in someone who is simply ‘awake and aware’. Previous studies have tended to focus on lowered states of consciousness, such as sleep, anaesthesia, or the so-called ‘vegetative’ state. Professor Anil Seth, Co-Director of the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science at the University of Sussex, said: “This finding shows that the brain-on-psychedelics behaves very differently from normal. “During the psychedelic state, the electrical activity of the brain is less predictable and less ‘integrated’ than during normal conscious wakefulness – as measured by ‘global signal diversity’. “Since this measure has already shown its value as a measure of ‘conscious level’, we can say that the psychedelic state appears as a higher ‘level’ of consciousness than normal – but only with respect to this specific mathematical measure.”
Physicists Try to Revive a Super-Safe, Decades-Old Cancer Treatment – (Wired – July 21, 2017)
For the last six years, Robert Johnson, a physicist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has been working on a machine that shoots protons through the human skull. His goal: to use protons instead of conventional X-rays to take 3-D images inside cancer patients. Proton therapy fights cancer by bombarding tumors with, well, protons. But before doctors send in the protons, they have to design a treatment plan based on a 3-D image of the tumor. Right now, these images are CT scans, which see inside a patient with X-rays. From that scan, doctors calculate how much energy the protons need to hit the tumor—a complicated sequence of conversions and estimates to translate an image into a treatment. That’s where Johnson’s prototype comes in. If you have a proton-based image, you can skip those conversions and design a more precise, more effective treatment plan, Johnson says. Advocates of proton therapy say that it’s the most advanced form of radiation therapy today. In many ways, it’s safer and more effective than chemotherapy and conventional X-ray-based radiation therapy. Protons don’t really damage healthy tissue, because doctors can target them to release most of their energy at a specific depth inside the patient. “You don’t get any damage beyond the tumor itself,” says Bill Hansen, the director of proton therapy marketing at Varian, a company that makes cancer therapy machines for hospitals. Critics of proton therapy, however, say it’s highway robbery. Proton therapy machines are behemoths that require a circular particle accelerator the size of a room and expensive superconducting magnets. All together, they can cost $20 million or more—about 10 times the cost of a conventional X-ray radiation machine. While Medicare does cover proton therapy, some patients have trouble getting insurance companies to cover it because of its cost.
To Find a Cure For Blindness, These Scientists Are Mimicking Fish Eyes – (Fast Company – July 26, 2017)
Retinas, the image sensors of the eye, don’t heal after damage from an injury or a genetic disease—at least not in mammals like humans. But the retinas in some fish do regenerate. Researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle reported that, using an anti-cancer drug, they have hacked the cells of a mouse retina to act like those of a fish—not only growing new neurons, but also wiring those neurons up to other neurons that send signals to the brain. This is a major step, though far from the last, toward restoring sight in people who have lost it due to retina damage from genetic diseases like retinitis pigmentosa, age-related diseases like macular degeneration, or side effects of diseases like diabetes. Retina damage isn’t the biggest causes of blindness. That would be cataracts, which affect the eye’s lens. But cataracts are curable with routine surgery; retina damage is incurable.
Half of All Plastic That Has Ever Existed Was Made in the Past 13 Years – (Atlantic – July 19, 2017)
In 2014, scientists found a new kind of “stone” on the beaches of Hawaii. It was made of sand, organic debris, volcanic rock, all swirled together with melted plastic. So they proposed the name “plastiglomerate” and they suggested that, as plastic lasts pretty much forever, these stones could be a marker of the anthropocene in the rock record. In the future, our time might be defined by our use of plastics. Which is not particularly hard to imagine, given the ubiquity of plastics. Now, for the first time, researchers have published a sweeping, public, and in-depth accounting of all plastic that has ever been made in the entire world. The number is so big as to defy human comprehension: 8,300 million metric tons since 1950. Of this, 6,400 million metric tons has outlived its usefulness and become waste; 79% of that waste is sitting in landfills or the natural environment, 12% has been incinerated, and just 9% has been recycled. Donald Loepp, editor of the industry paper Plastics News, called the study an “impressive report.” It’s something that many people have speculated about, he says, but no one had published such a thorough accounting until now. Perhaps the most eye-popping statistic in the study is how quickly plastic production has been accelerating in just this millennium. The world has made as much plastic in the past 13 years it did in the previous half century. “I think [that’s] the number that captures it best,” says Roland Geyer, an industrial ecologist at the University of California Santa Barbara and an author on the study. It’s worth considering how much the rise of plastic is tied to the rise of oil and gas. Around this time, the U.S. began using a lot more oil. Oil is easy to make into plastic, and it is cheap to do so. These economic forces helped create a new category of product: the disposable, single-use plastic packaging.
Japan Captures More Photographs of Likely Melted Fukushima Fuel – (Bloomberg – July 22, 2017)
Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings Inc., Japan’s biggest utility, has released images of mounds of black rock and sand-like substances at the bottom of the No. 3 reactor containment vessel at Fukushima, which is likely to contain melted fuel, according to Takahiro Kimoto, an official at the company. A survey on Friday found black icicles hanging from the above pressure vessel, which was “highly likely” to contain melted fuel. Kimoto noted it would take time to confirm whether this debris contains melted fuel. If confirmed, these pictures would be the first discovery of the fuel that melted during the triple reactor accident at Fukushima six years ago. For Tokyo Electric, which bears most of the cleanup costs, the discovery would help the utility design a way to remove the highly-radioactive material. The pictures were taken by a Toshiba-designed robot the company sent to explore the inside of the reactor for the first time from July 19. The robot, 12 inches long, that can swim in the flooded unit was tasked with surveying the damage inside and also finding the location of corium, which is a mixture of the atomic fuel rods and other structural materials that forms after a meltdown. Decommissioning the reactors will cost $72 billion, according to an estimate in December from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. Removing the fuel is one of the most important steps in a cleanup that may take as long as 40 years.
Arctic Sea Ice Update–May 2017 – (Not A Lot of People Know That – June 5, 2017)
Arctic sea ice extent continues to run well above the level of the last two years. Much more significantly though, the average extent for the whole of May was the highest since 2013, and was also higher than 2004 and 2006. As for the Antarctic, although sea ice extent has been running at below average this year, it is still higher than in 1980 and only slightly less than 1986. Despite the downward trend since 1979, it is clear that May extent has stabilized for the last decade and more. Temperatures across the Arctic have been below average throughout May, 2017. The rest of the information in this article is presented in graphic/map format.
Arctic Warming Reverse! New Study Finds Winter Arctic Sea Ice “To Increase Towards 2020” – (No Trick Zone – June 23, 2017)
It is not uncommon to hear from Europe’s media that climate change is to blame whenever a weather anomaly occurs on the old continent. The reason for the climate change of course gets attributed to man and fossil fuel emissions. Therefore, it is all the more interesting that a new paper has just been published, telling us Europe’s climate is foremost driven by ocean cycles. In a paper by Marius Årthun et al appearing in Nature Communication titled: Skillful prediction of northern climate provided by the ocean, researchers checked whether anomalous heat in the Gulf Stream’s northern extension provided predictability of northwestern European and Arctic climate. Result: “Variations in ocean temperature in the high latitude North Atlantic and Nordic Seas are reflected in the climate of northwestern Europe and in winter Arctic sea ice extent” and that “a significant part of northern climate variability thus can be skillfully predicted up to a decade in advance based on the state of the ocean”. No, not CO2. What does it mean for the immediate climate future? The paper’s abstract writes: Particularly, we predict that Norwegian air temperature will decrease over the coming years, although staying above the long-term (1981–2010) average. Winter Arctic sea ice extent will remain low but with a general increase towards 2020.” If the authors are correct, it’s obvious that for the next few years CO2 will not be able to prevent Norway from cooling and winter Arctic sea ice from growing. That means the ocean is a more powerful driver. The Arctic obviously is strongly connected to the oceans, much more so than some alarmist scientists would have us believe. The authors also make further interesting points that certainly should be a surprise to those stuck on rapid manmade warming and ice melt. They write: “Our sea ice prediction is furthermore in agreement with recent model results predicting a rebound in winter sea ice extent as a result of decreased poleward heat transport.” According to the authors, the North Atlantic has been cooling recently, a trend which is “predicted to continue over the coming years” and that “a further cooling of Norwegian SAT [surface air temperature] might therefore be expected” beyond their prediction horizon.
A Smart Fish Tank Left a Casino Vulnerable to Hackers – (CNN – July 19, 2017)
Most people know about phishing — but one casino recently learned about the dangers of actual fish tanks. Hackers attempted to steal data from a North American casino through a fish tank connected to the internet, according to a report from security firm Darktrace. Despite extra security precautions set up on the fish tank, hackers still managed to compromise the tank to send data to a device in Finland before the threat was discovered and stopped. “Someone used the fish tank to get into the network, and once they were in the fish tank, they scanned and found other vulnerabilities and moved laterally to other places in the network,” Justin Fier, director for cyber intelligence and analysis at Darktrace, explained. The fish tank was connected to the internet to automatically feed the fish and keep their environment comfortable — but it became a weak link in the unnamed casino’s security.
You Could Own the World’s First Glasses-Free Holographic Phone by Early 2018 – (Futurism – July 7, 2017)
Professional digital camera maker RED just announced that it’s building the Hydrogen One, and they’re calling it the world’s first “holographic” phone. It is expected to have a retina-display screen that can switch from 2D content to “holographic multi-view content, 3D content, and interactive games.” “It’s no longer necessary to carry (or charge) another device to enjoy multi-dimensional content,” RED said in a press release. “Experience ‘look around depth’ in the palm of your hand, no glasses or headsets in sight.” As for specs, details are limited. What we know is that the Hydrogen One would be a 5.7-inch phone that runs Android and has a headphone jack. It comes in a low-tier version, priced at $1,195, and a higher-end one at $1,595. The phone’s expected to ship by early 2018. Most hologram technology today still requires a separate viewing device, but some studies are working toward projected holography — RED just may have already figured it out.
Will Electric Cars Soon Have Solar Roofs? Toyota and Tesla Say Yes. – (Think Progress – May 7, 2017)
An advanced solar panel system will debut on the 2017 model Toyota Prius plug-in hybrid in Japan (the Prius Prime). It is “the first commercially available, mass-produced passenger car to feature an optional solar charging system,” PV magazine explained. Previously, rooftop solar cells had outputs of only “several tens of watts.” So they were used only for ventilating parked cars and “auxiliary charging” of the standard 12-Volt lead-acid battery. But improvements in solar efficiency combined with advanced design and “technologies to laminate three-dimensional curved glass” have allowed a high output — some 180 watts, which is more than triple the output of the previous solar roof. As a result, this battery can charge the lithium-ion powertrain batteries, providing up to an additional 3.7 miles of range on a sunny day. That may not seem like a lot, but it is a large fraction of the daily commute of a great many people, which could result in a big boost for fuel efficiency. Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted in November that he wanted a solar roof option for the Model 3, Tesla’s affordable long-range electric car. Since Panasonic has famously partnered with Tesla on its Gigafactory — and since Tesla has already developed an all-glass roof for its Model S that gets a five star rating in rollover testing — advanced solar-roof technology may make it into U.S. showrooms quite sooner.
Self-driving Cars May Soon Be Able to Make Moral and Ethical Decisions as Humans Do – (Science Daily – July 5, 2017)
Contrary to previous thinking, a ground-breaking new study has found for the first time that human morality can be modeled meaning that machine based moral decisions are, in principle, possible. The research from The Institute of Cognitive Science at the University of Osnabrück, and published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, used immersive virtual reality to allow the authors to study human behavior in simulated road traffic scenarios. The participants were asked to drive a car in a typical suburban neighborhood on a foggy day when they experienced unexpected unavoidable dilemma situations with inanimate objects, animals, and humans and had to decide which was to be spared. The results were conceptualized by statistical models leading to rules, with an associated degree of explanatory power to explain the observed behavior. The research showed that moral decisions in the context of unavoidable traffic collisions can be explained well, and modeled, by a single value-of-life for every human, animal, or inanimate object. The study’s findings have major implications in the debate around the behavior of self-driving cars and other machines, like in unavoidable situations. Prof. Gordon Pipa, a senior author of the study, says that since it now seems to be possible that machines can be programmed to make human like moral decisions it is crucial that society engages in an urgent and serious debate, “we need to ask whether autonomous systems should adopt moral judgments, if yes, should they imitate moral behavior by imitating human decisions, should they behave along ethical theories and if so, which ones and critically, if things go wrong who or what is at fault?”
SECURITY AND THE FUTURE OF WARFARE
The U.S. Military Believes People Have a Sixth Sense – (Time – April 3, 2017)
In 2014, the Office of Naval Research (ONR) embarked on a four-year, $3.85 million research program to explore the phenomena it calls premonition and intuition, or “Spidey sense,” for sailors and Marines. “We have to understand what gives rise to this so-called ‘sixth sense,’ says Peter Squire, a program officer in ONR’s Expeditionary Maneuver Warfare and Combating Terrorism department. Today’s Navy scientists place less emphasis on trying to understand the phenomena theoretically and more on using technology to examine the mysterious process, which Navy scientists assure the public is not based on superstition. The Pentagon’s focus is to maximize the power of the sixth sense for operational use. Because of the stigma of ESP and PK, the nomenclature has changed, allowing the Defense Department to distance itself from its remote-viewing past. Under the Perceptual Training Systems and Tools banner, extrasensory perception has a new name in the modern era: “sensemaking.” In official Defense Department literature sensemaking is defined as “a motivated continuous effort to understand connections (which can be among people, places, and events) in order to anticipate their trajectories and act effectively.”
Kalashnikov’s New Autonomous Weapons and the “Terminator Conundrum” – (New Atlas – July 20, 2017)
Earlier this month, the Russian weapons manufacturer Kalashnikov Group made a low-key announcement with frightening implications. The company revealed it had developed a range of combat robots that are fully automated and used artificial intelligence to identify targets and make independent decisions. The revelation rekindled the simmering, and controversial, debate over autonomous weaponry and asked the question, at what point do we hand control of lethal weapons over to artificial intelligence? While the United Nations are currently forming a group to discuss the possibility of introducing a potential ban on AI-controlled weaponry, Russia is already about to demonstrate actual autonomous combat robots. A few days after Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the weapons manufacturer Kalashnikov Group, inventor of the AK-47, known as the most effective killing machine in human history, came the following announcement: “In the imminent future, the Group will unveil a range of products based on neural networks,” said Sofiya Ivanova, the Group’s Director for Communications. “A fully automated combat module featuring this technology is planned to be demonstrated at the Army-2017 forum,” she added. This weaponized “combat module” can apparently identify targets and make decisions on its own. See also: US general warns of out-of-control killer robots.
TRENDS OF GOVERNANCE
Mexico City Is Killing Parking Spaces. Pay Attention, America – (Wired – July 25, 2017)
Mexico City just made it easier for real estate developers to avoid building parking. Mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera Espinosa this month announced a new policy that limits how many parking spaces builders can build. He hopes to spur development, which sounds counterintuitive. Without parking spaces, where will commuters rest their rides? But it turns out sprawling parking lots and looming garages can actually create more traffic and make housing less affordable and city streets more difficult to navigate. By limiting the growth of its parking infrastructure, the largest city in North America thinks it can return some balance to its urban ecosystem. Listen up, United States: Your southerly neighbors might be on to something. Mexico City, population 9 million, is a typical booming, developed city. Much like its crowded American neighbors—San Francisco, New York, Miami, Houston—newcomers have rushed to live in its center, increasing rental prices on the city’s limited housing stock. Parking exacerbates this imbalance. The city’s old rules said developers had to build a certain number of parking spots for every square foot they constructed. And you know where displaced people can’t live? Parking spots. The kicker: The cost of that infrastructure, about $10,000 per parking space, gets passed on to renters, whether they own a car or not. (About 70% of Mexico City residents don’t.)That’s why cities the world over have gotten creative about fighting parking. London got rid of parking minimum regulations in 2004, and the number of parking spaces fell by 40%. The Obama administration recommended pulling a similar move in housing development recommendations released last year.
Pope Francis Allies Accuse Trump White House of ‘Apocalyptic Geopolitics’- (Guardian – July 13, 2017)
An explosive article written by two close associates of Pope Francis has accused Steve Bannon, the chief White House strategist, of espousing an “apocalyptic geopolitics” whose roots are “not too far apart” from that of Islamist extremism. The article in La Civiltà Cattolica, which is vetted by the Vatican before publication, lays out a scathing critique of “evangelical fundamentalism” in the US, arguing that, on issues ranging from climate change to “migrants and Muslims”, proponents of the ideology have adopted a twisted reading of scripture and the Old Testament that promotes conflict and war above all else. Bannon, the former editor of the rightwing Breitbart News website, is Catholic, and while he is only briefly mentioned in the article, the piece undoubtedly takes aim at the Trump White House. It claims that fake religious arguments are being used to demonize segments of the population – particularly when it comes to migrants and Muslims – and to promote the US as a nation that is blessed by God, without ever taking into account the “bond between capital and profits and arms sales”.
When Kafka Met Orwell: Arrest by Algorithm – (Mondoweiss – July 3, 2017)
In April 2017, an extraordinary claim of the Israeli security services was published in Ha’aretz (Hebrew): over 400 Palestinians had been detained under suspicion they may be involved in future terrorist attacks. They were detained not on the basis of evidence, but on the decision made by an algorithm. The practice grew out of a security issue for the Israeli authorities. The so-called “Intifada of the Individuals”, beginning in late 2015, presented the ISA (Israeli Security Agency, AKA Shin Beth) with a quandary. The ISA had spent decades dismantling Palestinian society via a network of informers and intimidation, but those tools, while very useful against any sort of a cell organization, proved helpless in the face of individuals who decided to go on an attack on a whim. It took the service a few months to recalibrate, and then – most likely with the assistance of Israel’s version of the National Security Agency, the vaunted Unit 8200 – it began analyzing the social media profiles of Palestinians, and deriving from them a series of indicators which, when aggregated, produced a profile of a possible attacker. In the past few years, algorithms have also been used to predict the likelihood of a convict returning to crime, and those results were used to determine whether that person is worthy of parole. Those systems, when checked, often showed proof of bias – for instance, against African Americans in the United States. At least the systems used by the American justice system can be challenged; US courts are now dealing with several appeals by prisoners whose sentencing or parole refusal were determined by algorithms. But when it comes to the military justice system as applied to Palestinians, the situation becomes much more twisted than in the U.S. Who precisely is going to oversee a system developed and used by the ISA?
LIFE STYLE/SOCIAL TRENDS AND VALUES
RVs Are Back and Bigger Than Ever – (CNN – July 12, 2017)
Sales of recreational vehicles are at genuinely never-before-seen record levels. And buyers are getting younger. The RV category includes both motorhomes and trailers of all sizes. Last year, 430,000 recreational vehicles of all kinds were sold, according to the RV Industry Association, an increase of 15% over the year before. And sales have been rising year after year following a one-year decline in 2009, during the financial crisis. Some of that has to do with low gas prices and easy credit. But ironically, the flood of new technology — smart phones, 4G data connections and so forth — has also helped drive the trend. It’s made driving around the country for weeks at a time a much less daunting prospect. And now the people who grew up with technology are now reaching RV-buying age. More than half of RV buyers are under the age 45, according the RV Industry Association. Rising motorhome sales are a boon for automakers, too. Ford Motor Co., for instance, makes the chassis, engines and transmissions for most of the motorhomes sold in America. That business has been booming, Ford says. And Kampgrounds of America, with its famous KOA RV campgrounds, reports that business is the best it’s ever been in the company’s 57 years. Now the industry is working on exports. As of now, the vast majority of RV’s exported from the United States never go farther than Canada. But industry representatives are working hard to get China into camping.
Many People Can’t Tell When Photos Are Fake. Can You? – (Washington Post – July 17, 2017)
We are a society drowning in doctored photos. Strategically touched-up profiles on dating websites. Magazine covers adorned with pixel-shaved jaws and digitally enhanced busts. Twitter feeds ablaze with images manipulated for maximum outrage. So amid this fakery and our obsession these days with “fake news,” just how good are we at separating fact from fiction when it comes to photos? Not good at all, says Sophie J. Nightingale, who researches cognitive psychology at the University of Warwick in England. In a test designed by Nightingale and taken by more than 700 men and women, participants could tell an image was faked only 60% of the time — a little better than if they guessed completely at random. And with the correct picks, only 45% of participants could pinpoint what had been changed in a photo. (Men were slightly more adept at finding the specific change.) Our susceptibility to manipulated images is especially worrying when it comes to news. During the terrorism attacks that killed 130 people in Paris in 2015, for example, a Canadian Sikh was falsely accused of being one of the attackers after a photo went viral, doctored to make him look like he was wearing a suicide bomb vest. A Spanish newspaper published the picture on its front page and later apologized. Less than a year later, the photo started circulating again after another terrorism attack in Nice. “Many feel we should be more aware of fake photos,” said Nightingale who is especially worried about the implications of fake photos in court, where images are often used as evidence. “But if you just go around telling people don’t trust anything, then people will lose all faith in images, which is equally problematic. At the moment, when it comes to fake photos, we have a lot more problems than solutions, I’m afraid.” See also: How Fake Images Change Our Memory and Behavior and How to Spot Faked Photos Using Digital Forensic Techniques.
CONTACT AND THE EXPLORATION OF SPACE
Powerful Cosmic Explosion May Hint at How Black Holes Form – (Space – July 26, 2017)
An international team of researchers looked at a gamma-ray explosion called GRB 160625B that brightened the sky in June 2016. Gamma-ray bursts are among the most powerful explosions in the universe, but they are typically tough to track because they are very short-lived (sometimes lasting just a few milliseconds). “Gamma-ray bursts are catastrophic events, related to the explosion of massive stars 50 times the size of our sun,” said Eleonora Troja, lead author of the new study and an assistant research scientist in astronomy at University of Maryland. “If you ranked all the explosions in the universe based on their power, gamma-ray bursts would be right behind the Big Bang.” Two key findings emerged from the observations, gathered using several ground- and space-based telescopes. The first was better model of what happens as a dying star collapses. The data suggests that the black hole creates a strong magnetic field that initially overwhelms jets of matter and energy formed because of the explosion. Then, the magnetic field breaks down, the study authors said. In the next phase, the magnetic field diminishes, allowing matter to dominate the jets. Before, scientists thought that jets could be dominated only by the magnetic field or matter — not both. Another insight concerns what kind of radiation is responsible for the bright phase at the beginning of the burst, which astronomers call the “prompt” phase. Before, several types of radiation were considered, including so-called blackbody radiation (heat emission from an object) and inverse Compton radiation (which happens when accelerated particles transfer energy to photons), according to the statement. It turns out that a phenomenon called synchrotron radiation is behind the prompt phase. This kind of radiation happens when electrons accelerate in a curved or spiral pathway, propelled along by an organized magnetic field.
Five Numbers That Will Define the Next 100 Years – (BBC News – March 30, 2017)
What the five numbers concern isn’t that surprising: total global population, average age, percentage of people living in urban areas, relative weighting of global energy sources, and percentage of jobs at risk due to automation. What will be surprising is how those five issues will intersect, where those guesses will turn out to be somewhat off and why, and what “black swan” statistic is not even on this list. But no article can offer that information; to find that out, you’ll have to live into the future.
Sperm Concentration Has Declined 50% in 40 Years in Three Continents – (Washington Post – July 25, 2017)
The quality of sperm from men in North America, Europe and Australia has declined dramatically over the past 40 years, with a 52.4% drop in sperm concentration. The research — the largest and most comprehensive look at the topic, involving data from 185 studies and 42,000 men around the world between 1973 and 2011 — appears to confirm fears that male reproductive health may be declining. The state of male fertility has been one of the most hotly debated subjects in medical science in recent years. While a number of previous studies found that sperm counts and quality have been falling, some dismissed or criticized the studies over factors such as the age of the men included, the size of the study, bias in counting systems or other aspects of the methodologies. However, Shanna H. Swan, one of the authors of the new study published in the Human Reproduction Update, said that the new meta-analysis is so broad and comprehensive, involving all the relevant research published in English, that she hoped it would put some of the uncertainty to rest. Then the scientific community could move forward into putting its resources into figuring out the why of what is going on, she said. The analysis found drops only for men in Europe, North America and Australia and not for those in South America, Asia and Africa. Swan explained that this could mean that there’s something specific to certain cultures or regions that affects sperm, but that it’s also possible that there just isn’t enough data yet to draw firm conclusions about the rest of the world.
NEW TOOLS/NEW PROCESSES
DeepMind Has Taught an AI to Do Something Quite Remarkable – (Futurism – July 11, 2017)
Google’s artificial intelligence subsidiary DeepMind has released a paper detailing how its AI agents have taught themselves to navigate complex virtual environments, and the results are weird, wonderful, and often extremely funny. The agents in the simulations were programmed with a set of sensors— these allowed them to know things like when they were upright or if their leg was bent — and a drive to continue moving forward. Everything else that you see in the video — the agents’ jumping, running, using knees to scale obstacles, etc. — is the result of the AI working out how best to continue moving forward through reinforcement learning. These agile AIs aren’t the first to impress, though. A DeepMind AI has previously illustrated super-human performance levels on an object recognition task, and a team at the University of Cambridge has developed an AI system capable of performing more abstractly cerebral tasks, such as reading emotions and detecting pain levels.
Caterpillar Backs Bricklaying Robot with $2 Million Investment – (New Atlas – July 3, 2017)
The world is another step closer to a bricklaying robot that can build the framework of a house in less than three days. Caterpillar has invested US$2 million in Fastbrick Robotics, the Australian company behind the builder bot. Named Hadrian X, the quick-laying bricklayer is built on a 30 m (98 ft) boom arm attached to a truck. A 3D CAD model of the house is fed into the system, and following those instructions, the robot is able to cut and place up to 1,000 bricks per hour, taking into account doors, windows, features and channels for electrical wiring and plumbing. Thin bed mortar or other adhesives are delivered through the boom head.
Three Square Market Becomes First US Company to Offer Implanted Microchips to All Employees – (Tech Republic – July 24, 2017)
Three Square Market (32M) expects about 50 staff members to be voluntarily chipped at company headquarters in River Falls, WI on August 1st. The chips will be implanted between an employee’s thumb and forefinger underneath the skin, in a process that only takes seconds. Employees will be able to scan their chips to make purchases in the office break room, open doors, operate copy machines, log into computers, unlock phones, share business cards, store medical information, and act as payment at other RFID terminals, 32M CEO, Todd Westby said in the press release. “Eventually, this technology will become standardized allowing you to use this as your passport, public transit, all purchasing opportunities, etc. We see chip technology as the next evolution in payment systems, much like micro markets have steadily replaced vending machines. As a leader in micro market technology, it is important that 32M continues leading the way with advancements such as chip implants.” If you are not familiar with the term “micro market”, see this.
Your Roomba May Be Mapping Your Home, Collecting Data That Could Be Sold – (New York Times – July 25, 2017)
Your Roomba may be vacuuming up more than you think. High-end models of Roomba, iRobot’s robotic vacuum, collect data as they clean, identifying the locations of your walls and furniture. This helps them avoid crashing into your couch, but it also creates a map of your home that iRobot is considering selling to Amazon, Apple or Google. Colin Angle, chief executive of iRobot, said that a deal could come in the next two years. In the hands of a company like Amazon, Apple or Google, that data could fuel new “smart” home products. “When we think about ‘what is supposed to happen’ when I enter a room, everything depends on the room at a foundational level knowing what is in it,” an iRobot spokesman said in a written response to questions. “In order to ‘do the right thing’ when you say ‘turn on the lights,’ the room must know what lights it has to turn on. Same thing for music, TV, heat, blinds, the stove, coffee machines, fans, gaming consoles, smart picture frames or robot pets.” But the data, if sold, could also be a windfall for marketers, and the implications are easy to imagine. No armchair in your living room? You might see ads for armchairs next time you open Facebook. Did your Roomba detect signs of a baby? Advertisers might target you accordingly. See also: Roomba CEO Swears That He Will Never Sell Maps of Users’ Homes, So Help Him God. (Editor’s note: Whether Roomba sells ever sells data or not, please note the potential for your smart equipment to generate saleable data.)
Who’s Getting Killed Today? – (Times Literary Supplement – June 28, 2017)
If one trait has marked the so-called War on Terror, it is the unthinking abnegation of various long-settled human rights rules – among them, the right to due process and a fair trial – by politicians who seem immune to the lessons of history. Liberty is initially eroded at the margins, but in recent years long-developed principles have been washed away in the neap tide of populism. Decades (or centuries) of evolving law were tossed aside by George W. Bush’s administration on the assumption that “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” (EHT) would somehow obtain useful intelligence. While neither George W. Bush nor Donald J. Trump appears to believe that waterboarding, for example, qualifies as torture, the Inquisition was more honest, calling it tortura del agua (water torture). It was the Gestapo that called it verschärfte Vernehmung, which translates as “enhanced interrogation”. Thus, even as we slowly limit the official use of capital punishment, executions without trial are on the rise. At Reprieve – a international human rights organization founded in 1999 – we have begun a project to expose the burgeoning business of official assassinations: there are 783 names on a copy of President Bashar al-Assad’s kill list; in a book with the fantastically appropriate title Un Président ne devrait pas dire ça (Things a President Should Never Say, 2016), the former French President François Hollande admits he authorized four assassinations; the Russians slip Polonium into the tea of their enemies in London; the Americans have their kill lists; and even NATO has the Joint Prioritized Effects List (JPEL) of people labeled extremists on the borders of Afghanistan and Pakistan, compiled by the United States along with a number of European allies, all of whom strongly disapprove of the death penalty.
A Brutal Intelligence: AI, Chess, and the Human Mind – (LA Review of Books – June 29, 2017)
This article is a thoughtful review of the former world chess champion Garry Kasparov’s illuminating new memoir Deep Thinking. One of the greatest and most intimidating players in the history of the game, Kasparov was defeated in a six-game bout by the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue in 1997. Deep Blue beat Kasparov not by matching his insight and intuition but by overwhelming him with blind calculation. Particularly fruitful has been the deployment of search algorithms similar to those that powered Deep Blue. If a machine can search billions of options in a matter of milliseconds, ranking each according to how well it fulfills some specified goal, then it can outperform experts in a lot of problem-solving tasks without having to match their experience or insight. The pragmatic turn in AI research is producing many such breakthroughs, but this shift also highlights the limitations of artificial intelligence. Through brute-force data processing, computers can churn out answers to well-defined questions and forecast how complex events may play out, but they lack the understanding, imagination, and common sense to do what human minds do naturally: turn information into knowledge, think conceptually and metaphorically, and negotiate the world’s flux and uncertainty without a script. And despite monumental advances in hardware and software, computers give no sign of being any nearer to self-awareness, volition, or emotion. Their strength — what Kasparov describes as an “amnesiac’s objectivity” — is also their weakness.
The 10 Biggest Moral Dilemmas in Science – (New Scientist – no date)
Minimizing suffering. Maximizing happiness. Saving the planet. Looking after future generations. Worthy goals all, but what happens when they come into conflict? Science and technology are constantly pitting our values against each other. In this special feature, we’ve selected 10 particularly burning dilemmas. What makes them so thorny, what ethical principles are at stake – and what should we do?
FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH – articles off the beaten track which may – or may not – have predictive value.
Why Is There a Gender Gap in Side Hustles? – (Fast Company – July 26, 2017)
Though more people are earning some form of secondary income, research suggests that men and women often have different motivations when pursuing a side hustle. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the number of Americans with more than one job hit a two-decade peak in 1995, with more than 6.8% of workers holding a second job, before declining steadily until a low of 5% in 2013. A recent survey of 2,000 Americans by the recruiting platform Jobvite, however, has found that nearly a quarter of working Americans earn some form of secondary income. Researchers suggest that the rapid increase in side hustling is a result of a number of recent developments that have made earning a secondary income more appealing, necessary, and attainable than ever before. The skyrocketing debt levels of American students, averaging more than $37,000 last year, are leading many graduates to pursue a side hustle to pay down their student loans. With nearly half of millennials switching jobs every one to three years, secondary incomes have also become more necessary to help bridge the gap between full-time roles. Furthermore, the past few years have seen an explosion in digital tools that make a side income more attainable than ever, ranging from sharing economy platforms like Uber and Airbnb to freelance platforms like UpWork and 99 Designs. A Jobvite survey found that 61% of women with a side hustle indicated that they pursued a second source of income because they needed the money, compared with 48% of men. At the same time 31% of men with a side gig report being primarily motivated by passion, compared with only 19% of women. Another recent study conducted by consumer financial services provider Bankrate, which found that nearly 70% of women use their secondary income to help pay for expenses, compared with only 42% of men. Though neither study was able to provide a precise reason for the discrepancy, researchers have considered a number of explanations.
JUST FOR FUN
14 Great Banksy Street Art Photos and Quotes – (Street Art Utopia – 7 years ago)
Banksy’s street art/graffiti is wryly insightful and beautifully executed. Arguably the most controversial street artist in the world, Banksy has developed an entire art subculture devoted to his works. His identity remains unknown, even after over 20 years of being involved with the graffiti scene. His work includes many powerful, often controversial images, many of which may also be found throughout the Internet as viral images. Click here for a few more of his images and here for a longer bio of Banksy.
A FINAL QUOTE
The future influences the present just as much as the past. ~ Friedrich Nietzsche
A special thanks to: Chas Freeman, Ursula Freer, Alain Nu, Diane Petersen, Gary Sycalik, Steve Ujvarosy and all of you who have sent us interesting links in the past. If you see something we should know about, do send it along – thanks.
Edited by John L. Petersen
A Vision for 2012: Planning for Extraordinary Change
by John L. Petersen
Former senator and presidential candidate Gary Hart has said “It should be required reading for the next President.”
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