FUTURE FACTS – FROM THINK LINKS
DID YOU KNOW THAT–
- Malta has appointed an AI Task Force and posited as one of its initial goals to create a definite roadmap toward citizenship for AIs.
- ‘Mini brains’ grown in a dish have spontaneously produced human-like brain waves for the first time.
- Australia cut 80% of its plastic bag use in just three months.
- Walmart is going to use Oculus Go headsets to train its employees.
by John L. Petersen
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Toward Democratic, Lawful Citizenship for AIs, Robots, and Corporations – (Singularity Net – November 5, 2018)
The Hanson Robot Sophia, with whose development the author of this article has been intimately involved via their role as Chief Scientist of Hanson Robotics, was granted citizenship of Saudi Arabia this year. This was an exciting landmark event, however, its significance is muddled a bit by the fact that Saudi Arabia is not governed by rule of law in the modern sense. Since then, the author of this article has talked to numerous people involved with various governments about figuring out how to make robots and other AIs citizens in the context of modern legal codes and generally getting reactions of enthusiastic interest and zero practical activity (governments tend to be good at that!). Malta, on the other hand, has appointed an AI Task Force led by the Junior Minister for Financial Services, Digital Economy and Innovation Silvio Schembri, and posited as one of the initial goals of the AI Task Force to create a definite roadmap toward citizenship for AIs. So over the next year, SingularityNET colleagues will be working closely with the Malta AI Task Force to come to a common understanding of what AI citizenship should mean, and how one might evaluate whether an AI is competent to be considered a citizen of Malta. This article goes on to examine some of these issues.
Strange Waves Rippled around the World, and Nobody Knows Why – (National Geographic – November 28, 2018)
On the morning of November 11, just before 9:30 UT, a mysterious rumble rolled around the world. The seismic waves began roughly 15 miles off the shores of Mayotte, a French island sandwiched between Africa and the northern tip of Madagascar. These waves didn’t just zip by; they rang for more than 20 minutes. And yet, it seems, no human felt them. There was no big earthquake kicking off the slow waves. Adding to the weirdness, Mayotte’s mystery waves are what scientists call monochromatic. Most earthquakes send out waves with a slew of different frequencies, but Mayotte’s signal was a clean zigzag dominated by one type of wave that took a steady 17 seconds to repeat. “It’s like you have colored glasses and [are] just seeing red or something,” says Anthony Lomax, an independent seismology consultant. Only one person noticed the odd signal on the U.S. Geological Survey’s real-time seismogram displays. An earthquake enthusiast who saw the curious zigzags posted images of them to Twitter. That small action kicked off another ripple of sorts. Researchers are still chasing down the geologic conundrum.
The Human Origin Story Has Changed Again, Thanks to New Discovery in Algeria – (GizModo – November 29, 2018)
The discovery of 2.4-million-year-old stone tools and butchered bones at a site in Algeria suggests our distant hominin relatives spread into the northern regions of Africa far earlier than archaeologists assumed. The find adds credence to the newly emerging suggestion that ancient hominins lived—and evolved—outside a supposed Garden of Eden in East Africa. In 2006, Mohamed Sahnouni, the lead author of the new study and an archaeologist at Spain’s National Research Center for Human Evolution, found some intriguing artifacts at a site called Ain Boucherit in northeastern Algeria near the city of El-Eulma. These items were embedded in a sedimentary layer exposed by a deep ravine. Two years later, Sahnouni found another layer at the site, one even older. From 2009 until 2016, his team meticulously worked at Ain Boucherit, uncovering a trove of stone tools and butchered animal remains. Using multiple dating techniques, Sahnouni and his colleagues dated the two stratigraphic layers, dubbed AB-Up and AB-Lw, at 1.9 million and 2.4 million years old, respectively. The items within these two layers are now the oldest known artifacts in North Africa, the previous oldest being 1.8-million-year-old stone tools found in the late 1990s at a nearby site called Ain Hanech. To put these dates into perspective, our species, Homo sapiens, emerged 300,000 years ago. So the unknown hominins who built these tools were romping around eastern and northern Africa some 2.3 million years before modern humans hit the scene. The new discoveries at Ain Boucherit suggest North Africa wasn’t just a place where human ancestors lived and developed tools—it was a place where they evolved.
New Theory Could Explain Missing 95% of the Cosmos – (PhysOrg – December 5, 2018)
Dr. Jamie Farnes from the Oxford e-Research Centre, Department of Engineering Science, and his team may have solved one of the biggest questions in modern physics, with a new paper unifying dark matter and dark energy into a single phenomenon: a fluid which possesses ‘negative mass.” If you were to push a negative mass, it would accelerate towards you. This astonishing new theory may also prove right a prediction that Einstein made 100 years ago. The existence of negative matter had previously been ruled out as it was thought this material would become less dense as the Universe expands, which runs contrary to our observations that show dark energy does not thin out over time. However, Dr. Farnes’ research applies a ‘creation tensor,” which allows for negative masses to be continuously created. It demonstrates that when more and more negative masses are continually bursting into existence, this negative mass fluid does not dilute during the expansion of the cosmos. In fact, the fluid appears to be identical to dark energy. Dr. Farnes’s theory also provides the first correct predictions of the behavior of dark matter halos. Most galaxies are rotating so rapidly they should be tearing themselves apart, which suggests that an invisible ‘halo’ of dark matter must be holding them together. The new research features a computer simulation of the properties of negative mass, which predicts the formation of dark matter halos just like the ones inferred by observations using modern radio telescopes. Albert Einstein provided the first hint of the dark universe exactly 100 years ago, when he discovered a parameter in his equations known as the ‘cosmological constant,” which we now know to be synonymous with dark energy.
GENETICS / HEALTH TECHNOLOGY / BIOTECHNOLOGY
Australian Researchers Develop 10-minute Cancer Test – (CNN – December 5, 2018)
A 10-minute test that can detect the presence of cancer cells anywhere in the human body was developed after researchers from the University of Queensland found that cancer forms a unique DNA structure when placed in water. “Discovering that cancerous DNA molecules formed entirely different 3D nanostructures from normal circulating DNA was a breakthrough that has enabled an entirely new approach to detect cancer non-invasively in any tissue type including blood,” said Professor Matt Trau. Cancer alters the DNA of healthy cells, particularly in the distribution of molecules known as methyl groups, and the test detects this altered patterning when placed in a solution such as water. “Using … a high-resolution microscope, we saw that cancerous DNA fragments folded into three-dimensional structures in water. These were different to what we saw with normal tissue DNA in the water,” the article explains. The test uses gold particles, which bind with cancer-affected DNA and “can affect molecular behavior in a way that causes visible color changes.” The 10-minute test developed in Australia is yet to be used on humans and large clinical trials are needed before it can be used on prospective patients. Tests on more than 200 tissue and blood samples detected cancerous cells with 90% accuracy, the researchers said. So far it’s only been used to detect breast, prostate, bowel and lymphoma cancers but they’re confident the results can be replicated with other types of the disease. The next step for the team is to stage clinical studies into how early cancer can be detected, and whether the test can be used to gauge the effectiveness of treatment. They’re also looking into the possibility of using different bodily fluids to detect different cancer types from early to the later stages of the disease.
Lab-grown ‘Mini Brains’ Produce Electrical Patterns That Resemble Those of Premature Babies – (Nature – November 15, 2018)
‘Mini brains’ grown in a dish have spontaneously produced human-like brain waves for the first time — and the electrical patterns look similar to those seen in premature babies. The advancement could help scientists to study early brain development. Research in this area has been slow, partly because it is difficult to obtain fetal-tissue samples for analysis and nearly impossible to examine a fetus in utero. Many researchers are excited about the promise of these ‘organoids’, which, when grown as 3D cultures, can develop some of the complex structures seen in brains. But the technology also raises questions about the ethics of creating miniature organs that could develop consciousness. A team of researchers led by neuroscientist Alysson Muotri of the University of California, San Diego, coaxed human stem cells to form tissue from the cortex. By six months, the organoids were firing at a higher rate than other brain organoids previously created, which surprised the team. The EEG patterns were also unexpected. In mature brains, neurons form synchronized networks that fire with predictable rhythms. But the organoids displayed irregular EEG patterns that resembled the chaotic bursts of synchronized electrical activity seen in developing brains. When the researchers compared these rhythms to the EEGs of premature babies, they found that the organoids’ patterns mimicked those of infants born at 25–39 weeks post-conception. The researchers plan to explore whether these structures function like a normal cortex by hooking them up to organoids that simulate other parts of the brain or body. Although the work is preliminary the similarities to preterm infant EEG patterns suggest that the organoids could eventually be useful for studying brain-development disorders, such as epilepsy or autism.
The End of Chemotherapy? Scientists Discover All Cancerous Cells Have a Kill Code That Can Be Triggered without the Grueling Treatment – (Daily Mail – October 29, 2018)
Every cell in the human body contains a ‘kill code’ which can be triggered to cause its own self-destruction. That’s the discovery made by researchers at Northwestern University, Illinois, who believe it could be utilized for the future fight against cancer. Specifically, they predict malignant cells could be encouraged to ‘commit suicide’ without toxic chemicals pumped into the body – which currently turns them on. Currently, as soon as the cell’s inner bodyguards sense it is mutating into cancer, it self-activates the kill code to extinguish itself. Embedded in ribonucleic acids, scientists estimate these evolved more than 800 million years ago in part to protect the body from diseases. However, while they are already somewhat successful, they can’t always compete with aggressive tumors. Hence they are artificially prompted with drugs. But these could be even more powerful if synthetically duplicated – not least because they would benefit a patient without the side-effects of chemo. ‘Now that we know the kill code, we can trigger the mechanism without having to use chemotherapy and without messing with the genome,’ said lead author Marcus E. Peter, the Tomas D. Spies Professor of Cancer Metabolism at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. ‘We can use these small RNAs directly, introduce them into cells and trigger the kill switch.’ He added: ‘Based on what we have learned in these two studies, we can now design artificial microRNAs that are much more powerful in killing cancer cells than even the ones developed by nature.’ However, he stressed that a potential therapy is many years off.
Will Recycling Become a Thing of the Past? Experts Say It’s Possible Unless Changes Are Made – (Weather.com – November 27, 2018)
For years, the United States exported much of its recyclables because it was a cheaper solution and cities could actually turn a profit by selling to China. Between 1988 and 2016, some 26.7 million tons of recyclables were sent abroad. For years, up to 45% of the world’s plastics were sent to China to be recycled. But in 2017, China passed the National Sword policy, banning solid waste, including plastics, glass and paper, from being imported from the West. The country cited the protection of the environment and people’s health for the ban that began in January. According to a study published earlier this year in Scientific Advances, an estimated 122.4 million tons of plastic waste will be displaced by 2030 as a result of China’s ban. Communities have found other countries that will buy their recyclables, including India and Thailand, but typically at a much lower price. According to the USA Today report, mixed paper was fetching $85 to $95 a ton before China pulled the plug. Now, it’s closer to $6.50 to $8.50 a ton. And most of these countries picking up the slack do not have waste management systems that are on par with China. According to USA Today, numerous cities across the nation are either imposing higher recycling fees or considering abandoning recycling altogether. Part of the problem stems from how America recycles. Typically, all recyclables end up in one bin, which can lead to contamination. Only clean cardboard, for example, can be recycled. If it is covered in food or other products, it’s useless for recycling. China still accepts some recyclables but only the cleanest are allowed in. Waste management experts say the approach must be changed completely if recycling is going to have a future in the U.S. Some experts suggest that the ban will ultimately be a good thing, forcing manufacturers, community leaders and nations to rethink the production of recyclable solid materials, from design to disposal.
Seaweed Could Make Cows Burp Less Methane and Cut Their Carbon Hoofprint – (Technology Review – November 23, 2018)
Each year, livestock production pumps out greenhouse gases with the equivalent warming effect of more than 7 gigatons of carbon dioxide, roughly the same global impact as the transportation industry. Nearly 40% of that is produced during digestion: cattle, goats, and sheep belch and pass methane, a highly potent, albeit relatively short-lived, greenhouse gas. The problem is the digestive process of cattle and other ruminants, known as enteric fermentation. Microbes in their digestive tracts break down and extract energy from the carbohydrates in fibrous grasses. But the same process also generates hydrogen, which a separate set of microorganisms feed on, producing methane. Researchers have explored a number of potential paths to lowering livestock emissions, including selective breeding (some animals are less gaseous than others), vaccines, microbiome transfers, various dietary supplements, and more efficient feeds—all with varying results, says Dan Blaustein-Rejto, senior agriculture analyst with the Breakthrough Institute, a research center focusing on technological solutions to environmental problems. But there’s growing momentum behind the seaweed approach, thanks to almost shockingly effective results in initial scientific studies. In 2014, Australian researchers found that low doses of a red algae known as Asparagopsis taxiformis virtually eliminated methane production in lab experiments. Field trials with live sheep cut emissions as much as 80%, while a UC Davis experiment, the first on live cattle, showed a 58% reduction on average when a related seaweed made up 1% of their diet. However, at UC Davis, there’s another concern before they can undertake their next round of research: how to get the 200 kilograms of red seaweed they need for the study. It has yet to be produced on a commercial scale, and doing so could prove tricky. The red algae grows naturally in the wild, but so far it has resisted attempts to get it to reproduce.
Australia Cut 80% of Its Plastic Bag Use in Just Three Months – (Nation of Change – December 5, 2018)
Every second 160,000 plastic bags are used around the world. Now Australia is doing its part to help curb plastic bag consumption and hopefully reduce that horrifying number. Three months ago Australia’s two biggest supermarket chains, Coles and Woolworths, pledged to ban plastic bags. The decision was met with a huge public outcry, resulting in Coles actually temporarily reversing the rule, then settling on a small fee for plastic bags. This small change has led to an enormous difference: the country has seen an 80 percent reduction in the country’s overall consumption of plastic bags. According to Australia’s National Retail Association, the new rule has kept some 1.5 billion bags out of the environment. Considering it takes as much petroleum to produce one plastic bag as it does to drive a car 36 feet, this is a welcome improvement. Internationally there are 32 countries that have plastic bag bans in place. See also: More Maine towns making transition to life without plastic bags.
Climate Scientists Admit to Major Math Error after Global Warming Study Debunked – (Zero Hedge – November 15, 2018)
The co-author of a widely-cited global warming study has owned up to a major math error uncovered six days after its Oct. 31 publication by an independent scientist. The study used a new method of measuring the ocean’s absorption of heat, and concluded – through incorrect math – that 60% more heat had been absorbed than previously thought. Shortly after the article was published, however, independent UK-based researcher Nicholas Lewis published a comprehensive blog post, claiming he had found a “major problem” with the research. “When we were confronted with his insight it became immediately clear there was an issue there,” said Ralph Keeling, a scientist with the Scripps Institute of Oceanography who co-authored the paper with Princeton University scientist and lead author, Laure Resplandy. “We’re grateful to have it be pointed out quickly so that we could correct it quickly.” The scientists have submitted a correction to the journal Nature, which published the study.
China Is Launching Weather-Control Machines across an Area the Size of Alaska – (Forbes – May 10, 2018)
China’s state-owned Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation is implementing a plan to send thousands of rain-inducing machines across the Tibetan Plateau to increase rainfall along the region. The Tibetan Plateau is the source of much of China’s water, running down from the mountainous highlands via the massive Yangtze, Mekong, and Yellow rivers. These rivers, which originate on the Tibetan Plateau, are fed by glacial and snow meltwater and drain down into the fertile Chinese farmlands. The practice of artificially inducing rainfall in China is not new, the country manipulated the weather over Beijing just before and during the 2008 Beijing Olympics to ensure a rain-free event. The practice has only grown in scale as part of the Sky River Project aimed at increasing China’s water resources for its billions of people. China is installing tens of thousands of chambers across the Tibetan Plateau and mountains. These machines will produce very fine silver iodide particles that are then lifted into the atmosphere with upwelling winds. As these particles are dispersed into the atmosphere they act as the nucleating point of condensed water. By artificially “seeding” the Tibetan Plateau with silver iodide particles the Chinese government is inducing the formation of clouds where there weren’t any before. Once the clouds become unstable, this leads to artificially induced rainfall. Each rain machine (chamber) is expected to create a 3-mile long strip of billowing clouds. When multiplied by the thousands of chambers China is installing along the Tibetan Plateau, it is estimated that China will be artificially controlling the weather over an area similar to the size of Alaska. In total, the Chinese government expects the system, which will span 620,000 square miles, to produce up to 10 billion cubic meters of rainfall each year. As geo-engineering projects soar, the declassified project described in this article from Popular Science is newly relevant: With Operation Popeye, the U.S. Government Made Weather an Instrument of War.
New Wearable Tech Lets Users Listen to Live Music through Their Skin – (Ars Technica – November 25, 2018)
In September, 200 music fans gathered at the Bunkhouse Saloon in downtown Las Vegas for a private live concert with a unique twist: several of the fans were deaf. The concert served as a beta test for new wearable technology that allows deaf and hearing users alike to experience musical vibrations through their skin for a true “surround body” experience. The tech is called Music: Not Impossible (M:NI), and it’s the brainchild of former Hollywood producer turned entrepreneur Mick Ebeling, founder and CEO of Not Impossible Labs. The user’s kit includes two battery-powered wristbands, two ankle bands, and a harness that fits across the back and shoulders. It interfaces directly with a venue’s sound system and sends electrical pulses (coordinated with colored LED lights) corresponding to various tracks in the music to the sensors against the skin. Lady Gaga, Hans Zimmer, and Pharrell are fans, with the latter declaring he had “felt the future” after trying M:NI out. The Las Vegas show was presented by Zappos Adaptive and the Church of Rock & Roll. “We’re not trying to replace music,” said Daniel Belquer, director of technology for Not Impossible Labs. “We’re trying to provide an experience that relates to music. It’s less a new technology and more a new form of expression that, instead of going through the ears, goes through the skin. When you feel it, you understand it.” Belquer explained that M:NI is not about frequency. The skin is a poor discriminator of frequency. It can detect between 10 Hz and 1000 Hz, whereas our ears can hear frequencies as high as 20,000 Hz. But skin is quite sensitive to shifts in intensity and amplitude, and that’s what the M:NI system exploits. The skin is the largest organ in the human body. So why not tap into that? People at the Vegas concert (both deaf and hearing) reported feeling like their bodies became the instrument and the music was being played through them. One woman likened the experience to “living inside the strings of a piano,” after experiencing the third (Presto agitato) movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata while wearing the kit.
Tech Companies Slam New Australian Law Allowing Police to Spy on Smartphones – (CNN – December 7, 2018)
Facebook and other tech companies are warning about the privacy risks from a new Australian law that gives government agencies the power to demand access to encrypted messaging services such as iMessage and WhatsApp. The Australian government argues the new measures will help police and security agencies combat serious offenses such as terrorist attacks and child sex crimes. But tech companies and civil liberties groups say it’s a dangerous overreach that will affect a wide range of businesses and their customers. It will have “far-reaching consequences” for the privacy and security of encrypted platforms like WhatsApp and Google, and device manufacturers like Apple, Microsoft and Samsung, said Ben McConaghy, a Facebook spokesman. The Digital Industry Group (DIGI), a tech industry association, said the law raised “the prospect of introducing systemic weaknesses that could put Australians’ data security at risk. It is also deeply concerning that the minimum safeguards Australians should expect under such unprecedented new powers — judicial oversight and a warrant-based system — are absent.” Apple released a seven-page letter in October criticizing the proposed legislation, arguing that it is “precisely because of [criminal] threats that we support strong encryption.” The letter warned that the planned measures could weaken cybersecurity in Australia and beyond, and be abused through a lack of oversight. Calling the bill “broad and vague,” Apple argued that future governments could use it to weaken encryption. Daniel Weitzner, director of the Internet Policy Research Initiative at MIT, said, “A determined criminal, or a determined terrorist, is certainly going to be able to go out onto the internet today, and get for free, services that will evade the capabilities that this law is designed to help the police work around.”
Qubit by Qubit – (Medium – November 12, 2018)
Quantum physics upended classical physics. It is now upending the race to technological superiority. All superpowers today are competing at the edge of the technology frontier. That’s because the next battlefield is a technological one. It is also a bit like Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) because real strength lies at the intersection of many multidisciplinary technologies i.e. quantum physics and cryptography, gene editing and eugenics etc. While this article doesn’t attempt to explain the complete battlefield, it tries to simplify and break down one of the key technologies reshaping it- Quantum Key Distribution (QKD). Quantum computing will upend the internet as we know it. The web, in its initial avatar i.e. Web 1.0 consisted of static pages. Web 2.0, powered by the telecom revolution (4G, LTE), resulted in rich dynamic web pages with multimedia content. Web 3.0 will create an Internet of Everything — a combination of the Internet of Value (where crypto currencies and anything of value can be transmitted in its virtual form, using Augmented Reality, over the Blockchain) and the Internet of Things (with zettabytes of data generated by millions of sensors monitoring our every waking moment). Life, literally, will be on the internet. Data will be as ubiquitous as thin air. Such a future needs a future proof encryption method which many believe to be quantum encryption.
Quantum Computers Pose a Security Threat That We’re Still Totally Unprepared For – (Technology Review – December 3, 2018)
The world relies on encryption to protect everything from credit card transactions to databases holding health records and other sensitive information. A new report from the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine says we need to speed up preparations for the time when super-powerful quantum computers can crack conventional cryptographic defenses. The experts who produced the report say widespread adoption of quantum-resistant cryptography “will be a long and difficult process” that “probably cannot be completed in less than 20 years.” It’s possible that highly capable quantum machines will appear before then, and if hackers get their hands on them, the result could be a security and privacy nightmare. Today’s cyberdefenses rely heavily on the fact that it would take even the most powerful classical supercomputers almost unimaginable amounts of time to unravel the cryptographic algorithms that protect our data, computer networks, and other digital systems. But computers that harness quantum bits, or qubits, promise to deliver exponential leaps in processing power that could break today’s best encryption. The report cites an example of encryption that protects the process of swapping identical digital keys between two parties, who use them to decrypt secure messages sent to one another. A powerful quantum computer could crack RSA-1024, a popular algorithmic defense for this process, in less than a day.
The Future with Amazon Echo and Google Home Looks Bleak – (ZD Net – November 29, 2018)
Just how intrusive will smart speakers become? A short video tries to imagine their role in our future lives. It isn’t pretty. (Editor’s note: This video clip belongs in the genre of bad horror sci-fi, but it’s worth seeing for its envisioning of a total integration of big data into every corner of daily life.) See also: Google Assistant will now be nicer if you say “Please” and “Thank you”.
23-Year-old Wins Top Prize for Cheap Bamboo Housing That Can Be Constructed in 4 Hours – (Good News Network – November 24, 2018)
Earl Forlales, who is from Manila, designed his “CUBO” housing as a means of solving the housing crisis in his home country. Manila is one of the fastest growing megacities in East Asia, with a population of 12 million people. The city will soon be at breaking point, with an additional 2.5 million workers moving to the city in the next three years to work on the government’s infrastructure program. These workers will join the four million Manilans – a third of the city’s current population – who live in abject slums. To combat this epidemic of substandard living, Forlales has designed a new type of modular housing that will be used to house the incoming worker population in the short term, before being applied to the rest of the city’s slum community. He drew inspiration for the innovative design from his grandparents’ bamboo cabin outside the city. The engineering grad was given the top prize of £50,000 (approximately $64,000) by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) for their Cities for Our Future competition. Forlales plans on using money to begin construction on the houses during the coming year. Materials for the modular CUBO homes cost just $64 to manufacture—and growing the sustainable material will release 35% more oxygen than trees would, without causing soil degradation. For more details, see this article on the RICS website.
The FDA Thinks Walmart May Have One Solution to Romaine Lettuce Recalls – (NBC – November 27, 2018)
Twice this year, federal health officials have warned Americans not to eat any romaine lettuce at all, and asked stores to throw away all their supplies because there was no good way to figure out quickly where the contaminated lettuce was coming from. It took weeks to narrow down the spring outbreak to Yuma, Arizona. It took several days to trace this fall’s outbreak to central California. Now the FDA is looking to a mega-retailer to help solve the problem: Walmart. The FDA has hired Walmart’s vice president of food safety, Frank Yiannas, as deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine. The FDA hopes Yiannas can help persuade the U.S. food industry to adopt a computerized system that keeps track of each head of lettuce, or box of mangoes, or package of chicken parts, along each step of the way from farm to store or restaurant. One of Yiannas’ specific areas of expertise is the development of blockchain technology for track and trace. Used in food distribution, it would be a secure way to track food as it is harvested, processed, packaged, distributed and sold. Walmart itself is still trying to roll out the technology, said company spokeswoman Molly Blakeman. The first step is getting all its food suppliers to buy IBM’s specialized software. “All fresh leafy greens suppliers are expected to be able to trace their products back to farm(s) (by production lot) in seconds — not days. To do this, suppliers will be required to capture digital, end-to-end traceability event information using the IBM Food Trust network,” Walmart said in a letter to suppliers last September. Some suppliers still use paper records. Blakeman said, “We have worked with IBM to make it affordable.” The company is trying to negotiate a sliding scale for the farms and distributors that provide fresh produce, so that they pay according to their size. That might mean having a choice of safe romaine lettuce during a recall. And it will save stores and distributors from the huge losses they often suffer when they have to pull a product off the shelves wholesale.
SECURITY AND THE FUTURE OF WARFARE
The FBI Created a Fake FedEx Website to Unmask a Cybercriminal – (Motherboard – November 26, 2018)
The FBI has started deploying its own hacking techniques to identify financially-driven cybercriminals, according to court documents unearthed by Motherboard. The news signals an expansion of the FBI’s use of tools usually reserved for cases such as child pornography and bomb threats. But it also ushers in a potential normalization of this technologically-driven approach, as criminal suspects continually cover up their digital trail and law enforcement have to turn to more novel solutions. In an attempt to identify someone tricking a company into handing over cash, the FBI created a fake FedEx website, as well as deployed booby-trapped Word documents to reveal fraudsters’ IP addresses. It is not clear if the FBI sought permission from FedEx to digitally impersonate the company. FedEx did not respond to a request for comment, and the FBI did not provide a response to questions around the specific incident. That FedEx unmasking attempt was not successful, it seems—the cybercriminal checked the link from six different IP addresses, some including proxies—and the FBI moved on to use a network investigative technique, or NIT, instead. NIT is an umbrella term the FBI uses for a variety of hacking approaches. The article goes on to detail some of those other means by which the FBI has attempted to determine the IP addresses of cyber criminals. This sort of law enforcement hacking is likely to become more common. At the end of 2016, the Justice Department amended Rule 41, one of the rules around search warrants. The change meant that US judges could sign warrants to search computers outside of their district, and in particular, if law enforcement did not know where the suspect was ultimately located—exactly the issue with these two cases highlighted in this article.
UK Police Want AI to Stop Violent Crime Before It Happens – (New Scientist – November 26, 2018)
The National Data Analytics Solution (NDAS), uses a combination of AI and statistics to try to assess the risk of someone committing or becoming a victim of gun or knife crime, as well as the likelihood of someone falling victim to modern slavery. West Midlands Police is leading the project and has until the end of March 2019 to produce a prototype. Eight other police forces, including London’s Metropolitan Police and Greater Manchester Police, are also involved. NDAS is being designed so that every police force in the UK could eventually use it. Police funding has been cut significantly over recent years, so forces need a system that can look at all individuals already known to officers, with the aim of prioritizing those who need interventions most urgently, says Iain Donnelly, the police lead on the project. As for exactly what will happen when such individuals are identified, that is still a matter of discussion, says Donnelly. He says the intention isn’t to pre-emptively arrest anyone, but rather to provide support from local health or social workers. For example, they could offer counselling to any individual with a history of mental health issues that had been flagged by NDAS as being likely to commit a violent crime. Potential victims could be contacted by social services. This is the first such project of its kind in the world, pooling multiple data sets from a number of police forces for crime prediction, says Donnelly. In the early phases, the team gathered more than a terabyte of data from local and national police databases, including records of people being stopped and searched and logs of crimes committed. Around 5 million individuals were identifiable from the data. Looking at this data, the software found nearly 1400 indicators that could help predict crime, including around 30 that were particularly powerful. Aspects of the project have already drawn criticism. A team at the Alan Turing Institute in London saw a redacted version of the NDAS proposal last year and says there are “serious ethical issues” with NDAS and questions whether it is in the public good to intervene pre-emptively when an individual may not have committed a crime or be likely to do so in the future. See also this BBC News article: Kent Police Stop Using Crime Predicting Software created by the US firm PredPol to pinpointed locations and times (but not persons) with a higher likelihood of crime occurrence.
The US Military’s Drone Swarm Strategy Just Passed a Key Test – (Defense One – November 21, 2018)
Officials with Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) have announced that a series of tests at Arizona’s Yuma Proving Ground had shown that live and virtual drones could work together, with high degrees of autonomy, to complete missions even when their communications and GPS were under heavy electronic attack. “The [unmanned aerial systems] efficiently shared information, cooperatively planned and allocated mission objectives, made coordinated tactical decisions, and collaboratively reacted to a dynamic, high-threat environment with minimal communication,” DARPA said in a statement. The tests took six live and 24 virtual drones and sent them out on a strike mission to see if they could collaborate with one another, navigate without GPS, find and hit designed targets, deal with unforeseen obstacles or defensive aircraft, and receive mission info from a human commander. That ability to keep in touch with a human, even if that touch is sporadic, is key for the U.S. military, since Defense Department policy requires maintains that a human operator has to at least be on-the-loop for decisions related to the taking of human life. The ability to reach back, even in heavily contested environments, to receive that command will help the Department meet that requirement, but only minimally. It’s hard to imagine that an autonomous armed drone with minimal communication bandwidth would be able to pass back enough intel to help a commander make an informed choice. Bottom line: the test shows that the U.S. military is well on its way to delegating a lot more decisions to smart weapons on the battlefield. That will have pros and cons, some more foreseeable than others.
The Khashoggi Killing Had Roots in a Cutthroat Saudi Family Feud – (Washington Post – November 27, 2018)
Behind the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi lies a power struggle within the Saudi royal family that helped feed the paranoia and recklessness of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Eventually, this rage in the royal court led to the death and dismemberment of a Washington Post journalist. The opening scenes of this family feud took place in January 2015 in a VIP hospital suite in Riyadh, as King Abdullah lay on his deathbed. According to a Saudi who was at the hospital at the time, Abdullah’s sons and courtiers briefly delayed informing his successor, King Salman, that the monarch had passed — perhaps hoping to control the court’s stash of money and sustain powerful positions for Abdullah’s wing of the family. The cutthroat scheming within the House of Saud over the following years matches anything in the fantasy series “Game of Thrones.” The fallout extended to the United States, China, Switzerland and other countries, as the two most powerful clans of the royal family jockeyed for power. As the tension increased, the royal court around Mohammed bin Salman, the new king’s favorite son, even dared to try to kidnap a member of the Abdullah faction in Beijing in a brazen operation in August 2016 that reads like a chapter in a spy thriller. MBS, as Salman’s son is known, became increasingly anxious and aggressive toward those he considered enemies. Starting in the spring of 2017, a team of Saudi intelligence operatives, under the control of the royal court, began organizing kidnappings of dissidents abroad and at home, according to U.S. and Saudi experts. Detainees were held at covert sites. The Saudis used harsh “enhanced interrogation techniques” to make the captives talk and they were forced to sign oaths that if they disclosed any of what happened, they would pay a severe price. These events in the rest of this article were described in a series of interviews by prominent Saudis and U.S. and European experts, in the United States and abroad, in the weeks since Khashoggi’s death. The information was checked with knowledgeable U.S. sources to confirm its accuracy. It helps explain what happened to Jamal Khashoggi after he entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.
LIFE STYLE/SOCIAL TRENDS AND VALUES
America’s Epidemic of Empty Churches – (Atlantic – November 25, 2018)
Many of our nation’s churches can no longer afford to maintain their structures—6,000 to 10,000 churches die each year in America—and that number will likely grow. Most denominations are declining as a share of the overall population, and donations to congregations have been falling for decades. As donations and attendance decrease, the cost of maintaining large physical structures that are in use only a few hours a week by a handful of worshippers becomes prohibitive. Neither of these trends shows signs of slowing, so the struggling congregations face a choice: Start packing or find a creative way to stay afloat. Many houses of worship sit on prime real estate, often in the center of towns or cities, where inventory is low. Selling the property to the highest bidder is a quick and effective way to cut losses and settle debts. But repurposing a sacred space for secular use has a number of drawbacks. There are zoning issues, price negotiations, and sometimes fierce pushback from the surrounding community and the parish’s former members. Nonetheless, converting old churches into residential spaces, like St. Augustine’s in South Boston and St. Vincent De Paul in Brooklyn, is becoming more popular. While this type of sacred-to-secular conversion may be a tough pill for former members to swallow, many are even less satisfied with the alternatives. A large number of abandoned churches have become wineries or breweries or bars. Others have been converted into hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, and Airbnbs. One has become a college frat house. Calling it quits isn’t the only option for dwindling congregations in possession of expansive, expensive buildings. Some are moving upstream of the crisis, opting to repurpose their buildings before they go under. The article goes on to talk about the Missional Wisdom Foundation, a nonprofit that functions as a kind of think tank for “alternative forms of Christian community that makes sense for traditional churches that may be declining” and then showcases two examples where their input has turned around a church and its community.
China’s Cashless Economy Threatens to Leave Its Elderly—and Their Money—Behind – (Quartz – November 26, 2018)
Use of the WeChat mobile pay tab on cell phones is rapidly becoming so common in Beijing and other large cities that experts have begun referring to the Chinese capital as a prototype of the futuristic cashless society. In 2017, the country saw $15 trillion in mobile payments. But not every Chinese senior citizen is equally adept at using mobile pay. Some older people find it difficult to keep up with technology. Many retirees have poor eyesight, and struggle to see the screen, or have a poor memory and keep forgetting how to use the apps. Those issues were brought into sharp focus recently by a viral video of an older Chinese patron in northern China arguing with the staff at the checkout of a supermarket in northern China over how to pay for a bag of grapes—the staff told him he needed to pay by app, but eventually relented and allowed him to pay by cash. A slew of viewers expressed sympathy for the demoralized customer. Such snafus are poised to become all the more common as China’s population of 1.3 billion ages. The population over 60 is expected to grow by 100 million between 2015 and 2030 to over 300 million, according to Feng Wang, a professor at Shanghai’s Fudan University. While China’s central bank has pushed back this year on the rejection of cash, urging consumers to report it if their attempts to pay the old-fashioned way meet with resistance, the payment divide is likely to prove a challenge to the economy. Article particularly includes a video clip discussing – and showing – aging trends in China which is engaging and informative.
The Most Dangerous Place for Women Is the Home, a New UN Study Says – (CNN – November 26, 2018)
Out of an estimated 87,000 women killed last year, some 50,000 — or 58% — were killed by partners or family members, according to the 2018 report on gender-related killing of women and girls by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). More than a third of the women intentionally killed in 2017 were killed by a current or former partner, and 137 women are killed by family members every day, it said. UNODC Executive Director Yury Fedotov said women “continue to pay the highest price as a result of gender inequality, discrimination and negative stereotypes” and that gender-based homicide is a “lethal act on a continuum of gender-based discrimination and abuse.” Globally, Asia was the region with the highest number of women killed by partners or family members last year, at 20,000, followed by Africa (19,000), the Americas (8,000), Europe (3,000) and Oceania (300). However, rates were higher in Africa and the Americas, meaning women faced the greatest risk of being killed by partners or family members in these regions. In Africa, these homicides accounted for 3.1 victims per 100,000 of the female population and in the Americas, the rate was 1.6 victims per 100,000 of the female population — compared with 0.9 per 100,000 in Asia. Europe showed the lowest rate of gender-based homicide, with 0.7 victims per 100,000 of the female population. The total number of female homicide victims appears to have increased since 2012, it said, when the number of women killed by partners or family members was estimated at 48,000 — or 47% of all female homicide victims.
NEW TOOLS/NEW PROCESSES
Uber Has Cracked Two Classic ’80s Video Games by Giving an AI Algorithm a New Type of Memory – (Technology Review – November 26, 2018)
AI algorithms have bested the world’s top human players at the ancient, elegant strategy game Go, one of the most difficult games imaginable. But two pixelated classics from the era of 8-bit computer games—Montezuma’s Revenge and Pitfall!—have stymied AI researchers. There’s a reason for this seeming contradiction. Although deceptively simple, both Montezuma’s Revenge and Pitfall! have been immune to mastery via reinforcement learning, a technique that’s otherwise adept at learning to conquer video games. DeepMind, a subsidiary of Alphabet focused on artificial intelligence, famously used it to develop algorithms capable of learning how to play several classic video games at an expert level. Reinforcement-learning algorithms mesh well with most games, because they tweak their behavior in response to positive feedback—the score going up. The success of the approach has generated hope that AI algorithms could teach themselves to do all sorts of useful things that are currently impossible for machines. The problem with both Montezuma’s Revenge and Pitfall! is that there are few reliable reward signals. Ordinary reinforcement-learning algorithms usually fail to get out of the first room in Montezuma’s Revenge, and in Pitfall! they score exactly zero. AI researchers have typically tried to get around the issues posed by by Montezuma’s Revenge and Pitfall! by instructing reinforcement-learning algorithms to explore randomly at times, while adding rewards for exploration—what’s known as “intrinsic motivation.” But Uber’s AI research team has demonstrated a fundamentally different approach to machine learning within an environment that offers few clues to show an algorithm how it is doing.
Huawei App Uses AI to Help Deaf Children Read – (Engadget – December 3, 2018)
Deaf children face challenges learning to read. As their parents and teachers often don’t know sign language, young ones can’t always make the connection between words on the page and their own life experiences. Huawei aims to fix that with its StorySign app for Android. Point your phone at certain children’s books and the app will use AI to translate individual words on the page to sign language performed by an avatar (created by Wallace and Gromit’s Aardman Animations, no less). This not only helps children read, but can teach parents the sign language they’d need to tell the story later. The app is free on both Google Play and Huawei’s own AppGallery, and it doesn’t require a Huawei phone. It currently supports ten sign languages (including most European languages). The selection is very thin at the moment, though. Each language currently has just one book — for English audiences, that’s Eric Hill’s Where’s Spot. Article includes very sweet video clip of the product and the commitment of its developers.
The Countries Where Robot Adoption Is Happening Faster Than Expected – (Quartz – November 26, 2018)
There’s perhaps no more telling metric for our time than the number of robots in a country per every 10,000 manufacturing workers. With the threat of automation looming, it’s commonly understood that manufacturing jobs will be some of the first to go. But researchers believe the metric may not be the best way to measure countries’ openness to a bot-filled future. As a new report from the Information, Technology, and Innovation Foundation notes, there is a naturally stronger economic case for adopting robots in higher-wage economies than in lower-wage economies, meaning the popularity of robots is skewed to favor countries that can afford to pay for them. This makes sense, given that industrial robots can cost well over $100,000 each. The report suggests that instead, we should factor in countries’ average wages in order to get a real sense of how willing they are to embrace industrial robots. Compare two charts in this article. In the first, countries are listed in descending order based on the number of industrial robots in circulation in 2017. Not surprisingly, rich countries—like South Korea, Germany, and the United States—have some of the highest rates of adoption. But adjust for each countries’ wages, and the data tell a very different story. When taking wages into account, Asian countries far outpace their western counterparts. If robots are the future of manufacturing, American and European countries have some catching up to do to stay competitive. (Editor’s note: What this article shows is that the adoption of robotics is happening fastest where manufacturing is most prevalent: in Asia. That makes sense. However, maintaining a national competitive edge isn’t the only critical parameter in the adoption of robotics; what happens to the social and political stability in Asia as the jobs there start disappearing?)
Walmart Deploys 17,000 Oculus Go Headsets to Train Its Employees – (ZDNet – September 20, 2018)
Walmart is providing Oculus Go virtual reality headsets to all of its US stores as part of a nationwide expansion of a VR-based employee training program. The big box retailer first experimented with VR in its training academies a year ago and now says the program has proved its worth, with employees reporting boosts to confidence and technology familiarity after training on the headsets. Walmart said it is using the headsets to train within three key areas: new technology, compliance, and soft skills like empathy and customer service. With the technology training, Walmart is aiming to prepare employees for the wave of in-store technology it’s rolling out as part of its overall digital strategy. “VR training is particularly helpful for learning new tech,” the company wrote on a blog post. “In a pilot test this summer, 10 stores used VR for training on new Pickup Tower units in their stores. VR is allowing associates to be trained before the towers are even installed – no teachers required. This will be key as Walmart continues to roll out new tech to stores.” Workplace training is considered one of the most promising areas where virtual reality can make a push into the enterprise. VR headsets are still maligned on the consumer side for their long list of problems and limitations, but workplace training is a bright spot where VR is not only practical but also potentially more effective than training via humans or basic computer programs and apps. Walmart found that employees benefited from the ability to make mistakes in a safe environment, and came away with skills and confidence unique to this type of experience.
Salaried Workers Beware: GM Cuts Are a Warning for All – (AP – December 1, 2018)
For generations, the career path for smart kids around Detroit was to get an engineering or business degree and get hired by an automaker or parts supplier. Now that once-reliable route to prosperity appears to be vanishing, as evidenced by General Motors’ announcement this week that it plans to shed 8,000 white-collar jobs on top of 6,000 blue-collar ones. Cities that suffered manufacturing job losses decades ago are now grappling with the problem of fewer opportunities for white-collar employees such as managers, lawyers, bankers and accountants. Since 2008, roughly a third of major U.S. metro areas have lost a greater percentage of white-collar jobs than blue-collar jobs. It’s a phenomenon seen in such places as Wichita, Kansas, with its downsized aircraft industry, and towns in Wisconsin that have lost auto, industrial machinery or furniture-making jobs. In GM’s case, the jobs that will be shed through buyouts and layoffs are held largely by people who are experts in the internal combustion engine — mechanical engineers and others who spent their careers working on fuel injectors, transmissions, exhaust systems and other components that won’t be needed for the electric cars that eventually will drive themselves. GM, the nation’s largest automaker, says those vehicles are its future. GM is still hiring white-collar employees, but the new jobs are for those who can write software code, design laser sensors or develop batteries and other devices for future vehicles. Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, wonders whether auto companies will bring more electrical engineers and software developers to Michigan or put them in places where such jobs are already clustered, such as San Francisco, Seattle, Boston or near major research universities. GM says it will hire in the Detroit area, but its autonomous-vehicle workforce has grown to over 1,000 at offices in San Francisco and Seattle.
Genetically Modified People Are Walking Among Us – (New York Times – December 1, 2018)
In China, a scientist named He Jiankui announced that twins had been born in November with a gene that he had edited when they were embryos. But in some ways this news is not new at all. A few genetically modified people already walk among us. In the mid-1990s, fertility doctors in New Jersey got an idea for how to help women have children. They suspected that some women struggled to become pregnant because of defective material in their eggs. To rejuvenate them, the doctors drew off some of the jellylike filling in eggs donated by healthy women and injected it into the eggs of their patients before performing in vitro fertilization. Only after their patients started having healthy children did they share the news that it seemed to work. Once the word got around, would-be parents streamed into clinics to try the procedure themselves. The doctors discovered that some of the children carried mitochondrial DNA from the donors in addition to their parents. In their 2001 report on this discovery, they called it “the first case of human germ-line genetic modification resulting in normal healthy children.” The germ line is a lineage of cells that gives rise to a new person. The F.D.A. sent the clinics letters demanding that they apply to test the method as if it was a new experimental drug. Those bureaucratic hurdles were so daunting that the clinics stopped injecting eggs. By then, perhaps a dozen children had been born with a mixture of DNA. Maybe there are more — no one knows for sure. Like the New Jersey fertility doctors before him, Dr. He was roundly condemned for his secretive recklessness. The commissioner of the F.D.A., Scott Gottlieb, criticized the scientific community for failing to stop Dr. He and warned of “potential regulations and laws that could be far more restrictive than they might otherwise be if there were more confidence that the community was able to self-impose appropriate standards.” Fortunately, history offers us a different path. We need only look at what happened to mitochondrial replacement therapy in Britain. When British scientists raised the idea of using the procedure on human eggs, the country conducted a serious, open conversation about the pros and cons. The health department conducted a long investigation. Parliament held a public debate. And in 2015 it passed a law approving the procedure.
FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH – articles off the beaten track which may – or may not – have predictive value.
Six People Swallowed LEGOs and Pored through Their Own Poo for Science – (Ars Technica – November 24, 2018)
Here’s some good news for worried parents whose small children have ingested a LEGO (or two). A new study by pediatric researchers has concluded that the toy should re-emerge in their poo within a couple of days. They know this because their test subjects voluntarily swallowed LEGO figurine heads and monitored how long it took to retrieve them. Yes, this is an actual scientific paper, published in the reputable Journal of Pediatrics and Child Health. We jest, but this really is addressing a valid concern. As Bruce Y. Lee, a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, pointed out: small children love to swallow things, particularly coins. There have been prior studies examining the passage of coins through the digestive tract, notably a 1971 paper that found most coins passed through harmlessly within three to six days. But no one had looked closely at the second most commonly swallowed item: small toy parts. And LEGO figurine heads are particularly tempting for the gastronomically curious toddler. How would you even find six adults (three men and three women) willing to swallow LEGO parts? Davis et al. recruited their subjects from the online community of pediatric hospital professionals.
Payless Pranks VIPs, Sells Discount Shoes at Luxury Prices – (CNBC – November 30, 2018)
Payless taught fashion influencers a lesson about shoes by opening a fake store that sold Main Street shoes at Madison Avenue prices. Payless ShoeSource held a launch party in Los Angeles for the bogus label Palessi and invited the fashionistas to sample the merchandise. Payless posted a video of what happened on Facebook. The VIP shoppers paid as much as $645 for shoes that sell from $19.99 to $39.99 at Payless. The store rang up $3,000 before Payless came clean with the reveal. The pranked shoppers got their money back and were allowed to keep the shoes. Their reactions will be featured in a series of commercials
JUST FOR FUN
Oddly Satisfying 3D Motion Graphic Animation – (Facebook – September, 2018)
Watching this video clip is indeed oddly satisfying. Try it.
Baby It’s Cold Outside Controversy Explained – Ultra Spiritual Life Episode 139 – (YouTube – December 10, 2018)
How times have changed. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is an Academy Award-winning popular song written by Frank Loesser in 1944, which gained wide recognition in 1949 when it was performed in the film Neptune’s Daughter. Today, in the era of #MeToo, those lyrics sound suspiciously like an intro to date rape. And here to offend almost everyone (or almost anyone whose sense of humor isn’t fairly broad), is a commentary on just that. On the other hand, there is sometimes a voice of reason: here’s Whoopi Goldberg, who understands that the mores of 2018 and 1940 are more than just a bit different, commenting on the same song. (Editor’s note: By the way, we’d like to thank Google, the owner of YouTube, for its sensitive pairing of a 15 second intro advertisement for Victoria’s Secret bras – which you cannot skip – with a discussion of what does and/or does not imply date rape.)
A FINAL QUOTE
How we spend our days is how we spend our lives. – Annie Dillard
A special thanks to: Chas Freeman, Ursula Freer, 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