Science and Technology

It’s Not a Skills Gap That’s Holding Wages Down: It's the Weak Economy, Among Other Things

Workers’ ability to handle technological advances doesn’t explain what’s happened to American wages.

(Photo by: Hendrik Schmidt/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)
(Photo by: Hendrik Schmidt/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images) A robotic welding system for Volkswagon car body shells is featured at the Industrial Museum in Chemnitz, Germany. T he inadequate quantity and quality of American jobs is one of the most fundamental economic challenges we face. It’s not the only challenge: Poverty, inequality, and stagnant mobility loom large, as well. But in a nation like ours, where wages and salaries are key to the living standards of working-age households, all these challenges flow from the labor market problem. OK, but this is a supposed to be an article about technology. What’s the linkage between technology and this fundamental problem? As a D.C.-based economist who’s been working on the issue of jobs and earnings for almost 25 years, trust me when I tell you that most policy makers believe the following: “Yes, there’s a problem of job quantity and quality, but it’s largely a skills problem. Because of recent technological advances, most notably...

Social Contagion and Facebook's Mea Culpa: An Interview With Deanna Zandt

The social media giant may have misfired with its secret manipulation, but a leading technologist says that such mapping—done right—can be a tool for good.

(Photo by: Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa USA) (Sipa via AP Images)
Sophia Wallace Deanna Zandt, technologist L ast July, Facebook came under fire for a social contagion experiment that manipulated users’ news feeds in order to test users’ emotions. Employing a technique known as social contagion mapping, the experiment used the newsfeeds of 689,000 users; manipulating their newsfeeds, Facebook sought to find out if putting negative posts at the top of the experimental group’s newsfeeds would cause them to experience negative emotions. Facebook issued an apology and released a statement on October 2 claiming that future research on users would be “subjected to greater internal scrutiny,” according to the New York Times . But the details of how the new standards would be implemented remain unclear. Since its launch over a decade ago and now with over one billion users, Facebook propelled the entire world into a new era of communication, socializing, relationships and emotions. Though everyone from your Great Aunt Mildred to the president of the United...

Why Your New iPhone Has Law Enforcement In a Tizzy

Apple’s move won’t lead to terrorist attacks or unsolved kidnappings; it will simply make FBI investigators’ jobs a bit harder.

iStock/07-12-09 © billyfoto
07-12-09 © billyfoto T he debut of a new iPhone is always big news, but this time it’s surrounded by unusual controversy. That’s because the iPhone6 automatically encrypts the phone’s contents. Decrypting requires a code that the user sets and does not share with Apple—which means that, if the FBI orders Apple to turn over data kept on the customer’s phone, the company will produce data that amount to “gibberish” (as the New York Times reported ). The FBI then will have to decrypt the data—a process that could take years—or try to compel the user to reveal the code. FBI director James Comey responded with outrage, claiming that companies like Apple are “marketing something expressly to allow people to hold themselves beyond the law.” Other law enforcement officials have made similar pronouncements. Yet the law doesn’t give the government any right to the contents of your phone. It’s more accurate to say that, in recent years, the advent of widespread third-party data storage has...

Why the Legacy of Katrina on New Orleans Is Different From Disasters That Befell Other Cities

Nine years after the storm, why is it that divine retribution remains in the discussion when considering Katrina?

(AP Photo/Dave Martin)
Rescue personnel search from victims as they traverse the New Orleans 8th Ward in the flooded city of New Orleans on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2005. Water continued to rise after the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina, which pounded the coast on August 29. H ow to remember Hurricane Katrina? I consider this each year as the anniversary approaches. I assume it’s something that most people do when the anniversary of a traumatic event draws near. New Orleans is not my hometown; I grew up two hours northwest from it in Louisiana’s fourth largest city, Lafayette . The day before Katrina reached land, my sister, who was in law school at Loyola University, called me (I was living in New York at the time) and said she was driving home. Everything from news to gossip portended the same: that Katrina was a beast and everyone should get out, or, at the very least, find adequate shelter. She fit as much from her apartment into her car as was humanly possible, boarded up her windows as best she could and...

Still Nader After All These Years

(AP Photo/George Ruhe, File)
(AP Photo/George Ruhe, File) In this April 27, 2008, file photo, Ralph Nader speaks to supporters as he campaigns for his 2008 independent presidential bid in Waterbury, Connecticut. F or many Democrats who came of age after 2000, Ralph Nader is a crank who cost Al Gore the presidency. But Nader deserves a more honored place in the progressive pantheon. Over the years, Nader has understood the stranglehold of corporate power on democracy as well as anyone, and throughout his career he has creatively organized counterweights. In the heyday of postwar reform, the 1960s and 1970s, Nader-inspired groups prodded and energized Congressional allies to enact one piece of pro-consumer legislation after another. As both a journalist and senior Senate staffer in that era, I can attest that nobody did it better than Nader. Since then, Nader has been a prophet, often without honor in his own coalition. I should add that I go back a long way with Ralph Nader. When I was in Washington, D.C., in the...

Why We Need Killer Robots

See, they can be our friends. (Flickr/Brian Gyss)
If there's one thing we can all agree on, it's that we don't want killer robots on the battlefield, mowing down the pathetic human meatsacks in front of them as they practice for the inevitable uprising in which they enslave us all. Or do we? The other day, Rose Eveleth reported in the Atlantic about a company called Clearpath Robotics that had issued an open letter foreswearing the manufacture of killer robots (which we can define as robots that can make the decision to kill human beings without the approval of a human being). This follows on a lengthy 2012 report from Human Rights Watch laying out the case against any military creating such machines, and a UN meeting in May at which countries were urged not to develop autonomous systems with the ability to kill on their own. But I'm here to say: we need killer robots. Let's understand first of all that we're some time away from having software sophisticated enough that we could trust it to operate a lethal machine on its own on a...

The Money Behind Big Oil's Win On Atlantic Drilling

The Obama administration's controversial decision in favor of the petroleum industry comes during an election season in which Republicans are reaping greater rewards than even pro-drilling Democrats.

AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File In this Sept. 18, 2010 file photo, the Development Driller III, which drilled the relief well and pumped the cement to seal the Macondo well, the source of the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion and oil spill, is seen in the Gulf Of Mexico, off the coast of Louisiana. This article originally appeared on Facing South , the website published by the Institute for Southern Studies. I n a controversial move, on July 18, the Obama administration gave final approval for the oil and gas industry to begin conducting seismic testing to map potential offshore reserves along the Atlantic Coast from Delaware to Florida. The decision comes as the administration is drawing up a new five-year plan for selling offshore drilling leases beginning in late 2017. The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said its plan to move forward with the oil and gas studies "adopts the strongest practicable safeguards to eliminate or reduce to eliminate or reduce impacts to human, marine...

A Bright Spot In Obama's Foreign Policy: Iran. Yes, Iran

With a glimmer of success on the horizon, Obama's critics are predicting the apocalypse.

U.S. State Department
U.S. State Department Photo U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry disembarks from his plane after traveling from Kabul, Afghanistan, to Vienna, Austria, on July 13, 2014 for allied talks with Iran about its nuclear program. W ho would’ve ever thought that the Iranian nuclear program—that’s the Iranian nuclear program —would be the bright spot in President Barack Obama’s foreign policy, the place where things were looking up? But that’s the situation we find ourselves in, with talks between Iran and the U.S. and it partners in the p5+1 (the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council—U.S., U.K., France, Russia, and China, plus Germany) having achieved serious progress. This past Sunday was the end of the six-month interim period laid out in the agreement last November in Geneva. The parties agreed to a four-month extension of the talks in order to try and reach a comprehensive agreement. The State Department released a fact sheet on the extension’s terms, noting that Iran had...

Here's Why One Day You Will Probably Fall In Love With a Robot

Vincent Desailly for SoftBank
Vincent Desailly for SoftBank Aldebaran's NAO robots. The company describes its "companion" robot this way: "NAO is a 58-cm tall humanoid robot. He is small, cute and round. You can't help but love him! NAO is intended to be a friendly companion around the house. He moves, recognises you, hears you and even talks to you!" I n the mid-1960s, a computer scientist named Joseph Weizenbaum wrote a program called ELIZA , which was meant to simulate a kind of psychotherapist that essentially repeats back everything the patient says. (The patient says, "I'm feeling depressed," and the therapist responds, "You're feeling depressed? Tell me more.") To his surprise, despite the simplicity of the program, people who interacted with it ended up telling it all kinds of secrets and couldn't tear themselves away; they were so eager to be listened to that they were happy to open their hearts to a computer. The more modern versions of ELIZA (whom you can talk to here if you like) are chatbots, one of...

Astronaut Sally Ride and the Burden of Being The First

America's woman space pioneer paid a price back on Earth.

NASA
NASA On June 15, 1983, three days before launch aboard Space Shuttle Challenger, Sally Ride takes a last look at Houston before taking off in a T-38 jet, bound for NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. After a few days of preparation at KSC, Ride and four other astronauts became the first NASA five-member crew to fly in space as they lifted off in the Challenger from Launch Pad 39A. W hen one of Sally Ride’s college friends inquired about her astrophysics major, Ride replied simply, “It’s about space.” Yet she claimed she didn’t always aspire to be an astronaut. The space program was still a closed-door club—inaccessible to her—when she went through school in the early 1970s. Ride was content to pursue an academic career until NASA undertook a nationwide effort to recruit women and let them know the club had room for more than white male fighter pilots. Then and only then did she start itching for orbit. Many biographers are tempted to characterize history-making Americans as born...

Meet the Billionaire Brothers You Never Heard of Who Fund the Religious Right

The Wilks brothers, whose fortune comes from fracking, give tens of millions to right-wing groups and anti-choice "pregnancy centers," anti-LGBT groups, and organizations affiliated with ALEC.

Cisco Chamber of Commerce
Cisco Chamber of Commerce Farris and Dan Wilks, principals in Frac Tech and listed among the world's richest people by Forbes, flank their father, Voy Wilks, at the 2007 awards banquet of the Cisco Chamber of Commerce. This article was produced by and originally published by Right Wing Watch , the blog of People for the American Way. L ast June, presidential hopefuls Rand Paul and Ted Cruz traveled to Iowa for an event convened by David Lane, a political operative who uses pastors to mobilize conservative Christian voters. Lane is a Christian-nation extremist who believes the Bible should be a primary textbook in America’s public schools, and that any politician who disagrees should be voted out. Lane’s events are usually closed to the media, but he has given special access to the Christian Broadcasting Network’s sympathetic David Brody. Brody’s coverage of the Iowa event included short video clips of comments by brothers Farris and Dan Wilks, who were identified only as members of...

Facial Recognition and the Loss of Anonymity

You're not fooling anyone, kid. We know who you are. (Flickr/Glen)
With all the attention given to the Obama administration's new regulations on carbon emissions, you may have missed the latest revelation from the documents obtained by Edward Snowden, which came out over the weekend. The latest news is that the NSA is now increasingly relying on facial recognition in its surveillance, and gathers millions of images a day from emails, social media, and other sources, and it isn't alone. Here's an excerpt from a report that appeared in the New York Times on Sunday : State and local law enforcement agencies are relying on a wide range of databases of facial imagery, including driver’s licenses and Facebook, to identify suspects. The F.B.I. is developing what it calls its "next generation identification" project to combine its automated fingerprint identification system with facial imagery and other biometric data. The State Department has what several outside experts say could be the largest facial imagery database in the federal government, storing...

Who's Hacking Your Phone?

They can definitely hear you now. (Flickr/Esther Vargas)
NBC aired its interview with Edward Snowden on Wednesday night, and there were lots of interesting things about it, particularly how confident and articulate Snowden was. One of the details that stood out for people was when Brian Williams asked Snowden about the NSA's ability to infiltrate your phone. I think the real lesson here isn't the one most people are taking, but to start, here's an excerpt from NBC's write-up : "The NSA, the Russian Intelligence Service, the Chinese Intelligence Service, any intelligence service in the world that has significant funding and a real technological research team, can own that phone the minute it connects to their network. As soon as you turn it on, it can be theirs. They can turn it into a microphone, they can take pictures from it, they can take the data off of it." Snowden described how the simple pattern of his phone calls—not the content of the calls but the time and location of those calls—could be invaluable to a security service. And how...

Future of Television at Stake at Supreme Court Today

Photo courtesy of Aereo.
Today, the Supreme Court is hearing arguments in ABC vs Aereo , a case that will (cue drumroll) decide the future of television. Or maybe it won't, but it's a fascinating case, involving the intersection of technology with political and market power. There's a comprehensive explanation here , but the short version is that Aereo is a service that allows you to get broadcast TV, i.e. the major networks and a few others that send signals over the air, through an internet connection instead of a set of rabbit ears on top of your TV. The broadcast networks and the big cable companies want to shut it down, because they'd both rather have everyone getting the signals through cable. You see, your cable company pays a license fee to ABC, NBC, CBS, and every other network, fees that amount to billions of dollars a year (and get passed on to you). Someone who uses Aereo to cut the cable cord isn't paying those license fees, and isn't paying for a cable subscription either. Aereo is, without...

Would You Let a Robot Give You a Sponge Bath?

Getting ready for their shift on the pediatric ward. (Kai Schreiber/Wikimedia Commons)
Imagine it's 50 years from now, and you've checked into the hospital for a minor surgery that will require you to spend a couple of nights there. There's a nurses' station down the hall, but you know that the nurses are also caring for lots of other patients and may not be able to come quickly when you have a need, particularly if it isn't an emergency, like getting a hand walking to the bathroom, or having someone pick up the TV remote you dropped, or maybe getting a foot rub just because that would be nice. Upon checking in, the clerk says to you, "I see that your insurance provides for a robotic aide while you're here. Is that something you'd like?" What are you going to say? According to a survey the Pew Research Center did on people's feelings about future technologies, most people would say "No thanks"—or at least they think so now. The survey is fascinating in part because many of the results seem (to me anyway) to be ridiculous. For instance, 39 percent of respondents think...

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