Science and Technology

Yet Another NSA Violation

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File
L ast month, it was revealed that the court established by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) had rebuked the National Security Agency (NSA) for using illegal search methods. Not surprisingly, this incident wasn't an isolated one. In another judicial opinion responding to a lawsuit by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), further illegal abuses by the NSA were unveiled . Like the previous revelations, this story tells of the dangers posed by a NSA conducting searches with far too broad a scope and too few constraints. The latest NSA abuses involve the database of phone calls made by Americans compiled by the NSA. Phone companies have been ordered to turn over "metadata" about the calls made by their customers. The NSA keeps five years of this metadata on file at any given time. When the agency makes queries into the database, however, it is required by the FISA court to have a "reasonable articulable suspicion" that the call involves communication with a terrorist...

Mobile Phones Continue Inexorable Conquest of Globe

Yesterday, Apple released its new iPhones, one a slightly updated version of the iPhone 5 with a fingerprint reader, and one a cheaper version ("unapologetically plastic," in the term the PR wizards came up with) meant to attract new customers in developing countries. In case you didn't catch any of the eight zillion articles written about the release, minds remained rather unblown. Apple may still be an unstoppable engine of profit, but there are only so many times you can tweak a product and convince people it's totally revolutionary (not that that will stop Apple cultists from standing in line to get the latest version). In any case, this is as good a time as any to step back and look at the remarkable spread of mobile phones across the Earth. There are few other technologies that have found their way into so many hands in so short a time. Mobile phones actually date back to the 1940s, when AT&T set up a system that would allow truckers to make calls from certain cities and...

Your New Robot Colleague Has Been Programmed to Put You At Ease

Baxter, a friendly robot colleague who'd love to hang out with you after work. (Flickr/Steve Jurvetson)
As robots move into more and more workplaces in the coming decades—not just high-tech manufacturing but eventually everything from hospitals to supermarkets—one of the big challenges employers will face is making their carbon-based workforce comfortable with the new arrivals. That's the topic of an interesting story in The Economist (h/t Kevin Drum ) that focuses not just on the technology but on how the robots make us feel, and what must be done to keep people from freaking out when they find out their new partner is made of metal and plastic. It seems that the psychology of human-robot interaction is going to be a burgeoning field in the next few years: To keep human workers at ease, collaborative robots should also have an appropriate size and appearance. Takayuki Kanda of the ATR Intelligent Robotics and Communication Laboratories in Kyoto says that collaborative, humanoid robots should generally be no larger than a six-year-old, a size most adults reckon they could overpower if...

Is the CIA on Its Way to Hacking the Sky?

Human manipulation of the climate might be the quickest way to combat global warming. It's also the most frightening.

AP Images/David J. Phillip
T he news seemed tailor-made to drive conspiracy theorists and members of the tinfoil hat club into a frenzy. In July, the National Academy of Sciences confirmed that the CIA is helping to underwrite a yearlong study examining atmospheric geoengineering—deliberate, planetary-scale manipulation of the climate to counteract global warming. As reporters took jabs at the idea of “spooks” seeking to “control the weather,” the National Academy of Sciences tried to brush away concerns. “We are not producing anything, building anything, or deploying anything. It’s more of a state-of-the-science review,” an academy spokesperson told me, noting that NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are also helping to pay for the study. Still, the CIA’s interest in geoengineering marks a turning point in the simmering debate about the controversial technology: More and more people are starting to take the once-laughable idea seriously. Both supporters and skeptics of...

Slow and Steady Wins the Anti-Keystone XL Race

AP Photo/Nacogdoches Daily Sentinel, Andrew D. Brosig
Flickr/ Elizabeth Brossa G race Cagle knew what Keystone XL’s path through Texas meant for the state’s environment. The pipeline was going to run through the post-oak savannah, a type of forest that's drying out, desertifying. It’s one of the few places in the world where the ivory-billed woodpecker—one of the world's largest woodpeckers, a bird so endangered that for years no one had seen one alive—makes its home. Cagle graduated college at the end of 2012 and had planned to get a PhD.; she was studying ecology, biology, and chemistry. But she couldn’t just sit in a classroom while Texas was in danger. So, she took a risk. She sat in a tree. She stayed there while construction crews hired by TransCanada, the company behind the Keystone XL pipeline, came and took down the trees around her. In October, TransCanada sued the group she joined, the Tar Sands Blockade, along with other organizations employing direct action against the pipeline. As the company tried to stop the blockaders,...

Near-Death Experiences Getting Slightly Less Mysterious

The nonfiction publishing phenomenon of 2011 and 2012 was, without a doubt, Heaven Is For Real , an account of a three-year-old boy who during surgery visited heaven, where he met Jesus, who rides on a "rainbow horse." Young Colton Burpo's father Todd attested that it just had to be true, since Colton knew details he could never have learned elsewhere, like the fact that Jesus had marks on his hands. Sure, Todd Burpo is a pastor and the family is intensely religious, but still. It couldn't possibly have been a dream, right? Heaven Is For Real has sold an incredible 7.5 million copies, and is now in its 142nd week on The New York Times paperback non-fiction bestseller list . The top spot on that list is held by this year's nonfiction publishing phenomenon, Proof of Heaven , a neurosurgeon's account of how he fell into a coma and went you know where. It's "proof," you see, because the doctor had an extended vacation amongst the clouds, when his brain was, he says, "shut down." Could it...

Artificial Love

Like HAL, except way, way nicer.
Could you fall in love with Siri? OK, let's not say Siri in particular, since Siri is as dumb as a stump and doesn't understand anything you ask her. But what about a version of Siri that's a few generations away, one with not only better voice recognition but a real personality, one that learns and changes and gets to know you, one with which (whom?) you build a complicated relationship? Could you fall in love with that program? That's the question that Spike Jonze's new movie Her seems to be asking. Check out the trailer: Like most of Jonze's films, Her looks to be filled with longing and melancholy. And the possibility doesn't seem too far-fetched, both from the perspective of the software and our remarkable ability to imbue non-human things—both inanimate and otherwise—with human characteristics. After all, in Japan, there are men who have deep emotional relationships with pillows . Granted, that's absurd, but have you ever had a crush on a character in a television show? You know...

How Long Do You Want to Live?

Flickr/Yann Gourvennec
Attentive readers will recall that I'm rather interested , as a human whose body stubbornly continues to age, in the prospect that science will one day enable us to extend our lives far beyond what is possible today. Throwing the "immortality" word around tends to turn people off, since it sounds so absurd (after all, nothing lives forever, not even our sun), but what about just living a whole lot longer than most of us expect to even when we're being optimistic? Is that something you'd want? My answer has always been, "Of course—are you kidding?" If advancements in medicine and technology can dramatically extend our lives—and assuming that we don't end up like Tithonus, the figure from Greek mythology who was granted eternal life but not eternal youth, so lived forever in a tortuous ever-increasing decrepitude—then I'm all for it. There are strong arguments that living for an extra 50 or 100 years (or more) might be great for you as an individual, but bad for society as a whole, but...

Burgers from the Future

This was definitely not grown in a lab. (Flickr/Simon Willison)
Let's talk meat, shall we? Americans eat a lot of it. Our cow population (or "inventory" if you prefer, as the beef industry does ) is almost 90 million, and total beef consumption in the U.S. is over 25 billion pounds. If you piled all those hamburgers in a stack, you'd have ... well, let's just say you'd have a really big stack of hamburgers. And we eat even more chicken, though a bit less pork; according to the National Chicken Council (unofficial motto: "B'cawk!"), total beef, pork, and poultry consumption adds up to more than 200 pounds a year for every waddling man, woman, and child in this great nation of ours. To a lot of people, even those who aren't vegetarians, industrial meat production is a moral compromise at best (and I say that as someone who does eat some kinds of meat). Most of us would just rather not think about the process that produced our chicken cutlet or burger. But what if you could produce the meat without actually killing an animal? And I don't mean some...

Today's Robot News

Atlas, who is perhaps not as cuddly as he should be.
It's Friday, which of course means we have to talk robots. Yesterday, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration (DARPA) unveiled Atlas, a humanoid robot it's using as part of its robotics challenge , in which teams of engineers will compete to write software that best employs Atlas' human-eradicating capabilities. Kidding, of course—they'll actually be trying to perform a series of tasks that might be needed in a disaster scenario. Frankly, I've always been skeptical about the potential of humanoid robots. Sure, it helps us to relate to them if they look like us, but the human body has a lot of limitations. For instance, hands are great, but should a robot have only two? Why not four or six, or eleven? The more hands, the more things you can do with them. And legs are extremely useful, especially for navigating uneven environments where wheels won't work well, like the rubble of a building that has fallen over, or the stairs in your house. But are two legs better than...

Is the World Facing the Next Pandemic?

A new deadly respiratory disease out of the Middle East is making the World Health Organization plenty nervous.  

AP Images/Anat Givon
GENEVA—Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization, is a slight, Chinese woman prone to power shades of lipstick. At the World Health Assembly in Geneva, where ministers of health from the U.N.’s 194 member countries gathered to discuss the world’s most pressing illnesses, Chan’s lip-color ranged from a light rose to fire-engine red, but her attitude never swayed. As Hong Kong’s Director of Health during the 2003 bird flu outbreak, Chan became known for both her wry humor and whip-sharp demeanor. In the middle of that epidemic, she told the press, “I eat chicken every day, don’t panic everyone.” Outside, reluctant local officials were killing over 1.5 million chickens at her behest. At the World Health Assembly, held from May 20 to 28th, she introduced various ministers as “my brother,” and “my sister,” drawing both laughter and applause from the buttoned-down attendees. But Chan’s epidemic persona made a repeat performance at this year’s assembly as a recent...

Cuddly Robots to Make Life in the Nursing Home Tolerable

Robots: Not just for nuns anymore. (Photo from Paro Robots U.S., Inc.)
In the movie Castaway , Tom Hanks' character, stranded on an island with no human companionship, dresses up a volleyball to look vaguely like a person's head, gives it a name ("Wilson"), then spends years having conversations with it. Near the end of the film, as Hanks is making his desperate attempt to return to civilization on a raft, Wilson gets washed overboard. There's a poignant moment when Hanks tries to reach Wilson, who is drifting away from the raft, then realizes sadly that he'll have to let it go if he's going to save himself. Because no matter how much emotion he's invested it with, in the end it's just a volleyball. Here in the actual world, there are lots of people who go through their days lacking companionship, many of whom live in nursing homes. As the Baby Boom generation ages, there are going to be a lot more of them. Which naturally leads to the question: Can we use robots to make their lives a little less miserable? Slate's Future Tense brings us the not-really-...

Highway Robbery for High-Speed Internet

Creative Commons
If you're one of those Northeastern elitists who reads The New York Times , you turned to the last page of the front section Friday and saw an op-ed from a Verizon executive making the case that "the United States has gained a global leadership position in the marketplace for broadband," and don't let anyone tell you different. "Hey," you might have said. "Didn't I read an almost identical op-ed in the Times just five days ago?" Indeed you did , though that one came not from a telecom executive but from a researcher at a telecom-funded think-tank . And if you live in Philadelphia, your paper recently featured this piece from a top executive at Comcast, explaining how, yes, American broadband is the bee's knees. That smells an awful lot like a concerted campaign to convince Americans not to demand better from their broadband providers. Perhaps they're trying to influence the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, who has been named by President Obama but not yet...

If Pot Becomes Legal

What will become of its secretive California hometown?

AP Photo
AP Photo/Ben Margot Humboldt Cannabis Center horticulturist Steve Tuck gestures beside both mature and baby marijuana plants he is growing for medical users of the drug. A t one point in Humboldt: Life on America’s Marijuana Frontier , Emily Brady’s account of her year in a remote Northern California county where pot is the cash crop that drives the local economy, one of the book’s subjects—a native of the area named Emma Worldpeace—talks to a new friend about the pictures of deceased classmates that hang on tackboard on Emma’s dorm room wall. “Did you know all these people who died?” she asked. “Yeah, I grew up with all of them,” Emma replied. “Oh my god, that seems so tragic.” The kicker was that Emma’s friend was the one who came from a “rough part of the Bay Area.” “Well sure, maybe every year someone from my school died,” her friend said. “But I went to high school with five or six thousand people.” In a large city, the fallout from youth violence represents an awful loss. In...

David Brooks and the Anti-Neuroscience Backlash

Neuroscience has come a long way in recent years. Our understanding of the brain is expanding rapidly, even as we grasp more and more just how spectacularly complex the blob in your head is. And as we gain new understanding and new tools to look at what's going on in the brain, like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), it's not surprising that there are people—both legitimate scientists and hucksters—eager to push the technology where it might not be quite prepared to go. For instance, people are working on turning fMRI machines into lie detectors; there are even companies that claim they can use a brain scan to tell whether you're lying. But there's still disagreement about how reliable these methods are. So it's also not surprising that as neuroscience advances, we're seeing something of an anti-neuroscience backlash. Some of it is perfectly reasonable and measured, but some of it—like today's column by David Brooks of The New York Times —leaps right from criticism of...