Let's take a momentary break from the fiscal insanity that has possessed Washington of late, and talk about something else you can be afraid of. Question: do you have anti-virus software on your smartphone? Probably not, because while it will take about 10 seconds for an unprotected computer connected to the internet to be infected with all manner of malware, hackers haven't devoted much energy to targeting people's phones. Yet. But Popular Sciencepredicts that phone hacking will be one of the big tech developments of 2013:
Robots, as yet unarmed, created for the military by Boston Dynamics.
Last week, Human Rights Watch released a report raising alarms about the specter of "killer robots." The report urged that we develop an international treaty to prohibit the development of fully autonomous robotic weapons systems that can make their own decisions about when to use deadly force. So is that day coming any time soon? The Pentagon wants everyone to know it has no plans to allow robots to make decisions on when to fire weapons; Spencer Ackerman at Wired points us to this memo from Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter released two days after the HRW report, making clear that the DoD's policy is that robots don't get to pull the trigger without a human being making the decision (or in bureacratic-speak, "Autonomous and semi-autonomous weapon systems shall be designed to allow commanders and operators to exercise appropriate levels of human judgment over the use of force"). It seems obvious that we don't want a bunch of Terminators walking through our streets deciding whom they're going to shoot. Or is it?
Twenty years or so ago, a few politicians got caught when somebody asked them the price of a gallon of milk and they didn't know the answer. As a consequence, campaign managers and political consultants started making sure their candidates knew the price of milk and a few similar items like a loaf of bread, should they ever be called upon to assure voters that they do in fact visit the supermarket and are thus in touch with how regular folk live their lives. In a similar but somewhat more complex game of gotcha, Marco Rubio is the latest Republican politician to express discomfort about the question of the earth's age. Unfortunately, unlike the price of milk, that's not a question upon which people of every ideology agree. But if you're a politician wondering what you should answer if you get asked the question, here's a guide to the possibilities, and what each one says about you. There are 4 possible answers:
This is the ninth in the Prospect's series on the 174 measures on state ballots this year.
Six years ago, Mesfin Nega was attacked outside a nightclub. He suffered a broken neck and a damaged spinal cord that transformed the previously healthy 32-year-old into a quadriplegic. As The Washington Post later reported, Nega had made a pact with his friend Shimelis Yegazu: If one were ever to suffer an injury that required him to be connected to life-sustaining equipment, the other would take it upon himself to disconnect the equipment. Nega and Yegazu made the news last week when Yegazu followed through with this pact, administering a lethal dose of phenobarbital to Nega, and then taking a fatal dose himself.
OK, so my headline isn't exactly accurate, unless "coming" means "coming eventually, but not any time soon." Nevertheless, scientists have succeeded in modifying the genetic code of embryos. For the moment it's about replacing a defective gene that causes an illness, but that's an important step toward our superbaby future, as this NPR story reports:
As an undergraduate at Stanford, Debbie Sterling once ran out of a mechanical drafting course, crying.
Sterling was one of about five women in the class, and even though she loved drawing, she was having trouble with her final assignment. “I couldn’t get it quite right,” she admitted. But she never thought a struggle with one assignment would lead to what happened next.
During a critique, the two male teaching assistants asked the class, “OK, who thinks that Debbie should pass this class?”
The room remained silent. “Nobody raised their hands. I was mortified,” she said. “That’s the moment where I was really considering just giving up and thinking I didn’t have what it takes.”
Barry Commoner died on September 30 at the age of 95. The New York Times called him “a founder of modern ecology and one of its most provocative thinkers and mobilizers in making environmentalism a people’s cause.” Among many accomplishments, his pioneering work on the effects of radiation was a major factor in building public support for the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union in the middle of the Cold War. Time Magazine put him on its cover in 1970, the first year of Earth Day.
He also ran for president in 1980 on the ticket of the now defunct Citizens Party, an episode few on the left remember and the obituaries dismissed as a quirky personal misadventure. It was more than that. The Citizens Party was an effort to respond to the early signals that the Democratic Party was on the way to becoming morally and intellectually bankrupt. Three decades later, that ugly process is almost complete.
The scariest piece in the news this week isn’t about the election or the economy or the threat of terrorism—though it touches on all three. It’s about the latest development in humanity’s ceaseless urge to invent things—subcategory, the ceaseless urge to invent things that let people do things more cheaply than before.
David Becker is unusual in national politics. He talks about inaccuracies in voting rolls, dead people still registered, and the like. He says the bad information is a big problem. But he's not on the far right talking about voter fraud or the need for major purges to the states' rolls before an election. Instead, he's the director of election initiatives for the non-partisan Pew Center on the States. And his research tells him that better data would actually help more people vote—and make elections a smoother, more efficient process that shouldplease folks on both sides of the political divide.
As exciting as it is to watch Olympic sprinters tear down the track, the truth is that running fast for short distances is just not really human beings' thing. Usain Bolt, the fastest human ever to walk the planet, has reached a top speed of 27.78 miles per hour, which is an amble to a cheetah or a gazelle. Heck, your dachshund can almost certainly outrun you, even with its stubby little legs. What gave our ancestors an evolutionary advantage was their stamina, the ability to chase down prey by running and running until the poor wildebeest ran out steam and dropped.
The bright side of this story is that in the not-too-distant future, robots will be able to hunt and capture your slowpoke self without too much trouble, should the authorities determine that you have a suspicious bulge in your pocket or you need to be punished for jaywalking. Boston Dynamics, a robotics company that uses your tax dollars (in the form of grants from DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) to make crazy advanced robots that mimic animals in all kinds of interesting ways, just announced that their Cheetah robot has reached a speed of 28.3 miles per hour, faster than any human. What's different about it is that it has legs, not wheels, potentially making it (and robots like it) highly maneuverable. Gaze upon it and tremble: