Science and Technology

Pandora's Box

AP Images/Austin American Statesman/Jay Janner

On a clear day this past May, Cody Wilson stood at a firing range just south of Austin, Texas. The BBC crew he’d invited stood a few feet away as the 25-year-old University of Texas law student adjusted his earplugs and sized up his target—a mound of dirt off in the distance. He raised a small handgun, pulled the trigger, and a .380 caliber shot rang out, kicking up a cloud of dust. The pistol Wilson held was made of black-and-white plastic and looked like a cheap children’s toy. What had drawn the BBC was that the gun, which Wilson dubbed the “Liberator,” had been created with an $8,000 3-D printer bought used on eBay. A self-described “techno-anarchist,” Wilson is on a quest to prove that new technology is rapidly changing what we can hope to regulate—from information and ideas to physical objects. The proof is that anyone with an Internet connection, a computer, and a 3-D printer can now manufacture a gun.

Yet Another NSA Violation

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File

Last month, it was revealed that the court established by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act had rebuked the National Security Agency 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, further illegal abuses by the NSA were unveiled. Like the previous revelations, this story reveals the dangers posed by an NSA conducting searches with far too broad a scope and too few constraints.

Mobile Phones Continue Inexorable Conquest of Globe

Flickr/Kohei314

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.

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:

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

The 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.

Slow and Steady Wins the Anti-Keystone XL Race

AP Photo/Nacogdoches Daily Sentinel, Andrew D. Brosig

Grace 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 or write a paper while Texas was in danger.

So, she took a risk. She sat in a tree.

Near-Death Experiences Getting Slightly Less Mysterious

Flickr/Telstar2000

The non-fiction 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 non-fiction 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 have been a dream he had while emerging from his coma? Nah. And so what if he turns out to be something of a charlatan? Any way you slice it, near-death trips through the Pearly Gates are box-office boffo. Which is why a new study on what happens to rats when they reach the end of their terrestrial moment is particularly interesting:

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:

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 I've been surprised as I've asked friends and relatives this question over the last few years that most of them say that getting 80 or 90 years on Earth is just fine with them. And now, the good folks at the Pew Research Religion and Life Project have asked a representative sample of Americans the question (or at least one form of the question), and they've gotten similar answers. Interestingly enough, most people think that while they don't want to live past 120, they think most other people disagree:

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.

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 three or four?

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.

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-surprising (at least to me) results of a small pilot study where a group of nursing home residents were each given a Paro robot, which is a baby harp seal stuffed animal that has some sensors and actuators and responds to your touch. Here's what happened:

Highway Robbery for High-Speed Internet

Creative Commons

If you're one of those Northeastern elitists who read 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.

If Pot Becomes Legal

What will become of its secretive California hometown?

AP Photo

At 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.”

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