Science and Technology

Healthcare.gov 2: The Contractors' Search for More Money

AP Photo/John Amis, File
AP Photo/HHS E veryone agrees that the rollout of Healthcare.gov has been something between a fiasco and a disaster. One of the mysteries is how a famously tech-savvy administration, headed by a president whose campaigns broke new ground in using digital technology to accomplish their goals, could have presided over this kind of screw-up. The answer is nearly as complicated as the website itself, but as the administration has said, the problems are not insurmountable and the site will be fixed (hopefully sooner rather than later). The next important question is what we can learn from this episode. There are vital lessons to be absorbed about how our government functions—not the Obama administration in particular per se. Instead, we got a good peek at what happens when private companies adept at squeezing billions from the taxpayers are hired to build something big. There's plenty of blame to spread around, from the White House to the Department of Health and Human Services to the...

Eric Schlosser, Bard of Folly

AP Images/John S. Zeedick
I t took decades after the invention of nuclear weapons for today’s taboos against them to take hold. Some witnesses to the first nuclear explosions apprehended their horror immediately. Some planners, civilian and military, fell in love. In the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. built nuclear reactors in Iran, Pakistan, and dozens of other countries; in the 1960s and 1970s, the Atomic Energy Commission made plans to use nuclear explosions to dig a canal in Nicaragua and carve a pass-through in the California mountains for Interstate 40. Influential strategists like Herman Kahn were enthralled by the potential of nuclear weapons to reshape the world. On Thermonuclear War , Kahn’s best-known book, contains scenarios not only for how nuclear weapons would work in World War III but also in World Wars IV, V, VI, and VII. All too often, the history of nuclear weapons has been told as a history of those schemes, a history of plans for wars that never took place. The genesis of nuclear weapons has...

The Robot Invasion

Jason Schneider
I f you want a sense of where the nation’s job market is headed, a good place to stand is inside the half-mile-long Skechers warehouse in Moreno Valley, California, where box after box of shoes is stacked upon row after row of shelving, which soars some 40 feet in the air. Physically, the place is a wonder—quiet, sleek, and environmentally friendly (at 1.8 million square feet, it’s the largest officially certified “LEED Gold” building in the country). But what’s most remarkable about the $250 million structure, which opened in 2011, is how few people work there. The day I visited, a clump of men and women toiled away near a series of conveyor belts, filling small specialty orders. But machines—not human beings—were handling the bulk of the chores. “As you can see, there are no more people doing the retrieving,” Iddo Benzeevi, the chief executive of Highland Fairview, the firm that developed the site, told me. “It’s the computer doing it all by itself.” A driverless crane swung into...

Attack of the Giant Grass!

AP Photo/Allen Breed
AP Photo/Allen Breed A rundo donax towers over the tallest man's head. It's thick, bamboo-like, and three-stories tall. It can withstand cold, and it can withstand drought. Give it water, and a little nitrogen, and it grows. Fast. Killing it can be difficult. In California, where it was introduced in the 1800s, Arundo has gotten so out of control that in some places it seems to be the only plant growing on the riverbanks. It doesn’t have seeds, but it doesn't need them: it has other methods of multiplying. A fierce rainstorm can tear up its shallow roots and spread them far downstream. There, they start growing all over again. Mow it down, spray it with pesticides—it’s all futile. If any of the monstrous reeds are left upstream, they'll grow back. Arundo doesn't need to be near water to thrive, though. It grows pretty much anywhere. It grows in Oregon, Arizona, Texas, Missouri, Georgia, Florida, Maryland, Virginia—down the West Coast and across the broad swath of the southwest and...

In Praise of Designer Babies

One day, I will rule this measly planet. (Flickr/paparutzi)
Imagine you knew that you carried a gene for a debilitating illness. But doctors could go into your egg (or your spouse's) and remove that gene, enabling you to have a baby who, whatever other problems they might encounter through their lifetime, wouldn't have to worry about the illness. Would you let them? Most people would say probably yes, provided they were sure the technique was safe and wouldn't produce some kind of two-headed mutant centaur baby. That, after all, is what people were worried about when the first baby conceived via in-vitro fertilization was born in 1978—although in that case, they were worried about cyclops babies ( seriously ). It turned out in the end that IVF is perfectly safe, and now it's a common procedure, the ethics of which is questioned only by radical anti-choice extremists. Well we may be approaching the time when doctors can fix certain kinds of inherited diseases before an egg is even fertilized. And naturally, people are worried about "designer...

The Evangelist

Gregg Segal T wo years ago on a summer morning, Jim Gilliam stood offstage at New York University’s Skirball Center. It was the second day of the Personal Democracy Forum, an annual gathering of civic-minded coders, hackers, and online organizers. Many in the crowd knew Gilliam as much for his appearance—he’s six-foot-nine, bald, ivory-pale, and impossibly thin—as for his brilliance as a programmer and his passion for progressive causes. Gilliam, who was 33 years old, had never spoken before such a large audience, and as he strode across the stage and looked out on all the people, he was terrified. “Growing up,” he began, “I had two loves: Jesus and the Internet.” He had titled his speech “The Internet Is My Religion,” and he was surprised the conference’s organizers had agreed to let him give a talk steeped in God and faith. Even though he’d rehearsed for weeks, he expected to bomb. Still, he had to do this. His entire life, he believed, had led him to this point. “I was born again...

Would You Let a Robot Watch You Undress?

Serge greets a visitor.
Let's face it, we all need a break from talking about this god-awful shutdown (acknowledging, of course, that the best break of all would be to end the damn thing). In that spirit, via Technology Review , here's an interesting study out of Georgia Tech about what kind of robots young and old people are more comfortable with, and how those preferences change depending on what it is we're asking the robots to help us with. Generally, the older people preferred more human-looking robots, while the younger people preferred more, well, robot-looking robots. That would make sense if you assume that the young are more comfortable with technology. But things get interesting when you get into details about what the robots are doing: Their preferences changed somewhat depending on what the robot was helping with, though. For example, for help in making decisions (like investing), younger people preferred a face with an in-between human/robot look. The study also found that for a robot that...

Pandora's Box

AP Images/Austin American Statesman/Jay Janner
AP Images/Austin American Statesman/Jay Janner O n 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. Three-dimensional printing...

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

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. 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

Flickr/Telstar2000
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...

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