Science and Technology

Keeping the Grim Reaper at Bay

Grandpa? Is that you? (Wikimedia Commons/Gaetan Lee)
This Sunday's New York Times business section had a big article on a guy named Dmitry Itskov, a Russian multi-millionaire who is using some of his money to solve the problems of hunger, environmental degradation, and mortality by creating a world in which all of us have out consciousness uploaded into avatars, or robot bodies. He calls it the 2045 Initiative, since that's his target date for it all coming together. Sound like a good idea? My opinion on this is complicated, but let's hear from him first: "That is the picture of this world that we created, with the minds we have today, with our set of values, with our egotism, our selfishness, our aggression," he went on. "Most of the world is suffering. What we're doing here does not look like the behavior of grown-ups. We're killing the planet and killing ourselves." To change that picture, he reasons, we must change our minds, or give them a chance to "evolve," to use one of his favorite words. Before our minds can evolve, though, we...

Your Next Car Will Be Part Robot

One of Google's self-driving cars. (Flickr/Guillermo Esteves)
Futurists have been predicting self-driving cars for decades, but for a long time it wasn't because the idea was a natural extrapolation of existing technology. Instead, from the standpoint of the 1950s or so, it just seemed like something we'd have in The Future, along with robot maids, vacations on the moon, and a spectacular network of vacuum tubes in every home. Today, almost all the technology necessary to allow cars to drive themselves is either already in existence or in the development process, and Google has already allowed its driverless cars to go hundreds of thousands of miles on their own. So the Department of Transportation has issued a policy statement laying out some of the issues that are likely to be confronted as these technologies develop, and establishing its research agenda to address the questions they'll need to answer in order to properly regulate driverless cars. The end point many people envision is that not only will all cars be self-driving, but you won't...

Washington, Colorado, and the Headaches of a Legal High

AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes
When Colorado and Washington State passed ballot measures legalizing marijuana last November, they weren’t just the first states in the country to do so—they were the first governments in the world to do so. While other nations and states, most notably the Netherlands and California, have decriminalized marijuana possession, the drug is still technically illegal. That means that while it’s tolerated by law enforcement, the government need not concern itself with a full-scale system for regulation and taxation. But there are advantages to legalizing the drug; Washington and Colorado can have a hand in making the product safer while they benefit from tax revenues. Both states are in the early stages of creating systems for taxation and regulation; the Washington State Liquor Control Board released a set of standards earlier this month, while Colorado’s state legislature has passed a series of recommendations from a task force. The differences between the two states' approaches will...

Face It: You're Crazy (But So Is Everyone Else)

Flickr/Mark Turnauckas, Carling Hale
Flickr/Mark Turnauckas C ommonly referred to as "the DSM," the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is often referred to as psychiatry's "Bible." If that's the case, imagine the outcry if an overzealous publisher merged the Gospels of Luke and Mark, and you have a pretty good idea of the controversy surrounding the release of the manual's fifth edition. After a six-year revision process—and nearly 20 years since the last edition—the American Psychiatric Association (APA) released the DSM-5 at its annual meeting this weekend, the product of 13 working groups and input from more than 1,500 professionals. Any effort to draw a line between the normal and the abnormal is sure to ignite debate, and it's no surprise that doctors and patients who rely on official diagnoses for health-insurance coverage have scrutinized the new DSM's every word. Among the most controversial changes : Grief following a loved one's death is now classified as a form of major depression;...

Big Brother Is You, Watching

Google's Sergey Brin, sportin' the specs. (Flickr/Thomas Hawk)
I stole the title of this post from an essay Mark Crispin Miller wrote 25 years ago about the effects of television, in which he argued that instead of a totalitarian government forcing us to submit through fear and oppression, we'd happily voluteer to be anesthetized by our TVs. Today though, the more proximate danger involves the rise of a kind of universal surveillance where we're being watched through much of our days, by governmental authorities, corporations looking to part us from our money, and each other. It's bad now, and it's only going to get worse. Which brings us to Google Glass, the augmented reality glasses rig that is getting closer to becoming a consumer product. People are starting to become concerned about the privacy implications of Google Glass, namely that you could be talking to someone who, unbeknownst to you, is recording everything you say. Or maybe you aren't even talking to them; maybe they're just walking behind you in the street, or sitting next to you...

Will Blog for Swag

Why tech reporters should feel a little wrong about all that free stuff they're taking home

Flickr/ MDrX
Yesterday was Google I/O, the tech giant’s annual developer conference. It’s where Google thinkers, technology journalists, and the genius programmers who make it all possible commune and geek out over the pixelated (and actual) buffet that awaits. It’s also the poor man’s World Wide Developers Conference (WWDC), the annual Apple event made famous by way of Steve Jobs’ puckish, turtleneck-clad theatrics, which left the whole world slavering for the newest iThing. But Steve is gone, as are his trademark presentation pyrotechnics. Google I/O, pushing incremental updates to Maps like it’s the second coming, is what we're left with. Google makes up for its lack of technological drama with a dramatic amount of swag. Last year at I/O the company gave away over $1,000 worth of smartphones, tablets, and other assorted Google-branded electronics. In a way it makes sense—Google developers should have the devices they are programming for, and developers create lots of apps for free, for the...

Schooling Richwine

The link between genetics and I.Q. is unclear, much less the link between genetics and race.

The academic and policy worlds have been roiled by last week’s announcement that a Heritage Foundation study on the cost of immigration reform was co-authored by Jason Richwine, who wrote a dissertation on the purported low I.Q. of immigrants. It beyond belief that, in the year 2013, there are still some that want to posit that there is a genetic basis for race. Even more surprisingly, these arguments come endorsed with a seal of approval by some of the nation’s top universities, like Harvard in this case. As an alumnus of the Kennedy School and a scholar of race and Hispanic identity, I feel obliged to provide a response. Having spent last week with some of the world’s premier scholars of race at a workshop on “Reconsidering Race” at Texas A&M University, in which we examined the interface of social science and genetics/genomics and health, I am stunned by the lack of rigor and intellectual depth evinced by Richwine’s dissertation. The work makes extremely simplistic assumptions...

They Know What You're Doing

One guy's LinkedIn network visualized. (Flickr/Luc Legay)
The big social media sites all recommend people they think you should add to your network. In most cases, it's pretty obvious, at least on the surface, how the recommendation algorithm works; Twitter offers you a few people it suggests you follow, and says they're followed by people you already follow. But after joining LinkedIn a couple of years ago, I found its recommendations to be not just highly accurate, but disturbingly so. That isn't to say they don't recommend people I don't know, but often they'll recommend someone I do know, but I can't for the life of me figure out how they did it. Like hey, there's a woman I went on one date with in 1993, haven't spoken to since, and who knows no one I know. Why in god's name did they suggest her? There's the little brother of a guy I knew 15 years ago, and to whom I have no professional connection. How did he come up? It's particularly odd since I never use LinkedIn; my profile pretty much just sits there. The first couple of times it...

You Think We Have Lots of Guns Now...

The first working gun made (almost) entirely on a 3-D printer.
There's even more exciting gun news today, coming from a small nonprofit organization called Defense Distributed . They announced that they have successfully test-fired a gun made almost entirely in a 3-D printer. The only part that wasn't 3-D printed was the firing pin. And the bullet, of course. Now previously, people had made gun components in 3-D printers, but prior tests of entire weapons had been unsuccessful. This raises some rather troubling questions, which we'll get to in a moment. But first, here's their short video, which shows the firing and construction of the gun, inexplicably interspersed with shots of World War II-era bombers: They may call this thing "The Liberator," but it's a little too impractical to be able to liberate anyone at the moment. It's probably highly inaccurate, and it holds only one bullet. But this is more a proof-of-concept than anything else, and if you want to, you can go to their website and download the plans, then print one out on your own 3-D...

Cleaning Up the Airwaves

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin Tom Wheeler, President Barack Obama's nominee to lead the Federal Communications Comission L ast week, President Obama announced he would nominate his good friend and venture capitalist Tom Wheeler to lead the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Wheeler will replace another Obama good friend and venture capitalist, Julius Genachowski, who leaves in his wake an agency more embattled than ever. In announcing the nomination, the president noted that Wheeler is “the only member of both the cable television and the wireless industry hall of fame. So he’s like the Jim Brown of telecom or the Bo Jackson of telecom”; Wheeler was president of the National Cable Television Association (NCTA) from 1979 to 1984, and CEO of the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA) from 1992 to 2004. He is currently managing director of Core Capital Partners, a venture-capital firm, and he has been a prolific fundraiser for the president. By all accounts...

The STEM-Shortage Myth

Flickr/jasonandrebecca09
Flickr/jasonandrebecca09 The Economic Policy Institute published a report yesterday on the supposed shortage of professionals in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). You've probably heard of the crisis by now. America is not producing enough STEM degrees. This will be the death of innovation and global competitiveness. We must reorient higher education to convert more liberal arts students into STEM students. And so on. The problem with this alleged crisis is that it is not real. As the EPI report lays bare, the common wisdom about our STEM problem is mistaken: We are not facing a shortage of STEM-qualified workers. In fact, we appear to have a considerable STEM surplus. Only half of students graduating with a STEM degree are able to find STEM jobs. Beyond that, if there was an actual shortage of STEM workers, basic supply and demand would predict that the wages of STEM workers would be on the rise. Instead, wages in STEM fields have not budged in over a decade. Stagnant...

Dissecting Donglegate

Flickr/Chuckumentary
Flickr/Chuckumentary When is a dick joke not just a dick joke? That’s the question at the heart of what’s being called “Donglegate,” the latest tech-industry skirmish in the ongoing battle over the sector's rampant sexism. The answer: When it's scientifically proven to impair a woman's ability to do her job. First, the basics: Tech professional Adria Richards was attending an industry conference called PyCon. Earlier that day, a fellow (male) attendee had made a joke to her about looking up women's skirts. She knew that such sexual comments were against PyCon's explicit community standards and tried to address it with him, to no avail. Later, when she heard some men sitting behind her cracking jokes about the size of their "dongles," she tried a different approach. She snapped a photo of the men and tweeted it, along with her location in the hall and a complaint about their behavior, to the attention of conference organizers. To their credit, PyCon officials took her tweet seriously...

The Internet's Patriot Act

flickr/IronCurtaiNYC
AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File “I believe that it is very possible,” former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told a rapt audience at Georgetown University earlier this month, “the next Pearl Harbor could be a cyber attack that would have one hell of an impact on the United States of America.” That’s a belief Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano shares—in January, she urged Congress not to “wait until there is a 9/11 in the cyber world” to act on cyber-security legislation. Subtle warnings, these are not. Over the past 12 months, hackers have broken into the networks of major news organizations, including The New York Times , The Washington Post , and The Wall Street Journal in a string of audacious security breaches. The U.S. Government Accountability Office found that cyber-security incidents reported by federal agencies have risen 800 percent since 2006. Chinese hackers infiltrated the networks of nearly 800 U.S. companies and research institutions between 2000 and 2010,...

The Internet’s Patriot Act

flickr/IronCurtaiNYC
AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File “I believe that it is very possible,” former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told a rapt audience at Georgetown University earlier this month, “the next Pearl Harbor could be a cyber attack that would have one hell of an impact on the United States of America.” That’s a belief Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano shares—in January, she urged Congress not to “wait until there is a 9/11 in the cyber world” to act on cyber-security legislation. Subtle warnings, these are not. Over the past 12 months, hackers have broken into the networks of major news organizations, including The New York Times , The Washington Post , and The Wall Street Journal in a string of audacious security breaches. The U.S. Government Accountability Office found that cyber-security incidents reported by federal agencies have risen 800 percent since 2006. Chinese hackers infiltrated the networks of nearly 800 U.S. companies and research institutions between 2000 and 2010,...

Augmented Reality Is Here, and It's Right on Your Face

You must be at least this cool to buy Google Glass.
There are some technological developments that come as a complete surprise, and some that are logical extrapolations of what we've had for a while, so obvious that we know we'll eventually get them, it's just a matter of the development of the necessary components. A wearable augmented reality device falls into the latter category. For years, we've been seeing sci-fi movies in which a character looks out at the world, or at a person, and sees a whole bunch of information pop up in front of his eyes (the best-known example is probably The Terminator , which came out in all the way back in 1984). But as of now, you can actually get one. Well, maybe not you specifically, but somebody. Google Glass, which is essentially a smartphone in the shape of a pair of glasses that are, depending on your perspective, totally cool-looking or remarkably dorky, is going on sale. You won't be able to go down to Target and buy a pair, though; for this first run, you have to actually apply to Google, and...

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