Category: technology

MIT Now Has a Humanist Chaplain to Help Students With the Ethics of Tech

By Isabel Fattal

Even some of the most powerful tech companies start out tiny, with a young innovator daydreaming about creating the next big thing. As today’s tech firms receive increased moral scrutiny, it raises a question about tomorrow’s: Is that young person thinking about the tremendous ethical responsibility they’d be taking on if their dream comes true?

Greg Epstein, the recently appointed humanist chaplain at MIT, sees his new role as key to helping such entrepreneurial students think through the ethical ramifications of their work. As many college students continue to move away from organized religion, some universities have appointed secular chaplains like Epstein to help non-religious students lead ethical, meaningful lives. At MIT, Epstein plans to spark conversations about the ethics of technology—conversations that will sometimes involve religious groups on campus, and that may sometimes carry over to Harvard, where he has held (and will continue to hold) the same position since 2005.

I recently spoke with Epstein about how young people can think ethically about going into the tech industry and what his role will look like. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

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Here’s What’s Needed for Self-Flying Taxis and Delivery Drones to Really Take Off

By Larry Greenemeier

Amazon, Uber and other tech giants want to fill the skies with small autonomous aircraft ferrying packages and people from place to place. For that to happen, these robotic drones—also called unmanned aircraft systems (UASs)—need an air traffic control system to keep them from crashing into buildings, human-piloted aircraft or one another. NASA is developing a UAS Traffic Management (UTM) network with several other organizations that the group plans to finish testing next year. Uber, in particular, has a lot riding on the UTM’s success—the ride-sharing company made several announcements last week to promote its proposeduberAIR taxi service. Big questions remain, however, as to whether and when any monitoring and management system will be able to handle the expected volume of large self-flying aircraft, which will be traveling great distances to deliver everything from pizzas to passengers.

Uber is onboard with NASA, at least. The company announced at its Elevate aviation conference in Los Angeles on May 8 and 9 it had signed an agreement to provide NASA with details and data about the inaugural uberAIR service it has planned for Dallas–Fort Worth. In return, the agency will use Uber’s data to make computer simulations of small passenger-carrying aircraft flying over the Texas Metroplex during peak air traffic times. Uber will analyze those simulations to help plan air taxi management in the already crowded skies over Dallas as well as Los Angeles and Dubai—the other cities hoping to start testing uberAIR by 2020.

Uber is targeting urban areas that have a population of more than two million people and a density of more than “2,000 people per square mile,” according to documents on Uber’s Web site. The cities must also have a large and dispersed layout that allows air taxis “to offer significant time-saving benefits at speeds of” 240 to 320 kilometers per hour. The company also points out flights will go from “node to node rather than point to point,” meaning there will be specific—rather than random—pickup and drop-off sites.

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AI recreates activity patterns that brain cells use in navigation

By Alison Abbott

Scientists have used artificial intelligence (AI) to recreate the complex neural codes that the brain uses to navigate through space. The feat demonstrates how powerful AI algorithms can assist conventional neuroscience research to test theories about the brain’s workings — but the approach is not going to put neuroscientists out of work just yet, say the researchers.

The computer program, details of which were published in Nature on 9 May1, was developed by neuroscientists at University College London (UCL) and AI researchers at the London-based Google company DeepMind. It used a technique called deep learning — a type of AI inspired by the structures in the brain — to train a computer-simulated rat to track its position in a virtual environment.

The program surprised the scientists by spontaneously generating hexagonal-shaped patterns of activity akin to those generated by navigational cells in the mammalian brain called grid cells. Grid cells have been shown in experiments with real rats to be fundamental to how an animal tracks its own position in space.

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Water filter inspired by Alan Turing passes first test

By Mark Zastrow

Researchers in China have developed a filter that removes salt from water up to three times as fast as conventional filters. The membrane has a unique nanostructure of tubular strands, inspired by the mathematical-biology work of codebreaker Alan Turing.

The filter is the most finely constructed example of the mathematician’s ‘Turing structures’ yet, and their first practical application, say researchers. “These 3D structures are quite extraordinary,” says Patrick Müller, a systems biologist at the Friedrich Miescher Laboratory in Tübingen, Germany. The filter’s tubular strands, just tens of nanometres in diameter, would be impossible to produce by other methods, such as 3D printing, he says. The work is published on 3 May in Science1.

British mathematician Alan Turing is best known for his codebreaking exploits for the UK government during the Second World War, and as the father of computer science and artificial intelligence. But he also produced a seminal work2 in the then-nascent field of mathematical biology in 1952, just two years before his death.

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As algorithms take over, YouTube’s recommendations highlight a human problem

By Ben Popken

YouTube is a supercomputer working to achieve a specific goal — to get you to spend as much time on YouTube as possible.

But no one told its system exactly how to do that. After YouTube built the system that recommends videos to its users, former employees like Guillaume Chaslot, a software engineer in artificial intelligence who worked on the site’s recommendation engine in 2010-2011, said he watched as it started pushing users toward conspiracy videos. Chaslot said the platform’s complex “machine learning” system, which uses trial and error combined with statistical analysis to figure out how to get people to watch more videos, figured out that the best way to get people to spend more time on YouTube was to show them videos light on facts but rife with wild speculation.

Routine searches on YouTube can generate quality, personalized recommendations that lead to good information, exciting storytelling from independent voices, and authoritative news sources.

But they can also return recommendations for videos that assert, for example, that the Earth is flat, aliens are underneath Antarctica, and mass shooting survivors are crisis actors.

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Artificial Chameleon Skin Is Weird and Cool

By Rafi Letzter

A team of chemists has created a substance that can change its color and stiffness, which they’re comparing to chameleon skin.

The stretchy material is made up of strands of copolymers — complex, self-assembling large molecules that in this case are shaped like long dumbbells, with spherical bulges on each end. The way those copolymers react to mechanical stress allows them to vary their stiffness and color, the researchers wrote in a paper published Friday (March 30) in the journal Science.

Like a chameleon, the substance doesn’t undergo any chemical changes when it changes color. Instead, those tiny bulges at the ends of the copolymers move closer together or farther apart, changing how they interact with light.

When the long copolymers weave together in cross-linked structures, the researchers wrote, they can “display vibrant color, extreme softness, and intense strain stiffening on par with that of skin tissue.

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NASA’s new satellite brings the search for Earthlike exoplanets closer to home

By Daniel Clery

Thanks to NASA’s pioneering Kepler probe, we know our galaxy is teeming with exoplanets. Now, a new generation of exoplanet hunters is set to home in on rocky worlds closer to home.

Over 9 years in space, Kepler has found more than 2600 confirmed exoplanets, implying hundreds of billions in the Milky Way. The new efforts sacrifice sheer numbers and target Earth-size planets whose composition, atmosphere, and climate—factors in whether they might be hospitable to life—could be studied. Leading the charge is the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), a NASA mission due for launch on 16 April.

The brainchild of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, the $337 million TESS project aims to identify at least 50 rocky exoplanets—Earth-size or bigger—close enough for their atmospheres to be scrutinized by the much larger James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), due for launch in 2020. “Where do we point Webb?” TESS Principal Investigator George Ricker asked rhetorically at the American Astronomical Society annual meeting at National Harbor in Maryland in January. “This is the finder scope.”

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There’s a small chance an asteroid will smack into Earth in 2135. NASA is working on a plan.

By Cleve R. Wootson Jr.

Here’s a tip for the planners among us: If you have dinner reservations or theater tickets for Sept. 22, 2135 (it’s a Thursday), now might be a good time to scuttle them.

Sometime the day before, scientists say, there is a small chance that an asteroid the size of the Empire State Building will smack into Earth, destroying a lot of living things on the planet.

But don’t worry. NASA has got you covered.

Forward-thinking astrophysicists and people who specialize in blowing things up with nuclear weapons have come up with a plan, which they swear was not drawn up by Bruce Willis.

If the asteroid — it is named Bennu — decides to go rogue, they could send a nearly nine-ton “bulk impactor” to push it out of Earth’s orbit. Or, more likely, they would gently nudge it out of its apocalyptic path using a nuclear device.

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AI researchers embrace Bitcoin technology to share medical data

By Amy Maxmen

Dexter Hadley thinks that artificial intelligence (AI) could do a far better job at detecting breast cancer than doctors do — if screening algorithms could be trained on millions of mammograms. The problem is getting access to such massive quantities of data. Because of privacy laws in many countries, sensitive medical information remains largely off-limits to researchers and technology companies.

So Hadley, a physician and computational biologist at the University of California, San Francisco, is trying a radical solution. He and his colleagues are building a system that allows people to share their medical data with researchers easily and securely — and retain control over it. Their method, which is based on the blockchain technology that underlies the cryptocurrency Bitcoin, will soon be put to the test. By May, Hadley and his colleagues will launch a study to train their AI algorithm to detect cancer using mammograms that they hope to obtain from between three million and five million US women.

The team joins a growing number of academic scientists and start-ups who are using blockchain to make sharing medical scans, hospital records and genetic data more attractive — and more efficient. Some projects will even pay people to use their information. The ultimate goal of many teams is to train AI algorithms on the data they solicit using the blockchain systems.

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Spacecraft Could Nuke Dangerous Asteroid to Defend Earth

By Mike Wall

The next time a hazardous asteroid lines Earth up in its crosshairs, we may be ready for the threat.

Scientists and engineers with the U.S. government have drawn up plans for a spacecraft that could knock big, incoming space rocks off course via blunt-force impact or blow them to bits with a nuclear warhead, BuzzFeed News reported.

The researchers announced the concept vehicle, known as the Hypervelocity Asteroid Mitigation Mission for Emergency Response (HAMMER), in a study in the February issue of the journal Acta Astronautica. And the team will discuss HAMMER at an asteroid-research conference in May, according to BuzzFeed News.

Each HAMMER spacecraft would weigh about 8.8 tons (8 metric tons). If an asteroid threat is detected early enough, a fleet of the vehicles could be dispatched to collide, nuke-free, with the space rock, changing its trajectory enough to spare Earth from an impact.

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