Ignoring the warnings while believing in conspiracies

Why is it so easy for people –governments, even– to believe in conspiracy theories, but ignore science? We will have to figure this one out as we deal with Covid-19.

As recently as 2018, Jonathan Quick in the Guardian wrote a detailed explanation of how we must prepare for a ‘looming pandemic,’ so I’m aghast how governments –meaning people in decision-making roles in governments, ignored this.  Here’s an enlightening paragraph, with eerie predictions at that time.

“Somewhere out there a dangerous virus is boiling up in the bloodstream of a bird, bat, monkey or pig, preparing to jump to a human being. It’s hard to comprehend the scope of such a threat, for it has the potential to wipe out millions of us, including my family and yours, over a matter of weeks or months.”

Some would have dismissed these and other Cassandra-like statements as overblown. The prediction at that time was that a mismanaged pandemic could cost the world 3.5 trillion dollars.

Jonathan Quick (of Harvard Medical School, and Chair of the Global Health Council) used this infographic that puts outbreaks and a pandemic in context. I urge you to read his article, though.

If only our leaders listen to experts rather than attempt to be the experts and geniuses themselves. We didn’t elect them to spread unfounded theories, but to lead.

 

What’s the definition of a pandemic?

To understand pandemics, the one that puts matters in context is the Spanish flu of 1918. It was caused by the H1N1 virus which had an avian origin.

A pandemic is obviously a global outbreak.  It is due to a virus that is “easily and spread from person to person in an efficient and sustained way,” according to The Center for Disease Control. How easily spread? During the Spanish flu, nearly one-third of the world population between 1918 and 1919 was infected by H1N1. (An epidemic, by contrast is not global, but also spreads fast. The 2013 Ebola epidemic in Western Africa which killed about 11,000 people.)

The panic caused by a pandemic is the result of a lack of information, leadership, and a slow response. In the 2009 pandemic (the H1N1 ‘flu), it took 26 weeks for a vaccine to become available. Not too long ago, Bill Gates warned about our need for preparedness for a pandemic. As we get to grips with the gravity of COVID-19 and pandemic we are living in, it’s worth watching his TED Talk on this.

The business model of social media is affirmation, not information!

Disturbing revelation from tech insider, Tristan Harris. More unsettling for anyone who assumes the apps we use are benign. Or that mental health issues have nothing to do with screen addiction.

Please watch this video and share it with someone. 

Tristan Harris is the co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology. The Center has practical steps to counter the effects – at a policy level, and in our daily lives.  Of course no one wants to hear this. Everyone should.

He believes that in this attention economy the apps and the devices are not just messing with our brains. They are hijacking our behavior and how our society works. How do we get the message out to our children, and the schools? How do we model for them that there is a different way to communicate and interact?

Or is it too late to step back, as Macbeth said of his predicament:

“I am in blood stepped in so far that should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o’er.” 

 

Might robots might fix satellites (and not replace us?)

Satellites do need tech support now and then, but whom are you gonna call when a large metal and glass object hurtling through space needs a repairman?

One group of scientists believes it could deploy a robot to fix a broken antenna or a weakened panel. Ou Ma, a professor at the University of Cincinnati professor believes his group could develop robots –basically robotic satellites– that can be deployed to dock with a satellites and perform the necessary tasks. The details are here.

I found the story interesting because sending robots into space isn’t something new. But sending robots on ‘work’ related missions, rather than for mere exploration, might be an area that attracts funding. Robotics is often seen as dangerous, unnecessary, or too expensive.

In a related development, speaking of work, researchers at ASU are looking at how robots could augment, rather than replace workers in certain jobs. This story, in this month’s Thrive Magazine, looks at the human impact of robotics. There’s obviously an AI component to this. “What we can do instead is design our AI systems, our robots, in a way that will help people to come on board,” says Siddharth Srivastava, at the School for the Future of Innovation in Society

This is the topic, this week that I brought up at my robotics club meeting at Benjamin Franklin High School

Facebook scrutiny. Why everyone, not just the governments should do it

When it comes to foreign election interference, data theft, and broken promises about safeguarding privacy it’s Facebook and not just some secret government surveillance program we have to guard against. Mark Zuckerberg has become the face of a privatized Big Brother. Ironically it’s the government that’s now trying to peel back the curtain.

As Zuck faces questions on Capitol Hill this week this week, the questions about Libra, it’s cryptocurrency product have been asked. This blockchain product “could create a whole new threat to Americans and national security,” said Carolyn Maloney, Democrat of New York. Libra’s mission, according to the Facebook White Paper, is a simple global currency and financial infrastructure that empowers billions of people.”

The blockchain on which it is based is Libra, and the unit of its currency is also a ‘libra.’ It’s backed by Lyft, Spotify, Uber, and Farfetch among its tech partners.  But others are not well known, such as Bison Trails and Xapo which is a very large crypto storage service.

Much of this –and the lack of trusted names that are part of this group –should give us reason to read behind the lines of what comes out this week. Worth reading the article on The Verge, that called it an attempt to build the ‘Bank of Facebook.’ Or more to the point, that this blockchain move is its secret weapon that will help Facebook “to create a quasi-nation state ruled by mostly corporate interests.” Reuters reports that France and Germany have pledged to block Libra in Europe. Do they know something we don’t?

 

Cutting out “empty words”: Presentations this week in class

This week, my students are preparing their 12-slide presentation for a project titled, “The Future is Now.”

This is the culmination of a research project and a 3-page report based on Google’s Moonshot program. But it’s not just about creating the content and formatting the slides. I tell my students that they happen to be in “a communications class that pretends to be a computer class”. This week they are watching a TED talk by a 12-year old. But there is another student worth watching this week, Greta Thunberg,  the 16-year old activist from Sweden.

She railed against the grown-ups in the room, for stealing this generation’s childhood with their “empty words.” Speaking of Feedback loops, risks, and tipping points, her emotionally-charged speech warned that “change is coming, whether you like it or not.”

UN Envoy, Sri Lankan, Jayathma Wickramanayake, called climate change “the defining issue of our time. Millions of young people all over the world are already being affected by it.”

Eavesdropping is a nice way of saying ‘spying’.

It comes as no surprise that the Amazon Echo speaker is listening more closely than people think. Let’s be clear: It’s not listening in, it’s eavesdropping. The word has been around for more than 300 years! It describes the act of someone secretly “listening under the eaves” to another.

Alexa is supposed to be in ‘listening mode’ only when the speaker is addressed. Last week, however, Amazon confirmed that some of its employees did listen to recorded conversations. Employees! Not Amazon’s software. Are you comfortable with that? Some folks secretly listening in under the Artificial Intelligence eaves? Oh sure, for ‘quality and training purposes’?only. All in the interest of Big Data. The Atlantic reports that millions of people are using a smart speaker, and many have more than one close by. (Read it: Alexa, should we trust you?”)

In May last year, the speaker recorded a conversation of a husband and wife and sent it to a friend. I wrote about a related matter a few weeks back. I’ll never be comfortable with a piece of hardware sitting in a room just there to listen to me. The Bloomberg article reports that some employees at Amazon listen to 1,000 clips of recordings per shift. Like some privatized surveillance company, laughing at all the conversations going on behind closed doors. Beyond eavesdropping, it is audio voyeurism! Aren’t you troubled by that?

We were once alarmed by having too many cameras aimed at us. Now it’s listening devices. Does the convenience factor blunt people to the privacy they give up?