All posts filed under: Tech

The Ever-Shrinking Transistor and the Invention of Google

Innovators are often unreasonable people: restless, quarrelsome, unsatisfied, and ambitious. Often, they are immigrants, especially on the west coast of America. Not always, though. Sometimes they can be quiet, unassuming, modest, and sensible stay-at-home types. The person whose career and insights best capture the extraordinary evolution of the computer between 1950 and 2000 was one such. Gordon Moore was at the centre of the industry throughout this period and he understood and explained better than most that it was an evolution, not a revolution. Apart from graduate school at Caltech and a couple of unhappy years out east, he barely left the Bay Area, let alone California. Unusually for a Californian, he was a native, who grew up in the small town of Pescadero on the Pacific coast just over the hills from what is now called Silicon Valley, going to San Jose State College for undergraduate studies. There he met and married a fellow student, Betty Whitaker. As a child, Moore had been taciturn to the point that his teachers worried about it. Throughout …

The Case for a Mandatory COVID-19 App

COVID-19 offers governments no attractive policy options. Those in power are in a no-win situation. The choice is not between good and bad, nor even between bad and worse, but between grim and catastrophic. On one hand, there is the “butcher’s bill” of death that results from inaction or inadequate action in the face of the virus. On the other, there is the “banker’s bill” of bail-out and bankruptcy that results from quarantine measures. The “butcher’s bill” that results from delay or inaction in the face of the virus is grim. The butcher bills fortnightly. Two weeks of inaction or delay in the face of COVID-19 can kill thousands. The banker moves at a more leisurely pace, billing quarterly. Most businesses can survive without revenue for a fortnight. Fewer can survive one quarter let alone three or four without income. “Stay home: Save lives” is the message promoted by New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern, the Western leader whose response to COVID-19 has been among the most successful. The secret of this success? Ardern also …

How To Think About Our Problems

As I travel around the United States, giving presentations on human progress, I am encouraged by the enthusiasm with which the audiences receive my message of the improving state of the world. Still, someone in the audience invariably asks, “What worries you?” That’s understandable. Our species has evolved to see the glass of human existence as half empty. To plan for problems ahead, such as droughts, was a better survival strategy than expecting an eternity of bountiful harvests. Here I attempt to outline different types of problems that we will face in the future and evaluate the degree of “alarm” with which those problems should be treated. First, consider known problems with known solutions. Global warming, for example, appears to be a problem that’s partly caused by excessive emission of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. A third of all U.S. CO2 emissions come from energy generation. But, much of that energy could be produced in a more environmentally friendly way with zero CO2-emitting nuclear power. Unfortunately, irrational fear of nuclear fission and excessive regulatory …

Streaming Will Never Be as Bad as Cable

Apple and Disney launched new subscription video streaming services in November 2019, joining Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Prime, CBS All Access and HBO, which will become HBO Max in 2020, placing HBO branding and original programming at the helm of a subscription service to stream the content of the AT&T Warnermedia conglomerate. Comcast/NBCUniversal will be launching a streaming service called Peacock in 2020 as well. Since every major media company will soon have its own streaming subscription, we can expect them to stop licensing their film catalogs and their archives of television shows to existing streaming services like Netflix. If you are a current Netflix subscriber, you will lose access to popular shows like Friends and The Office as well as Disney, Pixar and Marvel content. Hulu is losing South Park and Rick and Morty, which will stream on HBO Max, while Disney, which owns much of Hulu, will be adding shows from the FX network to that service, to try to replace some of what Hulu will be losing to HBO Max and Disney+, That …

In Space, Let Meritocracy Reign Supreme

On October 21, U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Administrator Jim Bridenstine told the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology that he foresees NASA will land astronauts on the moon by 2035. “We need to learn how to live and work in another world,” he told lawmakers. “The moon is the best place to prove those capabilities and technologies.”  The article that follows comprises the sixth instalment in “Our Martian Moment,” a multi-part Quillette series in which our authors discuss what kind of society humans should build on Mars if and when we succeed in colonizing the red planet.   For science-fiction writers, Mars always has been a blank slate on which to write our hopes and project our fears. Ray Bradbury imagined a Mars settled by farmers who cover the red planet with idyllic midwestern American towns. Robert Heinlein, swept up in 1960s counterculture, imagined a Mars where gnostic aliens teach free love, spiritual wisdom and psychic powers to a hippy messiah. More recently, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars trilogy—science fiction’s War and Peace—imagines …

Glassdoor Is Broken

Public reviews serve an essential purpose in holding governments and institutions, stores and restaurants, and teachers and employers accountable. I fully and enthusiastically support transparency, including for private companies like my own. The problem is that literally anyone can lob a reputational bomb online, and it can be as devastating (and career-threatening) as any other kind of exploitive or maliciously opportunistic behavior, including those of unsavory leaders who deserve exposure. Amida Technology Solutions, of which I was a co-founder and where I still serve as CEO, is a 50-person data-management software company, based in Washington D.C. that specializes in health information. I started Amida on my kitchen table in 2013 with two members of the inaugural class of Presidential Innovation Fellows, and raised money from first-tier investors three years later. We grew by 50 percent in 2018 and faster still in 2019. The coming year looks promising. Anyone who has ever started a company from scratch, or made an early-stage investment, would find our nascent success unusual, if not remarkable. Inevitably, over the years I’ve …

How CRISPR-Enabled Gene Editing Could Change Our World: A Huntington’s Disease Case Study

Inside the O’Briens is a work of fiction by Lisa Genova that chronicles several years in the life of Joe O’Brien and his family. At the age of forty-four, Joe, a Boston police officer, is diagnosed with Huntington’s disease, a progressive brain disorder. Symptoms of Huntington’s disease usually appear in a person’s thirties or forties and initially include involuntary jerking and twitching movements, as well as subtle emotional difficulties and disorganized thinking. As the disease progresses, problems develop with motor skills like walking, coordination, and balance; the involuntary jerking and twitching become more pronounced; and cognitive abilities and emotions become further impaired. While there are medications to help alleviate these symptoms, there is no cure. Most people with Huntington’s disease die of this illness fifteen to twenty years after the onset of symptoms. The diagnosis of Huntington’s disease is only the beginning of Joe’s nightmare. At the same time that Joe learns he has this fatal disorder, he is made to understand that each of his four adult children—JJ, Patrick, Meghan and Katie—has a 50 …

GM Crops Like Golden Rice Will Save the Lives of Hundreds of Thousands of Children

Any day now, the government of Bangladesh may become the first country to approve the growing of a variety of yellow rice by farmers known as Golden Rice. If so, this would be a momentous victory in a long and exhausting battle fought by scientists and humanitarians to tackle a huge human health problem—a group that’s faced a great deal of opposition by misguided critics of genetically modified foods. Compare two plants. Golden Rice and Golden Promise barley are two varieties of crop. The barley was produced in the 1960s by bombarding seeds with gamma rays in a nuclear facility to scramble their genes at random with the aim of producing genetic mutations that might prove to be what geneticists used to call “hopeful monsters.” It is golden only in name, as a marketing gimmick, with sepia-tinged adverts helping to sell its appeal to organic growers and brewers. Despite the involvement of atomic radiation in its creation, it required no special regulatory approval or red tape before being released to be grown by farmers in …

The Human Skills AI Can’t Replace

Ever since the release of James Cameron’s 1984 blockbuster, The Terminator, Schwarzenegger and Skynet have served as cultural touchstones—symbols of an economic and existential threat. Now, the long-awaited proliferation of Artificial Intelligence (AI) seems finally to have arrived. And, along with the breakthroughs, there has been a parallel resurgence in AI alarmism. Renowned historian Yuval Noah Harari is speculating about algorithmic gods. Andrew Yang has predicated an entire presidential campaign on an AI-fueled economic catastrophe. Elon Musk appears earnestly concerned about the dystopian future of The Terminator being realized. Whenever a technology achieves enough momentum to be hailed as “disruptive,” someone, somewhere, will argue or be interviewed about how that technology will affect their industry, their future. Given enough hype, the applications are always said to be endless. One of the long-acknowledged faculties of the human mind is an ability to project things into infinity—Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant contended that this was fundamental to our sense of the sublime.1 (They also asserted that this same faculty for the sublime could be a source of …

Facebook Already Controls Our Information. Don’t Let It Control Our Commerce

In recent years, not a month has gone by without yet another unsettling exposé of Facebook’s content-moderation policies and corporate machinations. One report from February explained how Facebook moderators can end up believing the conspiracies they’re hired to weed out. In another case, Facebook’s top executives hired lobbyists to present some of its critics as extremists. Facebook’s platform and subsidiaries have even been linked to the incitement of genocide in Myanmar and deadly lynch mobs in India. Not so long ago, in the days when using proto-social media meant dialing up to a CompuServe or AOL chat room, we never could have imagined (those of us old enough to remember that time, at least) that the name of a company like Facebook would appear in the headlines of breaking stories about geopolitics. But in 2019, it’s an everyday occurrence. Facebook runs the world’s biggest social media platform. It also runs Instagram, the world’s second biggest social media platform, and several large messaging platforms, including WhatsApp. It has become perhaps the most important de-facto news-delivery platform …