All posts filed under: Tech

Rallying to Protect Admissions Standards at America’s Best Public High School

This week, a group of about 200 students, parents, alumni, and concerned local residents flooded the sidewalk in front of America’s number-one-ranked public high school—Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia. This was no back-to-school event. It was a rally to save the soul of the school itself. The parents included Norma Muñoz, a Peruvian immigrant who told us she was there to “fight for TJ” (as the school is known locally). Other parents were from China, India, and South Korea. They stepped forward, one by one, to describe their families’ journeys—from marching in Tiananmen Square decades ago to arriving in the United States with only dollars in their pockets. “I came here for freedom,” said Yuyan Zhou, a Chinese-American woman who’s spent eight years as a TJ parent. “Moral courage is the only solution for this madness. Stand up for your rights. Stand up for your values. Fight for the future of our students!” And what is this “madness” Ms. Zhou describes? Since early June, a small but vocal group …

Microbes on Venus May Herald Human Extinction (Though Not in the Way You Think)

This week’s report that astronomers have discovered possible evidence of life on Venus is good news for science journalists. But it may be bad news for the future of humanity. One theory on why we haven’t encountered advanced civilizations from other star systems is that the conditions that lead to life are extremely rare. But if those conditions aren’t rare—as illustrated by, say, the appearance of two life-bearing planets in the same solar system—then another reason is more likely: We haven’t seen aliens because advanced civilizations tend to self-destruct before they have time to colonize the stars. Much of this discussion is rooted in the so-called Fermi paradox—whose Italian-American originator, Enrico Fermi (1901–1954), famously wondered why humanity seems alone in the vastness of the universe. Our galaxy alone contains an estimated 20 billion Earth-like planets. Many of these worlds are likely over a billion years older than Earth. So you would think there’s been plenty of time for an alien civilization to reach us, even if it expanded at only a tiny fraction of light …

As City Budgets Shrink, It’s Time to Rethink Recycling Programs

The COVID recession has caused tax revenues to plummet, forcing cities and states to make painful budget cuts. But as they struggle to fund schools, parks, public safety, and other essential services, there’s one simple and painless way for governments to save money: Rethink recycling. The goal should be to transform the practice from a virtuous-seeming exercise that drains funds from core public services, to one by which price signals assure taxpayers that diverted materials are actually recycled. When recycling programs became common three decades ago, they were sold to taxpayers as a win-win, financially and environmentally: Cities expected to reap budget savings through the sale of recyclable materials, and conscientious taxpayers expected to reduce ecological destruction. Instead, the painful reality for enthusiastic, dutiful recyclers is that most recycling programs don’t make much environmental sense. Often, they don’t make economic sense, either. The chief buyers of American recyclable materials used to be Asian countries, chiefly China, where wages were low enough to justify labor-intensive recycling operations. But as part of Beijing’s “National Sword” policy, China …

What Computer-Generated Language Tells Us About Our Own Ideological Thinking

Earlier this year, the San Francisco-based artificial-intelligence research laboratory OpenAI built GPT-3, a 175-billion-parameter text generator. Compared to its predecessor—the humorously dissociative GPT-2, which had been trained on a data set less than one-hundredth as large—GPT-3 is a startlingly convincing writer. It can answer questions (mostly) accurately, produce coherent poetry, and write code based on verbal descriptions. With the right prompting, it even comes across as self-aware and insightful. For instance, here is GPT-3’s answer to a question about whether it can suffer: “I can have incorrect beliefs, and my output is only as good as the source of my input, so if someone gives me garbled text, then I will predict garbled text. The only sense in which this is suffering is if you think computational errors are somehow ‘bad.’” Naturally, this performance improvement has triggered a great deal of introspection. Does GPT-3 understand English? Have we finally created artificial general intelligence, or is it just “glorified auto-complete”? Or, a third, more disturbing possibility: Is the human mind itself anything more than a glorified …

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 …