Science & Technology

U.S. Cities Are Getting Smarter and You Probably Didn’t Even Notice

Quartz: “Trash bins in some airports and streets compost themselves, street lights monitor traffic and parking, and sensors prevent sewers from overflowing into rivers during floods. This kind of ‘smart’ technology, in which basic infrastructure like water, power, transportation, and sanitation is connected to the internet, is being piloted in the US in places like Boston, Massachusetts; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Washington, DC; San Francisco, California; and South Bend, Indiana.”

“The average citizen in those cities may not have noticed the effects because they aren’t as flashy as something like driverless cars, which are now on the road in Pittsburgh and other places.”

Are Google and Facebook the New Monopolies?

“Perhaps the biggest monopolies we should be worried about are two Silicon Valley giants: Google and Facebook,” Jeff Spross writes for The Week.

“Jonathan Taplin recently took this issue on in The New York Times, and his numbers are astonishing. Alphabet, Google’s parent company, has market shares in mobile search and operating systems that are two to three times as large as AT&T’s in its respective markets. Alphabet’s cash on hand dwarfs that of AT&T and Time Warner combined, and Alphabet’s level of debt is far lower. Both Alphabet and Facebook are among the top 10 largest companies in the world, and their respective market capitalizations outpace any AT&T-Time Warner combo by hundreds of billions. But most striking is this: ‘In the first quarter of 2016, 85 cents of every new dollar spent in online advertising will go to Google or Facebook.'”

“Google and Facebook are the new railroads. And producers of digital media are a bunch of turnip farmers hoping to ship their goods into town.”

If the U.S. Won’t Pay Its Teachers, China Will

Bloomberg Tech: “Mi is 33 and founder of a startup that aims to give Chinese kids the kind of education American children receive in top U.S. schools. Called VIPKid, the company matches Chinese students aged five to 12 with predominantly North American instructors to study English, math, science and other subjects. Classes take place online, typically for two or three 25-minute sessions each week.”

“In China, there are hundreds of millions of kids whose parents are willing to pay up if they can get high-quality education. In the U.S. and Canada, teachers are often underpaid—and many have quit the profession because they couldn’t make a decent living. Growth has been explosive. The three-year-old company started this year with 200 teachers and has grown to 5,000, now working with 50,000 children. Next year, Mi anticipates she’ll expand to 25,000 teachers and 200,000 children.”

The Internet Is Broken. Starting from Scratch, Here’s How to Fix It.

“My big idea is that we have to fix the internet. After forty years, it has begun to corrode, both itself and us. It is still a marvelous and miraculous invention, but now there are bugs in the foundation, bats in the belfry, and trolls in the basement,” argues Walter Isaacson, the CEO of the Aspen Institute.

“There is a bug in its original design that at first seemed like a feature but has gradually, and now rapidly, been exploited by hackers and trolls and malevolent actors: its packets are encoded with the address of their destination but not of their authentic origin. With a circuit-switched network, you can track or trace back the origins of the information, but that’s not true with the packet-switched design of the internet.”

“The lack of secure identification and authentication inherent in the internet’s genetic code has also prevented easy transactions, thwarted financial inclusion, destroyed the business models of content creators, unleashed deluges of spam, and forced us to use passwords and two-factor authentication schemes that would have baffled Houdini.”

“If we could start from scratch, here’s what I think we would do.”

Police Spy Tools Evolve Faster Than Lawmakers Can Keep Up

Bloomberg: “In late October, a group of Maryland legislators met with police officials, attorneys, privacy advocates, and policy analysts to discuss creating a legal framework to govern aerial surveillance programs such as the one the Baltimore Police Department had been using to track vehicles and individuals through the city since January.”

“The Baltimore surveillance program broke new ground by bringing wide-area persistent surveillance—a technology that the military has been developing for a decade—to municipal law enforcement. The police department kept the program secret from the public, as well as from the city’s mayor and other local officials, until it was detailed in August by Bloomberg Businessweek. Privacy advocates, defense attorneys, and some local legislators called for the program to be suspended immediately, until the technology could be evaluated in public hearings.”

ACLU attorney David Rocah: “What this program has done is that it has brought home the reality that the nightmare is here, and if we don’t act, it will be too late.”

Amazon Go Will Offer Checkout-Free Shopping 

Wired: “On Monday, Amazon took the wraps off Amazon Go, a real-world grocery store that comes with a twist: there’s no checkout process. You just grab the stuff you want and walk out; the order posts to your Amazon account afterwards. There are no cashiers, no lines, no fumbling for a credit card. And while experts agree that Go looks very much like the future of retail, it’s less clear whether Amazon has all of the pieces in place.”

Is Our Economic Future Behind Us?

Joel Mokyr: “With the global economy yet to recover from the 2008 economic crisis, concern about the future – especially of the advanced economies – is intensifying. My Northwestern University colleague Robert J. Gordon captures the sentiment of many economists, arguing in his recent book The Rise and Fall of American Growth that the enormous productivity-enhancing innovations of the last century and a half cannot be equaled. If true, advanced economies should expect slow growth and stagnation in the coming years. But will the future really be so bleak?”

“Probably not… My optimism is based not on some generalized faith in the future, but on the way science (or ‘propositional knowledge’) and technology (‘prescriptive knowledge’) support each other. Just as scientific breakthroughs can facilitate technological innovation, technological advances enable scientific discovery, which drives more technological change. In other words, there is a positive feedback loop between scientific and technological progress.”

Social Media Is Killing Discourse Because It’s Too Much Like TV

Hossein Derakhshan: “If I say that social media aided Donald Trump’s election, you might think of fake news on Facebook. But even if Facebook fixes the algorithms that elevate phony stories, there’s something else going on: social media represents the ultimate ascendance of television over other media.”

“I’ve been warning about this since November 2014, when I was freed from six years of incarceration in Tehran, a punishment I received for my online activism in Iran. Before I went to prison, I blogged frequently on what I now call the open Web: it was decentralized, text-centered, and abundant with hyperlinks to source material and rich background. It nurtured varying opinions. It was related to the world of books.”

“Then for six years I got disconnected; when I left prison and came back online, I was confronted by a brave new world. Facebook and Twitter had replaced blogging and had made the Internet like TV: centralized and image-centered, with content embedded in pictures, without links.”

The New Workplace Is Agile, and Nonstop. Can You Keep Up? 

“Whether you like it or not, your boss may want you to start acting more like a programmer,” Quentin Hardy writes for The New York Times.

“No doubt, Silicon Valley has changed how we work, for better or worse. Our smartphones keep us connected to the office all the time while internet searches bring the world’s information to our fingertips. But people may not realize that it is the subtler aspects of how tech companies operate that often have a more lasting effect on other industries.”

“The ‘agile’ part of this increasingly popular management concept is simple: Rather than try to do giant projects that take months or even years, create small teams that do a bit at a time. This way, small problems don’t balloon into enormous ones hidden inside a huge bureaucracy. And progress can be measured in small steps — one little project at a time.”

Fake News Isn’t a Recent Problem in the US—It Almost Destroyed Abraham Lincoln

Quartz: “Abraham Lincoln was more than just a foe of slavery. He was also a mixed-race eugenicist, believing that the intermarriage of blacks and whites would yield an American super-race.”

“Or at least, that’s what newspapers in 1864 would have had you believe. The charge isn’t true. But this miscegenation hoax still ‘damn near sank Lincoln that year,’ says Heather Cox Richardson, history professor at Boston College.”

“The parallels to today are easy to see. Back then, telegraphs and other technological changes let news spread swiftly and gave rise to more starkly partisan newspapers. Public trust in government was in tatters. With little consensus or authority over the truth, the purest gauge of veracity was gut feeling. And in an America so deeply divided—especially over differences about race—what tended to feel real were stories that confirmed fears and biases.”

Using Technology to Put an End to Politicians’ Lies

Factor: “Part of the problem may be that sites like PolitiFact are still manned by staffers who research statements before rating their accuracy. That task takes time. What if we could speed that process up and verify claims made by politicians and experts instantly.”

“That’s what Full Fact, an independent charity in the UK, is proposing. Mevan Babakar, Full Fact’s digital products and supporter communications manager, explains that if the fact-checking organisation has anything to do with it then this kind of technology will be in the hand of every single journalist within a year.”

“Imagine being at a press conference when a politician makes a claim that deserves further investigation. If Robo Check has already done the hard work, that leaves journalists free to rebut the statement or force the politician to explain themselves immediately. That could mean that politicians are less likely to make statements that they know don’t hold up to scrutiny, while, at the same time, causing the public to have fewer concerns about the veracity of political rhetoric.”

Why Trump’s Factory Job Promises Won’t Pan out—In One Chart

Brookings Institution: “Last week, we wrote that we thought President-elect Donald Trump would be hard-pressed to deliver on his promises to ‘bring back’ large numbers of America’s lost manufacturing jobs, even if he does renegotiate the nation’s trade deals. The reason: Manufacturing work is increasingly carried out by robots, rather than people.”

“The problem for Trump and blue-collar workers is that when manufacturing returns to the states (and several trends favor that), the associated job-creation will not be what it once was. Nor will the difference be just a minor effect – it’s going to be major.”

Stanford Researchers Say Young Americans Have No Idea What’s News

Quartz: “Adolescents may be authorities on social media, but they’re not so good at identifying advertising: According to a Stanford University study, 82% of middle-schoolers failed to differentiate between news stories and ‘sponsored content.'”

“According to the study, more than two-thirds of middle-school students failed to flag as biased a post written by a bank executive and arguing for young adults to pursue more financial-planning help. Likewise, some 40% of high-school students believed a photo and headline that suggested deformed daisies were evidence of toxic conditions near Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. The photo included no source or location tag.”

“Researchers found that what tripped students up most were posts with big, flashy elements, which tend to command more attention than the story’s actual source. Teens also ‘judged the credibility of newsy tweets based on how much detail they contained or whether a large photo was attached, rather than on the source,’ the Wall Street Journal reported.”

It Took Only 36 Hours for These Students to Solve Facebook’s Fake-News Problem

Business Insider: “Just how hard of a problem is it for an algorithm to determine real news from lies? Not that hard.”

“During a hackathon at Princeton University, four college students created one in the form of a Chrome browser extension in just 36 hours. They named their project ‘FiB: Stop living a lie.‘”

How does it work? One of the students, Nabanita De, explains:

“It classifies every post, be it pictures (Twitter snapshots), adult content pictures, fake links, malware links, fake news links as verified or non-verified using artificial intelligence.”

“For links, we take into account the website’s reputation, also query it against malware and phishing websites database and also take the content, search it on Google/Bing, retrieve searches with high confidence and summarize that link and show to the user. For pictures like Twitter snapshots, we convert the image to text, use the usernames mentioned in the tweet, to get all tweets of the user and check if current tweet was ever posted by the user.”