Daily Archives: August 8, 2019

The end of us

By Thomas Moynihan – As ideas go, human extinction is a comparatively new one. It emerged first during the 18th and 19th centuries. Though understudied, the idea has an important history because it teaches us lessons on what it means to be human in the first place, in the sense of what is demanded of us by such a calling.

For to be a rational actor is to be a responsible actor, which involves acknowledging the risks one faces, and this allows us to see today’s growing responsiveness to existential risks as being of a piece with an ongoing and as-yet-unfinished project that we first began to set for ourselves during the Enlightenment.

Recollecting the story of how we came to care about our own extinction helps to establish precisely why we must continue to care; and care now, as never before, insofar as the oncoming century is to be the riskiest thus far.

The story of the discovery of our species’ precariousness is also the story of humanity’s progressive undertaking of responsibility for itself. One is only responsible for oneself to the extent that one understands the risks one faces and is thereby motivated to mitigate against them.

It was the philosopher Immanuel Kant who defined ‘Enlightenment’ itself as humanity’s assumption of self-responsibility. The history of the idea of human extinction is therefore also a history of enlightening. It concerns the modern loss of the ancient conviction that we live in a cosmos inherently imbued with value, and the connected realization that our human values would not be natural realities independently of our continued championing and guardianship of them.

But if human extinction was first spoken about in the 18th century, where was the notion prior to this point? What about the perennial tradition of end-of-the-world scenarios coming from religion? For a start, prophecies concerning religious apocalypse provide us with a final revelation upon the ultimate meaning of time. Prognoses concerning human extinction, instead, provide us with a prediction of the irreversible termination of meaning within time. Where apocalypse secures a sense of an ending, extinction anticipates the ending of sense. They are different in kind – not degree – and therefore different in their origins.

So, why was human extinction and existential catastrophe not a topic of conversation and speculation prior to the Enlightenment? more>

Tackling precarity in the platform economy—and beyond

To focus on online platforms in isolation would miss the point that they are part of a wider phenomenon of spreading and intensifying precarity at work.

By Sacha Garben – In our increasingly digitalised world, a crucial role is played by online platforms. These platforms—dynamic websites which constitute digital public squares or marketplaces—affect the economy and our society in various ways and their regulation (or lack thereof) is increasingly the subject of public and political debate. Whether it be the way in which Facebook deals with personal and public information, the influence of Airbnb on our habitat, Uber’s effects on the taxi sector or the working conditions of Deliveroo couriers or tech-workers on Amazon Mechanical Turk, the ‘disruptive’ effects of the activities of the platforms regularly make headlines.

A key social problem is the labor status of those working in the online-platform economy. These drivers, riders, cleaners, designers, translators, technicians and others are often formally contracted as independent and their working arrangements tend to exhibit features which are difficult to square with the traditional employment relationship. These include use of their own materials (such as the driver’s car), autonomy concerning working hours (logging into work via a smartphone app), the short duration of the relationship (translation of perhaps a single sentence) and its multilateral character (the platform linking the producer and consumer).

At the same time, the worker may well be economically dependent on the platform work, the contractual independence can be constructed in rather artificial ways—such as if a driver works full-time for a platform for several years yet remains formally contracted per journey—and the platform can exert significant control over the work and the person performing it.

Furthermore, their ‘independent’ status often means platform workers lack the benefit of the social, labor, health and safety protections which in most countries are connected to an employment contract—even if their precarious working conditions and socio-economic position very much require such protection. more>

Updates from Georgia Tech

Tiny Vibration-Powered Robots Are the Size of the World’s Smallest Ant
By John Toon – Researchers have created a new type of tiny 3D-printed robot that moves by harnessing vibration from piezoelectric actuators, ultrasound sources or even tiny speakers. Swarms of these “micro-bristle-bots” might work together to sense environmental changes, move materials – or perhaps one day repair injuries inside the human body.

The prototype robots respond to different vibration frequencies depending on their configurations, allowing researchers to control individual bots by adjusting the vibration. Approximately two millimeters long – about the size of the world’s smallest ant – the bots can cover four times their own length in a second despite the physical limitations of their small size.

“We are working to make the technology robust, and we have a lot of potential applications in mind,” said Azadeh Ansari, an assistant professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “We are working at the intersection of mechanics, electronics, biology and physics. It’s a very rich area and there’s a lot of room for multidisciplinary concepts.”

A paper describing the micro-bristle-bots has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Micromechanics and Microengineering. The research was supported by a seed grant from Georgia Tech’s Institute for Electronics and Nanotechnology. In addition to Ansari, the research team includes George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering Associate Professor Jun Ueda and graduate students DeaGyu Kim and Zhijian (Chris) Hao. more>


Updates from ITU

If we want to solve climate change, water governance is our blueprint
By Elizabeth Taylor – The phrase “fail to prepare or prepare to fail” comes to mind as we enter an era in which governments and communities must band together to mitigate climate change. Part of what makes our next steps so uncertain is knowing we must work together in ways that we have – so far – failed to do. We either stall, or offer up “too little, too late” strategies.

These strategies include cap-and-trade economic incentive programs, like the Kyoto Protocol and other international treaties. Insightful leaders have drawn attention to the issue, but lukewarm political will means that they are only able to defer greenhouse gas emissions-reduction targets in the future. A global crisis demands global commitment. How can we work together to face a universal threat? What of the complex challenges that demand unified monitoring and responses?

One principal impediment is the lack of coherent technical infrastructure.

Currently, our arsenal for facilitating collective action is understocked. Our policies are unable to invoke tide-turning change because they lack a cohesive infrastructure. In the absence of satisfactory tools to make them happen, our policies and pledges become feelgood initiatives rather than reaching full effectiveness.

What tools might lead us to act collectively against climate change? It’s easy to focus on the enormous scale of global cooperation needed, or the up-front investments it will take to mitigate the crisis. But as the writer E.L. Doctorow reminded us, we can’t be intimidated by the process: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night,” he said. “You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

We don’t have to possess all the answers as we set out to save our communities. We don’t have to know exactly what we will meet along the way. At a minimum, we must only understand how to use our headlights to see the first few feet ahead of us.

So what is the first step on our path?

It is the substance that underpins our industry, health and survival. It remains a central source of conflict around the world, yet it also creates partnerships. Our first step is water.

Water challenges us with issues of scarcity, quality and distribution. It may seem to be a local issue, but combined with local tensions and a globalized economy, water governance is set to become one of our greatest tests of diplomatic finesse and technological synergy.

If we can properly align local and global water governance and management, we can prepare the tools, the organizational blueprint and the political momentum needed to solve climate change. more>