Category Archives: Nature

Moral technology

Self-driving cars don’t drink and medical AIs are never overtired. Given our obvious flaws, what can humans still do best?
By Paula Boddington – Artificial intelligence (AI) might have the potential to change how we approach tasks, and what we value. If we are using AI to do our thinking for us, employing AI might atrophy our thinking skills.

The AI we have at the moment is narrow AI – it can perform only selected, specific tasks. And even when an AI can perform as well as, or better than, humans at certain tasks, it does not necessarily achieve these results in the same way that humans do. One thing that AI is very good at is sifting through masses of data at great speed.

Using machine learning, an AI that’s been trained with thousands of images can develop the capacity to recognize a photograph of a cat (an important achievement, given the predominance of pictures of cats on the internet). But humans do this very differently. A small child can often recognize a cat after just one example.

Because AI might ‘think’ differently to how humans think, and because of the general tendency to get swept up in its allure, its use could well change how we approach tasks and make decisions. The seductive allure that tends to surround AI in fact represents one of its dangers. Those working in the field despair that almost every article about AI hypes its powers, and even those about banal uses of AI are illustrated with killer robots.

It’s important to remember that AI can take many forms, and be applied in many different ways, so none of this is to argue that using AI will be ‘good’ or ‘bad’. In some cases, AI might nudge us to improve our approach. But in others, it could reduce or atrophy our approach to important issues. It might even skew how we think about values.

We can get used to technology very swiftly. Change-blindness and fast adaptation to technology can mean we’re not fully aware of such cultural and value shifts. more>

To end poverty, think like a spy

By Paul M. Bisca – For anyone working to end poverty, fragile states call for the ultimate juggling act. Countries in conflict seldom control their territories, and even when most areas are at peace, others may still be engulfed by violence for decades to come.

The intensity of civil wars can ebb and flow, while forcibly displaced people cross borders in search of shelter. Politicians and warlords can shift alliances abruptly and neighboring states often interfere militarily to prop up local proteges.

When geopolitics is not at play, internal disputes over land, water, or other scarce resources can ignite fighting between local populations. To make sense of all these moving parts, even the most knowledgeable experts must look for new ways to comprehend the world.

What can be done?

To better manage the unknown, development professionals might want to take a leaf from the intelligence community book and draw inspiration from how spies try to predict the future. Reduced to its simplest terms, the CIA defines intelligence as “knowledge and foreknowledge of the world around us—the prelude to decisions by policymakers.”

Other definitions emphasize the collection, processing, integration, analysis, and interpretation of available information from closed and open sources.

Development practitioners are not spies, nor should they aspire to be. Further, the idea that project managers and economists should behave like spies is bound to raise eyebrows for professionals driven by the quest for sustainability and equity.

Yet, the methodology of intelligence is well-suited to paint in our minds the interplay of actions, information, and analysis needed to navigate the complex, uncertain, and downright dangerous environments where extreme poverty stubbornly persists.

This approach is not about acting like James Bond, but rather about thinking like him. more>

Updates from Georgia Tech

Signals from Distant Lightning Could Help Secure Electric Substations
By John Toon – Side channel signals and bolts of lightning from distant storms could one day help prevent hackers from sabotaging electric power substations and other critical infrastructure, a new study suggests.

By analyzing electromagnetic signals emitted by substation components using an independent monitoring system, security personnel could tell if switches and transformers were being tampered with in remote equipment. Background lightning signals from thousands of miles away would authenticate those signals, preventing malicious actors from injecting fake monitoring information into the system.

The research, done by engineers at the Georgia Institute of Technology, has been tested at substations with two different electric utilities, and by extensive modeling and simulation. Known as radio frequency-based distributed intrusion detection system (RFDIDS), the technique was described February 26 at the 2019 Network and Distributed System Security Symposium (NDSS) in San Diego.

“We should be able to remotely detect any attack that is modifying the magnetic field around substation components,” said Raheem Beyah, Motorola Foundation Professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering and co-founder of Fortiphyd Logic, Inc. “We are using a physical phenomenon to determine whether a certain action at a substation has occurred or not.”

Opening substation breakers to cause a blackout is one potential power grid attack, and in December 2015, that technique was used to shut off power to 230,000 persons in the Ukraine. Attackers opened breakers in 30 substations and hacked into monitoring systems to convince power grid operators that the grid was operating normally. Topping that off, they also attacked call centers to prevent customers from telling operators what was happening. more>

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Why We Stink at Tackling Climate Change

By David P. Barash – What’s wrong with us? Not us Democrats, Republicans, or Americans. Rather, what’s wrong with our species, Homo sapiens?

If human beings are as Hamlet suggested, “noble in reason, infinite in faculty,” then why are we facing so many problems?

In many ways, people are better off than ever before: reduced infant mortality, longer lifespans, less poverty, fewer epidemic diseases, even fewer deaths per capita due to violence.

And yet global threats abound and by nearly all measures they are getting worse: environmental destruction and wildlife extinction, ethnic and religious hatred, the specter of nuclear war, and above all, the disaster of global climate change.

For some religious believers, the primary culprit is original sin. For ideologues of left, right, and otherwise, it’s ill-functioning political structures.

From my biological perspective, it’s the deep-seated disconnect between our slow-moving, inexorable biological evolution and its fast-moving cultural counterpart—and the troublesome fact we are subject to both, simultaneously.

It seems inevitable that as these cultural skills developed and provided leverage over the material and natural world—not to mention over other human beings, less adroit at these things—natural selection favored those individuals most able to take advantage of such traits. Up to a point, our biological and cultural evolution would have been mutually reinforcing. We are now past that point.

There is no reason for our biological and cultural evolution to proceed in lockstep, and many reasons for them to have become disconnected. more>

When the monsoon goes away

By Sunil Amrith – More than 70 per cent of total rainfall in South Asia occurs during just three months each year, between June and September. Within that period, rainfall is not consistent: it is compressed into a total of just 100 hours of torrential rain, spread across the summer months. Despite advances in irrigation, 60 per cent of Indian agriculture remains rain-fed, and agriculture employs around 60 per cent of India’s population. No comparable number of human beings anywhere in the world depend on such seasonal rainfall.

Both before and after independence, the imperious power of the monsoon troubled India’s rulers. In the first decade of the 20th century, the finance minister in the imperial government declared that ‘every budget is a gamble on the rains’ – a statement that is still quoted regularly in the Indian media.

In the late 1960s, India’s prime minister Indira Gandhi said: ‘For us in India, scarcity is only a missed monsoon away.’ The foreboding remains.

The scale of the monsoon system exists far beyond human intervention. If technology could intervene, it was on the landscape, in the form of infrastructure. By the early 20th century, engineers around the world were confident that they could neutralize the risk of climatic variability by constructing dams that would fuse water storage, flood control, irrigation and power generation. India was no exception. more>

As the Climate Changes, Are We All Boiling Frogs?

New research finds that we normalize rising temperatures remarkably quickly.
By Tom Jacobs – Climate change is significantly increasing the chances of more unsettling weather in the years to come, including longer and more severe heat waves. But if you’re hoping the strange conditions will inspire people to realize that something profoundly dangerous is occurring—and will prod politicians into acting—new research suggests you’re likely to be disappointed.

An analysis of more than two million Twitter posts finds that people do indeed take note of abnormal temperatures. But it also reports that our definition of “normal” is based on recent history—roughly, the past two to eight years.

These findings suggest that, in less than a decade, climate change-induced conditions cease to seem all that unusual. That lack of historical perspective may make it hard to grasp the enormity of the changes that are already underway, and which promise to accelerate.

“This data provides empirical evidence of the ‘boiling frog’ effect with respect to the human experience of climate change,” writes a research team led by Fran Moore of the University of California–Davis. As with the imaginary amphibian who fails to jump out of a pot of water as the temperature slowly rises, “the negative effects of a gradually changing environment become normalized, so that corrective measures are never adopted.” more>

What Happens When You Believe in Ayn Rand and Modern Economic Theory

The reality of unfettered self-interest
By Denise Cummins – “Ayn Rand is my hero,” yet another student tells me during office hours. “Her writings freed me. They taught me to rely on no one but myself.”

As I look at the freshly scrubbed and very young face across my desk, I find myself wondering why Rand’s popularity among the young continues to grow.

The core of Rand’s philosophy — which also constitutes the overarching theme of her novels — is that unfettered self-interest is good and altruism is destructive. This, she believed, is the ultimate expression of human nature, the guiding principle by which one ought to live one’s life. In “Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal,” Rand put it this way:

Collectivism is the tribal premise of primordial savages who, unable to conceive of individual rights, believed that the tribe is a supreme, omnipotent ruler, that it owns the lives of its members and may sacrifice them whenever it pleases.

By this logic, religious and political controls that hinder individuals from pursuing self-interest should be removed.

The fly in the ointment of Rand’s philosophical “objectivism” is the plain fact that humans have a tendency to cooperate and to look out for each other, as noted by many anthropologists who study hunter-gatherers. These “prosocial tendencies” were problematic for Rand, because such behavior obviously mitigates against “natural” self-interest and therefore should not exist. more>

How the body and mind talk to one another to understand the world


By Sarah Garfinkel – When considering the senses, we tend to think of sight and sound, taste, touch and smell. However, these are classified as exteroceptive senses, that is, they tell us something about the outside world. In contrast, interoception is a sense that informs us about our internal bodily sensations, such as the pounding of our heart, the flutter of butterflies in our stomach or feelings of hunger.

The brain represents, integrates and prioritizes interoceptive information from the internal body. These are communicated through a set of distinct neural and humeral (ie, blood-borne) pathways. This sensing of internal states of the body is part of the interplay between body and brain: it maintains homeostasis, the physiological stability necessary for survival; it provides key motivational drivers such as hunger and thirst; it explicitly represents bodily sensations, such as bladder distension.

But that is not all, and herein lies the beauty of interoception, as our feelings, thoughts and perceptions are also influenced by the dynamic interaction between body and brain.

The shaping of emotional experience through the body’s internal physiology has long been recognized. The American philosopher William James argued in 1892 that the mental aspects of emotion, the ‘feeling states’, are a product of physiology. He reversed our intuitive causality, arguing that the physiological changes themselves give rise to the emotional state: our heart does not pound because we are afraid; fear arises from our pounding heart. more>

Updates from ITU

Earth observation for weather prediction – solving the interference problem
By ITU News – “Today, several dozen satellites contribute to the accumulation of critical knowledge about the Earth’s system, enabling scientists to describe specific links between a major natural disturbance in the upper atmosphere, and changes in the weather thousands of miles away,” says Mario Maniewicz, Director of the ITU Radiocommunication Bureau.

“As accurate weather predictions need to start from the best possible estimate of the current state of the atmosphere, it is crucial that meteorologists have real-time, accurate global observations about what is happening in the Earth’s atmosphere over land and oceans. And for this, they rely on space sensing.”

Space sensing relies on the deployment of sensors to obtain data critical for Earth observation from space. Active sensors are radar systems on spaceborne platforms. They obtain data through the transmission and reception of radiowaves. Passive sensors, meanwhile, are very sensitive receivers that measure the electromagnetic energy emitted and scattered by the Earth, and the chemical constituents in the Earth’s atmosphere. They require protection from radio-frequency interference.

Spaceborne sensors measure the background natural radiative emission floor, therefore any man-made signal (e.g. communications, radars) that rises above this natural emission floor will likely interfere with the measurements. This interference can be tolerated only if its energy is well below the sensor sensitivity. more>

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‘We Can’t Recycle Our Way Out of This Problem’: Ben & Jerry’s Bans Single-Use Plastics

By Lorraine Chow – Ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s announced major efforts on Monday to quickly curb its use of single-use plastics.

All together, the move is expected to prevent 2.5 million plastic straws and 30 million plastic spoons from being handed out each year, Jenna Evans, Ben & Jerry’s Global Sustainability Manager, said in a press release.

“We’re not going to recycle our way out of this problem,” she said. “We, and the rest of the world, need to get out of single-use plastic.”

In response to the initiative, Greenpeace praised the brand for setting clear, short-term targets and for acknowledging that recycling alone is not enough to solve the world’s mounting plastic problem.

We’ve all been taught that recycling is an important environmental responsibility, but of the 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste generated since the 1950s, only 9 percent has been recycled, according to one recent study. What’s more, recycling plastics only perpetuates the use of fossil fuel-based polymers. more>