Category Archives: futurism

An Artificial Intelligence That Can Debate: The Promise And The Perils

Even in an era as divided and chaotic as this, there’s still a place for reasonable debate on important issues.

Yes, I understand it’s hard to say that with a straight face these days.

Yes, I’ve been to comments sections, Reddit, and 4chan.

Yes, I know how ugly the discourse is right now, but that’s exactly why I’m bringing this up.

In general, people are curious. Even though they cling to cherished beliefs and refuse to change their minds when confronted with evidence, we’re still curious about things that are different. It’s not always honest, but it’s a powerful feeling. Even if you despise those on the other side of the debate, a part of you will still wonder why they hold the opinions they have.

That’s why debate is such a powerful tool. Humans are such a social species by nature. We’re hard-wired to interact, connect, and discuss things with one another, even when we don’t agree. It may frustrate us to no end, as anyone who has debated a creationist can attest. However, the fact we keep doing it is proof, in my opinion, that there’s still value in the process.

Regardless of how you feel about the merit and value of debating, the whole process might become more complicated in the near future. That’s because IBM, the same company behind Watson, the Jeopardy playing computer, just created an artificial intelligence that can debate at the same level as a skilled human debater.

Here’s an excerpt from a piece in TechXplore on this new system. It’s not as scary as some of the things we’ve seen from Boston Dynamics lately, but it’s still intriguing.

TechXplore: IBM’s AI debating system able to compete with expert human debaters

IBM has developed an artificial intelligence-based system designed to engage in debates with humans. In their paper published in the journal Nature, the team members describe their system and how well it performed when pitted against human opponents. Chris Reed with the University of Dundee has published a News & Views piece in the same journal issue outlining the history and development of AI technology based around the types of logic used in human arguments and the new system developed by IBM.

As Reed notes, debating is a skill humans have been honing for thousands of years. It is generally considered to be a type of discussion in which one or more people attempt to persuade others that their opinion on a topic is right. In this new effort, the team at IBM has created an AI system designed to debate with humans in a live setting. It listens to moderators and opponents and responds in a female voice.

Now, before you get too nervous, it’s worth noting that this AI is far from the kind of advanced artificial intelligence systems I’ve mentioned before. This is not the kind of AI that will become Skynet or Hal 9000, no more so than Watson or AlphaGo. This is a system is very much a narrow AI, as in it’s made to excel at a specific task.

We have AI’s that can beat world class chess players and Jeopardy champions. This AI just happens to excel at debate. However, that has implications that go beyond simply outclassing the best human debaters in the world at the moment. In fact, this is one form of AI that might not need human-level intelligence to incur a major impact.

Take a moment to think about how erratic and inconsistent most debates are. No matter how intelligent or informed you are, it tends to get messy fast. That’s why so many comments sections and Reddit threads devolve into shouting matches and personal attacks. The end result is people becoming more angry and unreasonable, which can have major real-world consequences.

However, what would happen if every debate on any issue included someone who was better than the best debater on the planet? Even if the two people on each side of the debate were dumb and inept, such a presence would have a major impact on the discourse.

That’s because winning a debate has little to do with how well someone knows a particular subject. It also has little to do with how forcefully and clearly someone explains a topic. Again, people who debate creationists know this all too well. Winning a debate doesn’t mean proving your expertise. It means proving the merit of your argument.

An AI that can do that may not convince someone that they’re wrong about something. However, losing a debate tends to have a lasting impact. Just ask any aspiring politician. It can also lead people to question their beliefs, even if they still cling to them. That, alone, can be powerful.

For proof, look no further than the story of Megan Phelps-Roper, a former member of the infamously hateful and dogmatic Westboro Baptist Church. She was as locked into her beliefs as anyone could possibly be. She was raised by religious zealots and indoctrinated into strict religious dogma from the time she was a child. She’s not someone whose mind is prone to change.

Then, she got into a discussion with someone on Twitter of all places. That person began a conversation. It started as a nasty debate, but it evolved into something that led her to question her beliefs. Ultimately, she left that hateful and bigoted environment. She’s now an activist against the same religiously motivated hate that she once fostered.

It’s a powerful story, but one that couldn’t have happened without a debate. To date, people have only been able to have those debates with other people. Not everyone is equally skilled. In fact, I would argue most people are woefully unskilled at debating anything and I include myself in that category. I am not good at it, either. I freely admit that.

Now, there’s an AI system that can theoretically win any debate the same way other systems can defeat any chess player. That does hold promise if it can be used to temper the heated rhetoric that has caused real-life hostilities. At the same time, there are reasons for concern.

What side would this system be on?

Moreover, who decides what position these AI systems take?

If no one decides, then how does the AI determine which side on a debate it takes?

These are relevant questions because if you have an AI that can win any debate, then the side it takes really matters. That can be used for good when countering dangerous disinformation, like those from the antivaxx crowd or hate groups like the Westboro Baptist Church. Like any tool, though, it can be weaponized for ill.

I can easily imagine political organizations getting a hold of these systems and trying to use them to benefit their agenda. I can also see some trying to use it to spam message boards, social media, and Reddit threads to derail certain movements or arguments. That’s a powerful tool and we can’t be certain that those using it will use it responsibly. That’s the dilemma with all technology. It can be used for good and for evil. With technology like artificial intelligence, the stakes are a lot higher, as are the perils. This technology may not be as dangerous as a more advanced AI, but it could be a precursor to just how disruptive this technology can be.

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Filed under Artificial Intelligence, futurism, technology

What Keeps Bitcoin From Being A (Bigger) Part Of Our Future

I consider myself an enthusiast of technology. On many occasions, I’ve wildly speculated about emerging technology and expressed unapologetic excitement about certain trends. In general, I have the utmost respect and support for those who share this passion. I don’t always agree with their outlook or speculation, but I get where they’re coming from.

Then, there are Bitcoin enthusiasts. I’ll just come out and say I have mixed feelings about them.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to diminish what a remarkable technology Bitcoin is. It is a complicated and, at times, confusing technology. Even the Wikipedia page only does so much to explain what it is, where it came from, and why it matters. That’s not surprising. There was plenty of confusion about the internet too when it first emerged.

While I don’t consider myself an enthusiast, Bitcoin has sparked my curiosity. I do sometimes look into major news stories and developments surrounding the technology. The fact that it has lasted over a decade and made some people legitimate millionaires is proof enough that Bitcoin has real, tangible value. Those who keep saying that Bitcoin is just a fad or will crash are becoming increasingly scarce.

I’m convinced that Bitcoin, and other cryptocurrencies like it, are here to stay. They’ve proven that they have value in an increasingly digital landscape. As the internet becomes more prevalent and accessible, their role will only grow. That being said, I’m not yet convinced Bitcoin’s role will go beyond a certain point.

Those who say Bitcoin is the future of money are likely talking in hyperbole.

Those who say Bitcoin and the blockchain are the most revolutionary technologies since email are also likely exaggerating.

I don’t doubt for a second that these people believe in what they’re saying. I just haven’t seen enough to warrant that kind of enthusiasm. The issue isn’t as much about the merits of the technology as it is about how it’s being used. I’m not just referring to its role in the illegal drug trade, either.

At the moment, Bitcoin is fairly accessible. If you have a smartphone and an internet connection, you can download a simple wallet for free. If you do a quick search for a Bitcoin ATM, you can purchase Bitcoins with the same ease you would when purchasing a gift card. It’s what you do after that where the issues arise.

What exactly can you buy with Bitcoin that you can’t buy more easily through other means? That’s not me being facetious. This is where I tend to diverge with Bitcoin enthusiasts. I understand that some major ecommerce sites accept Bitcoin, namely Overstock. I’m also aware that more and more retailers are accepting Bitcoin.

However, the only ones taking advantage of that option are those who go out of their way to use Bitcoin. For most people, especially those who aren’t as tech savvy, there just aren’t enough benefits to warrant the extra effort. On top of that, Bitcoin does have some lingering flaws that are hard to work around. Then again, you can say the same thing about traditional money.

None of that even begins to highlight the growing issues associated with mining Bitcoins.

Now, that could change. It’s not a certainty, but it is a possibility. Like any new tech, the issue isn’t always about whether or not it works. Bitcoin clearly works and it’s been working for nearly a decade. It’s whether or not there’s a “killer app” to entice ordinary people to go through the effort of learning about, acquiring, and using Bitcoin.

The problem is that, thanks to incidents like the Silk Road, the primary use of Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies like it have been for the purchase of drugs or other illicit services. Regardless of how you feel about the politics surrounding illegal drugs and services, that’s the reputation Bitcoin has. It’s just a way for criminals and their cohorts to operate.

That’s not a killer app. It’s also not sustainable.

In order for Bitcoin to play a bigger part in our future, it needs to have a good, meaningful use. It took cell phones decades to find that. Just being able to make phone calls, remember phone numbers, and occasionally host a game of solitaire wasn’t enough. Other apps like music, video chatting, and cameras had to get into the mix before the public and the market embraced them.

That’s what Bitcoin needs. I don’t claim to know what that entails. I think Bitcoin has to get to a point where using it is as simple as using a credit card or debit card. It also needs a particular use or product that will justify the physical and financial investment. That use also can’t be illegal. It’s no secret that the internet owes much of its early growth to the porn industry, but porn isn’t illegal.

Bitcoin, in my opinion, will need something bigger than porn. It might also need to wait until more parts of the world are connected to broadband internet. Maybe it involves voting, enforcing contracts, or the development of new peer-to-peer networks, such as Open Bazaar. I don’t know. I’m not smart enough to figure it out at the moment.

In the meantime, I’ll certainly keep an eye on Bitcoin. I don’t deny it has its uses in the current world. It’s just too limited right now. Whether it has a large or small role in the future that awaits us remains to be seen.

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Filed under Bitcoin, futurism, technology

Thought Experiment: When Does Technology Make Us Non-Human?

The following is a video from my YouTube channel, Jack’s World. It explores another thought experiment about technology and how it’s affecting us, as a species. I’ve covered this sort of thing before and the implications. I’m looking to see if there’s an audience for this on my channel. Enjoy!

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Filed under Artificial Intelligence, futurism, human nature, Jack's World, technology, Thought Experiment, YouTube

The First CRISPR Patients Are Living Better: Why That Matters After 2020

It’s been a while since I’ve talked about CRISPR, biotechnology, and the prospect of ordinary people enhancing their biology in ways straight out of a comic book. In my defense, this past year has created plenty of distractions. Some have been so bad that my usual optimism of the future has been seriously damaged.

While my spirit is wounded, I still have hope that science and technology will continue to progress. If anything, it’ll progress with more urgency after this year. A great many fields are bound to get more attention and investment after the damage done by a global pandemic.

We can’t agree on much, but we can at least agree on this. Pandemics are bad for business, bad for people, bad for politics, and just objectively awful for everyone all around, no matter what their station is in life.

There’s a lot of incentive to ensure something like this never happens again is what I’m saying. While we’re still a long way from ending pandemics entirely, we already have tools that can help in that effort. One is CRISPR, a promising tool I’ve talked about in the past. While it wasn’t in a position to help us during this pandemic, research into refining it hasn’t stopped.

Despite all the awful health news of this past year, some new research has brought us some promising results on the CRISPR front. In terms of actually treading real people who have real conditions, those results are in and they give us reason to hope.

One such effort involved using CRISPR to help treat people with Sickle Cell Disease, a genetic condition that hinders the ability of red blood cells to carry oxygen. It affects over 4 million people worldwide and often leads to significant complications that can be fatal.

Since CRISPR is all about tweaking genetics, it’s a perfect mechanism with which to develop new therapies. Multiple patients have undergone experimental treatments that utilize this technology. In a report form NPR, the results are exceeding expectations for all the right reasons.

NPR: First Patients To Get CRISPR Gene-Editing Treatment Continue To Thrive

At a recent meeting of the American Society for Hematology, researchers reported the latest results from the first 10 patients treated via the technique in a research study, including Gray, two other sickle cell patients and seven patients with a related blood disorder, beta thalassemia. The patients now have been followed for between three and 18 months.

All the patients appear to have responded well. The only side effects have been from the intense chemotherapy they’ve had to undergo before getting the billions of edited cells infused into their bodies.

The New England Journal of Medicine published online this month the first peer-reviewed research paper from the study, focusing on Gray and the first beta thalassemia patient who was treated.

“I’m very excited to see these results,” says Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley, who shared the Nobel Prize this year for her role in the development of CRISPR. “Patients appear to be cured of their disease, which is simply remarkable.”

Make no mistake. This is objectively good news and not just for people suffering from sickle cell disease.

Whenever new medical advances emerge, there’s often a wide gap between developing new treatments and actually implementing them in a way that makes them as commonplace as getting a prescription. The human body is complex. Every individual’s health is different. Taking a treatment from the lab to a patient is among the biggest challenge in medical research.

This news makes it official. CRISPR has made that leap. The possible treatments aren’t just possibilities anymore. There are real people walking this planet who have received this treatment and are benefiting because of it. Victoria Gray, as referenced in the article, is just one of them.

That’s another critical threshold in the development of new technology. When it goes beyond just managing a condition to helping people thrive, then it becomes more than just a breakthrough. It becomes an opportunity.

It sends a message to doctors, researchers, and biotech companies that this technology works. Some of those amazing possibilities that people like to envision aren’t just dreams anymore. They’re manifesting before our eyes. This is just one part of it. If it works for people with Sickle Cell Disease, what other conditions could it treat?

I doubt I’m the first to ask that question. As I write this, there are people far smarter and more qualified than me using CRISPR to develop a whole host of new treatments. After a year like 2020, everyone is more aware of their health. They’re also more aware of why science and medicine matter. It can do more than just save our lives. It can help us thrive.

We learned many hard lessons in 2020, especially when it comes to our health. Let’s not forget those lessons as we look to the future. This technology is just one of many that could help us prosper in ways not possible in previous years. We cheered those who developed the COVID-19 vaccine. Let’s start cheering those working on new treatments with CRISPR.

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Filed under biotechnology, CRISPR, futurism, health, technology

Why We Should Treat Our Data As (Valuable) Property

Many years ago, I created my first email address before logging into the internet. It was a simple AOL account. I didn’t give it much thought. I didn’t think I was creating anything valuable. At the time, the internet was limited to slow, clunky dial-up that had little to offer in terms of content. I doubt anyone saw what they were doing as creating something of great value.

I still have that email address today in case you’re wondering. I still regularly use it. I imagine a lot of people have an email address they created years ago for one of those early internet companies that used to dominate a very different digital world. They may not even see that address or those early internet experiences as valuable.

Times have changed and not just in terms of pandemics. In fact, times tends to change more rapidly in the digital world than it does in the real world. The data we created on the internet, even in those early days, became much more valuable over time. It served as the foundation on which multi-billion dollar companies were built.

As a result, the data an individual user imparts onto the internet has a great deal of value. You could even argue that the cumulative data of large volumes of internet users is among the most valuable data in the world.

Politicians, police, the military, big businesses, advertising agencies, marketing experts, economists, doctors, and researchers all have use for this data. Many go to great lengths to get it, sometimes through questionable means.

The growing value of this data raises some important questions.

Who exactly owns this data?

How do we go about treating it from a legal, fiscal, and logistical standpoint?

Is this data a form of tangible property, like land, money, or labor?

Is this something we can exchange, trade, or lease?

What is someone’s recourse if they want certain aspects of their data removed, changed, or deleted?

These are all difficult questions that don’t have easy answers. It’s getting to a point where ownership of data was an issue among candidates running for President of the United States. Chances are, as our collective data becomes more vital for major industries, the issue will only grow in importance.

At the moment, it’s difficult to determine how this issue will evolve. In the same way I had no idea how valuable that first email address would be, nobody can possibly know how the internet, society, the economy, and institutions who rely on that data will evolve. The best solution in the near term might not be the same as the best solution in the long term.

Personally, I believe that our data, which includes our email addresses, browsing habits, purchasing habits, and social media posts, should be treated as personal property. Like money, jewels, or land, it has tangible value. We should treat it as such and so should the companies that rely on it.

However, I also understand that there are complications associated with this approach. Unlike money, data isn’t something you can hold in your hand. You can’t easily hand it over to another person, nor can you claim complete ownership of it. To some extent, the data you create on the internet was done with the assistance of the sites you use and your internet service provider.

Those companies could claim some level of ownership of your data. It might even be written in the fine print of those user agreements that nobody ever reads. It’s hard to entirely argue against such a claim. After all, we couldn’t create any of this data without the aid of companies like Verizon, AT&T, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. At the same time, these companies couldn’t function, let alone profit, without our data.

It’s a difficult question to resolve. It only gets more difficult when you consider laws like the “right to be forgotten.” Many joke that the internet never forgets, but it’s no laughing matter. Peoples’ lives can be ruined, sometimes through no fault of their own. Peoples’ private photos have been hacked and shared without their permission.

In that case, your data does not at all function like property. Even if it’s yours, you can’t always control it or what someone else does with it. You can try to take control of it, but it won’t always work. Even data that was hacked and distributed illegally is still out there and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Despite those complications, I still believe that our data is still the individual’s property to some extent, regardless of what the user agreements of tech companies claim. Those companies provide the tools, but we’re the ones who use them to build something. In the same way a company that makes hammers doesn’t own the buildings they’re used to make, these companies act as the catalyst and not the byproduct.

Protecting our data, both from theft and from exploitation, is every bit as critical as protecting our homes. An intruder into our homes can do a lot of damage. In our increasingly connected world, a nefarious hacker or an unscrupulous tech company can do plenty of damage as well.

However, there’s one more critical reason why I believe individuals need to take ownership of their data. It has less to do with legal jargon and more to do with trends in technology. At some point, we will interact with the internet in ways more intimate than a keyboard and mouse. The technology behind a brain/computer interface is still in its infancy, but it exists and not just on paper.

Between companies like Neuralink and the increasing popularity of augmented reality, the way we interact with technology is bound to get more intimate/invasive. Clicks and link sharing are valuable today. Tomorrow, it could be complex thoughts and feelings. Whoever owns that stands to have a more comprehensive knowledge of the user.

I know it’s common refrain to say that knowledge is power, but when the knowledge goes beyond just our browsing and shopping habits, it’s not an unreasonable statement. As we build more and more of our lives around digital activities, our identities will become more tied to that data. No matter how large or small that portion might be, we’ll want to own it as much as we can.

It only gets more critical if we get to a point where we can fully digitize our minds, as envisioned in shows like “Altered Carbon.” At some point, our bodies are going to break down. We cannot preserve it indefinitely for the same reason we can’t preserve a piece of pizza indefinitely. However, the data that makes up our minds could be salvaged, but that opens the door to many more implications.

While that kind of technology is a long way off, I worry that if we don’t take ownership of our data today, then it’ll only get harder to do so in the future. Even before the internet, information about who we are and what we do was valuable.

This information forms a big part of our identity. If we don’t own that, then what’s to stop someone else from owning us and exploiting that to the utmost? It’s a question that has mostly distressing answers. I still don’t know how we go about staking our claim on our data, but it’s an issue worth confronting. The longerwe put it off, the harder it will get.

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Filed under Artificial Intelligence, biotechnology, Current Events, futurism, Neuralink, politics, technology

Why Starlink Is The Next Step In The Evolution Of The Internet

Say what you will about Elon Musk. Believe me, a lot can be said about a Tony Stark wannabe whose wealth is on par with Jeff Bezos. Not all of it is flattering, either. I know I’ve expressed a strong appreciation for him in the past. I genuinely believe some of the technology he’s working on will change the world.

I don’t deny that he can be eccentric.

I also don’t deny he says dumb things, often on Twitter.

The man has his faults, but thinking small isn’t one of them. You don’t get to be as rich or successful as Elon Musk by being careful. You also don’t create world-changing technology by being short-sighted. Love him or hate him, Musk has changed the world. He’ll likely change it even more in the coming years.

Some of those changes are years away. A product like Neuralink is probably not going to become mainstream in this decade. However, there is one that’s likely to change the world a lot sooner. In fact, it’s already up and running to some extent. It’s just in the beta phase. Some people can already use it and it’s already proving its worth.

That technology is called Starlink and I believe this will change the internet in a profound way.

Now, you can be forgiven for not keeping up with all of Elon Musk’s elaborate ventures. This one isn’t quite as sexy as brain implants or rockets, but it’s every bit as groundbreaking. If you value internet speeds that don’t suck or lag, then it should be of great interest.

In essence, Starlink is the name and brand of a new satellite-based internet service provider that Musk is creating through his other ambitious venture, SpaceX. The goal is simple on paper, but resource intensive. Instead of the messy network of ground-based hardware that most providers use to deliver the internet to hour homes and businesses, Starlink will deliver it from space.

It’s actually not a new idea or product, for that matter. Satellite based internet service has been around for years. In terms of speeds and utility, though, it just sucks. At most, you’d be lucky to get speeds on par with old school 3G wireless. For some people, that’s better than nothing. For most, it’s not nearly enough to maximize the full power of the internet.

Starlink is hoping to change that. Instead of expensive satellites with high latency and limited bandwidth, these new brand of low-Earth satellites promise to deliver on speeds at or greater than the best 4G internet providers.

On top of that, you don’t need the same elaborate infrastructure and or cell towers to deliver it. You just need a constellation of satellites, a receiver no larger than a pizza box, and a clear view of the sky. If you have all that, you can get the full breadth of the internet. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the middle of the desert or at the top of the Empire State Building. It’s there for you to access.

Make no mistake. That’s a big deal for the 3.8 billion people in the world who don’t have internet access. Whether due to lack of infrastructure or funds, it’s just not an option for them. It’s not just underdeveloped third-world countries either. Even here in America, there are large swaths of the country that have little to no reliable internet access.

It’s a big factor in the ongoing divide between rural and urban areas. If you live in a small rural community full of good, honest, hard-working people, they’re still going to struggle if they don’t have reliable internet. They’ll struggle economically, socially, and financially. To date, the efforts to expand the internet to their communities has been lackluster at best.

I can personally attest how bad it is. A few years back, I drove through a very rural part of West Virginia. For a good chunk of that drive, there was pretty much no reliable internet, be it Wi-Fi or cell phone coverage. The people there didn’t hide their frustration and I certainly sympathized with them.

There are many reasons for this, not all of which is because of how awful cable companies can be. A bit part of that has to do with the tools we use to access the internet. As good as they are for urban areas, they don’t work on a global level. It’s one thing to wire a big, advanced city like New York with fiber optics. It’s quite another to wire an entire planet.

Starlink promises to change that. These satellites aren’t bound by those logistics. They just orbit overhead without us even realizing it. They’re small and easy to mass produce. They can be taken out of orbit easily and replaced with better models. In principle, they could easily deliver the same high level gigabit speeds that are currently at the top of the market.

In terms of opening the internet to the rest of the world, that’s a big deal.

In terms of disrupting the market for delivering the internet, that’s an even bigger deal.

That’s because, to date, the world wide web has struggled to be truly world-wide. When nearly half the world can’t access it, then you can’t truly call it a global network. With Starlink, the internet can become truly global. People in rural India can have access to the same internet speeds as people in downtown Los Angeles. That promises to open up the world up in ways we can’t predict.

It’ll also provide some badly needed competition to internet delivery. For most people in America, you don’t have much choice when it comes to internet service. Cable companies basically have a monopoly on the whole enterprise, which is a big reason why it’s so expensive compared to other countries. Starlink will be the first real competition they’ve had in years for many areas.

I don’t doubt those companies will complain, whine, and lobby, but they’re not going to stop something like Starlink. They’re also not going to muscle out someone like Elon Musk. You don’t become the world’s richest person by being a push-over. Musk has already made clear that Starlink is a big part of his business model for the future.

At the moment, Starlink is still in beta, but Musk himself proves the technology works. He even used it to send a tweet. There are people right now who are testing it and they can confirm its speeds are way better than the crappy DSL internet of yesteryear. Many others have also expressed a keen interest in buying into this service.

At the moment, it’s still expensive. It costs $99 a month to access Starlink and it also costs $500 to buy the necessary antenna to receive it. However, that’s not a whole lot more than what I pay for internet in a month. Once it’s refined, that cost will come down.

Remember, there are over 3 billion people in the world without internet who have no options to access it. Starlink could be their only option and it could be a damn good one. It could be the key to the rest of the world becoming truly connected. That has big implications for society, commerce, and governments. Some countries are already making Starlink illegal for its people to access. Don’t expect that to stop it, though.

The promise of fast, reliable internet at all corners of the globe is too enticing for too many people. It will both connect the world and make Elon Musk even richer. However, for a man who connected the world and pissed off cable companies, I’d say he’ll have earned it.

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Filed under Current Events, futurism, Neuralink, technology

The Future Of Telework: A Trend That Transcends Pandemics

In early 2020, which might as well be another lifetime, I speculated on the lasting impact of increased telework and distance learning due to the pandemic that uprooted our entire society. At the time, I didn’t know just how bad this pandemic would get. In my defense, my hopes were still intact. Now, they’re charred ashes, but that’s beside the point.

In essence, I speculated that once people got used to teleworking, they would not be eager to go back, even after the pandemic had passed. That wasn’t exactly a bold speculation. You don’t have to be a world class psychic to surmise that people will come to enjoy working in their underwear, not having to commute, and enjoying the general flexibility that telework affords.

I’ve been stuck in enough traffic jams to appreciate that kind of flexibility. I know I’m not the only one who might become too fond of telework.

Well, that all-too-obvious insight is starting to take hold in many sectors. It’s not just related to typical office work in cubicles. Everyone from the United States Military to big tech companies to law firms are embracing this new normal for the workplace. Even though it’s more out of necessity than innovation or good will, it’s still happening and there may be no going back.

The pandemic has already forced a mentality shift among the workforce. According to research done by Pew, telework was mostly seen as an optional benefit reserved for an affluent few. That’s not surprising. That kind of flexibility just felt more like a luxury, one that someone had to earn by establishing trust and credibility from an organization.

Now, it’s not just a necessity. It’s unavoidable. The world we’re living in now just cannot accommodate the same professional environment we once knew. I’ve worked in many professional environments before. I can attest that some of them are not built with pandemics in mind.

At one point, I worked at a company in which my desk was crammed into a closet-sized space with three other people. If even one of us caught a cold, we’d all be sick by the end of the week. It was that bad.

I doubt that’s an isolated case. In some of the jobs I’ve had, I have been able to work from home, but it’s only as a last resort. The only times I actually had to do it involved an emergency that occurred on a Saturday morning and one instance where the office was being renovated. In both cases, I still got plenty of work done. I just did it in my underwear.

In that sense, I get why many organizations reserve telework as a luxury rather than a norm. There’s this underlying sentiment that people will abuse it. If they can work from home, they just won’t get as much done. They’ll be too tempted to just grab a bag of chips, lie down on the couch, and watch game shows.

While I don’t doubt there are people who do that, this pandemic has revealed that most people aren’t assholes on that level. In some cases, it’s increasing productivity. Apparently, when workers are comfortable and afforded flexibility, they can get more done. That shouldn’t be too surprising, but it’s still remarkable in its own way.

This has born itself out in subsequent studies and surveys. For some industries, telework is probably more productive in the grand scheme of things and that shouldn’t be surprising. Anyone who has ever had a lousy commute knows why. If a good chunk of your day is spent waking up, putting on itchy clothes, and spending hours in traffic, you’re not going to be in a very productive mood.

That won’t be the case for certain industries. If you’re a doctor, a police officer, a fire fighter, or a trucker, you just can’t telework. The nature of the work doesn’t allow it. That’s still going to be the case, at least until we have robots capable of doing those tasks, which we are working on. However, there’s also sizable chunk of work that could probably be done remotely.

I think the impacts of this emerging truth will extend far beyond the pandemic. I’ve already seen it with people I know. They enjoy teleworking. They don’t want to stop, even after the pandemic becomes a bleak footnote in history. Some are willing to still go into the office some of the time, but they would prefer to telework. I suspect that’s going to become the new normal.

Last year has proven that people can, for the most part, be responsible with the flexibility afforded by telework. As long as they’re getting the work done, who cares if they do it in their underwear while Netflix plays in the background? Considering how costly commutes can be and how expensive office space can be, it might just make more fiscal sense in the long run.

Like it or not, businesses and various organizations tend to err on the side of reducing operating costs. It may mean more employees waste time at home, but if the difference is made up by better productivity, then it’s a net gain overall.

That shift could have impacts that go far beyond business operations. If people have to commute less, then that makes living out beyond urban and suburban settings more feasible. Given how expensive it is to live in those areas, this could spread people out even more, which is an objectively good thing if you’re looking to prevent future pandemics.

It might even help those in depressed rural areas in need of human capital. I can easily imagine some people preferring the quiet, less crowded environment afforded by a rural setting. If they can live in that environment while still getting their work done via internet, assuming they have a reliable connection, then that’s another big benefit that goes beyond the business itself.

This is likely to be a trend. That’s not a fanciful prediction. We’re already seeing it happen. The pandemic just forced it to accelerate. There will likely be other impacts. It may very well change how cities, suburbs, and rural areas are planned from here on out.

I don’t claim to know the specifics, but we’ll likely see it continue in the coming years. I, for one, welcome this change. If I can reduce the amount of time spent in traffic and increase the amount of time I spend in my underwear, then my overall well-being improves considerably.

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Our Future Robot Overlords Will Now Be Able To Dance (Thanks To Boston Dynamics)

As bad as last year was for so many people, there were some things that 2020 just couldn’t stop. When it comes to technology, a global crisis has a way of hindering certain processes while accelerating others. For many, that meant more telework and reliance on streaming media to stave off boredom.

However, it may very well end up being the case that 2020 proved just how frail human beings and their societies are. It only takes a tiny microscopic virus to send our entire society to a screeching halt. It’s sobering, but it’s probably going to be a source of humor for our future robot overlords.

I tend to be optimistic about the future and technological trends. I’m also somewhat of a pragmatist. I realize that we human beings have a lot of limits. Emerging technology, especially in the field of artificial intelligence, promises to help us transcend those limits.

Right now, it’s still mostly fodder for science fiction writers, futurists, and Elon Musk wannabes. We’re not quite there yet in terms of making a machine that’s as smart as a human. However, we’re probably going to get there faster than skeptics, naysayers, and the general public realize.

It won’t happen overnight. It probably won’t even happen in the span of a single year. When it does happen, though, hindsight will make it painfully obvious that the signs were there. This was bound to happen. We had ample time to prepare for it. Being fallible humans, we could only do so much.

In that sense, I suspect that years from now, we’ll look back on what Boston Dynamics did to close out 2020. This company, who has a history of making robots that look way too advanced to exist outside a Terminator movie, decided to do something with their robots that would leave an indellible mark on the year.

They succeeded by teaching their robots how to dance.

I know it already went viral, but it’s worth posting again. Remember this video and this moment. Chances are it’ll be a major indicator years from now that this is when robots began catching up to humanity in terms of capabilities. At this point, it’ sonly a matter of time before they exceed us.

When that time comes, will we be ready? Will we embrace them while they embrace us?

If they don’t, just know that they will now be able to dance on our graves.

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Vaccine Update: The Impact Of The Moderna Vaccine (Beyond COVID-19)

Sometimes, it takes a terrible global crisis to spurn huge leaps in technology. World War II was arguably the greatest crisis of the modern era, but it helps advance some of the greatest technological leaps in history. We can argue whether those advances were worth all the death and destruction, but there’s no denying that our world wouldn’t be the same without them.

The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t on the same level as World War II, but it is, by most measures, the greatest crisis the world has faced in the past 50 years. It hasn’t just caused hundreds of thousands of deaths and immeasurable amounts of suffering. It has completely disrupted this big, interconnected world that we’ve come to depend on.

We’ve all lost something in this pandemic. Beyond the loved ones who have perished, our entire sense of security and hope has been shattered. We now realize just how vulnerable we were and how inevitable this was. As bad as it is, there is some good coming out of it.

Usually, a crisis like this helps break down the barriers that divided us and hindered progress, technological or otherwise. Never before has the world been more united or engaged in a singular effort. Before 2020, we probably didn’t know much about vaccines or vaccine research. We just knew that Jenny McCarthy tried to be relevant again by protesting them.

That’s changing now. The global effort to create a vaccine for this terrible disease has been watched and agonized over for months. Most recently, we got a much-needed glimmer of hope from Pfizer, who reported that their vaccine is 90 percent effective. I celebrated this news like everyone else.

Then, we got an even greater glimmer of hope from the other vaccine front-runner by Moderna. Not only is their vaccine in the final phase of testing, like Pfizer. It’s even more effective and promises to be easier to store and distribute.

CNN: Moderna’s coronavirus vaccine is 94.5% effective, according to company data

The Moderna vaccine is 94.5% effective against coronavirus, according to early data released Monday by the company, making it the second vaccine in the United States to have a stunningly high success rate.

“These are obviously very exciting results,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease doctor. “It’s just as good as it gets — 94.5% is truly outstanding.”

Moderna heard its results on a call Sunday afternoon with members of the Data Safety and Monitoring Board, an independent panel analyzing Moderna’s clinical trial data.

This is objectively great news in a year when we’ve had precious little of it. These two vaccines may very well be the one-two punch we need to end the COVID-19 pandemic and return to some semblance of normalcy. I would still like to go to a movie theater or baseball game at some point in 2021. These vaccines may make that possible.

However, I’d like to take a moment to speculate beyond this terrible pandemic that has uprooted so many lives. I know that’s not easy to do when the crisis is still very relevant and inflicting plenty of suffering. I still think it’s worth attempting, if only to imagine the better world that emerges from this mess.

That’s because both these vaccines aren’t like your typical flu shots. For one, flu shots aren’t nearly as effective as what Pfizer and Moderna reported. According to the CDC, you’re average flu shot is between 40 and 60 percent effective. That’s still important because the flu can be deadly. Anything you do to reduce it can only further public health, in general.

The problem is the flu shot, and most vaccines like it, are based on old technology. At their most basic, they take a non-infectious or weakened strain of a pathogen and use it to amp up your body’s immunity. It’s crude, but it works. Literally nothing has saved more lives than vaccines.

The problem is that vaccines are notoriously hard to develop. They take a long time to test and an even longer time to approve. Until this pandemic, there just wasn’t much incentive to improve on that process. Now, after these past 8 months, the incentive couldn’t have been greater.

That’s what sped up the development of mRNA vaccines, the technology behind both Pfizer and Moderna. It was reported on as far back as 2018. While this technology isn’t completely new, it has never been developed beyond a certain point. There just wasn’t any incentive to do so. A global crisis changed that.

Very simply, an mRNA vaccine does one better on traditional vaccines by using RNA to develop immunity. It’s not as easy as it sounds. To develop that immunity, it has encode itself with just the right antigen. That way, the antibodies it creates can attack the desired pathogen.

In the case of COVID-19, the mRNA vaccine attacks the distinct spike protein the virus uses to attach to host cells. It’s like a missile targeting a specific individual in a large crowd by locking onto the distinct hat they wear.

This approach has the potential to be much more effective at generating immunity to a particular disease. Instead of trying to mimic a virus, it just gives the immune system the necessary software it needs to do the work. It could potentially revolutionize the way we treat and prevent diseases.

For years, certain viruses like the flu and HIV have confounded efforts to develop a vaccine. Beyond the problems I listed earlier with regards to testing, the difficulty of creating a particular immune response to a particular antigen is very difficult. These viruses mutate and change all the time. With COVID, vaccines do have an advantage because they have a distinct feature.

The challenge for future vaccines against future pandemics is quickly uncovering a particular antigen that the mRNA can be coded for. In theory, all you would have to do is find the one key antigen that’s common to every strain of the virus. While viruses like the flu are notoriously diverse, they can only change so much.

It’s akin to trying to identify an army of spies in a large crowd. They may all look different on the outside, but if they all have the same socks, then that’s what you code for. With some refinements, an mRNA vaccine can stop a pandemic in its tracks before it ever gets beyond a certain point.

That assumes we’ll continue to refine this technology after the COVID-19 pandemic has passed. I certainly hope that’s the case. This year has traumatized entire generations with how much pain and suffering it has inflicted. I sincerely hope that gives plenty of motivation to develop technology like this. That way, we never have to endure a disruption like this again.

To all those who helped develop this technology and these two vaccines, I hope you appreciate the impact you’ll make with this technology. The number of lives they could save is incalculable. Future generations may not remember your names, but they will be forever grateful for this wondrous gift you’ve given them.

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Deep Fake Technology Can Now Make Tom Cruise Iron Man: Signs And Implications

Certain technology advances slowly and steadily. It’s why we’re still waiting for a cure for the common cold. Other technological breakthroughs advance at such a fast rate it’s hard to keep up with. Anyone who doesn’t regularly upgrade their cell phone understands that.

That brings me to the technology of deep fakes. I’ve talked about them before and the implications this technology has for the entertainment industry. Well, I’m here to report that this technology might be advancing faster than I thought.

Recently, a new deep fake video hit the web. It’s nothing overly nefarious. It’s actually a play on a real story from the mid-2000s. Before Robert Downey Jr. was cast as Tony Stark in the first “Iron Man” movie, Tom Cruise was in the running for that role.

He has since claimed he was never close to getting that role, but it’s still an interesting idea. For most Marvel fans, it’s hard to imagine anyone other than RDJ donning that now-iconic armor. However, there’s no denying that Tom Cruise being Iron Man would’ve changed a franchise, as well as cinematic history.

Well, thanks to deep fake technology, we don’t have to imagine anymore. We can now see for ourselves what it would look like if Tom Cruise had been cast as Iron Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. See for yourself.

Watching this, I have to say it was more than a little jarring. It’s not just that seeing someone other than RDJ as Iron Man is strange. I was genuinely impressed by how real it looked.

Yes, it did become a bit obvious at times that there was some digital trickery at work. I’ve seen enough Tom Cruise movies to know what he looks like. I could tell that the body just did not match the iconic face at times.

However, I’m still impressed at just how seamless it appeared, especially when he was in the Iron Man costume. It really did look like Cruise had embraced the role as much as RDJ had. Even though the voice had to come courtesy of a skilled voice actor, the graphics technology is definitely on pace to cross the uncanny valley sooner rather than later.

The implications here are profound. If the technology is already at this point, then it’s a given that Hollywood and propaganda pushers will start embracing it sooner. For Hollywood, who is reeling in wake of a historic pandemic, they may have more incentives to embrace it than most.

Beyond actors and actresses who get “cancelled” for their behavior, it may start as a cost cutting measure. If it costs too much to put Hugh Jackman or Tom Cruise on a movie set, why not just put a cheaper actor in their place and just deep fake the more iconic figure over it? If the technology is that good and nobody can tell the difference, it almost makes too much sense.

It may get to a point where nobody outside the studio knows whether the figure we see on screen was actually “there” to give that moment life. They may just be a digital scan mixed with digitally audio, which is also advancing.

This has even larger implications with propaganda. If the technology gets to a point where we can make any public figure say or do anything we want, no matter how deplorable, then how can we trust any media image? Would “cancel culture” even be feasible at that point? If people can just claim an embarrassing moment was a deep fake, how would we know?

It’s a distressing thought, but it’s something we’ll have to account for. We may end up having to contemplate it sooner than we thought. This technology can already show us a world in which Tom Cruise was cast as Iron Man. What other worlds will it reveal?

We’ll find out soon enough.

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