Tag Archives: technology

In Honor Of Pride Month: A Tribute To Alan Turing (The Man Who Decoded The Future)

Life of Alan Turing, Code-Breaking Computer Scientist

I’m a straight male. I don’t deny that. I’m also a strong proponent of LGBTQ rights and will gladly side with them against all those who would undermine, alienate, or denigrate that community. In honor of Pride Month, I’d like to make that clearly and proudly.

At the same time, being a straight male means I can only do so much to understand the plight of LGBTQ individuals. I can never fully understand the feelings they feel or the thoughts they think as they live their lives in a world that’s still very hostile to them. Even though I have close relatives who are openly gay, my perspective is still limited.

Having said all that, I’d like to make another small contribution to Pride Month 2021. It’s not much, but it’s something I hope adds to the greater perspective of others, regardless of their orientation. During times like this, that perspective is more important than other.

Like it or not, our lives have been profoundly affected by people who identify as LGBTQ. You may not realize it, but you wouldn’t even be able to read this, nor would I be able to share it, were it not for one prominent member of the LGBTQ community.

His name is Alan Turing. He’s the reason why we know how to make the computer or smartphone you’re using right now. He may also be the reason why some of us aren’t saluting a Nazi flag.

The life of Mr. Turing may have been tragic in many respects, especially towards the end, but few men have affected the modern world more than him. He was more than just a brilliant mathematician, computer scientist, and philosopher. He practically laid the foundation for our modern world through his work.

The fact that he was a gay man living in an era where being gay was considered a mental illness only makes these accomplishment more remarkable. However, his sexuality was still often secondary to his brilliance.

Alan Turing had a genuine gift for math and science. That gift earned him diplomas from universities like Cambridge and Princeton. It also earned him a role at Bletchley Park during Word War II, the home of Britain’s efforts to break the seemingly unbreakable German Enigma Code. It’s not unreasonable to say that this effort wouldn’t have succeeded without Alan Turing.

You also don’t need to be an expert in alternative history to know that breaking the Enigma Code played a big part in ensuring World War II ended the way it did. Even if you believe the Allies were always going to win, that victory came sooner and saved more lives because of Turing’s role in breaking that code.

The breadth and details of that effort are vast. It would take too long to go over everything he did to help the Allies in World War II. Thankfully, others with more expertise than me have done so. Check out this YouTube video to get a better feel for how Turing did what he did in cracking Enigma.

It’s also through that same effort that he laid the foundations for modern computing. He is largely credited with creating the fundamental structure of things like algorithms and computation. He may not have built the first modern computer, but he created the model by which all future computers were built.

Without Alan Turing, computer technology would not be where it is today.

Without Alan Turing, the internet as we know it would not exist.

Without Alan Turing, the modern world as we know it simply would not be possible.

That’s a hell of an accomplishment for anyone, let alone someone who was gay. It is a great tragedy that Turing had to spend most of his life hiding his sexuality. He did marry a woman who knew his secret, but that was only a cover. He still had to live a lie day after day for most of his life.

It only came crashing down in 1952 when Turing was arrested in Manchester for the “indecency” of admitting to a sexual relationship with another man. As a result, Turing lost his various security clearances. All that work he’d done to help the world was suddenly an afterthought. On top of that, he was forced to take hormones to “treat” his desires.

I put “treat” in quotes because what this did to him was nothing short of unconscionable. I won’t go into the disturbing details. I’ll just say that this “treatment” played a major role in him eventually taking his own life in 1954. It was a sad end to the life of a man who gave us so much through his brilliance and his work.

Now, to be fair, the British Government did eventually apologize for the role it played in destroying Alan Turing’s life. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen until 2009. I’d usually say better late than never, but that’s really pushing it.

It’s hard to say how much we lost because Alan Turing’s life was cut short. Who knows where we would be if he hadn’t been persecuted because of his sexuality? Even if we ended up at the same place, Turing deserved better. This is a man who served his country and contributed immensely to the knowledge of mankind, only to be ruined by bigotry.

How many other brilliant men and women suffered a similar fate?

How many of those individuals had something to contribute to mankind, but never got the chance?

How many had to live their entire lives hiding this part of themselves, suffering in silence out of fear of enduring a fate like Turing’s?

We can never know the answer to those questions. The answers are probably as distressing as they are tragic.

If nothing else, the story of Alan Turing should give us pause in how we see the past, present, and future of LGBTQ struggles. It’s true that we’ve made a great deal of progress since the days of Alan Turing. In more recent years, awareness surrounding the struggles and accomplishments of men like Turing has grown.

There are still challenges to overcome and we should be ready and willing to face those challenges. Despite how it ended, the life and accomplishments of Alan Turing should inspire us to do better. The fact we can make those efforts through the very machines he helped create is a fitting tribute. So, in honor of Pride Month 2021, let us take a moment to remember and celebrate the life of Alan Turing. He contributed immensely to our modern world, despite living at a time when his very identity was criminal. That’s an accomplishment and a strength that’s worthy of pride.

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Filed under Current Events, LGBTQ, technology

My Thoughts On Facebook And #DeleteFacebook

Here is how to delete Facebook | TechCrunch

There are certain people, groups, and companies that are difficult to defends. It’s not impossible, as is the case with tobacco companies, criminal organizations, and whoever designs unskippable video ads. It’s just difficult and I’m certainly not qualified to carry out such with any real expertise.

I’m just not that smart or informed.

I make that disclaimer because I’m about to defend a company that doesn’t have a stellar reputation, to say the least. If anything, their name and its famous founder have gained such a negative connotation that they’re just a few steps away from being a tobacco company. Given how one actually sells products that gives people cancer, that’s saying something.

That company is Facebook. I know that just typing that word out for people to read is going to garner a reaction and not in a good way.

I get that. I really do. I’m very much aware of some of the many scandals and shady dealings that Facebook has engaged in since its inception. I’m also aware of the objectively negative impacts that Facebook has had on certain people. That’s not something I can defend, nor would I want to.

There are any number of bad things about Facebook and its impact that I can go over. However, there is one important aspect to those things that I would like to highlight. I don’t think it constitutes a defense of Facebook or its practices, but some may construe it as such. I’m still going to point it out, if only to add some perspective. It all comes down to this.

Facebook is still just a tool. At some point, all its damaging ills are on us, the users, and not the company.

I understand that’s an unpopular sentiment. It’s not that dissimilar from what gun advocates say about guns. Like any inanimate object, it’s not deadly or damaging until somebody willfully uses it. That’s certainly true to some extent. It’s just a matter of the extent that people disagree on.

However, Facebook is not akin to a firearm or some tool that can actually be used to cause tangible, physical harm to someone. It’s a website/software program. Using it requires people to go out of their way to access it. In addition, getting any meaningful use out of it requires active engagement. It’s not just something you can give to a kid and they would easily figure it out.

It can still be damaging, but in a very different way. Like it or not, some of those ways are ultimately our responsibility and not that of Facebook. I know it’s just a lot easier to criticize the company, its practices, and the conduct of its founder, Mark Zuckerburg. That doesn’t change the actual nature of the product.

Yes, there is objectively toxic content on Facebook that degrades, demeans, and deceives people.

However, that toxic content doesn’t come directly from Facebook. It comes from us.

I bring this up because I saw the hashtag, #DeleteFacebook, trending again. That seems to happen several times a year, often after a new scandal or in wake of an unpopular decision. It’s becoming so routine that it’s hard to take seriously.

On top of that, the hashtag rarely accomplishes anything. Despite all the scandals and negative press, the overall usership of Facebook is still growing. As of this writing, it has approximately 2.85 billion users. Criticism and hashtags aside, it hasn’t kept the company from growing. It hasn’t made Mark Zuckerberg any less rich and influential.

I know hashtags are notorious for presenting a false reality to those who seek it, but this particular hashtag has become more a virtue signal than an actual protest. More and more these days, the hashtag has become less about Facebook’s unscrupulous business practices and more about protesting Big Tech, as they’re called.

While there’s certainly a place for protesting the practices of large, powerful corporations, I feel like the substance of that effort gets lost in virtue signaling. People are more inclined to just whine about how bad Facebook is and say how much better their lives are after deleting it. It’s rare for anyone to actually highlight a substantive policy or practice that warrants protest. It’s all about people saying, “Look at me! I gave up Facebook, so I’m better than you!”

I know that’s a simplistic statement that doesn’t apply to everyone. I’m sure there are people whose lives did improve after deleting their Facebook account. At the same time, there are people whose lives are still enriched by Facebook.

Personally, I’ve met great people through Facebook. I’ve also been able to keep up with friends and family that I never would’ve been able to keep up with. I genuinely value those connections. They even prove critical when there’s a major family crisis that everyone is trying to keep up with. That happened several years back when my grandmother got sick. It happened more recently with helping my father connect with other relatives during the pandemic.

Facebook can be used for good. Like any tool, it can have a positive impact on its users. It’s just a matter of how it’s used.

There will always be people who seek to use any tool for something wrong, deviant, or nefarious. We don’t criticize ski masks the same way we criticize Facebook and for good reason. At the end of the day, it comes back to the individuals using it.

Again, that doesn’t excuse some of the shady things the company has done over the years. I’m not defending that. This extended rant is just me reminding people that some of the worst parts of Facebook only exist because of us, the users. At some point, we have to take responsibility for that. We can’t expect a multi-billion dollar software company to do it for us.

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Filed under Current Events, human nature, media issues, rants, technology

Why We Should Embrace Synthetic Meat (As Soon As Possible)

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If you’re reading this, then there’s a good chance you drank milk at some point this year. You probably drank a lot more of it when you were a kid. The fact that you’re reading this proves that you didn’t die, as a result. That may not seem like a big deal, but compared to 100 years ago, it counts as a noteworthy feat.

Between 1850 and 1950, approximately a half-million infants died due to diseases contracted by drinking milk. If you do the math, that’s about 5,000 deaths a year, just from drinking milk. Keep in mind, these are children. That’s a lot of death and suffering for drinking one of the most basic substances the animal kingdom.

These days, death by drinking milk is exceedingly rare. Thanks to processes like pasteurization, milk is one of the safest substances you can drink. If anyone does get sick, it’s usually from drinking raw or unpasteurized milk. However, it’s so rare that most people don’t think about it. It’s just a normal part of how we manage our food and nourish ourselves.

I bring up milk because it nicely demonstrates what happens when we apply technology to improve the quality, safety, and abundance of our food. Despite what certain misguided critics may say, many of which probably haven’t experienced extreme starvation, this has been an objective good for humanity, civilization, and the world, as a whole.

Modern medicine and the Green Revolution, championed by the likes of Norman Borlaug, helped give us more efficient ways of producing massive quantities of food. Now, there’s another technological advancement brewing that might end up being more impactful. You’ve probably seen commercials for it already. It has many names, but for now, I’m just going to call it synthetic meat.

It’s almost exactly what it sounds like. It’s the process of producing meat through artificial processes, none of which involve the slaughtering of animals. For those concerned about animal welfare and environmental impacts, it’s the ultimate solution. At most, the animals contribute a few cells. The rest is grown in a laboratory. Nobody has to get hurt. Nobody has to go vegan, either.

It seems too good to be true and there are certainly aspects of synthetic meats that are overhyped. However, unlike other advancements like Neuralink or nanobots, this is already an evolving market. The first synthetic burger was made and consumed in 2013. It was the culmination of a long, laborious effort that cost upwards of $300,000.

Those costs soon came down and they came down considerably. By 2017, the cost of that same meat patty was around $11. People have paid much more for expensive caviar. That’s impressive progress for something that’s still a maturing technology with many unresolved challenges. With major fast food companies getting in on the game, the technology is likely to progress even more.

It’s here where I want to make an important point about this technology. Regardless of how you feel about it or why it’s being developed, there’s one aspect to it that’s worth belaboring.

We should embrace synthetic meat.

In fact, we should embrace this technology faster than others because the benefits of doing so will only compound.

I say this as someone who has tried an impossible meat burger. It’s not terrible. I wouldn’t mind eating them regularly if they were the only option available. That said, you can still tell it’s not traditional beef. That’s because this meat isn’t exactly the kind of cultured meat that’s grown in a lab. It’s assembled from plant proteins and various other well-known substances.

Ideally, synthetic meat wouldn’t just be indistinguishable from traditional beef. It would actually be safer than anything you could get naturally. Meat grown in a lab under controlled conditions can ensure it’s free of food-born illnesses, which are still a problem with meat production. It can also more effectively remove harmful byproducts, like trans fats.

In theory, it might also be possible to produce meat with more nutrients. Imagine a burger that’s as healthy as a bowl of kale. Picture a T-bone steak that has the same amount of nutrients as a plate of fresh vegetables. That’s not possible to do through natural means, but in a lab where the meat is cultured at the cellular level, it’s simply a matter of chemistry and palatability.

Meat like that wouldn’t just be good for our collective health. It would be good for both the environment and the economy, two issues that are rarely aligned. Even if you don’t care at all about animal welfare, synthetic meats has the potential to produce more product with less resources. On a planet of over 7.6 billion, that’s not just beneficial. It’s critical.

At the moment, approximately 70 percent of the agricultural land in the world is dedicated to the meat production. In terms of raw energy requirements, meat requires considerably more energy than plants. That includes water consumption, as well. Making meat in its current form requires a lot of resources and with a growing population, the math is working against us.

Say what you want about vegetarians and vegans when they rant about the meat industry. From a math and resources standpoint, they have a point. However, getting rid of meat altogether just isn’t feasible. It tastes too good and it has too many benefits. We can’t make people hate the taste of burgers, but we can improve the processes on how those burgers are made.

Instead of industrial farms where animals are raised in cramped quarters, pumped full of hormones, and raised to be slaughtered, we could have factories that produce only the best quality meat from the best animal cells. It wouldn’t require vast fields or huge quantities of feed. It would just need electricity, cells, and the assorted cellular nutrients.

Perhaps 3D printing advances to a point where specific cuts of meat could be produced the same way we produce specific parts for a car. Aside from producing meat without having to care for than slaughter animals, such a system would be able to increase the overall supply with a smaller overall footprint.

Needing less land to produce meat means more land for environmental preservation or economic development. Farming, both for crops and for meat, is a major contributor to deforestation. Being able to do more with less helps improve how we utilize resources, in general. Even greedy corporations, of which the food industry has plenty, will improve their margins by utilizing this technology.

Increased supply also means cheaper prices and if the taste is indistinguishable from traditional meat, then most people are going to go with it, regardless of how they feel about it. There will still be a market for traditional, farm-raised meats from animals, just as there’s a market for non-GMO foods. However, as we saw with the Green Revolution in the early 20th century, economics tends to win out in the long run.

It’s a promising future for many reasons. There are many more I could list relating to helping the environment, combating starvation, and improving nutrition. Alone, they’re all valid reasons to embrace this technology and seek greater improvements. If I had to pick only one, though, it’s this.

If we don’t develop this technology, then these delicious meats that we love could be exceedingly scarce or prohibitively expensive in the future.

Like I said earlier, the way we currently produce meat is grossly inefficient. At some point, the demand for meat is going to exceed the current system’s capacity to produce it in an economical way. At that point, this delicious food that we take for granted might not be so readily available and the substitutes might not be nearly as appetizing.

The issue becomes even more pressing if we wish to become a space-faring civilization, which will be necessary at some point. If we still want to enjoy burgers, chicken wings, and bacon at that point, we’ll need to know how to make it without the vast fields and facilities we currently use. Otherwise, we might be stuck dining on potatoes like Matt Damon in “The Martian.”

While the situation isn’t currently that urgent, this is one instance where a new technology is the extra push. You don’t have to be a major investor in companies like Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods. Just go out of your way to try one of these new synthetic meat products. Let the market know that there’s demand for it and the machinations of capitalism will do the rest.

I understand that our inner Ron Swanson will always have a craving for old fashioned burgers, steaks, and bacon. Those things don’t have to go away completely, just as traditional farming hasn’t gone away completely. However, when a particular technology already exists and has so many potential benefits, it’s worth pursuing with extra vigor.

The planet will benefit.

The people will benefit.

The animals will benefit.

Our society, as a whole, will benefit.

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Filed under biotechnology, CRISPR, Current Events, Environment, futurism, health, technology

Why I Don’t Miss Blockbuster Video (For The Most Part)

Everyone has something they’re nostalgic for. There’s nothing wrong with that, for the most part. There are some people nostalgic for the kind of things that require massive social regression that would do immense harm to every marginalized minority you can think of. That kind of nostalgia isn’t healthy. It’s just for entitled assholes.

For me, personally, my nostalgia is pretty limited. I have a soft spot for old school Saturday morning cartoons. They made waking up early on the weekends fun. I’m also nostalgic for a time when the only people trying to cancel stuff were uptight conservative Christians who opposed anything fun, new, or sexy

It almost seems quaint now. I think many of us still long for the days when everything didn’t have a political agenda or bias. It’s getting to a point where it’s hard to remember a time when politics wasn’t so damn tribal. I miss those days too.

However, I don’t want to focus too much on the things I miss. Instead, I want to highlight something that I honestly don’t miss for the most part, but it’s something a lot of people have fond memories over.

That something is Blockbuster video.

Now, most people over the age of 30 remember Blockbuster video. I certainly remember it. In fact, it was once a regular ritual for my dad to take us all to Blockbuster on Friday evening to rent a movie. At one point, I lived within walking distance of a Blockbuster. Those were good times.

Those times eventually came to an end. Blockbuster’s rise and fall from its position as an institution of the movie business is relatively well-documented. It’s also well-known that there was a point where Blockbuster could’ve bought Netflix for just $50 million, but chose not to.

That choice has since gone down in infamy as one of the dumbest decisions in the history of business. To understand just how dumb it was, Netflix as of this writing is worth over $30 billion. Take a moment to appreciate just how much history changed with that fateful choice.

At the same time, there are people out there still nostalgic for Blockbuster. Recently, there was even a mini-documentary on the last Blockbuster video in operation in Bend, Oregon. Fittingly enough, that documentary is on Netflix.

Having watched that documentary recently, I found myself thinking back to those times I mentioned earlier. I also thought about how the stories that people in the documentary told about going to Blockbuster or video stores, in general. They remembered it so fondly. When they visited the last Blockbuster, they looked downright enamored.

I can’t say I blame them. It probably took them back to a time in their lives that they remember fondly. I can certainly appreciate that.

At the same time, I can’t avoid one simple fact.

I really don’t miss Blockbuster that much.

That’s not to denigrate the people who do or the experiences I had in my youth. When I look back on Blockbuster in its totality, both in terms of the good times and the not-so-good times, I just don’t miss it. As a hub for movies, it had its place at a certain point in time. That time has long past and I’d rather not go back.

As much as I enjoyed browsing movie racks and chatting it up with the people who worked at Blockbuster, I can’t overlook the shortcomings. There were plenty of times in which I really wanted to see a particular movie, but there were just no copies available. That happened constantly with certain shows I followed closely. It got to a point where I just stopped trying.

Then, there were the late fees.

I promise that nobody misses the late fees.

I recall more than one occasion where my parents scolded me and my siblings for not returning a movie on time. Even without inflation, those fees really added up. They were a constant point of frustration and I really don’t miss having to deal with them.

There were still parts of the Blockbuster experience that I enjoyed. The stores themselves were great to be in. My brother and I spent a lot of time losing ourselves in that store. While it was nice to just come across some obscure movie or game every now and then, I feel like that was the exception rather than the norm.

Since I got Netflix, I find it a lot easier to come across some obscure movie I’ve never seen or heard of. Last Halloween, I spent an entire afternoon just browsing the Horror section of Netflix and found several movies that I probably couldn’t have found in a Blockbuster. It was a great experience.

I don’t deny that Netflix is a lot more impersonal. There’s none of that social aspect you get by visiting a Blockbuster store. That certainly had its moments, but I feel like other social spaces have more than compensated, at least for me.

I’ll always have a soft spot for Blockbuster for making Friday nights more fun with my family. I’ll always remember that distinct smell of buttered popcorn that every Blockbuster seemed to have. Beyond that, though, I’m not all that nostalgic for it. Blockbuster had a good run. It just didn’t adapt to changing times. That being said, just imagine how different the world would be if they had bought Netflix.

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Filed under Current Events, movies, rants, real stories, technology, television

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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Artificial Intelligence Is Struggling With Racism (And The Larger Implications)

There’s no doubt that artificial intelligence will fundamentally change the world. Its potential is so vast that some even say it will be mankind’s last invention. Once it gets to a certain point, it won’t just be better at everything humans do. It may very well supplant humanity as the dominant life form on this planet. There are no shortage of movies that depict how dire that could be.

That said, it’s bound to go through some growing pains. Not all of those pains will involve a Skynet-level malfunction, but they will warrant concern.

At the moment, our artificial intelligence is still limited. It’s not dumb, but it’s very limited. It can do certain tasks very well, like play chess or win Jeopardy. It can’t apply that intelligence at a broader macro level like a human.

That still makes them useful and they’re still advancing rapidly. Artificial intelligence programs are used frequently for tasks like moderating comments sections and tracking sales data. The problem with these programs is that, since the AI is not generally intelligent, humans have to fill in the gaps. Since humans are flawed and bias, those traits sometimes find their way into the AI.

That’s what happened recently with YouTube’s comment moderation algorithms. As an aspiring YouTuber, I know how imperfect those algorithms can be. The intentions are noble. These AI programs are supposed to curtail hate speech. The internet needs that right now. Anyone who has ever visited 4chan knows that.

However, sometimes the AI systems are so narrow that they don’t ese the forest from the trees. That’s what happened recently when those systems mistook discussions about chess for racist language. Tech Xplore did an article on it and while it’s somewhat humorous on the surface, it’s also quite revealing.

Tech Xplore: AI May Mistake Chess Discussions as Racist Talk

“The Queen’s Gambit,” the recent TV mini-series about a chess master, may have stirred increased interest in chess, but a word to the wise: social media talk about game-piece colors could lead to misunderstandings, at least for hate-speech detection software.

That’s what a pair of Carnegie Mellon University researchers suspect happened to Antonio Radic, or “agadmator,” a Croatian chess player who hosts a popular YouTube channel. Last June, his account was blocked for “harmful and dangerous” content.

YouTube never provided an explanation and reinstated the channel within 24 hours, said Ashiqur R. KhudaBukhsh a project scientist in CMU’s Language Technologies Institute (LTI). It’s nevertheless possible that “black vs. white” talk during Radi?’s interview with Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura triggered software that automatically detects racist language, he suggested.

Now, should we be concerned? Is it worrying that an AI with the backing of Google couldn’t surmise that simple terms like “black vs. white” were referring to chess and not race relations?

The short answer is not really.

The longer answer is not really, but we should learn important lessons from this.

The AI systems that moderate YouTube comments are nowhere near the kinds of systems we’d see in an artificial general intelligence. It’s like comparing a steam engine to a modern rocket. That said, we had to learn how to make a damn good steam engine before we could learn to make a decent rocket.

With something like advanced artificial intelligence, the margin for error is very small. You could even argue there is no margin for error. That’s why so many worry that such an AI could be an existential threat to humanity. If its too flawed to understand the difference between chess and racist rhetoric, then we could be in serious trouble.

The problem, in this case, isn’t with the nature of the AI. It’s with us, its creators. Since we humans are so flawed, racism being one of our worst flaws, it’s understandable that this sort of thing would find its way into our programming. It already has in a number of fields.

Again, those types of systems are limited and narrow. There’s a lot of room for human flaws to enter the system.

With advanced AI, those flaws could end up being extremely damaging. If too many of them find their way into a more advanced AI, we wouldn’t end up with a helpful, usable system. We’d end up with something like Skynet or Ultron. At that point, we’d be in serious trouble and we wouldn’t be able to rely on John Conner or the Avengers to save us.

We still have time. This latest issue with YouTube’s algorithms is minor, in the grand scheme of things, and fairly easy to correct. Once we get around to creating more advanced systems, though, we need to be aware of these flaws. We need to remember that any advanced AI we create will reflect our best and worst qualities. Let’s make sure our best win out in the long run.

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Filed under Artificial Intelligence, technology, YouTube

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

How Many Streaming Services Can We (Realistically) Have?

It’s official. The streaming wars are on.

Hell, it’s been official for the past several years and 2020 only accelerated it. The battle to dominate digital media in all forms is raging on multiple fronts and while many have their favorites, none can say they’ve won.

It’s Netflix versus Hulu versus Amazon versus Disney versus CBS/Viacom versus YouTube versus whatever other media companies are fighting for every possible eyeball. The stakes are high for consumers and content creators alike. There are billions in profits to be made and plenty of epic, culture-defining content to be made. It’s going to get intense is what I’m saying.

I don’t think I need to remind everyone just how much the streaming market has changed in the past 10 years. Even if you’re still a teenager, chances are you still vaguely remember the days before Netflix and chill. Media back then was movies, TV, and Blu-Ray/DVD collections. I’m not saying it was ideal, but that’s what we had to work with.

Then, Netflix came along and changed everything.

Then, every company and their deep-pocketed subsidiaries tried to catch up.

It hasn’t always been smooth. Some people are still not over “The Officeleaving Netflix. Chances are there will be more upheavals like that as companies fight over who streams what and who has the streaming rights to a particular show or movie. That’s sure to get messy and I’m not smart enough to make sense of it.

However, as this war rages, I think there’s a relevant question worth asking. It’s a question that I’m sure both consumers like me and big media companies like Netflix and Disney ask as well. The answer could depend on how the war plays out.

How many streaming services can the average customer have?

Most people already pay for some form of streaming media. Most people subscribe to some form of pay TV, although that trend is in flux. The days of having all the entertainment you want with a simple cable subscription alongside Netflix is long gone and it’s not coming back.

Now, you have to be very selective and self-aware of what you want.

Do you want access to Disney’s vast library of content?

Do you want access to the library of shows from NBC or CBS?

Do you want access to the content from Warner Brothers, Universal, Dreamworks, Discovery, Cartoon Network, or 20th Century Fox?

You can have some, but you can’t have them all without paying way more than you ever would for cable. Even if you did, could you even watch all those streaming services enough to justify the cost? There are only so many hours in a day and there’s only so much attention we have to give. Even if we dedicated half our day to binging movies and TV, we couldn’t watch it all.

That’s the big limiting factor on streaming. It’s also the biggest obstacle any company faces with respect to their effort in the streaming wars. People can only watch so much and they only have so much they can reasonably spend on a streaming service. There comes a point where, even if the content is appealing, they just can’t justify the cost.

Personally, I have subscriptions to five streaming services. They are as follows:

Netflix

Hulu

Amazon Prime

Disney Plus

HBO Max

Now, it’s worth noting that I got HBO Max through my cable subscription. I’ve subscribed to HBO for years so it’s not something I consciously sought out. With Amazon Prime, I primarily used it for the 2-day shipping instead of streaming media, but I’ve certainly found some quality shows on that platform.

I’m not sure I can justify another subscription beyond this. Once my subscriptions cannot be counted on one hand anymore, I think that’s too much. I just cannot watch enough content to warrant paying extra. I say that knowing companies like Paramount and NBC have just launched their own streaming services.

Even though both networks include shows that I love, I’ve no intention of buying their streaming service. If my cable company offers it for free, like it did with HBO, then that’s great. I’ll certainly watch it, but I’m not paying extra.

I feel like a lot of people are in that boat. If they don’t have a cable subscription, then they’re already trying to save money and paying more for a streaming package just defeats the purpose. If they do have cable, then they’re probably not willing to pay more for something they’re already paying too much for.

It’s a tougher situation and one that I’m sure will get tougher in the coming years. It’s not cheap to run a streaming service. The profit margins can be thin if you don’t have the content. There’s a good chance that some streaming services will either fail or get absorbed into another, like CBS All Access did.

Then, there are the pirates and no, I’m not talking about the ones with eye-patches.

Before Netflix streaming, pirating copyrighted content was already pretty rampant. Since the streaming wars began, there has been an uptick in pirated streaming content. That is also likely to intensify the more fragmented the streaming market becomes. If people are really that unwilling to pay a whole subscription to watch just a single show, they will resort to piracy. It’s still distressingly easy.

That’s why this question matters, both for us and the companies who provide our entertainment. I don’t claim to know how it’ll play out. By the time it settles, there might be another major upheaval in the media to supplant it. Whatever happens, I feel like I’ve reached the limit on the number of streaming subscriptions I have.

That’s just me, though. What about you?

How many streaming services do you have and are you willing to pay for another? Our collective answer could very well change the course of the streaming wars.

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Filed under Current Events, human nature, media issues, psychology, technology, television