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Why Your Devices Shouldn't Do the Work of Being You
In my post last week I linked to some work by Evan Selinger, a philosopher at the Rochester Institute of Technology who has been thinking hard about the ways seemingly convenient and harmless technologies affect their users. I Skyped Selinger the other day and we spoke about the impact that current and soon-to-be gadgets are having on people's personal autonomy. What follows is an edited version of that conversation. This is the first in an occasional series of interviews with thinkers doing important work in and around the subject of autonomy and the changes it is undergoing.
DB: Apple's upcoming iOS will have a predictive text feature that goes beyond spell check. It will analyze your emails and texts and use that to make guesses about what you're going to write next. In other words, it will suggest words and sentences for your texts and emails. That sounds convenient and harmless. Yet you're alarmed by it. Why?
ES: I'm horrified by this, to be honest with you. What worries me about this is that this will seem like a cool feature to most users. So that rather than needing to fill out my thoughts to you, I'll say something good enough, that was recommended. And to put in the energy and effort to override a good-enough [phrase], you have to overcome a certain amount of inertia. It will require extra effort to do that. And so I think there's going to be a natural temptation to rely on that tool rather than override it. The more we don't autonomously struggle with language, grapple to find the right word, muscle through to bend language poetically, the less we're able to really treat conversation as an intentional act. As something that really expresses what we're trying to say. And as goes the iPhone so goes the rest of the world, right? The LA Times when they redesigned their online version, each piece begins with three tweetable summaries. And they do it [above the article, so you can tweet without even reading it and deciding what you think matters in it]. Are successful tweeters going to use this? Probably not. But the fact that this is becoming more embedded in the architecture, that’s what concerns me. I believe we’re starting to find more and more cases where what we want to communicate to people will be automated. There are more opportunities to automate that.
DB: But the end result of these apps is very likely going to be same as it would have been if a human had done the work herself. That's why predictive text works, because it can make a good guess about what you're going to say. So why not offload the work to an app?
ES: Except predicting you is predicting a predictable you. Which is itself subtracting from your autonomy. And it’s encouraging you to be predictable, to be a facsimile of yourself. So it's prediction and a nudge at the same moment. It’s not just a guessing game—"here’s what I think you would say." It’s providing you the option to [go with the prediction]. And imposing a cost of energy to override.
DB: But if the prediction is good, because the analysis is really astute, what's the harm?
ES: I guess the slogan answer here would be something like "effort is the currency of care." And by effort I mean a deliberate focussed presence. When we abdicate that, we inject less care into a relationship. That's what I think automation does. And that's what I think some of these people leave out of the equation.
DB: But no one is imposing these apps on people. If you don't want to use predictive text to write your email, you can turn it off. If that video of JIBO the family robot reading to the kid creeps you out, just don't buy one. What's the problem?
ES: Once it’s available, it's hard to have the willpower to override something. Especially when we think it's convenient and harmless [because our model is] spell checkers and calculators. [But with those] we outsource cognitive tasks, not intimate ones. Relationships are different.
DB: Still, it's hard to imagine why people would want more friction in their lives than they have to have. What principle could they use to sort out techs that help from techs that harm?
ES: ES: [The philosopher] Albert Borgmann distinguishes between the "device paradigm" and "focal practices." The device paradigm turns things into commodities—into things that are ubiquitous, easy and require no effort or understanding. I get in my car, drive off, I have no idea how it works. I live in this environment that gives me everything I want while it requires very little of me. Little by way of skill, by way of understanding. And that is supposed to be the good life. His point is that we've been so disburdened of effort through the device paradigm, we're incentivized to put less effort into our lives.
And we're told this is the apex, this is eudaemonia.
Borgmann thinks it is completely the other way around. That we only find real meaning in our lives in these instances where we're focused and attentive and building up skill. In a focal practice there isn't a separation of means from ends. These are activities where the journey is as important as the destination. It calls forth skill in a way that we feel a sense of accomplishment when we do it. And it gives us a memorable sense of experience. It gives us a vivid sense of experience. It gives us a connected sense of experience. He says, for example, that rather than running with headphones you should run while paying attention to your body and your posture and your breathing and you're taking in the environment.
DB: But the selling point for tech is supposed to exactly this: By automating these repetitive aspects of life (the text you send all the time, the work of thinking about dinner and getting it assembled) you have more time for focal experiences.
ES: So what we want to do when we're not burdened by crap is care about stuff. [Trouble is] this is the thing that precisely prevents us from being able to care about stuff. The ads say "we'll automate this task and you go spend time caring" but we're building the infrastructure so you can't.
DB: So what can people do to protect their autonomy—their ability to be their engaged and unpredictable selves?
ES: The best that we can do is become more [alert] to the values that are embedded in these systems. And ask what kinds of people we become if we become dependent on them. If we become habituated to them, if our relationships become more mediated by them. What makes this so complicated is that there are no bad actors. No one is out there trying to degrade the quality of our lives. It's that their agendas are small but collectively these small agendas can have a profound impact on who we are.
Follow me on Twitter: @davidberreby
A new paper reveals that the Voyager 1 spacecraft detected a constant hum coming from outside our Solar System.
- Voyager 1, humankind's most distant space probe, detected an unusual "hum" in the data from interstellar space.
- The noise is likely produced by interstellar gas.
- Further investigation may reveal the hum's exact origins.
Voyager 1, humanity's most faraway spacecraft, has detected an unusual "hum" coming from outside our solar system. Fourteen billion miles away from Earth, the Voyager's instruments picked up a droning sound that may be caused by plasma (ionized gas) in the vast emptiness of interstellar space. Launched in 1977, the Voyager 1 space probe — along with its twin Voyager 2 — has been traveling farther and farther into space for over 44 years. It has now breached the edge of our solar system, exiting the heliosphere, the bubble-like region of space influenced by the sun. Now, the spacecraft is moving through the "interstellar medium," where it recorded the peculiar sound.
Stella Koch Ocker, a doctoral student in astronomy at Cornell University, discovered the sound in the data from the Voyager's Plasma Wave System (PWS), which measures electron density. Ocker called the drone coming from plasma shock waves "very faint and monotone," likely due to the narrow bandwidth of its frequency.
While they think the persistent background hum may be coming from interstellar gas, the researchers don't yet know what exactly is causing it. It might be produced by "thermally excited plasma oscillations and quasi-thermal noise."
The new paper from Ocker and her colleagues at Cornell University and the University of Iowa, published in Nature Astronomy, also proposes that this is not the last we'll hear of the strange noise. The scientists write that "the emission's persistence suggests that Voyager 1 may be able to continue tracking the interstellar plasma density in the absence of shock-generated plasma oscillation events."
Voyager Captures Sounds of Interstellar Space www.youtube.com
The researchers think the droning sound may hold clues to how interstellar space and the heliopause, which can be thought of as the solar's system border, may be affecting each other. When it first entered interstellar space, the PWS instrument reported disturbances in the gas caused by the sun. But in between such eruptions is where the researchers spotted the steady signature made by the near-vacuum.
Senior author James Cordes, a professor of astronomy at Cornell, compared the interstellar medium to "a quiet or gentle rain," adding that "in the case of a solar outburst, it's like detecting a lightning burst in a thunderstorm and then it's back to a gentle rain."
More data from Voyager over the next few years may hold crucial information to the origins of the hum. The findings are already remarkable considering the space probe is functioning on technology from the mid-1970s. The craft has about 70 kilobytes of computer memory. It also carries a Golden Record created by a committee chaired by the late Carl Sagan, who taught at Cornell University. The 12-inch gold-plated copper disk record is essentially a time capsule, meant to tell the story of Earthlings to extraterrestrials. It contains sounds and images that showcase the diversity of Earth's life and culture.
As the American population grows, fewer people will die of cancer.
- A new study projects that cancer deaths will decrease in relative and absolute terms by 2040.
- The biggest decrease will be among lung cancer deaths, which are predicted to fall by 50 percent.
- Cancer is like terrorism: we cannot eliminate it entirely, but we can minimize its influence.
As the #2 leading cause of death, cancer takes the lives of about 600,000 Americans each year. In comparison, heart disease (#1) claims more than 650,000 lives, while accidents (#3) take about 175,000 lives. (In 2020 and likely 2021, COVID will claim the #3 spot.)
Headlines are usually full of terrible news about cancer. Seemingly, you can't get away from anything that causes it. RealClearScience made a list of all the things blamed for cancer — antiperspirants, salty soup, eggs, corn, Pringles, bras, burnt toast, and even Facebook made the list.
The reality, however, is much more optimistic. We're slowly but surely winning the war on cancer.
Winning the war on cancer
How can we make such a brazen statement? A new paper published in the journal JAMA Network Open tracks trends in cancer incidence and deaths and makes projections to the year 2040. The authors predict that around 568,000 Americans will have died of cancer in 2020, but they project that number to fall to 410,000 by 2040. That's a drop of nearly 28 percent, despite the U.S. population being projected to grow from roughly 333 million today to 374 million in 2040, an increase of 12 percent. That means cancer deaths will decrease in both relative and absolute terms.
What accounts for this unexpected good news? The lion's share is the number of deaths attributable to lung cancer, which is projected to decrease by more than 50 percent, from 130,000 to 63,000. This drop is largely due to the decreasing use of tobacco products. Other deaths predicted to decline include those from colorectal, breast, prostate, and ovarian cancers, among others, such as leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL).
The authors credit screening and biomedical advances for saving many of these lives. For instance, lead author Dr. Lola Rahib wrote in an email to Big Think that "colonoscopies remove precancerous polyps." She also noted that targeted therapies and immunotherapies have helped reduce the number of deaths from leukemia and NHL.
We'll never cure cancer
Now the bad news: We'll never cure cancer. There are at least three reasons for this. The first is obvious: We all die. The lifetime prevalence of death is 100 percent. The truth is that we are running out of things to die from. After a long enough period of time, something gives out — often your cardiovascular system or nervous system. Or you develop you cancer.
The second reason is that we are multicellular organisms and, hence, we are susceptible to cancer. (Contrary to popular myth, sharks get cancer, too.) The cells of multicellular organisms face an existential dilemma: they can either get old and stop dividing (a process called senescence) or become immortal but cancerous. For this reason, the problem of cancer may not have a solution.
Finally, there isn't really such a thing as a disease called "cancer." What we call cancer is actually a collection of several different diseases, some of which are preventable (like cervical cancer with the HPV vaccine) or curable (like prostate cancer). Unfortunately, some cancers probably never will be curable, not least because cancers can mutate and develop resistance to the drugs we use to treat them.
But the overall optimism still stands: We are slowly and incrementally winning the war on cancer. Like terrorism, it's not a foe that we can completely vanquish, but it is one whose influence we can minimize in our lives.
China has reached a new record for nuclear fusion at 120 million degrees Celsius.
This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.
China wants to build a mini-star on Earth and house it in a reactor. Many teams across the globe have this same bold goal --- which would create unlimited clean energy via nuclear fusion.
But according to Chinese state media, New Atlas reports, the team at the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) has set a new world record: temperatures of 120 million degrees Celsius for 101 seconds.
Yeah, that's hot. So what? Nuclear fusion reactions require an insane amount of heat and pressure --- a temperature environment similar to the sun, which is approximately 150 million degrees C.
If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it.
If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it. In nuclear fusion, the extreme heat and pressure create a plasma. Then, within that plasma, two or more hydrogen nuclei crash together, merge into a heavier atom, and release a ton of energy in the process.
Nuclear fusion milestones: The team at EAST built a giant metal torus (similar in shape to a giant donut) with a series of magnetic coils. The coils hold hot plasma where the reactions occur. They've reached many milestones along the way.
According to New Atlas, in 2016, the scientists at EAST could heat hydrogen plasma to roughly 50 million degrees C for 102 seconds. Two years later, they reached 100 million degrees for 10 seconds.
The temperatures are impressive, but the short reaction times, and lack of pressure are another obstacle. Fusion is simple for the sun, because stars are massive and gravity provides even pressure all over the surface. The pressure squeezes hydrogen gas in the sun's core so immensely that several nuclei combine to form one atom, releasing energy.
But on Earth, we have to supply all of the pressure to keep the reaction going, and it has to be perfectly even. It's hard to do this for any length of time, and it uses a ton of energy. So the reactions usually fizzle out in minutes or seconds.
Still, the latest record of 120 million degrees and 101 seconds is one more step toward sustaining longer and hotter reactions.
Why does this matter? No one denies that humankind needs a clean, unlimited source of energy.
We all recognize that oil and gas are limited resources. But even wind and solar power --- renewable energies --- are fundamentally limited. They are dependent upon a breezy day or a cloudless sky, which we can't always count on.
Nuclear fusion is clean, safe, and environmentally sustainable --- its fuel is a nearly limitless resource since it is simply hydrogen (which can be easily made from water).
With each new milestone, we are creeping closer and closer to a breakthrough for unlimited, clean energy.