from the world's big
This AI tool measures social distancing. But is more surveillance worth the risk?
The system can even be designed to send alerts to employees when they've come too close to a coworker.
- Since the pandemic began, nations have been using technology in varying degrees to contain the outbreak.
- This new tool is able to place moving people on a map and estimate the distance between them.
- Some privacy advocates are raising concerns about private companies and governments installing surveillance technologies.
As COVID-19 continues to spread across the planet, some nations have been using technology to help flatten the curve.
In South Korea, for example, officials have been using GPS to track the movements of infected individuals in order to see who else might have contracted the virus. In Taiwan, the government has been enforcing quarantines through a smartphone-tracking app. And in the U.S., data scientists are exploring how they might use machine-learning to predict who's most at risk of dying from COVID-19, and using those projections to better allocate resources.
Last week, a company called Landing AI introduced another way technology might help combat the pandemic: a tool that measures social distancing. The tool uses cameras and AI to track people's movements, and it's able to put their location on a bird's-eye-view map of whatever area the camera is observing. Using these calculations, the tool estimates the distance between people.
Landing AI says businesses could use the tool to ensure employees are practicing good social distancing.
"For example, at a factory that produces protective equipment, technicians could integrate this software into their security camera systems to monitor the working environment with easy calibration steps," the company wrote in a blog post. "As the demo shows below, the detector could highlight people whose distance is below the minimum acceptable distance in red, and draw a line between to emphasize this. The system will also be able to issue an alert to remind people to keep a safe distance if the protocol is violated."
Landing AI isn't the first company to develop an AI system for tracking social distancing. Additionally, some police departments have been using surveillance cameras to detect large gatherings of people, and then send officers to disperse the crowd.
Practices like these might help flatten the curve, but they also bring a unique set of threats to the public.
The dangers of normalizing surveillance
Landing AI noted that its system won't be able to identify particular individuals.
"The rise of computer vision has opened up important questions about privacy and individual rights; our current system does not recognize individuals, and we urge anyone using such a system to do so with transparency and only with informed consent."
Still, some privacy and workers' advocates are concerned about introducing these kinds of systems to the workplace. In its 2019 report, New York University's AI Now Institute wrote that using AI tools like these "pools power and control in the hands of employers and harms mainly low-wage workers." Others have raised concerns over normalizing mass surveillance, and the potential for employers to abuse these kinds of AI systems, now or in the future.
@AndrewYNg @landingAI How would you alert individuals violating distancing practices? Seems like you'd need some… https://t.co/tZvLiDMjE0— Kyle Russell 🎮📲 (@Kyle Russell 🎮📲)1587066891.0
One concerned voice is Edward Snowden, the former CIA contractor who exposed NSA surveillance programs. In a recent interview with the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, Snowden spoke about the potential problems with introducing technological surveillance measures during the pandemic.
"When we see emergency measures passed, particularly today, they tend to be sticky," Snowden said. "The emergency tends to be expanded. Then the authorities become comfortable with some new power. They start to like it."
One key takeaway from the Snowden interview is to be wary not necessarily of how surveillance tools might be used today, but of how they might be used years from now — we might someday find that these tools have become too integrated in our society, too normalized, to easily remove.
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Got $55 million lying around? If so, you might be able to score a spot aboard the International Space Station starting 2024.
- NASA awarded a contract to startup Axiom Space to attach a "habitable commercial module" to the International Space Station.
- The project will also include a research and manufacturing module.
- The move is a major step in NASA's years-long push to privatize.
Image: Axiom Space<p>But first, space-tourist-hopefuls would have to pass through physical and medical exams, and 15 weeks of expert training. After that, the trip sounds pretty comfy:</p><p>"There will be wifi," Suffredini <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/09/style/axiom-space-travel.html" target="_blank">told the New York Times</a> last year. "Everybody will be online. They can make phone calls, sleep, look out the window. [...] The few folks that have gone to orbit as tourists, it wasn't really a luxurious experience, it was kind of like camping. [...] Pretty soon we're going to be flying a butler with every crew."</p>
A render of the ISS tourist experience.
Image: Axiom Space<p>In a blog post, NASA wrote:</p><p>"Developing commercial destinations in low-Earth orbit is one of <a href="https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-opens-international-space-station-to-new-commercial-opportunities-private" target="_blank">five elements</a> of NASA's plan to open the International Space Station to new commercial and marketing opportunities. The other elements of the five-point plan include efforts to make station and crew resources available for commercial use through a new commercial use and pricing policy; enable private astronaut missions to the station; seek out and pursue opportunities to stimulate long-term, sustainable demand for these services; and quantify NASA's long-term demand for activities in low-Earth orbit."</p>
NASA's push to privatize the ISS<p>When a Russian rocket launched the first module of the ISS into space in 1998, NASA expected the space station to operate for about 15 years. But the agency has extended the life of the ISS twice, with funding currently set to expire in 2024. NASA spends between $3 and $4 billion per year operating and shuttling astronauts to and from the station. That's a decent chunk of the agency's $22.6 annual budget. What's more, the "major structural elements" of the ISS are certified only through 2028.</p><p>Meanwhile, NASA has been eyeing other projects, namely: putting humans back on the moon in 2024 and establishing a lunar presence. So, to save and redirect money, the agency has been starting to hand over the aging space station to the private sector, which could use it for commercial research and space tourism.</p><p>But some have questioned the move to privatize the ISS, including NASA's own inspector general, Paul K. Martin.</p><p>"An obvious alternative to privatization is to extend current ISS operations," Martin wrote in a <a href="https://oig.nasa.gov/docs/CT-18-001.pdf" target="_blank">2018 report</a>. "An extension to 2028 or beyond would enable NASA to continue critical on-orbit research into human health risks and to demonstrate the technologies that will be required for future missions to the Moon or Mars."</p>
Image: Axiom Space<p>Martin noted that "research into 2 other human health risks and 17 additional technology gaps is not scheduled to be completed until sometime in 2024," meaning that any slip-ups in the process would mean such research might go uncompleted. He also wrote that it's "questionable" whether the private sector could turn a profit on the ISS without "significant" government funding. The Institute for Defense Analyses, a federally funded research and development center, <a href="https://docs.house.gov/meetings/SY/SY00/20180517/108302/HHRG-115-SY00-Wstate-LalB-20180517.pdf" target="_blank">also found</a> that it "is unlikely that a commercially owned and operated space station will be economically viable by 2025."</p><p>The implication is that, if the ISS is handed over to the private sector, taxpayers could end up indirectly supporting space tourism for the ultra-rich. Whether that's worth any of the research benefits that might come from the ISS post-2024 is anybody's guess.</p><p>As the ISS enters its final years, China <a href="http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2019-10/17/c_138479514.htm" target="_blank">plans</a> to complete construction of a manned space station in 2022.</p>
The coronavirus pandemic has brought out the perception of selfishness among many.
- Selfish behavior has been analyzed by philosophers and psychologists for centuries.
- New research shows people may be wired for altruistic behavior and get more benefits from it.
- Crisis times tend to increase self-centered acts.
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