We Just Built Skynet in the Desert, Now What?

Ten years after 9/11, the National Security Agency (NSA) is close to putting the finishing touches on what will be the single biggest spy center in the country. According to James Bamford of WIRED, this new one million-square foot spy complex in the Utah Desert will actually be capable of monitoring, intercepting and de-encrypting just about any message sent over any communication network in the country. It will be capable of keeping tabs on any civilian in the U.S. or any foreigner visiting the USA. And it will all be hooked up to federal computers in Washington, giving it access to the records and databases of the most powerful government agencies in the country. If all this is starting to sound a lot like Skynet in the Terminator movies, that’s because, well, it is - minus the Schwarzenegger robots, of course.


WIRED inside the matrixThe sheer amount of data that the NSA – and by extension the CIA, FBI and Pentagon – will be able to collect on both foreigners and its own civilians is staggering. The $2 billion center, which goes by the disarmingly bland name of the Utah Data Center, is the final piece in the puzzle for the Pentagon, which has been attempting to build a Global Information Grid ever since 9/11. Remember the Total Information Awareness program of 2003? Well, it’s now here in physical form – and it’s heavily guarded. In military parlance, it’s not a “soft” target - the facility has been hardened to the point where a 15,000-pound vehicle traveling at 50 miles per hour couldn't muscle its way inside. At its peak, this new surveillance center will be able to handle so much data that the NSA practically had to coin a new word to describe it: yottabytes. There are so many servers running this system that the annual cooling costs are estimated to be $40 million.

That’s quite an electricity bill for a "data center."

That's because this federal spy center goes far beyond what’s already being collected about us online, to explore the “Deep Web” that’s all but invisible to typical search engines. The spy center will also delve into the world of code-breaking and reverse-encryption. Even things that we think are far beyond any type of cyber-penetration will be readily available to the powers-that-be. That’s where things get downright scary. We assume that spambots and spiders slither behind us everywhere we go online, but what do we really know about all the other information that is being tracked about us? What information is being collected about us by security monitors in the streets and satellites overhead? The scope of what's being collected by the NSA is breathlessly thorough in detail, reaching into every area of our lives: 

"Flowing through its servers and routers and stored in near-bottomless databases will be all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails—parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital “pocket litter.” It is, in some measure, the realization of the “total information awareness” program created during the first term of the Bush administration—an effort that was killed by Congress in 2003 after it caused an outcry over its potential for invading Americans’ privacy."

This digital "pocket litter" that each of us leaves behind us may sound harmless – but that's until all of this highly unstructured data gets dumped into a supercomputing capable of mining all this data and producing patterns and insights. This “pocket litter” is no longer trash once it can be used to construct ever-more precise profiles of everyday civilians and predict future behaviors.

“Cybersecurity” and “the war on terror” are handy little buzzwords for enabling governments to extend their cyber-surveillance over every aspect of our lives. At the end of the day, pure democracy and absolute authoritarianism are really just flip sides of the same coin. This is precisely why dystopian novels such as George Orwell’s 1984 and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We are so terrifying. Authoritarian regimes always start out with a willingness to help - not enslave - its civilians. War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength. A government that claims to protect its citizens by spying on them is a government that needs to be watched, monitored and held under strict surveillance by its own citizens.

'Upstreamism': Your zip code affects your health as much as genetics

Upstreamism advocate Rishi Manchanda calls us to understand health not as a "personal responsibility" but a "common good."

Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Upstreamism tasks health care professionals to combat unhealthy social and cultural influences that exist outside — or upstream — of medical facilities.
  • Patients from low-income neighborhoods are most at risk of negative health impacts.
  • Thankfully, health care professionals are not alone. Upstreamism is increasingly part of our cultural consciousness.
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  • Climate change is no longer a financial problem, just a political one.
  • Mitigating climate change by decarbonizing our economy would add trillions of dollars in new investments.
  • Public attitudes toward climate change have shifted steadily in favor of action. Now it's up to elected leaders.


Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Elizabeth Warren's plan to forgive student loan debt could lead to an economic boom

A plan to forgive almost a trillion dollars in debt would solve the student loan debt crisis, but can it work?

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Politics & Current Affairs
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren has just proposed a bold education reform plan that would forgive billions in student debt.
  • The plan would forgive the debt held by more than 30 million Americans.
  • The debt forgiveness program is one part of a larger program to make higher education more accessible.
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