Davos experts warn about future "rogue technology"
Experts caution about the dangers of the current technological revolution at the annual gathering of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
At the recently concluded annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that brought together world leaders and top thinkers in different fields, a panel on the dangers of emerging technology raised some strong alarms.
The January 25th panel “Future Shocks: Rogue Technology” featured the chairman and CEO of Salesforce Marc R. Benioff, the director of Duke University’s Humans and Autonomy Lab Mary Cummings, the MIT professor of neuroscience and creator of CRISPR Feng Zhang, Brazil’s Secretary of Innovation Marcos Souza, as well as Peter Thomson, the UN Special Envoy for the Ocean. The event was moderated by Nick Thompson, Wired Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief.
What technologies of the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution are the most exciting and potentially risky? The discussion focused on AI, robotics, and bioengineering.
One innovation Marc Benioff would like to see in the near future are beach-cleaning robots. They could help the environment by making a dent in the “growing problem of plastics in the oceans,” according to Benioff. This same tech can also be adopted into creating autonomous deep-sea robots that mine the ocean’s floor for valuable metals and other materials. One drawback to this tech - there are currently no laws regulating it.
UN’s Peter Thomson agreed that the ocean is the next frontier for exploration that needs a legal framework.
“We know more about the face of Mars than the ocean floor,“ said Thomson. "Seabed mining is definitely coming but it’s not allowed at present. We don’t have regulation, but laws will be ready soon.”
The one government rep on the panel, Brazil’s Souza, acknowledged that lawmakers need to step up because of the sheer speed of technological advancements.
“The characteristic of this fourth industrial revolution is the speed of the technology advancing and, as you know, the government regulation is always behind this […] speed, so it’s a challenge for us,” said Souza. The previous revolutions took longer so we could prepare those regulations properly, but this is going too fast.”
Professor Cummings from Duke leads a tech lab but says “technology is not a panacea”. She thinks we often overestimate what it can do. She is anxious that the tech created for one useful task will acquire a more detrimental purpose in somebody else’s hands - driverless cars or drones can be hijacked, gene editing could lead to eliminating some species. She is also not sure that “a beach-cleaning Roomba robot” is a good idea.
“My concern with deep-sea mining robots is not the intentional malevolent use of technology, it’s the accidental malevolent use,” said Cummings. “AI is definitely opening up a Pandora’s Box. Most applications of AI, particularly when it comes to autonomous vehicles, we do not understand how the algorithms work.”
Cummings is also concerned that some of the technology being developed will be employed before proper testing. She thinks more oversight is needed to figure out which innovations are ready to be used widely and which ones need more development.
“As a researcher, what I worry about is [that] we’re still finding about the emergent properties of these technologies – CRISPR, AI – yet there are many companies and agencies that want to take these technologies and start deploying them in the real world, but it’s still so nascent that we’re not really sure what we’re doing,” explained Cummings. “I do think [there] needs to be more of a collaborative arrangement between academics and government and companies to understand what’s really mature and what’s very experimental.”
MIT’s Professor Zhang, a pioneer of using the gene-editing technique CRISPR, also admonished that we need to take baby steps with some advancements, especially when it comes to altering life’s building blocks.
“When we’re engineering organisms,” said Professor Zhang, ”I think we have to be very careful and proceed with a lot of caution.”
He also thinks it incumbent upon researchers to create “containment mechanisms” that can curb the spread of a technology that turns out to be dangerous after its implementation.
On the other hand, he is excited about the possibility of transferring traits from one organism to another, something he’s working on in his lab. This can help resurrect or protect some species.
“As we sequence more and more organisms, we can now find interesting properties that these organisms evolved to allow them to most optimally survive in their own environment and transfer some of those into other organisms so that we can improve the property...and prevent the extinction of species,” said Zhang.
Saleforce’s Marc Benioff used an example from his own company to illustrate why technology needs to mature before being spread.
“As a CEO I can ask a question of [Salesforce] Einstein, my virtual management team member, and say ‘how is the company doing’, ‘are we going to make our quarter’, ‘how is this product’, ‘what geography should I travel to and have the biggest impact for the company’, said Benioff. “I have this kind of technology, and I want to make it available to all customers. But I don’t want to turn it over and get a call from a CEO that he or she made a bad decision because we didn’t have it exactly right yet.”
One more obstacle to the testing and fast implementation of technology - lack of educated talent that can develop it, said Cummings. She called out a “global AI crisis for talent” as detrimental, with universities unable to graduate enough people for the burgeoning field, while the education model, in general, is woefully “archaic”. Students are still being trained like they were 30 years ago, warned the professor.
You can watch the full panel here:
What do we see from watching birds move across the country?
- A total of eight billion birds migrate across the U.S. in the fall.
- The birds who migrate to the tropics fair better than the birds who winter in the U.S.
- Conservationists can arguably use these numbers to encourage the development of better habitats in the U.S., especially if temperatures begin to vary in the south.
The migration of birds — and we didn't even used to know that birds migrated; we assumed they hibernated; the modern understanding of bird migration was established when a white stork landed in a German village with an arrow from Central Africa through its neck in 1822 — draws us in the direction of having an understanding of the world. A bird is here and then travels somewhere else. Where does it go? It's a variation on the poetic refrain from The Catcher in the Rye. Where do the ducks go? How many are out there? What might it encounter along the way?
While there is a yearly bird count conducted every Christmas by amateur bird watchers across the country done in conjunction with The Audubon Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology recently released the results of a study that actually go some way towards answering heretofore abstract questions: every fall, as per cloud computing and 143 weather radar stations, four billion birds migrate into the United States from Canada and four billion more head south to the tropics.
"In the spring," the lead author Adriaan Dokter noted, "3.5 billion birds cross back into the U.S. from points south, and 2.6 billion birds return to Canada across the northern U.S. border."
In other words: the birds who went three to four times further than the birds staying in the U.S. faired better than the birds who stayed in the U.S. Why?
Part of the answer could be very well be what you might hear from a conservationist — only with numbers to back it up: the U.S. isn't built for birds. As Ken Rosenberg, the other co-author of the study, notes: "Birds wintering in the U.S. may have more habitat disturbances and more buildings to crash into, and they might not be adapted for that."
The other option is that birds lay more offspring in the U.S. than those who fly south for the winter.
What does observing eight billion birds mean in practice? To give myself a counterpoint to those numbers, I drove out to the Joppa Flats Education Center in Northern Massachusetts. The Center is a building that sits at the entrance to the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge and overlooks the Merrimack River, which is what I climbed the stairs up to the observation deck to see.
Once there, I paused. I took a breath. I listened. I looked out into the distance. Tiny flecks Of Bonaparte's Gulls drew small white lines across the length of the river and the wave of the grass toward a nearby city. What appeared to be flecks of double-crested cormorants made their way to the sea. A telescope downstairs enabled me to watch small gull-like birds make their way along the edges of the river, quietly pecking away at food just beneath the surface of the water. This was the experience of watching maybe half a dozen birds over fifteen-to-twenty minutes, which only served to drive home the scale of birds studied.
Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.
- Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
- Alcohol's effects on the brain range from temporarily limiting mental activity to sustained brain damage, depending on levels consumed and frequency of use.
- Understanding how alcohol affects your brain can help you determine what drinking habits are best for you.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.
- A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
- It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
- Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.
Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.
Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons
13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.
It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.
But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.
John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."
What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.
Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.
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