Who is getting rich off you? The insidious big data economy.

Where is your data now? Follow the money.

RITA GUNTHER MCGRATH: A conservative estimate of how much your personal information is worth to these data brokers is on the order of $240 a year for each of us, for millions and millions of people. And that adds up to a really, really big number. And a lot of that data, right, and the advertising against that data is just getting sucked out of conventional sources and going right into the pockets of the big data brokers like Facebook and Google and even Amazon, also a whole bevy of smaller data brokers-- you know, people who run little websites like, you know, Housekeepers Like Me and, you know, do you have insurance, and are you in the market for a new car? And people willingly hand over this information, which then gets aggregated and copied across databases and then put into this package which advertisers can then use to target you. I think we're just at that very early stages where a few people are sounding the alarm. But that has not spread out to the masses yet. I mean, all those people posting about their grandkids on Facebook don't understand. The minute that thing goes up on the internet, they have lost control of it. They don't own it anymore. And the minute you do a quiz or the minute you volunteer any information about yourself, I'm sorry, it's their data, not yours, I think it kind of crept up on them by accident. And I think about how Google, for example, got into the data business. They had built this fantastic search engine, but they had no way of monetizing it. And it wasn't until they figured out that you could sell ads against search-- and in the beginning, it wasn't collecting personal data. Let's not forget that. In the beginning, it was, if I go in and search on tennis rackets and you show me an ad on tennis rackets, that's kind of OK. Like, that doesn't bother me that much. It's when you start to get more pervasive. And I think where they crossed the line-- maybe without intending to, but where they started to cross the line was when you start targeting. When you start saying, I can get you, you know, ads posted to 14-year-olds living in Princeton, New Jersey who wear Keds tennis shoes, by the time you get that level of precision posting or targeting, I think that's where you've crossed a line. And I think we've gotten ourselves now into a situation where a lot of people are going, hey, what? You can do that? And just as an example, so Facebook can actually allow people that want to rent an apartment to exclude African-Americans, exclude people who are Jewish, exclude people who are Latino. That is actually against the Fair Housing Standards Act of 1968. So to me, that's an example of crossing a very big line. So instead of just saying, OK, if I'm searching for, you know, tennis rackets and showing me an ad about tennis rackets, going that extra mile and saying, because I know everything you've been writing and I know that tennis is really important to you and I know that you spend on average $567 per year on tennis related paraphernalia, I'm going to sell an advertiser a super targeted ad to just reach you. I mean, to me, that's creepy. That just gets to the-- it's not so much about privacy. It's about this ability to sort of algorithmically target on characteristics we may not want the world to know about. An even more insidious use of data to me is if you look at the recent agreement by 23andMe with one of the big pharma companies to hand over their data. And it was for billions of dollars. Now the thing I really think is kind of objectionable about that is you've already paid to have that data analyzed. You've not necessarily given 23andMe permission to further monetize that data just because they have it to other people. So you know, to me, there's a huge amount of institutional lag here. You know, our rules about property rights and your rights to your own data are so far behind practice that I think we're in for a big reckoning.

  • Your day to day actions on the Internet give businesses personal data that turns you into an ad target – or the opposite.
  • Facebook, for example, allowed landlords to block demographic groups such as African Americans, LGBTQ, or disabled people from seeing housing ads – a violation of the 1968 Fair Housing Act.
  • Data brokers have crossed a line, but the laws that should regulate them are outdated; just look at the billion-dollar data deal between 23andMe and Big Pharma. Is it ethical?


Deep learning nails correlation. Causation is another matter.

Why do people with bigger hands have a better vocabulary? That's one question deep learning can't answer.

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  • Did you know that people with bigger hands have larger vocabularies?
  • While that's actually true, it's not a causal relationship. This pattern exists because adults tend know more words than kids. It's a correlation, explains NYU professor Gary Marcus.
  • Deep learning struggles with how to perceive causal relationships. If given the data on hand size and vocabulary size, a deep learning system might only be able to see the correlation, but wouldn't be able to answer the 'why?' of it.
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Is NASA ignoring proof of Martian life from the 1970s?

One of the scientists with the Viking missions says yes.

Image source: David Williams/NASA
Surprising Science
  • A former NASA consultant believe his experiments on the Viking 1 and 2 landers proved the existence of living microorganisms on Mars
  • Because of other conflicting data, his experiments' results have been largely discarded.
  • Though other subsequent evidence supports their findings, he says NASA has been frustratingly disinterested in following up.

Gilbert V. Levin is clearly aggravated with NASA, frustrated by the agency's apparent unwillingness to acknowledge what he considers a fact: That NASA has had dispositive proof of living microorganisms on Mars since 1976, and a great deal of additional evidence since then. Levin is no conspiracy theorist, either. He's an engineer, a respected inventor, founder of scientific-research company Spherix, and a participant in that 1976 NASA mission. He's written an opinion piece in Scientific American that asks why NASA won't follow up on what he believes they should already know.

In 1976

Image source: NASA/JPL

Sunset at the Viking 1 site

As the developer of methods for rapidly detecting and identifying microorganisms, Levin took part in the Labeled Release (LR) experiment landed on Mars by NASA's Viking 1 and 2.

At both landing sites, the Vikings picked up samples of Mars soil, treating each with a drop of a dilute nutrient solution. This solution was tagged with radioactive carbon-14, and so if there were any microorganisms in the samples, they would metabolize it. This would lead to the production of radioactive carbon or radioactive methane. Sensors were positioned above the soil samples to detect the presence of either as signifiers of life.

At both landing sites, four positive indications of life were recorded, backed up by five controls. As a guarantee, the samples were then heated to 160°, hot enough to kill any living organisms in the soil, and then tested again. No further indicators of life were detected.

According to many, including Levin, had this test been performed on Earth, there would have been no doubt that life had been found. In fact, parallel control tests were performed on Earth on two samples known to be lifeless, one from the Moon and one from Iceland's volcanic Surtsey island, and no life was indicated.

However, on Mars, another experiment, a search for organic molecules, had been performed prior to the LR test and found nothing, leaving NASA in doubt regarding the results of the LR experiment, and concluding, according to Levin, that they'd found something imitating life, but not life itself. From there, notes Levin, "Inexplicably, over the 43 years since Viking, none of NASA's subsequent Mars landers has carried a life detection instrument to follow up on these exciting results."

Subsequent evidence

Image source: NASA

A thin coating of water ice on the rocks and soil photographed by Viking 2

Levin presents in his opinion piece 17 discoveries by subsequent Mars landers that support the results of the LR experiment. Among these:

  • Surface water sufficient to sustain microorganisms has been found on the red planet by Viking, Pathfinder, Phoenix and Curiosity.
  • The excess of carbon-13 over carbon-12 in the Martian atmosphere indicates biological activity since organisms prefer ingesting carbon-12.
  • Mars' CO2should long ago have been converted to CO by the sun's UV light, but CO2 is being regenerated, possibly by microorganisms as happens on Earth.
  • Ghost-like moving lights, resembling Earth's will-O'-the-wisps produced by spontaneous ignition of methane, have been seen and recorded on the Martian surface.
  • "No factor inimical to life has been found on Mars." This is a direct rebuttal of NASA's claim cited above.

Frustration

Image source: NASA

A technician checks the soil sampler of a Viking lander.

By 1997, Levin was convinced that NASA was wrong and set out to publish followup research supporting his conclusion. It took nearly 20 years to find a venue, he believes due to his controversial certainty that the LR experiment did indeed find life on Mars.

Levin tells phys.org, "Since I first concluded that the LR had detected life (in 1997), major juried journals had refused our publications. I and my co-Experimenter, Dr. Patricia Ann Straat, then published mainly in the astrobiology section of the SPIE Proceedings, after presenting the papers at the annual SPIE conventions. Though these were invited papers, they were largely ignored by the bulk of astrobiologists in their publications." (Staat is the author of To Mars with Love, about her experience as co-experimenter with Levin for the LR experiments.)

Finally, he and Straat decided to craft a paper that answers every objection anyone ever had to their earlier versions, finally publishing it in Astrobiology's October 2016 issue. "You may not agree with the conclusion," he says, "but you cannot disparage the steps leading there. You can say only that the steps are insufficient. But, to us, that seems a tenuous defense, since no one would refute these results had they been obtained on Earth."

Nonetheless, NASA's seeming reluctance to address the LR experiment's finding remains an issue for Levin. He and Straat have petitioned NASA to send a new LR test to the red planets, but, alas, Levin reports that "NASA has already announced that its 2020 Mars lander will not contain a life-detection test."

Physicists solve a 140-year-old mystery

Scientists discover the inner workings of an effect that will lead to a new generation of devices.

Credit: IBM
Surprising Science
  • Researchers discover a method of extracting previously unavailable information from superconductors.
  • The study builds on a 19th-century discovery by physicist Edward Hall.
  • The research promises to lead to a new generation of semiconductor materials and devices.
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