For Halloween: some people find scary giving artificial intelligence the discretion to kill.
"An autonomous missile under development by the Pentagon uses software to choose between targets. An artificially intelligent drone from the British military identifies firing points on its own. Russia showcases tanks that don’t need soldiers inside for combat. A.I. technology has for years led military leaders to ponder a future of warfare that needs little human involvement. But as capabilities have advanced, the idea of autonomous weapons reaching the battlefield is becoming less hypothetical. The possibility of software and algorithms making life-or-death decisions has added new urgency to efforts by a group called the Campaign To Stop Killer Robots that has pulled together arms control advocates, humans rights groups and technologists to urge the United Nations to craft a global treaty that bans weapons without people at the controls. Like cyberspace, where there aren’t clear rules of engagement for online attacks, no red lines have been defined over the use of automated weaponry. Without a nonproliferation agreement, some diplomats fear the world will plunge into an algorithm-driven arms race. In a speech at the start of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Sept. 25, Secretary General António Guterres listed the technology as a global risk alongside climate change and growing income inequality. 'Let’s call it as it is: The prospect of machines with the discretion and power to take human life is morally repugnant,' Mr. Guterres said. ...
"In 2016, the Pentagon highlighted its capabilities during a test in the Mojave Desert. More than 100 drones were dropped from a fighter jet in a disorganized heap, before quickly coming together to race toward and encircle a target. ... The drones were programmed to communicate with each other independently to collectively organize and reach the target. 'They are a collective organism, sharing one distributed brain for decision-making and adapting to each other like swarms in nature,' William Roper, director of the Pentagon’s strategic capabilities office, said at the time. To those fearful of the advancement of autonomous weapons, the implications were clear. 'You’re delegating the decision to kill to a machine,' said Thomas Hajnoczi, the head of disarmament department for the Austrian government. 'A machine doesn’t have any measure of moral judgment or mercy.'"
It has long been recognized that an earthquake in a given spot can trigger aftershocks in the same spot. But a new analysis of 40+ years of earthquake data reveals something more surprising: large earthquakes (with a magnitude of 6.5 and higher) also trigger earthquakes on the other side of the world. "After analysing 44 years of seismic data – from 1973 to 2016 – and comparing it to usual baselines of earthquake frequency, researchers from Oregon State University [found that] ... the higher the magnitude of the original earthquake, the more likely it is to trigger others. These secondary quakes would generally occur within 30 degrees of the antipodal point of the original epicentre (the point diametrically opposite it) up to three days after the initial event." geographical.co.uk/nature/tectonics/item/2925-earthquake-echoes
Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death for Americans younger than 50, with more than 11 million Americans (or more people than the entire population of Georgia) characterized as "opioid misusers." This map shows the impact of the opioid deaths in 2017, by county, with a spotlight on a portion of West Virginia. www.visualcapitalist.com/americas-opioid-epidemic/
For Halloween, Philosophy Now (UK) has devoted its October/November issue to a variety of philosophical issues raised by Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. philosophynow.org/issues/128
For those who remember the play Pygmalion (or the musical version My Fair Lady), Henry Higgins is a professor of phonetics who can identify a person's formative geography by the way s/he pronounces words. This map looks at the range of local pronunciations of "scone" in the UK and Ireland: does it rhyme with "cone" or "gone"? brilliantmaps.com/scone-map/#more-3898
Know a K-12 student concerned about some global issue? Blend civics with writing: the Pulitzer Center's "Local Letters for Global Change" contest encourages students to write a one-page letter, addressed to their member of Congress, about an issue affecting another part of the world and why their local community should care about it. Contest submissions are due by Nov. 16, but you can use the idea as a civics/research/writing project whenever you want. www.pulitzercenter.org/builder/lesson/local-letters-global-change-pulitzer-center-writing-contest-24976
The World Bank's Human Capital Project seeks to measure whether countries' health and education systems are likely to lead to a productive workforce. Users of this site can shift between a variety of human capital variables, overall or by gender, or look at country-specific human capital data. www.worldbank.org/en/publication/human-capital
Is competition over food a flashpoint for future international conflict? This article from Foreign Policy looks at tensions emerging over fishing specifically:
"Humans have always depended on the sea. For as long as there have been fishermen, there have been conflicts over fish. And though it may seem anachronistic, the odds that a squabble over fishing rights could turn into a major armed conflict are rising. The return of great-power competition has actually increased the likelihood of a war over fish. The past 17 years of the fight against terrorism, and Washington’s renewed focus on developing high-end capabilities to prepare for great-power conflict, have led to a lack of preparation for a low-end, seemingly mundane but increasingly likely source of conflict in the world: food. As incomes rise around the world, so too does the demand for food—especially protein. The United Nations currently estimates that between mid-2017 and 2050, the number of humans on Earth will rise by 29 percent, from 7.6 billion to 9.8 billion. Most of that population growth will occur in Asia, Africa, and Latin America—areas where millions of people have recently risen from deep poverty to the middle class. Part of a middle-class lifestyle is a middle-class diet, which includes far more protein than poor people consume. As a result of that shift, the global demand for protein will outpace population growth, increasing between 32 and 78 percent, according to some estimates. ... To maintain political support at home, leaders must ensure access to the high-quality food that is part of a middle-class lifestyle. The supply of both wild and farmed fish will not keep up. ... Scarcity has already forced Chinese fishing fleets further and further afield in search of their catch."
Jeju Island, south of the Korean peninsula, used to be a prominent tourist destination for South Koreans. But over time higher South Korean incomes translated into more exotic tastes in travel. As a result, in 2002 South Korea, hoping to boost tourism, stopped requiring visas to visit Jeju Island. Fast forward 15+ years. Hundreds of Yemenis, desperate to escape war in their country, have showed up on Jeju Island. Over the summer, South Korea added Yemen to a short list of countries now needing tourist visas to visit Jeju Island, but questions remain about what South Korea should do with the 500-600 Yemenis already on the island. www.nytimes.com/2018/09/12/world/asia/south-korea-jeju-yemen-refugees.html
More than 10 years after the fatal collapse of a freeway bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, this geo-graphic highlights those states in which bridges have been deemed "structurally deficient."
The UK's Royal Air Force is sending chaplains to postgraduate classes in philosophy in order to better counsel drone pilots. Drone operators may experience higher levels of post-traumatic stress disorder because of the disconnect or "parallel normality" of carrying out lethal operations in distant fields of operation during the workday and then returning to their homes and families at the end of their shifts. This creates unusual pastoral challenges, including ethical discussions about the asymmetric nature of drone killings and the ethical calculus that goes into ordering a drone strike. www.thetimes.co.uk/article/soldiers-get-lessons-in-morality-of-drone-killings-52zqt2ckc
Next year, 2019, will mark the 400-year anniversary of the first purchase of African slaves in what is now the United States. But the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade goes back at least another hundred years, primarily under the Portuguese (and primarily to Brazil). This map highlights the impact of the slave trade on African kingdoms. Part of modern-day Angola, for example, shows up to 4 million people captured and shipped across the Atlantic. www.reddit.com/r/MapPorn/comments/9g5how/slaves_taken_from_regions_of_africa_1229_x_869/
Looking for a different take on contemporary art? The surprisingly appealing "No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man" exhibit runs through January 21 at the Smithsonian's (free) Renwick Gallery, a few blocks south of the Farragut North/West Metro stations. (My photo of one of the mechanical Shrumen Lumen.) americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/burning-man
A cartogram is a map weighted for a particular variable. In this case, the cartogram reflects volcanic eruptions. Between 2000 and 2017, Indonesia and the Philippines experienced the most volcanic eruptions. However, during this time the most loss of life due to volcanic eruptions occurred in Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. worldmapper.org/maps/volcanic-eruptions-2000-2017
In light of Saudi Arabia's likely involvement in the disappearance of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, will the U.S. re-evaluate its support of the Saudis' disastrous war in neighboring Yemen? This article from Foreign Policy, pointedly titled "America Is Committing War Crimes and Doesn't Even Know Why," provides a short look at the rationale, or lack thereof, for American involvement in the Saudi-led war. foreignpolicy.com/2018/08/15/america-is-committing-awful-war-crimes-and-it-doesnt-even-know-why
Wind turbines are known to cause atmospheric churning in the layer of air just above the earth's surface. Typically that can lead to surface warming. But in the Sahara researchers believe large-scale wind farms could also lead to increased precipitation, particularly in the drought-prone Sahel region at the Sahara's southern edge. www.sci-news.com/othersciences/climatology/solar-wind-farms-sahara-climate-06392.html
This map, from The Washington Post's Wonkblog, is based on newly available data analyzed by a team of Harvard economists trying to assess upward and downward economic mobility. The counties in blue are regions in which, on average, children born between 1979 and 1983 to a family at the 50th income percentile are now doing better than the 50th income percentile themselves. Children born to families in the 50th income percentile in the counties in orange and red, by contrast, are now doing worse than the 50th income percentile. www.washingtonpost.com/resizer/ZbyFuCdCrkwTDSqrGb9kgjKUKAs=/1484x0/arc-anglerfish-washpost-prod-washpost.s3.amazonaws.com/public/DFWM2ZBVOVBIPKMPURMWP6EQZY.jpg
Technology is typically neither moral nor immoral. It depends on the use to which it is put. The Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) -- one of the earliest funders of the precursor to the internet, among other things -- recently released a report about its Insect Allies research program. Insect Allies proposes speeding up genetic modification of crops, for protective purposes, by having "millions of insects carrying viruses descend upon crops and then genetically modify them." Surprising no one but DARPA, perhaps, a group of independent scientists and lawyers published a warning in Science arguing that the Insect Allies project should be shut down: the research may run afoul of a 1975 treaty banning biological weapons and could be used offensively, by the U.S. and other countries. Are some research directions best left unexplored? Who decides? This was an issue students in my online comparative science fiction class wrestled with this week. www.nytimes.com/2018/10/04/science/darpa-gene-editing.html
Between 2001 and 2015, the earth lost roughly 3 million square kilometers of forest. The specific reasons for the cutting of forests varies widely, though, based on location. This map, from Science News, analyzes the causes of deforestation. www.sciencenews.org/sites/default/files/2018/09/091318_LH_forest-loss_inline_730.png
Atlas Obscura has a new kids' book: "The Atlas Obscura Explorer’s Guide for the World’s Most Adventurous Kid is a thrillingly imaginative expedition to 100 weird-but-true places on earth. And just as compelling is the way the book is structured—hopscotching from country to country not by location but by type of attraction. For example, visit the site of the Tunguska event in Siberia, where a meteor slammed into the earth in 1908—and then skip over to the Yucatan, ground zero for the ancient meteor crash that caused the mass extinction of dinosaurs. Then, while in Mexico, tour the fantastical Naica caves, home to crystals ten times larger than the average person—then, turn the page to Vietnam to a cave so vast you could fly a 747 through it. Illustrated in gorgeous and appropriately evocative full-color art, this book is a passport to a world of hidden possibilities." www.amazon.com/Atlas-Obscura-Explorers-Worlds-Adventurous/dp/1523503548
First Lady Melania Trump recently wrapped up a low-key solo trip to Africa. This map shows (in orange) the 38 (out of 54) African countries that have never been visited by a sitting U.S. president.
Without any fanfare, the Trump Administration declared in a 500-page report on automotive fuel-efficiency standards that without intervention, "Global mean surface temperature [of the earth] is projected to increase by approximately 3.48 °C (6.27 °F) under the No Action Alternative by 2100," with a minimum "[p]rojected sea-level rise of" 30.03 inches. (Quote from the report itself, p. S-15.) According to scientists, a temperature and sea-level increase of this magnitude would mean, among other things, that significant sections of Manhattan and Miami will be underwater by 2100 absent major sea wall defenses. The Administration's proposed response to this startling admission? Nothing at all. The temperature increase is taken as a given and assumed that no action can change it: the climate change science was cited in the report to argue that improving U.S. car and truck fuel-efficiency standards is now pointless! www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/trump-administration-sees-a-7-degree-rise-in-global-temperatures-by-2100/2018/09/27/b9c6fada-bb45-11e8-bdc0-90f81cc58c5d_story.html
Most people have heard of the Great Wall of China. But the great dike of Britain? Like the Great Wall, Offa's Dyke was an enormous earthwork show of strength and exclusion. It evolved into the modern border between England and Wales. www.atlasobscura.com/places/offas-dyke
Today is Columbus Day, which, while increasingly controversial, is a U.S. federal holiday. Because Italian-Americans have tended to be the biggest supporters of the holiday, today's map highlights (in red) those states that had an Italian-American population of 10% or more in the 2010 Census, ranging from nearly 19% in Rhode Island and Connecticut to 10.7% in New Hampshire.
Immortality is a central element of many religions and more than one science fiction plot line. But is it desirable? This article looks at the arguments against immortality, from boredom to its paradoxical undermining of what humans want in the first place.
"[In 1973] the English moral philosopher Bernard Williams suggested that living forever would be awful, akin to being trapped in a never-ending cocktail party. This was because after a certain amount of living, human life would become unspeakably boring. We need new experiences in order to have reasons to keep on going. But after enough time has passed, we will have experienced everything that we, as individuals, find stimulating. ... The moral philosopher Samuel Scheffler at New York University has suggested that the real problem with a fantasy of immortality is that it doesn’t make sense as a coherent desire. Scheffler points out that human life is intimately structured by the fact that it has a fixed (even if usually unknown) time limit. We all start with a birth, then pass through many stages of life, before definitely ending in death. In turn, Scheffler argues, everything that we value – and thus can coherently desire in an essentially human life – must take as given the fact that we are temporally bounded beings.
Sure, we can imagine what it would be like to be immortal, if we find that an amusing way to pass the time. But doing so will obscure a basic truth: that because death is a fixed fact, everything that human beings value makes sense only in light of our time being finite, our choices being limited, and our each getting only so many goes before it’s all over. Scheffler’s case is thus not simply that immortality would make us miserable (although it probably would). It’s that, if we had it, we would cease to be distinctively human in the way that we currently are. But then, if we were somehow to attain immortality, it wouldn’t get us what we want from it: namely, for it to be some version of our human selves that lives forever."
Blog sharing news about geography, philosophy, world affairs, and outside-the-box learning
This blog also appears on Facebook: