Plastic-eating bacteria, Instagram is the glue in a father-daughter relationship / Humans + Tech - Issue #8
+ 3D-printing rockets aided by AI, The drawbacks of deepfake busting technology, Twelve million phones, one dataset, zero privacy.
I hope you’re looking forward to the Christmas holidays and hope you have some fun things planned with your loved ones.
Here are the articles that captured my attention this week (I particularly enjoyed #4, and really encourage you to be aware of #5):
⏺The drawbacks of deepfake busting technology [WITNESS Media Lab]
🤖Massive, AI-powered robots are 3D-printing entire rockets [Wired]
🧫Scientists are making progress with better plastic-eating bacteria [Popular Science]
👨👧Instagram, my daughter, and me [Wired]
📱Twelve million phones, one dataset, zero privacy [The New York Times]
1. The drawbacks of deepfake busting technology
A report by WITNESS Media Lab:
The WITNESS Media Lab is a nonprofit dedicated to unleashing the potential of eyewitness video as a powerful tool to report, monitor, and advocate for human rights.
They’ve recently released a report that lists 14 different ways of how deepfake-busting technology could go wrong.
In my brief thoughts about deepfakes, I never contemplated that technology to detect deepfakes could have drawbacks. This report is eye-opening and goes to show that everything has a good and bad side to it.
Here are the 14 dilemmas outlined by the report in brief:
Dilemma 1 – Who might be included and excluded from participating?
Dilemma 2 – The tools being built could be used to surveil people.
Dilemma 3 – Voices could be both chilled and enhanced.
Dilemma 4 – Visual shortcuts: What happens if the ticks/checkmarks don’t work, or if they work too well?
Dilemma 5 – Authenticity infrastructure will both help and hinder access to justice and trust in the legal system.
Dilemma 6 – Technical restraints might stop these tools from working in places they are needed the most.
Dilemma 7 – News outlets face pressure to authenticate media.
Dilemma 8 – Social media platforms will introduce their own authenticity measures.
Dilemma 9 – Data storage, access, and ownership – who controls what?
Dilemma 10 – The technology and science is complex, emerging and, at times, misleading.
Dilemma 11 – How to decode, understand, and appeal the information being given.
Dilemma 12 – Those using older or niche hardware might be left behind.
Dilemma 13 – Jailbroken devices will not be able to capture verifiable audiovisual material.
Dilemma 14 – If people can no longer be trusted, can blockchain be?
The report is well worth a read.
2. Massive, AI-powered robots are 3D-printing entire rockets
Daniel Oberhaus, writing for Wired:
Roll up the loading bay doors at Relativity’s Los Angeles headquarters and you’ll find four of the largest metal 3D printers in the world, churning out rocket parts day and night. The latest model of the company’s proprietary printer, dubbed Stargate, stands 30 feet tall and has two massive robotic arms that protrude like tentacles from the machine. The Stargate printers will manufacture about 95 percent, by mass, of Relativity’s first rocket, named Terran-1. The only parts that won’t be printed are the electronics, cables, and a handful of moving parts and rubber gaskets.
To make a rocket 3D-printable, Ellis’s team had to totally rethink the way rockets are designed. As a result, Terran-1 will have 100 times fewer parts than a comparable rocket. Its Aeon engine, for instance, consists of just 100 parts, whereas a typical liquid-fueled rocket would have thousands. By consolidating parts and optimizing them for 3D printing, Ellis says Relativity will be able to go from raw materials to the launch pad in just 60 days—in theory, anyway. Relativity hasn’t yet assembled a full Terran-1 and doesn’t expect the rocket to fly until 2021 at the earliest.
Printing such huge parts using 3D-printing is already an amazing feat. And, reducing the number of parts is a huge benefit to safety in such systems as the sources of failure are significantly reduced.
However, the integration of AI to make the printers more efficient and capable is even more impressive.
Ellis says the real secret to Relativity’s rockets is the artificial intelligence that tells the printer what to do. Before a print, Relativity runs a simulation of what the print should look like. As the arms deposit metal, a suite of sensors captures visual, environmental, and even audio data. Relativity’s software then compares the two to improve the printing process. “The defect rate has gone down significantly because we’ve been able to train the printer,” Ellis says.
“To print stuff on Mars you need a system that can adapt to very uncertain conditions,” Ellis says. “So we’re building an algorithm framework that we think will actually be transferable to printing on other planets.”
Tim Ellis is only 29 and his co-founder, Jordan Noone, is only 26. What they’ve achieved at such a young age is phenomenal.
Exploring other planets is going to be very dependent on technology like this to help us build things quickly and efficiently in those environments.
3. Scientists are making progress with better plastic-eating bacteria
Sarah Scoles, writing for Popular Science:
Johnson is a research scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and this past year, he and his colleagues created a biological enzyme that can chew efficiently through throwaway plastics like those that make water bottles and soap containers. The team is optimistic they can engineer a world where humans keep using this overabundant material—without winding up literally or figuratively overwhelmed by it. In that world, as part of a broader, robust recycling system, microorganisms will digest polymers into their chemical components so they can turn a profit as new and better products.
Currently, recycling doesn’t actually turn plastic into anything, chemically speaking: It just grinds the waste into smaller pieces, like shredding paper into strips. Manufacturers then reconstitute those pieces into lower-quality plastic. In bio-based recycling, as those in the field call it, plastic-eating organisms give you back the building blocks to make new materials and, eventually, goods.
Like most brilliant discoveries, this one was accidental. The article is a really good read on how the team stumbled upon this and their progress so far.
Let’s hope they can build it up to be a viable solution to our plastic waste.
However, there could be a slight drawback to this method.
Skeptics feared the effort might backfire—that rogue GMO chompers might start gobbling the wrong polymers. Like the dashboard of your car. As you’re driving. It’s an extremely remote possibility but not completely misguided.
Somehow all I could think of while reading this was that this would make a really good scene in a cartoon — you know, the one where Wile E. Coyote is chasing Road Runner in a car, and the bacteria start eating his car. He gets distracted and goes over a cliff while he’s left holding just the steering wheel. And only when he looks down and realizes he’s suspended in midair does gravity take over 😄.
4. Instagram, my daughter, and me
Duff McDonald, writing for Wired:
I got divorced in September 2012. My first Instagram post was in January 2013. (As anyone who has been through a breakup in the digital era can tell you, it’s amazing what you can get up to online when you find yourself with unexpected free time on your hands.)
My daughter was just 3 years old when the marriage ended, and the first eight pictures I posted were of her. Like many parents, I saw Instagram as a way to share pictures of her with my family, particularly my mother, who lives 500 miles away.
But I was also posting them for myself. I only have my daughter with me two out of every 14 days, and I miss her every single day that she is not with me. It’s painful. What Instagram has allowed me to do is to employ a kind of digital physics, to warp my experience of space and time in my favor. In the offline world, I spend precious hours with her and then she disappears. But online, she is with me again when I post, and then again each time I receive a notification that someone has reacted to that post. It’s like the universe sending me an echo of the moment.
This is such an endearing story of how a father and his daughter use Instagram to connect with each other and grow their relationship while they are apart. It’s well worth a read, especially how he started referring to her as “The Lady.”
5. Twelve million phones, one dataset, zero privacy
Stuart A. Thompson and Charlie Warzel, writing for The New York Times:
EVERY MINUTE OF EVERY DAY, everywhere on the planet, dozens of companies — largely unregulated, little scrutinized — are logging the movements of tens of millions of people with mobile phones and storing the information in gigantic data files. The Times Privacy Project obtained one such file, by far the largest and most sensitive ever to be reviewed by journalists. It holds more than 50 billion location pings from the phones of more than 12 million Americans as they moved through several major cities, including Washington, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Each piece of information in this file represents the precise location of a single smartphone over a period of several months in 2016 and 2017. The data was provided to Times Opinion by sources who asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to share it and could face severe penalties for doing so. The sources of the information said they had grown alarmed about how it might be abused and urgently wanted to inform the public and lawmakers.
After spending months sifting through the data, tracking the movements of people across the country and speaking with dozens of data companies, technologists, lawyers and academics who study this field, we feel the same sense of alarm. In the cities that the data file covers, it tracks people from nearly every neighborhood and block, whether they live in mobile homes in Alexandria, Va., or luxury towers in Manhattan.
The Times obtained this data from a location tracking company – one of the dozens in existence.
They can see the places you go every moment of the day, whom you meet with or spend the night with, where you pray, whether you visit a methadone clinic, a psychiatrist’s office or a massage parlor.
Although most companies claim location data is anonymous, it doesn’t take much effort to identify people based on their travel between home and office locations. This whole article is eye-opening if you’re unaware of the amount of location data that apps on your phone collect on you and that they sell it to third parties. The animated
You can also read the follow-up article “8 Things to Know About Our Investigation Into the Location Business” in The New York Times.
If you’re concerned about your privacy, follow these steps to limit location tracking on your phone.
The world is currently going through a lot of turmoil, some of it influenced and aided by technology, and a lot of it because we seem to have forgotten basic humanity. But, in the spirit of focussing on positives, here’s a quote inspired by the Instagram story:
“Technology is best when it brings people together.”
– Matt Mullenweg
I wish you a Merry Christmas and lots of great memories with your loved ones during the holidays.