Fear the future
November 14, 2017

The Food and Drug Administration just approved its first-ever pill containing electronic tracking sensors. The anti-psychotic drug Abilify MyCite, which treats bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and depressive disorders, uses an electronic signal to record whether or not a patient ingested the pill, Gizmodo reported Tuesday.

When it touches stomach acid, the pill generates an electronic signal, which can be used to send data to medical professionals via a smartphone app and a Bluetooth signal. Sending data requires patients to first sign a consent form allowing their data to be shared with their doctors — as well as up to four selected friends and family members — and also wear a patch on their left rib cage that would transmit the information.

The New York Times notes, however, that patients can block data recipients whenever they choose to. That is potentially problematic, Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman, chairman of psychiatry at Columbia University and New York Presbyterian hospital, told the Times: "There's an irony in it being given to people with mental orders that can include delusions. It's like a biomedical Big Brother."

While patients prone to paranoia may see malicious intent in electronic tracking of drug ingestion, there are significant benefits to being able to track whether or not patients are taking their medication. Studies have shown that people usually take only half of their prescribed doses when they are self-administering medication, and a 2013 study estimated that people not taking their pills properly costs the U.S. between $100 billion and $289 billion a year and leads to 125,000 deaths annually. Kelly O'Meara Morales

November 1, 2017

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump promised to end "the war on coal" and scale back Obama-era regulations that hampered the coal industry, even as the market for coal hits 40 year lows while wind and solar energy set records for growth. Still, many current and former miners are optimistic about coal's future — and that hope may be hampering the economy. As Mike Sylvester, the 33-year-old son of a coal miner, told Reuters: "I think there is a coal comeback."

Last month, the Trump administration announced a proposal that would prop up the coal industry by requiring utility companies to buy electricity from coal and nuclear plants at prices that would guarantee a profit, even if the utility companies had cheaper alternatives on the table. Although 2017 has seen minor increases in coal output and hiring, utility companies have announced the closure of more than 14 coal-fired power plants since Trump's inauguration.

Efforts to diversify the economy in coal country and prepare workers for life after coal have stalled, however, as miners have been reluctant to join job retraining programs. Some workers cite Trump's support for the coal industry as cause for optimism, though others are hesitant because many training programs are unpaid and do not guarantee jobs upon completion. Others still are simply wary of entering an unfamiliar industry.

As a result, while many officials in coal country want big companies like Toyota and Amazon to build factories in their respective regions to provide new coal-independent jobs, the companies are deterred by a perceived lack of an adequately trained workforce. Dave Serock, an ex-miner in Pennsylvania who recruits for one of the state's retraining services, told Reuters, "I can't even get [people] to show up for free food I set up in the office."

As of September, the coal industry only employed 52,000 Americans. Read more about the trouble in coal country at Reuters. Kelly O'Meara Morales

August 21, 2017

Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk and Google artificial intelligence developer Mustafa Suleyman head a list of 116 tech experts who implored the United Nations to preemptively ban lethal autonomous weapons — in layman's terms, killer robots — before it's too late.

"Once developed, lethal autonomous weapons will permit armed conflict to be fought at a scale greater than ever, and at timescales faster than humans can comprehend," the experts warned, in a letter reported Monday. "These can be weapons of terror, weapons that despots and terrorists use against innocent populations, and weapons hacked to behave in undesirable ways. We do not have long to act. Once this Pandora's box is opened, it will be hard to close."

Central to the experts' concern is how killer robots could change the risk calculations and casualties of war. While autonomous weapons may make battlefields safer for soldiers who can be removed from the scene, the same is not true for civilians who have the misfortune to be nearby. A killer robot's ethics will only be as good as its programming, which could vary widely depending on the government or terrorist organization controlling it. Autonomous weapons also raise troubling and complicated questions of accountability and recourse in the event of mistakes.

The letter asks the U.N. to add killer robots to list of banned conventional weapons, which currently includes landmines, intentionally blinding lasers, and other technologies "deemed to be excessively injurious or to have indiscriminate effects." Bonnie Kristian

January 11, 2017

The Department of Defense has published footage of an October test of a fleet of Perdix mini-drones released by F/A-18 Super Hornet fighters mid-flight. Each mini-drone has a one-foot wingspan, which makes it about the size of a blue jay, but together their strangely natural movements are more evocative of a terrifying swarm of robotic insects.

"Perdix are not pre-programmed synchronized individuals, they are a collective organism, sharing one distributed brain for decision-making and adapting to each other like swarms in nature," said William Roper of the Strategic Capabilities Office. "Because every Perdix communicates and collaborates with every other Perdix, the swarm has no leader and can gracefully adapt to drones entering or exiting the team." The drones will likely be used for surveillance.

Watch the swarm in action below. The last few seconds, which show footage of the mini-drones themselves instead of little green tracking markers, really drive home the unsettling resemblance to a swarm of something creepy-crawly. Bonnie Kristian

November 12, 2014

A Dutch Bitcoin entrepreneur was so enamored with the virtual currency that he got it injected into his hands. Yes, Martijn Wismeijer, the co-founder of MrBitcoin, a company that installs Bitcoin cash distributors, had his hands implanted with the digital "wallets" on Nov. 3.

The microchips, made of biocompatible glass, will allow him to "make contactless payments," thanks to near field communication (NFC), according to AFP. The chips use NFC to communicate with enabled devices, including Android smartphones and tablets.

"We wanted to do this experiment to push further the concept of the virtual wallet," Wismeijer told AFP. He explained that the microchips are "savings accounts," and while the devices are used to make payments, the funds are transferred out of the chips.

The microchip injection hasn't been entirely positive for Wismeijer, though — AFP notes that the chips have "garnered so much publicity that he has temporarily withdrawn the money from his hands for security reasons." Meghan DeMaria

July 17, 2014

An internal FBI report obtained by The Guardian says that self-driving cars have the potential to be used as "lethal weapons" in the future.

The report, written by the Strategic Issues Group of the FBI's Directorate of Intelligence, warned that self-driving cars "will have a high impact on transforming what both law enforcement and its adversaries can operationally do with a car." In other words: There could soon be self-driving car bombs.

The report also suggests there may soon be autonomous getaway cars for criminals, though the FBI also claims that self-driving cars will make tailing suspects much easier.

"Autonomy... will make mobility more efficient, but will also open up greater possibilities for dual-use applications and ways for a car to be more of a potential lethal weapon than it is today," the report states.

Of course, this is the opposite of the message Google wants to send about its driverless vehicles. FBI report does note, however, that the risk of "distraction or poor judgment leading to collision" would be "substantially reduced" with driverless vehicles.

It's possible that self-driving cars could be approved for public use in as few as five years. Meghan DeMaria

May 13, 2014

Rick Santorum has a Santorum problem, in that the top Google results when you search his name are not about the man himself, but rather about a dirty sexual neologism. The problem was so worrisome that Santorum even asked Google to nix those gross results so voters seeking information on his 2012 presidential campaign would find it instead of icky sex stuff.

So was his concern legit? Perhaps so, according to a study based on India's election that found search results can indeed sway voters.

The study showed 2,000 undecided voters search results about the election, with the links rigged to spotlight or suppress favorable information about particular candidates. The study's big finding: Participants showed an average 12.5 percent shift toward the candidates who received deliberately-glowing search traffic.

Now, that result should come with a couple of big caveats. Though the algorithms Google and others use aren't public, there is no indication search engines in the real world game their results to influence elections. And further, voters have access to far more sources of information than just search engines, so the role search results play in influencing opinion are likely not as dramatic as the study's controlled scenario would indicate. Jon Terbush

See More Speed Reads