Calls for an outright ban on face recognition technology are growing louder, but it is already too late. Given its widespread use by tech companies and the police, permanently rolling back the technology is impossible.
It was widely reported this week that the European Commission is considering a temporary ban on the use of face recognition in public spaces. The proposed hiatus of up to five years, according to a white paper obtained by news site Politico, would aim to give politicians in Europe time to develop measures to mitigate the potential risks associated with the technology. Several US cities, including San Francisco, are mulling or have enacted similar bans.
But these bans are so limited that they are hardly bans at all. For one, public areas constitute only a fraction of the physical spaces we inhabit. What about those that are privately owned, such as shops, schools and museums, in which face recognition is steadily being rolled out, sometimes without our knowledge?
And while most of us associate face recognition with CCTV cameras, the technology is advancing in the online realm too, beyond the scope of such bans.
Facebook, for example, runs face recognition algorithms on users’ photos to automatically identify them in other images on the site, which for years functioned on an opt-out basis. The Russian search engine Yandex has a sophisticated search function that, given one image of a face, can find pictures online of the same person in different poses and lighting conditions.
Clearview AI, a face recognition app used by law enforcement in the US, is similar. Uploading a person’s picture to the platform turns up photo matches of that person that have appeared publicly on other websites.
Spurring talk of bans are the potential abuses of the technology. It has already become a tool for mass surveillance, as in the case of ethnic profiling of Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang province.
And then there is the fact that the technology is flawed. An independent analysis of a face recognition trial by the London Metropolitan Police Service found that 81 per cent of people the system flagged as potential suspects were innocent. And it is even less accurate for some ethnic minorities, which compounds the risk that these systems will entrench or exacerbate racial biases.
Public unease reflects all this. A survey conducted by YouGov and the Ada Lovelace Institute last year found that 46 per cent of people in the UK would like the right to opt out of face recognition – a figure that is higher for ethnic minorities, at 56 per cent.
So what to do? Given both the rate at which the technology is developing and its ubiquity, a temporary ban on its use in public spaces would be too little, too late. What face recognition needs is strict regulation.
Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, recently called for the EU to regulate AI. “Companies such as ours cannot just build promising new technology and let market forces decide how it will be used,” he wrote in the Financial Times.
This applies to face recognition too. A strict set of rules on when and how it can be used needs to come quickly.
While bans have grabbed the headlines, in the European Commission’s draft report, it takes the view that an alternative approach is to focus more on using the provisions of current data protection legislation called the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
Under the GDPR, facial images and other biometric information belong to a special category of data subject to stricter rules, including explicit consent. However, it isn’t clear how this applies to many uses of face recognition. Clarity is urgently required.
Face recognition technology is here to stay; implementing a temporary ban would be the regulatory equivalent of burying our faces in the sand.
Editor’s Note (1/21/20): On January 30, 2020, spacecraft controllers will transmit the final shutdown commands to NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, bringing the observatory’s 16-year mission to a close. This story from 2019 details the reasons for the shutdown, reflects on Spitzer’s legacy and discusses the gap in infrared astronomy that will persist until the debut of the observatory’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope.
In 2016 NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope observed a distant star called TRAPPIST-1 for 500 hours. Around the star, using the telescope’s unique infrared capabilities, scientists were able to discover four roughly Earth-sized exoplanets, adding to three others previously found in the system. To date, no other star has been shown to harbor so many small worlds. Most impressive of all was that Spitzer had never been designed to find exoplanets. “When Spitzer was first conceived of in the 1980s, [exoplanets] hadn’t even been discovered,” says Charles Beichman, Executive Director of the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute at the California Institute of Technology.
Spitzer’s observations of TRAPPIST-1 were a testament to just how far the telescope has exceeded expectations. Launched in 2003 as the last of NASA’s four “great observatories”—the others being the Hubble Space Telescope, the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, and the Chandra X-ray Observatory—Spitzer has helped usher in a new Golden Age of astronomical discovery. Even today, despite its aging hardware, the telescope continues to produce vital scientific contributions—in large part because Earth’s atmosphere blocks most infrared light, making space-based observations the only option to see the entire infrared sky. It remains, for instance, arguably the best presently available telescope for investigating exoplanet atmospheres for signs of habitability and life.
But Spitzer’s mission is now set to end. In May 2019 NASA confirmed that the telescope will be retired on January 30, 2020, bringing to a close an incredible mission that originally was planned to last only two and a half years. With modest operational costs of just $14 million a year, however, and suggestions that Spitzer could have operated until at least November 2020—bridging the gap between itself and the much-delayed James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), NASA’s next infrared space telescope—this conclusion leaves some astronomers with decidedly mixed feelings.
“It’s slightly complicated,” says Lisa Storrie-Lombardi, project manager for Spitzer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “They’re going to be spending the money on something else. Originally it all made a lot of sense. JWST was going to be flying if we retired Spitzer now, but that’s a little less clean now. Spitzer has been able to do great science, and it’s still doing that; it’s going to end on a high note. $14 million is an excellent price for what Spitzer can do.”
The Spitzer mission last came up for formal consideration of its retirement in spring of 2016, when the JWST—50 times larger than Spitzer and offering vast improvements on its infrared capabilities—was planned to launch in 2018. Back then, the space agency’s decision was that Spitzer would be retired in 2019, overlapping with JWST and perfectly handing off the infrared baton. Soon, however, NASA was forced to push back the launch of JWST, first to 2019, then to 2020 and ultimately to March 2021 at the earliest. NASA officials opted to extend Spitzer’s mission to January 2020 to compensate, but calculated that beyond this date continued operation of the telescope offered dramatically diminishing returns.
This leaves a gap in infrared capabilities between Spitzer and JWST that could negatively affect astronomy as a whole. Having an infrared space telescope ready and waiting is useful to follow-up on certain events, such as exoplanet finds from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or gravitational-wave discoveries from the LIGO consortium, as was done with two merging stars in 2017, or even the detection of mysterious objects passing through our solar system from interstellar space. “Without Spitzer it may not have been possible to get that information,” says Michael Werner, the Project Scientist for Spitzer at JPL.
Although Spitzer’s operating costs are relatively modest, there are sound reasons to shutter the telescope in the not-too-distant future. It is slowly moving away from our planet in its Earth-trailing orbit, requiring Spitzer to pitch at higher angles to beam its transmissions home and reducing the amount of sunlight striking the spacecraft’s solar panels. Where once it could transmit indefinitely, it can now manage just two and a half hours a day before its batteries drain. Spitzer’s greater distance from Earth also means communicating with home is becoming more difficult just as the telescope’s hardware is reaching its limits. “The hardware is ageing, and rather than go to a failure where we couldn’t recover, we just want to end the mission gracefully,” says Kartik Sheth, Deputy Program Scientist at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C.
In 2009 the mission also ran out of coolant to keep its infrared instrument cold. Rather than bring the mission to a close, scientists decided instead to enter a “warm phase,” using Spitzer’s two remaining operational infrared detectors to perform deep surveys of the universe and hunt for exoplanets. “We definitely lost some capabilities,” Beichman says. “But the warm mission, which was thought to be a little addendum to the cold mission, has gone on spectacularly well. I think that surprised [Spitzer’s] builders.”
Paul Hertz, NASA’s Astrophysics Division director, insists the decision to end the mission was based not on money but on the operational capability of the telescope. “We are not retiring Spitzer because of cost,” he says. “We are retiring it because of increasingly difficult and risky operations, which is reducing the science value of the mission. This is not something that was decided recently; rather we have been working towards end-of-mission since the decision in spring 2016.”
There had been some suggestions the telescope could endure until November 2020, and in 2017 NASA attempted to find a private entity to take over the funding of the spacecraft to see it through its final stage of operations. They were unsuccessful and, Storrie-Lombardi notes, any extension would likely have been a somewhat reduced mission owing to the aforementioned problems. “What would happen in the 2020s is the rate at which we can downlink data would be lowered,” she says. “We could take science data, but we might take less. In terms of operating the way we are now, early 2020 is a reasonable time to end.”
Almost in spite of its decline, Spitzer’s last months will be jam-packed with science. The biggest challenge between now and its end will be avoiding any anomaly that could render the telescope unusable before its appointed end. But presuming everything runs smoothly, Spitzer will collect a vast hoard of data during the next seven months that will take decades to analyze and soften the blow of the gap until the JWST—including observations of dwarf stars, the center of our galaxy and, of course, exoplanets.
The deadly coronavirus outbreak in China could reach Britain because borders are too ‘porous’ to keep the infection out, experts have said.
At a briefing in central London, virologists warned that some 4,000 people were probably now infected in the city of Wuhan, but said it could be as many as 9,700.
There have been 460 confirmed cases so far, and nine deaths, putting the fatality rate on a par with the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic, which wiped out 50 million people globally.
Experts said more deaths were expected in the coming days and the World Health Organisation (WHO) is considering declaring an international public health emergency.
The virus is also on the move, with probable cases now detected in Mexico, Hong Kong, the US, Japan, Thailand and South Korea.
Scientists set out plans to build a hybrid organ from stem cells and biotech. A soft robotic heart could be available within a decade and would end the need for donor transplants.
The cyber-heart has been shortlisted for £30 million in funding from the British Heart Foundation (BHF) for ‘radical new approaches’ to curing major heart conditions.
It is the brainchild of a team of Dutch scientists who are hoping it will solve the organ shortage crisis.
Lead researcher Professor Jolanda Kluin, of Amsterdam University Medical Centre (UMC), said she was inspired after seeing a robot starfish, with soft supple limbs that could expand and contract like heart muscle.
“There is a need for radical new solution,” she told a briefing in London to announce the shortlist.
“We’re decades away from building a living heart from a patient’s own cells, if we will ever be able to do it, but some three years ago I saw a picture in a Dutch newspaper, a picture of a soft robotic starfish, and it could move and swim like a living starfish.
“Suddenly I saw the potential for merging the benefits of biology with power of soft robotics, for a hybrid heart, the first ever solution for end stage heart failure. Soft robotic artificial cardiac muscles precisely mimic the human heart, so the hybrid heart really beats like a real heart. And it is lined by the patient’s own cells preventing clotting, infection and reaction.
“The energy transfer is wireless so that the patient experiences real freedom.”
The pumping heart would be powered through a jacket which would connect with a coil beneath the skin, transferring power wirelessly, like a mobile phone charger. A separate battery would also be in built so that patients could swim and bathe.
There are around 7 million people living with heart and circulatory diseases in the UK and 152,000 will die each year. For many a heart transplant is the only option but donors are limited.
In the 2018/2019 there were just 178 heart transplants were performed in Britain but 286 were left on the waiting list, and around 20 patients die while waiting for a heart each year.
Even when a donor heart is available, the body may reject the organ, and patients must be placed on strong drugs to dampen down their immune system which puts them at risk of infections and complications.
The biggest ever study into touch will find out whether millennials want less physical contact than previous generations, following modern movements like #MeToo.
Goldsmiths, University of London, has teamed up with the BBC to conduct a worldwide survey, asking a range of questions about how important touch is to people, how much they need it, and how comfortable they are with physical contact.
Researchers will then drill down into the answers to see whether people of varying nationalities, cultures, ages, disabilities, sexualities, and genders feel differently.
While city dwellers may think nothing of being squashed up next to strangers on public transport, the study may show that those who live in the countryside find such close contact intolerable. Or it may show the opposite.
Experts say it is such a vastly under-researched area, that they are really not sure what the outcome will be.
They may find that millennials are deeply uncomfortable with close contact following recent sex scandals, but older generations may feel equally awkward at modern displays of affection.
Men should be allowed to donate sperm alongside their organs and other body parts, after they have died, doctors have said.
There is currently a huge shortage of sperm donors in Britain, and the UK needs to import semen from countries such as Denmark, which ships around 3,000 samples each year and the US which sends 4,000.
Now, two doctors, writing in the Journal of Medical Ethics have called for men to be able to donate their sperm at death.
As well as helping with the shortage, they argue it would bring comfort to those who have not fathered children in their lives. It may also help ease the grief of family members if they think a loved one is ‘living on’ genetically.
Writing in the journal, Dr Nathan Hodson, of the College of Life Sciences at the University of Leicester, and Dr Joshua Parker, of Wythenshawe Hospital, Manchester, said “The ability to reproduce matters to people and donated sperm enables many people to fulfil their reproductive desires.
“Limitations in numbers and variety of donors have consequences for individuals and couples who require donor sperm.
“Many people hope that after death their bodies will be used to benefit others. It is both feasible and morally permissible for men to volunteer their sperm to be donated to strangers after death in order to ensure sufficient quantities of sperm with desired qualities.”
Shortly, United Kingdom planning to turn its agriculturу into the environment saving abter the Brexit next month.
After the United Kingdom leaves the European Union at the end of the month, it will sever ties with Europe’s farm subsidy policies—and to many researchers, that is a good thing. This week, the U.K. government proposed radical changes to £3 billion a year in agricultural spending that will focus the money on benefits to climate, ecosystems, and the public. “It’s dramatic and utterly critical,” says Dieter Helm, an economist at the University of Oxford. “This is an agricultural revolution.”
Under the bill, introduced to Parliament this week and expected to become law within a few months, farmers will be given subsidies not simply for cultivating land—the current EU system—but for delivering “public goods.” These include sequestering carbon in trees or soil, enhancing habitat with pollinator-friendly flowers, and improving public access to the countryside. To ease the transition, direct subsidies will be phased out over 7 years beginning in 2021, and the new payments for environmental services will be tested in pilot projects. “It certainly could have really positive benefits for the environment,” says Lynn Dicks, an animal ecologist at the University of Cambridge who studies wild pollinator conservation.
After the destruction and starvation of World War II, European tariffs helped protect farmers from foreign competition and subsidies boosted their yields. “It was just about production, it didn’t matter what you did to the environment,” says Ian Bateman, an environmental economist at the University of Exeter. New lands were brought under the plow and hedgerows were ripped up, leading to erosion. Excessive fertilizer and pesticides polluted air and water. And the loss of habitat harmed pollinators and other wildlife. The cost of the EU common agricultural policy (CAP) wasn’t just environmental: Up through the 1990s, the subsidies consumed 80% of the EU budget. Even today, the €59 billion CAP represents about 40% of EU public spending.
Brexit will now let the United Kingdom go its own way. The new bill addresses only England, because the United Kingdom allows Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland to determine their own agriculture policies, but Helm expects they will move in the same direction.
Under the new scheme, to be overseen by a body created by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA), total payments will not change, but some farmers will be impacted more than others. To be profitable, beef and sheep farms rely on subsidies more than dairy and wheat farms and, without them, they might be abandoned in hard-scrabble places such as in Scotland. But Helm sees a lifeline for some of these farms: payments for sequestering carbon with tree plantations or restored peatlands. Grants for restoring heritage buildings or enhancing landscape beauty could also help sustain farms while boosting tourism. Other payments will help farmers adapt to climate change or reduce their environmental impact. Subsidies for equipment to inject manure into the soil, for example, could reduce both air pollution and the need for chemical fertilizers.
About one-third of existing U.K. farm subsidies pay for environmentally friendly activities such as maintaining hedgerows and other habitat, and those efforts will expand. To get more value for money, DEFRA plans to use auctions, in which farmers or other land managers would bid for government contracts for environmental services. Water companies have already used reverse auctions to select farmers who are paid to use less fertilizer and different pesticides, lowering water treatment costs. “The impact has been amazing,” Bateman says.
DEFRA wants to tailor payment schemes for different regions but figuring out how to channel payments for maximum benefit will require research. Carbon sequestration payments could backfire if used in the wrong places. For example, planting trees in peatlands can dry them out, releasing more greenhouse gases than would ever be sequestered by the trees, Bateman says.
Socio-economic models will be needed to study the impact of the policy changes on farms and rural communities, adds David Harvey, an agricultural economist at Newcastle University. Much remains to be determined. Will farmers only get payments if air and water quality are shown to improve? And over what time scale? Who will measure it? “You’re left with more questions than answers,” says Mark Sutton, a nitrogen expert at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology.
Farmers—especially owners of vulnerable small operations—have eyed all these changes warily. The National Farmers Union, the United Kingdom’s biggest agricultural trade group, lobbied for more emphasis on supporting food production. The final bill stipulates that the government will “take regard to the need to encourage the production of food by producers in England,” which the union calls a “robust starting point” for designing the new support programs. But Bateman and others worry about backsliding toward payments that support private profits, rather than environmental progress.
Other countries will be watching closely, too, says Alan Matthews, an agricultural economist at Trinity College Dublin, who studies European agricultural policy. “If it’s been successful, that will be a very powerful argument for the Europeans to follow.”
In Santa Elena, Ecuador, paleontologists have found dense pockets of bone, representing not just one animal but many. It is with a massive accumulation of sloths.
The site, called Tanque Loma, has just gotten a detailed description from paleontologist Emily Lindsey and colleagues. It’s a fantastically-rich Ice Age bonebed, containing the remains of at least 22 individual Eremotherium laurillardi – one of the largest of the giant ground sloths. What’s more, the bones are entombed in sediment rich in asphalt and the mashed-up plant material found at the site are the sloth’s feces, gut contents, or both. So how did so many sloths wind up buried in the same spot?
First, the asphalt is something of a red herring. This place wasn’t a sticky trap like the famous La Brea asphalt seeps in Los Angeles. Instead, the bonebed was created in a watery environment that was later infiltrated by asphalt. Digging deeper, Lindsey and coauthors write, Tanque Loma was “a low-energy, anoxic, marshy aquatic environment” that sometimes went dry for long enough to let terrestrial plants to grow there. And this backdrop may hold the key to what befell the sloths.
Of 667 bones from Pleistocene megafauna at the site, 575 can be assigned to Eremotherium. This means that Tanque Loma is a monodominant bone bed. Bones from animals other than sloths have been found at the site, too, but the vast majority belonged to the shaggy, shambling sloths. Within that sample, the paleontologists estimate that the bonebed contains at least 22 individuals broken down into different age classes – 15 adults, one subadult, and six juveniles. The collected remains offer an outline of how Eremotherium grew up, and may indicate that this particular sloth species was social.
But why at this place, and why so many? There are other bonebeds near Tanque Loma, but none contain Eremotherium in such great abundance. And bonebeds like this can form in very different ways. Perhaps the sloths stuck around a dried-up watering hole too long. Maybe some local catastrophe killed a whole bunch of the sloths at once. Maybe this place took victims over time, with mud or some other trapping mechanism preventing sloth after sloth from escaping. Or perhaps ancient humans with a hunger for sloths created this site.
Hypotheses shift according to additional evidence, discovery, and discussion, but, as it stands now, Lindsey and colleagues suggest that something unfortunate happened at the watering hole. Perhaps an important water source dried up during drought, with the sloths unable to find, or travel to, another pool. Or maybe the dwindling water source became contaminated somehow, with thirsty sloths drinking toxic water and returning rains eventually burying the bones. Some modern animals die this way. Hippos, for example, sometimes end up being trapped by shrinking, increasingly-uninhabitable water sources, dying before the wet season can refresh their ponds.
Worse, the sloths may have hastened their own demise. The sheer amount of sloth-processed plant material at Tanque Loma may indicate that Eremotherium were social beasts that liked to wallow. And like modern hippos, they may have fouled their own water supply. Sloths pooping in the prehistoric pool isn’t a problem with a large body of water, but when there are fewer and fewer gallons for every sloth, the water becomes undrinkable and disease can spring up among the local population. Eventually, the sloths’ luck crapped out.
British academic has claimed that human individuality is indeed just an illusion, because societies are far more intertwined at a mental, physical and cultural level than people realise.
In his new book, The Self Delusion, Professor Tom Oliver, a researcher in the Ecology and Evolution group at the University of Reading, argues that there is no such thing as ‘self’ and not even our bodies are truly ‘us’.
Just as Copernicus realised that the Earth is not the centre of the universe, Prof Oliver said society urgently needs a Copernican-like revolution to understand that people are not discrete beings but rather part of one connected identity.
“A significant milestone in the cultural evolution of human minds was the acceptance that the Earth is not the centre of the universe, the so-called Copernican revolution,” he writes.
“However, we have one more big myth to dispel: that we exist as independent selves at the centre of a subjective universe.
“You may feel as if you are a discrete individual acting autonomously in the world; that you have unchanging inner self that persists throughout your lifetime, acting as a central anchor-point with the world changing around you. This is the illusion I seek to tackle. We are seamlessly connected to the world around us.”
Nanoparticle levitated by light rotates at 300 billion rpm
A dumbbell-shaped nanoparticle powered just by the force and torque of light has become the world’s fastest-spinning object.
Scientists at Purdue University created the object, which revolves at 300 billion revolutions per minute. Or, put another way, half a million times faster than a dentist’s drill.
In addition, the silica nanoparticle can serve as the world’s most sensitive torque detector, which researchers hope will be used to measure the friction created by quantum effects.
The research was published this week in Nature Nanotechnology.
The researchers levitated the object in a vacuum using light in the form of a laser, and then used a second laser with a polarizing plate to alternate the optical torque on the object in order to test its torque detection sensitivity.
“It’s always exciting to set a world’s record,” said Tongcang Li, assistant professor of physics and astronomy, and assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering.
In 2018, Li and his colleagues had set the previous world record for the fastest-spinning object with a similar device that was one-fifth as fast.
Hearing that the nanoparticle is powered by light could lead one to mistakenly think that the particle contains some sort of solar-powered capability. In fact, light itself exerts a miniscule, but measurable, amount of force on nearly any object.
You may not be able to feel it physically (only emotionally perhaps), but the light from those fluorescent lights in your office is literally and constantly pressing down on you because of something known as light radiation pressure. It’s a force millions of times weaker than the gravity on you, but it is still there. In space, light can even propel satellites using light sails.
“In the 1600s Johannes Kepler saw that the tails of comets always pointed away from the sun because of radiation pressure,” Li says. “We use the same thing, but with concentrated lasers, to levitate and rotate the nanoparticles.”
In addition to the new track record in terms of rotation speed, the nanoparticles can measure torque at levels 600–700 times more sensitive than any device before.
Li says this nano-torque detector will be used to measure and investigate quantum effects such as vacuum friction.
It’s theorized that even objects in a vacuum levitated by light experience some very minuscule level of drag caused by virtual photons, a quantum fluctuation in a vacuum that is limited by the uncertainty principle. The nano-torque detector could also be used to measure related effects, including the Casmir effect and nanoscale magnetism, which could eventually allow engineers to develop and control nanoelectronic devices.
Reference: “Ultrasensitive torque detection with an optically levitated nanorotor” by Jonghoon Ahn, Zhujing Xu, Jaehoon Bang, Peng Ju, Xingyu Gao and Tongcang Li, 13 January 2020, Nature Nanotechnology.
The research was funded by the Office of Naval Research (grant number N00014-18-2371), the National Science Foundation (grant number PHY-1555035) and the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency (DARPA).