Snooze (this week in science news): October 9th
Welcome back to the world of science and technology, where this week some tech giants formed the ultimate alliance, Google debuted some more new stuff again and Nobel Prizes were awarded in physics and chemistry (ring a bell?). Let’s take a look at the science and technology’s big billboard of events this week.
Google, Amazon, Microsoft, IBM and Facebook form AI Consortium
Wait, don’t these guys all hate each other?
Yep. They’re all competitors in the AI space and are in a heated competition for talent and product dominance, which is what makes this partnership especially interesting. The group, called the Partnership on Artificial Intelligence to Benefit People and Society (which sounds vaguely dystopian), aims to ensure AI’s security, share research findings and educate the public. "We plan to discuss, we plan to publish, we plan to also potentially sponsor some research projects that dive into specific issues," said Guruduth Banavar, IBM's vice president of cognitive computing, in an interview with NPR.
And these guys are trying to make AI better?
That’s the aim. Moreover, the need for stricter ethical standards and clearly articulated best-practices is totally obvious given the numerous AI failures in the news recently. A Microsoft-created Twitter AI quickly devolved into a racist troll, Google’s photo app incorrectly classified Black people as gorillas, and Tesla’s autopilot killed a man after it crashed into a truck. These issues are important, which is why such a consortium could be a big deal. As of right now, though, the group has no means of enforcing the policies it creates, so there’s nothing stopping any of these companies from breaking rank. It remains to be seen what, if anything, will emerge from this partnership.
Nobel Prizes are announced in chemistry (go ‘cats) and physics
Who won in Chemistry?
Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Bernard L. Feringa and Northwestern’s very own J. Fraser Stoddart won for their research on nano-machines, which are, as you might expect, very small machines composed of only a handful of molecules. The researchers had success in creating switches, shuttles, and motors by converting stored molecular energy into motion. These machines emulate the way cells work. Cells use tiny machines to perform tasks such as flushing molecules in and out synthesizing proteins. The research has wide-ranging and highly promising applications, from self-healing materials, cancer treatment and efficient batteries. Stoddart was also recognized for his achievements at the 13th annual International Institute for Nanotechnology (IIN) Symposium in Evanston on Thursday.
What about physics?
David Thouless, Duncan Haldane and Michael Kosterlitz won for their work on “exotic matter” in the 1970s and 1980s. Exotic matter refers to non-standard phases of matter only possible in extremely low temperatures. Such conditions can produce extremely effective superconductors and also bring out unusual properties of matter. For instance, Thouless’s research showed that the conductance of extremely thin sheets of matter varies in well-defined and predictable steps. If you’re confused, you’re not alone. The research was so esoteric that the winners used breakfast foods to explain it during their speech. Although applications of the research aren’t likely to hit the market in the near future, the research offers long-term promise in fields such as electronics.
Yahoo had another very bad week
What did they do this time?
Yahoo, the search engine turned content farm turned internet corpse is in the news yet again this week. According to a new Reuters report, Yahoo constructed a surveillance tool for the NSA that allowed the government to search for and access the emails of its users. According to the report, the federal government approached Yahoo last year and directed them to create a tool that would give intelligence agents total access to search through and read the emails of its users. Giving the government such sweeping access to spy on its citizens is unprecedented, even in light of the revelations exposed by Edward Snowden in 2013. The project was heavily opposed by Alex Stamos, then chief information security officer at Yahoo, and lead to his departure from the company. As of right now it is unclear if the program is still in operation. This news also comes on the heels of a major hack that caused 500 million (or more) user accounts to be stolen from Yahoo’s servers last month. This is the part of the article where I would normally recommend you stop using your Yahoo account, but let’s be honest, it’s 2016 and you aren’t using a Yahoo account.
Google Debuted a Whole Slate of New Products
What did they announce?
Google released a brand new slate of products this week, including two new phones that come with improved camera software, a new AI assistant and improved battery charging; a AI assistant for the home that is similar to Amazon Echo, a phone-based VR headset called Daydream, a new wifi product and 4k version of their Chromecast streaming dongle. The announcement was heavily leaked prior to Google’s event and was more or less in line with what people were expecting.
Why are these things important?
Each is important in their own way. The phones represent a departure from Google’s old Nexus program (where OEMs would make phones under the Nexus brand) and are the first Android devices completely designed by Google. Google Home demonstrates that there is a real use case for voice-based home assistants beyond being toys for gadget enthusiasts, and that Google won’t cede the space to Amazon. Daydream also shows a maturation of VR and, being the cheapest VR option announced to date by a major player, pushes Google into the low end of the market along with Samsung, which sells their own VR for $100. Most interestingly, however, is the brand signaling Google is doing with their announcement. Many have lauded Google for the polish and quality of the products, and observed that the Pixel phones appear to be direct competitors to the iPhone. Google has struggled with hardware for a long time, and this round of announcements might be the first in which Google (which is traditionally considered a software company) is aiming to be a world-class hardware company. Personally, I think the new phones look great. And unlike the iPhone, they have a headphone jack and don’t explode. Frankly, what more do you need?