The Truth is Hard to Find in the Digital Age

Charles Mueller & Jennifer Buss

Do you trust everything you read on the Internet? No, ok. Do you scour the first couple hits on Google until you find a source that you believe is reputable? That reputation has never mattered more than in today’s world because the level of competition for the public’s attention has never been greater. In order to respond to this demand, our information generation and delivery processes have become focused on being the first to grab the public’s attention. In order to be first, many sacrifice the accuracy of the information they produce, and because modern technology has enabled information to be spread at unprecedented rates, this results in misinformation and inconsistent “facts” becoming mainstream common knowledge; the truth is becoming harder to find.

A recent example of this occurred when Rolling Stone reported on a girl who claimed she was gang-raped at a UVA at a fraternity party. The story only reported the perspective of the female involved and did virtually nothing to corroborate her story. Rolling Stone has recently come forward explaining that their original report no longer agrees with the facts that have since emerged. This error forces the conversation away from the fact that UVA has a poor history of properly dealing with rape issues. Rolling Stone should feel absolutely humiliated. Maintaining a good reputation and trustworthiness in journalism requires good detective work, but in this instance, it looked like the author didn’t even try. If journalists can’t verify the events from the sources, they aren’t doing their job (i.e. reporting the facts to the public).

This situation has exposed a problem with our information delivery systems, a problem where the truth is sacrificed for personal gain. We’ve seen this problem with Internet reporting of current events; in the scientific literature regarding the creation of stem cells from skin cells; in medicine with the claims that vaccines cause autism; and in the 2008 global financial crisis. What matters most now is no longer the truth. The most important objective is giving your audience what they want because that is what the pay for.  We are pressuring scientists to produce revolutionary results instead of encouraging them to think freely and incentivizing journalists to entertain us rather than report on the facts. What are going to be the long-term consequences of putting these types of pressures on the professionals that produce information in our society?

In the days where the newspaper reined supreme, there was less disagreement among society about the facts surrounding an issue. In the digital age, where the accuracy of information is questionable and availability of different perspectives is unprecedented, the amount of disagreement among the facts can only broaden. While a diversity of opinion is essential for a democratic society, too much diversity, especially when it’s spawned through misinformation, can only damage society. The opinions built on misinformation are only going to increase as technology continues to makes it easier to access and generate information. To counter this trend, we need to start mandating trustworthy sources, validating our news, changing the monetary value in publishing, and modifying the current system to focus less about the individual and more on the greater good. Applications like Checkdesk attempt to do this, but more is needed. It is time to take action, combat this reality head-on, and restore confidence in our information generation and delivery processes. The truth in the Digital Age is already hard enough to find.

 

A National Focus on Neuroscience

Brian Barnett

Neuroscience and neurotechnology have the potential to greatly improve our society, but the field needs significant investment in the form of a National Neurotechnology Initiative. We need a federal initiative that will bolster basic research and technology development for the entire field of neuroscience. There is a discrepancy between our neuroscientists’ efforts to study the brain and our available knowledge on the subject. Last month, thousands of neuroscientists came to our nation’s capital to attend the Society for Neuroscience annual conference to report on their research. During the conference, Nature put out an issue focusing on the difficulty in understanding depression and other mental disorders. We have so many great scientists who have dedicated their lives to studying the brain, and large portions of them are performing research to find cures for neurological disorders and disease. We put millions of dollars into research and we have a cohort of capable neuroscientists, so why are we still so ineffectual in our efforts to help those in need? The answer is that neuroscience is a complex field that currently has insufficient funding and resources to address all of its issues.

More than 350 million people worldwide are affected by depression, and as many as two thirds of those who commit suicide are afflicted by the condition. Hundreds of other neurological conditions affect our population across all age groups. We are still using drugs and technology from the 1950’s to address mental disorders and perform research. We develop new methodologies like cognitive behavioral therapy and we can’t explain the mechanisms by which they help patients. These observations plainly show that we are not doing enough to invest in neuroscience and provide our researchers with the tools and technologies to better understand the brain. Unfortunately, there is not one single problem area or deficiency that we can target to improve the situation. To succeed, we need to address a fundamentally incomplete understanding of all mechanisms and scales of brain function, from intercellular communication to the cognitive bases of behavior.

The solution is a large, long-term federal investment in neuroscience research and technology. Basic research, technological advances, and industry development will improve our scientific knowledge about the brain and give us methods and instruments for effecting positive change. We will be able to cure diseases and disorders when we understand the brain’s basic mechanisms, languages, and systems. We will share and combine findings from separate laboratories and research centers when we incorporate big data and IT infrastructure. We will create positive feedback loops where scientific knowledge informs novel technology development, and this technology enables entirely new methodologies for research investigations.

Our neuroscientists want to present research that truly demonstrates our essential understanding of the brain when they attend conferences. Our scientific journals want to publish great news about improvements to our health and well-being. Our innovators want to develop neurotechnologies that will better all of society. In light of the President’s BRAIN Initiative, national scientific journals’ coverage of mental illness, and an ever-growing national research society, the spotlight has never shone brighter on the field of neuroscience. The inspiration and motivation is readily apparent, so the only missing piece is a bold federal initiative that makes progress in neuroscience and neurotechnology a reality.

Constitutional Evolution

Charles Mueller

I think it is time we reexamine our Constitution. The purpose of the Constitution, as laid forth by our founding fathers, was to have a set of rules that protected our rights. Our rights are reflected in the values and cultural norms of our society. They are a product of the times. Therefore, the Constitution should evolve with the times. It’s not to say that we have to change the Constitution just because things change, but we should have a habit (either forced or by due diligence) of reexamining the Constitution every 20 years or so; each generation should have at least one chance to reexamine how their rights are protected.

Thomas Jefferson’s 1789 letter to James Madison examined the argument that the Constitution should be dynamic and reflect the times of those being governed under it. So why doesn’t our Constitution reflect the current era? Why was the most recent amendment to it (the 27th) really an idea from 1789 that took over 200 years to ratify? When we refuse to acknowledge the needs and demands of society are different now than what is portrayed in our Constitution, we cement our governance to the will of those who last laid pen to it.

The idea of having flexibility in the rules for an organized system is not a human invention. In fact, our cellular constitution (our DNA) already embodies this concept. For example, if a virus enters our body, it triggers our immune system to search our DNA for a solution to stop the virus. If we have encountered the virus before, our DNA likely has a solution for stopping it (an antibody gene). However, if it has never seen this virus before, something interesting happens: a new gene is created that is optimized to deal with this new change in the environment. This makes the human body both dynamic and rapid in its ability to adjust to a changing environment, and is just one example of the many ways the human body is built to adapt.

If humans are nature’s best design for an organizational life system, and this system is designed so that its cellular constitution must be rapidly adaptive, then isn’t there some sort of lesson to be learned here? Why isn’t the US Constitution designed and being used in a manner that allows for it to be rapidly adaptive? Why, in a time when the global environment is changing at an exponential pace, do we still insist on being governed by a Constitution that is frozen in time? Shouldn’t our Constitution, like the DNA inside our cells, have some sort of flexibility that allows our “blueprints” for running this country to properly reflect the state of the world?

Thomas Jefferson once said, “The earth belongs always to the living generation. They may manage it then, and what proceeds from it, as they please, during their usufruct…every law, naturally expires at the end of 19 years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force, and not of right”. I think it is time we change the way we manage our rights. I think it’s time we come together to update the Constitution in such a way that it protects not just the rights of the citizens of today, but also allows it to adapt with the times.   Let’s get serious about our future and have a Constitutional Convention were we reexamine the fundamentals of our nation like our forefathers intended.

A Hand in Security Access

Jen Buss

 

It is time for a paradigm shift in the way we look at security access across society. The hardware is out of control and can definitely be simplified.

Here is a personal example. I have 8 different fob access cards that I carry with me on a very regular basis: one for my condo, one for my apartment, one on my work badge, one additional fob for work on my keys (because I kept forgetting by badge), one for my parking garage, one for the work parking garage, one on my CAC card, and my metro card. It is disgusting. The worst part is that we have the ability to build a single device that can add access points as we need them, but it is more profitable for companies to make us pay for additional hardware every time we need new access. Companies have no interest in a new business model where individuals pay a service fee to have access on a user basis. The point is that I would rather pay to have less keys and fobs. This could work just like paying for email licenses and a cloud server, rather than individual email and servers at each business.

I had the option yesterday to put one RFID tag in my hand. It was brilliant: I could reduce all 8 access cards down to one and I could potentially reduce all my keys too. I could stop using passwords for some things because my hand was going to give me access. It is a beautiful solution for my mess of keys. I was seconds away from doing it until I realized that all of these companies will not let me reduce down to one because they are not all compatible. It is ridiculous that this is even a problem. Since I do not have the programming control, I do not have the ability to make the tag work where I want it to and these companies will not work with an independent retailer. I was understandably disappointed.

It is time for the industry model to change. Break through the tradition of selling fobs to make money and start selling a service. Simplify everyone’s lives. Security access is a daily struggle in everyday lives, and the market is ripe for change. Such simple regulation changes could make a vast impact on the lives of millions across the world.

 

The Internet House of Representatives

Brian Barnett

We should create an Internet House of Representatives, where your representative is chosen based on your political beliefs rather than based on where you live. A representative democracy is a good system because of the sheer size and complexity of our federal government. The men and women in Congress dedicate their time to synthesizing the advice of experts, the desires of constituents, and the influence of interest groups to make informed decisions and choices for our government. The average citizen does not have time to learn or deal with the intricacies of our bureaucratic systems. Yes, their voices should be as well represented as possible, especially in situations where a vote can easily determine a policy outcome, but they do not necessarily have the time and resources to make every political decision.

A representative democracy therefore makes sense when the general population is not interested in writing the content of laws for issues in which they have no education. The Internet provides us all with the opportunity to become educated across many fields, but we do not (yet) have the technology that minimizes the inordinate amount of time that this requires. When we think about the ways in which the Internet affects the government, a logical application would be the creation of a direct democracy. Everyone with an Internet connection could vote on all of our laws and the simple majority would win. This scenario raises the above issue of whether people have the time and knowledge to accomplish this feat effectively. I would argue that a representative democracy still makes sense in the Digital Age, but we can leverage the benefits of the Internet within this framework when it comes to how well the people we elect to Congress represent our interests.

Why are our representatives divided based on state lines and districts? If I am a conservative voter living in San Francisco or I am a liberal voter living in Oklahoma, my voice will be washed out by the opposite majorities in my district. Does this mean I am really being represented if my representative votes in diametric opposition to my political beliefs? What about in a moderate district where the voters are split 50/50 but my candidate just barely lost? Is my voice again stifled if the winner of the election is not in line with my political beliefs? Should I have to move to a district that is more in line with my beliefs? The average margin of victory for a representative across the US is 33%. This shows that 66% of the population has a representative that they voted for (regardless of how well this person will actually represent them), but 33% of the nation does not have a representative who even comes close to matching their political beliefs. The Internet allows me to communicate and become very close to other people around the country. Why can’t I form a voting bloc with similarly minded men and women in Seattle, Reno, Nashville, and Cleveland to have an impact on the federal legislative branch?

This Internet House of Representatives could be made up of 300 women and men (one representative per roughly one million people), elected every 2 years, who each represent a constituency made up of a population spread out among the US. Their offices, lines of communication, reports, and bills could all be located on the Internet so everyone can evaluate candidates and vote for the person who best represents their interests. The details of how you vote for these representatives and the reassignment of federal-state interactions in the Senate or elsewhere are important as well, but do not need to be hashed out here to make the point. In today’s world, where the Internet is the nervous system that connects us all together, our national policies and laws should be written by representatives whose path to Congress is based on the usage of this nation-bridging technology.

Driving Collective Intelligence

Charlie Mueller & Kathy Goodson

Democratic societies are founded upon the principle that an educated, intelligent society will create a way of life that truly embraces the human potential; collective intelligence is the path to societal wisdom. Thomas Jefferson expressed this basic idea in a June 1789 letter to Richard Price Paris where he said, “Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” The idea our founding fathers had in establishing a democratic society freed us from a dominating government structure that embraced individual authority over collective intelligence. We were encouraged to think for ourselves and cooperatively with each other. We no longer had to be told what to do; our imaginations and our potential were finally set free.

There are several historic American examples demonstrating our push for collective intelligence. The one that comes readily to our minds is public education. Between 1852 and 1918, all of the states and territories mandated that all children should be educated, providing the intellectual seeds for Jefferson’s 1789 statement. Public education includes the availability of libraries, schools, and museums. The purpose of public education is sometimes boiled down to several one-sentence ideas: “give people skills for life” or “teach people to be productive”. However, I would argue that the main goal of public education is to raise our societal collective intelligence. In order to build a nation of thinkers that contributes to the success of our country, we have to raise the bar of collective intelligence. One way to accomplish this is through public education. The question is: how do we continue to raise this bar?

First, it is not just about access to information and it is not just about providing a public education system. That is just the foundation. It is about spreading and generating knowledge. The Internet revolution has created unprecedented access to information and changed the educational system in ways that our ancestors could not imagine. The average fool today knows more about the complexities of the universe than some of the greatest minds centuries ago. We are generating new information at a rate that we have never done before, which means we should be generating a more knowledgeable society, but recent trends suggest we are not doing so relative to the rest of the world.

A major problem is that with so much access to information, we are forgetting to teach our children and ourselves how to transform this information into knowledge. Programs like “No Child Left Behind” have only helped weaken our ability to derive knowledge from all the information we have available today, a failure even acknowledged by the White House. This is not just a problem regarding how we teach our children. This problem exists for the average adult and even among our nation’s top thinkers and our scientists. For years, scientists have been trained to specialize in their area of expertise and refrain from thinking about their problems from the perspective of a different scientific discipline. We need new, innovative ways to share information and the knowledge that we gain from it. Shared knowledge drives collective intelligence.

Aside from the obvious reformations in our educational system to get our children focused on learning, what steps do we need to take to put the U.S. back on track to being an intelligent nation? Collaboration in the sciences is key. A cited example demonstrating this point can be seen in a recent interdisciplinary study where a joining of physics and biology led to a nano-system that could be used in the early detection of cancer. Collaboration on the national level, like that being promoted in the President’s BRAIN Initiative, is one step in the right direction. The BRAIN Initiative aims to raise the bar of our collective intelligence in neuroscience by not only encouraging collaboration amongst scientists of different fields, but also by inducing active participation of government, academia, and industry. We need more of these types of collective movements.

In an age where Americans cannot afford to be behind the curve in anything, we must seed the changes that we want to see.  At the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies we are asking these questions and actively searching for answers. Through our Center for Neurotechnology Studies (CNS), we actively create forums to get some of the best minds in government, academia and industry together to discuss important neuroscience issues. Our Center for Revolutionary and Scientific Thought (CReST) works hard every week trying to develop real solutions to difficult S&T questions. We understand that greatness is not achieved alone; it is achieved by cooperation of many. The U.S. is the greatest nation the world has known and all of our triumphs have come when we unite, pool our knowledge and intelligence together, and focus it towards the challenges we face.

 

On Military Robots

Patrick Cheetham

The Department of Defense is shrinking funding to military robots while robots are becoming more capable and ubiquitous every day. The US needs to invest in developing these technologies and we should look towards the future in ways that keep us superior and counter potential uses against our own systems.

Robots afford considerable advantages in warfare by extending military reach and power projection. They also change the risk-benefit calculation for successful operations. Generally, a robot can be defined as a machine that has some degree of autonomy and the ability to sense, perceive, and act in or on its environment. Yet, this definition and basic understanding of robots does not adequately describe the revolution occurring in robotic technologies that are truly transforming industries and national security as we know it.

DoD funding in recent years has been sluggish, while the utility of military robots has increased. From a high in 2011 of $6.6 billion, the proposed 2014 budget for unmanned systems was just about $4.1 billion. This significant decrease is counterintuitive to the increasing capabilities that robotics provide for DoD. The most newsworthy robots are unmanned aerial vehicles, which grab headlines for their ability to loiter, surveil, and kill targets (for example, they are being used in the current campaign against ISIL). Robots are not just doing dull, dangerous, or dirty tasks; they are dominating the air and quickly becoming a force multiplier. On the ground or in the maritime environment, they inspect and disarm IEDs, carry supplies, enable communications, and use EW to jam and spoof other machines. Robots with stronger artificial intelligence, medical and surgical capabilities, and the ability to incapacitate high value targets could provide even more function for the warfighter in the future.

The ubiquity of robotic technologies in commercial, civil, and national security sectors challenges the US held monopoly on military specific robots. It is estimated that at least 75 to 87 countries are investing in military unmanned systems. Military investment in the Asian region alone will grow by 67% to 2018, totaling almost $2.4 billion per year. A low barrier to entry for makers, nation states, and terrorists is possible because of decreasing costs of enabling technologies. Robert Work and Shawn Brimley point out that advanced computing, big data, autonomy, artificial intelligence, miniaturization, and small high-density power systems in the consumer and service industries advance the development of military robots. A common robotic operating system, cheaper hardware, and 3D printing also contribute to accessibility. Widespread knowledge and availability have given nefarious actors the ability to use machines. For example, the terrorist group Hezbollah has successfully fielded drones and plots using UAVs strapped with bombs. Most strikingly, China has “developed” UAVs with uncanny resemblance to the US-made MQ-9 Reaper.

Technology superiority is a cornerstone of US national security strategy but is being challenged in the field of robotics by decreased budgets and technological diffusion. DoD has decreased investments in robots even though the costs and limits of manned systems make unmanned systems a wise acquisition decision. Robots can replace tasks and enhance our own superiority with an optimum balance between humans and machines. Smartly investing in military robot systems of the future will help the US maintain the technical edge it needs.