Making Our Existence Better with S&T

By Charles Mueller

Imagine a world where there is no such thing as a genetic disease, a world where nobody dies of cancer, takes insulin shots for diabetes or loses their life’s memories from Alzheimer’s. Imagine a world where you can learn anything instantly. Imagine a world where you don’t have to worry about how many times you go to the gym per week because your cells work naturally to keep you in better shape. Imagine a world where we control our existence and anything is possible.

Let’s create that world.

Who we are today and the world we live in have only been made possible because of our continued belief in science & technology (S&T). As we have continued to invest our time and resources into S&T, we have continually been given better knowledge and tools to help us understand and navigate our world. S&T has helped us create a world that a few centuries ago would have been pure fantasy. A world where people can fly over oceans, communicate instantly with the touch of a button and prevent contracting a deadly disease by simply taking a shot. We live in a truly awesome time thanks to S&T and as long as we continue to invest and believe in it, it will only help us make the future better.

There are several areas of S&T today that are working day and night to figure out the next great way to enhance our existence, to make our lives better. Advancements in the development of neurotechnologies are making a future possible where people can communicate and access any information with just our thoughts. New developments and applications of biotechnologies are beginning to provide real solutions to things like world hunger and genetic disease. We have always had control of our existence, but today’s world of S&T has given us a level of control we’ve never had before, a level where anything is possible. In such a world, it becomes up to us to figure out what the next chapter in our existence will be.

We need to approach the next phase in our existence with the kind of wisdom that is required for the control we have. With tools that can help us create the world we envision, it is important we have a vision of what that world should be. Without a strategy we open up the real possibility of making things worse rather than better. We can strain out those bad realities and make only the good ones possible with if we elect leaders who understand this new reality and have a real strategy for creating a better future. The right leaders can ensure we have the right policies for investments into S&T and are using the right S&T to make policies that will create the world we want.

Imagine the world you want to be a part of. Imagine a future where that world is possible. Then remember we live at time when we can start making that happen.

Let’s create that world. Let’s make our existence better.

New Intelligence

by Paul Syers

Who’s ready to be a cyborg? I am! In discussions about the future of intelligence, most people think about A.I. or bioengineering. With both technologies, people worry about the dangerous consequences. I see promise, however, in a third option: human enhancement through electronics. In today’s society, we have already developed a symbiotic relationship with technology. Why not embrace that symbiosis and enhance it for the betterment of mankind?

Instead of worrying about developing an independent intelligence in a computer that could one day overpower humanity, why not develop ways to use computers like just another organ? I imagine a future where our brains can interact directly with multiple soft A.I. programs, allowing us to outsource many functions – like sensory systems, memory storage, and data mining – while still using the human brain to retain overall awareness and analytic control.

Unlike genetic engineering, this type of intelligence augmentation would have the advantage of not being permanent. Humans could plug into and unplug out of the added capabilities. This allows us to continue to answer the question of “what it means to be human” on an individual level. Those who reject augmentation can opt out at any time and we can build in ways to reasonably prevent people from forcing augmentation on others.

Some might argue that intelligence augmented in this way is not human intelligence They cannot deny, however, that at least some part of it is human, and at least in the earliest stages, the human part will have control. Eventually this path leads to the ability to fully download a human brain into a computer, but there is much more understanding we can gain along the way.

There will still tough questions to answer, such as how best to provide access, how to ensure some amount of fairness, and who owns the products of augmented intellects. I think these questions, however, will be much easier to reach a consensus on than the questions brought up by fully independent A.I. or radical genetic manipulation. I see this hybrid approach as containing the possibility to create something that is better than the sum of its parts, while at the same time lessening the consequences of failure.

We already have many of the tools and knowledge to move in this direction. Microelectronics are more than cheap, small, and light enough. Advancements in prosthetics and other R&D projects are discovering how to make electronics talk to neurons. The research being done through the BRAIN initiative could also be harnessed to help us reach this goal, but sadly it is not. Mapping the brain is a noble goal, but it won’t lead to the advancements in medical technologies that it promises. Similar promises about curing diseases and genetic defects were made at the outset of the Human Genome Project and they have not materialized. With just a minor shift in the goals and policy of the BRAIN initiative, we could reap so many more benefits. Let’s do it, so that in a few years I can read this blog post directly on my retina.

Internet Providers Are Now ‘Common Carriers’: What Does That Mean For You?

Jennifer McArdle

On February 26, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted in favor of reclassifying broadband Internet Service Providers (ISP) as ‘common carriers’ under Title II of the 1996 Telecommunications Act by a 3 to 2 vote. So what does that mean for you?

Well, it depends on who the ‘you’ is, because that answer differs based on whether you are a regular consumer of Internet content, a provider of Internet content, or an ISP. However, essentially, this ruling is about net neutrality—the ability to access the Internet free of discrimination. So let’s break this down a bit.

Prior to the February 26 ruling, ISP’s were regulated under Title I of the 1996 Telecommunications Act and classified as “information services.” The FCC also put in place specific anti-blocking and non-discrimination rules as part of their 2010 Open Internet Order. Basically, the FCC was attempting to ensure two things: one, that ISPs could not block or deny consumers access to an Internet site of their choosing, and two, that ISPs could not create a tiered access system, with higher paying users accessing the Internet on a ‘fast-lane’ while others are regulated to a ‘slow-lane.’

In January 2014, Verizon, one of the largest ISP’s, sued the government and challenged the FCC’s regulations designed to implement net neutrality. The US Court of Appeals, DC Circuit upheld the FCC authority to use section 706 of the Telecommunications Act to regulate the Internet; however, it struck down the specific anti-blocking and anti-discrimination measures, giving Verizon the leeway to disregard the FCC’s rules. Five months later, the FCC issued a notice of proposed rulemaking on the Internet regulatory structure, which eventually received over 4 million public comments, the large majority of which were in favor of net neutrality. This set the stage for the FCC’s ruling last month.

By defining ISP’s as common carriers, the FCC is essentially defining broadband Internet service providers as a utility. They are mandated by government to provide the same service to everyone without discrimination—much like electricity and gas services.

So, what does that mean for you?

You, the content consumer

By classifying ISP’s as common carriers the FCC has banned ‘paid prioritization’—there will be no fast lanes and slow lanes of the Internet. And this is a good thing for the average consumer. Last June, John Oliver on his show Last Week Tonight (which is well worth watching) noted that 96% of Americans have access to two or fewer cable companies. That means that even if your Internet was being delayed or distorted you may not have the option to change to another provider.

Moreover, privacy advocates have noted that in order for ISP’s to play bandwidth favorites, they need to monitor what you are doing online via deep packet inspection. While deep packet inspection is certainly important to protect against nefarious viruses or malware, it can, under certain circumstances, lead to invasions of privacy. Defining ISP’s as ‘common carriers’ helps prevent against that.

The FCC resolution is designed to ensure that you the average content consumer— regardless if you consume high- or low-bandwidth—has access to Internet content free of discrimination, much like your access to other facilities deemed essential for public life, such as canals, rails, and the telephone.

You, the content producer

Last year, Netflix consumers noticed that there was far more buffering of Netflix content. That is because broadband providers insisted that Netflix users were consuming much of the available Internet bandwidth and therefore the ISP’s slowed it down. Netflix reluctantly agreed to pay interconnection fees to broadband providers in order to ensure its content consumers could stream its videos. Netflix, not surprisingly, is for net neutrality.

However, it is not just the giant content producers that stand to benefit from this ruling. President Obama has noted that ‘paid prioritization’ stacks the deck against small content producing companies, which are unable to challenge the dominance of Internet giants such as Twitter, Facebook, and Netflix.

Defining ISP’s as ‘common carriers’ ensures that content producers are not held hostage to ‘last mile Internet gatekeepers’ and can ensure their content reaches consumers free from bias.

You, the ISP

Not surprisingly, this ruling was not the best for ISP’s who stand to make money from a tiered Internet access system. Moreover, opponents to net neutrality argue that if broadband ISPs cannot collect fees from companies who take up an outsized portion of bandwidth, they lose the incentive to invest in maintaining and upgrading their current infrastructure. This may indeed be true.

The Future?

While the February ruling seemed to settle the debate on net neutrality, it may really be just beginning. The Title II ruling is not set in stone yet and it is already beginning to be legally challenged on the Hill. What that means for ‘you’ may fundamentally change in the months to come.

The New ADD: Attention Deficit Drivers

Charles Mueller

What do a bullet fired from a gun, and a car with a distracted driver behind the wheel have in common? They are both metallic objects traveling at high speeds with the potential to kill anything in their path. When you drive distracted you are basically turning your car into a massive stray bullet. Think about that. If you are traveling at 55 mph and you take your eyes off the road for 5 seconds, then you will have just driven the length of a football field essentially blind. It’s dangerous and irresponsible. We need better laws and rules to discourage distracted driving.

When people think about distracted driving, most people think about texting. I’m guilty of this and everyone I know is too, despite the fact we’ve all heard horror stories about what can happen when people text and drive. One of the more publicized ones is about teenager Liz Marks, a former model who in her own words uses her cell phone “…every second, every minute, every hour”. Liz Marks was distracted by an incoming text from her mother and slammed into the back of a stopped tow truck while she was trying to read it.  Liz survived the crash, but she is no longer a model for beauty, she’s a model for not texting and driving. She is blind in one eye, cannot smell, is partially deaf, and has a scar down the left side of her face forever reminding her of that tragic day.

Distracted Driving

The sad part is Liz’s story isn’t unique. In 2012 alone, there were an estimated 421,000 people injured (and 3,328 killed) in motor vehicle crashes involving a distracted driver. The DOT describes distracted driving as any activity that is not focused on driving the car; this implies texting, talking, eating, drinking, grooming, adjusting the radio, or even using the GPS. People have been eating, drinking and listening to the radio in cars for more than half a century so distracted driving isn’t new. If it is not new, then why is it so much more of a problem today?

In stories like Liz’s, the main culprit wasn’t so much the phone as it was her instinct to check her phone as soon as it buzzed. When Liz described what her phone meant to her she said, “If I didn’t have it (her phone) I would freak out because I couldn’t connect with my friends”. Thanks to companies like Facebook, social life has never been more important to most than it is today and our phones are direct access into this world.  When we can connect to so many people, so rapidly, it means we are constantly pressuring ourselves to be “available”; we continuously feel the need to check-in. Maybe that is why since the year 2000, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, human beings average attention span dropped from 12 seconds to 8 seconds (one second shorter than a goldfish).

Think about what this means. Without any distractions in the car, human beings today are more dangerous on the road than they were 15 years ago simply because we can’t focus on the road for as long as we used to. There is science that backs this claim and shows that people with attention problems are at a higher risk of car crashes than those that are not.  Furthermore, the latest neuroscience is helping us understand why. When we look at the brains of distracted drivers we see that they are literally disengaging their brain from the task of driving; this is the same as saying that when we are distracted and driving we may as well be sitting in the passenger seat with cruise control on.

I know this sounds crazy, but Liz Marks is lucky. She is lucky to be alive and lucky she ran into a tow truck, and not a crosswalk full of people. She knows this and is a now huge advocate against texting and driving. Her words to the world are, “If you get a text, don’t look at it. It’s not worth it.” Her story is powerful and her message is strong, but it’s not going to stop people from texting and driving unfortunately. What we need are federal regulations and laws that make the consequences of certain acts of distracted driving, like texting, on par with the consequences of drinking and driving. This seems logical since the evidence suggests the risks are the same. We should also make it a requirement to incorporate some sort of distracted driving test into the process of obtaining a state issued drivers license. We require a vision test in order to get a drivers license, and if you are impaired we stamp your license to let the world know. Driving while distracted is the same as driving blind, so why aren’t we testing for this?

Liz Marks story tells it all.  It’s time we focus our attention on keeping ourselves safe.  Don’t get distracted by the side issues. The science is clear and we need a federal policy to protect our citizens from the dangers of distracted driving.

Let’s Make It Personal

Brian Barnett

We need to take a national investment in the health of our nation seriously. The President’s new Precision Medicine Initiative needs to coordinate with the existing BRAIN Initiative, develop a technology roadmap, and boost its funding in order to make good on the promise of personalized medical treatments for all. A piecemeal approach, with modest investment in personalized medicine and an even smaller, separate investment in understanding the brain, are completely insufficient means to achieving success.

The listed investments for the Precision Medicine Initiative are focused on administrative and infrastructural processes, which are only one piece of puzzle. These infrastructure investments are just as applicable to the BRAIN Initiative because neuroscience research is facing its own issues in data acquisition and interoperability. Serious coordination between these two Initiatives will make big data biology a reality.

Achieving personalized medicine and unlocking the mysteries of the brain will absolutely require new tools. Infrastructure is important, but these systems alone will not lead to success. Data sharing is no substitute for new research tools and technologies. We need improvements in genetic analysis and high resolution imaging technologies if we want to improve our level of care for our loved ones. A roadmap for the research directions of these Initiatives will provide insight into the kinds of technologies that can be developed and then enable even more successful research.

With the right investment, the Precision Medicine Initiative and the BRAIN Initiative will be great pathways to our better future. The President’s proposed 2016 budget puts only 1% of all discretionary spending into science funding. A total investment that matches America’s previous national investment successes (including the Apollo program and the National Nanotechnology Initiative) would require at least $4 billion per year. This is 20 times more than what we are currently investing in each field of neuroscience and personalized medicine. The time is now to build on these initiatives and to ensure their success. Coordinating the BRAIN Initiative and the Precision Medicine Initiative, developing impactful new technologies, and investing heavily in neuroscience and biology are the only way to deliver personalized medicine to each of us.

The 28th Amendment: Part 1 – The World is Watching You

Charles Mueller

In the very near future, everything you do, everything you say, and everything you think will be monitored, studied, and analyzed in order to understand what makes you ‘tick’.

Look no further than the infamous story about how Target figured out a father’s teenage daughter was pregnant before he did. By closely monitoring this young girl’s spending habits, Target was able to predict this girl was pregnant and send her coupons for diapers. This ability is not malicious in any way, it is just a new kind of creepy. It becomes a little more creepy when you realize there currently are not any rules or laws in place to protect us from someone using this same type of personal data mining to try and do something like raise your health insurance premium because your shopping habits suggest you are eating unhealthy. How exactly are we going to ensure that these capabilities are only being used to enhance our society rather than take advantage of it? Our leaders today are not taking this issue seriously and it means that we need to take matters into our own hands. A good start may to be to push for a constitutional right to own the digital information we produce (our data) when we engage with the world through the Internet.

The Internet has revolutionized how marketers and advertisers communicate their messages to individuals and consumers. This has all been enabled by the exponential increase in data produced by individuals using digital technologies like smart phones. Our every move in the digital world is tracked and the data collected by what the marketing industry calls a 3rd party data company, such as Axciom; essentially a big data crunching machine that finds patterns that help marketers and advertisers understand what makes us do the things we do. Many of us have no idea we are opting in to this type of profiling nor do we care because often it is used to sell us things that we believe we want.

The digital technologies that make it all possible will continue to evolve and this type of individual targeting will become easier as more users wear their devices.  Big data is no longer just assisting marketers; it is defining how they approach their jobs. How will the world change when big data can be used to create targeted, personalized digital content in real-time? How far away is a future where my commute to work is so well analyzed by big data companies that they can generate and deliver messages at the most opportune times to get me to buy Starbucks coffee instead of Dunkin Donuts?

It will be an incredible power to be able to deliver an optimized message that makes an individual “act” in response to receiving that message. Who decides what messages are sent through all the various digital platforms that are becoming more ubiquitous in our lives? We have already seen the influence big data and social media can have on a presidential election. Will future presidents be elected because they literally raised the most money? Will access to my thoughts simply be granted to the highest bidder? Who is making sure those watching and studying my digital life are using that information for things that are in my best interest?

The role of the government is and has always been to protect its citizens’ rights. In the digital future, the most precious trait of the citizen may be their data. Ensuring that individuals have a constitutional right to own their data could be a way to protect consumers from potential practices of malicious real-time big data analysis. Data ownership will only make it easier to take advantage of the current methods that allow users to opt in or opt out of the powerful targeting mechanisms continually being developed. Having the power to share your data with certain companies could become a type of voting system; you share your data with companies who use it to enhance your experiences and deny it to those who do not.

The digital age is rapidly evolving and the agencies that historically advise Congress on issues regarding consumer protection still have not figured out how to properly respond. We need leaders who understand this and are willing to create policies that protect us. Establishing the ownership of digital data to the citizen is a potential step in the right direction. The 28th Amendment to the Constitution should state that we have the right to own our data.

 

Access Granted

Kathy Goodson

If the most diligent and efficient way to provide public information to citizens is through the Internet, then Internet access should be free. Free access to information is not only a right, but it is also an integral component of the government’s responsibility in creating informed citizens. The government provides multiple quality-controlled ways to access public information. This includes, but is not limited to, physical records at city hall, public hearings, and free public records databases. However, as the government continues to digitize public information, a new approach to providing access to this public information will be necessary. An approach that requires all citizens to have access to the Internet will ensure the public retains free access to the information found in places and documents such as libraries, public reports, and phone books.

Phone books and pay phones are examples of free access to public information. It is archaic that we still print in such high volumes. In Chicago alone, 1.2 million phone books were distributed this year. Supporters argue that greater than 50% of all Americans still use phone books, but every unwanted phone book incurs a fine for the phone company. The remaining 50% of Americans have a better resource to find public information in their pocket, their smartphone. Just like traditional public pay phones (when is the last time you saw one of those?), phone books are slowly being phased out for their smartphone counterparts. The smartphone gives us the functionality of the payphone and the information of the phone book all in one small portable device. Yes, there are great arguments for the use of pay phones including ensured access to phone services for those who can’t afford them. However, there is an equally compelling argument to provide public information to everyone in the most responsible, effective, and productive manner possible. Free Internet access as a means for public information would support that goal.

An educated public is vital to the existence of our democracy. Accordingly, the government has historically advocated literacy through institutions like the public library. However, traditional forms of free access to public information are no longer the most convenient or productive. Court records, marriage licenses, and phone books are all better utilized in electronic formats. The shift toward electronic repositories is becoming the norm. Legal electronic documents with electronic signatures are considered just as valid a their handwritten counterparts. Security clearances are digital from the initial application to the fingerprinting process. Shouldn’t we extrapolate these digitized models, such as the security clearance process, into all forms of public information? However, in order to do this successfully, Internet access has to be free everywhere, all the time. To achieve free Internet access in a quality-controlled manner, management by the government, as with other forms of outsourced dissemination of public information, will be required.

Hence, the government should supply reliable free Internet access to the masses everywhere. The hope is that public access to government information increases or at minimum maintains public literacy. Lack of access to government information debilitates people from interacting with the local, state, and federal government. The government is well aware of and has even made preparation for America’s Digital Age. Last year, a panel from the National Academy of Public Administration put out a report with 15 recommendations regarding ways to better position the federal government in our digital society for the Government Printing Office. While the recommendations prompt the retention and safeguard of digital documents, and the continued mandate of free public access, it does not focus on how this access will be given to the masses. If there is a shifting tide in how the masses obtain their access to government information, the government should be able to accommodate the need. The requirement to meet this need is competent and successful access. Thus, Internet access should be free. This ensures that the free government repositories of public information remain totally free and available.