Rejecting Nature – and Breastfeeding

Far away into the future, when people look back at the 20th century, they’ll say that it was the century when mankind has truly begun rejecting Nature.

What is “Nature”? That term, which some of us regard so highly today, is simply the current products of an ongoing evolutionary process – just the same as us. Human beings are a similar product of an evolutionary process which has left us with physical, hormonal and mental characteristics that have served us well in the prehistorical past, but are far from beneficial in our present society.

The most impressive way in which we’ve rejected Nature in the 20th century is probably with the invention and proliferation of use of birth control measures.

The 20th century has seen women reject Nature with the establishment of the first permanent birth-control clinic in 1921, where women were taught how to use a cervical cap, in a time when distribution of birth control information was illegal by law in the United States. In 1957, the FDA approved the first contraceptive pill to be taken orally, but only “for severe menstrual disorders,” which has led to an unusually large number of women suddenly reporting severe menstrual disorders. Those women were desperate to escape the decrees of Nature which have been enforced on their bodies without their willingness or consent. Just how much do they want that? According to a series of 2012 surveys in developing countries, the number of women who want to avoid pregnancy has reached 867 million out of 1520 million, or 57%. Many of those women want to promote their careers or expand their education before having a child. In short, they want to fulfill their potential as human beings instead of plodding blindly along the path evolution has set for them. They want to choose for themselves.

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The first birth control clinic in the United States. Source: Everett Collection, as posted in Time

Society, of course, has been trying to hold them back in the meantime. While it is no longer illegal to use contraceptives, the clergy is still speaking harshly against such practices. Even the currently reigning Pope Francis has not authorized the use of contraceptives, and Pope Pius XII explained in 1951 that the teaching against contraceptives –

“is in full force today, as it was in the past, and so will be in the future also, and always, because it is not a simple human whim, but the expression of a natural and divine law

 

Natural Breastfeeding?

Society keeps on holding people to the standards of that ‘natural and divine law’, even if those human beings aren’t catholic. Breastfeeding, for example, has been promoted in recent decades as contributing to the baby’s health, wellbeing and development. Now new evidence begins to appear that contradicts some of these claims. Specifically, it seems studies from the last 25 years that have compared between breastfed babies and non-breastfed ones, have not ruled out some important economic, social and cultural confounding factors. When those factors are taken into account, it turns out that breastfeeding is marginally better, at best, for babies.

Does that mean women shouldn’t breastfeed? Of course not. There are plenty of studies out there showing that breastfeeding has benefits for mothers as well as for babies. But we shouldn’t forget that it has its share of issues as well: for many it’s a painful, stressful and time-consuming exercise, making it difficult for women to continue advancing their careers, education and yes, their sex lives too. This is a noble sacrifice many mothers make – but what if it’s not needed after all? What if our technology has already improved formulas enough to replace breastfeeding with no damage to babies?

I fear that even in that case, many people will remain convinced that “breast is best”. Why? They will say that it’s natural, that it’s just the way Nature designed us. And they won’t consider that just a hundred years ago, it was deemed unnatural and illegal for women to use contraceptives, and that two hundred years ago life-saving vaccines were considered unnatural too.

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“Breast is Best” ad by PETA

This all means that we need to be more suspicious towards arguments that advocate for the ‘natural means’. The scientific evidence for ‘breast is best’ for babies seems to have been shaky right from the outset, and I suspect that had it not resonated so well with our natural fallacy and bias, the scientific and medical establishment would not have accepted them as easily.

 

Conclusions

There is a widespread perception that Nature is an infallible and benevolent mistress. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Nature is that semi-random evolutionary process which has shaped us in ways that would’ve been beneficial (occasionally) ten-thousand years ago, but which now come into conflict with our modern values and ways of life. Every aspect of our biology and psych that is considered ‘natural’ should (and will) be scrutinized carefully in the 21st century, and if it does not fit our modern values – it should be reconsidered.

Does that mean we should tell women not to give birth to children, or to avoid breastfeeding them? Of course not. We should, however, give them the choice over their bodies.

Even though, you know, that sort of thinking would’ve been considered unnatural a hundred years ago.

 

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The New Age of Conspiracies

Last week, the most famous monster in the world has finally been discovered: Nessie, the Loch Ness monster, has been found. It is nine meters long, with a long and truly monstrous neck. The abomination currently resides some 200 meters below the surface of the water, where it is waiting for no one in particular. Because, you see, it’s a film prop.

The prop was built for a Sherlock Holmes movie back in 1969, and unfortunately sunk below the surface and never came back up. It has now been discovered by an underwater drone equipped with sonar imaging, operated by Norwegian company Kongsberg Maritime.

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Nessie, underwater. Source: Kongsberg Maritime

This is an amusing story, of course, but it holds tantalizing hints to the future of conspiracies in a world that is rapidly becoming transparent. In a not-so-distant future, we are going to have drones and satellites mapping out every piece of land on Earth, whether it be at the North Pole, in the deepest Amazonian jungles, or on the bottom of the ocean. We are going to be better acquainted with the Earth than ever before.

Robotic drones will not be the only ones to watch over the Earth. We will take part in that venture, too.

In the past, if you would’ve observed a UFO in the sky, or an Abominable Snowman with big feet, or a vampire draining its victim’s blood, you would’ve needed to run away swiftly to get your bulky camera and obtain a proof for the thing you saw. Today, everyone has a smartphone with a high-quality camera in their pockets. Citizens document police brutality, gang wars, and random acts of kindness using these devices. And yet, despite the fact that suddenly everyone can record anything they see, no reliable evidence for the existence of UFOs, yetis or (living) Loch Ness monsters has come up.

The lack of evidence, in an age when everything becomes known, does not seem to bother the general public. A 2012 survey revealed that 36 percent of the American population believe that UFOs are real, which is approximately the same number as uncovered in a Canadian 2008 survey. This is hardly surprising: we’ve only had smartphones for nine years now, and society has not yet reshaped its myths around the idea that anything that happens in the corporeal world is bound to be recorded and analyzed.

In the long term, however, cryptozoology – the search for mythical creatures – will become obsolete and subject to ridicule, even more than it is today.

But conspiracy theories will live on. In fact, they may even become more powerful than they currently are.

 

The Future of Conspiracies

Conspiracy theories have no formal definition accepted by all, but for the purpose of this post we can accept Sunstein and Vermeule’s definition that they are –

“…an effort to explain some event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people, who have also managed to conceal their role.”

Conspiracies are often used by human beings to explain why bad things happen. We are, after all, rational animals, and we look for reasons for everything that happens around us. We search for patterns and for stories that fit those patterns. For example, we have a tendency towards proportionality bias – our automatic belief that big events, like the JFK assassination, must be related to big causes and can’t be the result of a work of a single madman.

Conspiracy theorists also rely on cherry picking – taking a large volume of information and picking out of it the pieces which support a certain pattern while ignoring the rest.

In the future, we will have an abundance of data. However, data does not lead automatically to insights, knowledge and understanding. These rely on careful analysis of the data, usually performed by experts who understand how to suggest and falsify hypotheses and how to differentiate between authentic readings and noise. The plethora in data, therefore, will lead to plenty of ‘evidence’ which conspiracy theorists will use to support their ideas.

 

Why Should You Be Concerned?

Why should this development concern you? Because conspiracy theories can proliferate rapidly in the online world and on social networks. If you’re a business or a government agency that releases data to the public, you should be aware that some conspiracy theorists will mine that data someday. When they do – they will find some correlations there that they could use to support their ideas. And when they find those and post them online, you can expect twitstorm, a Facebook massively shared post, or a viral Youtube clip – all of which will severely damage the reputation of your organization.

To counter that threat, businesses and government agencies should start developing a new role: an anti-conspiracy officer. It is not enough to rely on the new-media experts to calm a twitstorm – they know how to use the medium, but they don’t have the necessary understanding of the content. Anti-conspiracy officers will need to work together with the new-media experts to counter new conspiracy theories by providing correct analyses of the existing data, and presenting them in a way that everyone can understand.

Today, we have public intellectuals – calling themselves Skeptics – as such anti-conspiracy officers acting on behalf of the public. These include Steven Novella, Neil deGrasse Tyson, PZ Myers, and many others. As far as I’m aware, they do not receive compensation for companies or from governments for their time and effort handling conspiracy theories on social networks in real-time.

Maybe it’s time to start funding these skeptical exercises in a more organized way.

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The Skeptic Trumps. Source: The Reason Stick

Conclusions

We gain better and more powerful tools to record and document everything that’s going on in the world, but most of humanity still does not have the necessary thinking tools and methods to derive valuable and truthful insights out of the collected data. Conspiracies will likely thrive in this environment, but we can hinder their proliferation and growth on the internet by educating the public.

Don’t Tell Me Not To Make Love with My Robot

Pepper is one of the most sophisticated household robots in existence today. It has a body shape that reminds one of a prepubescent child, only reaching a height of 120 centimeters, and with a tablet on its chest. It constantly analyzes its owner’s emotions according to their speech, facial expressions and gestures, and responds accordingly. It also learns – for example, by analyzing which modes of behavior it can enact in order to make its owner feel better. It can even use its hands to hug people.

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Pepper the Robot. Source: The Monitor Daily.

No wonder that when the first 1,000 Pepper units were offered for sale in Japan for $1,600, they were all sold in one minute. Pepper is now the most famous household robot in the world.

Pepper is probably also the only robot you’re not allowed to have sex with.

According to the contract, written in Japanese legal speak and translated to English, users are not allowed to perform –

“(4) Acts for the purpose of sexual or indecent behavior, or for the purpose of associating with unacquainted persons of the opposite sex.”

What does this development mean? Here is the summary, in just three short points.

 

First Point: Is Pepper Being Used for Surveillance?

First, one has to wonder just how SoftBank, the robot’s distributors in Japan, is going to keep tabs on whether the robot has been sexually used or not. Since Pepper’s price includes a $200 monthly “data and insurance fee”, it’s a safe bet that every Pepper unit is transmitting some of its data back to SoftBank’s servers. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: as I’ve written in Four Robot Myths it’s Time We Let Go of, robots can no longer be seen as individual units. Instead, they are a form of a hive brain, relying on each other’s experience and insights to guide their behavior. In order to do that, they must be connected to the cloud.

This is obviously a form of surveillance. Pepper is sophisticated enough to analyze its owner’s emotions and responses, and can thus deliver a plethora of information to SoftBank, advertisers and even government authorities. The owners could probably activate a privacy mode (if there’s not a privacy mode now, it will almost certainly be added in the near future by common demand), but the rest of the time their behavior will be under close scrutiny. Not necessarily because SoftBank is actually interested in what you’re doing in your houses, but simply because it wants to improve the robots.

And, well, also because it may not want you to have sex with them.

This is where things get bizarre. It is almost certainly the case that if SoftBank wished to, it could set up a sex alarm to blare up autonomously if Pepper is repeatedly exposed to sexual acts. There doesn’t even have to be a human in the loop – just train the AI engine behind Pepper on a large enough number of porn and erotic movies, and pretty soon the robot will be able to tell by itself just what the owner is dangling in front of its cameras.

The rest of the tale is obvious: the robot will complain to SoftBank via the cloud, but will do so without sharing any pictures or videos it’s taken. In other words, it won’t share information but only its insights and understandings of what’s been going on in that house. SoftBank might issue a soft warning to the owner, asking it to act more coyly around Pepper. If such chastity alerts keep coming up, though, SoftBank might have to retrieve Pepper from that house. And almost certainly, it will not allow other Pepper units to learn from the one that has been exposed to sexual acts.

And here’s the rub: if SoftBank wants to keep on developing its robots, they must learn from each other, and thus they must be connected to the cloud. But as long as SoftBank doesn’t want them to learn how to engage in sexual acts, it will have to set some kind of a filter – meaning that the robots will have to learn to recognize sexual acts, and refuse to talk about them with other robots. And silence, in the case of an always-operational robot, is as good as any testimony.

So yes, SoftBank will know when you’re having sex with Pepper.

I’ve written extensively in the past about the meaning of private property being changed, as everything are being connected to the cloud. Tesla are selling you a car, but they still control some parts of it. Google are selling you devices for controlling your smart house – which they then can (and do) shut down from a distance. And yes, SoftBank is selling you a robot which becomes your private property – as long as you don’t do anything with it that SoftBank doesn’t like you to.

And that was only the first point.

 

Second Point: Is Sex the Answer, or the Question?

There’s been some public outrage recently about sex with robots, with an actual campaign against using robots as sex objects. I sent the leaders of the campaign, Kathleen Richardson and Erik Brilling, several questions to understand the nature of their issues with the robots. They have not answered my questions, but according to their campaign website it seems that they equate ‘robot prostitution’ with human prostitution.

“But robots don’t feel anything.” You might say now. “They don’t have feelings, or dignity of their own. Do they?”

Let’s set things straight: sexual abuse is among the most horrible things any human can do to another. The abuser is causing both temporary and permanent injury to the victim’s body and mind. That’s why we call it an abuse. But if there are no laws to protect a robot’s body, and no mind to speak of, why should we care whether someone uses a robot in a sexual way?

Richardson’s and Brilling basically claim that it doesn’t matter whether the robots are actually experiencing the joys of coitus or suffering the ignominy of prostitution. The mere fact that people will use robots in the shape of children or women for sexual release will serve to perpetuate our current society model in which women and children are being sexually abused.

Let’s approach the issue from another point of view, though. Could sex with robots actually prevent some cases of sexual abuse?

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… Or lovers? Source: Redsilverj

Assuming that robots can provide a high-quality sexual experience to human beings, it seems reasonable that some pent-up sexual tensions can be relieved using sex robots. There are arguments that porn might actually deter sexual violence, and while the debate is nowhere near to conclusion on that point, it’s interesting to ask: if robots can actually relieve human sexual tensions, and thus deter sexual violence against other human beings – should we allow that to happen, even though it objectifies robots, any by association, women and children as well?

I would wait for more data to come in on this subject before I actually advocate for sex with robots, but in the meantime we should probably refrain from making judgement on people who have sex with robots. Who knows? It might actually serve a useful purpose even in the near future. Which brings me to the third point –

 

Third Point: Don’t You Tell Me Not to have Sex with MY Robot

And really, that’s all there is to it.

 

When Reality Changes More Quickly than Science Fiction

Brandon Sanderson is one of my favorite fantasy and science fiction authors. He is producing new books in an incredible pace, and his writing quality does not seem to suffer for it. The first book in his recent sci-fi trilogy, Steelheart from The Reckoners series, was published in September 2013. Calamity, the third and last book in the same series was published in February 2016. So just three years passed between the first and the last book in the series.

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The Reckoners trilogy. Source: Brittany Zelkovich

The books themselves describe a post-apocalyptic future, around ten years away from us. In the first book, the hero lives in the most technologically advanced cities in the world, with electricity, smartphones, and sophisticated technology at his disposal. Sanderson describes sophisticated weapons used by the police forces in the city, including laser weapons and even mechanized war suits. By the third book, our hero reaches another technologically-advanced outpost of humanity, and suddenly is surrounded by weaponized aerial drones.

You may say that the first city chose not to use aerial drones, but that explanation is a bit sketchy, as anyone who has read the books can testify. Instead, it seems to me that in the three years that passed since the original book was published, aerial drones finally made a large enough impact on the general mindset, that Sanderson could no longer ignore them in his vision of a future. He realized that his readers would look askance at any vision of the future that does not include mention of aerial drones of some kind. In effect, the drones have become part of the way we think about the future. We find it difficult to imagine a future without them.

Usually, our visions of the future change relatively slowly and gradually. In the case of the drones, it seems that within three years they’ve moved from an obscure technological item to a common myth the public shares about the future.

Science fiction, then, can show us what people in the present expect the future to look like. And therein lies its downfall.

 

Where Science Fiction Fails

Science fiction can be used to help us explore alternative futures, and it does so admirably well. However, best-selling books must reach a wide audience, and to resonate with many on several different levels. In order to do that, the most popular science fiction authors cannot stray too far from our current notions. They cannot let go of our natural intuitions and core feelings: love, hate, the appreciation we have for individuality, and many others. They can explore themes in which the anti-hero, or The Enemy, defy these commonalities that we share in the present. However, if the author wants to write a really popular book, he or she will take care not to forego completely the reality we know.

Of course, many science fiction book are meant for ‘in-house’ audience: for the hard-core sci-fi audience who is eager to think beyond the box of the present. Alastair Reynolds in his Revelation Space series, for example, succeeds in writing sci-fi literature for this audience exactly. He’s writing stories that in many aspects transcend notions of individuality, love and humanity. And he’s paying the price for this transgression as his books (to the best of my knowledge) have yet to appear on the New York Times Best Seller list. Why? As one disgruntled reviewer writes about Reynolds’ book Chasm City

“I prefer reading a story where I root for the protagonist. After about a third of the way in, I was pretty disturbed by the behavior of pretty much everyone.”

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Highly popular sci-fi literature is thus forced to never let go completely of present paradigms, which sadly limits its use as a tool to developing and analyzing far-away futures. On the other hand, it’s conceivable that an annual analysis of the most popular sci-fi books could provide us with an understanding of the public state-of-mind regarding the future.

Of course, there are much easier ways to determine how much hype certain technologies receive in the public sphere. It’s likely that by running data mining algorithms on the content of technological blogs and websites, we would reach better conclusions. Such algorithms can also be run practically every hours of every day. So yeah, that’s probably a more efficient route to figuring out how the public views the future of technology.

But if you’re looking for an excuse to read science fiction novels for a purely academic reason, just remember you found it in this blog post.

 

 

Sorry, We’re Going to Shut down Your Smart House – Forever

Imagine that Microsoft announces tomorrow that it’s going to terminate the Windows brand. No more Windows, but at least no more Blue Screen of Death, too. The kill-command will be sent in one month from now, good luck with your life and we’re sorry for the inconvenience. Oh, and we can do that because the one-year warranty on the product has expired.

Does that seem legal to you? Or even more important: does it look like an ethical behavior? Do we, as a society, want companies to behave that way towards their customers?

Well, that is exactly what Google is doing right now: tapping into people’s houses and shutting down a certain piece of hardware which they acquired some time ago. The hardware in case is the Revolv smart home hub – a device used to control the house’s doors, lights, speakers and any other connected elements that exist in smart homes. The Revolv used to cost $299, with the price including the Revolv Hub, Revolv App, and a lifetime subscription. However, about 1.5 years ago Revolv was bought by Nest, which itself was bought by Google. Now, Google / Nest are terminating Revolv permanently.

I guess lifetimes just don’t last as much as they used to, nowadays.

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Revolv. Source: Gizmodo

To be clear, Google is not just terminating support for Revolv, or taking down the Revolv App. I could potentially accept that, even though it’s somewhat of a shaky ground. But Google is taking it one step further. Here’s what they write in their press release

“…we’re pouring all our energy into Works with Nest and are incredibly excited about what we’re making. Unfortunately, that means we can’t allocate resources to Revolv anymore and we have to shut down the service. As of May 15, 2016, your Revolv hub and app will no longer work.”

Notice the highlighted “your” Revolv hub. Can it really be called “your” device anymore, when Google can simply reach inside anytime and shut it down?

The press release includes a specific reference to warranty issues, claiming that

“…Our one-year warranty against defects in materials or workmanship has expired for all Revolv products.”

I’m going to hazard a guess that Google’s lawyers have looked into the contract, the terms and conditions and all the rest of the legalese talk needed for this decision to become public. In other words, there’s a good chance that the law allows this kind of behavior. It seems absurd – the general use of the term warranty says nothing about intentional sabotage of the device by the people in charge maintaining it – but maybe it’s legal. Maybe.

But it can’t possibly be ethical.

Of course, ethics are dictated by the norms of society. If Google’s behavior is tolerated, that means the norms of society themselves are changing.

In fact, that’s exactly what’s happening.

As I mentioned in a previous post in this blog, remote updates and cloud services lead us into a new kind of economy, where firms no longer sell their products but actually lease them to the customers without saying that outright. Tesla sells us a computer in the shape of a car, but can then update and make alterations to the software controlling the vehicle. Microsoft sells you a Windows operating system, and can badger you for eternity when the time comes for you to update into a new model. And yes, one company can sell you a piece of hardware, and two years later send a kill-command to the device in your home.

 

Why Is This Bad for You?

Why is this kind of behavior bad for the consumer? Actually, it’s not that harmful as long as firms are under legal obligation to take care of the devices they sell, unlike what Google is doing now. However, even in that case there could be an added complication. In the new winner takes all digital economy, there are usually only one or two big winners in every field. Facebook, for example, has no competitors in the social media world in English. Likewise, eighty percent of internet users rely on Google as their primary search engine. Amazon and Alibaba are competing with each other with 304 and 350 million customers respectively, and no real competition other than each other.

What happens, then, when one of these major service providers decides to shut down the lights on one of their projects? Or if hackers gain control over one of those globe-spanning services, due to the centralized nature of the service providers? There is no real and immediate alternative for many of the winner takes all digital services. The users will find themselves stranded without the products they’ve become reliant on.

You may say that the free market will make sure that companies won’t vanquish winning services. You may be right, but just realizing that companies have the power to do that should make you think. Google can, hypothetically, shut down Gmail tomorrow, or at least by the end of the year. How do we make sure that in a decade from now, Google won’t be able to also shut down your smart house, or your smart car?

 

Conclusion

We’re heading into a new economy with new rules for big firms. At this time of change, it is inevitable that some companies – including Google – will test the new surroundings to find out just how much they can get away with. A line needs to be drawn between releasing firms from their past commitment to certain apps and services, and between negatively reprogramming user end-devices.

And since the big firms are just getting larger and more influential every year, we should probably start drawing it today,

 

Lessons from the Panama Papers

Welcome to the world without secrets.

We’ve all known for decades that politicians have used tax shelters for money laundering purposes, to avoid paying tax in their countries, and to avoid being identified with companies they were affiliated with in the past. Now the cat is out of the sack, with a new leak called The Panama Papers.

The Panama Papers contain about 11.5 million highly confidential documents that have detailed information about the dealings of more than 214,000 offshore companies. Such companies are most often used for money laundering and for obscuring connections between assets and their owners. Offshore companies are particularly useful to politicians, many of whom are required to declare their interests and investments in companies, and are usually required by law to forego any such relations in order to prevent corruption.

It doesn’t look like that law is working too well.

BBC News covered the initial revealings from the Panama Papers in the following words –

“The documents show 12 current or former heads of state and at least 60 people linked to current or former world leaders in the data. They include the Icelandic Prime Minister, Sigmundur Gunnlaugson, who had an undeclared interest linked to his wife’s wealth and is now facing calls for his resignation. The files also reveal a suspected billion-dollar money laundering ring involving close associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin.”

According to Aamna Mohdin, the Panama Papers event is the largest leak to date by a fair margin. The source, whoever that is, sent more than 2.6 terabytes of information from the Panama based company Mossack Fonseca.

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Source: Atlas.

 

What lessons can we derive from the Panama Papers event?

 

Journalism vs. Government

The leaked documents have been passed directly to one of Germany’s leading newspapers, Süddeutsche Zeitung, which shared them with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). Altogether, 109 media organizations in 76 countries have been analyzing the documents over the last year.

This state of affairs begs the question: why weren’t national and international police forces involved in the investigation? The answer seems obvious: the ICIJ had good reason to believe that suspected heads of states would nip such investigation in the bud, and also alert Mossack Fonseca and its clients to the existence of the leak. In other words, journalists in 76 countries worked in secrecy under the noses of their governments, despite the fact that those very governments were supposed to help prevent international tax crimes.

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Artificial Intelligence can Help Fight Corruption

The amount of leaked documents is massive. No other word for it. As Wikipedia details –

The leak comprises 4,804,618 emails, 3,047,306 database format files, 2,154,264 PDFs, 1,117,026 images, 320,166 text files, and 2,242 files in other formats.

All of this data had to be indexed so that human beings could go through it and make sense of it. To do that, the documents were processed using optical character recognition systems that made the data machine-readable. Once the texts were searchable, the indexing was essentially performed automatically, with cross-matching of important persons with the relevant data.

Could this investigative act have been performed without having state of the art computers and optical character recognition systems? Probably, but it would’ve required a small army of analysts and investigators, and would’ve made the challenge practically impossible for anything less than a governmental authority to look into the matter. The advance in computer sciences has opened the road for the public (in this case spearheaded by the International Journalists Consortium) to investigate the rich and the powerful.

 

Where’s the Missing Information?

So far, there has been no mention of any American politician with offshore connections to Mossack Fonseca. Does that mean the American politicians are all pure and incorruptible? That doesn’t seem very likely. An alternative hypothesis, proposed on EoinHiggins.com, is that certain geopolitical conditions have made it difficult for Americans to use Panama as a tax shelter. But don’t you worry, folks: other financial firms in several countries are working diligently to provide tax shelters for Americans too.

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These tax shelters have always drawn some of the ire of the public, but never in a major way. The public in many countries has never realized just how much of its tax money was being robbed away for the benefit of those who could afford to pay for such services. As things become clearer now and public outrage begins to erupt, it is quite possible that governmental investigators will have to focus more of their attention on other tax shelter businesses. If that happens, we’ll probably see further revelations on many, many other politicians in upcoming years.

Which leads us to the last lesson learned: we’re going into…

 

A World without Secrets

Wikileaks has demonstrated that there can no longer be secrets in any dealings between diplomats. The Panama Papers show that financial dealings are just as vulnerable. The nature of the problem is simple: when information was stored on paper, leaks were limited in size according to the amount of physical documents that could be whisked away. In the digital world, however, terabytes of information containing millions of documents can be carried in a single external hard drive hidden in one’s pocket, or uploaded online in a matter of hours. Therefore, just one disgruntled employee out of thousands can leak away all of a company’s information.

Can any information be kept secret under these conditions?

The issue becomes even more complicated when you realize that the Mossack Fonseca leaker seems to have acted without any monetary incentive. Maybe he just wanted the information to reach the public, or to take revenge on Mossack Fonseca. Either way, consider how many others will do the same for money or because they’re being blackmailed by other countries. Can you actually believe that the Chinese have no spies in the American Department of Defense, or vice versa? Do you really think that the leaks we’ve heard about are the only ones that have happened?

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Conclusions

The world is rapidly being shaken free of secrets. The Panama Papers event is just one more link in the chain that leads from a world where almost everything was kept in the dark, to a world where everything is known to everyone.

If you think this statement is an exaggeration, consider that in the last five years alone, data breaches at Sony, Anthem, and eBay resulted in the information of more than 300 million customers being exposed to the world. When most of us hear about data breaches like these ones, we’re only concerned about whether our passwords have found their way into hackers’ hands. We tend to forget that the hackers – and anyone who buys the information from them for a dime – also obtain our names, family relations, places of residence, and details about our lives in general and what makes us tick. If you still believe that any information you have online (and maybe on your computer as well) can be kept secret for long, you’re almost certainly fooling yourself.

As the Panama Papers incident shows, this forced transparency does not necessarily have to be a bad thing. It helps us see things for what they are, and understand how the rich and powerful operate. Now the choice is left to us: will we try to go back to a world where everything is hidden away, and tell ourselves beautiful stories about our honest leaders – or will we accept reality and create and enforce better laws to combat tax shelters?

 

The Citizens Who Solve the World’s Problems

It’s always nice when news items that support each other and indicate a certain future appear in the same week, especially when each of them is exciting on its own. Last week we’ve seen this happening with three different news items:

  1. A scientific finding that a single bacteria type grows 60 percent better in space than on Earth. The germs used in the experiment were collected by the public;
  2. A new Kickstarter project for the creation of a DNA laboratory for everyone;
  3. A new project proposed on a crowdfunding platform, requesting public support for developing the means for rapid detection of Zika virus without the need for a laboratory in Brazil.

Let’s go over each to see how they all come together.

 

Space Microbes

Between the years 2012 and 2014, citizens throughout the United States collected bacteria samples from their environment using cotton swabs, and mailed them to the University of California Davis. Out of the large number of samples that arrived at the lab, 48 strains of germs were isolated and selected to be sent to space, on board the International Space Station (ISS). Most of the bacterial strains behaved similarly on Earth and in space. One strain, however, surpassed all expectations and proliferated rapidly, growing 60% better in space.

Does this mean that the bacteria, going by the name of Bacillus safensis, is better adapted for life in space? I would stay wary of such assertions. We don’t know yet whether the improved growth was a result of the micro-gravity conditions in the space stations, or of some other unquantified factor. It is entirely possible that the levels of humidity, oxygen concentrations, or the quality of the medium were somehow altered or changed on the space station. The result, in short, could easily be a fluke rather than an indicator that some bacteria can grow better in micro-gravity. We’ll have to wait for further evidence before reaching a final conclusion on this issue.

The most exciting thing for me here is that the bacteria in question was collected by the public, in a demonstration of the power of citizen science. People from all over America took part in the project, and as a result of their combined effort, the scientists ended up with a large number of strains, some of which they probably would not have thought to use in the first place. This is one of the main strengths of citizen science: providing many samples of research material for the scientists to analyze and experiment on.

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Study author Darlene Cavalier swabs the crack of the Liberty Bell to collect bacterial samples. Credit: CC by 4.0

DNA Labs for Everyone

Have you always wanted to check your own DNA? To find out whether you have a certain variant of a gene, or identify the animals whose meat appears in your hamburger? Well, now you can do that easily by ordering the Bento Lab: “A DNA laboratory for everyone”.

The laptop-sized lab includes a centrifuge for the extraction of DNA from biological samples, a PCR thermocycler to target specific DNA sequences, and an illuminated gel unit to visualize the results and ascertain whether or not the sample contains the DNA sequence you were looking after. All that, for the price of less than one thousand dollars. This is ridiculously cheap, particularly when you understand that similar lab equipment easily have cost tens of thousands of dollars just twenty years ago.

The Bento Lab - Citizen Science for DNA analysis
The Bento Lab

The Kickstarter project has already gained support from 395 backers, pledging nearly $150,000 to the cause, and surpassing the goal by 250% in just ten days. That’s an amazing progress for a project that’s really only suitable for hard-core makers and bio-hackers.

Why is the Bento Lab so exciting? Because it gives power to the people. The current model is very limited, but the next versions of mobile labs will contain better equipment and provide better capabilities to the bio-hackers who purchase them. You don’t have to be a futurist to say that – already there are other projects attempting to bring CRISPR technology for highly-efficient gene editing to the masses.

This, then, is a great example for the ways citizen science is going to keep on evolving: people won’t just collect bacterial samples in the streets and send them to distinguished scientists. Instead, private people – joes shmoes like you and me – will be able to experiment on these bacteria in their homes and garages.

Should you be scared? Obviously, yeah. The power to re-engineer biology is nothing to scoff at, and we will need to think up ways to regulate public bio-engineering. However, the public could also use this kind of power to contribute to scientific projects around the world, to conduct DNA sequencing of one’s own genetics, and eventually to create biological therapeutics in one’s own house.

Which brings us to the last news item I wanted to write about in this post: citizens developing means for rapid detection of Zika virus.

 

Entrepreneurs against Viruses

The Zika virus has begun spreading rapidly in Brazil, with devastating consequences. The virus can spread from pregnant women to their fetuses, and has been linked to a serious birth defect of the brain called microcephaly in babies. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the virus likely will continue to spread to new areas.

Despite the fact that the World Health Organization declared Zika virus a public health emergency merely two months ago, citizen scientists are already working diligently to develop new ways to detect the virus. A UK-IL-BR team has sprung up, with young biotech entrepreneurs leading and doing research to create a better system for rapid detection of the virus in human beings and mosquitos. The group is now requesting the public to chip in and back the project, and has already gathered nearly $6,000.

This initiative is a result of the movement that brings the capabilities to do science to everyone. When every citizen armed with an undergraduate degree in biology can do science in his or her home, we shouldn’t be surprised when new methods for the detection of viruses crop up in distant places around the world. We’re basically decentralizing the scientific community – and as a result can have many more people working on strange and wonderful ideas, some of which will actually bear fruit to the benefit of all.

 

Conclusions

As scientific devices and appliances become cheaper and make their way to the hands of individuals around the world, citizen science becomes more popular and provides ever greater impact. Today we see the uprising of the citizen scientists – those that are not supported by universities or research centers, but instead start conducting experiments in their homes.

In a decade from now, we will see at least one therapeutic being manufactured by citizen scientists in an easy and cheap manner that will undermine the expensive prices demanded by pharma companies for their drugs. Heck, even kids would be able to deliver that kind of science in garage labs. Less than a decade later, we will witness citizen scientists actually conducting medical research on their own, by running analysis over medical records of hundreds – maybe millions – of people to uncover how new or existing therapeutics can be used to treat certain medical conditions. Many of these research projects will not be supported by the government or big pharma with the intent to make money, but will instead be supported by the public itself on crowdfunding sites.

Of course, for all that to happen we need to support citizen scientists today. So go ahead – contribute to the campaign against Zika, or purchase a Bento Lab for your kitchen, or find a citizen science projects or games for kids you can join in SciStarter. We all can take part in improving science, together.

 

Visit other posts in my blog about crowdfunding projects, such as Robit: A new contender in the field of house robots; or read my analysis Why crowdfunding scams are good for society.

How I Became a Dreaded Zionist Robotic Spy, or – Why We Need a Privacy Standard for Robots

It all began in a horribly innocent fashion, as such things often do. The Center for Middle East Studies in Brown University, near my home, has held a “public discussion” about the futures of Palestinians in Israel. Naturally, as a Israeli living in the States, I’m still very much interested in this area, so I took a look at the panelist list and discovered immediately they all came from the same background and with the same point of view: Israel was the colonialist oppressor and that was pretty much all there was to it in their view.

MES 3-3-16 Critical Conversations.gif

Quite frankly, this seemed bizarre to me: how can you have a discussion about the future of a people in a region, without understanding the complexities of their geopolitical situation? How can you talk about the future in a war-torn region like the Middle East, when nobody speaks about security issues, or provides the state of mind of the Israeli citizens or government? In short, how can you have a discussion when all the panelists say exactly the same thing?

So I decided to do something about it, and therein lies my downfall.

I am the proud co-founder of TeleBuddy – a robotics services start-up company that operates telepresence robots worldwide. If you want to reach somewhere far away – Israel, California, or even China – we can place a robot there so that instead of wasting time and health flying, you can just log into the robot and be there immediately. We mainly use Double Robotics‘ robots, and since I had one free for use, I immediately thought we could use the robots to bring a representative of the Israeli point of view to the panel – in a robotic body.

Things began moving in a blur from that point. I obtained permission from Prof. Beshara Doumani, who organized the panel, to bring a robot to the place. StandWithUs – an organization that disseminates information about Israel in the United States – has graciously agreed to send a representative by the name of Shahar Azani to log into the robot, and so it happened that I came to the event with possibly the first ever robotic-diplomat.

2016-03-03 17.48.13

Things went very well in the event itself. While my robotic friend was not allowed to speak from the stage, he talked with people in the venue before the event began, and had plenty of fun. Some of the people in the event seemed excited about the robot. Others were reluctant to approach him, so he talked with other people instead. The entire thing was very civil, as other participants in the panel later remarked. I really thought we found a good use for the robot, and even suggested to the organizers that next time they could use TeleBuddy’s robots to ‘teleport’ a different representative – maybe a Palestinian – to their event. I went home happily, feeling I made just a little bit of a difference in the world and contributed to an actual discussion between the two sides in a conflict.

A few days later, Open Hillel published a statement about the event, as follows –

“In a dystopian twist, the latest development in the attack on open discourse by right-wing pro-Israel groups appears to be the use of robots to police academic discourse. At a March 3, 2016 event about Palestinian citizens of Israel sponsored by Middle East Studies at Brown University, a robot attended and accosted students. The robot used an iPad to display a man from StandWithUs, which receives funding from Israel’s government.

Before the event began, students say, the robot approached students and harassed them about why they were attending the event. Students declined to engage with this bizarre form of intimidation and ignored the robot. At the event itself, the robot and the StandWithUs affiliate remained in the back. During the question and answer session, the man briefly left the robot’s side to ask a question.

It is not yet known whether this was the first use of a robot to monitor Israel-Palestine discourse on campus. … Open Hillel opposes the attempts of groups like StandWithUs to monitor students and faculty. As a student-led grassroots campaign supported by young alumni, professors, and rabbis, Open Hillel rejects any attempt to stifle or target student or faculty activists. The use of robots for purposes of surveillance endangers the ability of students and faculty to learn and discuss this issue. We call upon outside groups such as StandWithUs to conduct themselves in accordance with the academic principles of open discourse and debate.”

 

 

I later met accidentally with some of the students who were in the event, and asked them why they believed the robot was used for surveillance, or to harass students. In return, they accused me of being a spy for the Israeli government. Why? Obviously, because I operated a “surveillance drone” on American soil. That’s perfect circular logic.

 

Lessons

There are lessons aplenty to be obtained from this bizarre incident, but the one that strikes me in particular is that you can’t easily ignore existing cultural sentiments and paradigms without taking a hit in the process. The robot was obviously not a surveillance drone, or meant for surveillance of any kind, but Open Hillel managed to rebrand it by relying on fears that have deep-roots in the American public. They did it to promote their own goals of getting some PR, and they did it so skillfully that I can’t help but applaud them for it. Quite frankly, I wish their PR guys were working for me.

That said, there are issues here that need to be dealt with if telepresence robots ever want to become part of critical discussions. The fear that the robot may be recording or taking pictures in an event is justified – a tech-savvy person controlling the robot could certainly find a way to do that. However, I can’t help but feel that there are less-clever ways to accomplish that, such as using one’s smartphone, or the covert Memoto Lifelogging camera. If you fear being recorded on public, you should know that telepresence robots are probably the least of your concerns.

 

Conclusions

The honest truth is that this is a brand new field for everyone involved. How should robots behave at conferences? Nobody knows. How should they talk with human beings at panels or public events? Nobody can tell yet. How can we make human beings feel more comfortable when they are in the same perimeter with a suit-wearing robot that can potentially record everything it sees? Nobody has any clue whatsoever.

These issues should be taken into consideration in any venture to involve robots in the public sphere.

It seems to me that we need some kind of a standard, to be developed in a collaboration between ethicists, social scientists and roboticists, which will ensure a high level of data encryption for telepresence robots and an assurance that any data collected by the robot will be deleted on the spot.

We need, in short, to develop proper robotic etiquette.

And if we fail to do that, then it shouldn’t really surprise anyone when telepresence robots are branded as “surveillance drones” used by Zionist spies.

Did Tesla Break into Cars? or – Are We Witnessing a Decline in Private Ownership?

Jason Hughes is a white hat hacker – a ‘good’ hacker, working diligently to discover and identify ways in which existing systems can be hacked into. During one of his most recent forays, as described in TeslaRati he analyzed a “series of alphanumeric characters found embedded within Tesla’s most recent firmware 7.1”. According to Hughes, the update included the badges for the upcoming new Tesla model, the P100D. Hughes tweeted about this development to Tesla and to the public, and went happily to sleep.

And then things got weird.

According to Hughes, Tesla has attempted to access his car’s computer and significantly downgrade the firmware, assumedly in order to delete the information about the new model. Hughes managed to stop the incursion in the nick of time, and tweeted angrily about the event. Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, tweeted back that he had nothing to do with it, and seemingly that’s the end of the story. Hughes is now cool with Musk, and everybody is happy again.

tesla tweet 2

But what can this incident tell us about the future of private ownership?

 

A Decline in Private Ownership?

One of Paul Saffo’s rules for effective forecasting is to “embrace the things that don’t fit”. Curious stories and anecdotes from the present can give us clues about the shape of the future. The above story seems to be a rather important clue about the shape of things to come, and about a future where personal ownership of any networked device conflict with the interests of the original manufacturer.

Tesla may or may not have a legal justification to alter the firmware installed in Hughes’ car. If you want to be generous, you can even assume that the system asked Hughes for permission to ‘update’ (actually downgrade) his firmware. Hughes was tech-savvy enough to understand the full meaning of such an update. But how many of us are in possession of such knowledge? In effect, and if Hughes is telling the truth, it turns out that Tesla attempted to alter Hughes’ car properties and functions to prevent damages to the company itself.

Of course, this is not the first incident of the kind. Seven years ago, Amazon has chosen to reach remotely into many Kindle devices held and owned by private citizens, and to delete some digital books in those devices. The books that were deleted? In a bizarre twist of fate they’re George Orwell’s books – 1984 and Animal Farm – with the first book describing a dystopian society in which the citizen has almost no power over his life. In 1984, the government has all the power. In 2016, it’s starting to seem that much of this power belongs to the big IT companies that can remotely reprogram the devices they sell us.

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Image originally from Engadget.

 

The Legal Side

I’m not saying that remote updates are bad for you. On the contrary: remote updates and upgrades of system are one of the reasons for the increasing rate of technological progress. Because of virtual upgrades, smartphones, computers and even cars no longer need to be brought physically to service stations to be upgraded. However, these two episodes are a good reminder for us that by giving the IT companies leeway into our devices, we are opening ourselves to their needs – which may not always be in parallel with our own.

I have not been able to find any legal analysis of Hughes’ and Tesla’s case, but I suspect if the case is ever being brought to court then Tesla might have to answer some difficult questions. The most important question would probably be whether the company even bothered to ask Hughes for permission to make a change in his property. If Tesla did not even do that, let them be penalized harshly, to prevent other companies from following in their footsteps.

Obviously, this is not a trend yet. I can’t just take two separate cases and cluster them together. However, the mechanism behind both incidents is virtually the same: because of the everpresent connectivity, the original manufacturers retain some control over the devices owned by end-users. Connectivity is just going to proliferate in the near future, and therefore we should keep a watchful eye for similar cases.

 

Conclusions

This is a new ground we’re travelling and testing. Never before could upgrades to physical user-owned devices be implemented so easily, to the benefit of most users – but possibly also for the detriment of some. We need to draw clear rules for how firms can access our devices and under what pretense. These rules, restrictions and laws will become clearer as we move into the future, and it’s up for the public to keep close scrutiny on lawmakers and make sure that the industry does not take over the private ownership of end-user devices.

Oh, and Microsoft? Please stop repeatedly asking me to upgrade to Windows 10. For the 74th time, I still don’t want to. And yes, I counted. Get the hint, won’t ya?

 

Science Just Wants To Be Free

This article was originally published in the Huffington Post

 

For a long time now, scientists were held in thrall by publishers. They worked voluntarily – without getting any pay – as editors and reviewers for the publishers, and they allowed their research to be published in scientific journals without receiving anything out of it. No wonder that scientific publishing had been considered a lucrative business.

Well, that’s no longer the case. Now, scientific publishers are struggling to maintain their stranglehold over scientists. If they succeed, science and the pace of progress will take a hit. Luckily, the entire scientific landscape is turning on them – but a little support from the public will go a long way in ensuring the eventual downfall of an institute that is no longer relevant or useful for society.

To understand why things are changing, we need to look back in history to 1665, when the British Royal Society began publishing research results in a journal form called Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Since the number of pages available in each issue was limited, the editors could only pick the most interesting and credible papers to appear in the journal. As a result, scientists from all over Britain fought to have their research published in the journal, and any scientist whose research was published in an issue gained immediate recognition throughout Britain. Scientists were even willing to become editors for scientific journals, since that was a position that demanded request – and provided them power to push their views and agendas in science.

Thus was the deal struck between scientific publishers and scientists: the journals provided a platform for the scientists to present their research, and the scientists fought tooth and nail to have their papers accepted into the journals – often paying from their pockets for it to happen. The journals publishers then had full copyrights over the papers, to ensure that the same paper would not be published in a competing journal.

That, at least, was the old way for publishing scientific research. The reason that the journal publishers were so successful in the 20th century was that they acted as aggregators and selectors of knowledge. They employed the best scientists in the world as editors (almost always for free) to select the best papers, and they aggregated together all the necessary publishing processes in one place.

And then the internet appeared, along with a host of other automated processes that let every scientist publish and disseminate a new paper with minimal effort. Suddenly, publishing a new scientific paper and making the scientific community aware of it, could have a radical new price tag: it could be completely free.

Free Science

Let’s go through the process of publishing a research paper, and see how easy and effortless it became:

  1. The scientist sends the paper to the journal: Can now be conducted easily through the internet, with no cost for mail delivery.
  2. The paper is rerouted to the editor dealing with the paper’s topic: This is done automatically, since the authors specify certain keywords which make sure the right editor gets the paper automatically to her e-mail. Since the editor is actually a scientist volunteering to do the work for the publisher, there’s no cost attached anyway. Neither is there need for a human secretary to spend time and effort on cataloguing papers and sending them to editors manually.
  3. The editor sends the paper to specific scientific reviewers: All the reviewers are working for free, so the publishers don’t spend any money there either.

Let’s assume that the paper was confirmed, and is going to appear in the journal. Now the publisher must:

  1. Paginate, proofread, typeset, and ensure the use of proper graphics in the paper: These tasks are now performed nearly automatically using word processing programs, and are usually handled by the original authors of the paper.
  2. Print and distribute the journal: This is the only step that costs actual money by necessity, since it is performed in the physical world, and atoms are notoriously more expensive than bits. But do we even need this step anymore? I have been walking around in the corridors of the academy for more than ten years, and I’ve yet to see a scientist with his nose buried in a printed journal. Instead, scientists are reading the papers on their computer screens, or printing them in their offices. The mass-printed version is almost completely redundant. There is simply no need for it.

In conclusion, it’s easy to see that while the publishers served an important role in science a few decades ago, they are just not necessary today. The above steps can easily be conducted by community-managed sites like Arxive, and even the selection process of high quality papers can be performed today by the scientist themselves, in forums like Faculty of 1000.

The publishers have become redundant. But worse than that: they are damaging the progress of science and technology.

The New Producers of Knowledge

In a few years from now, the producers of knowledge will not be human scientists but computer programs and algorithms. Programs like IBM’s Watson will skim through hundreds of thousands of research papers and derive new meanings and insights from them. This would be an entirely new field of scientific research: retrospective research.

Computerized retrospective research is happening right now. A new model in developmental biology, for example, was discovered by an artificial intelligence engine that went over just 16 experiments published in the past. Imagine what would happen when AI algorithms cross and match together thousands papers from different disciplines, and come up with new theories and models that are supported by the research of thousands of scientists from the past!

For that to happen, however, the programs need to be able to go over the vast number of research papers out there, most of which are copyrighted, and held in the hands of the publishers.

You may say this is not a real problem. After all, IBM and other large data companies can easily cover the millions of dollars which the publishers will demand annually for access to the scientific content. What will the academic researchers do, though? Many of them do not enjoy the backing of the big industry, and will not have access to scientific data from the past. Even top academic institutes like Harvard University find themselves hard-pressed to cover the annual costs demanded by the publishers for accessing papers from the past.

Many ventures for using this data are based on the assumption that information is essentially free. We know that Google is wary of uploading scanned books from the last few decades, even if these books are no longer in circulation. Google doesn’t want to be sued by the copyrights holders – and thus is waiting for the copyrights to expire before it uploads the entire book – and lets the public enjoy it for free. So many free projects could be conducted to derive scientific insights from literally millions of research papers from the past. Are we really going to wait for nearly a hundred years before we can use all that knowledge? Knowledge, I should mention, that was gathered by scientists funded by the public – and should thus remain in the hands of the public.

 

What Can We Do?

Scientific publishers are slowly dying, while free publication and open access to papers are becoming the norm. The process of transition, though, is going to take a long time still, and provides no easy and immediate solution for all those millions of research papers from the last century. What can we do about them?

Here’s one proposal. It’s radical, but it highlights one possible way of action: have the government, or an international coalition of governments, purchase the copyrights for all copyrighted scientific papers, and open them to the public. The venture will cost a few billion dollars, true, but it will only have to occur once for the entire scientific publishing field to change its face. It will set to right the ancient wrong of hiding research under paywalls. That wrong was necessary in the past when we needed the publishers, but now there is simply no justification for it. Most importantly, this move will mean that science can accelerate its pace by easily relying on the roots cultivated by past generations of scientists.

If governments don’t do that, the public will. Already we see the rise of websites like Sci-Hub, which provide free (i.e. pirated) access to more than 47 million research papers. Having been persecuted by both the publishers and the government, Sci-Hub has just recently been forced to move to the Darknet, which is the dark and anonymous section of the internet. Scientists who will want to browse through past research results – that were almost entirely paid for by the public – will thus have to move over to the Darknet, which is where weapon smugglers, pedophiles and drug dealers lurk today. That’s a sad turn of events that should make you think. Just be careful not to sell your thoughts to the scholarly publishers, or they may never see the light of day.

 

Dr Roey Tzezana is a senior analyst at Wikistrat, an academic manager of foresight courses at Tel Aviv University, blogger at Curating The Future, the director of the Simpolitix project for political forecasting, and founder of TeleBuddy.