Author: Sam

The hacker ethic

The arrest of a British cybersecurity researcher on charges of disseminating malware and conspiring to commit computer fraud and abuse provides a window into the complexities of hacking culture. In May, a person going by the nickname “MalwareTech” gained international fame – and near-universal praise – for figuring out how to slow, and ultimately effectively stop, the worldwide spread of the WannaCry malware attack. But in August, the person behind that nickname, Marcus Hutchins, was arrested on federal charges of writing and distributing a different malware attack first spotted back in 2014. The judicial system will sort out whether Hutchins, who has denied wrongdoing and pleaded not guilty, will face as much as 40 years in prison. But to me as a sociologist studying the culture and social patterns of cybercrime, Hutchins’ experience is emblematic of the values, beliefs and practices of many hackers. The hacker ethic The term “hacking” has its origins in the 1950s and 1960s at MIT, where it was used as a positive label to describe someone who tinkers with computers. …

Exploring the benefits in LGBT marriage

For decades, researchers have studied the benefits of marriage, finding that married people are likely to be healthier, wealthier and wiser than their unmarried peers. But these studies reflected those who were allowed to marry. Only recently – when states started passing laws guaranteeing same-sex couples the right to marry – could researchers begin to examine how marriage impacted the health of LGBT Americans. At the University of Washington School of Social Work, our team has conducted the first national study that explores the relationship between marriage, health and quality of life for LGBT adults 50 and older. The findings reaffirm some of the health benefits associated with marriage in the general population. But they also highlight many of the unique barriers LGBT Americans continue to face. The benefits of marriage persist Survey data from the study – titled “Aging with Pride: National Health, Aging, and Sexuality/Gender Study (NHAS)” – analyzed responses from 1,821 LGBT older adults who lived in states with legalized same-sex marriage and access to federal benefits (32 states plus the District …

Quantum consciousness

The mere mention of “quantum consciousness” makes most physicists cringe, as the phrase seems to evoke the vague, insipid musings of a New Age guru. But if a new hypothesis proves to be correct, quantum effects might indeed play some role in human cognition. Matthew Fisher, a physicist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, raised eyebrows late last year when he published a paper in Annals of Physics proposing that the nuclear spins of phosphorus atoms could serve as rudimentary “qubits” in the brain—which would essentially enable the brain to function like a quantum computer. As recently as 10 years ago, Fisher’s hypothesis would have been dismissed by many as nonsense. Physicists have been burned by this sort of thing before, most notably in 1989, when Roger Penrose proposed that mysterious protein structures called “microtubules” played a role in human consciousness by exploiting quantum effects. Few researchers believe such a hypothesis plausible. Patricia Churchland, a neurophilosopher at the University of California, San Diego, memorably opined that one might as well invoke “pixie dust in …

Atheists must communicate better

Atheism is so often considered in the negative: as a lack of faith, or a disbelief in god; as an essential deprivation. Atheism is seen as being destitute of meaning, value, purpose; unfertile ground for growing the feelings of belonging needed to overcome the alienation that dogs modern life. In more extreme critiques, atheism is considered to be another name for nihilism; a fundamental negation of existence, a noxious blight on creation itself. Yet atheists – rather than flippantly dismissing the insights of theologians – should take them seriously indeed. Humans, by dint of being human, are confronted with baffling questions about meaning, belonging, direction, our connection to other humans and the fate of our species as a whole. The human impulse is to seek answers, and to date, atheism has been unsatisfactory in its response. The shackles of humanism Atheist values are typically defined as humanistic. If we look to the values of the British Humanist Association, we see that it promotes naturalism, rational debate, and the pre-eminence of evidence, cooperation, progress and individual …

Doctor vs Crowdsourced AI diagnosis app

Shantanu Nundy recognized the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis when his 31-year-old patient suffering from crippling hand pain checked into Mary’s Center in Washington, D.C. Instead of immediately starting treatment, though, Nundy decided first to double-check his diagnosis using a smartphone app that helps with difficult medical cases by soliciting advice from doctors worldwide. Within a day, Nundy’s hunch was confirmed. The app had used artificial intelligence (AI) to analyze and filter advice from several medical specialists into an overall ranking of the most likely diagnoses. Created by the Human Diagnosis Project (Human Dx)—an organization that Nundy directs—the app is one of the latest examples of growing interest in human–AI collaboration to improve health care. Human Dx advocates the use of machine learning—a popular AI technique that automatically learns from classifying patterns in data—to crowdsource and build on the best medical knowledge from thousands of physicians across 70 countries. Physicians at several major medical research centers have shown early interest in the app. Human Dx on Thursday announced a new partnership with top medical profession organizations …

Why believers deem atheists fundamentally untrustworthy?

Skepticism about the existence of God is on the rise, and this might, quite literally, pose an existential threat for religious believers. It’s no secret that believers generally harbor extraordinarily negative attitudes toward atheists. Indeed, recent polling data show that most Americans view atheists as “threatening,” unfit to hold public office and unsuitable to marry into their families. But what are the psychological roots of antipathy toward atheists? Historically, evolutionary psychologists argue that atheists have been denigrated because God serves as the ultimate source of social power and influence: God rewards appropriate behaviors and punishes inappropriate ones. The thinking has gone, then, that believers deem atheists fundamentally untrustworthy because they do not accept, affirm and adhere to divinely ordained moral imperatives (ie, “God’s word”). Research has backed up the deep distrust believers feel toward atheists. For example, in one study, Canadian undergraduates, who are typically less religious than their US counterparts, rated atheists as more untrustworthy than Muslims – and just as untrustworthy as rapists! Still, it hasn’t been clear why the leeriness of atheists …

An artificial neural network for relational reasoning

How many parks are near the new home you’re thinking of buying? What’s the best dinner-wine pairing at a restaurant? These everyday questions require relational reasoning, an important component of higher thought that has been difficult for artificial intelligence (AI) to master. Now, researchers at Google’s DeepMind have developed a simple algorithm to handle such reasoning—and it has already beaten humans at a complex image comprehension test. Humans are generally pretty good at relational reasoning, a kind of thinking that uses logic to connect and compare places, sequences, and other entities. But the two main types of AI—statistical and symbolic—have been slow to develop similar capacities. Statistical AI, or machine learning, is great at pattern recognition, but not at using logic. And symbolic AI can reason about relationships using predetermined rules, but it’s not great at learning on the fly. The new study proposes a way to bridge the gap: an artificial neural network for relational reasoning. Similar to the way neurons are connected in the brain, neural nets stitch together tiny programs that collaboratively …

Sisi’s religious revolution in Egypt

“We need a religious revolution!” Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi declared those words a month ago as he addressed senior religious leaders from al-Azhar University and elsewhere while Egyptians celebrated the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. The speech was widely applauded in Egypt, particularly as it opened an ideological front to the battle against the Islamist violence that has troubled the country since the summer of 2013. His words seem especially significant after last week’s attack on security forces in the Sinai Peninsula that killed at least thirty and wounded many more. However, before Sisi is praised any more as a visionary and a reformer, observers should understand that Egypt and Sisi may not have the capacity to carry out much reform in Islamic thinking. First of all, what exactly does Sisi mean by a religious revolution? The general Western observer might interpret it as a call to overturn central Islamic institutions and principles in a bid to combat extremism. After the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, a number of Western media outlets hailed …

Climate Change and National Security

The United States House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology hosted a series of roundtables tackling issues on climate change. On July 12, 2017 in Washington, D.C., Ambassador John Campbell participated in the “Science and Policy Perspectives: National Security Implications of Climate Change” roundtable, where he discussed climate change and its effect on Nigeria, a close strategic partner. Below is the statement he submitted for the record:  Climate change certainly has direct implications for the security of the United States, which other participants are exploring this afternoon.  But, we Americans must also be concerned about the security of our close diplomatic partners. If our partners’ security is undermined, so too is our own, even if only indirectly. Here, I would like to look at Nigeria as a case study, where climate change is already having a negative impact on the security of a close partner of the United States. Arguably, Nigeria is the African state of greatest strategic importance to the United States. It is home to about 20 percent of the people living in Africa south of the Sahara. …

Circadian Clock and Sleep

The daily rhythm of sleeping and waking is one of the most fundamental cycles in our lives, and we often equate it with our circadian clock. But the reality is more subtle than that. The circadian clock, as biologists have learned in recent decades, is in fact an incredibly precise molecular machine that exists in nearly every cell in the body. Consisting of a number of proteins that come together and fall apart rhythmically, the clock complex controls the transcription of thousands of genes that affect everything from appetite to cell division. There is a season — or rather, a time of day — for each process that takes its timing from the clock. Sleep just happens to be one such process. We’ve seen huge leaps and bounds recently in understanding exactly which proteins are involved in the clock complex and how it works. Yet sleep — our most obviously time-linked activity — is still largely a mystery on the molecular level. Some of the same cast of scientists who helped illuminate the clock are …