Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future

June 24 2016 2:49 PM

Introducing “Warm Regards,” My New Podcast About Climate Change

For those of us who think about climate change often—like unhealthily often—there's sometimes a sense that you're missing the story. Climate change is quite possibly the most important thing humans have ever done—I mean, we're altering our planet's atmosphere perhaps at a faster rate than at any point in Earth’s entire history. Yet it can often feel remote, abstract, and lost in a sea of statistics.

To keep sane, you have to learn about the people and personalities involved behind the scenes; those who can help suss out when the latest science is truly freak-out worthy. That's why I made Warm Regards: a new podcast about climate change.


My goal here is not a little lofty: to help humanize those who are working on the climate problem.

Joining me as co-hosts are Andy Revkin, a veteran environment writer for the New York Times who has covered climate change for 30 years, and Jacquelyn Gill, a paleoecologist at the University of Maine who is an actual, real-life climate scientist and flawlessly navigates climate Twitter. (If you spend any time in climate Twitter, you know that’s a rare combination.) We’ll regularly invite newsmakers and scientists and listeners and people on the front lines, too.

In our inaugural episode of Warm Regards, we tackle what it means to talk about climate change at this unique moment in human history. I hope you’ll listen, and share our podcast with your friends. We’re on SoundCloud and iTunes and Twitter, and we’ll be working our way up to new episodes each week.

June 24 2016 12:47 PM

Why Facebook Is Right to Train Its Employees on Political Bias

Facebook is not a particularly diverse company. The majority of its U.S. workers are young men, more than 90 percent are white or Asian-American—an imbalance it shares with many other Silicon Valley technology companies.

It’s a problem Facebook recognizes and has attempted to remedy not only through its recruiting and hiring practices, but also through what it calls unconscious bias training. The idea is to train the company’s employees to recognize their own prejudices and stereotypes, so that they can try to correct for them.


Recently, however, the company came under fire after a former contractor on its trending news team accused his colleagues of a different kind of bias—the political kind. Now, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg says the company is trying to correct for that, too.

“We have a ‘managing bias’ class that all of our leaders and a lot of our employees have taken, that I was part of helping to create,” Sandberg said Wednesday in an interview with Arthur C. Brooks, president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. She went on:

And we’ve focused on racial bias, age bias, gender bias, national bias. And we’re going to add in a scenario now on political bias. So when we think about helping people understand different points of view, and being open to different points of view, we’re dealing with political bias as well going forward.

The video of the interview is below, and the relevant portion starts at about the 16:40 mark.

Brooks called Facebook’s move to include politics in its bias training “really encouraging.” He followed up by asking Sandberg whether Facebook’s efforts would also include trying harder to hire more political conservatives. Her answer was a deft compromise between a “yes” and a dodge.

“We think to build a product that 1.6 billion people use, you need diversity. And what you really want is cognitive diversity, which is what you’re talking about—different thoughts.” She acknowledged that “you can get that by having diversity in the population” without quite committing to anything specific. She then pivoted smoothly to other ways you can achieve diversity of thought, recounting an anecdote about CEO Mark Zuckerberg encouraging employees to speak up when they disagree with him.

So, will Facebook try to hire more political conservatives? Maybe! But somehow I doubt it will be filling its Menlo Park headquarters with Trump supporters anytime soon.

Nor should it have to. A person’s politics are a matter of choice and speak to her judgment and character, in a way that race, gender, age, and nationality are not, and do not. It’s a distinction that seems to elude some of the conservative leaders whom Glenn Beck criticized as seeking “affirmative action for conservatives.”

Yet Sandberg is right that Facebook’s success as a company depends on more than just hiring the cleverest coders and product managers. It also hinges on the ability to avoid needlessly alienating huge swaths of its user base, such as the tens of millions of Americans who are likely to cast their votes this fall for Donald Trump. It certainly didn’t help when Gizmodo reported in April that Facebook employees had voted in an internal poll to ask CEO Mark Zuckerberg what the company could be doing to prevent a Trump presidency. And Facebook didn’t do itself any favors with its initial, dismissive response to the claims of bias in its trending news section. I argued at the time that the company should own up to the reality that its employees have political biases—everyone does, really—and then take steps to address them. After several false steps, it’s finally doing that.

Facebook has no particular legal or moral imperative to hire, accommodate, or appeal to Republicans or other conservatives. But its success as a company relies on achieving and maintaining a level of ubiquity among the populace that would be impossible if it were perceived as strongly partisan. In that respect, teaching Facebook’s sheltered young employees to realize that their political views are unrepresentative would be, if nothing else, a prudent business move.

Previously in Slate:

June 24 2016 8:47 AM

Emoji Women Can Now Get Pregnant, But They Still Can’t Work

This week the Unicode Consortium, a non-profit organization responsible for coordinating and standardizing code across the computing industry, released 72 new emojis. They include a bunch of breakfast foods, several guys playing sports, a black heart, and a pregnant woman. Absent are women playing sports or working jobs or doing much of anything at all, unless you count Mrs. Claus, whose exact responsibilities I’ve never understood.

That a pregnant woman is the singular attempt to diversify the life of emoji women isn’t surprising. We’re living in an era of unprecedented fascination with the baby bump. Tabloids meticulously monitor the midsections of celebrities, including those who have announced their pregnancy and those who haven’t and show little interest in becoming so. Unfortunately for the rest of us, unfamous bumps receive outsize attention these days, too. There’s a new app called BellyBump designed—by two actors and a musician—to create time-lapse videos of growing bumps. The large numbers of women who catalog the rise and fall of their midsections during and after pregnancy on Instagram suggests there is a real market for this.

June 23 2016 5:44 PM

Russia Wants to Force Internet Companies to Cooperate With Its Surveillance System

On June 24 the Russian parliament is expected to vote new anti-terrorism measures designed to tighten the Kremlin's grasp on the Internet. The suggested measures come from fear: The parliamentary elections scheduled for Sept. 18, 2016, are fast approaching, and social media, which was instrumental in getting protesters to streets during the December 2011 elections, is not yet under effective government control.

It isn’t for lack of trying. The authorities most counted on two strategies that failed to deliver the expected result by the end of 2015. The first—nationwide filtering of, according to the independent watchdog Roskomsvoboda, more than 1.3 million websites since 2012—backfired spectacularly. The censors had assumed that users would passively accept the filtering, but this ended when rutracker.ru, the most popular torrents website in the country, was blocked in November. Russia at once skyrocketed to second position in the number of users of the Tor network, which anonymizes users and allows them to circumvent filtering. The second strategy—to force Facebook, Twitter and Google to move their servers to Russia under pretext of protecting personal data of Russian users against NSA—was quietly sabotaged by the Internet giants—while avoiding to take a public stand, they simply didn’t not move their servers.


These failures have panicked politicians, because there is little time left to introduce new technologies of control. The authorities made some erratic moves—dozens of bloggers were sent to jail for writing posts critical of the Kremlin, and some proposed issuing fines to those who promote circumvention tools like Tor. In fact, in the end of April, Fang Binxing, the father of the Chinese “Great Firewall,” was invited to Moscow and courted by high-placed Russian officials.

But the effects of these strategies were minimal, so the Kremlin returned to an approach it had tried before: new repressive legislation aimed at Internet companies.

The anti-terrorism package presented at the State Duma suggests two major amendments.

The first will require telecommunications operators and internet service providers to store phone calls records and the content of online conversations for six months and metadata for three years. The second idea is to require the “information-distribution organizations” (i.e., messengers and social media) that use encryption to provide the secret services with the keys that will allow them to “decode” the information. The measure is meant to target encrypted chat messages and any website that uses the HTTPS protocol. In addition, the package will also outlaw the use of “uncertified means of coding (encryption) for the transmission of messages on the Internet.” To get a certificate requires companies to give the keys to the secret services, with the apparent goal to get all apps to have backdoors to allow to spy on messaging in Russia.

Both measures are difficult to implement on the technical level, but that doesn’t matter. They reflect the traditional Russian approach to surveillance, which is based on coercion and intimidation.

Since the 1990s, every Internet service provider in the country must have on its premises a device that connects its servers via underground cable to the HQ of a local branch of the Russian secret services. As Irina Borogan and I tell in our book The Red Web, this practice, known as the System of Operative Research Measures, has been constantly updated ever since.

But the current system provides means for direct interception of traffic, cannot conduct mass surveillance, and helpless against HTTPS. But it provides an excellent opportunity for the secret services to put telecoms under pressure—an ISP is required to install a SORM device, and for that, it needs to ask the security service what equipment is “recommended,” then buy the equipment and install it. Afterward, the ISP is the subject of constant checking from local prosecutors, the secret services, and the telecom watchdog officials. It’s an awkward and dangerous position for the ISP, and most of telecoms soon realize that the best option to avoid problems is to fully cooperate with the authorities.

Russia’s expanding control of the Internet is based on the intimidation and coercion of businesses. The authorities are looking to engage the companies in an ongoing conversation on surveillance, and this law is a great pretext for them to do so. The Kremlin knows pretty well how costly the new measure is for the companies. According to the assessment provided by Mobile TeleSystems, one of the largest mobile operators in Russia, just implementing the requirement to store data for six months will cost the company more than $30 billion.

It isn’t anywhere near effective to have the stored data dispersed all over the country on the servers of regional telecoms and ISPs instead of keeping data in one place, like the way NSA stores data in its Utah facility. But that’s hardly the point. The idea of the new legislation is not to improve surveillance capabilities, but to have another frightening idea on the table that would prompt business to come to the Kremlin and plea for private consultations. The more rude and expensive the new legislation appears, the better.

The idea of forcing messengers to give the keys to the secret services serves the same purpose. The most popular messengers in Russia are all foreign—Telegram, Facebook messenger, WhatsApp, Twitter, Signal. Most of them have been quietly sabotaging government requests to move their servers to Russia. The new legislation would add to this pressure.

The Kremlin’s idea is to create as many pressing points for Internet companies as possible and wait for them to come to private talks. Thus, they believe, could buy some time while they will try to lock the Internet inside of the country. Russia's Telecoms Ministry already announced a plan to have 99 percent of Internet traffic to be kept within the country by 2020.

June 23 2016 5:35 PM

This Pioneering Robot Dog Can Load the Dishwasher and Fetch You a Soda. Who’s a Good Boy?!

What would you want a robotic dog to be? It has to be loyal, well-trained, and, of course, housebroken. But dream bigger. BostonDynamics, the robotics company currently owned by Alphabet, just announced a new robodog that can load the dishwasher, bring you soda, and then put the can in the recycling. Good dog.

Boston Dynamics has been working on quadruped robots since the 2005 debut of its BigDog combat robot. Now, more than 10 years later, the dogs have gotten smaller and smaller. BigDog weighs 240 pounds, last year's Spot weighs 160 pounds, and now there's a new member of the family. SpotMini, announced Thursday, weighs just 65 pounds.


SpotMini is no runt, though. It has an all-electric design—meaning no hydraulics—so it's light, compact, and quiet with really impressive mobility. SpotMini can crouch, army crawl, run around, do fine motions with its torso, jog up stairs, and get back on its feet after it has fallen over. The video (above) shows SpotMini walking around a house and doing domestic tasks. It doesn't exactly look natural, but the robot isn't bumping into things and isn't totally absurd in the space.

SpotMini is impressively effective and fluid. Boston Dynamics says that it can run for about 90 minutes on one charge and has specializad sensors for things like depth, navigation, and spatial awareness. It can be autonomous, but still relies on humans for complicated tasks. Sounds a lot like ... a dog. Go figure.

June 23 2016 9:09 AM

This Sci-Fi Short Is So Beautiful You’ll Forget It Was Created to Promote a Video Game Company

A humanoid robot—or something that looks very much like one—awakes in an unfamiliar prison. The screen built into its chest gives its name as Adam Thorpe. Below that, in much larger font, a block of text reads “Felony Code 227900.” Adam, if that is the robot’s name, seems baffled by its mechanical body. Still, the eyes that peer out from beneath its face are strangely human.

These are the opening moments of the gorgeously animated short science fiction film “Adam.” Like so many other contributions to the genre, what follows is more the promise of a story than a fully fleshed-out narrative. Many of the themes on display—body swaps, future criminality—will be familiar to those who’ve watched other recent sci-fi shorts such as “Trial” and “Uncanny Valley.” At just under six minutes, there’s little room to elaborate on the many questions it poses, but the enigmas are deeply engaging, at times approaching almost Miyazakian levels of surrealist beauty.


What’s all the more impressive about “Adam,” though, is that it was created in Unity, a cross-platform game engine. Unity has been widely used by independent game developers to design projects such as the acclaimed Firewatch and That Dragon, Cancer. The system has also been deployed in mobile game development, contributing to popular titles such as Fallout Shelter and Angry Birds 2. Though Unity’s strength has always been its flexibility, little in these games would have led one to expect the elegantly rendered visuals that “Adam” shows off.

Unity itself created “Adam” as a preview of its own upcoming products, meaning that what we’re looking at here is very much a tech demo, albeit an impressive one. The company explains that its team “developed custom tools and features on top of Unity including volumetric fog, a transparency shader and motion blur to cover specific production needs.” The work clearly paid off, leaving us with a world so richly textured that it’s easy to forget the film’s technical underpinnings while you’re watching.

(via Boing Boing)

June 22 2016 4:02 PM

Mark Zuckerberg Is Right to Tape His Webcam. But He Shouldn’t Have To.

A photo that Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg posted Tuesday has inadvertently sparked a welcome discussion about hardware security.

Meant to celebrate an Instagram milestone—the Facebook-owned photo-sharing app topped 500 million active users—the image’s background shows a desk with a laptop that sports a couple of non-standard features. As one Twitter user noticed and Gizmodo highlighted, the MacBook in question sports small pieces of tape over both its webcam and the audio input area. (“Wow, Mark Zuckerberg is Paranoid as Fuck,” read the Gizmodo headline.)


There’s some sweet irony in the apparent discovery that the founder and CEO of Facebook—a company famous for inhaling and capitalizing on its users’ personal data—guards his own computer so carefully. But Gizmodo’s conclusion requires a couple of jumps.

First, it isn’t entirely clear that the computer belongs to Zuckerberg, although Gizmodo provides some anecdotal evidence that it does.

Second, and more importantly, putting tape over your webcam cover is not really such a paranoid thing to do. My laptop has tape over its webcam as I type this. So does the laptop of my colleague Lily Hay Newman, who covers cybersecurity. Neither of us are in the habit of wearing tinfoil hats. But unlike alien mind control, webcam hacking is a demonstrably real phenomenon, so much so that the Atlantic once dubbed it an “epidemic.” It isn’t just criminal hackers and voyeurs who are breaking into people’s webcams. The Snowden leaks revealed that the NSA does it, too.

You and I are probably relatively unlikely to be targeted in such an attack, although you never know. Zuckerberg, in contrast, is highly likely to be the subject of various attempted hacks, to the point that it would be rash of him not to take extra security measures. FBI Director James Comey does it, too.

But even if you aren’t Zuckerberg or Comey, putting tape (or a cute cat sticker, as one of my editors does) over your webcam is a pretty simple step you can take to provide yourself a little peace of mind at very little cost. When you need to use the webcam, just move the tape or sticker an inch to the side. When you’re finished, put it back. As Tyler Lopez wrote in Slate in 2013: “You Should Never, Ever Leave Your Webcam Uncovered When You Aren’t Using It.”

The practical effect of webcam tape is not only to thwart would-be hackers, but to ensure that you aren’t unwittingly broadcasting yourself—for instance, by forgetting to close a videoconferencing app. And the psychological effect is to make you more aware of the sensors that could potentially be monitoring you in your own home, including smart speakers such as Amazon’s Echo. Both effects are salutary.

The value of that second piece of tape on the computer that might be Zuckerberg’s is a little less clear-cut. Some initially assumed it was covering the computer’s headphone jack, but as Fusion’s Kashmir Hill points out, all that would accomplish is to make it hard to plug your headphones in. More likely, it’s covering the tiny dual microphones built into the side of the machine. In an informal test, Hill found that would muffle the audio signal, but wouldn’t block it out.

When you think about it, the surprise here is not that Zuckerberg, or anyone else, would want to cover their webcam when it isn’t in use. It’s that he has to use a piece of tape to do it. As privacy expert Adam Harvey points out, in an era when we’re increasingly aware of all the threats to our personal security, it would make a lot of sense for Apple and other computer makers to simply build webcam covers into their machines.

June 22 2016 3:43 PM

The California Drought’s Lessons for Food Security

Despite the arrival of increased rain and snow from El Niño this winter, California enters the fifth straight year of its worst drought in 1,200 years. The drought has been especially acute in the state’s Central Valley, which ranges from extreme to exceptional drought.

With its fertile soil, moderate climate, and unparalleled irrigation system, the Central Valley is one of the most productive agricultural regions on the planet, producing nearly all of America’s almonds, olives, walnuts, and pistachios; the vast majority of its grapes, strawberries, avocados, carrots, tomatoes, and lettuce; and $13.1 billion worth of milk and cattle. As a result of the drought, California’s 39 million residents are competing for fewer available water resources. Water prices have spiked, increasing tenfold in some areas.


The drought and the subsequent increased cost of water have led to declines in agricultural production across the state. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, production of oranges are down 9 percent, avocados down 13 percent, garlic down 6 percent, romaine lettuce 15 percent, and olives 29 percent in 2014—the most recent year on record—compared with the previous three-year average. The drought cost California’s farmers $1.5 billion in 2014 alone due to the combination of revenue losses from lower production and additional pumping costs.

The decline in California agricultural supply has resulted in higher prices for some fresh fruits and vegetables on supermarket shelves, but so far, the drought hasn’t led to a significant increase in food shortages or insecurity here or abroad. In fact, world food prices are currently at a seven-year low, according to the U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organization. Two factors have helped mitigate the price changes caused by decreased agricultural production in California: substitution between goods and global markets.

First, unlike staple crops like wheat and rice, consumers can easily swap many of the products grown largely in California, like almonds and strawberries, for other nuts, fruits, and vegetables grown in areas not being hit by drought. Substitution isn’t just happening at the consumer level either. Producers in California are substituting away from traditional staples like oranges and avocados and towards fruits like grapes, pomegranates, and dragonfruit that use less water and are more economically productive. This is part of a longer-term trend, according to Daniel Sumner at the University of California–Davis, who notes that over the last two centuries, California has shifted away from wheat and cotton production to its current mix of crops.

Second, though California may be the biggest American producer of many crops, it is far from the only source of avocados, olives, or grapes internationally. As the USDA notes, though California produces 86 percent of American-grown avocados, 82 percent of the avocados consumed in the U.S. are imported from other countries like Mexico. Indeed, the U.S.’s imported share of fruits and vegetables such as olives, peaches, beans, and lettuce has grown with the drought. Though production costs may be increasing for California farmers, they haven’t changed elsewhere around the world. As the price of produce goes up due to the decreased supply of California goods, competing farmers from Latin America to Southeast Asia may now find it worthwhile to increase their production, even if their marginal costs are slightly higher, which helps limit the potential for shortages and price increases.

The reactions of California farmers, foreign producers, and domestic consumers to the drought highlight a few key lessons for food security moving forward. First, substitution and diversification are critical. Both producers and consumers have been able to shift to other agricultural products that cost less, use less water, and are more economically efficient than those hit hardest by the drought. Just like a stock portfolio, a more diversified agricultural portfolio and diet help limit vulnerability to major price fluctuations by any individual good in the basket.

While these two principles of substitution and diversification may work well for the nuts, fruits, and vegetables of California’s Central Valley, it also highlights the risk of supply disruptions to crops with few options for substitution, such as the three mega-crops of rice, wheat, and maize, which are responsible for half of the world’s calories. Wheat alone accounts for more calories and protein than any other crop on the planet, and as a result the demand for wheat is highly inelastic, making slight changes in the supply and price of wheat felt strongly throughout the world.

Relatedly, the global food supply chain can handle disruptions in one major breadbasket like California’s Central Valley, but food insecurity becomes a real challenge when drought, floods, or extreme weather events affect multiple major food producers at once. A major food security simulation run last fall by the Center for American Progress and the World Wildlife Fund highlighted how climate change is increasing the likelihood of simultaneous disruptions to major food producers. Part of the reason why wheat prices spiked so dramatically in 2010 was because three major wheat producers—Russia, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine—were all hit with extreme weather that reduced production at the same time.

Most Americans live in a state of blissful ignorance about the food that appears on our grocery store shelves. At best, we might think about which fruits and vegetables are in season, but rarely do we consider the global supply chain required to bring the food to market, the equilibrium of supply and demand that influence the prices we pay, or the delicate balance of heat, soil nutrients, and water required to grow each crop—and how those pieces of the puzzle might be changing forever.

We take our food security for granted until it’s not so secure anymore. The California drought didn’t cause any food riots, but it provides a window into the future of many other breadbaskets around the world. The best practices in conservation, substitution, and diversification we’re learning from California are the things we’ll increasingly need at a global scale to keep affordable food on the table.

June 22 2016 1:33 PM

Like Auto Racing Before It, Drone Racing Could Spur Innovation

Over the past 15 years, drones have progressed from laboratory demonstrations to widely available toys. Technological improvements have brought ever-smaller components required for flight stabilization and control, as well as significant improvements in battery technology. Capabilities once restricted to military vehicles are now found on toys that can be purchased at Wal-Mart.

Small cameras and transmitters mounted on a drone even allow real-time video to be sent back to the pilot. For a few hundred dollars, anyone can buy a “first person view” (FPV) system that puts the pilot of a small drone in a virtual cockpit. The result is an immersive experience: Flying an FPV drone is like Luke Skywalker or Princess Leia flying a speeder bike through the forests of Endor.

Perhaps inevitably, hobbyists started racing drones soon after FPV rigs became available. Now several drone racing leagues have begun, both in the U.S. and internationally. If, like auto racing, drone racing becomes a long-lasting sport yielding financial rewards for backers of winning teams, might technologies developed in the new sport of drone racing find their way into commercial and consumer products?

June 22 2016 10:41 AM

Future Tense Newsletter: Why Does the Government Take So Long to Regulate Emerging Technologies?

Greetings, Future Tensers,

If you’ve been following along with this month’s Futurography course, you’ll probably agree that self-driving cars are well on their way. The trouble, as Kevin C. Desouza shows in a recent article, is that they aren’t going to show up all at once, which means we’ll need regulations and protocols for the time period in which operator-controlled vehicles share the road with fully autonomous ones. We may, for example, have to develop new licensing standards for drivers, but we’ll also have to rethink much of the received wisdom about urban planning and street design. As Desouza suggests, working through such challenges means acknowledging that we’re now living in an “era of human-machine relations.”


Accepting that truth doesn’t always come easily, as the vagaries of many recent attempts to regulate technological show. The Federal Election Commission, for example, has struggled to figure out how it should best regulate paid political speech online. Similarly, Eric Null writes that the Federal Communications Commission has yet to successfully impose strictures that would keep internet service providers from abusing their customers’ data. And it took years of pressure to get the Federal Aviation Administration to issue rules for commercial drone pilots, a decision that finally went through this week.

It’s tempting to blame all these difficulties on governmental incompetence or partisan gridlock, but even in the best circumstances hard to make clear, broadly beneficial decisions about such issues. That’s clearly not going to change as we cede more control of our lives to automated systems.

Here are some of the other stories that we read while contemplating jobs on Mars:

  • Cybernetics: While prosthetics are getting more and more advanced, neuroscientist Patrick McGurrin argues that it’s important to keep more traditional functionality in mind as well.
  • Photoshop: ModCloth has thrown its support behind an anti-Photoshopping bill, but who would the legislation really benefit?
  • Environmentalism: Six Flags is cutting down a whole forest at a New Jersey park to put up some solar panels. Is that really environmentalist?
  • Intellectual property: Weak IP protections may actually help countries develop. Are we holding other nations back when we try to impose our own standards on them?

Jacob Brogan

for Future Tense