Cutting-Edge Fear: Technologies That Should Scare Us

Computers that can perfectly mimic the human voice? Hyper sensitive surveillance cameras? Advances like these are already a reality, and need to be regulated now.

A manager of the BYD company tries the facial recognition in a 'Yungui' train in Yinchuan, China on January 10
A manager of the BYD company tries the facial recognition in a 'Yungui' train in Yinchuan, China on January 10
Simon Hurtz

MUNICH — Elon Musk has yet to prove whether he can actually lead his Tesla company to success. But there's one thing he definitely has managed to do: make us all afraid of artificial intelligence.

This technology, he repeats at every opportunity, is the "greatest danger to humanity," more dangerous even than "nuclear weapons." Musk delivers memorable quotes. The media has the titillating headlines it needs. And readers are invariably frightened.

For many of the researchers who've been studying AI for decades, the Tesla founder's alarmism is annoying. "It seems you can't open a newspaper without Elon Musk predicting that artificial intelligence needs regulating — before it starts World War III," Australian professor Toby Walsh recently wrote in the magazine Wired. Walsh, for one, doesn't think we need to fear what people like him call singularity: the time when machines start to evolve on their own.

And yet, Musk is right about one thing: AI research does need to be regulated. Not because robots would otherwise take power, but because companies and governments have been relying too much on the machines' supposed intelligence. The Terminator will remain science fiction, but without rules, a dystopia threatens. The following examples show that technological progress can also backfire.

Look who's talking

At a conference early last month, Google CEO Sundar Pichai shared a recorded phone conversation. What the conference participants heard was a woman reserving a table in a restaurant. Or it least it sounded like a woman. And, as banal as the interaction seemed, they cheered. Why? Because what the audience had just witnessed, for the first time, was AI imitating human speech so perfectly that the restaurant staff at the other end of the line didn't notice that she was talking to a machine.

On social media, reactions were divided — between excitement and dismay. "This is horrible and so obviously wrong," sociologist Zeynep Tufekci wrote on Twitter.

The Terminator will remain science fiction, but without rules, a dystopia threatens.

Pichai insisted several times that the call had taken place exactly the way the audience had heard it. But doubts have since been raised about whether Google edited the recording a bit. This matters little. More important is the debate the phone call triggered by the call, and the larger question it poses. Does AI have to identify itself when it communicates directly with people?

The question goes far beyond Google Assistant, which can make appointments for you. What happens when scammers use software that then automatically calls pensioners in bulk? Do social-network bots need to be presented as such so users understand that they are chatting with a computer? AI researchers like Walsh, therefore, call for autonomous systems to be designed in such a way that they cannot be confused with humans.

Tech companies employ tens of thousands of people to remove the dirt from the net. These digital garbage trucks click through disturbing pictures and videos. They spot and delete depictions of extreme violence. Cheap human helpers are employed in emerging and developing countries to spare Facebook and YouTube users the sight — at the risk of their own mental health.

They also feed databases and train software that could, one day, make their jobs obsolete. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg constantly talks about "AI tools' that Facebook should keep clean in the future. At his hearing before the U.S. Congress, he referred more than 30 times to AI, which should independently delete content if it violates community standards.

AI can indeed remove terrorist propaganda and child abuse material. The decision, in such cases, is clear. But it isn't always so. Even lawyers disagree on the boundary between freedom of expression and censorship. Numerous examples from the past few years have repeatedly shown that it's not a good idea to let algorithms decide. "It wasn't us, it was the machine," must not be allowed to become an excuse for Facebook or YouTube if another satire video has been blocked because AI isn't able to recognize sarcasm.

Beware the "infocalypse"

In April, BuzzFeed published a video in which a man warns of fake videos. He looks like Barack Obama and speaks like Obama. But he isn't Obama. In fact it's actor Jordan Peele. The video is a so-called deepfake.

Artificial neural networks, which are modeled on the natural networks of nerve cells, can now forge sound and video recordings so perfectly that these can hardly be distinguished from the original. With applications like Fakeapp, even the average user without special technical skills can create frighteningly good fake videos.

Many may find it funny when the artificial Obama says: "President Trump is a total and complete deep shit. Now, you see, I would never say these things — at least not in a public address." It becomes less funny when a manipulated video is suddenly circulating on Twitter in which Kim Jong-un announces that he has just launched a nuclear missile against the U.S.

AI isn't able to recognize sarcasm.

Do Trump's advisors have enough time to tell him about deepfakes before he presses the red button? Propaganda using fake videos is already a reality: Just recently a Belgian party posted a Trump deepfake video on social media in which the president allegedly calls on Belgium to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement.

Experts warn against an era of disinformation. Aviv Ovadya, chief technologist at the Center for Social Media Responsibility at the University of Michigan who had already predicted the fake news flood in the U.S. election campaign, sees humanity heading for the "infocalypse." Fake news may be flooding the Internet, but for a long time, at least, videos were considered forgery-proof. Now you have to learn to mistrust your eyes and ears.

Ordering at Amazon is convenient, but working at Amazon is often the opposite. Every move is filmed in the company's logistics centers. Surveillance could become even more total in the future. At the beginning of the year, Amazon was awarded two patents for a bracelet that tracks all employee movements. Thanks to ultrasound and radio technology, the bracelet always knows where the wearer's hands are. Vibrations could signal to the employee that he is packing the wrong goods.

Amazon denies using the bracelet to monitor employees and says it's intended to simplify the work processes of logistics employees — if it ever comes to be used at all. But even if you believe and trust Amazon, the potential for abuse remains huge. Millions of people in emerging markets are working hard to build smartphones that they will never be able to afford. Trade unions and workers' rights are foreign to them. Their employers would no doubt find surveillance wristbands practical. This would degrade people even further into robots.

A current example shows that countries like China have few inhibitions when it comes to surveillance. A school in the city of Hangzhou, in eastern China, is testing a facial recognition system: Three cameras observe the students and interpret their facial expressions. If the software thinks it has detected an inattentive child, it notifies the teacher. "Since the cameras have been hanging in the classroom, I no longer dare to be distracted," one student said. "It's like scary eyes are always watching me."

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport


Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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