Drones Bringing Vaccine May Be Interpreted by Some as Cargo Cult Vindication

(p. A10) In the village of Cook’s Bay, on the remote side of the remote island of Erromango, in the remote South Pacific nation of Vanuatu, 1-month-old Joy Nowai was given shots for hepatitis and tuberculosis that were delivered by a flying drone on Monday.
It may not have been the first vial of vaccine ever delivered that way, but it was the first in Vanuatu, which is the only country in the world to make its childhood vaccine program officially drone-dependent.
“I am so happy the drone brought the stick medicine to Cook’s Bay as I don’t have to walk several hours to Port Narvin for her vaccines,” her mother, Julie Nowai told a Unicef representative. “It is only 15 minutes’ walk from my home.”
.. . .
. . . , about 20 percent of Vanuatu’s 35,000 children under age 5 do not get all their shots, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund.
So the country, with support from Unicef, the Australian government and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, began its drone program on Monday. It will initially serve three islands but may be expanded to many more.
In the future, that expansion may run into some unusual turbulence — Vanuatu is one of the few places where “cargo cults” are still active, and the drones match their central religious dogma: that believers will receive valuable goods delivered by airplane.
That will have to be handled carefully, a Unicef representative said.
. . .
. . . : Vanuatu still has adherents of the John Frum movement, one of the South Pacific cargo cults whose adherents pray for valuables arriving from the sky.
The cults date back more than 100 years, but reached their zenith during and after World War II.
Islanders whose ancestors had been kidnapped by whites to work on plantations in Australia and Fiji watched “silver birds” flown in by the Japanese and American militaries disgorge vast amounts of “cargo” — food, medicines, tools and weapons — which was sometimes shared with them.
The legend spread that the cargo was gifts from the ancestors, but that it had been intercepted and stolen by the foreigners. After the war ended, the cults built airstrips and model planes to lure the “birds” back.

For the full story, see:
Donald G. McNeil Jr. “‘A Buzzing Thing in the Sky’ Delivers Vaccines to Vanuatu.” The New York Times (Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2018): A10.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date Dec. 17, 2018, and has the title “An Island Nation’s Health Experiment: Vaccines Delivered by Drone.”)

Libertarian Peter Thiel Predicts Communist China’s Tech Success (What?)

(p. B1) The Trump administration gave ZTE, which employs 75,000 people and is the world’s No. 4 maker of telecom gear, a stay of execution on Thursday. ZTE, which had violated American sanctions, agreed to pay a $1 billion fine and to allow monitors to set up shop in its headquarters. In return, the company — once a symbol of China’s progress and engineering know-how — will be allowed to buy the American-made microchips, software and other tools it needs to survive.
China’s technology boom, it turns out, has been largely built on top of Western technology.
The ZTE incident, as it is called in China, may be the country’s Sputnik moment. Like the United States in 1957, watching helplessly as the Soviet Union launched the first human-made satellite, many people in China now see how far the country still has to go.
“We realized,” said Dong Jielin, an adjunct professor at the Research Center for Technological Innovation at Tsinghua University in Beijing, “that China’s prosperity was built on sand.”
. . .
(p. B3) . . . many in China — and many cheerleaders of the Chinese tech scene — . . . found themselves in a feedback loop of their own making. The powerful propaganda machine flooded out rational voices, said Ms. Dong of Tsinghua University. The tech boom fits perfectly into Beijing’s grand narrative of a national rejuvenation. Innovation and entrepreneurship are top national policies, with enormous financial backing from the government. Even now, some articles critical of China’s lagging semiconductor industry have disappeared from the internet there.
And it wasn’t just Chinese people. Michael Moritz, the American venture capital investor, warned that China “is leaving Donald Trump’s America behind.” Peter Thiel, a PayPal co-founder, wondered how long it would take for China to overtake the United States. Three to four years, he concluded.
The boom kept many from asking hard questions. They promoted China’s surge in patent filings without looking at whether the patents were any good. They didn’t ask why China still imports 90 percent of its semiconductor components even though the industry became a national priority in 2000.

For the full commentary, see:
Li Yuan. “China’s Sputnik Moment.” The New York Times (Monday, June 11, 2018): B1 & B3.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date June 10, 2018, and has the title “THE NEW NEW WORLD; ZTE’s Near-Collapse May Be China’s Sputnik Moment.”)

New Tools May Have Allowed Hominins to Leave Africa Far Earlier Than Previously Known

(p. D1) The oldest stone tools outside Africa have been discovered in western China, scientists reported on Wednesday [July 11, 2018]. Made by ancient members of the human lineage, called hominins, the chipped rocks are estimated to be as much as 2.1 million years old.
The find may add a new chapter to the story of hominin evolution, suggesting that some of these species left Africa far earlier than once believed and managed to travel over 8,000 miles east of their evolutionary birthplace.
. . .
(p. D3) The trigger for that migration? Maybe it was figuring out how to make sharp stone tools.
“Suddenly you had a primate that could obtain meat from a carcass, and it opened up a new world for them,” Dr. Dennell said. “That simple technology was enough to get them out of Africa and right across Asia.”

For the full story, see:

Zimmer, Carl. “Ancient Tools Provide New Insight.” The New York Times (Tuesday, July 17, 2018): D1 & D3.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed date, added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date July 11, 2018, and has the title “Archaeologists in China Discover the Oldest Stone Tools Outside Africa.”)

Google Nurtures Cats That Eat Threatened Owls

(p. 1) MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — Silicon Valley is booming, and longtime residents are being driven out everywhere. But only in Shoreline Park are the newcomers eating the natives.
A handful of burrowing owls live in this 750-acre wildlife and recreation area, deep in the grass. As the breeding season begins, they are among perhaps 50 left in Silicon Valley. A California species of “special concern,” burrowing owls nest in the ground. That makes them especially vulnerable.
Death strikes hard at Shoreline. The remains of an owl — a leg, a wing, a few scattered feathers — were found here in 2015, shortly after a feral cat was seen stalking it. Another owl was discovered dead near its burrow, and a third disappeared that year and was presumed killed. That was fully half the owls nesting in the park.
Environmentalists have been alarmed for a long time about the number of cats at Shoreline, but they could not determine where they were coming from. Gradually, public records requests and old-fashioned snooping uncovered a trail. It led southwest from the sun-burnished slopes of the park, up Permanente Creek and into the ever-expanding empire of Google.
Google never set out to threaten biodiversity in its front yard, of (p. 4) course. Like so many stories these days about Big Tech, this is a tale about how attempts to do good often produce unexpected consequences, and how even smart people (especially, perhaps, smart people) can be reluctant to rethink their convictions.
At Google, it is not so much that workers do not like birds as it is that they really love cats. There is an employee group called GCat Rescue that traps the cats around the so-called Googleplex. Kittens and friendly adults are put up for adoption. Less-friendly adult cats are neutered and released.
Google is famous for feeding its employees well, and the cats are no different. Every night, all night, dinner is served from cat-feeding stations. The cat community calls this approach “colony care.”
. . .
“Cats that are fed still hunt,” said Mr. Longcore, assistant professor of architecture, spatial sciences and biological sciences at the University of Southern California. “Even neutered cats and spayed cats hunt.” He added, “If you have an outdoor cat sanctuary, you can expect there to be consequences to the native wildlife.”

For the full story, see:
Streitfeld, David. “Google Doesn’t Hate Owls. It Just Loves Cats.” The New York Times, First Section (Sunday, May 27, 2018): 1 & 4.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date May 26, 2018, and has the title “As Google Feeds Cats, Owl Lovers Cry Foul.” The online version says the print version appeared on May 6 on p. A17 of the New York Edition. My print version, as usual, was the National Edition.)

Hundreds of Years of CO2 Emissions Could Be Stored Forever in Oman’s Rocks

(p. A10) IBRA, Oman — In the arid vastness of this corner of the Arabian Peninsula, out where goats and the occasional camel roam, rocks form the backdrop practically every way you look.
But the stark outcrops and craggy ridges are more than just scenery. Some of these rocks are hard at work, naturally reacting with carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turning it into stone.
Veins of white carbonate minerals run through slabs of dark rock like fat marbling a steak. Carbonate surrounds pebbles and cobbles, turning ordinary gravel into natural mosaics.
Even pooled spring water that has bubbled up through the rocks reacts with CO2 to produce an ice-like crust of carbonate that, if broken, re-forms within days.
Scientists say that if this natural process, called carbon mineralization, could be harnessed, accelerated and applied inexpensively on a huge scale — admittedly some very big “ifs” — it could help fight climate change. Rocks could remove some of the billions of tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide that humans have pumped into the air since the beginning of the Industrial Age.
And by turning that CO2 into stone, the rocks in Oman — or in a number of other places around the world that have similar geological formations — would ensure that the gas stayed out of the atmosphere forever.
“Solid carbonate minerals aren’t going anyplace,” said Peter B. Kelemen, a geologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who has been studying the rocks here for more than two decades.
Capturing and storing carbon dioxide is drawing increased interest. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that deploying such technology is essential to efforts to rein in global warming.
. . .
The rocks are so extensive, Dr. Kelemen said, that if it was somehow possible to fully use them they could store hundreds of years of CO2 emissions. More realistically, he said, Oman could store at least a billion tons of CO2 annually. (Current yearly worldwide emissions are close to 40 billion tons.)

For the full story, see:

Henry Fountain. “How Oman’s Rocks Could Help Save the Planet.” The New York Times (Saturday, APRIL 28, 2018: A10-A11.

(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date APRIL 26, 2018.)

AI “Will Never Match the Creativity of Human Beings or the Fluidity of the Real World”

(p. A21) If you read Google’s public statement about Google Duplex, you’ll discover that the initial scope of the project is surprisingly limited. It encompasses just three tasks: helping users “make restaurant reservations, schedule hair salon appointments, and get holiday hours.”
Schedule hair salon appointments? The dream of artificial intelligence was supposed to be grander than this — to help revolutionize medicine, say, or to produce trustworthy robot helpers for the home.
The reason Google Duplex is so narrow in scope isn’t that it represents a small but important first step toward such goals. The reason is that the field of A.I. doesn’t yet have a clue how to do any better.
. . .
The narrower the scope of a conversation, the easier it is to have. If your interlocutor is more or less following a script, it is not hard to build a computer program that, with the help of simple phrase-book-like templates, can recognize a few variations on a theme. (“What time does your establishment close?” “I would like a reservation for four people at 7 p.m.”) But mastering a Berlitz phrase book doesn’t make you a fluent speaker of a foreign language. Sooner or later the non sequiturs start flowing.
. . .
To be fair, Google Duplex doesn’t literally use phrase-book-like templates. It uses “machine learning” techniques to extract a range of possible phrases drawn from an enormous data set of recordings of human conversations. But the basic problem remains the same: No matter how much data you have and how many patterns you discern, your data will never match the creativity of human beings or the fluidity of the real world. The universe of possible sentences is too complex. There is no end to the variety of life — or to the ways in which we can talk about that variety.
. . .
Today’s dominant approach to A.I. has not worked out. Yes, some remarkable applications have been built from it, including Google Translate and Google Duplex. But the limitations of these applications as a form of intelligence should be a wake-up call. If machine learning and big data can’t get us any further than a restaurant reservation, even in the hands of the world’s most capable A.I. company, it is time to reconsider that strategy.

For the full commentary, see:
Gary Marcus and Ernest Davis. “A.I. Is Harder Than You Think.” The New York Times (Saturday, May 19, 2018): A21.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date May 18, 2018.)

Google Further Reduces Small Payments to Content Creators

YouTube is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Google.

(p. A15) SAN FRANCISCO — The authorities believe a woman who shot three people at YouTube’s headquarters before killing herself on Tuesday [April 3, 2018] was angered by the social media outlet’s policies.
While the police did not specifically say what those policies were, they likely had to do with a concept called “demonetization.”
. . .
One of those creators was Nasim Najafi Aghdam, the woman the police said had shot YouTube employees in San Bruno, Calif. She frequently posted videos to several YouTube channels and had become increasingly angry over the money she was making from them.
“My Revenue For 300,000 Views Is $0.10?????” Ms. Aghdam wrote on her website, while calling YouTube “a dictatorship.”
. . .
Video creators take a share of the money from ads running before or alongside their videos. But YouTube has been raising the bar on qualifications for running ads.
Last April, the company said it would set a requirement for 10,000 cumulative lifetime views before allowing videos to gain ads. In January, the company raised that requirement to 4,000 hours of watch time in the past year and 1,000 subscribers.

For the full story, see:
NELLIE BOWLES and JACK NICAS. “YouTube Complaints From Attacker Echoed Fight Over Ad Dollars.” The New York Times (Thursday, April 5, 2018): A15.
(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date APRIL 4, 2018, and has the title “YouTube Attacker’s Complaints Echoed Fight Over Ad Dollars.”)