Drones Can Deliver Burritos, Blood Supplies — and Bombs


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ISIS turns toy drones into killing machines. On the battlefield in Iraq and Syria, ISIS is using hobbyist drones — the kind you can buy on Amazon — to send explosive devices behind enemy lines. Last week they used one to kill two Kurdish fighters (The Washington Post). The development is hardly a surprise; from the smelting of bronze to the splitting of atoms, humanity has always turned its technological breakthroughs into war-fighting tools. The U.S., of course, has been deploying relatively large killer drones for a decade. Now we’re seeing this type of combat make the equivalent of a transition from mainframe to PC scale — and it’s going to be in everyone’s hands. In warfare as in any other kind of competition, every time an innovation comes along, you need to weigh how someone with ill intent might use it against you. Because, sooner or later, they will. As technology writer James Gleick asked on Twitter: “Did we think we were going to perfect a cheap, lethal technology and keep it to ourselves?”

Obama wants a government stake in our AI future. As artificial intelligence and machine learning move into the mainstream of our lives, driving our cars and our business decisions, how do we make sure they have human values embedded in them? President Obama ponders that question in conversation with MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito (the interview is part of the issue of Wired that Obama has guest-edited). There have been times, during Obama’s eight years in the Oval Office, that you might have mistaken the president, a formidably rational decision-maker with a Spock-like cool, for an AI himself. Here he talks about open data, cyber-security, and post-automation employment with an easy familiarity and depth that suggests his interest lies deeper than a briefing memo. If we rely only on the private sector to build the AI future, Obama warns, we could end up with systems that don’t fully represent our society. As Ito says, “It’s been a predominately male gang of kids, mostly white, who are building the core computer science around AI, and they’re more comfortable talking to computers than to human beings.” Obama’s response: “If we want the values of a diverse community represented in these breakthrough technologies, then government funding has to be a part of it.” Today the White House also released two reports on AI (Quartz), focusing on human-machine collaboration, how to boost jobs, and ethics and transparency.

Paying your taxes is the American way. Maximizing your deductions might be common in an upper-bracket milieu. But Vanessa Williamson of the Brookings Institution writes (in The New York Times) that Americans are nearly unanimous in agreeing with the idea that ““it is every American’s civic duty to pay their fair share of taxes.” That is not only significant for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who Sunday confirmed a record of not paying federal income taxes; it reflects a remarkable change in the political consensus in the U.S., which in the era of Reagan solidified around hostility to taxes. Trump insisted that wealthy “friends” of his opponent, like Warren Buffett, took “massive deductions” just like him. Buffett came back swinging, documenting a substantial income tax bill ($1.8 million). Does taking extraordinary, though legal, measures to avoid taxes make you “smart,” as Trump boasted? No way. As Felix Salmon writes (in Fusion), most Americans aren’t real estate developers and can’t use complex depreciation rules to wipe out tax bills. For us, keeping tax filings simple, paying our share, and moving on not only is the ethical thing to do — it’s also the best way to stay sane.

Bank transfers should be more secure. SWIFT is the system banks use for inter-bank electronic cash transfers. It was hacked last February, costing Bangladesh’s central bank $81 million. Now Symantec, the security firm, says that a hacking group named Odinaff has planted malware that can compromise SWIFT in “10 to 20 organizations” (Reuters, Ars Technica). This is not good news in an era when we’re already worried about banks’ ability to survive financial crises like the one that happened a decade ago. We’re not going to stop moving our economic activity into electronic networks just because those networks are vulnerable. But we can surely do a better job of keeping those networks up to date and nimble in their ability to respond to attacks, so that businesses that depend on them aren’t stranded. The Bangladesh thieves would have ended up with ten times more cash if they hadn’t made a typo.

Samsung’s exploding phone fiasco was a leadership fail. When your new flagship product literally goes up in flames, whose fault is it? The buck stops, as always, in the corner office (Fast Company). First, Samsung rushed its Galaxy Note 7 to market to keep up with Apple’s latest iPhone release. When the phones starting blowing up, it rushed the replacements to its users. When the supposedly safe replacements started blowing up, too, the company had to throw away the entire product — and took a huge blow not only to its balance sheet but to its credibility. That kind of repeat failure suggests not a bad-luck accident but a broken system. As Samsung sets out to fix itself, perhaps it should proceed with a little more deliberation.

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