For the past several years I’ve wrapped up each season with a debrief and recap post like this one. (You can see 2019, 2018, and 2017 here. I have no clue where the 2016 post went but I’m going to spelunk into my archives to find it.) These posts are helpful checks for me, to see if I’ve hit the goals I set for myself for the year, to think about how the season went as a whole, and to think about what comes next for the show.
It’s cliche and ridiculous at this point to say that 2020 was a hard year. A pandemic has ripped the already tenuous rug out from under so many people around the world. The United States has handled the pandemic particularly badly, and for the last year the effects of these failures have continued to wash upon our collective shores. This summer saw a renewed reckoning with police brutality against Black folks in the United States. There was, just last week, a white supremacist insurrection at the US Capitol.
Amidst all of that, there have certainly been days where I have wondered where, exactly, my often whimsical, often zany podcast about the future fits in; days where I have thought about quitting this job to go do something “useful” like become an EMT or social worker or even just a reporter who actually covers the pandemic or the uprising. Couldn’t I do something more useful? It’s not like making an independent podcast is easy or particularly well paying.
But the thing that kept me coming back to the show, is a deep belief that thinking about the future can help us better prepare and react when the present goes sideways.
We did an episode about a pandemic four years ago. We’ve done episodes about fake news and the dangers of misinformation. We’ve talked about what a future without the police could look like. We’ve covered the future of the social safety net, of how we can care for one another and what we could build together. This isn’t to say that Flash Forward is particularly prescient — I don’t claim to have predicted anything we saw this year. But it is to say that maybe, if I can get more people thinking about these ideas before they’re presented with them in reality, I can help equip those people with the tools to make a better future for everybody.
So that’s what we did again this year: Think about ideas and the futures we want to build. I cited this meme in the last episode of the year, but I think this is a good summary of why I continue to make Flash Forward.
Okay, let’s dive into the debrief shall we? Here’s what we did on the show this year.
For the past few years I set a goal to try and feature at least 40% BIPOC guests on the show. For the last three years I have failed to reach that goal. This year, before starting the season, I assigned myself some homework to actually articulate WHY I kept failing. I identified a couple of different reasons I wasn’t hitting my goal and tried to remedy them. And I’m happy to say that this year, I actually DID hit the goal. You can see the breakdown below.
(To be explicit about why I track these numbers and set these goals: I believe that if we want the future to be just and safe and happy for everybody, we need to broaden the scope of who gets to talk about “the future” and “futurism” beyond the mostly-white, mostly-male standard set of experts. When the folks who are handed the torch of futurism are monolithic, the future they imagine will be too. You can hear me talk about why I think it’s crucial to include more diverse voices in stories about the future on this episode of Call Your Girlfiend.)
Gender demographics of guests*: 48% men, 49% women, 3% Non-binary
Racial demographics of guests*: 51% white, 49% BIPOC
*these IDs are assumed by me, based on what I know of the guests & public information on their websites/social media etc. I do ask guests for their pronouns, but I did not explicitly ask each of them to self-ID their gender or race. I’d love anybody’s tips on how to gather this data in ways that doesn’t feel invasive or annoying.
Here’s how I’ve done over the past four years.
Voice Actors: This year I also tried to increase the diversity of voice actors you heard on the show. In the past, most voice actors volunteered their time and came from Patrons, friends and family. In 2019, I started paying almost all our voice actors, but they remained largely white. This year, I set a goal to increase the racial diversity of voice actors (particularly paid voice actors).
Voice actors: 26
Paid voice actor demographics: 40% men, 60% women; 30% white, 70% BIPOC
Total episode time: 17.7 hours
Associate producers hired: 1 HOORAY FOR JULIA! I am so incredibly thankful to have hired Julia Llinas Goodman as Flash Forward first ever associate producer. They’ve been incredibly great and helpful and have made the show smarter and funnier with every minute they’ve been on the team.
Podcast Networks launched: 1 You can check out Flash Forward Presents here! If you like thinking about the future, you might like our other shows.
Episodes of Flash Forward Presents podcasts produced: 18
This year we celebrated by the five year anniversary of the show, and the 100th episode! None of that would be possible without Patrons and supporters. Please consider supporting the show if you can!
I like to think about the types of Flash Forward episodes on a kind of grid. There are two main axes onto which you can map episodes: realism and genre. Episodes go from totally absurd (space pirates drag a second moon to Earth) to totally realistic (uh, a pandemic). They also range from more straightforward science (digital twins) to more social/political topics (a housing guarantee). I don’t believe you can ever separate science from culture, politics and society, but some episodes are more explicitly about the social angle than others. I try to balance out the season with equal doses of all four quadrants. Here’s how we did this year:
Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I WROTE A WHOLE BOOK. You can buy it now! It’s out this year! Please pre-order it, pre-orders are huge for new authors like me.
Books I read (or re-read) for episodes:
- Ghost Cities of China: The Story of Cities Without People in the World’s Most Populated Country by Wade Shepard
- On Infertile Ground, Population Control and Women’s Rights in the Era of Climate Change by Jade Sasser
- Outsourced Children: Orphanage Care and Adoption in Globalizing China by Leslie Wang
- Fatal Misconception The Struggle to Control World Population by Matthew Connelly
- Misreading the African Landscape by James Fairhead and Melissa Leach
- Rambunctious Garden by Emma Maris
- The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking) by Katie Mack
- Change Everything: Racial Capitalism and the Case for Abolition by Ruth Wilson Gilmore
- The Case for a Job Guarantee by Pavlina Tcherneva
- More Work For Mother: The Ironies Of Household Technology From The Open Hearth To The Microwave by Ruth Schwartz Cowan
- Democracy for All by Ron Hayduk
- Housing First Manual: The Pathways Model to End Homelessness for People with Mental Illness and Addiction by Sam Tsemberis
- A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green Deal by Daniel Aldana Cohen
- An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
- Waste Trading Among Rich Nations by Kate O’Neill
- This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
As Flash Forward marched on, so did time. In past editions of these wrapups I tried to do an update on every single episode we’ve ever done, but we’re now past 100 episodes so… I’m just going to do the highlights.
👽 Hours after our alien episode went up, a story was published at The Jerusalem Post saying that a former Israeli “space security chief” (frankly not sure exactly what the job means but okay) claims that the US and Israel have been in contact with alien life for years. Haim Eshed, who is 87, “insists that Trump is aware of them, and that he was “on the verge” of disclosing their existence. However, the Galactic Federation reportedly stopped him from doing so, saying they wished to prevent mass hysteria since they felt humanity needed to “evolve and reach a stage where we will… understand what space and spaceships are.” It’s interesting to note that this claim has similarities to a cult called Raëlism. Whose founder wanted to build an embassy in Israel (and whose logo used to include a swastika). Anyway, there is no evidence that any of this is true, and I’m going to go ahead and say that it’s probably a publicity stunt to sell Eshed’s book which, coincidentally, just came out. Surely just a coincidence though.
🛰 There was a close call above our heads this year, when a rocket booster and a dead satellite came within a few meters of one another. Thankfully they didn’t collide, but the near miss was a reminder of just how much junk is up there (which we’ve talked about on Flash Forward before). And here’s another thing to worry about: even if the stuff up there doesn’t collide, it could just explode!? “The biggest contributor to the current space debris problem is explosions in orbit, caused by left-over energy—fuel and batteries—onboard spacecraft and rockets. Despite measures being in place for years to prevent this, we see no decline in the number of such events,” said Holger Krag, Head of the European Space Agency’s Space Safety Program.
🌕 No additional moon for Earth just yet, but the solar system might have acquired a few new members recently! A recent paper counts 19 new interstellar asteroids, lured to our home system like a villager to your Animal Crossing island. “It’s likely that they were pulled from a neighboring solar system when the sun was just forming, when the Sun was born in an interstellar nursery along with many other stars,” explains Elizabeth Fernande at Forbes. And, in bonus moon-related news, there’s a new (beautiful) map of the moon’s surface here.
🛰 The FCC approved Amazon’s request to start sending their own satellite constellation up into orbit around Earth. We talked about these orbiting networks in the episode Goodnight Night, and why they threaten the future of astronomy. Amazon’s version of this is called Kuiper and is currently supposed to feature 3,236 satellites when it’s complete. Amazon plans to spend over $10 billion on the project. The FCC’s announcement was met with dismay from the astronomy world. “This is not like washing away paint, these are decisions that forever alter the sky. The FCC doesn’t give a fuck,” Tweeted space reporter Shannone Stirone. The FCC’s approval does have some caveats, which you can read about here. But this is not a good decision if you care about astronomers and their ability to understand and explore the cosmos.
🛰 Pour one out for Orbiting Geophysics Observatory 1, or OGO-1, which fell out of orbit and burned up on reentry this year. OGO-1 has been called “vintage” by some, a relic of the early 1960’s that hasn’t been operational since 1971. But I like to think of her as distinguished. We talked about a lot of these old and retired satellites on the Space Roomba episode, and about how to preserve information and data about them while knowing that they’ll burn up sooner or later, hopefully without causing any problems to all the other stuff that’s orbiting Earth.
💦 We talked in season four about the upcoming water crisis, and this year water was added to the list of commodities that could be traded on Wall Street, joining things like gold and oil. What that means is that everybody from farmers to cities to hedge funds can make bets on future water availability in California. If this seems dystopian, yeah, it is. “Climate change, droughts, population growth, and pollution are likely to make water scarcity issues and pricing a hot topic for years to come,” RBC Capital Markets managing director and analyst Deane Dray told Kim Chipman at Bloomberg. “We are definitely going to watch how this new water futures contract develops.” If you want another quote that sounds like it could have been delivered by a super villain, here’s one: “I’m delighted we’ve had trades,” said Clay Landry, managing director at consulting firm WestWater Research, which provides the data used to calculate the water index. “In the physical market, it’s so hard to get a deal done. This feels like lightning fast to me.” Cool!
🌊 On the Flash Forward episode Under the Sea we talked about how hard it is to build an underwater living situation, and went through the history of past failed attempts. Now, the great grandson of Jacques-Yves Cousteau has joined forces with Northwestern University to build a brand new underwater research facility called Proteus. Proteus will be less like Sealab, and more like Aquarius, the other underwater base you heard about in the episode. The plan is to put Proteus just 60 feet deep, situated by a coral reef off the island of Curaçao. “Aquarius on steroids—that’s what Proteus is envisioned to be; a true underwater laboratory,” said Mark Patterson from Northeastern’s College of Science. But the ambition is once again being likened to going to space. Patterson also said: “It really will be like the International Space Station at the bottom of the sea.” Selfishly, I hope it gets built and that I can spend some time there!
☀️ In 2019 we talked about solar geoengineering — the idea that you could spray stuff into the atmosphere to keep some of the heat out and cool the Earth as a way to buy time while we decarbonize. One of the people we spoke with on that episode was Dr. Romaric Odoulami, who made the point that most of the time, these proposals come from North American and European scientists and rarely consider or (more importantly) include researchers from Africa. Now, Dr. Odoulami has published his own paper on geoengineering and droughts in Cape Town. “Our findings suggest that keeping the global mean temperature at 2020 levels through SAI would offset the projected end century risk of ‘Day Zero’ level droughts by approximately 90%, keeping the risk of such droughts similar to today’s level.”
💧 Recent data suggests that the current drought in the Southwestern United States is the worst of the last 500 years. We covered the coming water issues in the area in this episode, and this new study shows that past droughts were caused by natural variation, while this one is caused by anthropogenic climate change. And the authors of the paper say it’s going to get bad: “We now have enough observations of current drought and tree-ring records of past drought to say that we’re on the same trajectory as the worst prehistoric droughts.”
🌋 The Anak Krakatau volcano in Indonesia recently had its longest eruption since 2018. We did an episode a few years ago about what would happen if all the volcanoes in the world erupted all at once. Thankfully that’s still not happening, but right now is not really a great time for additional disasters to hit the earth so if you could simmer down, Krakatau, that would be great.
🌐 Remember when we talked about banning the internet to fight hate and misinformation? Well, that’s basically what happened in this village in Peru. But the story is… well you should just read the whole thing.
💼 Austria is going to try a jobs guarantee program! We talked about this idea recently on the show, and when that show aired the main case-study was in Argentina. According to The Independent, “Under the terms of the new pilot programme, people in the town’s municipality who have been unemployed for a year or more will be invited to take part, and given a two-month preparatory course consisting of one-to-one training and, for those who need it, access to counselling and medical support.” I’ll definitely keep an eye on this and let you know when they have findings.
💰 Three years ago, on the Money For Nothing episode, we talked to Ayesha Nyandoro and heard about her project to give single moms in Jackson, Mississippi a basic income. Now there’s an update on the project, covered by Katia Savchuk at Marie Claire. What did the mothers do with the money? “They did flashy, exciting things like going to the dentist and paying off hospital bills, payday loans, and student loans,” Nyandoro told Savchuk. The piece is worth reading in full because it illustrates the real challenges that folks who want to do these pilot programs have, when their recipients might actually lose benefits as they get a bit more cash coming in.
🐻 A while back we did an episode about what would happen if California did in fact attempt to break away from the United States. Well, recently lawyers from some imaginary states (including “New California”) were part of a brief filed as part of the various bogus lawsuits that are attempting to invalidate the US presidential election. “New California State and New Nevada State are directly impacted by the arbitrary and capricious changes in election laws and procedures occur with unfortunate regularity in the current States of California and Nevada,” Robert E. Thomas III, New California and New Nevada’s attorney, wrote in the brief. In other secession news, the head of the Texas GOP also suggested that his state break away. In a statement he wrote that maybe the next move should be that “law-abiding states to bond together and form a Union of states that will abide by the constitution.” When people pointed out that it sounded like he was suggesting secession, he denied it. “I am still trying to find where I said anything about ‘secession,'” he said. All very good and normal stuff.
🚨 The case to abolish the police is growing, and there are more and more pieces for you to read about it these days (it’s a future we covered a few years ago here). One of the hardest parts (I think) of rethinking the police is retraining your brain when it comes to justice. It’s one thing to say “defund the police” and another to pause and ask why you’re celebrating Amy Cooper being tried for her dangerous 911 call, or posting memes asking for the cops who murdered Breona Taylor to be arrested. If we believe that the future would be better without the police, then we must interrogate the conflict here, right? It’s hard! This thread by Josie Duffy-Rice is really great as a place to begin.
ALGORITHMS & TECH
🌐 There isn’t a specific episode about Google or Facebook, but we’ve talked about the social media giant a lot on the show. This year, there was a renewed push to try and break up these tech giants. (Here’s a great primer on how Facebook and Google became monopolies, and why it matters.) The FTC and over 40 states brought an anti-trust suit against Facebook in December, and there were also several anti-trust cases brought against Google. Fun!
🩺 Last year, on the episode about algorithmic bias and impact, we talked about what might happen if/when an algorithm makes a decision that costs someone their life. On the show, we talked about how it was probably only a matter of time before a medical algorithm was at fault for harmful decisions. Now, researchers in Boston have uncovered that an algorithm meant to evaluate people for kidney transplants systematically blocked Black patients from getting transplants. WIRED reports, “The study analyzed health records for 57,000 people with chronic kidney disease from the Mass General Brigham health system that includes Harvard teaching hospitals Massachusetts General and Brigham and Women’s. One third of Black patients, more than 700 people, would have been placed into a more severe category of kidney disease if their kidney function had been estimated using the same formula as for white patients.”
👥 A new tool lets you make a deepfake while on a live Zoom call, combining everybody’s two least favorite tech trends. We covered deepfakes on this episode, and it’s obviously gotten a lot easier to make them since 2017. So… have fun I guess?
🔢 This season we talked about the ways in which your data could be monetized and purchased by companies. But would you sell your data to the Secret Service? Turns out, they might already be buying it. “An increasing number of law enforcement agencies, including the US Secret Service, are simply buying their way into data that would ordinarily require a warrant, a new report has found, and at least one US senator wants to put a stop to it,” writes Kate Cox at Ars Technica. (This news was first reported by Protocol, which is a great new site if you’re not already following it.)
🦟 A few listeners sent this one in: Florida has approved Oxitec’s plan to release their special genetically modified mosquitoes to try and control the population there. Obviously there’s been a lot of opposition to this plan, both from scare-mongering folks who hate the idea of anything genetically altered, and from people with questions about how effective this might wind up being.
🍄 On one of the update episodes last year we talked about mosquitoes and a method of controlling their disease spread that uses a bacteria called Wolbachia. A few listeners spotted this related story, where researchers have found that a fungus called Microsporidia MB also limits the transmission of diseases by mosquitoes. And it seems to be really, really effective. “The researchers could not find a single mosquito carrying the Microsporidia that was harbouring the malaria parasite. And lab experiments, published in Nature Communications, confirmed the microbe gave the mosquitoes protection.” Much like with Wolbachia, they’re not totally sure WHY this fungal parasite prevents mosquitoes from giving humans malaria, but hey, if it works it works!
🦟 There’s other new research on the mosquito front too! One of the methods we touched on really briefly in both the original episode, and the update, is using gene editing to turn female mosquitoes (who bite) into males (who don’t). New research out of Virginia Tech has found that you can do that with just a single gene, which is pretty cool. And as a bonus, the flies that were converted to males also couldn’t fly. Which makes it a lot harder for them to mate (although not impossible, they did find that some of the newly flightless males still reproduced). Win win, if what you want is to reduce the mosquitoes impact on us tasty humans.
💪 A few years ago we did an episode about a drug that could replace exercise. On Earth, this idea is exciting to lazy people and body-builders alike (albeit for different reasons) but there are other reasons to investigate such a drug: astronauts on long haul missions lose tons of muscle mass. If they could take a drug, rather than have to spend their precious space time working out, that would be great. On the episode, the drug we talked about was GW-501516, but it’s not the only one out there. And in 2020, researchers at University of Connecticut have published some new work on another type of drug, one that turns off the regulatory mechanism on the body that usually limits the growth of muscles and bone. The recent research showed that when mice took this drug, and were sent into space, they actually gained muscle mass rather than losing it. This is exciting, but there’s of course a caveat. Mice are not people. And past efforts to use this kind of technique on people haven’t been entirely promising. But it’s worth doing more research on!
💊 New research on placebos has reinforced the idea that they can work even when people know they’re placebos (something we talked about on this episode of Flash Forward). This is good news for doctors who have long grappled with the dilemma of lying to patients, something that is usually a bad thing to do. But now, it seems like they could tell the truth and still get the benefit of the placebo. And this piece in WIRED has some really interesting stuff about the experiments here, and how they try and tell if it’s a question of self-reporting, or an actual physical effect.
🦴 We talked recently about super fast wound healing, mostly referring to cuts and scrapes you might get on your skin. But what about inside the body? New research has found some success with a method of speeding up the healing of broken bones by using a special biomaterial that is applied kind of like a bandage to the bone itself. “Our technology is the first to engineer a bone-like tissue from human bone stem cells in the lab within one week, and successfully transplant it in the bone defect to initiate and accelerate bone repair. The concept of the 3-D-engineered tissue and the bandage has the potential to be developed to different injured tissues and organs,” said Dr Shukry Habib.
💉 In the BODIES miniseason we talked about biomedical tattoos, and I recently saw an interesting bit of research on that front. At the University of Missouri, Columbia, there’s a researcher working on a way to allow people to draw their own electronics, right on their skin using pencils. “In the study, the researchers discovered that pencils containing more than 90% graphite are able to conduct a high amount of energy created from the friction between paper and pencil caused by drawing or writing. Specifically, the researchers found pencils with 93% graphite were the best for creating a variety of on-skin bioelectronic devices drawn on commercial office copy paper. Yan said a biocompatible spray-on adhesive could also be applied to the paper to help it stick better to a person’s skin.” So kind of like your very own stick and poke, but with superpowers!
🧬 Ancestry.com, the world’s largest consumer DNA database in the world, changed hands from one private equity firm to another for a cool $4.7 billion. Beyond the size of that check, this might not seem like a big deal — how different are private equity firms from one another, really? The answer is: they can be very different. One might fight against the use of the database by law enforcement, while another might cooperate willingly, for example. (The acquisition press release also reveals that Ancestry makes about $1 billion in profit every year.) It’s also a reminder that when you agree to send your data to a company, you don’t always know what might happen down the line with that company’s ownership. I’ll be watching what happens next closely.
🧬 Hackers who targeted GEDMatch (which we covered in the We Are Family episode) exposed over a million DNA profiles. This is one of the reasons you might want to be careful with who you trust your data to (as we talked about last week on Dollars for Data). Peter Aldhous (who you heard on the Flash Back To The Future episode about DNA companies) has the full story.
🏀 Remember when we talked about biometric tracking? It’s come up on a few episodes, and now professional athletes are (not exactly at their will) testing the next frontier. As leagues attempt to return to regular game play, they’re trying to figure out how to keep their players and staff as safe as possible. That means monitoring their health even more closely than usual and flagging any signs of a case of coronavirus. And to do that, NBA players are wearing special rings that track their temperature at all times. “The NBA’s version of the Oura ring connects to an app that coaches and managers can access, showing a risk score calculated from some sets of data: temperature, resting heart rate, respiration and heart rate variability (or HRV),” reports Scott Stein at CNET. Is this our future? Everybody required to wear rings (or other biometric devices) to keep track of a potential case? I hope not.
🤖 In nursing homes around the country, seniors are even lonelier than usual. Most facilities are still completely locked down, not letting anybody in to reduce the potential for COVID-19 to decimate their population. To keep residents company, these homes are learning how to do e-visits and video chats, but some places are taking it one step further: companion robots. We talked about these bots and digital efforts for seniors in an episode a few years ago. The part of the WIRED writeup for this that really killed me, was what seniors are asking of their robot-friends: “How do you feel, ElliQ? ElliQ, can you get the virus? ElliQ, are you afraid?’”
👨🎤 Coronavirus has pushed many artists, already in precarious financial positions, out of work completely. San Francisco gave some of those artists money in a public works style project — hiring them to make COVID safety PSAs. We talked a while back about what it would look like the US really tried a Federal Project for the arts again. This isn’t nearly as ambitious, but it is connected!
💡 On Goodnight Night we talked about light pollution, and artificial light. The pandemic changed the signatures of those lights in many places — as office parks and downtown business districts stay dark, while homes and suburban areas light up. “Entire stretches of road, once shiny like strands of tinsel from car headlights, vanished from the nighttime map. As entire populations and industries curtailed their usual movements, pixels of light on satellite images rearranged themselves accordingly—a new bright cluster here, a fresh spot of darkness there,” writes Marina Koren at The Atlantic.
🦠 We talked about nursing homes this past season, and I tried to make the case that we should reconsider them entirely. A recent report shows the power of the nursing home lobby, even amidst the huge numbers of deaths behind their doors. Here’s Debbie Cenziper, Joel Jacobs and Shawn Mulcahy at The Washington Post: “The government inspectors deployed by CMS during the first six months of the crisis cleared nearly 8 in 10 nursing homes of any infection-control violations even as the deadliest pandemic to strike the United States in a century sickened and killed thousands, a Washington Post investigation found. Those cleared included homes with mounting coronavirus outbreaks before or during the inspections, as well as those that saw cases and deaths spiral upward after inspectors reported no violations had been found, in some cases multiple times. All told, homes that received a clean bill of health earlier this year had about 290,000 coronavirus cases and 43,000 deaths among residents and staff, state and federal data shows.”
🤑 Remember during the EARTH mini-season, when each episode began with a (apparently controversial) sketch from a fake Shark Tank like show in which inventors pitched their products? One of the complaints about that series was that it was too dark, too over the top, too craven. But over the last year I watched the ways that inventors are trying to profit from the coronavirus pandemic. A nose spray and device to apply it, UV sanitizing wands (they don’t work), a special hook to open doors without touching them, and, of course, all the people making masks. Remember how masks were literally one of the products being pitched on The Snowglobe? I do 🙂
🎓 Schools and families spent a lot of time this year grappling with how/when/if to return to in-person lectures in the United States. Since IRL teaching is generally a bad idea, many schools turned to high tech solutions. Or at least trying to. There’s a shortage of devices, and the turn to online and laptop based teaching leaves out a lot of kids who don’t have access to a computer or stable internet. I’m very tempted to revisit and remake this Bot for Teacher episode from many years ago, in the face of the pandemic, since there are so many interesting things happening in this space right now.
🎤 Fortnight (which has been featured in the Stories I’m Watching section recently) launched a new concert series which it hopes will become a “tour stop” for musicians as live venues remain closed due to coronavirus. (Of course, I’m sure Fortnight hopes that artists will continue to come to their platform after the pandemic ends too.) This won’t be the first concert in Fortnight — Travis Scott played there recently to millions of “attendees” and Diplo, Steve Aoki, Deadmau5, and Kenshi Yonezu have all graced the Fortnight “stage.” And the lineup coming up includes the much hyped new artist Dominic Fike (subject of this New York Times mini-documentary). I’m really interested in the ways in which online spaces will play a role in the future of music. I’m hoping that artists get weird with these online concerts! When you’re no longer limited to what a single human body can do on stage, why not go a little wild? What are the limits and the opportunities? I wrote about this a bit recently for the SF Chronicle.Years ago now we did an episode about a future in which pop stars are largely played by avatars — generated personas with digital footprints rather than physical bodies. I think it might be time to revisit that episode!
👻 Kim Kardashian was in the news this year for a whole bunch of things. We’re not going to talk about her birthday retreat or her divorce. But we are going to talk about the hologram that Kanye got her of her dead dad, singing. This conveniently hits on two different past episodes! The one about avatar pop stars, and the one about living on after death via AI. I’ll also note that both of those episodes are chapters in the Flash Forward book! Pre-order now! Okay sorry moving on.
🚜 Akon City marches ahead, and is now ready to break ground after rounding up $4 billion from investors to fund construction. We talked about his city (and other celebrity cities) on this episode of Flash Forward. I’ll be watching for news of how construction goes very closely!
🎈 Back in season one we talked about a future in which airline travel was banned, to try and curb the industry’s impact on climate change. You heard a quick update on that earlier this year, about the “flight shame” movement in Sweden. But another thing we talked about in that episode was an alternative form of air travel: dirigibles. Kim Stanley Robinson waxed poetic about his love of airships, and lamented that we didn’t have them anymore. Well, he might get his wish. A few new companies have popped up, trying to make giant flying blimps a thing again, including one founded by Google’s Sergey Brin, and a Swedish company called OceanSky Cruises, which is offering trips to the arctic starting in 2023/24 (you can make your reservation now, this is not sponsored I just think it’s funny that someone might make travel plans for three years from now given how 2020 is going). This connects to another past episode, one in which the Arctic is opened up to tourism. On that episode we talked about cruise ships, but if OceanSky Cruises gets their way, people will be floating above the Arctic rather than through it.
🐀 Do rats like to be tickled? It might seem like a weird question to ask, but understanding what animals like and don’t like, and how to figure that out, has serious implications for research and ethics. We’ve talked before about how to actually figure out what animals want, and what they’re feeling, as well as the ways that that insight can change the ethics of animal testing. And so to figure out if rats like to be tickled, researchers at the University of Bristol found that “it may be possible to use call patterns in rats to measure their emotional response and understand how best to improve their welfare.” Turns out, rats make these very high frequency vocalizations in all kinds of situations, including when humans play with them, and tickle them. The researchers think that these high pitch squeaks might be akin to human laughter. And it turns out, just like with humans, some rats like to be tickled and some don’t. “The researchers found not all rats like to be tickled and that some rats emitted very high numbers of calls whilst others did not, and these calls are directly related with their emotional experience. Rats which emitted the most calls had the highest positive emotional response to tickling but those who did not emit any or few calls did not show a positive response.”
🙈 A while back we did an episode about what it would be like if animals could talk to us in a way that we understood. A lot of the episode was about our current forms of communication with animals, and what we could do better to listen. This story is a weird one (to me). A zookeeper, away from her usual chimpanzee charges, introduces her baby to a chimp on a video call. It’s a bit surreal to watch, and I have more questions than answers. Does the chimp understand it’s her? Does the chimp recognize that that’s her baby? I don’t know! I’d love an expert to weigh in here.
👤 In response to the push against police brutality, IBM announced that it would no longer develop, offer or research facial recognition technology. In a letter to Congress today, the company’s CEO Arvind Krishna wrote that “IBM firmly opposes and will not condone uses of any technology, including facial recognition technology offered by other vendors, for mass surveillance, racial profiling, violations of basic human rights and freedoms, or any purpose which is not consistent with our values and Principles of Trust and Transparency.” I know I’m always the skeptical one, but I do want to say this: I applaud this move, but also want to keep a very close eye on what exactly this means within IBM. There are some words in here that could be used to hedge this promise, things like “IBM has sunset its general purpose facial recognition and analysis software products.” What is “general purpose” here and what does that leave out? I’ll be keeping a close eye on these questions. You can hear our episode about facial recognition here.
👮♀️ The NYPD used facial recognition to track down a Black Lives Matter activist who was accused of “assault” for shouting into a police officer’s ear with a bullhorn. The charge is already worthy of some side-eye, and the method by which they tracked this activist down has even Bill deBlasio concerned. Not only did they use facial recognition to find the activist’s home, here’s what happened next as reported by The Verge: “On August 7th, the police department sent dozens of officers, including some in riot gear, to the home of 28-year-old activist Derrick Ingram. A stand-off followed, live-streamed by Ingram on Instagram, during which he repeatedly asked officers to produce a search warrant. They refused to do so. After protestors supporting Ingram flocked to the street, the NYPD stood down and Ingram turned himself into the police the next day.”
🏀 The push to limit or ban facial recognition has continued, and was recently voiced by a perhaps unlikely group: the Boston Celtics. In a letter to the Boston Globe, the team wrote that “we were disappointed to see that Governor Charlie Baker, in his amendments to the police reform legislation, removed the bill’s proposed regulations of government use of facial recognition technology.” The letter also spells out the ways in which facial recognition technology is biased against Black faces, and the harm that over policing does to communities. “Massachusetts lawmakers’ proposed regulations make sense for racial justice and public safety. By prohibiting government agencies from using face recognition technology to surveil people, it will prevent racially biased, discriminatory surveillance technology from being used to track us everywhere we go. In those rare situations where the technology might give police officers a useful lead in the investigation of serious crimes, the bill would allow them to get a warrant to compare images of suspects with images already held by the government,” they write. In my opinion, it’s really cool to see a team leverage its influence and try to push for policy changes like this.
👮♀️ Most of our coverage on Flash Forward focuses on the US (something I’m working on changing little by little) but there’s obviously lots of super interesting future stuff happening all over. And last year, the question of facial recognition’s use by the police went to court in the UK. A judge recently ruled that a certain system used by the South Wales Police was “unlawful.” But what the ruling actually means in practice is apparently still a little bit unclear. “The judgment doesn’t mean that police use of facial recognition technology in England and Wales is illegal, but it must be used in accordance with a very clear, detailed and proportionate legal framework, which was lacking in this case,” one expert told New Scientist. So we’ll have to see what happens next.
🐻 On our most recent facial recognition episode I talked about the ways that this technology is used on animals, and whether it should be. If we consider most facial recognition applications invasive and violations of privacy on humans, why aren’t they when we use them on animals? I know some of you think that this is a totally absurd argument, but there is a clear history of surveillance technology negatively impacting animals just like there is of surveillance technology negatively impacting humans. And a few months ago, in the New York Times, there was a story about facial recognition being used on bears so that people can identify their favs on bearcams. And again I wonder… should we be doing this?
FOOD & FARMING
🚜 A while back we talked about a future in which all farming is automated. Alphabet (the company that owns Google) recently announced a project called Mineral, a “computational agriculture project.” The project has big goals to revolutionize farming, but one of the first actual things they’re working on are basically self-driving farm devices. Nick Statt at The Verge writes: “One of the first of these tools is a new four-wheel rover-like prototype, what the Mineral team are calling a plant buggy, study crops, soil, and other environmental factors using a mix of cameras, sensors, and other onboard equipment. The team then uses the data collected and combines it with satellite imagery and weather data to create predictive models for how the plants will grow using machine learning and other AI training techniques. The Mineral team says it’s already using the prototypes to study soybeans in Illinois and strawberries in California.”
🐓 Cultured meat was approved for human consumption for the first time in 2020. The company Just got approval to sell a lab-grown chicken nugget in Singapore. Personally I can’t wait to try these. I know it’s wrong (and I don’t eat meat), but chicken nuggets are a weakness of mine.
🐷 The FDA approved genetically modified pigs. This is an interesting one because these pigs have been modified not just for safer consumption, but also for potential biotech applications. The pigs in question are called “GalSafe” because they don’t have a molecule called alpha-gal sugar, which can cause allergic reactions in some people (we talked about this allergic reaction, the way you can get it from a tick bite, and the idea that we should make everybody allergic to cut down on meat consumption, on this episode way back in season one). But the alpha-gal absence has another super interesting use: “They could be used to make drugs like heparin, a common blood-thinner derived from animal tissue, safer for people with AGS. GalSafe pigs could also be useful in organ transplants, as alpha-gal sugar can be a cause of organ rejection. The pigs haven’t been tested for transplantation potential yet, so further research is required,” writes Kait Sanchez at The Verge.
🌽 Can you grow food in space? It’s hard but possible, and new research suggests that future astronauts could find useful fertilizer in their own urine. Yum!