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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios
Brain–computer interfaces, once used exclusively for clinical research, are now under development at several wealthy startups and a major tech company, and rudimentary versions are already popping up in online stores.
Why it matters: If users unlock the information inside their heads and give companies and governments access, they're inviting privacy risks far greater than today's worries over social media data, experts say — and raising the specter of discrimination based on what goes on inside a person's head.
What's happening: Machines that read brain activity from outside the head, or in some cases even inside the skull, are still relatively limited in the data they can extract from wearers' brains, and how accurately they can interpret it.
"These issues are fundamental to humanity because we're discussing what type of human being we want to be," says Rafael Yuste, a neuroscientist at Columbia.
The big picture: Clinical brain–computer interfaces can help people regain control of their limbs or operate prosthetics. Basic headsets are being sold as relaxation tools or entertainment gadgets — some built on flimsy claims — and market researchers are using the devices to fine-tune advertising pitches.
Driving the news: Neuroethicists are sounding the alarm.
A major concern is that brain data could be commercialized, the way advertisers are already using less intimate information about people's preferences, habits and location. Adding neural data to the mix could supercharge the privacy threat.
Neural data, more than other personal information, has the potential to reveal insights about a brain that even that brain's owner may not know.
"The sort of future we're looking ahead toward is a world where our neural data — which we don't even have access to — could be used" against us, says Tim Brown, a researcher at the University of Washington Center for Neurotechnology.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify Marcello Ienca's quote.
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios
People often blame immigration and trade for destroying American work, even though automation and technological change are far more likely to take away jobs in the coming years.
What's happening: In a first-of-its-kind experiment, an MIT political scientist tested whether informing people about potential job loss from automation would change their minds about immigration and trade.
"Right-wing populism is not only an economic story," says Zhang. "Economic anxiety might not be the main driver for support for Donald Trump. For instance, it could be people feeling threatened by out-groups" like immigrants and foreign workers.
The big picture: This narrative has been around since President Trump won in 2016 on a wave of protectionist proposals — that largely white, middle- and low-income Americans living far from coastal wealth voted in their economic self-interest.
Another root problem is that it's really, really hard to change people's minds, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. Zhang previously studied reactions to information about climate change, an issue that remains polarizing despite scientific consensus.
"It may be that cultural factors play a substantial role in protectionist sentiments," says Darrell West, director of the Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings. "Workers may worry about immigrants taking their jobs as automation kicks in but also be concerned about what that will mean for American identity and the future of the country," he tells Axios.
How ImageNet sees me. On the left: "beard" / On the right: "Bedouin, Beduin"
Maybe you've seen images like these floating around social media this week: photos of people with lime-green boxes around their heads and funny, odd or in some cases super-offensive labels applied.
What's happening: They're from an interactive art project about AI image recognition that doubles as a commentary about the social and political baggage built into AI systems.
Why it matters: This experiment — which will only be accessible for another week — shows one way that AI systems can end up delivering biased or racist results, which is a recurring problem in the field.
"The point of the project is to show how a lot of things in machine learning that are conceived of as technical operations or mathematical models are actually deeply social and deeply political," says Trevor Paglen, the MacArthur-winning artist who co-developed the project with Kate Crawford of the AI Now Institute.
But, but, but: This is an art project, not an academic takedown of ImageNet, which is mostly intended to detect objects rather than people. Some AI experts have criticized the demonstration for giving a false impression of the dataset.
This week ImageNet responded to the project, which Paglen says is currently being accessed more than 1 million times per day.
Bonus: When Erica uploaded a photo of herself, the ImageNet experiment classified her as a "flibbertigibbet," which is disrespectful but a great word.
Photo Illustration: Sarah Grillo. Photo by Prince Williams/Wireimage
Special report: Higher education in crisis (Alison Snyder & Kim Hart - Axios)
Google claims quantum supremacy (Madhumita Murgia & Richard Waters - FT)
Real-time surveillance goes mainstream in the U.K. (Adam Satariano - NYT)
Silicon Valley and the Dems: a messy divorce (Gabriel Debenedetti - NY Mag)
You can run, but you can't hide from this AI (Karen Hao - MIT Tech Review)
Photo courtesy University of Michigan
Oh — it's just a nail gun.
What's happening: A research team at the University of Michigan attached the tool to a drone and programmed it to autonomously fly over a rooftop and pound in shingles.
The big picture: The 8-rotor roofer — just an academic exercise for now — comes the same week that FedEx announced it's making some deliveries by drone in a small Virginia town.
Our thought bubble: What could possibly go wrong?