Jun 20, 2018

Axios Future

By Bryan Walsh
Bryan Walsh

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1 big thing: A dark web alternative to Facebook

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

If Liran Sorani has his way, the dark web — a hidden internet badlands populated by hackers, drug runners, gun traffickers, pornographers and human parts merchants — will one day also be a haven for ordinary folk seeking privacy away from Facebook, Steve LeVine writes.

Why it matters: Facebook is under intense pressure in the U.S. and Europe for its role in the Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election and its general failure to safeguard user data. The dark web is a possible alternative.

  • Facebook's flaws have energized privacy advocates, libertarians and others to seek out another, decentralized and encrypted cyberspace where no one is selling their data or deciding what they can and cannot say.
  • A combination of the dark web and blockchain could provide that place.
  • It would be a new social network that does not accumulate and husband people's data.

What's going on: When most people want to use the internet, they go on Google, Facebook, or — if they are in China — Baidu or WeChat. But it's different if you are surfing for tools to, say, unleash a bot attack and reap some ransomeware profit.

  • For that, you need to go on the dark web, which is an entirely different network within the deep web — the 96% of the internet from which Google and every other traditional browser are locked out.
  • There, you hire a good hacker, or professionals who hide under assumed names to elude authorities, says Sorani, cyber manager at Webhose, an Israeli data mining firm.
  • To get there, you don't use Google, but instead download software like Tor or I2P. Then, you enter at your own — considerable — risk.

The intrigue: The dark web is full of people just seeking anonymity, often from dangerous regimes, but it's also a place where many take advantage of that anonymity to commit crime. It can be as exceedingly treacherous and spooky as it sounds — the unsuspecting can be ambushed in super-unpleasant ways.

That's why the idea of it becoming a safe ground for Facebook refugees is counter-intuitive: if you are lulled into the wrong place, you could end up in a cyberattack, or subject to much more sophisticated, unpoliced scams than are seen on the public internet, with no recourse since everything is so shadowy.

But Sorani predicts blockchain will change all that. He suggests it will evolve into an easy tool accessed through a mobile app or browser and provide a "gateway that will seamlessly connect you to the (dark) network." He tells Axios:

"Facebook for me is like a nation. It has a policy. They define the policy. But with blockchain, nobody can shut it down. It belongs to the community. It will be free of censorship."
Liran Sorani

Go darker: Read the full story.

2. Why rural counties are dying in America
Expand chart
Data: U.S. Census Bureau; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Rural counties — particularly in the Midwest and Northeast of the U.S. — are losing people due to higher death rates than birth rates and more people moving away than moving in, Axios' Stef Kight reports.

The big picture: If the trend continues, it validates one part of the equation for a long-held presumption among demographers — as forecast, rural counties have lost population even while the overall number of people living in the U.S. continues to grow. But that may not mean we are urbanizing en masse.

As Steve reported recently, the 'burbs expanded faster than cities from 2015–2017, in part because that's where millennials have moved as they grow older and start families.

What it means: "Barring a significant reversal in the next few years," Richard Fry of the Pew Research Center tells Axios, "the share of the population living in rural counties will be less than it was in 2010 ... Rural clout in Congress and the electoral college will be diminished."

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  • There were signs of a reversal of rural population losses last year, William Frey of the Brookings Institution says — but "one year does not make a trend, so we don’t know whether this is really a reversal or whether just a blip. "
  • Some states are making efforts to increase the population of rural areas. Vermont, a mostly rural state, has started a program to pay people with jobs elsewhere to live in the state and work remotely.

Go deeper: Read the full post.

3. When manufacturing jobs are dead ends

A welder takes measurements at a construction site. Photo: Ben McCanna/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

The rise of automation is hurting middle-skills jobs — those that require some training beyond a high school degree but not a bachelor's degree, Axios' Erica Pandey writes.

Yes, but: Not all middle-skills jobs are created equal. Some entry-level positions — human resources assistant or computer support specialist — are full of opportunities for advancement and a middle class lifestyle.

  • In other sectors, like manufacturing, 62% of these jobs are dead ends, per a new report by JFF and Burning Glass Technologies provided first to Axios.

What's happening: Technology is rapidly changing the nature of middle-skills jobs, and employers, educators and policymakers are still playing catch-up, Manjari Raman, program director of Harvard Business School's Project on Managing the Future of Work, tells Axios.

  • Those with high school diplomas and vocational or associates degrees should be well-equipped to do middle-skills jobs, but curriculums have not kept up with tech trends, she says.

What this means: A dental hygienist works in a lifetime job, while a manufacturing inspector's job is static. Neither have much scope for advancement, but the dental hygienist has career longevity.

  • 77% of dental hygienists' jobs were stable, though only 1% had room for advancement, researchers found. Median wage for these jobs was $34.77.
  • 39% of inspector's jobs were stable, and only 2% advanced from those jobs. Median wage for these jobs was $17.31.

Some good news: 37% of the middle-skills workforce is in business and IT, where there's ample opportunity for advancement.

Go deeper: Read the full story.

4. The top threats from synthetic biology

Illustration: Axios Visuals

During the Cold War era, the American government was able to closely monitor and prepare for advances in chemistry and physics. Now, some researchers say the U.S. needs to do the same for future threats from engineered organisms, Eileen Drage O'Reilly reports.

What's happening: DNA sequencing tools and other advances like CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing have made it easier to modify and recreate bacteria and viruses.

Threat level: Synthetic biology, which can help fight diseases and produce improved food and fuel, can also already be weaponized in part, warned a group of researchers Tuesday in presenting their 200+ page report to the Department of Defense.

"The next question is, how can DOD, HHS and others tweak their program to match the threats down the road."
— Diane DiEuliis, committee member and senior research fellow at National Defense University

The top three concerns:

1. Recreating known pathogens. New technologies enable any mammalian virus to be recreated, and databases like GenBank have made the genomes of known human viruses open to the public.

2. Making existing bacteria more dangerous. "We've known how to modify bacteria for a long time," Michael Imperiale, chair of the committee, said at the press conference. "And we have the tools to make it antibiotic resistant."

3. Making biochemicals via microbes living on the skin or in the gut. Imperiale, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Michigan's Medical School, says someone could take an organism found regularly in the gut, engineer it so that it becomes toxic to humans, and then figure out a way to deliver it.

Go deeper: Read the entire post.

5. Worthy of your time

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

  • Millennials' debt woes (Stef Kight — Axios)
  • "Emotional labor" takes a toll on service workers (Chris Woolston — Undark)
  • IBM AI wins an argument (Kaveh Waddell — Axios)
  • China seeks semiconductor security (Edward White — FT)
  • Reining in the data barons (Martin Giles — Tech Review)
  • The White House looks to coordinate online privacy plan (Shannon Vavra, Kim Hart, David McCabe — Axios)
6. 1 touchy, feely thing: Prosthetic senses pain

A prosthesis with e-dermis on its fingertips picks up an object. Photo: Osborn et al., Sci. Robot. 3, eaat3818 (2018)

Today's prosthetic devices don't allow users to perceive touch but a group of scientists have now developed a skin for them to capture a range of sensations we experience, including pain for the first time.

"Pain is a crucial part of our senses," says Luke Osborn, a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University. It is our way of protecting ourselves from further damage and gauging safety, he added.

What they did: Osborn and his colleague created an electronic skin, or "e-dermis," that fits over a prosthetic hand. Like the human type, the engineered dermis has two layers that together mimic receptors on our body and capture a range of touch sensations, including pain.

  • Working with an amputee volunteer, Osborn applied electric pulses that stimulated the participant's nerves and asked him to rate the level of discomfort from the sensation in his phantom hand.
  • They then used those stimulation patterns to provide sensory feedback to the volunteer's brain as he picked up smooth, curved objects or sharp, pointed ones with his prosthetic hand.
  • The researchers also gave the prosthetic a reflex so it would quickly let go of an object if it felt pain.

The big picture: Over the past decade, researchers have gained a better understanding of our "highly complex sense" of touch and worked on ways to add it to prosthetics, says Paul Marasco, a neurophysiologist at the Cleveland Clinic. Now, he says, they are starting to trickle out of the research environment and into the clinical realm.

One more thing: Osborn says the ability to sense pain could be useful for robots. It might allow them to differentiate between something that's potentially damaging and something that isn't, giving them more human-like touch.

Go deeper: Read the full story.

Bryan Walsh