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1 big thing: Fiddling with your brain

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

For artificial intelligence to begin approximating human know-how, scientists will need to create models of how people think — such as simulations of your and my actual brain. That's when the trouble may begin.

Axios' Kaveh Waddell writes: In this future, we will voluntarily upload these virtual versions of our brains onto platforms like Facebook or Elon Musk's aptly named Neuralink, which may conduct experiments on them. When they do, it will be only a little removed from fiddling with the real us.

Brain uploading, or whole-brain emulation, is one way to simulate intelligence. Although the science remains well out of reach today, Ray Kurzweil, Google’s director of engineering and an AI pioneer, argues it will be possible within decades.

One way brain simulations will be used is to better personalize commercial products and services. But in getting there, companies will raise numerous Frankenstein's monster scenarios of tinkering with people's very essence.

  • We risk a future "in which a handful of private companies own and monetize a map of our lives, ourselves, and how we think and feel at any given moment," said Meredith Whittaker, executive director of AI Now and a research scientist at New York University.
  • How about this freakish thought: By understanding your virtual brain, companies could advertise exactly what you want when you want it — perhaps useful, but incredibly intrusive.
  • "They could know us better than we know ourselves," Whittaker told the O’Reilly AI Conference in San Francisco last Thursday.

What's happening now: Even without a perfectly accurate copy of your brain, scientists are designing systems that try to imitate how humans make decisions. Basic behavior modeling is the bread and butter of social networks like Facebook, often used to improve advertising.

  • For now, the profiles Facebook creates from users’ browsing habits can be laughably off-base. But data taken directly from brains says a lot more about people than inferences from their likes and shares, powering much more accurate predictions.
  • Facebook is already building technology that would allow people to type with their thoughts.
  • Companies could be compelled to share this data with the government in certain cases, Whittaker said, or could build a business selling it to employers or health insurers.

Go deeper: How linking our brains to computers could change humanity

2. Geopolitics of space

SpaceX deploys a satellite this morning. Photo: SpaceX

Early today, Musk's SpaceX launched its 16th rocket of the year. The first stage fell away and landed flawlessly on a drone ship in the Atlantic, reports ArsTechnica's Eric Berger, while the rocket went on to deploy a satellite in orbit (see above).

Space is rapidly becoming internationally commercialized — the U.K., India, China, Russia, Israel, the U.S., along with their companies, are among those intent on grabbing a part of what they view as a coming bonanza.

The big question: How do they protect the trillions of dollars in government and commercial assets going up? What happens if one country or company decides that another's actions or its stuff are a threat, and attacks?

And there is much to attack. Already, the valuation of big companies depend on space assets. What is Uber, for instance, without GPS, asks Neil deGrasse Tyson, the astrophysicist, whose new book, out tomorrow, is called "Accessory to War." He tells Axios:

"A rogue player can go up and shoot out our satellites and now we are running blind without GPS."
"So we would then say we need to protect those assets. This is no different than protecting your war supply on the ground. It's just now the regime is space instead of Earth's surface."

This explains the Space Force proposed by President Trump. According to Tyson, it does not suggest controlling access to space, but protecting assets.

"Control of space doesn't mean that I have a gate through which everyone must pass," he said. "That's normally what we think of patrol as that, but that's not what military control means. It means that I have the power to defend myself."

The bottom line: In the end, this can all go off peacefully, concludes Tyson — as long as you are not posing a threat to someone's stuff. He points back to the age of exploration.

"It's not different than a seafaring nation that they have ships — England, Portugal, France, Spain — and occasionally they had conflicts. But basically everyone is going everywhere in the world on the ocean."
"And if we have space-faring nations, they are going to want to go places. I don't have any problem with that. It's a big universe."
3. Jack departs the house he built

At the New York Stock Exchange for the IPO on Sept. 14, 2014. Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty

When Jack Ma co-founded e-commerce behemoth Alibaba in 1999, China's internet culture barely existed. Now his company is worth $500 billion — and, next to China's president, Ma himself may be the most recognized Chinese celebrity on the planet.

Axios' Erica Pandey writes: Today is Ma's 54th birthday as well as the 19th anniversary of Alibaba's founding, and he marked it by setting in motion his retirement. In a letter to shareholders and employees, Ma said he will step down in a year, and be succeeded by company CEO Daniel Zhang.

It will be hard to define Ma's most important legacy, but one has been normalizing China's commercial internationalization, a crucial achievement for a country whose rise is viewed with suspicion by much of the world. As the ambassador from China's best-known brand, he also has been central to the latest stage of the country's meteoric economic rise.

"He's the first Chinese tech executive to realize that the Chinese model can work in other developing countries."
— Hans Tung, managing partner at GGV Capital

Ma is at once China's richest businessman, with a $40 billion fortune, and head of a vast empire:

  • Alibaba bestrides e-commerce, online payments, cloud computing, media, entertainment, and social networks.
  • This past quarter, Alibaba announced it has 552 million active online buyers. It's not clear how that precisely stacks up to Amazon, which last revealed its user base in 2016, when it was 310 million. This year, Amazon said it has 100 million Prime members.
  • In 2017, Alibaba rang up $25 billion in sales in just 24 hours on "Singles Day," almost eight times the estimated $3.5 billion by Amazon on Prime Day in February.

In terms of street cred, Ma is not in the mold of Bill Gates or Elon Musk — he is a former English teacher, not an engineer or a computer scientist. (In retirement, Ma plans to return to his roots and focus on education through his philanthropic foundation.)

  • Tung, an early Alibaba investor, said Silicon Valley accepts him in its ranks because "he openly said, 'I don't code.' He never tried to be someone he is not."
  • Ma made up for his lack of a technical background with a universal charm that won over state leaders and celebrities. He got laughs with an origin story about how, right after college, he was one of 24 people to apply for a job at KFC. Twenty-three were hired — all except him.

Between the lines: "There was something special that he brought to diplomacy that will be difficult to replace," said Samm Sacks of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

4. Worthy of your time

Musk's chat with Rogan last Thursday. Screenshot: Joe Rogan Experience

The young lawyer with a big idea to split up Amazon (David Streitfield — NYT)

Why today's 8-year-olds may still want to drive (Jamie Lareau — Detroit Free Press)

The world's ultra-wealthy in one chart (Jeff Desjardins — Visual Capitalist) (chart)

The cost of American retreat (Robert Kagan — WSJ)

Elon Musk talks AI, and more on the future (Joe Rogan Experience) (video)

Blue-collar jobs boom in Trump towns (Heather Long, Andrew Van Dam — WashPost)

5. 1 cheesy thing: ancient cultures

Dalmatia, 1929: A Croatian cheese market. Photo: Culture Club/Getty

A discovery in Croatia has more than doubled the length of known cheesemaking history, pushing it back nearly 4,000 years in time.

Traces of fat found in pottery unearthed on the Dalmatian Coast indicate that people were fermenting dairy to make cheese and yogurt around 7,200 years ago, according to a U.S.-European research team.

Kaveh reports: When they began to make dairy products, humans were able to settle and farm in northern Europe, since the advance would have reduced infant mortality and allowed the population to grow, according to a news release from Penn State.

Residues previously found in Mediterranean pottery indicate that non-fermented milk was being produced and stored around 500 years before cheese and yogurt.

  • When cheese came onto the scene, it brought with it new, specialized kitchenware, Penn State anthropology professor Sarah McClure told the university's news service.
  • The researchers found the cheese traces in animal- or human-shaped vessels called rhyta. They also uncovered sieves that appeared to be used for processing cheese and other fermented dairy.

The discovery was reported last week in the PLOS One academic journal.

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