Slate


The Spacewalker's View

Slate

This is about 90 glorious seconds of footage from astronaut Randy Bresnik's GoPro from his spacewalk outside the International Space Station in October. While the ostensible reason for the jaunt was to refurbish a robotic arm on the station, Bresnik says that sometimes, "you just have to take a moment to enjoy the beauty of our planet."


Space Is Not a Void

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If Robinson is right, and our near future isn't a sprawling, multiplanetary solar-system civilization, the why question remains. Some of the contributors to our project imagined futures in which the mere promise of groundbreaking scientific discoveries motivates governments and citizens to support space exploration. In Vandana Singh's story "Shikasta," a crowdfunded group of scientists launches a probe to a distant, rocky exoplanet in search of mysterious life forms, while Madeline Ashby's "Death on Mars" imagines a NASA mission with a dual research purpose--first, to establish a scientific colony on Mars, and second, to test whether all-female astronaut crews are more efficient, harmonious, and cost-effective than other alternatives. Other contributors suggested that space tourism for wealthy people could be the economic engine for building a bustling economy in low-Earth orbit. Steven Barnes' "Mozart on the Kalahari" features the Disney Orbital Platform, which provides a thrilling near-space experience for the 1 percent while most people languish in a dystopia marred by economic collapse and widespread workforce automation.


Humans Run Experiments, a Robot Writes the Paper

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Indeed as research grows more data-focused, there's an ever stronger case for dreary, formulaic prose. At this point we have at least 24 million references in the biomedical literature alone, and 15 million scientists are actively writing papers. There's simply too much knowledge for any single person to absorb, even in a single subfield of research, and even if the work were always written very clearly. To get a better handle of this corpus, then, we'll increasingly rely on another piece of software--not a robo-writer but a robo-reader. These exist already: Scientists are automating their investigations of the literature, with bots that sort through millions of abstracts at a time.


A Small Change That Could Make Our Phones So Much Better

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I'm sure that it's easier for me to expound on than it would be to technically achieve. Our phones, primarily through apps or assistants like Google Assistant, are only just beginning to learn and customize themselves to our behaviors and preferences. And there's a lot to consider: your location, your behavior, the weather, the typical brightness in your home and office, and what to do if you go somewhere atypical. To date, the A.I. and machine learning that's built into our phones is only used for a handful of things. It helps organize and categorize the photos on our camera rolls and learns from our texting habits to fuel autosuggestions and autocorrect.


You Don't Need to Change Your Birth Control Method Due to the New Study on Cancer Risk

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Second, this study only investigated the chances that birth control increases one's risk of breast cancer. But birth control does other things, too: The pill seems to lower the risk of endometrial and ovarian cancers, for example. If taking hormonal contraceptives comes with a slight uptick in breast cancer risk and a slight downtick in other cancer risks, that might be an even trade. And not for nothing, hormonal contraception also does a pretty spectacular job at lowering the risk of another major health problem for women: unplanned pregnancy. Medicine should not be assessed only by its rare side effects.


OK, "Computer"

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Harrison told me in an email that he's gotten a lot of feedback on his proposal. One common objection is that people say "computer" too often in everyday conversation. But it shouldn't be too hard to program the software to infer from tone and context whether it's being directly addressed. Another is that the term feels increasingly anachronistic: Several respondents brought up the iPad Pro commercial in which a kid asks, "What's a computer?" That doesn't strike me as a real obstacle, but it's easy enough to imagine alternative, equally generic wake words if others find "computer" inapt: "device," "machine," and "robot" come to mind.


We Know How to Provide Good Child Care. We Just Don't Invest Enough to Do It.

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The Hechinger Report–Teacher Project review found just six states that require caretakers to follow clear guidelines on developmentally appropriate learning strategies for children from birth to age 3. Delaware, for instance, mandates that caregivers at licensed child care centers follow lesson plans based on age-specific educational guidelines put together by the state's Department of Education. The guidelines lay out learning strategies for children from birth to 6 months, 6 to 12 months, 12 to 24 months, and 24 to 36 months. One of the primary goals for 2-year-olds is to help them learn to use sounds, gestures, and actions to communicate their wants and needs. A caregiver should draw their attention to facial expressions and gestures made by other children, for instance, by saying something like, "Look how happy Sarah is that you shared your crayons with her," as outlined in the guidelines. The guidelines also cover age-specific goals relating to memory, problem solving, and self and social awareness, among other areas.


Uber Still Faces an Existential Race

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Uber acquired Levandowski's company in August 2016 and then put him in charge of the company's autonomous car efforts. But before leaving Waymo to build Otto, Levandowski allegedly downloaded more than 14,000 confidential files. Uber fired Levandowski in May for not cooperating with the Waymo investigation. According to investigators, he had also downloaded 50,000 Google work emails and thousands of smartphone photos of Google products and whiteboard illustrations, a due diligence report released in early October revealed. Uber and Waymo are set to go to court on December 4, in a trial anticipated to run until December 20.


Baidu's New Smart Speaker Looks Like Nothing Else on the Market

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The design is drawing attention: TechCrunch called it "the strangest smart speaker" and Quartz said the device stands out from the smart speaker crowd "for one reason." While it goes on sale in December, Baidu already has a deal to outfit the device in 100 InterContinental Beijing hotels rooms. But that's just the speaker. Baidu also introduced two robots, the Raven R and Raven Q (the latter of which is still in development). The Raven R looks like a cross between Pixar's Luxo Jr. logo and a contemporary art sculpture.


A Dangerous Self-Driving Car Is Still Better Than a Human Driver

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Most technologies come with risk, and often, the only way for people to get over those fears is to let them try things out firsthand. Commercial air travel was probably unthinkable for many people in the mid-20th century, for example, but nowadays it's a normal, boring part of life. One way to jump-start that adoption could be in ride sharing: Google's parent company, Alphabet, is already taking a leap by making some of its Waymo-operated cars in Phoenix fully autonomous (meaning, even without someone in the driver's seat ready to take over). The plan is to test out a few hundred of these cars over the next few months through a car-sharing service that early test riders opt into, like an automated Uber or Lyft. The massive expansion of ride-sharing apps might be an easy way to give cautious consumers a taste for the driverless mode of transportation.