Self-driving cars and the collision dilemma

Autonomous vehicles have the potential to completely revolutionise travel. Safer and more efficient than their manually-controlled counterparts, they could free up hours of commuter time. However, they do raise some unsettling questions. The main ethical concern is how autonomous cars should behave in a collision. Inevitably, self-driving cars will still be involved in accidents, with sometimes fatal results. In a situation where the car cannot avoid hitting pedestrians, who should it choose to hit? And should it preserve the life of its driver over, say, the life of a child in the road? That software will make these decisions presents a serious challenge for manufacturers.

Deepfakes

Deepfakes (a combination of “deep learning” and “fake”) use powerful machine learning and AI tools to superimpose a person’s likeness onto an existing photo or video. Whilst inventor Ian Goodfellow’s intentions were purely academic, the potential of deepfakes was quickly recognised by criminals and mischief-makers. The technology has since been used in nefarious ways. Early in the invasion of Ukraine, Russian trolls circulated a deepfake of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky issuing a declaration of surrender and urging Ukrainian servicemen to lay down their weapons.

Insect populations are declining at a terrifying rate

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Making up half of all biomass on Earth, insects account for 80% of the world’s species and fill multiple hugely important roles within the ecosystem. Scientists have been tracking insect numbers for years, with growing alarm; populations are diminishing worldwide, with a meta-study of 70 papers in 2019 revealing that at least 40% of all insect species are in decline, with the total number of insects dropping by around 2.5% globally every year. (Pesticide use, climate change, and destruction of habitat are all cited as reasons.) If insect populations were to collapse the effects would be devastating, with disruption to food chains leading to mass extinctions and the decimation of plant life across the globe.

The entire universe could end at any second

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Sometimes referred to as ‘the God particle’, the existence of the Higgs boson – first theorised by physicist Peter Higgs in 1968 – was finally confirmed in 2012 at the CERN Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, marking one of the most important moments in the history of physics. However, whilst proof of the Higgs boson excited scientists, it also caused huge concern for some.

The Higgs boson’s charge creates a field of energy that gives other particles mass and allows them to form tangible things (such as you). However, the boson’s charge isn’t necessarily immutable and there is always a non-zero chance that it could suddenly drop to a lower energy state, which would disrupt the Higgs field and cause everything to stop existing more or less instantaneously. The bottom line is that if the charge of even a single Higgs boson dropped, it would trigger a chain reaction of non-existence that would sweep through the universe at the speed of light.

Soylent

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It’s hard to imagine a food company drawing inspiration from the film Soylent Green, which memorably ends with the main character screaming “Soylent Green is people!” However, this is exactly what Soylent Nutrition Inc. have done. The company’s products consist of shakes, powders, and bars, and are claimed to fulfil 100% of a person’s nutritional needs.

Let’s ignore for a minute the fact that the company chose to name itself after a (fictional) food manufactured from the recently deceased, or that multiple users have accused Soylent’s products of causing gastrointestinal distress. There’s just something unnervingly dystopian about a product designed in a lab to eradicate mealtime and increase productivity.

Xenobots

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Xenobots are synthetic lifeforms, designed by a computer and composed of a heart cell combined with a skin cell. These are harvested from frog embryos, and the skin cell gives the xenobot a rigid structure whilst the heart cell acts as a motor, expanding and contracting to provide a means of propulsion. They can survive for weeks and heal themselves after being injured, which is astonishing in itself, but it’s their behaviour that takes things into seriously spooky terrain.

Xenobots can perform a range of tasks, including swimming, carrying a payload, and working with other xenobots in a swarm to gather debris and organise it into piles. They can also self-replicate by collecting loose cells left in their environment and assembling them into new xenobots. There is currently much debate over whether xenobots should be classified as organisms, robots, or as a new kind of life-form entirely, and they raise tricky questions about the nature of consciousness.

Genetically modified babies are now a thing

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In 2018 a Chinese scientist, Jiankui He, announced that he’d edited the genes of two embryos which he then implanted into a woman’s womb, officially creating the world’s first genetically modified babies (and twins, at that). The tweaks that he’d made were to a gene called CR5, which regulates a protein on the surface of white blood cells, essentially giving the children greater resistance to HIV.

As if editing the genes of unborn children isn’t creepy enough, the Chinese government revealed that Jiankui He had breached all kinds of laws and regulations in his experiments. Understandably, scientists the world over expressed outrage at He’s blatant disregard for ethics.

We could be wiped out by an asteroid

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The last time a large asteroid struck our planet was approximately 66 million years ago. It triggered the extinction of the dinosaurs, blowing open an ecological niche which allowed mammals to flourish and ultimately led to the evolution of humans. Given that humanity owes its existence to an asteroid, it would be quite ironic if it was taken out by one.

In August 2021, scientists at NASA analysed data from their OSIRIS-REx spacecraft in order to calculate the orbit of Bennu, an asteroid which has been circling the Sun for hundreds of millions of years. Their calculations revealed that Bennu, which has a diameter of 490 metres, is more likely to hit us than was previously thought, although there won’t be any immediate danger for the next 300 years or so. Before you breathe a sigh of relief, it’s worth noting that in November 2021 another asteroid which, due to its orbit had been invisible to scientists, came perilously close to hitting Earth.

Brain-machine interfaces

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Elon Musk seems determined to singlehandedly drag humanity to the next stage of its evolution. Not content with revolutionising self-driving cars and space travel, he now wants to build technology to enhance the human brain. The suitably dystopian-sounding Neuralink Corporation, Musk’s latest company, is busy developing implantable brain-machine interfaces, which are essentially thin threads that can be “sewed” into the human brain.

Applications include enhanced memory and cognitive function, which Neuralink aims to achieve by stimulating brain regions with electric signals. The idea of brain implants is about as sci-fi as it gets, and given the extremely high cost that they will no doubt entail, there is concern that they will widen the divide between rich and poor in new and sinister ways.

China’s social credit system

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The 2016 Black Mirror episode Nosedive played with the idea of a scoring system which allowed people to rate each other after social interactions, with real life consequences for their socioeconomic status. Whilst this might seem like a nightmarish sci-fi fantasy, for residents of China it is a day to day reality. The Chinese government first started toying with the idea of a social credit system back in 1990, but at the time the lack of necessary technology put constraints on their ambitions.

However, technology has come a long way since then, with major advancements in facial recognition and online behaviour tracking tools, and the government has been taking full advantage. In 2020, China officially launched its social credit system, which rewards citizens for government-approved behaviour and penalises them for straying outside of the norms. Getting a bad score can impact citizens’ ability to get jobs, housing, and even limits their access to dating apps.

We now know that plants scream when hurt

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In 2019, a study was published with the catchy title of “plants emit informative airborne sounds under stress”, no doubt upsetting vegetarians everywhere. The researchers placed high-tech microphones capable of capturing ultrasonic frequencies a few inches away from tomato plants and then proceeded to inflict various miseries upon them, including cutting their stems and depriving them of water.

The results were unsettling. In response to being tormented, the plants released a series of ultrasonic sounds, inaudible to the human ear but picked up by the microphones. In other words, they screamed. Plants left in peace were also observed emitting the occasional noise, but the rate and intensity increased dramatically when stresses were applied, with an average of 15 sounds per hour whilst the plants were in a state of duress.

Super gonorrhoea

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Super gonorrhoea is a strain of the infamous STI that has developed resistance to most of the antibiotics currently available. Multiple cases of the drug-resistant infection, which is caused by the bacterium Neisseria gonorrhoeae, have been reported across parts of the western world. The effects of gonorrhoea are extremely unpleasant, making the possibility of an untreatable version genuinely terrifying.

Fortunately, scientists have so far managed to stay one step ahead. The current recommended treatment for a case of drug-resistant gonorrhoea is an intramuscular injection of the high-strength antibiotic ceftriaxone which, for now at least, seems to get the job done.

Not getting enough sleep is worse for you than previously thought

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It’s common knowledge that not getting enough sleep can have deleterious effects. Everyone, at one point or another, has experienced the symptoms of being under-slept, which include irritability, volatile emotions, reduced willpower and intense cravings for caffeine. However, it turns out that not getting enough sleep can do more than make you overspend on coffee.

A study in 2017 titled ‘short and long-term health consequences of sleep disruption’ detailed some of the ways that not getting enough shuteye can mess with your health over time, including increased risk of hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, as well as impaired cognitive functioning and higher chances for developing depression. This is especially concerning in light of the fact that an estimated 71% of the UK population doesn’t get the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep a night.

Climate change might wipe out humanity altogether

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With the ice caps steadily melting, the rate of forest fires increasing, and record temperatures being recorded yearly, the evidence for the devastating effects of global warming keeps stacking up. However, whilst most scientists agree that climate change needs to be addressed urgently, one group of researchers believe that the problem still isn’t being taken seriously enough.

An international team of experts have argued in a paper titled ‘Climate Endgame: Exploring catastrophic climate change scenarios’ that recent models show one of the outcomes of unchecked global warming could be the extinction of humans as a species.

The Great Attractor

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The Great Attractor is a gravitational anomaly in space which is slowly pulling in everything from the Virgo and Hydra-Centaurus superclusters. Unfortunately, this happens to include the Milky Way, the galaxy that Earth calls home. The discovery was made in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until 2016 that a multinational team announced the discovery of the Vela Supercluster, which houses the Great Attractor, shedding more light on where Earth is heading and sparking a flurry of articles written by astrophysicists with cheerful titles like ‘Will The Great Attractor Destroy Us?’

Whilst The Great Attractor’s gravitational effects can clearly be measured, because of its position it is obscured by the Milky Way’s galactic plane, making it impossible to study directly. So, in essence, Earth is slowly being dragged towards an object in space, and scientists have no idea what it is.

Alzheimer’s starts changing the brain decades before symptoms

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More than 35 million people are affected by Alzheimer’s worldwide, leading some researchers to dub it a global pandemic. Worryingly, a study published in 2019 found that Alzheimer’s begins changing the brain decades before the diseases’ symptoms begin to manifest.

By tracking high-risk participants over a period of 18 years, researchers were able to determine that structural changes in the brain began to take place an average of 11-15 years before the disease progressed far enough to cause cognitive impairment. Early treatment of Alzheimer’s can be quite effective, but the fact that it remains hidden for so long means that by the time it reaches a diagnosable stage it is often too late.

Ameca

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Ameca is a robot designed by Engineered Arts, a company based in England. Touted as the most advanced humanoid robot ever designed, Ameca is able to replicate human expressions with unnerving accuracy, and can even be rented as a greeter for events.

The concept is creepy enough, with Ameca proving to be a textbook example of the uncanny valley, but to make matters worse its creators took heavy design cues from the film iRobot, which, considering the central plot of the film involves a robot uprising, might not have been the best idea.

The Metaverse

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With engagement falling across the social media platform, especially with young people, Facebook management knew they needed to innovate if they wanted to stay relevant. And so, in 2022, Mark Zuckerberg revealed the next stage in Facebook’s evolution: the Metaverse.

The Metaverse is essentially a virtual reality universe, accessible through a VR headset, with the appeal being that, once inside, you can be whoever you want to be. So far the public seems reluctant to jump in, with shockingly low numbers of users, but companies have rapidly begun designing product lines for purchase within the Metaverse. You can even buy Metaverse real estate, for not-inconsequential amounts of money.

Walker Lane fault line

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The San Andreas Fault, a continental fault line that snakes for 750 miles beneath California, has long stoked anxieties due to the fact that it has caused major earthquakes in the past and is likely to do so again. Scientists have hypothesised that San Andreas could cause an earthquake that would measure 9.6 on the Richter scale (the current record is 8.9), destroying San Francisco in the process.

As if that isn’t bad enough, in 2019 geologist James Faulds discovered another zone of instability along the California/Nevada border, known as Walker Lane. While it’s not going to happen any time soon, Faulds believes that the North American continent will eventually unzip along this line, converting huge swathes of what is currently inhabited land into the floor of a new ocean and wiping several states off the map.

DNA hacking

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In 2003, the human genome project was finally completed, capping off 13 years of hard work. Hundreds of scientists had worked on the project, which was dedicated to fully sequencing the human genome, and it is regarded as one of the greatest achievements in science. Since then, scientists have been working on ways to influence human DNA, for example by editing genes to eradicate disease. However, not all of the potential applications of gene editing are so benevolent.

Scientists have theorised that DNA could be hacked to design extremely lethal bioweapons. In one scenario, terrorists who gained access to a targets DNA (which could be harvested from, for example, a strand of hair), could analyse it for specific vulnerabilities, and then use that information to design a variant of the common cold that would target these weaknesses. The virus could then be unleashed and, whilst it would be harmless for the majority of people, would prove fatal for the intended target.

Your DNA could be used as the ultimate marketing tool

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In recent years there has been an explosion of companies providing services based on your DNA. Some of the popular applications including using DNA to provide ancestry reports and giving customers bespoke health advice based on genetic traits. However, something that most people don’t think about is that when you use these services you are often handing over the privacy rights to your genetic code. These companies could, perfectly legally, sell this information on to the highest bidder.

Your DNA literally makes you who you are, so companies who own your genetic code could use it to learn extremely intimate details about you, including your likely preferences, personality traits, and even your chances of developing particular diseases. This would allow for extremely targeted advertising, and would violate principles of privacy that many people never even think about.

Car hacking is now a thing

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Computers are integrated into most machinery these days, and cars are no exception. Engine control units regulate almost all aspects of the vehicle and come programmed with increasingly complex software. Whilst this allows car manufacturers to produce vehicles with astonishing performance and highly advanced features, it also makes cars vulnerable to hackers.

Researchers have demonstrated that is possible to remotely hack a car’s computer, enabling the hacker to take control of functions such as steering and acceleration. This obviously has serious implications and suggests unnerving new ways in which cars could be used in assassinations or terrorism.

Privacy is a thing of the past

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Anonymisation is the practice of disassociating people’s identities from their data. It sounds esoteric, but it actually has plenty of real-world applications. For example, by anonymising test results or job applications, the likelihood for bias on the part of the examiner is reduced. It is also used heavily by technology companies in order to protect their customers’ data when they are conducting data-driven research (which is most of the time).

Unfortunately, a 2019 study published in Nature poured cold water on the notion that anonymisation works. The team convincingly demonstrated that they were able to take completely randomised data sets and correctly re-identify users 99.98% of the time. The upshot is that no matter what anonymisation techniques are used, no data sets can satisfy modern privacy standards, and companies who get their hands on these data sets will be able to easily attribute data to the individuals it came from.

Microplastics are everywhere

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Microplastics, which are tiny particles of plastic smaller than 5mm, keep turning up in unexpected and worrying places. Considering the prevalence of plastic in consumer goods, it’s sadly not surprising that traces of them can be found in most natural habitats, including the ocean, which has been thoroughly polluted with them. Microplastics can also be damaging to human health, with effects ranging from inflammation to DNA damage, and recent research has found them uncomfortably close to home.

Early in 2022, Dutch scientists discovered evidence of microplastics in human blood. However, the most alarming development to date comes from Rome, where a team of researchers detected microplastics in the breast milk of 75% of new mothers. Newborns are particularly at risk from chemical contaminants, which makes this finding extremely troubling.

Voice recognition software

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Voice recognition software has come a long way, with major applications for security and smart assistants like Siri. However, for it to work effectively your voice has to be recorded and stored. Companies such as HSBC, who use voice recognition as part of their checks when customers phone up, and Apple, who heavily integrate voice control into their products, all store extensive data about your voice.

Unfortunately, this data can be used in alarming ways. Much in the same way that an AI can create deepfakes of images and videos, so too could it use data about your voice to convincingly replicate it, right down to your mannerisms and word choices. The applications of such ‘audio deepfakes’ are numerous, unpredictable, and absolutely terrifying.

Advertising only you can hear

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Holosonics, an audio engineering company, have developed a technology they refer to as “an audio spotlight”. The spotlight works by using speakers to create a beam of highly focused sound which can target an individual. The product is designed to be used in retail settings, for example by being deployed in shops where it can target individual shoppers with bespoke messages.

Unsurprisingly, the idea of a voice that no one else can hear whispering in your ear is extremely off-putting for most people, especially when that voice clearly has an agenda, and consequently the audio spotlight has yet to become widely adopted.

Geoengineering

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The greatest contributors to global warming, such as cars, factories and energy generation, have all been the result of innovations in engineering and science. Perhaps trying to balance the cosmic scales, many scientists are now actively exploring the idea of geoengineering, which basically involves making huge alterations to the planet in a bid to bring climate change back under control. Proposed geoengineering solutions include dumping iron into the oceans to encourage the growth of CO2 consuming algae, spraying sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to reflect a portion of the sun’s UV rays back into space, and planting artificial trees that have been designed to absorb and store CO2.

Naturally, there are numerous concerns with this approach to addressing climate change. The main one is that many of the proposed remedies could have huge unintended consequences, as nothing like this has ever been attempted before. The other worry is that focusing on such dramatic solutions distracts people from addressing the root causes of global warming, such as driving unnecessarily and not recycling.

Your smart appliances are spying on you

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As the internet exploded in popularity, companies like Google faced a problem: namely, how to provide services that are free, and thereby attract great numbers of users, whilst still making money. The solution they came up with is an implicit trade: users get free access to incredibly powerful platforms, and the companies providing the platforms get those users’ data, which they can then sell to advertising companies. This model proved more successful than anyone could have imagined, and over time data has become one of the most valuable commodities in the world.

As a result, technology companies are constantly looking for new ways to mine user data, and smart homes provide the perfect opportunity. Everything from doorbells to thermostats now come with internet connectivity. Whilst this allows these products to offer clever features, such as your fridge notifying you when you are low on milk, it also means that tech companies are getting an increasingly intimate portrait of people’s lives, such as what they eat, when they go out, and even what they talk about with their families.

Amazon Go

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On January 22, 2018, Amazon opened its first Amazon Go store, and it has subsequently opened another 26. Go stores are kitted out with high tech cameras and sensors, which use facial recognition to identify you as soon as you walk in and then follow you around the shop. Instead of having to queue to pay, shoppers can simply grab any items from the shelf and walk out, and their Amazon accounts will be charged for what they’ve taken.

Amazon has stated that it wants its Go stores to revolutionise shopping forever, but whilst it is more convenient, some people are understandably uncomfortable with the idea of being constantly monitored, especially given how Amazon pioneered the technology. The sensors which allow Go stores to operate were first developed for use in Amazon’s notoriously brutal warehouses, where their purpose was to track every move of their employees to ensure maximum efficiency.

A physician has invented a suicide pod

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Dr. Philip Nitschke is an Australian humanist and former physician who has invented a euthanasia pod. Called the “Sarco”, the device consists of an airtight, 3D printed pod which uses a canister of liquid nitrogen to slowly lower oxygen concentrations, resulting in death by inert gas asphyxiation. A vocal campaigner for the legalisation of assisted suicide, Nitschke built the pod to provide the perfect means.

To access a Sarco pod, one first must pass an online test. Upon successful completion of the test, a code is granted allowing access to one of the pods for 24 hours. Users can have the pod transported to a location of their choice and can choose whether to have the window to the pod transparent or darkened.