February 28, 2021

Developments

An advisory board to the US Food and Drug Administration voted unanimously in favor of the first single-shot covid-19 vaccine, clearing the path for the health agency to authorize its immediate use as soon as tomorrow.

The one-shot vaccine, developed by Johnson & Johnson, has the additional advantage of being easy to store, because it requires nothing colder than ordinary refrigerator temperatures. It stopped 66% of mild and serious covid-19 cases in a trial carried out on three continents.

It will join a US covid arsenal that already includes authorized vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer. Those vaccines, which use messenger RNA, were significantly more effective (they stopped about 95% of cases), but they require two shots, and the doses need to be stored at ultra-cold temperatures.

Globally, a growing list of injections developed in Russia, China, India, and the United Kingdom all are starting to see wide use.

While the … Read the rest

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Describing a decision-making system as an “algorithm” is often a way to deflect accountability for human decisions. For many, the term implies a set of rules based objectively on empirical evidence or data. It also suggests a system that is highly complex—perhaps so complex that a human would struggle to understand its inner workings or anticipate its behavior when deployed.

But is this characterization accurate? Not always.

For example, in late December Stanford Medical Center’s misallocation of covid-19 vaccines was blamed on a distribution “algorithm” that favored high-ranking administrators over frontline doctors. The hospital claimed to have consulted with ethicists to design its “very complex algorithm,” which a representative said “clearly didn’t work right,” as MIT Technology Review reported at the time. While many people interpreted the use of the term to mean that AI or machine learning was involved, the system was in fact a medical algorithm, which is … Read the rest

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What progress means 1 min read

“Progress.” We take for granted that it’s a good thing. We constantly invoke it to justify change. But all the ways in which society is measured—from economic indicators to health and education metrics to markers of political development and technological sophistication—rely on long-held assumptions about what progress is. As the economic and political shocks of this still newish century have shown, growing numbers of people are, or feel, excluded by the progress they were told would benefit everyone. And many of the countries that score best on traditional measures of progress have done worst in coping with the covid-19 pandemic, the clearest sign possible that these measures are missing something.

This issue contains MIT Technology Review’s annual list of 10 technological breakthroughs we think will change the world—in other words, leading examples of progress that we predict will lead to … even more progress! So I thought it behooved us, … Read the rest

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This list marks 20 years since we began compiling an annual selection of the year’s most important technologies. Some, such as mRNA vaccines, are already changing our lives, while others are still a few years off. Below, you’ll find a brief description along with a link to a feature article that probes each technology in detail. We hope you’ll enjoy and explore—taken together, we believe this list represents a glimpse into our collective future.


SELMAN DESIGN

Messenger RNA vaccines

We got very lucky. The two most effective vaccines against the coronavirus are based on messenger RNA, a technology that has been in the works for 20 years. When the covid-19 pandemic began last January, scientists at several biotech companies were quick to turn to mRNA as a way to create potential vaccines; in late December 2020, at a time when more than 1.5 million had died from covid-19 worldwide, the vaccines were approved

Read the rest ...

Early this winter, I took a long walk in the Salt Lake City park in which I had been arrested for bathing in a river when I was homeless.

About 30 minutes into that walk, I stood across from the park’s granite meditation temple, thinking: Three and a half years ago, I slept under that building’s awning.

I can still feel how hard that temple’s cold stone floor was; I remember how people strolled by my bed of cardboard and clothes and stared with what struck me as a combination of concern, contempt, and pity. Now I see that these are also the lenses through which I have often judged my own progress in my new, not-yet-middle-class life.

These days, I often wonder: Am I really doing as well as I should be after all this time? How did I ever allow myself to fall so far? Trying to get Read the rest

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A leaked scientific report jointly prepared by Israel’s health ministry and Pfizer claims that the company’s covid-19 vaccine is stopping nine out of 10 infections and the country could approach herd immunity by next month.

The study, based on the health records of hundreds of thousands of Israelis, finds that the vaccine may sharply curtail transmission of the coronavirus. “High vaccine uptake can meaningfully stem the pandemic and offers hope for eventual control of the pandemic as vaccination programs ramp up across the rest of the world,” according to the authors.

The nationwide study was described by the Israeli news website Ynet on Thursday, and a copy was obtained by MIT Technology Review.

The findings are important because Israel is leading the world in vaccinating its population, turning the country into real-life laboratory to understand if vaccines can end the pandemic.

So far Israel has fully vaccinated 32% of its … Read the rest

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Democracies around the world are all mired in one crisis or another, which is why measures of their health are trending in the wrong direction. Many look at the decline of the news industry as one contributing factor. No wonder, then, that figuring out how to pay for journalism is an urgent issue, and some governments are pushing ahead with ambitious plans. Big ideas for ways to funnel billions of dollars back into newsrooms are rare, but it’s time to take a gamble on more than one. 

Such an idea rose to the world’s attention this week: an Australian law that would compel search and social media platforms to pay news organizations for linking to their content. Google has decided to comply with the law and is doing deals with major companies such as News Corp, Nine, and Seven West Media. But Facebook took the other route—rather than pay for … Read the rest

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A spacesuit is more like a miniature spacecraft you wear around your body than an item of clothing. It’s pressurized, it’s decked out with life support systems, and it’s likely to look pretty cool. But should the suit fail, you’re toast. 

No one has ever died because of a faulty spacesuit, but that doesn’t mean current models are perfect. Whether it’s for launch into space or reentry back to Earth, or for an extravehicular activity (EVA, colloquially known as a spacewalk), astronauts have never been completely satisfied with the gear they are forced to put on for missions. 

Fortunately, though, the flurry of new activity in space has meant we’re seeing more innovation in spacesuit design and performance than ever before. The suits look better, too. The emergence of new private vehicles like SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner means NASA astronauts going to the International Space Station are wearing … Read the rest

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America’s first confirmed wrongful arrest by facial recognition technology happened in January 2020. Robert Williams, a Black man, was arrested in his driveway just outside Detroit, with his wife and young daughter watching. He spent the night in jail. The next day in the questioning room, a detective slid a picture across the table to Williams of a different Black man who had been caught on video stealing watches from the boutique Shinola.

“Is this you?” he asked.

“No, that’s not me.” Williams replied.

The detective passed over another picture. “I guess this is not you either?”

Williams held the picture next to his face. It clearly wasn’t him. Williams said, “This is not me. I hope you don’t think all Black people look alike.”

“The computer says it’s you,” replied the detective.

The novel thing about the arrest of Robert Williams was not that it occurred, or that … Read the rest

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When Joe Biden takes over the US presidency on January 20, 2021, he intends to make climate change a centerpiece of his administration. As well as rejoining the Paris agreement, reinforcing the Clean Air Act, and restoring the Clean Power Plan, he will also have an opportunity to strengthen climate research.

One way he can do that is by bolstering Earth observation (EO) programs—the orbital satellites that support much of the world’s climate science. 

NASA and NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) operate more than a dozen Earth observation missions from orbit, several of them in collaboration with other countries. Many, like the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) program, directly observe changes in the weather to help in forecasting. Others, like the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On (GRACE-FO) satellite, measure rising sea levels caused by glacier melt. Still others are less focused on studying climate specifically but … Read the rest

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