It was a year when we needed technology to save us. A pandemic has befallen the country, there have been wildfires, disturbing political divisions and we have been gasping in the social media miasma. In 2020, the ways in which technology can help or harm has never seemed clearer.
In the success column, we have the covid-19 vaccines. But this article is not about successes. Instead, here’s our annual list of the worst tech failures and failures. Our tally for 2020 includes billion dollar digital business plans that faced, covid tests that bombed, and the unintended consequences of enveloping the planet in cheap satellites.
The polymerase chain reaction is not a new technology. In fact, this technique for detecting the presence of specific genes was invented in 1980 and its inventor won a Nobel Prize a decade later. It is used in a wide variety of diagnostic tests and laboratory research.
So it counts as a historical error that at the start of the covid-19 pandemic, the specialized labs of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sent lab kits to states that contained bad ingredients that didn’t work. Thus began the failure of stopping the pathogen, the sidelining of the country’s main public health agency and, more broadly, the unexpected inability of the country that invented PCR to give coronavirus tests to everyone who needs them. Widespread and frequent testing would be the fastest and cheapest way to keep the country operational, according to economists. Even now, 11 months later, lines and delays are still the testing standard in the United States, even as private labs, universities and health centers perform around two million tests per day.
Stop Covid or save the economy? We can do both, MIT Technology Journal
Unregulated facial recognition
Imagine a grainy video of a theft from a convenience store. A thief looks at the camera and presto, the police use facial recognition to identify a suspect. Now imagine a city – like Portland, Oregon – that decides to stop the police from doing this.
The ability to match faces is one of the signal triumphs of the new generation of artificial intelligence, and the technique is popping up everywhere. This includes environments where its use may seem intrusive or unfair, such as schools or social housing. The result this year: a series of bans and restrictions from cities, states, and businesses that could stifle one of the earliest and most significant results of superhuman AI.
The reason technology is accelerating is that cameras are everywhere – and we’ve all handed over our selfies. “We allowed the beast to come out of the bag by feeding it billions of faces and helping it identify ourselves,” says Joseph Atick, who built an early face recognition system using special cameras and a personalized image database. There are now hundreds of facial recognition programs that process images online. Controlling these systems, says Atick, “is no longer a technological problem.”
Over the summer, Microsoft and Amazon both denied police access to their face recognition systems, at least temporarily, and cities like Portland have passed sweeping bans that also bar hotels and stores. to identify people. What is still missing is a national framework to guide good and bad uses. Instead of a cycle of abuse and prohibitions, we need a policy. And in the United States, we don’t have it yet.
Listen to more: Attention buyers: you are followed, Podcast In Machines We Trust
The rapid collapse of Quibi
“Quick bites. Great stories. That was the motto of Quibi, a Hollywood-powered streaming service that set out in April to revolutionize entertainment with 10-minute broadcasts for phone screens.
But the big story ended up being Quibi’s quick demise. Six months after its debut, the company was laying off talent and giving back what was left of its $ 1.75 billion budget to investors.
The dud reminded us of the infamous journalism ‘pivot’ of 2018, in which news sites en masse reassigned journalists to fabricate ultra-short videos of on-screen text before brutally firing everyone. Likewise, Quibi used well-paid professionals to create $ 4.99 per month subscription content that competed with YouTube, TikTok, and hordes of creators filming cat videos and dance moves for free.
In a farewell letter, studio mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg and Quibi CEO Meg Whitman said their quest for a “new category of entertainment” may have been misguided, but they also blamed the pandemic, which kept people at home in front of the television. “Unfortunately, we’ll never know, but we suspect it’s a combination of the two,” they wrote. “Our failure is not for lack of trying.”
Read more: Quibi is shutting down barely six months after it went live, the Wall Street newspaper
Microwave mystery weapon
Since 2016, several dozen American diplomats and spies in Cuba and China have been struck by a specter of painful and bizarre neurological symptoms. They woke up to high-pitched noises and experienced loss of balance and a feeling of pressure in the face. The most plausible cause of their torment, according to the National Academies of Sciences: a microwave weapon.
No one can say for sure whether directed beams of pulsed radio energy directed at the homes and hotel rooms of diplomats are to blame for “Havana Syndrome.” The United States has been slow to recognize and investigate the pattern of injuries and still cannot name a cause with certainty. What is clear is that anyone who uses a microwave weapon in deliberate attacks has not thought about it. Other powers, including the United States, can also generate powerful, invisible beams to cause headaches, clicking inside the skull, nausea, and hearing loss. The clandestine use of this live technology, the academies said, “raises serious concerns about a world with uninhibited malicious actors and new tools to harm others.”
Some weapons just shouldn’t be used.
Learn more: “An assessment of illness in U.S. government employees and their families at embassies abroad,»Standing Committee on National Academies to Inform Department of State of Unexplained Health Effects of US Government Employees and Their Families at Embassies Abroad
Have you ever dreamed of showing up to work or school in your underwear? With Zoom, it is quite possible.
During the pandemic, the video app has become our new office, our schoolyard, and our way to socialize. With it came the risk of broadcasting what should remain private. There was the flush as the Supreme Court held oral argument, and the Mexican senator who changed her top on video without realizing it.
Crude humor turned into tragedy in the case of prominent CNN and New Yorker legal critic Jeffrey Toobin, who allegedly exposed his genitals to colleagues as he fumbled between a Zoom work and a pornographic interlude . Many said Toobin deserved to be fired by the New Yorker, citing the #metoo movement (#metoobin became the hashtag). Others sympathized with a situation that was too human. “There, but for a better job of the camera, go ahead,” they seemed to be saying.
Read more: New Yorker Suspends Jeffrey Toobin For Masturbating On Zoom Call, Vice News
Light pollution from satellite mega-stellations
Since prehistoric times mankind has looked upward for awe and inspiration, to imagine which forces created the world – and which could end it.
But now that cosmic vision is tainted by reflections from thousands of cheap commercial satellites blown up by companies like Amazon, OneWeb, and SpaceX, who want to cover Earth with internet connections. Sixty satellites can emerge from a single rocket.
The problem for astronomers is that sunlight reflects off satellites, which pass at low altitude at dawn or fly overhead, constantly illuminated. Their very number is a problem. SpaceX plans to launch 12,000 of its Starlink satellites, while other operators are planning 50,000.
The greatest concern is for wide-field optical telescopes sitting on top of mountains, whose job it is to detect exoplanets or near-Earth objects that could collide with our planet. There is now an afterthought attempt to resolve the issue. SpaceX tried to color a satellite black, but it heated up too quickly. More recently, the company has started fitting the satellites with sun visors to stop glare.
Read more: Mega-constellations of satellites risk ruining astronomy forever, MIT Technology Journal
Learn more: Impact of satellite constellations on optical astronomy and recommendations to mitigate them, NSF NOIRLab
The vaccine that makes you HIV positive
We knew things could go wrong with the rushed covid-19 vaccination effort, but the fate of the local Australian candidate was still a surprise.