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If there’s one thing we’ve learned in recent years, it’s that humans aren’t great at predicting the consequences of technology. After all, social media platforms, which began as a way for friends to connect online, are today being used to radicalize terrorists and potentially swing presidential elections.
Imagine, then, the chaos that could ensue with new technologies that don’t even pretend to be friendly. The advent of lethal autonomous weapons—“killer robots” to detractors—has many analysts alarmed. Equipped with artificial intelligence, some of these weapons could, without proximate human control, select and eliminate targets with a speed and efficiency soldiers can’t possibly match.
Seven nations are known to be pursuing such weapons: the US, China, Russia, Britain, France, Israel, and South Korea. Projects include AI-equipped tanks, fighter jets, and machine guns.
Self-imposed guidelines exist, but experts say they’re insufficient. US military policy mandates “appropriate levels” of human judgment when making firing decisions, but doesn’t define that and allows for exceptions. The US is also among a handful of nations standing in the way of international regulations in this arena. China says it supports a ban on the use but not the development of the weapons.
Yet nothing short of a complete ban is required to prevent eventual disaster, says a new report from Pax, a Dutch anti-war NGO that fears an arms race breaking out.
The fear is merited. AI experts consider the weapons to be the “third revolution in warfare” (pdf). As with the first two, gunpowder and nuclear bombs, such systems could quickly prove their worth, giving the side that possesses them a nearly insurmountable advantage.
Without a ban, AI weapons could become established in militaries around the world. And as with social media, trying to apply regulations retroactively would prove difficult, with fierce resistance from the companies involved—and the technology racing ahead in the meantime.
As Pax states, “It would be deeply unethical to delegate the decision over life and death to a machine or algorithms.”
The question is, will we act in time? Speed, as with AI weapons, is of the essence. —Justin Rohrlich
Five things on Quartz we especially liked
Thriving with dementia. There are now more people in the US diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease than there are residents of Oregon or Alabama. Yet the years—sometimes decades—of dementia’s mild-to-moderate stages are often overshadowed by the incapacity associated with its latest stages. Corinne Purtill profiles Brian Van Buren, a man with early-onset Alzheimer’s who is living it up despite a changing brain—and inspiring others to do the same.
Women’s fight to wear pants. Even today society polices how women cover their legs, usually with appeals to “traditional values,” as two recent cases involving school dress codes show. Yet when trousers first appeared among horse-riding tribes in Eurasia, women rode in them along with the men. It was only later, Marc Bain writes, that women had to fight for the right to wear pants, turning the garment into a symbol of power, equality, and freedom.
Repeat after me. The word “mantra” comes from Sanskrit and means “mind tool” or “thought instrument.” People have been repeating these sacred utterances for thousands of years, most often in a spiritual context. But neuroscientists now know that this ancient technique is psychologically soothing even to those with no religious beliefs. Ephrat Livni writes about a popular modern mantra that can help keep you calm even when everything seems to be going wrong.
A return to Africa’s vegan roots. In the West, veganism is on the rise amid worries about unhealthy diets and the environmental impact of eating meat. It’s on the rise in Africa, too, but there, writes Nikita Singh, it’s more about a return to traditional meals. Across the continent, chefs and entrepreneurs are catering to a hunger for the organic food of old. Bring on the Ghanaian beans and plantains, Kenyan chapati and vegetable stew, and South African pap and chakalaka.
The “progressive” boss. What could go wrong when you work for someone who has made “woke” values a core feature of their persona and a focus of the work they do? A lot, as Lila MacLellan argues. Their impenetrable self-confidence and positive public image can make it that much more difficult for employees to call out any microaggressions or systemically harmful behavior.
Five things elsewhere that made us smarter
The bleaker side of AirPods. While Apple touts the convenience of its wireless earbuds, Caroline Haskins focuses on their more disconcerting aspects for Vice’s Motherboard. They are designed, she notes, to last about 18 months and then slowly become unusable as they hold less and less of a charge. They’re next to impossible to repair or recycle, and will take centuries to decompose. And as for that convenience? It’s about keeping you in the Apple ecosystem.
Speaking Westeros into existence. When it came time to make the audiobooks for A Song of Ice and Fire—the series upon which HBO’s Game of Thrones is based—George R.R. Martin already knew who the voice actor would be: Roy Dotrice. As Nikhita Venugopal writes for The Ringer, Dotrice, before passing away in 2017, performed hundreds of character voices for the project, capping an acting career that started in Nazi prison camps.
Curbing Mark Zuckerberg’s power. The CEO of Facebook (and Instagram, and WhatsApp) has “staggering,” “unchecked” influence as well as a monopolistic global position, writes Chris Hughes, a co-founder of the social media company, in the New York Times (paywall). The antidote lies in breaking up the organization and establishing a US government agency focused on regulating big tech, he argues.
The modern kitchen design that changed everything. The Frankfurt kitchen, designed by a female architect who took housework seriously, was inspired by railway dining car galleys and designed to maximize cooking efficiency. But the configuration’s popularity, and the rise of the so-called “dream kitchen” in suburban America, likely contributed to rather than eased gender inequality for women, explains Sarah Archer in CityLab.
Saving turtles, one trawler net at a time. In Malaysia, sea turtles are an important part of local identity. Yet every year thousands of the creatures drown in trawler nets meant for fish and shrimp, leaving fewer turtles to feast on jellyfish, which in turn dine on the very catch sought by the fishermen. Nobody wins. For Hakai Magazine, Yao-Hua Law reports on efforts to get a simple net modification—started in the US South in the 1980s—widely adopted among Malaysian fishermen. That, it turns out, isn’t so simple.
Our best wishes for a relaxing but thought-filled weekend. Please send any news, comments, unisex pants, and eco-friendly earbuds to firstname.lastname@example.org. Join the next chapter of Quartz by downloading our app and becoming a member. Today’s Weekend Brief was edited by Steve Mollman and Holly Ojalvo.