[Popular STEM] Curating the Internet: Science and technology digest for September 22, 2020

in Popular STEM4 months ago (edited)

Using AI and Minecraft to inform real-world urban planning; Innovation in the Brave Browser; Older people are less pessimistic about COVID-19 risk; Data suggest that conservative sites are being hidden in Google's search results; and a TED talk discussing the relationship between personality and politics


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  1. AI planners in Minecraft could help machines design better cities - Humans have used Minecraft for creative design since the game's inception, building everything from downtown Chicago to King's Landing to a working CPU. Starting in 2018, AI systems began competing to do the same each year at the Generative Design in Minecraft (GDMC) competition. Although the competition is just for fun, this article points out that the competitors are developing techniques that can be used by real-world urban planners. Elaborating, it says:
    Successful entries typically use a range of techniques to identify when to level terrain or where to place bridges and buildings. These include old-school path-finding algorithms that connect remote parts of a settlement, cellular automata that can produce complex structures using simple rules, and machine learning.
    AI systems already uncovered many common ideas that are used by real-world urban planners. Claus Aranha studies evolutionary computation and advises several teams in the competition. He is planning to use insights from the competition in his own work exploring the impact of urban planning policies on disaster scenarios such as floods and earthquakes. Another near-term use for AI in urban planning is the ability to "understand the impact of urban design at a global scale".

    Here is a video from the competition:

    Reminds me of a time in the early/mid-90s when a colleague was using an early version of the game, Doom, to stress-test our corporate networks.

  2. Updates from Brave Research - I've been using the Brave Browser since its 2016 launch, so I am a big fan. One of the things I really like about it is the constant innovation. In this research update, Brave's Chief Scientist - Ben Livshits, tells us about some of the current innovation. In particular, he describes two innovations that we can look forward to. The first, Themis is a decentralized advertising ecosystem that makes use of "partially-homomorphic encryption and zero-knowledge proofs". The second is a speed-reading mode that improves on traditional reader mode by removing non-essential content before the page is loaded, resulting in improvements for both privacy and efficiency. Speed-reader is currently in the Beta product, and I look forward to seeing it in action. Beyond the practical perspective, Livshits also describes a number of recently published academic papers.

  3. Older People Are Less Pessimistic about the Health Risks of COVID-19 - Harvard's Katherine B. Coffman and Andrei Shleifer report on their team's survey of 1,500 Americans in May of this year. The goal of the work was to study risk perceptions, and the pair reports that the most striking finding was, "that perceived personal health risks associated with COVID-19 fall sharply with age." If I were forced to guess why, I'd suggest that maybe it's because people become more acutely aware of our own mortality - from all causes - as we age, so the marginal risk from one more disease seems smaller when we're older than when we're younger (i.e. this is a young person's first time away from feeling "10 feet tall and bullet proof"). The link above hosts the paper's Abstract. The full working paper is here - OLDER PEOPLE ARE LESS PESSIMISTIC ABOUT THE HEALTH RISKS OF COVID-19. I didn't read the whole working paper, but I did find this, which is sort of consistent with my own guess - from the opposite direction - "One possible interpretation for our findings, which we plan to examine using future waves of our survey, is that Covid-19 makes the prospect of disease and death particularly salient for the young."

  4. Google Pushes Conservative News Sites Far Down Search Lists - Data from search consultancy, Sistrix shows that search visibility for Breitbart News and the Daily Caller both cratered beginning in 2017. The article goes on to say that this is consistent with leaked documents showing that Google debated burying those sites after the 2016 election. Further, public documents reveal that Google uses Wikipedia in its process of evaluating a site's credibility, but Wikipedia's own co-founder, Larry Sanger has derided it as hopelessly biased. If search results are being manipulated according to ideological preferences, it would be concerning because Google controls 87% of all Internet search traffic, and it's not possible for most people to distinguish between objective responses and manipulated search results. By hiding information at this scale, it's conceivable to think that the practice could influence election results. Google responded after this article's publication, saying,
    "There is no validity whatsoever to these allegations of political bias. Our systems do not take political ideology into account, and we go to extraordinary lengths to build our products for everyone in an apolitical way. Anyone can easily cherry-pick a range of conservative, progressive or non-political sites that have seen traffic changes over time. The improvements we make to Search undergo a rigorous testing process and are done to provide helpful information for the billions of queries we get every day.”

  5. How your personality shapes your politics | Dannagal G. Young - In this TED talk, Dannagal G. Young describes her research as a social psychologist and illustrates it with examples from her own life. Some people, she says, see the world as a fundamentally good place and they are content with nuance and uncertainty. On the other hand, others prefer order and structure, and they see the world as potentially good, but requiring vigilance. These personality types don't completely map to political preferences, but on average people of the first type tend to be on the so-called left of the political spectrum and people of the second type tend to be conservative. Young points out, however, that from a practical perspective the two personality types complement each other, and both are necessary. She gives examples of this from her own life where - before dying from a brain tumor - her first husband was of the "free spirit" variety and her second husband is more of the vigilance and order variety. A quote that I thought was particularly salient was this:
    What if the real threat posed to society and democracy is not actually posed by the other side? What if the real danger is posed by political and media elites who try to get us to think that we'd be better off without the other side and who use these divisions for their own personal, financial, political benefit?

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