Last month I wrote a short essay covering some of the issues around standing up contact tracing across the U.S., as part of a test/trace/quarantine regime that would accompany the ending of a general lockdown to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus pandemic:

Until a vaccine or other transformative medical intervention is developed, the broad consensus of experts is that the only way out of mass sheltering in place, if hospital occupancy curves are to remain flattened, entails waiting for most of the current cases to resolve, and then cautiously and incrementally reopening. That would mean a sequence of allowing…


People across America and the world remain under strong advisories or outright orders to shelter in place, and economies largely shut down, as part of an ongoing effort to flatten the curve of the most virulent pandemic since 1918. The economic effects have been predictably staggering, with no clear end in sight.

Until a vaccine or other transformative medical intervention is developed, the broad consensus of experts is that the only way out of mass sheltering in place, if hospital occupancy curves are to remain flattened, entails waiting for most of the current cases to resolve, and then cautiously and…


Last week Speaker Nancy Pelosi famously ripped up her copy of the President’s State of the Union address on camera after he finished delivering it.

Later, the President retweeted a video based on it. The video the President retweeted (and pinned) had been edited to appear like the Speaker had been ripping up pages throughout the speech, as if reacting contemptuously to each American credited by name, like Tuskeegee Airman Charles McGee.

An official from the Speaker’s office has publicly sought to have Facebook and Twitter take down the video, since it’s not depicting something real.

So, should…


What Technical Debt Can Teach Us About the Dangers of AI Working Too Well

Prometheus building the first neural network (Source: Detail from ‘The Legend of Fire’ mosaic, Melbourne, Australia)

The boxes for prescription drugs typically include an insert of tissue-thin paper folded as tight as origami. For the bored or the preternaturally curious who unfurl it, there’s a sketch of the drug’s molecular structure using a notation that harkens to high school chemistry, along with PRECAUTIONS and DOSAGE AND ADMINISTRATION and HOW SUPPLIED. And for many drugs, under CLINICAL PHARMACOLOGY, one finds a sentence like this one for the wakefulness drug Nuvigil, after the subheading “Mechanism of Action”: “The mechanism(s) through which modafinil promotes wakefulness is unknown.” That sentence alone might provoke wakefulness without assistance from the drug. …


Photo credit: Keith Whittingdon

There’s an unresolved question about the Supreme Court that I’ve long puzzled over, one which might become relevant with a new Justice joining the court.

It’s long settled that the Court can rule laws unconstitutional, and unconstitutional laws are no longer enforceable. That’s because Article VI says that the Constitution is the “supreme Law of the Land,” and under Article III the Supreme Court is the highest court in the land.

But what happens to a struck-down law if the Court changes its mind and reverses an earlier decision? Does the old law spring back to life, or does the…


As part of the new Ethics and Governance in Artificial Intelligence project anchored by the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society and the Media Lab, I’ve been working on defining some of the cross-cutting questions arising from the mainstreaming of applied artificial intelligence. When does being able to offload thinking and decisionmaking to an automated process enhance our freedoms, and when does it constrain them? Under what circumstances could something be autonomy-enhancing for individuals, while constraining for society at large, and vice-versa? …


20th-century solutions won’t help 21st-century surveillance

Why a seemingly sensible proposal to compel back doors in Internet communications apps is a bad idea.

Dear Prime Minister Cameron:

You recently proposed that Internet apps be required to make users’ communications accessible by state authorities. I want to explain why this is a very bad idea even though it might seem like a no-brainer.

You said:

I have a very simple principle which will be the heart of the new legislation that will be necessary. In our country, do we want to allow a means of communication between people which even in extremis, with a signed warrant from…


The Treasure Room, Langdell Hall (credit: J. Weinstock)

by Jonathan Zittrain

In the late Nineteenth Century the Spanish Marquis de Olivart — a writer, ambassador, professor, and sometime foreign minister — had amassed an enviable collection of some fourteen thousand international law books. He then gave the collection to the Spanish government, moved, he said, “by a patriotism that was as ardent as it was sterile.”

The government didn’t stick to the terms of the gift in maintaining the collection, and the disillusioned Marquis managed to claw it back. Word got around that it might be for sale. The Harvard Law School Librarian lobbied to put in a…

Jonathan Zittrain

Prof. @Harvard_Law, @HSEAS, @Kennedy_School + @BerkmanCenter for Internet & Society; @EFF board member; a small creature who likes to run around in universities

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