News — At The Edge — 5/20

Two sets of issues — technology and marijuana — four articles.

Technology articles reflect two sides of the digital coin. On the one hand, the mainstreaming of virtual assistants will forever change how we use the Internet. (I have multiple Medium articles on this topic: e.g., Reducing Education & Knowledge Gaps, Doc says — We’re Approaching An Autodidactic World, Virtual Assistants — Where’s the Beef?) On the other hand, we’re just at the dawn of cyber warfare and cybercrime and is certain to grow worse before it gets better.

  • The next looming battle in the tech world will be based around digital assistants
  • A large-scale cyber attack highlights the structural dilemma of the NSA

Marijuana articles highlight the absurd situation we have today. In addition to the known benefits of marijuana, new research indicates the drug reverses age-related cognitive decline. Yet, Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, is attempting to reinvigorate the failed war on drugs.

  • Marijuana May Boost, Rather Than Dull, the Elderly Brain
  • Jeff Sessions orders tougher drug crime charges


Technology Issues —

The next looming battle in the tech world will be based around digital assistants -

“[T]he OS platform battle is over…and nobody really won…[because] Google has the largest number of people using Android, Apple generates the most income via iOS, and Windows still commands the workplace….But the stakes are getting much higher for…digital assistants, such as Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana and Google’s Assistant….

[While] the initial focus is, rightfully, around the voice-based computing capabilities…[expect] text-driven chatbots, AI-driven autonomous software helpers and, most importantly, de facto digital gateways that end up tying together a wide range of smart and connected devices…[with] the potential to completely devalue the underlying platforms on which they run…[and] bring together computing, services and much more across many disparate OS platforms….

That’s why these assistants are so strategically important….If I can use, say, Alexa across an iPhone, a Windows PC, my smart home components and a future connected car, where does the unique value of iOS or Windows 10 go? Out the door …This overarching importance and distancing from different platforms is…the preeminent example of a ‘meta-platform’… at a layer ‘above’ a traditional OS….

[T]he smart speaker category is relatively new (the Echo is less than 2 years old) and Siri…arrived in 2011, it’s clear that people with access to a smart speaker…[use] digital assistants significantly more than those with smart phones….[Regarding] accuracy, the rankings for Alexa, Siri and Google’s Assistant were nearly identical, meaning there was no one clear favorite….

Digital assistant technology has a long way to go, and their current usage patterns only provide some degree of insight into what their long-term capabilities….Nevertheless, it’s clear that the meta-platform battle for digital assistants is going to have a significantly broader and longer-lasting impact than the OS platform battles.”

A large-scale cyber attack highlights the structural dilemma of the NSA -

“As the latest cyber attack rippled around the globe…it seemed for a moment that the world was facing digital apocalypse…[only] averted when somebody found a kill switch….[While] attackers will still make a pretty penny…by exploiting a vulnerability in some older versions of Windows….

A deeper problem is [NSA]…had known about the vulnerability [and]…built a tool called ‘Eternal Blue’ to exploit that same weakness [and]…was leaked in April by a group of hackers…along with many other such hacking weapons, and was then [turned]…into a fast-spreading worm. This points to a structural weakness [since]….

NSA is torn between two missions. One is to defend computer systems. The other to attack them….The agency thus has an interest in keeping at least some of the vulnerabilities it comes across a secret, so that it can use them for its own purposes….

If its own security is faulty, however, the NSA can itself become an unwitting source of information for the bad guys…[and] will make it harder for governments to insist on firms installing ‘backdoors’ in their encryption software…[and] then used by criminals it would be the state itself that was aiding and abetting crime.”

Marijuana Issues –

Marijuana May Boost, Rather Than Dull, the Elderly Brain -

“[Marijuana] appears to reverse age-related declines in the cognitive performance….Without the drug, mature and aged mice performed worse on the tests than young ones did. But after receiving THC the elderly animals’ performances improved to the point that they resembled those of young, untreated mice. ‘The effects were very robust, very profound….

[When] examined the brains of the treated, elderly mice…they noticed neurons in the hippocampus — a brain area critical for learning and memory — had sprouted more synaptic spines, the points of contact for communication between neurons…[and] the gene expression pattern in the hippocampi of THC-treated aged mice was radically different…[and] looked most similar to the young, untreated control mice’….

[It] raises the intriguing possibility THC and other ‘cannabinoids’ might act as anti-aging molecules in the brain…[and] mimic our brain’s own marijuanalike molecules, called endogenous cannabinoids, which activate specific receptors in the brain capable of modulating neural activity.

‘We know the endogenous cannabinoid system is very dynamic; it goes through changes over the lifespan…[with] the cannabinoid system develop[ing] gradually during childhood…blows up in adolescence….Then as we age, it’s on a steady decline….’[T]he system has homeostatic properties…[so] its effects may vary depending on the situation’…[and] turn out to be beneficial in older brains that have a dearth of them….

’[T]he endogenous cannabinoid system’s primary function is to try to preserve homeostasis within a given brain circuit. It works like an internal regulator; when there’s too much [neuronal] activity, cannabinoids suppress activity to prevent neurotoxicity.’ Restoring that protection might help safeguard the brain against cellular stress that contributes to aging….

[A] study showed that in people aged 50 to 64, marijuana use increased nearly 60 percent between 2006 and 2013…[for] over 65…use jumped by 250 percent.”

Jeff Sessions orders tougher drug crime charges -

“2013, Eric Holder, then the attorney-general [told]…prosecutors to avoid charging certain defendants — such as non-violent offenders who were not members of drug gangs — with offences that would hand them long prison sentences…[now] Jeff Sessions rescinded that policy…to get tough on drugs…[arguing] that the legalization of drugs and lax enforcement leads to violent crime.

But the evidence on marijuana points in the opposite direction: thanks to medical marijuana laws that have legalized the drug, fewer people are getting killed in the drug trade….[Researchers] find that legalization reduces the level of homicides by 11% and robberies by 26% — and that the drop in the murder rate is linked to a decline in drug-law and juvenile-gang related homicides of over one third…[and] marijuana appears to be a lot less carcinogenic than tobacco and a safer drug than alcohol — especially in terms of the violence related to consumption.

And even if Mr. Sessions’ concern is the violence surrounding production and sale rather than use, legalization reduces that problem. The positive experience of states that have legalized marijuana may be one factor behind growing public support for the reform country-wide — up from 36% in 2005 to 60% in 2016….[So] replacing illegal imported production with licit home grown pot should be a clear policy win.”

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Doc Huston