Satellites Galore, More Human CRISPRing, and Alexa Gives Medical Advice
This week in tech
Amazon, SpaceX, One Web, and a few other partners have submitted an application to launch more than three thousand satellites into orbit in order to provide satellite based broadband internet. SpaceX already has permission to launch 12,000 satellites by 2027. They launched 60 of those satellites two weeks ago and three of them appear to have failed. The increasing volume of satellites in orbit may have some unintended consequences. Many of the satellites already in orbit are quite hackable according to a study by the UK’s Royal Institute of International Affairs. And with more satellites continuing to launch, this is a clear strategic risk for satellite owners. It’s also a huge privacy risk for regular folks as many of these satellites are taking video footage 24/7. Astronomers are also worried that the increasing number of satellites could interfere with ongoing and future research projects.
In other space news a resilient mold has been found growing on the International Space Station, inside and outside. Plus, MIT Technology Review wrote about an ambitious and kind-of-crazy plan to send spacecraft to Alpha Centauri by blasting them with an Earth-based laser cannon.
The genetic engineering technique CRISPR continues to make waves: Following in the footsteps of He Jiankui, a Russian scientist named Denis Rebrikov has announced his intent to use CRISPR to prevent deafness in the children of five deaf couples. The plan — like anything related to germline editing — is controversial. In addition to concerns over medical risk and ethical concerns about germline editing in general, some are worried about the impact to deaf culture. Many deaf people don’t consider deafness to be a disability, and don’t think it should be treated like a disease to be cured.
Facial recognition software was dealt another blow: An independent evaluation of London’s system found that it was wrong 81% of the time. The Met police are insisting the system only makes a mistake on 1 in 1000 instances, but the extraordinary gap between the police’s 0.1% and the independent study’s 81% error rate isn’t reassuring.
Amazon’s Alexa will now be giving medical advice in the UK as part of a government collaboration. Alexa’s advice will be sourced from the official NHS website instead of being based on a variety of responses found on the web. There are privacy concerns: Alexa and Amazon haven’t been stalwart protectors of private data, and medical queries are especially sensitive. Some are also concerned that the advice could convince people not to seek care when they actually need it. Others are hopeful that Alexa will contribute positively to the overall health of UK citizens — or at least the subset that own an Alexa device.
A few tidbits: Zoom had a major privacy vulnerability disclosed and patched, and there was a little bit of shade thrown by Apple who forcibly patched parts of the vulnerability at the OS level before Zoom’s patch went live. After a tet-a-tet with Russia, the U.S. is making moves to secure it’s electric grid from cyber attacks. The wave of ransomware targeting American cities continued, this time hitting the Georgia court system. Virginia passed a law making some kinds of AI generated pornography illegal in an attempt to curtail a phenomon called revenge porn. YouTube keeps demonetizing videos of the ongoing Hong Kong protests highlighting the tension between editorial standards, free speech for users, making money, and how tech platforms often fail to strike a good balance between those competing goals. Finally, Alexander Heffner argues in Wired that we should blame greed for the problems on social media.