How Diversity Makes Us Smarter

Being around people who are different from us makes us more creative, more diligent and harder-working

Credit: Edel Rodriguez

IN BRIEF

  • Decades of research by organizational scientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists and demographers show that socially diverse groups (that is, those with a diversity of race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation) are more innovative than homogeneous groups.
  • It seems obvious that a group of people with diverse individual expertise would be better than a homogeneous group at solving complex, nonroutine problems. It is less obvious that social diversity should work in the same way—yet the science shows that it does.
  • This is not only because people with different backgrounds bring new information. Simply interacting with individuals who are different forces group members to prepare better, to anticipate alternative viewpoints and to expect that reaching consensus will take effort.

The first thing to acknowledge about diversity is that it can be difficult. In the U.S., where the dialogue of inclusion is relatively advanced, even the mention of the word “diversity” can lead to anxiety and conflict. Supreme Court justices disagree on the virtues of diversity and the means for achieving it. Corporations spend billions of dollars to attract and manage diversity both internally and externally, yet they still face discrimination lawsuits, and the leadership ranks of the business world remain predominantly white and male.

CONTINUED:

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-diversity-makes-us-smarter/

Climate change brings a potentially devastating “atmospheric river” to California

Megastorms vs. megadroughts:

After years of drought, the Golden State is hit by epic storms — and it’s just the beginning of climate chaos

Megastorms vs. megadroughts: Climate change brings a potentially devastating "atmospheric river" to California
Michelle Wolfe, who had to evacuate her nearby mobile home, looks out toward flooded vineyards in the Russian River Valley, Monday, Jan. 9, 2017, in Forestville, Calif. (Credit: AP/Eric Risberg)

As the incoming Trump administration turns Washington increasingly freakish and bizarre, reinventing government as reality show, Mother Nature is doing something equally dramatic 3,000 miles away. Donald Trump can deny climate change all he wants to, but Californians can’t escape the contrasting weather extremes it’s already causing or affecting. We’re in a cycle of ever more serious droughts broken by more intense storms — harbingers of much more serious challenges to come. What’s happening in California now serves to underscore long-term realities, regardless of the day-to-day fantasies of those who temporarily hold political power.

A series of storms from the vicinity of Hawaii, known as the “Pineapple Express,” have drenched California and parts of Nevada, signaling a likely end to four years of severe drought. Just during the storm that hit Jan. 7 to 10, there were 52 reports of extreme precipitation (meaning more than eight inches of rain in a three-day period), with several measuring twice that. Strawberry Valley, on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevadas, got an amazing 20.51 inches of rain during that storm — more than Los Angeles typically gets in an entire year.

The Pineapple Express is just one example of a worldwide phenomenon known as “atmospheric rivers” or ARs. These are jet streams of moist air, tens to hundreds of miles wide, that can carry roughly 10 times as much water vapor as the Mississippi River at its mouth. Powerful as the current set of AR storms are, they pale in comparison to the month-long storms of 1861-2 that flooded much of the state, creating a 300-mile lake in the San Joaquin Valley. But even worse is possible. In 2011, the U.S. Geological Survey did a study of what a 1,000-year atmospheric river storm — known as ARkStorm — would do. Projected losses were staggering, including property losses around $400 billion (more than three Hurricane Katrinas) with another $325 billion in losses due to business interruption, lasting as long as five years. So Californians are lucky today.

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The percentage of the state that is defined as “drought-free” has almost doubled overnight, from about 18 percent to 34.5 percent, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The drought-free area is largely in less-populated Northern California, above an east-west line running from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe, but there are broader signs of hope for the whole state.

“This is likely to be the end of the surface-storage drought for most of the state,” wrote water expert Jeffrey Mount, of the Public Policy Institute of California. With a few more days of rain, he predicted, “almost all the major reservoirs will be at or above their seasonal averages … conditions we have not seen in six years. This is great news since reservoirs are the primary source of water for cities and farms.”

Still, the good news has to be sharply qualified. Even before California’s latest drought, a much longer, continent-wide drought was underway, as shown in this panel of eight annual drought maps from the 2009 paper “Megadroughts in North America” by Edward Cook and co-authors. In a related document, they show that during the medieval period, from 1021 to 1382, the majority of the continental U.S. experienced four megadroughts lasting 22 to 40 years, interspersed with occasional isolated non-drought years. These were three to four times longer than similar modern multi-year droughts from 1855 to 1957, which ranged from seven to 10 years. Thus, California’s climate this century is already atypical for the modern era. The state may already be in the middle of a medieval-style megadrought. The state needs more than one good year of rain to begin breathing easier.

The underlying science behind these phenomena is increasingly coming into focus, according to Marty Ralph, director of the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “It has been shown that in major parts of the West drought is due to a reduced amount of precipitation from the wettest days, many of which are AR events,” Ralph told Salon.

“We have also known for about 10 years now that most of the big flooding events in the West Coast, at least, are a result of atmospheric rivers. These findings are especially strong in the West Coast and Southwest, and in Western Europe. Thus, indeed, the future of drought and flood in this region hinges on the fate of ARs. And climate models vary substantially in how they handle this.”

What is certain is that both extreme drought and extreme AR storms, driven by global climate change, pose growing challenges to California and many other places in the decades ahead. The divergent extremes place increasing stress on the whole ecosystem, as well as its physical underpinnings. “It’s a really bad combination of two extremes,” MIT’s Adam Schlosser told Pacific Standard. “The drought dries, and, in some sense, cooks up the ground. It becomes more susceptible to heavy rain. You’re putting together a meta-event that could be quite destructive.”

Schlosser was discussing a paper to which he contributed projecting that California will experience three more extreme precipitation events per year by 2100, although the number could be reduced by half that if aggressive policy measures are pursued. These results are more dramatic, but point in the same direction, as research published last summer by Christine Shields and Jeffrey Kiehl at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado.

Shields agreed with Schlosser’s warning. “Drought-stricken areas can be significantly damaged by heavy flood,” she told Salon. Although she hadn’t yet read Schlosser’s paper, she warned against overemphasizing any differences. “The different climate projections found in the literature may be due to, in part, a difference in the way the ARs are defined and tracked,” she noted.

It’s also important to distinguish between different measures. “Intensity of rain is not the same thing as overall rain totals, or mean [average] rain,” Shields said. “Potentially stronger rainfall rates would lead to increased likelihood for localized flooding, or flash flooding. Longer durations of storms also might imply increased likelihood for overall rain within the storm itself. It doesn’t say anything about changing the mean rainfall over a given season or region. Any way you slice it, projections should be used as guidelines and not ground truth.”

Those guidelines are all pointing in the same general direction: more climate and weather problems, and more intense problems. But sorting out the differences will be crucial for developing policy responses, Ralph stressed. “The already high variability of annual precipitation in this region could become even more variable in future climate scenarios,” he said. “We don’t have a good handle on which climate projections handle ARs best in the future, and those projections differ substantially in how these events look in the future.  We need to pin this down better, to help inform policy-makers on what to expect in the future for water supply and flood risk.”

When asked what can be done to improve policy responses, Ralph replied, “A major effort is needed to improve short-term predictions of ARs, so that information could be incorporated into myriad decisions made when extreme precipitation occurs, from reservoir operations to transportation to emergency response to flood control, landslides and other impacts such as we’ve seen in California, Nevada and Oregon” over the past few weeks. “Because ARs are the key to seasonal precipitation in this region, we now know what to focus on in terms of research.”

A continent away from Washington, this is what reality-based public policy planning looks like in the age of inexorable climate change. But that doesn’t mean climate science is infallible. Last winter many forecasters predicted significant precipitation fueled by the Pacific climate cycle known as El Niño, and as Ralph puts it, that was a “bust.” At the moment, there are scientific limits on the “predictability of water in the West,” he warned. “We also have the fact that hurricanes and tornadoes attract much of the attention and funding in meteorology. It has been difficult to get adequate focus on these Western water issues.”

Ralph’s center is “creating new AR-oriented forecast tools, built upon new science,” he said. Information about this can be seen in real time on the center’s website, including a “What’s New” section that has brief examples of these products for this last series of storms. You can even sign up for automated email alerts issued daily when there are extreme precipitation events in the West (like the 52 such events mentioned above).

As Californians weather the tail end of this dramatic string of storms, it can be comforting to realize that so much is being done to advance our understanding of the climate challenges facing America’s most populous state. That understanding is starting to translate into better ways of coping with what’s to come, however challenging that future may be. The reality-based community that is mobilizing to protect California’s precarious future in the face of climate change is a model worth celebrating — and also duplicating, in as many realms of public policy as possible. Finding ways to do that that is a top priority for all of us, wherever we live.

 

Obama’s farewell address: One last round of clichés and lies

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By Niles Niemuth
11 January 2017

President Barack Obama capped his eight years in office with a vacuous and hypocritical farewell address Tuesday night delivered at the McCormick Place convention center in downtown Chicago.

The first-ever presidential farewell address delivered outside of Washington, DC had the atmospherics of an overblown, cheap spectacle. Obama strode onto the stage like a rock star, flanked by oversized American flags, a massive illuminated presidential seal and an introductory soundtrack by the rock band U2.

As with every address Obama has delivered over the last eight years, his speech in Chicago was full of clichés, his rhetoric padded with empty phrases and delivered with a false gravitas, signaled by his trademark pursed lips and affected whisper.

The speech was rife with contradictions, the starkest being the juxtaposition of Obama’s boasting of the great social progress achieved by his administration and his warning of threats to American democracy arising from ever-growing social inequality and economic insecurity.

The president declared: “If I had told you eight years ago that America would reverse a great recession, reboot our auto industry, and unleash the longest stretch of job creation in our history… if I had told you that we would open up a new chapter with the Cuban people, shut down Iran’s nuclear weapons program without firing a shot, and take out the mastermind of 9/11… if I had told you that we would win marriage equality, and secure the right to health insurance for another 20 million of our fellow citizens—you might have said our sights were set a little too high.

“By almost every measure, America is a better, stronger place than it was when we started.”

He made no attempt to explain why, given this impressive record of social progress and foreign policy success, his party was routed in the elections and the billionaire demagogue Donald Trump was preparing to succeed him in the White House.

A basic component of the answer, of course, is the grotesquely false rendering of his record and the state of American society as he leaves office. Hardly a week goes by without a new report on signs of extreme social crisis or ever-more obscene levels of wealth among the financial elite. Just in the past month, studies have been published showing the first decline in US life expectancy in 23 years, plunging pay for young adults, a 72 percent surge in deaths from synthetic opioids, and home ownership rates at historic lows for young people.

Other surveys have documented a $237 billion increase in the wealth of the world’s richest 200 billionaires, driven largely by the US stock market boom under Obama, and an acceleration of the transfer of wealth from the bottom half of the US population to the top one percent.

In boasting of presiding over a record number of consecutive monthly job increases, Obama neglected to mention that 94 percent of the new jobs created in the last eight years have been either part-time or temporary.

Noticeably absent from Obama’s remarks was any mention of the social conditions in the city where he was speaking, which is ravaged by high levels of poverty and unemployment, an epidemic of police killings and violence, and a skyrocketing homicide rate.

He lamented in general terms the growth of social inequality and the dangers it poses to American democracy—that is, the threat of a social explosion in the United States.

“While the top one percent has amassed a bigger share of wealth and income, too many families, in inner cities and rural counties, have been left behind—the laid-off factory worker; the waitress and health care worker who struggle to pay the bills—convinced that the game is fixed against them, that their government only serves the interests of the powerful—a recipe for more cynicism and polarization in our politics.”

As always, he spoke as if none of these social ills had anything to do with the policies pursued by his administration, including severe cuts in social spending on the one side and the bailout of the banks and flooding of money into the stock market on the other.

Another piece of monumental hypocrisy was Obama’s pose of fighting to defend democracy when he has done more to destroy it than perhaps any other US president.

“Democracy can buckle when we give in to fear,” he declared. “So just as we, as citizens, must remain vigilant against external aggression, we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are. That’s why, for the past eight years, I’ve worked to put the fight against terrorism on a firm legal footing. That’s why we’ve ended torture, worked to close Gitmo, and reform our laws governing surveillance to protect privacy and civil liberties.”

This is from a president who has personally authorized the assassination of American citizens and thousands of others around the world with drones-fired missiles, protected and promoted those in the CIA responsible for torture, kept the prison at Guantanamo Bay open, persecuted journalists and jailed whistleblowers, militarized the police, and expanded the illegal surveillance of electronic communications.

Obama also used his farewell address take parting shots at Russia and China, lumping the war against ISIS with efforts to counter both countries, and arguing that aggressive action against the world’s second- and third-largest nuclear-armed powers was the only way to avoid war.

“[T]he fight against extremism and intolerance and sectarianism are of a piece with the fight against authoritarianism and nationalist aggression,” he said. “If the scope of freedom and respect for the rule of law shrinks around the world, the likelihood of war within and between nations increases, and our own freedoms will eventually be threatened.”

Obama spent his eight years in office waging war abroad and war on the working class at home. With Tuesday’s speech, he passed the reins to Trump with a shrug.

WSWS

47% of Jobs Will Disappear in the next 25 Years

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British Musicians. Ms. Dynamite. Getty Images.

The Trump campaign ran on bringing jobs back to American shores, although mechanization has been the biggest reason for manufacturing jobs’ disappearance. Similar losses have led to populist movements in several other countries. But instead of a pro-job growth future, economists across the board predict further losses as AI, robotics, and other technologies continue to be ushered in. What is up for debate is how quickly this is likely to occur.

Now, an expert at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania is ringing the alarm bells. According to Art Bilger, venture capitalist and board member at the business school, all the developed nations on earth will see job loss rates of up to 47% within the next 25 years, according to a recent Oxford study. “No government is prepared,”The Economist reports. These include blue and white collar jobs. So far, the loss has been restricted to the blue collar variety, particularly in manufacturing.

To combat “structural unemployment” and the terrible blow it is bound to deal the American people, Bilger has formed a nonprofit called Working Nation, whose mission it is to warn the public and to help make plans to safeguard them from this worrisome trend. Not only is the entire concept of employment about to change in a dramatic fashion, the trend is irreversible. The venture capitalist called on corporations, academia, government, and nonprofits to cooperate in modernizing our workforce.

To be clear, mechanization has always cost us jobs. The mechanical loom for instance put weavers out of business. But it’s also created jobs. Mechanics had to keep the machines going, machinists had to make parts for them, and workers had to attend to them, and so on. A lot of times those in one profession could pivot to another. At the beginning of the 20thcentury for instance, automobiles were putting blacksmiths out of business. Who needed horseshoes anymore? But they soon became mechanics. And who was better suited?

A Toyota plant, Japan. Manufacturing is almost fully automated today and so many other jobs are not far behind.

Not so with this new trend. Unemployment today is significant in most developed nations and it’s only going to get worse. By 2034, just a few decades, mid-level jobs will be by and large obsolete. So far the benefits have only gone to the ultra-wealthy, the top 1%. This coming technological revolution is set to wipe out what looks to be the entire middle class. Not only will computers be able to perform tasks more cheaply than people, they’ll be more efficient too.

Accountants, doctors, lawyers, teachers, bureaucrats, and financial analysts beware: your jobs are not safe. According to The Economist, computers will be able to analyze and compare reams of data to make financial decisions or medical ones. There will be less of a chance of fraud or misdiagnosis, and the process will be more efficient. Not only are these folks in trouble, such a trend is likely to freeze salaries for those who remain employed, while income gaps only increase in size. You can imagine what this will do to politics and social stability.

Mechanization and computerization cannot cease. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. And everyone must have it, eventually. The mindset is this: other countries would use such technology to gain a competitive advantage and therefore we must adopt it. Eventually, new tech startups and other business might absorb those who have been displaced. But the pace is sure to move far too slowly to avoid a major catastrophe.

According to Bilger, the problem has been going on for a long time. Take into account the longevity we are enjoying nowadays and the US’s broken education system and the problem is compounded. One proposed solution is a universal basic income doled out by the government, a sort of baseline one would receive for survival. After that, re-education programs could help people find new pursuits. Others would want to start businesses or take part in creative enterprises. It could even be a time of the flowering of humanity, when instead of chasing the almighty dollar, people would able to pursue their true passions.

On a recent radio program, Bilger talked about retooling the education system in its entirety, including adding classes that are sure to transfer into the skills workers need for the jobs that will be there. He also discussed the need to retrain middle-aged workers so that they can participate in the economy, rather than be left behind. Bilger said that “projects are being developed for that.” Though he admits that many middle-aged workers are resistant to reentering the classroom, Bilger says it’s necessary. What’s more, they are looking at ways of making the classroom experience more dynamic, such as using augmented reality for retraining purposes, as well as to reinvent K-12 education. But such plans are in the seminal stages.

Widespread internships and apprenticeships are also on the agenda. Today, the problem, as some contend, is not that there aren’t enough jobs, but that there aren’t enough skilled workers to fill the positions that are available. Bilger seems to think that this problem will only grow more substantial.

But would those who drive for a living, say long haul truckers and cab drivers, really find a place in the new economy with retraining, once self-driving vehicles become pervasive? No one really knows. Like any major shift in society, there are likely to be winners and losers. This pivot point contains the seeds for a pragmatic utopia, or complete social upheaval, but is likely to fall somewhere between.

Bilger ended the interview saying, “What would our society be like with 25%, 30% or 35% unemployment? … I don’t know how you afford that, but even if you could afford it, there’s still the question of, what do people do with themselves? Having a purpose in life is, I think, an important piece of the stability of a society.”

 

 

How Social Isolation Is Killing Us

My patient and I both knew he was dying.

Not the long kind of dying that stretches on for months or years. He would die today. Maybe tomorrow. And if not tomorrow, the next day. Was there someone I should call? Someone he wanted to see?

Not a one, he told me. No immediate family. No close friends. He had a niece down South, maybe, but they hadn’t spoken in years.

For me, the sadness of his death was surpassed only by the sadness of his solitude. I wondered whether his isolation was a driving force of his premature death, not just an unhappy circumstance.

Every day I see variations at both the beginning and end of life: a young man abandoned by friends as he struggles with opioid addiction; an older woman getting by on tea and toast, living in filth, no longer able to clean her cluttered apartment. In these moments, it seems the only thing worse than suffering a serious illness is suffering it alone.

Social isolation is a growing epidemic — one that’s increasingly recognized as having dire physical, mental and emotional consequences. Since the 1980s, the percentage of American adults who say they’re lonely has doubled from 20 percent to 40 percent.

About one-third of Americans older than 65 now live alone, and half of those over 85 do. People in poorer health — especially those with mood disorders like anxiety and depression — are more likely to feel lonely. Those without a college education are the least likely to have someone they can talk to about important personal matters.

A wave of new research suggests social separation is bad for us. Individuals with less social connection have disrupted sleep patterns, altered immune systems, more inflammation and higher levels of stress hormones. One recent study found that isolation increases the risk of heart disease by 29 percent and stroke by 32 percent.

Another analysis that pooled data from 70 studies and 3.4 million people found that socially isolated individuals had a 30 percent higher risk of dying in the next seven years, and that this effect was largest in middle age.

Loneliness can accelerate social connection  in older adults, and isolated individuals are twice as likely to die prematurely as those with more robust social interactions. These effects start early: Socially isolated children have significantly poorer health 20 years later, even after controlling for other factors. All told, loneliness is as important a risk factor for early death as obesity and smoking.

The evidence on social isolation is clear. What to do about it is less so.

Loneliness is an especially tricky problem because accepting and declaring our loneliness carries profound stigma. Admitting we’re lonely can feel as if we’re admitting we’ve failed in life’s most fundamental domains: belonging, love, attachment. It attacks our basic instincts to save face, and makes it hard to ask for help.

I see this most acutely during the holidays when I care for hospitalized patients, some connected to I.V. poles in barren rooms devoid of family or friends — their aloneness amplified by cheerful Christmas movies playing on wall-mounted televisions. And hospitalized or not, many people report feeling lonelier, more depressed and less satisfied with life during the holiday season.

New research suggests that loneliness is not necessarily the result of poor social skills or lack of social support, but can be caused in part by unusual sensitivity to social cues. Lonely people are more likely to perceive ambiguous social cues negatively, and enter a self-preservation mind-set — worsening the problem. In this way, loneliness can be contagious: When one person becomes lonely, he withdraws from his social circle and causes others to do the same.

Dr. John Cacioppo, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, has tested various approaches to treat loneliness. His work has found that the most effective interventions focus on addressing “maladaptive social cognition” — that is, helping people re-examine how they interact with others and perceive social cues. He is collaborating with the United States military to explore how social cognition training can help soldiers feel less isolated while deployed and after returning home.

The loneliness of older adults has different roots — often resulting from family members moving away and close friends passing away. As one senior put it, “Your world dies before you do.”

Ideally, experts say, neighborhoods and communities would keep an eye out for such older people and take steps to reduce social isolation. Ensuring they have easy access to transportation, through discounted bus passes or special transport services, can help maintain social connections.

Religious older people should be encouraged to continue regular attendance at services and may benefit from a sense of spirituality and community, as well as the watchful eye of fellow churchgoers. Those capable of caring for an animal might enjoy the companionship of a pet. And loved ones living far away from a parent or grandparent could ask a neighbor to check in periodically.

But more structured programs are arising, too. For example, Dr. Paul Tang of the Palo Alto Medical Foundation started a program called linkAges, a cross-generational service exchange inspired by the idea that everyone has something to offer.

The program works by allowing members to post online something they want help with: guitar lessons, a Scrabble partner, a ride to the doctor’s office. Others can then volunteer their time and skills to fill these needs and “bank” hours for when they need something themselves.

“In America, you almost need an excuse for knocking on a neighbor’s door,” Dr. Tang told me. “We want to break down those barriers.”

For example, a college student might see a post from an older man who needs help gardening. She helps him plant a row of flowers and “banks” two hours in the process. A few months later, when she wants to cook a Malaysian meal for her boyfriend, a retired chef comes by to give her cooking lessons.

“You don’t need a playmate every day,” Dr. Tang said. “But knowing you’re valued and a contributing member of society is incredibly reaffirming.”

The program now has hundreds of members in California and plans to expand to other areas of the country.

“We in the medical community have to ask ourselves: Are we controlling blood pressure or improving health and well-being?” Dr. Tang said. “I think you have to do the latter to do the former.”

A great paradox of our hyper-connected digital age is that we seem to be drifting apart. Increasingly, however, research confirms our deepest intuition: Human connection lies at the heart of human well-being. It’s up to all of us — doctors, patients, neighborhoods and communities — to maintain bonds where they’re fading, and create ones where they haven’t existed.

Correction: December 24, 2016
An Upshot article on Thursday about the health risks of social isolation misstated the purpose of a grant by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to a program, linkAges, dedicated to fighting the problem. The grant to linkAges was for testing a new project connected to the program; it was not meant to help linkAges expand across other areas of the country.

Stephen Hawking: Automation and AI is going to decimate middle class jobs

stephen hawking scientist science physics

British scientist Prof. Stephen Hawking gives his ‘The Origin of the Universe’ lecture to a packed hall December 14, 2006 at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel. Hawking suffers from ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or Lou Gehrigs disease), which has rendered him quadriplegic, and is able to speak only via a computerized voice synthesizer which is operated by batting his eyelids. David Silverman/Getty Images

Artificial intelligence and increasing automation is going to decimate middle class jobs, worsening inequality and risking significant political upheaval, Stephen Hawking has warned.

In a column in The Guardian, the world-famous physicist wrote that“the automation of factories has already decimated jobs in traditional manufacturing, and the rise of artificial intelligence is likely to extend this job destruction deep into the middle classes, with only the most caring, creative or supervisory roles remaining.”

He adds his voice to a growing chorus of experts concerned about the effects that technology will have on workforce in the coming years and decades. The fear is that while artificial intelligence will bring radical increases in efficiency in industry, for ordinary people this will translate into unemployment and uncertainty, as their human jobs are replaced by machines.

Technology has already gutted many traditional manufacturing and working class jobs — but now it may be poised to wreak similar havoc with the middle classes.

A report put out in February 2016 by Citibank in partnership with the University of Oxford predicted that 47% of US jobs are at risk of automation. In the UK, 35% are. In China, it’s a whopping 77% — while across the OECD it’s an average of 57%.

And three of the world’s 10 largest employers are now replacing their workers with robots.

Automation will, “in turn will accelerate the already widening economic inequality around the world,” Hawking wrote. “The internet and the platforms that it makes possible allow very small groups of individuals to make enormous profits while employing very few people. This is inevitable, it is progress, but it is also socially destructive.”

He frames this economic anxiety as a reason for the rise in right-wing, populist politics in the West: “We are living in a world of widening, not diminishing, financial inequality, in which many people can see not just their standard of living, but their ability to earn a living at all, disappearing. It is no wonder then that they are searching for a new deal, which Trump and Brexit might have appeared to represent.”

Combined with other issues — overpopulation, climate change, disease — we are, Hawking warns ominously, at “the most dangerous moment in the development of humanity.” Humanity must come together if we are to overcome these challenges, he says.

Stephen Hawking has previously expressed concerns about artificial intelligence for a different reason — that it might overtake and replace humans. “The development of artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race,” he said in late 2014. “It would take off on its own, and redesign itself at an ever increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.”

 

 

http://www.businessinsider.com/stephen-hawking-ai-automation-middle-class-jobs-most-dangerous-moment-humanity-2016-12?r=UK&IR=T

As earth warms, diseases within permafrost become a bigger worry

What lies beneath: 

Scientists are witnessing the theoretical turning into reality: infectious microbes emerging from a deep freeze

What lies beneath: As earth warms, diseases within permafrost become a bigger worry
FILE – In this July 21, 2011, file photo, an iceberg floats in the sea near Qeqertarsuaq, Disko Island, Greenland. Greenhouse gases more powerful than carbon dioxide are the focus of a global gathering this week in Rwanda, with Secretary of State John Kerry expected to arrive Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016 to apply pressure for a deal to quickly phase out hydrofluorocarbons which are used in air conditioners, refrigerators, and insulating foams. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File)(Credit: AP)

This article was originally published by Scientific American.

Scientific AmericanThis past summer anthrax killed a 12-year-old boy in a remote part of Siberia. At least 20 other people, also from the Yamal Peninsula, were diagnosed with the potentially deadly disease after approximately 100 suspected cases were hospitalized. Additionally, more than 2,300 reindeer in the area died from the infection. The likely cause? Thawing permafrost. According to Russian officials, thawed permafrost — a permanently frozen layer of soil — released previously immobile spores of Bacillus anthracis into nearby water and soil and then into the food supply. The outbreak was the region’s first in 75 years.

Researchers have predicted for years that one of the effects of global warming could be that whatever is frozen in permafrost — such as ancient bacteria — might be released as temperatures climb. This could include infectious agents humans might not be prepared for, or have immunity to, the scientists said. Now they are witnessing the theoretical turning into reality: infectious microorganisms emerging from a deep freeze.

Although anthrax occurs naturally in all soil and outbreaks unrelated to permafrost can occur, extensive permafrost thaw could increase the number of people exposed to anthrax bacteria. In a 2011 paper published in Global Health Action, co-authors Boris A. Revich and Marina A. Podolnaya wrote of their predictions: “As a consequence of permafrost melting, the vectors of deadly infections of the 18th and 19th centuries may come back, especially near the cemeteries where the victims of these infections were buried.”

And permafrost is indeed thawing — at higher latitudes and to greater depths than ever before. In various parts of Siberia the active layer above permafrost can thaw to a depth of 50 centimeters every summer. This summer, however, there was a heat wave in the region, and temperatures hovered around 35 degrees Celsius — 25 degrees warmer than usual. The difference possibly expanded or deepened the thaw and mobilized microorganisms usually stuck in rigid earth. Although scientists have yet to calculate the final depth, they postulate that it is a number that has not been seen in almost a century. Permafrost thaw overall could become widespread with temperatures only slightly higher than those at present, according to a 2013 study in Science. Heat waves in higher latitudes are becoming more frequent as well.

What thawing permafrost could unleash depends on the heartiness of the infectious agent involved. A lot of microorganisms cannot survive in extreme cold, but some can withstand it for many years. “B. anthracis are special because they are sporulating bacteria,” said Jean-Michel Claverie, head of the Mediterranean Institute of Microbiology and a professor at Aix-Marseille University in France. “Spores are extremely resistant and, like seeds, can survive for longer than a century.”

Viruses could also survive for lengthy periods. In 2014 and 2015, Claverie and his colleague Chantal Abergel published their findings on two still infectious viruses from a chunk of 30,000-year-old Siberian permafrost. Although Pithovirus sibericum and Mollivirus sibericumcan infect only amoebas, the discovery is an indication that viruses that infect humans — such as smallpox and the Spanish flu — could potentially be preserved in permafrost.

Human viruses from even further back could also make a showing. For instance, the microorganisms living on and within the early humans who populated the Arctic could still be frozen in the soil. “There are hints that Neandertals and Denisovans could have settled in northern Siberia [and] were plagued by various viral diseases, some of which we know, like smallpox, and some others that might have disappeared,” Claverie said. “The fact that there might be an infection continuity between us and ancient hominins is fascinating — and might be worrying.”

Janet Jansson, who studies permafrost at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington State, is not worried about ancient viruses. Several attempts to discover these infectious agents in corpses have come up empty, she notes. She does advocate, however, for further research to identify the wide range of permafrost-dwelling organisms, some of which could pose health risks. To accomplish that goal, she and others are using modern molecular tools — such as DNA sequencing and protein analysis — to categorize the properties of unknown microorganisms, sometimes referred to as microbial dark matter.

The likelihood and frequency of outbreaks similar to the one in Siberia will depend on the speed and trajectory of climate change. For instance, it is possible that another heat wave will expose the carcasses of animals infected by anthrax, Revich said. “The situation on the Yamal Peninsula has shown that the risk of the spread of anthrax is already real,” he added.

In effect, infectious agents buried in the permafrost are unknowable and unpredictable in their timing and ferocity. Thus, researchers say thawing permafrost is not our biggest worry when it comes to infectious diseases and global warming. The more immediate, and certain, threat to humans is the widening geographical ranges of modern infectious diseases (and their carriers, such as mosquitoes) as the earth warms. “We now have dengue in southern parts of Texas,” said George C. Stewart, McKee Professor of Microbial Pathogenesis and chair of the department of veterinary pathobiology at the University of Missouri. “Malaria is seen at higher elevations and latitudes as temperatures climb. And the cholera agent, Vibrio cholerae, replicates better at higher temperatures.”

Unlike the zombie microbes lurking in the permafrost, modern spreading diseases are more of a known quantity, and there are proved ways to curb them: mapping trends, eliminating mosquito-breeding sites and spraying insecticides. Of course, dramatically lowering fossil-fuel emissions to combat climate change could tackle both threats — the resurgence of ancient and deadly pathogens and the widening ranges of infectious diseases — in one shot.

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