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.”

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.


Battle Over Dakota Access Pipeline Should Be the Most Important of the Year

Published on

 A protester against the controversial Dakota Access pipeline project takes a stand before law enforcement officers Oct. 27 as police and other forces attempt to force activists from a camp set up in the path of pipeline construction near Cannon Ball, N.D. (Photo: James MacPherson / AP)

More than a million people around the U.S. have “checked in” via Facebook to Standing Rock Indian Reservation in Cannon Ball, N.D. While this began as an attempt to confuse Morton County Sheriff’s Department officials thought to be digitally surveilling activists, the check-ins morphed into a collective gesture of solidarity. They are also a measure of how deeply the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s fight over the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) resonates with the American public. A similar measure is apparent in how crowd-funding campaigns set up by activists have far outpaced their funding goals—one effort to raise $5,000 ended up generating more than $1 million. Americans who are unable to physically lend their support are eager to participate in some way in the struggle against the pipeline that one New York Times op-ed writer equates with the Keystone XL pipeline fight.

The DAPL conflict is symbolic of so many wrongs and is at the intersection of so many issues that it is no wonder it is shaping up to be the most important contemporary struggle in the U.S. It embodies, in particular, the historic mistreatment of Native Americans, as well as their ongoing efforts to preserve their sovereignty. It is also a matter of environmental racism, given that the pipeline is routed under the water source of a vulnerable minority. Short-term pollution from pipelines and other oil infrastructure, as well as the longer-term pollution of greenhouse gases that affect the climate, are also part of the DAPL story.

In the massive police response against protesters, we are seeing horrifying examples of police brutality and witnessing how state power protects private commercial interest and preserves corporate domination over people. This has engendered domestic solidarity from the Black Lives Matter movement, labor groups and others who consider it a common struggle, as well as international solidarity offered by oppressed communities, such as Palestinians. Many threads are coming together to weave a tapestry of struggle.

The fight to stop the DAPL is a perfect storm of issues, a convergence of ills that represents so much of what is wrong with American society that needs desperately to be fixed. A growing list of celebrities—including actors Shailene Woodley, Mark Ruffalo and Chris Hemsworth, as well as musicians Neil Young and Dave Matthews—are lending their star power to the cause and turning their fans on to it.

The fact that our elected officials are so deafeningly silent on this crucial struggle is exactly why many Americans are disillusioned by our electoral system. GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump has said nothing about the pipeline project, perhaps because he has numerous business interests tied to it. But Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who ought to be a natural ally to the “water protectors,” as they refer to themselves, had to be shamed into issuing a statement. Indigenous youths from various tribes occupied her campaign office in Brooklyn, N.Y., recently to demand she take a stand against the pipeline. When she issued a statement, it was a meaningless request that “all voices should be heard and all views considered.” Her campaign chairman, John Podesta, spouted similar nonsense in a recent interview, saying, “I think she believes that stakeholders need to get together at this point. … It’s important that all voices are heard.”

Similarly, President Obama, who seems to have very little to lose by stopping the project made a vague comment about it when he was questioned at an international arena in Laos. The Obama administration simply asked Energy Transfer Partners, the company building the pipeline, to consider voluntarily halting its project. The company, obviously, did not comply. However the president did suggest in an interview this week that “the Army Corps is examining whether there are ways to reroute this pipeline.”

The only high-profile elected official who has taken a courageous and moral position against the DAPL is Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who wrote an open letter to Obama, calling on him to “take a bold stand” against the project.

It’s not just most elected officials and candidates running for office who are silent. Mainstream corporate media outlets have only recently begun covering the protests at Standing Rock, although they began in April. In September, the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting called out TV networks for their “blackout” of the story. Even with increased media coverage, there has been little focus from traditional media outlets on police brutality against water protectors and journalists and the extreme felony charges many of them are facing.

The fact that the fight over the DAPL is heating up only days before a highly anticipated general election feeds a feeling that there are two parallel universes, one in which a very real set of issues are playing out, and the other dominated by an obsession with poll numbers and email scandals.

But the activists in North Dakota are on the right side of history. Their concerns about short-term pollution were emphasized in two recent, high-profile pipeline accidents: In Pennsylvania, a ruptured pipeline spilled 55,000 gallons of oil into the Susquehanna River when there was flooding from rain; and a gas pipeline in Alabama exploded, killing one worker and injuring five others. It is not a matter of “if” but rather “when” pipelines spill or burst.

In the same year the historic Paris climate accord is going into effect, it will be the water protectors in North Dakota who are taking actions consistent with climate justice, not the heads of state who signed the agreement.

The fight of the year in 2016 is not Trump vs. Clinton. It is Energy Transfer Partners vs. the Standing Rock Sioux. By extension, it is colonial power vs. the indigenous; corporate and state power vs. human beings; and profits vs. people and the planet.

Sonali Kolhatkar is the host and executive producer of Uprising, a daily radio program at KPFK Pacifica Radio, soon to be on Free Speech TV (click here for the campaign to televise Uprising). She is also the Director of the Afghan Women’s Mission, a US-based non-profit that supports women’s rights activists in Afghanistan and co-author of “Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence.”


Internet of Things isn’t fun anymore

IoT’s growing faster than the ability to defend it

The recent DDoS attack was a wake-up call for the IoT, which will get a whole lot bigger this holiday season

Internet of Things isn't fun anymore: IoT's growing faster than the ability to defend it

(Credit: iStockphoto/sorsillo)

This article was originally published by Scientific American.

Scientific AmericanWith this year’s approaching holiday gift season, the rapidly growing “Internet of Things” or IoT — which was exploited to help shut down parts of the Web very recently — is about to get a lot bigger, and fast. Christmas and Hanukkah wish lists are sure to be filled with smartwatches, fitness trackers, home-monitoring cameras and other internet-connected gadgets that upload photos, videos and workout details to the cloud. Unfortunately these devices are also vulnerable to viruses and other malicious software (malware) that can be used to turn them into virtual weapons without their owners’ consent or knowledge.

The recent distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks — in which tens of millions of hacked devices were exploited to jam and take down internet computer servers — is an ominous sign for the Internet of Things. A DDoS is a cyber attack in which large numbers of devices are programmed to request access to the same website at the same time, creating data traffic bottlenecks that cut off access to the site. In this case, the attackers used malware known as “Mirai” to hack into devices whose passwords they could guess, because the owners either could not or did not change the devices’ default passwords.

The IoT is a vast and growing virtual universe that includes automobiles, medical devices, industrial systems and a growing number of consumer electronics devices. These include video game consoles, smart speakers such as the Amazon Echo and connected thermostats like the Nest, not to mention the smart home hubs and network routers that connect those devices to the internet and one another. Technology items have accounted for more than 73 percent of holiday gift spending in the United States each year for the past 15 years, according to the Consumer Technology Association. This year the CTA expects about 170 million people to buy presents that contribute to the IoT, and research and consulting firm Gartner predicts these networks will grow to encompass 50 billion devices worldwide by 2020. With Black Friday less than one month away, it is unlikely makers of these devices will be able to patch the security flaws that opened the door to the DDoS attack.

Before the IoT attack that temporarily paralyzed the internet across much of the Northeast and other broad patches of the United States, there had been hints that such a large assault was imminent. In September a network, or “botnet,” of Mirai-infected IoT devices launched a DDoS that took down the KrebsOnSecurity website run by investigative cybersecurity journalist Brian Krebs. A few weeks later someone published the source code for Mirai openly on the Internet for anyone to use. Within days Mirai was at the heart of the latest attacks against U.S. Dynamic Network Services, or DYN, a domain name system (DNS) service provider. DYN’s computer servers act like an internet switchboard by translating a website address into its corresponding internet protocol (IP) address. A browser needs that IP address to find and connect to the server hosting that site’s content.

The attacks kept the Sony PlayStation Network, Twitter, GitHub and Spotify’s web teams busy most of the day but had little impact on the owners of the devices hijacked to launch the attacks. Most of the people whose cameras and other digital devices were involved will never know, said Matthew Cook, a co-founder of Panopticon Laboratories, a company that specializes in developing cybersecurity for online games. Cook was speaking on a panel at a cybersecurity conference in New York last week.

But consumers will likely start paying more attention when they realize that someone could spy on them by hacking into their home’s web cameras, said another conference speaker, Andrew Lee, CEO of security software maker ESET North America. An attacker could use a Web camera to learn occupants’ daily routines — and thus know when no one is home — or even to record passwords as they are typed them into computers or mobile devices, Lee added.

The IoT is expanding faster than device makers’ interest in cybersecurity. In a report released last week by the National Cyber Security Alliance and ESET, only half of the 15,527 consumers surveyed said that concerns about the cybersecurity of an IoT device have discouraged them from buying one. Slightly more than half of those surveyed said they own up to three devices — in addition to their computers and smartphones — that connect to their home routers, with another 22 percent having between four and 10 additional connected devices. Yet 43 percent of respondents reported either not having changed their default router passwords or not being sure if they had. Also, some devices’ passwords are difficult to change and others have permanent passwords coded in.

With little time for makers of connected devices to fix security problems before the holidays, numerous cybersecurity researchers recommend consumers at the very least make sure their home internet routers are protected by a secure password.


How the Internet Is Loosening Our Grip on the Truth

Next week, if all goes well, someone will win the presidency. What happens after that is anyone’s guess. Will the losing side believe the results? Will the bulk of Americans recognize the legitimacy of the new president? And will we all be able to clean up the piles of lies, hoaxes and other dung that have been hurled so freely in this hyper-charged, fact-free election?

Much of that remains unclear, because the internet is distorting our collective grasp on the truth. Polls show that many of us have burrowed into our own echo chambers of information. In a recent Pew Research Center survey, 81 percent of respondents said that partisans not only differed about policies, but also about “basic facts.”

For years, technologists and other utopians have argued that online news would be a boon to democracy. That has not been the case.

More than a decade ago, as a young reporter covering the intersection of technology and politics, I noticed the opposite. The internet was filled with 9/11 truthers, and partisans who believed against all evidence that George W. Bush stole the 2004 election from John Kerry, or that Barack Obama was a foreign-born Muslim. (He was born in Hawaii and is a practicing Christian.

Of course, America has long been entranced by conspiracy theories. But the online hoaxes and fringe theories appeared more virulent than their offline predecessors. They were also more numerous and more persistent. During Mr. Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, every attempt to debunk the birther rumor seemed to raise its prevalence online.

In a 2008 book, I argued that the internet would usher in a “post-fact” age. Eight years later, in the death throes of an election that features a candidate who once led the campaign to lie about President Obama’s birth, there is more reason to despair about truth in the online age.

Why? Because if you study the dynamics of how information moves online today, pretty much everything conspires against truth.

You’re Not Rational

The root of the problem with online news is something that initially sounds great: We have a lot more media to choose from.

In the last 20 years, the internet has overrun your morning paper and evening newscast with a smorgasbord of information sources, from well-funded online magazines to muckraking fact-checkers to the three guys in your country club whose Facebook group claims proof that Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump are really the same person.

A wider variety of news sources was supposed to be the bulwark of a rational age — “the marketplace of ideas,” the boosters called it.

But that’s not how any of this works. Psychologists and other social scientists have repeatedly shown that when confronted with diverse information choices, people rarely act like rational, civic-minded automatons. Instead, we are roiled by preconceptions and biases, and we usually do what feels easiest — we gorge on information that confirms our ideas, and we shun what does not.

This dynamic becomes especially problematic in a news landscape of near-infinite choice. Whether navigating Facebook, Google or The New York Times’s smartphone app, you are given ultimate control — if you see something you don’t like, you can easily tap away to something more pleasing. Then we all share what we found with our like-minded social networks, creating closed-off, shoulder-patting circles online.

That’s the theory, at least. The empirical research on so-called echo chambers is mixed. Facebook’s data scientists have run large studies on the idea and found it wanting. The social networking company says that by exposing you to more people, Facebook adds diversity to your news diet.

Others disagree. A study published last year by researchers at the IMT School for Advanced Studies Lucca, in Italy, found that homogeneous online networks help conspiracy theories persist and grow online.

“This creates an ecosystem in which the truth value of the information doesn’t matter,” said Walter Quattrociocchi, one of the study’s authors. “All that matters is whether the information fits in your narrative.”

No Power in Proof

Digital technology has blessed us with better ways to capture and disseminate news. There are cameras and audio recorders everywhere, and as soon as something happens, you can find primary proof of it online.

You would think that greater primary documentation would lead to a better cultural agreement about the “truth.” In fact, the opposite has happened.

Consider the difference in the examples of the John F. Kennedy assassination and 9/11. While you’ve probably seen only a single film clip of the scene from Dealey Plaza in 1963 when President Kennedy was shot, hundreds of television and amateur cameras were pointed at the scene on 9/11. Yet neither issue is settled for Americans; in one recent survey, about as many people said the government was concealing the truth about 9/11 as those who said the same about the Kennedy assassination.

Documentary proof seems to have lost its power. If the Kennedy conspiracies were rooted in an absence of documentary evidence, the 9/11 theories benefited from a surfeit of it. So many pictures from 9/11 flooded the internet, often without much context about what was being shown, that conspiracy theorists could pick and choose among them to show off exactly the narrative they preferred. There is also the looming specter of Photoshop: Now, because any digital image can be doctored, people can freely dismiss any bit of inconvenient documentary evidence as having been somehow altered.

This gets to the deeper problem: We all tend to filter documentary evidence through our own biases. Researchers have shown that two people with differing points of view can look at the same picture, video or document and come away with strikingly different ideas about what it shows.

That dynamic has played out repeatedly this year. Some people look at the WikiLeaks revelations about Mrs. Clinton’s campaign and see a smoking gun, while others say it’s no big deal, and that besides, it’s been doctored or stolen or taken out of context. Surveys show that people who liked Mr. Trump saw the Access Hollywood tape where he casually referenced groping women as mere “locker room talk”; those who didn’t like him considered it the worst thing in the world.

Lies as an Institution

One of the apparent advantages of online news is persistent fact-checking. Now when someone says something false, journalists can show they’re lying. And if the fact-checking sites do their jobs well, they’re likely to show up in online searches and social networks, providing a ready reference for people who want to correct the record.

But that hasn’t quite happened. Today dozens of news outlets routinely fact-check the candidates and much else online, but the endeavor has proved largely ineffective against a tide of fakery.

That’s because the lies have also become institutionalized. There are now entire sites whose only mission is to publish outrageous, completely fake news online (like real news, fake news has become a business). Partisan Facebook pages have gotten into the act; a recent BuzzFeed analysis of top political pages on Facebook showed that right-wing sites published false or misleading information 38 percent of the time, and lefty sites did so 20 percent of the time.

“Where hoaxes before were shared by your great-aunt who didn’t understand the internet, the misinformation that circulates online is now being reinforced by political campaigns, by political candidates or by amorphous groups of tweeters working around the campaigns,” said Caitlin Dewey, a reporter at The Washington Post who once wrote a column called “What Was Fake on the Internet This Week.”

Ms. Dewey’s column began in 2014, but by the end of last year, she decided to hang up her fact-checking hat because she had doubts that she was convincing anyone.

“In many ways the debunking just reinforced the sense of alienation or outrage that people feel about the topic, and ultimately you’ve done more harm than good,” she said.

Other fact-checkers are more sanguine, recognizing the limits of exposing online hoaxes, but also standing by the utility of the effort.

“There’s always more work to be done,” said Brooke Binkowski, the managing editor of, one of the internet’s oldest rumor-checking sites. “There’s always more. It’s Sisyphean — we’re all pushing that boulder up the hill, only to see it roll back down.”

Yeah. Though soon, I suspect, that boulder is going to squash us all.

Vertebrate species populations in dramatic decline


By Philip Guelpa
1 November 2016

An alarming new study, the Living Planet Report 2016, prepared by researchers from the World Wildlife Fund and the Zoological Society of London, projects that by the year 2020, little more than three years from now, the population abundance of vertebrate species around the world will have dropped by two-thirds from what it was in 1970.

This dramatic decline encompasses species of fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. Invertebrates and plants are, undoubtedly suffering similar effects, as demonstrated by the recently reported death of a large portion of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, a 2,300-kilometer-long system of coral reefs, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and has existed for 25 million years.

The rate of decline shows no sign of slowing. Between 1970 and 2012, a span of 42 years, the overall vertebrate population abundance (the total numbers of animals for each species) dropped by 58 percent, according to the study. By 2020, only another eight years, that figure is expected to reach a 67 percent decrease. If this pace were to continue, total extinction (a decrease of 100 percent) would be reached by the middle of the 21st century. These figures are based on a large data set, the Living Planet Index (LPI), derived from the monitoring of 14,000 animal populations that encompass 3,700 species. While some level of uncertainty is to be expected when attempting to assess such a large and complex phenomenon, the general trend is clear.

This dramatic decline is mainly attributed to a combination of climate change, environmental pollution, the human-facilitated spread of diseases, over-exploitation, and habitat destruction. Vertebrate populations are clearly under tremendous stress, as indicated by the substantial decreases in population sizes. The report identifies freshwater environments—rivers and lakes—as being the hardest hit, with an 81 percent decline in species abundance between 1970 and 2012. Terrestrial species abundance has fallen by 38 percent and marine species abundance by 36 percent.

Living Planet Report 2016 is but one of many studies in recent years that have identified a dramatic trend toward species decline and extinction.

The scale of the devastation documented in the 2016 LPR, occurring over a span of only 50 years, is on a trajectory to rival the five previous mass extinctions of life on earth. However, whereas the previous events were caused by a variety of natural processes, this impending sixth extinction is conclusively attributable to the anarchic development of the capitalist economy, which mindlessly pursues profit without regard to the consequences to society or nature.

In attempting to explain the forces driving these dramatic animal population declines, the Living Planet Report refers only to empirical trends such as human population growth, increases in carbon dioxide emissions and fertilizer consumption and the like, and offers only vague remedies such as the adoption of an “Earth system perspective.” No reference is made to the fact that decisions regarding industrial growth, resource exploitation, the development of more efficient technologies, and a whole range of other economic issues that affect the environment are made by the financial and corporate elites, a tiny minority of the world’s population, to protect their own interests.

The effects of unplanned development, undertaken with little or no scientific assessment of potential impacts to the environment, did not begin in 1970. Human activities have caused disruption of natural communities for thousands of years, beginning with the development of agriculture. However, these effects have accelerated dramatically in scope and scale over the last several centuries, with the development of capitalism and the industrial revolution. The rate of change has now reached a qualitative transition, reaching a pace never before seen. The consequences of this hyper-acceleration cannot be precisely predicted, but will undoubtedly cause substantial disruption of both natural ecosystems and human communities.

Biological communities exist as complex, dynamic systems of interaction between a whole range of organisms, from top vertebrate predators to microorganisms, as well as the components of the physical environment in which they exist. The rapid removal, both quantitatively and qualitatively (i.e., by extinction) of growing numbers of species from this dialectical relationship renders such systems increasingly unstable and prone to catastrophic collapse.

This fundamental shift is now being officially recognized by the scientific community. Based on research spanning over two centuries, scientists have developed a chronological framework to study the development of life on earth. Successive periods of evolutionary change are defined, at least in part, by the existence of more or less distinct groupings of organisms, reflecting significant changes in the earth’s fauna. The most recent major subdivision, the Cenozoic, termed the Age of Mammals, spans roughly the last 65 million years (i.e., since the extinction of the dinosaurs). It, in turn, is comprised of a series of smaller units (each spanning millions of years). The latest three are the Pliocene, Pleistocene, and Holocene, which encompass the evolution of human beings. The Pleistocene alone lasted roughly 2.5 million years.

The Holocene, characterized by the existence of the modern suite of mammals, began only 12,000 years ago, following the end of the last ice age. Therefore, compared to the length of previous periods, it has barely begun. Nevertheless, using the same procedure of defining geologic periods based on assemblages of species, some scientists have in recent years proposed that the Holocene has now ended and that a new period, the Anthropocene, has begun. The use of the prefix “anthro,” the Greek word for man, in the name, is intended to indicate that humans have now become a major factor in both biological evolution and the linked process of climate and environmental change.

Human science and technology have reached the point at which we now have an unprecedented capacity both to develop a much deeper understanding of the complexities of natural ecological systems and rationally plan an economy that takes this understanding into account in order to substantially reduce its impact on the natural world while, at the same time, meeting human needs.

However, unless capitalism is replaced by a planned socialist economy, and in relatively short order at that, the extreme negative effects of anarchic development make it highly likely that the natural systems which are fundamental to the maintenance of a livable planet will suffer drastic, and perhaps irreversible, degradation. Efforts by the rival capitalist nation states to address climate change and environmental degradation have been feeble and ineffective. The LPR 2016 report is a warning that the future of life on earth hangs in the balance.


AT&T, Time Warner and the Death of Privacy


OCTOBER 27, 2016

By Amy Goodman and Denis Moynihan

It has been 140 years since Alexander Graham Bell uttered the first words through his experimental telephone, to his lab assistant: “Mr. Watson—come here—I want to see you.” His invention transformed human communication, and the world. The company he started grew into a massive monopoly, AT&T. The federal government eventually deemed it too powerful, and broke up the telecom giant in 1982. Well, AT&T is back and some would say on track to become bigger and more powerful than before, announcing plans to acquire Time Warner, the media company, to create one of the largest entertainment and communications conglomerates on the planet. Beyond the threat to competition, the proposed merger—which still must pass regulatory scrutiny—poses significant threats to privacy and the basic freedom to communicate.

AT&T is currently No. 10 on the Forbes 500 list of the U.S.‘s highest-grossing companies. If it is allowed to buy Time Warner, No. 99 on the list, it will form an enormous, “vertically integrated” company that controls a vast pool of content and how people access that content.

Free Press, the national media policy and activism group, is mobilizing the public to oppose the deal. “This merger would create a media powerhouse unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. AT&T would control mobile and wired internet access, cable channels, movie franchises, a film studio and more,” Candace Clement of Free Press wrote. “That means AT&T would control internet access for hundreds of millions of people and the content they view, enabling it to prioritize its own offerings and use sneaky tricks to undermine net neutrality.”

Net neutrality is that essential quality of the internet that makes it so powerful. Columbia University law professor Tim Wu coined the term “net neutrality.” After the Federal Communications Commission approved strong net neutrality rules last year, Wu told us on the Democracy Now! News hour, “There need to be basic rules of the road for the internet, and we’re not going to trust cable and telephone companies to respect freedom of speech or respect new innovators, because of their poor track record.”

Millions of citizens weighed in with public comments to the FCC in support of net neutrality, along with groups like Free Press and The Electronic Frontier Foundation. They were joined by titans of the internet like Google, Amazon and Microsoft. Arrayed against this coalition were the telecom and cable companies, the oligopoly of internet service providers that sell internet access to hundreds of millions of Americans. It remains to be seen if AT&T doesn’t in practice break net neutrality rules and create a fast lane for its content and slow down content from its competitors, including the noncommercial sector.

Another problem that AT&T presents, that would only be exacerbated by the merger, is the potential to invade the privacy of its millions of customers. In 2006, AT&T whistleblower Mark Klein revealed that the company was secretly sharing all of its customers’ metadata with the National Security Agency. Klein, who installed the fiber-splitting hardware in a secret room at the main AT&T facility in San Francisco, had his whistleblowing allegations confirmed several years later by Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks. While that dragnet surveillance program was supposedly shut down in 2011, a similar surveillance program still exists. It’s called “Project Hemisphere.” It was exposed by The New York Times in 2013, with substantiating documents just revealed this week in The Daily Beast.

In “Project Hemisphere,” AT&T sells metadata to law enforcement, under the aegis of the so-called war on drugs. A police agency sends in a request for all the data related to a particular person or telephone number, and, for a major fee and without a subpoena, AT&T delivers a sophisticated data set, that can, according to The Daily Beast, “determine where a target is located, with whom he speaks, and potentially why.”

Where you go, what you watch, text and share, with whom you speak, all your internet searches and preferences, all gathered and “vertically integrated,” sold to police and perhaps, in the future, to any number of AT&T’s corporate customers. We can’t know if Alexander Graham Bell envisioned this brave new digital world when he invented the telephone. But this is the future that is fast approaching, unless people rise up and stop this merger.

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