VaccineFinder.org is an ambitious but limited attempt to simplify Americans’ search for vaccines.
He created the first effective heart defibrillator and co-founded a physicians group that campaigned against nuclear war, earning a Nobel Peace Prize.
Royal Dutch Shell Group, one of the largest publicly traded oil producers in the world, just laid out its plan for how the company will survive in a zero-emission, climate conscious world.
It’s a plan that rests on five main pillars that include the massive rollout of electric vehicle charging stations; a greater emphasis on lubricants, chemicals, and biofuels; the development of a significantly larger renewable energy generation portfolio and carbon offset plan; and the continued development of hydrogen and natural gas assets while slashing oil production by 1% to 2% per year and investing heavily in carbon capture and storage.
These four large categories cut across the company’s business operations and represent one of the most comprehensive (if high level) plans from a major oil company on how to keep their industry from becoming the next victim of the transition to low emission (and eventually) zero emission energy and power sources (I’m looking at you, coal industry).
“Our accelerated strategy will drive down carbon emissions and will deliver value for our shareholders, our customers and wider society,” said Royal Dutch Shell Chief Executive Officer, Ben van Beurden, in a statement.
To keep those shareholders from abandoning ship, the company also committed to slashing costs and boosting its dividend per share by around 4% per year. That means giving money back to investors that might have been spent on expensive oil and gas exploration operations. The company also committed too pay down its debt and make its payouts to shareholders 20% to 30% of its cash flow from operations. That’s… very generous.
Shell is a massive business with more than 1 million commercial and industrial customers and about 30 million customers coming to its 46,000 retail service stations daily, according to the company’s own estimates. The company organized its thinking around what it sees as growth opportunities, energy transition opportunities, and then the gradual obsolescence of its upstream drilling and petroleum production operations.
In what it sees as areas for growth, Shell intends to invest around $5 billion to $6 billion to its initiatives including the development of 500,000 electric vehicle charging locations by 2025 (up from 60,000 today) and an attendant boost in retail and service locations to facilitate charging.
The company also said it would be investing heavily in the expansion of biofuels and renewable energy generation and carbon offsets. The company wants to generate 560 terawatt hours a year by 2030, which is double the amount of electricity it generates today. Expect to see Shell operate as an independent power producer that will provide renewable energy generation as a service to an expected 15 million retail and commercial customers.
Finally the company sees the hydrogen economy as another area where it can grow.
In places where Shell already has assets that can be transitioned to the low carbon economy, the company’s going to be doubling down on its bets. That means zero emission natural gas production and a trebling down on chemicals manufacturing (watch out Dow and BASF). That means more recycling as well, as the company intends to process 1 million tons of plastic waste to produce circular chemicals.
Upstream, which was the heart of the oil and gas business for years, the company said it would “focus on value over volume” in a statement. What that means in practice is looking for easier, low cost wells to drill (something that points to the continued importance of the Middle East in the oil economy for the foreseeable future). The company expects to reduce its oil production by around 1% to 2% per year. And the company’s going to be investing in carbon capture and storage to the tune of 25 million tons per year through projects like the Quest CCS development in Canada, Norway’s Northern Lights project, and the Porthos project n the Netherlands.
“We must give our customers the products and services they want and need – products that have the lowest environmental impact,” van Beurden said in a statement.”At the same time, we will use our established strengths to build on our competitive portfolio as we make the transition to be a net-zero emissions business in step with society.”
For the company to survive in a world where revenues from its main business are cut, it’s also going to be keeping operating expenses down and will be looking to sell off big chunks of the business that no longer make sense.
That means expenses of no more than $35 billion per year and sales of around $4 billion per year to keep those dividends and cash to investors flowing.
“Over time the balance of capital spending will shift towards the businesses in the Growth pillar, attracting around half of the additional capital spend,” the company said. “Cash flow will follow the same trend and in the long term will become less exposed to oil and gas prices, with a stronger link to broader economic growth.”
Shell set targets for reducing its carbon intensity as part of the pay that’s going to all of the company’s staff and those targets are… eye opening. It’s looking at reductions in carbon intensity of 6-8% by 2023, 20% by 2030, 45% by 2035 and 100% by 2050, using a baseline of 2016 as its benchmark.
The company said that its own carbon emissions peaked in 2018 at 1.7 giga-tons per year and its oil production peaked in 2019.
Shell’s not taking these steps because it wants to, necessarily. The writing is on the wall that unless something dramatic is done to stop fossil fuel pollution and climate change, the world faces serious consequences.
A study released earlier this week indicated that air pollution from fossil fuels killed 18% of the world’s population. That means burning fossil fuels is almost as deadly as cancer, according to the study from researchers led by Harvard University.
Beyond the human toll directly tied to fossil fuels, there’s the huge cost of climate change, which the U.S. estimated could cost $500 billion per year by 2090 unless steps are taken to reverse course.
We can thank our heads and shoulders — and not just our knees and toes — that we evolved to run as well as we do.
As impressive as the cameras in our smartphones are, they’re fundamentally limited by the physical necessities of lenses and sensors. Metalenz skips over that part with a camera made of a single “metasurface” that could save precious space and battery life in phones and other devices… and they’re about to ship it.
The concept is similar to, but not descended from, the “metamaterials” that gave rise to flat beam-forming radar and lidar of Lumotive and Echodyne. The idea is to take a complex 3D structure and accomplish what it does using a precisely engineered “2D” surface — not actually two-dimensional, of course, but usually a plane with features measured in microns.
In the case of a camera, the main components are of course a lens (these days it’s usually several stacked), which corrals the light, and an image sensor, which senses and measures that light. The problem faced by cameras now, particularly in smartphones, is that the lenses can’t be made much smaller without seriously affecting the clarity of the image. Likewise sensors are nearly at the limit of how much light they can work with. Consequently most of the photography advancements of the last few years have been done on the computational side.
Using an engineered surface that does away with the need for complex optics and other camera systems has been a goal for years. Back in 2016 I wrote about a NASA project that took inspiration from moth eyes to create a 2D camera of sorts. It’s harder than it sounds, though — usable imagery has been generated in labs, but it’s not the kind of thing that you take to Apple or Samsung.
Metalenz aims to change that. The company’s tech is built on the work of Harvard’s Frederico Capasso, who has been publishing on the science behind metasurfaces for years. He and Rob Devlin, who did his doctorate work in Capasso’s lab, co-founded the company to commercialize their efforts.
“Early demos were extremely inefficient,” said Devlin of the field’s first entrants. “You had light scattering all over the place, the materials and processes were non-standard, the designs weren’t able to handle the demands that a real world throws at you. Making one that works and publishing a paper on it is one thing, making 10 million and making sure they all do the same thing is another.”
Their breakthrough — if years of hard work and research can be called that — is the ability not just to make a metasurface camera that produces decent images, but to do it without exotic components or manufacturing processes.
“We’re really using all standard semiconductor processes and materials here, the exact same equipment — but with lenses instead of electronics,” said Devlin. “We can already make a million lenses a day with our foundry partners.”
The first challenge is more or less contained in the fact that incoming light, without lenses to bend and direct it, hits the metasurface in a much more chaotic way. Devlin’s own PhD work was concerned with taming this chaos.
“Light on a macro [i.e. conventional scale, not close-focusing] lens is controlled on the macro scale, you’re relying on the curvature to bend the light. There’s only so much you can do with it,” he explained. “But here you have features a thousand times smaller than a human hair, which gives us very fine control over the light that hits the lens.”
Those features, as you can see in this extreme close-up of the metasurface, are precisely tuned cylinders, “almost like little nano-scale Coke cans,” Devlin suggested. Like other metamaterials, these structures, far smaller than a visible or near-infrared light ray’s wavelength, manipulate the radiation by means that take a few years of study to understand.
The result is a camera with extremely small proportions and vastly less complexity than the compact camera stacks found in consumer and industrial devices. To be clear, Metalenz isn’t looking to replace the main camera on your iPhone — for conventional photography purposes the conventional lens and sensor are still the way to go. But there are other applications that play to the chip-style lens’s strengths.
Something like the FaceID assembly, for instance, presents an opportunity. “That module is a very complex one for the cell phone world — it’s almost like a Rube Goldberg machine,” said Devlin. Likewise the miniature lidar sensor.
At this scale, the priorities are different, and by subtracting the lens from the equation the amount of light that reaches the sensor is significantly increased. That means it can potentially be smaller in every dimension while performing better and drawing less power.
Lest you think this is still a lab-bound “wouldn’t it be nice if” type device, Metalenz is well on its way to commercial availability. The $10M round A they just raised was led by 3M Ventures, Applied Ventures LLC, Intel Capital, M Ventures and TDK Ventures, along with Tsingyuan Ventures and Braemar Energy Ventures — a lot of suppliers in there.
Unlike many other hardware startups, Metalenz isn’t starting with a short run of boutique demo devices but going big out of the gate.
“Because we’re using traditional fabrication techniques, it allows us to scale really quickly. We’re not building factories or foundries, we don’t have to raise hundreds of mils; we can use whats already there,” said Devlin. “But it means we have to look at applications that are high volume. We need the units to be in that tens of millions range for our foundry partners to see it making sense.”
Although Devlin declined to get specific, he did say that their first partner is “active in 3D sensing” and that a consumer device, though not a phone, would be shipping with Metalenz cameras in early 2022 — and later in 2022 will see a phone-based solution shipping as well.
In other words, while Metalenz is indeed a startup just coming out of stealth and raising its A round… it already has shipments planned on the order of tens of millions. The $10M isn’t a bridge to commercial viability but short term cash to hire and cover up-front costs associated with such a serious endeavor. It’s doubtful anyone on that list of investors harbors any serious doubts on ROI.
The 3D sensing thing is Metalenz’s first major application, but the company is already working on others. The potential to reduce complex lab equipment to handheld electronics that can be fielded easily is one, and improving the benchtop versions of tools with more light-gathering ability or quicker operation is another.
Though a device you use may in a few years have a Metalenz component in it, it’s likely you won’t know — the phone manufacturer will probably take all the credit for the improved performance or slimmer form factor. Nevertheless, it may show up in teardowns and bills of material, at which point you’ll know this particular university spin-out has made it to the big leagues.
Administrators and young graduate students have been inoculated at leading research hospitals, contrary to state and federal guidelines.
The threat of the virus has transformed outdoor spaces that would normally sit empty during cold-weather months — though some options are priced beyond the reach of many New Yorkers.
A woman in Colombia with a rare genetic mutation recently made the ultimate donation to science.
A group of more than 30 artists and academics have signed a letter asking institutions like the Museum of Modern Art to excise the influential architect’s name from their spaces.
Well, many reasons. But Harvard economist Raj Chetty says that’s the age at which America’s “Einsteins” are identified — and lost.
Prosecutors said a wealthy businessman, who is also charged, bribed the coach to help get his sons admitted to Harvard.
The case, filed by Asian-American plaintiffs, could now go to the Supreme Court, which has been the goal of groups seeking to end affirmative action.
Several scientists working with harmless genetic material have discovered that their research may have contaminated their coronavirus tests.
Older male chimps follow a pattern that researchers also see in humans, preferring to have positive relationships with a few good friends.
Charles M. Lieber, the chair of Harvard’s chemistry department, claimed in the lawsuit that the university turned its back on a “dedicated faculty member.”
The department says the school’s admissions practices violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Yale’s president says the allegation was based on “inaccurate statistics and unfounded conclusions.”
One of the biggest surveys ever of ancient DNA offers new evidence of who the Vikings were and where they went raiding and trading.
The buzzy idea is impractical, critics said. And there isn’t yet real-world data to show it will work.
While government statistics say inflation is low, the reality is that the cost of living has risen during the pandemic, especially for poorer Americans.
Impatient for a coronavirus vaccine, dozens of scientists around the world are giving themselves — and sometimes, friends and family — their own unproven versions.
In dozens of other patients who suppress the virus without drugs, it seems to have been cornered in parts of the genome where it cannot reproduce, scientists reported.
The candidates were the first ones elected through a petition campaign since 1989, when anti-apartheid activists put Archbishop Desmond Tutu on the panel.
The Trump administration’s charge that the university discriminates against Asian-American applicants was disputed by many Asian-American students and others.
Newly emboldened, many New Yorkers want to repurpose streets for walking, biking, dining and schools, even as traffic returns.
When it is safe enough to return to school, young children would benefit the most. Yet financial pressures are pushing colleges to reopen most rapidly, an economist says.
Rates of dementia have steadily fallen over the past 25 years, a new study finds. But the disease is increasingly common in some parts of the world.
A computer model of the cruise-ship outbreak found that the virus spread most readily in microscopic droplets light enough to linger in the air.
In Boston and in the Netherlands, scientists are racing to build a vaccine against the virus strangling the world.
The outcry over free speech and race takes aim at Steven Pinker, the best-selling author and well-known scholar.
The Trump administration said it would no longer require international students to attend in-person classes during the coronavirus pandemic in order to remain in the country.
The international scholars the administration was threatening to send home are vital to American innovation and competitiveness.
A legal battle between universities and the Trump administration over foreign students and online learning escalated on Monday, ahead of a critical federal court hearing.
The league’s decision could be influential for other university presidents as they consider how to handle the coronavirus pandemic. It is the first Division I conference to suspend football for the fall.
For colleges in the middle of the pack, the financial calculus during the pandemic looks very different, with in-person classes on campus a way to survive.
To provide some semblance of the campus experience during a pandemic, colleges say large chunks of the student body will have to stay away and study remotely for all or part of the year.
Bringing millions of students back to campus would create enormous risks for society but comparatively little educational benefit, an economist says.
New rules and design will try to keep New Yorkers safe in the usually crowded plazas, parks and streets.
The new approach finds unlikely allies among some feminist scholars, who say colleges and universities were failing to sufficiently protect the rights of young men accused of sexual misconduct.
Contrary to Trump’s recent comments, specialists say, recent increases are real, and the virus is like a “forest fire” that will burn as long as there is fuel.
Contact tracing is a practice almost as old as epidemiology itself, but today’s technology means the way that we go about tracking the spread of a contagious illness within and between communities is changing very quickly. This presents an opportunity for learning more about the opportunities and challenges presented in extending contact tracing and exposure notification via digital means, especially as contact tracing is likely a key ingredient in any successful reopening of economy in light of ongoing challenges posed by COVID-19.
To that end, we’re happy to be working with the COVID-19 Technology Task Force, as well as Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center, NYU’s Alliance for Public Interest Technology, Betaworks Studios and Hangar. We’ll be playing host on TC to their live-streamed discussion (embedded above) around contact-tracing and exposure-notification efforts, as well as how and when businesses can safely reopen, and what tools can help them to do so. The day’s events will include panel chats and software demonstrations, beginning at 11 AM EDT (8 AM PDT) on Wednesday, June 17.
Below, we’ve included an agenda of the confirmed speakers and demonstrations for the day, and in case you missed it, here’s a roundup of demonstrations of contact tracing and app demonstrations built by a number of companies thus far. RSVP for tomorrow’s free event here.
I. Contact Tracing [11AM – 12:30PM EDT]
Contact tracing: what it is, how it works, how tech can help [11:00 – 11:45AM EDT]
- MODERATORS: Andrew McLaughlin and Jonathan Zittrain
- PANELISTS: Margaret Bourdeaux, Mary L. Gray, Mona Sloane and Peggy Hamburg
Using technology to enable scaled contact tracing [11:45AM – 12:05PM EDT]
Contact tracing considerations for state and city government [12:05 – 12:30PM EDT]
II. Reopening Businesses Safely [12:30-2:00PM EDT]
Reopening businesses safely [12:30-1:15PM EDT]
Demos of tools business leaders can use to help reopen safely [1:15-2:00PM EDT]
- MODERATOR: Connor Spelliscy
Margaret Bourdeaux, MD, MPH, is the policy liaison for Partners in Health COVID-19 Contact Tracing Program, and holds appointments at Harvard Medical School, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
Daniel Burka is supporting New York State’s COVID-19 response efforts through Resolve to Save Lives, an initiative of Vital Strategies, a global health initiative led by former CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden.
Mike Flowers is leading implementation for contact tracing technology and data strategy for the State of New Jersey as a Senior Fellow with the NJ Office of Innovation. Over the last 25 years he has worked in data intelligence with companies and federal, state and local governments, including as New York City’s first Chief Analytics Officer under Mayor Mike Bloomberg
Mary L. Gray is a senior principal researcher at Microsoft Research and an Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics Fellow at Harvard University.
Jonathan Jackson is the founder and CEO at Dimagi, a social enterprise that develops innovative technology solutions for front-line workforces and underserved populations. They have an extensive background in global health and are a leader in mobile health data collection.
Irina Krechmer is the Chief Technology Officer at Blue Apron, the premier meal-kit company whose mission is to make incredible home cooking accessible to everyone. Before joining Blue Apron, Krechmer most recently served as VP of Engineering at XO Group Inc., the premier technology company with industry-leading digital brands, including The Knot, The Bump, The Nest and GigMasters. Krechmer has over 20 years of experience designing, developing and implementing customer-focused technology solutions, primarily at e-commerce, media and consumer technology companies.
Andrew McLaughlin is helping lead the Task Force’s contact tracing/exposure notification initiative. Andrew is the Chairman of Access Now, the Former Deputy U.S. CTO for the White House, and the Former Director of Global Public Policy at Google.
Andy Moss is currently a Visiting Professor at NYU Tandon teaching entrepreneurship and innovation, as well developing the COR Methodology. He’s an active advisor/mentor to startups and business leaders, and a former Microsoft executive.
Chelsea Raiten is Of Counsel at Gunderson Dettmer Stough Villeneuve Franklin & Hachigian, LLP. Her practice primarily focuses on providing strategic advice and counseling to employers on all aspects of the employment relationship, including hiring and firing practices, layoffs and RIF’s, wage and hour laws, reasonable accommodation, leaves of absence, employee discipline, restrictive covenants, and workplace policies and procedures.
Harper Reed is helping lead the Task Force’s contact-tracing/exposure-notification initiative. Harper is a Director’s Fellow at the MIT Media Lab, a Senior Fellow at the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab and was the CTO of Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.
Mona Sloane is an NYU-based sociologist working on inequality in the context of AI design and policy. At NYU, she helps form NYU’s Alliance for Public Interest Technology, and is Co-Principal Investigator on the COVID-19 Tech Project. Mona also leads the project Terra Incognita: Mapping NYC’s New Digital Public Spaces in the COVID-19 Outbreak.
Connor Spelliscy is Director of New Platforms at Hangar, a partner at Connectivity Fund, and helps lead COVID-19 Tech Task Force initiatives.
Minerva Tantoco has served in senior technology roles at Palm, Merrill Lynch, and UBS, holds four US patents on intelligent workflow, and served as New York City’s first-ever Chief Technology Officer. Most recently, Tantoco co-founded Grasshopper Bank, an OCC-chartered digital de novo commercial bank, and is currently a consultant and speaker on AI, smart cities, digital transformation, and equity in tech.
Randall Thomas is assisting Resolve to Save Lives and other stakeholders with the New York State response to COVID-19. Randall is the CTO of Geometer, a technology incubator.
Jonathan Zittrain is a professor of law and computer science, and co-founder of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. Jonathan’s work focuses on topics including control of digital property, privacy frameworks and the roles of intermediaries in internet architecture.
Dr. Margaret (Peggy) Hamburg is the Foreign Secretary of the National Academy of Medicine (NAM). Dr. Hamburg previously held the post of Commissioner of the United States Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) and served as Commissioner of Health for the City of New York.
Two major study retractions in one month have left researchers wondering if the peer review process is broken.
As riders prepare to start riding the trains again during New York City’s initial reopening, the safety of public transit is a big question.
Medical records from a little-known company were used in two studies published in major journals. The New England Journal of Medicine has asked to see the data.
As federal agencies take increasingly stringent actions to try to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus pandemic within the U.S., how can individual Americans and U.S. companies affected by these rules weigh in with their opinions and experiences? Because many of the new rules, such as travel restrictions and increased surveillance, require expansions of federal power beyond normal circumstances, our laws require the federal government to post these rules publicly and allow the public to contribute their comments to the proposed rules online. But are federal public comment websites — a vital institution for American democracy — secure in this time of crisis? Or are they vulnerable to bot attack?
In December 2019, we published a new study to see firsthand just how vulnerable the public comment process is to an automated attack. Using publicly available artificial intelligence (AI) methods, we successfully generated 1,001 comments of deepfake text, computer-generated text that closely mimics human speech, and submitted them to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ (CMS) website for a proposed federal rule that would institute mandatory work reporting requirements for citizens on Medicaid in Idaho.
The comments we produced using deepfake text constituted over 55% of the 1,810 total comments submitted during the federal public comment period. In a follow-up study, we asked people to identify whether comments were from a bot or a human. Respondents were only correct half of the time — the same probability as random guessing.
The example above is deepfake text generated by the bot that all survey respondents thought was from a human.
We ultimately informed CMS of our deepfake comments and withdrew them from the public record. But a malicious attacker would likely not do the same.
Previous large-scale fake comment attacks on federal websites have occurred, such as the 2017 attack on the FCC website regarding the proposed rule to end net neutrality regulations.
During the net neutrality comment period, firms hired by industry group Broadband for America used bots to create comments expressing support for the repeal of net neutrality. They then submitted millions of comments, sometimes even using the stolen identities of deceased voters and the names of fictional characters, to distort the appearance of public opinion.
A retroactive text analysis of the comments found that 96-97% of the more than 22 million comments on the FCC’s proposal to repeal net neutrality were likely coordinated bot campaigns. These campaigns used relatively unsophisticated and conspicuous search-and-replace methods — easily detectable even on this mass scale. But even after investigations revealed the comments were fraudulent and made using simple search-and-replace-like computer techniques, the FCC still accepted them as part of the public comment process.
Even these relatively unsophisticated campaigns were able to affect a federal policy outcome. However, our demonstration of the threat from bots submitting deepfake text shows that future attacks can be far more sophisticated and much harder to detect.
The laws and politics of public comments
Let’s be clear: The ability to communicate our needs and have them considered is the cornerstone of the democratic model. As enshrined in the Constitution and defended fiercely by civil liberties organizations, each American is guaranteed a role in participating in government through voting, through self-expression and through dissent.
When it comes to new rules from federal agencies that can have sweeping impacts across America, public comment periods are the legally required method to allow members of the public, advocacy groups and corporations that would be most affected by proposed rules to express their concerns to the agency and require the agency to consider these comments before they decide on the final version of the rule. This requirement for public comments has been in place since the passage of the Administrative Procedure Act of 1946. In 2002, the e-Government Act required the federal government to create an online tool to receive public comments. Over the years, there have been multiple court rulings requiring the federal agency to demonstrate that they actually examined the submitted comments and publish any analysis of relevant materials and justification of decisions made in light of public comments [see Citizens to Preserve Overton Park, Inc. v. Volpe, 401 U. S. 402, 416 (1971); Home Box Office, supra, 567 F.2d at 36 (1977), Thompson v. Clark, 741 F. 2d 401, 408 (CADC 1984)].
In fact, we only had a public comment website from CMS to test for vulnerability to deepfake text submissions in our study, because in June 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 7-1 decision that CMS could not skip the public comment requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act in reviewing proposals from state governments to add work reporting requirements to Medicaid eligibility rules within their state.
The impact of public comments on the final rule by a federal agency can be substantial based on political science research. For example, in 2018, Harvard University researchers found that banks that commented on Dodd-Frank-related rules by the Federal Reserve obtained $7 billion in excess returns compared to non-participants. When they examined the submitted comments to the “Volcker Rule” and the debit card interchange rule, they found significant influence from submitted comments by different banks during the “sausage-making process” from the initial proposed rule to the final rule.
Beyond commenting directly using their official corporate names, we’ve also seen how an industry group, Broadband for America, in 2017 would submit millions of fake comments in support of the FCC’s rule to end net neutrality in order to create the false perception of broad political support for the FCC’s rule amongst the American public.
Technology solutions to deepfake text on public comments
While our study highlights the threat of deepfake text to disrupt public comment websites, this doesn’t mean we should end this long-standing institution of American democracy, but rather we need to identify how technology can be used for innovative solutions that accepts public comments from real humans while rejecting deepfake text from bots.
There are two stages in the public comment process — (1) comment submission and (2) comment acceptance — where technology can be used as potential solutions.
In the first stage of comment submission, technology can be used to prevent bots from submitting deepfake comments in the first place; thus raising the cost for an attacker to need to recruit large numbers of humans instead. One technological solution that many are already familiar with are the CAPTCHA boxes that we see at the bottom of internet forms that ask us to identify a word — either visually or audibly — before being able to click submit. CAPTCHAs provide an extra step that makes the submission process increasingly difficult for a bot. While these tools can be improved for accessibility for disabled individuals, they would be a step in the right direction.
However, CAPTCHAs would not prevent an attacker willing to pay for low-cost labor abroad to solve any CAPTCHA tests in order to submit deepfake comments. One way to get around that may be to require strict identification to be provided along with every submission, but that would remove the possibility for anonymous comments that are currently accepted by agencies such as CMS and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Anonymous comments serve as a method of privacy protection for individuals who may be significantly affected by a proposed rule on a sensitive topic such as healthcare without needing to disclose their identity. Thus, the technological challenge would be to build a system that can separate the user authentication step from the comment submission step so only authenticated individuals can submit a comment anonymously.
Finally, in the second stage of comment acceptance, better technology can be used to distinguish between deepfake text and human submissions. While our study found that our sample of over 100 people surveyed were not able to identify the deepfake text examples, more sophisticated spam detection algorithms in the future may be more successful. As machine learning methods advance over time, we may see an arms race between deepfake text generation and deepfake text identification algorithms.
The challenge today
While future technologies may offer more comprehensive solutions, the threat of deepfake text to our American democracy is real and present today. Thus, we recommend that all federal public comment websites adopt state-of-the-art CAPTCHAs as an interim measure of security, a position that is also supported by the 2019 U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Investigations’ Report on Abuses of the Federal Notice-and-Comment Rulemaking Process.
In order to develop more robust future technological solutions, we will need to build a collaborative effort between the government, researchers and our innovators in the private sector. That’s why we at Harvard University have joined the Public Interest Technology University Network along with 20 other education institutions, New America, the Ford Foundation and the Hewlett Foundation. Collectively, we are dedicated to helping inspire a new generation of civic-minded technologists and policy leaders. Through curriculum, research and experiential learning programs, we hope to build the field of public interest technology and a future where technology is made and regulated with the public in mind from the beginning.
While COVID-19 has disrupted many parts of American society, it hasn’t stopped federal agencies under the Trump administration from continuing to propose new deregulatory rules that can have long-lasting legacies that will be felt long after the current pandemic has ended. For example, on March 18, 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed new rules about limiting which research studies can be used to support EPA regulations, which have received over 610,000 comments as of April 6, 2020. On April 2, 2020, the Department of Education proposed new rules for permanently relaxing regulations for online education and distance learning. On February 19, 2020, the FCC re-opened public comments on its net neutrality rules, which in 2017 saw 22 million comments submitted by bots, after a federal court ruled that the FCC ignored how ending net neutrality would affect public safety and cellphone access programs for low-income Americans.
Federal public comment websites offer the only way for the American public and organizations to express their concerns to the federal agency before the final rules are determined. We must adopt better technological defenses to ensure that deepfake text doesn’t further threaten American democracy during a time of crisis.
It’s a mistake to blame density for the spread of the coronavirus.
In “The Last Archive,” Lepore mixes history and 1930s-style radio drama to solve a timely whodunit.
The technique aims to make a person’s cells churn out proteins that will stimulate the body to fight the coronavirus.
Experts say that for the first time since 1998, global poverty will increase. At least a half a billion people could slip into destitution by the end of the year.
Craig McFarland, the valedictorian of his high school in Jacksonville, Fla., received acceptance letters from 17 colleges and universities in all.
The university said it did not request $8.6 million in federal aid and would not apply for it.