New freelance writings: smartphone border searches, new moonshots, AI gone awry

In case you missed them, here’s a few pieces I’ve recently written and published for Medium, Inside Science, and Thanks as usual to my excellent editors! I’m only posting brief excerpts here, so if you’re interested, please check out the whole thing using the links below.

You can stay more up-to-date if you follow my electronic newsletter, Ramin’s Space!


Smartphone Privacy Is Under Threat at the Border

Picture this: You’re driving up from Tijuana to San Diego, and as you cross the U.S. border, agents stop you and demand to see your iPhone. With no explanation, and no warrant, they can thumb through your phone, or simply take it and extract all the data they want — every embarrassing text, private photos, even deleted files. And this happens more often than you think.

Over the past few years, with little fanfare, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers have rapidly ramped up the number of digital searches they carry out, using powerful tools to copy personal data from people’s smartphones, tablets, and laptops as they cross the border. More than a million people cross the border or arrive by airport every day in the U.S., with around 100,000 passing daily by foot, car, and bus through the Tijuana-San Diego port of entry alone. A not insignificant number of these people — now thousands annually — are being subjected to invasive searches of their devices.

“The government’s national security powers are strongest at the border,” says Catherine Crump, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley law school and director of the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic. “But this just gives the government an incredible opportunity, a situation ripe for abuse. The government has untrammeled access to people’s most sensitive information.”…

[Read the entire piece in Medium magazine, published on 7 June.]


What Makes a Modern ‘Moonshot’ Successful?

A different set of ingredients may be needed to take the next giant leap for humankind.

A half century ago this July, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped outside the Eagle lander and set foot on the moon, the first time humans ever walked upon the dusty, pockmarked surface of our lunar neighbor.

Looking back, it’s clear that whatever American astronauts and engineers lacked in space infrastructure and necessary scientific advances while putting together their historic mission, they made up for with massive public support, government funding, and chutzpah.

“It was an incredible achievement,” said Neal Lane, a senior fellow in science and technology policy at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. The feat was especially remarkable given how quickly NASA had to develop the knowledge, technology and institutional capabilities needed to complete the mission, he said.

Today, President Donald Trump, Democratic presidential hopefuls, government agencies and some big and forward-thinking companies all have their sights set on their own so-called moonshot projects, some of which have nothing to do with space…

[Read the entire piece in Inside Science, published on 11 July.]


Is Our AI on the Way to Becoming Control?

The powerful computer easily took control on Star Trek: Discovery, and in some ways, that’s not so far-fetched.

Star Trek’s stories are infused with myriad, complex technologies — many of which can’t easily be explained even by engineers. (How do the transporters really work?) Trek’s fictional future is one not so hard to imagine, as we, too, are already surrounded by smartphones and computer software designed to learn and evolve beyond their original programming. But what if they break down or learn too much?

In the second season of Star Trek: Discovery, a sophisticated computer program known as Control ran amok, bent on fulfilling its mission in a way its human designers never intended. It took over computer systems and eventually starships and space stations. It also hacked into a human-robot hybrid and deployed swarms of nanobots for nefarious purposes. We’ve seen positive or misunderstood consequences of artificial intelligence gaining self-consciousness — like the nanites and exocomps in The Next Generation — but AI with a truly malicious intent always hovered in the background.

Back here in the 21st century, we have more practical AI-related concerns looming before us. For better or worse, AI will soon fill our lives, with computer algorithms running our cars and trains, and robots proliferating everywhere from grocery stores to factories. We must also consider increasingly autonomous military drones and missiles…

[Read the entire piece in, published on 27 June.]

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