New freelance writings: priority for nukes, science’s demons, and deepfakes

In case you missed them, here’s a few pieces I’ve recently written and published in Undark magazine, Nature magazine, and Engineering News. 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 free newsletter, Ramin’s Space!

For the Next President, Nuclear Weapons Policy Must Be a Priority

President Trump has been inching us toward nuclear catastrophe. A Biden presidency could bring us back from the brink.

It may take days, or even weeks, for disputes over the results of the U.S. presidential election to be resolved. But this much is certain: Whoever takes the helm will be leading the country into a new era of global nuclear weapons policy.

That’s because in January, two days after Inauguration Day, the United Nations’ Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons will take effect. For the 50 nations who have ratified it, the legally binding agreement will prohibit the development, testing, production, stockpiling, stationing, transfer, use, and threat of use of nuclear weapons. Although the U.S. is currently not party to the treaty, our next president — be it Donald J. Trump or Joe Biden — should take note of the historic agreement. And they should also take to heart the international call to reduce the world’s supply of nukes.

Nukes have posed a threat to humanity since the 1940s, and the doctrine of mutual assured destruction still looms behind many conflicts around the world. But nukes have drawn little attention since the fall of the Soviet Union, and they rarely came up as a presidential campaign issue. While policymakers are right to be concerned about the Covid-19 pandemic and worsening climate change, a nuclear disaster could easily arrive at any moment with a president authorizing a launch…

[Read the entire opinion piece in Undark magazine, published on 5 November.]

The demons and devils that haunt scientists’ imaginations

Strange beasts stalk a history of thought experiments.

The workings of powerful computers, the processes of evolution, the market forces that drive the global economy. To conceptualize such unseen forces, researchers have long invoked thought experiments involving demons, devils, golems or genies.

These strange beasts aren’t creatures of superstition and pseudoscience. They are useful ideas that have had an important role in the advancement of science, argues historian of science Jimena Canales. Her latest book, Bedeviled, sizes up imagined imps over the centuries and follows their impacts…

[Read the entire book review in Nature magazine, published on 30 November.]

Accuracy Eludes Competitors in Facebook Deepfake Detection Challenge

The improving power of artificial intelligence (AI) is perhaps most evident in the increasingly realistic manipulation of video and other digital media, with the latest generation of AI-altered videos, known as deepfakes, prompting a primarily Facebook-sponsored competition to identify them as such. Launched in December 2019, the Deepfake Detection Challenge (DFDC) closed to entries in March 2020. The results are now in. While somewhat unimpressive, underscoring the difficulty of addressing this growing challenge, they importantly provide a benchmark for automated detection strategies and suggest productive directions for further research.

With little to no help from a human’s guiding hand, the advanced computer algorithms used to create today’s deepfakes can readily produce manipulated videos and text that are becoming ever more difficult to distinguish from the real thing. While such technology has many positive applications, computer scientists and digital civil liberties advocates have grown increasingly concerned about its use to inadvertently or deliberately mislead viewers and spread disinformation and misinformation…

[Read the entire piece in Engineering News, published in October.]

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