space junk

Space junk, algorithmic hatred and meaningless jobs – a few recent essays

Here are links to a few recent articles by LML Fellow Mark Buchanan.

Space Junk Now Presents a Clear and Present Danger, Bloomberg Opinion, 19 September, 2018

Over 50 years ago, when we first started putting satellites in orbit, we seemed small, and the earth very big. Now, with nearly 500 new satellites going up every year, our influence is no longer small. The U.S. Air Force — more precisely, the U.S. Strategic Command — is already actively tracking more than 20,000 satellites, rocket pieces and collision fragments bigger than a softball that are orbiting the earth, which together present a looming menace to satellite operations and everything that depends on them, including global positioning systems, telecommunications, weather forecasts and the internet.

Congress Is Clueless About Google’s Biggest Problem, Bloomberg Opinion, 5 September, 2018

The basic business model of three tech giants – Google, Facebook and Twitter – may have a lot to do with the rise of hatred, violence and political polarization, not only in the United States, but worldwide. An alarming possibility is that these companies’ automated algorithms, which analyze human behavior to boost user engagement, have learned that they perform best by setting us against one another.

Spinning Around, Nature Physics 14, 871 (2018)

In 1948, physicist Hendrik Casimir realized that there should be a force acting even between two neutral and perfectly conducting walls, as the walls’ zero-field boundary conditions exclude long-wavelength modes of quantum vacuum fluctuations from inside the cavity. Less well known is that Casimir also predicted some rotational effects associated with the angular rather than linear momentum of virtual photons. In some settings, this might produce a torque on an object made of anisotropic material, while in others it may instead produce a quantum drag on rapidly rotating objects. In principle, even a completely neutral rotating object should radiate energy away. Until recently, the prospects for detecting such rotational influences were remote, but this has now changed with the increasingly delicate control over light–matter interactions made possible with lasers.

Too Many Jobs Feel Meaningless Because They Are, Bloomberg Opinion, 1 August, 2018

Plenty of empirical evidence suggests that business no longer creates value the way it once did. Why? One of the more convincing explanations comes from an anthropologist who has looked beyond narrow economic reasoning to examine the actual social or psychological functions served by many of the jobs in today’s service and knowledge economy. David Graeber of the London School of Economics argues in a recent book that the prevailing myths about the efficiency of capitalism blind us to the fact that much of economic reality is shaped by jockeying for power and status and serves no economic function at all.

Witness the fitness, Nature Physics 14, 773 (2018)

For reasons of history and convenience, gross domestic product (GDP) has become the default measure of useful economic activity, and generating more of it is the target of every nation. This despite economists’ wide acknowledgment that GDP is a terrible indicator of beneficial activity. Even so, predicting GDP remains important, as this partial measure does have a direct bearing on key human variables internal to any economy — things like employment, inflation and interest rates. In the past few years, physicists have brought an important new perspective to the problem, and achieved an impressive improvement in prediction accuracy by going beyond aggregate measures typically used by official bodies such as the International Monetary Fund.

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