Science and Technology

In Skin Deep: The inside story of our outer selves, Australian writer Phillipa McGuinness gathers some impressive facts about skin. A square centimetre contains, among other things, six million cells, two hundred pain sensors, and one hundred sweat glands. The skin of an individual weighing seventy kilograms ‘covers two square metres and weighs five kilograms’. A YouTube channel where you can watch a dermatologist popping pimples has amassed more than three billion views. The beauty and personal care industry accrues half a trillion dollars in annual sales, while one major cosmetics company now spends seventy-five per cent of its billion-dollar advertising budget on influencers.

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Paul Davies, the British physicist who brightened up the Australian science scene when he was a professor at the University of Adelaide in the 1990s, is currently director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science at Arizona State University. Beyond describes itself as ‘a pioneering center devoted to confronting the really big questions of science and philosophy’. It also aims to present science publicly ‘as a key component of our culture and of significance to all humanity’, something Davies has been doing for thirty years, in popular talks, articles, and books such as About Time (1995).

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In 1995, a new online marketplace called Amazon sent out its first press release, with its thirty-one-year-old founder, Jeff Bezos, proclaiming: ‘We are able to offer more items for sale than any retailer in history, thanks entirely to the Internet.’ Nearly three decades later – Amazon having steroidally expanded from a book retailer to a multinational hydra of e-commerce, cloud storage, and digital streaming – this is no longer hyperbole. The company absorbs at least half of America’s online spending, and nearly 150 million US citizens subscribe to Amazon Prime, roughly the same number that voted in the recent presidential election. In 2020, while the pandemic crippled most industries, Amazon’s net profit swelled by eighty-four per cent. Today, Jeff Bezos is valued at US$200 billion – approximately the value of New Zealand’s GDP.

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The age of Artificial Intelligence (AI) has arrived, though not so much an age of sentient robots as one of ubiquitous data collection and analysis fuelling automated decisions, categorisations, predictions, and recommendations in all walks of life. The stakes of AI-enabled decision-making may be as serious as life and death (Spanish police use a system called VioGén to forecast domestic violence) or as trivial as the arrangement of pizza-toppings.

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Were you one of those reluctant mathematics students who complained, ‘What’s the point of all this?’ If so, rest assured: Michael Brooks has made a compelling case for the role mathematics has played in making ‘civilisation’ possible. If you still need convincing, he also discusses research suggesting that doing maths is good for your brain.

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In her novel Frankissstein (2019) – a reimagining of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) that embraces robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), and transhumanism – Jeanette Winterson writes, ‘The monster once made cannot be unmade. What will happen to the world has begun.’  This observation might have served as an epigraph for her new book, 12 Bytes. Comprising twelve essays that ruminate on the future of AI and ‘Big Tech’, 12 Bytes contends that looming technological advances will demand not only resistance to the prejudices and inequalities endemic in our current social order, but also a reconsideration of what it means to be human: ‘In the next decade … the internet of things will start the forced evolution and gradual dissolution of Homo sapiens as we know it.’

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At sixty-six years of age and best known for his books on the sociology of food, the American author and journalist Michael Pollan has become an unlikely figurehead for the so-called ‘psychedelic renaissance’. In How to Change Your Mind (2018), Pollan surveyed the recent revival of psychedelic drugs as adjuncts to psychotherapy, and the emerging evidence that supports their use in the treatment of depression, PTSD, and other mental health disorders. Globally prohibited since the early 1970s and still mostly illegal, these compounds – including the ‘classic’ psychedelics LSD and psilocybin (the main psychoactive alkaloid in magic mushrooms), as well as MDMA (also known as ecstasy) and ketamine – are once again the subject of clinical trials, including in Australia where the federal government has became one of the first in the world to fund research in the field.

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‘There is no such thing as an inherently robot-proof job,’ says Kevin Roose – a stunning admission in his new book, Futureproof: 9 rules for humans in the age of automation. We are all at risk of automation – indeed, more at risk than we think. Silicon Valley’s optimism about automation is either ‘false’ or ‘radically incomplete’. Roose says he should know: he once fell for it too.

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Helgoland by Carlo Rovelli, translated by Erica Segre and Simon Carnell

by
September 2021, no. 435

Theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli has a gift for writing short, conversational, popular physics books. His earlier works, notably Seven Brief Lessons in Physics (2015) and The Order of Time (2018), have been bestsellers, and Helgoland is continuing the trend.

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Sealand calls itself a micronation. No one else does. It’s easy to see why: the ‘kingdom’ is little more than a glorified helipad. It rises from the North Sea off the coast of Suffolk like a Greek version of the letter π rendered out of concrete and steel – the sole survivor of a series of Maunsell forts built to shoot down Nazi Kriegsmarine aircraft during World War II. Abandoned by Britain in the 1950s, the fort was hijacked by pirate radio broadcaster Paddy Roy Bates in the 1960s and renamed the Principality of Sealand. Bates crowned himself ‘prince regent’ and – besides firing warning shots at the Royal Navy and fighting off a coup attempt by German mercenaries – entered into a series of sketchy schemes to stay afloat. One enterprise, launched in 2000 with the help of cypherpunk Ryan Lackey, was for the Bates family to turn Sealand into the world’s first data haven: an unbreakable digital lockbox beyond the clutches of law enforcement agencies and copyright lawyers.

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