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The Evolutionary Perspective
Daily Archives: October 22, 2020
Posted: October 22, 2020 at 12:12 pm
Google is giving users the ability to hum songs, without lyrics, to help find a song.
Do you ever have a song you just can't get out of your head? Maybe you know a lyric or two, but not enough to find it.
Now, Google is joining companies like SoundHound and giving users the ability to hum songs, without lyrics, to help find a song match.
The tool is available in English on Google's iOS app and in 20 languages on Android. The feature, announced on the company's blog last week, is also available with Google Assistant by asking Hey Google, whats this song?
You then are able to hum, whistle or sing a melody for 10 to 15 seconds before an algorithm tries to match your tune with a song.
Don't worry, a perfect pitch isn't required.
Google explained that each person's audio is transformed into a sequence representing the song's melody. The models use human singing, whistling or humming and studio recording to help identify songs.
This comes as Google faces a lawsuit from the Justice Department for antitrust violations, alleging that it abused its dominance in online search and advertising to stifle competition and harm consumers. The litigation marks the governments most significant attempt to protect competition since its groundbreaking case against Microsoft more than 20 years ago.
The suit could be an opening salvo ahead of other major government antitrust actions, given ongoing investigations of major tech companies including Apple, Amazon and Facebook at both the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission.
Google has long denied the claims of unfair competition. Google argues that although its businesses are large, they are useful and beneficial to consumers.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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Posted: at 12:12 pm
The Google Assistant Driving mode that the company first announced in 2019 has started appearing on some Android devices, XDA-Developers reported. The UI looks somewhat different from what Google showed at its I/O developers conference last year. XDA says it first noticed something was coming about two weeks ago, when users reported seeing a new navigation interface in Google Maps.
Its not clear whether the rollout of this new mode is part of a test or will be coming for all users. Mishaal Rahman at XDA said he saw the new driving mode on a Google Pixel 4, an Asus ZenFone 7 Pro, and an LG Velvet, and he surmises that the new mode will replace the Android Auto app on smartphones. That seems consistent with what Google told The Verge last year.
Whether the new mode will include all the features Google described when it first unveiled the driving mode also isnt yet clear. It was meant to be available on any Android phone with Assistant, using a Hey Google, lets drive voice prompt that would bring up a dashboard with driving-relevant activities and other personalized recommendations. And it would provide infotainment features to drivers whose vehicles arent equipped with touchscreen displays.
The voice prompt doesnt appear to work yet even on devices enabled with the new mode, according to Android Police. To see if your device has Assistant Driving Mode, open Google Maps and from the navigation settings menu, and select Google Assistant settings. If its not enabled, youll be taken to the main Assistant settings section.
A Google spokesperson didnt respond to questions seeking more information about driving mode, but wrote in an email to The Verge Sunday: Were constantly experimenting with ways to make Assistant more helpful.
Update October 18th, 4:49PM ET: Added comment from Google spokesperson.
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Posted: at 12:12 pm
Acer has announced the $109 Halo smart speaker at its October hardware event. Its a 360-degree speaker that has the Google Assistant built in to handle queries and tasks, and Acer says its one of the first smart speakers to have DTS sound. With that, it should be especially suited to offer a cinematic sound.
Its relatively easy to see what stands out about this device; it has an RGB base that changes color and lighting patterns, and its LEDs can show the weather and other images. Honestly, I think the Halo looks like an oil diffuser, but Ill take Acers word that its actually a speaker.
This device will release in Q1 2021. Acer hasnt divulged other specs or product details about the Halo, but well likely hear more soon. At $109, its just $10 more than Googles new Nest Audio smart speaker. We dont know how the sound quality will stack up, but if you want a smart speaker that stands out more visually, keep an eye out for the Halo.
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Posted: at 12:12 pm
For the past couple of months, Google has been actively testing its Privacy Sandbox proposal for interest-based cohorts, and the preliminary results are in.
The proposal, dubbed FLoC aka, federated learning of cohorts calls for using on-device machine learning to group people based on their common browsing behavior as an alternative to third-party cookies.
Imagine cohorts of coffee lovers, guitar players, young mothers or car intenders labeled with random alphanumeric strings. Advertisers could bid on impressions associated with a particular FLoC label on exchanges or in DSPs.
Google posted the outcome of its FLoC experiments to GitHub on Wednesday evening.
Early (bird) results
The findings indicate that interest-based cohorts could fly. Based on Googles tests, FLoCs generate a nearly 350% improvement in recall and an almost 70% improvement in precision over a random assignment of users to cohorts.
Which is impressive, but doesnt say anything about how interest-based cohorts compare to the third-party cookie-based targeting itll ostensibly replace.
Chetna Bindra, Googles senior product manager for user trust, privacy and transparency, stressed that the testing process is only just starting and that Google is hoping to jumpstart more experimentation and not just related to FLoCs among the newly minted ad tech company members of the World Wide Web Consortium.
Google is looking for the industry to engage in this a lot more, Bindra said.
We want to discuss these things at a much earlier stage, both in terms of development and testing, so that it can be done in an open forum, she said. This is a call to discussion as well as to action, and a starting point for communication.
Ducks (not yet) in a row
But communication between Google and the vendor community within the W3C has been strained to date.
Although theres been some breaking of the ice, ad tech companies as a whole are worried that the pace of development is too slow and that their concerns arent being taken seriously by the Chrome representatives in the W3Cs Improving Web Advertising Business Group.
And all the while, Chrome is nudging the ad industry away from one-to-one and toward targeting in the aggregate.
The Privacy Sandbox, Bindra said, has been envisioned to ensure that we are moving away from one-to-one identity; the shift toward aggregation and cohorts will serve as the foundation for privacy preserving APIs that allow for interest-based advertising while preventing cross-site tracking.
Cohorts is where the future is headed, at some level, in terms of targeting, Bindra said.
Keep on flapping
Its worth noting, though, that the proposals in Chromes Privacy Sandbox are still just that proposals.
They arent yet web standards, and theres technically nothing stopping Chrome from deploying an API within its environment, although both Chrome and Google are motivated to find consensus or at least gather feedback within the confines of the W3C before making a move.
Chrome has leaned into open source development for almost a decade, and the intent here is to do something very similar, Bindra said. A key part of the process is engaging with the community and ensuring that there is testing and that mechanisms are vetted and discussed in order to develop different implementations, in addition to ensuring that they work, of course.
Googles own FLoC tests involved trying out various clustering algorithms, and experimenting with different cohort assignments, definitions and sizes against a mixture of publicly available data sets and proprietary Google data.
Beyond testing the performance of FLoCs, Google was also trying to get a sense of the trade-offs between privacy and utility based on the parameters used to define a cohort.
Size is an important one. Google ran tests for cohorts of all sizes, from as few as five people in a group all the way up to 5,000, with an eye on the concept of k-anonymity, which is a model for ensuring that anonymized data cannot be reidentified.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation and other parties have questioned whether FLoCs can attain k-anonymity. All it would take, for example, is for someone to figure out how to decode an alphanumeric FLoC name in order to connect its members with their specific interests. Bindra says that privacy is foundational to the concept of a FLoC. The testing process will help ensure that users cant be individually identified or tracked, she said.
In addition to the FLoC test, Google is in the midst of running other live experiments on proposals in the sandbox, including the Trust Tokens API and the Click Conversion Measurement API.
We see this as a continuing drumbeat of testing, evaluation and decisions happening within the W3C, Bindra said, and well continue to engage actively in this forum, for sure."
Posted: at 12:12 pm
Election Day approaches! Still not sure where the nearest polling place or ballot drop box is? Google wants to help.
This morning the company rolled out a handful of features across Google Assistant, Google Maps and Google Search, all meant to kick in when a user seems to be looking for information on voting locations.
On Google Search, for example, a search for ballot drop boxes near me will now bring up a dedicated tool for finding just that punch in the address where youre registered to vote, and itll help you find a drop box or polling place accordingly. The same tool will also pop up when you search for things like how to find polling place or where to vote, so theres some flexibility in it.
Or if youve got an Assistant-powered device nearby (like a Nest Mini, Nest Hub or an Android phone), you can say Hey Google, where do I vote? and Assistant should be able to figure it out accordingly based on your current location (with Assistant assuming, as itll note in its response, that your current location is where youre registered to vote).
The Maps integration is a bit more limited, but it gets the job done. Searching for where do I vote in the Google Maps mobile app results in a prompt that will toss you into the above web-based Google Search flow. Once youve found your location, tapping the Directions button will swing you back into the Maps app.
Google says its pulling its polling location information from the Voting Information Project as part of a partnership with Democracy Works. The company says theyll be adding more polling places leading up until Election Day, expecting to have more than 200,000 in the system when all is said and done.
Dont want to get your polling place details from Google, or just want to double check things? Theres always sites like Vote.org(which, if youre curious, is what Siri recommends when prompted with the Where do I vote? question), which also provides info on checking your voter registration status, becoming a poll worker, etc.
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Google Glass-powered medical scribe service going public as part of reverse merger deal – FierceHealthcare
Posted: at 12:12 pm
In what is becoming a trend in 2020, a third healthcare technology company plans to go public through a merger with a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) in a blank check deal.
Augmedix recently secured $25 million in private placement financing and completed a reverse merger with Malo Holdings. The deal was announced earlier this month.
The combined company will rename itself Augmedix Inc. and list shares on the over-the-counter (OTC) market that lists early-stage and developing companies in the U.S. and international markets.
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In connection with the financing, current investors Redmile Group, DCM and McKesson Ventures contributed alongside new investors.
Private companies will look to merge with a SPAC or blank check company as a nontraditional route to go public rather than a typical initial public offering. With the IPO market rattled by COVID-19 and wild volatility, it has become a more attractive way to go public in 2020.
Acute care telemedicine company SOC Telemed is merging with Healthcare Merger Corp. in a blank check deal, and Hims & Hers is going public through a blank check merger with Oaktree Acquisition Corp.
RELATED: Health tech funding snapshotGoogle joins $50M round in Viz.ai, Augmedix raises $19M and more
Manny Krakaris, Augmedix's CEO, said in a statement, "We're thrilled to complete this financing, which we believe puts Augmedix on the path of accelerated expansion, and will enable us to broaden our operational capabilities, accelerate our technology research and product development, and strengthen our marketing and sales."
Doctors spend a lot of time taking and transcribing notes following patient visits. Augmedix uses natural language processing technology and remote medical documentation experts to help reduce the burden of medical documentation for physicians.
The company provides clinicians with hardware such as Google Glass or an app on the doctor's smartphone to capture the doctor-patient conversation during the clinic visit and then populates the patient's electronic health record. Fifteen national health systems, including Sutter Health, Dignity Health and CommonSpirit, currently partner with Augmedix.
Augmedix's services are compatible with over 35 specialties. The company says its remote medical scribe services can save clinicians two to three hours per day while increasing productivity by as much as 20%.
Founded in 2013, the San Francisco-based startup has raised $107 million in capital to date.
RELATED: Google Glass is a way for docs to 'look patients in the eye again'
The company has generated in excess of 4 million medical notes since it began offering its service and is currently delivering over 35,000 notes to customers each week, according to documents Augmedix filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
The company reported $14 million in revenue in 2019, up $3.3 million as compared to $10.8 million in revenue in 2018. Two of its customers, Sutter Health and Dignity Health, accounted for 26% and 17% of 2019 revenue, respectively.
There are currently about 1.1 million physicians in the U.S., and about 88% of these, or 980,000, work within the specialties that Augmedix currently covers. Using its average current subscription price of $1,800 per doctor per month, Augmedix estimates its total addressable market in the U.S. is approximately $6 billion annually.
The company's existing enterprise healthcare customers represent about 19% of the total U.S. addressable market. With 510 providers on its platform, Augmedix has only penetrated about half of 1% of the potential that resides within its existing enterprise customer base, the company said.
In the dictation software space, Augmedix competes with Nuance Communications, which offers its Dragon platform, as well as Saykara, Robin Healthcare and Suki.
RELATED: Digital health company Hims & Hers goes public in blank check deal
What's interesting is that for a company that uses technology to make medical documentation more efficient, Augmedix's service is very labor-intensive. The company uses remote medical scribes to do the documentation work. In the SEC filing, Augmedix said its medical scribes are well educated, most at the university level, and many are recruited straight out of university. The company also recruits from a large, established pool of medical transcriptionists in India.
Augmedix owns and operates two remote documentation centers in the U.S. and Bangladesh, and it contracts with outside vendors to run seven other centers in India and Sri Lanka.
While the company's revenue has grown, it also has significant losses. Augmedix reported a net loss of $18.5 million in 2019 and $8 million in losses for the first six months of 2020.
At the end of 2019, the company had an accumulated deficit of $68 million, and that reached $76 million by June 30, 2020.
In its SEC filing, Augmedix also said it has outstanding debt obligations that exceed its cash reserves.
The company also noted that as artificial intelligence and machine learning technology develop, competitors may be able to better utilize these technologies to automate the medical note documentation process rendering its solution less competitive. Public health experts have raised alarm that Americans might lose trust in any vaccine that is ultimately approved. An editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association called for the Food and Drug Administration to take steps to reassure the public and clinical community about the scientific review and approval of a COVID-19 vaccine.
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Posted: at 12:12 pm
Aromas of freshly brewed coffee, the chatter of friends catching up, and menus filled with flakey pastries are among the things we associate with Vancouver bakeries.
But these ptisseries and boulangeries are more than places to get our baked goods fix; theyre an integral part of our small business community. Aside from adding a sense of vitality to our local neighbourhoods, theyre places that have gradually become a part of our lifestyles.
Bakeries in Vancouver and across the country are battling the challenges of the pandemic as they arise, and they need our support more than ever. FromOctober 18 to 24,Small Business Week is taking place in Canada, and with it comes the perfect opportunity to support local.
Since its tough to narrow down the top spots among our citys food scene, weve rounded up the five best bakeries based on Google reviews.
Freshly baked bread is the perfect accompaniment to a plethora of meals, andLa Fortin Burnaby is where locals seek it out. The bakery cafe is housed in a formerauto body shop, stretching out over 5,000 sq ft. It serves up everything from organic apple coconut cookies to sour cream pecan cake. This local treat haven has been open since 2017, and today, you can dine in or place an orderonline (or by phone) to pick up some seriously tasty eats.
Google Review: This is my new favorite breakfast spot. Everything comes out quick and fresh. The meats and eggs are good quality and the [waffles] are the best Ive ever had.
Address:6848 Jubilee Avenue, BurnabyPhone:604-428-8155
Purebread(aka, the Yum Factory) has five locations in the Lower Mainland, with three here in Vancouver. Since its inception in Whistler, this family bakery has been on a mission to bake delicious bread, savoury snacks, cakes, and treats that bring a smile to peoples faces. Stop by any of its five boutique bakeries for takeaway orders of lemon blueberry basil scones, sourdough loaves, butter croissants, and more, or pre-order for pick-up.
Google Review: Coffeeis great and its a niceatmosphereto sit, relax, andpeoplewatch.
Address:5 East 5th AvenuePhone:604-336-9001
Address:2887 West BroadwayPhone:604-336-9670
Address:159 West Hastings StreetPhone:604-563-8060
Nestled in a bright and airy space on Fir Street,Beaucoup Bakerydishes up French-inspired pastries and premium coffee (like the49th Parallel Coffee Roasters espresso).Owned and operated by siblingsBetty and Jacky Hung, the pair took over the reins from founder Jackie Kai Ellis back in 2017. Now, locals can indulge in everything from the sweet apple pie bun to the valrhona chocolate chip cookie. Enjoy a hot beverage on the new patio in front of the bakery, grab and go with takeout, or order for at-home delivery.
Google Review: Delicious baked goods! My weekends wouldnt be the same without this place.
Address:2150 Fir StreetPhone:604-732-4222
An artisan bakeshop with a location in Langley City (and a second tucked away in Langley YNJ Airport),Blacksmith Bakeryis renowned for using traditional methods to perfect its menu items. Everything from the croissant bread and butter pudding to thehand-forged viennoiserie and gourmet pizzas are made fresh in-house daily. A visit to this bakery wouldnt be complete without a mocha to-go, made with organic locally-roastedRepublica Coffee beans. You can also place an order online for in-store pick-up.
Google Review: Best pizza in Canada! Hands down! We loved every bite of it and the homemade crust is to die for. The baked goods are super delicious as well. The croissants are extremely good as well (close your eyes and youre in France) !
Address:9190 Church Street, Langley CityPhone:604-371-0181
In Kitsilano, nothing pairs better with a coastal stroll than a caramel macchiato and a classic glazed donut fromBreka Bakery & Caf. This pastry epicentre also sells oven-baked pies to keep locals fuelled through supper (the chicken pot pie is our go-to), along with soups, a huge selection of baked loaves, andwhole cakes like the mango coconut mousse and red velvet cake. If dining in or picking up treats to-go at Breka doesnt work for your schedule, you can also order online.
Google Review:Reasonable prices, generousportions, friendlyservice, clean, nicedecor.
Address:3750 West 4th AvenuePhone:604-620-3750
Whether youre already a fan of one (or more) of the aforementioned bakeries or if youre eager to sample their menu offerings soon, showing some love with a Google review of your experience goes a long way for the owners and fellow Vancouverites.
In 2019, aBrightLocalsurvey reported that 91% of consumers say positive reviews make them more likely to use a business. And by adding a detailed description of the service, photos of the food, or a quick star rating, youre also doing a good deed for local businesses at a time when its needed most.
To learn more about how to give and get help as a consumer or business owner during Small Business Week and beyond, check outsmallbusiness.withgoogle.com.
Note, this list does not include chains and only includes businesses that have a verified Business Profile on Google.
Posted: at 12:12 pm
Hello and welcome back toEquity, TechCrunchs venture-capital-focused podcast where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.
Its a big day in tech because the U.S. federal government is going after Google on anti-competitive grounds. Sure, the timing appears crassly political and the case is not picking up huge plaudits thus far for its air-tightness, but that doesnt mean we can ignore it.
So Danny and I got on the horn to chat it up for about 10 minutes to fill you in. For reference, you can read the full filing here, in case you want to get your nails in. Itsnot a complicated read. Get in there.
As a pair we dug into what stood out from the suit, what we think about the historical context and also noodled at the end about what the whole situation could mean for startups; its not all good news, but adding lots of competitive space to the market would be a net-good for upstart tech companies in the long-run.
And consumers. Competition is good.
You can read TechCrunchs early coverage of the suit here, and our look at the markets reaction here. Lets go!
Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PDT and Thursday afternoon as fast as we can get it out, so subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts,Overcast,Spotifyand all the casts.
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Posted: at 12:12 pm
Machine learning is taking medical diagnosis by storm. From eye disease, breast and other cancers, to more amorphous neurological disorders, AI is routinely matching physician performance, if not beating them outright.
Yet how much can we take those results at face value? When it comes to life and death decisions, when can we put our full trust in enigmatic algorithmsblack boxes that even their creators cannot fully explain or understand? The problem gets more complex as medical AI crosses multiple disciplines and developers, including both academic and industry powerhouses such as Google, Amazon, or Apple, with disparate incentives.
This week, the two sides battled it out in a heated duel in one of the most prestigious science journals, Nature. On one side are prominent AI researchers at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, University of Toronto, Stanford University, Johns Hopkins, Harvard, MIT, and others. On the other side is the titan Google Health.
The trigger was an explosive study by Google Health for breast cancer screening, published in January this year. The study claimed to have developed an AI system that vastly outperformed radiologists for diagnosing breast cancer, and can be generalized to populations beyond those used for traininga holy grail of sorts thats incredibly difficult due to the lack of large medical imaging datasets. The study made waves across the media landscape, and created a buzz in the public sphere for medical AIs coming of age.
The problem, the academics argued, is that the study lacked sufficient descriptions of the code and model for others to replicate. In other words, we can only trust the study at its wordsomething thats just not done in scientific research. Google Health, in turn, penned a polite, nuanced but assertive rebuttal arguing for their need to protect patient information and prevent the AI from malicious attacks.
Academic discourse like these form the seat of science, and may seem incredibly nerdy and outdatedespecially because rather than online channels, the two sides resorted to a centuries-old pen-and-paper discussion. By doing so, however, they elevated a necessary debate to a broad worldwide audience, each side landing solid punches that, in turn, could lay the basis of a framework for trust and transparency in medical AIto the benefit of all. Now if they could only rap their arguments in the vein of Hamilton and Jeffersons Cabinet Battles in Hamilton.
Its easy to see where the academics arguments come from. Science is often painted as a holy endeavor embodying objectivity and truth. But as any discipline touched by people, its prone to errors, poor designs, unintentional biases orin very small numbersconscious manipulation to skew the results. Because of this, when publishing results, scientists carefully describe their methodology so others can replicate the findings. If a conclusion, say a vaccine that protects against Covid-19, happens in nearly every lab regardless of the scientist, the material, or the subjects, then we have stronger proof that the vaccine actually works. If not, it means that the initial study may be wrongand scientists can then delineate why and move on. Replication is critical to healthy scientific evolution.
But AI research is shredding the dogma.
In computational research, its not yet a widespread criterion for the details of an AI study to be fully accessible. This is detrimental to our progress, said author Dr. Benjamin Haibe-Kains at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre. For example, nuances in computer code or training samples and parameters could dramatically change training and evaluation of resultsaspects that cant be easily described using text alone, as is the norm. The consequence, said the team, is that it makes trying to verify the complex computational pipeline not possible. (For academics, thats the equivalent of gloves off.)
Although the academics took Google Healths breast cancer study as an example, they acknowledged the problem is far more widespread. By examining the shortfalls of the Google Health study in terms of transparency, the team said, we provide potential solutions with implications for the broader field. Its not an impossible problem. Online depositories such as GitHub, Bitbucket, and others already allow the sharing of code. Others allow sharing of deep learning models, such as ModelHub.ai, with support for frameworks such as TensorFlow, which was used by the Google Health team.
Ins-and-outs details of AI models aside, theres also the question of sharing data that those models were trained from. Its a particularly thorny problem for medical AI, because much of those datasets are under license and sharing can generate privacy concerns. Yet its not unheard of. For example, genomics has leveraged patient datasets for decadesessentially each persons genetic base codeand extensive guidelines exist to protect patient privacy. If youve ever used a 23andMe ancestry spit kit and provided consent for your data to be used for large genomic studies, youve benefited from those guidelines. Setting up something similar for medical AI isnt impossible.
In the end, a higher bar for transparency for medical AI will benefit the entire field, including doctors and patients. In addition to improving accessibility and transparency, such resources can considerably accelerate model development, validation and transition into production and clinical Implementation, the authors wrote.
Led by Dr. Scott McKinney, Google Health did not mince words. Their general argument: No doubt the commenters are motivated by protecting future patients as much as scientific principle. We share that sentiment. But under current regulatory frameworks, our hands are tied when it comes to open sharing.
For example, when it comes to releasing a version of their model for others to test on different sets of medical images, the team said they simply cant because their AI system may be classified as medical device software, which is subject to oversight. Unrestricted release may lead to liability issues that place patients, providers, and developers at risk.
As for sharing datasets, Google Health argued that their largest source used is available online with application to access (with just a hint of sass that their organization helped to fund the resource). Other datasets, due to ethical boards, simply cannot be shared.
Finally, the team argued that sharing a models learned parameters,that is, the bread-and-butter of how theyre constructedcan inadvertently expose the training dataset and model to malicious attack or misuse. Its certainly a concern: you may have previously heard of GPT-3, the OpenAI algorithm that writes unnervingly like a humanenough to fool Redditors for a week. But it would take a really sick individual to bastardize a breast cancer detection tool for some twisted gratification.
The academic-Google Health debate is just a small corner of a worldwide reckoning for medical AI. In September 2011, an international consortium of medical experts introduced a set of official standards for clinical trials that deploy AI in medicine, with the goal of plucking out AI snake oil from trustworthy algorithms. One point may sound familiar: how reliably a medical AI functions in the real word, away from favorable training sets or conditions in the lab. The guidelines represent some of the first when it comes to medical AI, but wont be the last.
If this all seems abstract and high up in the ivory tower, think of it another way: youre now witnessing the room where it happens. By publishing negotiations and discourse publicly, AI developers are inviting additional stakeholders to join in on the conversation. Like self-driving cars, medical AI seems like an inevitability. The question is how to judge and deploy it in a safe, equal mannerwhile inviting a hefty dose of public trust.
Image Credit: Marc Manhart from Pixabay
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Posted: at 12:11 pm
What should we think of people who flatly refuse to wear masks in any situation? Some pundits give an unequivocal answer: Failure to wear a mask [is] an incredibly selfish act that puts other peoples lives at risk. Being against masks is a selfish personal choice that impacts others. One even describes skeptical attitudes about masks (including President Trumps) as a sign of a broader cult of selfishness.
Is stubbornly refusing to wear a mask really selfish? That depends on what you mean by the term.
The conventional view is that selfishness means doing whatever you feel like, regardless of its effects on others. By that standard, people would be considered selfish if they dont want to wear a mask because its uncomfortable or inconvenient, even though it can save the lives of other valued people.
But if selfishness also means the dedicated pursuit of ones self-interest, how does a disregard for others help in this pursuit? It doesnt.
A world full of sick and dying people is not to anyones advantage.
There is also the obvious short-term benefit of the social effect of good will. I want other people to wear masks so that I wont get infected. One way to signal this to them is by wearing a mask myself as a gesture of respect. It communicates Ill protect you if youll protect me. Gestures of respect generally open our lives to the good things others offer. As someone concerned with his self-interest, this is the kind of virtue signaling Im happy to do.
If you dont care about how others affect your own interests, do you really care about your self-interest? The broader point is that pursuing self-interest isnt just doing whatever you feel like. I never feel like wearing a mask: they are uncomfortable, inconvenient, and ugly. But not liking them doesnt mean theyre not good for me. I almost always feel like eating donuts, but I know that wouldnt be good for my health. By the same token, inconvenient masks may still be good for my health.
READ ALSO: The Dangerous Thinking Behind Pandemic Partisanship
This latest evidence is far from conclusive. But there is very conclusive evidence that Covid is very dangerous (with a significantly higher fatality rate than the seasonal flu).3 So when you compare the minor inconvenience of wearing a mask to the chance of guarding against the (admittedly unlikely) prospect of a terrible outcome, isnt it a rational bet to wear a mask at least in the riskiest situations like a form of insurance?
Theres no justification for government mandates about masks: private institutions should be the ones to decide about the rules for entering their premises, which we are then free to enter or not. A government dedicated to the protection of individual rights should play a role in combatting the pandemic by testing, tracing, and isolating infected people (there should be no mandatory lockdowns). But the reason to leave individuals free to choose is to allow them to think rationally about what choice to make.
Rand rejected the common view that being selfish means doing whatever you feel like regardless of its effects on others. What achieving your own selfish interests fundamentally requires is love for the truth.
There are some who wear masks in situations where there is no clear risk to protect against, like when they are outside exercising all by themselves, or even on Zoom calls. If they do this only because they think its expected of them, this is the flip side of the same error as the people who refuse to ever wear masks simply because they want to defy other people. Neither of them is thinking rationally about their own interests, independently of what others expect.
Ayn Rand, who famously defended the virtue of selfishness, had this to say about the importance of thinking rationally: Reason is the most selfish human faculty: . . . its product truth makes [one] inflexible, intransigent, impervious to the power of any pack or any ruler.
This is why Rand rejected the common view that being selfish means doing whatever you feel like regardless of its effects on others. What achieving your own selfish interests fundamentally requires is love for the truth.
Not everyone cares about the truth, or about their own best interests. If only there were a mask we could wear to protect ourselves from all of the other ways their destructive behavior affects our lives.
A version of this article was originally published by the Southern California News Group.
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