At the same time, we’ve also seen many states pick up (and politicize) laws about online safety for kids in recent months. These policies vary quite a bit from state to state, as I wrote back in April. Some focus on children’s data, and others try to limit how much and when kids can get online.
Supporters say these laws are necessary to mitigate the risks that big tech companies pose to young people—risks that are increasingly well documented. They say it’s well past time to put guardrails in place and limit the collecting and selling of minors’ data.
“What we’re doing here is creating a duty of care that makes the social media platforms accountable for the harms they’ve caused,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, who is co-sponsoring a child online safety bill in the Senate, in an interview with Slate. “It gives attorneys general and the FTC the power to bring lawsuits based on the product designs that, in effect, drive eating disorders, bullying, suicide, and sex and drug abuse that kids haven’t requested and that can be addictive.”
But—surprise, surprise—as with most things, it’s not really that simple. There are also vocal critics who argue that child safety laws are actually harmful to kids because all these laws, no matter their shape, have to contend with a central tension: in order to implement laws that apply to kids online, companies need to actually identify which users are kids—which requires the collection or estimation of sensitive personal information.
I was thinking about this when the prominent New York–based civil society organization S.T.O.P. (which stands for the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project) released a report on September 28 that highlights some of these potential harms and makes the case that all bills requiring tech companies to identify underage users, even if well intentioned, will increase online surveillance for everyone.
“These bills are sold as a way to protect teens, but they do just the opposite,” S.T.O.P. executive director Albert Fox Cahn said in a press release. “Rather than misguided efforts to track every user’s age and identity, we need privacy protections for every American.”
There’s a wide range of regulations out there, but the report calls out several states that are creating laws imposing stricter—even drastic—restrictions on minors’ internet access, effectively limiting online speech.
A Utah law that will take effect in March 2024, for instance, will require that parents give consent for their kids to access social media outside the hours of 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., and that social media companies build features enabling parents to access their kids’ accounts.
These robots know when to ask for help
A new training model, dubbed “KnowNo,” aims to address this problem by teaching robots to ask for our help when orders are unclear. At the same time, it ensures they seek clarification only when necessary, minimizing needless back-and-forth. The result is a smart assistant that tries to make sure it understands what you want without bothering you too much.
Andy Zeng, a research scientist at Google DeepMind who helped develop the new technique, says that while robots can be powerful in many specific scenarios, they are often bad at generalized tasks that require common sense.
For example, when asked to bring you a Coke, the robot needs to first understand that it needs to go into the kitchen, look for the refrigerator, and open the fridge door. Conventionally, these smaller substeps had to be manually programmed, because otherwise the robot would not know that people usually keep their drinks in the kitchen.
That’s something large language models (LLMs) could help to fix, because they have a lot of common-sense knowledge baked in, says Zeng.
Now when the robot is asked to bring a Coke, an LLM, which has a generalized understanding of the world, can generate a step-by-step guide for the robot to follow.
The problem with LLMs, though, is that there’s no way to guarantee that their instructions are possible for the robot to execute. Maybe the person doesn’t have a refrigerator in the kitchen, or the fridge door handle is broken. In these situations, robots need to ask humans for help.
KnowNo makes that possible by combining large language models with statistical tools that quantify confidence levels.
When given an ambiguous instruction like “Put the bowl in the microwave,” KnowNo first generates multiple possible next actions using the language model. Then it creates a confidence score predicting the likelihood that each potential choice is the best one.
The Download: inside the first CRISPR treatment, and smarter robots
The news: A new robot training model, dubbed “KnowNo,” aims to teach robots to ask for our help when orders are unclear. At the same time, it ensures they seek clarification only when necessary, minimizing needless back-and-forth. The result is a smart assistant that tries to make sure it understands what you want without bothering you too much.
Why it matters: While robots can be powerful in many specific scenarios, they are often bad at generalized tasks that require common sense. That’s something large language models could help to fix, because they have a lot of common-sense knowledge baked in. Read the full story.
Medical microrobots that travel inside the body are (still) on their way
The human body is a labyrinth of vessels and tubing, full of barriers that are difficult to break through. That poses a serious hurdle for doctors. Illness is often caused by problems that are hard to visualize and difficult to access. But imagine if we could deploy armies of tiny robots into the body to do the job for us. They could break up hard-to-reach clots, deliver drugs to even the most inaccessible tumors, and even help guide embryos toward implantation.
We’ve been hearing about the use of tiny robots in medicine for years, maybe even decades. And they’re still not here. But experts are adamant that medical microbots are finally coming, and that they could be a game changer for a number of serious diseases. Read the full story.
5 things we didn’t put on our 2024 list of 10 Breakthrough Technologies
We haven’t always been right (RIP, Baxter), but we’ve often been early to spot important areas of progress (we put natural-language processing on our very first list in 2001; today this technology underpins large language models and generative AI tools like ChatGPT).
Every year, our reporters and editors nominate technologies that they think deserve a spot, and we spend weeks debating which ones should make the cut. Here are some of the technologies we didn’t pick this time—and why we’ve left them off, for now.
New drugs for Alzheimer’s disease
Alzmeiher’s patients have long lacked treatment options. Several new drugs have now been proved to slow cognitive decline, albeit modestly, by clearing out harmful plaques in the brain. In July, the FDA approved Leqembi by Eisai and Biogen, and Eli Lilly’s donanemab could soon be next. But the drugs come with serious side effects, including brain swelling and bleeding, which can be fatal in some cases. Plus, they’re hard to administer—patients receive doses via an IV and must receive regular MRIs to check for brain swelling. These drawbacks gave us pause.
Sustainable aviation fuel
Alternative jet fuels made from cooking oil, leftover animal fats, or agricultural waste could reduce emissions from flying. They have been in development for years, and scientists are making steady progress, with several recent demonstration flights. But production and use will need to ramp up significantly for these fuels to make a meaningful climate impact. While they do look promising, there wasn’t a key moment or “breakthrough” that merited a spot for sustainable aviation fuels on this year’s list.
One way to counteract global warming could be to release particles into the stratosphere that reflect the sun’s energy and cool the planet. That idea is highly controversial within the scientific community, but a few researchers and companies have begun exploring whether it’s possible by launching a series of small-scale high-flying tests. One such launch prompted Mexico to ban solar geoengineering experiments earlier this year. It’s not really clear where geoengineering will go from here or whether these early efforts will stall out. Amid that uncertainty, we decided to hold off for now.