All those stresses are adding up. Tony Nguyen, program coordinator at the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, says back rent is mounting and jobs are fewer. Older women, in particular, are worried they won’t get called back to work. Others are concerned that they won’t have the option to say no, even if they feel unsafe because they are unvaccinated.
“[There are] people who are going back to work because they went into massive amounts of debt,” says Prarthana Gurung, campaigns and communications manager for Adhikaar, a nonprofit working with Nepali-speaking nail salon staff in New York. “Who say, ‘I have to go back to work—I have no choice. I have to feed my kids.’”
Safety is not a theoretical concern. “You’ll be there for eight or 10 hours, working,” says Nguyen. “Some of the customers don’t like to wear their masks.”
He says these painful choices also affect owners, who may be forced to close their doors.
“They don’t see the future,” he says.
Barriers to accessing aid
When nail salons were closed, most workers lost even the option to risk illness for a paycheck. “Immediately once lockdown happened, you had an entire industry go [to] 100% unemployment,” Gurung says.
Some workers qualified for government covid aid, but first they had to access a website and sign up online. Those kinds of tasks were “near impossible” for some nail technicians in New York, Gurung says, because of limited literacy and digital skills, or because they speak languages that are less common in the US. Adhikaar serves workers from Nepal, Tibet, India, and elsewhere.
“There was a really big gap in terms of information,” Gurung says, “and people weren’t getting resources on time, or weren’t realizing what benefits that they could get.”
Precarious immigration status has made financial support even harder to tap into. Many New York nail salon workers are undocumented in the US, meaning they don’t qualify for stimulus checks, unemployment insurance, and other aid. The NY Nail Salon Workers Association, part of the union Workers United, surveyed over 1,000 members, most of them Latina, and found that more than 81% said they were excluded from government help during the pandemic.
Nail salon technicians, along with other personal care workers like those in barbershops and beauty salons, have spent months working in person, their faces often just inches from clients. Nevertheless, they weren’t prioritized for vaccines in New York, unlike grocery store workers, delivery drivers, or even the nonprofit employees who help provide services to nail salon workers. Many are just now becoming eligible as appointments open to more age groups.
But even with expanded eligibility, getting the doses to nail salon workers remains a challenge because of language barriers, technical hurdles, and more.
“Getting our communities vaccinated is going to require a lot of effort, organization, and education,” Luis Gomez, organizing director of the Workers United NY/NJ Joint Board, which commissioned the study on nail salon worker infections, said in an email. “We need more local vaccination sites in the hardest-hit communities, direct outreach in peoples’ native languages, support around the vaccine appointment process, and meaningful education to combat vaccine misinformation.”
Despite promises of widespread availability, vaccines have been notoriously hard to come by for many in the US, especially for working-class people of color. Even though the share of white, Black, and Latino people wanting to get shots is similar, disparities in vaccination rates persist.
That gap urgently needs closing to prevent more serious illness and death. Araceli, who is a member of the Nail Salon Workers Association, is a single mother of two boys who rely on her income. Getting vaccinated would mean having a little more security and control over whether her job could jeopardize her life.
“As workers, we deserve to be considered ‘essential’ because we go to work just like any other person,” she says.
How workers are moving forward
To address these issues, New York lawmakers are hammering out the details of the Excluded Workers Fund, an ambitious plan that would provide unemployment benefits to those who didn’t previously qualify. Some workers are currently on a hunger strike, calling for state lawmakers to commit $3.5 billion to the fund. And advocates say nail industry workers could be better protected beyond the pandemic through legislation like the NY Hero Act and the Nail Salon Accountability Act.
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.