How US government tech could improve
Throughout it all, politicians, engineers, and public health officials had to keep people’s information safe—and, perhaps even more of a challenge, convince the public they were succeeding at it.
What would it take to actually make government technology work well in the US? What are the basics of a healthy technological infrastructure that can work for the residents who need it?
We asked five experts to help us understand why it’s so hard to build good government technology, and for their advice on how to create a healthy technological infrastructure for the people who rely on the outcomes.
A fractured landscape of data
Cyd Harrell: “Government” in the US means a lot of different things. After the federal government, we’ve got 50 state governments, 3,000 counties—which play different roles in different parts of the country—and 20,000 municipalities.
So many different parties own pieces of the data needed to identify whether you, in a particular location, are eligible and can get an appointment at a place with a stock of vaccines. Not just governments, but hospitals, clinics, and drug stores, they all need agreements to share that data, and to make their systems work together, which they almost certainly don’t.
After all that, web design—and accounting for people who don’t have web access—may actually be the easy part.
Alexis Madrigal: A lot of the time, the actual technology isn’t that complicated. The problem is the system underlying the tech. When the federal government wants data that states don’t normally produce for their own work, someone has to put that data together. During an emergency, when everyone has shit to do, it’s not a priority. Without a national healthcare system, there’s no way to easily track tests or overall cases.
Legacy processes and systems, new vendors
Sha Hwang: I call working with legacy systems “software archaeology.” It’s like homes built before city infrastructure existed—they weren’t built to connect to city plumbing or a power grid. You have to find the one person who’s been maintaining the system for 30 years, updating a spreadsheet that’s a million rows long with a crazy color-coding system.
For new systems, there’s a phrase you hear a lot: government buyers want “one throat to choke” if something goes wrong. Big vendors like Deloitte and Accenture will bring in all the people needed for a project. But by outsourcing the potential blame, agencies also cede all the technical expertise. They get locked in. If the system fails, they have to rely on vendors who dug the hole to get them out of it.
Dan Hon: No one gets fired for hiring Deloitte or IBM. And when vendors keep getting the same kind of work they’ve done badly, there’s no incentive for them not to build a shitty system. Government requests for proposals are often written so they only fit one or a few vendors. You might see a yes or no box for, “Vendor must have worked on a healthcare system that serves over 500,000 people.” I don’t care whether that system exists, I want to know whether people who have to use it hate it.
Liana Dragoman: A lot of services are designed around how government works, as opposed to the needs of residents. If you’re trying to get a permit to use a soccer field, you shouldn’t need to know which specific department within Parks & Rec can give you that specific permit. Residents just want to go to the city website and fill out the form.
What’s one significant mismatch you’ve seen between public needs and government tech?
Navigating a system that’s complex by design
Hon: There’s a lot of regulatory complexity in vaccine distribution. But on the website or in the app, the experience is condensed down to, “Why can’t I find out if I’m eligible for a vaccine? I just want an appointment.”
The Download: AI films, and the threat of microplastics
The Frost nails its uncanny, disconcerting vibe in its first few shots. Vast icy mountains, a makeshift camp of military-style tents, a group of people huddled around a fire, barking dogs. It’s familiar stuff, yet weird enough to plant a growing seed of dread. There’s something wrong here.
Welcome to the unsettling world of AI moviemaking. The Frost is a 12-minute movie from Detroit-based video creation company Waymark in which every shot is generated by an image-making AI. It’s one of the most impressive—and bizarre—examples yet of this strange new genre. Read the full story, and take an exclusive look at the movie.
—Will Douglas Heaven
Microplastics are everywhere. What does that mean for our immune systems?
Microplastics are pretty much everywhere you look. These tiny pieces of plastic pollution, less than five millimeters across, have been found in human blood, breast milk, and placentas. They’re even in our drinking water and the air we breathe.
Given their ubiquity, it’s worth considering what we know about microplastics. What are they doing to us?
The short answer is: we don’t really know. But scientists have begun to build a picture of their potential effects from early studies in animals and clumps of cells, and new research suggests that they could affect not only the health of our body tissues, but our immune systems more generally. Read the full story.
Microplastics are everywhere. What does that mean for our immune systems?
Here, bits of plastic can end up collecting various types of bacteria, which cling to their surfaces. Seabirds that ingest them not only end up with a stomach full of plastic—which can end up starving them—but also get introduced to types of bacteria that they wouldn’t encounter otherwise. It seems to disturb their gut microbiomes.
There are similar concerns for humans. These tiny bits of plastic, floating and flying all over the world, could act as a “Trojan horse,” introducing harmful drug-resistant bacteria and their genes, as some researchers put it.
It’s a deeply unsettling thought. As research plows on, hopefully we’ll learn not only what microplastics are doing to us, but how we might tackle the problem.
Read more from Tech Review’s archive
It is too simplistic to say we should ban all plastic. But we could do with revolutionizing the way we recycle it, as my colleague Casey Crownhart pointed out in an article published last year.
We can use sewage to track the rise of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria, as I wrote in a previous edition of the Checkup. At this point, we need all the help we can get …
… which is partly why scientists are also exploring the possibility of using tiny viruses to treat drug-resistant bacterial infections. Phages were discovered around 100 years ago and are due a comeback!
Our immune systems are incredibly complicated. And sex matters: there are important differences between the immune systems of men and women, as Sandeep Ravindran wrote in this feature, which ran in our magazine issue on gender.
Welcome to the new surreal. How AI-generated video is changing film.
Fast and cheap
Artists are often the first to experiment with new technology. But the immediate future of generative video is being shaped by the advertising industry. Waymark made The Frost to explore how generative AI could be built into its products. The company makes video creation tools for businesses looking for a fast and cheap way to make commercials. Waymark is one of several startups, alongside firms such as Softcube and Vedia AI, that offer bespoke video ads for clients with just a few clicks.
Waymark’s current tech, launched at the start of the year, pulls together several different AI techniques, including large language models, image recognition, and speech synthesis, to generate a video ad on the fly. Waymark also drew on its large data set of non-AI-generated commercials created for previous customers. “We have hundreds of thousands of videos,” says CEO Alex Persky-Stern. “We’ve pulled the best of those and trained it on what a good video looks like.”
To use Waymark’s tool, which it offers as part of a tiered subscription service starting at $25 a month, users supply the web address or social media accounts for their business, and it goes off and gathers all the text and images it can find. It then uses that data to generate a commercial, using OpenAI’s GPT-3 to write a script that is read aloud by a synthesized voice over selected images that highlight the business. A slick minute-long commercial can be generated in seconds. Users can edit the result if they wish, tweaking the script, editing images, choosing a different voice, and so on. Waymark says that more than 100,000 people have used its tool so far.
The trouble is that not every business has a website or images to draw from, says Parker. “An accountant or a therapist might have no assets at all,” he says.
Waymark’s next idea is to use generative AI to create images and video for businesses that don’t yet have any—or don’t want to use the ones they have. “That’s the thrust behind making The Frost,” says Parker. “Create a world, a vibe.”
The Frost has a vibe, for sure. But it is also janky. “It’s not a perfect medium yet by any means,” says Rubin. “It was a bit of a struggle to get certain things from DALL-E, like emotional responses in faces. But at other times, it delighted us. We’d be like, ‘Oh my God, this is magic happening before our eyes.’”
This hit-and-miss process will improve as the technology gets better. DALL-E 2, which Waymark used to make The Frost, was released just a year ago. Video generation tools that generate short clips have only been around for a few months.
The most revolutionary aspect of the technology is being able to generate new shots whenever you want them, says Rubin: “With 15 minutes of trial and error, you get that shot you wanted that fits perfectly into a sequence.” He remembers cutting the film together and needing particular shots, like a close-up of a boot on a mountainside. With DALL-E, he could just call it up. “It’s mind-blowing,” he says. “That’s when it started to be a real eye-opening experience as a filmmaker.”