We tried out the first statewide vaccine passport
So what is it like to use?
In anticipation of attending my first comedy show in years, at Union Hall in Brooklyn, I registered for the Excelsior Pass. Spoiler: It did not go smoothly.
Downloading the app to my iPhone was simple enough. But like many users, I was greeted with an error message when I tried to register on the website. Many people have been unable to use the pass because it cannot verify their vaccination status. The system works by tapping into state immunization records, but database errors can cause problems, especially if there were data entry errors at vaccine sites. A misspelled name or wrong birthdate can mean that the Excelsior system can’t pull up your record. So when the pass couldn’t verify my identity, I followed the suggestions on the error page and dug up my paper vaccination card to ensure that I was entering vaccine site information correctly. After three attempts, in which I reentered the same information each time, it worked.
Although I found a use for the pass, it’s been essentially confined to sporting events, gyms, and other high-end leisure venues—which means the pool of users is limited. For working-class New Yorkers who lost low-wage jobs and remain unemployed in the face of mounting debt, entry to a pricey concert or basketball game is well out of reach.
That raises concerns about whether it’s a wise use of resources. The state has spent $2.5 million on the system so far, and under the contract signed with IBM, which developed the platform, it could cost anywhere from $10 to $17 million over the next three years in a scenario where driver’s license information, proof of age, and other data might be added to the pass.
“This passport program feels like a continuation of all the state government’s and Governor Cuomo’s policies around the pandemic,” says Sumathy Kumar, campaign organizer at Housing Justice for All, a statewide coalition of organizations fighting for tenants. “They just want life to go back to normal for people with tons of disposable income.”
And if the pass does get more widespread use—becoming a requirement to enter job sites or essential shops, for example—that raises questions about privacy.
Experts question security
The lack of transparency is a problem, says Cahn. “I have less information on how the Excelsior Pass data is used than the weather app on my phone,” he says. Because the pass is not open source, its privacy claims cannot easily be evaluated by third parties or experts.
But there’s little incentive to be more transparent. In developing Excelsior, IBM used its existing Digital Health Pass, a system it could sell in customized forms to customers from state governments to private companies seeking to reopen their offices.
“If IBM’s proprietary health data standard catches on, they could make huge sums of money,” Cahn says. “Transparency can threaten their entire business plan.”
Privacy and security questions become more urgent if the pass becomes more widely used. The pass is intended to build trust, allowing people to feel comfortable in crowds, yet for many it instead evokes fears of how it could be used against them.
Vulnerable to surveillance
Many groups have genuine, well-founded concerns over tracking and government surveillance. Historical precedent shows that the use of such technologies, even if limited initially, tends to spread, with especially damaging results in Black and brown communities. For example, anti-terrorism legislation passed in the weeks after the 9/11 attacks expanded surveillance, detention, and deportation of undocumented Muslim and South Asian immigrants.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a digital civil liberties organization, has adopted a strong stance in opposition to vaccine passports. “Mostly these apps are a waste of time and money,” said Alexis Hancock, director of engineering at EFF. “Governments really need to consider the resources they have in place and allocate them toward getting the public to a better place after the pandemic, not putting people in a position of more paranoia and privacy concerns.”
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.”