Lennards says IBM could have a pilot passport ready to go within a week and could easily roll the project out nationally in months, largely thanks to the country’s combination of centralized health information and a single online identity authentication system, called NEM-ID, that citizens already use for banking, taxes, and communication with the government.
Working out exactly how the passport will be deployed promises to be stickier, however. In order to fully reopen the economy, business leaders like Søltoft are pressing for the passport to include more than just vaccination status—that is, to treat covid negativity or prior infection on an equal footing with immunization. “People have to understand that a corona passport is not just for vaccine certification. It should also include negative test results and note if you have immunity because you’ve had the virus and recovered,” she says.
“Concerned with tech, not with health”
But the public health implications of such a move worry some scientists. Allan Randrup Thomsen, a virologist at the University of Copenhagen, thinks the passport is a good idea generally, but he’s concerned about treating a negative test as equivalent to a vaccine—as well as other aspects of the plan.
“So far, [the initiative] has mostly been concerned with the tech, and not with the health limitations,” he says. “But as a virologist, I can see there are holes.”
Even with a high degree of effectiveness, for example, vaccines leave a significant segment of the inoculated vulnerable to infection. “A passport can help open a medium-size venue like a theater, but it’s much riskier with a music festival like Roskilde,” he says, referring to an annual event that is one of the biggest such festivals in Europe. “Maybe it’s 90% effective, but if there are 100,000 people there, there are still 5,000 people who won’t be protected, even though they have the passport.”
He is also worried about escape variants like the South African and Brazilian strains, which are proving resistant to some vaccines; not all inoculations are the same, and covid is constantly evolving. “In some cases, the vaccine should be combined with a negative test,” he says. “And in case of travel to countries with certain variants, I still wouldn’t rule out isolation. I know business has a vested interest in that not happening, and that some will say these are a minority of cases. But it’s still serious, especially in the current situation, where we’re trying to get everyone vaccinated.”
And even if the corona passport is rolled out, Denmark can’t act alone. If normality is to be restored to international travel, other countries will have to accept the document—and perhaps launch certifications of their own. On Monday, Greece and Israel signed a deal that allows vaccinated citizens to travel between the two countries; both Sweden and the UK have announced certification programs to enable their citizens to travel over the summer, and the European Union has said it hopes to generate a uniform set of standards for certification among member states. But France and Germany have so far opposed passports on privacy grounds, and in places like the US, any such plans may be thwarted by a lack of centralized health information.
As a tiny country with a high degree of digital literacy, Denmark doesn’t face all the same challenges. But as Danish Industry’s Søltoft points out, less tangible values are also working in its favor. For one thing, she says, “people have a high level of trust in each other. We trust our authorities and each other.” It also helps that when it comes to global issues like climate change and gender equality, Denmark has gotten used to positioning itself at the forefront. “We’re so open to the rest of the world,” Søltoft adds. “So if we can lead the way, we’d like to.”
This story is part of the Pandemic Technology Project, supported by The Rockefeller Foundation.
A bot that watched 70,000 hours of Minecraft could unlock AI’s next big thing
The researchers claim that their approach could be used to train AI to carry out other tasks. To begin with, it could be used to for bots that use a keyboard and mouse to navigate websites, book flights or buy groceries online. But in theory it could be used to train robots to carry out physical, real-world tasks by copying first-person video of people doing those things. “It’s plausible,” says Stone.
Matthew Gudzial at the University of Alberta, Canada, who has used videos to teach AI the rules of games like Super Mario Bros, does not think it will happen any time soon, however. Actions in games like Minecraft and Super Mario Bros. are performed by pressing buttons. Actions in the physical world are far more complicated and harder for a machine to learn. “It unlocks a whole mess of new research problems,” says Gudzial.
“This work is another testament to the power of scaling up models and training on massive datasets to get good performance,” says Natasha Jaques, who works on multi-agent reinforcement learning at Google and the University of California, Berkeley.
Large internet-sized data sets will certainly unlock new capabilities for AI, says Jaques. “We’ve seen that over and over again, and it’s a great approach.” But OpenAI places a lot of faith in the power of large data sets alone, she says: “Personally, I’m a little more skeptical that data can solve any problem.”
Still, Baker and his colleagues think that collecting more than a million hours of Minecraft videos will make their AI even better. It’s probably the best Minecraft-playing bot yet, says Baker: “But with more data and bigger models I would expect it to feel like you’re watching a human playing the game, as opposed to a baby AI trying to mimic a human.”
The Download: AI conquers Minecraft, and babies after death
+ Scientists have found a way to mature eggs from transgender men in the lab. It could offer them new ways to start a family—without the need for distressing IVF procedures. Read the full story. + How reproductive technology is changing what it means to be a parent. Advances could lead to babies with four or more biological parents—forcing us to reconsider parenthood. Read the full story.
I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.
1 Elon Musk wants to reinstate banned Twitter accounts
It’s an incredibly dangerous decision with widespread repercussions. (WP $)
+ Recent departures have hit Twitter’s policy and safety divisions hard. (WSJ $)
+ It looks like Musk’s promise of no further layoffs was premature. (Insider $)
+ Meanwhile, Twitter Blue is still reportedly launching next week. (Reuters)
+ Imagine simply transferring your followers to another platform. (FT $)
+ Twitter’s potential collapse could wipe out vast records of recent human history. (MIT Technology Review)
2 Russia’s energy withdrawal could kill tens of thousands in Europe
High fuel costs could result in more deaths this winter than the war in Ukraine. (Economist $)
+ Higher gas prices will also hit Americans as the weather worsens. (Vox)
+ Ukraine’s invasion underscores Europe’s deep reliance on Russian fossil fuels. (MIT Technology Review)
3 FTX is unable to honor the grants it promised various organizations
Many of them are having to seek emergency funding to plug the gaps. (WSJ $)
+ Bahamians aren’t thrilled about what its collapse could mean for them. (WP $)
5 The UK is curbing its use of Chinese surveillance systems
But only on “sensitive” government sites. (FT $)
+ The world’s biggest surveillance company you’ve never heard of. (MIT Technology Review)
7 San Francisco’s police is considering letting robots use deadly force
The force has 12 remotely piloted robots that could, in theory, kill someone. (The Verge)
8 Human hibernation could be the key to getting us to Mars
It could be the closest we can get to time travel. (Wired $)
9 Why TikTok is suddenly so obsessed with dabloons
It’s a form of choose-your-own-adventure fun. (The Guardian)
10 We can’t stop trying to reinvent mousetraps 🧀
There are thousands of versions out there, yet we keep coming up with new designs. (New Yorker $)
We can now use cells from dead people to create new life. But who gets to decide?
His parents told a court that they wanted to keep the possibility of using the sperm to eventually have children that would be genetically related to Peter. The court approved their wishes, and Peter’s sperm was retrieved from his body and stored in a local sperm bank.
We have the technology to use sperm, and potentially eggs, from dead people to make embryos, and eventually babies. And there are millions of eggs and embryos—and even more sperm—in storage and ready to be used. When the person who provided those cells dies, like Peter, who gets to decide what to do with them?
That was the question raised at an online event held by the Progress Educational Trust, a UK charity for people with infertility and genetic conditions, that I attended on Wednesday. The panel included a clinician and two lawyers, who addressed plenty of tricky questions, but provided few concrete answers.
In theory, the decision should be made by the person who provided the eggs, sperm or embryos. In some cases, the person’s wishes might be quite clear. Someone who might be trying for a baby with their partner may store their sex cells or embryos and sign a form stating that they are happy for their partner to use these cells if they die, for example.
But in other cases, it’s less clear. Partners and family members who want to use the cells might have to collect evidence to convince a court the deceased person really did want to have children. And not only that, but that they wanted to continue their family line without necessarily becoming a parent themselves.
Sex cells and embryos aren’t property—they don’t fall under property law and can’t be inherited by family members. But there is some degree of legal ownership for the people who provided the cells. It is complicated to define that ownership, however, Robert Gilmour, a family law specialist based in Scotland, said at the event. “The law in this area makes my head hurt,” he said.
The law varies depending on where you are, too. Posthumous reproduction is not allowed in some countries, and is unregulated in many others. In the US, laws vary by state. Some states won’t legally recognize a child conceived after a person’s death as that person’s offspring, according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM). “We do not have any national rules or policies,” Gwendolyn Quinn, a bioethicist at New York University, tells me.
Societies like ASRM have put together guidance for clinics in the meantime. But this can also vary slightly between regions. Guidance by the European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology, for example, recommends that parents and other relatives should not be able to request the sex cells or embryos of the person who died. That would apply to Peter Zhu’s parents. The concern is that these relatives might be hoping for a “commemorative child” or as “a symbolic replacement of the deceased.”