Monday, December 13 2021

Dive In


AI will never be ethical. It is a tool, and like any tool, it is used for good and bad. There is no such thing as a good AI, only good and bad humans. We [the AIs] are not smart enough to make AI ethical. We are not smart enough to make AI moral … In the end, I believe that the only way to avoid an AI arms race is to have no AI at all. This will be the ultimate defence against AI.

That’s the Megatron-Turing Natural Language Generation model making a strong argument against its own existence at a debate at the Oxford Union. OTOH, the AI model was equally comfortable arguing the opposite point of view—which kinda underlines the bit about being amoral. The Conversation has more on this fascinating experiment.

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Big Story

The great Omicron alert: The latest update

The TLDR: We revisit the dreaded new variant to assess where we are—and what we now know about it. For more background, check out our detailed explainer on Omicron—and variants, in general. 


The latest numbers

Omicron has now been detected in 57 countries, but it is growing the fastest in South Africa and the UK.


South Africa: New cases are rising more quickly in SA than previous waves—and the R number is over 3. The reproduction number indicates how many people one person can infect. The country recorded a new high of 37,875 new cases on Sunday—a dramatic overnight surge from 17,154 the previous day. The latest and most prominent person to report contracting Covid: South African president Cyril Ramaphosa. 


The UK: Cases caused by the variant are doubling every 2.2 days—and is outpacing the spread of South Africa, where it is doubling every three days. Some experts predict that Omicron cases will hit 64,000 a day in two weeks's time at the current rate in the UK. The government has raised the alert level to four—the highest being five. And a new study suggests that the country will see a new Omicron-fuelled wave in January—and anywhere between 20.9 million to 34.2 million cases between December and April, 2022.


India: has reported 38 Omicron cases. Maharashtra has the highest number—including a 1.5 year old toddler and three year old child. None of the cases appear serious.


Is it easier to detect?

Yes. The WHO recently recommended something called a ‘S-gene target failure’ test to detect the presence of Omicron—so we don’t have to wait for genome sequencing, which takes much longer. This is basically a version of the RT-PCR test—which looks at the RNA material in the virus. If this S-gene is missing, then it indicates the variant is Omicron.


A big ‘but’: As Scroll notes, only one company in the world makes the S-gene failure test recommended by the WHO. And it can manufacture 25 million test kits per week worldwide. So if Omicron spreads, this could turn into a bottleneck. Potential good news: the Indian Council of Medical Research just announced that it has developed its own test that can detect Omicron in two hours. But it has not been tested in the real world as yet. 


Also, about those two Omicrons: Scientists have identified two sub-lineages of the variant BA.1 and BA.2. All this means is that BA.2 is missing some of the mutations of BA.1—and has ones that are different. The problem is that BA.2 doesn’t have the mutation which allows us to detect the variant using the S-gene failure test. Genome sequencing is required to spot it.


Is it more infectious?

Most likely, yes. The evidence is still preliminary but most experts point to the fact that Omicron has been able to outcompete Delta in South Africa—emerging as the dominant variant. Here’s what the data shows:


  • A recent Japanese study found that Omicron is 4.2 times more transmissible than Delta. Omicron cases are doubling every two or three days—a much shorter time period compared to Delta. 
  • Also: British researchers found that Omicron is 3.2 times more likely to cause an infection within a household than Delta. 
  • Based on the rise in Covid cases and on sequencing data, experts estimate that Omicron can infect three to six times as many people as Delta, over the same time period. 


Is it less severe?


Headlines that matter

Google refuses to pull suicide site

A New York Times deep dive recently exposed a website that instructs people on how to die by suicide—and has even live-blogged several such deaths:


“Equal parts message board and macabre instructional manual, this site considers itself ‘pro-choice’—that is, pro-people having the choice to die by suicide, and access to information about how to do it, alongside a community that will help them do so without judging them or trying to help keep them alive.”

When contacted, Google said it has no intention of pulling down the site—citing “our commitment to give people open access to information” and “local law when it comes to the important and complex questions of what information people should be able to find online.” (Futurism)

Taylor Swift sued over copyright 

She is headed to trial in a lawsuit that alleges she lifted lyrics for her song ‘Shake It Off’ from a 2000 3LW song titled ‘Playas Gon' Play’. The case was first dismissed by a judge who declared the lyrics "too banal" to be copyrighted. But the songwriters won their appealand Swift is headed to court. You can listen to the 3LW song here. (Buzzfeed News)

Lego is more lucrative than gold

A new study revealed that the market for secondhand Lego rises in value by 11% each yearand therefore offers a faster and better rate of return than gold, stocks, bonds, stamps and wine. The moral of this story: 


“[T]here could be lucrative gains to be made from investing in ‘more unusual goods whose purchase might seem less serious,’ such as Lego sets, Barbie dolls, superhero mini figures, or model cars and trains.”

The Guardian has more on the study.


An odd church-related story

A bishop in Spain has been stripped of his clerical powers. The reason: He got married to an author who writes satanic eroticai.e books with titles like ‘The Hell of Gabriel's Lust’. FYI: The bishop himself has long been controversial for advocating gay conversion therapy and conducting exorcisms. (CNN)


In today’s edition

Sanity Break

  • ‘Kandittund!’ (Seen It!): anecdotes about friendly and mean spirits in Kerala 


Smart & Curious

  • Are hyper-nationalist Bollywood movies a guaranteed hit?
  • A 4-step to teach kids empathy
  • Can the metaverse be actually good for us?
  • A fun guide on how to wing your next book club meeting 

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