Taxi Drones, App Apathy & More: 5 Things We Learned This Week

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Chinese drone manufacturer Ehang has received approval for U.S. testing of its autonomous passenger taxi, pictured here in a still from a promotional video. Ehang

From the possibility of an artificial intelligence "off switch" to bulletproof bookbags, here are five things we learned this week in Tech and Science:

  • What if Skynet, the fictional artificial intelligence system that was responsible for the nuclear wasteland of the Terminator movies, could have been flipped off with a switch? Well, we'd be spared decades of sequels at least. It turns out that researchers from Google are planning for pretty much that possibility and have floated the idea of an "off" switch that could disable a superintelligent system before it goes rogue. "If such an agent is operating in real-time under human supervision, now and then it may be necessary for a human operator to press the big red button to prevent the agent from continuing a harmful sequence of actions—harmful either for the agent or for the environment—and lead the agent into a safer situation," the researchers state.
Google red button
Google's "big red button" would act as an off switch for a rogue artificial intelligence agent. WikiCommons
  • We're getting closer and closer to the flying cars of The Jetsons with the announcement that a drone capable of carrying passengers will be tested in Nevada. Chinese drone manufacturer Ehang has gotten the OK to test its 184 drone later this year. A prototype was displayed at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this year, with the Guangzhou-based firm claiming it could carry a passenger for up to 23 minutes at speeds of up to 63 mph.
  • New research suggests at least one species of fish exists that can tell human faces apart. Archerfish were trained to recognize faces by spitting water at them, and later identified the known faces among new ones with 81 percent accuracy, according to a study published in Scientific Reports. The study places into question whether an organism needs an advanced brain, as assumed, to recognize faces, as the archerfish possess very limited capabilities.
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Despite having a primitive brain, the tropical archerfish is able to distinguish between dozens of faces.
  • American smartphone consumers have had about enough of apps, according to data from mobile market analyst Sensor Tower. App downloads have declined 20 percent among the top 15 app publishers in the U.S. since 2015. The apps being downloaded, though, exist almost entirely in the Facebook ecosystem: Instagram, Messenger, WhatsApp and Facebook itself made up 62 percent of all downloads in May.
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The top 15 apps experienced an overall decline in downloads, year-on-year. Nomura
  • Students of the future may go to school with bulletproof bookbags, if the iBackPack is successful. Doug Manahan developed the product with funding from Kickstarter and Indiegogo and will start shipping his high-tech, allegedly secure bag this fall. The iBackPack has a Wi-Fi modem, special pockets to fit electronic devices—and a Kevlar plate. "If somebody goes into a classroom and starts some shenanigans, you can use the backpack as a Roman shield," Monahan says, although some doubt the bag's utility in such a situation.
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The iBackPack is packed with USB charging stations and cubbies for cables; a kevlar panel could also make it bulletproof. iBackPack