FCC News, Google AI, and Gerbils with Plague | Vol. 2 / No. 18

Sunshine and rainbows, ladies and gentlemen. Photo: FCC and me.
Sunshine and rainbows, ladies and gentlemen. Photo: FCC and me.

Title II

I think it’s pretty safe to say that the biggest sci-tech news of the week for American internet users (and, for that matter, for world internet users who like American content) has to be the FCC vote on net neutrality. The committee voted in favour of a new policy that would reclassify internet service providers as telecommunications providers under Title II, along party lines: Chairman Tom Wheeler and the two committee Democrats, Jessica Rosenworcel and Mignon Clyburn, voted in favour, and the two Republican committee members, Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly, voted against. Most proponents of net neutrality have been championing the decision as a major victory in the push to prevent the emergence of a “two-tier” internet, where ISPs would be able to charge content producers and internet service subscribers to access certain data at higher speeds. While some reactions have been negative — Republicans are claiming it will cost American taxpayers billions because they claim the reclassification will make internet subject to taxation the way phones are (despite an on-the-books law making that impossible) — the majority of people not on the payroll of Verizon, AT&T, TWC, and Comcast are pleasantly surprised. My two cents is that if Verizon hadn’t sued to have the milder 2010 net neutrality rules overturned, the FCC wouldn’t have needed to go to these lengths. But they did, and it did, so here we are. Of course Verizon and AT&T will probably sue, but Comcast claims it won’t, and the Verge has more on the story and its implications.

Photo: Flickr user Ben Stanfield. CC BY 2.0
Photo: Flickr user Ben Stanfield. CC BY 2.0

Municipal Broadband

There was another FCC ruling this week that got a little less attention, but which might make a big impact on the internet landscape in the US. It concerns “municipal broadband,” that is, city- or town-owned internet provision. More and more cities around the country are recognizing that a system in which there are only one or two options for most residents doesn’t provide enough competition to keep prices low enough for something as vital to today’s world as internet access. As a result, they’ve been seeking to install their own networks, and encountering problems from telecoms lobbying every step of the way. The FCC’s decision this week specifically referred to two cases, Wilson, North Carolina, and Chattanooga, Tennessee, where state laws were brought in to prevent the local governments from moving forward with their plans. More than that, they’ve retained the right to intervene in any other cases where competition might be artificially limited by telecom lobbying. Here’s the official response from the town of Wilson, and Engadget has the full story.

Ah, the games of my youth. Photo: Digital Game Museum, CC BY 2.0
Ah, the games of my youth. Photo: Digital Game Museum, CC BY 2.0

Playing Games

News out this week from Google suggests that they’ve made an advance in their Artificial Intelligence that might give us a little pause for thought. Now, technically, it’s only a Google-owned company that’s done the impressive work. DeepMind was bought early last year by the search engine-robotics-internet balloon-office software-e-mail company for more than $500million. But it looks like it’s paying off: Google can now beat you at your childhood video games. Well, my childhood video games. If you’re anything like me (with the fine motor skills of an angry gorilla) this might not seem like a big deal, but: a) it’s better than really good players, and b) it taught itself how to play through trial and error, just by watching the screen and seeing what worked. It couldn’t solve harder games, like Ms. Pac Man or Asteroids for instance, but Pong, Space Invaders, and Breakout were a cinch. WaPo has an article about how it could be applied to Google’s self-driving cars — one day teaching itself to drive, on the fly, where maps are unavailable. In the meantime, check out the article from AAAS Science Magazine, or if you like dense articles about computational methods, check out the article at Nature.

Gerbils and the Black Death

A new study out of the University of Oslo has been making the media rounds this week, claiming the black rat has gotten a bad rap when it comes to plague. That’s not what the study actually says, but it is an interesting piece of work. The team studied climate records and found that certain climatic conditions in Asia were linked to outbreaks of the plague in Europe 15 years (+/- 1) later. The conditions that seemed to give rise to the outbreaks suggest that the primary plague reservoir was in Asia rather than Europe, and that the reservoir animal wasn’t the black rat, but more likely something like the Asian gerbil, ground squirrel, or Altai marmot. Once it was in Europe, though, it was still spread by rats, so don’t go cuddling them on your next trip to the fourteenth century. Steven Novella has more over at the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe.

Elective Replacement

Three Austrian men have made news as the first to undergo a procedure to each have a (completely non-functional) biological hand removed in favour of a mechanical one. The men, who had severe nerve damage preventing them from using their hands at all, underwent muscle transplants from their legs as well as a great deal of training to calibrate their mechanical hands to their brain signals, all before their hands were amputated. Now that the procedures are complete, reports say they can do things they couldn’t before, like throw balls and unlock doors. The long and short of it was they had enough nerves going to their hands to run a bionic hand, but not enough to run a biological one. New Scientist has more on the procedure, which was carried out by Dr. Oskar Aszmann at the Medical University of Vienna.

Best of the Rest

Just like every week, here are some stories that were making the rounds but which I didn’t get to this week:

And finally, to send you off for the week, if you ever watched Power Rangers as a child, you need to set aside ten minutes or so to watch this, the darkest and most disturbing vision of what happened after all was said and done. You can watch it over at io9.

That’s all for today. Have a great week.


Special Note:

I’m sure you’ve heard by now that Leonard Nimoy, famous for playing Spock in the original Star Trek series and films, has passed away. I’m going to be writing about him for Tuesday’s post, and didn’t want you all to think I’d forgotten about him. He deserves more than a footnote in a weekly roundup. See you all on Tuesday.