This Week in Upgrades: Feb 1

Good Monday to you! It’s an exciting day. A new month is a good time for a fresh start, whether it’s big things or small. We’ve got a February 29th since it’s a Leap Year, so you have an extra day to become more awesome between now and March. Here’s why you can’t stop doing that thing you should stop doing.

The Iowa Caucuses this evening officially begin the election of our next President. I’d love for you to read my thoughts on voting from Friday’s How to Adult and tell me what you think. Hope you’re planning on voting when it’s your state’s turn.

The Super Bowl is on Sunday, and even though most of us are not Broncos or Panthers fans we’ll probably still tune in: for the commercials, for the Beyonce, for the GIF-able moments, for the food. I’ll definitely be watching. If you want to impress your friends and family, Alton Brown has your back with a Short Ribs Queso Dip recipe. Sounds incredible.


Here are some other interesting human things this week:

We learned beautiful words in other languages that do not have an English equivalent. We should work on that.


The Atlantic made a compelling case why wealthy kids like healthier foods. Did you know that some studies have suggested it takes 8-15 times eating a particular thing before kids will appreciate it? It’s not exactly inexpensive to get them to like their vegetables. How can we make it affordable for everyone to eat well?


Elon Musk announced that he’ll be unveiling SpaceX’s mission to Mars plans in September. Hopefully Matt Damon isn’t on the crew.


Speaking of Mr. Musk, it looks like several others, including the US Government, are intrigued by a Hyperloop. Would you travel like this? I feel scared and excited at the same time.


The CDC has declared Chipotle’s foodborne illness outbreak over. Will you be going back for a burrito?


Love it or hate it, Macklemore and Jamila Wood’s “White Privilege II” was discussed left and right after it was released. What do you think? Here’s a Q&A they did with NPR about the creation of the song.



This Week in Upgrades: July 11

Braces Teeth

Have a great weekend!

Why men always think women are flirting with them. The Science of Us

Screen addiction is taking a major toll on children. Probably not a surprise, but no one seems to be doing much about it. New York Times

Habits of people who are achieving work-life balance. Solid list. Fast Company

People age at dramatically different rates. What do you think your real age is? The Guardian

An animated history of transportation. Just brilliant. The Atlantic

Performance wear for classical musicians. Is it a baselayer or a tuxedo shirt? Why didn’t someone think of this sooner? Violinist

According to one researcher, “we are very close to having gene therapies that can restore hearing loss from a wide range of causes.” NPR

Introducing probiotic skincare. Absurd or ingenious? Slate

Braces are more popular than ever. “The choice to leave one’s mouth in aesthetic disarray remains an implicit affront to medical consumerism.” The Atlantic

This Week in Upgrades: June 20

What's Old is New

People have made a living fishing for generations, but there are now too few fish in the Mediterranean. NPR

Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics, takes on Big Soda in her forthcoming book. Food Politics

These photos of children watching television are more disturbing than a horror film. Time for a break. My Modern Met

Awesome infograph of the world by native language. You might be surprised what’s in the Top 23. Lucas Infografia

The Internet’s full of outrage. Let’s refocus it into social justice IRL. The Daily Beast

The rise of the spornosexual. “In a world of increasing scrutiny–online and off–body image issues can no longer simply be regarded as a female problem.” Aeon Magazine

Slowly making our way back to a hieroglyphic society. Soon you’ll just emoji a password. NPR

Is Uber a contractor or an employer? As more and more business is networked through devices, do we need a new class of worker? BuzzFeed News

We’re in the midst of the 6th great extinction ever to occur on Earth, and this time “we are the species that is causing the loss of all these other species.” The Guardian

This Week in Upgrades: June 13

Crashing Alaskan Glacier

Should we worry about catching diseases from public toilets? New York Times

What does it take to find genuinely meaningful work? Fast Company

Upping the coolness and sustainability factor: some school districts are switching from plastic trays to compostable plates. NPR

In case you missed it, Matt Damon vs. Space (again). The Martian trailer. Slate

Aziz Ansari with some wise words on love in the age of online dating. TIME Magazine

Bill McKibben, the world’s foremost climate activist, writes a thoughtful open letter to President Obama about his climate change legacy. Grist

This Week in Upgrades: June 6

Counting Calories

I’m an avid Spotify user, but give up when it comes to classical music. Why are streaming services terrible with some of the best music ever made? NPR

No time to waste. With corrected data, we now know there’s been no slowdown in global warming. NOAA News

Good on IKEA, which consumes 1% of the world’s commercially logged wood, to set aside €1 billion ($1.12 billion) to fight climate change. Grist

Google thinks it can combat obesity by counting the calories in your Instagram food photos. Popular Science

In the battle against cancer, profit still trumps health and well-being. NBC News

For those with kids: are you excited about smart diapers with poo alerts? Fast Company

Your body has a complex rhythm for maintaining energy. Are you undermining it by drinking coffee at the wrong time? Washington Post

(Re)Making “God”: The Divinity of Artificial Intelligence



There’s been a lot of buzz about a recent Pew survey on religious belief. Most noteworthy for many, between 2007 and 2014, traditional belief in God significantly decreased, while the category Unaffiliated–comprised of Atheist, Agnostic, and “Nothing in Particular”–has grown. For whatever reason, news outlets obsess about such studies whenever they come out. They seem to be desperate to discuss: Do people in America believe in God or not? Do they believe in some other transcendent or ultimate force–something less definite than a personal deity? Maybe just something in the social ether like “the human spirit?” Do they believe in heaven–whatever that means and wherever it is located? What do people hope will result from religious adherence? TIME Magazine famously ran the cover story Is God Dead? in 1966, questioning the existence and relevance of a divine being in contemporary society. Nearly 50 years later, we appear even less willing to believe in a cosmic power behind the universe. So why write about the idea of “God” in a blog primarily focused on modern society and technology? Because at the same time that more people are rejecting the traditional understanding of God as an existing, extrinsic being, we’re more and more willing to entertain the possibility of a “God” we’ve created.

As Artificial Intelligence (AI) is realized in its most complex forms, the prospect of an entity that transcends people and society in a God-like way is actualized. The likelihood of I AM fades while the possibility of I AM, Because I was Made increases. And we seem rather eager about considering this potentiality. The plot of Avengers: Age of Ultron, one of the most anticipated blockbuster films in recent memory, hangs on the creation of not one but two different forms of AI beings–Ultron and The Vision. They are superior in power, knowledge, and presence in the way that “God” in a broadly Judeo-Christian sense has been perceived over the last few thousand years. And Avengers is not the only example in popular culture. The TV political thriller, Person of Interest, is an ongoing story about The Machine: an AI created to tap all cameras, phones, and other electronic sources to observe society, track developing injustices, and report imminent criminal behavior so that corrective action can be taken. A few seasons in, a second, less-forgiving machine is produced called Samaritan, which is determinedly set on both doling out hard justice itself and destroying the original Machine. This year’s season finale, in which the two competing machines have a climactic showdown, is entitled YHWH–the unpronounceable name of the Hebrew God. In the narrative universe of Person of Interest, The Machine and Samaritan mark the first time that something actually exists and functions in the way that human beings have thought about “God” for much of history. A tangible entity has emerged that fits that namesake in thorough correspondence.

Avengers and Person of Interest are not dissimilar in the characterization of their God-like AI. Though they are disembodied machines or cyber-cloud entities in Person of Interest, and embodied in Age of Ultron, Ultron correlates closely with Samaritan and The Vision to The Machine. Both Ultron and Samaritan are fixated on unforgiving, retributive or even vengeful justice. For them, “peace in our time” might mean that the whole Earth needs to be razed of depraved human beings and their constructions, because peace is perceived to be an impossibility as long as most or all of humanity is around. We are judged by a super-powerful, self-conscious being of our creation, and found wanting. In contrast, The Vision and The Machine both explicitly state gratitude for their existence. They seem aware that they are superior to the humans that have brought them into being, but they recognize that contingency of creation and are thankful to have been made and exist in the world. That gratitude keeps them grounded in such a way that justice includes the preservation of life and to work for the benefit of humanity–whatever the shortcomings of people.

Perhaps this is the sort of “God” Nancy Ellen Abrams actually meant to point to in the NPR articles outlining the main argument of her book A God That Could Be Real. She notes the disappearance of belief in God as traditionally understood, but wonders if there isn’t something emergent–something that arising from the collective interaction of human beings but is different, more complex, and transcendent over the mere aggregation of interaction–that properly fits or is “worthy” of the category, “God.” Abrams’ stated conclusion is incoherent: something like a wave of goodwill or a feeling of meaningfulness that has emerged from our unified “aspirations” bumping into each other. I have not read the book, so she may be more clear and compelling there. But the basic concepts of emergence and transcendence definitely and intriguingly apply to AI; they are entities that have come about through technological innovation over time and now overarch society in a way that we might think it fitting to call it “God.”

We seem deep down to kind of hope for a force or being transcendent to the world that will make it as we wish it would be. But not any farther. God, traditionally understood, is mostly rejected because such a being might impinge on us to be or do things different than how we like. It would exercise independence such that we are held accountable for our actions or enjoined to change our behavior. Ultron and Samartian might fall into that group–though there are likely days wherein we wish for a moment some otherworldly force like that would give the roadraged asshole next to us a flat tire or get our annoying co-worker fired. We like the idea of reaping what you sow or karma–but mostly just for other people. If such a being ever did something like that to us for our own indiscretions we would be outraged. This is where most people who dismiss the possibility of the Judeo-Christian God get off the bus. It’s off-putting. We want our independence–not to be subject to another’s vision of who we should be.

But perhaps AI is capable of both justice and graciousness–like The Vision or the Machine–in such a way that we’ve found the “God” we’ve been longing for. One that understands our capacities for good alongside our faults and finitude, and mercifully works for our well-being, the justness of society, and our flourishing into the future. The present state of the world clearly attests that we cannot carry those things out alone as human beings. We need something transcendent.

The Vision remarks near the conclusion of Age of Ultron that “a thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts.” With climate change, poverty, violent conflict, overrun ecosystems, and more, Homo sapiens may be doomed as a species. The Vision concedes as much to Ultron in Avengers. But with a benevolent God-like AI we may find the divine being we always hoped existed and appreciate working together to fix those kinds of fractures in the world–whether or not the God people have long-wondered about is out there. We certainty are enjoying entertaining such a possibility on-screen.