WHEN IT COMES to the nature of dark matter, astronomers are still largely, well, in the dark. The existence of this mysterious substance was hypothesized more than 40 years ago to explain discrepancies between the calculations of how galaxies ought to behave, based on their mass, and what was actually observed. In short, it seemed like mass was missing. So Vera Rubin, the astronomer who first discovered this discrepancy, conjured an invisible substance that is far more abundant than “normal” matter and acts as the scaffolding for the large-scale structure of the universe. Today we call it dark matter.
But two findings are now casting doubt on the modified gravity explanation. In March, a team of astronomers led by Yale professor Pieter van Dokkum and his graduate student Shany Danieli published two papers, one confirming the existence of a galaxy that appears to have almost no dark matter and the other announcing the discovery of a second galaxy of this type. The irony, the researchers say, is that the seeming lack of dark matter in these galaxies is strong evidence that it exists.
The reason they believe these galaxies have no dark matter is that their dynamics can be predicted using our traditional theories of gravity. The discrepancy of the “missing mass” that’s seen in most galaxies isn’t present here, meaning there’s no need for dark matter to explain their behavior. And it means that the modified version of gravity proposed by some cosmologists doesn’t predict these galaxies’ movements as cleanly as good old Newtonian physics.
The discovery of these dark-matter-free galaxies traces back to 2014, when van Dokkum and his colleagues finished building Dragonfly, a new kind of telescope, made of off-the-shelf telephoto camera lenses, that specializes in observing extremely faint celestial objects. Only a year after its first light, Dragonfly discovered a new galaxy characterized by an extreme lack of stars relative to its size. Known as an ultra-diffuse galaxy, this ghostly celestial object had roughly the same mass as our Milky Way, but only one hundredth of one percent of that mass could be attributed to “normal” matter like stars. In other words, van Dokkum and his colleagues had discovered a galaxy made of 99.99 percent dark matter.
While this galaxy was unique, its existence isn’t entirely surprising. Most cosmologists think that dense collections of dark matter act as a sort of seed for the formation of large celestial objects like galaxies. The general idea, says Anže Slosar, an astrophysicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory, is that once a collection of dark matter reaches a critical density, it collapses under its own gravity and forms a so-called “dark matter halo.” This halo, in turn, gravitationally attracts hydrogen gas to its center, where it begins to form stars and, eventually, galaxies. The mass of a dark matter halo varies from galaxy to galaxy, but it seemed like every galaxy must have at least some dark matter to keep its form. Indeed, this assumption was precisely what made Dragonfly’s next discovery so surprising.
In 2016, van Dokkum and his colleagues at Yale discovered NGC 1052-DF2, an ultra-diffuse galaxy that appeared to contain little to no dark matter at all. Last year, when the Yale astronomers published their results in the journal Nature, their peers in the cosmological community were incredulous. This was the first galaxy ever discovered that appeared to lack any dark matter, and as Carl Sagan rightly observed, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”—which is what many cosmologists thought the Yale team was missing.
University of Pennsylvania astrophysicist Robyn Sanderson says the skepticism about DF2 sprang mostly from the limited amount of data used to draw the conclusion. In this case, the Yale team was using data from just 10 star clusters observed over a period of two nights. This meant it was possible they were overlooking key details of the star clusters’ motion, which would distort their estimations of the galaxy’s mass—and undermine their claim that it lacked dark matter.
The Yale researchers recognized this possible source of error themselves when they published their paper on DF2. The only way to resolve this conundrum was to make more detailed measurements or to find another galaxy with characteristics similar to DF2. In March, the Yale team published two papers that did exactly these things.
The first paper offered more refined measurements of stellar velocities within DF2. This time, rather than just measuring the velocities of 10 star clusters, van Dokkum and Danieli used the Keck telescope in Hawaii to observe the velocities of the stars within the star clusters. This approach produced far more data that reinforced the team’s earlier conclusion that the galaxy lacked dark matter.
The other paper announced the discovery of a second galaxy, DF4, which also appears to have little, if any, dark matter. Not only does this increase the odds that the DF2 observations are accurate, it also means such ultra-diffuse galaxies might not be so rare. The fact that two were found in quick succession, Danieli says, was “really reassuring.” Nevertheless, she says “it’s still too early to say whether they are super rare or quite common.” The team will begin observing other nearby ultra-diffuse galaxies next month in an effort to answer this question.
But that won’t resolve the mystery of how these strange galaxies came to exist in the first place. Theoretical cosmologists will have to run simulations to determine how a galaxy can lose its dark matter, she says. One leading theory involves tidal interactions, which is astronomer-speak for when the gravitational forces of two neighboring galaxies pull material from each galaxy and distort them. DF2 and DF4 are both near the galaxy NGC 1052, which makes it a strong candidate for the galaxy that stole their dark matter.
However they came to be, Danieli argues that the existence of these galaxies is a blow to the modified gravityexplanation for why most galaxies don’t behave as we’d expect.
Known as modified Newtonian dynamics, or MOND, this theory recasts gravity such that it has different effects at the galactic scale. Although MOND has successfully predicted the stellar dynamics of hundreds of galaxies, most of which are relatively isolated, it must be able to predict the dynamics of all galaxies to dethrone dark matter as the going cosmological theory.
As Slosar explains it, the discovery of DF2 and DF4 strengthens the case for the existence of a dark matter particle because it means that it can be separated from normal matter. Because these galaxies behave in line with standard gravitational theory, using the equations discovered by Newton and Kepler, they present a challenge to MOND.
“If you find galaxies, some of which have a lot of dark matter and some of which have a little dark matter, you can’t explain it with the loss of gravity unless you’re willing to say that one part of the universe has a different law of gravity than another part, which is just silly,” Slosar says. “The entire point of physics is to find unified laws that are always there. This is why it is an argument for the existence of dark matter.”
So does the existence of galaxies devoid of dark matter pose an existential threat for MOND? Stacy McGaugh, an astronomer at Case Western Reserve University, doesn’t think so. “When DF2 was first discovered, it was portrayed as a huge problem for MOND,” McGaugh says. “On more careful analysis, it turned out that the prediction of MOND was spot-on what was observed.”
The analysis by McGaugh and his colleagues of DF2’s implications for MOND hinges on the galaxy’s proximity to the massive elliptical galaxy NGC1052. Under a set of “reasonable” assumptions, paired with equations from MOND, McGaugh and his colleagues found that NGC1052’s gravitational effects on DF2 would return stellar velocities similar to what van Dokkum and Danieli actually observed. Although he hasn’t had the chance to repeat this analysis for DF4, McGaugh says it also “appears to be consistent with MOND, since it is likely affected by NGC 1052.”
The existence of these galaxies poses a number of vexing problems for the theory of galactic formation, which must account for how a galaxy can come to be violently stripped of its dark matter and still retain the relative order seen, for example, in the presence of star clusters in DF2 and DF4. Will further observations of ultra-diffuse galaxies resolve the dark matter debate? Probably not, but they will, at least, shed some light on the matter.
WHAT’S THE FASTEST 100 METER DASH A HUMAN CAN RUN?
MORE THAN 130 years ago, at the first Olympic Games in Athens, Boston University law student Thomas Burke took his mark at the 100-meter dash not in a standing position, but a crouch—what was then considered an unusual starting stance.
But far more unusual, by today’s standards, was his gold-medal winning time of 12 seconds flat.
These days, talented middle schoolers post 100-meter times better than Burke’s. In March 2018, 15-year-old Briana Williams, a high school sophomore, set a world age-group record in the event with a time of 11.13 seconds. The record for boys 18-and-under is nearly a second faster still: Set in 2017 by Anthony Schwartz, the 10.15-second time would have won gold at 1980’s Summer Games.
Today, though, on the world stage, Schwartz wouldn’t even podium: In the past 30 years, only three sprinters have medaled at the Olympics with a time slower than 10 seconds. Propelled by more effective training, grippier track surfaces, faster footwear, and, yes, pharmaceuticals, competitors at every level of track and field’s premier event have steadily chipped away at the world’s best 100-meter times. Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt holds the current world record: a sprightly 9.58 seconds.
The surprisingly persistent record progression is enough to make anyone ask: When will the fastest people on Earth cease to become any faster? And when they do, what will the fastest time ultimately be?
Depending on how you look at it, the answer to the first question could be “very soon,” or “not soon at all.” As recently as 2008, the popular perception among people who think about such things was that elite 100-meter runners were approaching the limits of possibility. Then came Bolt, who burst onto the scene at the Beijing Olympics with a record-wrecking time of 9.69 seconds—an anomalous performance, mathematicians thought, that statistical models placed two decades ahead of its time. But the following year, when Bolt broke his record by nine-hundredths of a second, he also broke, categorically, those old models. Today, revised probabilistic estimates project that his record could stand for upwards of two centuries. But who knows how that projection will measure up against reality. As applied mathematician David Sumpter has observed, Bolt single handedly demolished our ability to make reliable predictions about the 100-meter dash.
Which is one reason biomechanists approach the matter somewhat differently than mathematicians. They address the second question by investigating not when Bolt’s record might fall, but by how much, based on the bodies of today’s fastest sprinters.
“Once they get rolling, the force they apply becomes a motion-based mechanism, where they use their limbs to throw a punch at the ground,” says biomechanist Peter Weyand. As director of the Locomotor Performance Laboratory at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Weyand invites many of the fastest sprinters on Earth to run in short bursts in front of high-speed, motion-tracking cameras on a bespoke, force-sensing treadmill that makes the thing you trot on at your gym look like a glorified hamster wheel.
Based on his observations, Weyand says the two biggest factors limiting the performance of elite sprinters are how much force they can apply to the ground, and how fast. At current top speeds of around 27 miles per hour, he says elite male sprinters like Usain Bolt put down roughly five times their body weight, in between .085 and 0.09 seconds.
Just for fun, I ask Weyand what kind of numbers a sprinter would need to complete the 100 meter dash in 9 seconds, on the nose. “To get to what would be required for nine flat, they would have to approach forces roughly six times their body weight, and a ground contact time of just over seven hundredths of a second,” he says. At those figures, a sprinter could, in theory, reach a maximum speed of 13.5 meters per second—a hair over 30 miles per hour. But according to Weyand, no sprinter on Earth comes anywhere close to those numbers.
That probably puts the theoretical limit for the 100 meter dash closer to 9.58 than 9.00. But Weyand, for his part, thinks athletes have plenty of room to improve. “If you put together a perfect human being, and the perfect race, I could certainly see something in the low 9.40-second range, maybe a little bit faster than that, under currently legal conditions,” he says.
Then again, who knows how those conditions could change. When Thomas Burke coiled into a crouch at the starting line for the first Olympic 100 meter dash, he did so without the speed-boosting benefits of modern nutrition, apparel, or training. He didn’t even have starting blocks. Athletes at the Olympic Games in 2120 may well scoff at the rudimentary preparations of today’s sprinters too.
Why It’s Almost Impossible to Run a Two-Hour Marathon
One of the world’s finest distance runners came so close to achieving the greatest feats of athleticism in history: a sub two-hour marathon. To do it, the Eliud Kipchoge should have maintained an average pace of at least 13.1 miles per hour. So, we timed how long WIRED staffers could run at that speed. Needless to say, we didn’t last long. Here’s why only a handful of people in the world could ever come close to a two-hour marathon.
Back in 2009, Simon Irish, an investment manager in New York, found the kind of opportunity that he thought could transform the world while — in the process — transforming dollars into riches.
Irish saw that countries around the globe needed to build a boggling amount of clean-power projects to replace their fossil fuel infrastructure, while also providing enough energy for rising demand from China, India, and other rapidly growing countries. He realized that it would be very hard for renewables, which depend on the wind blowing and the sun shining, to do everything. And he knew that nuclear power, the only existing form of clean energy that could fill the gaps, was too expensive to compete with oil and gas.
But then, at a conference in 2011, he met an engineer with an innovative design for a nuclear reactor cooled by molten salt. If it worked, Irish figured, it could not only solve the problems with aging nuclear power, but also provide a realistic path to dropping fossil fuels.
“The question was, ‘Can we do better than the conventional reactors that were commercialized 60 years ago?” Irish recalled. “And the answer was, ‘Absolutely.’”
Irish was so convinced that this new reactor was a great investment that he bet his career on it. Nearly a decade later, Irish is the CEO of New York City-based Terrestrial Energy, a company that expects to have a molten-salt reactor online before 2030.
Terrestrial is far from alone. Dozens of nuclear startups are popping up around the country, aiming to solve the well-known problems with nuclear power — radioactive waste, meltdowns, weapons proliferation, and high costs.
There are reactors that burn nuclear waste. There are reactors designed to destroy isotopes that could be made into weapons. There are small reactors that could be built inexpensively in factories. So many ideas!
To former Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, an advisor to Terrestrial, it feels as if something new is underway. “I have never seen this kind of innovation in the sector,” he said. “It’s really exciting.”
Other reactors, like Terrestrial’s molten-salt-cooled design, automatically cool down if they get too hot. Water flows through conventional reactors to keep them from overheating, but if something halts this flow — like the earthquake and tsunami in Fukushima — the water boils off, leaving nothing to stop a meltdown.
Unlike water, salt wouldn’t boil off, so even if operators switched off safety systems and walked away, the salts would keep cooling the system, Irish said. Salts heat up and expand, pushing uranium atoms apart and slowing down the reaction (the farther apart the uranium atoms, the less likely a flying neutron will split them apart, triggering the next link in the chain reaction).
“It’s like your pot on the stove when you are boiling pasta,” Irish said. No matter how hot your stove, your pasta will never get hotter than 212 degrees Fahrenheit unless the water boils off. Until it’s gone, the water is just circulating and dissipating heat. When you replace water with liquid salt, however, you have to get to 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit before your coolant starts to evaporate.
This stuff can sound like science fiction — but it’s real. Russia has been producing electricity from an advanced reactor that burns up radioactive waste since 2016. China has built a “pebble bed” reactor that keeps radioactive elements locked inside cue ball-sized graphite spheres.
In 2015, to keep track of the startups and public-sector projects working on trying to provide low-carbon energy with safer, cheaper, and cleaner nuclear power, the centrist think tank, Third Way, started mapping all of the advanced nuke projects across the country. There were 48 dots on the first map, and now there are 75, spreading like a candy-colored case of measles.
“In terms of the number of projects, the number of people working on it, and the amount of private financing, there isn’t anything to compare it to unless you go back to the 1960s,” said Ryan Fitzpatrick who works on clean energy for Third Way.
Back then, just after Walt Disney released the film “Our Friend the Atom” promoting nuclear energy, when the futuristic notion of electricity “too cheap to meter” seemed plausible, electric utilities had plans to build hundreds of reactors across the United States.
WHY IS THIS all happening now? After all, scientists have been working on these alternative types of reactors since the beginning of the Cold War, yet they’ve never caught on. The history of advanced reactors is littered with the carcasses of failed attempts. A salt-cooled reactor first ran successfully back in 1954, but the United States opted to specialize in water-cooled reactors and defunded other designs.
But something fundamental has changed: Previously, there was no reason for a nuclear company to pony up the billion dollars needed to get a new design through the federal regulatory process because conventional reactors were profitable. That’s not true anymore.
“For the first time in half a century, the incumbent nuclear players are in financial distress,” Irish said.
Recently, the United States’ bet on conventional water-cooled reactors has been going bad in very expensive ways. In 2012, South Carolina Electric & Gas got permission to build two huge conventional reactors to generate 2,200 megawatts, enough to power 1.8 million homes, promising to have them up and running sometime in 2018. Electricity users saw their bills jump 18 percent to pay for the construction, which soon ran into delays. Last year, after sinking $9 billion into the project, the utility gave up.
“The most recent builds in the United States have been a disaster, largely due to poor on-sight construction practices,” said John Parsons, codirector of MIT’s Low-Carbon Energy Center for Advanced Nuclear Energy Systems.
Similar stories have played out abroad. In Finland, construction of a new reactor at the Olkiluoto power plant is eight years behind schedule and $6.5 billion over budget.
In response, these nuclear startups are designing their businesses to avoid horrible cost overruns. Many have plans to build standardized reactor parts in a factory, then put them together like Legos at the construction site. “If you can move construction to the factory you can drive costs down significantly,” Parsons said.
New reactors could also reduce costs by being safer. Conventional reactors have a fundamental risk of meltdown, largely because they were designed to power submarines. It’s easy to cool a reactor with water when it’s in a submarine, underwater, but when we lifted these reactors onto land, we had to start pumping water up to cool them, Irish explained. “That pumping system can never, ever break, or you get a Fukushima. You need safety system on top of safety system, redundancy on top of redundancy.”
Oklo, a Silicon Valley startup, based its reactor design on a prototype that isn’t susceptible to meltdowns. “When engineers shut off all the cooling systems, it cooled itself and then started back up and was running normally later that day,” said Caroline Cochrane, Oklo’s cofounder. If these safer reactors don’t require all those backup cooling systems and concrete containment domes, companies can build plants for much less money.
Technologies often fail for a long time before succeeding: 45 years of tinkering passed between the first electric light and Thomas Edison’s patent for an incandescent bulb. It can take decades for the engineering to catch up to the idea. Others have tried seemingly every idea for advanced nuclear in the past, Parsons said. “But science has moved forward,” he said. “You have much better materials than you did a few decades ago. That makes it believable these things could work.”
A recent study from the nonprofit Energy Innovation Reform Project estimated that the latest batch of nuclear startups could deliver electricity somewhere between $36 and $90 a megawatt hour. That’s competitive with any power plant that runs on natural gas (which runs between $42 to $78), and would provide a viable alternative to fossil fuels.
In a best-case scenario, nuclear power could be even cheaper. There are projections a study like this can make based on, say, an improved design that cuts construction costs, but it can’t anticipate revolutionary advances.
“Hopefully these designers will come up with much more radical reductions in cost — you would like energy to be more accessible to a billion more people — so that nuclear becomes a cheap alternative that can beat natural gas even if there’s no carbon price,” Parsons said. “That’s just a hope, but that’s what entrepreneurs are supposed to do.”
MATTHEW BUNN, A nuclear expert at Harvard, said that if nuclear power is going to play a role in fighting climate change, these advanced nuclear companies will have to scale up insanely fast. “To supply a tenth of the clean energy we need by 2050, we have to add 30 gigawatts to the grid every year,” he said.
That means the world would have to build 10 times as much nuclear power as it was before the Fukushima disaster in 2011. Is that even realistic?
“I think we ought to be trying — I’m not optimistic,” Bunn said, noting that the pace at which we’d need to build solar and wind to quit fossil fuels is just as daunting.
Big barriers remain in the way of a nuclear renaissance. It takes years to test prototypes and get approval from federal regulators before a company can even start construction. “In order for advanced nuclear technologies to play a role in deep decarbonization over the next several decades,” the United States would need to overhaul the way it’s rolling out the technology, according to a study published earlier this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Experts point to many of the same steps to give advanced nuclear a fighting chance: Making regulations more friendly to innovation, instead of favoring conventional reactors. Creating incentives to reward utilities for buying low-carbon power. And a lot more funding.
The people behind the new crop of nuclear companies think they can get to market much faster with the right help. Oklo is shooting to have a commercial reactor online before 2025.
“Can we decarbonize quickly with nuclear? France did it, it can be done,” Cochrane from Oklo said. “Our reactors are 500 times smaller than the [latest conventional reactors], they have all these inherent safety characteristics, and they can consume nuclear waste. Will our application process be any shorter?”
Lowering these barriers would be cheaper than letting the government pick one promising idea and coddle it like a privileged child, which is the way we’ve treated conventional nuclear in the past, said Jessica Lovering, who studies nuclear power at the Breakthrough Institute, a pro-technology environmental think tank.
“We could pick one idea, spend a lot of money helping it become commercial, and then subsidize every project for even more money,” Lovering said. “Or, we could invest a much smaller amount of money across the entire innovation system.”
Still, it could easily take the advanced nuclear projects 30 years to get through regulatory review, fix the unexpected problems that crop up along the way, and prove that they can compete, said Dan Kammen, who studies clean energy at the University of California Berkeley. And by then Kammen thinks there will be other options in competition: Electric storage is getting better, and fusion could have a breakthrough.
“Ultimately on a planet with 10 billion people, some amount of large, convenient, affordable, safe baseload power — like we get from nuclear fission, or fusion — would be just hugely beneficial,” Kammen said. “There are other competitors in view on the straight solar side that 10 years ago sounded like science fiction — space-based solar, transparent solar films on every window. That world works, too.”
AT THIS POINT in history, everything is a longshot. We’ve got to completely replace our energy system on the fly. To do that, people are planting a lot of different seeds. It’s still a long time until harvest, but we’re seeing a flush of new sprouts from the advanced nuclear section of the garden.
This new flush of nuclear possibility has excited young people who see nuclear as a way to shift away from fossil fuels. College students are gravitating toward nuclear engineering. The number of students studying the subject cratered when the nuclear industry collapsed in the late 1970s (the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 didn’t help), but it has been creeping steadily higher since the early 2000s.
Some of those students are going on to start their own advanced nuclear companies. David Schumacher, a documentary filmmaker, met some of these young people and became so infected with their enthusiasm that he made a documentary about them, The New Fire, which came out last year.
“They are truly idealistic young people trying to save the planet by doing something really important but really unpopular,” Schumacher said. “They could be making a lot of money elsewhere, but instead they are starting these nuclear companies, knowing they are going to be maligned.”
It’s a feeling Simon Irish, at Terrestrial Energy, is familiar with. “The views on nuclear are so negative,” he said. “The great win is simply to persuade busy people to listen.”
While Terrestrial battles public opinion, Irish said his company has been hitting every milestone on time. Canadian regulators announced last year that Terrestrial had completed the initial stage of its design review — the first step toward approval in that country. Irish has already selected sites in Ontario where Terrestrial could build the first reactors.
Although Irish was mum on Terrestrial’s other milestones, he did describe an experience that he said gives him more confidence in the company’s prospects than any of its other accomplishments so far.
Last August, he found himself in the office of a prominent New York investor, a major contributor to environmental organizations. Getting the meeting had been a challenge — again because of the controversy around nuclear. But by the end, Irish had convinced the businessman that renewables and nuclear could not just coexist but compliment each other.
In Irish’s telling, he was in the middle of explaining Terrestrial’s reactor design when the man stopped him and said, “‘Hold on, this can deliver heat! The industrial sector needs heat, and wind and solar aren’t making any dent in that at all.’
“As far as he was concerned,” Irish said, “this was the great missing piece.”
Big data meets Big Brother as China moves to rate its citizens
The Chinese government plans to launch its Social Credit System in 2020. The aim? To judge the trustworthiness – or otherwise – of its 1.3 billion residents
On June 14, 2014, the State Council of China published an ominous-sounding document called “Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System”. In the way of Chinese policy documents, it was a lengthy and rather dry affair, but it contained a radical idea. What if there was a national trust score that rated the kind of citizen you were?
Imagine a world where many of your daily activities were constantly monitored and evaluated: what you buy at the shops and online; where you are at any given time; who your friends are and how you interact with them; how many hours you spend watching content or playing video games; and what bills and taxes you pay (or not). It’s not hard to picture, because most of that already happens, thanks to all those data-collecting behemoths like Google, Facebook and Instagram or health-tracking apps such as Fitbit. But now imagine a system where all these behaviours are rated as either positive or negative and distilled into a single number, according to rules set by the government. That would create your Citizen Score and it would tell everyone whether or not you were trustworthy. Plus, your rating would be publicly ranked against that of the entire population and used to determine your eligibility for a mortgage or a job, where your children can go to school – or even just your chances of getting a date.
A futuristic vision of Big Brother out of control? No, it’s already getting underway in China, where the government is developing the Social Credit System (SCS) to rate the trustworthiness of its 1.3 billion citizens. The Chinese government is pitching the system as a desirable way to measure and enhance “trust” nationwide and to build a culture of “sincerity”. As the policy states, “It will forge a public opinion environment where keeping trust is glorious. It will strengthen sincerity in government affairs, commercial sincerity, social sincerity and the construction of judicial credibility.”
Others are less sanguine about its wider purpose. “It is very ambitious in both depth and scope, including scrutinising individual behaviour and what books people are reading. It’s Amazon’s consumer tracking with an Orwellian political twist,” is how Johan Lagerkvist, a Chinese internet specialist at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, described the social credit system. Rogier Creemers, a post-doctoral scholar specialising in Chinese law and governance at the Van Vollenhoven Institute at Leiden University, who published a comprehensive translation of the plan, compared it to “Yelp reviews with the nanny state watching over your shoulder”.
For now, technically, participating in China’s Citizen Scores is voluntary. But by 2020 it will be mandatory. The behaviour of every single citizen and legal person (which includes every company or other entity)in China will be rated and ranked, whether they like it or not.
Prior to its national roll-out in 2020, the Chinesegovernment is taking a watch-and-learn approach. In this marriage between communist oversight and capitalist can-do, the government has given a licence to eight private companies to come up with systems and algorithms for social credit scores. Predictably, data giants currently run two of the best-known projects.
The first is with China Rapid Finance, a partner of the social-network behemoth Tencent and developer of the messaging app WeChat with more than 850 million active users. The other, Sesame Credit, is run by the Ant Financial Services Group (AFSG), an affiliate company of Alibaba. Ant Financial sells insurance products and provides loans to small- to medium-sized businesses. However, the real star of Ant is AliPay, its payments arm that people use not only to buy things online, but also for restaurants, taxis, school fees, cinema tickets and even to transfer money to each other.
Sesame Credit has also teamed up with other data-generating platforms, such as Didi Chuxing, the ride-hailing company that was Uber’s main competitor in China before it acquired the American company’s Chinese operations in 2016, and Baihe, the country’s largest online matchmaking service. It’s not hard to see how that all adds up to gargantuan amounts of big data that Sesame Credit can tap into to assess how people behave and rate them accordingly.
So just how are people rated? Individuals on Sesame Credit are measured by a score ranging between 350 and 950 points. Alibaba does not divulge the “complex algorithm” it uses to calculate the number but they do reveal the five factors taken into account. The first is credit history. For example, does the citizen pay their electricity or phone bill on time? Next is fulfilment capacity, which it defines in its guidelines as “a user’s ability to fulfil his/her contract obligations”. The third factor is personal characteristics, verifying personal information such as someone’s mobile phone number and address. But the fourth category, behaviour and preference, is where it gets interesting.
Under this system, something as innocuous as a person’s shopping habits become a measure of character. Alibaba admits it judges people by the types of products they buy. “Someone who plays video games for ten hours a day, for example, would be considered an idle person,” says Li Yingyun, Sesame’s Technology Director. “Someone who frequently buys diapers would be considered as probably a parent, who on balance is more likely to have a sense of responsibility.” So the system not only investigates behaviour – it shapes it. It “nudges” citizens away from purchases and behaviours the government does not like.
Friends matter, too. The fifth category is interpersonal relationships. What does their choice of online friends and their interactions say about the person being assessed? Sharing what Sesame Credit refers to as “positive energy” online, nice messages about the government or how well the country’s economy is doing, will make your score go up.
Alibaba is adamant that, currently, anything negative posted on social media does not affect scores (we don’t know if this is true or not because the algorithm is secret). But you can see how this might play out when the government’s own citizen score system officially launches in 2020. Even though there is no suggestion yet that any of the eight private companies involved in the ongoing pilot scheme will be ultimately responsible for running the government’s own system, it’s hard to believe that the government will not want to extract the maximum amount of data for its SCS, from the pilots. If that happens, and continues as the new normal under the government’s own SCS it will result in private platforms acting essentially as spy agencies for the government. They may have no choice.
Posting dissenting political opinions or links mentioning Tiananmen Square has never been wise in China, but now it could directly hurt a citizen’s rating. But here’s the real kicker: a person’s own score will also be affected by what their online friends say and do, beyond their own contact with them. If someone they are connected to online posts a negative comment, their own score will also be dragged down.
So why have millions of people already signed up to what amounts to a trial run for a publicly endorsed government surveillance system? There may be darker, unstated reasons – fear of reprisals, for instance, for those who don’t put their hand up – but there is also a lure, in the form of rewards and “special privileges” for those citizens who prove themselves to be “trustworthy” on Sesame Credit.
If their score reaches 600, they can take out a Just Spend loan of up to 5,000 yuan (around £565) to use to shop online, as long as it’s on an Alibaba site. Reach 650 points, they may rent a car without leaving a deposit. They are also entitled to faster check-in at hotels and use of the VIP check-in at Beijing Capital International Airport. Those with more than 666 points can get a cash loan of up to 50,000 yuan (£5,700), obviously from Ant Financial Services. Get above 700 and they can apply for Singapore travel without supporting documents such as an employee letter. And at 750, they get fast-tracked application to a coveted pan-European Schengen visa. “I think the best way to understand the system is as a sort of bastard love child of a loyalty scheme,” says Creemers.
Higher scores have already become a status symbol, with almost 100,000 people bragging about their scores on Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter) within months of launch. A citizen’s score can even affect their odds of getting a date, or a marriage partner, because the higher their Sesame rating, the more prominent their dating profile is on Baihe.
Sesame Credit already offers tips to help individuals improve their ranking, including warning about the downsides of friending someone who has a low score. This might lead to the rise of score advisers, who will share tips on how to gain points, or reputation consultants willing to offer expert advice on how to strategically improve a ranking or get off the trust-breaking blacklist.
Indeed, Sesame Credit is basically a big data gamified version of the Communist Party’s surveillance methods; the disquieting dang’an. The regime kept a dossier on every individual that tracked political and personal transgressions. A citizen’s dang’anfollowed them for life, from schools to jobs. People started reporting on friends and even family members, raising suspicion and lowering social trust in China. The same thing will happen with digital dossiers. People will have an incentive to say to their friends and family, “Don’t post that. I don’t want you to hurt your score but I also don’t want you to hurt mine.”
We’re also bound to see the birth of reputation black markets selling under-the-counter ways to boost trustworthiness. In the same way that Facebook Likes and Twitter followers can be bought, individuals will pay to manipulate their score. What about keeping the system secure? Hackers (some even state-backed) could change or steal the digitally stored information.
The new system reflects a cunning paradigm shift. Aswe’ve noted, instead of trying to enforce stability or conformity with a big stick and a good dose of top-down fear, the government is attempting to make obedience feel like gaming. It is a method of social control dressed up in some points-reward system. It’s gamified obedience.
In a trendy neighbourhood in downtown Beijing, the BBC news services hit the streets in October 2015 to ask people about their Sesame Credit ratings. Most spoke about the upsides. But then, who would publicly criticise the system? Ding, your score might go down. Alarmingly, few people understood that a bad score could hurt them in the future. Even more concerning was how many people had no idea that they were being rated.
Currently, Sesame Credit does not directly penalise people for being “untrustworthy” – it’s more effective to lock people in with treats for good behaviour. But Hu Tao, Sesame Credit’s chief manager, warns people that the system is designed so that “untrustworthy people can’t rent a car, can’t borrow money or even can’t find a job”. She has even disclosed that Sesame Credit has approached China’s Education Bureau about sharing a list of its students who cheated on national examinations, in order to make them pay into the future for their dishonesty.
Penalties are set to change dramatically when the government system becomes mandatory in 2020. Indeed, on September 25, 2016, the State Council General Office updated its policy entitled “Warning and Punishment Mechanisms for Persons Subject to Enforcement for Trust-Breaking”. The overriding principle is simple: “If trust is broken in one place, restrictions are imposed everywhere,” the policy document states.
For instance, people with low ratings will have slower internet speeds; restricted access to restaurants, nightclubs or golf courses; and the removal of the right to travel freely abroad with, I quote, “restrictive control on consumption within holiday areas or travel businesses”. Scores will influence a person’s rental applications, their ability to get insurance or a loan and even social-security benefits. Citizens with low scores will not be hired by certain employers and will be forbidden from obtaining some jobs, including in the civil service, journalism and legal fields, where of course you must be deemed trustworthy. Low-rating citizens will also be restricted when it comes to enrolling themselves or their children in high-paying private schools. I am not fabricating this list of punishments. It’s the reality Chinese citizens will face. As the government document states, the social credit system will “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step”.
According to Luciano Floridi, a professor of philosophy and ethics of information at the University of Oxford and the director of research at the Oxford Internet Institute, there have been three critical “de-centering shifts” that have altered our view in self-understanding: Copernicus’s model of the Earth orbiting the Sun; Darwin’s theory of natural selection; and Freud’s claim that our daily actions are controlled by the unconscious mind.
Floridi believes we are now entering the fourth shift, as what we do online and offline merge into an onlife. He asserts that, as our society increasingly becomes an infosphere, a mixture of physical and virtual experiences, we are acquiring an onlife personality – different from who we innately are in the “real world” alone. We see this writ large on Facebook, where people present an edited or idealised portrait of their lives. Think about your Uber experiences. Are you just a little bit nicer to the driver because you know you will be rated? But Uber ratings are nothing compared to Peeple, an app launched in March 2016, which is like a Yelp for humans. It allows you to assign ratings and reviews to everyone you know – your spouse, neighbour, boss and even your ex. A profile displays a “Peeple Number”, a score based on all the feedback and recommendations you receive. Worryingly, once your name is in the Peeple system, it’s there for good. You can’t opt out.
Peeple has forbidden certain bad behaviours including mentioning private health conditions, making profanities or being sexist (however you objectively assess that). But there are few rules on how people are graded or standards about transparency.
China’s trust system might be voluntary as yet, but it’s already having consequences. In February 2017, the country’s Supreme People’s Court announced that 6.15 million of its citizens had been banned from taking flights over the past four years for social misdeeds. The ban is being pointed to as a step toward blacklisting in the SCS. “We have signed a memorandum… [with over] 44 government departments in order to limit ‘discredited’ people on multiple levels,” says Meng Xiang, head of the executive department of the Supreme Court. Another 1.65 million blacklisted people cannot take trains.
Where these systems really descend into nightmarish territory is that the trust algorithms used are unfairly reductive. They don’t take into account context. For instance, one person might miss paying a bill or a fine because they were in hospital; another may simply be a freeloader. And therein lies the challenge facing all of us in the digital world, and not just the Chinese. If life-determining algorithms are here to stay, we need to figure out how they can embrace the nuances, inconsistencies and contradictions inherent in human beings and how they can reflect real life.
You could see China’s so-called trust plan asOrwell’s 1984 meets Pavlov’s dogs. Act like a good citizen, be rewarded and be made to think you’re having fun. It’s worth remembering, however, that personal scoring systems have been present in the west for decades.
More than 70 years ago, two men called Bill Fair and Earl Isaac invented credit scores. Today, companies use FICO scores to determine many financial decisions, including the interest rate on our mortgage or whether we should be given a loan.
For the majority of Chinese people, they have never had credit scores and so they can’t get credit. “Many people don’t own houses, cars or credit cards in China, so that kind of information isn’t available to measure,” explains Wen Quan, an influential blogger who writes about technology and finance. “The central bank has the financial data from 800 million people, but only 320 million have a traditional credit history.” According to the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, the annual economic loss caused by lack of credit information is more than 600 billion yuan (£68bn).
China’s lack of a national credit system is why the government is adamant that Citizen Scores are long overdue and badly needed to fix what they refer to as a “trust deficit”. In a poorly regulated market, the sale of counterfeit and substandard products is a massive problem. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), 63 per cent of all fake goods, from watches to handbags to baby food, originate from China. “The level of micro corruption is enormous,” Creemers says. “So if this particular scheme results in more effective oversight and accountability, it will likely be warmly welcomed.”
The government also argues that the system is a way to bring in those people left out of traditional credit systems, such as students and low-income households. Professor Wang Shuqin from the Office of Philosophy and Social Science at Capital Normal University in China recently won the bid to help the government develop the system that she refers to as “China’s Social Faithful System”. Without such a mechanism, doing business in China is risky, she stresses, as about half of the signed contracts are not kept. “Given the speed of the digital economy it’s crucial that people can quickly verify each other’s credit worthiness,” she says. “The behaviour of the majority is determined by their world of thoughts. A person who believes in socialist core values is behaving more decently.” She regards the “moral standards” the system assesses, as well as financial data, as a bonus.
Indeed, the State Council’s aim is to raise the “honest mentality and credit levels of the entire society” in order to improve “the overall competitiveness of the country”. Is it possible that the SCS is in fact a more desirably transparent approach to surveillance in a country that has a long history of watching its citizens? “As a Chinese person, knowing that everything I do online is being tracked, would I rather be aware of the details of what is being monitored and use this information to teach myself how to abide by the rules?” says Rasul Majid, a Chinese blogger based in Shanghai who writes about behavioural design and gaming psychology. “Or would I rather live in ignorance and hope/wish/dream that personal privacy still exists and that our ruling bodies respect us enough not to take advantage?” Put simply, Majid thinks the system gives him a tiny bit more control over his data.
When I tell westerners about the Social CreditSystem in China, their responses are fervent and visceral. Yet we already rate restaurants, movies, books and even doctors. Facebook, meanwhile, is now capable of identifying you in pictures without seeing your face; it only needs your clothes, hair and body type to tag you in an image with 83 per cent accuracy.
In 2015, the OECD published a study revealing that in the US there are at least 24.9 connected devices per 100 inhabitants. All kinds of companies scrutinise the “big data” emitted from these devices to understand our lives and desires, and to predict our actions in ways that we couldn’t even predict ourselves.
Governments around the world are already in the business of monitoring and rating. In the US, the National Security Agency (NSA) is not the only official digital eye following the movements of its citizens. In 2015, the US Transportation Security Administration proposed the idea of expanding the PreCheck background checks to include social-media records, location data and purchase history. The idea was scrapped after heavy criticism, but that doesn’t mean it’s dead. We already live in a world of predictive algorithms that determine if we are a threat, a risk, a good citizen and even if we are trustworthy. We’re getting closer to the Chinese system – the expansion of credit scoring into life scoring – even if we don’t know we are.
So are we heading for a future where we will all be branded online and data-mined? It’s certainly trending that way. Barring some kind of mass citizen revolt to wrench back privacy, we are entering an age where an individual’s actions will be judged by standards they can’t control and where that judgement can’t be erased. The consequences are not only troubling; they’re permanent. Forget the right to delete or to be forgotten, to be young and foolish.
While it might be too late to stop this new era, we do have choices and rights we can exert now. For one thing, we need to be able rate the raters. In his book The Inevitable, Kevin Kelly describes a future where the watchers and the watched will transparently track each other. “Our central choice now is whether this surveillance is a secret, one-way panopticon – or a mutual, transparent kind of ‘coveillance’ that involves watching the watchers,” he writes.
Our trust should start with individuals within government (or whoever is controlling the system). We need trustworthy mechanisms to make sure ratings and data are used responsibly and with our permission. To trust the system, we need to reduce the unknowns. That means taking steps to reduce the opacity of the algorithms. The argument against mandatory disclosures is that if you know what happens under the hood, the system could become rigged or hacked. But if humans are being reduced to a rating that could significantly impact their lives, there must be transparency in how the scoring works.
In China, certain citizens, such as government officials, will likely be deemed above the system. What will be the public reaction when their unfavourable actions don’t affect their score? We could see a Panama Papers 3.0 for reputation fraud.
It is still too early to know how a culture of constant monitoring plus rating will turn out. What will happen when these systems, charting the social, moral and financial history of an entire population, come into full force? How much further will privacy and freedom of speech (long under siege in China) be eroded? Who will decide which way the system goes? These are questions we all need to consider, and soon. Today China, tomorrow a place near you. The real questions about the future of trust are not technological or economic; they are ethical.
If we are not vigilant, distributed trust could become networked shame. Life will become an endless popularity contest, with us all vying for the highest rating that only a few can attain.
This is an extract from Who Can You Trust? How Technology Brought Us Together and Why It Might Drive Us Apart (Penguin Portfolio) by Rachel Botsman, published on October 4. Since this piece was written, The People’s Bank of China delayed the licences to the eight companies conducting social credit pilots. The government’s plans to launch the Social Credit System in 2020 remain unchanged
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The FBI may have scored a big win with operation Playpen, which helped dismantle a ring of TOR-based pedophiles and prosecute its members (thanks, Rule 41), but that was just one battle in the ongoing war against the sexual exploitation of children. That fight is now a bit easier for European law enforcement, which as debuted a new machine learning AI system that hunts for child porn on P2P networks.
The system, known as iCOP (Identifying and Catching Originators in P2P Networks), works similarly to Microsoft’s Photo DNA, wherein images of child porn are tagged with a digital signature after being collected in the course of an investigation. These signatures are then shared as a global database for law enforcement. If the same images or videos resurface during other investigations, they’re automatically flagged. This saves law enforcement the stomach-turning drudgery of manually checking the images against the database. This saves time, manpower and accelerates investigations. What’s more, it automatically identifies new material (anything that doesn’t get flagged), which provides fresh leads on more recent crimes.
And given that, according to the UN, 16 percent of people who possess this sort of material have themselves abused children, reducing the amount of time between discovery and arrest can help save children from further exploitation. The iCOP system is designed for use on Gnutella and has been trained with tens of thousands of images ranging from adult porn and benign images of kids to the full-on sexual abuse of minors.
Interpol has already begun testing iCOP for its own use in the Lyon region of France. Once installed on the Interpol system and linked to other databases like Project Vic, iCOP returned false positives in less than 8 percent of images and in just over 4 percent of videos.
“It significantly reduces the overhead for investigators,” Awais Rashid, a professor at Lancaster University (which helped develop the system) told WIRED. “Instead of having to trawl through large numbers of images and videos to identify new child abuse material, investigators are provided with automated matches which are highly accurate. In practice, this means investigators having to look at a small number of images and videos rather than thousands.” Given its initial success with Interpol, the iCOP team hopes to expand the system out to TOR-obscured networks.
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