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COVID Shots: Two if by Land, None if by Sea

The Wall Street Journal reported:

Novak Djokovic isn’t playing at the Miami Open this week. The Serbian tennis star is unwelcome in the U.S. because he hasn’t been vaccinated against COVID. Although he had the virus in 2020, he was famously deported from Australia in January 2022 for the same reason — but he claimed the men’s singles title in this year’s Australian Open.

The U.S. is alone among developed countries in continuing to demand proof of COVID vaccination from visitors. Mr. Djokovic, who would also have needed a visa to enter the U.S., opted not to play in Miami when the Biden administration refused his request for an exemption from the vaccine requirement.

But there appears to be a way visitors can avoid the vaccine mandate. “It is not clear to me why, even by the terms of your own proclamation, Mr. Djokovic could not legally enter this country via boat,” Gov. Ron DeSantis wrote in a March 7 letter to Mr. Biden. Ferries from the Bahamas run to seaports in South Florida, and the website of Fort Lauderdale-based Balearia Caribbean declares: “Currently, no COVID test or vaccination is required to enter Florida when traveling by ferry.”

Mr. DeSantis asked for confirmation “that this method of travel into Florida would be permissible.” His press secretary, Bryan Griffin, says the governor received no answer.

Mr. Biden’s proclamation never made sense. By October 2021 it was clear that the shots don’t stop the viral spread. Foreigners are no more infectious than citizens and green-card holders, who weren’t subject to the mandate and have faced no COVID travel restrictions since June. The policy also hampers tourism, which was down 35% in 2022 compared with 2019. In Europe, which lifted restrictions last year, the decline was only 21%.

Lenient Rules for Biotech Research Put the World at Risk. Will AI Do the Same?

Newsweek reported:

I offer this advice from personal experience. Two decades ago, I was a top official in the George W. Bush White House when another world-changing technology — genetic manipulation — transformed our future. Like generative AI, this new biotechnology was a once-in-a-generation advance that inspired both excitement and fear. In the years since biotechnology delivered many benefits, but it has also put the world at great risk — in part because of insufficient oversight.

All innovations have the potential to provide benefits and cause harm — what has been called “dual use” technology. For some people, generative artificial intelligence is an exciting and pivotal moment in technology, with far-reaching implications. For others, it portends a future of dangerous silicon-based sentient life forms making decisions over our lives that we can’t control or stop.

The risk of accidentally starting a pandemic must have seemed rather abstract to most Americans back then. No more. Today, polls show that many people believe that a laboratory manipulation of coronaviruses resulted in the creation of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

The community of AI researchers, entrepreneurs and regulators would do well to heed the lessons of biotech. My plea to them is to start thinking about safety now. Don’t wait for the first big problem of malfeasance or unintended consequences. Get ahead by planning for coordinated oversight, and continue to modify these plans as the technology moves forward.

Politics Aside, Did Indoor Vaccine Mandates Work?

The Hill reported:

Those who fail to learn from history, Winston Churchill warned in the aftermath of World War II, are doomed to repeat it. As the pandemic recedes and a sense of normalcy returns to our lives, those words are as relevant as ever. We are all eager to put three years of isolation, loss and hardship behind us. But unless we draw thoughtful lessons from our pandemic response, we leave ourselves just as vulnerable to the next crisis.

Governments at all levels took extraordinary steps to mitigate COVID-19’s impact. Among the most restrictive were rules requiring proof of vaccination to enter indoor venues like restaurants, gyms and event centers. From the summer of 2021 to the spring of 2022, nine major U.S. cities (New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, Boston, New Orleans, San Francisco and Washington, DC) adopted these mandates, affecting tens of millions of Americans.

Now, a rigorous analysis of these policies has failed to detect any positive impact.

Across all nine major cities, indoor vaccine mandates had an insignificant effect on COVID-19 cases and COVID-19 deaths. Moreover, the effect of the mandates on vaccination rates was also statistically negligible. In short, these policies did little, if anything, to blunt the pandemic.

A U.S. Agency Rejected Face Recognition — and Landed in Big Trouble

Wired reported:

In June 2021, Dave Zvenyach, director of a group tasked with improving digital access to U.S. government services, sent a Slack message to his team. He’d decided that Login.gov, which provides a secure way to access dozens of government apps and websites, wouldn’t use selfies and face recognition to verify the identity of people creating new accounts. “The benefits of liveness/selfie do not outweigh any discriminatory impact,” he wrote, referring to the process of asking users to upload a selfie and a photo of their ID so that algorithms can compare the two.

Zvenyach’s rejection of face recognition, detailed in a report this month by the Office of the Inspector General of the General Services Administration, the agency that houses Login.gov, saw a government official draw a line in the sand in order to protect citizens from discrimination by algorithms. Face recognition technology has become more accurate, but many systems have been found to work less reliably for women with dark skin, people who identify as Asian, or people with a nonbinary gender identity.

The inspector general’s report finds that the GSA misled 22 agencies paying for use of Login.gov by claiming its service was fully compliant with National Institute of Standards and Technology requirements when it was not. An official from one federal agency told OIG investigators that Login.gov not complying with the standard left their agency at greater risk of fraud. Zvenyach did not respond to questions from WIRED about the report.

Lawmakers Blast TikTok in Hearing With CEO, Citing ‘Life and Death’ Issues

Axios reported:

TikTok‘s CEO Shou Zi Chew is defending the company Thursday from charges that it poses a national security threat in front of a group of lawmakers who advocated for banning the popular short-video app.

Why it matters: The White House and TikTok’s critics in Congress say the app, which has 150 million U.S. users, puts their data at risk because TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese company.

The big picture: The House Committee on Energy and Commerce members made it unequivocally clear they view TikTok as a dangerous social media app and a national security threat. Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Ca.) at one point cited “life and death” issues connected to the app.

Chew repeatedly downplayed its connections to China and referenced TikTok’s “unprecedented” data security practices compared to unnamed social media competitors. The committee didn’t care.

Lawmakers challenged Chew on the same issues that plague all social media platforms, including privacy, impact on children’s mental health and addiction.

In Congressional Hearing, TikTok Commits to Deleting U.S. User Data From Its Servers ‘This Year’

TechCrunch reported:

The plan is one part of TikTok’s larger agenda to stop the popular video entertainment app from being banned by the U.S. government over national security concerns. The company also aims to convince Congress that it has a number of protections included in its app designed to keep younger users safe, and is heavily relied on by both U.S.-based creators and small businesses to generate income, among other things.

With Project Texas, however, TikTok’s mission is focused on what CEO Shou Zi Chew referred to as a “firewall” that would seal off protected U.S. user data from unauthorized foreign access — meaning, of course, the CCP.  In a bit of good branding, the name “Texas” refers to where Oracle is headquartered.

Tech Guru Jaron Lanier: ‘The Danger Isn’t That AI Destroys Us. It’s That It Drives Us Insane’

The Guardian reported:

Is AI really capable of outsmarting us and taking over the world? “OK! Well, your question makes no sense,” Jaron Lanier, the godfather of virtual reality and the sage of all things web, says in his gentle sing-song voice. “You’ve just used the set of terms that to me are fiction. I’m sorry to respond that way, but it’s ridiculous … it’s unreal.” This is the stuff of sci-fi movies such as The Matrix and Terminator, he says.

Lanier doesn’t even like the term artificial intelligence, objecting to the idea that it is actually intelligent, and that we could be in competition with it. “This idea of surpassing human ability is silly because it’s made of human abilities.” He says comparing ourselves with AI is the equivalent of comparing ourselves with a car. “It’s like saying a car can go faster than a human runner. Of course, it can, and yet we don’t say that the car has become a better runner.”

But he doesn’t want us to get complacent. There’s plenty left to worry about: human extinction remains a distinct possibility if we abuse AI, and even if it’s of our own making, the end result is no prettier.

Although a tech guru in his own right, his mission is to champion the human over the digital — to remind us we created the machines, and artificial intelligence is just what it says on the tin. In books such as You Are Not a Gadget and Ten Reasons For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts, he argues that the internet is deadening personal interaction, stifling inventiveness and perverting politics.