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Double Helix Jeopardy

DNA databases help solve crimes but aid and abet racial discrimination

15 min read
Double Helix Jeopardy
Illustration: David Plunkert

On 4 January 1998, police in London arrested a man, whom court records call “B,” on suspicion of burglary. The police swabbed the inside of the suspect’s cheek to collect a sample of his DNA.

In August, B was acquitted and released. But in September, B’s DNA profile was—accidentally and illegally—entered into the United Kingdom’s national DNA database. The system automatically compares newly loaded DNA profiles against unidentified samples obtained from crime scenes. The system found a match—a sample recovered from a 1997 rape and assault case. The police arrested B, and the government successfully prosecuted him for those crimes.

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This Idea Wasn't All Wet: The Sensing Water-Saving Shower Head Debuts

An engineer’s dinner-table invention is finally a consumer product

4 min read
A mounted and running showerhead that says oasense and has a blue light on it.
Oasense

For Evan Schneider, the family dinner table is a good place for invention. “I’m always, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if this or that,’” he says, “and people would humor me.”

In 2012, with California in the midst of a severe drought, Schneider, then a mechanical engineering graduate student at Stanford University, once again tossed out a “cool idea.” He imagined a shower head that would sense when the person showering moved out from under the stream of water. The shower head would then automatically turn the water off, turning it back on again when the person moved back into range. With such a device, he thought, people could enjoy a long shower without wasting water.

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Can AI’s Recommendations Be Less Insidious?

Artificial intelligence has us where it wants us

5 min read
illustration of hand holding megaphone with different bubbles of computer widgets
iStock

Many of the things we watch, read, and buy enter our awareness through recommender systems on sites including YouTube, Twitter, and Amazon. Algorithms personalize their suggestions, aiming for ad views or clicks or buys. Sometime their offerings frustrate us; it seems like they don’t know us at all—or know us too well, predicting what will get us to waste time or go down rabbit holes of anxiety and misinformation. But a more insidious dynamic may also be at play. Recommender systems might not only tailor to our most regrettable preferences, but actually shape what we like, making preferences even more regrettable. New research suggests a way to measure—and reduce—such manipulation.

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WIPL-D

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