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Black swans with a timer

Saturday, 03 September 2016 Manolo Palao Posted in iTTi Views

Like some bombs, some black swans[i] have a timer. 

The difference is that, in the case of bombs, the timer is meant to cause the explosion; while, in that of these black swans, the timer is only a predictive warning. Somehow, these timers are similar to the rings or other devices that bird-watchers and ornithologists attach to the animals for study or protection purposes. 

I am referring to the subset of black swans that the ‘Doomsday Clock’ of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has been counting down to zero since 1947[ii]. 

The Bulletin’s black swans specifically are the “catastrophe from nuclear weapons, climate change, and new technologies emerging in other domains” (these latter, broadly specified[iii]). 

At the date these lines are written [January the 23th, 2015], the ‘Doomsday Clock’, that is revised[iv] every year, has been moved forward to 3 minutes to midnight (Doomsday)[v]. 

The Bulletin makes 5 recommendations. All of them related to the nuclear or climate issues, but the fifth and last: “Create institutions specifically assigned to explore and address potentially catastrophic misuses of new technologies”. 

I have a dream. I have a dream that all emerging technologies in a near future will come with labels equivalent to those mandatory for kids toys. 


The ‘Doomsday Clock’ is not the only 2015 ominous clock. 

Next June the 30th [2015], atomic clocks will —to express it poetically— tick one more second, added to the 86.400 seconds of every normal day, in order to re-sync  —with that ‘leap second’— the year’s duration with the decreasing rotation speed of the Earth[vi]. 

Many experts consider that minute (excuse the pun) action very hazardous. When a similar ‘leap second’ was added in 2012, several major Web portals were affected; the extra second is known to interrupt GPS receivers, potentially affecting air navigation and other services; and concerns have been raised about the possibility that it might de-synchronize robotized manufacturing plants and many other systems (military, financial, etc.) that work in unison by independently polling Network Time Servers (NTSs)[vii].

At a quite different time-scale, you may recall that similar or doomier forecasts took place some 15 years ago, on occasion of the millennium turnover (arguably dated) on January 1st, 2000. Fortunately the announced catastrophic consequences of the Y2K bug did not take place and —what is even more fortunate— the previous pessimistic announcements triggered an important wave of information systems revamping. This proved that not all date-related fears will result in damages and losses.    

* * *

[i] Taleb, N. N. (2007). The Black Swan. Random House.   Consultado el 20150123.  

[ii] 793801/19/2015 - 17:02. Retrieved 20150123.

[iii] In that issue of the Bulletin, the “new technologies” are: Ebola [sic], Hacking and Artificial Intelligence. 

[iv] “The decision to move (or to leave in place) the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock is made every year by the Bulletin's Science and Security Board in consultation with its Board of Sponsors, which includes 17 Nobel laureates”. Ibid. The Clock has been reset only 18 times. In 1991 it read 17 minutes. Source: Ansede, M. (JAN 22, 2015). “17 premios Nobel adelantan dos minutos el Reloj del Apocalipsis”. El País. Retrieved 20150123. 

[v] In 2014 the countdown was set at 5 minutes. 

[vi]  Retrieved 20150123. 

[vii] «A "leap second" needs to be added in 2015 to make sure the time on atomic clocks stays in sync with Earth's rotational time, but some Internet companies are dreading the day … The solution that the International Earth Rotation Service (IERS) came up with is to add a second every now and then to keep the standard atomic time in sync with Earth's time …The extra second has been known to interrupt GPS receivers, which could be a problem for pilots. …Reddit, LinkedIn, Gizmodo and FourSquare will likely remember the lesson they learned three years ago…». Kelly Dickerson, K. (January 09, 2015). “2015's 'Leap Second' Could Scramble Computers” LiveScience  Retrieved 20150123.  


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