SILICON VALLEY, ETHICS, AND AI — SIGNAL READERS RESPOND​

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the backlash within Google over its participation in Project Maven, a Pentagon program designed to improve the use of image recognition in drone surveillance footage. I asked readers whether grassroots pressure could act as an effective brake on controversial uses of AI. One well-placed Signal reader in Silicon Valley was skeptical: “Money matters to people,” he replied. Most employees who have invested time and resources in building a career at Google aren’t likely to leave if it starts dabbling in military AI, particularly when military collaboration is only likely ever to be a small part of what Google does. Still, our reader wrote, “We should be careful, nonetheless.”


Google subsequently backed away from the Pentagon project, but a set of new AI principles published by CEO Sundar Pichai in the wake of the controversy made clear that the company would work with governments and the military in other areas that don’t involve weapons or human harm, like cybersecurity. Despite Google’s attempt to draw a clear line on the issue, the boundaries between what constitutes direct harm and mere support for the military’s mission are blurry. Growing US-China competition in AI is also a factor here, according to another reader, who argued that if grassroots movements curtail AI development in the US, “we can rest assured China will extend its lead in this area.” That’s a concern shared by more than a few people in Washington. Google may have backed down in this case, but given these pressures, the debate over tech companies’ involvement in defense and law enforcement is far from over.

Wrecking the global economy's hopes for a relaxing late-August Friday, China and the US have taken fresh shots at each other in their deepening trade war.

First, China announced new tariffs on US goods in response to US levies on China's exports that are set to take effect next month.

Trump responded with a vintage tweet storm, lashing out at China and demanding that US firms stop doing business there. The Dow plunged as markets waited for the next shoe to drop. And drop it did: later in the day Trump announced higher tariffs on nearly everything that China exports to the United States.

Why now? Bear in mind, all of this comes right as Trump is leaving for this weekend's G7 summit in France. That gathering already promised to be a testy one – but with the global economy slowing, the impact of Trump's increasingly nasty trade war with China will add fresh tensions to the occasion.

So where are we in the trade war now? Here is an updated list of what measures each side has imposed to date, and what's next. Both sides have a lot at stake, but from the looks of it, the list isn't going to get shorter any time soon.

When Donald Trump first started talking about buying Greenland last week, we figured it was a weird story with less legs than a Harp seal.

Signal readers, we were wrong. President Trump was so serious about purchasing the autonomous Danish territory that this week he abruptly cancelled a trip to Denmark after the country's prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, labelled the idea "absurd."

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The Amazon in flames – More than 70,000 forest fires are burning in Brazil right now, most of them in the Amazon. That's up 84% over the same period last year, and it's the highest number on record. This is the dry season when farmers burn certain amounts of forest legally to clear farmland. But critics say Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro's efforts to loosen conservation rules have encouraged farmers, loggers, and miners to set more fires, many of them illegally. Bolsonaro – a science skeptic who recently fired the head of the agency that tracks deforestation – says, without proof, that NGOs are setting the fires to embarrass his government. Meanwhile, the EU is holding up a major trade deal with Brazil unless Bolsonaro commits to higher environmental protection standards, including those that affect the Amazon.

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Over the past fifty years, the Amazon rainforest has shrunk by an area equal to the size of Turkey. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Brazilian government supported settlement of the sparsely populated region for security reasons. Since then, huge swaths of the forest -- which is crucial for limiting the world's greenhouse gasses -- have been cleared for farmland used to feed Brazil's population and support its massive agricultural exports. Greater awareness of the environmental impacts in the 1990s produced tighter conservation regulations, though plenty of illegal clearing continues. In recent years, the annual deforestation rate has begun to rise again, and Brazil's new president Jair Bolsonaro has pledged to weaken regulations further in order to support businesses.