The best of the week’s reads, including why smart toasters might be a bad idea, the intelligence of crows and what the internet’s replacement may look like.

Animal intelligence | Crows understand analogies

The revealed intelligence of animals is one of the great running stories of our time. If crows can grasp analogies, they have at least the reasoning power of a five-year-old child. But how do you test for logic in crows? You use cards with geometric patterns: “If the middle card displays a circle and a cross, then the correct choice will be the side card containing a square and a triangle rather than the side card containing two squares.” Confusing it may be, but the crows aced the test. (Ed Wasserman and Leyre Castro, Scientific American, 1,100 words)

Tech | Digital reality

MIT physicist discusses digital fabrication; 3D printing gets all the notice, but it’s only part of the story. MIT’s Fab Lab has ten million-dollar machines which between them can make almost anything. The lab is equivalent of a mainframe computer; it works, but only a few people can use it. The deep change will come when we get to the iPhone stage, packing the power of the Fab Lab into an affordable personal device. (Neil Gershenfeld, Edge, 8,400 words)

AI | Beware the sentient toaster

The internet of things will be full of surprises, most of them unwelcome for users, as companies work out what they can get away with. Samsung’s “smart” televisions are recording and transmitting household conversations. Drivers who fall behind on leasing payments find their cars remotely bricked. “Think of what happens if we let companies make pacemakers with Wi-Fi and then they go out of business.” (Ian Steadman, New Statesman, 2,220 words)

Drugs | The trip treatment

Doctors rediscover the therapeutic properties of hallucinogens. LSD carries too much political baggage, but psilocybin scores highly as a treatment for end-of-life anxiety. “Many cancer patients in the trials reported that their fear of death had lifted or at least abated … People don’t realize how few tools we have in psychiatry to address existential distress. How can we not explore this, if it can recalibrate how we die?” (Michael Pollan, The New Yorker, 10,300 words, metered paywall)

Design | A tale of two zippers

A visit to a zipper factory yields a case-study in microeconomics worthy of Adam Smith’s attention. Adding a tiny tab to the top of each puller, so that it falls out of the hopper the right way up, would allow for a fully automated production line. But that doesn’t happen. Why not? “The zipper’s designer wouldn’t have it. Even though the tab is very small, a user can feel the subtle bumps, and it’s perceived as a defect in the design.” (Bunnie Studios, 1,100 words)

Philosophy | Luciano Floridi on the philosophy of information

Google’s consultant philosopher talks about theories of knowledge and cognition from Plato to Turing by way of Descartes and Kant. “I find it very naive when people talk about knowledge as if it were of reality: reality is the source of the signals, but our knowledge is of the signals. It’s a bit like saying you hear music on the radio. The music is sent by the radio, but it is not about and does not ‘represent’ the radio.” (Nigel Warburton, Five Books, 3,800 words)

Digital | The next internet

Web-based publications are doomed. “The only thing that keeps people coming back in great enough numbers to make real money is the presence of other people. So the only apps that can be turned into money are communications services. The near-future internet puts the publishing and communications industries in competition with each other for the same confused advertising dollars, and it’s not even close.” (John Herrman, The Awl, 1,960 words)

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