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Day 3 WIRED25: Looking at Problems in a New Way

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The outbreak will be behind us if we do it for a long time, and not among us, the outbreak will be behind us,” said WIRED senior editor Andy Greenberg who co-founded the CTI League Volunteer Group to protect hospitals and other critical organizations during the pandemic from phishing and ransomware.

Conversations on the last day of the WIRED25 this year revolved around the existential mess that has characterized 2020: Covid-19, election integrity, California wildfires. But the experts who came together to share their insights into these problems and the work they have done to address them also expressed a sense of real optimism.

President Anthony Fauci started the conference today in conversation with WIRED editor Steven Levy. While Fauci noted some alarming signs — 40,000 new cases each day in the United States, an increase in test positives in some areas — he remains optimistic for an end to the pandemic. He has trust in the vaccine development process and he thinks we should expect a safety, effective vaccine to be proofed in November or December. But for Fauci, the prospect of a vaccination in the next few months is not the only reason to be optimistic. He believes that hope itself is an effective tool in battling pandemics. Putting your hands into disrepair will make you throw up your hands and say, it does not matter what I do – what’s going to happen is going to happen”, he said. “That is inaccurate. It does matter what we do. We will look behind us if we do it for a long time and the outbreak will be behind us, not among us.“

Next up, WIRED Senior Editor Andy Greenberg met with Marc Rogers, Nate Warfield and Ohad Zaidenberg, who co-founded the CTI League Volunteer Group to protect hospitals and other crucial organizations during the pandemic from phishing and ransomware. It is almost fair to say that this is a cyberpandemic, because the bad guys, criminal actors have always exploited large events,” stated Rogers. But even when the pandemic ends, hospitals, emergency services and other organizations will still be vulnerable to cyberattacks, and so the CTI League is now looking at ways to continue to work in the future.

Senior reporter Lily Hay Newman then spoke with another cybersecurity expert, Maddie Stone, who works as a security researcher at Google Project Zero. The goal of Project Zero is to identify and eliminate zero-day vulnerabilities — known software errors that could be exploited by hackers. Zero-day vulnerabilities can be hard to find and use, so hackers deploy them for narrower applications. They are really targeted, sophisticated types of attacks because it takes a lot of expertise to find and exploit them, Stone said. So they are usually only used to target high-profile, highly valued targets such as political dissidents, human rights activists, journalists, etc.

Newman stayed online to chat with Ben Adida, the CEO of VotingWorks, which is the only non-profit manufacture of American election equipment. Adida said that owing to the complexity of the US elections voting machines are a necessity and should not be produced by for-profit companies. “We believe that elections are the foundation of democracy and that foundation should be public owned,” he said. But despite persistent worries about voter manipulation and Trump’s constant fear-mongering about voter fraud — including during the presidential debate last night –dida believes that the greatest threat to electoral integrity comes from us. The biggest concern I have is that a lot of well-meaning people out there who care about democracy are going to see an alarmist story on their Twitter feed, or in their Facebook feed and they are going to say, I need to tell my friends about this ”, he said. He left his audience with a stark warning: If we lose faith in democracy, we lose democracy.

The world of mathematics offered a more entertaining discussion. Rhett Allain spoke with Lisa Piccirillo, MIT math professor who made headlines earlier this year when she solved the’stalen’s Conway knot problem. Piccirillo said that knots are what you get when you pair the two ends of a tangled extension cord together. A whole subfield of abstract mathematics, known as knot theory, is devoted to unraveling the mysteries of knots and for a long time the conway knot remained stubbornly resistant to analysis. But by developing a similar knot that shared some of its attributes, Piccirillo was able to show that the Conway knot does not have a property called cutness, and she did so in only a week. She thinks that this abstract math-style of thinking could possibly be brought to the classrooms. She said: “The math that is currently taught in schools is very computational,” “That’s not what mathematicians do at all. What we really do is to try to make carefully argued, rigorous arguments about simple objects.”

The conversation then turned to the pandemic, as WIRED service editor Alan Henry spoke with Patrice Peck, a journalist and author of the newsletter “Coronavirus News for Black Folks”. Peck started writing the newsletter in early April, when it became clear to her that the Black community would need additional resources during the pandemic. When I realized that people with pre-existing medical conditions were at a higher risk for serious illnesses from coronavirus, I realized, Ok, this virus is going to really destroy the black community ”, said. At the same time, Peck knew that many black publications were re-opened or shuttered altogether and so she took on the responsibility for writing, collecting and spreading coronavirus news for Black readers. But Peck has used therapy and good TV while carrying on with this enormous responsibility. “I don’t know what I’ll be to as a journalist and as a member of my community if I’m frustrated and burnt out,” she said.

Like Schiffmann, at a young age, Audrey Tang was already tech-worker—but she left school altogether. In conversation with Adam Rogers, a WIRED senior correspondent, Tang — the first transgender minister in the world — talked about how Taiwan has kept the Covid-19 death toll to a mere seven. Tang introduced a rainbow mask to her face and highlighted one of the pillars of Taiwan’s covid-19 strategy. Taiwan did not experience a minimum of disruptions beyond masks and temperature checks. The life is another world normal, she said. And Tang’s digital leadership has helped enable this incredible success. To keep mask distribution efficient and fair, Tang and her colleagues built a system that allows people to monitor mask availability in real time. Since this system has an open API, anybody can interface with it to manipulate and study those data — as when one legislator previously unrecognized inequalities in the distribution system. For Tang, this public participation in the development of technology is key to their vision of democratic systems. “Instead of just receiving and understanding media and messages and narratives, [the public] can be producers of media and messages and narratives,” she said. “We are not happy with uploading two bits per person every four years—which by the way is known as voting.”

Since the WIRED25 announcement was released in early September, wildfires have swept through California, burning nearly 4 million acres, killing at least 26 people and destroying over 8,000 structures. Therefore it was only right to add David Saah and LeRoy Westerling to the lineup. Saah is the chief investigator of Pyregence Consortium, which works to build better wildfire models, and Westerling is the lead of the long-term modeling group of the consortium. In conversation with Daniel Duane, a WIRED contributor, Saah and Westerling talked about the reasons for California’s severe wildfires and how they are fighting them back. But as the fires continue to get worse, Westerling does not necessarily think that people will leave the hardest hit areas en masse. It is not clear that people are going to abandon the wildland urban inference or rural areas of California just because of fire. A big state, it has a housing crisis, a shortage of housing, it’s expensive to live in the coastal cities. Things like Covid also put pressure on people to spread out more rather than consolidating in already urbanized areas” so it is up to people like Saah and Westerling to continue to protect those communities.

After a day spent discussing thorny issues and innovative solutions, WIRED editor-in-chief Nick Thompson closed the event by arguing how an abstruse math puzzle could help reevaluate grander issues such as climate and the Covid-19 pandemic. Lisa Piccarillo invented a new, simpler-to-understand knot to solve the mystery of the Conway knot that shared the most important properties of the Conway knot. Thompson said that it was an amazing metaphor for this entire event. “If there is a problem and it is an unsolvable problem, how do you solve it? “How do you look at it in a new way?”

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