July 18, 2024

At The Washington Post Help Desk, we help you with questions about the technology in your everyday life. From frustrating cloud storage to dead hardware to lost passwords — we’ll do our best to help iron out the kinks.
But sometimes, that leaves broader tech questions hovering just out of the frame. There’s nothing like fielding emails from younger readers that makes me realize: Wait, what is the Internet? And how long will it take before robots can do everything I do better than me? This week, we took four questions from younger readers about finding social events, protecting privacy online, sharing digital information around the world and understanding what artificial intelligence is capable of. If you’ve got questions about technology in your life, send them to us at yo**********@wa******.com. In the meantime, enjoy these questions and know that your kids are all right.
Looking for a Facebook alternative: Where can I find good websites for events? In your alternatives to Facebook article you did a wonderful job outlining alternative services, but as a person under 30 I get most of my knowledge of social events around me (meaning not like, Nextdoor posts but more concerts/bar nights/etc.) from the service, but I’m pretty certain it’s the only feature keeping me on Facebook.
— Sam, Silver Spring, Md.
Hey Sam,
I’ve been there. I recently deleted my longtime Facebook account after years of clinging on so I could keep using the events and groups features. The math worked out thusly: For every 500 unhinged posts from friends and family Facebook threw my way, I’d find one fun pop-up concert.
Some good news: If you decide to make the jump, other apps can help fill this particular void. Here are some my friends and I have found useful:
Meetup: This app is totally dedicated to events, groups and get-togethers. When you create an account, you’ll punch in some of your interests — like “outdoor” or “music” — as well as some subcategories, like “hiking.”
When I looked at events where I live this weekend, I immediately found a good fit: a day hike with about 35 attendees through the city’s various parks. I checked the city you listed as your hometown, as well, and found a good chunk of events happening this weekend. (Although many are virtual, presumably because of the pandemic.)
Reddit: Message forum Reddit is the pulsing brain of the Internet. There are location-based communities and plenty of threads about things to do in various cities. Looks like one Reddit community for people in the D.C. area crowdsources a weekly “weekend guide.” And somebody organizes a recurring happy hour, too. (Beware, though: Some threads in location-based forums echo the worst of the neighborhood apps you mentioned, and paranoia and finger-pointing abound.)
TikTok: Yes, I’ll say it: The short-form video app TikTok is a great place for finding stuff to do. When I punched my city name into the search bar, the very first results were videos about “hidden gems,” “the perfect day” and “things to do.” (I’m going to write the rest of this article before marching to the puzzle store one video recommended, but it won’t be easy. A STORE FILLED WITH PUZZLES.)
The Nudge: This app texts you two or three times a week with ideas for things to do in your area, from nights out to weekend trip itineraries. For $4.99 a month, you can subscribe to a premium version that comes with a “vault” of recommendations, seasonal tips and a search function. One pet peeve: This app seems to be designed for young people, and it is not going to let you forget it. The first text I received from the company urged me to continue being my “beautiful, bad— self,” and it took about two seconds of scrolling to find reference to “cuffing season.” If this type of marketing copy doesn’t make you want to scratch your eyeballs out — more power to you.
Groupon: Groupon, an app where companies and event producers list coupons, is a classic. I went to the website and input my city, then chose Things to Do -> Tickets and Events -> Within 5 Miles. There were tons of options, including deals for concerts, museums, art exhibits, sporting events and theater.
You’ve decided to quit Facebook. Here’s how to migrate your online life elsewhere.
Tech in the future: Is it possible that AI will eventually become smarter than humans?
— Cameron, Naples, Fla.
Hi Cameron,
Given that I recently asked Siri for directions to the nearest FedEx and she added “carrots” to my shopping list, I’m going to guess no.
But this is an important — and tough — question. Professor and AI researcher Julie Shah gets it all the time, she said, and the answer requires a little background. Shah is director of the interactive robotics group in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In some ways, AI is already a lot “smarter” than us. I, for example, couldn’t solve 24×36 without using a calculator, but the world’s fastest supercomputer can perform 415 quadrillion calculations every second and never even needs a coffee break.
But in other ways, AI is at a real disadvantage. It can only solve problems if those problems have been set up for it in advance. A robot could use AI-powered computer vision to identify the objects on her desk, Shah pointed out, but only if a roboticist first taught it what to pay attention to and what an “object” even is. Even AI systems that work by taking in a ton of data and then spitting out patterns first need that data cleaned up and organized by humans.
We humans are smart, and we’re also distinctly creative. Our minds think abstractly and forge new connections, and it will take robots some serious time to catch up, if they ever do.
“We have unique strengths that I don’t foresee machines or AI or robots in the foreseeable future taking over,” says Shah, who’s also associate dean of social and ethical responsibilities of computing at MIT.
In the future, AI might figure out how to structure new problems for itself, Shah said. But it’ll take us a while to get there, and along the way, we’ll have to answer some essential questions about what role we want AI to play in our world.
Shah isn’t worried about robots going rogue and bucking human authority, she said, but she is worried about the harm AI can cause when it mirrors our bad qualities. Bias against certain people and groups gets baked into AI systems all the time. Maybe the data was collected from imperfect humans, or the system was built by imperfect researchers. The more responsibility we give AI, the more potential there is to amplify existing problems in our society. Will AI’s benefits go to the people who already have the most, and will its harms affect people who already have the least?
“Any positive or negative use or outcome of this technology isn’t predetermined. We have a lot of choices that we make,” Shah said. “And these should not be decisions that are left solely to technologists. Everybody needs to be involved because this technology has such a broad impact on all of us.”
Meet the scientist teaching AI to police human speech
Balancing data privacy and a life online: How can younger people who have been on the Internet pretty much their whole lives keep their data private when so much is already out there?
— Izzy, Minneapolis
Hi Izzy,
I think a lot about data privacy, too. Are we long-lost twins?
Controlling how much information about yourself you share on the Internet is hard enough, but growing up online is a whole different game. Some kids will hit their teenage years just to discover that their parents have been sharing their every success, failure, first dance and trip to the doctor on social media.
There are some legal protections in place for people under 13 that prohibit companies from collecting data without consent and using it to persuade you to buy stuff. But — unless you live in California, Virginia or Colorado — those protections go away once you’re older.
Without privacy laws protecting everyone from companies scooping up and selling your data whenever they want, the best way to protect your privacy is to limit what information you share. Don’t want a company filling your inbox with reminders to check out the latest fall looks? Don’t give them your email address when that pop-up offers 15 percent off. Don’t want your instant payment app keeping tabs on who you’re friends with? Don’t give it access to your phone contacts. Don’t want a giant ad company tracking your every interaction to better figure out what you might buy? Stay far away from Instagram.
Obviously, participating in the online world involves some privacy trade-offs (she said, flipping open Instagram for the sixth time this hour.) But most products come with settings that give you a little more control. Check out this list of some simple privacy settings you can change right now and this list of privacy settings on social apps.
Maybe someday online privacy will be a right — instead of a fight, like it is now. But until then, take some time to decide what your values are when it comes to sharing things about your life online. Are you someone who prefers to keep intimate conversation in person, or does it feel good to bare your soul in the often-fake online world? Do you want strangers to see your TikTok profile, or is it less stressful to just share videos with your friends? When you set up a first date and that person Googles you, what do you want them to find out? Does it bother you when companies collect information about you to show you targeted ads? Or maybe you’re not too worried about it, and you’d rather use your energy to tackle a different issue in your community.
There’s no right approach here. But it’s important to know what makes you feel good and bad, and to speak up for what you need.
Apps offer teens some one-and-done settings to stay safer online. Here’s a crash course.
Another reader wrote in to ask how the Internet travels among continents when there are oceans in between.
This question had — embarrassingly — never occurred to me. So I called Google, and Vijay Vusirikala, the company’s senior director of network technologies and architecture, broke things down.
About 160 years ago, people started using ships to lay cables across the ocean and send telegraphic messages to other continents, Vusirikala said. Those cables, and many more that came after, used pulsing electrical currents to signal a series of ones and zeros — so “on, off, on” might mean “1,0,1.” In computer languages, those ones and zeros build on top of each other to communicate more complicated data, like images, text or sound.
In the 1990s, things changed: We started using tiny threads of super-pure glass instead of metal wires, and electrical signals got replaced with “optical” ones. So instead of using surges of electricity to create a series of ones and zeros, we now use flashes of lights from a laser.
Picture a teeny tiny ultrathin glass cord, wrapped in a tube, sealed in steel armor. People drop those on the bottom of the ocean, and they send streams of ones and zeros around the world.
For example, a high-resolution video would require sending 20 million ones and zeros every single second, Vusirikala said. But each tiny laser can flash 400 billion times a second. There are 60 or 70 lasers in each fiber, and about 16 fibers in a cable.
Vusirikala said there are around 400 undersea cables snaking around the ocean floors, connecting continents thousands of miles away. Companies like Google, Facebook and giant telecommunications firms own these cables. A very small chunk of long-distance data, about 2 percent, travels by satellites in space.
Pictures or it didn’t happen:
What is the ‘metaverse’? Facebook says it’s the future of the Internet.
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