SciTech Roundup

Welcome back to a new school year! For newcomers, SciTech Roundup is a weekly collection of headlines related to science and technology, some being specific to Carnegie Mellon, and others being national news.


Study identifies new autism genes

Researchers discovered over 100 genes related to autism, with many being new variants. Some seem to be related to other developmental disabilities and schizophrenia. Kathryn Roeder, UPMC Professor of Statistics and Life Sciences in Carnegie Mellon's Department of Statistics and Data Science, was a co-author of the paper along with several professors from the University of Pittsburgh, MIT, Harvard, and the University of California San Francisco. The researchers analyzed 150,000 genomes using cloud computing and worked to tease apart genes related to autism versus other developmental disabilities. Roeder determined that genes involved in developmental delay were more active in early neuronal development, while autism-related genes were more active in mature neurons.

Genes from the origins of marine life

Saoirse Foley, a researcher in Carnegie Mellon's Hinman lab, and other researchers authored a paper that identified 14 genes across three different species of echinoderms that could provide insight into the origins of marine life. The other researchers, a team from Barcelona, created a family tree that linked genes in purple urchins, an echinoderm, to those of other species.

Controlling magnetic states with spin currents

Scientists are already able to switch magnetic states by passing an electric current over a material, with a magnetic field applied horizontally. However, Carnegie Mellon doctoral candidates I-Hsuan Kao and Ryan Muzzio have found that a magnetic field isn't needed: by creating a material made of stacked atomically-thin layers, the electrical current can switch the magnetic state on its own. This could save energy for data storage, such as magnetoresistive random-access memory.


Apple is going to add more ads to iPhone

Apple has long touted and been touted for its security and privacy standards. Its app store is known for having a stricter review process than that of its main competitor, the Google Play Store. The App Store website advertises "Privacy and security. Built into everything we do.” In 2017, Apple added an Intelligent Tracking Prevention feature to Safari to block websites that send personally identifiable data to advertisers, though bugs in the update did temporarily cause new security vulnerabilities. On the opposite end, companies like Google and Facebook have long been criticized for privacy concerns. In particular, their business models are built upon advertising, tracking individuals' data and effectively selling digital footprints that companies can use to create customized ads.

This makes sense from a financial standpoint — Google and Facebook's biggest products are, at a surface-level, "free to use." But they must generate revenue somehow, and advertising is their method of offering a free product at the cost of user privacy. On the other hand, Apple has never marketed its products as free or even cheap — users are expected to pay a premium price for a premium product, and with that, premium privacy.

However, Bloomberg reports that Apple could be expanding into the advertising industry, which could provoke more privacy concerns. Apple does already have ads in apps like the News, Stocks, and the App Store. Now, Apple's advertising division has recently started reporting more directly to higher-ups, and is interested in getting their $4 billion advertising business up to the double-digits. Mark Gurman, who reports for Bloomberg on Apple-related and other technology news, predicts that Apple will eventually show ads on Apple Maps, Apple Books, and Apple Podcasts or add advertising tiers to TV+ as many other streaming companies currently do.

Apple does want its advertising model to be different from its competitors, however. For one, it's likely not going to put ads in apps not produced by Apple — it tried a similar endeavor in 2010 with iAd, which was discontinued six years later. Apple also claims to want to avoid giving out personally identifiable information and avoid cross-app tracking, so ads through their platform would be tailored to groups of people, not individuals.

Apple also already has a feature called App Tracking Transparency (ATT), which gives users a pop-up when an app on their iPhone wants to track them across non-Apple apps. ATT only operates on certain conditions, however: apps that only collect data within the app do not need consent from users. Apple's ads also use data collected from Apple accounts and other Apple services.

But not all apps stop tracking you, even if you tell them to. Tracking users really does help create individualized ads that pull in customers, so some companies flout the rules until they're caught. Companies that do follow Apple's ATT rules lose significant amounts of money, though larger ones like Facebook have fared better than small businesses. It invites suspicion that one of Apple's intentions with ATT is to pull revenue away from its competitors.

There's no telling whether Apple's proposed ad model will truly protect privacy in the long term — companies like DuckDuckGo have tried to topple advertising-heavy businesses like Google with little success. And after so much exposure to advertising, users are desensitized and don't always care about giving up their personal data in order to use cheap and efficient products. As technology continues to integrate into our lives, perhaps we can find better ways to protect user privacy, or maybe we will just have to make peace with our increasingly attention-based economy.