Good Reads: From billionaire’s wealth, to climate language, to robot-driven cars

This week's round-up of Good Reads includes a look at how rich the rich really are, the ethics of buying conflict-causing materials, differences in environmental language, how trusting people can be of self-automated vehicles, and the use of new technology systems to catch criminals.

A Congolese miner crushes tin ore before it will be bagged and sold.

Bill Gates is the richest person in the world, with $77.5 billion, according to Forbes. How do you put that massive number in context? Mr. Gates could purchase every home in Boston – all 114,212 houses, condominiums, and brownstones, according to the real estate brokerage Redfin, which calculated the combined worth of homes in several American cities and then released an online report matching up those values to Forbes’s list of richest people.

Warren Buffett could afford all of Charlotte, N.C., (worth $56.1 billion). Industrialists Charles and David Koch together could buy out Atlanta ($78.1 billion). The Walton family, heirs to the Wal-Mart empire, could pool its money to purchase Seattle ($111.5 billion), and then pick up Anaheim, Calif. ($31.4 billion).

“In this fictional real estate investment, the 30 billionaires on our list, with a combined fortune of $582 billion, could afford to own a staggering 6 percent of the total U.S. home equity,” says Redfin chief economist Nela Richardson in the report.

Transparency for ‘conflict minerals’

Most high-end gadgets require four important minerals: tungsten, tin, tantalum, and gold. A large amount of those metals come from mines in Congo, a country gripped by a long, bloody conflict. In some cases, sales of the rare minerals fund Congolese warlords and perhaps prolong the violence.

Over the past few years, some technology companies have worked to stop buying “conflict minerals.” Apple, Intel, and others began auditing their suppliers and publishing the findings. The US government now requires such reports from certain companies, but doing a full investigation has proved to be difficult. Apple has confirmed that “80 percent of the smelters it does business with in the region don’t use conflict minerals,” writes Victor Luckerson in Time. By insisting that suppliers sell only conflict-free minerals, companies hope to be a force for good in the region.

Climate change vs. global warming

Many Americans are unsure whether climate change is a real and human-driven phenomenon, but they are more certain that global warming is a real and human-driven phenomenon. In an interesting look at the power of words, Yale University researchers asked Americans about their views of “climate change” and “global warming.” They discovered that many people react to the two terms differently.

Among liberals and independents, the phrase global warming generates greater understanding and emotional engagement that there is a scientific consensus about the reality of the phenomenon and greater certainty that human activities are the primary cause. It also inspires a greater sense of “personal threat” among both Democrats and Republicans.

“By contrast, the use of the term ‘climate change’ appears to actually reduce issue engagement by ... a variety of subgroups within American society, including men, women, minorities, different generations, and across political and partisan lines,” according to the study from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. “In several cases, the differences in the effect of the two terms are large.”

Humans quick to let robots drive

Last month, Google unveiled a new version of its self-driving car – one without a steering wheel or brake pedal. Through 500,000 miles of autonomous driving, the company learned a lot about the realities of the road, robotics, and machine learning. But one Google engineer says the most surprising finding involves how humans interacted with the computerized chauffeurs.

Google’s team imagined that humans and robots would take shifts. They designed the system assuming that human drivers would want to navigate back roads, and then would turn over control on the highway. In reality, test subjects were very suspicious about the self-driving system, until they got used to it. At that point, many gave robots the wheel. “People go from plausible suspicion to way overconfidence [in the autonomous system],” says Google project lead Nathaniel Fairfield, in a piece by MIT Technology Review

This informed the new vehicle design. If humans quickly decide to let the car do everything, then that car had better be twice as safe as originally planned.

Face-recognition software fights crime

The first person to be arrested using the Chicago Police Department’s new facial-recognition software has been sentenced to 22 years in prison. In 2013, Pierre Martin robbed a man at gunpoint on a Chicago train. After snatching the man’s phone, Mr. Martin escaped. However, a surveillance camera captured an image of his face, allowing police to check the photo against its database of 4.5 million mugshots. The facial-recognition program successfully matched up Martin with an old booking image.

While the software put police on the right trail, Cyrus Farivar in Ars Technica reports that the case against Martin relied on other evidence. 

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