Subscribe to The Atlantic and get 2 free issues

How Google Builds Its Maps

Inside Google's secretive Ground Truth program—and why it suddenly makes sense that they are working on a self-driving car:

"Let's step back a tiny bit to recall with wonderment the idea that a single company decided to drive cars with custom cameras over every road they could access. Google is up to five million miles driven now. Each drive generates two kinds of really useful data for mapping. One is the actual tracks the cars have taken; these are proof-positive that certain routes can be taken. The other are all the photos. And what's significant about the photographs in Street View is that Google can run algorithms that extract the traffic signs and can even paste them onto the deep map within their Atlas tool."
PUBLISHED: Sept. 6, 2012
LENGTH: 9 minutes (2414 words)

The Perfect Milk Machine: How Big Data Transformed the Dairy Industry

The quest for the perfect dairy cow—starting with Badger-Bluff Fanny Freddie, a bull who has 50,000 markers on his genome that make him the best sire at the moment:

"While breeders used to select for greater milk production, that's no longer considered the most important trait. For example, the number three bull in America is named Ensenada Taboo Planet-Et. His predicted transmitting ability for milk production is +2323, more than 1100 pounds greater than Freddie. His offspring's milk will likely containmore protein and fat as well. But his daughters' productive life would be shorter and their pregnancy rate is lower. And these factors, as well as some traits related to the hypothetical daughters' size and udder quality, trump Planet's impressive production stats.

"One reason for the change in breeding emphasis is that our cows already produce tremendous amounts of milk relative to their forbears. In 1942, when my father was born, the average dairy cow produced less than 5,000 pounds of milk in its lifetime. Now, the average cow produces over 21,000 pounds of milk."
PUBLISHED: May 2, 2012
LENGTH: 13 minutes (3431 words)

The Dark Side of the Placebo Effect: When Intense Belief Kills

Something was killing Hmong men in their sleep, and no one could figure out what it was. There was no obvious cause of death. None of them had been sick, physically. The men weren't clustered all that tightly, geographically speaking. They were united by dislocation from Laos and a shared culture, but little else. Even House would have been stumped. Doctors gave the problem a name, the kind that reeks of defeat, a dragon label on the edge of the known medical world: Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome. SUNDS. It didn't do much in terms of diagnosis or treatment, but it was easier to track the periodic conferences dedicated to understanding the problem.
PUBLISHED: Sept. 14, 2011
LENGTH: 8 minutes (2078 words)

Why Are Spy Researchers Building a 'Metaphor Program'?

That's right, metaphors, like Shakespeare's famous line, "All the world's a stage," or more subtly, "The darkness pressed in on all sides." Every speaker in every language in the world uses them effortlessly, and the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity wants know how what we say reflects our worldviews. They call it The Metaphor Program, and it is a unique effort within the government to deal with how we use words.
PUBLISHED: May 24, 2011
LENGTH: 11 minutes (2776 words)