Sunday, 6 September 2009

Last Month in New Scientist (The Best of August 2009)

For all the articles in the magazine that I've found interesting but not thought worthy of an entire blog entry devoted to them. I was aiming to mention about 4 articles per issue, with a paragraph each. Naturally, I've elaborate significantly in places (the Noel Sharkey interview became a full blown piece on it's own), and there were 5 magazine issues this month (opposed to the more usual 4). I'd say that it is, at the least, worth a scan through the article titles listed below, in case anything jumps out at you too.

I've not provided links to individual articles online, just the issue's index page, seeing as most people won't have full access to many of the articles anyway.

** 29 Aug:

+ "It's a small world - in a healthy brain" p14 -
The neuronal structures (in human cortices) display behaviour consistent with their connectivity being finely configured to a state of 'self organised criticality'. Basically that means cascades of activity are as unpredictable as earthquakes and the neurons form a structure more like human society (where one's only ever 6 degrees of separation from anyone else on the planet), rather than merely relying on neighbouring cells to pass signals on to their neighbours, etc. This comes as no surprise to anyone who's up to speed with the revolution of network theory from the beginning of this decade. And it doesn't elucidate much further as to how we think, let alone what makes us conscious/sentient.

The sited study looked at brains with Alzheimer's (which were seen to have long distance connections that were too random) and Frontal Temporal Lobe Dementia (which had too few long distance connections).

So I now wonder if something similar might be the cause of dyslexia (rather than macro-scale variations, like a particular brain region being smaller). For me dyslexia has meant: very slow reading speed in particular (even more prominently than blindness to certain spelling transliterations). What if my current condition also represents a structural deviation in my brain?; A decline in cognitive ability, particularly higher order (conscious) thought that, presumably, requires the most widespread cortical co-ordination, making it most susceptible to such faults.

Of course, even in an optimally order brain, each cell's activation threshold has to be carefully tuned, so that the network operates in a region of chaos, rather than epileptic fit or coma (too low threshold & too high threshold, respectively). Neuromodulation (by serotonin, melatonin, dopamine, adrenaline, etc) and variations in oxygen and glucose concentration can also be responsible for moving the brain away from it's optimal operating range.

+ "Air travellers get a robot chauffeur" p19 -
I (and some of my friends) have thought for a while that we could have entirely 'self driven' cars on the roads by now, from a technical stand point. The (good) reason why we actually have none, is that there can be no step change between systems; there has to be (substantial) period of overlap with driven and driver-less cars sharing the roads. Car automation has to be made far better than is strictly necessary, in order to deal with the erratic nature of humans, thus we still wait for the revolution.

There is a similar problem with a switch-over to electric/hydrogen powered vehicles, which Shai Agassi has cleverly circumvented by locating and working with 'island' nations: Israel, Hawaii, Australia (San Francisco bay area) [an inspirational talk, well worth 20 minutes of your time]. This is fine for making a new energy distribution infrastructure viable, but what about a suitable island for Autonomous cars? It has to be some place where all human drivers can be replaced simultaneously, or don't exist in the first place... This article provided an answer: (Heathrow) Airport shuttle service! This revolution has a toe hold.

+ "The revolution will not be robotised" p28 - See previous blog post.

+ "Reconnected" p38 - on the successes of interfacing electronics with nervous systems. Because of the amazing flexibility of biological brains, getting commands directly out of the motor cortex seems to be almost as simple as sticking an 'nail-bed' (my analogy) array of contacts in and measuring the signals. The main hold-ups are tweaking the implant materials to be long term bio-compatible, and legal testing requirements: up to 10 years of animal trials before human implants!

I think I remember Kevin Warwick (AKA Captain Cyborg) predicting 7 years until fully operational human brain interfaces (in casual conversation after a lecture, 2 years ago). Presumably he has himself in mind as test subject. Seeing as they're well into rat neuron robotics research in department, this probably wasn't entirely fanciful guessing.

I think there's going to be increasing pressure for national health administrations to ditch, or at least greatly streamline, their safety testing requirements as the public becomes aware of the growing number of fabulous new health technologies being held back. For better or worst. I hope that even more detailed computer modelling and a revolution in understanding biology through network theory and such will make this a safe proposition.

** 22 Aug:

+ "Rude awakening for spaceflight dream" p8 -
I think the Obama administration already decided thata a return to the moon/mars is a no-go, but have to be seen to be carefully weighing up the possibilities, and showing the main problem was a hypocritical lack of funding during Bush's time in office. The general uneconomical-ness is bound to play well in current climate too. Good; do some proper science mission while saving up for a space elevator, I say.

+ Opinion letters: "Lay down your arms" p24 -
One point against (the inventive) utility of war: these are times (e.g. WW2) when patents were ignored for the sake of the national good, hence the boost in technological innovation.
[In response to Opinion letter (1stAug) "What war is good for" (a response to 4thJuly.p38)]

I think we surpassed the technological evolutionary benefits of war well before the 20th century, and any perceived benefits, since then, would come down to coincides like this one. On positive influences of war on early agricultural societies, I'm suspending judgement:

It's obvious that a society had to have cutting edge weapons technology and tactics to prevent it being wiped out/enslaved by the new super-power on the block (Empires: Roman, Brittish, etc). And generally it's necessary for a society with more advanced weapons to need a more advanced and complex supply chain to build and maintain them, which in turn requires manufacturing technologies that boost productivity/prosperity when used for civil applications. Which comes first? (military or civil) is debatable.

Proliferation of the best technological memes through conquest has been supplanted by co-operative spreading. This has fewer inefficiencies and less unpleasant side effects (although global corporatisation ain't great either).

+ “Where Darwin doesn't fit...” p26 Technological Evolution -
(see also "The Third Replicator" post)

The article art happens to bear significant similarities to my new line-break blog graphics (designed before I saw this).

Apparently, a “Samuel Butler” envisaged something along the line of memes (technological evolution anyway) only 4 years after “On the origin of Species” was published. W. Brian Arthur (article writer and prize winning Professor), reckons Darwinian evolution doesn't quite fit though, because of novel inventions that weren't arrived at by accumulation of small changes. Sure, but then biological evolution also employs a whole load of tricks Darwin didn't imagine (like accidental transcription of junk DNA into expressed regions of code, or the sharing of genes among the simplest of bacteria).

He's is right though; new technologies emerge from combinations of existing ones. In 'systems' terminology this is called “Autopoietic” (making itself), apparently. Which puts the, vaguely held, assumption of inventors plucking ideas from the heavens to ridicule. 'If it wasn't for [clever person X] we'd never have had [invention Y]'... bull! And is the main reason intellectual property rights are inappropriate.

It seems to me that his autopoietic thinking could easily have been extended to pretty much all human thought. But he doesn't connect these ideas to memes (or mention the exponential growth of new technologies, but that's a separate point). Perhaps he wants to steer clear of associations, rather than claim his work is wholly unique. I wonder if he gives full credit to the ideas that he used to cobble together his new book? ;o)

+ "An end to flu?" p28 - link with Aug 8th's article (“Kills all known viruses) -
I think we're going to need these kind of super-medicines to avoid disastrous pandemics, in a world far more densely populated and connected than anywhere during the heights of TB plague.

+ "Welcome to Appland" p32 - why was there not an, iPhone type, app explosion in 2003, around the time I got my first XDA? Presumably because it ran M$ Windows Mobile, enough said. Well actually, it'll be because the mobile operators saw web enabled phones as a niche market for business users, to be juiced for whatever money possible. Hence the prohibitive £2 per MB range of charges. For the same reason the operators (and M$) didn't push apps, just didn't see the potential, so users had to search online (using a PC) for 3rd party apps scattered all over the web. Oh well, society's catching up now (that I no longer have any use for flat rate mobile internet; gits!).

Are we about to see widespread adoption of HUDs, hanging off the coat-tails of the web-phone app popularity explosion?; some 'augmented reality' apps already here, huge potential for more. Various vision goggles have nervously poked their heads into the market too, before failing quietly. I think the bulk and (lack of) styling and impractical usability will keep getting in the way, until Apple comes up with a sexy design that works, and breaks though the social inertial again.

+ "Triumph of the commons" p40 -
An optimistic edition overall, I felt, this article's arguments may be a little weak, but the overall notion is valid: it's an unprecedented challenge, but we've never been in a better position (globally) to tackle the problem of climate change, resource depletion, etc.

** 15 Aug:

+ "What's next for swine flu" p6 -
Glad they're still covering this significant story, even though mainstream media have lost interest. Tabloids/"news at ten" will hardly draw customers with the kind of technical hypothesising a pop-science mag can.

+ "Anti-company men" p21 -
'The Yes Men' have staged various high profile pranks and social experiments on a counter-corporation theme. For example, they unexpectedly wiped 3% off Dow Chemical's share price when they faked an announcement claiming the company would pay as much as it takes to rectify an 1984 Bhopal accident in India.

But their most worrying observation is that when they pretend to be big corpa', making satirically evil announcements, people just don't react. They seem to be trying to tempt society, out of it's apathetic servitude, into dealing with some of the corruption inherent from corporatisation. Pointing also to the fact that big pharma' receives far more 'incentive' (cash) for treating chronic illness, that it does curing (other) illnesses.

This sentiment links up with my Zeitgeist Addendum entry and a forthcoming Douglas Rusfkoff piece.

+ "Bad boys clean up" p 34 -
Electric/energy efficient lorries. I like thinking about design upgrades that could be made to big machine and such. It's that urge that 'levelling up' in computer games taps into (or creates). I've a particular fixation atm for wanting to stick solar panels on things: if the tops of load trailers/containers where entirely covered with solar PV, and electric/hybrid cabs were used, one could get an non-insignificant amount of energy. Roughly 5KW, in full on sun, using 30% efficient (next gen) panels. Given that it takes ~15Kw to drive a car at 70mph, there won't be any chance of winning the World Solar Challenge. But if used to charge batteries while stationary, and in combination with the other efficiency measures, it could revolutionise logistics.

+ "The fat that makes you thin" p38 -
'Brown fat' cells (unlike the common white ones) turn all available energy into heat. Babies have a fair amount of these (concentrated on their upper back), but adults have very little. Middle age obesity may be linked to the disappearance of these cells.

It has been demonstrated that skin cells can be changed into brown fat cells and reimplanted (in mice) to burn sugar that would have otherwise been stored. Human trials with liposuctioned cells are planned. But it's far from ideal as a cure for obesity, if gluttony is left unchecked, with the environmental and ethical problems with livestock (for a start). A higher metabolism would likely increase incidence of free-radicals, possibly increasing cancer risk and ageing.

** 8 Aug:

+ "Think IBM" p2 (Advert) -
Image is reminiscent of my new blog logo. More of a world brain though.
“By 2010, the amount of digital information in the world is predicted to double every 11 hours.” lol!; really?! That's rather ahead of, even the most optimist Singularitarian's time scale. (Uncle) Ray puts the doubling of 'bits shipped' at about once per year. Perhaps we'll be producing *and discarding* as much data every 11 hours as we previously had stored. I think they took 'artistic licence' a bit far here, in trying to scare businesses into buying their hardware...

+ “Robots to get their own operating system” p18 -
That robotics is still in a pre-DOS era, is something I can confirm/identify with personally, from my time in a cybernetics department. Currently, the closest thing to a standard robotics platform is Lego Technic. So much wasted time, and obstacles to overcome, to make a robotic platform for autonomous vision systems, etc, when all your want to do is get programming. Effectively, most of the work in the 3rd year MEng project was pointless/duplication. There does need to be a Windows/Android for robotics for there to be an explosion in this field (funny that Google called they mobile OS that...). I don't think it'll properly come in the next decade, to be honest. If it does it would be an extension of the iPhone app explosion.

If "robotics is [truly] like computers 30 years ago" then that would put the ultimate, mass market boon of computers, the internet, etc, at a handy date of 2040ish; Singularity's doorstep.

+ "China's Growing Pains" p 22 -
I'm pretty optimistic that china will obtain the ability and will-power to tackle it's emissions in time (provided the governmental system doesn't undergo any massive upheavals). AS this article points out, the main action to reduce China's future emissions need to come from 'the west': we need to massively cut our emissions before expecting them to do anything, and we need to give them all the technical knowledge we have on renewable and nuclear power.

I'm increasingly taken with their communism, I've moved away from the feeling that democracy and personal rights are a necessary improvement for the country's citizens. As the (morally corrupt) compromises that come with capitalist democracy, become more evident to me, they seem more and more on a par with the human rights abuses, we naively scorn, in china.

It's more complicated than that, and the Chinese people seem very capable of mentally digesting these logical grey areas. Ben Gortzel recently blogged:
"One thing I learned about China is: the answer to almost any nontrivial question is some complex, multidimensional form of 'maybe' or 'sort of.' "
It's an amicable ability for a society, one that plays well with scientific cautiousness. Far better than the western demand for 'Well: Is it? Or Isn't it?!!', and the bi-polar, cyclic politics that seems to bring.

+ "10 Mysteries of you" p28 -
Clearly filler material for a lack of main story; says nothing new or significant. It's like a 'bite sized' revision, on a spread of topics that include something applicable to everyone; a scientific journal's astrology chart fortune telling; a rehash of populist sci-speculation bordering on folklore.

It is OK that New-Sci is becoming more populist though: it was never a rigorous peer-reviewed journal, and the greater the reach of science news/thinking into the general populous, the better. Engage 'the next generation', etc.

+ "Kills all unknown viruses" p40 -
A totally different direction to antivirals; several promising panaceas, as effective against viruses, as antibiotics are against bacteria. Though extra precautions

One of these is bound to become widespread within the next 3-10 years, and will change global health forever. All possible due to massively faster tools for working with DNA level structures and such. Not mentioned, but very soon we'll be able to computationally emulate the action of compounds on individual viruses using supercomputers, which will make testing possible drugs immensely fast. Only sticking point then is safety trial and approval procedures, which will start to come under increasing pressure.

+ "Walk away the rush-hour blues" p44 -
Looks like an idea I was contemplating a while back (when inspired to think of possible mass transport solutions for archologies), of multiple speed moving walkways. It's already been done, a century ago; how passée! It was apparently a case study in how subtle niggles with a technological solution can render it stillborn (like the screeching racket it made). Wonder if some tech development will fix that soon/ever? Will the whole idea be rendered moot by super-efficient automatic taxis/buses/multidimensional lifts? Maybe airports (that haven for alternative transportation) will nourish them (see 29Aug p19).

+ "Fight the flab with... fat" p14 -
See Aug15 p38, feature article.

+ "Chimps stay stuck in an innovative rut" p15 -
Apparently they tend to stick with tried and tested techniques, even when shown new ones that pay big dividends. In heuristics terms: all exploit and no explore, they get stuck in local minima.

This may be the most important difference between human and apes; if survival of the fittest memes is not guaranteed, there will be no technological evolution (to link up with the "Third Replicator" article/blog).

+ "Probing the dark side of artificial intelligence" p18 -
AAAI panel conviened (at Menlo Park, California), then presented their considerations at the IJCAI (Pasadena, Cal., 15 July):

- Unanimously agreed that human level AI is possible (eat that Sharky!; see top).
- Self improving AI explosion ("Singularity") possible but widely considered infeasible, due to current lack of relevant projects.
- Smart-phone viruses/identity theft considered most pressing issue. The complexity of these systems makes it impossible to predict all of their possible behaviours, also.
- Internet not about to become self aware.

Nothing surprising here, just the big-league AI chaps touching base with each other.

+ Opinions p24: "What war is good for" vs "Set inventions free" -
The former makes the same old claim that war stimulates invention ("accelerated technological change"). I can see that his examples of "satellites and rockets" might be considered useful in general, but "stealth technology"?!!

The latter latter points to evidence, inconvenient to the 'war stimulate invention' and 'patents stimulate invention' arguments:
- The Wright Brother's American patents stifled the aviation industry there while it was taking flight in Europe.
- Ditto for the automotive industry, with the four stroke engine Otto cycle patent.
- What if internet protocols had been patented?!

+ "America turns red, white and green" p26 -
Interview with John Holdren, Physicist, science advisor to the President and ex professor of environmental policy at Harvard. Some good stuff here:
  • He's clearly as well informed as anyone about the science of climate change and urgency of action.
  • He's realistic about international politics too; that industrialised nations (lead by the US) will have set the example before expecting developing nations (e.g. china) to follow suit.
  • The (only) troubling part of the article is the US senate has to pass the Clean Energy and Security Act (Waxman-Markey bill), with cap and trade and renewables targets, before the international political ball and start rolling. He expects to need to swing 12-15 votes to get the necessary 60. Otherwise the senate may propose their own version of the bill, watered down. Hmm, we shall see.

+ “The Third Replicator” p36 -
Already blogged. I also bought "The Meme Machine" by Susan Blackmore, which I hope to review sometime.

+ "Do I look flat in this" p40 -
After having decided that the universe is flat, cosmology is now not so sure. There's a chicken/egg situation with space's geometry and the nature of dark energy (we need to know one to find the other), that wasn't previous appreciated when making assumptions to determine flatness.

Personally, I think that the structure of matter (galaxies, etc) is fractal, and will turn out to have a subtle but strong effect on the apparent geometry of the universe, rendering dark energy (as some mysterious unknown entity) unnecessary. I'd also wager that, it will eventually turn out that, we like in a closed universe. Or it will be eminently possible to reconfigure the mater in the universe to form a closed geometry. Thus enabling an Omega Singularity.


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