Tag Archives | Science

The Automation Loop and its Negative Consequences

GlassCage250I’m currently reading Nicholas Carr’s book The Glass Cage: Where Automation is Taking Us. I think it is an important contribution to the ongoing debate about the growth of AI and robotics, and the future of humanity. Carr is something of a techno-pessimist (though he may prefer ‘realist’) and the book continues the pessimistic theme set down in his previous book The Shallows (which was a critique of the internet and its impact on human cognition). That said, I think The Glass Cage is a superior work. I certainly found it more engaging and persuasive than his previous effort.

Anyway, because I think it raises some important issues, many of which intersect with my own research, I want to try to engage with its core arguments on this blog. I’ll do so over a series of posts. I start today with what I take to be Carr’s central critique of the rise of automation.… Read the rest

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Space travel may be bad for your brain – here’s why

I really hope this is the right flag. NASA/flickr, CC BY

I really hope this is the right flag. NASA/flickr, CC BY

Magdalena Ietswaart, University of Stirling and Paul Dudchenko, University of Stirling

There is bad news for those planning to go to Mars in the near future: a study in mice has suggested that radiation in space could cause cognitive decline in astronauts. However, we know from past research that mental, social and physical exercise can boost cognitive functions. With planned Mars missions moving ever closer, it might be be worth exploring activity as a way to counter radiation damage.

There are many hurdles to overcome to get to Mars. The obvious one, of course, is the amount of time it takes – about eight months. But for those brave enough to attempt such a journey, this may well be acceptable. What could be harder to accept, however, are the harmful galactic cosmic rays you’d be subjected to, produced by supernovae far away from Earth.… Read the rest

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Can We Trust Scientists’ Self-Control?

Positive-pressure biosafety suitNew biological techniques create the potential for catastrophe. The self-control of scientists is not enough to protect us, or to secure public trust. National governments must step in. Filippa Lentzos, Koos van der Bruggen and Kathryn Nixdorff argue that the US should lead the way, at the Guardian:

There is a growing convergence of concern about new technologies in the life sciences that are raising significant societal, ethical, environmental and security risks. Global public engagement must be a priority for deliberation about these technologies and for developing a set of common red lines.

The genome-editing technique CRISPR-Cas9 is the latest in a series of technologies to hit the headlines. This week Chinese scientists used the technology to genetically modify human embryos – the news coming less than a month after a prominent group of scientists had called for a moratorium on the technology. The use of ‘gene drives’ to alter the genetic composition of whole populations of insects and other life forms has also raised significant concern.

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Disdaining ‘the Search for Truth’

Paul R. Pillar writes at Consortiumnews:

It is unusual for a political leader to disavow truth-seeking as explicitly as Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin did when he tried to expunge from the longstanding mission statement of the University of Wisconsin a reference to “the search for truth” being a core purpose of the university.

Walker backed off, but only after public outrage and only with a retraction of his previous retraction that blamed the proposed change on a “drafting error.” The change in the mission statement was one part of a larger proposal by Walker that would slash much of the state’s subsidy of the university system.

The prevailing interpretation about Walker’s moves is that striking blows against the elite intellectuals one finds on the campus of a leading university — and suggesting, as Walker did, that the university could adjust to budget cuts by increasing professors’ work loads — pleases a sector of the Republican primary electorate to which Walker is appealing in seeking a presidential nomination in 2016.

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It’s not easy being cheesy…until now.


People Cheese. There really isn’t much more that can be added to this than what has already been expressed by the fine folks over at Cult of the Weird:

If you loved vagina yogurt, then you’re going to be really excited about the latest scientific breakthrough: Cheese made from human toe bacteria.

And armpit bacteria.

And belly button bacteria.

Not to mention, each cheese is complete with the donor’s body odor.

At some regrettable point in what will no doubt be referred to as a dark period in human history, microbiologist Christina Agapakis and artist Sissel Tolaas decided to make cheese using microbes growing on their own skin for an exhibit at the Science Gallery in Dublin.

According to this article on NPR, Agapakis had this to say about her exhibit:

“People were really nervous and uncomfortable, and kind of making these grossed out faces. Then they smell the cheese, and they’ll realize that it just smells like a normal cheese.”

Good, now even regular cheese has been ruined.

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It’s still possible we all live inside a hologram

Credit: TU Wien

Credit: TU Wien

Jamie Lendino via ExtremeTech:

Mathematicians are already familiar with the holographic principle, which the famous physicist Leonard Susskind first proposed. It asserts that a volume of space can be thought of as encoded on a boundary to it — such as an observer-dependent gravitational horizon — and therefore needs one less dimension then it appears to need. By extension, since our universe seems three-dimensional to us, it could actually be a two-dimensional structure that’s overlaid onto an incredibly large cosmic horizon.

Back in 1997, Juan Maldacena first postulated the theory of a holographic universe, saying that gravity arises from thin, vibrating strings that exist in 10 dimensions. Other physicists have been working with the concept since.

“The work culminated in the last decade, and it suggests, remarkably, that all we experience is nothing but a holographic projection of processes taking place on some distant surface that surrounds us,” wrote physicist Brian Greene, from Columbia University, in 2011.

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Project Elysium: VR to revive deceased loved ones

A development screenshot from Project Elysium.

A development screenshot from Project Elysium. Paranormal Games.

Mark Walton via Ars Technica:

How far is too far when it comes to pushing the boundaries of virtual reality? As VR devices grow ever more sophisticated—and the tools to create software for them ever more accessible—where do we draw the line between what’s ethically acceptable in the real world and what’s ethically acceptable in the virtual world?

One of the developers putting this question to the test is Australia-based Paranormal Games. Project Elysium, its entry into the upcoming Oculus VR Jam 2015, treads some shaky moral ground by promising to create a “personalized afterlife experience,” reuniting people with loved ones who have passed on. Exactly how the developer hopes to do this isn’t clear at this point (it will be required to showcase screenshots by April 27, followed by video footage the week after to be eligible for the jam’s grand prize), although a screenshot from Project Elysium’s development does show a friend of the studio being transformed into a 3D model.

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Hubble Space Telescope: 25 Years Exploring the Cosmos

Hubble captured this mountain of dust and gas rising in the Carina Nebula. The top of a three-light-year tall pillar of cool hydrogen is being worn away by the radiation of nearby stars, while stars within the pillar unleash jets of gas that stream from the peaks. Photo by NASA, ESA, and M. Livio and the Hubble 20th Anniversary Team (STScI)

Hubble captured this mountain of dust and gas rising in the Carina Nebula. The top of a three-light-year tall pillar of cool hydrogen is being worn away by the radiation of nearby stars, while stars within the pillar unleash jets of gas that stream from the peaks. Photo by NASA, ESA, and M. Livio and the Hubble 20th Anniversary Team (STScI)

Jasmine Wright and Margaret Myers Via PBS.org:

Hubble’s contributions to space exploration are countless. Its images, explains Hubble Space Telescope Senior Project Scientist Jennifer Wiseman, have shown the first definitive detection of supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies. They also have provided measurement of the expansion rate of the universe, and detection (along with ground-based telescopes) of acceleration in that expansion, caused by mysterious “dark energy” that appears to be pushing the universe apart.

“Hubble will go down in history as having changed the textbooks by totally revolutionizing humanity’s view of the universe, and our place in it,” Wiseman says.

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Hubble Space Telescope’s chief scientist on what it took to get the project off the ground

Hubble in orbit. NASA

Hubble in orbit. NASA

C Robert O’Dell, Vanderbilt University

Iconic images of astronomical pillars of gas and dust, views of galaxies soon after they were formed, an accelerating universe driven by Dark Energy… “give us more!” say the public and the taxpayers. The Hubble Space Telescope is undoubtedly one of the most popular science projects today. It was not always thus.

Laying the groundwork

With its origins dating back to a time when almost all astronomers used photographic plates to record images at ground-based telescopes, the idea of an ambitious and expensive observatory in space was not a popular one.

Palomar Observatory, firmly rooted to the ground. Tylerfinvold

The most influential astronomers of the 1960s thought it better to spend the money on 15 copies of the 200-inch giant on Palomar Mountain, rather than gamble all on a single telescope in space that was not as large.

Nevertheless, NASA held out the Hubble as a long-term goal.… Read the rest

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