Some of Ian Frazier’s customary whip-smart, wondrous prose is on display in his NYRB piece about a raft of volumes by and about Daniil Kharms, a writer from that self-inflicted wound called Russia, who was diagnosed as schizophrenic and starved to death at 36. He matured as an artist in Stalin’s Soviet Union, an era bathed needlessly in blood, his dark, absurd sensibilities perfect for the time and place or perhaps warped into midnight by them. The opening:

Russia is the funniest country in the world. Some countries, like America and England, are funny mostly on purpose, while others, like Germany and France, can be funny only unintentionally. (But that counts! Being funny is tricky, so any way you do it counts.) Russia, however, is funny both intentionally (Gogol, Zoshchenko, Bulgakov) and unintentionally (Vladimir Putin singing, as he did at a televised event a few years ago, “I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill”). Given the disaster Russian history has been more or less continuously for the last five centuries, its humor is of the darkest, most extreme kind. Russian humor is to ordinary humor what backwoods fundamentalist poisonous snake handling is to a petting zoo. Russian humor is slapstick, only you actually die.

Surveys that measure such distinctions often rate Russians among the world’s least happy people. To judge from the Russians I know, this information would hold little interest one way or the other. To Russians, happiness is not the big deal it is to us; the Declaration of Independence they don’t have makes no statement about it. On the street or otherwise encountering strangers Russians don’t paste big grins on their faces, the way we tend to do. They look sternly upon reflex smilers. Their humor is powerful without a lot of jollity, and it’s hard to imagine Bulgakov, say, convulsed and weeping with laughter, as I have been when reading certain scenes in his novel Heart of a Dog.

Daniil Kharms, a Russian writer who came of age in the worst of Soviet times, is categorized as an absurdist, partly (I think) because it’s hard to know what else to call him. To me he makes more sense as a religious writer.

He is really funny and completely not ingratiating, simultaneously.•

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An excellent New York Times short-form video report “Cheaper Robots, Fewer Workers” by Jonah M. Kessel and Taige Jensen delves into the robotization of labor in China, which claims it suffers a shortage of workers in some provinces and districts despite its immense population in the aggregate. Chinese firms say employees displaced by faster, cheaper machines are offered better positions, but that appears, unsurprisingly, to not be the case.

You probably wouldn’t want to live in a country left behind in the age of robotics, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t great societal challenges for those nations that thrive in this new age.

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From the February 1, 1937 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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I’m in favor of genetically modified foods, even if I have concerns about Monsanto and its ilk. Even without human-made climate change, we eventually would face a temperature shift threatening to agriculture. Let’s get started now (carefully and intelligently) on these experiments, especially since there are going to be more mouths to feed. 

In 2010, David Honigmann of the Financial Times had lunch with Stewart Brand, a strong proponent of GMOs, which were meeting with resistance in Europe, particularly France. An excerpt:

Food, I say, is central to French culture. He scoffs. “Socialised agriculture is OK?” He takes some fig jam with his cheese. France, I say, is full of small farmers, not dominated by agrochemical combines. “That’s fair.” None the less, he insists that “it will all go better with genetically engineered plants. And animals. And farmers.

“We’ve had 12 or 13 years of genetically engineered food in this country and it’s been great. My prediction is that in a couple of years we’ll see a soyabean oil that has Omega 3 fatty acids to cut down heart disease. Who would refuse that, any more than people refuse to take medicine?”

In the long run, he insists, opposition will die out. “IVF is the big example. I remember when that was an abomination in the face of God’s will. As soon as people met a few of the children, they realised that they were just as good as the ‘regular’ ones. My hope is that, unlike nuclear, which involves almost a theological shift, getting gradually used to genetic foods will be a non-issue.”•

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In a Harvard Business Review piece, Brad Power looks at the timetable of AI entering the business place in earnest. In the “What’s Next” section, he handicaps the horizon, though I caution that he bases part of his ideas on a bold prediction by Ray Kurzweil, who is brilliant but sometimes wildly inaccurate. An excerpt:

As Moore’s Law marches on, we have more power in our smartphones than the most powerful supercomputers did 30 or 40 years ago. Ray Kurzweil has predicted that the computing power of a $4,000 computer will surpass that of a human brain in 2019 (20 quadrillion calculations per second). What does it all mean for the future of AI?

To get a sense, I talked to some venture capitalists, whose profession it is to keep their eyes and minds trained on the future. Mark Gorenberg, Managing Director at Zetta Venture Partners, which is focused on investing in analytics and data startups, told me, “AI historically was not ingrained in the technology structure. Now we’re able to build on top of ideas and infrastructure that didn’t exist before. We’ve gone through the change of Big Data. Now we’re adding machine learning. AI is not the be-all and end-all; it’s an embedded technology. It’s like taking an application and putting a brain into it, using machine learning. It’s the use of cognitive computing as part of an application.” Another veteran venture capitalist, Promod Haque, senior managing partner at Norwest Venture Partners, explained to me, “if you can have machines automate the correlations and build the models, you save labor and increase speed. With tools like Watson, lots of companies can do different kinds of analytics automatically.”

Manoj Saxena, former head of IBM’s Watson efforts and now a venture capitalist, believes that analytics is moving to the “cognitive cloud” where massive amounts of first- and third-party data will be fused to deliver real-time analysis and learning. Companies often find AI and analytics technology difficult to integrate, especially with the technology moving so fast; thus, he sees collaborations forming where companies will bring their people with domain knowledge, and emerging service providers will bring system and analytics people and technology. Cognitive Scale (a startup that Saxena has invested in) is one of the new service providers adding more intelligence into business processes and applications through a model they are calling “Cognitive Garages.” Using their “10-10-10 method” they deploy a cognitive cloud in 10 seconds, build a live app in 10 hours, and customize it using their client’s data in 10 days. Saxena told me that the company is growing extremely rapidly.•

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How soon will it be until robots walk among us, handling the drudgery and making us all unemployed hobos? It probably depends on how much time the geniuses at MIT waste conducting Ask Me Anythings at Reddit. Ross Finman, Patrick R. Barragán and Ariel Anders, three young roboticists at the school, just did such a Q&A. A few exchanges follow.

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Question:

  1. How far away are we from robo-assisted “personal care”?
  2. Given the chance, would either of you augment (with current and newly developed equipment) yourselves, and if so: to what extent?

Ross Finman:

1) Well… cop out answer, but it depends. Fully autonomous health care robots that would fully displace human health care professionals will be decades. The level of difficulty in that job (and difficulty for robots is deviation) is immense. Smaller aspects can be automated, but as a whole, a long time. 2) I would love to augment my brain with access to the internet. When hitting a problem and then taking the time to go and search online for the solution is so inefficient. If that could be done in thoughts, that would be awesome! Also, one of my friends is working on a wearable version of Facebook that could remind you when you know someone. Would avoid those awkward situations when you pretend to know someone.

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Question:

What is currently the most challenging aspect of developing artificial intelligence? (i.e. What are the roadblocks to me getting a mechanical slave?)

Patrick R. Barragán:

This question is pretty general, and most people will have different answers on the topic. I think there are many big problems with developing AI. I think one is representation. It is hard in a general way to think about how to represent a problem or parts of a problem to even begin to think about how to solve it. For example, what are the real differences between a cup and bowl even if humans could easily distinguish them. There is a representation question there for one very specific type of problem. On the other end of the spectrum, how to deal with the huge amount of information that we humans get every moment of every day in the context a robot or computer is also unclear. What do you pay attention to? What do you ignore? How much to your process all the little things that happen? How do you reuse information that you learned later? How do you learn it in the first place?

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Question:

I remember reading this article about robot sex becoming a mainstream thing in 2050, according to a few robotics experts:

http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/256430

Do you agree or disagree with this assertion?

Patrick R. Barragán:

I guess it’s possible, but if that is where we end up first on this train, I would be surprised. The article that you linked to suggests that people have built robots for all kind of things, and it suggests that those robots work, are deployed, and are now solutions to problems. Those suggestions, which pervade media stories about robotics, are not accurate. We have produced demonstrations of robots that can do certain things, but those sorts of robots that might sound like precursors before we get to “important” sex robots don’t exist in any general way yet.

Also, I don’t know anyone who is working on it or thinks they should be.

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Question:

Do you think programming should be a required course in all American schools? Do you believe everyone can be benefited by knowing programming skills?
 

Ariel Anders:

Required? No. Beneficial? Definitely.

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Question:

Will a computer be able to learn from it’s mistakes in the future?

Ross Finman:

Will humans be able to learn from their mistakes in the future?•

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The upside to the financial crisis of a medium, say like magazines with their economic model tossed into the crapper by technological progress, is that publications are forced to reinvent themselves, get innovative and try offbeat things. In that spirit, the resuscitated Newsweek assigned Wikileaks editor (not “self-styled editor”) Julian Assange to review Luke Harding’s The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man.

And what a gleefully obnoxious pan he delivers, making some salient points along the way, even if it’s not exactly unexpected that he would be bilious toward traditional media in favor of alterna-journalists like himself. Additionally: Assange proves he is a very funny writer. You know, just like Bill Cosby.

An excerpt:

In recent years, we have seen The Guardian consult itself into cinematic history—in the Jason Bourne films and others—as a hip, ultra-modern, intensely British newspaper with a progressive edge, a charmingly befuddled giant of investigative journalism with a cast-iron spine.

The Snowden Files positions The Guardian as central to the Edward Snowden affair, elbowing out more significant players like Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras for Guardian stablemates, often with remarkably bad grace.

“Disputatious gay” Glenn Greenwald’s distress at the U.K.’s detention of his husband, David Miranda, is described as “emotional” and “over-the-top.” My WikiLeaks colleague Sarah Harrison—who helped rescue Snowden from Hong Kongis dismissed as a “would-be journalist.”

I am referred to as the “self-styled editor of WikiLeaks.” In other words, the editor of WikiLeaks. This is about as subtle as Harding’s withering asides get. You could use this kind of thing on anyone.

Flatulent Tributes

The book is full of flatulent tributes to The Guardian and its would-be journalists. “[Guardian journalist Ewen] MacAskill had climbed the Matterhorn, Mont Blanc and the Jungfrau. His calmness now stood him in good stead.” Self-styled Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger is introduced and reintroduced in nearly every chapter, each time quoting the same hagiographic New Yorker profile as testimony to his “steely” composure and “radiant calm.”

That this is Hollywood bait could not be more blatant.•

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In China, the leading cause of death is now cancer (and the mortality rate from the disease considerably higher than the world average), so you’d think the government would have its hands full with that issue. But they still have time to be concerned about “funeral strippers,” an admittedly strange lure to draw mourners to a service. There’s an official crackdown on the practice. From Te-Ping Chen and Josh Chin at WSJ:

In China, friends and family of the deceased may have to do without a special form of funereal entertainment: strippers.

According to a statement from the Ministry of Culture on Thursday, the government plans to work closely with the police to eliminate such performances, which are held with the goal of drawing more mourners.

Pictures of a funeral in the city of Handan in northern Hebei province last month showed a dancer removing her bra as assembled parents and children watched. They were widely circulated online, prompting much opprobrium. In its Thursday statement, the Ministry of Culture cited “obscene” performances in the eastern Chinese province of Jiangsu, as well as in Handan, and pledged to crack down on such lascivious last rites.

In the Handan incident earlier this year, the ministry said, six performers had arrived to offer an erotic dance at the funeral of an elderly resident. Investigators were dispatched and the performance was found to have violated public security regulations, with the person responsible for the performing troupe in question detained administratively for 15 days and fined 70,000 yuan (about $11,300), the statement said. The government condemned such performances for corrupting the social atmosphere.•

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Coney Island was chiefly an amusement and often a raffish one, but there was a serious side to some of the sights. For instance, Topsy the elephant was electrocuted in 1903 in what may have been a scheme to make Nikola Tesla’s AC system seem dangerous, giving Thomas Edison’s DC method positive publicity during the War of the Currents. The baby incubators were likewise a suspect attraction, though it would seem much good came of the spectator-sponsored medical innovation, which, if its proprietor, Dr. Martin A. Couney, is to be believed, had successfully graduated 6,000 babies by 1928, the infants nursed on low-pressure oxygen, breast milk and a daily drop of whiskey. An article about the incubators from the August 4, 1928 Brooklyn Daily Eagle. 

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New Yorkers listen to special radio broadcast of 1922 World Series.

New Yorkers listen to special radio broadcast of 1922 World Series.

Major League Baseball team owners, supposedly great champions of the free market, have often been baffled by basic economics, working against their own interests. They enjoy an anti-trust exemption to stifle competition and receive tons of corporate welfare whenever they decide its time for a new ballpark, yet they vehemently opposed free agency, which made the game a 365-day-a-year sport, putting real fire in the Hot Stove League. They even engaging in collusion to artificially suppress player movement and salaries. That very movement they despised helped turn the owners from millionaires into billionaires, something which still seems lost on some in this exclusive club. 

So, it’s no surprise that they strongly considered banning radio broadcasts of games a century ago, fearing it would kill gate receipts. Thankfully William Wrigley intervened, realizing the promotional value. Today broadcast rights, even local ones, are worth billions, making them the most valuable aspect of team ownership.

From James Walker at the Conversation:

In the 1920s, teams that did broadcast games on the radio usually charged nothing for the rights, settling for free promotion of their on-field product. For Wrigley, who was accustomed to paying retail rates to advertise his chewing gum, the prospect of two hours of free advertising for his Chicago Cubs (over as many as five Chicago radio stations) was generous enough compensation. But the anti-radio owners, led by the three New York clubs (the Yankees, Giants and Dodgers), wanted to deny Wrigley his two-hour Cubs commercial.

Although he jealously guarded his control over World Series radio rights, MLB Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis believed local radio rights were a league matter and left the decision to broadcast regular season games to the owners. At several NL and AL owners meetings in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the anti-radio forces proposed a league-wide ban on local broadcasts of regular season games.

Pro-radio clubs, led by Cubs’ President Bill Veeck, Sr, were adamant that the choice to broadcast belonged to his club. It was no more of concern to other clubs, he argued, than the decision whether or not to sell peanuts to the fans in the stands.

But to teams like the St Louis Cardinals, it was a concern: because the Cubs’ radio waves reached the Cardinals’ fan base, they were convinced that the broadcasts negatively influenced their own attendance numbers. The decision of whether or not to broadcast games, they reasoned, was not the Cubs alone to make.•

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Driverless cars, when and if they’re perfected, won’t require as much protective weight since crashes would be greatly reduced. That will somewhat restrain the costs of this new machine, but there are other reasons why the hardware won’t be prohibitive once the software is a reality. It will cost more initially, but perhaps not as much as expected. From Alex Davies at Wired:

The cost of self-driving cars isn’t often discussed, mostly because we’re still years from commercial production, and because there are much tougher questions to answer before we can talk money. But a new report on the market for and development of self-driving cars, by the Boston Consulting Group, offers some estimates. And partly thanks to that affordable hardware, they’re not that high.

According to the group’s research, urban and autopilot will each add about $5,500 to a car’s price tag. You can have a car that parks itself for an extra $2,000. If you want full autonomy—the ability to drive anywhere, with no human input—get ready to add $10,000 to the price tag, at least in the first 10 years the technology’s on the market.

“The technology is already there,” says Xavier Mosquet, head of Boston Consulting Group’s North America automotive division.

Hardware falls into three categories: sensors, processors, and actuators. Given the high level of electronics in today’s car, actuators—the bits that allow a computer to physically do things like brake, change gears, and steer—don’t pose a problem.•

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The price of space travel has never fallen as precipitously as some predicted, so the cost of transporting building materials to set up permanent colonies is prohibitive. The answer is to construct communities once travelers reach the moon and planets and asteroids. NASA is planning to begin that phase of nation-building in space in the next couple of years with the aid of 3D printers. From Conor Gaffey at Newsweek:

NASA are aiming to introduce 3D printers into spacecraft within two years, allowing astronauts to set up permanent habitats on other planets and even print their own food.

In an interview with Newsweek, NASA’s 3D printing chief Niki Werkheiser says the technology will revolutionise space travel by allowing astronauts to be away from year for years on exploration missions without relying on ground control.

Current costs for space transportation are $10,000 per pound of mass. The development therefore has the potential to save millions of dollars as astronauts can travel light and print essentials on demand whilst in space.

NASA is currently developing its largest rocket yet, the Space Launch System (SLS). The SLS is due to make its first test flight in 2017 and Werkheiser says her team are working to get a 3D printer on-board.

So far, Werkheiser’s team at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama have produced several rocket components and a small wrench with the technology and yesterday the team announced the first successful print of a copper engine part for rockets.

However, they are working on much more exciting projects, including printing parts for a small shelter using substitutes for Martian and lunar sand – the theory being that astronauts could one day use the printers to build themselves habitats on extraterrestrial surfaces.•

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Obamacare, as it was derisively labeled by those who wanted to scare us from it, has been one of our nation’s most successful large-scale pieces of legislation in recent memory. It’s expanded insurance tremendously, slowed formerly ballooning costs and would seem to be a long-term job creator. (Diagnostics and service aspects of medicine may soon be automated, but many other positions will require a human element for the foreseeable future.) Even Tea Party representatives have enjoyed the benefits.

You would think the populace would be thrilled, but poll numbers stubbornly suggest that the Affordable Healthcare Act has turned off much of the nation to a further sharing of our responsibility for one another. I don’t think of this as a victory for the GOP PR machine. I’m not one of those people who believe that the matter with Kansas is that the citizens have been hoodwinked. The matter with Kansas is Kansans, and to extrapolate that, the matter with America is Americans. I don’t believe we’re fooled. I think we often see things through ideology rather than by results, and that’s a dangerous stance, especially if we are headed for greater wealth inequality, encouraged by AI which will reduce employment opportunities. Perhaps futurists in Silicon Valley believe we’re entering an age of technological socialism, but the people are not enamored with such an idea, even if it would benefit them. From Thomas Edsall at the New York Times:

With the advent of the Affordable Care Act, the share of Americans convinced that health care is a right shrank from a majority to a minority.

This shift in public opinion is a major victory for the Republican Party. It is part of a larger trend: a steady decline in support for redistributive government policies. Emmanuel Saez, an economics professor at Berkeley and one of the nation’s premier experts on inequality, is a co-author of a study that confirms this trend, which has been developing over the last four decades. A separate study,The Structure of Inequality and Americans’ Attitudes Toward Redistribution,” found that as inequality increases, so does ideological conservatism in the electorate.

The erosion of the belief in health care as a government-protected right is perhaps the most dramatic reflection of these trends. In 2006, by a margin of more than two to one, 69-28, those surveyed by Gallup said that the federal government should guarantee health care coverage for all citizens of the United States. By late 2014, however, Gallup found that this percentage had fallen 24 points to 45 percent, while the percentage of respondents who said health care is not a federal responsibility nearly doubled to 52 percent.•

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I would love to know if Elon Musk originally viewed Tesla as solely an automaker and realized he had another business, maybe a better one, selling batteries consumers could use to power their homes when some began to repurpose them to do just that.

Electric cars often need power stations between points A and B, houses and commercial buildings don’t have that challenge, and while the company still has plenty of near-term challenges, a developing non-mobile market could ultimately be gigantic. And that’s a market that Tesla has now fully dived into. The opening of Klint Finley’s astute Wired piece labeling Tesla as primarily a battery company:

TESLA IS ADMIRED for building the cars of the future. But it’s not really a car company. It’s a battery company that happens to make electric cars.

At least, that’s the trajectory suggested by the news that Tesla will soon sell mega-batteries for homes and electric utility companies. CEO Elon Musk mentioned the possibility during an earnings call last February, and the plan was reportedly confirmed in an investor letter revealed yesterday. The official announcement is set to come next week.

Selling batteries for homes, businesses, and utilities may seem like a departure for a car company. But for Tesla, it makes perfect sense. An electric car is only as green as the electrical grid that powers it. And if Tesla’s batteries become widespread, they could help utilities take better advantage of inconsistent renewable energy sources like wind and solar. As demand for renewables rises, whether through regulatory mandate or consumer desire, so would utilities’ demand for batteries that could help maintain a consistent flow—a demand Tesla is well-positioned to meet.•

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From the June 1, 1923 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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Apart from a few exceptions, any job that can be automated will be automated. Weak AI may seem dull, but it’s capable and relentless. Hanson Robotics is trying with “Han” and “Eva” to make things more interesting while rolling the future forward, developing machines that look like us and can react to voices and recognize faces. Perfect for customer service and myriad other services.

When speaking of neural enhancement being distributed unfairly because of wealth inequality, it’s important to remember that even without drugs or prosthetics or engineering, we already have a similar playing field and that it’s very much divided into haves and have nots. Brain function, even size, is already influenced by poverty. From Chris Gyngell’s Practical Ethics post about a fictional brain-growing drug:

A new drug, Numarol, is currently being trialled which increases the surface area of the brain in children. Numarol causes children to have bigger brains, do better in cognitive tests and generally improves their life prospects. One critic of Numarol recently pointed out it would be very expensive, and only the rich would be able to afford it. Its release would likely create a significant difference in brain size between the highest and lowest socioeconomic groups. Numarol would create a world in which biological inequalities are forged from economic ones. The rich would not only have bigger houses, better cars, and better healthcare than the poor, their children would also have bigger brains. Such a world would be abhorrent.

But we already live in this world. Numarol is fictional, but the rich do have children with bigger brains than the poor. Social inequalities have already been written into our biology. 

This is the lesson from one of largest studies of brain morphology and structure in childrenBrains of children from the lowest income bracket — less than US$25,000 — had up to 6% less surface area than those from children whose parental income was more than US$150,000. These differences in brain size where then found to be associated with differences in performance in a number of cognitive tests measuring working memory, vocabulary, and reading ability. These associations were independent of age, sex, parental education level and genetic ancestry (which was assessed through a whole genome analysis).

The relationship between family income and brain size was more pronounced among children in the poorest families where “income disparities of a few thousand dollars were associated with major differences in brain structure, particularly in areas associated with language and decision-making skills.”•

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“I am 64 years old, 5’9″ 220 lbs.”

For voyeur couple (NYC)

I am from Montreal, Canada. I am 64 years old, 5’9″ 220 lbs. I do not drink, do not smoke. If you’d like a “companion” for your wife for a short while (a week or so?), perhaps I could come down and visit…and occupy the bed while you, sir, sleep on the couch.

In a book which sprang from the Whole Earth Catalog successor, CoEvolution Quarterly, Stewart Brand included his 1975 discussion about space colonization with physicist Gerard O’Neill. The interviewee’s take on the economics of space travel was ridiculously hopeful for the time (and still in ours) but not theoretically impossible in the long run if we last. An excerpt: 

Stewart Brand:

If “in wildness is the preservation of the world,” then in what is the preservation of the space colony?

Gerard O’Neill:

Making it wild, I think. The long-term plan, really dream, that I would have is a situation in which, in 50, 100, 150 years, it would be so cheap to replicate large communities that you would be building quite large ones, many, many square miles in land area for each one, and they would be very thinly populated. And so the natural development it seems to me, is toward a situation where you have a great many wild species involved, and as wild an environment as you choose to make. I would imagine one on which there is a lot of forest and park area and wild areas, and a relatively small amount which is manicured and put into the form that people like to have for their dwellings.

Stewart Brand:

Now you’re restating your question, whether a planet’s surface is the best place for a wilderness?

Gerard O’Neill:

Maybe so. But this situation that I was just describing, this possibility if pursued, is one that could occur both on the Earth and in the communities of course. Because the existence of the space communities as a place to which many people might choose to move would also be perhaps the only realistic non-violent way in which the Earth’s population might really decrease.

Stewart Brand:

I’m trying to imagine the trapped feeling that one might have. Travel between communities would be relatively easy. Travel to the Earth’s surface and back would be relatively hard. Is that correct?

Gerard O’Neill:

It would be interesting to compare it in terms of real income. Passage between the colonies and the Earth probably corresponds to passenger travel back and forth between Europe and the United States in, say, the 1700’s. It’s the kind of thing that Benjamin Franklin did to go and negotiate treaties in France. It was not the sort of thing that the ordinary guy was able to accomplish.

The cost of going back and forth to the Earth – I made some rough estimates on what that might be with the technology of let’s say 20 – 30 years from now, still nothing far out like nuclear power or anything like that – and came out to about $3,000 per person for a round trip. Among the colonies it should be very easy, very cheap. From one community to another, even 5,000 miles away would probably be as little as $100 or something like that. A few dollars in energy costs is enough to launch a vehicle over that kind of distance.•

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Not sure if it will occur in the next five decades, but brain enhancement is our future. In a New York Q&A, neuroscientist Heather Berlin tells Adam K. Raymond about the path forward. Everything she says seems plausible except for the potential controlling or curtailing of neural prosthetics because some will initially have unequal access to it. That I doubt. The opening:

Question:

What surprising things will we be able to do with our brains in the next 50 years?

Heather Berlin:

I think we will start to incorporate neural prosthetics. For example, electrical implants can stimulate parts of the brain to treat psychiatric illness. I think in the future we will start using these implants for cognitive enhancement — to help increase our memory or to increase our attention. Or to make us not need as much sleep and stay alert longer.

If people have neural implants, it will be possible for them to control a cursor on a computer or type emails just by using their thoughts. I also think we’ll be able to decode people’s thoughts at some level and predict what they might be thinking, maybe not with 100 percent accuracy, but maybe 70 or 80 percent.

Question:

How would that work?

Heather Berlin:

With an implant that records information. For example, there are studies where they’ll show someone a picture while they’re in an fMRI machine. We can show a person, say, a picture of a fish and a cat, and we can record what their brain activity looks like. Then we can show them a picture and without knowing the picture, look at the brain activity and predict what the person is seeing, whether it’s a fish or a cat.

That’s what we have already. Fifty years in the future we’ll get better at decoding this information. We’ll be able to predict what a person is seeing based on this brain activity or maybe even what they’re thinking.

Question:

And you think this stuff will be elective, the kind of thing people do for fun?

Heather Berlin:

The kind of stuff we’re using now to treat psychiatric illness will eventually be used for cognitive enhancement. Like the way we have plastic surgery to get a better nose or breast implants, you’ll be able to get these neural implants that will increase cognitive function. Maybe only people who can afford it get neural implants, and they have an advantage. Maybe it’s going to be like performance-enhancing drugs, where it’s going to have to be controlled.•

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As difficult as it was to believe that Roald Amundsen had survived his many explorations, at the end it was just as tough to accept that he’d perished.

The early twentieth-century Norwegian explorer was so secretive about his missions that credit for discovering the South Pole in 1912 at first went to his British rival Capt. Robert Scott, until the truth prevailed. So when the ultra-resourceful Amundsen and his party went missing in 1928 when flying to the Arctic to attempt a rescue of crew members of the crashed airship Italia, some in the American media believed, or wanted to believe, that he had only lost contact for the moment. Sadly, the disappearance was permanent; not even wreckage was ever recovered. An article from the June 20 Brooklyn Daily Eagle of that year, which hoped against hope.•

 

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There aren’t many things that can kill most of the life on Earth, though there are some (climate change for one) that can claim a heartbreaking part of it.

Recent discussion about the existential threat of global warming has led Stewart Brand to fret that perhaps all these apocalyptic daydreams may be stunting the progress of conservationists. He contends in a new Aeon essay that there’s no onrushing Sixth Extinction, as it’s been called, and though he acknowledges great concern for defaunation and ecosystem functioning, he believes humans will act with drastic measures if necessary before we bury ourselves in a global Easter Island. He further argues that biotech might allow us to reverse species endangerment and increase biodiversity.

It’s a great piece, the kind Aeon spoils us with regularly. While I agree climate change isn’t likely to extinct all of Homo sapiens in the foreseeable future, even in a century or two, it could possibly reduce population with a viciousness. Brand’s gut feeling aside, there’s no guarantee we’ll make intelligent political decisions to protect our tomorrow and that of other fauna and flora. We certainly haven’t demonstrated such big-picture fortitude yet. And bioengineering our way out of trouble means plenty of unintended consequences, no matter how careful we are. Aggressive environmentalism and conservation is still the key, which is something I imagine Brand would concur with.

From Brand:

Anyone who doubts the reality of global warming need only talk to a few field biologists. Everyone doing field research is discovering how sensitive the organisms they study are to slight changes in average temperature, in the length of the growing season, in rainfall patterns. But just because organisms are sensitive to change doesn’t mean they are threatened by it. Any creature or plant facing a shifting environment has three choices: move, adapt or die. …

Move, adapt or die. When organisms challenged by climate change respond by adapting, they evolve. When they move, they often encounter distant cousins and hybridise with them, sometimes evolving new species. When they die, they leave a niche open for other species to migrate or adapt into, and a warming climate tends to open the way for more species rather than fewer. In the same Nature essay, Thomas wrote: ‘Global-diversity gradients dictate that more warm-adapted species are available to colonise new areas than cold-adapted species retreating from those areas as the climate warms.’

Throughout 3.8 billion years of evolution on Earth, the inexorable trend has been toward an ever greater variety of species. With the past two mass extinction events there were soon many more species alive after each catastrophe than there were before it.

There is no reason to be sanguine about climate change. It is the most serious problem currently facing humanity and nature. It might lead to the loss of some species that we lament greatly, but it will also usher in new species, and unless there is extremely ‘abrupt’ climate change, net biodiversity is unlikely to decrease dramatically. Abrupt-change scenarios have been dropping out of the climate models lately, thanks to ever-improving data and growing knowledge about climate dynamics. My own prediction is that climate change will be deemed intolerable for humans long before it speeds up extinction rates, and even if radical steps have to be taken to head it off, they will be taken.•

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Whenever I read that new robots will “work alongside humans, not replace them,” I think two things:

  1. Some humans will be immediately replaced.
  2. The rest (or almost all of them) will eventually be replaced.

It’s great if we have AI that can do the drudgery for us, delivering products and waxing floors and stocking warehouse shelves, but unless this new machine age somehow creates a corresponding number of jobs to replace those lost, we’re headed for some difficult challenges. And, no, not even bartenders are safe.

From Timothy Aeppel at WSJ:

Robots aren’t about to elbow bartenders out of a job.

But versions of them could start showing up at your favorite watering holes. Indeed, some are already out there.

The Makr Shakr is the creation of an Italian company and consists of robotic arms that mix cocktails, and then place them on a conveyor belt to be carried across the bar to the waiting customer or a server. The first two installations are on Royal Caribbean cruise ships, where they’re the centerpieces of “Bionic Bars.”

The goal isn’t to do away with bartenders, who are still needed to tend the machines and, when necessary, deliver the drinks. Carlo Ratti, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and cofounder of Makr Shakr, says the project began when he was asked to design a machine that would allow people to interact with robots in an unexpected setting. “It started as something to shock people in a tangible way,” he says, to show them “what the third industrial revolution is all about.”

Another example is the “Bartendro,” a box with hoses and flashing lights that can mix an array of drinks—but it too needs to be tended by a human, who among other things puts the glass into position under the pour spout and then delivers the drink to the customer.

Machines like these are designed to work alongside humans, not replace them.

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The only time I’ve ever felt sympathy for Rand Paul was when he was interviewed on CNN by Don Lemon, who decided to provoke the Libertarian because that was what he thought it was necessary to do, in much the same way a parakeet senses it must chirp. It was sound and fury and signified nothing, theater aimed at making it seem something important had occurred. That, in essence, is the meaning of modern cable news.

In Jeff Zucker’s clown car of infotainment, Lemon passes for a star, not because the anchor is right–he almost never is–but because he gets attention, making stupid comments about race and gender and religion and anything else that slips from his face hole. 

What can you do with such a person, apart from turning away? You can write a sympathetic-if-devastating portrait of him as Taffy Brodesser-Akner has at GQ. The opening:

So I say to Don Lemon, I say, let’s do it, Don Lemon, let’s have dessert. We’ve been here awhile, eating lunch, and we’re having a good time, so likable is Don Lemon, so open is he to my questions, so warm is his smile. And maybe he can be coaxed into it. We are at the restaurant at the Museum of Modern Art, and the portions are modern-art-sized, and he just had his photo shoot yesterday—he’d suspended all manner of salt and other bloateries in the days leading up to it and would love to cut loose a little. But he still needs persuading, since it is a known thing that dessert is one of the principal sacrifices of people who regularly appear on TV. But he relents, because Don Lemon is not the kind of guy who will make you eat dessert alone. The negotiation: He’ll do it, but it’ll have to be light. I look up and down the menu and suggest that the sorbet looks promising, given his totally understandable criteria.

He leans in, big warm smile, not wanting to correct me, but needing to: “Sorbette,” he says, like a news anchor. “It’s pronounced sorbette.”

“Sorbette,” I repeat, shaky. I smile, not quite understanding the joke.

“Sorbette,” he says with the confidence of a man who informs hundreds of thousands of Americans each night about what is happening across this land as well as many others. “It’s pronounced sorbette.” Sorbette! Could he be right? I’ve been saying it like a French word for years, like a complete asshole. Have I, a native English speaker, a graduate of a four-year college, a frequent eater of frozen desserts, been mispronouncing it all this time?

Or we can leave room for the possibility that he is just plain wrong. This is Don Lemon, after all, the news anchor whose name has become associated with what might politely be calledmissteps, like asking an Islamic scholar if he supports the terrorist group ISIS, or declaring on the scene at Ferguson that there’s the smell of marijuana in the air, “obviously.” This is the guy who asked if a black hole could be responsible for the disappearance of Flight MH370; who asked one of Bill Cosby’s alleged rape victims why she didn’t stop the attack by, as he put it, “the using of the teeth.”

Yes, we have to allow for the possibility that Don Lemon might be wrong.•

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You get the feeling that Kanye West is a person who looked at the hooey that was the Apple “Think Different” campaign, the one that used the likeness of Mahatma Gandhi to sell overpriced consumer electronics made in sweatshops, and accepted it at face value? I like his music, but he seems a manic personality nurtured on Silicon Valley cliches. Here’s the opening of West’s just-published, extravagant Paper essay:

I know people want to talk about the American Dream, but my dream is a world dream. It’s a world in which everyone’s main goal would be to help each other. The first thing I told my team on New Year’s Day was, “You know, people say bad news travels fast, but this year let’s make good news travel faster.” You get back what you put out, and the more positive energy you put out, the more positive energy you’ll get back. We had to do a lot of fighting in the past couple of years to get people to understand what we want to do, what we will do and what we’re capable of doing. Not just me — or my DONDA creative team, or my design team, or my music team — but an entire generation that has the information highway and the ability to access information. Information is not only power; it’s simply everything. It can be a scary thing for people to think universally, to think in terms of the world. It’s not traditional. There’s a lot of people who want to make sure things don’t become a hybrid, but the Internet has opened up every conversation, literally and metaphorically. It starts as homogenizing, but this hybrid-ing, this interbreeding of ideas, is necessary for us as a race to evolve. (Thank God for Steve Jobs.) For example, there was an embroiderer at a fashion house who was in her 90s and she refused to give anyone her technique. She said, “When I die, this technique will die also.” I think the opposite of that. I think it’s so important for me, as an artist, to give Drake as much information as I can, A$AP, Kendrick, Taylor Swift, any of these younger artists as much information as I can to make better music in the future. We should all be trying to make something that’s better. It’s funny that I worked at the Gap in high school, because in my past 15 years it seems like that’s the place I stood in my creative path — to be the gap, the bridge.•

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