Science/Tech

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NCAA fighting college football players’ efforts to share in the huge revenue they produce would be maddening enough even if the sport didn’t leave a lot of these guys with a lifetime of serious health issues. The era when we thought of the game as a healthy way to build school spirit is over. It’s a destroyer. From Jimmy Golen at the Associated Press:

“BOSTON (AP) — Michael Keck played just two years of college football before he was knocked out during practice at Missouri State and gave the sport up for good.

He turned combative — punching holes in the wall. He began to struggle in school. Soon he was spending most of his time indoors, with blankets covering the windows to darken the room.

Keck died last year at age 25 of what doctors believe was an unrelated heart condition. His brain, at his request, was donated to the Boston University lab that has been researching a degenerative brain condition frequently found in contact-sport athletes.

The disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, had advanced to a stage never before seen in someone so young.

‘When you talk in terms of his age, being young, and you talk about his limited years of playing, it is one of the more severe cases,’ said Dr. Robert Cantu, a co-founder of the CTE Center at BU. ‘Had he lived to 70 or 80, we would have expected this to be a Grade 4 (the most severe form) case.’”

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It seems a cockamamie plan, one that has a reality TV show at its heart, but the Dutch space concern Mars One is promising to send four pioneers on a one-way trip to our neighboring planet within a decade. They will live there and die there, as settlers once did in the untamed Western United States, except you’ll be able to watch it all on your smartphone. I seriously doubt it ever happens. The opening of “Ultimate Reality TV: A Crazy Plan for a Mars Colony,” by Spiegel’s Manfred Dworschak:

“If his greatest wish is fulfilled, then Stephan Günther will one day die on Mars. He’s already thought long and hard about the eventuality. He would like his companions to pack his remains in an airtight coffin before depositing him outside the colony among the rocks.

‘Perhaps there are unknown forms of life on Mars,’ 45-year-old Günther says. ‘We can’t just intervene.’
It is a sentiment which displays the enlightenment of today’s conquerors. They want to take ownership of a planet, but they are concerned that their own remains could contaminate bacterial cultures in its dusty, rocky ecosystem.

Mars, to be sure, remains a deserted wasteland today, its ecology intact. But it could be that Günther could might be bouncing his way through rough craters beaming pictures back to Earth. Currently a flight trainer in Magdeburg, Germany, Günther has applied to take part in a unique voyage to our neighboring planet. A return trip is not part of the deal.

Conceiving the journey as one-way makes it vastly more feasible and less expensive. A Dutch foundation, led by businessman Bas Lansdorp, is behind the idea. ‘We want to send the first four settlers to Mars in 2024,’ he says, adding that ‘additional teams will follow.’

Some 704 candidates say they are prepared to leave Earth forever. A competition will decide which of them will be sent to be humanity’s permanent representatives on Mars. Lansdorp’s foundation, Mars One, plans to train those chosen for eight years as preparation for a radically new life.”

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When you have time, you want money. When you have money, you want time.

Life extension–immortality, even–is pursued by deep-pocketed technologists who are bad at saying goodbye. They believe the answers are a lot closer than they likely are. Of course, the defeat of death would pose myriad philosophical and ethical questions. From “The Eternal Problem Silicon Valley Can’t Solve,” Elizabeth Segran’s Fast Company feature about Dave Asprey and others trying to engineer an endless summer: 

“Over the last 15 years, Asprey has been tinkering with technologies in the hopes of slowing the aging process in his own body. He describes this as bio-hacking, using the hacker mentality to turbocharge his own biochemistry. And to hear Asprey tell it, that’s working: With a couple of scientific hacks, he’s lost hundreds of pounds, increased his IQ, and improved the quality of his sleep. All these things, he says, are also prolonging his life-span. He’s now sharing these techniques with others through Bulletproof Executive, the company he founded that creates coffee and other products to spike bodily performance, and as the chairman of the board of the Silicon Valley Health Institute, a group that meets monthly to discuss the latest developments in the study of longevity.

Asprey’s office, located just down the street from Google’s campus, is a microcosm of a growing Silicon Valley trend. Asprey is trying to stop individual bodies from aging–starting with his own–and investment is pouring into a growing number of companies whose stated goal is to increase human longevity and, in some cases, even cure death. Asprey freely admits that these are grandiose, quixotic endeavors. But in a place where geeks have changed the world with previously unthinkable breakthroughs in science, nothing seems impossible. ‘When you’re young and you’ve just created something amazing that makes you a ton of a money, you do egotistical things,’ Asprey says. ‘And I’m not saying that’s a bad thing: I want to swing for the fences. What is all of this cool technology we’re creating compared to getting an extra hundred years of life?’”

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The more EV makers in the race with Tesla to create the first widely affordable long-range electric car, the better. Right now Elon Musk’s main competitor in GM; the former cannot lose and the latter can ill afford to. From Steve LeVine at Quartz:

“One of the hottest clashes in technology pits two pathmakers in the new era of electric cars—Tesla and General Motors. Both are developing pure electrics that cost roughly $35,000, travel 200 miles on a single charge, and appeal to the mass luxury market.

The stakes are enormous. Most electrics have less than 100 miles of range. Experts regard 200 miles as a tipping point, enough to cure many potential electric-car buyers of ‘range anxiety,’ the fear of being stranded when their battery expires. If GM and Tesla crack this, sales of individual electrics could jump from 2,000 or 3,000 vehicles a month to 15 to 20 times that rate, shaking up industries from cars to oil, which were until now certain that large-scale acceptance of electrics was perhaps decades away. 

It is a substantial gamble for both companies. Tesla CEO Elon Musk has more or less bet his company on the contest. GM’s existence is not in jeopardy if it loses, but the outcome could still determine its place in the next generation of automaking.

The potential prize is not only profit, but outright technology leadership—the intangible aura that made Apple under Steve Jobs an outsized triumph. In this respect, the parvenu Tesla—just a decade old—holds the advantage. Musk’s first two models, with their grace, attitude and electronic showmanship, have dazzled critics, buyers and especially Wall Street. GM has impressed critics, too, with its Chevy Volt, which led the advent of plug-in hybrids, but there are doubts that it can best Musk in direct competition. However, if it can show it is generally Tesla’s equal, it would achieve unexpected street cred, while Musk would appear much more mortal.”

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Artificial Intelligence doesn’t have to do things the way you and I do them to do them better. We only believe that to flatter ourselves. The opening of Christopher Mims new Wall Street Journal article about AI, which demonstrates how it has quietly wormed its way into our lives:

“The age of intelligent machines has arrived—only they don’t look at all like we expected. Forget what you’ve seen in movies; this is no HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it’s certainly not Scarlett Johansson’s disembodied voice in Her. It’s more akin to what happens when insects, or even fungi, do when they ‘think.’ (What, you didn’t know that slime molds can solve mazes?)

Artificial intelligence has lately been transformed from an academic curiosity to something that has measurable impact on our lives. Google Inc. used it to increase the accuracy of voice recognition in Android by 25%. The Associated Press is printing business stories written by it. Facebook Inc. is toying with it as a way to improve the relevance of the posts it shows you.

What is especially interesting about this point in the history of AI is that it’s no longer just for technology companies. Startups are beginning to adapt it to problems where, at least to me, its applicability is genuinely surprising.”

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I think there are some people so awful that they deserve to die for the things they’ve done, but it’s still impossible to support the death penalty and its arbitrariness. In America, someone with wealth will never face execution, while the poor are prone. African-Americans are much more likely to suffer the ultimate consequences for a crime than white people who’ve committed the same. Males are much more likely to die than females. And because of prejudice and incompetence, the wrong people are sometimes put to death, which is the most sickening abomination.

And those who have to carry out the killing of the condemned are no doubt scarred by the process. In “The Witness,” Pamela Colloff’s Texas Monthly feature, she profiles former Texas Department of Criminal Justice Public Information Director Michelle Lyons, whose job it was to record the final moments of executed prisoners, an occupation that unsurprisingly came with hazards. An excerpt:

“Michelle already had a sense of what to expect. Fifteen months earlier, while covering for an absent colleague, she had entered the Death House for the first time to witness the execution of a convicted murderer named Javier Cruz. Years later, she would remember very little about it—only that she had dressed more formally than usual and that she had been unsure, at the outset, how she would feel when it was all over. The facts of Cruz’s case did not engender much sympathy: he had murdered two San Antonio men, one of whom he had gagged and bound, beaten with a hammer, and then strangled with the belt of a bathrobe. Michelle had found that watching Cruz slip into unconsciousness did not evoke any powerful emotions; she had scribbled in her yellow legal pad, typed up her story, and gone home. Covering executions was certainly no worse, she decided, than being a war correspondent or any other journalist who sees suffering up close; in fact, the cold efficiency of lethal injection made hers the easier job. When her father called her into his office the next day to check on her, she told him she was fine. As she saw it, her duty as a journalist was to be dispassionate. 

In the first year that Michelle served as the Item’s prison reporter, Texas executed forty inmates—the most people put to death in a single year, by one state, in American history. Governor Bush also happened to be making a run for the White House. This confluence of events caused hundreds of journalists to descend on Huntsville in the months leading up to the 2000 presidential election, mostly to issue withering assessments. On the night that Billy George Hughes, a man who had fatally shot a state trooper, was put to death, a TV show hosted by filmmaker-provocateur Michael Moore arranged for a pom-pom-waving cheerleading squad to stand outside the Walls and chant, ‘Texas, Texas, you’re so great, you kill more than any state!’ beside an illuminated execution scoreboard that read ‘George 117, Jeb 2.’ Rolling Stone published a blistering takedown of Huntsville in a piece called ‘Five Executions and a Barbecue.’ The media glare was relentless, transforming one execution that June—of an obscure Houston street criminal named Gary Graham, whose murder conviction had turned on the word of a single eyewitness—into an international cause célèbre. Riot police armed with tear gas stood outside the Walls on the night of his death while hooded Klansmen and rifle-toting members of the New Black Panther Party played to the cameras. At Graham’s invitation, the Reverend Jesse Jackson and Bianca Jagger served as witnesses.

During this time, Michelle kept a journal in which she recorded her own personal observations of the executions she witnessed, which had no place in the straightforward accounts she wrote for the Item. Rarely did she mention the media spectacle outside. Instead she cataloged the disquieting details that she noticed as she watched a succession of inmates be put to death. There was Betty Lou Beets, the second woman to be executed in Texas since the Civil War, who had shot not one but two of her husbands and buried them in her yard. (‘I couldn’t help but notice her tiny little feet,’ Michelle wrote. ‘She looked like somebody’s grandma—she was somebody’s grandma.’) There was Ponchai Wilkerson, who had once nearly managed to break out of death row, who stunned onlookers when he spit out a handcuff key as he lay on the gurney. (‘I felt sick,’ Michelle wrote the next day. ‘For a few seconds I had the crazy thought, ‘He’s going to get off that table and kill us.’ ’) And there was Robert Earl Carter, who had murdered six people, including his four-year-old son, and falsely implicated his friend Anthony Graves in the crime. (‘His last words were, ‘It was me and me alone. Anthony Graves had nothing to do with it,’ ’ Michelle wrote.) Carter’s admission on the gurney would later help exonerate his co-defendant, who was, at the time, awaiting his own execution date. 

Throughout her journal, she made mention of the anguish felt by both the inmates’ and victims’ families, who stood in witness rooms adjacent to each other, looking into the death chamber.”

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In vitro foods are happening now and will become a staple of our diets in the future, as a growing global population and environmental concerns demand it. Meat, of course, is the hardest to approximate, but that will also happen. Considering the processed crap we eat now, the so-called Frankenfoods may be significantly healthier. From Katie Murphy at the New York Times:

“Whether for moral reasons or because of a Jobsian belief in the superiority of their vision, high-tech food entrepreneurs are focusing primarily on providing alternatives to animal protein. The demand is certainly there. Worldwide consumption of pork, beef, poultry and other livestock products is expected to double by 2020. Animal protein is also the most vulnerable and resource-intensive part of the food supply. In addition to livestock production’s immense use of land and water, runoff pollution and antibiotic abuse, it is responsible for 14.5 percent of greenhouse gases, according to the United Nations.

Venture capital firms like Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Closed Loop Capital, Khosla Ventures and Collaborative Fund have poured money into Food 2.0 projects. Backing has also come from a hit parade of tech-world notables including Sergey Brin of Google, Biz Stone of Twitter, Peter Thiel of PayPal and Bill Gates of Microsoft, as well as Li Ka-shing, Asia’s wealthiest man, who bought early stakes in Facebook and Spotify.

‘We’re looking for wholesale reinvention of this crazy, perverse food system that makes people do the wrong thing,’ said Josh Tetrick, the vegan chief executive of San Francisco-based Hampton Creek. His company has created an egg substitute using protein extracted from the Canadian yellow pea, incorporating it into Just Scramble, Just Mayo and Just Cookie Dough, which are starting to find their way onto grocery store shelves nationwide.”

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When editors at the old Brooklyn Daily Eagle thought about the world’s technological future, they mostly imagined how robots would help them get drunk. That explains so much about that newspaper in those days.

In the October 30, 1927 edition, E.K. Titus wrote an article about Roy J. Wensley’s Televox robot, which received instructions via its built-in telephone. The Westinghouse inventor promised the mechanical man would be able to deliver to you bottles of scotch through pneumatic tubes, drive your car from your garage to your front door, spy on your children, vacuum your floors and warn you of plummeting stock prices. A couple of excerpts follow.

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“‘Peep, buzz, buzz, toot, peep!’ you say into the telephone transmitter, with your tuning forks, which translated, means:

‘It’s devilishly cold over here and I want a bottle of Scotch.’

These simple sounds which you have emitted put the mechanical man to work. It is over in the woods of your country estate somewhere, where you keep your stock for the sake of privacy. The mechanical man hears and acts. He moves a mechanical arm to the exact box where your Scotch is segregated from the rest of your drinks, lifts it into an air-pressure tube, closes the tube and in a moment your phonograph is turned on to say:

‘Here I am!’

You then open your end of the tube and there is your Scotch.

Dr. Edward E. Free, president of the New York Electrical Society, offers to install such a system for any Brooklynites provided they pay him enough money.

It Can Be Done

‘It can certainly be done,’ Dr. Free declared. ‘The mechanical man can be made fully as versatile as that. I will fix up such a system so that they can get their drinks from as far as a mile away without moving out of their apartments.

‘For $40,000 or so it would be possible to rig up an apparatus through the mechanical man that would make it possible for a person to call up his garage half a mile distant, give instructions to the mechanical man and have the car at his front doorstep in a few minutes. 

The mechanical man is an electrical fellow who can hear, take orders and do hundreds of things if he is only trained in advance. He is a radio turned inside out. Instead of receiving electrical energy and transforming it into sound, as the ordinary radio receiving apparatus does, he receives sound and transforms it into electrical energy.

Roy J. Wensley, 29-year-old engineer of the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company, is the inventor.

Has ‘Brain Box’

Wensley’s child does not look like a man, but he has a sort of head or small box in which is located a ‘brain,’ or directing apparatus, capable of performing 20 separate acts when he is ordered to do so. And what is better, he takes orders over the telephone!”

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“Delivering a motorcar from one’s garage to one’s home would be a more expensive performance.

Mr. Johnson would lift his telephone receiver and give Televox the signal for a car.

Steer Car by Radio

Televox would then electrically start an apparatus which would open the doors of the garage, start the motor and steer the car over the garage driveway to the house.

‘You have heard of cars being steered by radio, haven’t you?’ asked Dr. Free. ‘Well, once Televox was on the job the actual work of steering could be handled by radio.’

Televox, indeed, sounds like one of the ‘Fairy Tales of Science‘ that the poet, Tennyson, talks about.

When it is remembered the Televox only responds to noise in the same way that previous apparatus has responded to the pressing of buttons setting up electrical impulses, his work does not appear so much like a fairy tale.”

 

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Everything is reality now, and everything is fake, too. It’s all exists in a purgatory state, hurting less but meaning less. We feel it all, briefly, and then it’s quickly replaced by more. From Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, Book 2

“Death makes life meaningless because everything we have ever striven for ceases when life does, and it makes life meaningful, too, because its presence makes the little we have of it indispensable, every moment precious. But in my lifetime death has been removed from our lives, it no longer existed, except as a constant item in all the newspapers, on the TV news, and in films, where it didn’t mark the end of a process, discontinuity, but, on account of daily repetition, represented, on the contrary, an extension of the process, continuity, and in this way, oddly enough, had become a source of our security and our anchor. A plane crash was a ritual, it happened every so often, the same chain of events, and we were never part of it ourselves. A sense of security, but also excitement and intensity, for imagine how terrible the last seconds were for the passengers.”

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From “2050 and the Future of Infrastructure,” Thomas Frey’s ImpactLab piece, the section on tube-transportation networks, something that’s been dreamed of since the Victorian Age:

“When Tesla Motors CEO, Elon Musk, mysteriously leaked that he was working on his Hyperloop Project, the combination of secrecy, cryptic details, and his own flair for the dramatic all contributed to the media frenzy that followed.

Leading up to this announcement was his growing anxiety over California’s effort to build a very expensive high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco with outdated technology.

While the Musk media train was picking up steam, several reporters pointed out a similar effort by Daryl Oster and his Longmont, Colorado-based company, ET3, to build a comparable tube transportation system that was much further along.

Indeed both are working on what will likely be the next generation of transportation where specially designed cars are placed into sealed tubes and shot, much like rockets, to their destination. While high-speed trains are breaking the 300 mph speed barrier, tube transportation has the potential to make speeds of 4,000 mph a common everyday occurrence.

As Daryl Oster likes to call it, ‘space travel on earth.’

Even though tube travel like this will beat every other form of transportation in terms of speed, power consumption, pollution, and safety, the big missing element is its infrastructure, a tube network envisioned to combine well over 100,000 miles of connected links.

While many look at this and see the lack of infrastructure as a huge obstacle, at this point in time it is just the opposite, the biggest opportunity ever.

Constructing the tube network will be the biggest infrastructure project the earth has ever seen, with a projected 50-year build-out employing in excess of 100 million people along the way.”

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At Vox, Matthew Yglesias has a post about labor automation, “Robots Won’t Destroy Jobs, But They Will Destroy The Middle Class,” which focuses on a recent paper by economist David Autor that encourages education as a means of combating further income inequality. Yglesias suggests that wage growth for McJobs will likely lead them to be automated, but that’s happening regardless. That’s why the title of the post seems unlikely to turn out to be true. From Yglesias:

“Will automation take your job away? No, argues economist David Autor in a new paper presented at the Federal Reserve conference in Jackson Hole, Wyoming on Friday. Instead, it’ll just push you into a menial low-wage job.

That, at least, has been the recent past of technology’s impact on the labor market, Autor suggests. We’ve seen what he calls ‘job polarization’ where automation has increased the demand for highly skilled managers and creative types, plus the demand for low-paid food prep workers and such. …

Autor says this more or less shows the importance of improving education. Someone who might once have been qualified for a pretty good secretarial job is nowadays only going to be qualified for a job at Chipotle, since modern technology reduces the need for secretaries. To save her from the dismal future of a burrito stomping on a human face forever, she needs to be trained up to the level where she can get a job as an app developer or devising burrito marketing campaigns.

The other view, which Autor doesn’t really mention, is that perhaps a strong labor movement could turn burrito-rolling into a highly paid job. The most likely answer, I think, is that to the extent you try to transform low-wage work into middle-wage work you simply encourage those newly middle class jobs to be automated.”

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In “How Plagues Really Work,” Wendy Orent’s new Aeon piece, she argues that the next pandemic won’t likely come from bird flu genes but from the crowded, inhospitable conditions of refugee camps or overwhelmed hospitals, where disease incubates. Considering how many war-torn areas there are in the world right now, that’s cause for concern. An excerpt which looks at an example from Ancient Greece:

“One mysterious ancient outbreak, the Great Plague of Athens, shows how deadly epidemics unroll in time. The Plague – said to have been caused by typhus, measles, small pox or Ebola, depending on whom you ask – exploded in Athens in the summer of 430 BCE, during the early days of the Peloponnesian War, a 27-year struggle between Athens and Sparta over hegemony in the Hellenic world. Pericles, the de facto leader of Athens, who pushed for war, developed a defensive strategy that proved fatal, to him and to as many as a third of Athenian citizens. He insisted on bringing all citizens – people who lived in the towns and rural areas outside the walled city – into Athens, leaving the rest of the city-state to be ravaged by the invading Spartans. The Athenian Long Walls ran down to the separate ports of Piraeus and Phaleron, each of which lay about four miles from the City of Athens proper. Thus sealed off, fronting only on the sea, Athenians could shelter safely, Pericles argued, until the Peloponnesian War was won.

The normal population of the city was around 150,000. Scholars estimate that 200,000 to 250,000 farmers and townsmen and their families came streaming in, bringing everything they could carry with them – down to the woodwork on their farmhouse walls. But Pericles had made no provision for the newcomers, who were used to their country manors, their quiet towns, their open fields. A few had homes or relatives within the walls. But most had nowhere to go, and huddled in stifling huts, or in tents flung up in the narrow spaces between the walls. The crowded encampments were ripe for virulent infection.

Physicians and attendants died quickly, and the only people who could care for the sick were survivors immune to further infection.”

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While Grover Norquist is baking his Libertarian ass at Burning Man, he’s simultaneously planning for Republicans to win back urban American by bogarting the Uber, riding the sharing economy to voting-booth victory. Of course, as Emily Badger pointed out last month in the Washington Post and Andrew Leonard expands on today in Salon, this economic disruption isn’t really staying within traditional Right and Left lanes. From Leonard’s piece:

“The semiotics of the announcement of David Plouffe’s hiring by Uber are fascinating. For example, consider how Plouffe used the word ‘inexorable’ in an interview with the New York Times.

‘We’re on an inexorable path of progress here,’ said Plouffe. Which translates as: Uber and the rest of Silicon Valley’s innovative disrupters are going to conquer us all in the long run, so we might as well just get used to it and stop throwing roadblocks in their way.

Beware! When a company with a name like ‘Uber’ is associated with ‘inexorable,’ resistance is obviously futile. And it’s worth recalling, this isn’t just about crushing existing taxi ‘cartels.’ Uber has made no secret of its ambitions to become a logistical hub that will compete with the likes of UPS and FedEx and Hertz, that will deliver groceries, as well as human beings, more efficiently than any other company. Uber’s algorithm is what’s inexorable. And an algorithm doesn’t boast any particular party identification: It’s just there to make consumers happy.

But fast on inexorability’s heels comes the issue of what the word ‘progressive’ really means. As Emily Badger reported, John Hickenlooper, the Democratic governor of Colorado, supported Uber’s hire by saying that Plouffe will bring the same ‘progressive approach’ to campaigning for Uber as has been demonstrated by Colorado’s ‘embrace of innovation and disruptive technology.’

When you pull your phone out of your pocket, click a couple of buttons, send a signal that bounces off a satellite, and a car-for-hire magically appears in front of you in a few minutes, it certainly feels like we are living in an age of technological progress. But the jury is still out on whether this kind of innovation is truly socially progressive. A society that puts consumers first has obvious disadvantages for workers.”

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Because of philosopher Nick Bostrom’s new book, Superintelligence, the specter of AI enslaving or eliminating humans has been getting a lot of play lately. In a Guardian piece, UWE Bristol Professor Alan Winfield argues that we should be concerned but not that concerned. He doesn’t think we’re close to capable of building a Frankenstein monster that could write Frankenstein. Of course, machines might not need think like us to surpass us. The opening:

“The singularity – or, to give it its proper title, the technological singularity. It’s an idea that has taken on a life of its own; more of a life, I suspect, than what it predicts ever will. It’s a Thing for techno-utopians: wealthy middle-aged men who regard the singularity as their best chance of immortality. They are Singularitarians, some seemingly prepared to go to extremes to stay alive for long enough to benefit from a benevolent super-artificial intelligence – a man-made god that grants transcendence.

And it’s a thing for the doomsayers, the techno-dystopians. Apocalypsarians who are equally convinced that a super-intelligent AI will have no interest in curing cancer or old age, or ending poverty, but will – malevolently or maybe just accidentally – bring about the end of human civilisation as we know it. History and Hollywood are on their side. From the Golem to Frankenstein’s monster, Skynet and the Matrix, we are fascinated by the old story: man plays god and then things go horribly wrong.

The singularity is basically the idea that as soon as AI exceeds human intelligence, everything changes. There are two central planks to the hypothesis: one is that as soon as we succeed in building AI as smart as humans it rapidly reinvents itself to be even smarter, starting a chain reaction of smarter-AI inventing even-smarter-AI until even the smartest humans cannot possibly comprehend how it works. The other is that the future of humanity becomes in some sense out of control, from the moment of the singularity onwards.

So should we be worried or optimistic about the technological singularity? I think we should be a little worried – cautious and prepared may be a better way of putting it – and at the same time a little optimistic (that’s the part of me that would like to live in Iain M Banks’ The Culture. But I don’t believe we need to be obsessively worried by a hypothesised existential risk to humanity.”

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A small plane powered for a matter of feet by a person on a bicycle is utterly useless in a practical sense, yet achingly beautiful to admire. From a July 10, 1921 New York Times article about French wheelman Gabriel Poulain, who was a pioneer in this odd endeavor:

Paris–Gabriel Poulain, the French champion cyclist, succeeded this morning in the Bois de Boulogne in winning the Peugot prize of 10,000 francs for the flight of more than ten meters distance and one meter high in a man-driven airplane. In an ‘aviette,’ which is a bicycle with two wing planes, he four times flew the prescribed distance, his longest flight being more than twelve meters, or about the same number of yards.

Poulain for several years has been devoting himself to the solution of the problem of flight by the power of his own muscles and several times has come near winning a prize. This morning’s exhibition, however, was by far the most successful, a cyclist never before having been able to rise from the ground a sufficient height to enable him to cover more than six or seven meters.

For today’s attempt Poulain altered the angle of the small rear plane of his machine and it was this alteration, it seems, that solved the problem. 

Poulain made his attempt just after dawn on the smooth road at the entrance to the Longchamps race course. Several members of the Aero Club, donors of the prize and a large company of journalists and photographers were present. A square twenty meters each away was carefully measured off and chalked so as to mark the points at which the ‘aviette’ must rise one meter from the ground and that two flights must be made in opposite directions.

Rides Smoothly in Air

Poulain, who was confident that this time he was going to succeed, rode his machine at top speed toward the chalked square. As he entered it he released the clutch which throws the wing into proper position and at once the miniature biplane rose from the ground gracefully and steadily to a height of more than a meter. 

The flight was as steady as that of a motor-driven airplane and Poulain declared afterward that the motion was smoother than when traveling along the ground. When the judges measured the distance between the wheel marks on the chalk they found it lacked only two centimeters of being twelve meters.

Poulain’s flight in the opposite direction was not quite so successful, though he succeeded in covering eleven and a half meters. In landing he broke two spokes of the rear wheel.

M. Robert Peugeot declared the prize won, but Poulain wished to make further proof of the powers of his machine. After changing the wheel he started from positions chosen by the judges, and in each case he succeeded in covering the prize-winning distance. His longest flight was the last, of twelve meters thirty-two centimeters.

In order to cover so great a distance Poulain worked up to a speed of forty-five kilometers an hour on the ground. According to his own estimate, the muscular force required for flight is equal to three horse power. The total weight of the machine, with the wings, is seventeen kilogrammes, or about thirty-seven pounds, and the cyclist himself weighs seventy-four kilograms, or about 165  pounds.

After the flight Poulain declared that he intended to set at work at once on another plane, which, he believes, will enable him to fly 200 to 300 meters. On this machine he will make use of a propeller instead of depending, as he did today, simply on impetus.

Once in the air, Poulain says that not so much power is needed as for the take-off. He says the pedal-worked propeller will be strong enough to continue flight for a considerable distance without fatigue.”

Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari and Chuck E. Cheese and employer of Jobs and the Woz during their formative years, just did an Ask Me Anything at Reddit. A few exchanges follow, with a couple at the beginning regarding the future intersection of business and technology. 

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Question:

With the Atari you were at the cutting edge of technology back in the day. If you were starting today, as a technology entrepreneur, what technologies would you focus on?

Nolan Bushnell:

I think that robots and entertainment will be very important in the future. I’m also very interested in businesses that will be enabled by autonomous or auto-drive cars. There will also be an interesting intersection between computers and biology. Harder tech, but important, is nanotech i.e. micromachines.

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Question:

What did you learn from trying the robot cafe concept — anything you’d like to bring back from it?

Nolan Bushnell:

I found that two-thirds of the population loved it and the last third hated it. Kids universally loved it, particularly ages 10-20. I think that adding games as well as automatic ordering will clearly be the fast food and the quick-casual structure of the future.

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Question:

What’s the biggest lesson you learned at Atari or Chuck E. Cheese that you wish you had known before you started?

Nolan Bushnell:

Don’t sell to big Hollywood studios. Atari had an extraordinary corporate culture that was destroyed within 2 years of the sale. I think that Atari would still be important today if that sale hadn’t occurred.

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Question:

Did Steve Jobs really stink that bad that he had to be relegated to work the night shift??

Nolan Bushnell:

Yeah. I knew that Jobs and Woz were fast friends and Woz worked days at HP. If I put Jobs on the night shift, I’d get two Steves for the price of one. A very good business proposition.

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Question:

How do you think new tech like the Oculus Rift and Google Glass can improve, dare I say evolve how people are educated today?

Nolan Bushnell:

I think that any time you can make life and tech seamless, you have the opportunity to affect the brain. The immersion of the Oculus Rift can give you a real sense of the Battle of Hastings or life in Dickinsonian England. Seeing the circulatory system from the inside has to be a learning experience. Google glass giving you data inputs for later analysis from your lab results clearly is a step in the right direction. If telephone or television (or any examples) early on get it exactly wrong, so will some of these technologies. But then we’ll figure it out.•

 

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You would think Google would want its autonomous cars to drive every loop–jump through every hoop–to prove that its software is safe and shut up naysayers. But the search giant instead hopes to speed up the process, lobbying California to certify the robocars based on test drives that are computer simulations which don’t involve real roads. From Mark Harris at the Guardian:

“Google has built a ‘Matrix-style’ digital simulation of the entire Californian road system in which it is testing its self-driving cars – and is lobbying the state’s regulators to certify them based on virtual rather than real driving.

The extensive simulation – reminiscent of the virtual cities created for human captives in sci-fi blockbuster The Matrix – exists entirely inside computers at the company’s Mountain View location, and the cars have so far virtually ‘driven’ more than 4 million miles inside it, facing challenges just like those in the real world, such as lane-weaving motorists, wobbly cyclists and unpredictable pedestrians.

The ambition of the simulation illustrates how serious the tech company is at developing self-driving cars, an innovation that has been independently estimated as worth billions of pounds if widely implemented.

California’s regulations stipulate autonomous vehicles must be tested under ‘controlled conditions’ that mimic real-world driving as closely as possible. Usually, that has meant a private test track or temporarily closed public road.

But Ron Medford, Google’s safety director for the self-driving car programme, has been arguing that the computer simulation should be accepted instead. In a letter in early 2014 to California state officials, which the Guardian has obtained under freedom of information legislation, Medford wrote: ‘Computer simulations are actually more valuable, as they allow manufacturers to test their software under far more conditions and stresses than could possibly be achieved on a test track.’

He added: ‘Google wants to ensure that [the regulation] is interpreted to allow manufacturers to satisfy this requirement through computer-generated simulations.’”

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One quick exchange from an Ask Me Anything at Reddit with paleontologist Peter Larson that lends perspective on our poverty of knowledge about the deep past:

Question:

Is there an estimate of what percentage of the fossil record we have? That is to say, of all the species that ever existed, how many have we found?

Peter Larson:

We probably know less than 1% of the species of dinosaurs that existed. If the entire population were to go out digging dinosaurs we might eventually reach a that 1% mark.”

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Another reaction to the Pew Research Center report about labor and technology in the near-term, this one by Eric Reid at MSN Money, who focuses on one of the most essential questions: Will the Digital Age trump the patterns of the Industrial Age, whereby the rise of the machines lifted everyone, increasing production, creating new jobs and industries to replace the ones it disrupted? An excerpt:

“The traditional relationship between labor and technology has been a positive, if contentious, one. When new devices improve productivity, companies can maintain the same output with fewer people, so they lay some off. Although this leads to temporary unemployment, it also improves incomes for the remaining workers and management, who go out and spend their extra money. This creates jobs elsewhere, and the combined productivity of these new jobs along with the new technology means that the economy as a whole ends up both producing and consuming more overall.

In other words, the pie gets bigger and increases everyone’s slice with it. As Professor Donald Grimes, an economist with the University of Michigan, wrote:

‘Think of tractors and all of the other agricultural productivity gains. We are now producing far more output with a small fraction of the number of farmers that we used to have. Or of the productivity effect of the assembly line. And in terms of IT, think about how spreadsheet programs reduced the number of ‘book keepers.’ Or how the internet allowed people to buy their own airline tickets, thus eliminating lots of travel agency jobs.

‘In terms of the big picture these productivity gains raised the incomes of the people who continued to work in these professions, and/or made the owners of the machinery richer, or helped to make airline tickets cheaper. When people spent their extra money they created jobs in other industries and the people who lost their jobs were re-employed in new jobs. Over time these productivity gains raised our wages and our standard of living.’

This model makes two assumptions, however: First, that we all share in the profits of increasing productivity, and second, that laid-off workers will have other industries to move into. Both of these assumptions may be falling apart.”

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Douglas Coupland starts off his latest Financial Times column with a stunning fact about Icelandic novels and then addresses how individuality has been swallowed by the shiny, disquieting machine we’ve built for ourselves, which is capable of quantifying and measuring everyone, constantly reminding us that we don’t measure up. The opening:

“Last summer in Reykjavik I learnt that one in 10 Icelanders will write a novel in their lifetime. This is impressive but I suppose the downside is that each novel only gets nine readers. In a weird way, our world is turning into a world of Icelandic novelists, except substitute ‘blog,’ ‘vlog’ or ‘website’ for ‘novel’ – and … there we are. A defining sentiment of our new era is that never before has being an individual been so easily broadcast, yet never before has individuality felt so ever-increasingly far away. Before the 21st century, we lived with the notion of one’s self as a noble citizen of the world, a lone soul whose life was a story written across a span of seven decades. Instead, we now live with the ever-gnawing sensation that one’s self is really just one more meat unit among seven billion other meat units.

This 21st-century crisis of individuality expresses itself in many ways. In Japan there is the phenomenon of the hikikomori. Your child grows up, leaves home and then, after a few years, returns home and never leaves his or her bedroom ever again. Ever. The rare hikikomori will venture out in the middle of the night to visit a local minimart but that’s it. In 2010, the Japanese government estimated there were 700,000 hikikomori in Japan. Yes, you read that correctly: almost three-quarters-of-a-million modern-day elective hermits back with mom and dad, and they are psychologically incapable of ever leaving. Ever.

I suspect what these young people are experiencing is what I term ‘atomophobia’ – the fear of feeling like an individual.”

 

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The first two excellent paragraphs of “Welcome to the Integratron,” Jody Rosen’s new T Magazine article about a large-scale “time-travel” contraption in the California desert that was purported to be ordered built in 1957 by Venusians:

“In the wee hours of Aug. 24, 1953, George Van Tassel, a 43-year-old former aviation engineer, was awakened by a man from outer space. Six years earlier, Van Tassel had moved with his family to Landers, Calif., a place of stark beauty and rainbow sunsets in the southeastern corner of the Mojave Desert, 40 desolate miles due north of Palm Springs. Van Tassel had the clean-cut look of a midcentury company man, and a résumé to match: He had worked for Lockheed and Douglas Aircraft, and for Howard Hughes’s aviation concern. But his spiritual leanings were esoteric. He settled in Landers because of its proximity to Giant Rock, an enormous seven-story-high desert boulder in whose shadow he would sit silently for hours at a stretch. He told friends that he went to Giant Rock to commune with the spirits of American Indians, who had regarded the boulder as sacred.

But on that night in 1953, Van Tassel’s visitor was not a Native American. He was, Van Tassel claimed, a Venusian: the captain of a ‘scout ship’ from Venus that had landed on the airstrip abutting Van Tassel’s property. The spaceman looked like a human, wore a gray one-piece bodysuit and spoke, Van Tassel told a television interviewer, ‘in the best English, equivalent to Ronald Colman’s.’ He informed Van Tassel that his name was Solganda and that he was 700 years old. (He looked no older than 28, Van Tassel said.) Van Tassel was ushered onto the spacecraft where he was told that Earthlings’ reliance on metal building materials was interfering with radio frequencies and disrupting interplanetary ‘thought transfers.’ Solganda also divulged a secret: a formula that Van Tassel could use to build a remarkable machine, a device that would generate electrostatic energy to suspend the laws of gravity, extend human life and facilitate high-speed time travel.”

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MIT physics professor Max Tegmark just did a wide-ranging Ask Me Anything at Reddit, covering everything from future AI to the afterlife. A few exchanges follow.

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Question:

We haven’t been back to the moon in ages. We need to go back, right?

Max Tegmark:

If we want to go to Mars and beyond, going back to the Moon is the logical first step. I know it’s now as sexy (“been there, done that”), but it’s a great way to perfect required technologies and WAY easier.

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Question:

What do you think of the Alcubierre drive and Q-thrusters for interplanetary/interstellar travel? Do you think you will be able to buy a ticket to Mars within your lifetime?

Max Tegmark:

I’m betting against the Alcubierre drive but for the Mars ticket. I think the way to do Mars travel is to send people who volunteer to go on a one-way ticket, which is way cheaper. The current NASA obsession with bringing everyone back home safely makes it dramatically harder and costlier, and goes against the traditional spirit of exploration. I don’t think it will be that hard to find volunteers.

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Question:

Do you think there will an AI with consciousness in our lifetimes?

Max Tegmark:

I think superhuman AI in our lifetime is plausible – there’s certainly nothing in the laws of physics saying that intelligence requires carbon atoms.

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Question:

I have a question in connection with your recent statement saying that the “consciousness is the way information feels while it is being processed”. Soon enough some of our most advanced computers will have met all 4 requirements for a physical system to be conscious – in the light of the above, do you foresee any significant advances in the AI field within next 5-10 years?

Max Tegmark:

Yes, I foresee huge advances in AI during the coming decade. But we still don’t understand with confidence what makes an information-processing system feel conscious (have a subjective experience) as opposed to simply behaving as if it were conscious, and there’s great controversy here. For example, my neuroscientist friend and consciousness pioneer Giulio Tononi thinks that if you simulate me perfectly on a regular computer, I won’t be conscious, but rather a zombie whose behavior is indistinguishable from mine. I’m fascinated by these questions and look forward to doing further research on them.

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Question:

Is there an afterlife?

Max Tegmark:

I’m betting against it, unless you count getting uploaded/simulated, so I suggest living this life to the fullest!•

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Global box office explains why Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, which underperformed in the U.S., warranted a sequel, but why on earth would there be a Jarhead 2 nine years after the original, with none of the original principals attached? Matt Patches of Grantland breaks down the strategy and economics of such a move, which is not so different than reviving a ghost brand of cereal. An excerpt:

“There are blunt and nuanced answers to the inevitable ‘Why!?’ The obvious: money. Less obvious: A potential to serve audiences hungry for stories with budget-sensible vehicles. That’s Glenn Ross’s prerogative. As general manager and executive vice-president of Universal 1440 Entertainment, the production arm of Universal Studios Home Entertainment, Ross hunts for available brands to mine. It’s not unlike a typical movie studio, though Ross doesn’t have the time to work like the theatrical side. He works quickly and aggressively. He caters to fans and creates results. Judging from Universal Studios Home Entertainment’s history, he’s doing something right.

The officially sanctioned Jarhead sequel joins a swarm of thought-dead brands revived through cunning straight-to-DVD strategy. Universal Home Entertainment, which is releasing Jarhead 2: Field of Fire on Blu-ray, DVD, and VOD platforms, has ‘non-theatrical’ (‘direct-to-DVD’ being the archaic term) production down to a science. The company releases five to seven titles a year. The annual slates are eclectic: In the past four years, Universal has released The Scorpion King 3: Battle for Redemption,Saige Paints the SkyDeath Race 3: InfernoHoney 2,Blue Crush 2Curse of Chucky (the franchise’s sixth installment), and The Little Rascals Save the Day (a quasi-continuation of the studio’s 1994 remake). Competitive studios keep their own plates spinning, with Fox Home Entertainment (Marley & Me: The Puppy Years, Tooth Fairy 2, Flicka: Country Pride, Wrong Turn 5 & 6, and Joy Ride 3), Paramount Famous Productions (Mean Girls 2), and Warner Premiere (Ace Ventura: Pet Detective Jr.; House Party: Tonight’s the Night; and DC Comics’ animated output) producing new titles for streaming platforms and Redbox kiosks.

Ross looks at Jarhead 2 and sees an entirely new face to the non-theatrical business.”

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Whether it’s kidneys or kidney beans, 3D printers have as much potential as anything to transform our world. But how close is the reality? From Lisa Fleisher at the Wall Street Journal:

“A 3-D printed pizza isn’t coming to a home kitchen near you anytime soon. But a personalized wedding cake topper? That could be commercially viable a lot quicker, says Gartner analyst Pete Basiliere.

The vision of printing your own food, gifts or shoes at home is at least five to 10 years away, analyst firm Gartner said in a report on 3-D printing released Tuesday, part of its annual tradition of trying to gauge how much of the talk around various technologies is real vs. hype. 3-D printing refers to a way of manufacturing things on the spot, commonly by spurting out layer upon layer of material such as plastic to forge something based on a digital design.

The most common and easiest use for 3-D printing is to create product models, which is about two years away from its peak usage, the report said. Mainstream adoption of 3-D printing in medicine — a rapidly advancing area that includes everything from actual organs to prosthetic limbs — is about two to five years away. But the technology just isn’t practical enough for everyday use at home, at least not yet, Basiliere said.”

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Reddit pointed me to a post at economist Robin Hansen’s blog, in which he engages in some extreme speculation. Hansen looks at how the trends of longer lifespans and accelerated social change may lead to a multi-generational disconnect, which has encouraged some futurists to suggest governance by totalitarian computer, or Fascism by algorithm. They think it inevitable anyway, so they want to try to commandeer this brave new world to some extent. I don’t think we get that option should the computer apocalypse occur. An excerpt:

“In history we have seen change not only in technology and environments, but also in habits, cultures, attitudes, and preferences. New generations often act not just like the same people thrust into new situations, but like new kinds of people with new attitudes and preferences. This has often intensified intergenerational conflicts; generations have argued not only about who should consume and control what, but also about which generational values should dominate.

So far, this sort of intergenerational value conflict has been limited due to the relatively mild value changes that have so far appeared within individual lifetimes. But at least two robust trends suggest the future will have more value change, and thus more conflict:

  1. Longer lifespans – Holding other things constant, the longer people live the more generations will overlap at any one time, and the more different will be their values.
  2. Faster change – Holding other things constant, a faster rate of economic and social change will likely induce values to change faster as people adapt to these social changes.
  3. Value plasticity – It may become easier for our descendants to change their values, all else equal. This might be via stronger ads and schools, or direct brain rewiring. (This trend seems less robust.)

These trends robustly suggest that toward the end of their lives future folk will more often look with disapproval at the attitudes and behaviors of younger generations, even as these older generations have a smaller proportional influence on the world. There will be more ‘Get off my lawn! Damn kids got no respect.’

The futurists who most worry about this problem tend to assume a worst possible case. (Supporting quotes below.) That is, without a regulatory solution we face the prospect of quickly sharing the world with daemon spawn of titanic power who share almost none of our values. Not only might they not like our kind of music, they might not like music. They might not even be conscious. One standard example is that they might want only to fill the universe with paperclips, and rip us apart to make more paperclip materials. Futurists’ key argument: the space of possible values is vast, with most points far from us.

This increased intergenerational conflict is the new problem that tempts some futurists today to consider a new regulatory solution. And their preferred solution: a complete totalitarian takeover of the world, and maybe the universe, by a new super-intelligent computer.

You heard that right.”

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