FUTURE FACTS – FROM THINK LINKS
DID YOU KNOW THAT–
- Scientists tweak genes and grow a dinosaur leg on a chicken.
- Decimated fish populations could double across the world by 2050 with industry reform.
- Boeing’s monstrous underwater robot can wander the ocean for 6 months.
- Every second, approximately 6,000 tweets are tweeted; more than 40,000 Google queries are searched; and more than 2 million emails are sent.
The New Mind Control: How the Internet Flips Elections and Alters Our Thoughts – (Aeon – February 18, 2016)
What would happen if new sources of mind control began to emerge that, unlike advertizing, had little or no competition? And what if a new means of control were developed that were far more powerful – and far more invisible – than any that have existed in the past? And what if new types of control allowed a handful of people to exert enormous influence not just over the citizens of the US but over most of the people on Earth? In fact, these things have already happened. To understand how the new forms of mind control work, we need to start by looking at the search engine – one in particular: the biggest and best of them all, namely Google. Google has become the main gateway to virtually all knowledge, mainly because the search engine is so good at giving us exactly the information we are looking for, almost instantly and almost always in the first position of the list it shows us after we launch our search – the list of ‘search results’. That ordered list is so good, in fact, that about 50% of our clicks go to the top two items, and more than 90% of our clicks go to the 10 items listed on the first page of results. But the question is: Can highly ranked search results impact more than consumer choices? The research discussed in this article raises globally significant questions. (Editor’s note: The general hypothesis, that the ranking of internet search results affects behavior, is not entirely new. What is new here is the quality of the research discussed and the detailed conclusions.)
DeepMind Founder Demis Hassabis on How AI Will Shape the Future – (The Verge – March 10, 2016)
DeepMind’s stunning victories over Go legend Lee Se-dol have stoked excitement over artificial intelligence’s potential more than any event in recent memory. But the Google subsidiary’s AlphaGo program is far from its only project — it’s not even the main one. As co-founder Demis Hassabis has said, DeepMind wants to “solve intelligence,” and he has more than a few ideas about how to get there. Demis Hassabis said: “Actually, the AlphaGo algorithm, this is something we’re going to try in the next few months — we think we could get rid of the supervised learning starting point and just do it completely from self-play, literally starting from nothing. It’d take longer, because the trial and error when you’re playing randomly would take longer to train, maybe a few months. But we think it’s possible to ground it all the way to pure learning.” In other words, Hassabis thinks AlphaGo is capable of generating its own data for learning simply from playing itself in Go and learning by trial-and-error what works and what doesn’t. Note the trend here: artificial intelligence has moved from algorithms that attempt to account for all variables to brute force evaluation of constrained data sets and now to programs that build their own knowledge. In other words, artificial intelligence has steadily become less like traditional computer programs and more like human intelligence. And, by extension, the role that humans play in determining the ultimate capability of any particular application of artificial intelligence has been diminished as well. See also: Why is Google’s Go win such a big deal?
Urban Birds May Be Smarter Than Their Country Cousins – (Washington Post – March 22, 2016)
A new study suggests that modern cityscapes may be turning birds into better problem solvers. The McGill University research, published recently in Behavioral Ecology, found that city birds studied were different from their rural counterparts in several ways. “We found that not only were birds from urbanized areas better at innovative problem-solving tasks than bullfinches from rural environments, but that surprisingly urban birds also had a better immunity than rural birds,” said first author Jean-Nicolas Audet, a PhD candidate at McGill. Audet and his colleagues tested 53 bullfinches from different parts of Barbados — something he was inspired to do after being terrorized by bold city birds at a restaurant. What’s the difference between a bold city bruiser and a demure country bird? According to cognitive tests, an awful lot: The city birds really were more bold by some measures (they were quicker to eat food presented to them in a familiar dish by a human who then hid, meaning they cared less about how likely a human was to interrupt their meal), and better at solving problems — getting to food that had been placed in jars or drawers, for example. Taken all together, these traits seem to serve a pretty obvious purpose. When humans are around, it means that birds have more reason to learn to access food in new and challenging places. A bird in the country is pretty much always going to find seeds in the same sorts of places, but a city bird can, for example, learn to snatch sandwiches off restaurant plates. That’s where the boldness comes in, too. And perhaps a fear of novel objects is just part of the same routine: A city bird encounters new and strange dangers more often than one in a rural environment, so it needs to be smart about sussing out situations before blundering in. Fifty-three birds from one country is a pretty small sample size, so we can’t assume that these findings are true for birds all over the world — or even for birds all over Barbados. But the results suggest that humankind’s influence might have a profound effect on the behavior (and health) of urban birds.
Scientists Have Made the Best Artificial Sperm Yet, and They’re Breeding Mice with It – (Science Alert – February 26, 2016)
Scientists have used embryonic stem cells to grow the most effective ‘test-tube’ sperm cells ever, demonstrating how they can be used to fertilise mouse eggs, and produce healthy, fertile offspring. The cells are the first in the world to meet a set of criteria known as the ‘gold standard’ for artificial sperm, set by three fertility researchers in 2014. The team from Nanjing Medical University in China haven’t used stem cells to create actual, proper sperm cells, but they have managed to create artificial spermatids, which are immature versions of sperm that have not yet grown tails. Without tails, these spermatids can’t swim, so they’re injected into a mouse egg via IVF instead. To reach the gold standard for artificial sperm, the researchers had to demonstrate that at various stages of growth, the cells were retaining a number of crucial characteristics, such as the right number of chromosomes and the right percentage of donor DNA. And that’s no easy feat, as every other attempt to adequately control all the key stages of sex cell division has failed. The researchers took embryonic stem cells from male mice and exposed them to chemicals called cytokines that triggered their transformation into germ cells – a type of cell that gives rise to sex cells (eggs or sperm). While the cells were differentiating, they were placed next to testes-like tissue and exposed to the male sex hormone, testosterone, to coax them into a spermatid form. The technique has so far only been tested on mice. But the hope is that one day, scientists could extract cells from an infertile man – such as skin or cheek cells – revert them to an embryonic stem cell-like state, and then convert those into artificial spermatids for use in IVF.
To Help Quadriplegics, Monkeys Navigate a Wheelchair with Their Minds – (LA Times – March 3, 2016)
A team of pioneers in the field of brain-machine interfaces reported it has found the formula to move that dream toward reality for quadriplegics and others who have lost the ability to voluntarily use their muscles. First, set out some grapes. Then, put an eager rhesus monkey into her monkey-sized wheelchair and add a suite of electrodes that eavesdrop on her will to move toward the treat. Finally, start the recorder. The resulting data — the repeated electrical signals of a monkey wishing to capture a treat — allowed scientists at Duke University’s Center for Neuroengineering to demonstrate a way to restore mobility to the wholly paralyzed and locked in. The next step, according to Dr. Miguel Nicolelis, senior author of the new paper: to use the “brain-machine interface” demonstrated here to let human quadriplegics move around at will. In recent years, researchers have shown that brain-machine interfaces can bypass severed spinal cords and make limbs — prosthetic and otherwise — move on the brain’s command. In the current study, however, researchers aimed effectively to cut out the middleman, setting the brain to the task of “whole-body navigation.”
Scientists Identify Genes Associated with Gray Hairs and Unibrows – (Washington Post – March 1, 2016)
Scientists have found a whole host of genes associated with human hair growth — including, for the very first time, a gene they believe contributes to hair going gray. The study also plucks out genes associated with monobrows, eyebrow and beard bushiness, hair color and shape, and balding. “It was only possible because we analyzed a diverse melting pot of people, which hasn’t been done before on this scale,” study author Kaustubh Adhikari of University College London said in a statement. Adhikari and his colleagues sifted through the genetic data of over 6,300 men and women from across Latin America, covering a wide range of ethnic backgrounds. By taking note of their intrinsic hair traits and comparing them to their genomes, they were able to identify which genes were often correlated to the same traits.
Scientists Tweak Genes and Grow a Dinosaur Leg on a Chicken – (Extreme Tech – March 10, 2016)
This just in from the what-could-possibly-go-wrong department: Scientists from the Universidad de Chile, headed by Joâo Botelho, genetically manipulated chickens so that they would grow up with legs like dinosaurs. They apparently did not notice the major premise of the latest Jurassic Park movie, because this really looks like someone in a lab coat thought “Let’s make a creature grow up to express more velociraptor-like traits and just see what happens.” To do this, the researchers didn’t insert genes from any organism. They just silenced a gene the chickens already had. That didn’t result in a chicken that looks like someone just cut-and-pasted a leathery green raptor leg onto it — but it’s close enough for government work. Chickens have a detached and diminished fibula. It’s the tiny pin-like bone we hate in chicken legs. Suppressing one of the genes responsible for the differences between raptors and chickens resulted in chickens that develop a full-length, tubular fibula connected at the ankle. They ended up with chickens possessed of bone structure that matches the lower leg anatomy of a raptor. “The experiments are focused on single traits, to test specific hypotheses,” says Alexander Vargas, in whose lab Botelho made the chickens. “Not only do we know a great deal about bird development, but also about the dinosaur-bird transition, which is well-documented by the fossil record. This leads naturally to hypotheses on the evolution of development, that can be explored in the lab.”
Decimated Fish Populations Could Double Across the World by 2050 With Industry Reform – (Newsweek – March 29, 2016)
In 2000, the West Coast fishery for groundfish, such as rockfish and sole, was declared a federal economic disaster. Years of overfishing and declined productivity had led to record-low harvests for some fish and market gluts for others. By all accounts, the industry was dead in the water. The tide changed, however, when the industry began working with federal regulators from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and scientists from the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) to put an end to overfishing. They implemented a form of secure fishing rights that divides the total amount of fish that can be caught into individual quotas that each fisherman can catch throughout the year. Now the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program and the Marine Stewardship Council consider a number of West Coast groundfish to be sustainable seafood choices, and the industry provides enough certified sustainable seafood to satisfy 17 million Americans for an entire year. No one in the fishing industry could have imagined a comeback like this. If similar practices were put into place around the world, the majority of the world’s fisheries could fully recover in just 10 years from the overfishing of the past decades. And by 2050, global fish populations could double. Researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the University of Washington found that the majority of fisheries are in bad shape because of overfishing. In areas known for overfishing, the typical government response is to limit the amount of time fishermen are allowed to fish. Pressed for time, the fishermen go out with bigger nets or on boats with more powerful engines in the frenzy to beat competitors after the same catch. The fishermen then flood the market with more fish than there is demand, and excess fish makes waste. In the decades before 2000, West Coast groundfish fishermen subject to quotas applied to individual fleets competed with one another to catch as many fish as possible before the fleet’s allocation was met. Now a new “catch share” program divides the total amount of an overall allowable catch or quota in shares controlled by individual fishermen or groups of fishermen—securing each fisherman’s opportunities and eliminating the need for competition. When that new program was put in place on the West Coast, the waste plummeted 75%.
Pacific Ocean Pattern Could Predict U.S. Heat Waves – (Scientific American – March 28, 2016)
In the summer of 2012, blistering temperatures and drought cost some $31.5 billion and led to dozens of deaths. The heat was so intense that it melted roads and airport runways. In May of that year, when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued its forecast for the summer, it had predicted normal temperatures for the Midwest and Northeast — a forecast that clearly missed the mark. Such seasonal forecasting is notoriously difficult, but a new study points to a way to potentially better predict the type of extreme heat that engulfed the country that summer. By identifying a pattern of Pacific Ocean temperatures that seems to precede major heat events in the eastern U.S., forecasters may be able to give farmers, cities and utilities more time to prepare. Karen McKinnon and her colleagues found the connection to Pacific Ocean temperatures by first looking at daily temperature data for the period from late June to late August from 1,613 weather stations across the U.S. going back to 1982. The researchers then looked to see if those days of extreme heat tended to correspond with any particular patterns of sea surface temperatures in the North Pacific. One pattern “just popped up super clearly,” said McKinnon, a postdoctoral researcher at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. In an area spanning the breadth of the ocean basin and roughly the same latitudes as the U.S., they found cooler-than-normal waters to the north butted up against warmer-than-normal waters to the south although exactly why the ocean pattern and extreme eastern U.S. heat are connected isn’t yet clear.
Scientists Have Managed to Shrink a Supercomputer to the Size of a Book Using Biological Motors – (International Business Times – March 4, 2016)
A group of international scientists has developed a biocomputer the size of a book or laptop that can solve mathematical problems as quickly as a supercomputer because it operates in parallel rather than in sequence. The researchers have used nanotechnology to create molecular motors that can perform several calculations simultaneously rather than sequentially. Because you need so many processors in order to get a supercomputer to work, price and scale have always been key drawbacks to the technology. But now researchers have found a way to make parallel computing work on a much smaller scale. Molecular motors are large molecules that can carry out mechanical tasks in living cells, for example myosin, which is found in human muscle cells. Outside the cell, myosin can be used to move protein filaments made of actin along artificial paths to direct the filaments’ movements. “The fact that molecules are very cheap and that we have now shown the biocomputer’s calculations work leads me to believe that biocomputers have the prerequisites for practical use within ten years. Certainly, quantum computers can be more powerful in the long term, but there are considerable practical problems involved in getting them to work,” said Heiner Linke, director of NanoLund, the Centre for Nanoscience at the Lund University in Sweden and coordinator of the study.
How Big Is the Internet, Really? – (Live Science – March 18, 2016)
Every second, approximately 6,000 tweets are tweeted; more than 40,000 Google queries are searched; and more than 2 million emails are sent, according to Internet Live Stats, a website of the international Real Time Statistics Project. But these statistics only hint at the size of the Web. As of September 2014, there were roughly 1 billion websites on the Internet. And beneath this constantly changing (but sort of quantifiable) Internet that’s familiar to most people lies the “Deep Web,” which includes things Google and other search engines don’t index. Deep Web content can be as innocuous as the results of a search of an online database or as secretive as black-market forums accessible only to those with special Tor software. With about 1 billion websites, the Web is home to many more individual Web pages. One of these pages, www.worldwidewebsize.com, seeks to quantify the number using research by Internet consultant Maurice de Kunder. De Kunder and his colleagues published their methodology in February 2016. According to their calculations, there were at least 4.66 billion Web pages online as of mid-March 2016. This calculation covers only the searchable Web, however, not the Deep Web. So how much information does the Internet hold? There are three ways to look at that question, said Martin Hilbert, a professor of communications at the University of California, Davis.
Tiny 3-D Printed Building Shares Its Energy With an (Also 3-D Printed) SUV– (Wired – March 2, 2016)
From architecture firm SOM and the U.S. Department of Energy, here’s a glimpse at how architects think we might live off-the-grid in the future. After five years of collaborating on a ‘home of the future’, SOM, DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and the University of Tennessee’s College of Architecture and Design were ready to reveal their conceptual product: a 3-D printed tiny house that looks like a Conestoga wagon and 3-D printed SUV that emanates a futuristic Jeep they call AMIE (Additive Manufacturing Integrated Energy). The team turned to 3-D printing as a way to reduce the amount of waste in the building process. Phil Enquist, a parter at SOM, said that modern construction projects can have 20 to 30% of material waste that ends in a landfill. Both the building and the SUV can generate and store energy. The building powers its lights and appliances—it comes complete with faucets, a refrigerator, and induction stovetops— with rooftop solar panels. When appliances aren’t in use, energy is stored in the building’s battery. The vehicle sports a battery, too, but also has a gasoline-powered generator. The SUV and the building are connected by an inductive charging pad that is activated when the car parks above it. When necessary, the car’s battery and generator can supply energy to the house—and vice-versa. And if both are powerless on a cloudy day, the house can tap into the power grid.
Boeing’s Monstrous Underwater Robot Can Wander the Ocean for 6 Months – (Wired – March 21, 2016)
The bottom of the ocean is a particularly exasperating place to explore. Anyone or anything you send down there has to contend with the dark, with thousands of pounds of pressure on every square inch, with the inability to replenish fuel supplies without returning to the mother ship. In recent years, unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs) have improved the situation, eliminating the need to send a human down below, or to attach an unmanned vessel to a surface ship with a long umbilical cord. That’s progress, but it’s not enough to emancipate the UUV from the need for a nearby surface ship with a human crew, which piles on costs. In 2011, Boeing said, “We need to come up with a capability that allows us to operate an autonomous underwater vehicle that does not require a surface ship,” The answer: The Echo Voyager which can spend six months at a time exploring the deep sea, with a 7,500-mile range, no ship needed. Structurally, the 51-foot Voyager’s not too different from its little brothers, the 32-foot Seeker and 18-foot Ranger. The big difference is the introduction of the hybrid rechargeable power system. The 50-ton Voyager runs on lithium-ion or silver zinc batteries that power it for a few days at a time. But instead of scooting over to a ship any time it’s running low on power, the Voyager just fires up a diesel generator that recharges the batteries. (It only turns on the generator at the surface, so the exhaust can be piped into the air). The Voyager works something like a Chevy Volt – if the Volt could carry a thousand gallons of fuel and could drive from San Francisco to Hong Kong without hitting a gas station.
No More Exposés in North Carolina – (New York Times – February 1, 2016)
Factory farm operators believe that the less Americans know about what goes on behind their closed doors, the better. That’s because the animals sent through those factories often endure an unimaginable amount of mistreatment and abuse. Nearly always, this treatment comes to light only because courageous employees – or those posing as employees – take undercover video and release it to the public. The industry’s lobbyists have taken the opposite approach, pushing for the passage of so-called “ag-gag” laws, which ban undercover recordings on farms and in slaughterhouses. These measures have been enacted in eight states. None has gone as far as North Carolina, where a new law that took effect Jan. 1 aims to silence whistle-blowers not just at agricultural facilities, but at all workplaces in the state. That includes, among others, nursing homes, day care centers, and veterans’ facilities. Anyone who violates the law – say, by secretly taping abuses of elderly patients or farm animals and then sharing the recording with the media or an advocacy group – can be sued by business owners for bad publicity and be required to pay a fine of $5,000 for each day that person is gathering information. This is a clear violation of the constitutional freedoms of speech and the press, as argued in a federal lawsuit filed in January.
General Mills to Label GMOs on Products across the Country – (USA Today – March 18, 2016)
General Mills will start labeling its products that contain genetically modified ingredients in response to a law going into effect in Vermont later this year. The maker of Cheerios, Yoplait and Betty Crocker joins Campbell Soup as one of the few major consumer product companies to adopt labeling amid a contentious debate in Congress about whether identifying GMOs – genetically modified organisms – should be voluntary. In a blog post, General Mills argued for a national standard for GMO labeling but said that in the meantime, the company will start labeling certain products that contain GMOs. The decision comes as food producers prepare to comply with a Vermont law that will require GMOs to be identified starting July 1. General Mills said that it’s more cost effective to adopt the practice across the country in order to keep prices from rising for customers. The labels will start hitting grocery stores over the next several weeks and customers can expect thousands of packages to be updated with new language. General Mills also launched a tool that lets customers search for products that contain GMOs, which includes Betty Crocker frosting, Chex cereal and Nature Valley bars.
SECURITY AND THE FUTURE OF WARFARE
“Eyewash”: How the CIA Deceives Its Own Workforce About Operations – (Washington Post – January 31, 2016)
Senior CIA officials have for years intentionally deceived parts of the agency workforce by transmitting internal memos that contain false information. The practice is known by the term “eyewash.” Officials said there is no clear mechanism for labeling eyewash cables or distinguishing them from legitimate records being examined by the CIA’s inspector general, turned over to Congress or declassified for historians. Senate investigators uncovered apparent cases of eyewashing as part of a multi-year probe of the CIA’s use of harsh interrogation methods on alleged al-Qaeda operatives, according to officials who said that the Senate Intelligence Committee found glaring inconsistencies in CIA communications about classified operations, including drone strikes. Five former high-ranking CIA officials, including several who worked in the general counsel or inspector general offices, said they had never heard the term or encountered the practice of using internal communications to mislead agency employees. But others said that eyewashing was a standard security practice that had been in existence for decades.
Eagles vs Drones: The Birds Who Grab Drones from the Sky – (BBC News – February 2, 2016)
At an airbase in the Netherlands, Dutch police are training eagles to take down unauthorized drones. It comes amid concerns that drones are increasingly being used to commit crimes. The birds are taught to treat the drones as if they were a small animal they would hunt to eat. “The bird sees the drone as prey and takes it to a safe area, a place where he does not suffer from other birds or humans,” says a statement from the police. Because there’s the chance that an eagle could get hurt by the blades on a drone, the police are looking into some sort of protective clothing for the birds. Article includes video clip.
TRENDS OF GOVERNANCE
A Record Number of People Convicted of Crimes Were Exonerated Last Year – (Washington Post – February 3, 2016)
There were 149 people exonerated in the United States last year after being wrongly convicted of crimes. More than a third of the people exonerated were convicted of murder, says a report released Wednesday by the National Registry of Exonerations, a project of the University of Michigan Law School and the Northwestern University School of Law. All of the people exonerated last year … had served an average of more than 14 years in prison. Five of the people who were exonerated had been sentenced to death. All told, the National Registry says it has logged 1,733 exonerations in the country since 1989. “Not long ago, any exoneration we heard about was major news,” the report stated. “Now it’s a familiar story. We average nearly three exonerations a week, and most get little attention.” There are also more exonerations in cases involving false confessions or guilty pleas than there used to be. In four of 10 exonerations last year, the people had pleaded guilty, largely in cases involving charges of drug possession. About a third of all exonerations last year involved these drug possession cases. A remarkable number of these cases occurred in just one place: Harris County, Tex., home to Houston. The registry’s report described how the Harris County District Attorney’s office had investigated cases after noticing a number of people who pleaded guilty to possessing illegal drugs, only for a crime lab – sometimes months or years later – to reveal that the materials these people had were not drugs after all.
FBI Won’t Explain Its Bizarre New Way of Measuring Its Success Fighting Terror – (The Intercept – February 18, 2016)
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has quietly developed a new way to measure its success in the war on terror: counting the number of terror threats it has “disrupted” in a year. But good luck trying to figure out what that number means, how it was derived, or why it doesn’t jibe with any other law enforcement statistic, most notably, the number of terror suspects actually charged or arrested. In the section on “Performance Measures” in the FBI’s latest financial statement, the bureau reports 440 “terror disruptions” in the 12-month period ending on September 30, 2015. That’s more than three times the 2015 “target” of 125. In a vacuum, that would appear to suggest that the FBI’s terror-fighting mission – which accounts for 54% of the bureau’s $9.8 billion budget in 2015 – is exceeding expectations. But that number – 440 – is much higher than the number of arrests reported by the FBI. The Washington Post counted about 60 terror-related arrests in 2015. Of those arrests, many were of people trying to travel abroad or trying to help others do so. Many more involved people planning attacks that were essentially imaginary, often goaded by FBI informants. There was only one genuinely “foiled attack” in the United States between January 2014 and September 2015. And that one was stopped by the local police department. The fact that the agency establishes a target for terrorism disruptions is also troubling, said Michael German, a former FBI agent.
Surprise! NSA Data Will Soon Routinely Be Used for Domestic Policing That Has Nothing to Do with Terrorism – (Washington Post – March 10, 2016)
The “sneak-and-peek” provision of the Patriot Act that was alleged to be used only in national security and terrorism investigations has overwhelmingly been used in narcotics cases. Now the National Security Agency data will be shared with other intelligence agencies like the FBI without first applying any screens for privacy. The ACLU of Massachusetts blog Privacy SOS explains why this is important: In short, domestic law enforcement officials now have access to huge troves of American communications, obtained without warrants, that they can use to put people in cages. FBI agents don’t need to have any “national security” related reason to plug your name, email address, phone number, or other “selector” into the NSA’s gargantuan data trove. They can simply poke around in your private information in the course of totally routine investigations. And if they find something that suggests, say, involvement in illegal drug activity, they can send that information to local or state police. That means information the NSA collects for purposes of so-called “national security” will be used by police to lock up ordinary Americans for routine crimes. This basically formalizes what was already happening under the radar. For a couple of years now the Drug Enforcement Administration and the IRS have been getting information from the NSA. Because that information was obtained without a warrant, the agencies were instructed to engage in “parallel construction” when explaining to courts and defense attorneys how the information had been obtained. And it certainly isn’t the only time that that national security apparatus has let law enforcement agencies benefit from policies that are supposed to be reserved for terrorism investigations in order to get around the Fourth Amendment, then instructed those law enforcement agencies to misdirect, fudge and outright lie about how they obtained incriminating. The lying has been a matter of policy. We’re now learning that the feds had these agreements with police agencies all over the country, affecting thousands of cases.
LIFE STYLE/SOCIAL TRENDS AND VALUES
Sayonara Middle Class: 22 Stunning Pieces of Evidence That Show the Middle Class in America Is Dying – (End of the American Dream – December 10, 2015)
This article contains 22 separate data points. Taken together, they help explain the anger that is increasingly felt in our society. Here are the first four: #1) Middle class Americans now make up a minority of the population. In 1971, 61% of all Americans lived in middle class households. #2 According to the Pew Research Center, the median income of middle class households declined by 4% from 2000 to 2014. #3 The Pew Research Center has also found that median wealth for middle class households dropped by an astounding 28% between 2001 and 2013. #4 In 1970, the middle class took home approximately 62% of all income. Today, that number has plummeted to just 43% (which, among other reasons, makes sense because there are many fewer people in that subset).
Could You Fall in Love with This Robot? – (CNBC – March 16, 2016)
Two teams working to develop the most humanlike robots on the planet – often dubbed androids – are Hanson Robotics and Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratories. Dr. David Hanson leads the engineers and designers that created Sophia, the team’s most advanced android to date. Sophia’s lifelike skin is made from patented silicon and she can emulate more than 62 facial expressions. Cameras inside her “eyes,” combined with computer algorithms, enable her to “see,” follow faces and appear to make eye contact and recognize individuals. A combination of voice recognition technology and other tools enable Sophia to process speech, chat and get smarter over time. “Our goal is that she will be as conscious, creative and capable as any human,” said Hanson. (Editor’s note: And more beautiful than most humans.) “We are designing these robots to serve in health care, therapy, education and customer service applications.” Hanson said that one day robots will be indistinguishable from humans. “The artificial intelligence will evolve to the point where they will truly be our friends,” he said. Hanson plans to announce pricing and availability of his humanlike robots later this year. “Gemini” is Latin name for “twins” and the root of “Geminoid,” a robot created by Hiroshi Ishiguro … in order to study humans, which he believes are not that different from robots. “We are more autonomous and more intelligent — that’s it,” he said. His own tests found that 80 percent of people greeted his most human-like androids with a “hello,” initially mistaking them for real people. Ishiguro is also running field tests using robots to interact with people with dementia and kids with autism. For those situations, a mechanical-looking robot is better, he said. “They do not like to talk to the human, or very humanlike, robot,” said Ishiguro. “But, as the autistic kids grow up, they accept a more humanlike robot.”
It Has Fast Become Antiquated to Say That You Go On-line – (BBC News – March 28, 2016)
If I’m driving along in my car listening to GPS directions from Google Maps, am I online or offline? How about when I’m sitting at home streaming movies on demand? Skip forward a few years: if I’m dozing in my driverless car while my smartphone screens messages and calls, do words like “offline” and “online” even make sense? The answer, I think, is that they make about as much sense as asking me today whether I have recently had any non-electric experiences. Electricity is so much a part of our world that it makes sense to ask how we use it – but no longer if or when we do. It’s a given. You don’t really “go” online in 2016. Online is simply there, waiting. It’s what happens the moment you switch your devices on; it’s the default state of your office, your home, your vehicle, your stroll to the shops. We’ve been promised an Internet of Things for so long, now, that we’ve lost sight of what the phrase really signifies: a world in which the majority of digital chatter doesn’t involve us at all, but consists of internet-connected devices communicating with other internet-connected devices. Drop by drop, a shared ocean of data has accumulated across our world. Ironically enough for those obsessed with the psychological benefits of “unplugging” from tech, switching off a phone and making yourself unavailable demands a good deal of status and control. Simply advocating “offline” time misses the point: what defines your freedom is the relationships you have with and through technology, and the degree to which you can make informed choices and negotiate systems.
CONTACT AND THE EXPLORATION OF SPACE
Supermassive Black Hole Jets Detected Exceeding Known Physical Limits – Hotter Than 10-Trillion Degrees – (Daily Galaxy – March 29, 2016)
Astronomers using an orbiting radio telescope in conjunction with four ground-based radio telescopes have achieved the highest resolution, or ability to discern fine detail, of any astronomical observation ever made. Their achievement produced a pair of scientific surprises that promise to advance the understanding of quasars, supermassive black holes at the cores of galaxies. The scientists combined the Russian RadioAstron satellite with the ground-based telescopes to produce a virtual radio telescope more than 100,000 miles across. They pointed this system at a quasar called 3C 273, more than 2 billion light-years from Earth. Quasars like 3C 273 propel huge jets of material outward at speeds nearly that of light. Just how bright such emission could be, however, was thought to be limited by physical processes. That limit, scientists thought, was about 100 billion degrees. The researchers were surprised when their Earth-space system revealed a temperature hotter than 10 trillion degrees. “Only this space-Earth system could reveal this temperature, and now we have to figure out how that environment can reach such temperatures,” said Yuri Kovalev, the RadioAstron project scientist. “This result is a significant challenge to our current understanding of quasar jets,” he added.
Space Detectives Are Figuring out What Borked Japan’s Hitomi Satellite – (Wired – March 28, 2016)
Hitomi, a new Japanese satellite, got mauled by an asteroid—or something—while warming up for its first day of work. The satellite, launched February 17 to collect X-rays from black holes and other cosmic bodies, was supposed to come online at 3:40am ET on March 26. But when the appointed time arrived, Hitomi didn’t clock in for work. About forty minutes later, the debris-tracking US Joint Space Operations Center picked up signals for five objects orbiting near the satellite. Smaller bits of satellite? Asteroid pebbles? Possibly just insulation or some other non-critical components, because the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has reported it has caught fleeting transmissions from the probe. But tracking data for the satellite itself revealed an abrupt course change. So, something definitely happened to Hitomi. Getting an empirical answer for exactly what that was will be tricky. Even if no telescopes witnessed whatever knocked Hitomi off kilter, scientists may be able to sleuth their way to an explanation by looking at tracking data for those five pieces of debris, and tracing their trajectories back to when they were at a minimum distance to one another. “That’s probably the point at which their trajectories become one again,” says Moriba Jah, director of Space Object Behavioral Sciences at the University of Arizona, Tucson, “and that could give an idea of when the collision actually occurred.” The separate velocities of those pieces could give a clue whether they came from an outside impact—say, an asteroid—or from an explosion within the probe. The latter might make sense of the crazy coincidence of Hitomi getting smacked with an asteroid on its first day of work
The Work That Makes Work Possible – (Atlantic – March 23, 2016)
The UN Women’s “Progress of the World’s Women Report” acknowledges, “Domestic work makes all other work possible”—and this is true regardless of whether that work comes from domestic workers or unpaid family caregivers. The labor of domestic workers is critical to the function and growth of national and global economies. Caregiving is projected to be the largest occupation in the U.S. by 2020, with care-sector jobs growing five times faster than other large job sectors. Sixty percent of families do not have a stay-at-home parent, and almost 70% of mothers and over 90% of fathers are in the workforce. With those numbers, the labor of caregivers—the majority of whom are women of color, often immigrant women—clearly enables vast percentages of economic productivity in the U.S., without compensation or benefits to acknowledge its value. A survey by the National Domestic Workers Alliance found that 65% of domestic workers don’t have health insurance and only 4% have employer-provided insurance coverage. Less than 2% of domestic workers receive retirement or pension funds from their primary employers, and fewer than 9% work for employers who pay into Social Security. With little choice but to exist in a broken system, caregivers consistently trade long-term security for short-term financial gain. The average caregiver makes $9 an hour (compared to a golf caddy at $17 and a Whole Foods bag handler at $19) and 50% of low-wage informal childcare and homecare workers rely on public assistance. Care can in fact be a national priority with an infrastructure to match—it’s happened before. In the 1940s, when women’s labor was key to the U.S. war effort, the U.S. government funded childcare centers under the Lanham Act. These provided universal and affordable care for children under 12 for up to six days a week at centers that offered a low student-teacher ratio, meals, and enrichment activities.
NEW TOOLS/NEW PROCESSES
University of Kentucky Physicist Discovers New 2-D Material That Could Upstage Graphene – (EurekAlert – February 29, 2016)
While graphene is touted as being the world’s strongest material with many unique properties, it has one downside: it isn’t a semiconductor and therefore disappoints in the digital technology industry. Searching for a better option that is light, earth abundant, inexpensive and a semiconductor, researchers studied different combinations of elements from the first and second row of the Periodic Table. A new one atom-thick flat material that could upstage the wonder material graphene and advance digital technology has been discovered by a physicist at the University of Kentucky working in collaboration with scientists from Daimler in Germany and the Institute for Electronic Structure and Laser in Greece. The new material is made up of silicon, boron and nitrogen – all light, inexpensive and earth abundant elements – and is extremely stable, a property many other graphene alternatives lack. The new material is metallic, but can be made semiconducting easily by attaching other elements on top of the silicon atoms. The presence of silicon also offers the exciting possibility of seamless integration with the current silicon-based technology, allowing the industry to slowly move away from silicon instead of eliminating it completely, all at once.
Sensitive Robot Skin Has a Memory and Knows What It Has Touched – (New Scientist – January 14, 2016)
Fishing keys from the bottom of a bag or picking up soft fruit are pretty basic tasks for us humans. But they’re not so easy for robotic hands. Recognizing and grasping different objects usually requires complex programming and processing power. Xiaodong Chen at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and his colleagues have developed flexible skin-inspired touch sensors that store tactile information. The sensors work like our haptic memory, which can store impressions of touch sensations in the brain after the stimulus has stopped. Chen says the sensors could store information to help robots recognise their environment and moderate their grip strength to pick up different things, and to be delicate to avoid damaging things like fruit. This frees the robot’s main processors for other tasks. What’s more, he reckons they could provide robots with personalised secure activation, such as a handshake from a particular person. The sensors comprise a pressure-sensitive layer that detects changes in electrical resistance when force is applied. Beneath this layer is a thin-film memory device that records these changes to form a digital impression of any pressure. The researchers showed the sensors can retain such information for about a week, though data can also be erased by applying a voltage. Siegfried Bauer at the Johannes Kepler University Linz in Austria thinks this approach has potential. “It may be interesting when gripping complex-shaped objects to know the forces exerted on them,” he says. “Imagine gripping soft objects, such as strawberries: here it is essential to know the contact forces of a robotic gripper.” Without this tactile memory, our future robot chefs (and fruit pickers – see the article directly below ) are going to squash a lot of fruit. See also: Super-stretchy robot skin can become brighter when it bends.
Scientists Develop Matrix-style Technique of ‘Feeding’ Information Directly into Your Brain – (Mirror – February 29, 2016)
Anyone who has ever watched a sci-fi film and wished they could upload information to their brain in seconds could be in luck. By studying electric signals in the brain of a trained pilot, and feeding that data into an unskilled person through a electric scalp-cap, novices were able to learn the task 33% better than the placebo group. Dr. Matthew Phillips, HRL Information and System Sciences Laboratory in California, said: “Our system is one of the first of its kind. It’s a brain stimulation system. The effects can persist for hours. The effects take days or weeks of practice to consolidate. It’s the same learning mechanism, we’re just amplifying or boosting it. As we discover more about optimizing, personalizing, and adapting brain stimulation protocols, we’ll likely see these technologies become routine in training and classroom environments. It’s possible that brain stimulation could be implemented for classes like drivers’ training, SAT prep, and language learning.”
Carl’s Jr CEO – Try a $15 Minimum Wage and See Those Jobs Get Automated out of Existence – (Forbes – March 19, 2016)
For every action there is a reaction and if you more than double the national floor of the labor price then you’re going to find that people purchase less labor. Employers would simply step up the automation of their workplaces: “We could have a restaurant that’s focused on all-natural products and is much like an Eatsa, where you order on a kiosk, you pay with a credit or debit card, your order pops up, and you never see a person,” said Carl’s Jr. CEO Andy Puzder. Puzder adds that the automated restaurant would be cheaper since he wouldn’t have to worry about rising minimum wage. The point here is that there’s always a balance between labor and automation. If labor becomes more expensive, then robots start to look better. And, obviously, if interest rates rise making capital more expensive then the humans are less likely to be replaced. It’s the relative prices of the two that matter. And so also does this matter: A study published in 2013 by the University of Oxford estimated that there is a 92% chance that “Combined Food Preparation and Serving Workers, Including Fast Food” jobs would be susceptible to automation. The importance being that some 50% of the people who get the minimum wage are in this fast food and casual dining business. And about 50% of the people in that business get the minimum wage. Thus the impact of a higher minimum wage is going to be felt here: and if the sector can be largely, or even only partially, automated then a significant rise in labor costs is going to lead to a significant fall in the amount of labor employed. (Editor’s note: What Puzder doesn’t say is that that 92% chance of automation is basically a certainty – regardless of whether the minimum wage is $5 or $15. Over the long run, employees (at any price) cost more than machines that don’t require any benefits at all or any payroll taxes. Ultimately, the business community may be forced to conclude that it is more economical to give people a basic income and let machines do the work.)
What Makes a Good Life? – (Daily Good – January 8, 2016)
If you were going to invest now in your future best self, where would you put your time and your energy? There was a recent survey of millennials asking them what their most important life goals were, and over 80% said that a major life goal for them was to get rich. And another 50% of those same young adults said that another major life goal was to become famous. But what if we could watch entire lives as they unfold through time? What if we could study people from the time that they were teenagers all the way into old age to see what really keeps people happy and healthy? The Harvard Study of Adult Development has done that – and it may be the longest study of adult life that’s ever been done. For 75 years, the study has tracked the lives of 724 men, year after year, asking about their work, their home lives, their health, and of course asking all along the way without knowing how their life stories were going to turn out. Since 1938, they have tracked the lives of two groups of men. The first group started in the study when they were sophomores at Harvard College. They finished college during World War II, and most went off to serve in the war. And the second group was a group of boys from Boston’s poorest neighborhoods, boys who were chosen for the study specifically because they were from some of the most troubled and disadvantaged families in the Boston of the 1930s. Most lived in tenements, many without hot and cold running water. And what has been learned from this research? The clearest message is that good relationships keep us happier and healthier. And on that subject, there are three major points. Article includes a link to a TED talk that discusses the study.
Maybe Wolves Don’t Change Rivers, After All – (Strange Behaviors – March 10, 2014)
The story of how wolves transformed the Yellowstone National Park landscape, beginning in the 1990s, has become a favorite lesson about the natural world. A video recounting (link embedded in the article) has gone viral lately. This story — that wolves fixed a broken Yellowstone by killing and frightening elk — is one of ecology’s most famous. It’s the classic example of what’s called a “trophic cascade,” and has appeared in textbooks, on National Geographic centerfolds and in The New York Times. Americans may know this story better than any other from ecology, and its grip on our imagination is one of the field’s proudest contributions to wildlife conservation. But there is a problem with the story: It’s exactly accurate. We now know that elk are tougher, and Yellowstone more complex, than we gave them credit for. UPDATE to this article, dated March, 25 2016: Please note that Arthur Middleton and all other ecological researchers agree that reintroducing wolves to their former home range across the American West is a major benefit to wildlife and healthy habitats. It is also essential. What this article explains in detail is that the results are not as quick or simple as some environmentalists want to believe. (Editor’s note: we recommend this article, not so much for its conclusions, but for the details that demonstrate a little of how and why an ecology is so complex.)
FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH – articles off the beaten track which may – or may not – have predictive value.
Welcome to SubTropolis: The Massive Business Complex Buried Under Kansas City – (Bloomberg – February 4, 2015)
More than 1,000 people spend their workdays in SubTropolis, an industrial park housed in an excavated mine the size of 140 football fields. The underground industrial park known as SubTroplis opened for business in 1964 in an excavated mine below Kansas City, Mo., attracting tenants with the lure of lower energy costs and cheap rents. The walls, carved out of 270-million-year-old limestone deposits, help keep humidity low and temperatures at a constant 68 degrees, eliminating the need for air conditioning or heating. Tenants have reported saving as much as 70% on their energy bills, says Ora Reynolds, president of SubTropolis landlord Hunt Midwest. Rents run about $2.25 per square foot, about half the going rate on the surface. “It’s also a question of sustainability,” says Joe Paris, vice president at Paris Brothers, a specialty foods packager that employs about 200 workers underground. In addition to Paris Brothers, 51 tenants have rented nearly 6 million square feet of space. Others include LightEdge Solutions, a cloud computing company that uses the mild climate to help cool servers, and an underground archive that contains the original film reels to Gone with the Wind and Wizard of Oz. The U.S. Postal Service keeps hundreds of millions of postage stamps in an underground distribution hub at SubTropolis. Road runners have been competing in 5-kilometer and 10k races inside SubTropolis’s seven miles of roadways for 33 years. Article includes numerous photographs of the facility.
JUST FOR FUN
15 Woodpiles That Have Been Stacked into Gorgeous Works of Art – (Cottage Life – November 3, 2015)
“Stacked art” is practiced all over the world. Check out the photographs.
A FINAL QUOTE
Telling the future by looking at the past assumes that conditions remain constant. This is like driving a car by looking in the rearview mirror. – Herb Brody, former senior editor for Technology Review
A special thanks to: A special thanks to: Chas Freeman, Ursula Freer, Burt Lustig, Diane Petersen, Gary Sycalik, Steve Ujvarosy and all of you who have sent us interesting links in the past. If you see something we should know about, do send it along – thanks. [email protected]
Edited by John L. Petersen