Archive for the 'Technology' Category

Mar 02 2015

Google Wants to Rank Websites for Trustworthiness

Published by under Technology

I like this idea, but it is certainly bold and needs some careful thought. Google wants to rank websites according to how trustworthy their factual statements are.

Google undoubtedly is a cornerstone of the internet, which itself is now a cornerstone of our civilization. We are rapidly evolving to having a worldwide network of shared human knowledge and communication. The internet is now the dominant medium of human ideas.

Google is not just a search engine – it is the dominant portal to this information. This makes Google rank a vital statistic for any website. In fact, there is an entire industry, search engine optimization (SEO), dedicated to improving one’s Google ranking.

Google’s big innovation, and the one that launched them to the top of the heap, was to rank websites according to the number and quality of incoming links. This turned out to be a useful proxy, and serves to reward users with a helpful ranking of the websites they are searching for. Specifically, it is not easy to game the system. You can’t boost your Google rank simply by repeating search terms in the coding. In fact, I have a couple friends at Google and they tell me that Google is constantly tweaking their algorithm specifically to make SEO ineffective. SEO is an attempt to game Google’s ranking algorithm, and Google doesn’t want that. They want the truly most valuable and appropriate sites to float to the top.

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Feb 05 2015

A Better Steel

Published by under Technology

Material science seems to me to be an underappreciated discipline. Perhaps because its benefits are not seen directly by the consumer, but only indirectly. Material scientists don’t make a better gadget, but they make a better gadget possible. Sometimes a breakthrough can even be a complete game-changer for certain technologies.

Humans have been using an alloy of carbon and iron for over three thousand years. Iron is a very common element, making up about 5% of the Earth’s crust. Steel is iron with 0.2-1.5% carbon alloy. Carbon makes steel hard but brittle, and so carefully controlling the amount of carbon to optimize hardness but keep it malleable enough not to be brittle is what makes steel.

Steel is still on the cutting edge (pun intended) of material science. Researchers are still discovering ways to make steel lighter, stronger, and better suited to specific purposes. A recent paper, for example, presented a new technique for making blended steel that results in light, strong, and ductile steel – perfect for making more fuel efficient cars, for example.

A brief sidenote on terminology: “hardness” is the resistance to deformation by a force. There are different kinds of hardness, such as scratch hardness and compression hardness. “Strength” is the measure of a substances elastic range. “Toughness” is a measure of how much total energy a material can absorb before it breaks.

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Jan 23 2015

Phishing Techniques Studied

Published by under Technology

Don’t click it. If you ever get e-mailed a link, no matter how authentic the e-mail looks or from whom it appears to be, don’t click it. If you feel you need to respond to the e-mail, then type the URL of the website directly into your browser. But never click it.

As simple as that rule sounds, it’s difficult for everyone to remember the rule all the time. One lapse of attention, and you can find yourself the victim of identify theft, have your credit card numbers stolen, or even all your passwords. Unfortunately there is a lot of money to be made in identity theft and there are many criminals out there.

So-called “phishing” scams involve sending out spam e-mails that are designed to provoke the reader into clicking a link which goes to a dummy website that will load malware on your computer that will mine it for passwords, identity information, and credit card information. Such scammers are getting better and better and provoking the click. 

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Jan 15 2015

Marketing Biofortified GMOs

Published by under Technology

The first generation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to hit the market mainly possessed agronomic traits, such as insect resistance and herbicide tolerance. These traits mainly benefit farmers, and when consumers accept such produce they expect them to be cheaper because of the increased efficiency.

There is a second generation of GMOs waiting in the wings, however, that have biofortified traits that can directly benefit the consumer. A recent article in Nature Biotechnology reviews these GMOs and marketing research about their acceptability.

There are six GMO staple crops ready for the market but awaiting regulatory approval. These include golden rice fortified with vitamin A, which has been held up in regulation for 15 years. Other products include rice fortified with folate, and multi-fortified crops such as corn fortified with vitamin A, folate, and vitamin C.

It is also possible to increase mineral content, such as iron, zinc, and copper. This can be done by increasing uptake by the roots, transport to edible tissues, or bioavailability (ability to be absorbed once eaten).

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Dec 30 2014

Detecting Life Through Motion

Published by under Technology

Living things move. In fact our visual system uses the way things move to decide whether or not an object has agency and is able to move on its own. In the pre-technological world only things that are alive have agency, but in the technological era we have animatronics and animated video that can mimic the movement of living things and trick our brains into treating objects or representations as if they are alive.

There are several applications for detecting the signatures of life. So far such efforts have focused mainly on chemical signatures – looking for the products of biochemistry. Researchers publishing in PNAS, however, have taken a new approach.  They are trying to detect the motion signatures of life at a microscopic scale.

They use nanoscale motion detectors that are actually tiny cantilevers. Even a single bacterium twirling its flagella can cause the cantilever to move. Lasers then detect the motion of the cantilever, and that motion is analyzed for the signatures of life. The researchers tested their setup on soil and pond water, and found that it accurately detected microscopic life. They then used drugs to kill any living cells, and the detection stopped. 

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Dec 12 2014

The Future Threat of AI

Published by under Technology

Occasional warnings about artificially intelligent robots taking over the world convulse through the media. There is currently a ripple involving prior interviews with Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk. Their names attract attention, and so the issue will provide a media distraction for a day or two.

In an interview with the BBC, Hawking said:

“The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”

“It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.”

In an interview in June with CNBC, Elon Musk said:

“I think there’s things that are potentially dangerous out there. …There’s been movies about this, like ‘Terminator.’ There’s some scary outcomes and we should try to make sure the outcomes are good, not bad.”

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Nov 17 2014

Politics vs Science

What happens when your political or ideological views are contradicted by the consensus of scientific opinion regarding the evidence? It appears that a common reaction (depending on how strongly held the ideological views are) is to reject science. Not only do people reject the science specific to their issue, they reject science itself. They reason that if science disagrees with a view they strongly hold (and therefore “know” to be true) then science must be broken.

The latest example of this comes from the European Union. The role of chief science adviser, held by Professor Anne Glover, was recently axed by EU President Jean-Claude Juncker. There are conflicting reports as to the exact reason, but reading through everything it seems pretty clear to me. Her advice on the science, specifically with regard to genetically modified organisms (GMO) was politically inconvenient.

According to speeches given by Glover, her position, created at the beginning of 2012, was always a bit contentious. She said in a speech in New Zealand:

“I would say in-house politics did hamper the efficiency of the role. Many people in the Commission simply did not want a Chief Scientific Adviser, so it was a little bit difficult. I did have the necessary independence but I was often excluded from the essential information.”

She also recounted.

“I turned up and it was almost as if they had forgotten I was coming,” she said, adding that she did not meet her immediate boss – the then EU President, José Manuel Barroso – until day 51 because he “had other things on his mind”.

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Nov 03 2014

As I Walk Through the Valley of Death

Published by under Technology

The term “valley of death” is a colorful (and biblical) reference to the difficulty of bringing scientific advances to the market. Researchers make a discovery in the lab that has a potential practical application. They then create a start up company to translate their discovery into a marketable product or service. The valley of death is the gulf between the lab and a profitable product, a desert that turns out to be too long for many, resulting in funding drying up before the market is reached.

As someone who is interested in science and technology, I have witnessed the valley of death many times from the sidelines. Often, when a scientist makes an interesting discovery, a science journalist reporting on the discovery feels obliged to connect the advance to some practical application. The more this application resembles technology from popular science fiction the better.

I enjoy speculating about future applications as much as anyone, but this practice can become formulaic and mindless. Every discovery about a virus will cure the common cold, every advance in understanding the machinery of cells will cure cancer, and every material science advance will give us hover cars or invisibility cloaks.

Another pattern that has emerged is the “5-10 years” claim, which is how long it will always take for the advance being reported to be translated to the marketplace. Often the scientists themselves are actively involved in the hype and overly optimistic predictions. Someone cynical might interpret “5-10 years” as “one more funding cycle.”

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Oct 21 2014

Graphene Neuro-electrode

This news item combines two technologies that I have been eagerly following, graphene and brain-machine interface. Researchers have developed a 1-molecule thick graphene electrode that is transparent and can be used for high-resolution electrophysiological recordings of brain cell activity.

Before I explain why this is such a cool advance, I will quickly review these technologies. Graphene is an allotrope of carbon – it is made of a single atom thick layer of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal sheet like chickenwire. This arrangement is very stable with strong bonds, making for a strong material. It is also flexible and has useful electrical properties. It can be manufactured as a sheet or rolled up into carbon nanotubes.

Graphene is an incredibly promising material that is likely to be the cornerstone of future electronics, promising small, efficient, and flexible components. It conducts both heat and electricity very efficiently and it is a semiconductor. “Doping” the graphene with other elements also has the potential to tweak its physical properties, expanding the number of applications.

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Oct 16 2014

Lockheed Martin’s Fusion Reactor

Published by under Technology

Since I recently covered the new claims being made for the E-cat cold fusion device (which, in my opinion, is almost certainly bogus), I found it interesting that Lockheed Martin recently produced details for their research into a hot fusion reactor. Their research team, called the Skunk Works, have been working on a new design for a fusion reactor. It has two distinct advantages over the E-cat – it does not require the assumption of new physics, and it is not being promoted by a convicted con-artist.

Fusion is a type of nuclear reaction that involves combining lighter elements into heavier elements. The resulting reaction releases a significant amount of energy, and that energy can be used to generate electricity. Fusion, in fact, is the power source for stars. The immense temperature and pressure in the core of stars fuse hydrogen into helium, and then helium into heavier elements, depending on how massive the star is. The heaviest element that can be made in this fashion is iron. Elements heavier than iron require energy to fuse, and therefore you cannot get any energy out of iron from fusion or fission. Heavier elements are therefore made in the powerful explosions of supernovae.

If we could engineer a device that could produce sufficient temperature and pressure we could theoretically create nuclear fusion on earth. In fact we have already done so, in the form of hydrogen bombs. Of course, creating a massive explosion isn’t exactly useful as an energy source. The trick is creating controlled nuclear fusion without the huge explosion.

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