Archive for the 'Technology' Category

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 Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.”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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Oct 10 2014

E-Cat Cold Fusion Claims are Back

Published by under Technology

For years Andrea Rossi has claimed that he has invented a method for generating cold fusion, but has been unable to convince an appropriately skeptical scientific community. Fusion is the nuclear process of combining lighter elements into heavier elements, such as fusing hydrogen into helium. Fusion is what powers stars – in fact, the only processes scientists know about that can cause fusion require the heat and density of stars.

When lighter elements combine into a heavier element that overall has less mass, the missing mass is essentially converted into radiation and energy. The amount of energy released is orders of magnitude greater than what can be released from chemical reactions. Only matter-antimatter reactions are more energetic.

Now Rossi is claiming that an independent third party has verified that the E-Cat cold fusion device can generate large amounts of energy, the kind that can only come from nuclear fusion. What are we to make of these claims?

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Oct 03 2014

Are Health Apps Helpful?

There seems to be an app for everything, although we are just at the beginning of this new technology. It is a very recent phenomenon that many people in industrialized nations are walking around with a hand-held networked computer. This creates a new opportunity – to have constant access to applications that can help us run our lives. Even though there are already millions of apps, we really are just beginning to explore this opportunity.

One category of apps that seem to have a great deal of potential are health-related apps. There are apps to help people count calories, track their migraines, track their exercise, or even look up medical information or take a crack at diagnosing their own symptoms. There are apps to help you quit smoking or using alcohol, manage your medications, track your diabetes, or to provide some automatic therapy for mental illness.

The UK’s NHS maintains a list of approved health apps with hundreds of vetted apps you can browse.

In there are some useful ideas, and not-so-useful ideas. Trial and error will sort that out over time, and there are probably some killer health apps waiting to be developed.

How evidence-based are typical health apps, however? How would we even study that question?

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Oct 02 2014

Wind Turbine Syndrome

Published by under Technology

It looks like sustainable energy sources are going to be playing a larger role in our energy infrastructure in the future. Wind and solar are what first come to mind, but there is also hydroelectric, geothermal, and wave-generated electricity.

With the introduction of any new technology, especially on a large scale, there are bound to be some issues. Giant wind turbines are sprouting up, and this has caused some protest among people who don’t like the presence of the behemoths near their homes. Some claim that the noise from wind turbines is causing them ill health effects.

What are the real risks and benefit of wind turbines?

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Aug 14 2014

An App To Monitor Parkinson’s Disease

In 2000 Michael J. Fox began a non-profit organization to support research into Parkinson’s Disease (PD). This was shortly after he was diagnosed with the disease. Since then Fox has been the model celebrity spokesperson and advocate. (He doesn’t kibitz, he just raises awareness and supports the science.)

Now his foundation, together with Intel, have developed a wearable device and accompanying app that can monitor the symptoms of PD in real time 24 hours a day. This is an interesting application of technology, and something that we are beginning to see more, and will likely increase in future.

PD is a neurodegenerative disease affecting a part of the brain called the substantia nigra. Neurons in that structure produce and release dopamine. These neurons are part of a circuit (the extrapyramidal system) that essentially monitors and adjusts the sensitivity or gain of the motor system. It’s a sensitive feedback loop that keeps our movement smooth. If the gain is turned up too high then we would constantly be moving and writhing. If it’s turned down too low, then we start to freeze. People with PD have the gain turned down too low.

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Aug 11 2014

Another Carrington Event Inevitable

Published by under Technology

On September 1, 1859, a massive solar flare struck the Earth, resulting in beautiful auroras but also inducing currents in telegraph wires causing them to spark and start fires. Hours earlier amateur astronomer Richard Carrington was observing the sun and noticed large sunspots giving off a brief bright flare. In 1859 the telegraph was about the only electric infrastructure we had. What if a Carrington-type event struck today?

Solar flares result from the complex magnetic fields of the sun. Gas in the sun is so hot the electrons are stripped from the hydrogen, resulting in a plasma. Since plasma is therefore made from ions, it carries an electric charge, and when electric charges move they generate a magnetic field. Magnetic fields further induce electric current.

Sometimes the magnetic fields near the surface of the sun interact in such a way that they give off an explosion of energy, called a solar flare. There is also something called a coronal mass ejection, in which a bubble of hot gas erupts from the sun’s corona in a fashion similar to a solar flare. CMEs and solar flares often occur together, but not always, and their causal relationship is not clear.

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