Archive for the 'Technology' Category

Oct 20 2017

Making Oxygen on Mars

Published by under Astronomy,Technology

Mars baseAt some point humans will travel to Mars. It seems inevitable, the only question being when that will happen. Optimists like Musk think it will happen before mid-century, but that may not be realistic. There are significant logistical hurdles without clear solutions.

Some argue, and I agree with this strategy, that we should focus first on a moon base. The moon is a lot closer, which solves many problems right there. But otherwise it would have many of the same challenges as Mars, and so if we develop a base on the moon we can use what we learn to be better able to tackle Mars. Further the moon can be a literal launching pad for Mars.

While Mars has some extra challenges, it may have some advantages as well over the moon. NASA experts have observed that Mars has just enough of an atmosphere to be a problem. It has 1% of the pressure of Earth, which means for astronauts it is functionally the same as a hard vacuum. You still need pressure suits, pressurized living spaces, and you need a supply of air to breath.

Continue Reading »

11 responses so far

Oct 17 2017

What Is Artificial Intelligence

AI-1A recent article by Peter Yordanov claims that Artificial Intelligence (AI) is nothing but misleading clickbait. This is a provocative way to state it, but he has a point, although I don’t think he expressed it well.

Yordanov spends most of the article describing his understanding of human intelligence, partly by walking through the evolution of the central nervous system. His basic conclusion, if I am reading it correctly, is that what we have today and call AI is nothing like biological intelligence.

This is certainly true, but it seems like he takes a long time to make what is essentially a semantic argument. The core problem is that the word “intelligence” means many things. Lack of a consistent operational definition plagues the use of the term is pretty much every context, and certainly in computer AI.

What we have now and is generally referred to as AI are computer algorithms that display functions that resemble intelligence or duplicate certain components of intelligence. Computers are good at crunching numbers, running algorithms, recognizing patterns, and searching and matching data. Newer algorithms are also capable of learning – of changing their behavior based on data input.

Continue Reading »

120 responses so far

Oct 02 2017

Rocket Travel

Published by under Technology

BFRElon Musk is an interesting guy. Also, because of the success of SpaceX, when he makes promises about future technology, it is at least worth a listen. At a recent meeting of the International Astronautical Congress Musk stated that he plans on developing SpaceX’s rocket technology for commercial transportation between cities on Earth. He also made a promotional video.

The idea of using rocket travel for long distances (instead of jets) is not new. It has been featured in various science-fiction views of the future or even alternate realities of the present. The obvious advantage to rocket travel is that it is fast. A suborbital trajectory can get you between almost any two cities on Earth in 30 minutes or less.

This is all part of SpaceX’s new project, the BFR (I could not find anywhere exactly what that stands for – just the implication that it’s “Big Fu**ing Rocket”, which is awesome). Musk wants to stop developing his Falcon series of rockets and focus entirely on one rocket system to do everything they need to do – the BFR. The idea is that this will help reduce overall costs.

Continue Reading »

9 responses so far

Sep 21 2017

New Wrinkle in the Climate Debate

Published by under Technology

nuclear plantNo matter what happens, it’s part of the conspiracy, at least in the perspective of the conspiracy theorist.

But let’s back up a bit. We talking about scientists trying to understand climate change, and specifically the effects of released carbon into the atmosphere. There are a few layers to this question, which is predictably complex.

The first layer is quite basic – sunlight heats up the earth, which radiates some of that heat back out into space as infrared radiation. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reflects some of these infrared photons back down to the Earth, trapping some of that heat. This is commonly known as the greenhouse effect, and hence CO2 as a greenhouse gas. The more CO2 there is in the atmosphere the greater this effect, and the warmer the planet.

The far trickier part, however, is to predict exactly how much warming will occur in response to a certain increase in CO2 in the atmosphere. To answer this question climatologists develop complex climate models, which have to consider all the natural variables that affect climate. They then compare the predictions of these models to what has happened and what does happen, and then tweak them. Continue Reading »

22 responses so far

Sep 19 2017

Soft Robots

Published by under Technology

vaderhandPart of the reason I like science fiction is because it can be a thought-experiment about future technology and society. For this reason, like any self-respecting nerd, I often pay close attention to the details of how future technology is portrayed. Stepping out of the movie-as-entertainment and storytelling for minute, and focusing on the ideas that went into crafting a vision of technology advanced beyond our current tech – how did they do? What assumptions did the creators make, and did they break any laws of physics.

I tend to be most fascinated by what hidden assumptions and biases go into visions of the future. I wrote about this previously with respect to spaceship design. The same idea applies to how robots are portrayed in science fiction.

For example, perhaps my biggest peeve is Star Wars (probably because it is a beloved franchise). I don’t necessarily mind the design of droids, because you can argue that they are intended to look unmistakably mechanical. However, we get a few glimpses of artificial robotic limbs – Luke’s hand and Vader’s arm, for example. These appear to be entirely constructed of wires and pulleys. Vader’s arm is the worst – the stump is nothing but a mass of wires.

This image of artificial robotic parts is almost ubiquitous in science fiction, although recently there are some great examples of moving past this cliche. Just compare the original West World, where robot faces look convincingly human, until they are removed and revealed to be rigid metal with wires underneath. The recent series West World, however, portrays soft 3D printed robotic technology. That’s what I’m talking about.  Continue Reading »

8 responses so far

Sep 18 2017

Update on Arctic Sea Ice

seaice_trends_chartThe extent of Arctic sea ice is an important marker for global climate change. In the last forty years it also has been unequivocally shrinking. NASA has been tracking Arctic sea ice extent at different times of the year, with the September minimum being an important point of comparison. Like any chaotic system there are going to be short term fluctuations, but the long term trend is crystal clear. Look at the graph and look at the video on the NASA site linked above – the shrinking is clear.

The first estimates for September 2017 are in and they are consistent with the overall trend. Arctic sea ice’s most recent maximum for the September minimum was in 1996 at 7.87 million square km. The minimum minimum was in 2012 at 3.62 million sq km – less than half. This year the minimum is estimated to be 4.7 million sq km, slightly more than 2016. All of the last 10 years are below the average for the previous 30 years.

This past year we had a warm winter, which led to the lowest amount of March Arctic sea ice on record, but a cool summer allowed the Arctic ice to rebound a bit.

All of this adds to the strong scientific consensus that the globe is warming and this trend is largely due to human factors (not natural cycles). But as you probably know, there is a well-financed campaign of denial, ideologically and financially motivated, to muddy the waters and create doubt and confusion about this scientific consensus. This is easy to do with complex scientific questions.

Continue Reading »

19 responses so far

Sep 12 2017

The Safety and Ethics of Self-Driving Cars

Published by under Technology

Google-SDCGermany just came out with their first regulations for self-driving cars that address how they will be programmed with respect to safety. Specifically – what should the programming do if harm cannot be completely avoided and it has to decide between the lesser of two bad outcomes? Germany is the first country to come out with such regulations, and therefore sets the example for other countries who will likely follow.

Here are the key elements of their decision:

  • Automated and connected driving is an ethical imperative if the systems cause fewer accidents than human drivers (positive balance of risk).
  • Damage to property must take precedence over personal injury. In hazardous situations, the protection of human life must always have top priority.
  • In the event of unavoidable accident situations, any distinction between individuals based on personal features (age, gender, physical or mental constitution) is impermissible.
  • In every driving situation, it must be clearly regulated and apparent who is responsible for the driving task: the human or the computer.
  • It must be documented and stored who is driving (to resolve possible issues of liability, among other things).
  • Drivers must always be able to decide themselves whether their vehicle data are to be forwarded and used (data sovereignty).

This all makes sense to me and I don’t see anything overly controversial. Prioritizing people over property is a no-brainer. Treating all people as of equal value also seems like the right move. This is because you could not individualize such decision – only treat people demographically or as part of a group. This would be too ethically fraught to be practical.

Continue Reading »

54 responses so far

Sep 05 2017

Sustainably Using Space

Published by under Technology

space-debrisIt does seem that human civilization has grown to such a point that sustainability is becoming a significant issue in many domains. Prior to the last century or so the world was relatively large compared to human population. For most of human history it seemed as if resources were limitless – we could pull fish out of the sea without worrying that they would run out. Resources and disposal locations were treated like bottomless pits.

It is becoming increasingly clear that our population, our industry, and our appetites are now large enough that infinite sustainability is no longer something we can blithely assume.

It is also true that over the last couple of centuries there have been many premature warnings about “peak whatever”, or some way in which our civilization would not be sustainable. So far technology has advanced to fill in any gaps. This has given any new warnings about sustainability a reputation for screaming that the sky is falling, and makes it easy to dismiss. They were wrong before, so why should we worry now? Technology will eventually change the game and everything will be fine.

The classic errors that lead to these premature warnings were simplistically extrapolating from current trends, and not considering the development of new technology. The phrase “if current trends continue” should always be looked at with a skeptical eye. Historically, current trends rarely continue. You have to consider what is driving those trends, and if there are any feedback loops that will tend to moderate them. Also, we have proven a very clever species and I would not underestimate our ability to find innovative solutions.

Continue Reading »

13 responses so far

Aug 28 2017

GMO and Dunning Kruger

Published by under Skepticism,Technology

GMO-surveyIncreasingly in modern society, with perpetual access to the internet, lack of information is far less of a problem than misleading or incorrect information. As Dunning (of Dunning-Kruger fame) noted:

An ignorant mind is precisely not a spotless, empty vessel, but one that’s filled with the clutter of irrelevant or misleading life experiences, theories, facts, intuitions, strategies, algorithms, heuristics, metaphors, and hunches that regrettably have the look and feel of useful and accurate knowledge.

I would add to that list – deliberate propaganda. People can feel as if they are well-informed because their heads are full of nothing but propaganda. Just have a conversation with an anti-vaxer, creationist, or flat-earther and you will see. Lack of information is not their primary problem.

Attitudes toward GMOs are also largely a function of information vs misinformation. After two decades of a dedicated anti-GMO campaign by the organic food lobby and Greenpeace, the public is largely misinformed about GMOs and organic food. This has led to a 51 point gap (the largest of any topic covered) between what scientists believe about GMOs and what the public believes.

Michigan State University has recently published their Food Literacy and Engagement Poll which sheds further light on this issue. For example, 20% of respondents believe they rarely or never consume food with GMOs and another 26% did not know. Meanwhile, 75-80% of packaged food contains GMO ingredients. Most corn and sugar derives from GMO crops. There are also “hidden” GMOs. For example, just about all cheese is produced with enzymes (rennet) derived from GMO yeast. Laws requiring GMO labeling or outright banning GMOs, however, always carve out an exception for cheese, because the cheese industry would essentially not exist without it.

Continue Reading »

27 responses so far

Aug 25 2017

John Oliver and the Nuclear Waste Hubbub

Published by under Technology

yuccamountainThe most recent episode of John Oliver’s, Last Week Tonight, featured a discussion of how we handle (or don’t handle) nuclear waste in the US. This has spawned an interesting discussion among skeptics and scientists, including this response from a nuclear scientist on Forbes.

My overall impression is that there are legitimate points on both sides, and which points one emphasizes probably depends on whether they are pro-nuclear or anti-nuclear.

My reaction to Oliver’s piece was that it was reasonable, made a lot of good points I had made myself, and that it was not anti-nuclear. I don’t know if Oliver is pro or anti-nuclear based on this piece. The theme of his show is highlighting crazy things in our society that should be fixed, if only we had the political will to do so. The main point of his piece is that we currently store commercial nuclear waste on site where it is produced. We don’t have any central long term repository for this waste, despite the fact that we obviously should.

The main point of the discussion was Yucca Mountain, a nuclear waste storage facility in Nevada that took years and billions of dollars to research and build, that is a completely safe location to store commercial nuclear waste, but which sits empty for political reasons. Oliver correctly puts the blame mostly on Senator Harry Reid from Nevada who killed Yucca Mountain for purely NIMBY reasons (not in my back yard). It is a legit scandal and Oliver was correct to call Reid out on it and mock him.

Most of the criticism of Oliver’s piece focuses on what he did not say, which is always tricky criticism. Oliver has 20 minutes to tell a complex story, and he has to focus on one main point. He was not discussing the risks and benefits of nuclear power. He was not comparing it to other methods of energy production. He was only pointing out that in the last 50 years we have not been able to summon the political will to put our nuclear waste in a proper long term facility.

Continue Reading »

32 responses so far

Next »