Archive for the 'Technology' Category

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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Aug 08 2014

IBM’s Brain on a Chip

Well,  a small one, but it’s a start.

IBM announced that they have build a computer chip, dubbed TrueNorth, based on a neuronal architecture. The team published in Science:

Inspired by the brain’s structure, we have developed an efficient, scalable, and flexible non–von Neumann architecture that leverages contemporary silicon technology. To demonstrate, we built a 5.4-billion-transistor chip with 4096 neurosynaptic cores interconnected via an intrachip network that integrates 1 million programmable spiking neurons and 256 million configurable synapses. Chips can be tiled in two dimensions via an interchip communication interface, seamlessly scaling the architecture to a cortexlike sheet of arbitrary size. The architecture is well suited to many applications that use complex neural networks in real time, for example, multiobject detection and classification. With 400-pixel-by-240-pixel video input at 30 frames per second, the chip consumes 63 milliwatts.

Sounds pretty cool. I have written about brain-like computing previously (most recently here). Von-Neumann architecture refers to the traditional basic setup of modern computers, which were described in 1945 by (you guessed it) John von Neumann. This setup has three components: memory, communication, and processing. Information is binary, essentially ones and zeros.

The neuromorphic architecture combines these three elements into one. The neurons are the memory and the processing, and they communicate with each other, similar to a biological brain. Instead of binary code, the neurons spike with a certain frequency. When they send spikes to another neuron, they bring it closer to its threshold for spiking. This is very similar to how the brain functions.

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Aug 01 2014

NASA Tests EM Drive

Published by under Technology

I’m skeptical. I know, you’re shocked. When you recover, take a look at this article about NASA “validating” an allegedly impossible drive.

The bottom line is that I just don’t believe it. I could be wrong. I hope I’m wrong. I don’t necessarily think the results of NASA’s test are untrue, just that I don’t think they have “validated” that the propellantless drive is what proponents say it is.

My reaction is identical to the claim made in 2011 that a team of researchers found that neutrinos travel faster than light. I didn’t believe those results either. The researchers were very careful, they rigorously reviewed every aspect of their experiment, and only announced the results when they were confident they ruled out all error. The physics community didn’t believe it, but they did their due diligence. After further analysis, it was found that the results were an error – an artifact introduced in the experimental setup. Initial skepticism was vindicated.

The claims made for a machine that can provide thrust without propellant is as unlikely and at variance with the laws of physics as neutrinos traveling faster than light or free energy machines. Sure, it’s always possible that our understanding of the universe is incomplete in a way that allows for one of these phenomena to be true, but our current understanding calls for extreme initial skepticism. Such a stance has a very good history to support it.

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Jul 21 2014

Moon Hoax Anomaly Hunting

Yesterday, July 20th, was the 45th anniversary of Apollo 11 landing on the surface of the moon, and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin becoming the first and second humans to walk on the surface of another world. This is, to be sure, one of the greatest achievements of the human species.

There are those, however, who claim that we never sent astronauts to the moon, that the entire thing was an elaborate hoax by the US, meant to intimidate our rivals with our spacefaring prowess. As is typical of most grand conspiracy theories, they have no actual evidence to support their claim. None of the many people who would have to have been involved have come forward to confess their involvement. No government documents have come to light, no secret studios have been revealed. There is no footage accidentally revealing stage equipment.

What the moon hoax theorists have is anomaly hunting. This is the process of looking for something – anything – that does not seem to fit or that defies easy explanation, and then declaring it evidence that the standard story if false. Conspiracy theorists then slip in their preferred conspiracy narrative to take its place. Sometimes they are more coy, claiming to be “just asking questions” (also known as jaqing off), but their agenda is clear.

Genuine anomalies are of significant interest to science and any investigation, no question. For an apparent anomaly to be useful, however, mundane explanations need to be vigorously ruled out (conspiracy theorists tend to skip that part). Only when genuine attempts to explain apparent anomalies have failed to provide any plausible explanation should it be considered a true anomaly deserving of attention.

At that point the answer to the anomaly is, “we currently don’t know,” not “it’s a conspiracy.”

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Jun 24 2014

Small Energy

Published by under Technology

Energy is what makes stuff happen. The ability to generate energy in useful amounts and locations is key to our civilization. Often when discussing energy we are focusing on big energy, how to make large amounts of energy in a cost-effective manner with minimal negative impact on our environment.

The ability to generate tiny amounts of energy is also useful, however. One particular application requiring a small but reliable source of energy is implantable devices, such as cardiac pacemakers. Right now pacemakers are run by small batteries. These batteries have a limited lifespan, and need to be surgically replaced.

What if, however, we could generate the required electrical energy from the body itself. Our bodies use a relative large amount of energy, creating movement, electrical signals, generating heat, assembling proteins and cells, and undergoing biochemical reactions. All we would need to do is tap into a tiny slice of this energy and there would be enough energy to power a pacemaker, or many other small implantable devices.

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Jun 10 2014

Turing Test 2014

Published by under Technology

The press is abuzz with the claim that a computer has passed the famous Turing Test for the first time. The University of Reading organized a Turing Test competition, held at the Royal Society in London on Saturday June 7th. The have now announced that a chatbot named Eugene Goostman passed the test by convincing 33% of the judges that it was a human.

The Turing Test, devised by Alan Turing, was proposed as one method for determining if artificial intelligence has been achieved. The idea is – if a computer can convince a human through normal conversation that it is also a human, then it will have achieved some measure of artificial intelligence (AI).

The test, while interesting, is really more of a gimmick, however. It cannot discern whether any particular type of AI has been achieved. The current alleged winner is a good example – a chatbot is simply a software program designed to imitate human conversation. There is no actual intelligence behind the algorithm.

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May 23 2014

Solar Freakin’ Roadways

Published by under Technology

A YouTube video and Indiegogo campaign promise a new solution to our energy woes – “solar freakin’ roadways.”

The concept is to build roads out of hexagonal plates of transparent hard material (tempered glass) with built in solar panels. You can also incorporate heating elements and LED lights. Buried alongside such roads could be a new energy grid, for transporting all that solar generated electricity.

Here is the vision as presented: With such solar freakin’ roadways we could generate much, if not all, of our needed electricity. We could replace telephone poles and hanging wires with buried lines, and upgrade our energy (and even information) grid while we’re at it.

The heating elements could melt ice and snow, removing the need for plowing or salting roads. Potholes or other damage could be easily repaired by simply replacing the hexagonal units, one at a time, as needed.

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Nov 08 2013

Emerging Technologies

Most Fridays I submit a blog post to Swift, the official blog of the JREF. The article I submitted this morning is about a new study demonstrating  a brain-machine-interface (BMI) that allows a rhesus monkey to control two robotic arms at the same time. This is a technology I have been following here at NeuroLogica, blogging about it whenever I think a cool breakthrough is made.

The topic touches on several areas simultaneously that I find fascinating – neuroscience, computer technology, virtual reality, and predicting future technology. I make the point, as I often do, that predicting future technology has a terrible track record, with the only reasonable conclusion being that it is very difficult.

It’s fun to look back at past future predictions and see what people generally got right and what they got wrong, and then see if we can learn any general lessons that we can apply to predicting future technology.

Major Hurdles

For example, we are not all flying around with jetpacks or taking our flying car to work. This has become, in fact, a cliche of failed future technologies. I think the lesson here is that both of these technologies suffer from a major hurdle – fuel is heavy, and if you have to carry your fuel around with you it quickly becomes prohibitive. There just doesn’t seem to be any way to overcome this limitation with chemical fuel or batteries.

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Oct 31 2013

Thorium Reactors

Published by under Technology

Thorium is a radioactive element (atomic number 90), discovered by a Norwegian and named after the Norse god, Thor. It is fairly common in the earth’s crust, widely distributed throughout the world, with the largest deposits in Australia, the US, Turkey, and India.

If advocates have their way, you may be hearing more about thorium in the future. It is a potential fuel for nuclear reactors. We have not yet fully developed the technology for building thorium reactors, and the debate is on over whether or not this is a useful investment of energy development funds.

Carbon emissions and global climate change have raised the stakes of this controversy. I am with Bill Nye in advocating searching for the win-wins in combating carbon emissions – rather than asking people to sacrifice, find ways of improving their lives while lowering carbon emissions. The question is, is thorium a potential win-win?

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