Archive for the 'Technology' Category

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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Jul 25 2013

Mission to Mars

Published by under Technology

In the decades prior to December 17, 1903, when the Wright Brothers flew for the first time at Kitty Hawk, the invention of the heavier-than-air flying machine was highly anticipated. There was a buzz. Many teams were working on the invention, and there were many false premature reports of sightings.

Today I get the same feeling about a mission to Mars. It seems that we’re just ready for such a mission, and multiple teams are proposing concepts for how to get there.

The latest proposal comes from scientists at the Imperial College London. They do not suggest any new technology or techniques, but simply put together a plan for addressing all the technical hurdles to such a mission. Their proposal is for a three person crew to travel to Mars and be safely returned home.

Here are the issues that need to be addressed on such a mission.

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Apr 18 2013

Predicting the Future

An Iranian inventor claims to have created a machine that can predict an individual’s future 5-8 years in advance. Ali Razeghi claims to have registered “The Aryayek Time Traveling Machine” with the state-run Centre for Strategic Inventions, but the Iranian government denies this.

Details are, as you might suspect, sketchy. Razeghi claims his machine works by a complex “algorithm.” It sounds like it’s a machine, not just computer software. Also he claims that the machine works by simply touching the user.

Obviously this is nonsense, but stories like this (now spread far and wide by the internet) always raise the question for skeptics and scientists – how do we address scientific claims that are “impossible,” and is it even meaningful to characterize anything as impossible given the limitations of human knowledge?

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Apr 15 2013

Twitterpated

Published by under Technology

Social media has been getting a bad rap recently. Blogs, podcasts, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and other social media outlets have certainly had a dramatic impact on how people communicate. They are powerful tools and many people have put them to good use.

There are some unintended consequences as well, and as a society we are still learning to adapt to this new factor in our lives. There are issues of privacy, the rules of social behavior, and the ethics of spreading dubious information online.

We discussed two related issues recently on the SGU. The first was about the recent paper, “Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation,” by Lewandowsky. Essentially Lewandowsky wrote a paper about conspiracy theories around the denial of global warming. Part of the backlash against that paper by self-described global warming skeptics included further conspiracy theories about the paper. Lewandowsky could not resist the irony, hence his subsequent paper.

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Apr 09 2013

Assessing Solar Energy

Published by under Technology

I’m a big fan of solar energy, and specifically photovoltaics (PV). The earth is bathed in free clean energy, far more than we need to run our civilization, and all we have to do is harvest it. But, of course, it’s not that simple.

There are many ways to calculate the efficiency and effectiveness of PV technology. One way it to calculate its cost-effectiveness compared to other forms of energy. The bottom line for any consumer is this – if you install PV in your residence, what is the total cost of installation and maintenance compared to the cost savings of the energy produced?

You can also think about the energy efficiency of PV – what is the total energy cost of manufacturing, maintaining, and disposing of PV across its lifetime compared to the amount of electricity it generates.

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