Aug 05 2021

The Misinformation Trifecta

Misinformation is a booming industry, and that is often exactly what it is. Sometimes it may emerge organically, out of sincere error or misunderstanding. But increasingly misinformation is being weaponized to achieve specific goals. That goal might be to protect the interests of a corporation or industry, to promote a candidate or particular policy position, to engage in a broader culture-war, promote an ideology, or just sell a brand or product. Recently it has become more apparent to me that often there is a common strategy to weaponizing misinformation. It’s likely always been there, but is getting more blatant.

The “misinformation trifecta” combines three synergistic strategies. The first is spreading the misinformation itself, factual claims that are wrong, misleading, fabricated, cherry-picked, or simply indifferent to the truth. This is the “payload”, if you will. For example, claiming that GMOs are harmful to one’s health is simply wrong. There is no evidence to support this, and in fact their is copious evidence that GMO crops are as safe and healthful and their non-GMO counterparts. This bit of information is used to promote a certain ideology (based on the appeal to nature fallacy) and a competitive brand, organic farming. It is often packaged with lots of other bits of misinformation, all woven together into a certain narrative.

Narrative’s are powerful because they tend to take on a life of their own. The organize misinformation into a story, and people have an easier time understanding, remembering, and relating to stories rather than isolated facts. Narratives also provide a lens through which we view reality. Once you have sold someone on a narrative, they then curate their own misinformation to further support the narrative.

If misinformation itself were the only issue, then the solution would be straightforward. This is the “knowledge deficit” model, where misinformation is corrected with better, more accurate or complete information. Past efforts at public education and countering misinformation have focused on this knowledge deficit approach. This has limited (but non-zero) effect. It is highly variable depending on the particular topic, but mostly it is inadequate to counter misinformation.

Continue Reading »

Comments: 0

Aug 03 2021

Where’s My Self-Driving Car?

A lot of people have noticed that the self-driving car revolution has been…delayed. For the last decade predictions of when the technology would be ready for mass adoption were converging on the 2020s, beginning early in the decade. In this 2010 article, the prediction was – at least 8 years. Also, “US Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx declared in 2016 that we’d have fully autonomous cars everywhere by 2021.” Since then the technology has advanced tremendously, but has not quite crossed the threshold of fully autonomous vehicles. We are stuck in the “driver-assist” stage. Right now you can get a Tesla with the driver-assist package which you can use to summon your car from its parking space, and to assist during driving to help avoid accidents. But the driver must always be attentive and at the wheel. Fully autonomous driving is not yet a reality. What happened?

In retrospect it all seems completely predictable, because we have been here so many times before. This pattern does not necessarily happen with every technology, but it is extremely common, especially for new and complex technology. We have seen this with fusion reactors, artificial general intelligence, gene therapy, stem-cell therapy, the hydrogen economy, and flying cars. There are some common themes that keep cropping up. One is the tendency to overestimate short term progress, while underestimating long term progress. This pattern, in turn, results from some underlying tendencies and cognitive biases.

I think one of the most important is that we tend to default to extrapolating linearly into the future. So we think – if we have made this much progress between 2000 and 2010, then we should make similar progress between 2010 and 2020, and that’s when we will cross the finish line. The problem is, technological progress is not always linear. There is a more complex relationship, which can make net progress both faster and slower than we predict. This is because technological progress can be geometric, rather than linear. But at the same time, challenges can be geometrically difficult, so there is diminishing returns. These are competing geometric issues, and how they sort out can be difficult to extrapolate.

Continue Reading »

Comments: 0

Aug 02 2021

Farming Microbes

In 1968 Paul Ehrlich wrote the controversial book, The Population Bomb, in which he argued that we had lost to battle to feed the world and would soon face massive starvation. He also argued that overpopulation was the number one threat to the environment. In a 2018 review, Smithsonian Magazine argues that Ehrlich’s book, in addition to being clearly wrong in its predictions, had a large effect on the environmental movement itself, moving it toward believing that overpopulation was their most urgent issue. This in turn also lead to a host of repressive and abusive policies around the world, especially toward women.

Even today, whenever I blog about related issues such as organic farming, it is common for someone in the comments to essentially argue that we need to allow millions or billions of people to starve to death in order to control population, which is the single most important thing. The “overpopulation purists” are following in Ehrlich’s legacy.

Ehrlich, however, was completely wrong in his predictions because he missed the green revolution, the remarkable ability for technology to be leveraged to increase the productivity of an acre of farmland several fold. We are now facing a similar situation, with scientists warning that the world population will likely increase to about 10 billion people by sometime around 2050. Yet, we are already exploiting most of the available arable land, so simply expanding farmland is not a great option. Any further expansion will extend into progressively less productive land, or into forests or occupied land. Further, land use is the greatest impact that farming, and in fact humans, have on the environment. If anything we should be looking for ways to return land to a natural ecosystem, in order to minimize extinctions due to loss of habitat.

Just because I disagree strongly with the overall position of the overpopulation purists, that doesn’t mean they don’t have somewhat of a point. It is probably a good idea to stabilize the human population on the Earth at some point. Fortunately, we know from experience how to do this – when we lift people out of crushing poverty and grant basic rights to women, then populations stabilize (without having to starve anyone). These are things we should be doing anyway, and we have an extra incentive to do so.

Continue Reading »

Comments: 0

Jul 30 2021

Visual Persistence in a Dynamic World

We mostly take our vision for granted. I am not referring to how much we appreciate having good vision, for those who do, but rather we tend to be unaware of how much of a neurological feat simple vision is. In a way, we evolved not to appreciate this – the experience of good vision evolved to be seamless, and to hide all the massive processing necessary to make it so. Neuroscientists, however, have been making a lot of progress reverse engineering how our brains process vision, uncovering new layers of complexity.

A recent study, for example, looked at the persistence of visual images in the brain given dynamic stimuli. How does the brain maintain a constant representation of an object in the world when the image of that object might be dramatically and rapidly changing? Again, we tend to think of our own vision like a video camera, passively recording what is out there. But actually vision is a complex hierarchical constructive process. Imagine, for example, driving in a car. There are other cars on the road, and there are objects on the side of the road you are passing by. The visual image falling on your retina is changing dynamically, and your brain has to keep up with all this change while maintaining a sense of stability.

How much processing power this takes becomes apparent to many people with traumatic brain injury (TBI). This can cause a disrupti0n in the connections among neurons of the brain, slowing down processing speed. People with TBI often experience disorientation when driving, moving quickly, or even turning around. Their brain cannot keep up with the rapidly changing visual input. This is a common symptom because visual processing is one of the most intense that happens in the brain, so it is the first to be affected (the ability to focus and shift attention being another).

Continue Reading »

Comments: 0

Jul 29 2021

Engineered Synthetic Fiber – Stronger than Steel

One of the goals of material science is to create a super-strong fiber which can be easily mass produced at arbitrary length. Such fibers would be incredibly useful – for rugged clothing and gear, armor, strong cables, and manufacturing. The ultimate threshold is a cable with enough tensile strength to make a space elevator on Earth feasible. Right now we do not have a material that can do this (whether or not we would want to is a separate question).

For decades some researchers have been chasing synthetic spider silk. Some spider silks have incredible strength and toughness, but it has been challenging to duplicate the proteins with the proper structure. Now a team has produced what is perhaps a viable product – a Microbially Synthesized Polymeric Amyloid Fiber. The fibers are produced by a genetically engineered bacterium. Spider silk proteins form a large number of β-nanocrystal structures, which are largely responsible for their strength. Prior attempts at creating synthetic spider silk resulted in lower numbers of β-nanocrystals, and therefore inferior properties.

The new strategy in this current study was to create a hybrid protein, adding in amyloid protein sequences. Amyloid is a protein that likes to form similar structures, and the combination proved to be useful. The resulting protein formed large numbers of β-nanocrystals, creating a fiber that is stronger than some spider silks. How strong?

There are two main properties of interest. The first is tensile strength, which is the ability to resist being pulled apart, and described usually as the “ultimate tensile strength” which is the force necessary to essentially snap a fiber by being pulled apart. Because steel is so ubiquitous and is iconic for its strength, materials are often compared to steel. Of course, there are thousands of alloys of steel, but generally those used in cables have an ultimate tensile strength somewhere between 400-550 megapascals (MPa). The new synthetic fiber has a tensile strength of “0.98 ± 0.08 GPa” – or about 1,000 MPa, about twice the tensile strength of steel.

Continue Reading »

Comments: 0

Jul 27 2021

Treating Brain Cancer with Magnets

Magnets for healing have a bad rap, one they rightfully deserve. Magnetic snake-oil devices with all sorts of bogus medical claims are as old as magnets themselves. It may have something to do with the fact that magnets seem like magic, exerting and invisible force at a distance. So it’s often an easy sell. Also, magnets are real and do produce a real energy field (unlike the non-existent “life energy” fields common in alternative medicine). So it makes any claims for them seem all the more plausible.

Because of this, magnets do have real medical applications. Perhaps most common is MRI scans – magnetic resonance imaging. But also there is a lot of research into TMS, transcranial magnetic stimulation, for a variety of neurological indications. Our bodies are electromagnetic devices, and we can alter cell function with electricity and magnetic fields. The trick is, applying them in such a way that they can be exploited for benefit rather than causing harm or having no real effect.

For the consumer with insufficient scientific or medical background, it can be very challenging to tell the difference between a legitimate magnetic medical device and a scam. One good rule of thumb – if the magnet is fairly weak (refrigerator magnet level) it is probably worthless. Real biologically active magnets tend to be powerful. Another slightly more technical fact is that biologically active magnets tend to have an alternating field, while magnetic quack devices tend to have a static magnetic field (which has little biological effect).

Continue Reading »

Comments: 0

Jul 26 2021

Facebook Plans VR Metaverse

Mark Zuckerberg has revealed that he plans to transition Facebook from a social media company to one that build and manages an immersive virtual reality “metaverse”. The idea sounds a lot like Oasis from Ready Player One. The term itself was coined in the 1992 science fiction novel, Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson. The basic idea is of a joining of physical, virtual, and augmented reality into one seamless experience.

It’s an ambitious goal, but given that Facebook is worth about $280 billion, with income of about $29 billion a year, it’s probably more than an empty boast. Facebook has already acquired Oculus, a popular brand of VR headsets, and has been building the infrastructure necessary for such a project. Zuckerberg seems serious. I think something like the metaverse was inevitable, but the question is – is the technology ready?

Right now the VR (virtual reality) market is about $5 billion per year, but projected to grow to $12 billion by 2024. We are still in the early adopter phase (meaning mostly gaming), but transitioning fairly quickly to more mainstream adoption. The Metaverse might be the killer app that pushes VR over the line. Or it make spectacularly fail, indicating that VR is not ready yet. Zuckerberg, however, is wisely hedging his bets. He indicates that the metaverse will exist in VR, AR (augmented reality), and existing desktop and portable platforms. So you won’t need a VR headset to access the metaverse, you can do it over your phone or sitting at your laptop. But if you have VR you will have a much more immersive experience, and perhaps be able to access unique VR features.

Continue Reading »

Comments: 0

Jul 23 2021

AI Advances Mapping of Human Proteome

In 2003 the largest ever international cooperative scientific project was completed, at a cost of about $1 billion – the mapping of the human genome. This came with much fanfare, with the media hyping all the medical benefits that would soon flow. Of course, basic science progress often precedes clinical applications by decades, so the hype was not necessarily wrong, just premature. But it was an immediate boon to research, and those benefits are being felt today.

Perhaps the next big mapping project in biology is the human proteome, the characterization of every human protein. (I’ll also give a nod to the connectome project, the mapping of every connection in the human brain, but that will likely take much longer.) A new study published in Nature announces a significant leap forward in mapping the human proteome, using artificial intelligence (AI), specifically AlphaFold2  developed by DeepMind. To understand what they accomplished, however, we need to go over some basic concepts and terminology.

A gene is essentially a code for a sequence of amino acids, which make up proteins. So if we have mapped the entire sequence of bases (of which there are four – GATC) in a gene, we know the sequence of amino acids in the protein it codes for. So then, you might ask, if we have already mapped all the human genes, why is that not the same thing as a map of all the human proteins? This is because a protein is more than just a sequence of amino acids. A short chain of 2 or more amino acids is called a peptide, and a long chain is therefore a polypeptide. But we still don’t have a protein. A protein is a polypeptide that folds itself into a specific three-dimensional structure. It is that three-dimensional structure which determined the function and properties of the protein.

Continue Reading »

Comments: 0

Jul 22 2021

Hydrogen Aircraft

When it comes to cars, the technology competition between batteries and hydrogen has been won. The future of cars appears to be battery technology. There are some hydrogen-fueled cars, but they are a tiny slice of the market. The bottom line is that batteries are more efficient than hydrogen, and they are only going to get better. Volkwagen pretty much declared a victor with this statement:

 “The conclusion is clear” said the company. “In the case of the passenger car, everything speaks in favour of the battery and practically nothing speaks in favour of hydrogen.”

But the key phrase there is “in the case of the passenger car.” Hydrogen may still find a niche when it comes to other types of vehicles, such as trucks or trains. White battery technology has the advantage in efficiency (the total percentage of energy that get transferred to momentum), hydrogen has other advantages. One is that hydrogen (being the lightest element) has a very high specific energy (energy per mass). The specific energy for hydrogen is three times that of jet fuel, and more than 200 times that of current lithium-ion batteries.

In fact, hydrogen has the highest specific energy of any practical fuel. The two recent commercial suborbital flights, by Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, both used hydrogen fuel, which combines with oxygen to form water, and no CO2. Hydrogen is likely to be the fuel of spaceflight for the foreseeable future (until we perfect nuclear engines, but that’s another article). So for anything that needs to fly, where weight is the primary concern, hydrogen is a great fuel.

Continue Reading »

Comments: 0

Jul 20 2021

We’re Losing the Vaccine Race

In February on SBM I wrote about the Race Against Vaccine Hesitancy. At that point in time the pandemic was receding in the US in the face of a rapid vaccination program, but also the first new variants of SARS-CoV-2 were starting to appear. Essentially I argued that we were in a race between achieving herd immunity and the spread of new variants that might be more contagious or even vaccine resistant. Experts believed that we would know the answer by Summer.

Well, Summer is here, and the answer is in. We lost the race. Vaccine hesitancy won.

This doesn’t mean that the vaccination program has not been massively helpful. It has. As of now 48.6% of the US population is fully vaccinated, with 56.1% having received at least one dose. This includes children under 12, however, who are not currently eligible for any vaccine. A total of 68.3% of adults have been vaccinated, close to the 70% goal set by the Biden administration. From a logistical perspective, this is a success. The program peaked at over 3 million doses given per day. The program meant that the limiting factor was not the availability of vaccines or the ability to distribute and administer them. The limiting factor is people willing to get vaccinated.

While we may have come close, we did not achieve sufficient herd immunity. Part of the problem is that the vaccinated are not evenly distributed throughout the population. Vaccine uptake is patchy, which means there are clusters of unvaccinated people where the virus is free to spread. Arkansas, for example, is only at 35% fully vaccinated.

Continue Reading »

Comments: 0

Next »