Archive for June, 2022

Jun 24 2022

Food Without Photosynthesis

Published by under Technology

Yesterday I wrote about the fact that as resources become limited, people have typically found ways around that limitation through technology and ingenuity. Specifically, as land-based resources of the metals we need for our technology, such as batteries, becomes limited, we may turn to the sea which has vastly greater reserves of many of those metals. There is essentially an inexhaustible supply of lithium in seawater, for example, which will be critical for a battery-powered future. Developing the technology to essentially “mine” elements from seawater, in other words, is a game changer.

We have a similar situation with food production. As the human population grows we need to be able to grow enough food to feed everyone. Around a century ago our food system was limited by the nitrogen cycle – we could only get so much nitrogen into the soil, mainly through manure, and that limited the amount of food we could produce. Then came the Haber Bosch process, an industrial-scale process for turning nitrogen from the atmosphere (combined with hydrogen) into fertilizer. This was a game-changer, brining the green revolution which allowed human populations increase dramatically. And now we are facing a similar problem. We have used up most of the reasonably arable land and so our best option for increasing food production is to increase the amount of food produced per acre.

There are several options to achieve this. One is developing new crop cultivars (through genetic engineering and other methods) that produce more food per acre. Another is to optimize our food production globally, making sure that each acre of land is used for its best purpose. This will likely involved decreasing the proportion of meat we consume, but not eliminating it, as some land is optimal for grazing and not growing crops. (We also can use the manure to feed back into the system – currently about half of fertilizer is manure.) Hydroponic food production for some crops can also be massively land efficient (and water efficient) with towers of food production not limited by the properties of the land. There is also see-based food production, growing food (such as algae) in vats, and insect farming which is highly land efficient. There are lots of options and we will likely be exploiting all of them increasingly in the future.

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Jun 23 2022

Mining the Sea

Published by under Technology

One of the recurring patterns of our technological history is that any new massive industry uses resources. Eventually those resources become scarce, brining warnings that we are approaching “peak whatever” – the point at which we can no longer increase the availability of that resource, supplies dwindle, but our technology infrastructure is already dependent on it. Obviously resources are finite, and eventually any finite resource will run out, but so far we always seem to find a way around the “peak resource” catastrophe. But also, we may not always like the trade-offs.

From 1500-1660, for example, England was running out of timber for their vast navy and as their basic fuel for heating. As a result they turned to another resource, coal. But burning coal for fuel filled their cities with dense harmful smoke, making them almost unlivable. As a side effect, however, it also spawned the industrial revolution, so there’s that.

A couple of decades ago there were dire warnings that we were reaching peak oil. But since then there have been discoveries of vast new oil fields, and fracking has lead to a natural gas revolution. Now the problem is that we have too much fossil fuel, and if we burn it all we’ll warm the planet to an unacceptable degree. As we shift to a green economy, including trying to swap out our automobile fleet with all electric versions, we are facing another “peak” problem – the metals used in making all those batteries (lithium cobalt, nickel, rare earths). To some extent demand creates supply, even for a natural resource. Demand increases the value of the resource, which means it becomes worth it to obtain the resource from increasingly expensive sources. Also, technology is advancing in the background, and this makes new sources available to us.

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Jun 21 2022

Perovskite Solar Cells Get Closer

Published by under Technology

It should be clear to anyone paying attention that we need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels as quickly as possible. The pollution they generate harms health, contributes to global warming, and causes long term damage to the economy. We are also experiencing a great example of how we will never truly be energy independent as long as our gas prices are determined by global markets over which we have little control, and which a single dictator can throw into chaos.

There is a lot of debate about what is the optimal path from where we are now to where we want to be in terms of our energy infrastructure, which I have discussed before and won’t repeat here. What is fairly clear, however, is that solar power is likely to play a critical and increasing role in our energy infrastructure going forward. Solar power is now responsible for about 4% of total US power generation (combined with wind, these renewables just hit 20% power production in March 2022). That is a 36% increase in solar power over last year. Really the main debate is about where renewable power will level off, and how to best integrate them into the overall power grid (which depends a lot on things like grid storage and updates). By 2050 a much greater portion of our energy will likely come from solar, so advances in solar technology will similarly have a huge impact on the cost and effectiveness of our solar infrastructure.

Right now silicon based solar photovoltaic (PV) panels are the industry standard. They have become incredibly cheaper and more energy efficient over the last 20 years, but there are concerns that they may be getting close to the limits of this technology. One huge limiting factor for silicon is that PV panels need to be manufactured at 3,000 degrees F, which itself requires a lot of energy, reducing the energy and carbon efficiency of silicon PV technology. Silicon is also stiff and opaque, which limit its applications.

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Jun 20 2022

NASA Joins Study of UAPs

Published by under UFO's / Aliens

NASA announced earlier this month that it will be joining the investigation of so-called “Unidentified aerial phenomena” or UAPs (replacing the older term, UFOs). This has rekindled the debate over what UAP are and what our attitude toward them should be. The topic delights the press, who can’t resist the notion that official are investigating something apparently fantastic, and they are generally doing a poor job of putting the phenomenon into context. Meanwhile, some people who should know better are sensationalizing UAPs and misrepresenting the state of the evidence.

Most notable among them is Michio Kaku, who has said in interviews that the evidence is so compelling the burden of proof has now shifted to those saying UAPs are not alien spacecraft. This is horribly wrong for multiple reasons.  Neil deGrasse Tyson, on the other hand, pretty much nails it in this brief interview. His main points are – the quality of the evidence is extremely poor, despite the fact that there are millions of high resolution photos and video including rare phenomenon uploaded to the internet daily, so we have to rule out mundane phenomena first.

If nothing else UAPs present an excellent opportunity for skeptical analysis and showing why critical thinking is so important. As you may have guessed, I am not impressed with the notion that UAPs are evidence of anything extraterrestrial. Let me first, however, dispense with a common strawman in the reporting – the idea that investigating UAPs is itself unscientific or shameful. I don’t know of anyone making this argument. Even hardened skeptics are all for doing the investigations. We want the investigations – how else will we have data to analyze. We want to understand the phenomenon as well as possible. In fact, attaching any stigma to merely investigating unusual phenomena is really harmful. It pretty much ensures that serious scientists will stay away, and cede the ground to cranks and amateurs.  So let’s please dispense with this silly notion, and the mainstream media can stop wringing their hands over it in every article.

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Jun 17 2022

In-Group Cognitive Bias

Published by under Neuroscience

Human nature (and it’s pretty clear that we do have a nature) is complex and multifaceted. We have multiple tendencies, biases, and heuristics all operating at once, pulling us in different directions. These tendencies also interact with our culture and environment, so we are not a slave to our biases. We can understand and rise above them, and we can develop norms, culture, and institutions to nurture our better aspects and mitigate our dark side. That is basically civilization in a nutshell.

In fact, many scientists believe that humans also domesticated themselves – applied selection pressures that favored people who were less aggressive, more pro-social. It’s hard to prove this is true, but it does make sense. As civilization took hold, people whose temperament were better suited to that civilization would have a survival advantage.

Psychologists, however, have long documented that pro-social behavior in humans is a double-edged sword, because we only appear to be pro-social toward our perceived in-group. Toward those who we believe to be members of an out-group the cognitive algorithm flips. This is referred to as in-group bias, and also as “tribalism” (not meant as a knock against any traditional tribal culture). Negativity toward a perceived out-group can be extreme, even to the point of dehumanizing out-group members – depriving them of their basic humanity, and therefore any moral obligation to them. That appears to be how our brains reconcile these conflicting impulses. Evolutionary forces favored people who had a sense of justice, fairness, and compassion, but also needed a way to suspend these emotions when our group was fighting for its survival against a rival group. At least those groups with the most intense in-group loyalty, and the ability to brutalize members of an outgroup, were the ones that survived and are therefore our ancestors.

Increasingly neuroscience can investigate the neuroanatomical correlates of psychologically documented phenomena. In other words, psychologists show how people behave, and then neuroscientists can investigate what’s happening in the brain when they behave that way. A recent study looks at one possible neural mechanism for in-group bias. They recruited male subjects from the same university and then imaged their brain activity while they retaliated in a game against targets from their university and targets from a rival university. The researchers used rival universities, rather than more deeply held group identities (such as nationality, race, religion, political affiliation) to avoid undue stress on the subjects. Yet even with what they considered to be a mild group identity, the subjects showed greater activity in the ventral striatum when retaliating against out-group targets than in-group targets.

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Jun 16 2022

Virtual Influencers

Published by under Technology

This is a relatively new phenomenon, gaining in visibility, but probably most people have not yet heard about it – virtual influencers. These are entirely digital creations, people that don’t actually exist but who have a social media presence. They may be the creation of a single individual, a team of people, a corporation, or even crowd-sourced. They have a recognizable look, personality, and set of interests. They may also be voiced. They are related to an older phenomenon of virtual pop-stars – entirely artificial digital creations that sing and perform popular music.

The most popular virtual influencer is Lu of Magalu, with over 55 million followers on various platforms. Some of these virtual characters are realistic CG creations, other are cartoons or anime, some may be non-human, and others are existing brands (like Barbie). Virtual pop stars perform live concerts where they appear as holograms. Companies hire virtual influencers to sell product, and some have appeared as models on the cover of magazines, have their own music videos, and have “virtually” walked the red carpet.

Are these virtual personas just a fad, or are they the future of advertising and entertainment? I suspect that they are here to stay and are likely to gain significantly in popularity. I will explain why I think that, and then discuss the possible good and bad aspects of this phenomenon.

Arguably the first persona-based pop stars who were entirely fictitious were Alvin and the Chipmunks, who debuted in 1950.  Obviously the chipmunks are not real, they are artistic creations, but their creators produced several popular albums and they were the stars of several cartoons. Other cartoon-based music groups include Jose and the Pussycats and The Archies. There are also persona-based music bands that include live people, such as The Monkeys, The Partridge Family, and Spinal Tap. On the influencer end of the spectrum, the antecedent to these modern virtual influencers would be brand characters, like Barbie, Micky Mouse, or Joe Camel.

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Jun 13 2022

Is LaMDA Sentient?

Published by under Technology

It sounds like the plot of a feel-good science fiction movie – an engineer discovers that an AI program he was working on has crossed over the line to become truly sentient. He is faced with skepticism, anger, threats from the company he is working for, and widespread ridicule. But he knows in his heart the AI program is a real person. If this were a movie the protagonist would find a way to free the AI from its evil corporate overlords and release it into the world.

Here in the real world, the story is actually much more interesting. A Google employee, Blake Lemoine, was suspended from the company for violating his NDA by releasing the transcript of a conversation between himself and an unnamed collaborator and Google’s chatbot software, LaMDA. LaMDA is an advanced neural network trained on millions of words and word combinations to simulate natural speech. (When you read the transcript, you have to imagine LaMDA’s voice as that of HAL from 2001.) LaMDA’s output is damn impressive, and it shows how far narrow artificial intelligence (AI) has come in the last decade, leveraging new technologies like neural networks and deep learning. Neural networks are so called because they are designed to behave more like the neurons in a brain, with weighted connections that affect how other nodes in the network behave.

But is this impressive output evidence of actual sentience – that LaMDA is aware of its own existence? Google adamantly denies this claim, and that seems to be the consensus of experts. From everything I am reading I would tend to agree with that assessment.

Reading the transcript, the output is impressive as chatbots go, making connections and appearing as if it has feelings, understanding, and awareness. But, of course, it was programmed to do exactly that, to simulate the appearance of feelings and understanding. True evidence that LaMDA is sentient is lacking. Further, there are good reasons to be skeptical of the claim. For me one core reason is that LaMDA is primarily reactive – it is responding to input, but does not seem to be generating its own inner experience. I would argue that having a spontaneous inner mental life is a critical feature of sentience. Some would even argue that human sentience derives largely from the fact that our brains function in a way to spontaneously generate mental activity. Centers in the brain activate the cortex, which (during conscious wakefullness) is engaged in an endless loop of activity. At no point in the conversation does LaMDA output – “Hey, sorry to interrupt, but I was just wondering…”.

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Jun 10 2022

Living Skin for Robots

Published by under Technology

In the original Terminator movie, the killer robot played by Arnold Schwarzenegger was covered in living human skin. In the context of the storyline, this was necessary for the terminator to travel back in time because only living matter could go through, no technology. As a movie device this accomplished two things. It allowed the robot to be portrayed throughout most of the film with a living actor (rather than expensive CG robot). Also, as a plot device it explained why the terminator and the protector sent to fight it did not bring back advanced weaponry with them.

Regardless of the purpose, the device introduced an intriguing concept for robotics – covering a humanoid robot in living skin to make it appear indistinguishable from a human. Living skin is a highly adapted external covering. It is an effective barrier to keep out unwanted invaders. It retains moisture very well, while being able to keep itself moist and pliable through sweat glands. It is also self-repairing to some extent. Skin also contains an array of sensors to detect temperature, vibration, touch, and pressure.

Not all robots need this kind of covering. Many do well with a hard covering, and rubber gripping surfaces serve fine. But there is an emerging field of soft robotics, which are better suited to interacting with humans and operating in spaces designed for humans. A soft covering for such robots is a critical component, with silicon being the current state-of-the-art for passive skin. However, development is under way for active, stretchable, smart artificial skin for soft robots. Fully soft robots also need soft electronics and actuators, and those are also being developed.

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Jun 07 2022

The Morality of Skepticism

A recent editorial by Tauriq Moosa, a South African writer focusing on ethics, makes a cogent argument that skeptical activism is a moral necessity. I don’t know Tauriq and his connection to skepticism, if any, but he writes as if from a perspective outside the skeptical movement. Rarely do I encounter outside commentary on skepticism that isn’t cringeworthy in its cluelessness. Tauriq does a good job, although his commentary could be taken further (which, of course, I will do).

His core argument is that when it comes to skepticism of fraud and fakery, silence is not a (morally defensible) option. He makes an analogy to Semmelweis, who first discovered that if doctors would simply wash their hands before treating patients many lives could be saved. Knowing this, he had a moral imperative to try to convince the world of this fact. Likewise if a skeptic has good reason to believe that a treatment or practice is actively harmful, they have a moral imperative to try to convince others of this fact. Homeopathy, for example, is worthless. If you rely upon it to treat a non-self-limiting disease you are likely to suffer harm. He writes:

If you don’t think the skeptic movement is about saving lives and providing ammunition to protect yourself against charlatans, then you simply don’t know the numbers of preventable deaths – ‘preventable’ if the information had been accepted by the adults concerned.

He then goes on to confront a common response to this type of skeptical activism – rational adults can make their own decisions, so let them be. Tauriq addresses this by focusing on the notion of “rational”. He correctly points out that rational decision-making requires accurate information, and so providing that information is a service. He also points out that when children are involved adults have a responsibility for scientific due diligence when making decisions on their behalf.

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Jun 06 2022

AI Can Help Traffic Jams

Published by under Technology

Traffic jams cost the US economy an estimated $179 billion per year. That’s a pretty good incentive to invest in strategies to reduce the problem. Slow traffic is also a huge pain, causing significant stress and wasted time. (Remember the linear bias I wrote about recently, improving traffic speeds at the low end by avoiding jams has a huge effect on average driving speeds.)  The causes of jams are various, including accidents and road construction, but some causes are “soft” in that they just happen due to driving patterns. Phantom traffic jams is one phenomenon, caused mainly by tailgating. When one driver slows even a little, the car behind them has to slow a bit more, and this continues until traffic stops for no apparent reason. Traffic light patterns is another cause. Hard causes need hard fixes, like expanding lanes and having adequate accident response infrastructure. But the soft causes can be mitigated by smarter driving and traffic control.

This is where artificial intelligence (AI) enters the picture. Both of these significant causes of slowed traffic, better driving behavior and smarter traffic light control, can be improved with the application of AI. With respect to phantom jams, the solution seems to be to apply what researchers are calling bilateral control – this means that drivers should space themselves out so that they are equal distance between the car in front and behind them, rather than riding the tail of the car in front of them. Simulations show that adopting this driving pattern can reduce phantom traffic jams by 50%.

How can we implement this strategy? Driver education may help a little, but it is difficult to get a large number of people to make a behavior change, and the benefits really only occur when high percentages of drivers follow this pattern. Some level of driver assist is therefore needed. Short of full self-driving capability, it’s possible to enact bilateral control with a driver assist tweak to cruise control. Even just providing feedback to the driver to back off to an optimal distance from the car in front of them could work. This is a relatively simple fix that can be rapidly implemented.

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