Archive for the 'Technology' Category

Aug 20 2019

Nuke Mars?

Published by under Technology

Remember that scene at the end of Total Recall when the alien machine melts the polar ice on Mars, and within a minute gives Mars a warm breathable atmosphere? Of course, there was a lot wrong with that scene – not the least of which is that the polar caps on Mars are not composed of anything close to a breathable atmosphere. The northern ice cap is mostly composed of water. There is a thin top layer of carbon dioxide (CO2) ice during the winter that sublimates (turns into gas) in the summer. The southern cap undergoes the same process, and is also made of water ice and CO2 ice, but apparently has more CO2 ice than the northern cap. You will notice there is no oxygen in there.

But could, theoretically, we melt the ice caps as part of a plan to terraform Mars? Elon Musk previously floated the idea of nuking Mars – exploding many nuclear bombs over the ice caps in order to quickly melt them, turning the water and CO2 into vapor and thereby warming the planet and thickening its atmosphere. The result would not be an instantly comfortable and breathable atmosphere, but could take us a long way to making Mars more habitable. Musk’s idea was soundly criticized, but recently he tweeted the idea again (although no one is sure if he is serious or not, or just trying to sell T-shirts), but it has resurrected the discussion about whether nuking Mars is a viable option.

A 2018 paper published in Nature crunched the numbers of what we know about non-atmospheric CO2 reserves on Mars. They counted not just the ice caps, but also the carbon bound in the soil. They concluded:

These results suggest that there is not enough CO2 remaining on Mars to provide significant greenhouse warming were the gas to be emplaced into the atmosphere; in addition, most of the CO2 gas in these reservoirs is not accessible and thus cannot be readily mobilized. As a result, we conclude that terraforming Mars is not possible using present-day technology.

That’s discouraging. There isn’t an atmosphere on Mars waiting to be melted or liberated. There is also the question of whether or not exploding nukes over the poles would even work to melt the ice. By some calculations we would need thousands of nukes per day over weeks to accomplish this. And then, of course, the gases would freeze again, because there is not enough CO2 to sustain warming. So – no “blue skies on Mars” anytime soon.

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Aug 16 2019

A Solar Road Update

Published by under Technology

Remember the “Solar Freakin’ Roadways?” The idea was to pave roads with solar cells that would produce electricity for the grid. The power could also be used for LEDs that could serve as traffic lights and warning signals, and the power could melt snow and ice to boot. I wrote about this in 2014 and at the time I was not impressed with the arguments that were being made.

As many people pointed out – there are huge practical problems with this concept. The main problem is that you would have to engineer the solar cells to withstand traffic and all the abuse that roads take. This would likely degrade their efficiency over time, and also make upkeep very expensive. For the money you would be far better off simply installing solar panels on rooftops, or even suspending them over roads or wherever that might make sense.

I wasn’t entirely negative. I liked the idea in theory, just thought there were serious practical hurdles and we need some real-world testing. I also said this:

“It’s also possible that such panels might find a niche use, but not be cost effective for our entire highway infrastructure. For example, they may find a market for private driveways. I would like not to have to plow or shovel my driveway, and it may reduce my energy bills a bit. Also, a driveway takes a lot less abuse than a highway.

Or perhaps parking lots, bike paths, or playgrounds may find a use. Perhaps they will be better for small back roads than highways, or the other way around, or they will be perfect for cities or sidewalks. Maybe airport runways might justify the cost.”

Well now it’s 5 years later, and we have some real-world testing. The largest test was in France, which two years ago installed a 1 kilometer stretch of solar roadway. Le Monde reports that the experiment was a complete failure. The roadway is deteriorating rapidly. A large section had to be completely demolished. Panels come loose and then are broken or dislodged by traffic. Leaves and other debris cover the surface. Also:

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Aug 02 2019

Can an AI Hold a Patent

The BBC reports a case in which an artificial intelligence (AI) system is named as a possible patent holder for a new invention, and interlocking food container. Apparently none of the people involved with the invention meet the criteria for being a patent holder, since they did not come up with the actual innovation.

As a result, two professors from the University of Surrey have teamed up with the Missouri-based inventor of Dabus AI to file patents in the system’s name with the relevant authorities in the UK, Europe and US.

That’s an interesting solution. It does seem that international patent law needs to evolve in order to deal with the product of machine learning creativity. I think this reveals what a true game-changer current AI can be. It’s breaking our existing categories and legal framework.

But I don’t want to talk about patent law, about which I have no expertise – I want to talk about AI, about which I also have no expertise (but I do have a keen interest and pay attention to the news). Over the last few years there have been numerous developments that show how powerful machine learning algorithms are becoming. Specifically, they are able to create solutions that the AI programmers themselves don’t fully understand. The Dabus system itself uses one component to generate new ideas, based on being fed noisy input. But then a second component evaluates those ideas and gives the first component feedback. This idea, having two AI systems play off each other, creates a feedback loop that can rapidly iterate and improve a design or solution. So essentially we have two AIs talking to each other, and humans are largely out of the loop.

AI systems have come up with simulations and other solutions that the scientists using the system do not understand. Sometimes they don’t even know how it was possible for the AI to come up with the solutions it did.

Even more interesting, AI systems have developed their own language that they use to communicate with each other, and no human currently understands that language.

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Jul 26 2019

Going Back to the Moon

Published by under Astronomy,Technology

With the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 landing on the moon there has been a lot of talk about NASA’s plans to return. Each new dribble of news can be exciting, but a coherent plan remains elusive. Somewhat of a plan is starting to take shape, however.

In a recent commentary for the Washington Post, Astronomer Phil Plait made an interesting point – that the Apollo mission was designed to be self-limited and not a sustained effort. The point was to beat the Soviets to the moon, and so it was baked into the design of the program to do everything to get their quickly not slowly and sustainably. Further, once we did beat the Soviets to the moon, and it was clear they abandoned their own efforts to do so, support for the program faded.

I think this is correct, but it is in contrast to the naive impression I formed as a child during the Apollo program and nurtured throughout most of my life. It always seemed to me that once we became a spacefaring race, progress was inevitable. Certainly every science fiction movie reinforced this impression. Apollo was followed by the space shuttle, then the ISS. OK, that makes sense. But then progress in sending people into space seemed to wane. We now have to hitch rides to the ISS on Russian craft. NASA’s plans seem to change with each administration. Multiple conflicting visions compete for dominance, while we seem to chase our tail.

I have to now acknowledge that it’s possible the massive effort necessary to safely send people to the moon and return them to Earth may only be feasible with the political and public support generated by the cold war and an immediate space race. Without that, we don’t seem to be able to sustain the political will – which in practical purposes means money. NASA and the White House need to be on the same page, and Congress needs to provide the funding.

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Jul 19 2019

Electronic Skin

Published by under Technology

This is another entry in my informal series on interfacing machines and the human brain. Yesterday I wrote about Neuralink, which is a project to develop electrodes to interface with the brain itself. Today I write about another incremental advance – in the July 17th issue of Science Robotics, researchers published, “A neuro-inspired artificial peripheral nervous system for scalable electronic skins.”

This seems to be a serious advance in the architecture of artificial skin.

“We demonstrate prototype arrays of up to 240 artificial mechanoreceptors that transmitted events asynchronously at a constant latency of 1 ms while maintaining an ultra-high temporal precision of <60 ns, thus resolving fine spatiotemporal features necessary for rapid tactile perception. Our platform requires only a single electrical conductor for signal propagation, realizing sensor arrays that are dynamically reconfigurable and robust to damage.”

This configuration is more scalable than the current designs, which “are currently interfaced via time-divisional multiple access (TDMA), where individual sensors are sampled sequentially and periodically to reconstruct a two-dimensional (2D) map of pressure distribution.” As the number of sensors increases, with this design, the delay in signal processing gets greater. The new design does not suffer that limitation.

Biological skin evolved to have a host of desirable features. It is soft, has a variable number of sensors as needed, and yet is robust, still operates with minor damage, and is self-repairing. Artificial skin would be optimal if it shared all these features. This new eskin gets us closer to this ideal.

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Jul 01 2019

Privacy in the Age of AI

Published by under Technology

How strong is the password you use for your e-mail account? When was the last time you changed it? Your e-mail is the gateway to pretty much the rest of your security – someone who has captured your e-mail can use it to reset many of your other passwords. Yet, the top 10 passwords that people use are: “123456, 123456789, qwerty, password, 111111, 12345678, abc123, 1234567, password1, and 12345.” There are several reasons for this, but one is that people will generally trade security for convenience.

In addition to this, network security experts don’t always appreciate this fact or its implications. I was in a meeting at work about this topic, and the IT guys actually stated that their password policy is – use a hard alphanumeric, don’t write it down anywhere, use a different password for every login, and change it every 30 days. This is literally impossible for the vast majority of the population. People will just shrug at these silly recommendations, and use “123456.” A better recommendation, meeting people half-way, is to use a password which consists of three independent words that are each memorable to you but someone else would not easily guess.

We are quickly moving beyond the age of passwords, however. Biometrics may save us from our own laziness, at least in part, because they key into something unique about ourselves. They are a biological key that we carry with us. This is partly why hackers are moving toward social engineering rather than hacking software or hardware to breech security. People are the weak link – you can still count on people’s inherent laziness.

The same is true of privacy – people will sacrifice a certain amount of privacy for convenience. Sometimes we have no choice. If we want to live and do business in the modern world, we have to put some of ourselves out there. (Unless you want to “live of the grid.”) If you want to get on a plane, you have to let someone rifle through your things, and may even have to submit to a whole body scan. So while we are individually willing to trade security for convenience, we are collectively willing to trade privacy for security.

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Jun 25 2019

More Ways to Capture Carbon

Published by under Technology

One of the most frustrating things about the climate change debate is that we already have viable solutions either at hand or nearly so, and we just need the vision and political will to prioritize the changes necessary to decarbonize our civilization. Some of the resistance is pure protectionism for vested interests, like the fossil fuel industry. However, studies find that much of the rank-and-file resistance is due to “solution aversion.” Just read the comments here to any article in which climate change is mentioned, someone will be warning about socialists taking over the economy.

I have often said that the more productive response from the right should not be to deny the science, and make any ridiculous argument that results in the conclusion to do nothing. Rather, they could spend their time proposing solutions they think will work and that are more compatible with their world view. What is particularly frustrating is that I personally think these are the types of solutions that are most likely to work. I don’t think we need governments to institute huge top-down programs that essentially take control of vast sectors of the economy. Adjusting market forces to properly account for the externalized costs of releasing carbon, while subsidizing emerging clean industries (and ending subsidies for fossil fuel) and investing in green research and infrastructure can probably do the job. We certainly are no where near maximizing these free-market approaches.

Coal, for example, is already dying. We should put it in hospice and ease its passing. Use grants and subsidies to bring new industries into coal country and retrain workers. Make their lives better, while easing the transition to cleaner technology. Economists have already figured out that pretty much anything effective we do to mitigate pollution and climate change is a cost-effective investment. Remember – the health care costs of pollution alone are worth the investment, even if you don’t believe in anthropogenic climate change. This is an economic no-brainer.

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Jun 20 2019

Possible Universal Memory Reported

Published by under Technology

Universal memory is one of those things you probably didn’t know you wanted (unless you are a computer nerd). However, it is the “holy grail” of computer memory that, if achievable, would revolutionize computers. Now, scientists from Lancaster University in the UK, have claimed to do just that. The practical benefit of this advance, if implemented, would be a significant reduction in the energy consumption of computers. This is significant because by 2025 it is projected that data centers will consume 20% of global electricity.

There are several properties that define theoretical perfect computer memory. Memory exists on a spectrum from volatile to robust. Volatile memory is short lived, needs active power, and needs to be refreshed. Robust memory is long term and does not need active power. Memory should also be stable over long time periods – ideally centuries, if not longer. Computer memory also needs to be fast, so data can be written to and read from the memory quickly. And finally the less energy a memory system uses to do all this the better.

The classic problem is that scientists have been unable to come up with a form of computer memory that is simultaneously robust and fast. This has lead to a hierarchy of memory, with each type of memory being optimized for one specific function. A universal memory, by contrast, would have optimal features for every function.

So, there is processor memory which is very fast but very volatile. Then there is cache, which is local memory that is also volatile and fast. Random access memory, or RAM, is the working memory of a computer, and is also optimized to be fast at the expense of being volatile. These types of memory all require active power and are generally used for computer operation. When you are running a program you are loading it into RAM (as much as will fit, anyway), for example.

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Jun 13 2019

There is No One Energy Solution

Published by under Technology

This is part 3 of my informal series about our energy infrastructure. My last post was about addressing concerns about nuclear energy, but really can only be understood in the context of our overall energy plan. The comments have been quite fruitful, and I would like to thank all the commenters who provided useful resources for further information, much of which I will synthesize here. That was exactly what I was hoping for, so again, thanks.

I won’t rehash the assessment of nuclear power, but just summarize my position. I am not saying that nuclear is the answer, only that something like it is necessary, and we should not take it off the table. Nuclear is relatively safe, we have plenty of fuel (enough to last centuries), we can deal with the waste, and the Gen IV reactors are extremely promising. But even for those who acknowledge those points but still reject nuclear, a common theme emerged. That theme is – we don’t need nuclear because X is a better option. This approach, however, is fatally flawed for two important reasons.

The first has to do with the economics of power utilities, which ironically was often raised as a point against nuclear – it’s too expensive. The best reference to address this issue is this lecture by Jesse Jenkins, a Harvard environmental fellow.  He addresses this, plus another common theme that emerged in the comments – we no longer need baseload production; that is an antiquated notion. I encourage you to watch the entire lecture, but here is the quick version.

There are three basic types of energy production and demand that we can use to balance the grid, to match production with demand moment to moment.

1- We have intermittent energy sources, mainly wind and solar. Their advantage is that they are renewable and zero carbon. Their disadvantage is that they are intermittent and cannot be controlled.

2 – There is “firm” energy production (similar concept to baseload). There are sources of power that run at a constant rate and are slow to ramp up or down. This does not mean they cannot be varied at all, just not quickly. We might, for example, plan on turning off a reactor during a time of day when we know solar production will peak. In this category are nuclear, hydroelectric, geothermal, and natural gas with carbon capture. We might also add to this category strategies for long term, massive, cheap energy storage.

3 – Rapid response strategies. This include sources of energy that can quickly be turned on and off, mostly natural gas. It also includes rapid storage options, like batteries, that can provide instant energy. On the demand side this category would also include strategies like shifting demand, such as charging your electric car overnight during minimal energy demand to smooth out the demand curve.

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Jun 10 2019

Answering Questions About Nuclear Power

Published by under Technology

It seems every time I write even tangentially about nuclear power the same comments crop up, with the same objections. So I want to explore, as best I can, the answers to those objections. First here are a few caveats. On this topic I am acting as a science journalist, not an expert. This is my personal synthesis of publicly available information. I also consider blogs to be as much conversations as essays, so welcome any thoughtful feedback, especially if you include links to back up your assertions, or if you bring genuine expertise to bear. Sometimes, in fact, I specifically choose a topic to blog about because I want to “crowd source” it in the comments.

Overall, while I think that nuclear power is likely to be a critical component of our attempts at minimizing carbon release from energy production, I am not otherwise “pro-nuclear.” I have no dog in that hunt, I simply want the best science-based solutions to our energy infrastructure problems. I also think that no source of energy is perfect. They all have trade-offs. So my approach is – what are all the risks and benefits to nuclear, and are they ultimately worth it in the end, compared to all the alternatives?

I have taken the same approach to this question that I take to all controversial questions – what do all sides say, and who tends to have the better or final arguments? At this point I find the pro-nuclear position to be more compelling than the anti-nuclear position. In fact I haven’t heard any really compelling arguments against using nuclear power. There are some legitimate points against nuclear, they just don’t add up to a reason not to use it, in my opinion. So let me go through them.

Nuclear Energy Safety

Safety is often a keystone to objections about nuclear power. However, it is pretty clear that nuclear power is the safest form of energy production we have. We need to do an entire lifecycle analysis for each type of power – production of resources (usually mining), operation, and environmental effects (including waste and pollution). Every single reference I have found indicates that nuclear power, when we consider deaths per terawatt hour (TWh), is by far the safest form of energy production.  Burning brown coal has 467 times the death rate of nuclear (including accidents such as Chernobyl and Fukushima).

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