Archive for the 'Technology' Category

Sep 18 2018

Are Robots Taking Our Jobs?

Published by under Technology

If you were a woodworker, or any craftsman or probably had any job, in the 13th century you didn’t have to worry that technological innovation would render your position obsolete. With the industrial revolution, and the technological revolutions since, there has been an increasing pace of turnover of the kinds of jobs needed in the workplace. We no longer need switchboard operators, and the need for carriage drivers has plummeted.

Technology and automation do displace jobs. Worries that robots are coming for our jobs is not new – remember that Twilight Zone episode from 1964 where the W.V. Whipple Manufacturing Co. automates the factory and lets off all the workers? Well here we are more than 50 years later and the unemployment rate is historically low.

There are several ways to measure this, one is the productivity per person, or per hour worked. To put this into perspective, between the year 1 and the year 1820, productivity per year per person increased from about $600 to $1200, essentially doubling in about 2000 years. Since 1820, however, productivity increased to $26,000 – by more than a factor of 20. In the 20th century, the economy has grown by a steady 2% per year. This continuous growth has only been the norm for the past 200 years, however.

The pace of increasing productivity is also increasing. This is largely due to automation, W.V. Whipple style. Machines are increasingly doing much of the repetitive manual labor, and workers using modern technology can simply produce more. It’s often easy to see how automation will displace jobs. Eventually, self-driving cars will displace the Uber drivers who displaced the taxi drivers.

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Sep 17 2018

Intense Farming Better Than Organic

Published by under Technology

A new study reviews hundreds of articles on several farming systems (dairy, beef, wheat, and rice) to compare different approaches to farming and their net effect on the environment. They conclude that intensive farming systems are the “least bad” option for providing the food we need. This is in line with previous studies showing that organic farming uses significantly more land than conventional farming.

Farming has a huge negative impact on the environment. There is no way around that basic fact – farmland displaces natural ecosystems and has significant externalities, such as water use, release of CO2 from the soil, and runoff of chemicals into the environment. Right now we are using 11% of all land on Earth for farming, which is most of the land that is reasonably suitable for farming. To meet the needs of a growing population, we may need to expand farmland, into less and less productive land, which would significantly increase the negative impact of farming on the environment.

Some previous studies compared different farming systems by measuring the impact they have on the land. But this type of analysis is misleading – the authors of the current study instead looked at the environmental impact for a given production of food. That is what really matters. They also looked at studies that measured externalities, as listed above. They found:

Their results from four major agricultural sectors suggest that, contrary to many people’s perceptions, more intensive agriculture that uses less land may also produce fewer pollutants, cause less soil loss and consume less water.

They found that organic dairy farming uses twice as much land as conventional farming, for example.

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Sep 14 2018

New Apple Watch and Health Screening

Apple recently announced two new health features of their Apple Watch – fall detection and heart monitoring. These are being sold as useful health measures, but there are concerns that this new technology may be more gimmicky than useful, and might actually be counterproductive.

The first feature detects possibly dangerous falls. If the motion detector senses that the wearer has fallen to the ground, and then they don’t move for one minute, the watch will automatically call 911. This superficially sounds reasonable, but the concern is that the tech company has not adequately tested this feature in coordination with medical professionals.

Specifically – what is the sensitivity and specificity of this algorithm? How often will it detect an event that reasonably requires a call to 911, and how many false positives will it generate? How much will this overwhelm emergency services?

What is naive about this feature is the lack of appreciation for the fact that medical interventions need to be evaluated. Why, for example, one minute? That is a round number, but is that really the threshold where the true-positive to false-positive ratio is optimal, while avoiding dangerous delays if someone is really injured?

Also, what will be the net effect of this? Will the drain on resources actually cause more harm than benefit to the users? How will 911 call centers handle these calls? Will they be able to interpret them?

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Aug 27 2018

Programmable Matter

Published by under Technology

I have been reading a lot recently about material science and one thing that has struck me is that we still mostly build our civilization out of traditional materials – concrete, steel, wood, ceramics, paper, leather, and plant fibers, for example.  Perhaps the most common modern material is plastic. Look around your home – other than various types of plastic, most of the stuff will be made out of materials we have been using for hundreds or even thousands of years. The notable exception is electronics which often use more recently discovered rare earths.

This is not to say that we don’t have a lot of high-tech new materials, they are just mostly too expensive to find in the average home in abundance, so we sill use a lot of wood, metal, rock, and natural fibers. This is why material scientists are always looking for the next plastic, a truly modern material that is inexpensive, easily manufactured, with properties that make it ideal for many applications.  Perhaps carbon nanofibers (or nanomaterials more broadly) will be that material, and it has tremendous potential, but we’re not there yet.

Scientists report on a new type of material that I don’t think we will be building our homes out of anytime soon, but does potentially open the door to new applications – programmable matter. The material is liquid crystal elastomers (LCEs), which they are able to program into a specific shape using specific wavelengths of light. The material can then oscillate between two different shapes at different temperatures:

To solve this, the researchers installed a light-activated trigger to LCE networks that can set a desired molecular alignment in advance by exposing the object to particular wavelengths of light. The trigger then remains inactive until exposed to the corresponding heat stimuli. For example, a hand-folded origami swan programmed in this fashion will remain folded at room temperature. When heated to 200 degrees Fahrenheit, however, the swan relaxes into a flat sheet. Later, as it cools back to room temperature, it will gradually regain its pre-programmed swan shape.

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Aug 23 2018

The Superconductivity Hubbub

A recent paper, published to arXiv, claims to have a method for making a superconducting material at ambient temperatures and pressures. The authors, Dev Kumar Thapa, Anshu Pandey, are from the Indian Institute of Science, and have garnered a lot of attention for their paper. However, recently there was published another paper on arXiv by Brian Skinner from MIT. Skinner noticed a suspicious pattern of repeating noise in two sets of data from the Thapa-Pandey paper. This could be a signature of fabricated data.

Scientific American has a good summary of the whole story, but that’s the quickie version. Skinner did not make any accusations, just published his analysis with a question to the original authors to explain the repeating pattern. Thapa and Pandey have responded only to say their results are being replicated. The rest of the physics community is not satisfied with this response, and are calling for them to send their material to outside labs for completely independent testing.

Another wrinkle to the story is that Pratap Raychaudhuri, a physicist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in India, floated a hypothesis that perhaps the noise is not noise, but a signal resulting from “the natural rotation of particles within a magnetic field.” If that’s the case, then the pattern should replicate. So we are still left with the need to independently replicate the experiments.

The stakes here are high because so-called room temperature superconductivity is one of the holy grails of material science. Superconductivity means that electricity can flow through the medium without resistance, and therefore with no loss of power. A room temperature superconductor could therefore transform electronics, the power grid, and anything using super powerful magnets (like MagLev trains and MRI scans).

The current dominant theory as to how superconductivity works in certain materials two electron can come together to form what’s called a Cooper pair. This pair of electrons can then travel long distances in the material without resistance. However, Cooper pains can only exist at very low temperatures. So the quest has been to find materials that will allow Cooper pairs to exist at higher and higher temperatures.

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Aug 14 2018

Phantom and Prosthetic Limbs

One of the goals of prosthetic technology (replacement limbs for amputees) is to make the user feel like the prosthetic is part of their body – that they own it and control it (called embodiment). It is more difficult to control a limb that does not feel like part of your body, and users need to visually look at a prosthetic to see where it is. This is true of passive prosthetics as well as robotic ones.

I have written previously about researcher attempts to provide sensory feedback to robotic limbs. A new study adds to this growing knowledge about how embodiment works and how to hack the brain to make it happen.

The key to embodiment seems to be multimodal sensory feedback. If the brain sees and feels the same action, that is all that is necessary for the “ownership module” to kick in – that part of the brain that makes you feel as if you own the various parts of your body. The most primitive manifestation of this is the rubber hand illusion. If you have a rubber hand protruding from your sleeve as if it is your real hand, and you see the rubber hand touched while your real hand is touched (and therefore you feel it), this will create the temporary illusion that the rubber hand is your real hand. Obviously this is not practical for everyday use of a prosthetic.

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Aug 10 2018

Organic Solar Cells

Published by under Technology

I’ve had a few posts this week that could come off as pessimistic – but there is an upside to these stories. It is true that we don’t currently have enough arable land to feed the world with the USDA recommended diet. We need to continue to improve the efficiency of production and reduce waste. The silver lining is that we have the technology to do this, if we invest in that technology (genetically modifying our crops to have desirable traits) and push back hard against those greenies who are misguided and the organic industry who are trying to demonize a perfectly safe technology.

It is also true that human-caused global warming is happening, we are already seeing negative consequences, and we may be getting close to a point of no return that could cause disastrous outcomes. The good news is that there are technological solutions, if we prioritize them. While we have been pointlessly debating whether or not global warming is real with closed-minded ideologues, energy technology has been slowly but steadily improving in the background. We could, right now, massively reduce the carbon footprint of our energy infrastructure.

We may be getting to a good tipping point – where clean energy is so much cheaper than fossil fuel based energy that everyone is going to want it. We need to make this tipping point happen faster, and we can if we eliminate fossil fuel subsidies (including the subsidy of not charging for the externalized health and environmental cost of pollution).

One technology that offers the hope of a green tipping point is organic solar cells. These are photovoltaic cells (OPV) that are based mainly on carbon rather than silicon. Silicon produces more efficient solar panels, but they are rigid and heavy. Organic photovoltaics can be dissolved in ink and then printed on cheap flexible plastic or other material. You end up with a light, flexible, and cheap solar cell.

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Jul 27 2018

A Look Inside the Anti-GMO Movement

Published by under Skepticism,Technology

A recent EU court ruling on GMO regulations might just hoist the anti-GMO movement on its own petard. The ruling covers so-called new plant breeding techniques (NPBTs). I am not exactly clear on the full scope of what counts as an NPBT, but it does include CRISPR. Some reports also say it includes “mutagenesis plant breeding techniques.”

Part of the problem with the anti-GMO movement is that what counts as a GMO is vague and arbitrary. If you follow organic policy, GMO’s include any form of gene editing, but not mutation breeding (using chemicals or radiation to increase the rate of random mutations in plants). In fact scientific critics of the anti-GMO movement having repeatedly pointed this out as a glaring contradiction – opposing precise single gene changes, but not random mutations.

This ruling by an EU court expands the net of GMO farther, revealing the risk of relying on such vague and arbitrary categories. This is important because it means that a long list of breeding techniques are now prohibitively regulated in the EU. This move was in opposition to scientific organizations in Europe:

For the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC), a body representing the national science academies of all 28 EU member states, the decision represents a “setback for cutting-edge science and innovation in the EU”.

“EASAC reaffirms that breakthroughs in plant breeding technologies, such as genome editing, remain crucial for food and nutrition security globally. It remains to be seen what implications this decision may have outside of the EU, particularly in developing countries who stand to benefit most from crops that better withstand the devastating effects of climate change,” EASAC said.

It is generally a bad idea for a society to consistently go against the consensus of opinion of its own scientists for pure ideology, irrational fear, or because of industry favoritism. In the case of the anti-GMO movement, all three are involved.

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Jul 24 2018

Are Hyperloops the Future?

Published by under Technology

Starting around 1550 primitive railroads were developed as a way to move coal, first within increasingly deep mines, and then from the increasingly distant coal mines to the towns and cities where the coal was needed. At first they were simply wooden rails to help support the wheels of carriages on soft dirt roads. Ties were added for further support. Rails were changed to iron and then steel to add durability. Eventually steam-powered engines were used to move the rail cars.

Even though rail lines were laid to move coal and metal ores from mines, it was simple to add a car for people, which was just an afterthought. Railroads became an efficient way to quickly move large loads and lots of people at high speed over long distances, and were central to the industrial revolution.

Later motorized carriages (cars) became popular. Gasoline powered internal combustion engines beat out steam engines and electrical vehicles when Ford built his factory and outproduced all competition.

Soon after the Wright Brothers worked out the technology for powered controlled flight, airplanes were used for commercial and military purposes, and soon to move passengers.

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Jun 25 2018

Review: Energy – A Human History

Published by under Technology

I just finished reading, Energy:  A Human History by Richard Rhodes. It’s a fascinating book, and I highly recommend it. Rhodes reviews the history of our use of energy from around 1500 to the present, it is well-researched and contains a wealth of historical information.

I love reading popularized science, but the challenge is finding books that are in the sweet-spot of technical detail. As a science communicator, it is often difficult to know how deep to get on any topic. Compared to the knowledge of a non-expert, there is a vast depth of complex, technical, and nuanced knowledge about most scientific topics. The trick is to know your audience and to have a sense of how far down that well of technical detail and complexity to go, while remaining correct as far as you go.

This is a personal choice, but I thought Rhodes did a perfect job on this score. The level of detail was enough to get a rich sense of the topic, and to be a little challenging, but not so much that it slowed down the narrative or overwhelmed you with details you would not remember anyway.

A few themes stuck out for me in the book. One was how similar the social, political, and market forces are today and in the past when it comes to energy. I guess this should be obvious, but my surprise reflects what I think is hindsight bias. We look back now at history with the unconscious bias that it was inevitable, at least in its broad strokes. This is perhaps especially true of science and technology, because they are framed and understood as “advancing” in an objective direction.

Don’t get me wrong, I think science and technology do advance. But there are many twists and turns along the way, and the path that we happened to take was not inevitable, even though it may seem that way now.

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