Archive for the 'Technology' Category

Feb 15 2018

The Neuroscience of Virtual Reality

A couple months ago I received my first virtual reality (VR) headset, and have been experimenting with various games and apps since. (Here is my initial review.) As a neuroscientist, it is a fascinating demonstration of how our brains construct our experience of reality.

What I and everyone who has used my gear has experienced is surprise at how visceral VR can be. It’s just a big video, right, so why do our lizard brains react so strongly? The most dramatic example is an app called “The Plank Experience”. In it you take an elevator up to a high floor in a skyscraper. The door opens to reveal a plank going out over the street far below. Everyone so far is frozen at the moment the doors open and they see the chasm below them. Some can walk out onto the virtual plank, but most people hesitate and at least one person bailed and would not do it.

What is interesting is that when I stepped out onto the plank, I completely 100% knew that I was standing on the carpet in my office, totally safe and at no peril at all. However, the part of my brain that knew I was safe was in conflict with a deeper and more primitive part of my brain that was screaming, “Danger, danger.”  It took an effort of will to overcome the fear, but I could not make the fear go away.

Let me describe one other part of the VR experience and then I’ll discuss what is going on neurologically. Motion sickness has been a major challenge for VR. All of the games and apps I have used so far have an option (usually the default) where if you have to move your character in the VR world you do it by teleporting. You use the control to place an X on the floor where you want to go, and then you are instantly in that location. This type of movement does not produce any motion sickness.

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16 responses so far

Feb 02 2018

Carbon Capture

Published by under Technology

Hopefully it’s not news to you that the Earth is warming due to human release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. A number of studies have assessed the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming (AGW), with results clustering around 97%. Overwhelmingly, most climate scientists have looked at the data and concluded that AGW is happening.

Climate scientists have gone beyond just establishing that AGW is happening. They are trying to quantify it and project the trend lines into the future. This type of effort is always fraught with uncertainty, with the error bars increasing with greater time into the future. However, we can take a 95% confidence interval and make reasonable extrapolations of what is likely to happen.

Recognizing this uncertainty, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has concluded that we should keep post-industrial warming to less than two degrees Celcius if we want to avoid serious effects of climate change. Given that as the goal, they can then determine how much more carbon would need to be released to cause this amount of warming. This can be used to determine how much we need to decrease future carbon emissions.

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61 responses so far

Jan 22 2018

False Alarm

On January 13 a state-wide alarm was sent out in Hawaii warning of an incoming missile. “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL,” the emergency alert read. For the next 38 minutes the citizens of Hawaii had the reasonable belief that they were about to die, especially given the recent political face off with North Korea over their nuclear missiles.

However, within minutes the Governor and the Hawaiian government knew that this was a false alarm, resulting from a technician hitting the wrong button. So, there are two massive failures here – sending out the alarm in the first place, and taking 38 minutes to officially send out the correction. (They did tweet that it was a false alarm, but the retraction was not generally known and it wasn’t certain that it was official.)

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Jan 02 2018

VR is the Future

Published by under Technology

I have written about virtual reality (VR) before, but over the break I acquired my first VR headset so now I have experienced it for the first time. It is better than I imagined.

It is still to early to make firm predictions about how the technology will be used, but my personal experience has definitely upgraded my optimism. First let me talk about the experience itself, and then we can delve into possible applications.

In case you are not aware, VR involves wearing a headset that completely covers your vision and fills your visual field with a 360 degree 3D digital reality. In addition there are sensors which can read your location in the room and sense your controllers as well. You have to setup the space so that the system knows where the edges are. You can move about freely in the space, and virtual gridline walls will appear to warn you that you are approaching the edge.

The first thing I noticed when I activated the VR software is how completely natural it felt. I was a little surprised, actually. I had some fear that it would be a bit disorienting and I guess I assumed it would feel artificial, perhaps primed by how the tech is sometimes portrayed in Sci Fi.

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18 responses so far

Dec 12 2017

Space Policy Directive 1 – Return to the Moon

Published by under Technology

Yesterday President Trump signed Space Policy Directive 1 (SPD1), an executive order that will shape NASAs priorities going forward. Essentially the directive states that NASA’s primary mission is human space exploration, with a specific goal of returning to the moon.

The Directive is the result of recommendations made by the National Space Council (NSC) – a council of experts that advises the executive branch on all matters dealing with space. According to NASA, in June of this year:

President Trump has signed an executive order reestablishing the National Space Council. The council existed previously from 1989-1993, and a version of it also existed as the National Aeronautics and Space Council from 1958-1973. As such, the council has guided NASA from our earliest days and can help us achieve the many ambitious milestones we are striving for today.

The NSC recommended to the White House that NASA’s priority should be the Moon, and SPD1 is the result of that recommendation.

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Oct 20 2017

Making Oxygen on Mars

Published by under Astronomy,Technology

Mars baseAt some point humans will travel to Mars. It seems inevitable, the only question being when that will happen. Optimists like Musk think it will happen before mid-century, but that may not be realistic. There are significant logistical hurdles without clear solutions.

Some argue, and I agree with this strategy, that we should focus first on a moon base. The moon is a lot closer, which solves many problems right there. But otherwise it would have many of the same challenges as Mars, and so if we develop a base on the moon we can use what we learn to be better able to tackle Mars. Further the moon can be a literal launching pad for Mars.

While Mars has some extra challenges, it may have some advantages as well over the moon. NASA experts have observed that Mars has just enough of an atmosphere to be a problem. It has 1% of the pressure of Earth, which means for astronauts it is functionally the same as a hard vacuum. You still need pressure suits, pressurized living spaces, and you need a supply of air to breath.

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15 responses so far

Oct 17 2017

What Is Artificial Intelligence

AI-1A recent article by Peter Yordanov claims that Artificial Intelligence (AI) is nothing but misleading clickbait. This is a provocative way to state it, but he has a point, although I don’t think he expressed it well.

Yordanov spends most of the article describing his understanding of human intelligence, partly by walking through the evolution of the central nervous system. His basic conclusion, if I am reading it correctly, is that what we have today and call AI is nothing like biological intelligence.

This is certainly true, but it seems like he takes a long time to make what is essentially a semantic argument. The core problem is that the word “intelligence” means many things. Lack of a consistent operational definition plagues the use of the term is pretty much every context, and certainly in computer AI.

What we have now and is generally referred to as AI are computer algorithms that display functions that resemble intelligence or duplicate certain components of intelligence. Computers are good at crunching numbers, running algorithms, recognizing patterns, and searching and matching data. Newer algorithms are also capable of learning – of changing their behavior based on data input.

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125 responses so far

Oct 02 2017

Rocket Travel

Published by under Technology

BFRElon Musk is an interesting guy. Also, because of the success of SpaceX, when he makes promises about future technology, it is at least worth a listen. At a recent meeting of the International Astronautical Congress Musk stated that he plans on developing SpaceX’s rocket technology for commercial transportation between cities on Earth. He also made a promotional video.

The idea of using rocket travel for long distances (instead of jets) is not new. It has been featured in various science-fiction views of the future or even alternate realities of the present. The obvious advantage to rocket travel is that it is fast. A suborbital trajectory can get you between almost any two cities on Earth in 30 minutes or less.

This is all part of SpaceX’s new project, the BFR (I could not find anywhere exactly what that stands for – just the implication that it’s “Big Fu**ing Rocket”, which is awesome). Musk wants to stop developing his Falcon series of rockets and focus entirely on one rocket system to do everything they need to do – the BFR. The idea is that this will help reduce overall costs.

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Sep 21 2017

New Wrinkle in the Climate Debate

Published by under Technology

nuclear plantNo matter what happens, it’s part of the conspiracy, at least in the perspective of the conspiracy theorist.

But let’s back up a bit. We talking about scientists trying to understand climate change, and specifically the effects of released carbon into the atmosphere. There are a few layers to this question, which is predictably complex.

The first layer is quite basic – sunlight heats up the earth, which radiates some of that heat back out into space as infrared radiation. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reflects some of these infrared photons back down to the Earth, trapping some of that heat. This is commonly known as the greenhouse effect, and hence CO2 as a greenhouse gas. The more CO2 there is in the atmosphere the greater this effect, and the warmer the planet.

The far trickier part, however, is to predict exactly how much warming will occur in response to a certain increase in CO2 in the atmosphere. To answer this question climatologists develop complex climate models, which have to consider all the natural variables that affect climate. They then compare the predictions of these models to what has happened and what does happen, and then tweak them. Continue Reading »

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Sep 19 2017

Soft Robots

Published by under Technology

vaderhandPart of the reason I like science fiction is because it can be a thought-experiment about future technology and society. For this reason, like any self-respecting nerd, I often pay close attention to the details of how future technology is portrayed. Stepping out of the movie-as-entertainment and storytelling for minute, and focusing on the ideas that went into crafting a vision of technology advanced beyond our current tech – how did they do? What assumptions did the creators make, and did they break any laws of physics.

I tend to be most fascinated by what hidden assumptions and biases go into visions of the future. I wrote about this previously with respect to spaceship design. The same idea applies to how robots are portrayed in science fiction.

For example, perhaps my biggest peeve is Star Wars (probably because it is a beloved franchise). I don’t necessarily mind the design of droids, because you can argue that they are intended to look unmistakably mechanical. However, we get a few glimpses of artificial robotic limbs – Luke’s hand and Vader’s arm, for example. These appear to be entirely constructed of wires and pulleys. Vader’s arm is the worst – the stump is nothing but a mass of wires.

This image of artificial robotic parts is almost ubiquitous in science fiction, although recently there are some great examples of moving past this cliche. Just compare the original West World, where robot faces look convincingly human, until they are removed and revealed to be rigid metal with wires underneath. The recent series West World, however, portrays soft 3D printed robotic technology. That’s what I’m talking about.  Continue Reading »

8 responses so far

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