Archive for the 'Technology' Category

Feb 11 2019

Caring About Robots

Would you sacrifice a human to save a robot? Psychologists have set out to answer that question using the classic trolley problem.

Most people by now have probably heard about the trolley dilemma, as it has seeped into popular culture. This is a paradigm of psychology research in which subjects are presented with a dilemma – a trolley is racing down the tracks and the breaks have failed. It is heading toward 5 people who are unaware they are about to be killed. You happen to be right next to the lever that can switch the trolley to a different track, where there is only one person at risk. Would you switch the tracks to save the 5 people, but condemning the 1 person to death? Most people say yes. What if in the same situation you were on the trolley at the front of the car, and in front of you was a particularly large person – large enough that if you pushed them off the front of the trolley their bulk would stop the car and save the 5 people, but surely kill the person you pushed over (I know, this is contrived, but just go with it). Would you do it? Far fewer people indicate that they would.

The basic setup is meant to test the difference between being a passive vs active cause of harm to others in the context of human moral reasoning. We tend not to be strictly utilitarian in our moral reasoning, thinking only of outcomes (1 death vs 5), but are emotionally concerned with whether we are the direct active cause of harm to others vs allowing harm to come through inaction or as a side consequence of our actions. The more directly involved we are, the more it bothers us, not just the ultimate outcome.

The trolley problem has become so famous because you can use it as a basic framework and then change all sorts of variables to see how it affects typical human moral reasoning. You can play with the numbers, to see if there is a threshold (how many lives must be saved in order to make a sacrifice worth it?), or you can vary the age of those saved vs those sacrificed, or perhaps the person you might sacrifice is a coworker. Does that make their life more valuable? What if they are kind of a jerk?

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Feb 04 2019

Powering Implantable Devices

Published by under Technology

As our electronic and computer technology advances, the technology of implantable medical devices is opening up. Things like pacemakers are already old established tech, but ambitious researchers are looking at much more than just pacing the heart. There is potential for brain-machine interfaces, spinal cord stimulators, cochlear implants, and even replacement organs. One major technological limitation, however, is how to power these devices.

Right now the state-of-the art is small batteries. A pacemaker, for example, can last 5-10 years on one battery, which then would have to be replaced. Replacing a battery requires another surgery, which is fairly low risk but not negligible. Researchers are working on essentially two options to get around this limitation. The first is recharging batteries from the outside using a coil. You generate an electromagnetic field on the outside which induces a current in an implanted coil which then recharges the battery. This works, but is limited by the fact that tissue tends to block the field, and also the coils are bulky which limits the biological spaces in which they can be placed.

Still, external recharging can work for some applications. For example, a pacemaker can have a battery pack just under the skin that a coil can be placed directly over to recharge.

Perhaps a better option would be if the device could harvest energy continuously from the body itself. The body generates a lot of energy in multiple forms, and if even a small amount of that could be harvested that could keep something like a pacemaker going indefinitely, without any further recharging or surgery. Further, a totally self-charging device could be placed deep within tissue, without the need to have a coil visibly just under the skin.

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Feb 01 2019

Drug-Laying Chickens

Published by under Technology

One of the ways in which medicine advances is developing better, faster, cheaper ways of mass-producing needed pharmaceuticals. Chemists working for pharmaceutical companies are always looking for a better pathway to get to their desired product. Protein-based drugs are particularly difficult and expensive to manufacture – proteins are large molecules of precisely sequenced amino acids that also have to be folded into a particular configuration. The best way to produce proteins is within living cells.

Initially protein drugs were simply harvested from plants or animals. Insulin, for example, was originally sourced from cow (bovine) or pig (porcine) pancreas. This was an expensive process, and the resulting insulin was not pure, and also was not human. This resulted in decreased effectiveness, some variation in purity, and the tendency to produce immune reactions.

In 1978 the first recombinant human insulin was produced using E. coli bacteria in which the gene for human insulin was inserted. Recombinant human insulin came on the market in 1982, increasing the availability, safety, and effectiveness of insulin and reducing the cost.

This that time this technique has been used to make a host of medical and non-medical protein products, using bacteria or yeast. Most cheese, for example, is used using rennet derived from genetically modified yeast. Prior to that rennet was harvested from the stomach lining of calves. The modern cheese industry would essentially not exist without GM rennet.

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Jan 31 2019

Fusion in Five Years?

Published by under Technology

One time I would like to be wrong in my pessimism about some corporation claiming a huge breakthrough over a short time period. This could just be confirmation bias, but there seems to be a rash of companies over-hyping and over-promising on major breakthroughs. Just yesterday I wrote on SBM about an Israeli company that claims it will cure cancer within a year (Umm… No.).

Now today I see a news report of a company CEO claiming they will have fusion energy in a couple of years with commercialization in five years.

“The notion that you hear fusion is another 20 years away, 30 years away, 50 years away—it’s not true,” said Michl Binderbauer, CEO of the company formerly known as Tri Alpha Energy. “We’re talking commercialization coming in the next five years for this technology.”

I think the appropriate reaction to such a claim is extreme skepticism. The reasons are both general and specific. The general reasons I also covered in my SBM post. They include the fact that companies often have an incentive to overhype what they can deliver – primarily to raise funding. If you want someone to invest millions of dollars in your company, it helps if they think you are on the cusp of a breakthrough, and over a timeline that investors like. The “5 years” claim seems to be standard. I guess that is the most VC companies are willing to wait to make their huge profits.

In the research world we joke about the “5-10 years” claims for breakthroughs, which is linked to funding cycles. Essentially, researchers are claiming what they will achieve over the next grant cycle.

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Jan 11 2019

Predicting Brexit

Published by under Technology

This study has a fairly narrow focus, but it does relate to an interesting topic. A new analysis finds that the betting market predicted the Brexit vote an hour before the financial market.

This says something about the efficiency of these respective markets in processing and reacting to information. The authors also conclude that if the financial markets were optimally efficient they should have predicted the result of the Brexit vote two hours before they did.

OK, this is more than a bit wonky, but what I really want to discuss is the more basic concept of predictive markets as it relates to crowdsourcing and big data. The idea is that a lot of people in the aggregate may be better at either making decisions or reflecting emerging trends than any individual or small group. This gets interesting when you compare crowdsourcing like this to individual experts.

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Dec 07 2018

Real Ion Drives in Mercury Probe

Published by under Technology

Most Star Wars fans know that the name of the iconic TIE fighters is an acronym standing for “Twin ion engines.” Most space fans know that ion engines are real, but are nothing like what we see in the movies.

There is a disappointing disconnect between science fiction and science reality when it comes to space travel. The unfortunate reality is that space travel is really hard, so most science fiction simply makes up super-advanced spaceships with highly unrealistic capabilities. There is artificial gravity, impervious shielding, faster-than-light travel, and seemingly inexhaustible fuel. Only hard science fiction, like the recent show Expanse (which I highly recommend) deals with the reality of even future space travel.

It’s tempting to think that, yeah but this is future or at least very advanced technology, so it’s not unrealistic for that tech. That is the disappointing part – when you realize that, yeah, it is. We won’t be zipping around the galaxy in 200 years. It will still be a challenge to zip around the solar system.

There is some basic physics in the way. First, the human body can only take so much acceleration for so long. To get up to really fast speeds quickly, however, you need acceleration that will challenge human physiology. Optimally, ships will accelerate at a comfortable 1g. This will also solve the lack of gravity thing.

But this gets us to the second problem – maintaining that acceleration requires a massive amount of fuel. There is also something known as the fuel equation, because you need fuel to carry the fuel to carry the fuel, etc. So we have a few options.

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Dec 03 2018

Taking A Second Look at Hydrogen

Published by under Technology

There seems to be increasing awareness (and perhaps weakening denial) that we are standing at a critical moment in the history of our civilization. A problem has been looming for decades and we have largely ignored it. Now the effects are starting to be felt, and scientific confidence has only grown stronger over time.

I am talking, of course, about global climate change. There are still significant stragglers, but there is general consensus in the world that we need to urgently decarbonize our civilization. This is definitely one of the greatest challenges that our generation faces, and many suspect the future will judge us largely by how we meet this challenge.

Many groups have rolled up their sleeves, not to just advocate for one or another potential solution, but to chart viable pathways to a zero carbon infrastructure. The bad news is, it won’t be easy and it will cost trillions of dollars. The good news is, we already have the necessary technology and it will save many more trillions of dollars, not to mention disrupted and shortened lives.

A recent article in the Economist goes over the big picture, making a plug for a significant role of hydrogen. They make the good point that we can’t just think about power generation and cars, we have to also think about industry.

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Nov 16 2018

Changing the Kilogram

This is one of those items that at first does not seem like a big deal, and probably won’t get much play in the mainstream media, but is actually a significant milestone. Today, the international General Conference on Weights and Measures will meet in Versailles, France, to vote on whether or not to adopt a new standard for the kilogram. This is a formality, because this change has been worked on for years and the standard is now all set to change.

I have been reading a lot recently about the history of science and technology, and one common theme is that an important core feature of our modern society is infrastructure. If, for example, there were some sort of apocalypse, what would it take to reboot society? Theoretically, we would preserve much of our knowledge in books and would not have to start from scratch. The limiting factor would likely be infrastructure. Gasoline engines won out over electric engines for cars partly (and some believe primarily) because the infrastructure for distributing gasoline was put in place before the electrical infrastructure.

Science itself also has an infrastructure, which includes standard weights and measures. This sounds boring, but being able to precisely measure something, using standardized units that every scientist around the world can use, is critically important to both science and technology. Anything that makes doing science easier reduces the cost and increases the pace of science, with incredible downstream benefits.

In 1879 Le Grand K (or the International Prototype Kilogram – IPK) was created – this is a cylinder of platinum and iridium that is the ultimate reference for 1 kilogram. This hunk of metal is kept in a double bell jar, and never touched. Even a slight finger print would change how much it weighs. From this original kilogram, exact copies were made and distributed to countries to serve as their national standard. Occasionally these copies are sent back to France to compare to the original. These copies are then used to calibrate equipment used for precise measurement.

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Nov 12 2018

Optimizing Wind Turbines

Published by under Technology

It’s pretty clear at this point that we need to be moving away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible. Fossil fuels essentially are stores of ancient carbon, long sequestered from the environment, that we are now releasing back into the environment, altering the balance of the carbon cycle leading to increased forcing of global temperatures.

The good news is that other forms of energy are advancing nicely. Wind and solar are now past the point of cost effectiveness in many situations – without even counting the cost of pollution, which I think should be counted. If you consider the health and environmental effects of fossil fuel pollution, all other forms of energy become much more cost effective. (This is the idea behind the carbon tax.)

Nuclear, it seems, is likely going to have to be part of any future energy infrastructure that uses minimal fossil fuel, but lags in cost effectiveness. The nuclear industry is responding, however, with safer and cheaper designs.

It is heartening to know that we essentially have the technology to phase out fossil fuel right now, if we had the political will to do so. It is, of course, disheartening that we lack the political will even in the face of a solid scientific consensus, and clear technology options. Further, whatever technology we choose to invest in will only get better over time.

This constant progress has made the conversation about renewable energies in particular interesting – because the facts on the ground are constant evolving. Solar and wind keep getting better and more cost effective. Wind power is particularly interesting because there are so many factors involved – in both the design of the turbines themselves and their placement.

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Nov 06 2018

Electron Quantum Metamaterials

Published by under Technology

Material science is, in my opinion, one of the most underappreciated of the sciences. Perhaps because it is so wonky, it doesn’t seem to get much public attention, and yet the development of new materials arguably has the potential to change our civilization more than any other single advance. Our level of technology is largely defined by the materials we have mastered, and discovering a new material is literally a technological game changer.

It’s always hard to predict the next big advance, but there are some intriguing candidates. Interest seems to be clustering around anything on the nano scale – such as carbon nanofibers. Two-dimensional materials that are only one or a few atoms thick (which includes carbon nanofibers) is an area of intense research as well. There is also a relatively new class of materials called metamaterials, which do interesting things with light and other forms of electromagnetic radiation. Metamaterials essentially have emergent properties, and could have potentially exotic applications such as rendering objects invisible in certain frequencies.

A new paper attempts to codify and name one particular type of metamaterial that the authors (Justin C. W. Song & Nathaniel M. Gabor)  are proposing be called “electron quantum metamaterials.”

These types of materials are comprised of two or more layers of two-dimensional nanomaterial that are rotated with respect to each other so that special patterns emerge. This is likened to a moire pattern, where two sets of thin parallel lines are offset from each other by a certain amount and that creates an interference pattern. The interference patterns emerges from the specific relationship between the lines.

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