Archive for the 'Technology' Category

Apr 20 2018

Update on Mandatory GMO Labeling

Published by under Technology

A recent commentary in RealClear Science makes a simple but important point – it is difficult for the government to properly regulate what it does not understand. That observation can apply to many things, as we recently saw with the questioning of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. The display was quite embarrassing, leading to countless parodies of the aged congress critters asking clueless questions of the young tech giant. This called back to mind the infamous comment by Senator Ted Stevens who described the internet as a “series of tubes.” While serious, this was part of important testimony regarding net neutrality.

The broader issue here is – how can our elected leaders hope to regulate cutting edge science and technology that they don’t understand? This is not limited to internet technology, but also to things like genetic engineering, CRISPR, cloning, stem cells and other biotech. How about artificial intelligence and robotics, or issues related to our energy infrastructure and climate change?

More and more, scientific literacy is a critical virtue we should demand of our politicians. Yet questions about important scientific topics hardly rate during elections.

Just one such important topic is the regulation of genetically modified organisms – GMOs. In 2016 Vermont was the first state to pass a law requiring labeling of foods that contain GMOs. The prompted a federal law, signed by Obama, that supercedes the state law. The federal law also requires labeling, but is less strict, allowing for scannable codes or telephone numbers that consumers can call to get more information. The USDAs guidelines on this law are due this summer.

I am strongly against mandatory GMO labeling for several reasons, but the primary reason is that the very concept of “GMO” is vague and imprecise. You cannot regulate something that you cannot define. You can, of course, simply make up an operational definition (like the USDA did for “organic”) but if there is no real scientific meaning behind that definition, what exactly are you regulating?

The current working definition of genetic modification is, “rearranging, eliminating, or introducing genes in order to get a desired trait.” Of course, by that definition all hybrids are GMOs. When you crossbreed two varieties you are introducing new genes. What about mutation breeding, the use of radiation or chemicals to create mutations in the hope that the occasional mutation will be beneficial. Why isn’t that genetic modification?

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Apr 12 2018

A Spaceplane Update

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There are some technologies that I have been reading about essentially my entire life. It’s interesting to now read breathless articles about a new exciting technology, and realize that I read similar articles in the 1980s.

Of course, many technologies have materialized in the last 30 years, but some seem frustratingly difficult, and it’s hard to even know if we are really any closer now than when I was 20.

One of the frustrating technologies is the single stage to orbit spaceplane. A recent article from the BBC announces a new initiative to develop a space engine, and everyone seems very enthusiastic about what will result (as I was in the 1980s when I first read about such engines).

For a little background, the term “spaceplane” can refer to several types of vehicles. Essentially the term is used for any vehicle that flies like a plane in the atmosphere but can also go into space. Atmospheric flight, however, might only include the return to Earth phase. So the Space Shuttle is a spaceplane. It takes off vertically using rockets, but when it comes back to the ground it uses its wings for lift and lands like a plane.

So far the Space Shuttle was the only manned spaceplane. There was also the Soviet Buran, and SpaceshipOne, both of which were unmanned. Two other spaceplanes were intended to make it to orbit and took off horizontally, ascending part of the way like a jet – the X-15 and the X-37. Neither of these went fully into orbit, however.

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Apr 09 2018

Ecomodernism and Science-Based Environmentalism

I have always considered myself an environmentalist, but never found common cause with the environmentalist movement. The problem was (and remains) that so much of the environmentalist movement seems to be at odds with science.

Not always, of course. When the science agrees with a pro-environmentalist position, like the consensus on human-caused global warming, then environmentalists happily cite the science and link arm-in-arm with scientists. However, when the science does not align with the environmentalist position, such as with farming practices, GMOs, and nuclear energy, they just as happily take an anti-scientific position. Then scientists are in the pocket of big industry, the science cannot be trusted, and they cherry pick only the science they like.

So I like to think of myself as a science-based environmentalist. Even if you set aside the moral dimension and take a purely selfish point of view (I don’t, but even if you do), who wants to live on a planet that is all concrete and farmland? I love nature and wildlife, and I think most people do. Nature makes people happy.

No one wants to live on a polluted planet either. Pollution lowers quality of life and causes substantial health problems and cost.

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Mar 27 2018

Wearable Magnetoencephalography

There are scientific advances, and then there are advances that help us make more scientific advances. The latter are often trickier to communicate to the public, because their connection to any tangible benefit is indirect. But improvements in research technology itself can have incredible potential to transform our future.

One category of scientific instruments that I am particularly interested in, as a neuroscientist, are ways to scan the brain, both anatomically and functionally. A functional scan is one that looks at how the brain is functioning in real time, it looks at the pattern of activity of brain cells. If we can correlate this brain activity with specific tasks, then that will teach us something about how the brain works.

Using this type of technology scientists are trying to reverse-engineer the brain, to map all of its connections (the connectome) and learn what the brain’s networks actually do. The ultimate goal is to be able to simulate those networks in a computer, or to build a computer that works like the brain. That would be the ultimate brain research tool – then you could run countless simulations and tests and see how the various networks in the brain behave.

As an aside, it’s likely that even a simulated brain, if it were functioning, would be self-aware. That raises a lot of ethical question in terms of further research.

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Mar 23 2018

Showdown – Hydrogen vs Battery

Published by under Technology

Right now fossil fuels are the king of transportation fuel. They are relatively inexpensive, energy dense, and highly convenient. Burning gasoline produces a lot of energy for acceleration, but the fuel is also relatively stable (it won’t just explode), and usable over a large temperature range. You can quickly fill up your car with gasoline, have a long range on one tank, and there are filling stations everywhere.

In many ways gasoline is an ideal fuel, which is why it has reigned supreme for a century. But gasoline isn’t perfect, and the downsides to fossil fuels are coming home to roost. Burning fossil fuels releases pollution that impacts quality of life and causes significant health problems and costs.  It also releases previously sequestered carbon into the atmosphere, which is building up and causing climate change.

Further, many of the countries that are a major source of crude oil are not exactly stable democracies. And finally, there is a finite supply of crude oil. It is still not clear what the total remaining reserves are, and the figures change whenever new sources are found and new technologies are developed to extract more oil from existing wells. But no matter what, there has to be finite supplies of oil that will run out eventually.

All of these downsides are why we seem to be living in a transition point away from fossil fuels in general, but especially for transportation. Every automaker seems to think that fossil fuel engines are on the way out, and the trend away from fossil fuel is pretty clear. The real question is – what technology will replace it?

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Mar 22 2018

Big Data – Long Data

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2,800,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes

That’s 2.8 zettabytes, or 2.8 billion terabytes.

That is roughly how much data there is in the world today, with 2.5 exabytes (quintillion bytes) being added every day. This increase is not linear, but geometric. Ninety percent of all the data ever produced by humanity was produced in the last two years. There are increasingly science projects coming online that are using massive amounts of data. The Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative to map the human brain will have to deal with yottabytes of data (a yottabyte is 1000 zettabytes).

Storing all this data is already a challenge, one which will get orders of magnitude more challenging. There are several hurdles. The first is that we need the physical space to store all this data – we need the hard drives, optical discs, tape storage, or whatever media we use.

Second, storing and migrating all this data uses energy. The current estimate is that 3% of global energy output is used to store data. And again, this will only increase. On a separate but related issue, we also have to think carefully about global processing and storage intensive tasks, such as cryptocurrency. They may have a certain utility, but the blockchain process uses a lot of energy.

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Mar 15 2018

Prosthetic Sensory Feedback

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We continue to make incremental improvements in robotic artificial limbs, and now researchers report one more – kinesthetic feedback. This is a sense that your limb is moving under your control.

What the engineers did is include a mechanism to make the robotic arm vibrate when it moves. The vibration gives the user sensory feedback that mimics movement. This is similar to the haptic feedback that some video game controllers give, to enhance the illusion that you are wielding an actual item rather than just a plastic controller.

In the study this vibrational feedback was successful in creating the illusion of control, meaning that the users felt as if they controlled their robotic limb. However, they still did not feel as if they owned their robotic limb, like it was part of them, which is another hurdle engineers will have to solve.

I found it interesting that they referred to this effect as an illusion, which I think is accurate, but I want to emphasize that our normal sense of agency and ownership is an identical illusion. The same circuits in the brain that give you the subjective sense that you occupy, own, and control your various body parts are the same ones that would potentially create this sensation in a robotic limb.

This is precisely why a robotic limb can work and ultimately feel natural. All we need to do is close the loop on these brain circuits.

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Mar 13 2018

Fusion in 15 Years?

Published by under Technology

One of the challenges of communicating science is getting the right balance between enthusiasm and realism. Science can be truly exciting, but it’s easy to overhype something. Too often lazy journalists oversell a science news item, exaggerating prior ignorance and the significance of the new finding. Every discovery is a “breakthrough” and every advance is a “game-changer.”

For technology advances there is a tendency to overestimate short term progress, and the applicability of the new gadget or technique, while glossing over obstacles and downsides. It takes work to find what is truly interesting about a news item, while putting it into proper context.

That is why I am struggling a bit with this current news item, because this technology, if we ever pull it off, would be a true game-changer. It is hard to overestimate the impact that it would have. I am talking about fusion energy. This is not to be confused with cold fusion, which is probably a fantasy, but actual hot fusion, the kind that powers the sun.

MIT researchers announced in an article for Nature that they believe they are 15 years away from a commercial fusion power plant. If true, this is huge news.

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Mar 08 2018

Carbon Nanotube Supercapacitors

Published by under Technology

It has been simultaneously exciting and frustrating to follow energy technology news over the last couple of decades. There seems to be endless news stories about a “breakthrough” in technology for batteries, photovoltaics, supercapacitors, hydrogen fuel, and other ways to harvest and store energy. The breakthroughs, however, never seem to manifest.

Reporting rarely puts the potential advance into proper context, or they gloss over the critical details. Even as a non-expert enthusiast who has been following these stories for a long time, I am occasionally tripped up by the misreporting of technical details.

A recent story about a supercapacitor “breakthrough” fits the common pattern, although it is better than many reports. The report begins:

Imagine being able to charge your electric car in minutes rather than hours, or your smartphone in seconds.

That’s the enticing prospect being touted by researchers who reckon they’ve discovered a new material that could boost the performance of a carbon-based supercapacitor – sometimes called an ultracapacitor – a type of energy storage device that can be charged very quickly and offload its power very quickly, too.

Except when you read through the story it becomes clear that the technology is nowhere near being able to charge your car in minutes, and probably never will be.

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Mar 05 2018

Farming Ideology Trumps Evidence

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A recent article in the Independent is, in my opinion, a good example of how ideology can overwhelm evidence and logic. The article is basically an advertisement for a book, Dead Zone by ornithologist Philip Lymbery , which is out in paperback this week.

Lymbery’s thesis is that bird and other animal populations are steadily declining due to modern farming. If we want to stabilize the environment, and stop or reverse this trend, we need to make major changes to how we grow our food. He then advocates for organic farming and a return to older farming practices. He blames the situation on the attempt to maximize food production.

I think that Lymbery has correctly identified a real problem – an alarming decline in wild species over the last century. However, his proposed solution would actually make the problem worse. It is a classic example of narrative or ideology getting in the way of evidence-based solutions.

I don’t pretend to have any magic solution to the current issues Lymbery discusses. It is important to recognize that they are very complex, and we need to think carefully about what the real source of the problems are and what the best solutions might be.

Lymbery, as an ornithologist, has expertise when it comes to understanding bird populations and reasons contributing to their decline. However, he does not have farming expertise, and his statements about farming sound like knee-jerk appeal to nature fallacies, rather than informed opinion.

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