Archive for the 'Technology' Category

Sep 19 2022

Follow Up on AI Art

Published by under Technology

One of the things I enjoy about writing this blog is that it is a conversation. My essay is often just the opening salvo in what turns into an interesting exchange on the topic, and I often learn new facts, gain deeper insight, and if nothing else get better at communicating my ideas. This is why I have a high tolerance for commenters with very different views. I do get rid of the worst trolls that I find are destructive to the conversation, but as my regular commenters know, I set a pretty high bar. I do recommend everyone try to engage meaningfully with other commenters and not just try to “win” with snark and insults. If we all agreed here, the comments would be pretty boring.

Sometimes, however, I feel like I have enough to say in response to the comments that a follow up post is warranted. The conversation about AI art is one of those times, partly because the conversation focused on elements of my post that I feel were ancillary. My post was not really about art. It was about how we respond to disruptive technology, and one way in which some technologies are disruptive. Specifically some technologies automate the technical aspects of creation, rendering obsolete (or at least to a much diminished role) entire sets of skills. My three examples were woodworking, photography, and the recent AI algorithms that can generate art.

In response some commenters noted that crafting a chair from wood is not art. Unfortunately this lead to a discussion about “what is art”, which is interesting, but entirely misses the point. That was not the analogy, and crafting furniture does not have to be art for my analogy to hold. The point was, that a profession of skilled artisans was essentially rendered obsolete by modern technology. Sure, there are people who keep this craft alive, and there is a high-end market for hand-crafted items. But the industry has fundamentally changed. A 19th century woodworker would have a hard time finding employment outside a historical village.

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Sep 15 2022

AI Art Is Here

Published by under Technology

Recently an artist names Jason Allen won the Colorado State Art Fair’s competition in the category of digital art with a picture (shown) that was created by an AI, the Midjourney software. This has triggered another round of angst over computers taking our jobs. Some have declared it the end of art, or that it will destroy the jobs of working artists. This development can certainly be a job-killer, but we have to get over it. This, in my opinion, is just an extension of the advance of technology, which ruthlessly destroys jobs while creating new jobs and opportunities. We should not waste a moment shedding tears about those lost jobs, but rather put our energy into adapting to the new reality.

I do think it is reasonable to consider AI artists as just another form of automation and using tools to enhance our ability to create stuff. We can go back to just before the industrial revolution, when, for example, a highly skilled wood worker would make a chair entirely by hand. Even by then automation had had an effect – a productive shop would likely have an assembly line where specialists focused on different aspects of making the chair. Lathes and other tools were used to speed the process and improve precision, but still a great deal of technical skill, developed over years, was required. But soon the job of the highly skilled woodworker would be destroyed (outside of historical theme parks) by machines. A high-quality wooden chair can be made without the need of a single skilled woodworker, assembled by people who only need the skill to operate the machinery. At the time such products were denigrated as cheap knockoffs for the masses.

There are countless such examples. Getting closer to the artistic realm – do you take photographs with either your phone or a dedicated camera? Do you manually set the ISO, f-stop, aperture setting, or measure ambient light levels? Unless you are a professional photographer, the answer is likely no. Computer chips in the camera can do all of that for you. Even professional photographers will use these automated features – they rarely will measure light levels, for example, but let the camera do it. The point is that technology has reduced the technical skill necessary to take a good picture. Now, all you have to do is focus on the composition – the more artistic and creative aspects of photography.

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Sep 06 2022

What To Make of the Artemis Launch Delays

Published by under Astronomy,Technology

As you are likely aware, NASA’s latest big project is the space launch system (SLS) which is the rocket system that will be used by the Artemis program to return astronauts to the Moon. The SLS also contains the Orion capsule, which is a deep space craft capable of holding four crew for missions up to 21 days. It is currently the only deep space capsule, capable of the high speed reentry required for return from the Moon.

Artemis I, and uncrewed test mission, was scheduled to launch on Monday August 29th. This launch had to be scrubbed because of the main engines were not at the right operating temperature. The problem turned out to be a faulty sensor. However, there are limited launch windows (only a couple of hours) and the problem could not be identified and fixed within the launch window, so the launch was scrubbed. It was then rescheduled for Saturday September 3rd. This time the problem was a real leak in the hydrogen fuel tanks, likely a problem with one of the seals. They failed to fix the problem on the launch pad so again had to scrub the launch. Leaking hydrogen is a serious problem; beyond a certain point there is a risk of the leaked hydrogen exploding on launch, and they were well beyond that safety point.

This shows how delicate this whole process is. It may be possible to fix the seal and the leak with the rocket still on the launch pad. However, the batteries used for the abort system are getting to the end of their optimal readiness window, and those batteries have to be swapped out in the engineering building. So the rocket has to be taken off the pad and brought there to reset everything to be ready for launch. This puts the next earliest launch date about six weeks off, in mid October.

Are these launch delays routine and expected or are they evidence that the SLS is a boondoggle, as its harshest critics maintain? I think it’s a little of both.

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Sep 01 2022

Making Oxygen on Mars

Published by under Technology

One of the major challenges of space travel is that there are no ready-made resources there. Mars, for example, has no food, shelter, oxygen, fuel, or power. It likely has water, but it’s not certain how much and how accessible. So for now any human mission to Mars will have to bring all recourses from Earth. Getting stuff to Mars is massively expensive, and resupply can take 6-9 months, during optimal launch windows. Keeping humans alive on Mars for any length of time is therefore a very tenuous and expensive endeavor.

One obvious solution is what NASA calls “in-situ resource utilization,” – using stuff that is already there. The Perseverance rover on Mars contains an experiment called MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment) that has taken the first step toward the goal of in-situ resource use. MOXIE was developed by engineers at MIT, it is a lunch-box sized experiment onboard the Perseverance that makes oxygen from the Martian atmosphere. It is essentially a proof-of-concept, and if it works may be the forerunner of far larger machines in the future.

MOXIE draws in Martian air, filters out dust and other contaminants, then pressurizes it. It then applies a process known as the Solid OXide Electrolyzer (SOXE) to electrochemically convert CO2 in the Martian atmosphere into oxygen and carbon monoxide (CO). The elemental oxygen is then isolated in a chamber where it combines into breathable molecular oxygen, O2. MOXIE then releases the O2 and CO back into the atmosphere, but obviously working versions would collect these gasses for use.

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Aug 30 2022

Microbots To Clean Teeth

Published by under Technology

In my upcoming book, which I will now shamelessly plug – The Skeptics Guide to the Future (release date Sept 27th, but you can pre-order now) my co-authors and I spend a lot of time extrapolating cutting edge technology into the near and medium-term future. What are the technologies that are on the cusp of disrupting current technology and changing our lives? One of them is the technology to build ever-smaller and more capable machines – the technology of the very small. We can dream of having mature nanotechnology, robots at the nanoscale that can manipulate matter at the molecular level, but this is likely still centuries in the future. Between now and then there is a lot of territory, however.

In the meantime we can imagine what the most likely early applications will be. What is the low-hanging fruit? For medical purposes there are some likely early applications, even for robots that are not quite at the nanoscale, perhaps at the micro or even centimeter scale. Tiny robots can be useful as surgical aids. They can be injected through the skin (no incision necessary) where they can make precise interventions, such as removing tumors or suturing blood vessels. This could take microsurgery (which is already a thing) to the next level.

When such robots can be more autonomous or easy to control remotely, another possible early application is to have them crawl along the inside of the large and even medium-sized blood vessels, clearing up plaque and removing clots.  Or they can move along the inside of the intestines, removing polyps and scanning for cancers. In recent decades we have been transitioning from having to open up major body cavities in order to do surgery, to being able to do the same procedures through small holes using cameras and specially designed instruments. This has made many surgeries significantly less invasive, with dramatically reduced trauma and recovery time. Micro surgical robots have the potential to take this to the next level over the coming decades.

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Aug 29 2022

ESA Considers Space-Based Solar

Published by under Technology

The big science and technology news today is the Artemis I launch, an uncrewed test flight that will orbit the Moon on a six week flight. I thought I would be writing about that today, but prior to the launch I actually don’t have much to add to the extensive reporting. I’ll probably have something to say after the launch. But there is other space news, this one from the European Space Agency (ESA). The ESA is considering a proposal for space-based solar power, which also makes a nice follow up to my previous post updating solar technology.

This is one of those ideas that, when I first heard it, I thought it was a great idea. There are some obvious benefits to placing solar panels in orbit, then beaming the energy down to Earth. Above the atmosphere in geostationary orbit, the solar panels would receive sunlight 24 hours a day and without any concern for clouds or weather. Panels can also be optimally oriented to the sun without having to worry about the Earth’s rotation. How much of a factor is this? Depends on location of ground-based solar, but for example Arizona can expect to have 7.5 peak solar hours per day, while New Jersey has 4 hours. There is still some off-peak energy production, but less. Overall light exposure efficiency can vary from 20-40%. In space we can get 100% light exposure efficiency. Being based in orbit also solves the intermittency problem. Solar can become a reliable baseload source of energy.

The obvious downside is that it’s expensive to get stuff into orbit, but until you run  the numbers it may not be obvious if space-based solar can be cost effective, compared to other options like nuclear or geothermal. This is the primary reason for the ESA feasibility study. Unfortunately, when you start to run the numbers, and consider all aspects of logistics, space-based solar looks worse and worse.

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Aug 26 2022

Organic Solar Cells and Other Solar Advances

Published by under Technology

When I first started reporting about solar cell technology around 2005 the best commercially available silicon solar cells (photovoltaics) had an efficiency rating of about 11% (the amount of the sunlight hitting the panel that ultimately gets converted into electricity). They were expensive, heavy, and didn’t product that much electricity, but still it was enough for early adopters and we were at the beginning of the commercial solar industry. That was just before the inflection point when solar started to take off.

I remember reading many solar power news item, detailing some incremental advance, but still with some limitations and uncertainty. But slowly, inexorably, these potential advances added up. Every year solar panels because a little better and a little cheaper. Now silicon crystal solar panels commercially available have efficiencies of over 20%, they have a minimum lifespan of 20 years but many are rated for 35-40 years (and some report 40-50 years), and their price has plummeted, down about 90% compared to 2010. The ultimate potential efficiency of silicon solar cells is often cited as 29%, but using various techniques higher efficiencies have been reported, such as this one in 2019 reporting a 31% efficiency.

The question is – how long will this trend continue? It’s hard to say, but it’s clear that advances in silicon solar panels are not done yet. Already the cheapest form of new power, it will likely continue to get cheaper and more efficient for the next 10-20 years, producing phenomenally cheap energy by historical standards. Even without any major new technological breakthroughs, just incremental tweaks on existing solar technology, this is likely to happen.

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Aug 25 2022

Aluminum Based Batteries

Published by under Technology

It is estimated that we would need 1.1 million square kilometers of solar panels in order to power the world – smaller than the state of Alaska at about 1.7 million square km. Of course, we would want to spread these solar panels out as much as possible. Rooftop solar alone would provide much of this needed area. In the US there is an estimated usable rooftop area for about 1 terrawatt of production capacity, compared to 1.2 terrawatt total current us power production capacity. Solar is also currently the cheapest form of new energy, in fact the cheapest source of electricity in human history.

Now come the well-known caveats – solar panels only produce energy when the sun is shining. So capacity is misleading as solar panels only produce electricity during the day when there isn’t too much cloud cover, and they produce less energy in the winter than the summer. At low solar power penetration this does not matter much because solar can displace more expensive and more polluting sources of energy when the sun is shining. We can also partly shift some of our energy consumption to sunny times – run the dishwasher or laundry during the day.

There are basically three ways to solve this problem. One is to have on-demand and baseload power to cover a good chunk of energy consumption, essentially limiting the percentage of intermittent sources. Another is to install overcapacity (more capacity than is needed at any one time) and share electricity over a broad grid. This works best for wind power, as the wind is always blowing somewhere, but could also help with solar. With a large enough grid solar power generated in Arizona could cover peak demand in New York. The third method is grid storage, storing up energy during producing and then releasing in when needed. We will likely need all three methods to get to net zero carbon energy production as quickly as possible.

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Jul 29 2022

Wearable Ultrasound Monitor

It’s easy to take for granted today the revolution in non-invasive medicine over the last century. Prior to the 20th century there was no blood testing to monitor health or diagnose disease. The first clinical use of X-rays was in 1896. The only way to peer into the body prior to that was with auscultation – listening to the sound various organs made, like heart sounds, the lungs breathing, and bowel sounds. Substances that came out of the body could also be examined.  A physical examine could sometimes feel what was under the skin, not but deep or beneath bones. There was essentially very little that could be done to non-invasively examine what was happening inside the body. Surgery was the last resort – you had to open up the body and look inside if you needed to see.

Today modern medicine has a long list of options, including using X-rays, magnetic fields, electrical signals, ultrasound, radioisotopes, and tiny cameras to non-invasively or minimally invasively look inside the body. This is all in the last century, a tiny slice of human history. We are also still on the steep part of the curve in terms of increasing our ability to diagnose and treat disease non-invasively. There are frequent incremental advances in the various technologies, and they are adding up over time.

One such incremental advance, which may expand the utility of an entire diagnostic technology, is wearable ultrasound. Ultrasound uses high frequency sound which is projected into the body, usually with a small hand-held probe which is pushed against the skin through a conducting gel. These sound waves bounce back and are picked up by the probe, which sends the information to a computer to construct an image. Anyone in a developed nation who has had a child since 1956 when the technology was first developed is likely familiar with this.  Ultrasound is safe, minimally invasive, and can provide a wealth of useful data. It can examine more than fetuses, but can also look at heart function with sufficient detail to detect how the valves are working. It can examine blood vessels to look for clots, or to see if they are open and how they react to stimuli. Ultrasound can be used to look at other organs, to detect cysts or tumors, and to examine the lungs.

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Jul 21 2022

Global Warming – We Have the Technology

Published by under Technology

The most frustrating aspect of the global warming saga is that we actually have much of the technology we would need to massively decarbonize our industries. All we have to do is do it. But we lack the political to do what is necessary. It wouldn’t even require any huge sacrifice (as the naysayers falsely claim), at least not on the part of the general public. We would definitely need some creative destruction in various industries, but nothing significantly different than the background turnover that already is happening due to technological advance.

The transportation sector is largely solved. Battery electric vehicles (BEVs) are accessible, more than functional enough, and in most cases cheaper over their lifetime than internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. Investing in some infrastructure, and tweaking incentives is enough to significantly accelerate the turnover from ICE to BEV. Like many things, the first 60-80% should be easy, and there will be increasing challenges to get the last 10-20% or so, but 80% is enough to significantly reduce the carbon footprint of transportation. We can worry about that last 20% in 20-30 years.

The energy sector is also solved (technologically speaking). Between wind, solar, nuclear, geothermal, and hydroelectric we can provide all the electricity we need, and cover growing electricity needs into the future. Again, we just have to do it.

I want to discuss a few recent technological developments that show we are also making progress in decarbonizing other sectors.

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