The immobilization of life on Earth

One of the defining characteristics of life is movement, be that in the form of locomotion or simply growth.

What is inanimate is not alive and yet humans, through the use of technology, are constantly seeking ways to reduce the need to move our own limbs.

We have set ourselves on a trajectory that, if taken to its logical conclusion, will eliminate our need to possess a fully functioning body as we reduce ourselves to a corpse-like condition sustained by a multiplicity of devices. [Continue reading at my new site: Attention to the Unseen]

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With the very best technology, humanity is digging its own grave

Technology is generally thought of as extending human capabilities by facilitating everyday actions more easily or allowing us to do things that would otherwise be impossible.

From this expansive perspective, technological advance has become synonymous with human progress. Conversely, the less technology populations possess, the more they are viewed as developing or even less evolved.

What these views mask are the multiplicity of ways in which technology feeds human regression.

The regressive mechanism built into technology in most of its manifestations is its propensity to externalize human skills.

If there’s something a person can do but a machine can do with greater economy, then the human skill soon becomes redundant. Having become redundant, it falls into disuse and soon atrophies.

This is not a small problem. It’s the reason that humanity is rapidly filling its ranks with a mass of diseased and disfigured bodies. [Continue reading at my new site: Attention to the Unseen]

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This year the world woke up to the society-shifting power of artificial intelligence

Dave Gershgorn reports: In less than five years, a 2012 academic breakthrough in artificial intelligence evolved into the technology responsible for making healthcare decisions, deciding whether prisoners should go free, and determining what we see on the internet.

Machine learning is beginning to invisibly touch nearly every aspect of our lives; its ability to automate decision making challenges the future roles of experts and unskilled laborers alike. Hospitals might need fewer doctors, thanks to automated treatment planning, and truck drivers might not be required by 2030.

But it’s not just about jobs. Serious questions are starting to be raised about whether the decisions made by AI can be trusted. Research suggests that these algorithms are easily biased by the data from which they learn, meaning societal biases are reinforced and magnified in the code. That could mean certain job applicants get excluded from consideration when AI hiring software is used to scan resumes. Even more, the decision-making process of these algorithms is so complex that AI researchers can’t definitively say why one decision was made over another. And while that may be disconcerting to laymen, there’s an industry debate over how valuable knowing those internal mechanisms really is, meaning research may very well forge ahead with the understanding that we simply don’t need to understand AI.

Until this year, these questions typically came from academics and researchers skeptical of the breakneck pace that Silicon Valley was implementing AI. But 2017 brought new organizations spanning big tech companies, academics, and governments dedicated to understanding the societal impacts of artificial intelligence.

“The reason is simple—AI has moved from research to reality, from the realm of science fiction to the reality of everyday use,” Oren Etzioni, executive director of the Allen Institute for AI, tells Quartz. [Continue reading…]

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A quantum communications satellite proved its potential in 2017

Science News reports: During the world’s first telephone call in 1876, Alexander Graham Bell summoned his assistant from the other room, stating simply, “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.” In 2017, scientists testing another newfangled type of communication were a bit more eloquent. “It is such a privilege and thrill to witness this historical moment with you all,” said Chunli Bai, president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, during the first intercontinental quantum-secured video call.

The more recent call, between researchers in Austria and China, capped a series of milestones reported in 2017 and made possible by the first quantum communications satellite, Micius, named after an ancient Chinese philosopher (SN: 10/28/17, p. 14).

Created by Chinese researchers and launched in 2016, the satellite is fueling scientists’ dreams of a future safe from hacking of sensitive communiqués. One day, impenetrable quantum cryptography could protect correspondences. A secret string of numbers known as a quantum key could encrypt a credit card number sent over the internet, or encode the data transmitted in a video call, for example. That quantum key would be derived by measuring the properties of quantum particles beamed down from such a satellite. Quantum math proves that any snoops trying to intercept the key would give themselves away.

“Quantum cryptography is a fundamentally new way to give us unconditional security ensured by the laws of quantum physics,” says Chao-Yang Lu, a physicist at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei, and a member of the team that developed the satellite. [Continue reading…]

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Macron awards U.S. scientists grants to move to France and escape from Trump’s anti-science regime

The Associated Press reports: Eighteen climate scientists from the US and elsewhere have hit the jackpot as France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, awarded them millions of euros in grants to relocate to France for the rest of Donald Trump’s presidential term.

The “Make Our Planet Great Again” grants – a nod to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan – are part of Macron’s efforts to counter Trump on the climate change front. Macron announced a contest for the projects in June, hours after Trump declared he would withdraw the US from the Paris climate accord.

More than 5,000 people from about 100 countries expressed interest in the grants. Most of the applicants – and 13 of the 18 winners – were US-based researchers.

Macron’s appeal “gave me such a psychological boost, to have that kind of support, to have the head of state saying I value what you do”, said winner Camille Parmesan, of the University of Texas at Austin. She will be working at an experimental ecology station in the Pyrenees on how human-made climate change is affecting wildlife.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Parmesan described funding challenges for climate science in the US and a feeling that “you are having to hide what you do”. [Continue reading…]

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Matter inside a neutron star is so dense that a teaspoonful would weigh a billion tons

Science News reports: On astrophysicists’ charts of star stuff, there’s a substance that still merits the label “here be dragons.” That poorly understood material is found inside neutron stars — the collapsed remnants of once-mighty stars — and is now being mapped out, as scientists better characterize the weird matter.

The detection of two colliding neutron stars, announced in October (SN: 11/11/17, p. 6), has accelerated the pace of discovery. Since the event, which scientists spied with gravitational waves and various wavelengths of light, several studies have placed new limits on the sizes and masses possible for such stellar husks and on how squishy or stiff they are.

“The properties of neutron star matter are not very well known,” says physicist Andreas Bauswein of the Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies in Germany. Part of the problem is that the matter inside a neutron star is so dense that a teaspoonful would weigh a billion tons, so the substance can’t be reproduced in any laboratory on Earth.

In the collision, the two neutron stars merged into a single behemoth. This remnant may have immediately collapsed into a black hole. Or it may have formed a bigger, spinning neutron star that, propped up by its own rapid rotation, existed for a few milliseconds — or potentially much longer — before collapsing. The speed of the object’s demise is helping scientists figure out whether neutron stars are made of material that is relatively soft, compressing when squeezed like a pillow, or whether the neutron star stuff is stiff, standing up to pressure. This property, known as the equation of state, determines the radius of a neutron star of a particular mass. [Continue reading…]

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What the Pliocene epoch can teach us about future warming on Earth

Science News reports: Imagine a world where the polar ice sheets are melting, sea level is rising and the atmosphere is stuffed with about 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide. Sound familiar? It should. We’re living it. But the description also matches Earth a little over 3 million years ago, in the middle of the geologic epoch known as the Pliocene.

To understand how our planet might respond as global temperatures rise, scientists are looking to warm periods of the past. These include the steamy worlds of the Cretaceous Period, such as around 90 million years ago, and the boundary of the Paleocene and Eocene epochs, about 56 million years ago.

But to many researchers, the best reference for today’s warming is the more recent Pliocene, which lasted from 5.3 million to 2.6 million years ago. The mid-Pliocene was the last time atmospheric CO2 levels were similar to today’s, trapping heat and raising global temperatures to above the levels Earth is experiencing now.

New research is illuminating how the planet responded to Pliocene warmth. One set of scientists has fanned out across the Arctic, gathering geologic clues to how temperatures there may have been as much as 19 degrees Celsius higher than today. The warmth allowed trees to spread far to the north, creating Arctic forests where three-toed horses, giant camels and other animals roamed. When lightning struck, wildfires roared across the landscape, spewing soot into the air and altering the region’s climate.

Other researchers are pushing the frontiers of climate modeling, simulating how the oceans, atmosphere and land responded as Pliocene temperatures soared. One new study shows how the warmth may have triggered huge changes in ocean circulation, setting up an enormous overturning current in the Pacific Ocean, similar to the “conveyor belt” in today’s Atlantic that drives weather and climate. A second new paper suggests that the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets might have responded differently to Pliocene heat, melting at different times.

All this research into the last great warm period is helping scientists think more deeply about how the future might play out. It may not be a road map to the next 100 years, but the Pliocene is a rough guide to the high sea levels, vanishing ice and altered weather patterns that might arrive hundreds to thousands of years from now.

“It’s a case study for understanding how warm climates function,” says Heather Ford, a paleoceanographer at the University of Cambridge. “It’s our closest analog for future climate change.” [Continue reading…]

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The switch to outdoor LED lighting has backfired

Gizmodo reports: To reduce energy consumption, many jurisdictions around the world are transitioning to outdoor LED lighting. But as new research shows, this solid-state solution hasn’t yielded the expected energy savings, and potentially worse, it’s resulted in more light pollution than ever before.

Using satellite-based sensors, an international team of scientists sought to understand if our planet’s surface is getting brighter or darker at night, and to determine if LEDs are saving energy at the global scale. With the introduction of solid-state lighting—such as LEDs, OLEDs, and PLEDs—it was thought (and hoped) that the transition to it from conventional lighting—like electrical filaments, gas, and plasma—would result in big energy savings. According to the latest research, however, the use of LEDs has resulted in a “rebound” effect whereby many jurisdictions have opted to use even more light owing to the associated energy savings.

Indeed, as the new results show, the amount of outdoor lighting around the world has increased during the past several years. “As a result, the world has experienced widespread ‘loss of the night,’ with half of Europe and a quarter of North America experiencing substantially modified light-dark cycles,” write the researchers in the new study, which was published today in Scientific Advances. [Continue reading…]

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Amazon’s relentless drive to sacrifice human interaction in commerce on the altar of convenience

 

Bloomberg reports: For the past year, Amazon employees have been test driving Amazon Go, an experimental convenience store in downtown Seattle. The idea is to let consumers walk in, pick up items and then pay for them without ever standing in line at a cashier. Amazon is vague on the mechanics, but the store relies on a mobile app and some of the same sensing technology that powers self-driving cars to figure out who is buying what.

Employees have tried to fool the technology. One day, three enterprising Amazonians donned bright yellow Pikachu costumes and cruised around grabbing sandwiches, drinks and snacks. The algorithms nailed it, according to a person familiar with the situation, correctly identifying the employees and charging their Amazon accounts, even though they were obscured behind yellow polyester.

Amazon Go represents Amazon.com Inc.’s most ambitious effort yet to transform the brick-and-mortar shopping experience by eliminating the checkout line, saving customers time and furthering the company’s reputation for convenience.

The push into groceries is a way for the company to get consumers to shop at Amazon more often. In September, the e-commerce giant acquired Whole Foods Market for $13.7 billion and has been cutting prices at the upscale grocery chain to drive traffic. On Wednesday, Whole Foods began offering deep discounts on Thanksgiving merchandise, including antibiotic-free turkeys, and signaled that the markdowns will get more aggressive as it adopts Amazon’s Prime subscription service. Shares at Kroger and Sprouts tumbled after the announcement. [Continue reading…]

As much as Amazon might successfully market this commercial innovation in the name of added convenience, it’s actual goal is clearly the traditional business imperative of cutting costs, increasing profit margins, and beating down competition.

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In mathematics, ‘you cannot be lied to’

Siobhan Roberts writes: A few years back, a prospective doctoral student sought out Sylvia Serfaty with some existential questions about the apparent uselessness of pure math. Serfaty, then newly decorated with the prestigious Henri Poincaré Prize, won him over simply by being honest and nice. “She was very warm and understanding and human,” said Thomas Leblé, now an instructor at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at New York University. “She made me feel that even if at times it might seem futile, at least it would be friendly. The intellectual and human adventure would be worth it.” For Serfaty, mathematics is about building scientific and human connections. But as Leblé recalled, Serfaty also emphasized that a mathematician has to find satisfaction in “weaving one’s own rug,” alluding to the patient, solitary work that comes first.

Born and raised in Paris, Serfaty first became intrigued by mathematics in high school. Ultimately she gravitated toward physics problems, constructing mathematical tools to forecast what should happen in physical systems. For her doctoral research in the late-1990s, she focused on the Ginzburg-Landau equations, which describe superconductors and their vortices that turn like little whirlwinds. The problem she tackled was to determine when, where and how the vortices appear in the static (time-independent) ground state. She solved this problem with increasing detail over the course of more than a decade, together with Étienne Sandier of the University of Paris-East, with whom she co-authored the book Vortices in the Magnetic Ginzburg-Landau Model.

In 1998, Serfaty discovered an irresistibly puzzling problem about how these vortices evolve in time. She decided that this was the problem she really wanted to solve. Thinking about it initially, she got stuck and abandoned it, but now and then she circled back. For years, with collaborators, she built tools that she hoped might eventually provide pathways to the desired destination. In 2015, after almost 18 years, she finally hit upon the right point of view and arrived at the solution.

“First you start from a vision that something should be true,” Serfaty said. “I think we have software, so to speak, in our brain that allows us to judge that moral quality, that truthful quality to a statement.”

And, she noted, “you cannot be cheated, you cannot be lied to. A thing is true or not true, and there is this notion of clarity on which you can base yourself.” [Continue reading…]

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We’re building an artificial intelligence-powered dystopia, one click at a time

 

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Mysterious object seen speeding past sun could be ‘visitor from another star system’

The Guardian reports: A mysterious object detected hurtling past our sun could be the first space rock traced back to a different solar system, according to astronomers tracking the body.

While other objects have previously been mooted as having interstellar origins, experts say the latest find, an object estimated to be less than 400m in diameter, is the best contender yet.

“The exciting thing about this is that this may be essentially a visitor from another star system,” said Dr Edward Bloomer, astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich.

If its origins are confirmed as lying beyond our solar system, it will be the first space rock known to come from elsewhere in the galaxy.

Published in the minor planet electronic circulars by the Minor Planet Center at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, the observations reveal that the object is in a strong hyperbolic orbit – in other words, it is going fast enough to escape the gravitational pull of the sun.

Objects originating from, and on long-period orbits within, our solar system can end up on a hyperbolic trajectory, and be ejected into interstellar space – for example if they swing close by a giant planet, since the planet’s gravity can cause objects to accelerate. But Dr Gareth Williams, associate director of the Minor Planet Center, said that wasn’t the case for the newly discovered body.

“When we run the orbit for this [object] back in time, it stays hyperbolic all the way out – there are no close approaches to any of the giant planets that could have given this thing a kick,” he said. “If we follow the orbit out into the future, it stays hyperbolic,” Williams added. “So it is coming from interstellar space and it is going to interstellar space.” [Continue reading…]

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Reading this while walking? In Honolulu, it could cost you

The New York Times reports: You see them everywhere: people walking with their eyes glued to their mobile phone screens on busy streets. But walking and texting can be dangerous — and cities in the United States and Europe have begun to do something about it.

Honolulu has passed a law, which will take effect Wednesday, that allows the police to fine pedestrians up to $35 for viewing their electronic devices while crossing streets in the city and surrounding county. Honolulu is thought to be the first major city to enact such a ban.

“This is really milestone legislation that sets the bar high for safety,” said Brandon Elefante, the City Council member who proposed the bill. Pedestrians, he said, will share the responsibility for their safety with motorists.

In the United States, pedestrian deaths in 2016 spiked 9 percent from the year before, rising to 5,987, the highest toll on American roads since 1990, according to federal data. One reason may be the sharp rise in smartphone use, “a frequent source of mental and visual distraction” for both drivers and walkers, a report by the Governors Highway Safety Association found. [Continue reading…]

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The entire global financial system depends on GPS, and it’s shockingly vulnerable to attack

Tim Fernholz reports: There is an enormous, invisible clock that keeps ultra-precise time, can be checked from anywhere on earth, and is free for everyone to use. This technological gift to mankind was built by the US government. It is called the Global Positioning System (GPS), it lives in space, and you use it every time you check the map on your phone.

What you may not know is that you rely on it far more often than that. Cell towers use it to route your phone calls, ATMs and cash registers use it for your transactions, electrical grids use it to send power to your house, and stock exchanges use it to regulate the trades that go into your stock portfolio or investment fund. And it is far more vulnerable to attack and disruption than most people know or are willing to admit.

“When we talk about economic infrastructure, I don’t think the general public realizes the extent to which the Global Positioning System’s timing signal is critical for these ATM transactions and every other point-of-sale transaction conducted in the United States and throughout most of the world,” Michael Griffin, a former NASA administrator, told US space policymakers in early October. “To what extent do we believe that we have defended ourselves if an adversary can bring our economic system near collapse?”

Time, as it turns out, is money, in a very literal sense. Since digital money moves faster than humans can think, banks and regulators alike rely on time stamps to monitor transactions, catch fraud, and make sure the right people get paid. When you pull cash from an ATM or swipe your card at the coffee shop, the machine needs to determine the precise time that the transaction occurs to, for example, prevent it from being over-drawn.

Putting a little clock in the credit-card machines wouldn’t work, because over time, even the most precise clocks start to differ from one another. That doesn’t matter when you’re meeting me for lunch at noon, but if you’re timing transactions down to the microsecond standard now used in many electronic networks, tiny differences can screw up your whole operation.

What makes the Global Positioning System so crucial, then, isn’t in fact the “positioning” part; it’s the ability to make machines all over the planet agree on exactly what time it is. [Continue reading…]

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Smartphones are killing Americans, but nobody’s counting

Bloomberg reports: Over the past two years, after decades of declining deaths on the road, U.S. traffic fatalities surged by 14.4 percent. In 2016 alone, more than 100 people died every day in or near vehicles in America, the first time the country has passed that grim toll in a decade. Regulators, meanwhile, still have no good idea why crash-related deaths are spiking: People are driving longer distances but not tremendously so; total miles were up just 2.2 percent last year. Collectively, we seemed to be speeding and drinking a little more, but not much more than usual. Together, experts say these upticks don’t explain the surge in road deaths.

There are however three big clues, and they don’t rest along the highway. One, as you may have guessed, is the substantial increase in smartphone use by U.S. drivers as they drive. From 2014 to 2016, the share of Americans who owned an iPhone, Android phone, or something comparable rose from 75 percent to 81 percent.

The second is the changing way in which Americans use their phones while they drive. These days, we’re pretty much done talking. Texting, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram are the order of the day—all activities that require far more attention than simply holding a gadget to your ear or responding to a disembodied voice. By 2015, almost 70 percent of Americans were using their phones to share photos and follow news events via social media. In just two additional years, that figure has jumped to 80 percent.

Finally, the increase in fatalities has been largely among bicyclists, motorcyclists, and pedestrians—all of whom are easier to miss from the driver’s seat than, say, a 4,000-pound SUV—especially if you’re glancing up from your phone rather than concentrating on the road. Last year, 5,987 pedestrians were killed by cars in the U.S., almost 1,100 more than in 2014—that’s a 22 percent increase in just two years. [Continue reading…]

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Neutron star collision showers the universe with a wealth of discoveries

 

Science News reports: Two ultradense cores of dead stars have produced a long-awaited cosmic collision, showering scientists with riches.

The event was the first direct sighting of a smashup of neutron stars, which are formed when aging stars explode and leave behind a neutron-rich remnant. In the wake of the collision, the churning residue forged gold, silver, platinum and a smattering of other heavy elements such as uranium, researchers reported October 16 at a news conference in Washington, D.C. Such elements’ birthplaces were previously unknown, but their origins were revealed by the cataclysm’s afterglow.

“It really is the last missing piece” of the periodic table, says Anna Frebel, an astronomer at MIT who was not involved in the research. “This is heaven for anyone working in the field.” After the collision, about 10 times the Earth’s mass in gold was spewed out into space, some scientists calculated.

Using data gathered by about 70 different observatories, astronomers characterized the event in exquisite detail, releasing a slew of papers describing the results. A tremor of gravitational waves, spotted by the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, LIGO, on August 17, provided the first sign of the cataclysm. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. withdraws from UNESCO, saying it’s biased against Israel

Bloomberg reports: The Trump administration withdrew the U.S. from the United Nations cultural organization, saying it’s biased against Israel and citing its decision to admit the Palestinian territories as a member state.

The decision to quit the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which the U.S. co-founded in 1945, “was not taken lightly,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement Thursday. She cited the need for “fundamental reform in the organization, and continuing anti-Israel bias at UNESCO.”

The U.S. hasn’t been paying dues to UNESCO since 2011, when President Barack Obama’s administration stopped providing about $72 million a year after the Paris-based organization accepted Palestine as a full member. The arrears total almost $543 million, according to UNESCO. U.S. laws bar funding for any UN agency that gives Palestinians the status of a nation, and the U.S. lost its voting privilege in the organization in 2013.

That decision threw the organization into financial crisis because the U.S. had accounted for more than 20 percent of UNESCO’s annual budget. The U.S. also withdrew from the organization in 1984 but rejoined in 2003. [Continue reading…]

 

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Astronomers find half of the missing matter in the universe

The Guardian reports: It is one of cosmology’s more perplexing problems: that up to 90% of the ordinary matter in the universe appears to have gone missing.

Now astronomers have detected about half of this missing content for the first time, in a discovery that could resolve a long-standing paradox.

The conundrum first arose from measurements of radiation left over from the Big Bang, which allowed scientists to calculate how much matter there is in the universe and what form it takes. This showed that about 5% of the mass in the universe comes in the form of ordinary matter, with the rest being accounted for by dark matter and dark energy.

Dark matter has never been directly observed and the nature of dark energy is almost completely mysterious, but even tracking down the 5% of ordinary stuff has proved more complicated than expected. When scientists have counted up all the observable objects in the sky – stars, planets, galaxies and so on – this only seems to account for between a 10th and a fifth of what ought to be out there.

The deficit is known as the “missing baryon problem”, baryons being ordinary subatomic particles like protons and neutrons.

Richard Ellis, a professor of astrophysics at the University College London, said: “People agree that there’s a lot missing, raising the question where is it?” [Continue reading…]

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