From Technology Review: Data Shows Google’s Robot Cars Are Smoother, Safer Drivers Than You or I. It is a very interesting article. Have a look.
That's good news. I bet they don't do road rage either.
I'd like to live in the future when the odds of getting killed or maimed by bad drivers (or bad software) have dropped by an order of magnitude or more. I'd like to live in the future when I can stop paying attention to the road, stressing on idiots swerving in and out of lanes. Last Friday evening on my way home after work I had to break and swerve for 3 different maniacs who were making sudden dangerous lane changes in situations where they did not have room to do what they were doing.
What would be good: software that detects these maniacs and reports them. Then they could get a "ticket" which requires they turn over the driving to a computer.
Another story on the same web site: Driverless Cars Are Further Away Than You Think. The article offers details on sensors and what some car companies are working on.
Even if fully autonomous vehicles are 10 or more years away we are going to get benefits before then. Already cars have collision warning systems, automatically adjusting speed control (adaptive cruise control) to avoid collisions, stability systems, and anti-lock brakes. All that stuff will get better and accident rates will go down as a result.
What I wonder: Can the currently high cost of autonomous driving systems be justified sooner for long haul trucks? They pose much greater dangers due to their size. At the same time, they operate many more hours of the day. So the sensors in theory do more work per day to justify their cost. Also, they operate for the vast majority of the time on highways which are much less complex environment than surface streets.
What I think could make autonomous vehicles work better sooner: build out sensors and signaling systems in street signs and traffic lights to tell the vehicle computers what is going on. Road work crews (e.g. traffic light repair folks, telephone and electric pole workers, road pavers, tow truck operators) could have vehicles that have computers that broadcast to autonomous vehicles explaining their presence. If this effort was focused on a few medium size launch cities then vehicles that operate mainly in those cities could have a lot more info provided from outside them.
Check out this PBS story: Dr. Arjun Srinivasan: We’ve Reached “The End of Antibiotics, Period”. As antibiotics stop working we will lose a lot of therapies that depend on bacteria control, notably many surgeries:
They really are miracle drugs, and not only have they saved the lives of millions and millions of people … but antibiotics have opened up new frontiers in medicine that would be impossible without them.
For example, organ transplantation. One of the major causes of death in patients who would have an organ transplant would be an infection. Without antibiotics, we wouldn’t be able to treat any of those infections.
Srinivasan talks about the need to stop using antibiotics in animal feed in agriculture. Many people will die from antibiotic resistance due to that practice. Can we stop being so shortsighted and ban antibiotics from animal feed? Developing new antibiotics is hard. The new drugs are not coming along as fast as bacteria are developing resistance to the old drugs.
We also need less use of antibiotics prescribed by doctors when a patient only has a viral infection. What else would help: greater use of sanitation measures to stop the spread of bacteria in hospitals and nursing homes. The fewer people are exposed the less need to use antibiotics against their infections.
Immune system rejuvenation therapies would help too. A lot of people getting infected in hospitals have aged and weak immune systems. Give them youthful immune systems and fewer bacteria l infections will be able to gain a foothold.
I also expect identification of genetic variants that boost immune system reactions to pathogens. Some people have genetically stronger immune systems and adaptations against specific pathogens. As more genetic sequencing is done and the immune systems of different people are compared for their ability to fight off different pathogens the value of assorted genetic variations found in immune genes will be elucidated. Then gene therapies can be created to boost immune systems against the most dangerous pathogens.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me," goes the playground rhyme that's supposed to help children endure taunts from classmates. But a new study suggests that there's more going on inside our brains when someone snubs us – and that the brain may have its own way of easing social pain.
The findings, recently published in Molecular Psychiatry by a University of Michigan Medical School team, show that the brain's natural painkiller system responds to social rejection – not just physical injury.
What's more, people who score high on a personality trait called resilience – the ability to adjust to environmental change – had the highest amount of natural painkiller activation.
The large role that genetics plays in contributing to resilience suggests that it should be possible some day to use gene therapy to make one less unhappy when socially or romantically rejected.
Changes in the climate of the Amazon, most likely human caused, are making Amazonian dry seasons longer. Longer dry seasons translate into more fires and tree death.
A new study suggests the southern portion of the Amazon rainforest is at a much higher risk of dieback due to stronger seasonal drying than projections made by the climate models used in the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). If severe enough, the loss of rainforest could cause the release of large volumes of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It could also disrupt plant and animal communities in one of the regions of highest biodiversity in the world.
Using ground-based rainfall measurements from the past three decades, a research team led by Rong Fu, professor at The University of Texas at Austin's Jackson School of Geosciences, found that since 1979, the dry season in southern Amazonia has lasted about a week longer per decade.
If the dry season gets too long then the rainforest will not survive.
To see why the length of the dry season is such a limiting factor, imagine there is heavier than usual rainfall during the wet season. The soil can only hold so much water and the rest runs off. The water stored in the soil at the end of the wet season is all that the rainforest trees have to last them through the dry season. The longer the dry season lasts, regardless of how wet the wet season was, the more stressed the trees become and the more susceptible they are to fire.
What I wonder: Could reservoirs be built to capture more of the rain during the wet season to release during the dry season? Even if this was done the water likely would not flow near most of the trees with the driest soil unless an elaborate irrigation system was built into the jungle.
A halt to deforestation would prevent some (all?) of the decline in rains. Reforestation would help even more. $1 billion per year would stop a tenth of deforestation. On present course deforestation might turn the Amazon into a desert. Urbanizing industrializing societies drive deforestation.
You might think the Amazon deforestation represents a large fraction of global deforestation. But no. Amazon deforestation is only 5 to 6% of global deforestation.
Check out these speculations on which jobs will survive robotics. Regards visual arts: I expect some artists will use secretly computers to help do artistic creation and then pass off their work as purely human product.
People who want to buy something by a name brand designer or big name artist will likely insist on buying from those who hide the extent of the help they get from computers. Therefore some people will use computers to do a substantial fraction of their work and then pretend it was done all by their lonesome selves. For example, a future clothing designer will make a few basic designs, enter them into a computer, and then let software do permutations. Then the designer will pick among those permutations. The software could have a huge database of past clothing designs going back hundreds of years and combine elements from those designs with the newest ideas from the human designer.
But those who care less about brand names will be more willing to buy stuff that had little or no human involvement in design creation. Price sensitive shoppers especially won't care about whether a human was in the loop on design work.
Update: I think the human clothing designer can be replaced entirely. Granted, the designer could have the role of selecting between various styles that the computer generates. But why use a designer to do that? Why not just use clicks made by the masses? Show dresses and have people vote on which ones they prefer. One could even use clicks from subsets of people you hire. For example, use college students or women who buy expensive dresses. Assorted ways could be tried to do crowd sourcing feedback on design decisions before dresses get made.
With the highly paid BART mass transit train operators about to go on strike in the San Francisco Bay Area what came to my mind: Can the BART trains be operated automatically? The answer: yes, the technology exists to eliminate human operators from BART trains and in other mass transit train systems.
Automation would cut costs and therefore enable the expansion of mass transit systems. Automation would also make mass transit services more reliable by cutting the risk of system stoppages due to union strikes.
Check out this Wikipedia list of driverless trains around the world. Modest proposal: US government should give local transit systems deadlines (say 5 years) to switch to driverless automation if they want to consider getting federal funding.
Toxins get flushed out from around brain cells while we sleep. The glymphatic system does the job.
A good night's rest may literally clear the mind. Using mice, researchers showed for the first time that the space between brain cells may increase during sleep, allowing the brain to flush out toxins that build up during waking hours. These results suggest a new role for sleep in health and disease. The study was funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), part of the NIH.
"Sleep changes the cellular structure of the brain. It appears to be a completely different state," said Maiken Nedergaard, M.D., D.M.Sc., co-director of the Center for Translational Neuromedicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York, and a leader of the study.
If you do not get enough sleep you do not pump out enough toxins. You poison your brain when you deny yourself sufficient sleep.
researchers were able to observe in mice – whose brains are remarkably similar to humans – what amounts to a plumbing system that piggybacks on the brain's blood vessels and pumps cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) through the brain's tissue, flushing waste back into the circulatory system where it eventually makes its way to the general blood circulation system and, ultimately, the liver.
Almost all neurodegenerative diseases are associated with accumulation of toxins.
The timely removal of waste from the brain is essential where the unchecked accumulation of toxic proteins such as amyloid-beta can lead to Alzheimer's disease. In fact, almost every neurodegenerative disease is associated with the accumulation of cellular waste products.
Why sleep? The brain does not have enough energy to run the toxin removal system while we are awake.
One of the clues hinting that the glymphatic system may be more active during sleep was the fact that the amount of energy consumed by the brain does not decrease dramatically decrease while we sleep. Because pumping CSF demands a great deal of energy, researchers speculated that the process of cleaning may not be compatible with the functions the brain must perform when we are awake and actively processing information.
Through a series of experiments in mice, the researchers observed that the glymphatic system was almost 10-fold more active during sleep and that the sleeping brain removed significantly more amyloid-beta.
What would be cool: a way to put one's brain in a state where an especially thorough cleaning gets done.
Perhaps the brain accumulates toxins as we age because our mitochondria do not generate enough energy to run the toxin disposal system. Or maybe poorer circulation to the brain lowers the amount of energy available in the brain for cleaning.
Naively with agricultural pollution I was only worrying about rivers and oceans. Accidental fertilization damages forests and national parks such as the Great Smoky Mountains. Note that the Great Smoky Mountains are upstream of farms.
Cambridge, Mass. – October 10, 2013 – Thirty-eight U.S. national parks are experiencing “accidental fertilization” at or above a critical threshold for ecological damage, according to a study published in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics and led by Harvard University researchers. Unless significant controls on ammonia emissions are introduced at a national level, they say, little improvement is likely between now and 2050.
Ammonia fertilizer damages natural ecosystems.
The environmental scientists, experts in air quality, atmospheric chemistry, and ecology, have been studying the fate of nitrogen-based compounds that are blown into natural areas from power plants, automobile exhaust, and—increasingly—industrial agriculture. Nitrogen that finds its way into natural ecosystems can disrupt the cycling of nutrients in soil, promote algal overgrowth and lower the pH of water in aquatic environments, and ultimately decrease the number of species that can survive.
Totally news to me: The stuff comes in the air and is toxic to lichens and hardwood trees.
In Eastern temperate forests, like those in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most sensitive elements of the ecosystem are the hardwood trees, which start to suffer when nitrogen deposition reaches approximately 3 to 8 kilograms per hectare, per year. According to the new study, the actual rate of deposition—13.6 kg/ha/yr—far exceeds that threshold. In the forests of Mount Rainier National Park, it’s the lichens that suffer first; their critical load is between 2.5 and 7.1 kg/ha/yr, and the deposition rate there is at a troubling 6.7 kg/ha/yr.
What would help? No more human population growth. But that's not going to happen. I expect natural selection will boost human fertility.
Would will help eventually: The development of perennial grain crops that fix nitrogen from the atmosphere. Like Alfalfa they would not need ammonia fertilizer and therefore their use would reduce ammonia pollution.
People's willingness to help others may be influenced by a gene that affects their level of social anxiety, according to a new study led by a University of Nebraska-Lincoln scientist. The study appears to be the first to describe this particular pathway.
Research participants who carry the dominant version of the gene were more likely to indicate anxiety about social interactions or being trapped in situations or places. The anxiety appears to inhibit their "prosocial" behavior and increase their reluctance to come to the aid of strangers.
Scott Stoltenberg, a UNL behavior geneticist and the study's lead author, said the gene -- officially known as the 5-HTTLPR triallelic genotype -- affects the amygdala, an area of the brain that is sensitive to threat.
"This particular gene makes a difference in how sensitive you are to threat," he said. "If you're looking at an ambiguous social situation, where there's someone standing there, needing help -- maybe you are more likely to interpret that as a threat, a potentially dangerous or embarrassing situation."
Imagine you had a switch you could flip that would change the behavior of genes which govern neurotransmitter metabolism. Researchers are obviously building up a list of genes that cause differences in personality and behavior. One can imagine putting different variants of the same gene into nerve cells but with an added chemically controllable switch on each variant flips it on and off.
A person whose cells contain lots of nerve cell genes with added chemical switches could have their personality altered by taking an assortment of drugs to flip all their neurogenetic switches. Imagine what could be done with such a capability. You could control your personality for example, flip into full relaxation mode on weekends and then flip to intense work mode in the early hours of Monday.
Or someone else could control your personality. A military could turn on and off warrior personalities. Criminal justice systems could turn down brain subsystems involved causing violence while turning up brain subsystems that suppress violence.
What is coming as the biggest change in the next 10 years? I'm thinking robotics. Sensors everywhere and smart machines that can process images and manipulate the environment.
Self-driving cars, factory robots and a new class of farm hands known as ag-robots are already demonstrating what increasingly mobile machines can do. Indeed, the rapid advance of computer vision is just one of a set of artificial intelligence-oriented technologies — others include speech recognition, dexterous manipulation and navigation — that underscore a sea change beyond personal computing and the Internet, the technologies that have defined the last three decades of the computing world.
Better machine vision systems are key for the spread of robots out of highly controlled settings to do work in the field. The spread of robots into agricultural work and into large solar power installations speaks to a move of robots into the great outdoors.
The article suggests that outsourced call center work will come back to the United States from Asia in the form of very sophisticated computers that will do much of the work now done by call center workers.
Robotic solar panel installer Alion Energy claims it can build utility-scale solar panel farms in half the time with large savings in labor costs. Alion is soon going to use their robotic panel installers in a few sites around the world and they also have a machine that cleans panel surfaces.
A revolutionizing rate of advance of computers and robots seems more certain in the next 10 years than a revolution in biomedical technologies. I'd rather have a revolution in rejuvenation therapies. One can only hope that robots will automate all lab work so that scientists can use all the freed up time to design experiments and analyze results at a faster rate.
Research has shown that exercise is good for the brain. Now investigators have identified a molecule called irisin that is produced in the brain during endurance exercise and has neuroprotective effects. Researchers were able to artificially increase the levels of irisin in the blood to activate genes involved in learning and memory. The findings, published online October 10 in the Cell Press journal Cell Metabolism, may be useful for designing drugs that utilize this exercise-induced molecule to guard against neurodegenerative diseases and improve cognition in the aging population.
The harder problem: put learning materials into pill form (or even injections) and feed your course material into your brain via a drug.
The scientists think they were able to detect a surge of hunter-gatherers after the farmers became well established. Was that due to war or crop failures? Or how about interbreeding or a new wave of farmer humans that had mitochondrial DNA similar to that of the hunter-gatherers?
Ancient DNA recovered from a time series of skeletons in Germany spanning 4,000 years of prehistory has been used to reconstruct the first detailed genetic history of modern-day Europeans.
The study, published today in Science, reveals dramatic population changes with waves of prehistoric migration, not only from the accepted path via the Near East, but also from Western and Eastern Europe.
The research was a collaboration between the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD), at the University of Adelaide, researchers from the University of Mainz, the State Heritage Museum in Halle (Germany), and National Geographic Society's Genographic Project. The teams used mitochondrial DNA (maternally inherited DNA) extracted from bone and teeth samples from 364 prehistoric human skeletons ‒ ten times more than previous ancient DNA studies.
"This is the largest and most detailed genetic time series of Europe yet created, allowing us to establish a complete genetic chronology," says joint-lead author Dr Wolfgang Haak of ACAD. "Focussing on this small but highly important geographic region meant we could generate a gapless record, and directly observe genetic changes in 'real-time' from 7,500 to 3,500 years ago, from the earliest farmers to the early Bronze Age."
Mitochondrial DNA is really small, less than 15,000 letters. What would be a lot more interesting: sequencing of the nuclear DNA. Almost 3 billion letters. A lot more signals. I would like to know how different, on average, were humans from 5000 or 8000 years ago. Did they have genetic variants that made them more violent? How smart were they? Were they more or less hyperactive than humans today? Did they have shorter innate time horizons for planning?
A robotic grape sorter will improve wine quality and pay for itself in 2 years. Fast image processing makes this possible.
Automation raises quality. As computer hardware speeds up and algorithms for image processing improve many agricultural jobs now done by manual laborers will be done better and more cheaply by robots. I even foresee the day when weed and bug removal is done by machine that choose each weed and each bug to remove.
Another story on better food quality thru robotic agricultural work: Dutch field robot harvests only right-sized broccoli. In this sotry image processing is again key to higher quality.
Another farming story where the robot is promoted as improving quality: $50,000 strawberry-picking robot to go on sale in Japan.
The computers needed to drive robots have become cheap enough and powerful enough to justify their use out in the real world. When the computers controlling robots were far less powerful they could only be economically justified in highly controlled (i.e. simpler) environments in factories. They couldn't handle really tough image processing problems inherent in the large amount of variation in the objects found in farm fields and other visually complex environments. But affordable computers have sufficient power to tackle some of the complex environments where humans still do manual labor. This means that lots of manual labor jobs that until recently were safe from automation are now in the sights of designers of robots.
The job prospects of low skilled manual laborers are not good.
For the release of Tyler Cowen's new book Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation Erik Barker has interviewed him about the future of work.
The people who will do better are those who are very good at working with computers, programming and software. That’s a rather obvious point but I think as income inequality increases people who are very good at positioning themselves in service sectors with some kind of marketing plan or somebody that can grab the attention of wealthier people will do well.
Psychologists will be in greater demand to design subtle marketing strategies?
Basically, the scarce skills for the future are all about psychology because computers right now still don’t do that very well. The good jobs will be about branding. They’re all about figuring out how to get other people’s attention and I think that’s really the growth sector we’re looking at.
Psychology has a field has advanced more than generally appreciated in terms of its understanding of what makes us tick. It seems plausible that research in psychology will yield better understandings of how to do marketing. But will that require many specialists in subfields of psychology to incorporate that understanding into marketing campaigns?
My take on this: many facets of marketing have already been automated using computer models that avoid the need for human understanding. Amazon guesses what to pitch to you by processing thru large amounts of information. Email marketers do the same. Ditto remarketers who show you ads on other sites because you've previously been on some shopping site. Nielsen, NetFlix, and other organizations track what shows and movies you watch. How many psychologists do they employ? How many software developers? I'm going to guess the ratio of software developers to psychologists is incredibly high. Though marketers come from many educational backgrounds.
What I'd like to know: is spending on creation of advertising creatives (e.g. those 30 second TV ads) going up or down as a fraction of total consumer sales? Overall is advertising spending growing faster or slower than the overall economy? I have no idea. Is this like an intensifying war? Or have computers so lowered the cost of marketing that money has been shifted away from marketing and toward, say, product development?
What I'd also like to know: what kinds of goods have the most advertising spend as a fraction of sales? Are those goods going to become larger or smaller fractions of total consumer spending in the future? Also, are in-person sales people a shrinking or growing fraction of sales and marketing budgets? Will online marketing lead to the layoff of most sales people?
Also see my previous post about Average Is Over.
Update: One of Tyler's most interesting observations in the interview: The people who are more willing to follow the advice of computer systems will make better decisions on average. A substantial fraction of the population will resist following directions from computers. Even people well disposed toward following a computer's advice will resist when they decide their own intuition and immediate emotional reaction to the advice are correct.
Christian Ruff, Giuseppe Ugazio, and Ernst Fehr from the University of Zurich found that low level electric currents into the prefrontal cortex of the brain raised or lowered willingness to voluntarily treat others fairly.
For the study, 63 participants took part in an experiment in which they received money and were asked to decide how much of it they wanted to share with an anonymous partner. A prevalent fairness norm in Western cultures dictates that the money should be evenly split between the two players. However, this contrasts with the participants' self-interest to keep as much money as possible for themselves. In another experiment, the participants were faced with the same decision, but knew in advance that they could be punished by the partner for an unfair proposal.
By means of a technique called "transcranial direct current stimulation," which sends weak and painless electric currents through the skull, the excitability of specific brain regions can be modulated. During this experiment, the scientists used this technique to increase or decrease neural activity at the front of the brain, in the right lateral prefrontal cortex. Christian Ruff, Professor of Neuroeconomics and Decision Neuroscience at the University of Zurich, said: "We discovered that the decision to follow the fairness norm, whether voluntarily or under threat of sanctions, can be directly influenced by neural stimulation in the prefrontal cortex."
Will criminals ever be offered probation conditioned on their willingness to accept a brain implant that will alter their behavior? Will some national governments not even bother to ask and just implant circuits that can generate currents and alter behaviors?
Current flows had opposite effects on willingness to comply with sanctions or to comply when no sanctions are threatened.
When neural activity in this part of the brain was increased via stimulation, the participants' followed the fairness norm more strongly when sanctions were threatened, but their voluntary norm compliance in the absence of possible punishments decreased. Conversely, when the scientists decreased neural activity, participants followed the fairness norm more strongly on a voluntary basis, but complied less with the norm when sanctions were threatened. Moreover, neural stimulation influenced the participants' behavior, but it did not affect their perception of the fairness norm. It also did not alter their expectations about whether and how much they would be punished for violating the norm.
Wild stuff. Will a substantial fraction of the human race become puppets to brain implants, neural stem cell therapies, or gene therapies delivered involuntarily to alter behavior?
I pass this along to you mostly because it sounds so dramatic, brutal, and severe: your genome is an old battlefield. It is a mess. Do not romanticize your genome as a highly tuned and optimized control center working cleanly for your benefit.
Contrary to what you may have heard, your genome is not a highly sophisticated, finely tuned data storage and processing device. It’s a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Your 25,000 genes reside in a genetic landscape littered with the rubble of ancient and ongoing battles with hordes of viruses, clone armies of genetic parasites, and zombie genes that should be dead but aren’t.
Even more important, we've got genetic load as a much bigger problem in our genome. We've all got lots of slightly harmful mutations that show up each generation mostly randomly. Not due to ancient battles between viruses and other parasites.
If I could genetically change one thing about myself I'd get rid of all the accumulated genetic load mutations. I'd suddenly become healthier (not that I'm sick), happier (not that I'm depressed either), and much smarter (which I'd really like to be). Even if you aren't sick or depressed or dumb you could still have a much greater sense of good health and well being if your body was made to run far more effectively then you can now with your mutation-laden genome with many centuries of accumulations of little mistakes.
Since we've exited the Malthusian Trap successive generations have been accumulating more genetic load. We need biotechnologies that will let us clean it up. I hope to live long enough to get their benefits. Imagine rejuvenating stem cell therapies where as part of the preparation to turn your cells into stem cells their genomes get edited to remove large numbers of harmful mutations. As those cells spread across your body various organs would start functioning better than they did ever before in your life. That would be cool.