2014 January 31 Friday
Genetically Engineered Monkeys In China

Check out this article in Nature: First monkeys with customized mutations born. How cool is that? How soon till the uplift wars over whether monkeys or orangutans should be made highly intelligent? (I think creating effective biological competitors is a bad idea btw)

The scientists used a fairly recently developed system for genetic alteration called CRISPER-Cas9. If you are so inclined and have enough money you can buy CRISPER-Cas9 genome editing tools CRISPER-Cas9 is being used to tweak human cells in culture for a variety of purposes including the study of genes that confer resistance of cancer cells against chemotherapy agents. In a few weeks scientists can create mammalian cells with precisely altered DNA.

Since the medical regulations around human genetic engineering (at least in Western countries) is much stricter than regulations around twiddling genes in other species it seems reasonable to expect cognitive genetic engineering in primates and other mammals before it is done in humans. I expect we will see cognitive genetic engineering in dogs or monkeys in 10 years if not sooner. Some of it will be done to study mental illnesses.

Update: See a diagram of how CRISPER-Cas9 genome editing works. This technique is going to become heavily used.

By Randall Parker 2014 January 31 11:25 PM 
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2014 January 27 Monday
We Aren't Designed For Zero Gravity

A good science article by Kenneth Chang in the Gray Lady is worth a read: Beings Not Made for Space.

HOUSTON — In space, heads swell.

A typical human being is about 60 percent water, and in the free fall of space, the body’s fluids float upward, into the chest and the head. Legs atrophy, faces puff, and pressure inside the skull rises.

Yes, we are not designed for zero-G. We also aren't designed for radiation and lower gravity (let alone the lack of air) on the Moon or Mars.

We aren't biologically ready for space. Humans need to be genetically reengineered to be able to adapt well to living off this Earth. Even on this Earth only a few populations (Tibetans, a subset of Ethiopians, and some Andes Amerinds) are adapted to high altitude and they differ in their degree of adaptation. I'd take the Tibetan genetic adaptations if I had a choice and needed to live in thin air.

We will need to look for genetic adaptions to extreme conditions found in other species to find ways to adapt ourselves to Mars or the Moon. How to handle more radiation? How to be able to store enough oxygen to let us survive a breech of an enclosed habitat for long enough to get into space suits? We need genetic solutions for these and other problems.

By Randall Parker 2014 January 27 09:36 PM 
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2014 January 25 Saturday
Will Zombies Freeze In The Winter?

Cold weather has got me thinking: Zombies will freeze solid in the winter in cold climates. We will be able to go around and chop their frozen heads off.

So if a zombie apocalypse happens in the winter the northern US, Canada, and most of Europe and Russia will survive. What will be key for long term survival: Set up defensible borders facing southward for when the thaw comes. Stop those zombies from moving north from Maryland, Virginia, the Western coastal regions, and other warmer climes. Switzerland would need to cut itself off from most of Italy and France. The Germans would need to keep out French and Spanish zombies as well.

Russia would be in a tough situation with a huge long southern border. How could they hold the line come the thaw? UAVs with motion detectors traveling over huge areas? How to funnel the zombies into killing zones? Human dummies with simple electromechanical hand waving and voice boxes? "Hey zombies! Here zombies! Come on, get some flesh.". Maybe cover the dummies with some artificial chemicals that smell like love meat?

By Randall Parker 2014 January 25 07:00 PM 
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2014 January 23 Thursday
Omega 3 Fatty Acids Slow Brain Aging?

More omega 3 fatty acids are correlated with larger brain sizes.

MINNEAPOLIS – People with higher levels of the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil may also have larger brain volumes in old age equivalent to preserving one to two years of brain health, according to a study published in the January 22, 2014, online issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology. Shrinking brain volume is a sign of Alzheimer's disease as well as normal aging.

For the study, the levels of omega-3 fatty acids EPA+DHA in red blood cells were tested in 1,111 women who were part of the Women's Health Initiative Memory Study. Eight years later, when the women were an average age of 78, MRI scans were taken to measure their brain volume.

Those with higher levels of omega-3s had larger total brain volumes eight years later. Those with twice as high levels of fatty acids (7.5 vs. 3.4 percent) had a 0.7 percent larger brain volume.

"These higher levels of fatty acids can be achieved through diet and the use of supplements, and the results suggest that the effect on brain volume is the equivalent of delaying the normal loss of brain cells that comes with aging by one to two years," said study author James V. Pottala, PhD, of the University of South Dakota in Sioux Falls and Health Diagnostic Laboratory, Inc., in Richmond, Va.

Those with higher levels of omega-3s also had a 2.7 percent larger volume in the hippocampus area of the brain, which plays an important role in memory. In Alzheimer's disease, the hippocampus begins to atrophy even before symptoms appear.

The results would be more convincing if the report said that the brain scans were done also at the beginning of the 8 year period. Maybe people with bigger brains just eat more omega 3 fatty acids.

By Randall Parker 2014 January 23 09:09 PM 
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2014 January 21 Tuesday
Earth Going To Cool From Low Sunspot Activity?

The sun emits more light energy when sunspot activity is high and sunspot activity runs in an 11 year cycle. Currently sunspot activity is low even though the sun is at a point in the 11 year cycle that ought to make sunspots and solar light emissions high. The BBC asks Is our Sun falling silent?

"I've been a solar physicist for 30 years, and I've never seen anything quite like this," says Richard Harrison, head of space physics at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire.

If this keeps up a mini Ice Age is possible.

Mike Lockwood University of Reading says that the lower temperatures could affect the global jetstream, causing weather systems to collapse.

The Maunder Minimum of low sunspot activity between 1645 and 1715 occurred during what is known as the Little Ice Age. The Little Ice Age might have had multiple causes and lasted much longer than the Maunder Minimum. But the Maunder Minimum was a contributing factor.

The Sun could suddenly turn up again on the next cycle. What is it going to do? Try guessing. Just keep in mind that you have no idea. As I've previously noted we lived thru a pretty mild 20th century and the 19th century saw much more severe weather changes. The 21st century could witness greater shifts and extremes of climate, more like the 19th century. Major cooling followed by major heating is possible.

By Randall Parker 2014 January 21 10:45 PM 
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2014 January 20 Monday
Some People Are Super Disease Spreaders

Wonder who will be first to die in a massive killer pandemic or perhaps in a zombie apocalypse? Those who have an especially large web of contacts. At least the authorities in Singapore are going to know who these people are. As soon as some of them start acting like zombies all of them should be hunted down in order to save the city. That much is clear. Other parts of the world face a grimmer prospect.

Though perhaps Tokyo's government will follow up with research of their own patterned after the work in Singapore. Many Tokyo subway riders already wear face masks. So I think the Japanese would get into measures to protect them from super spreaders.

Likely super spreaders should at least take vaccines at the beginning of flu seasons for all new strains so that they do not serve as conduits.

By Randall Parker 2014 January 20 10:00 PM 
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2014 January 18 Saturday
$1000 Genome Sequencing Arrives From Illumina

A very large number of very useful genetic discoveries are awaiting sequencing technology cheap enough to enable a huge increase in the amount of DNA sequencing that scientists can do. Well, the $1000 genome has finally arrived.

SAN DIEGO--(BUSINESS WIRE)--Jan. 14, 2014-- Illumina, Inc. (NASDAQ:ILMN) today broke the ‘sound barrier’ of human genomics by enabling the $1,000 genome. This achievement is made possible by the new HiSeq X Ten Sequencing System. This platform includes dramatic technology breakthroughs that enable researchers to undertake studies of unprecedented scale by providing the throughput to sequence tens of thousands of human whole genomes in a single year in a single lab. Initial customers for the transformative HiSeq X Ten System include Macrogen, a global next-generation sequencing service organization based in Seoul, South Korea and its CLIA laboratory in Rockville, Maryland, the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the world’s leading research institute in genomic medicine, and the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney, Australia, a world leader in biomedical research.

Sign me up. I want to get my full genome sequenced.

I like the sound of this: "we have an opportunity to learn as much about the genetics of human disease as we have learned in the history of medicine."

“For the first time, it looks like it will be possible to deliver the $1,000 genome, which is tremendously exciting,” said Eric Lander, founding director of the Broad Institute and a professor of biology at MIT. “The HiSeq X Ten should give us the ability to analyze complete genomic information from huge sample populations. Over the next few years, we have an opportunity to learn as much about the genetics of human disease as we have learned in the history of medicine.”

What I'm hoping for: these genetic engineering machines will get installed in some countries without of the US FDA attitude about direct-to-consumer genetic testing. Preferred: a country that has good vacation spots. Go on vacation, come back with a full genome sequence.

The US FDA has shut down 23andme's ability to sell services that give you digested genetic variant interpretation, at least in the US. If 23andme or another company could sell you genetic interpretation services while are in, say Bermuda or Mexico or Australia (or Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, or Ukraine) we could go on vacation trips and find out useful information about our genomes.

If any readers ever come across genetic full genome testing services outside of the United States for affordable countries please let us all know. I'd like to be able to pay while abroad to get a stream of years of genetic interpretation updates by email.

We will know about impacts of hundreds and possibly thousands of more genetic variants in the next few years.

Another big benefit: identification of many mutations that help cancers grow. Anyone getting diagnosed with cancer will likely get tested for dozens or hundreds of mutations to see which ones are in that cancer. Since cancers are genetically very heterogeneous (different cancer cells have different mutations) many different cells extracted from different parts of a tumor will get tested. This will allow targeting of treatments at the specific mutations one has.

Starting in late 2007 the cost of genome sequencing started falling much more rapidly than the previous historical trend. Check out this trend line:

By Randall Parker 2014 January 18 08:37 PM 
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2014 January 16 Thursday
Our Surveilled and Monitored Future

This article "Tiny robots to prowl US-Mexico border's dark drug tunnels" fits a larger pattern: all manner of surveillance and monitoring robots will be developed and deployed. How many of the places where it is possible to break a law or rule today will become so monitored by computers in the future that such rule-breaking will become impossible?

Knightscope's robot watchman, the K5 Autonomous Data Machine, fits this pattern as well.

Think of how many security guards sit at a front desk of an office building or warehouse watching video cameras stationed throughout a building. With internet bandwidth so cheap the security workers do not even have to be in the same building or even the same town or country. But add really powerful image processing and more types of sensors (e.g. motions sensors) and most of the monitoring will be done by computers. The monitoring will be far cheaper than using human security guards and therefore will be far more extensive.

Suppose you are walking down a city street 20 or 30 years from now. You feel scared at some people you see approaching. What to do? Tell your smartphone to send a signal to turn on heightened surveillance for all the cameras trained in the area you are walking. Computers in big data centers will start doing heavy processing on all the video and audio feeds near you and will even go back some minutes and track back everyone near you and identify and assess their risk to you.

If a signal comes back that your risk from approaching people is substantial then police or private security could be dispatched in your direction. But even better: an autonomous vehicle could activate and from a few blocks away race to go up to you so you can get in and get whisked to safety.

Another alternative: a nearby building could open a door for you and lock if after you enter into a safe area.

By Randall Parker 2014 January 16 08:56 PM 
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2014 January 11 Saturday
Over Three Quarters Of Large Carnivores In Decline

23 of the world's 31 large carnivores are in decline as humans shift more wild lands into grazing areas for livestock and areas for crops. Some are at risk of extinction. This causes other species to grow in number and they eat too much of whatever they use as food. Lions, wolves, polar bears, sea otters, and cougars are among those dwindling in numbers.

Three quarters of the species of top carnivores – lions, wolves, polar bears among them – are steadily declining worldwide, creating a cascade of negative effects that may threaten the planet’s top predator, man, according to a panel of research scientists.

The paper is in Science. The West African Lions face a severe extinction threat.

Most of these species will go extinct, at least outside of zoos. We should collect as many DNA samples now as possible in case the world's human population ever goes down far enough to allow these other species to make comebacks.

What dooms these species? human population growth. On top of that industrialization increases the amount of land used per person to grow food.

By Randall Parker 2014 January 11 06:29 PM 
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2014 January 10 Friday
Race Against Or With Intelligent Machines?

Currently reading (along with at least 50 other books): Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. They make the argument that productivity is rapidly increasing but that lots of workers aren't currently making the transition to new careers when automation destroys their jobs.

Their hope is that at some point the rising displacement of human workers by machines will reverse as more people find ways to work in ways complementary to the machine. If that can happen on a massive scale we'll enter a sort of golden age where a large fraction of us become much more productive as a result of working in close coordination and partnership with increasingly powerful computers. Count me skeptical. Why? Computers will get better than humans at a gradually lengthening list of cognitive abilities. I do not expect humans retain any advantage in the long run.

Ever heard of Moravec's Paradox? It summarizes the view of artificial intelligence researchers that it is easier to automate the tasks we do consciously (e.g. examine lots of combinations of ways to put together logic gates to design a computer chip or analyze lots of potential moves in a chess game) than to program a computer to do facial recognition and walking as well as humans. In other words, cognitive abilities that almost all humans possess from a very young age and which get done below the level of conscious reasoning are the hardest to automate.

But just become some tasks are harder doesn't mean they don't eventually get done well by computers. Look at facial recognition. Already you can unlock a tablet or cell phone with a picture of yourself. Also, computers will get better at tasks that require great manual dexterity.

In his book Average Is Over Tyler Cowen (who wrote after Race Against The Machine and was obviously influenced by it) describes how the best chess players are teams of one or two humans with chess playing software. This is an example of complementary strengths of human and computer intelligence resulting in higher performance. Brynjolfsson and McAfee also cite examples such as small sellers on eBay and Amazon who are able to carve new niches because of massively complex online stores and auctions. But the numbers of people who can find and have the skills to develop these niches seem much smaller than the numbers who are getting laid off from factory and middle management jobs.

I see a few possible futures in the relationship between humans and intelligent machines:

  • A happy ending for the masses where most people find ways to produce more value by working with powerful information systems.
  • A widening gap between the cognitive elite (who will still find ways to work synergistically with computers for decades to come) and the masses (who become as useless to the labor markets as horses have become on farms and roads).
  • An outcome where intelligent machines become first class citizens with property ownership and companies they control. The machines gradually end up owning more property and even the smartest humans suffer declining labor market value.

Which one of these will happen? Let me put it this way: I, for one, welcome our new AI overlords.

By Randall Parker 2014 January 10 08:02 PM 
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2014 January 06 Monday
Suppose We Could Geoengineer Polar Vortex Southward Bulges

The southern pine beetle has been doing great damage to the New Jersey Pine Barrens. But it dies at -16C (about 3F). So what is needed to prevent its spread? A periodic severe cold snap. As I write this Tabernacle NJ (in the pine barrens) will get down to 5F tonight. Close but not quite.

To stop the southern pine beetle A polar vortex where cold weather breaks thru from the arctic and heads south would deliver the needed cold if it was nudged to go a bit further to the south and east.

Similarly, the march of mangroves northward in Florida could be stopped by a couple of -4 C cold snaps.

Periodic cold snaps would wipe out a number of pests and invasive species. Could a periodic surge of the polar vortex into the US east coast be geoengineered? If you think the answer is yes do you have any ideas on how to do this?

We might have more polar vortexes surging southward in our future.

By Randall Parker 2014 January 06 07:35 PM 
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2014 January 05 Sunday
Effects On Brain From Novel Reading

Emory University researchers studied the lingering effects of reading the novel Pompeii by doing fMRI brain scans on participants each morning after they had read part of the book. Novel reading caused the brain to function differently the next morning and for days afterward.

For the first five days, the participants came in each morning for a base-line fMRI scan of their brains in a resting state. Then they were given nine sections of the novel, about 30 pages each, over a nine-day period. They were asked to read the assigned section in the evening, and come in the following morning. After taking a quiz to ensure they had finished the assigned reading, the participants underwent an fMRI scan of their brain in a non-reading, resting state. After completing all nine sections of the novel, the participants returned for five more mornings to undergo additional scans in a resting state.

The results showed heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, an area of the brain associated with receptivity for language, on the mornings following the reading assignments. “Even though the participants were not actually reading the novel while they were in the scanner, they retained this heightened connectivity,” Berns says. “We call that a ‘shadow activity,’ almost like a muscle memory.”

I feel a lasting altered mental state after reading fiction. So I am not surprised by this result. What I'd like to know: can one tune the performance of one's brain by reading a certain type of material to temporarily make it function better for some purpose? Do you do any reading as sort of exercise before some demanding activity? I can see reading some psychological suspense novel to up your game to help you deal with psychologically trying people. Or perhaps read something after an ordeal to let go of the lingering effects of an especially trying verbal exchange.

What I'd like to see: a comparative brain scan study of the effects of novel reading, TV show watching, and movie watching. Does reading a novel cause longer lasting effects?

People who read this novel had more connectivity in the primary sensory motor region of the brain. All that imaginary walking and running exercised the brain.

Heightened connectivity was also seen in the central sulcus of the brain, the primary sensory motor region of the brain. Neurons of this region have been associated with making representations of sensation for the body, a phenomenon known as grounded cognition. Just thinking about running, for instance, can activate the neurons associated with the physical act of running.

“The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist,” Berns says. “We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”

I want imaginary running to send a message to my muscles that make them develop as if they had been running.

By Randall Parker 2014 January 05 07:21 PM 
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2014 January 02 Thursday
Aging Gene Makes Stem Cells Useful For Old Age Disease Study

Scientists who study Parkinson's Disease and other diseases of the nervous system associated with aging haven't been able to create lab versions of these diseases. One problem: neurons created from stem cells which contain risk genes for Parkinson's are too youthful to develop the disease. What to do? Memorial Sloan-Kettering researchers used a mutant version of the progerin gene that causes accelerated aging. By putting mutant progerin into stem cells they were able to accelerate cellular aging to the point that the cells got Parkinson's disease.

When the team treated stem-cell-derived nerve cells with progerin, they witnessed a remarkable effect: The nerve cells began to age rapidly and within a matter of days displayed many signs of cell aging, including DNA damage and changes to cell energy production. “It was pretty shocking,” recalls Dr. Studer. “We thought we might get one or two markers. No one believed that it was going to work so well.”

Next the researchers made stem cells from individuals with Parkinson’s disease and generated the type of nerve cell that dies off in Parkinson’s. When the nerve cells were treated with progerin, they developed the characteristic features of Parkinson’s and began to degenerate.

This makes it easier to figure out why some genetic variants increase the risk of Parkinson's disease and to try out methods to block the disease's progression. This method might also be useful for investigating the mechanisms which cause Alzheimer's and other neurodegenerative diseases.

Stem cell therapies by themselves will not be enough for full brain rejuvenation. We need our memories and structure that existing neurons give us. Plus, older cells are probably a source of toxins to neighboring cells. We need ways to selectively fix or kill old cells.

By Randall Parker 2014 January 02 09:27 PM 
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2014 January 01 Wednesday
Geopolitics Of Climate Engineering

See this piece in Technology Review called The Geopolitics Of Geoengineering.

With the publication of A Case for Climate Engineering, David Keith, a Harvard physicist and energy policy expert, goes one step further. He lays out arguments—albeit hedged with caveats—for actually deploying geoengineering. He says that releasing sun-blocking aerosol particles in the stratosphere (see “A Cheap and Easy Plan to Stop Global Warming,” March/April 2013) “is doable in the narrow technocratic sense.”

In a previous post I provided some links to simulations about where precipitation will increase or decrease in a warmer world. The answers are not yet clear. But it seems the equator will, get a lot wetter and the American southwest and Mexico will get drier. Surely the accuracy of the climate models will improve as a result of research into climate enables creation of more accurate models. That's when things will get interesting.

Once climate models can tell each country whether and how much their climate will improve with a warmer world (more rains in current deserts, warmer weather in now too cold regions) their interests will strongly conflict with countries which can expect worse climate (e.g. droughts, temperatures so high as to make a region unlivable, floods, frequent severe weather episodes). Suppose some country which is paying a large and rising cost starts releasing cooling gases. Will more powerful countries which benefit from warming attack or organize trade embargoes to economic sabotage?

To put it another way: The biggest obstacle in the way of climate engineering is not technological. Cooling the planet would be easy. The hard part: national governments who stand to lose from turning back the climate clock to, say, year 1900 weather.

If the Earth heats up a lot my guess is we will get climate engineering. But climate engineering will not stop and reverse ocean acidification caused by more carbon dioxide dissolving into the oceans.

By Randall Parker 2014 January 01 05:49 PM 
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