2014 April 29 Tuesday
Agricultural Drones Raise Farm Productivity

Autonomous small UAVs can fly around a farm at low altitude and take pictures of how the crops are doing. Then software can put all the pictures together, do image processing on them, and point out areas where, say, grapes are healthier or more stressed..

Look ahead about 30 years. A piece of autonomous farm equipment could break down. A drone could quickly fly parts to it from a warehouse many miles away. A farm robot could go out and replace the broken part. Then the equipment could restart and continue plowing or picking crops.

30 years is probably too far out. It seems more likely that 20 years from now most tractors will not be human-operated. I bet we will get fully autonomous tractors before fully automated cars. The farm presents fewer threats to humans if a tractor goes awry because fewer humans will be around. The automation itself will cut way down on already low numbers of people who work on most farms.

By Randall Parker 2014 April 29 10:08 PM 
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2014 April 23 Wednesday
Nuclear Bomb Sized Asteroid Explosions Hit Earth Every Year

The B612 Foundation (which attempts to build public support for defenses against killer asteroids) has released a report claiming that asteroids with nuclear bomb level of explosive force hit the Earth's atmosphere every year.

...between 2000 and 2013 some 26 explosions on Earth ranging in energy from 1 to 600 kilotons were caused by asteroids.

To put that in perspective, the Little Boy nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima had 16 kilotons of explosive force (or possibly 15 kt with the Nagasaki bomb at about 21 kt..

The Chelyabinsk asteroid was many times larger than the nuclear bombs that ended World War II.

The Earth is continuously colliding with fragments of asteroids, the largest in recent times exploding over Tunguska, Siberia in 1908 with an energy impact of 5-15 megatons. More recently, we witnessed the 600-kiloton impact in Chelyabinsk, Russia in 2013, and asteroid impacts greater than 20 kilotons occurred in South Sulawesi, Indonesia in 2009, in the Southern Ocean in 2004, and in the Mediterranean Sea in 2002. Important to note as well is the fact that none of these asteroids were detected or tracked in advance by any existing space-based or terrestrial observatory.

But luckily the asteroid above Chelyabinsk exploded at about 18 miles (29.7 km) high. By contrast, the 1908 Tunguska event asteroid exploded at about 5-10 km and had a similar or larger size than the Chelyabinsk asteroid.

The B612 folks say the recent asteroids exploded too high up in the atmosphere to cause damage. Watch their video:

Count me in with the people who say we ought to build asteroid defenses.

By Randall Parker 2014 April 23 08:42 PM 
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2014 April 21 Monday
Suppose Quantum Mechanical Wavefunctions Do Not Collapse

An infinite number of universes with all possible outcomes baby!

The classic Copenhagen interpretation, devised by Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in the 1920s, resolved this problem by positing that the wavefunction “collapses” into a specific location when a measurement is made. But Dr. Tegmark rejects this as an improvised and implausible solution. The wavefunction never collapses, he argues, and all its different values continue to exist side by side.

Max Tegmark makes the case for the infinite number of universes in Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality.

Then in some universe everyone of us has been tortured at many different points of our lives. I've been dictator of numerous countries and have either led them into golden ages or dark ages. You have been King of America and Emperor of Rome and Ruler of the Milky Way Galaxy. In some universe Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz of the Galactic Hyperspace Planning Council has wiped out Earth to build a new hyperspace bypass. In yet another universe democracy the Cuban Missile Crisis did not end well and in still another universe Julius Caesar avoided his assassins and he opted to enact soil conservation laws that prevented the eventual collapse of the Roman Empire.

I want to reach one of the universes where full body rejuvenation is already a done deal and where the AIs have not taken over and nanotech goo hasn't wiped out all life. Oh, and where the Yellowstone Cauldron isn't about to erupt.

Once I've got the full body rejuv and some nanobots to keep it that way I want to visit a universe where the Sarajevo 1914 assassins were stopped and World War I was prevented and the the Romanov dynasty did not collapse. The 20th century could have had a much happier outcome.

What sort of alternate universe do you seek?

By Randall Parker 2014 April 21 09:33 PM 
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2014 April 20 Sunday
Will Virtual Reality Decrease The Demand For Goods And Services?

One of the 50 or so ebooks I am cycling between (me no have patience to read single book at a time) is The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. The book is worth reading. But I have a bone to pick with it:

In some ways, the proliferation of free products even pushes GDP downward.

Really?

If the cost of creating and delivering an encyclopedia to your desktop is a few pennies instead of thousands of dollars, then you're certainly better off. But this decrease in costs lowers GDP even as our personal well-being increases, leaving GDP to travel in the opposite direction of our true well-being.

He gives assorted examples of free or cheaper services. But if people spend less on some stuff don't they just spend more on something else? I see no sign that people are saving more of their incomes because feel sated with all the free services they already own and use. After a long debt bender and the 2008 financial crisis consumers deleverated for a while. But now consumer debt is growing again.

Is some portion of the population more willing to work part time and go home and play video games for hours? I can believe that some lazy people will work less and play more given cheap enough ways to play and enough money to pay the rent and buy food. But most people? I think it more likely the poorer people will spend more time on leisure than those who can earn the big bucks.

Let us go further into the future. Will the ability to live more of one's life in virtual reality eventually decrease the desire to live in a real big house? Or will it decrease the desire to fly to Europe or Australia or a tropical island? Will virtual reality decrease the overall demand for goods and services or just shift demand around?

By Randall Parker 2014 April 20 09:39 AM 
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2014 April 19 Saturday
Willing To Use Lasers To Cause Rain?

If lasers can be used to cause rain and you are living in a drought region are you up for some local weather engineering?

The adage "Everyone complains about the weather but nobody does anything about it," may one day be obsolete if researchers at the University of Central Florida's College of Optics & Photonics and the University of Arizona further develop a new technique to aim a high-energy laser beam into clouds to make it rain or trigger lightning.

The solution? Surround the beam with a second beam to act as an energy reservoir, sustaining the central beam to greater distances than previously possible. The secondary "dress" beam refuels and helps prevent the dissipation of the high-intensity primary beam, which on its own would break down quickly. A report on the project, "Externally refueled optical filaments," was recently published in Nature Photonics.

Water condensation and lightning activity in clouds are linked to large amounts of static charged particles. Stimulating those particles with the right kind of laser holds the key to possibly one day summoning a shower when and where it is needed.

The American West could find itself in a prolonged drought since really massive droughts occur naturally and can last for over a century. Past megadroughts occurred before the American West became densely populated. American and Canadian Westerners: Are you willing to go to extreme lengths to deal with a drought? I'm not talking about lasers. My suspicion is that come the next megadrought the air will be too dry for lasers to pull much water out of the air.

What I have in mind: Nuclear power plants built along the North American coast line to provide the power to pump salt water hundreds of miles inland to massive (really massive) evaporation lakes. The salt will stay behind as the fresh water goes into the air to come back down when it reaches mountain ranges. We should aim for enough water to make the Colorado River flow higher than it has before and for the Missouri River Basin and the Saskatchewan River Basin in Alberta to get very hefty flows or rain run-off from evaporated and then precipitated salt water.

Coastal regions can survive in desalinated water. But further inland the need for water (especially for agriculture) is much greater. Can large evaporation lakes be built on fairly flat regions? I'm thinking, for example, desert areas in Nevada that are sparsely populated.

By Randall Parker 2014 April 19 07:07 PM 
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2014 April 16 Wednesday
Energy Usage Trends In USA

Lawrence Livermore National Lab reports on US energy usage in 2013.

Americans used more renewable, fossil and even nuclear energy in 2013, according to the most recent energy flow charts released by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Each year, the Laboratory releases energy flow charts that illustrate the nation's consumption and use of energy. Overall, Americans used 2.3 quadrillion thermal units more in 2013 than the previous year.

The Laboratory also has released a companion chart illustrating the nation's energy-related carbon dioxide emissions. Americans' carbon dioxide emissions increased to 5,390 million metric tons, the first annual increase since 2010.

Out of the 2.3 quads increase in energy usage 10% (0.24 quads) came from growth in wind power. Wind would need to grow 10 times faster to supply the amount of energy usage growth of the United States in 2013. Is a 10x acceleration in wind installations possible? Seems unlikely.

Wind energy continued to grow strongly, increasing 18 percent from 1.36 quadrillion BTUs, or quads, in 2012 to 1.6 quads in 2013 (a BTU or British Thermal Unit is a unit of measurement for energy; 3,400 BTU is equivalent to about 1 kilowatt-hour). New wind farms continue to come on line with bigger, more efficient turbines. Most new wind turbines can generate 2 to 2.5 megawatts of power.

To put that 1.6 quads from wind in perspective: The US used 97.4 quads in 2013. So 1.64% of total energy usage came from wind power.

Nuclear energy supplied over 5 times more energy than wind power. Nuclear did that with reliable base load power that runs all hours of night and day all year around. But coal provided over twice the energy of nuclear and oil provided almost double energy of coal.

Charles C. Mann, author of 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (which I am slowly reading) and 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created (which I will read some day) argues in a Wired piece that the future is Clean Coal with carbon capture and storage. This is going to be cheaper than nuclear power?

Even if FirstSolar can deliver on their optimistic projections for efficiency increases won't we still need non-wind and non-solar baseload power in large quantities? I am still skeptical of renewables as the majority sources of our energy supplies.

By Randall Parker 2014 April 16 08:43 PM 
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2014 April 13 Sunday
Nations Expanding Nuclear Power

A Technology Review infographic on nuclear power plants expected in the next 8 to 10 years tells an interesting story: China's planned increase in nuclear power is the largest, followed by Russia and India.

What I found most interesting: countries that will start using nuclear power for the first time. That includes Bangladesh, Belarus, Egypt, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Poland, Turkey, UAE, and Vietnam. I am guessing that the Polish and Lithuanians want to reduce their reliance on natural gas from Russia. Some of these countries are small. Can they handle big reactors swinging between operational and non-operational states?

By Randall Parker 2014 April 13 09:40 PM 
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We Can Tell Difference Between At Least A Trillion Odors

Never before have any scientists tried to figure out how many different odors humans can tell apart.

Vosshall had long been bothered by the idea that humans were limited to smelling 10,000 odors—an estimate that was made in the 1920s, and not backed by any data. “Objectively, everybody should have known that that 10,000 number had to be wrong,” she says. For one thing, it didn't make sense that humans should sense far fewer smells than colors. In the human eye, Vosshall explains, three light receptors work together to see up to 10 million colors. In contrast, the typical person's nose has 400 olfactory receptors.

What is not clear: How many kinds of receptors are there for smells? The 400 olfactory receptors are 400 different kinds of binding sites? Anyone know?

But no one had tested humans' olfactory capacity. “We know exactly the range of sound frequencies that people can hear, not because someone made it up, but because it was tested. We didn't just make up the fact that humans can't see infrared or ultraviolet light. Somebody took the time to test it,” Vosshall says. “For smell, nobody ever took the time to test.”

How many odors can a dog tell apart?

The researchers used combinations of odorant molecules that humans do not usually encounter.

They used 128 different odorant molecules to concoct their mixtures. The collection included diverse molecules that individually might evoke grass, or citrus, or various chemicals. But when combined into random mixtures of 10, 20, or 30, Vosshall says, they became largely unfamiliar. “We didn't want them to be explicitly recognizable, so most of our mixtures were pretty nasty and weird,” she says. “We wanted people to pay attention to 'here's this really complex thing – can I pick another complex thing as being different?'” The scientists presented their volunteers with three vials of scents at a time: two matched, and one different. Volunteers were asked to identify the one scent that was different from the others. Each volunteer made 264 such comparisons.

It strikes me that with genetic engineering it should be possible to create enhanced humans with a greater sense of smell. Will enhanced smell, hearing, seeing or feeling be most desired for future offspring? Hear a wider range of sounds? Or taste a wider range of food tastes?

Some women already have the ability to see 4 primary colors. So enhancing humans to see more colors does not seem a big stretch.

Just enhancing future offspring so that everyone can see 3 colors would enhance a substantial fraction of all future babies. I was recently surprised to learn that color blindness occurs at rates well above 1%.

Researchers from the Multi-Ethnic Pediatric Eye Disease Study Group tested 4,005 California preschool children age 3 to 6 in Los Angeles and Riverside counties for color blindness. They found the following prevalence by ethnicity for boys:

  • 5.6 percent of Caucasian boys

  • 3.1 percent of Asian boys

  • 2.6 percent for Hispanic boys

  • 1.4 percent of African-American boys

The prevalence of color blindness in girls measured 0 percent to 0.5 percent for all ethnicities, confirming findings in prior studies. However, the numbers were so low overall for girls that researchers say they cannot statistically compare rates between females among the four ethnicities studied.

Those numbers also surprise me due to the racial differences. Did different regions of the world have different levels of selective pressures for the ability to see more or fewer colors? What were the selective pressures that caused those differences? Or uis there some adaptive benefit from seeing fewer colors? Perhaps part of the brain gets freed up for other more valuable purposes?

By Randall Parker 2014 April 13 09:26 PM 
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2014 April 06 Sunday
Genetic Variant Quadruples Risk For Low IQ

Cardiff University researchers have found another genetic variant that plays a role in determining IQ.

They discovered that children with two copies of a common gene (Thr92Ala), together with low levels of thyroid hormone are four times more likely to have a low IQ. This combination occurs in about 4% of the UK population.

The post is by Oxford ethics prof Julian Savulescu. He points out that while doing IVF (in vitro fertilization followed by implantation) it would be fairly easy to screen for this and other genetic variants to select which embryo to implant. He finds it appealing to select against thisThr92Ala genetic variant because it would selective boost the intelligence of lower IQ folks. Therefore it would reduce inequality.

Another common objection to enhancement is that it would create inequality, allowing the rich to get smarter and pass on these benefits to their children. In this case, however, the interventions would only benefit those with an IQ of 70-85 – so it would in fact reduce inequality. This is a strong argument in their favour.

I certainly think that selecting against passing 2 copies of this genetic variant to offspring is worthwhile and should be started sooner rather than later. But I do not think the legality of using genetic info for embryo selection should be weighed based the expected impact on equality of outcomes. It seems very short-sighted to oppose raising the intelligence of the children of very bright people in a quest for greater equality of outcomes. We all benefit from the higher levels of productivity of very bright scientists, engineers, managers, and scholars.

Already lots of genetic markers associated with intelligence difference are known and so the knowledge already exists to allow pre-implantation embryo selection to be done to boost intelligence. What is so far missing (at least to my knowledge): availability all those genetic markers in a test service for fertility clinics.

We still need more genetic markers for intelligence and also genetic markers for personality differences. I am hoping that when prospective parents gain the ability to select genetic variants for their offspring they will opt for more conscientiousness and that they won't go for genetic variants that create psychopaths. But I am uncertain what sorts of children psychopaths and border line psychopaths will choose to create. We might see the human race divergence into incompatible personality types that eventually cause societies to schism into separate new societies.

By Randall Parker 2014 April 06 08:46 PM 
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2014 April 01 Tuesday
Early Expensive Rejuvenation Therapies To Offer High ROI

Rejuvenation therapies will start out expensive. Who will pay for them? People who can afford it. Why will they pay? It is not just about living longer. It is also about earning longer. This means that the earliest stage rejuvenation therapies can be very expensive. The market will still be very large even when the costs are still quite high. 167,000 people globally are worth more than $30 million each. Suppose a biotech company could come up with a series of gene therapies that cost $1 million to administer but extended life on average by 10 years. The market just among the super rich will add up to about $167 billion.

But a lot more people than that could afford $1 million treatments. The top 1% of households in America make over a half million dollars per year. That's millions of people in America alone. Take someone age 55 who is earning big money. First, they can afford a very expensive series of treatments, Plus a rejuvenation therapy that added to productive working years would pay for itself. If they could extend their working life by another 10 years (say from 65 to 75) at greater vigor then the money spent on gene therapy would pay itself back by multiples. Plus, the buyers would get to live longer.

Part of the payback on rejuvenation therapy comes in the form of savings in other health care spending. When a person gets rejuvenation therapies that even partially reverse body aging they'll avoid treatments for kidney disease, liver disease, cancer, heart disease, bad joints, and many other expensive maladies.

Gene therapy for brain rejuvenation would have the highest payoff. The highest paid brain workers could keep pulling on big bucks for longer. The work would even become easier to do as a a brain full of decades of experience and training gets boosts in short term memory, mathematical ability, spatial reasoning, and other brain capabilities.

When early stage rejuvenation therapies become available we should expect to see a few notable changes in lifestyles and career choices. First, those who can barely afford them will cut back on discretionary spending. Second, people will delay retirement to save more for treatments. Third, people will shift toward work that pays better in order to save more for treatments. Fourth, political demands by the elderly will soar to cut other forms of public expenditure and raise taxes in order to ramp up government spending on rejuvenation.

By Randall Parker 2014 April 01 10:18 PM 
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