2014 November 30 Sunday
Thinking About Future IO Devices

I own some recently purchased hard copy books because some books were published before ebooks became the rage, the books are out of print, they aren't available in ebook format, and I have to buy them used. Here's the interesting part: I read hard copy books much more slowly than ebooks. The effort to go figure out where I last left this or that hard copy book takes too much time as compared to switching between about 150 partially read ebooks which I currently have on Kindle or Nexus tablet.

I'm going to keep all my hard copy books next to my bed to increase the odds I'll put hard copy books into the rotation when reading in bed. This might or might not help.

I happen to own multiple Kindles, tablets, Chromebooks, and the like so that when the battery gets low on one I can just switch to another one while recharging. These devices are so cheap that I'm currently buying more redundant devices. When I say cheap I really mean that. Back before flat panels were available I used to own 2 big tube Hitachi monitors that cost about $1800 each (more adjusted for inflation). All my phones, tablets, Kindles and other devices do not cost that much. Nor do they together take up as much space as just one of those big CRTs. So why not go for redundancy for greater convenience?

But these current devices, as advanced as they seem compared to 20 years ago, are still primitive as compared to where devices are going in the future. What seems like the big frontier: Make a device that interfaces with the brain, lets you connect up different pieces of information with your thoughts, and then later retrieve the collected pieces of info.

I'm thinking about how that is going to work. What we need: for the computer that interfaces with our minds to suggest labels (which serve as categories) to place on stuff we are reading. It is too much effort for your mind to have to type on a virtual keyboard. Suppose you are just about finished reading an article and want to retrieve it again.. Better that the computer offer some labels and you choose a few. One label could be a request for a future action such as "remind me of this 2 days from now along with everything else connected to the same other label I also just assigned to this article".

Are we going to need to make visible physical motions in order to rapidly interact with a computer interface in our brains? Maybe we need to be able to use our arms to choose virtual menu options. But there is a lot of advantage in meeting situations to being able to mark info for connection and retrieval without showing outward signs of motion. Maybe little twists of one hand on a finger in another could allow menu item choosing in a much less conspicuous manner.

How about hardware upgrades? You can buy a new cell phone every year or even more often. But once we have implants interfaced to our brains how often will the upgrade cycle happen? Will we get implants that require brain surgery? That'd make upgrades pretty rare. Or will robots go up thru the nose and do the upgrades fast? Or will the implants go somewhere lower down and then snake microtubes into the brain?

Seems to me that brain implants are going to really hard and take a long time. The harder part seems like computer output to the brain visual system. So I think we are a long way away (at least 2 decades) from brain implants for the masses. Implants for those with severe handicaps will come sooner because the benefit is much higher. But the cost and risk of fiddling with the brain has to get way low before it becomes mainstream.

Given the high hurdle to brain interfaces we are likely to see decades of refinement for more conventional interfaces. Perhaps we will see 20 to 30 years of successive refinements of virtual reality worn head gear combined with keyboard gloves as more compact typing devices that take the place of conventional keyboards. But putting on gloves and taking them off seems like a time-consuming annoyance. Maybe we'll hear a glove-like layer that attaches to the tops of our hands to detect finger motion so that the tips of our fingers retain full sensitivity to pick up and manipulate anything in our physical environment.

Some people (especially gamers) are going to be up for wearing more extensive IO devices. So full gloves and helmets have a future. But for people who want to retain the ability to seamlessly interact with the physical world around them while also interacting with computers we are going to need interfaces that are less invasive.

By Randall Parker 2014 November 30 08:39 PM 
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2014 November 28 Friday
High Blood Pressure An Immune Disease?

Placental growth factor in mice activates an immune response that causes high blood pressure.

High blood pressure is a leading cause of death around the world, and its prevalence continues to rise. A study published by Cell Press on November 20th in the journal Immunity shows that a protein in the spleen called placental growth factor (PlGF) plays a critical role in activating a harmful immune response that leads to the onset of high blood pressure in mice. The findings pave the way for the development of more effective treatments for this common and deadly condition.

But since the nervous system controls placental growth factor levels maybe high blood pressure is really a nervous system disorder. Or maybe something sends the wrong signal to the nervous system.

Additional experiments revealed that the nervous system controls levels of PlGF in the spleen, and PlGF in the spleen in turn is essential for the activation of T cells and the onset of hypertension.

When will high blood pressure become a curable disease?

By Randall Parker 2014 November 28 12:30 PM 
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2014 November 27 Thursday
DNA Methylation And Aging

On the backbone of the DNA double helix enzymes attach methyl groups (just 1 carbon and 3 hydrogens) as a way to regulate gene expression. Some Wake Forest researchers have taken a look at whether DNA methylation is one of the mechanisms that cause diseases associated with aging.

In a study published in the current issue of Nature Communications, the researchers found age-related differences in DNA methylation in 8 percent of the 450,000 sites tested across the genome. Most of these changes did not seem to affect which cellular genes were turned on or off. However, the Wake Forest Baptist team did find a small subset of age-linked DNA methylation changes -- 1,794 of the 450,000 sites tested -- that were associated with altered gene expression. Out of this subset, 42 sites were associated with pulse pressure, a measure of vascular health that is known to change with age. "Our work suggests that most of the age-associated changes in DNA methylation do not have an obvious effect on cellular function, in this case altering gene expression, and some of them may just amount to noise," said Yongmei Liu, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of public health sciences at Wake Forest Baptist and corresponding author of the study.

We need super cheap DNA methylation measurement methods just like we need super cheap DNA sequencing methods. We can not figure out how the body works, how it breaks down, and how to repair it without absolutely massive amounts of data. Since patterns of DNA methylation vary by cell type the methylation patterns need to be checked in many cell types in order to discover patterns. To get full picture scientists need to periodically measure DNA methylation in many cell types in a large cohort of people.

The researchers in this study used only 1,264 people. A huge reduction in testing costs would enable a scaling up of the number of people tested by a few orders of magnitude. Then a longitudinal study to track health outcomes would enable the discovery of many relationships between methylation patterns, health, and longevity.

Even once many relationships between DNA methylation and health outcomes are discovered it will be hard to use the knowledge to formulate treatments. First, it will be hard to develop drugs that reverse a methylation pattern. Even if a drug is found that can reverse a harmful methylation it might turn out that in some cell types that methylation is needed. So selective intervention will be needed in some cases.

Even worse, some methylations that occur with age are probably protective even as they lower the ability of some tissue to function. If a cell is heavily damaged then cellular division could run the risk of producing cancer. Some age-related methylations could be done to prevent cell division in damaged cells. Reversing the methylations could increase the risk of cancer even while reversing some other disease.

We might end up needing to kill cells with certain methylation patterns in order to make room for healthier cells to take over their job.

By Randall Parker 2014 November 27 10:45 PM 
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2014 November 17 Monday
Contraceptives Suppress Facial Attractiveness

From the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS): Birth control pills alter how women's minds measure facial attractiveness in their men.

Hormonal contraceptives (HCs) are believed to suppress biological processes associated with women’s preferences for cues of partner genetic fitness, cues that may be summarized by men’s facial attractiveness. Two longitudinal studies of marriage demonstrate that wives who used HCs at relationship formation became less satisfied when they discontinued HCs if their husband had a relatively less attractive face, but more satisfied if their husband had a relatively more attractive face.

So if you aren't so good looking and your wife was on the pill when you married her you've got a problem coming up when she goes off it. Just how many divorces has this caused?

Thinking about marrying a women who is on the pill? If she was on an IUD you could be more sure of the long term prospects. The pill puts female brains into a state similar in some respects to that which they go into when pregnant.

We are going to gain the ability to tweak our mental states in numerous and quite nuanced ways. I will turn down my own attraction to females whenever I want to get a lot of work done. I'll also turn a knob to make the tedious tasks feel like much more fun. Plus, I'll turn a knob to raise the threshold environmental stimuli have to reach before they cause a shift in my attention.

By Randall Parker 2014 November 17 09:37 PM 
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2014 November 14 Friday
In UK 35% Of Existing Jobs To Be Automated In 20 Years

More robots and computers replacing human labor.

But a new study by professional services firm Deloitte has quantified the rate of destruction for the U.K. jobs market over the next 20 years – predicting that around one-third (35 per cent) of existing jobs across the U.K. are under high risk of replacement via automation over this time period.

The study authors claim those the lower paying jobs will get laid off at 5 times the rate of higher paying jobs. During the industrial revolution demand for factory workers rose as machines became more productive because the value of human labor was enhanced by what the humans, using machines, could produce. But in the current era the machines are getting smarter and more autonomous.

What is telling: chart 4 shows that since year 2000 in manufacturing employment has increased for advanced degree holders while going down for everyone else. The size of the decline is most severe for high school drop-outs. This pattern is going to repeat in a growing list of industries.

Some dark factories (a.k.a. lights-out factories) have no humans on the factory floor for substantial lengths of time. Technicians still come in to do repairs or rearrange the equipment. The rest of the time machines do all the work. Robots are moving into more industries. Dark warehouses are coming next. Distribution is getting automated in warehouses.

Such advances in manufacturing are also beginning to transform other sectors that employ millions of workers around the world. One is distribution, where robots that zoom at the speed of the world’s fastest sprinters can store, retrieve and pack goods for shipment far more efficiently than people. Robots could soon replace workers at companies like C & S Wholesale Grocers, the nation’s largest grocery distributor, which has already deployed robot technology.

We can not simply extrapolate from a graph of the last N years to say what the world will be like 20 years from now. Discontinuities happen. Suddenly some development will depart from trend. This could mean that robots do not advance as some expect. But with many new kinds of gadgets there is an S-shaped curve where suddenly adoption goes up sharply when a technology reaches a level of maturity that makes it broadly useful. This has happened with PCs and cell phones for example.

My expectation: The ranks of unemployed and not looking for work will continue to grow. The work ethic is weakening and demand for government support to enable a non-working life will grow as the work ethnic declines.

Robots are going to enable capitalists to move capital out of high population countries as a way to avoid taxes, regulations, and political instability. Why put your factory at political risk of electric power cut-offs when politicians regulate an electric market in a way that puts sufficient power supply at risk? Why put your factory at risk of redistributionist taxes? I think the managers of capital will use automation to enable greater capital mobility and flight from political risk.

Only tariffs and transportation costs can reduce the flight of capital by making imports from robotic islands cost more. But if the most affluent people who have the money to buy the output of factories decide to move across borders to get outside of tariff zones then the tariffs won't be effective in keeping the factories from fleeing. We could end up in a future where a small highly skilled fraction of the world's population live in small offshore refuge countries which have more robots than humans.

By Randall Parker 2014 November 14 11:46 AM 
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2014 November 09 Sunday
BCG Sees Robots Growing 10.4% To 2025

Like generals who prepare to fight the last war some economists are trying to encourage us to fight old demographic battles. Tyler Cowen and Robin Hanson, you are fighting the last war while the new one takes shape: 10.4% CAGR (Compounded Annual Growth Rate) says a Boston Consulting Group report.

Initially, robots were used mainly for dirty, dull, repetitive, or dangerous tasks that did not require high precision, such as painting car doors or spot welding. Today’s robots, by contrast, are moving into a new range of precision applications far beyond the manufacturing realm. For instance, they’re enabling food processors to make products untouched by human hands. At Sweden-based Charkman Group, robots slice and pack high volumes of salami, ham, turkey, rolled pork, and other cooked meats. At the heart of the line is an intelligent portion-loading robot that can handle 150 picks per minute across multiple sizes and types of meat.

Pay attention to "Robot density".

“Robot density,” a metric indicating the number of robots per 10,000 manufacturing workers, is currently highest in South Korea and Japan. Approximately, 40 percent of the industrial robots used today are in the automotive sector, in which robot density already tops 1,000 in five countries—Japan, France, Germany, the U.S., and Italy.

What happens to this measure when there are not even 10,000 manufacturing workers left in car factories?

I do not want human domestic servants. I eagerly await the Dyson Eye vacuum cleaner and other robotic home servants.

By Randall Parker 2014 November 09 10:52 AM 
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2014 November 08 Saturday
Genetic Modification Cuts Acrylamide In Fried Potatoes

Safer french fries thru science.

What I'd also like to see potatoes genetically engineered to not build up solanine (the poison that makes potatoes green).

As more poisons in plants are identified and plant genetic engineering becomes cheaper to do we should alter more crops to be safer to eat.

By Randall Parker 2014 November 08 03:10 PM 
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2014 November 03 Monday
Automation Cuts Human Contact In Commercial Transactions

The next step on the road to greater automation to eliminate contact with clerks, cashiers, and sales agents: Keyless check-in to hotel rooms using a smart phone app.

Smart phones are going to become like magic wands. Rental car doors will open when you press a button on your smart phone. Hotel doors will too. You'll order food with a smart phone app and it'll be ready when you reach a restaurant. The day will come when the table will be laid out with food before you get there and you'll let your phone guide you to the right table. Or you'll order while en route to a restaurant and when you get there pick up your order in a bag and walk out.

Maybe coffee houses will stay human staffed because that is what the buyer wants? How often are you just in a hurry and want total automation with the coffee ready when you walk in the door? How often would you rather wait in line and tell a human your order?

The growth of online buying cuts out contact with sales reps and cashiers too. Most deliveries do not require interaction with delivery people. The stuff just gets left at your door in a locked box.

It will take longer to eliminate contact with taxi drivers. Say 2025 or 2030. My guess is flight attendants will last longer than pilots.

What comes next? What human roles would you like to see automated? What lines do you wait in that you'd like to see disappear? What sorts of dealings with human service providers do you find most frustrating? Or are your biggest desires for automation in the realm of robotics at home?

By Randall Parker 2014 November 03 07:03 PM 
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