2014 December 26 Friday
In Abu Dhabi Small Robots Replace Children As Camel Jockeys

In the United Arab Emirates camel racing has gone robotic.

The use of robots in camel racing eliminated kidnapping and slavery of very little children, even 2 and 3 year olds! The little kids were sometimes injured or even killed. The replacement robots are really simple in function. What other forms of slavery could robotics help bring to an end?

A Japanese restaurant uses fembots to dance for their customers.

Robots that serve every human need are in our future. See this Youtube search for "Japan robot woman".

By Randall Parker 2014 December 26 04:05 PM 
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2014 December 24 Wednesday
Robin Hanson On Very Advanced Aliens

Robin makes 5 points on what advanced aliens should be like. This is most worrisome: An old advanced alien race can be expected to make very careful calculations about whether to be friendly or hostile toward humans.

...very advanced aliens should not be either generically friendly or generically hostile to outsiders. Instead they should be very good at making their friendship or hostility appropriately context-dependent. That is, aliens should be very good at figuring out when and in what precise way being friendly or hostile will best achieve their ends. Such strategies should be far subtler than simple-minded ethnocentrism, family-loyalty, or xenophobia. Instead such aliens would ask themselves in great and careful detail, what exactly could humans eventually do to help or hurt them?

Here's my worry: I do not think we'll have anything to offer the very advanced aliens. So they are likely to think of us primarily from the standpoint of threat assessment. How big a threat are we? Worth taking the trouble to wipe us out?

Unless the advanced aliens enjoy owning slaves the only way I can see we might be useful to them is as proxies to fight a third alien species so they won't have to.

Robin think it is a bad sign that we have not come across any indications that other species are out there. Either previous intelligent species are all dead or maybe a few are hiding from berzerker robots that go around wiping out bio lifeforms.

By Randall Parker 2014 December 24 11:50 AM 
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Growing Olives In Bushes Like Grapes For Automation

Check out this Techcrunch article on how an olive growing company has made the job simpler by aggressive pruning.

By growing olives in rows, like wine grapes, California Olive Ranch has taken most of the human labor out of the harvest.

The company is also doing a large amount of data collection to drive alterations in how they do watering and fertilization. But what I find most interesting is the decision to heavily prune to enable use of automated grape harvesting equipment. Automation can come sooner if an environment can be shaped to be more regular and consistent. The amount of image processing goes down. Also, there's no need to achieve the level of 3-D control of a human arm if the stuff getting reached for isn't as hard to reach.

Perhaps this can be applied to other things Imagine growing lettuce heads or cabbage on rows of square little stands in order to give harvesting equipment a bracket to orient movement. Or make tomato plants sprout flowers and grow tomatoes in a precise row. If plants can be made to line up precisely in 3 dimensions then the requirements for designing a robot harvester become much simpler.

By Randall Parker 2014 December 24 10:41 AM 
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2014 December 22 Monday
eBook Readers Suppress Melatonin And Reduce Sleep

A study finds that eBook readers put out light frequencies that lower melatonin and reduce the amount we sleep.

Not new news. See Artificial Light Cutting Melatonin-Driven Sleep. I bought these sunglasses to cut down on blue light but forgot to use them for evening reading. This report is a reminder. Also see some earlier posts: Artificial Light Suppresses Melatonin, Boosts Cancer, Poor Teen Sleeping Due To Lack Of Blue Light?, and Television Watching Lowers Melatonin, Hastens Puberty.

The Kindle Paperwhite comes with unadjustable color. But in theory a tablet's color should be adjustable to turn off blue. The problem I find on my Nexus 10 tablet is that both the Kindle Reader app and the Google Play Book app provide only a few background color choices. There's no "turn off the blue" choice. Though I've changed them both to a more brownish-red background I'd really like a way to toggle between white background for day reading and "no blue" background for night reading.

By Randall Parker 2014 December 22 08:37 PM 
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Human Stem Cells Repair Mouse Corneas

Repair of body parts is good.

Treating the potentially blinding haze of a scar on the cornea might be as straightforward as growing stem cells from a tiny biopsy of the patient's undamaged eye and then placing them on the injury site, according to mouse model experiments conducted by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

Does normal aging cause any degree of scarring on the cornea?

Since human stem cells were used this does not seem too far away from a human treatment. Though regulations over human trials probably make this years away from being tried in humans.

The team then tested the human stem cells in a mouse model of corneal injury. They used a gel of fibrin, a protein found in blood clots that is commonly used as a surgical adhesive, to glue the cells to the injury site. They found the scarred corneas of mice healed and became clear again within four weeks of treatment, while those of untreated mice remained clouded.

"Even at the microscopic level, we couldn't tell the difference between the tissues that were treated with stem cells and undamaged cornea," Dr. Funderburgh said.

"We were also excited to see that the stem cells appeared to induce healing beyond the immediate vicinity of where they were placed. That suggests the cells are producing factors that promote regeneration, not just replacing lost tissue."

I'd love to see stem cell therapies that can make eyes young again. I used to have better than 20:20 vision and I'd like to get that back again. Reading glasses are a nuisance.

I'd like to find a passageway to a parallel universe where on a parallel Earth humans area about 50 years more advanced and full body rejuvenation is easy.

By Randall Parker 2014 December 22 08:37 PM 
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2014 December 20 Saturday
Humans Having Hard Time Keeping Up With Robots?

Claire Cain Miller thinks American workers are struggling to keep up with robots.

A machine that administers sedatives recently began treating patients at a Seattle hospital. At a Silicon Valley hotel, a bellhop robot delivers items to people’s rooms. Last spring, a software algorithm wrote a breaking news article about an earthquake that The Los Angeles Times published.

Declining workforce participation rates of both men and women are in part caused by declining opportunities for those without high levels of skills. What's causing those declining opportunities? While immigration and offshore outsourcing are significant reasons so is automation. See the report Technology Explains Drop in Manufacturing Jobs and in particular see chart 4. In manufacturing employment of those with advanced degrees has risen while employment of high school drop-outs and high school graduates has plunged. Many blue collar workers are dispirited.

We are witnessing a fundamental change in the relationship between labor and capital. In a nutshell: it used to be that engineers designed products that humans built using tooling that engineers designed. But in the era we are entering increasingly it is the case that engineers design products while other engineers design robots to build those products.

We are not yet fully in the new era. Most manufacturing still has steps that humans do. But the fraction of steps done by humans is going to keep going down. Also, manufacturing is not the only area where automation is making a big dent in the labor market. At the same time lots of non-manufacturing work is getting automated. My own frequency of exposure to cashiers, bank tellers, postal clerks and lots of other low skilled workers has dropped enormously. I haven't been in a bank for at least a year. I rarely get any envelope in the physical mail that I need to open. Most of you probably have the same experience. I am amazed that well over 95% of my expenditures do not involve human contact.

What I find most curious about the impact of automation: even as the rate of labor market participation has dropped in the prime working years of 25-54 the fraction of the elderly working has risen. Some of that work is out of desperation. Some people have so little to retire on they just keep working. I know such people. But I suspect that highly skilled older people might be staying in the labor force because they are still competitive and want a higher living standard even if they do not need it.

By Randall Parker 2014 December 20 06:30 PM 
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2014 December 15 Monday
Robin Hanson: Something Out There Is Killing Everything

Robin Hanson says "and you're next".

Robin offers a pretty interesting take on the Drake Equation. Since everything we can see looks dead it really is very dead out there. An intelligent civilization that grew very large and technologically advanced would create artifacts on such a scale that we could spot it. So why don't we see any?

Robin asks a very interesting question: have we already gotten past all great filters that are preventing large scale space colonization. Is there a great filter ahead of us? Or have many civilizations gotten as far as us and got filtered out at later steps?

Granted, some large number of intelligent civilizations might be at an earlier stage of development, even earlier than us. But what are the odds of that? If an intelligent civilization does not kill itself (or get killed by others) it ought to spend the vast majority of its existence at a much higher level of of technological civilization than the stage we are at right now. Therefore, it ought to have time to construct massive artifacts.

Is a hidden Berzerker machine civilization going around wiping out other civilizations? Or are societies of evolved brains unstable? Go out on the internet and look for unhinged people. Go watch the news and listen for unhinged people. I see stampedes of foolishness and think it quite possible some future stampede of human foolishness could doom us.

My biggest worry about humanity: human brains. Our technological advances are creating a succession of environments that are less and less like what we evolved to handle. Humans are way out of their depth and this is increasingly the case. The vast majority can not understand the workings of the technologies that support our civilization. I can't see how they are going to be able to make wise decisions in the long term while at the same time technological advances will enable them to make much bigger decisions. Offspring genetic engineering anyone? Even among very bright people intellectual fads take hold that are varying degrees of crazy. Look at the intellectuals of the 20th century who embraced communism. That's crazy. But they did it and that does not bode well.

One might expect somewhere in the Milky Way Galaxy conditions favorable to the development of intelligent life would select for saner minds. Maybe a calmer, more rational, and cautious intelligent species has developed a technological civilization. Maybe that civilization is keeping a low profile in order to avoid the berzerkers.

By Randall Parker 2014 December 15 08:41 PM 
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Universities Feed Patent Trolls

Recommended reading by Steven Malanga:

Flaws in our patent system, which the distinguished appellate judge and law professor Richard Posner dubs “dysfunctional,” have transformed the technology market, making ceaseless litigation lucrative not only for Automated and patent trolls like it, but for others, too. The winners include universities, which increasingly sell otherwise unmarketable patents to shake-down trolls; established companies, which launch patent suits to hamstring competitors; and, of course, the lawyers. The losers: innovation and the American economy.

Universities sell "otherwise unmarketable patents" just so they can be used to sue. No innovation coming from that. In fact, start-ups short on money have to pay extortionists.

Patents slow the rate of technological innovation. I can see how they can be good for drug development. But for software they are ridiculous. The nonsense that gets granted patents is mind boggling. It is very obvious stuff with plenty of prior art.

By Randall Parker 2014 December 15 08:08 PM 
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2014 December 13 Saturday
23andMe Genetic Testing Approved In Britain

People in Britain can find out more about their DNA than people in the United States. Note to the FDA: I do not think you are protecting me by preventing me from seeing a profile of small changes in disease risks due to lots of single letters in my genome. I know you guys are immune to criticism. But I really wish that was not the case.

The UK regulatory approval means Brits can do what Canadians already can do: get lots of disease risk information about genetic results. The vast majority of genetically caused changes in disease risks are very small. So you are unlikely to find out from 23andme that you absolutely will get a specific disease in the future.

As the impacts of more genetic variants become known your own genetic testing results will become more personally useful. For example, I expect nutritional genomics to turn up genetic variants that indicate who has the right amounts of liver detoxifying enzymes to enable them to safely eat specific foods. Ditto for variants in enzymes and receptors that affect how our metabolism responds to different diets. We are not all equally well adapted to eating the same foods.

We would be better off if more people could know more things about their genomes. Then more people would pay (where allowed) to be tested. Then those of us who volunteer our health and genetic data to researchers could speed up the rate of discovery of genetic factors that influence health and other attributes.

By Randall Parker 2014 December 13 11:51 AM 
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2014 December 08 Monday
Some People Ready For One Way Trip To Mars

The Dutch non-profit Mars One wants to sends 4 people on a one-way trip to Mars. They've had no shortage of volunteers.The goal: 2025.

2025 is much too soon. Consider what is needed to settle Mars. Then think about when that tech will be available.

First, much better robots. A very small human team can't have that many skills. Worse, the humans can't live off the land the way settlers crossing oceans on Earth have done in centuries passed. Mars settlement requires ways to carry the skills. Robots seem the best way to bring a lot of skills. The robots should go first and build structures. The robots should be highly flexible, capable of a large range of construction and maintenance activities. They need fuel cells or batteries far better than can be bought today or likely to be available in 2025. They should be extremely durable too. The robots of 2035 seem more likely top fit the bill. The robots of 2025 won't be there yet.

Second, a Mars base needs a really good energy source. Fossil fuels are out. So are hydro and wind energy. That leaves lots of solar panels and nukes. Which one is more viable? Anyone know? Which would last longer? Curiously, the Mars day is almost 24 hours. Batteries to store solar power would need to equal about a half day's energy usage.

But the robots and power systems both suffer from a really big problem: How to make more to scale up output when babies are born? Ship more from Earth? Seems necessary anyway because equipment will wear out. Better send a lot extra gear. Extra computers too.

The third thing a Mars settlement needs: really advanced biotech. The biotech is needed to grow textiles for clothing, structural material (imagine airtight containers grown from genetically engineered organisms), drugs, and food. The organisms genetically engineered to serve humans on Mars seem the most able to scale out of the major technologies that would need to be sent to Mars.

I think a Moon colony would make the most sense as a place to try out tech needed for a Mars colony. Major technology failures on Mars will kill you. But if your tech and equipment fail on the Moon you can get new shipments sent relatively quickly or take a rocket back home.

A Moon colony would need a very durable lifter rocket for evacuations as well as an escape module up in orbit around the Moon to shift to for the ride back to Earth.

How to prepare for the Moon and Mars? With a remote base on Earth. But it is too soon to try. Most of the needed technology will be developed for many other purposes. We need to wait for robots to enter our homes and take over much more work before we can take them to the Moon or Mars. We need to wait for biotech capable of developing much more powerful plants for pharmaceuticals and textiles. A program to go to Mars can only have a small impact on the rate of development of these technologies.

Update: I am not willing to dismiss the practicality of solar power on Mars. First, solar insolation reaching Mars is only 42% of that on Earth's outer atmosphere with a smaller difference on the surface due to the much thicker Earth atmosphere. On Earth's surface the level of insolation varies much more than the difference between Mars and Earth average. In Europe alone insolation varies by abuot a factor of 3. Similarly, the difference between Seattle and Phoenix yearly solar irradiation is about a factor of 2. Even more dramatically, some places in Upper Peninsula Michigan and Western New York State get less than a quarter of the solar energy hitting northwestern Mexico.

Solar power on Mars is a question of the cost of transporting the panels (or a small panel-making factory) to Mars. If a small nuclear plant was transported to Mars to power a solar panel factory and a battery factory then nuclear power could get the settlement started and the nuke could run the early settlement with solar to expand power production and to replace the nuke once its uranium depleted.

So it seems to me that what a Martian settlement would need is a design for a very small solar panel making factory and battery making factory. Plus, it would probably need a large enough shipment of some rare earth metals to use to make panels and batteries for many years. Could batteries be made from the minerals available in Mars soil?

By Randall Parker 2014 December 08 08:21 PM 
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2014 December 06 Saturday
Baltic Sea Eutrophication And Climate Change

The lower levels of the Baltic Sea in northeast Europe have little oxygen (eutrophic) and efforts to raise sea oxygen by lowering sewage run-off and fertilizer run-off seem to be getting blocked by warming water. Of course, if the sewage run-off hadn't been reduced the oxygen levels would be lower still. Fish can't survive without oxygen. So this matters for fisheries production.

01 December 2014/Kiel. Despite extensive measures to protect the Baltic Sea from anthropogenic activities since the late 1980s, oxygen concentrations continue to decrease. Rising temperatures in the bottom water layers could be the reason for the oxygen decline.

The scientists think warming has counteracted efforts to reduce sewage flow into the Baltic. The sewage causes algae blooms and microorganisms eat the algae and consume oxygen in the process.

A natural phenomenon of the Baltic Sea is the lack of oxygen in the deeper water layers. The stratification of the Baltic Sea water is quite stable, with fresh saline and oxygen-rich water only reaching its inner regions from the North Sea through the Danish islands. "We see this also in Boknis Eck, from about 20 meters depth," explains Sinikka Lennartz, M.Sc., from GEOMAR and lead author of the new study. In the second half of the 20th century this natural phenomenon was augmented because countries bordering the Baltic Sea dumped large amounts of agricultural fertilizers and sewage into the sea. "That meant an oversupply of nutrients. Algae were then able to proliferate, and as soon as they die and sink to the bottom, microorganisms decompose the biomass and consume a lot of oxygen; this resulted in large oxygen-free zones at the bottom of the Baltic Sea to be formed " explains Lennartz.

What I want to know: could wind turbines pump air down into the water to increase the amount of oxygen in the water? Is the amount of needed wind turbines too much to be affordable? If this could be done would it boost the amount of fish by providing them with more food?

Alternatively, imagine sewage was diverted into a large lake and lots of air was pumped into the lake. Could such a lake serve as a large aquaculture farm? The Sea of Azov next to the Crimea is very eutrophic. Could it oxygenated to produce a big fish catch?

By Randall Parker 2014 December 06 12:04 PM 
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2014 December 04 Thursday
Medical Privacy In Our Biologically Upgraded Future

Any information that goes into some corporation's or government's computer systems runs a significant risk of getting grabbed by hackers. The latest sensation is the Sony Pictures Entertainment leak, possibly by North Korean hackers. This follows hacks done on computer systems of Target, Home Depot, JPMorgan Chase, and other companies. These hacks have implications for the privacy of your medical records.

Also, any information on a corporate computer is at risk of a court order or other legal move to come into the hands of a government. The same is true of information that one government agency has that another government agency wants.

You might not care about whether assorted national intelligence services or organized crime groups get access to your medical records. You might want to make your medical history completely public. It would not surprise me if web sites spring up to enable individuals to publish their medical histories. After all, people use social networking sites and other sites to reveal all manner of information about themselves. Some people even install cameras in their apartments and let anyone watch them on a web site.

But suppose you want to assure that some portion of your medical history stays secret. Is this going to be possible? Yes, I think so. The way to keep your medical state secret: Make sure only you know it.

What's needed: the ability to test, diagnose, and treat ourselves. Some day we'll have portable personal microfluidic devices that can do blood tests. We'll have other portable testing and diagnostic devices. If you can do all the diagnosis yourself with no data getting onto network-connected computers then you could have medical secrets.

It is not enough to take your own blood samples and send the samples to labs to get results back. The labs will know who is paying them and they'll even be able to cheaply test a blood sample for enough DNA single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) to identify whose blood sample they are dealing with. If everyone gets SNP tests at birth (as seems likely) and the DNA fingerprints stored by governments then your unique DNA pattern made from the lab sample could be matched against a government database.

Who will have a really big need to keep parts of their medical history secret? For starters, anyone who makes banned upgrades to their bodies. Athletes obviously come to mind. But a variety of body and mind alterations will be banned by governments. Not all governments will ban the same alterations. But if someone wants to make an alteration that your own government would allow but other governments would see as a reason to deny a visa then I expect quite a few people will want to get their alterations and upgrades done in absolute secrecy.

The upgraders face a bigger problem than those who want to diagnose themselves in secrecy: Most gene therapy and cell therapy will require skilled people backed by sophisticated labs to do. But those treatment facilities will have computers. If you go to some small and very secretive country to get upgrades you run the risk that hackers or a high pressure bigger government will manage to pry out your records at some later date. Switzerland and other banking havens have partially caved in to bigger government demand for info about tax evaders. We can expect similar developments with treatments banned in many jurisdictions.

A government could also just grab you, strap you down, and send in sensors to find out how far your body has been altered away from original factory specs. So your own body is at risk of getting hacked to pull out your medical secrets.

We are headed into a future where our data stores will grow by orders of magnitude. Keep in mind that anything that goes into a data repository about you might some day come out in a court case or as part of a massive corporate data breach.

By Randall Parker 2014 December 04 05:58 PM 
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2014 December 02 Tuesday
55 Cancri Super-Earth Spotted With Ground-Based Telescope

A planet just 40 light years away spotted about 10 years ago using space-based telescopes has also been detected using a fairly modest ground-based telescope. Since ground-based telescopes are much cheaper than space-based telescopes this opens up the potential to use lots of ground-based telescopes to search for planets that might harbor life.

TORONTO, December 1, 2014 - For the first time, a team of astronomers - including York University Professor Ray Jayawardhana - have measured the passing of a super-Earth in front of a bright, nearby Sun-like star using a ground-based telescope. The transit of the exoplanet 55 Cancri e is the shallowest detected from the ground yet, and the success bodes well for characterizing the many small planets that upcoming space missions are expected to discover in the next few years.

The international research team used the 2.5-meter Nordic Optical Telescope on the island of La Palma, Spain - a moderate-sized facility by today's standards - to make the detection. Previous observations of this planet transit had to rely on space-borne telescopes.

During its transit, the planet crosses its host star, 55 Cancri, located just 40 light-years away from us and visible to the naked eye, blocking a tiny fraction of the starlight, dimming the star by 1/2000th (or 0.05%) for almost two hours.

Computer and sensor advances have made telescopes of all sizes much more powerful. What this means: Any intelligent civilization that reaches our level of technological development will be able to search for and find planets which have a substantial chance of harboring life. Any civilization in our neighborhood that is much older than ours was able to detect our sun a long time ago and find evidence of the planets in orbit around our sun. Surely technologies for detecting intelligent life are also very advanced in civilizations that past our point of development a long time ago.

So what strikes me: If there are other intelligent and industrialized species out there in our arm of the Milky Way Galaxy some must know our planet harbors life. But do any yet know our planet has intelligent life? Have any already made the decision to reach us for some purpose?

By Randall Parker 2014 December 02 10:34 PM 
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