Friday, June 26, 2015

Tech, Skepticism, Transparency and Vision

Our Augmented Future: My talk on Augmented Reality and Transparency given last month to the Augmented World Expo has been posted on YouTube.  How will we use technology to solve the problems of the future...and prevent Big Brother?

Elections Matter in shaping the issues of the future. So does science! So... sign the national call for a presidential debate on science at

Ignore the Tech Skeptics: This essay by David Auerbach is exceptional and merits attention – on how technology may disappoint us and fall short of utopian fantasies… but that it is still the core of problem-solving ability that could save us in coming years: "If we hope to save ourselves from disaster, technology - real technology - remains our only hope."

And then there are the tech-visionaries: Here's a fascinatingly detailed biography-look at Elon Musk, the cover story in Bloomberg Magazine. Our Edison. 

== Journalism & Science ==

This article by Rhys Taylor - on how journalism treats science – is pretty interesting.  A couple of quotables:  “Furthermore, reading most articles, one gets the impression that "scientists" are some sort of huge homogeneous group, and whenever a mystery is "solved" everyone is instantly content and moves on to something else (apart, presumably, from those unfortunate enough to be perpetually baffled). Of course outside this media fantasy land, proof almost never turns up, and trying to convince everyone that any one idea is better than another is a bit like trying to teach cats synchronised swimming.”

The same argument is made more concisely when I point out that no human activity is more competitive than science and no humans, in the history of our species, are more competitive than scientists.  Diametrically opposite to the image portrayed in media of both the mad far-left and today's entire, jibbering-insane right.

More from Rhys Taylor“One final point: there seems to be a tremendous lack of interest in the journalistic world into actually bothering to check the press releases and get more details. While the sandwich-eating abilities of politicians are microscopically scrutinised by every news agency in existence, most science articles are little more than carbon copies of the press release. Which doesn't make a lot of sense because whenever anyone bothers to ask, it's very hard indeed to get most scientists to shut up about their research.”

== Tech, Transparency and Vision ==

Like it or not...

Biometrics are advancing so fast that technology now allows the scanning of irises from a distance of up to 40feet (12 metres) away… exactly as we saw in Steven Spielberg’s film Minority Report.  In fact, “Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University in the US demonstrated they were able to use their iris recognition technology to identify drivers from an image of their eye captured from their vehicle’s side mirror.”

The good news… portrayed in both EARTH (1989) and EXISTENCE… is that: “By using measurements of physiological characteristics, people no longer need security tokens or cumbersome passwords to identify themselves.”  The harsh news is that every measure that you thought would conceal you is probably moot.

Nothing could be more stupid than trying to protect your freedom and safety by hiding and secrecy.  Only one endeavor will prevent this stuff from empowering Big Brother.  Sousveillance.  Looking back.

Will we see public shaming based on the DNA in that gum you spat on the sidewalk? "By analyzing saliva or blood, a company is able to make an educated prediction of what you might look like." Hong Kong uses the method to take cigarette butts from the street, back analyze DNA and post billboard images of what the litterer might look like. Your take-home from this? The village is returning. We can still choose which village, though.

Brain implants are on their way... A lot of people accept “cyborg” enhancements that are either removable (augmented eyeware) or permanently helpful below the neckline (heart valves and joint replacements.) Cochlear implants to give hearing to the deaf?  That’s controversial only among the willfully indignant. Indeed, a fraction of blind folks may soon get rudimentary vision, this way.  Still, the notion gets creepy when you start shoving machinery into “our second favorite organ,” (as Woody Allen called the brain). Concerns stretch back to James Coburn’s wonderful 1960s film “The President’s Analyst.”  

“When we had him come to Crown College at UCSC we watched as his wife "turned him off" with the remote. 300 students and faculty gasped. He woke up laughing when she adjusted the stimulation level.  The future of brain implants promises even more powerful interventions, especially optogenetics. As current potentially deadly or disabling remote implants already are known to have poor security protocols as far as can be found out behind the veil of corporate security, we can expect this to become a bigger issue as time goes on. More people with more interactive and powerful implants is more motivation for people to hack their way into the remotes that control them. Security will improve, of course. But what nontrivial system is every truly safe from compromise?”  (Via Chris Gray.)

Well well… here’s an alternative.  Do it organically! “Toronto scientists and engineers have made a breakthrough in cell transplantation using a gel-like biomaterial that keeps cells alive and helps them integrate better into tissue. In two early lab trials, this has already shown to partially reverse blindness and help the brain recover from stroke.” 

== Tech Advances where we need transparency ==

A new set of algorithms enable robots to learn motor tasks through trial and error using a process that more closely approximates the way humans learn, marking a major milestone in the field of artificial intelligence. “Most robotic applications are in controlled environments where objects are in predictable positions,” said Darrell. “The challenge of putting robots into real-life settings, like homes or offices, is that those environments are constantly changing. The robot must be able to perceive and adapt to its surroundings.” 

This, by the way, correlates with what I believe is likely the way we'll finally get true AI… the only way that - to the best of our knowledge - intelligence has ever arisen in the cosmos, via extended physical interaction with the physical world through a little process called "childhood."  (As discussed in Existence.)

Electrical healing? harmless wounds were created on each upper arm of volunteers.  One wound was left to heal normally, while the other was treated with electrical pulses* over a period of two weeks -- resulting in wounds healing significantly faster.

On the other hand, in a double-blinded, randomized study, UNC researchers found that the IQ scores of people who underwent tDCS brain stimulation improved markedly less than did the IQ scores of people in the placebo group.

Using a weak electric current in an attempt to boost brainpower or treat conditions has become popular among scientists and do-it-yourselfers, but a new UNC School of Medicine study shows that using the most common form of electric brain stimulation had a statistically significant detrimental effect on IQ scores.  So let's step ahead carefully, here.

== Tech Snippets ==

Randall Munroe, the XKCD comix guy, has created a book called the Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words whose diagrams "cover all kinds of neat stuff—including computer buildings (datacenters), the flat rocks we live on (tectonic plates), the stuff you use to steer a plane (airliner cockpit controls), and the little bags of water you’re made of (cells)" with all the parts described using only the thousand most common English words. Support this guy and share the thing.

Just like some sci fi stories I could name… “The Void is a new start-up based in Salt Lake City, Utah which claims to have gone some way in bridging the gap between physical and virtual worlds by building physical stages which match the virtual environment, then putting players inside.” Visitors immerse themselves in custom-built arenas (Gaming Pods), wearing untethered virtual reality headsets.  Included… haptic feedback to let you know when you’ve been “shot” and other innovations.

Researchers have created an optical lens that can be placed on an inexpensive smartphone to magnify images by a magnitude of 120, all for just 3 cents a lens.  "Our lens can transform a smartphone camera into a microscope by simply attaching the lens without any supporting attachments or mechanism." 

graphene, lovely miracle graphene!  Now at last someone seems to have figured out how to make it in continuous batches, rolling up long ribbons!  


Paul SB said...

I like how you point out the importance of childhood to developing human brains. Most humans don't get this aspect of human life, assuming that all animals have similar childhoods and that our brains are entirely products of our genes. I was wondering, though, if anyone in AI research has tried to simulate the kind of stimulus/response and award/punishment mechanisms (which involves emotions) that humans operate off of. It seems to me that interaction and learning ability aren't going to go too far without an internal drive, which is what emotion (mediated through the selective release or withholding of neurotransmitters) does for humans (and the rest of the animal kingdom). Anyone know of any research along these lines?

With the guy being switched off by a brain implant, the "I'm not a robot" thing at the bottom of the page seems a little ... off.

Jonathan S. said...

Interesting article I saw today. Looks like emotion might be an emergent property.

Paul SB said...

That's funny, Jonathan. But the poor computer was loaded with our movies, which tend to exaggerate feelings, especially feelings of anger. I'm not sure this is evidence of the device feeling anger or if it was simply selecting angry responses as appropriate from its reference database. The human interrogator wasn't being very subtle in his line of questioning, was he? But thanks for the link!

Paul451 said...

Interesting variant on AR, "CastAR".

Unlike most, it doesn't try to project an image into your eyes. Instead, two micro-projectors reflect an pair of images off of a low-cost retro-reflective cloth or surface. (Retro-reflectors bounce light directly back to the source, regardless of angle of incident.) Off-the-shelf shutter-glasses (a la 3d-TV) give you depth perception, while head-movement tracking via infra-red handles movement parallax.

The advantage of the projection system is that the headset is vastly lighter (and I suspect cheaper) than current VR or Google-Glass/HoloLens AR. The advantage of the retro-reflector is that multiple users can project onto the same surface at the same time, and their projections aren't visible to each other.

The retro-reflective cloth is also cheap enough for you to drape it over large areas; walls, tables, etc. (The restriction is that you have no ability to use the system without the retro-reflector.)

It feels like there's enough different methods of VR/AR being tried, with different strengths and weaknesses, that at least one of them will find its killer-app and become mainstream.

Jumper said...

For a real virtual reality experience we have to accept the limitations of the equipment. Right now the only truly believable VR would be in simulations where the person in the fictional scenario is wearing a sort of armor. Because to transmit all those physical sensations to a person right now today the actual person in the VR suit would have to wear an apparatus which rotated them in space and supplied tactile sensation.
I'm okay with being Iron Man, basically, or an armored military-type character!
Of course completely realistic sensation supplied to a nude person is a long way off, but that's just the way it is.
The suit would be padded, because in a simulation if the character fell, your suit in your VR chamber would also "fall" and you'd end up horizontal. Your VR would have to be computation-intensive to get good feedback between the real efforts of the person in the chamber to "keep their balance" either succeeding, or not, depending on the virtual events. If a virtual mass struck the virtual character, then your VR suit would react the same. For smaller impacts, a slap on the virtual character's armor would be reproduced by transducers on the VR "armor" suit. Etc.

David Brin said...

Juimper see my short story NatuLife

Alex Tolley said...

"when I point out that no human activity is more competitive than science and no humans, in the history of our species, are more competitive than scientists."

10 Competitive Jobs That Everyone Wants But Hardly Anyone Gets

Re: "Ignore the Tech Skeptics"

It reads to me of strawman arguments and fuzzy thinking.
I am currently reading Diasmondis' asnd Kotler's "Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think". Published in 2012 it is a fairly breathy, uncritical look at how technology will transform the world. Already, a number of the stories have been proven to be wrong, either technologically or economically. So we should be skeptical of the hype and see what really works and what doesn't. This takes time and isn't evident at the start. As regards Silicon Valley technology, Tim O'Reilly has frequently decried the applications produced and has asked for pursuit of the really big problems. Just read any technology magazine and you can see the frivolous still dominates. Yes, technology is important, but only a small number of inventions and innovations will have an important effect on society and economic well-being.

Alex Tolley said...

@Paul451 "CastAR".

Looks like a clever solution, and pretty good if the videos are to be believed.
To me it is proof that there are a variety of solutions to a problem, which is good, as they will find their niches or dominate based on performance and economics. CastAR looks like a good economic solution to VR and suggests some interesting possibilities. I hope they succeed.

Alex Tolley said...

The one area of public shaming that I approve of is the droughtshaming in California. From the elites who believe they are entitled to lush watered gardens, the ideologicals who deliberately overuse water because the drought is "all government lies", to people who just don't care. Just yesterday I saw proof that a local wealthy farming family is getting extra water "under the table" and flood irrigating their orchards, even though they have drip irrigation.

What I want to read is that appropriate punishments are being meted out - heavy fines and water physical flow rate restrictions imposed. IOW, that sousveillance works.

Alex Tolley said...

@ Paul SB - Minsky wrote the "Emotion Machine" (2006) that addresses some of these issues for AI. I think it is also established from brain damaged patients that without emotions, it is hard to make any decisions. Spock would be left evaluating options but unable to make recommendations to Kirk. (Lucky he was half human. But how did full Vulcans manage?)

Dominic said...

Regarding journalism and press releases, I'd highly recommend you check out talks by Michael Marshall of the Good Thinking Society and the Mersey Skeptics Society, he spent several years giving talks and maintained the website which shows examples of newspapers either printing press releases as news or printing a "study" which is nothing more than a thinly veiled advertisment for a company.

Paul SB said...

Alex, thanks for the book reference. I'll show it to my daughter, who has had an interest in AI for quite some time. As to the Vulcans, they only manage because of Western philosophy, mainly referring to your Ancient Greeks. When you see people get wildly emotional and do stunningly stupid things, it's easy to want to swing to the opposite extreme. But trying to operate off of pure logic is a fantasy built on binary thinking and false dichotomies, as Parkinson's patients show. No dopamine, no motivation, you just sit there with no desire to even speak while the nurses change your diapers - never mind advising anyone. This will be a huge hurdle for the longevity people to overcome. What good would it be to live to 200 if you spend the last 100 years not caring who you are or being able to convince yourself to even sit up in bed, much less get out of it?

Jerry Emanuelson said...

PaulSB, the importance of the dopamine system in the human brain won't be catching the longevity people off guard at all. Both the amateurs and professionals in the longevity area have been acutely aware of the dopamine problem for decades.

Dopamine generally falls off at about 13 percent per decade in the human brain after adulthood is reached. This puts an upper limit on human lifespan at about 120 years, even if the telomere problem is solved.

For about 40 years, very low doses of Parkinson's medicines have been popular among many longevity enthusiasts. First, it was low doses of l-dopa. Then after some rather striking rodent longevity studies were published, many longevity enthusiasts began using very low doses of selegiline.

If the telomere problem is solved, selegiline appears to be able to add perhaps two or three decades to functional lifespan by pushing back the dopamine limit.

Of course, the effect of Parkinson's medicines like selegiline on human longevity is just an educated guess based on studies in mammals with shorter lifespans. The effect of selegiline on mammalian lifespan wasn't known until this study was published in 1989. We do know that the exact dose in each species is very critical.

Paul SB said...

Hi Jerry,

I may be wrong here, but it seems to me that this is an area where you are much more knowledgeable than most, by far. I still encounter very few people who have even heard of dopamine, and judging by the science fiction that brings up longevity, there isn't much there. That might not be saying much, though, given how little time I have for recreational reading these days.

I'm assuming that l-dopa is simply stimulating dopamine release, but the other end of the synapse is just as critical. Does selegiline affect the receptors in any way? If we can figure out how to reset receptors to where they were at around age 20, that would solve more than just the dopamine problem. You would also be eliminating overdose deaths, though perhaps that might encourage more drug addiction. It would probably also save a whole lot of marriages, too, if it can be done for oxytocin, though we would still have to deal with the effects of prolactin and testosterone.

David Brin said...

Jerry thanks. Interesting. And again, I must reiterate. Mouse studies are losing a lot of their purported pertinence, lately, but especially re longevity, in which almost ZERO% of the experiments that have extended mouse lifespans has had even a scintilla of effects upon human. I have repeatedly explained why this is the case. There will be no easy switch to flip, or easy combo... because we've already flipped all the easy ones... in order to become the methuselahs of mammals.

Paul SB said...

Dr. Brin, the dopamine problem is not really about increasing life span, it's about the quality of that life span. The problem is that over time we build tolerance to our own neurotransmitters, which seems to be a factor in Parkinson's. We could live with that, but we would not be living much better than mental vegetables - which is exactly what the Vulcans should be if they had been created more recently and by people who knew the neuroscience. Increasing longevity by curing cancers and cardiovascular illnesses is one thing, and not an easy switch, though it might turn out that the tolerance problem has an easy solution no one has yet discovered.

People find it very easy to believe in easy fixes, often forgetting the old adage that a fool and his money are soon parted. I've always thought that along with money people lose ego and reputation, as well.

Jonathan S. said...

Vulcans aren't emotionless - in fact, the in-canon explanation for their pursuit of pure logic is because they are extremely emotional, to the point that they very nearly destroyed their entire world (as they'd developed nukes while still at a tribal level of organization). They credit Surak's philosophy of "passion's-mastery" with the survival of their species, and strive to abandon emotion completely. (So far as I am aware, none has yet succeeded.)

Paul SB said...

I'm cool with that! In fact, if I remember correctly, Spock's dad ended up getting a Vulcan geriatric condition in which his emotions went out of control, so obviously the writers backpedalled on the emotion-free species thing. The problem I have is with the old Platonic stereotype, especially as it is applied to scientists, who are just as motivated by their passions as anyone else. They're just trained to try to evaluate evidence as dispassionately as possible.

David Brin said...

And to expose their work to external competitive criticism, which is an even more powerful antidote to error.

Paul SB said...

Thus the scientific community, consisting of hundreds of millions of people around the world, of every nationality, religion or whatever demographic anyone cares to name, constantly watching each other and trying to prove each other wrong. That makes scientific theory a powerful thing, indeed, when so many disparate, competing voices agree that only one explanation fits the available evidence, only deeply foolish people can dismiss that.

There's a lot of really, deeply foolish people around.

Jerry Emanuelson said...

I don't believe that selegiline directly preserves dopamine receptors. (Keep in mind that I am far from being an expert on dopamine receptors, in spite of having millions of them, and using them constantly.)

It does appear, however, (from what I remember) that either too little dopamine or (especially) too much dopamine can damage dopamine receptors. So, by carefully regulating dopamine levels, selegiline is helping to preserve dopamine receptors.

The precision needed in maintaining just the right dopamine levels is one of the big problems in treating Parkinson's disease. Selegiline expands the time that many common Parkinson's disease treatments will continue to work.

In the case of selegiline, there is some definite relevance of mice experiments to higher animals. In the United States, selegiline is an approved anti-aging treatment in dogs. It is also approved in humans (in various dosage forms) for the treatment of Parkinson's disease and for depression.

Jerry Emanuelson said...

Expanding on what PaulSB said: Length of lifespan and quality of that lifespan are two different (although overlapping) problems.

As David said, experiments on maximum lifespan using rats and mice very often has little relevance for humans. Two reasons for this are well known. Rats and mice have enormously long telomeres compared to humans, so rats and mice don't face the telomere barrier like humans do at age 100 to 120. Second, rats and mice don't have anything close to the very elaborate DNA repair mechanisms of humans. This is why rats and mice, if they aren't eaten by a predator in the wild, nearly always die of cancer.

Scientists have engineered some human genes in rats and mice. It would be very dangerous, though, to engineer total human-equivalent DNA repair mechanisms into rats and mice. They would probably gain lifespans of 30 to 100 years (as compared to the normal 2-3 years), and if any escaped into the wild, it could cause a worldwide plague of genetically engineered rodents with extremely long lifespans.

On the other hand, what causes rats and mice to be happy and healthy usually also causes humans to be happy and healthy, too.

Paul SB said...

Post-synaptic terminals start to withdraw receptors if the level of a neurotransmitter inside the synapse is too high. Certain types of drugs work by dramatically overusing the dopamine system (cocaine and methamphetamine), so I imagine that coke heads and meth heads would be pretty susceptible to Parkinson's if they don't OD beforehand. However, most Parkinson's patients are probably not coke addicts, so it is probable that more ordinary use of our dopamine systems can lead to receptor withdrawal (the mechanism behind drug tolerance). Most things that cause a dopamine release into your synapses, like sugary, fattening foods, only release tiny amounts - the fact that has some people trying to claim that sugary sodas are dangerously addictive. The normal behavior that releases by far the most dopamine is orgasm, so it's likely that too much of that could have consequences down the road. However, dopamine is also used in the synaptic connections between motor neurons and muscles, so I wonder if there might be a correlation between athleticism in youth and Parkinson's later in life.

"On the other hand, what causes rats and mice to be happy and healthy usually also causes humans to be happy and healthy, too."

To a certain extent, but humans have more complex social and ego needs than small, furry mammals. Survival and reproduction to be sure, but you don't see mice labeling each other based on superficial features like fur color then trying to exterminate mice whose fur doesn't match. Humans have evolved some pretty elaborate mechanisms to try to satisfy a range of instincts that just aren't as developed elsewhere in the animal kingdom.

Uh-oh, I've gotten onto quacking about neuroscience again!

locumranch said...

It is quotes like "97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree", published at, that give the false impression that "scientists are some sort of huge homogeneous group" who confuse popular consensus with proof.

"Anyone claiming proof is probably lying", Rhys Taylor goes on to say. He also cautions us to seek out "a more skeptical opinion", "Ask what it would take to get real proof", leave "wiggle room for alternative (explanations of) most theories", "Remember the unknown unknowns", "Avoid sensationalism", "Avoid trivialization" and "Be critical, be skeptical, be uncertain, be inquiring, but above all be reasonable".

Remember also that, regardless of relative competitiveness, even scientists have 'vested interests', meaning that it is almost never in their 'scientific' interest to declare themselves ignorant, irrelevant, incompetent, request less funding, or express doubt in their own abilities/findings/theories & those of their consensus. The same holds true for ANY specialist, human or government agency.

Because CLIMATE CHANGE !! Climate Scientists Agree !! PROOF provided by CONSENSUS !! Deniers BAD !! Believers GOOD !! TWODA !! No other projections accepted. Obey Us. Fund Us. Or we're all DOOMED !! Doomed I tell you !! Squirrel !!


PS: Most Parkinsonian medications act by increasing dopamine supply at the neuro-receptor junction, directly or by inhibiting dopamine breakdown. None are know to increase (up-regulate) the number of post-synaptic dopamine receptors, and post-synaptic receptor down-regulation (tolerance) is a real & well-documented problem.

Paul SB said...

Last IU checked, there were 23.8 million professional scientists in the US alone. Add in the rest of the world and you have hundreds of millions of scientists, people who come from everywhere, every ethnicity, follow every religion, and all political philosophies, and they don't all work for the government or get funding from the same sources. Conspiracies only work when they are small, and the members are all committed to the same ideological goals. Claiming that 97% of scientists believe something because they are all conspiring to get grant money is beyond ludicrous, especially when the vast majority are not climate scientists specifically, so their money comes from completely unrelated sources. I have know conservative, card-carrying Republicans who have come to despise most of their party because of how they, as scientists, are scapegoated, though they still cling to their party affiliation for other reasons.

locumranch said...

Nice Straw-man attempt, Paul_SB, but no dice. I never claimed that "97% of scientists (are) conspiring" because the quote I referred to(courtesy of NASA) was "97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree" as Actively Publishing Climate Scientists are, of course, a much smaller & more exclusive cadre of specialists that Paul_SB's "97% of (ALL the world's) scientists".

Go tell Rhys Taylor how inappropriate scientific skepticism is & see how you fare.


Alex Tolley said...

Given the large amount of data collected and models built fir different aspects of AGW and almost zero confirmed or validated counter data or models, what exactly is left to dispute? 'Skeptics' are ressurecting debunked arguments and trying for other means to discredit AGW, eg the legal system, denying use of 'sea level rise' by govt officials. This is no longer about 'consensus' but rather ideology and the legislators' masters vested interests.

Alfred Differ said...

@Paul SB: I think it is a bit of a stretch to say millions of us are trying to prove each other wrong. My experience suggests we only try to curb the nonsense from a few competing scientists and don't care much about the others. There are limits to our expertise and we know it, so the focus of competition is fairly small for most of us.

There is also the issue that when we get wrapped up on our research, we don't spend much time curbing each other's errors. Proper review of papers seeking publication is serious work and our reward system doesn't favor this work over our own interests.

Still... we DO have to face each other. Sometimes we even have to face a room full of skeptics. I remember well the seminar I sat in where someone explained what the cold fusion guys had really done (80's) in the experimental processes. The speaker got to an important point about manufacturing controls and every scientist in the room groaned. They obviously felt they had been conned (not by the speaker who was on their side) and the mood got ugly. That is where I learned how most of us don't actually pay a lot of attention to work outside our own expertise until there is a 'need' for it.

Alfred Differ said...

@locumranch: The correct term we should be using instead of 'proof' is 'justification'. Only in mathematics can we find proofs in the form people mistakenly think scientists claim. What the scientists generate makes more sense from the perspective of epistemology. Justified belief. Science customs are mostly about building and maintaining knowledge structures that sturdy in the sense of justification arguments.

Beliefs in the predictions climate scientists make if business continues as usual are justified, thus political action to mitigate the related risks is justified. To avoid these conclusions, one must refute the arguments supporting these justifications because the logical chain is unavoidable absent that success.

See how that works?

David Brin said...

Now all he’s doing is hysterical drooling and sputtering. Truly off his meds, big time.

Guys, you know I am very very indulgent. But you have got to not-answer when it is just feeding the hysteria.

David Brin said...