Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Roots…and Future... of Humanity

== Digging into the roots of humanity ==
In a study conducted by researchers at the Yale School of Medicine and the University of Cologne, it was found that the children of obese mothers who subsisted on a high-fat diet during the course of their pregnancy are at a higher risk for obesity and related metabolic disorders all their lives.
roots-humanityBut help is on the way!  The world's first genetically modified babies have been born -- with genes from three parents. This news is not quite as big as it sounds.  The third parent only contributed the mitochondria of the fertilized egg, so no meddling in the chromosomal "human DNA" parts happened.  Still, it is a milestone.
More meddlesome methods are coming! Utilizing the he CRISPR/Cas9 method, RNA can be specifically designed to cut a particular part of the genome, allowing specific genes to be targeted. Once cut, the gene can be knocked out or replaced with a slightly different copy to replace faulty ones with healthy copies. Now, in China, this method has been used to alter the first "GM monkeys."
And in the same … vein… researchers at UC Santa Cruz (UCSC) have developed a robotic “nanobiopsy” system that can extract tiny samples from inside a living cell without killing it. The single-cell nanobiopsy technique is a powerful tool for scientists working to understand the dynamic processes that occur within living cells. While the therapeutic and scientific uses are huge, it might also affect the Singularity Movement… by determining whether or not intracellular computing  takes place to any large degree.  If it does, then the dream of replicating human cognition in-silico may be many more Moore's Law doublings away.
And what about those human roots? As few as 300 matings could have inserted the Neanderthal heritage in the genome of the common ancestors of Europeans and East Asians. The strongest remnant of our Neanderthal heritage appears to be centered around as-yet unknown changes in skin and hair that likely proved advantageous. 
Take a look at this video showing one anthropologist's best reconstructions for the evolution of the human face over seven million years.
Sixth-extinction-kolbertWhere are we headed? The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert, explores the  threats humanity faces now…and in the future. In fact, even if humanity does mark the "anthropocene" with devastation through nature, there have been five preceding MAJOR mass extinctions… but very many more of lesser types. Frankly, I am amazed that by 2014 the worst forecasts have not (yet?) come true.  Are we in the process of wising up in time?  You gotta hope so.  You gotta work to make it so.
Of course, remamber we can be replaced! With a plummeting shrimp industry, fishermen in the US southeast are throwing nets to collect… jellyfish. Certain types that are loved by Asian countries… and by sea turtles… are being harvested by the kilotons. As the seas appear to be trending more friendly to jellies and less so for fish. (As I portray in Existence.) Let's consider before thoughtlessly changing the Earth too much.
And finally… while we're on the bio-news… why has the rate of abortions in the US declined so steeply?  Explanations range from interesting to flat-out absurd.
== Technology! ==
Magnetoencephalography (MEG) can be used as a potential therapeutic tool to control and train specific targeted brain regions. A new brain-imaging technique enables people to ‘watch’ their own brain activity in real time and to control or adjust function in pre-determined brain regions.  Will this finally lead to those excellent teaching-games  we were promise 20 years ago?
This animation of a mouse brain looks like driving down a highway and watching buildings on the roadside appearing, becoming larger, and then shrinking in the rearview.
From Elon Musk: Forward-looking Innovations that will change our future.
As crystalline silicon module prices crashed in recent years, developers and installers benefitted greatly from the low prices and sudden economic feasibility of solar in new markets. Now attention is paid to reducing racking and mounting cost and microinverters and high-voltage configurations stand to accelerate those reductions.
== Sustaining our world ==
SUSTAINING-WORLD Cool roofs — painted white or other light colors to reflect sunlight — as well as green (vegetation covered)  roofs have surged in popularity as cities such as New York promote their use and research shows they lower the need for air conditioning. Now comes another federally funded study that reinforces that idea — with caveats.  "Each can completely offset the warming due to urban expansion and can even offset the warming due to greenhouse gas emissions," says the study author.  A newer Berkeley Lab study, published online last month, found white roofs are more cost-effective than black or green ones over a 50-year period when installation, maintenance and a building's subsequent energy use are considered. But that leaves out the edible produce from green roofs!
We've all seen calculations comparing sustainables to fossil fuels… and undeniable is the trend -- much faster than anyone expected -- for solar and wind etc to break even with oil and coal. We should all rejoice (all except the coal and middle-eastern-petro princes)… though I think not without a tinge of gratitude for the biggest thing that fossil fuels gave us: an industrial revolution that lifted billions out of poverty, raising generations of children so comfortable that they could then start contemplating the dismal side effects of over-reliance on fossil fuels!
(If you are unable to appreciate ironies, then you are WAY too dogmatic.  Loosen up.)
But there is one calculation we never see… thermodynamic comparison of the total investment costs of fossil fuels by the Earthweighing in the inefficiencies of the hundred million years it took to cook each utterly irreplaceable pool of liquid gold down there.  According to this study, solar is better by a ratio of 100,000:1!  All right, that Big Picture Perspective is too grand, even for me.  Still….
== physical stuff! ==
Did Google buy a "quantum computer" that's not-so-quantum, after all?  It's harder than you might think, to tell the difference, at least in these early days.  A month or two ago, preliminary models suggested D-Wave's machine "did the Q."  Now, researchers at IBM reveal it may not necessarily be so.
A-Deepness-in-the-Sky-book-coverResearchers at Georgia Tech have invented a plasmonic graphene nano-antenna that can be efficiently used at millimeter radio wavelengths, taking one more step toward smart dust. Utility fog. Programmable matter. Grey and blue goo. Cooperating swarms of micron-sized devices (motes) offer completely new solutions and capabilities that can hardly be imagined. Except… well… by Vernor Vinge and Greg Bear and at least one other science fiction author I could name…
And now some good news? At least under some sets of assumptions and parameters,  the Large Hadron Collider appears to have excluded having seen any signs of the production of micro-black holes.  So… my doom scenario in EARTH is impossible? Reassuring… a little bit.
Can we see inside super-dangerous volcanoes like Vesuvius? Hiroyuki Tanaka of the University of Tokyo reasoned that the throat of a volcano could be "x-rayed" with energetic muons produced in cosmic-ray showers. The number of muons passing through the volcano would depend on the density of intervening rock, so measuring the number of muons passing through various parts of the volcano could yield a crude, 3-D view of the interior.  One of the fellows with a NASA NIAC grant showed us even more spectacular potential uses for this method… a way to peer inside asteroids!
== Astronomy! And space! ==
The oldest star (known so far) in the universe (13.7 billion years) was found using ANU's Skymapper, which has a "unique" ability to "find stars with low iron from their color." This comes in handy for stars such as this one which the astronomers believe to be a "first star" originating from the earliest days of the Big Bang itself.
A new map of asteroids developed by researchers from MIT and the Paris Observatory charts the size, composition, and location of more than 100,000 asteroids throughout the solar system, and shows that "rogue" asteroids are more common than previously thought.
Looking to our future in space: In 2018, NASA hopes to put a rover on the Moon. RESOLVE will sift through the Moon’s regolith (loose surface soil) and heat them up, looking for traces of hydrogen and oxygen, which can then be combined to make water. A similar payload would be attached to Curiosity’s successor, which is currently being specced out by NASA and will hopefully launch in 2020. This second IRSU experiment will probably suck in carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere, filter out the dust, and then process the CO2 into oxygen.
More about NASA soon, with my report from the annual NIAC Symposium!
== Ah… the climate ==
climate-instabilityThe US government is creating seven new "climate hubs" that will help everyday people, particularly farmers, handle the effects of global warming, which have recently caused wild gyrations of drought and record temperatures alternating with severe storms and winter plunges -- exactly as the models predicted. Only we should stop calling it Global Warming and use"climate instability."  Let's see the denialists worm their way out of that one. See my article: Perspectives on Climate Change and the Ritualization of Denial.
Satellite observations of global sea-surface temperature have shown that a 30-year upward trend slowed in the last 15 years.  It can't be due to successful mitigation, since outside the United States and a few countries in Europe, CO2 emissions have not dropped back to those levels.  What might it mean? Reports Science2.0: "Climate scientists have been scrambling to explain it and think they have an answer; rearrangement in the energy flow of the climate system and how the ocean stores heat. Scientists have speculated that one of the causes of this ‘plateau’ in sea-surface temperature could be a change in the exchange of ocean water between warm, surface waters and cold, deep waters below 700 m – as if the warming is ‘hiding’ underwater. Temperature measurements at this depth cover a relatively short period.
But the warm water won’t hide below the surface forever: scientists believe that it may re-emerge later or affect other climate indicators, such as sea level or ocean circulation."
Indeed, more and more cracks appear in the Edifice of Deliberate Lobotomization.  For example… Televangelist Pat Robertson reacted Wednesday to the big debate between Bill Nye “the Science Guy” and Creation Museum founder Ken Ham over the age of the Earth and so on. Robertson actually took issue with one of the central arguments of creationism and said it’s “nonsense” to say the world’s only six thousand years old. He brought up the findings of a bishop centuries ago who came up with that figure and said, “There ain’t no way that’s possible.”
Read the rest… and use it.
== and… ==
Right now, with a couple of exceptions, Africa's population density is relatively low; it's a very big continent more sparsely populated than, say, Europe or East Asia. That's changing very quickly. The continent's overall population is expected to more than quadruple over just 90 years.  The United Nations Population Division, which tracks demographic data from around the world, has dramatically revised its projections for what will happen in the next nine decades. The new statistics, based on in-depth survey data from sub-Saharan Africa, tell the story of a world poised to change drastically over the next several decades.


sociotard said...

For those of you with more free time than money, 860,000 words of presumably decent SF available for download at no cost.

Nathan Campbell said...

The genetically modified babies thing is an old hoax that's been recirculating lately:

Nathan Campbell said...

Dangit, misspoke - not a hoax, just old news.

Paul451 said...

Re: Evolution of the human face.

Wow, our brains really take off there at the end. The rest of the changes are the sort of variation you might see across any species of any mammal, different diet, different habitats, sexual selection, or just genetic drift. But that skull, whoosh.

Re: Intracellular computer and AI

It depends what it computes. It's likely that the bulk of any intracellular computing would be functions that enable extra-cellular computing, rather than an additional layer of processing.

And worse case, we switch to bio-computers for specific AI processing. Most of the mass of the brain is involved in regulating the body and level-one processing of nerve input, intelligence is likely to be just a thin percentage on top of that. Take that bulk function away and you would have a much smaller mass for specialised AI (such as vision, kinaesthetic awareness, and natural language processing.)

Re: MEG brain feedback.

There's a bunch of TMS/EBS tricks you can do that change your ability to learn or perform a task, by switching parts of the conscious mind off, or change your mood. And various Yogi-types have controlled autonomic functions through meditation. And hypnotic pain-control can even allow surgery without anaesthetic, which apparently has better outcomes (less bleeding, better healing). With MEG feedback, or similar systems, you might be able to teach people how to reliably reach specific states for specific goals without TMS/EBS, hypnosis or decades of meditation and study. There might be distinct learning-new-skills, rote-learning, physical-performance, recall, focus-relaxed-work, de-stress, pain relief, happiness, etc, states. Eventually the sort of thing you might teach kids in schools as a general life-tool. The Classroom Of The Future may look like a '50s hair salon.

"gratitude for the biggest thing that fossil fuels gave us: an industrial revolution that lifted billions out of poverty,"

And indeed, since we have used up the easily accessed sources, this cannot repeat again for at least tens if not hundreds of millions of years. So this is the only technological civilisation that humans can ever have. We need to ensure that the enabling technologies are as widespread around the planet as possible (TWODA) to ensure that we can re-bootstrap ourselves past fossil-fuels again if we need to. Including using methods that can be replicated following a Carrington Event, or mid-level civilisation killing asteroid, or nuclear war.

Tim H. said...

I wouldn't worry overmuch about the carbon/petroleum barons, ultimately their product will be worth more as feedstock for the chemical industry, too valuable to burn. Yet another reason to encourage low carbon & carbon free energy, which IMO, should be promoted more for their immediate benefits than climate.

Tony Fisk said...

A riff on the post title:
At 87, Sir David Attenborough is enthusing about recent research that shows plants use subsonics to guide their root growth.

waving tneurs: what are tneurs? Am I being threatened?

Stefan Jones said...

Climate skeptics have already wormed their way past terminology updates.

Paraphrasing: "They used to call it global warming, and now since there is global cooling since 2008 they're calling it global climate change!"

Followed by some canard about greedy climate scientists faking evidence to roll in the lucrative academic grant money.

Once you've left the reality based community, you can rationalize anything.

sociotard said...

Dr. Brin, have you heard anything about "The Martian", by Andy Weir? It came highly recommended by a reviewer I respect, but it is allegedly very hard Sci Fi, so I thought I'd ask your opinion.

David Brin said...

Just FB'd about the Martian. I look fwd to seeing it.

Anonymous said...

The genetically modified babies were born in 2000(?). After it was announced in 2001, the FDA banned Cytoplasmic transfer. Other techniques of repairing mitochondrial disorders are still being investigated, such as spindle transfer and pronuclear transfer, but human embryos have to be destroyed.

David Brin said...

Clearly a different "anonymous". Thanks.

Alfred Differ said...

When they start messing with telomere lengths and telomerase activation, it should get interesting. We might get to find out how long we can live or just how touchy the balance is between long life and cancer production. 8)

I suspect we are going to have a hard time using animal models for some of this knowledge and may have to look directly at ourselves to figure it out.

David Brin said...