Society, Science & Technology
Winston Churchill on alien life. Archivists have unearthed an unpublished 1939 essay by Britain’s soon-to-be prime minister on astronomy and the probability of life around other stars. Mario Livio got a look at it, and writes in Nature that it was not only remarkably prescient but shows Churchill’s close relationship with science—a rarity in today’s political leaders.
Creative Destruction (CDL)
Has this man discovered the formula for creating high-tech superstars? Sean Silcoff goes inside a bold experiment at the University of Toronto to find out
Ajay Agrawal [is] one of Canada’s foremost business academics and founder of Creative Destruction Lab (CDL), a ground-breaking program for startups housed at Rotman.
CDL has accomplished what few incubators of technology startups in Canada have managed to do, already making a major impact on a teeming startup ecosystem. Now in its fifth year, it has developed a promising method for helping early stage companies- many of them using AI and other leading-edge technology – to grow, flourish and attract private capital.
Oldest traces of life on Earth found in Quebec, dating back roughly 3.8 billion years
May aid in search for traces of life elsewhere in our solar system
(CBC) A team of international scientists has found the oldest record of life on Earth in Northern Quebec, dating back at least 3.8 billion years.
Our solar system formed about 4.6 billion years ago. Scientists believe that about 4.3 billion years ago, water already existed at the surface. However, what isn’t known is when the earliest life emerged. Recent research has found life at 3.4 billion years and, most recently 3.7 billion years.
The discovery was made in the Nuvvuagittuq Greenstone Belt in Northern Quebec in rock known as “banded iron formations.” These formations existed billions of years ago, a result of organisms reacting with dissolved iron in the water that covered the planet. They appear in rock as red or white layers.
These are the science concepts you need to know to understand political life in 2017
Faced with a bombardment of environmental data, our brains make constant unconscious judgments about what’s worth our attention. Confirmation bias is the flaw in our reasoning that impels us to seek information that supports our beliefs and discount or ignore that which doesn’t. It’s a constant presence in our politics, media, and personal relationships.
When it comes to science, confirmation bias can lead to flawed research and disastrous results. It’s the reason doctors are prone to overlook symptoms that undermine their diagnoses, or researchers dismiss as errors results that don’t support their hypotheses.
(Quartz) The move science is making from the ivory tower to the polis is not limited to the US; labs across the world are already taking in scientists made homeless (in the institutional sense) by Donald Trump’s immigration policies. And since Trump’s policies will inevitably impact global concerns ranging from climate change to the free movement of scientists who rely on cross-border collaborations, we should expect to see science take on a more political flavor all across the world in 2017.
Quartz has put together a compendium of the scientific concepts and terms that will be at the heart of these conversations—and will characterize the world of scientific discovery through the rest of the year.
“Skepticism,” according to the Skeptic Society, “is the application of reason to any and all ideas—no sacred cows allowed.” Reason in this context is the scientific kind. Skeptics don’t take claims at face value. They demand proof in the form of concrete evidence and replicable results. In that sense, every scientist is a skeptic.
Iatrogenesis, Greek for “brought forth by the healer,” … The phrase refers to any negative health effect on a person resulting from doctors or other health care workers promoting or applying services as beneficial to their health. … By some estimates, medical error is the third-leading cause of death in the US—and it has nothing to do with incompetence, laziness, or malevolence. Instead, it’s the result of doctors applying medical practices they think will work, but don’t.
… the social cost of carbon is the measure of economic damage that each ton of carbon dioxide causes to society.
Clean coal is not a thing, it’s a process. … Clean-coal technology captures the carbon dioxide and buries it underground or puts it to some use. So far, carbon capture and storage, also called CCS, hasn’t taken off because it’s too expensive for commercial viability. But if the Trump administration is willing to admit climate change is real, and buys into the idea of a carbon tax—which takes into account the social cost of carbon, and which other Republicans are loudly supporting—it could make clean coal a realistic possibility.
We discovered the structure of DNA in 1953, and now we can manipulate it to create plants with exquisite properties, pig-human hybrids, and genetically modified babies. Next up: outsmarting evolution through a new technology called gene drives. If they are successful (and pass stringent ethics tests), we could use gene drives to wipe out whole species of mosquitoes. But as with any powerful technology, it’s also possible to use gene drives to do ill.
China’s Intelligent Weaponry Gets Smarter
(Futurist & NYT) Robert O. Work, the veteran defense official retained as deputy secretary by President Trump, calls them his “A.I. dudes.” The breezy moniker belies their serious task: The dudes have been a kitchen cabinet of sorts, and have advised Mr. Work as he has sought to reshape warfare by bringing artificial intelligence to the battlefield.
… the dudes told him, “the smartest guys are at Facebook and Google,” Mr. Work recalled in an interview.
Now, increasingly, they’re also in China. The United States no longer has a strategic monopoly on the technology, which is widely seen as the key factor in the next generation of warfare. Read more
IBM Reveals Five Innovations that will Help Change our Lives within Five Years
IBM Predicts New Scientific Instruments to Make the Invisible Visible
IBM unveiled today the annual “IBM 5 in 5” – a list of ground-breaking scientific innovations with the potential to change the way people work, live, and interact during the next five years.
With AI, our words will open a window into our mental health
Hyperimaging and AI will give us superhero vision
Macroscopes will help us understand Earth’s complexity in infinite detail
Medical labs “on a chip” will serve as health detectives for tracing disease at the nanoscale
Smart sensors will detect environmental pollution at the speed of light
The Atlantic Magazine November issue publishes an illustrated Pocket Guide to the Robot Revolution
Sorting the good from the bad, the creepy from the adorable
No One Saw Tesla’s Solar Roof Coming
The roof tiles are actually made of textured glass. From most viewing angles, they look just like ordinary shingles, but they allow light to pass through from above onto a standard flat solar cell. The plan is for Panasonic to produce the solar cells and for Tesla to put together the glass tiles and everything that goes along with them. That’s all predicated on shareholders approving the $2.2 billion acquisition of SolarCity, the biggest U.S. rooftop installer, on Nov. 17.
… The audience was able to step into a future powered entirely by Tesla: a house topped with sculpted Tuscan solar tiles, where night-time electricity is stored in two sleek wall-hung Powerwall batteries, and where a Model 3 prototype electric car sits parked out front within reach of the home’s car charger.
Strawmen and selective statistics: Did The New York Times botch its critique of GMO crops
(Genetic Literacy Project) A new article in the New York Times [“Doubts About the Promised Bounty of Genetically Modified Crops” by Dany Hakim”] has questioned the benefits associated with genetically engineered crops (which I’ll call GMOs for brevity). The response to the article has been pretty predictable; folks who don’t like GMOs are circulating it to say “I told you so.” And ag-twitter has exploded with claims that the New York Times is biased against the technology.
The article makes some reasonable points that GMO crops are not a ‘silver bullet’ cure all technology. But almost any reasonable person has already acknowledged that. In a nutshell, the article has 2 main conclusions: GMO crops don’t yield more, and GMO crops haven’t reduced pesticide use. These two items were initially claimed as reasons to invest in and adopt GMO crops, and for many years, we’ve been hearing about how these crops either have or have not met the initial expectations. Danny Hakim looked at some data and has come down pretty solidly on the side of “have not” met expectations. See also NPR: NY Times’ Danny Hakim under fire from scientists, farmer critics of his “GMOs are failing” report
Excellent news from our OWN good friend Bert Revanez of Ecometrica
Space data outfit boosts environmental monitoring
A Scottish software business is aiming to take the guesswork out of environmental monitoring after tapping into satellite data technology developed at the University of Edinburgh. Edinburgh-based Ecometrica has acquired the technology to interpret data collected by Europe’s Sentinel-1 satellite mission in a bid to predict floods, crop yields, forest protection and water stewardship.
Ecometrica chief executive Gary Davis said: “Imagery and data from Sentinel-1 has tremendous potential to be used commercially and for earth conservation. By making this data easily accessible, the possibilities are limitless.
With the failure of any expeditious clean-up of the October 13th Bella Bella Oil Spill, Pedro Gregorio reminds us that “there is a Canadian-invented oil spill cleaning technology that is easy to deploy and recovers up to 95% of spilled fuel without using any surfactants or other nasty additives. The system is a clever — purely mechanical — separation system that exploits natural buoyancy as a driving mechanism for separation of oil from water. It is scalable, can be retrofitted into a dedicated ship or deployed as a tow-behind barge. The technology has been in development for more than 20 years with excellent results including full-scale deployment in open waters. The system has yet to come to market for lack of investment. Meanwhile we pour tons of money into ineffective mitigation strategies that leave coastlines and ecosystems destroyed.” Extreme Spill Technology — Immediate Definitive Recovery of Oil Spills
Look up. There are 10 times more galaxies than once thought
(PBS) You think your attic’s full of stuff – try the universe. By remapping the deepest corners of the universe, scientists at Nottingham University in the U.K. now believe there are 10 times as many galaxies in the universe than previously thought. Their findings, reported this week in The Astrophysical Journal, recycle data collected over 20 years by one of the oldest man-made sentinels in space — the Hubble telescope — to offer new perspective on the observable universe.
“It boggles the mind that over 90 percent of the galaxies in the universe have yet to be studied. Who knows what interesting properties we will find when we observe these galaxies with the next generation of telescopes,” Christopher Conselice, an astrophysicist who led the study, said in a statement.
Dave Gershgorn on how the Obama administration sees the future of AI. “The White House imagines virtual personal assistants housed in smart glasses, automated factories that assist humans in complex building tasks, and systems that provide better data for farmers, all in the context that these could be job creators and not job stealers.”
The US government has been funding AI for 50 years, and just came up with a plan for its future
(Quartz) In two reports today, the White House outlined its strategy for promoting artificial intelligence research and development in the US. While most of the bigger questions were punted to future legislators (“more research is needed” is a key phrase), the executive branch did draw some lines in the sand. And most importantly to the research community, the White House is not pushing for AI to be broadly regulated—instead, the use of the technology will be held to specific standards in the automotive, aviation, and finance industries.
Three key guiding philosophies were presented across the reports: AI needs to augment humanity instead of replacing it, AI needs to be ethical, and there must be an equal opportunity for everyone to develop these systems.
These are subjects on US president Barack Obama’s mind, too—as he says in a well-timed feature in Wired magazine. “Most people aren’t spending a lot of time right now worrying about singularity—they are worrying about ‘Well, is my job going to be replaced by a machine?’” Obama said in the interview.
The President in Conversation With MIT’s Joi Ito and WIRED’s Scott Dadich
(Wired) IT’S HARD TO think of a single technology that will shape our world more in the next 50 years than artificial intelligence. As machine learning enables our computers to teach themselves, a wealth of breakthroughs emerge, ranging from medical diagnostics to cars that drive themselves. A whole lot of worry emerges as well. Who controls this technology? Will it take over our jobs? Is it dangerous? President Obama was eager to address these concerns. The person he wanted to talk to most about them? Entrepreneur and MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito. So I sat down with them in the White House to sort through the hope, the hype, and the fear around AI. That and maybe just one quick question about Star Trek. —Scott Dadich