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Thinking about the vastness of outer space is overwhelming.  Forget about stars.  No matter which direction you look, you’ll see trillions of galaxies.  Mapping all of it would be a daunting task even for our most advanced AI.

While we’re not yet at the point of mapping the entire Universe we are one step closer to mapping the entirety of the Milky Way though.  An impressive accomplishment in its own right.

As The Verge reports:

“This morning, the European Space Agency unveiled a new, highly detailed sky map of the Milky Way Galaxy that showcases the brightness and positions of nearly 1.7 billion stars. It’s the most comprehensive catalog of stars to date, and it includes precise details about many of the stars’ distances, movements, and colors as well. With the map’s release, astronomers are hoping to use this information to learn more about the structure of our galactic home and how it first formed billions of years ago.

The map came together with data from ESA’s Gaia spacecraft. Launched in 2013, the spacecraft sits nearly 1 million miles from Earth, and it’s continuously scanning the sky with two telescopes. To get a thorough view of the galaxy’s stars, the vehicle rotates once every six hours, mapping one big circle of the sky. The Gaia mission team also changes the position of the spacecraft’s axis, too, allowing the vehicle to cover the entire sky in two-month increments. By doing multiple scans of the full sky, ESA gets repeated measurements of the same stars again and again.”

Gaia just doesn’t help us map the stars though.  It’s also helped us map distant galaxies and smaller near Earth objects, such as the dangerous asteroids that could wipe us out.

In short, Gaia is doing important work, as we look to further our understanding of the Universe and ensure that we’re around long enough to figure out answers to all of our pending questions.  Queries ranging from ‘what is dark matter?’ to ‘are we alone in the Universe?’.  Questions that we’re no closer to answering at the moment.  Hopefully, this new detailed “Map of the Heavens” will bring us one step closer.

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Is the Book of the Heavens the Greatest Idea Ever?

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A group of researchers have announced plans to sequence the genome of nearly every living thing on planet Earth.  If you thought the Human Genome Project was ambitious you ain’t seen nothing yet!

The goal of the Earth BioGenome Project is to sequence the genome of eurakyotes i.e. everything that contains a nucleus.  Which is pretty much everything (plants, animals, etc.) with the exception of bacteria.

This is quite the undertaking.  And an expensive one at that.  It took nearly $5 billion and 13 years to sequence the human genome.  Doing the same thing for the rest of life on Earth would seemingly take forever and be too expensive to pull off.  And yet here we are.  With a goal of $4.7 billion and ten years.  How is that even possible?

In a word: motivation.  For we are talking about creating new drugs, generating new sources of food, counteracting Climate Change, and doing a host of other things that may very well determine the future of the species.  When the stakes are this high you don’t take no for an answer.

To start out, just think about what this project could mean for drug discovery alone.  Considering that we’ve only scratched the surface of discovering drugs in nature this research could open up a myriad of possibilities.

According to Futurism:

“So far, scientists have only sequenced the DNA of .2 percent of all known eukaryotic species. That’s helped scientists discover and understand a number of medications that exist in nature, from morphine to aspirin. What kinds of potentially life-saving compounds remain hidden in the other 99.8 percent of un-sequenced species (or in the estimated 10 million to 15 million unknown species)?”

But that’s not all.  In addition to drug discovery there are plenty of other benefits that this project could have as well.  Such as helping researchers, “hone in on new sources of food to nourish the planet’s growing population and new resources for helping us take care of its soil, air, and water.”

A good example of this would be cockroach milk.  It’s said that the milk from the Pacific Beatle Cockroach contains 3x as much protein as milk from cows.  Sequencing the genome of everything would help us determine if there’s something else out there that would work even better.  Perhaps with 30x the protein.  Or 200x the protein.  Until we get in there and conduct the research we just don’t know.

It’ll be quite the undertaking for sure.  But as the researchers state in their inaugural paper it’ll be worth it:

“The greatest legacy of the EBP will be the gift of knowledge — a complete Digital Library of Life that contains the collective biological intelligence of 3.5 billion years of evolutionary history.  This knowledge will guide future discoveries for generations and may ultimately determine the survival of life on our planet.”

Amen to that.

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Is the Earth BioGenome Project the Greatest Idea Ever?

I’ve tried writing fictional stories but to no avail.  My consciousness isn’t as creative as I’d like to think it is.  My sub-conscious on the other hand is a treasure trove of creative expression.  As my dreams can often attest to.  If I’m lucky enough to remember what I dreamt about I can use that as a spring board for writing a story.  But if I can’t, then it’s back to the drawing board.

Thankfully, there may soon be something else that I can try to stir my creative juices thanks to a new device from researchers at M.I.T. that lets a person toggle between various states of wakefulness.

As The Next Web explains, “The state between awake and asleep is called hypnophagia, and some experts believe that by controlling the amount of time we spend in it, then interrupting the mind before it can completely fall asleep, we may be able to take advantage of certain cognitive associations we’ve never been able to before.”

But what does taking advantage of cognitive associations mean exactly?  Are we talking about getting smarter?  Improving our memory?  Becoming more creative?  Could a detective use this technology to help a victim remember the details of a crime?  Could a novelist use it to dream up a new plot twist?  Could students use it to boost their test scores?

According to I Fucking Love Science:

“The idea is to induce the transitory period between wakefulness and sleep, which you can think of as like the twilight zone between night and day. Or, as one researcher puts it, a ‘natural fragmentation of consciousness’ where you are neither fully conscious nor entirely unconscious. The period is tricky to define – while some people may be able to hold full conversations, others will experience visual and auditory hallucinations.”

In other words, we have no idea what to expect.  But considering that Thomas Edison was a big believer in hypnophagia it may be worth exploring further.  Because what if there’s something to it?  What if we really could use the technique and M.I.T.’s new device to make ourselves more creative?  What if we really could use it to reach a higher level of consciousness in the space between where we live and where we dream?  What wonders would we create? What thresholds would we cross? What limits would we surpass?  I don’t know about you, but I’d love to find out.

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What’s good enough for Thomas Edison is good enough for me.

The Amazon Echo speaker is cool but owning one isn’t a necessity.  To be honest, I barely even use mine.  The things it does, playing music, setting timers, acting as an alarm clock, telling you jokes, filling you in on the latest news, etc. are useful, not essential.  Most of that stuff you can get from other sources.

To change that Amazon has introduced Alexa Blueprints.  A way for Echo owners to create their own customized Alexa skills or responses, without needing to know how to code.  With the hope being that people would be more inclined to use their speakers if there were more things that they could use it for.

According to TechCrunch, “the idea is to allow Alexa owners to create their own voice apps, like a trivia game or bedtime stories, or teach Alexa to respond to questions with answers they design – like ‘Who’s the best mom in the world?,’ for example.”

I think that the best potential use-case for Alexa Blueprints, however, is to use the technology to leave customized messages.  For instance, if you’re an AirBnB homeowner, you could create a custom skill for your guests to use.  By asking Alexa a set question, the guests would receive a note that you leave for them, about where to find extra towels or who to call in case of an emergency.

It’s worth nothing though that there are still limits to what you can do with Alexa Blueprints.  As Wired puts it, “The Blueprints are not quite as customizable as you might think. Think of them more like Mad Libs for pre-existing Alexa narratives.”

All in all, it’s nice to see that Amazon is still tinkering with Alexa and trying to make the service as user-friendly as possible.  Hopefully, it will get even easier to create new skills in the future.  Skills that would be truly 100% customizable and not just following a plug and play template.

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Is Alexa Blueprints the Greatest Idea Ever?

Forget about reading people’s thoughts.  In the future we may be able to view them.  Made possible by a new company called Openwater.

According to Wired, “The San Francisco startup is developing an optical imaging system—sufficiently compact to fit inside a skull cap, wand, or bandage—that scatters and captures near-infrared light inside our bodies to create holograms that reveal our occluded selves. The devices could diagnose cancers as well as cardiovascular or other diseases. But because the wavelength of near-infrared light is smaller than a micron, smaller than the smallest neuron, Jepsen believes the resolution of the technology is fine enough to make thoughts visible too.”

What could you use such a technology for?  Company founder Mary Lou Jepsen, “imagines painters or musicians expressing themselves by thinking of pictures or sounds.”  She also suggests that people might be to toss each other thoughts, a new-age way of playing catch.  Meanwhile, I’m imagining being able to watch a movie of your dreams after waking up.  Or a detective being able to re-create a crime scene from a victim’s memories.

Obviously it’s going to be a while before this technology becomes viable.  There’s still so much about how the brain works that we don’t understand.  And even if we did know everything there’s still the matter of figuring out how to convert what the brain sees into images that we could view.

Ultimately, it may prove too difficult to convert some of the more complex emotions that human beings feel. But even if we can only see a few things in a crude manner that would still be rather impressive.  And if we can improve the range and quality of the images?  Well, that would be a total game-changer.  One that would open a whole new era for human expression and communication.

 

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Is Openwater the Greatest Idea Ever?

#1,292 – Minds

A social network that pays you?  That’s the premise behind Minds, an anti-Facebook of sorts, that’s gaining traction in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica data scandal that rocked Mark Zuckerberg and company. After all, why should a giant conglomerate get to data mine your news feed and exploit your personal life for profit while you get nothing for your efforts? You’re the one posting all the content.  You’re the one doing all the work.  Shouldn’t you get a cut of the action?

Minds think so.  And aims to rewards its users with tokens that they can use to help spread their audience on the site.

According to Wired, “The tokens users receive for contributing to Minds don’t yet translate to real money, but they can be used within the platform to buy two kinds of Boosts. News Feed Boosts largely work in the same way as traditional digital ads, injecting a post into other people’s feeds. Peer-to-Peer Boosts, meanwhile, formalize a part of the digital economy that has always existed, letting you pay another Minds user to share your post to their followers. It’s the Minds equivalent of a brand paying an Instagram blogger to wear their shoes, or a musician paying a popular Twitter account to tweet out their SoundCloud mixtape. The difference is that the financial relationship is disclosed in the open. ‘If you use the Boost well, you could have no audience and easily gain like five to ten-thousand followers,’ says [Minds Founder Bill] Ottman.”

Could you imagine if this was the way that Twitter worked?  If all of your tweets were converted into points that you could use to gain more followers?  To date, I’ve tweeted 4,456 times and have 426 followers.  That’s roughly one follower for every ten tweets.  On Minds my audience would grow ten times that in a fraction of the time.

So what does the future hold for Minds? Where do they go from here with their point based system?

As Wired explains:

“The tokens on Minds can be used for more than just ads; they essentially power the social network’s entire ecosystem. Using Wire, the platform’s built-in Patreon-like feature, users can tip creators, or pay for exclusive content, if someone chooses to place a post behind a paywall. You can also earn tokens by contributing to Minds’ code, or discovering software bugs; the entire site is open source. Last month, Minds began testing converting its token system—which were previously called points—into a new cryptocurrency, the Minds token, which runs on the Ethereum blockchain network. In theory, Minds users will eventually be able to take their tokens to exchanges, and convert them into another cryptocurrency like Bitcoin, or even into dollars.”

Being able to convert points into value IRL could be a real game-changer for Minds.  The killer app that they need to go mainstream.  But even if that doesn’t happen there’s still the chance that Minds could grow organically.  Especially, if Facebook continues to shoot itself in its foot, destroying consumer confidence and wilting away brand loyalty with shady business practices.

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Is Minds the Greatest Idea Ever?