Archive for March, 2017

The difference between Elon Musk and most other people is that when Elon Musk sees a problem, he takes it upon himself to fix it.  Energy.  Transportation.  Space travel.  Even traffic congestion in Los Angeles.  So when Musk made comments recently that he was concerned about the threat that Artificial Intelligence poses to humanity it was only a matter of time before he would decide to do something about it the only way he knows how: by starting a company to tackle the problem head on.

It’s with that in mind (pun intended) that we say hello to Musk’s latest venture: Neuralink, a company that will try to develop a computer-brain interface, similar to the fictional Neural Lace that Musk has made reference to, so that humans can keep pace with the capabilities of Artificial Intelligence.

As the Verge puts it:

“These types of brain-computer interfaces exist today only in science fiction. In the medical realm, electrode arrays and other implants have been used to help ameliorate the effects of Parkinson’s, epilepsy, and other neurodegenerative diseases. However, very few people on the planet have complex implants placed inside their skulls, while the number of patients with very basic stimulating devices number only in the tens of thousands. This is partly because it is incredibly dangerous and invasive to operate on the human brain, and only those who have exhausted every other medical option choose to undergo such surgery as a last resort.  This has not stopped a surge in Silicon Valley interest from tech industry futurists who are interested in accelerating the advancement of these types of far-off ideas. Kernel, a startup created by Braintree co-founder Bryan Johnson, is also trying to enhance human cognition.”

The ultimate goal is to get to the point where we can figure out a way to augment human potential.  A neural link or neural lace could enable its user to access the internet just by thinking about it, extend the capabilities of their memory, allow them to control an exoskeleton, or even self-diagnosis medical issues as they arise throughout the body.  It’s essentially a modern day spin on the old adage: if you can’t beat them, join them.   One that could very well be necessary if we want to avoid becoming enslaves by our robot overlords.

On the other hand there’s still so much about the brain that we don’t understand, the technology is still in its infancy, and most healthy people aren’t exactly going to being lining up for risky elective brain surgery no matter the potential reward.  This is definitely one technology where you’re not going to want to be an early adopter.

But if there’s anyone who can overcome those stigmas and hurdles it’s Musk.  At least, that is, until he turns his attention to something else that needs fixing.

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Is Neuralink the Greatest Idea Ever?

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#1,045 – Heliograf

A twenty-four hour convenience store, known as Wheelys, just opened in China and will operate without any human intervention or even a cash register.  Patrons will use a phone app to open the door to the store, scan what they want to purchase, and just walk out.  No hassle.  No friction.

This futuristic shopping experience is just another reminder that the majority of jobs currently available to humans will one day become obsolete thanks to automation and advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence.  Basically, suffice it to say, if the humble grocery store can get by without a stock clerk, cashier, or security guard then no one is safe.  Every walk of life is about to get upgraded whether we like it or not.

I always assumed that as a writer that I would be safe.  Not from competition mind you.  That would actually increase ten-fold, a thousand-fold, a million-fold (?) as our entire species, freed from mundane tasks by automation, turned to creative pursuits to make a living.  But, rather, from becoming obsolete myself.  Because while machines are great at doing the things they’ve been programmed to do they’d never be able to do the things that humans excel at.  Things like thinking critically, making inferences, recognizing patters and trends, drawing conclusions, etc.  Boy, was I wrong.

That’s because the Washington Post, the fledgling outfit purchased by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos a few years back, has turned to technology to solve some of their problems, such as not being able to keep up with the tedious task of manually tracking election day outcomes by hand.  The result is an artificially intelligent robo-reporter known as Heliograf.

Now Heliograf isn’t the first of its kind.  There are already plenty of algorithms capable of turning data streams into stories.  My fantasy baseball and football teams, on CBS and Yahoo respectively, already have their exploits written up by a bot that can churn our reasonably compelling matchup recaps.  But Heliograph takes auto writing to a whole new level.  That’s because it doesn’t just write what it’s told to.  It also tells you what to write about.  And it doesn’t just write articles using static figures.  Rather, it constantly updates them.

As Wired reports, “the next step is to use Heliograf to keep the data in both machine- and human-written stories up-to-date. For instance, if someone shares a Tuesday story on Thursday, and the facts change in the meantime, Heliograf will automatically update the story with the most recent facts.”

Eventually, it could also do things like, “search the web to see what people are talking about, check the Post to see if that story is being covered, and, if not, alert editors or just write the piece itself.”

For the Post the appeal of Heliograf is obvious: it can handle mundane tasks, churn out hundreds of hyper-local stories, keep information up to date, and free up human reporters to do more interesting things like long-form, deep-dive reporting.  For now.  Eventually, it will probably be able to do that too.  Maybe one day it’ll even win a Pulitzer.  Perhaps I ought to re-think my career choice.

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Is Heliograf the Greatest Idea Ever?

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The other day I saw a video of a color blind kid who got to see colors for the first time thanks to a pair of special glasses.  It was a touching and heartfelt moment as the boy realized what he had been missing out on his entire life.  And it got me thinking.  What if I was in a similar circumstance to that boy?  What if I was the one who could suddenly see images that had been kept from me for my whole life?  How incredible would that be?  And what if that’s what was really happening?  What if the world as we know it isn’t really the way that the world is?!

Well, just a few days later it would seem as though I’m about to get my wish thanks to a breakthrough that could allow people to see additional colors and shades of colors that we didn’t even know existed!  What the what!!?

According to I Fucking Love Science, “Tetrachromacy is considered a rare condition in humans, which allows those with it to distinguish and see hundreds of shades of colors that, to the rest of us, simply look the same. But now researchers may have developed a special pair of glasses that will allow those without tetrachromacy to have a glimpse at what it is like to see the extra colors.

Reported in New Scientist, the special kit has been designed by a team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and could be used to aid those looking to counteract camouflage, or even to spot counterfeit bank notes. It can allow the wearer to distinguish between two shades of color that initially look identical but are actually subtlety different, known as metamers.”

It’s said that Tetrachromats can see ten colors in the rainbow and over 100 million colors in total.  So I wonder just how many colors the glasses would enable you to see? I also wonder if these glasses will have additional uses aside from the military and financial applications listed above?  Could you build the technology into an Augmented Reality app?  Could artists or photographers use them to create works of art that they wouldn’t otherwise have been able to create?  Could magazines include these glasses as free inserts in their publications to unlock additional hidden content?  And what about fashion designers?  What could they do with this technology?

I don’t know.  All I know is that I can’t wait to try them.

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If you could see extra colors would you want to?

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Did you know that the reason why the Dinosaurs were so much bigger than modern day mammals and animals is that there used to be more oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere and as a result of this everything that lived at that time was super-sized.  In the millions of years since Dinosaurs roamed the Earth life has obviously adapted to make due with less oxygen.  And in fact the amount of Oxygen on Earth has actually steadily decreased even further over the last few years.  However, the amount of the decline was so minimal that we haven’t noticed its effects yet.  But that day is coming.  Thanks to climate change it’s only a matter of time before oxygen levels drop to an unsafe level.  And when that happens it’ll be too late to say I told you so to all those climate change deniers since we’d all be dead.

Thankfully, we probably won’t have to worry about that thanks to the exploits of a high school student named Wyatt Pontius who, in addition to having a name that sounds like a character in a Clint Eastwood movie, has figured out a way to change the composition of leaves so that they produce more oxygen.  An innovation that he has dubbed “releaf”.  An innovation that could very well save the planet and every living thing on it.

According to Uproxx:

“The result of his work was that the leaf was able to produce about 375% more oxygen than a typical leaf. It’s a potentially world saving discovery as we face increasingly lowering amounts of oxygen in the atmosphere.  A recent study showed that at the rate that the oceans’ temperatures are rising, the photosynthesis of phytoplankton could be interrupted by 2100. This is a big deal. Phytoplankton produces two thirds of the world’s oxygen. If it stopped producing, we’d be looking at a mass extinction of life on Earth. Those modified leaves will become essential in a hurry.”

In addition to counteracting the effects of climate change the releaf might also be a boon to space travel considering that it will enable us to produce more oxygen using fewer resources.  A cost cutting measure that could let us travel further away from home and for longer stretches of time.  If we’re ever going to become a space faring species it’s probably going to be because of a series of tiny innovations like this one instead of just any one thing.

Considering its impact on saving life on Earth and helping us to establish life on other planets it’s suffice to say that the releaf may not just be one of the greatest ideas of 2017, but of any year.  Thank you Wyatt, for saving us all!

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Is releaf the Greatest Idea Ever?

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The Human Genome Project was launched in 1990 with the goal of sequencing the human genome within fifteen years.  The ultimate goal, however, was to try and understand the way the human body functions.  In theory, if we could identify certain genes and what they were responsible for we could more accurately fix issues, such as genetic disorders, when things went haywire in the body as they often do.  The project was declared complete in 2003 with 95% of the genome sequenced, although active research is still on-going in many cases.

By all accounts the Human Genome Project, the largest collaborative science project in human history, was a great success. As a result of this massive global undertaking over 30,000 genes were successfully identified, providing scientists and doctors with vital information in our fight against cancer and other diseases.

As great as the Human Genome Project was the time has finally come to embark on a new journey.  On a far greater challenge.  Not content with merely sequencing the genome scientists now want to venture further out into unchartered territory by actually writing an entire synthetic human genome as part of an initiative known as HGP-Write.

The scientists involved in the project aren’t even sure if this will be possible but if it is the possibilities would be mind-boggling, from animal free drug testing to parent-less babies designed to exact specifications.

According to the New York Times, “It might be possible to make organisms resistant to all viruses, for instance, or make pig organs suitable for transplant into people.”

And as Wired puts it, “One major scientific benefit could be the creation of living cell lines for pharmaceutical testing. Whole-genome synthesis would also bring down the cost of gene editing. CRISPR allows individual edits to DNA, but producing a full genome would allow thousands of edits in one go.”

Woah! Thousands of edits in one go?!?!  If CRISPR, with its individual edits, is getting hailed as a world-changing technology, can you imagine the hype that HGP-Write will get once people realize what it can do?  If that day comes it’ll likely come ten years from now when the $1 billion project is expected to be completed after synthesizing the complete three billion base pair human genome.  I for one, can’t wait to see how this project unfolds.  Pun intended.

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Is HGP-Write the Greatest Idea Ever?

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Have you ever had one of those Jimmy Stewart moments where you wondered how differently your life could have turned out if you had done something differently. Made a different choice. Met different people. Taken up a different interest. I do. All the time. But I don’t lament giving up on my dream of becoming general manager of the New York Yankees. Nor do I regret changing my major in college or dropping out of the Army R.O.T.C. Rather, what I wish I had done differently was learn to code.

If I did I could be at Google [X] right now, making six figures, while working on the Next Big Thing. Or I could be at Tesla, rubbing elbows with Elon Musk while working on driverless car tech. Or better yet, I could be independently wealthy, sitting next to a gaggle of supermodels on some tropical beach while pondering what my next killer app was going to be. Instead, all of my best app ideas are locked away inside of my cherished Book of Ideas while I’m left wondering if I could have been as prolific a coder as Felicity Smoak or Lucas Wolenczak.

Of course it’s not too late for me to learn to code. And, in fact, I did try CodeAcademy a few years ago. But, ultimately I couldn’t commit enough time to the project and realized that coding wasn’t really for me. For while I’m introverted and like to solve puzzles I also like to go outside every once in a while.

Fortunately, Microsoft is working on new technology that could solve my problem by allowing me to code apps without actually having to know anything about coding. All I’d have to do is explain to their AI system, known as DeepCoder, what I was trying to accomplish and it would then code it for me.

As Digital Trends explains, “DeepCoder uses program synthesis, the process of combining existing code to create new applications, to search and integrate the best source code in the best combinations to solve problems. Once the system knows what a human programmer wants it to accomplish, along with the available inputs, the system can then search more quickly and more completely than any human coder to create a new application.”

On the one hand you can read that and assume the worst. Assume that DeepCoder is going to take jobs away from human coders or go rogue and figure out a way to code our own demise. But when I read that I see something else. I see a total game-changer. The democratization of coding.

Thanks to DeepCoder the American dream is alive and well as anyone with an idea can now make it big in the blink of an eye. The barrier to entry has been lowered all the way down. Not since the invention of the Gutenberg Press, the start of the Industrial Revolution and the advent of the World Wide Web have we been on the precipice of such a game-changing technology.  Hopefully, everyone else will see it that way too.

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Is DeepCoder the Greatest Idea Ever?


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The other day I heard something truly startling: Hollywood is actually contemplating a reboot of the Matrix franchise, not even twenty years after the cult hit emerged into the zeitgeist.  Then I learned about something even more shocking: it may soon be possible to actually create the Matrix.  Sort of.

Improbable is a UK based startup that has pioneered a way to create vast virtual simulations at a level of scale and detail that has never been attempted before.  It’s not the Matrix per say.  But it is the next best thing: virtual worlds so complex that they actually mirror the way the real world works.

Why is this important? As their website puts it:

“Imagine simulations of the human body used to help fight disease. Virtual worlds with millions of people interacting to create incredible new entertainment experiences. Companies basing decisions on detailed simulations of entire markets, or governments modelling whole nations.  This would transform how we see the world and help us solve immense problems that need us to be able to understand the emergent complexity of real world systems.”

Economists from Oxford are already using Improbable to run models of the U.K. housing market, Google is using it to build VR experiences, and Samsung is interested in using it to run simulations for its Internet of Things connected devices. And that’s just the start.  The World Health Organization might want to use it to track a potential outbreak and video game developers might want to use it to test their software.  With technology this transformative the potential use cases are truly endless.

So while we may not know how Improbable will be used and who will want to use it one thing is for sure: Hollywood definitely didn’t use it when deciding whether or not to reboot the Matrix.  Because if they did they would have known that this is one reboot that no one was asking for.

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Improbable can create simulations on a grand scale just like in the Matrix.  Does this make it the Greatest Idea Ever?



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