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Archive for April, 2017

Facebook’s goal, their obsession really, is to make sure that everybody, and I do mean everybody, is one day connected to each other, and to their platform.   And they will stop at nothing to ensure that this goal is met, whether that’s creating virtual worlds through the Oculus Rift or inventing solar powered planes that beam internet access down to people in the developing world.   Now it appears that they may be on the verge of taking even more drastic measures to ensure that their goal is met: entering our minds.

As Recode puts it, “Facebook is building what it calls a “brain-computer speech-to-text interface,” technology that’s supposed to translate your thoughts directly from your brain to a computer screen without any need for speech or fingertips.  The idea is that this technology will be able to take what you’re thinking to yourself in silence, using non-invasive sensors that can read exactly what you intend to say, and turn it into readable text.”

The Verge adds:

“The technology is being developed by Facebook’s Building 8 research group, led by ex-DARPA director and former head of Google’s experimental research group Regina Dugan.  Dugan compared the technology to the cochlea in your ear, which translates sound into information readable by your brain. Facebook says it’s possible to reproduce the cochlea’s functions with hardware and then transmit that information to the brain by delivering it through a person’s skin.”

If Dugan is involved in the project there’s a high likelihood that it will be successful but that begs the question: would we want it to be?  Do we really want Facebook to know what we’re thinking when they already know too much about us based on what we willingly put out into the world?  In short, I think the answer is yes.

For starters, telepathy has long been at the top of our sci-fi wish lists along with flying cars, time travel, and teleportation.  Facebook’s approach sounds like it might be the closest we’ve come so far to achieving that goal and who knows, maybe it can one day lead to true telepathy.  Secondly, it sounds like it would improve our lives by making our social media interactions more efficient.  Why bother typing or speaking a message when you can just think it.  In theory, using this technology, students could pass notes to one another in class without their teacher finding out, and co-workers could do the same during a boring staff meeting.  And lastly, in a more practical sense, this approach could save a lot of money, maybe even make is possible for people in the developing world to interact with one another seamlessly.  After all, when you are communicating through your thoughts and skin you no longer have a need for a phone, tablet, or computer.

With all that being said is this concept still creepy?  Yes, definitely yes.  But, is it also cool?  An even bigger yes!

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Is Facebook’s brain to skin interface the Greatest Idea Ever?

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Scientifically speaking, we live in extraordinary times.  We’ve detected Gravitational Waves, discovered the Higgs Boson god particle, and inch ever closer to figuring out what Dark Matter and Dark Energy are.  If they even exist at all.  Scientists have invented a material with negative mass, a liquid that flows backward.  New exo-planets, some of them potentially habitable, continue to get discovered on a daily basis.  Within the far reaches of our own solar system we continue to find evidence of new planetary bodies, while exploring the possibility that icy moons could harbor life.

But there’s always been one area of physics that has eluded our grasp.  One conundrum that not even the most potent particle accelerator could figure out.  The infamous Black Hole; the information destroying, light capturing, matter eating behemoths that allegedly reside at the center of every galaxy, wreaking havoc on space-time just for the hell of it.

At least that’s what we think happens.  Just like with Dark Matter we’ve never been able to directly observe a Black Hole.  We just figure that it must exist based on our calculations and best guesses for how the Universe works. But all that may be about to change.  For the first time ever we may be on the verge of actually photographing a Black Hole!

To pull off this incredible feat scientists have concocted an audacious plan so-crazy-it-might-just-work: turning the entire Earth into a giant telescope!

As Gizmodo explains:

“The Event Horizon Telescope, or EHT, is a network of around ten radio telescope observatories across the planet, synchronized via the most precise atomic clocks, and pointed directly at the center of our galaxy. There, scientists are pretty sure a supermassive black hole around four million times the mass of our sun, called Sagittarius A*, powers the orbit of the Milky Way’s rotation, tears matter to shreds and flings balls of it across space. The telescope network will also look at the much larger black hole inside the giant galaxy M87. The EHT is around a decade old, but the addition of the world’s most powerful radio telescope, ALMA or the Atacama Large Millimeter Array in the Chilean desert, along with a telescope at the South Pole, may allow scientists to finally get the wild black hole image previously offered only by artist drawings or computer simulations.  This souped-up Event Horizon Telescope will start observing in early April.”

This means that we could be mere days away from finally observing what an actual Black Hole looks like.  Maybe even days away from finding out if Hawking radiation is real or not; from finding out if light really can’t escape the event horizon; if information is truly lost; if these soul crushing monsters are actually cosmic dead ends or portals to other dimensions.

These observations could have a profound impact on our ability to understand the way that the Universe works, to learn more about galaxy formation, and to figure out what Dark Matter and Dark Energy are.  All told, this new knowledge could potentially bring us one step closer to crossing the cosmos in pursuit of discovering new worlds.  Extraordinary times indeed.

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Is using the entire Earth as a telescope the Greatest Idea Ever?

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I’m currently reading a riveting book about the history of innovation.  In How We Got To Now, author Steven Johnson traces the trajectory of six innovations that shaped the modern world.  What Johnson is particularly focused on in this book is the so-called Hummingbird Effect; how seemingly unrelated events are actually connected, such as the way that the Hummingbird evolved its unique ability to hover in place as a response to the way that the flower had evolved to attract pollinators.

One of the examples that Johnson gives is of the Gutenberg Press, the world’s first printing press.  This invention obviously had a huge impact on the world as access to information increased and literacy rates improved.  But it also had unintended consequences such as the spread of heretic ideas that undermined the authority of the church.  But that’s not all it did.  As a perfect example of the Hummingbird effect the printing press also impacted several other innovations that would have been impossible to predict at the time.  For instance, since people were starting to read more they realized that they were really farsighted.  This lead to an increased interest in correcting vision, which lead to an increased interest in lenses, which lead to the invention of the microscope and the telescope, which lead to advances in healthcare and physics.  If the printing press had never been invented we might not know what a cell was or that there are planets surrounding other stars.

Other inventions had similar long-term effects.  Shipping ice from Boston to the Caribbean to make ice cream and cool drinks created a global luxury market for ice which led to people taking an interest in cooling techniques.  This ultimately lead to refrigerators, which then lead to air conditioners, which led to the greatest mass migration the world has ever seen as warmer climes could now be settled, which led to a dramatic shift in the balance of power in U.S. politics with the Democrats losing control of Congress as population centers migrated South.  Political reverberations that are still being felt today.

The accidental discovery of glass, stumbled upon in the Sahara desert, had a far greater impact.  At first, the transparency of glass is what appealed to people as it became a key fixture in jewelry.  But later on mankind would start to tinker with some of its other properties, such as its strength and its ability to bend light, using it to make wine glasses and then beautiful stain glass windows.  Eventually it would make its way into eyewear and ultimately mirrors and that’s where things would get really interesting.

For the first time in human history people could actually see what they looked like, instead of forming a rough picture based off of seeing their reflection in a pond.  This fundamentally altered the way they saw the world.  Instead of relying on institutions such as their families or the church for guidance, they would instead start to rely more on themselves, even caring more about their possessions and their social status.  Not so coincidentally, it was around this time that there was also a rise in the number of self-portraits as artists took more of an interest in the proverbial selfie of the day.  This fundamental change just so happened to coincide with the Renaissance and while it would be foolish to say that the Renaissance was caused by the discovery of glass and the advent of the mirror, it is worth mentioning, at least, as a possible contributing factor, especially when you consider that the Renaissance was fueled in part by artists competing for recognition and commissions from the wealthy Medici.

This idea that the mirror could change the way people saw the world, and that in turn, could lead to the Renaissance is completely mind-blowing to me.  I’ve always just kind of taken our way of life, the modern human condition, for granted.  I’ve never thought philosophically about the way that I see the world; that perhaps there could be another entirely different perspective that one could take.  I never once considered that a new technology might be able to profoundly change my worldview.

Sure, there are plenty of people claiming that we are, in fact, currently undergoing a transformation in the way we see the world, for better or for worse, thanks to our reliance on computers.  On the one hand these machines may be making us dumber as we outsource our memories to them.  On the other hand they could be changing our understanding of the world around us as we start to equate naturally occurring phenomenon with programming the way that the invention of watches led to some imagining natural systems as a series of cogs and wheels. But, while both of those perspectives are true, it’s hard for me to imagine that computers are fundamentally impacting the way I see the world or that they could lead to another Renaissance.  Computers may be making us dumber but they also could be making us smarter, augmenting our performance and improving it bit by bit.  Either way, they’re not really altering our sense of self the way that the mirror did.  But there is a new discovery that might.  A breakthrough in our understanding of the human mind and how it works that could change everything.  A revelation that could lead to a heightened sense of self, unlike anything ever seen before in human history.

That bold claim is based on the working theory that consciousness has various levels of intensity.  You might want to imagine these levels on a baseline of 1-10 with one representing somebody in a coma and ten representing someone fighting in the Octagon with their fight or flight response in full swing.  But now we’ve come to find out that there’s a higher level of consciousness that’s off the charts.

According to I Fucking Love Science:

“One way in which neuroscientists measure consciousness is to look at something called neural signal diversity. This assesses how complex a brain’s activity is at any given time and provides a mathematical index of the level of consciousness. For example, a waking brain has more diverse neural activity than a sleeping one, which means it has a higher state of consciousness.

When the researchers from the University of Sussex and Imperial College, London, looked at the neural signal diversity of volunteers given one of the three different psychedelic drugs, they found something surprising. The brain signal diversity was higher in those who had taken the drugs compared to a baseline of someone who is simply awake and aware, suggesting that they have a heightened sense of consciousness.”

Taping into this higher state of consciousness for the first time could have the same transformative psychological impact of looking in the mirror for the first time.  You’d suddenly realize that you have infinitely more potential than you had ever imagined.  Your perspective on life would instantly change as you begin to wonder what you could do with heightened senses, with better reflexes, with more situational awareness.  Your mind would race as you contemplate how much smarter you’ve become and if you’ve gained any new abilities.  And what about society as a whole?  If everyone was operating at this higher state of consciousness would it usher in a new era of creativity, a new Renaissance?  What innovations will this Great Awareness lead to?  What sort of Hummingbird Effects would it have?

The great thing about innovation is that it’s impossible to answer these questions from our present day perspective.  Johannes Gutenberg had no idea that the printing press would lead to the discovery of the cell.  The first person to stumble across glass in the desert could never have fathomed that it would one day be used as a mirror and lead to the Renaissance.  When Thomas Edison invented the phonograph he first thought it would be used to send messages from one person to another.  When Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone he first thought it would be used so that a musician on one end could perform for someone listening on the other end.  They had no idea that the use cases for their inventions would wind up getting switched with the telephone getting used to communicate and the phonograph becoming a music player.

When it comes to innovation, it’s not always necessary to know where you’re going to wind up.  The only thing that truly matters is knowing when to start.  Knowing when the next revolution is about to begin. And I believe that our discovery of a higher state of consciousness is one of those key moments in history.  A pivotal moment that could change everything, even if we don’t yet realize how.

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Is a higher state of consciousness within our reach?

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#1,054 – Ghost Restaurants

Ghost Restaurant.  A haunted eatery that’s a sequel to the 2002 horror flick Ghost Ship? Or a new cuisine craze where specters serve “ghoul” food instead of soul food?  Turns out it’s neither.

As Fast Company puts it, “Hungry New Yorkers ordering meals through such online services as Seamless or Eat24 order everything from sushi to burgers to tacos. But when they order from certain restaurants like Leafage and Butcher Block, they might not realize that those restaurants aren’t restaurants at all. They are virtual eateries created by a company called the Green Summit Group that operates several food-delivery services out of central commissaries in midtown Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Chicago. In New York alone, Green Summit’s brands offer all sorts of cuisine ‘concepts,’ including meatballs, salad/sandwich/juice, and burgers/grilled cheese.”

In other words, they’re ordering from ghost restaurants that exist in name only.  Weird, yet entirely practical.  The unusual setup makes perfect sense for busy millennials who are constantly ordering delivery while on the go.  When your office is a Starbucks and your living quarters a stranger’s spare bedroom you get used to unorthodox arrangements.  It doesn’t really matter to you that the restaurant you just ordered from doesn’t have a physical space that you can go to for date night since your date nights mostly just consist of Netflix and Chill anyway.

The arrangement makes sense for the chefs as well.  Why pay hefty rents for your own branded space when you can share a kitchen and pocket more of the profit?  Shared cooking spaces are likely to bring down other costs as well if the ghost restaurants are sharing supplies and even ingredients.

All in all, it seems like a win-win situation for everyone involved.  Unless, of course, you happen to be someone who actually likes to eat out.  Or,  you’re one of those people who is disappointed to find out that there aren’t any actual ghosts serving food.  But for everyone else…say hello to the latest food craze: ghost restaurants.  Coming soon to a front door near you.

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Is a Ghost Restaurant the Greatest Idea Ever?

 

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I absolutely love living in Arizona.  There’s nothing better than hiking through beautiful mountains on the way to a waterfall, reading in a public space, riding a bike along the Green Belt, or attending Spring Training baseball games.  And yet, if it wasn’t for the invention of the air conditioner, I wouldn’t be able to live here.

We take the inventions that make modern life possible for granted but without them we would be lost.  The phones in our pockets.  The TVs in our living rooms.  The cars in our driveways.  The food in our bellies.  It’s all made possible, one way or another, by science.  Forged in the fires of experimentation, trial and error, and peer review, today’s scientific research is tomorrow’s technology.  It’s not always easy.  Often it’s incredibly hard.  But in the end, it’s always worth it.

And yet, recently, science has come under attack.  The Trump Administration wants the United States to invest in fossil fuels and leave the Paris Agreement that’s leading the charge against Climate Change.  Federal programs designed to protect the environment are being defunded.  Scientists are being banned from discussing their findings publicly or from even sharing their results with their colleagues.  Ignorance is winning out.

It’s worth noting though that it’s always darkest before the dawn.  Today at the March For Science in Phoenix I saw the light start to shine through.  I saw thousands of people uniting for a cause that they believe in.  People of all ages, all races, all backgrounds, all religions came together in the name of science.  And they were joined on Earth Day by millions of other people in cities all across the world.

Standing in that crowd, among my peers, I couldn’t help but get goosebumps.  Looking at all the witty signs, hearing all the enthusiastic conversations, seeing the look of hope and optimism on everyone’s face, it was impossible to feel anything other than pure, unbridled inspiration.  Ignorance may be winning out right now but in the long run science is going to win out.  Yesterday, that’s something that I hoped would happen.  Today, it’s something that I know is going to happen.

Now the question becomes: where do we go from here.  Now that we’ve taken a stand, what comes next?  As the organizers of the Phoenix March For Science stated on their website, this rally is just the start of the fight, not the end:

“Science is often an arduous process, but it is also thrilling. A universal human curiosity and dogged persistence is the greatest hope for the future. This movement cannot and will not end with a march. Our plans for policy change and community outreach will start with marches worldwide and a teach-in at the National Mall, but it is imperative that we continue to celebrate and defend science at all levels – from local schools to federal agencies – throughout the world.”

I couldn’t agree more.  This is just the beginning.  Just like the Earth and all life on it, our fight will continue to evolve to deal with any challenges that come forward.  We’ll do whatever it takes to ensure that a culture of innovation continues to win out over a culture of ignorance.

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The March For Science in Phoenix was truly inspirational.

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People who are familiar with the CRISPR-CAS-9 gene editing technique are aware of its truly transformative ability to change the world.  Capable of ending hunger and curing all diseases (including cancer and AIDS) it has a chance to be the most important scientific discovery of all-time.  In fact, as scientists and researchers continue to play around with this nascent technology it’s becoming clear that we have barely just scratched the surface of what it can do.  As witnessed by its newfound ability to act as an antibiotic.

A few years ago, when researchers from my alma mater Northeastern University discovered a new antibiotic in soil, it was the first new antibiotic discovered in more than thirty years.  This was a historically important discovery that is likely to be downright pivotal in our on-going fight against drug resistant super bugs. That’s because super bugs have evolved to fight and even become resistant to most antibiotics thanks to our misguided insistence that we should wipe out all of our gut bacteria in one fell swoop every time we are sick.  As it turns out though not all gut bacteria is bad.  Some of it lives symbiotically with us and plays a vital role in maintaining our health.  Using an antibiotic as a proverbial sledgehammer to destroy everything in its path is counterproductive.  The correct approach is a targeted one that would eliminate only the bad bacteria.  Thanks to CRISPR-CAS-9 that may now be on the verge of happening.

As Futurism explains, it may soon be possible to provide patients with a CRISPR pill that could target specific bacterium such as Clostridium difficile which can kill 15,000 people per year:

“Jan-Peter van Pijkeren, a food scientist from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is creating a probiotic cocktail that patients can swallow as a liquid or pill.  The cocktail of bacteria will include a bacteriophage – a virus that infects bacteria – capable of carrying a customized, false, CRISPR message to C. difficile. This message would cause C. difficile to make lethal cuts to its own DNA.”

Instructing bacterium to kill themselves on purpose?  That’s straight up savagery.  And it could very well be the future of medicine.  A future in which we deliver drugs to specific parts of our body using gene editing techniques as part of complex personalized healthcare plans that our doctors specifically design for us.  With this approach you won’t need a sledgehammer to get the desired results.  Just a pair of scissors.

Considering the already limitless potential of the CRISPR-CAS-9 gene editing technique it’s somewhat surprising to find yet another novel use for it.  Which begs the question: what else can it be used for?!?!

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Is a CRISPR pill the Greatest Idea Ever?

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Science fiction does a great job of capturing our collective imaginations.  Sometimes even a little bit too good of a job.  We see hover boards and self-lacing sneakers in Back to the Future, talking holograms in Star Wars, and flying cars in The Jetsons and we instantly lust for those items.  Holding out hope, even well into adulthood, that someday they will be real.

Our desire for these fictional items is so strong that it even overshadows the actual pace of innovation.  For instance, when a fictional item finally does come to fruition as Dick Tracey’s famous wrist watch did with the Apple Watch we complain that the real thing didn’t meet our fake expectations.  Seeing something in a fictional world that we think should easily exist, such as the way that Tom Cruise in Minority Report manipulates information on giant computer screens with a wave of his hand, is even worse, liable to send us into a tizzy.  How come we don’t have that?!  That seems like something that would be easy to make nowadays!!!  When the pace of innovation slows some people even try to take matters into their own hands inventing real life Iron Man suits and the like to try and emulate their on screen heroes.

Suffice it to say, if there’s a cool fictional technology there’s someone out there trying to recreate it IRL (in real life).  From Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak to Captain America’s shield to the lightsabers from Star Wars there are dozens of examples of scientists and regular folk working around the clock to turn science fiction into science fact.  So much so that one of the most highly talked about and desired fictional items of all-time: Star Treks’ hand-held disease detecting device, the Tricorder, is now a real invention.

As the Washington Post reports, “Final Frontier Medical Devices, led by Basil Harris, a suburban Philadelphia emergency room doctor, won the $2.6 million top prize. The open competition, launched in 2012 [by X-Prize], challenged applicants to produce a lightweight, affordable health kit that diagnoses and interprets 13 health conditions and continuously monitors five health vitals. The team’s kit, equipped with noninvasive sensors, collects information that is synthesized on a diagnostic device — an iPad was used in the competition, but it could ultimately work on a smartphone.”

What’s great about the team’s prototype, dubbed DxtER (or Dexter), is that it doesn’t just diagnose those 13 health conditions that the competition asked for.  After all the tinkering throughout the competition it can now detect up to 34 medical conditions.  Furthermore, the device appears to be a step above the fictional device on Star Trek as it will provide an actual diagnosis of the health issue not just detect it.

I imagine that using one is going to be a comparable experience to filing one’s own taxes using a program such as TurboTax as the accompanying iPad software walks patients through a series of questions while interpreting the data that’s been fed into it.  It’s designed in such a way to be fully intuitive so that people can use it on their own without having to necessarily visit an actual doctor every time they are feeling under the weather.

The invention of an actual Tricorder speaks volumes on two fronts.  First of all, it shows just how pivotal the X-Prize and other global competitions offering monetary prizes are to driving the pace of innovation.  If it wasn’t for the $2.6 million dollar grand prize the Tricorder might have never been made.  The same holds true for contests designed to further our space travel efforts or cure diseases.  A sad but true commentary on our society although one that we can live with if it continues to deliver the results that we desire.

Secondly, it points to how vitally important it is for science fiction writers to continue pushing the envelope, to continue to spark our imaginations, to continue to dream up things that aren’t just likely to be around a few years from now, but rather, a few decades from now.

Just like with the old adage from Field of Dreams: “if you build it, they will come”, modern ingenuity building off of science fiction gives us a new adage for the modern age: “if you dream it, we will make it.”

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Is the Tricorder the Greatest Idea Ever?

 

 

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