Archive for October, 2019

#1,571 – The Blob

It lacks a central nervous system and brain, yet is still able to learn, make decisions, and retrieve memories.  It lacks a mouth and stomach, yet still digests food.  It lacks legs, fins, wings, and appendages of any kind for that matter, yet still moves.  Cut it in half and it can regenerate in just two minutes.  It can also double in size daily and grow to a size several square kilometers wide while being remarkably hard to kill.  It’s quite possibly the weirdest living organism, upending everything we thought we knew about the nature of intelligence.  Welcome to the wonderful world of slime molds, organisms so bizarre that scientists struggle to even classify them.  Are they a fungus? Not quite.  An animal? Not exactly.  Bereft a fitting description, unable to be pigeonholed, they are an evolutionary miracle, proof that there’s more than one way for life to evolve.  And now there’s a new king of all slime molds – the latest entrant to the Paris Zoo – known affectionately as The Blob.

As Wired puts it, “For a long time, scientists thought that slime molds were a kind of fungus, since they had similar life cycles and seemed to like hanging out in the dark, damp environments favored by fungi.  Scientists now think that slime molds are closer to amoeba. And like amoeba, slime molds consist of a single cell and tend to move by reaching out little creeping arm-like limbs called pseudopods.  The Blob—or to give it its more formal name, Physarum polycephalum—belongs to a subset of slime molds known as plasmodial slime molds. These are made up of a single gigantic cell that contains thousands of nuclei, formed when lots of individual cells get together.”

But as weird as all that is that’s not even the weirdest part.  That’s because The Blob is gaining notoriety for it’s unusual sexual prowess for having not one, not two, not three, but 720 different sexes!  An apparent evolutionary design that prevents it from reproducing with itself.  Just don’t ask me why that is, how it works, or what pronoun it chooses to identify with.

Which is why Forbes ponders, “But what is the blob? We don’t know for sure. It shares traits with the three major kingdoms of life: it eats like an animal, breeds like a mushroom, and is colored like a plant.”

At this rate I’m not sure that calling it weird even does it justice.  So, in addition to figuring out a way to classify it scientifically we may also need to come up with a new adjective to describe it in layman terms.  Blobalicious perhaps?  All I know is that it’s awesome and that I love it.  Long live The Blob!


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Is The Blob the Greatest Idea Ever?

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In a historic and unprecedented move the utility company PG&E has decided to proactively enact a power outage for multiple days in the Bay Area in order to avoid starting wildfires.  A drastic and startling action indicative of the new Climate Change infused reality that we find ourselves in.  Some people, especially those directly affected by the power outages, think this an abuse of power.  A private company should never be allowed to shut down an entire metropolis they say.  But others, like myself, think this a commendable action.  A far greater alternative to doing nothing and watching precious forest and homes burn to the ground.  But enacting proactive power outages isn’t our only option.  To counteract Climate Change and combat forest fires we may soon have another tool at our disposal, a newly designed environmentally friendly gel that could coat vegetation and prevent wildfires from spreading once they do break out.

As Wired reports:

“Stanford materials scientist Eric Appel didn’t set out to help save people from wildfire, but from disease. Usually he works on developing gels that can ferry drugs into the human body. So if you want to bestow a patient with, say, antibodies to fight off HIV infection, you’d inject them with a gel loaded with the stuff, where it might persist in the patient for perhaps a year. If used widely across an at-risk population, theoretically you can better face down an epidemic.

It wasn’t until Appel’s brother in law—Jesse Acosta, formerly a fire prevention forester for the state of Hawaii, now at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo—said hey, what about loading these gels with fire retardants and applying them to the body that is Mother Nature? That would be the same red stuff you see planes dropping on wildfires, which is effective but fleeting: The material will blow away in the wind or wash away in a rainstorm, meaning you can’t proactively treat an area long-term to be more resistant to fire.

But armed with a newfangled (and environmentally safe) gel, Appel and his colleagues have done just that. Writing today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they detail how their goo can act as a delivery medium to coat vegetation with flame retardant, and keep it there for the whole fire season. If adopted widely (Appel has founded a startup to commercialize it) the gel could become a sort of vaccine against wildfires, applied around the roads and utility infrastructure where 84 percent of California’s 300,000 fires in the last decade have ignited.”

If this material can be mass produced and safely applied it would be a real game-changer.  Of course there would be challenges associated with applying it everywhere it’s needed.  A lot of vulnerable lands are true wilderness, mostly inaccessible, if at all.  But that concern pales in comparison with the concerns we’re facing in the here and now.  Concerns about entire cities grinding to a halt due to rolling power outages.  Concerns over the power of a utility company to enact such a drastic plan of action in the first place.  And most importantly, concerns about the loss of infrastructure, property, and precocious natural resources if no action is taken at all.

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Is a Wildfire Vaccine the Greatest Idea Ever?

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#1,569 – DeepCom

A few months ago I wrote about my desire to have Artificial Intelligence share, like, and comment on social media postings.  My rationale was simple.  Since we’re all busy being content creators – blogging, tweeting, creating YouTube and TikTok videos, snapchatting, posting pictures on Instagram, etc. there’s no one left to consume all that content.  Legitimately great work goes unnoticed; lost in a sea of information that overwhelms us during a daily deluge of data.

Artificial Intelligence could help with that.  Get the ball rolling so that posts have a better chance of going viral.  Or at the very least make it so that content creators never have to feel down that nobody likes their work.  As far as they are concerned everything they’ve done would have been noticed.  No way to tell the difference if humans or AI were the ones who were liking, sharing, and commenting on it.

Considering that we all crave likes and attention, rewards that create a self-sustaining positive feedback loop that make us want to post even more content, creating a way to ensure that we always enter into that  loop seems like a good idea.  Especially, when you consider that most algorithms, product reviews on Amazon, say, or Google search results, rely on activity to determine how prestigious and how trustworthy something is.  The more page views, the more articles that link back to it, the more activity that something has, the higher it ranks.  If that’s how the game is played then maybe we should game the system.  Artificially enhance our profile to meet those thresholds, to make it so that everyone gets noticed.

Well, as it turns out my wish came true as there is now an algorithm known as DeepCom that is capable of generating realistic sounding comments on articles as a way of kickstarting conversations.

According to Futurism, “Compared to other comment-generating algorithms that focus just on a news article’s keywords or headline, DeepCom’s output was far more realistic.

The research paper provides a case study where DeepCom commented “the rockets are going to have a lot of fun in this series” on a news article about the Houston Rockets, for instance — while the other algorithms spewed out nonsense that would have immediately been flagged as spam.”

Some people are critical of this idea saying that it just generates even more noise on the Internet, making the problem that it is trying to solve even worse.  But I think the idea has merit for all of the reasons that I listed earlier.  For being overwhelmed by comments isn’t the problem.  It’s being underwhelmed by your feedback that is.

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Is DeepCom the Greatest Idea Ever?

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#1,568 – Aquanaut

I used to love SeaQuest DSV, a Star Trek style show that went where no man has gone before – the depths of the ocean.  There were underwater colonies, people who could breathe underwater with gills, and even a talking Dolphin.  This show had it all.  Action.  Drama.  Sci-Fi storylines.  It even had a guest appearance from Brittany Snow at one point!  As far as I was concerned it was a precursor to everything that would follow.  In just a few short years we would have underwater cities in real life and I would go live in one alongside Jonathan Brandis.

But that never happened.  In fact, when it comes to our oceans not much of anything has happened.  Sadly, we know more about the surface of Mars than we do the ocean floor.  Large swaths of the Earth remain unexplored because the technology that can take us there doesn’t exist.  But technological limitations won’t hold us back much longer.  In fact, we may finally have something that could help us perform underwater tasks that neither humans nor robots can accomplish.  A new technological marvel that looks like something that could have appeared on an episode of SeaQuest.

According to Futurism:

“A new autonomous robot called Aquanaut may be the closest thing we have to a real-life Transformer.  The robot can shape-shift between a mermaid-like humanoid form and a submarine form, according to IEEE Spectrum. That makes it better-suited for deep-sea repairs and other tasks that other robots struggle to perform — but are too dangerous for human divers.”

Half mermaid and half submarine?! Now we’re talking! Now, if someone can just make a talking Dolphin we’d finally be on our way to recreating SeaQuest!

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Is the Aquanaut the Greatest Idea Ever?

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Google has long dominated search but soon they may be the dominant force when it comes to all matters of computing.  That is if we are to believe their claim that they have achieved “quantum supremacy”, a self-proclaimed status tied to the fact that they were allegedly able to complete a calculation so vast, and so complex, that it only could have possibly been solved by a quantum computer.

As The Verge puts it, “Google’s quantum computer was reportedly able to solve a calculation — proving the randomness of numbers produced by a random number generator — in 3 minutes and 20 seconds that would take the world’s fastest traditional supercomputer, Summit, around 10,000 years. This effectively means that the calculation cannot be performed by a traditional computer, making Google the first to demonstrate quantum supremacy.”

For those who were already wary of Google and their intentions to begin with the phrase “quantum supremacy” may sound a little bit scary.  After all, what could a company that already tracks everything we buy, every place we visit, and everything we search for do with such a supremacy?  Certainly deliver us search results in a fraction of a section.  Before we’re even aware that we want them.  But aside from predictive search what else could Google do with extremely advanced computing power that far exceeds what anyone else can do?!

Encryption comes to mind.  Essentially making passwords irrelevant.  Fields that rely on Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning could improve by leaps and bounds as well.  At an even greater rate of exponential growth than we currently experience.

According to the Verge, “Google expects the power of quantum computers to expand at a “double exponential rate,” whereas traditional computers have long been pegged to Moore’s Law, which saw power double every 18 months or so.”

And that for me is the biggest take-away here.  For as scary as quantum supremacy sounds realizing that we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of what quantum computers can do is the really scary thought.

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What do you think about Google’s quantum supremacy?

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Elon Musk is at it again.  In addition to digging tunnels to support the Hyperloop, dreaming up plans to terraform Mars, and daring to think outside the box when it comes to everything from solar energy to transportation, Musk has once again raised the ante when it comes to his Tesla electric cars, unveiling plans to develop a car battery capable of lasting for over 1 million miles!

As Wired reports:

“Last April, Elon Musk promised that Tesla would soon be able to power its electric cars for more than 1 million miles over the course of their lifespan. At the time, the claim seemed a bit much. That’s more than double the mileage Tesla owners can expect to get out of their car’s current battery packs, which are already well beyond the operational range of most other EV batteries. It just didn’t seem real—except now it appears that it is.

Earlier this month, a group of battery researchers at Dalhousie University, which has an exclusive agreement with Tesla, published a paper in The Journal of the Electrochemical Society describing a lithium-ion battery that “should be able to power an electric vehicle for over 1 million miles” while losing less than 10 percent of its energy capacity during its lifetime.

Led by physicist Jeff Dahn, one of the world’s foremost lithium-ion researchers, the Dalhousie group showed that its battery significantly outperforms any similar lithium-ion battery previously reported. They noted their battery could be especially useful for self-driving robo-taxis and long-haul electric trucks, two products Tesla is developing.”

That last point is really the key takeaway here.  A car that can last for over 1 million miles seems excessive on the surface.  Most people probably average less than a thousand miles a month depending on how far their commute is.  If you’re a weekend warrior who goes on a lot of road trips maybe you are putting 15 to 20,000 miles a year on your car.  And that’s a big maybe.  So while a million miles sounds catchy how realistic it is that anybody would ever reach that amount?  Even over the course of their entire lifetime.

However, a driverless car or long distance truck that is constantly moving and constantly traversing the country may very well test those limits over a long period of time.  So, in that regard this technological breakthrough goes from window dressing to necessity in a heartbeat.  Giving us the wherewithal to easily transition away from gas guzzling vehicles that in addition to harming the environment, no longer serve a practical purpose when compared to electric vehicles powered by this new battery.  Proving that once again Elon Musk has thought of everything.

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Is a million mile Tesla the Greatest Idea Ever?

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