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Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Long a staple of science fiction, the idea of creating designer babies may soon come to fruition thanks to Genomic Prediction, a New Jersey based company promising to unveil a screening test capable of rooting out several illnesses and less desirable traits.

M.I.T. Technology Review adds:  “Handed report cards on a batch of frozen embryos, parents can use the test results to try to choose the healthiest ones. The grades include risk estimates for diabetes, heart attacks, and five types of cancer.  According to flyers distributed by the company, it will also warn clients about any embryo predicted to become a person who is among the shortest 2% of the population, or who is in the lowest 2% in intelligence.”

The last part is going to be worrisome to ethicists fearful of eugenic campaigns that could target certain features or groups of people.  If the technology is ever going to become prevalent it’s going to have to clear moral, ethical, and legal hurdles along those lines.  And while I see their point I can’t help but wonder if Genomic Prediction is on the right track.  Instead of spending millions of dollars trying to cure cancer we could decrease the likelihood that it ever occurs in the first place.  Medical costs would be reduced.  Lifespans lengthened.  The dream of every parent – to ensure that their child has a healthy and happy life – kept intact. It’s a win-win situation all around.  Or is it?

Well, that’s where things get interesting.  While we can all agree that rooting out illness is a good thing, editing for desirable traits like intelligence blurs the moral lines, starting us down a slippery slope where we play God, take control over evolutionary forces that we don’t fully understand, and wind up creating an alternate species of genetically enhanced people who declare war on those they deem to be inferior.  Far-fetched? Perhaps.  Beyond the realm of possibility? Definitely not.

Personally, I feel like it’s worth the risk.  Any opportunity that we have to push the envelope, to develop new technologies, to surpass our natural limits – is an opportunity well worth taking IMO.  Just as it was with Stem Cell research.  Just as it’s going to be with AI going forward.  Holding ourselves back out of fear of the unknown is just going to hold us back in the long run.  Instead we should be cognizant of the risks and plan accordingly around them.  Put in safeguards to ensure that this new technology develops in lock step with our moral guidelines.  That way we can ensure that we gain the advantages that the technology affords us without running into any of the backlash that often accompanies breakthrough technologies.

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Is Genomic Prediction the Greatest Idea Ever?

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#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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#1,561 – Week In Review

A quick look at everything that tickled my fancy this past week:

Soft Tactile Logic

We assume that having a high level of intelligence is predicated by having a central nervous system but that may not necessarily be the case.

As Science Daily reports, “Inspired by octopuses, researchers have developed a structure that senses, computes and responds without any centralized processing — creating a device that is not quite a robot and not quite a computer, but has characteristics of both. The new technology holds promise for use in a variety of applications, from soft robotics to prosthetic devices.

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DNA Storage

As we continue to create terabytes of information on a daily basis we’re going to need to come up with new methods of being able to store and retrieve that information.  To that end Israeli researchers have reached an incredible breakthrough involving DNA.

According to the Jerusalem Post, “the group demonstrated storage of information in a density of more than 10 petabytes, or ten million gigabytes, in a single gram, while significantly improving the writing process. This, theoretically, allows for storing all the information stored on YouTube in a single teaspoon.

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Universal Blood

It soon may be possible to convert Type A blood into the universally accepted Type O thanks to a newly discovered microbe that resides in our gut.

According to Futurism:

“In a study published on Monday in the journal Nature Microbiology, researchers from the University of British Columbia detail their discovery of microbes in the human gut that produce two enzymes that efficiently strip type A blood of its antigens, transforming it into type O.

The team plans to conduct further studies to ensure the process removes all the blood antigens. If it does, all that converted type A blood would nearly double the amount of universal donor blood available — and we’d have the human gut to thank.”

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New Organ

Speaking of the human body it turns out that we have an additional organ lurking underneath our skin that we were unaware of.  An organ that may be responsible for why we feel pain.

National Geographic explains, “Dubbed the nociceptive glio-neural complex, this structure is not quite like the typical picture of a complex organ like the heart or the spleen. Instead, it’s a simple organ made up of a network of cells called glial cells, which are already known to surround and support the body’s nerve cells. In this case, the glial cells form a mesh-like structure between the skin’s outer and inner layers, with filament-like protrusions that extend into the skin’s outer layer.”

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Are any of these the Greatest Idea Ever?

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The wonder material graphene is capable of some pretty amazing feats. It’s 200 times stronger than steel despite being a thousand times thinner than a piece of a paper.  In fact, a single sheet of it is strong enough to support the weight of an elephant concentrated onto the tip of a pencil.

In the near future it may replace silicon in computers, be used to create flexible displays and more efficient solar cells.  It’s a building block like no other, the very lifeblood of the futuristic society we will soon find ourselves in.

As time goes on more and more uses are being discovered for it just as more and more of its amazing properties are being unlocked. The Graphair water filter that can make ocean water drinkable is one such use.  But as it turns out there are plenty of other uses for graphene.  Uses that we can’t even begin to imagine.

Lucky for us one of those uses has already been discovered.  And it addresses a problem that is near and dear to all of our hearts: repelling mosquitoes. That’s right.  Graphene can now be used to create a line of clothing that would deter mosquitoes.

As Engadget puts it, “Graphene, the highly flexible supermaterial used to build solar cells (and perhaps one day foldable phones), is also a powerful mosquito repellent. A team of researchers at Brown University discovered that graphene-lined clothing not only is an effective physical barrier to mosquito bites, the carbon-based material also changes their behavior. The study, which was published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that graphene blocked the chemical signals that draw mosquitoes to other living beings in the first place.”

This is a truly remarkable discovery furthering graphene’s place in the Idea Hall of Fame.  And begging the question: what else is it capable of?!

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Is mosquito repelling graphene clothing the Greatest Idea Ever?

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An action packed week.  Even more so than usual.

1. The most habitable exoplanet yet.

Scientists have found water vapor in the atmosphere of an exoplanet making it the most habitable place we’ve yet found!

As Wired puts it, “On Wednesday, a team of astronomers from University College London announced that they detected water vapor in the atmosphere of a ‘super-Earth’ planet outside our own solar system. This is the first time water has been detected in the atmosphere of an exoplanet that is not a gas giant, which the researchers say makes it the most habitable exoplanet currently known. The planet, known by the catchy name K2-18b, is 110 light years away and orbits a red dwarf star about half the size of the sun. The planet is twice the size of Earth, eight times as massive, and orbits its host star once every 33 days.”

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2. New lens works better than human eye.

A revolutionary new lens could transform every optical instrument from cameras and eyeglasses to telescopes.

According to Endgadget, “A new breakthrough could soon revolutionize the design of almost every optical instrument in use today, including cameras, eyeglasses and telescopes. Combining recent developments in artificial muscle and flat lens technologies, a team of researchers at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) have created a new lens that functions a lot like the human eye. Not only is the instrument capable of focusing in real-time thanks to an elastomer muscle, it features none of the bulk of a traditional spherical lens. It can even do some things the human eye can’t, including adjusting for astigmatism and image shift, two variables that lead to blurry vision.”

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3. Miracle Sheets.

A new brand of bedding could revolutionize home hygiene.

As Futurism puts it, “Miracle brand products are woven with anti-microbial silver that kills 99 percent of bacteria, meaning they stay cleaner and healthier much longer than a typical pillowcase or washcloth. To put it in more precise terms, Miracle’s products can be washed three times less often than other silver-free products because they’re essentially self-cleaning. How does silver accomplish all this? It all comes down to the precious metal’s ions, which naturally carry a positive charge that draws in bacteria and other microbes like a magnet before destroying them before they reproduce.”

Having to clean and do laundry less often? It’s a miracle!

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4. Liquid Magnets.

The list of amazing accidental discoveries just got a little bit longer.

According to Futurism, “Scientists created a metallic liquid capable of maintaining a magnetic field for the first time in history — and they did it entirely by accident.

University of Massachusetts Amherst engineers were working on 3D-printing liquids when they discovered that the droplets of iron, oil, and water were able to maintain a magnetic field, the researchers told Live Science, a first for any liquid.”

The discovery could lead to the invention of programmable tools.

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Are any of these the Greatest Idea Ever?

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Elon Musk is best known for Space X, Tesla, smoking weed on Joe Rogan’s podcast, and sending outlandish tweets.  But there’s another secretive project that this real life Tony Stark is involved in that could be even more transformative than everything else he’s doing combined: Neuralink.  This neuroscience venture wants to give paralyzed people the ability to control devices with their minds but it’s their long-term goal that’s truly exciting: creating a brain to computer interface similar to the fictitious Neuralace from Ian M. Bain’s Culturenovels that will let people access the Internet with their minds.  Armed with this new-found ability to reference an unlimited amount of information at a moment’s notice humanity will be able to rise to incredible new heights.

As exciting as this possibility seems it was long considered to be a science fiction dream. The longest of long shots.  After all, if we don’t fully understand how our mind’s work, where consciousness comes from, why we dream, etc. then how can we really expect to figure out how to merge them with computers? Doing so would be a daunting task that would involve unnecessarily drilling holes into our skulls and implanting chips that may get rejected by our existing wetware.  How many of us would really be comfortable becoming early adopters for a technology like that?

Well, as it turns out the answer is a lot of us.  Thousands of people are already clamoring for the opportunity to become enhanced cybernetic organisms.  Especially since the idea is coming to us from the messiah Elon Musk.  And now they’ll have a better understanding of exactly what this new technology may look like as we get our first public look at Neuralink’s line of thinking with several advances setting the stage for what is to come.

According to The Verge, “The first big advance is flexible ‘threads,’ which are less likely to damage the brain than the materials currently used in brain-machine interfaces. These threads also create the possibility of transferring a higher volume of data, according to a white paper credited to ‘Elon Musk & Neuralink.’ The abstract notes that the system could include ‘as many as 3,072 electrodes per array distributed across 96 threads.’  The threads are 4 to 6 μm in width, which makes them considerably thinner than a human hair. In addition to developing the threads, Neuralink’s other big advance is a machine that automatically embeds them.”

Obviously, there is still a long way to go before “threading” becomes the hottest new trend. For starters, learning to use the implant is said to be the equivalent of learning to play the piano.  No easy task.  But that won’t stop Musk from continuing to push the envelope, from continuing to dare us to dream bigger.  And now that the groundwork has been laid and the initial technology developed there’s no going back.  In fact, we may even be on the verge of conducting the first human tests as early as 2020 with successful mouse testing already taking place.  Suffice it to say, at this point the cat is out of the bag.

If human testing is successful Neuralink could wind up giving us an unprecedented fourth brain region. The first is the Basal Ganglia, the reptilian or primal brain that less evolved species operate from.  The second is the limbic system which imbues us and certain other mammals with emotions.  And the third is what separates us from everyone else, our neocortex which provides us with the ability to have rational thoughts.  But soon we may have a fourth threaded layer, voluntarily implanted into us by Neuralink, enabling us to take evolution into our own hands and keep pace with the latest advances in AI.

Perhaps now you see why I said that Neuralink could be more impactful than everything else that Musk is working on which is really saying something when you consider that he is also working on revolutionizing energy, transportation, and space travel!

Image result for neuralinkIs Neuralink the Greatest Idea Ever?

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I’ve spent a pretty significant amount of time on Earth so far.  Thirty seven years.  About half of an average lifespan.  And yet I don’t feel like I’ve lived a significant amount of time.  Don’t feel satisfied at all with the time I’ve had.  When I find myself on my deathbed I’ll be lamenting that it all went by too fast, wishing that I had just a little bit more time to explore. So is there anything that we can do to rectify the situation that I find myself in?  Any way that we can make it so that I can live longer?  Can we reverse the aging process or download our consciousnesses when The Singularity hits in a few years?  Maybe.  Perhaps. But in the interim there may be something else that we can try that won’t involve playing God with our biology or merging with machines: hacking time.

As Wired explains, “Seekers of immortality are saddled with the body, the physical brain, the fact of entropy. Eventually, things fall apart; cells stop dividing, DNA mutates, organs fail. In a piece for The New Yorker, Tad Friend neatly divided the ‘Immortalists’ into two camps: the Meat Puppets, who ‘believe that we can retool our biology and remain in our bodies’; and the RoboCops, who ‘believe that we’ll eventually merge with mechanical bodies and/or with the cloud.’ Both groups face potentially insurmountable challenges. The Meat Puppets struggle against the laws of nature and forces of decay. The RoboCops, who speak of ‘uploading’ minds as if by zip file, are stuck with the complexities of consciousness. But there may be a third way forward, a workaround that sidesteps some of the problems of the first two and targets subjective experience. Call them the Time Hackers.  Like the RoboCops, the Time Hackers want to tap into your brain. But their goal isn’t to transfer the mind—’the ghost in the machine’—elsewhere. Instead, the Time Hackers want to modify consciousness, deceive the ghost inside your head, and make you feel as though you’re living forever.”

How would they do this? It’s simple.  Sort of.

You see, we all experience time distortions.  Gym class seems to fly by while math class seems to drag on forever.  Weekends are gone in an instant while boring workdays hit a lull at 2:30 and never end.  Same amount of time.  Different results.  Dreams are the same way. An action packed series of events that seems like a full length feature film unfurling in your mind all takes place in a manner of minutes since you last hit the snooze button.  It seems impossible, improbable even, but our night long dreams never last for the full time that we’re asleep.  Rather they all take place in a much shorter amount of time during a particular sleep cycle.  Why is that?  Why is it that we are able to perceive time differently depending on what we’re doing or what our minds are doing?  And can we use that fact to our advantage?

Well, as it turns out we may very well be able to.  Consider hallucinogenic drugs.  Similar to dreaming they help to alter our consciousness and our perceptions of time by disrupting our mind’s ability to detect where our physical bodies are in space.  As Einstein famously pointed out space and time are intrinsically connected.  It may therefore stand to reason that if we can physically alter how our bodies perceive space then we also can alter how our bodies perceive time.  Cause and effect. In theory, this may mean that there could be a way, perhaps with some kind of neural implant or virtual reality device, that we could alter our perception of time on demand.  While real life is essentially paused, you would be free to explore some other virtual world for hours on end just like you do when you’re dreaming.  Your own private Narnia.  The plot of Inception brought to life.  With these so called Time Hackers being the ones to pursue the development and implantation of such a device.

If this actually happens, if we actually get to the point where we have technology at our disposal that lets us manipulate time this opens up a whole slew of possibilities for in addition to feeling like we had more time we’d actually have more time with which to be productive.  Time that we could use to binge-watch shows, learn new things, or get more work done.

As Wired puts it:

“As neurotechnology improves and social mores shift, what sounds strange will become mundane, even as ethical dilemmas arise. (Would it be wrong for a student to spend 30 simulated hours to one real-world hour learning calculus? What about thirty simulated years?) Complications aside, wouldn’t you buy yourself more time if you could?”

Of course, this creates all sort of ethical dilemmas as well.  Would there be a socio-economic rift that develops when it’s only the rich people that get to use this technology?  Would regular society come to a screeching halt when everyone prefers to live in time distorted virtual reality instead? Would evil corporations force their workers to work overtime inside of these virtual worlds in order to maximize a worker’s full potential during the day?  Would prisoners be forced to live out multiple life sentences within just one normal lifespan?  In short, is too much of a good thing a bad thing? The answer is probably yes.

So, while we’d all probably prefer to have a little bit more time with which to work we have to be careful not to go overboard and completely neglect the organic human experience, losing ourselves in the process.  Because no matter how much more time we have there’s no substitute for pausing time the old fashioned way, by stopping to smell the roses and living more in the present moment. As Master Shifu put it in Kung Fu Panda: “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery.  But today is a gift, that’s why they call it the present.”

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Is hacking time the Greatest Idea Ever?

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