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#1,198 – Limitless

Recently a colleague challenged me to learn one new skill a week.  Daunting, yet imminently achievable, I’ve decided to embrace this new challenge with open arms, starting with learning how to paint.  But thanks to DARPA there may soon be an even easier way to learn new skills.  A cheap and non-invasive device that would use targeted electrical simulation to your prefrontal cortex as a way of boosting your cognitive abilities by as much as 40%.

According to Futurism:

“New research funded by the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) has successfully demonstrated how a non-invasive method of stimulating the brain can boost cognitive performance. Working under DARPA’s Restoring Active Memory (RAM) program, scientists from HRL Laboratories in California, McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and Soterix Medical in New York tested their brain device on macaques and observed a substantial increase in the monkeys’ ability to quickly perform certain tasks.

In their study published, which has been published in the journal Current Biology, the HRL team describes how they used non-invasive transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to stimulate the prefrontal cortex in the macaques. They then prompted the animals to perform a task based on associative learning — learning associations between visual cues and a location — in order to get a reward.

The macaques that wore the tDCS brain device significantly outperformed the control group. The former needed only 12 trials to learn how to immediately get the reward, while the latter needed 21 trials, with the tDCS device accounting for the 40 percent increase in learning speed, according to the researchers.”

The appeal of this technology is immediately obvious.  In addition to making us all smarter, it could also help soldiers quickly learn new skills on the fly, or help people suffering from traumatic brain injuries to recover faster.  Compared to other similar techniques this new approach is also supposed to be cheap and commercially viable.  Limitless here we come!

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Is DARPA’s approach to learning new skills the Greatest Idea Ever?

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Everything we think we know about the Universe, from the motion of planets to the existence of blackholes, can be explained by physics.  Even the mind-bending question of how the Universe got started in the first place, how we got something from nothing, makes sense when examined through the lens of quantum mechanics, when you realize that particles can be in two places at once or exist in multiple states at the same time.

Underpinning physics is math which is why physicists try to come up with mathematical formulas to prove their hypothesizes.  Einstein’s E=mc2 is the most famous of these equations but there are dozens of other examples from Newton’s laws to the elusive and yet to be solved Theory of Everything.  When there’s something that we don’t yet understand such as Dark Matter or Dark Energy, what we’re really saying, is that we don’t yet have an equation for it. There’s some data set or piece of the puzzle that we’re missing.  But, rest assured, we will one day have a formula for everything.  Even Dark Matter.  That’s just the way that physics works.  And physics is the way that everything works.

With that in mind (pun intended) it makes sense to consider that there may also be a mathematical formula that would govern how the brain works.  A remarkably simple equation that would explain how the brain is able to quickly make complex decisions based on the outputs that it collects.  And a researcher by the name of Joe Tsien thinks he knows what it is.

According to Futurism:

“The theory describes how groups of similar neurons form a complexity of cliques to handle basic ideas or information. These groups cluster into functional connectivity motifs (FCM), which handles every possible combinations of ideas. More cliques are involved in more complex thoughts.

In order to test it, Tsien and his team monitored and documented how the algorithm works in seven different brain regions, each involved in handling basics like food and fear in mice and hamsters. The algorithm represented how many cliques are necessary for an FCM, a power-of-two-based permutation logic (N=2i–1), according to the study.

They gave the animals various combinations of four different foods (rodent biscuits, pellets, rice, and milk). Using electrodes placed at specific areas of the brain, they were able to ‘listen’ to the neurons’ response. The scientists were able to identify all 15 different combinations of neurons or cliques that responded to the assortment of food combinations, as the Theory of Connectivity would predict. Furthermore, these neural cliques seem prewired in the brain, as they appeared immediately as soon as the food choices did.”

This theory makes sense to me on two different levels.  First of all, it makes sense logically.  If the laws of physics govern how everything in the Universe works then it makes sense that something as complex as the human brain would also be rooted in math, follow the laws of physics, and be governed by an algorithm.

And, furthermore, it makes sense if you believe in Information Theory, in the idea that naturally occurring systems are driven to process information as efficiently as possible.  This theory explains why cells cluster together, why individuals in a species prefer to live together, why cities form, why a global Internet emerged, and why matter in space accretes into planets, why solar systems form, why galaxies cluster, and finally, why the Universe is expanding in constant pursuit of the lowest possible energy state that it can reach.  If all that is true then it stands to reason that the brain would also operate according to that same logic.  That it would also, as if governed by a fundamental law of nature, adhere to a standard operating procedure, one in which its neurons would self-assemble into cliques, and then clusters of cliques or “motifs”, in order to systematically process information in the most efficient way possible mathematically.

Why is all this important?  Because if it’s true, and we have a proven formula for how the brain processes information, then we can imbue that knowledge onto the Artificial Intelligence that we are already modeling after the human brain.  To date, the human brain far exceeds the capabilities of AI in several instances, such as image and pattern recognition.  But if we had an algorithm that we could upload that could suddenly give AI all of those innate human abilities then that’s a real game-changer.  In that case, the Singularity would be near.

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Is the human brain powered by an intelligence algorithm?

#1,196 – Tonight

If you’re single and using an online dating service you know how it goes.  You match with someone that you really like, you start talking to them and decide that you really, really like them, and then before you can schedule a first date, they just completely stop talking to you for no reason.  I used to call that flaking out.  Kids today call it ghosting.  Either way, it’s horrible, annoying, and the bane of my existence.

Thankfully, there’s a new dating site that aims to change all that.  Known as Tonight, this new app is specifically designed to force people to actually go out on dates.  Right now. Tonight.

That’s because the service is time-sensitive, only allowing you to search for potential dates for that night.  It won’t even work past 6 pm at night, ruling out the possibility of just using the service for last minute hookups.  Instead, if you’re free that night, and match with someone earlier in the day, you’ll be a given a time and place to meet up later that night.

And best of all, the service discourages people from flaking out, even eventually removing them from the site altogether, if they keep doing it.

As TechCrunch puts it:

“…as soon as two people show interest in each other, the app tries to set them up on a date, no messaging required…you sign on when you’re free for a date that very evening. If both you and one of your matches is free, the app will give you a time and a place to meet up.  You’ll need to sign in by 6pm to get a date that night, which will hopefully discourage people who are just looking for a hookup. In addition, users get penalized for flaking out, and they’re eventually removed if they keep doing it.”

That last caveat, about getting penalized for flaking out, is a real deterrent.  With that rule in place, even if you show up and instantly know that you got cat-fished and aren’t attracted to the person at all, you’d probably still want to go through the motions of going on the date with them just to avoid getting kicked off the site.  That means less people will get stood up, which is one of the worst things that can happen to a dater.

On the other hand there are some potential issues that I see with this app.  First of all, what happens if you get assigned a location or activity that doesn’t agree with you.  Maybe it’s far away and annoying to get to or an activity that you either hate or have done before and don’t care for.  Would you have any say at all in the type of things that you could be doing?  Also, what happens if you match with two people in the same day?  Would you be double booked?  Or what if you accidentally match with someone because you were swiping too quickly?  I agree that once you start talking to someone you shouldn’t be allowed to back out, but what if you don’t want to start talking to them in the first place?

If Tonight can iron out all of those logistical concerns then they could really be onto something here.  Because the #1 complaint about online dating that I’ve heard recently is about how hard it is to actually go on a real date nowadays.  In an era of instant gratification swiping, where a first date consists of “Netflix and chill”, people are starting to yearn for the good old days of awkward meet-ups at mini-golf courses.  Or maybe that’s just me.  Either way, this new app has promise.  So, what are you doing Tonight?

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Is Tonight the Greatest Idea Ever?

I’ve never bought into the doomsday hysteria surrounding Artificial Intelligence.  Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking may fear it, but I don’t.  Rogue AI? A real-life Skynet? Please.  It’s foolish to think that AI will turn on us just because that’s what science fiction has trained us to think.  Besides, even if they did, we have Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics to protect us.

Instead I choose to believe that developing superior artificial intelligence is in our best interest as we could use this advanced intelligence to augment our own, allowing us to improve our way of life and figure out how the Universe works.  Eventually, after using AI to eradicate diseases and solve all of our terrestrial problems, we could make our way across the cosmos, colonizing space along the way to ensure the long-term survival of our species.

There’s just one problem with that plan.  The doomsday declaring chicken littles may have been on to something.  For Google’s Go playing AI, AlphaGo Zero, is now smart enough to learn on its own, signaling the start of an advanced intelligence similar to early man developing mathematics for the first time.

As Science Alert puts it, “Zero’s predecessor, dubbed simply AlphaGo, was described as ‘Godlike’ by one of the crestfallen human champions it bested at the ancient Chinese board game, Go, but the new evolution has refined its training arsenal by eradicating human teachings from its schooling entirely.

The AlphaGo versions that kicked our butts at Go in a series of contests this year and last year first learned to play the game by analyzing thousands of human amateur and professional games, but AlphaGo Zero is entirely self-taught, learning by 100 percent independent experimentation.”

Does this mean that we should immediately retreat to an underground bunker and wait out Armageddon?  Of course not.  AI still has a long way to go before they declare war on us.  The Singularity is not near.

But that doesn’t mean that we should ignore this news either.  In fact, we probably should start loading up on supplies for our bunker.  For this is a tremendous breakthrough signaling the dawn of a new era for Artificial Intelligence and for mankind.  How it all plays out, nobody knows.  But when in doubt, it’s always best to air on the side of caution.  Even if that fear is irrational at the moment.  If Science Fiction has taught us anything, it’s that.

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Is AlphaGo Zero the Greatest Idea Ever?

#1,194 – Oculus Go

Virtual Reality has actually been around since the 1970’s but it didn’t really breakthrough into our collective consciousness until a few years ago, when Facebook bought Palmer Luckey’s Oculus Rift for $2 billion.  Ever since then, VR has become a sort of personal pet project for Mark Zuckerberg with his hope that we could become more interconnected as we use VR for shared experiences, allowing us to attend classes, tour famous landmarks, or go to concerts with our friends, no matter where in the world they may be located.

Zuckerberg was making headway on that vision but it was a slow go considering how expensive the Oculus Rift was and how it was a tethered experience that also required a high-end gaming computer to operate. But now, thanks to the Oculus Go, a $200 untethered, stand-alone headset that doesn’t even require a smart phone to operate, all that’s about to change.

As Ars Technica explains, “The announcement followed Zuckerberg’s statement that Oculus wants to get one billion people using its virtual reality products. (Yes, that was a B, as in boy.) He admitted how lofty that goal is, saying, ‘If we’re going to get a billion people in VR, we have to work on both affordability and quality. We have to find the sweet spot in the middle. The high quality experience that doesn’t tether anybody to a PC.’”

With the Oculus Go, that sweet spot may have finally been reached.

Especially when you consider that the Oculus Go was designed with developers in mind, allowing for a seamless transition for those who were already developing content for Gear VR.  That means that there will be a ton of content available, even from day one.  Throw in a decent price point and the Oculus Go could wind up bringing VR to the masses.

Once and for all.

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Is Oculus Go the Greatest Idea Ever?

You might want to take a nap before reading this.  Or at least make sure you’re well hydrated and sitting down when you do.  For your mind is about to be blown:

A New Era of Astronomy 

For the first time ever, astronomers have observed the same celestial event, two neutron stars merging, via two different detection methods, observing visible light and gravitational waves simultaneously, marking the start of multi-messenger astronomy.

As the Christian Science Monitor put it:

“Four times over the past two years, astronomers detected gravitational waves emanating from merging black holes. These detections were all made by scientists at the US-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). Its European counterpart, VIRGO, collaborated for the fourth detection. But with no light escaping black holes, astronomers using traditional telescopes – which view the universe in the electromagnetic spectrum – couldn’t see anything.

The fifth detection was different; this time, the colliding bodies were visible. So astrophysicists at LIGO and VIRGO detected the motion from the collision, and astronomers saw the flash of light. Scientists are already using this multi-messenger detection to unravel long-standing mysteries about the universe, such as where heavy elements like gold, platinum, and uranium form.

‘It is the Rosetta Stone for all of high-energy astrophysics,’ says Richard O’Shaughnessy, a theoretical gravitational wave astrophysicist and LIGO researcher at the Rochester Institute of Technology. ‘Superlatives understate the significance of this event, and I haven’t figured out a way of conveying it, even to myself.’”

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Ordinary Matter Found

For the first time scientists have been able to observe and thereby account for, most of the missing ordinary matter in the Universe.  To be clear, this doesn’t mean that we now know what Dark Matter is.  On that front we’re still in the dark, pun intended.  But what it does mean is that we now know where all of the ordinary matter (all the protons, neutrons, and electrons) resides.

As Futurism explains:

“The two teams confirmed that the missing ordinary matter in the universe can be found in the form of filaments of hot, diffuse gas linking galaxies together.

While long predicted, these gasses have a tenuous nature that has made them impossible to detect using X-ray telescopes. To get around that, both teams made use of the Sunyaev-Zel’dovich effect. This phenomenon occurs when leftover light from the Big Bang passes through hot gas, leaving behind a trace of the gas that can be captured.”

The hope is that scientists can now use this knowledge to help them paint a more complete picture of what the Universe looks like helping us to unravel the rest of its mysteries.

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The Skyrmions Are Falling Into Place

Moore’s Law may soon be a thing of the past thanks to a new breakthrough that could fundamentally alter what we think we know about computer processing and data storage.
 
As Futurism puts it:

“Currently, data is read and written one bit at a time — a feat accomplished by altering the placement of magnetic particles. Instead, this new method manipulates ‘skyrmions’ — virtual particles made of small disturbances in the orientation of this magnetism — by using electric fields. These ‘particles can store data for much longer than traditional methods.

Geoffrey Beach, an associate professor of materials science and engineering at MIT, led the original study which first documented the existence of skyrmions in 2016. In this new study, he has demonstrated, for the first time, that it’s possible to create the virtual particles in specific locations (when previously documented, the particles’ location was entirely random). This most recent development is what will be key in creating improved data storage systems.”

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Quantum Video Calls

If you thought FaceTime was cool you ain’t seen nothing yet.  Soon we could have quantum video calls that are completely unhackable.

As Futurism explains:

“On September 29, a video call took place between Beijing, the capital of China, and Vienna, the capital of Austria. This wasn’t any ordinary call, however: it was the first live demonstration of a call powered and securely encrypted using quantum technology. It marks a huge breakthrough in the realm of quantum communications, and shows the potential impact the technology could have on how information is transmitted and secured.

The quantum video call is the result of a collaboration between researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Austrian Academy of Sciences, and the University of Vienna. The call was encrypted by sending information embedded in particles of light (photons) generated by the Micius satellite. Micius was launched last year and successfully used quantum cryptography to send data to Earth back in August.”

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Are any of these the Greatest Idea Ever?

I believe in evolution but there are still some among us who don’t buy it.  They’ll point to something like the eye and wonder how something so incredibly complex could form since logic would dictate that while it was developing, it would have likely been eliminated by natural selection for failing to work properly right away.  Scientists get around that problem by suggesting that the eye may have initially formed for some other reason before being co-opted and repurposed for sight.

Similarly, another thorny issue when it comes to evolution is the development of the immune system.  If we need it to survive then how did we survive before we had it? It really is quite the conundrum.  One theory is that our cells, in lieu of a full blown immune system, must have instead had some kind of “backdoor kill switch”, a mechanism that would allow for faulty or cancerous cells to be killed off before they could harm us.  Eventually, we stopped using that switch, instead relying on an immune systems to protect us.  But now the time may have come to start using that kill switch once again to fight cancer.  A novel approach that allegedly works on all types of cancer.

As Pionic puts it, “Small RNA molecules originally developed as a tool to study gene function trigger a mechanism hidden in every cell that forces the cell to commit suicide, reports a new Northwestern Medicine study, the first to identify molecules to trigger a fail-safe mechanism that may protect us from cancer.  The mechanism — RNA suicide molecules — can potentially be developed into a novel form of cancer therapy, the study authors said.”

Best of all, “cancer cells treated with the RNA molecules never become resistant to them because they simultaneously eliminate multiple genes that cancer cells need for survival. ‘It’s like committing suicide by stabbing yourself, shooting yourself and jumping off a building all at the same time,’ said Northwestern scientist and lead study author Marcus Peter. ‘You cannot survive.’”

In case you’re worried that this cell kill switch could be weaponized and used to turn kill off healthy cells, have no fear.  It only targets cancerous cells.  Hopefully, this research continues to advance and this method of curing cancer by getting cancerous cells to commit suicide becomes a standard treatment method.  Because if it does we could be looking at a real game-changer.  Something that ensures that cancer never takes another life.

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Is using a cellular kill switch to fight cancer the Greatest Idea Ever?