At the university where I teach, fewer and fewer new books are available from the library in their physical, printed form. And yet, the company that just published my textbook tells me that about 90 percent of students who buy my book choose to lug around the four-pound paper version rather than purchase the weightless e-book.
The information is exactly the same, so why would students opt for the pricier and more cumbersome version? Is the library missing something important about the nature of printed versus electronic books?
Some studies do show that information becomes more securely fixed in people’s minds when they read it from paper than when they read it from the screen (as summarized in this recent blog post). Findings like these may resonate with our subjective experience of reading, and yet still seem puzzling at an intellectual level. This is because we’re used to thinking about reading—or information processing more generally—as the metaphorical equivalent of consuming food. We talk about devouring novels, digesting a report, and absorbing information. If we’re ingesting the same material, whether it’s presented in print or electronically, how can the results be so different?
This article was originally published on The Conversation.
After years of trying, it looks like a chatbot has finally passed the Turing Test. Eugene Goostman, a computer program posing as a 13-year old Ukrainian boy, managed to convince 33% of judges that he was a human after having a series of brief conversations with them. (Try the program yourself here.)
Most people misunderstand the Turing test, though. When Alan Turing wrote his famous paper on computing intelligence, the idea that machines could think in any way was totally alien to most people. Thinking – and hence intelligence – could only occur in human minds.
Turing’s point was that we do not need to think about what is inside a system to judge whether it behaves intelligently. In his paper he explores how broadly a clever interlocutor can test the mind on the other side of a conversation by talking about anything from maths to chess, politics to puns, Shakespeare’s poetry or childhood memories. In order to reliably imitate a human, the machine needs to be flexible and knowledgeable: for all practical purposes, intelligent.
The problem is that many people see the test as a measurement of a machine’s ability to think. They miss that Turing was treating the test as a thought experiment: actually doing it might not reveal very useful information, while philosophizing about it does tell us interesting things about intelligence and the way we see machines.
A hundred and one years ago, in 1913, the famous British mathematician G. H. Hardy received a letter out of the blue. The Indian (British colonial) stamps and curious handwriting caught his attention, and when he opened it, he was flabbergasted. Its pages were crammed with equations – many of which he had never seen before. There were many kinds of formulas there, and those that first caught his attention had to do with algebraic numbers. Hardy was the leading number theorist in the world – how could he not recognize the identities relating to such numbers, scribbled on the rough paper? Were these new derivations, or were they just nonsensical math scrawls? Later, Hardy would say this about the formulas: “They defeated me completely. I had never seen anything in the least like it before!”
Now, for the first time, mathematicians have identified the mathematics behind these breakthrough scrawls – shedding further light on the genius who made them.
We tend to think of medicine as being all about pills and potions recommended to us by another person—a doctor. But science is starting to reveal that for many conditions another ingredient could be critical to the success of these drugs, or perhaps even replace them. That ingredient is nothing more than your own mind.
Here are six ways to raid your built-in medicine cabinet.
“I talk to my pills,” says Dan Moerman, an anthropologist at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. “I say, ‘Hey guys, I know you’re going to do a terrific job.’”
That might sound eccentric, but based on what we’ve learned about the placebo effect, there is good reason to think that talking to your pills really can make them do a terrific job. The way we think and feel about medical treatments can dramatically influence how our bodies respond.
Simply believing that a treatment will work may trigger the desired effect even if the treatment is inert—a sugar pill, say, or a saline injection. For a wide range of conditions, from depression to Parkinson’s, osteoarthritis and multiple sclerosis, it is clear that the placebo response is far from imaginary. Trials have shown measurable changes such as the release of natural painkillers, altered neuronal firing patterns, lowered blood pressure or heart rate and boosted immune response, all depending on the beliefs of the patient.
It has always been assumed that the placebo effect only works if people are conned into believing that they are getting an actual active drug. But now it seems this may not be true. Belief in the placebo effect itself—rather than a particular drug—might be enough to encourage our bodies to heal.
In the South Pacific there is a place so remote that few people have ever heard of it, let alone seen it: the Trobriand Islands. The Trobriands are located off the east coast of Papua New Guinea, and no white man had set foot there until the late 1700s. During World War I, however, the islands were visited by a man who would one day become a legend in the field of anthropology, Bronislaw Malinowski. Malinowski was a stork of a man—thin, pale, and balding—often seen wearing a pith helmet and socks up to his knees. He had terrible eyesight, was a hypochondriac, an insomniac, and on top of it all had a strong fear of the tropics—in particular, an abhorrence of the heat and the sultriness; to cope, he gave himself injections of arsenic.
Malinowski was, nonetheless, a keen observer of humankind. And as he watched the Trobriand Islanders go about their lives, he noticed something odd. When the islanders went fishing their behavior changed, depending on where they fished. When they fished close to shore—where the waters were calm, the fishing was consistent, and the risk of disaster was low—superstitious behavior among them was nearly nonexistent.
But when the fishermen sailed for open seas—where they were far more vulnerable and their prospects far less certain—their behavior shifted. They became very superstitious, often engaging in elaborate rituals to ensure success. In other words, a low sense of control had produced a high need for superstition. One, in effect, substituted for the other.
When Linda May went in to see her obstetrician during her first pregnancy, he told her she probably shouldn’t jump, run, or even walk. But May, an exercise physiologist who studies pregnant women and their babies, knew a thing or two about the positive ways that being active can help a mom-to-be’s health. Women who exercise with baby on board have been known to have, among other things, lower risks of gestational diabetes and pregnancy-induced high blood pressure than those who don’t.
Since then, May and other researchers have discovered even more ways that prenatal exercise benefits not only an expectant mother, but her growing baby, too—sometimes for years into the future—as attendees learned at last week’s Experimental Biology 2014 meeting in San Diego.
Decades ago, many more doctors gave similar advice to May’s obstetrician. Pregnancy was thought to be almost like an illness, a time when women needed to rest to protect themselves and their babies. In 1985, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists came out with their first set of guidelines for exercise during pregnancy—guidelines, now considered conservative, that included suggestions like keeping strenuous activities to 15 minutes or less.
Since then, research has turned that idea on its head. Exercise is now thought to be—for most women with healthy pregnancies—a boon for the mother’s health, and for the baby she carries as well. Researchers are now starting to look even more closely at how exercise can influence a baby’s health in the womb and how these effects might translate into protection from future health problems.
Excerpted from You Are Here by Hiawatha Bray
These days new smartphone apps all seem to want the same thing from us—our latitude and longitude. According to a 2012 report from the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, three-quarters of America’s smartphone owners use their devices to retrieve information related to their location—driving directions, dining suggestions, weather updates, the nearest ATM. Such location data is a boon to advertisers, who use information on our movements to discern our habits and interests, and then target ads to us.
With location-aware smartphones, advertisers can transcend the merely local. They can begin beaming us hyperlocal advertising, tailored not just to the city, but to a particular city block. The idea is called “geofencing,” an unfortunate name choice that evokes the ankle bracelets sometimes worn by accused criminals under constant surveillance. The earliest such devices fenced in the user by transmitting a radio signal to a box connected to his home telephone line. If the suspect left the building, the radio signal would fade, and the box would place an automated phone call to the cops.
With the addition of GPS and cellular technology, later versions of ankle bracelet technology allowed a greater measure of mobility. A judge might grant a criminal suspect permission to go to her job, her church, and her local supermarket, with each approved location plugged into the court’s computer system. Data from the ankle-strapped GPS could confirm that the suspect was staying out of mischief or send a warning to police when she paid an unauthorized visit to the local dive bar.
Geofencing also has uses for the law abiding. A company called Life360 uses it to help parents keep tabs on their kids. The service homes in on location data from a child’s phone and sends a digital message whenever the kid arrives at home or at school—and whenever he leaves. Stroll off campus at ten in the morning, and the parents instantly know. As of late 2012, Life360 had signed up about 25 million users.
It’s long been known that blind people are able to compensate for their loss of sight by using other senses, relying on sound and touch to help them “see” the world. Neuroimaging studies have backed this up, showing that in blind people brain regions devoted to sight become rewired to process touch and sound as visual information.
Now, in the age of Google Glass, smartphones and self-driving cars, new technology offers ever more advanced ways of substituting one sensory experience for another. These exciting new devices can restore sight to the blind in ways never before thought possible.
One approach is to use sound as a stand-in for vision. In a study published in Current Biology, neuroscientists at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem used a “sensory substitution device” dubbed “the vOICe” (Oh, I See!) to enable congenitally blind patients to see using sound. The device translates visual images into brief bursts of music, which the participants then learn to decode.
Over a series of training sessions they learn, for example, that a short, loud synthesizer sound signifies a vertical line, while a longer burst equates to a horizontal one. Ascending and descending tones reflect the corresponding directions, and pitch and volume relay details about elevation and brightness. Layering these sound qualities and playing several in sequence (each burst lasts about one second) thus gradually builds an image as simple as a basic shape or as complex as a landscape.
The concept has tried and true analogs in the animal world, says Dr. Amir Amedi, the lead researcher on the study. “The idea is to replace information from a missing sense by using input from a different sense. It’s just like bats and dolphins use sounds and echolocation to ‘see’ using their ears.”
This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Last week, scientists announced the discovery of Kepler-186f, a planet 492 light years away in the Cygnus constellation. Kepler-186f is special because it marks the first planet almost exactly the same size as Earth orbiting in the “habitable zone” – the distance from a star in which we might expect liquid water, and perhaps life.
What did not make the news, however, is that this discovery also slightly increases how much credence we give to the possibility of near-term human extinction. This because of a concept known as the Great Filter.
The Great Filter is an argument that attempts to resolve the Fermi Paradox: why have we not found aliens, despite the existence of hundreds of billions of solar systems in our galactic neighborhood in which life might evolve? As the namesake physicist Enrico Fermi noted, it seems rather extraordinary that not a single extraterrestrial signal or engineering project has been detected (UFO conspiracy theorists notwithstanding).
This apparent absence of thriving extraterrestrial civilizations suggests that at least one of the steps from humble planet to interstellar civilization is exceedingly unlikely. The absence could be caused because either intelligent life is extremely rare or intelligent life has a tendency to go extinct. This bottleneck for the emergence of alien civilizations from any one of the many billions of planets is referred to as the Great Filter.
This post was originally published at The American Scholar.
Gestures are simple enough. Right? A spontaneous but well-timed wave can emphasize an idea, brush aside a compliment, or point out a barely obscured bird’s nest to an obtuse friend. We use gestures to help our listeners follow along, and we make ourselves look warm and magnanimous in the process.
But on the other hand—and when you’re talking about hands, the puns come furiously—sometimes gestures seem to have nothing to do with edifying or impressing. We gesture on the phone, and in the dark, and when we talk to ourselves. Blind people gesture to other blind people. A growing body of research suggests that we gesture in part for the cognitive benefits that it affords us. Tell us not to use the letter r, or challenge us to adopt a more obscure vocabulary, and our gesture use jumps.