Archive for August, 2010

Is AI More Common Than Biological Intelligence Across the Universe?

By Malcolm MacIver | August 31, 2010 6:04 pm

In a recent article, Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) astronomer Seth Shostak makes an intriguing claim: SETI should start pointing its telescopes toward corners of the known universe that would be friendly not just to intelligent aliens but to artificial alien intelligence. The basis of his suggestion is that any form of life intelligent enough to generate the kinds of radio signals that SETI is looking for would be “quickly” superseded by an artificial intelligence of their creation. Here, going on our own rate of progress toward AI, Shostak suggests that this radio-to-AI delay is a small handful of centuries.

These artificial intelligences, not likely to have had the “nostalgia module” installed, may quickly flee the home planet like a teenager trying to pretend it isn’t related to its parents. If nothing else, they will likely need to do this to find further resources such as materials and energy. Where would they want to go? Shostak speculates they may go to places where large amounts of energy can be obtained, such as near large stars or black holes.

Alien's harvesting the energy of a star for a worm hole
Stephen Hawking imagines aliens covering stars with mirrors
to generate enough power for worm holes

Stephen Hawking has suggested one reason to go to high-energy regions would be to make worm holes through space-time to travel vast distances quickly. These areas are not hospitable to life as we know it, and so are not currently the target of SETI’s telescopes searching for signals of such life.

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Frog Skin Secretions Could Yield Antibiotic Bonanza

By Jeremy Jacquot | August 30, 2010 1:00 pm

tropical_frogResearchers’ new-found interest in frogs may only be skin-deep, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Because hidden within their rugose (science-ese for “wrinkled”) flesh may lie a bumper crop of powerful antibiotics. Though hardly a secret among researchers, who’ve been singing their praises as a potential treasure trove for new drugs for years, efforts to systematically catalog—or even investigate—the thousands of amphibians that could yield promising new antimicrobial substances have been few and far between.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Biology, Biotech, Chemistry, Medicine

It's Not the Heat, It's the Humidity: Electricity From Air

By Eric Wolff | August 30, 2010 4:00 am

Who needs Mr. Fusion if you can draw energy straight out of the air? A team of scientists from the University of Campinas in Brazil worked out a way to draw charge from  air in high humidity, going some distance to explaining the origins of lightning, and offering the promise  of renewable power for San Francisco and New England, where humidity is abundant and sunshine, not so much.

The study authors, Telma R. D. Ducati, Luis H. Simoes and Fernando Galembeck, found that tubes of aluminum, stainless steel, or chromium acquired electric charge in high relative humidity, and that the charge rose as the humidity went up.


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MORE ABOUT: hygroelectricity

Virus-Powered Rechargeable Clothing Could be Coming to a Store Near You

By Jeremy Jacquot | August 26, 2010 3:29 pm

virus-built batteryIn a few years’ time, recharging your handheld PC may be as easy as just slipping it into your back pocket. That is, as long as you don’t mind having a virus cocktail woven into your pair of slacks. Yes, the humble virus–that tiny protein-coated bag of genetic material that we more commonly associate with global pandemics–could replace graphite and lithium iron phosphate as the material of choice with which to build the next generation of customizable, high-powered, lithium-ion batteries.

Despite what you may think, this isn’t actually such an unusual pairing. By virtue of their simple design (most only contain enough genes to encode a few dozen proteins) and infinite capacity for manipulation, viruses have become the favored go-to tool for scientists seeking to explore cellular systems and tinker with their underlying components. Gene therapists have been infecting bacterial, plant, and animal cells with viruses for years in order to shuttle in new genes and repair malfunctioning ones. In one recent application, a team of researchers led by University of Pennsylvania ophthalmologist Arthur Cideciyan restored sight to two blind individuals by injecting a virus equipped with a retinal gene into their eyes. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Biology, Biotech, Chemistry, Energy, Materials

Did Humans Make Tools, or Did Tools Make Humans?

By Kyle Munkittrick | August 26, 2010 9:10 am

A human hand holding a piece of technology in the earliest of betas.

Is our species, Homo sapiens sapiens, the first cyborg species? Gizmodo/New Scientist has a fascinating article up about how humans evolved as a result of technology. Timothy Taylor, an anthropologist and archaeologist at the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom, submits a theory I am very inclined to believe: that humans evolved from tool-using proto-human primates. This evolutionary path resulted in a “survival of the weakest,” which Taylor explains:

Technology allows us to accumulate biological deficits: we lost our sharp fingernails because we had cutting tools, we lost our heavy jaw musculature thanks to stone tools. These changes reduced our basic aggression, increased manual dexterity and made males and females more similar. Biological deficits continue today. For example, modern human eyesight is on average worse than that of humans 10,000 years ago.

Unlike other animals, we don’t adapt to environments – we adapt environments to us. We just passed a point where more people on the planet live in cities than not. We are extended through our technology. We now know that Neanderthals were symbolic thinkers, probably made art, had exquisite tools and bigger brains. Does that mean they were smarter?

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MORE ABOUT: cooking, evolution, tool use

The New AI: Turn Robots Into Infant Scientists

By Malcolm MacIver | August 25, 2010 5:55 pm

While it’s clear that we have a lot going for ourselves right out of the womb, it’s equally clear that one of our most admirable qualities is that we rapidly “get it” – we learn languages, skills for manipulating objects, hip hop dance moves, recipes for coconut mojitos, and how to charm people into liking us (ideally, in that order). Rather than experiential learning like this, early AI work focused on sophisticated reasoning problems. The touchstone for these efforts was Alan Turing’s original effort to mimic the reasoning processes of mathematicians engaged in solving a math problem – an effort that gave us many great things, particularly a distillation of what it means for something to be computable that stands as one of the great intellectual accomplishments of the twentieth century. That form of AI, while successful in particular domains — chess playing and expert systems, for example –  has been less successful in solving problems of ongoing embodied activity, such as the aforementioned coconut mojito making. What if, instead of mimicking a mathematician trying to solve a math problem, Alan Turing had decided to mimic a scientist trying to determine the validity of a hypothesis? According to some developmental psychologists, in doing so we’d actually be emulating the reasoning processes of an infant, and thus, potentially, we’d be unlocking the great power of experiential learning.

Having robots with minds implementing the scientific process rather than math problem solving is essentially what’s happening in a few corners of robotics, most recently with the Xpero project, an effort to develop an embodied cognitive system that learns about its world much like an infant would. It’s one of a host of robo-infants being worked on (here’s a nice overview graphic). This approach has led to some very impressive achievements including an “evil starfish” robot that can quickly learn how to control its body after several of its “limbs” have been chopped off.

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Between Titan's Icy Surface and Blazing Core, There Just May Be Life

By Kevin Grazier | August 25, 2010 11:11 am

A few weeks back I blogged about SETICon, the first-ever conference held around the central theme of the search for intelligent life “out there”  — not quite a science conference, but not really a sci-fi convention either. SETICon was not only unique, but it was also a blast. Bring on SETICon II!

Despite years of searching, Klingons and Asgard, Daleks and Vorlons are still firmly entrenched within the realm of science fiction — for not only do we know of no intelligent life in our galaxy outside of that on Earth, we know of no life period. Finding even a microbe would be huge. (The find would be huge, the microbe would be small — hence the “micro” portion of the word. We have no expectation of finding gargantuan Martian astronaut-sucking amoebae, as in Angry Red Planet.)

While we may have to look to the stars for signs of intelligence, the search for life is a somewhat different — though obviously related — matter and we  shouldn’t forget that there are many potential abodes of life within our own Solar System. Surprisingly many are in the outer solar system, and receive only a faint glimmer of Sol’s life-giving radiation. Given the diversity of extremophile organisms discovered in the depths of Earth’s oceans (like the tube worms at right) — as well as  other places that would initially seem counter-intuitive — organisms that live their entire lives never seeing a single photon from the Sun, it appears that the presence of liquid water is much more of a requirement for life than is sunlight.

Planetary scientists now have strong evidence to support the presence of oceans of liquid water under the icy crusts of outer Solar System moons like Europa, Callisto, and Ganymede orbiting Jupiter, as well as Saturn’s Titan. For large Jovian moons, subsurface oceans seen to be the rule, rather than the exception.

Titan Cross Section
Cross Section of Titan. Image credit: NASA

Titan, in particular, raises eyebrows. The moon is slightly larger than Mercury, and the instant Gerard Kuiper confirmed that this moon had a methane-rich atmosphere back in 1944, Titan became a leading candidate for harboring life within the Solar System.

In his 1944 paper, Kuiper wrote that the spectrometry from his telescopic observations suggested that Titan was orange (8th paragraph). So there was an expectation of “oranginess” when the twin Voyager spacecraft flew past in 1981. The observations of Voyager allowed scientists to determine 1) the depth of Titan’s atmosphere; and related to that 2) Titan was slightly smaller than Ganymede, because Titan’s atmospheric depth had been underestimated; and 3) a temperature/pressure profile for Titan’s atmosphere.

Scientists determined that the temperature at the surface of Titan was a chilly 94 Kelvins (about -280 Fahrenheit). Well, so much for life on Titan. Life is based upon chemical processes and, in general, chemical processes proceed faster at higher temperatures. Not only was 94 Kelvins too low a temperature for life-sustaining processes as we know them, most chemicals (chiefly water) important to life as we know it are frozen at that temperature.

So under the category of “potential abodes of life,” Titan was relegated to the category of “also ran.” Titan was referred to as similar to a “pre-biotic” (pre-life) Earth, or like the “Early Earth in a deep freeze.” Even bolder claims were made that Titan may have its day as a habitable abode in a few billion years when our Sun swells to become a red giant.


Enter Cassini/Huygens. Since arriving at the Saturn system in July 2004, the Cassini and Huygens spacecraft have been imaging, sniffing, and landing on Titan, rewriting the textbook on this moon in the process (and I did a podcast on this very subject for “365 Days of Astronomy” last November 12th). In fact, this past  June 21st, Cassini had its closest flyby of the moon Titan that it will have during the entire mission.

Now it turns out that computer simulations based upon Cassini observations, simulations which hint at depletions of various chemical species at Titan’s surface may again hint at the possibility of life on Titan. The results are very preliminary, but fascinating nevertheless.

In the past six years we’ve still learned enough about Titan not to rule out the presence of life. In addition to that subsurface ocean previously mentioned, there appears to be cryovolcanism on Titan’s surface – in one instance Cassini may have imaged an actual eruption. If Titan’s surface rocks are composed of ice, and magma is melted rock, and hydrocarbons like ethane and methane are common on Titan, then it’s not too big of a stretch to imagine that magma chambers in Titan’s subsurface could be life-sustaining cauldrons of hydrocarbon-laced water. Microbes surviving in a magma chamber on a moon of Saturn is a concept that would have been the purview of science fiction only a few years ago, now it’s a real consideration.

Life on Titan? I guarantee that we’ve not heard the last on this subject.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Aliens, Astronomy

Can We Really Reverse-Engineer the Brain by 2030?

By Kyle Munkittrick | August 24, 2010 12:47 pm

Brainsplosion!Engineer, inventor, and Singularity true-believer Ray Kurzweil thinks we can reverse-engineer the brain in a couple decades. After Gizmodo mis-reported Kurzweil’s Singularity Summit prediction that we’d reverse-engineer the brain by 2020 (he predicted 2030), the blogosphere caught fire. PZ Myers’ trademark incendiary arguments kick-started the debate when he described Kurzweil as the “Deepak Chopra for the computer science cognoscenti.” Of course, Kurzweil responded, to which Myers retorted. Hardly a new topic, the Singularity has already taken some healthy blows from Jaron Lanier, John Pavlus and John Horgan. The fundamental failure of Kurzweil’s argument is summarized by Myers:

My complaint isn’t that he has set a date by which we’ll understand the brain, but that he has provided no baseline value for his exponential growth claim, and has no way to measure how much we know now, how much we need to know, and how rapidly we will acquire that knowledge.

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WiFi Medicine: Implantable Biosensors That Could E-mail Your Doctor

By Jeremy Jacquot | August 20, 2010 2:00 pm

Silk-based metamaterialHaving already become a ubiquitous part of our mobile-centric daily lives, wireless technologies are now poised to slip inside our bodies. Researchers and companies around the world are designing the next generation of biosensors—implantable microchip-like devices that can monitor a patient’s health and ping doctors on their smartphones or computers if something is amiss. One day, some of these devices could even apply short-term fixes or treat disorders outright.

The major challenge that scientists face is developing a sensor that is both long-lived and biocompatible. The human body is extremely picky about implants, and will quickly reject or react poorly to most materials found in everyday electronics. Even the materials that make peace with the body’s immune system, like those found in pacemakers, are not always ideal. Some require constant maintenance, while others need to be replaced every few days and are inconvenient to install, to say the least.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Biology, Biotech, Chemistry, Materials, Medicine

First Dinosaurs, Now Aliens Invade San Diego!

By Kevin Grazier | August 19, 2010 3:16 pm

First, in Jurassic Park 2:  The Lost World, it was a T-Rex rampaging through downtown San Diego munching on house pets. Now aliensaliens_inside_small have stealthily invaded the San Diego Air & Space Museum. This particular invasion, however, was invited–the Air & Space Museum is hosting the Science of Aliens traveling exhibit: a fun mix of science and science fiction.

The exhibit is broken down into four areas:


The alien fiction section was small, and had a collection of movie props, videos, and sections devoted to Roswell and the Alien Autopsy video.  Interestingly the content in the Roswell section was donated by the International UFO Museum and Research Center in Roswell, NM, so I felt it was slightly skewed in favor of the object that crashed at Roswell being of an extraterrestrial nature, while the content provided for the Alien Autopsy video practically screamed “THIS WAS A HOAX!”

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Aliens, Astronomy, Cyborgs, Movies, Robots, TV, Utter Nerd

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