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Robot Teachers School Korean Students in English December 28, 2010

Posted by Metabiological in Science.
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When I first read this I was going to make some joke about no industry being safe from automation but as it turns out this is an example of no industry being safe from outsourcing.

Almost 30 robots have started teaching English to youngsters in a South Korean city, education officials said Tuesday, in a pilot project designed to nurture the nascent robot industry…

The 29 robots, about one metre (3.3 feet) high with a TV display panel for a face, wheeled around the classroom while speaking to the students, reading books to them and dancing to music by moving their head and arms.

The robots, which display an avatar face of a Caucasian woman, are controlled remotely by teachers of English in the Philippines — who can see and hear the children via a remote control system.

Despite what some try to tell us economics in many ways is very simple.  Companies try to maximize profits while limiting costs.  In most cases the one cost they have control over is labor, hence the flight of jobs to lower income countries.  Many industries have been protected by the fact that they require a person to be actually present to fulfill there duties.  Is this the first sign that this may be coming to an end?  And what happens when the robots develop enough to no longer require a human controller?

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From School Kids to Published Scientists December 23, 2010

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Not sure about the actual scientific value of the study but a great story none-the-less.  Anything that encourages learning the scientific process and shows that science is fun as hell deserves to be supported.

A scientific paper written by British schoolchildren about bees’ ability to recognize colour patterns and spatial characteristics has appeared in a prominent journal.

The paper, published Wednesday in Biology Letters, includes handwritten data tables and coloured-pencil diagrams.

“We discovered that bumblebees can use a combination of colour and spatial relationships in deciding which colour of flower to forage from,” the paper said. “We also discovered that science is cool and fun because you get to do stuff that no one has ever done before.”

Is There Something Wrong With Science? December 21, 2010

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Let me begin by saying that I am a believer in science.  Not in a religious way, but in a Kuhnian way.  For those of you who haven’t read Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” go out and get it now.  It is arguably the most important book on the history and philosophy of science published in the last hundred years.  What I mean when I say I believe in science is what Kuhn meant when he talked about why certain theories win out over others: not because they explain phenomena perfectly but because they explain it better than their contemporaries.  Science is not perfect, it just happens to be better than any other method we’ve currently tried (similar to my feelings on democracy and capitalism.)

So when an article comes along with the provocative sub-title “Is something wrong with the scientific method” I certainly take notice.  After all this is not only my future livelihood being called into question but the basis of my worldview.  I’m an empiricist and science is empirical.  To call it in to question is to call in the very thing that separates science from every other method of knowledge acquisition: reliability.

Thankfully upon reading the article the title turned out to be what titles often are; little more than a hook to get people interested.  What the article examines is a phenomena in science called the decline effect.  The short version is that effects found via experimentation start off very strong but as more and more studies are performed on the effects the strength diminishes, in some cases to the point where it disappears altogether.

At first glance this would seem to call into question the validity of the scientific process but what is more likely is that a few different factors are at work.  The first on that popped into my head, and the first mentioned in the article, is regression to the mean.  This is basic statistics: a single experiment can be strongly influenced by outliers.  As more studies add to the sample size that influenced is diminished until a more accurate picture of the phenomena is revealed.  This probably accounts for a fair amount of the problem but not all of it.

To explain the rest of the discrepancy the article than examines the problem of publication bias.  Anyone at all involved in science knows about this and it is most definitely a problem.  As a general rule publications are more likely to publish studies that have found a statistically significant effect over studies that have found nothing.  This is just human nature in action as people prefer to find something rather than nothing (even though to paraphrase a great scientist, “in science finding nothing is still finding something”).

This still doesn’t fully explain the decline effect so the article finishes with another common practice: selective reporting.  This sounds a lot worse than it actually is.  The fact is that scientists are human too and when interpreting data are more likely to interpret it in a way that supports their conclusions.  This is an unconscious act that everyone is guilty of and though science training is supposed to minimize there is no doubt it still happens.   This isn’t helped by the fact that interpreting data is A LOT harder than many people think it is.

So is there a problem with science?  No.  Three possible explanations for the decline effect give us one statistical effect and two examples of human error.  The problem is not the tool but the ones using it and while this is cause for some concern it is not the death blow to science.  The nice thing about the scientific process, the thing that separates it from all other methods, is that it is self-correcting.  As knowledge accumulates old ideas are reinterpreted, altered and struck down.  Even the decline effect itself is evidence of the self-correcting power of science.  Is it perfect?  Of course not, but I challenge you to find a better method.

Free Radicals May Actually Help You Live Longer December 20, 2010

Posted by Metabiological in Longevity, Transhumanism.
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Those of you who pay attention to anti-aging research may have noticed that the free radical theory has been under fire lately.  Now a new study on free radicals in worms is landing yet another blow on the already beleaguered theory.

“These findings challenge our understanding of how free radicals are involved in the aging process,” Hekimi said. “The current theory is very neat and logical, but these findings suggest a different framework for why oxidative stress is associated with aging.” The genetically modified worms demonstrated that the production of free radicals can help to trigger the body’s general protective and repair mechanisms. In other words, at certain stages in life, free radicals may be a key part of our well-being, despite their toxicity.

It should be said that free radicals are indeed toxic but in this case it seems to be an example of the dose making the poison.

Are We Becoming What They Say We Are? December 15, 2010

Posted by Metabiological in Transhumanism.
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I was browsing the internet as I often do when I decided to check out the site of the upcoming game Deus Ex:Human Revolution.  As a gamer I’m excited because it is the continuation of one of my favorite franchises.  As a transhumanist I am excited because the central premise of the game is a world on the brink of mass human augmentation.  A perfect storm, right?

As I was checking out the message boards I came to a thread that made me pause.  You can see it here.  The title reads “Singularity: To all the non-believers.”  The actual thread is nothing too impressive.  The initial post does little more then present a very bastardized version of Kurzweil’s ideas on accelerating returns while the vast majority of comments treat the OP as a fool.

But look at the title again.  Think about that for a moment. What is one criticism the transhumanist movement has had to struggle against since the beginning?  The Rapture of the Nerds.  The idea that we are simply a bunch of pie in the sky dreamers who only manage to differentiate ourselves from organized religion by our technological trappings.  It is a false accusation and most transhumanists fight hard against it.

This however is not helping us.  In addition to further propagating the image that there is nothing to transhumanism but Kurzweil it makes us into exactly what we claim we are not.  Ignorant drones comfortably assured that the unstoppable march of technology will ultimately bring about our glorious day of reckoning.

This is not who we are.  We do not believe in the Singularity as others believe in the Second Coming.  We do not believe the worlds problems will be solved simply by the right tech.  We do not preach our beliefs with smug certainty.  We do not accept without questioning.

We are the rightful heirs of the Enlightenment.  Start fucking acting like it.

The Problem with Parasites December 12, 2010

Posted by Metabiological in Ecology, Ethics.
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David Pearce is fond of saying that the last instance of suffering in the world will be a datable event. As a supporter of the Hedonistic Imperative I believe it is humanities destiny to accomplish this. However as a student of ecology I am also more than aware of the monumental proportions of the task that lay before us. To not only eliminate suffering but to do it in a way that results in a functioning, self-sustaining ecosystem (there are reasons to do it this way that I will come back to another day) is a task that will take resources, planning and time almost beyond comprehension. I offer one small segment of the problem here: the problem with parasites.

Parasites, even more than predators, are the ultimate challenge to HI. From a strictly logistical standpoint they present far greater difficulties. Firstly, they are generally much smaller. This may sound obvious but the macro scale of most of the worlds predators makes them easier to deal with. Large animals can be tracked, observed and altered with far less difficulty than tiny ones, let alone microscopic ones. Secondly, there are far more parasites in the world than predators. This is related to the first point in that you can fit far more smaller animals into an ecosystem than you can larger ones. Thirdly, parasites are not always obvious. A predator stalking, killing and devouring an organisms leaves tell-tale clues behind (the most obvious of which is a corpse) that are easy to comprehend. Even when direct evidence of predation cannot be found it can be inferred through indirect methods such as large scale changes in the population density or distribution of the prey. Parasitism does not always present such a clear case. Though many parasites can certainly be detected through their negative effects it is not always as clear what is causing the problem. Often times the only sign that a parasite is present is during a autopsy.

It is not simply logistics that make parasites our greatest obstacle. The suffering caused by parasites is far greater than that caused by predators. Though terrifying, predation at least ends the suffering of the prey, albeit through death. Parasites by comparison can be present for years, in some cases throughout the whole natural lifetime of the organism. This is without discussing the subject of parasitoids, creatures that lay there eggs within the bodies of their hosts. Anyone who has watched a tarantula being eaten alive from the inside out by a wasps larvae cannot help but shudder.

So how to we fix this problem? One solution is to simply wipe parasites out. Others have considered the controlled extinction of certain species as a means to reduce suffering and though at first glance it may seem crazy it is not as outlandish an idea as it may seem. Many mosquito populations have already been eradicated through the use of pesticides such as DDT to prevent the spread of malaria. Unfortunately, these actions have met with varying and limited degrees of success with the biggest problem being the evolution of individuals resistant to the effects of the pesticides. For this reason and the shear logistical nightmare of attempting to wipe out every parasitic species on earth we must relegate extinction to nothing more than a situational tool.

A better solution is to use the tools that evolution has already provided for us, namely to shift the relationship parasites have with there hosts. Mutualisms are positive interactions between two or more species that result in a benefit for all individuals involved. Arguably the most common example is between various insect and flower species; the insects receive nourishment from the nectar while the flowers use the insects for pollination. This scenario is well known to even non-experts but mutualisms are far more wide spread than most people realize. Pilot fish eating parasites from sharks, bacteria fixing nitrogen for plants in exchange for food, snails eating the fouling organisms from the algae they live on; each of those and many more is a beneficial interaction that took no human intervention to create.

It may seem at first that transforming a parasitic relationship to a mutualistic relationship would be rather difficult but in this case looks are deceiving. The important thing to keep in mind is that mutualisms are not examples of true cooperation between species. Indeed they are more properly identified as systems of mutual exploitation with the positive benefits merely being a side effect of each species taking what it needs. While the evolution how these relationships developed is not well understood it seems likely that many mutualisms originally evolved out of parasitic relationships.

Critics of HI have noted that any attempt to re-engineer the natural world in the name of eliminating suffering will require massive top-down regulation and control, with all the problems associated with such systems. While one can argue the degree to which this is true it seems likely that to some degree it must be. Our goal then should be to look for any opportunity to let evolution do our work for us, allowing us to merely dip our hand into the stream whenever we need to correct our course.

Aspirin May Cut Risk of Certain Cancers December 7, 2010

Posted by Metabiological in Longevity.
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We’ve known for awhile now that taking a low-dose of aspirin cut cut the risk of heart disease but according to some new studies it may cut the risk of many cancers as well.

The research involved in the current review had been conducted for an average period of four to eight years. The patients (some of whom had been given a low-dose aspirin regimen, while others were not) were tracked for up to 20 years after.  The authors determined that while the studies were still underway, overall cancer death risk plummeted by 21 percent among those taking low-dose aspirin. But the long-term benefits on some specific cancers began to show five years after the studies ended.  At five years out, death due to gastrointestinal cancers had sunk by 54 percent among those patients taking low-dose aspirin.  The protective impact of low-dose aspirin on stomach and colorectal cancer death was not seen until 10 years out, and for prostate cancer, the benefits first appeared 15 years down the road.  Twenty years after first beginning a low-dose aspirin program, death risk dropped by 10 percent among prostate cancer patients; 30 percent among lung cancer patients (although only those with adenocarcinomas, the type typically seen in nonsmokers); 40 percent among colorectal cancer patients; and 60 percent among esophageal cancer patients.

Those are some pretty impressive numbers.  That being said before everyone runs out to pick up a bottle of Bayer it must be noted that taking low-doses of aspirin has also been found to increase risk of stroke.  Weigh the risks for yourself and as always use in the proper amount.

Will Climate Change Create Nations Without States December 6, 2010

Posted by Metabiological in Ecology.
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Predicting what effects climate change is going to have on the world can make even the most educated research feel a little bit like Nostradamus.  There are so many variables and so many ways in which they can interact that most of the time we really can’t start planning for disaster until it’s already happening.  Case in point, this story.

The short of it is that due to rising sea levels brought about by glacial melting and the like many island nations are in danger of becoming uninhabitable.  Though the threat of them sinking below the waves a la Atlantis is not in the near future the more pressing concerns are things like fresh water supplies and arable land.  Before too long many of these nations may face the possibility of being left without a home.

This presents an interesting dilemma.  Can a nation-state remain a functioning entity without solid ground underneath it?  This is not a problem we as a species have confronted before and are completely unprepared for.  Certainly states have vanished before but usually through conquest and revolution.  This problem calls into question the very concept of what constitutes a nation-state, an idea that has been around for centuries now, and will force us to question where political authority and national sovereignty are actually derived.  In addition there are issues with fishing rights and mineral wealth to be addressed not to mention the relatively mundane problem of where these people are going to live.

So what exactly will happen?  I foresee a few possibilities.

1) The people of the disappearing nations are absorbed into countries they take refuge in.  The nation loses it’s seat in the UN and rights to things like fisheries or minerals are handled through international negotiations with no regard for the original inhabitants.  My money’s on this one.

2) The people keep there status as a nation but not as a state.  They maintain rights to natural resources within there former territory even if they live somewhere else.  This situation, similar to the status of Native American tribes in the US, could happen but I doubt it.

3) The people remain a nation and a state.  They continue to have a functioning government and retain their seat in the UN.  Don’t count on it.

4) The people are placed under a new designation for societies displaced by the effects of climate change.  What this new designation actually will look like I cannot say but I would guess it would fall under the auspices of the UN and have some sort of protections for resource rights and things like that.  This one actually makes some sense to me but there are too many variables for me to say whether or not it’s likely.

Whatever the eventual outcome it seems likely that many of these people will be displaced.  Action against climate change is coming far too slowly and far too late to make any meaningful difference.  Don’t believe me, check the news surrounding the current summit in Cancun (hint: it’s depressing).  As many have correctly pointed out the necessary changes will be detrimental to short-term economic growth and individual nations have no current incentive to curb there greenhouse gas emissions if they believe other nations will not do the same.  Only an international governing body could produce the necessary changes but at this point in time that seems both unlikely to happen and likely to cause other problems.

At this point it seems like adaptation to a changing world is our best course of action.  I remain skeptical of geoengineering projects.  Once that genie is out of the bottle there’s no going back.  Perhaps these island nations will be our lantern in the darkness,  showing us how to chart our course in a changing world.

Hedonistic Imperative Slowly Moves into the Mainstream December 5, 2010

Posted by Metabiological in Ethics, Transhumanism.
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David Pearce’s Hedonistic Imperative has arguably been one of the most influential ideas within transhumanism.  Even those who don’t support it, and there are many that don’t, can’t help but respect both the scale of the vision and the intellectual vigor behind it.  For myself reading it the first time was an eyeopener.  As a young atheist I had been unimpressed by the ethical stance of the various humanist organizations which seemed to go about the business of ethics without any definition of what constitutes “good” or “evil”.  HI not only provided an ethical framework (negative utilitarianism) that was well-grounded in philosophy but a vision of a better world that rivaled and even surpassed the dreams of paradise espoused by the world’s religions.

As such I am always happy to see these views break into the mainstream.  Jeff McMahan’s article in the New York Times “The Meat Eaters” was groundbreaking in this regard and now we have Oscar Horta’s publication.  Horta’s work, which deals with the problems associated with species reintroduction, strikes particularly close to home for me as an ecologist in training.  It is a complex problem and one that according to Horta we are not going about in the right way.

His article asks the question of whether or not it is moral to reintroduce carnivores, in this case wolves, into their former range.  The ecological argument is that top predators help to stabilize the ecosystem and prevent major changes in community structure that can occur through over-grazing.  This is not a controversial statement in ecology with the spread of sea otters into former ranges along the California coast arguably being the best example of it.  Horta attacks not only the ecological argument of reintroduction but also questions the moral hypocrisy implicit in such a policy.

I won’t go in depth into his arguments since you can and should read it for yourself but I will tell you that some of his arguments are very impressive, particularly those against the deep ecology crowd.  The take home from this is that while he calls into question our current interventions he does not call for them to stop but only to be modified.  Nature is not good simply because it is nature and intervention is not bad for simply being an intervention.  When used properly, such as in the reduction of suffering in the natural world, it can be one of our most powerful tools.

NASA Discovers a Truly Unique Life Form December 3, 2010

Posted by Metabiological in Beyond Earth.
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Well it’s not quite first contact but it’s pretty much the next best thing.  NASA announced yesterday that it had discovered a new species of bacteria living in a fairly unlikely place:  Mono Lake, California.  Not only is the lake highly alkaline and very salty, neither of which is good for most life, it contains high amounts of the highly dangerous compound arsenic.  Arsenic is poisonous to most creatures on Earth but despite that the lake does actually have a simple ecosystem.  Finding a bacteria that thrives in such extreme conditions is cool but not particularly noteworthy.

What is note worthy is what else the found.  The bacteria not only survives but actually uses the arsenic in the construction of its DNA.  Why is that interesting?  Because it’s supposed to be impossible.

Carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur are the six basic building blocks of all known forms of life on Earth. Phosphorus is part of the chemical backbone of DNA and RNA, the structures that carry genetic instructions for life, and is considered an essential element for all living cells.

Phosphorus is a central component of the energy-carrying molecule in all cells (adenosine triphosphate) and also the phospholipids that form all cell membranes. Arsenic, which is chemically similar to phosphorus, is poisonous for most life on Earth. Arsenic disrupts metabolic pathways because chemically it behaves similarly to phosphate.

Get it now.  This is not just another extremophile.  This species actually possesses a unique biochemistry, different from all other life on this planet.  It expands the borders of what must be considered life.  It also has important implications for the search for extraterrestrials.

Up till now scientists have been focusing there attention on looking for life like us.  Not us as in humans or even vertebrates but life based off a similar blueprint: liquid water, oxygen breathing, carbon based.  All of these are good assumptions since as far as we know that’s what life is like.  Sorry, as far as we “knew.”  What was once just a popular trope for science fiction writers is now a scientific theory with evidence to back it up.  It drastically expands the places where the search for life can take place.  Again, not quite first contact but I’ll take it.

P.S. Yes I’m aware that at this point this is old news.  I’m a grad student, cut me some slack.