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Boy Attends School Using Robot September 24, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Science.
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This is the kind of story I enjoy reading.  Technology unequivocally making someone’s life better.

When Devon Carrow was a baby, a cookie-coated kiss from his mom made him break out in hives. An accidental encounter with peanuts at his godparents’ home three months later landed him in the hospital, under an oxygen tent. His food allergies are so severe that he doesn’t even have to eat something in order to have a life-threatening reaction — just breathing in trace amounts of an allergen is enough to send him into anaphylactic shock.

But thanks to technology, the home-bound boy is finally able to attend school in person — so to speak. He sits in his classroom, runs small errands for his teacher, and participates in group projects all thanks to a $6,000 robot from Nashua, N.H.-based VGo Communications.

His mom converted a room in their home for use as a classroom, and two teachers help him manipulate his computer equipment from there. Thanks to the VGo, which he started using in January, Devon can walk the halls of Winchester Elementary with his classmates, check books out of the library, join other kids on the carpet for circle time, and participate on stage during assembly. The only things he can’t do are attend gym and lunch, but once the school’s wireless system is upgraded, he should be able to hang out in the cafeteria with his buddies while he eats his lunch at home.

Heartwarming.  And that’s not something I say often unironically.

DARPA Unveils New Robotic “Mule” September 10, 2012

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Like it or not the military has been behind some of the biggest technological breakthroughs in history (no surprise given the amount of money spent on it).  The US military has been sinking a lot of money into robotics in recent years in an effort to automate their forces.  Predator drones are probably the most well-known example of this but they have also been working on ground based robots to assist infantry.  DARPA has recently put out a new video demonstrating their newest creation; the LS3.

Not exactly the Terminator but pretty cool none-the-less.  Sure it’s got a funny gait and it’s “running” probably couldn’t outpace a twelve year old but the technology has been steadily improving since the days of Big Dog (which was cool in it’s own right).  While it’s something we take for granted maneuvering on uneven terrain, even very slowly,  is actually an incredibly complicated skill that requires a great amount of agility and balance, things that up until recently robots just haven’t been able to do.  Life has had millions of years to get the process down so it’s no big shock that robots are taking a little while to get it right.

 

P.S.  Anyone more knowledgeable about the subject know what happened to Big Dog?  Looking at those old videos again makes me remember what a seriously impressive technology that was/is.  It’s still amazing, and somewhat eerie even for me, to see it slip on an ice patch and stumble about in such a “life like” manner.

Happy Trails Voyager! September 9, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Beyond Earth.
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35 years in space and still chugging along.  You are the first, and hopefully not the last, emissary of humanity to the stars.

 

Junk DNA Not Junk After All September 9, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Genetics.
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A big new study out of the Human Genome Research Group has just been released to the public.  This is probably the biggest study in genetics since the Human Genome project a decade ago and the results coming out seem to be just as fascinating.

“The ENCODE project not only generated an enormous body of data about our genome, but it also analyzed many issues to better understand how the genome functions in different types of cells. These insights from integrative analyses are really stories about how molecular machines interact with each other and work on DNA to produce the proteins and RNAs needed for each cell to function within our bodies,” explains Ross Hardison of Pennsylvania State University, one of the JBC authors…

The human genome consists of about 3 billion DNA base pairs, but only a small percentage of DNA actually codes for proteins. The roles and functions of the remaining genetic information were unclear to scientists and even referred to as “junk DNA.” But the results of the ENCODE project is filling this knowledge gap. The findings revealed that more than 80 percent of the human genome is associated with biological function.

The status of junk DNA has been a thorn in biology’s side for a while now so it’s nice to have that question at least somewhat resolved.  What’s most interesting for me is how this changes our view of the complexity of the human body.

It’s been becoming apparent for some time now that while what genes an organism possess are very important in determining organism functioning how those genes are activated and deactivated is just as (or possibly more) important.  The field of epigenetics has been hot in recent years as scientists have begun to examine how regulation of gene expression rather then the actual structure of DNA determines the phenotype of individuals.  If what this study tells us is correct it would seem that the vast majority of DNA is devoted to this regulation and while I’m not one to say that size always matters the sheer amount of this non-coding DNA speaks volumes about it’s likely importance.

It also makes the job of predicting the development of phenotypes a bit more tricky.  “Junk DNA” may regulate gene expression but many other factors, including environmental, can affect junk DNA.  Furthermore there is some evidence that changes in gene expression can actually be passed on to descendents, a form of non-Darwinian evolution.  Will Lamark make a comeback?  Hard to say but we do seem to be on the edge of a major shift in our understanding of the basics of life.

First Successful Bionic Eye Implanted September 2, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Transhumanism.
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As I’ve said previously on this blog modern prosthetics are no where near ready to allow us the possibility of cyborg humans.  At best they restore a limited set of the functions that a biological limb possess while lacking important features like the ability of flesh to self repair.  But like all technology they are improving and a little while ago we marked a big milestone in the progress of prosthetics: the implantation of the first bionic eye.

After years of hard work and planning, Ms Ashworth’s implant was switched on last month at the Bionics Institute, while researchers held their breaths in the next room, observing via video link.

“I didn’t know what to expect, but all of a sudden, I could see a little flash…it was amazing. Every time there was stimulation there was a different shape that appeared in front of my eye,” Ms Ashworth said.

This early prototype consists of a retinal implant with 24 electrodes. A small lead wire extends from the back of the eye to a connector behind the ear. An external system is connected to this unit in the laboratory, allowing researchers to stimulate the implant in a controlled manner in order to study the flashes of light. Feedback from Ms Ashworth will allow researchers to develop a vision processor so that images can be built using flashes of light. This early prototype does not incorporate an external camera — yet. This is planned for the next stage of development and testing.

Obviously we are long way from allowing  a previously blind person to see let alone enhancing normal human vision but it’s an encouraging step none-the-less.

Google Employees To Commute In Self-Driving Cars August 21, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Science.
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As anyone reading this blog is probably familiar with Google has been in the process of testing it’s self-driving auto technology, so far with impressive results.  In 300,000 miles of driving the car has been in only a single accident and in that case it was when the human driver took control.  Now Google is putting their money (or lives as the case is) where their mouth is and actually allowing their employees to “drive” the cars on their daily commutes.

Of course, the Mountain View, California area isn’t the most arduous of terrains on which to test road worthiness. Acknowledging this, Google engineer, Chris Urmson, writes“…we’ll need to master snow-covered roadways, interpret temporary construction signals and handle other tricky situations that many drivers encounter.”

Until now the cars have been ridden with at least two people, but Google will allow their employees to ride solo during their commutes. As usual, control of the car can be taken over if deemed necessary by the passenger.

In the United States, there were 10.8 million motor vehicle accidents in 2009 resulting in 36,000 deaths, according to the Census Bureau. When Sebastian Thrun announced Google’s self-driving car program back in 2010, he said that robotic cars could possibly cut worldwide vehicle-related deaths by half. And while it’s true the car remains untested in the more challenging conditions mentioned above, public resistance to giving up control at 60 mph could prove even more difficult terrain to cross. It will certainly be some time before Thrun’s pronouncement is put to the test, but as Google employees start sharing their experiences on YouTube, PR progress could be just as important as the technical progress.

Now they just need to install a voice system and you could officially be riding Night Rider in the near future.

Rapamycin: Potential Cognitive Enhancer July 1, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Longevity, Transhumanism.
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Rapamycin has been seeing a lot of attention as a possible inhibitor of aging.  First isolated as a bacterial product from Easter Island (yes, that one) it has consistently proven to be one of the most exciting drugs in the anti-aging field.  How big is it?  The protein it affects is officialy known as mTOR or mammalian Target Of Rapamycin.  TOR incidentaly has also been implcated in the positive effects of fasting on human health and the breakdown and reapsorbtion of old organelles during cellular “housekeeping”.

Now, researchers have discovered another potential benefit of rapamycins use.

“We made the young ones learn, and remember what they learned, better than what is normal,” said Veronica Galvan, Ph.D., assistant professor of physiology at the Barshop Institute for Longevity and Aging Studies, part of the UT Health Science Center. “Among the older mice, the ones fed with a diet including rapamycin actually showed an improvement, negating the normal decline that you see in these functions with age.”  The drug also lowered anxiety and depressive-like behavior in the mice, Dr. Galvan said.

Mice are burrowers that prefer tunnels with walls. To observe behavior, Halloran used an elevated maze of tunnels that led to a catwalk. “All of a sudden the mice are in open space,” Halloran said. “It’s pretty far from the floor for their size, sort of like if a person is hiking and suddenly the trail gets steep. It’s pretty far down and not so comfortable.”

Mice with less anxiety were more curious to explore the catwalk. “We observed that the mice fed with a diet containing rapamycin spent significantly more time out in the open arms of the catwalk than the animals fed with a regular diet,” Halloran said.

The second test measured depressive-like behavior in the rodents. Mice do not like to be held by their tails, which is the way they are moved from cage to cage. Inevitably they struggle to find a way out. “So we can measure how much and how often they struggle as a measure of the motivation they have to get out of an uncomfortable situation,” Dr. Galvan said.

The fact that this improved cognition in young as well as old mice as well as the mood related effects suggests this isn’t a reversal of age related decline one might expect from an anti-aging drug but rather something different going on.  Either way keep an eye on rapamycin.  It’s shaping up to be something special.

Even In Space, Life Perseveres June 24, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Beyond Earth.
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Life, once thought to be a delicate and fragile thing that needed protection and nuturing, is turning out to be an incredibly hardy beast.  We’ve found life in the harshest and most extreme environments on the planet from deep sea hydrothermal vents where a startling variety of organisms endure temperatures up to 450 degrees C to the ice sheets of the Antartic where microorganisms live within cracks in the glaciers.  Now we are learning that even the vacuum of space can’t stop life.

n 2008 scientists sent the suitcase-sized Expose-E experiment package to the Space Station filled with organic compounds and living organisms to test their reaction to outer space.

When astronauts venture on a spacewalk, hours are spent preparing protective suits to survive the hostile conditions. No effort was made to protect the bacteria, seeds, lichen and algae attached to the outside of the Space Station, however.

“We are exploring the limits of life,” explains ESA’s René Demets.

Our atmosphere does a wonderful job of protecting life on Earth by absorbing harmful UV rays and keeping temperatures relatively stable.

In contrast, the space samples endured the full power of the Sun’s rays. The samples were insulated somewhat by the Space Station but still had to cope with temperatures changing from -12ºC to +40ºC over 200 times as they orbited Earth.

The samples returned to Earth in 2009 and the results have now been published in a special issue of the journal Astrobiology.

Lichen have proven to be tough cookies — back on Earth, some species continue to grow normally.

Believe it or not this isn’t the first example of life enduring conditions outside the atmosphere.  Tardigrades (aka waterbears) along with surviving in seemingly every extreme environment on Earth have been known to tolerate vacuum conditions for up to ten days.

While mostly a curiosity at this point this kind of research could lead to potentially interesting breakthroughs.  One off the top of my head is a better understanding of how to grow and maintain food in space.  Despite the protections put in place space craft are not impervious to radiation from the sun.  As such in addition to the myriad of other obstacles growing food in space is limited by the potential damage inflicted on organisms by solar rays.  Figuring out which food sources, and lichen is apparantally capable of being used as a food source, are resistant is a necessary step.  Growing your own food would have the advantage of reducing the cost of lifting the necessary food into orbit and provide a safety margin on long journeys when the astronauts are several million kilometers away from the nearest supermarket.

Being Atheist Doesn’t Make You Smart, Rational, Or Logical June 14, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Science.
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Atheists, my people, we must talk.  I’ve been noticing a disturbing trend making it’s way through the atheist community, a trend which quite frankly needs to stop.  See in my off time I sometimes enjoy perusing discussion boards and internet forums on the subject of religion and atheism (something I keep telling myself I’m going to stop doing.)  It’s enjoyable sometimes because occasionally I see an argument put forward by the other side that I hadn’t considered before, something which forces me to do a little self-examining and make my own arguments stronger.  All too often though all I get out of it is a laugh watching one bad and discounted argument after another being rolled out by people who at this point ought to know better.

The problem is that recently I haven’t been laughing since it’s my side throwing up the stupid arguments.

Now before I get too far into this I don’t need anyone to remind that this being the internet the level of discourse is generally somewhere between two kindergarteners fighting over a crayon and the average American Presidential debate (ooh, topical) and that I really shouldn’t be expecting great debates in that forum.  Unfortunately that argument does not apply in this case.

See that problem I’ve been noticing is that atheists in these debates love to talk about how logical and rational they and their positions are all the while behaving in a completely irrational and illogical manner.  If we’re going to pride ourselves on the soundness of our arguments then we need to ensure that we are actually making sound arguments and we don’t get to use the excuse of the Internet Fuckwad Theory to cover up our own shortcomings.  As such I would like to humbly propose the following list of things atheists really need to stop doing.

1) Being atheist does not make you smart

Or rational and logical.  Yes I know we all saw that one study that seemed to say otherwise but I would be very hesitant about bringing up something so controversial and with it’s own fair share of issues.  Even if the findings of that study turn out to be true it will only be talking about averages (i.e. the average atheist is smarter than the average believer) not that you are smarter than the average believer.

Telling a person that because they believe in a god they must be so stupid as to not understand you’re arguments not only makes you look like a pompous ass but also only manages to alienate anyone you might be debating with.  If your intention was to bring them over to your side then that is the exact opposite of what you should be doing.  It also ignores the fact that their have been many smart people throughout history who have believed in a god and in a way actually gives the theists an argument.

See any time the question of intelligence and religion is brought up it’s almost inevitable that someone will eventually say “But Einstein believed in God (or Newton/Descartes/Galilaeo/etc.)  Are you saying you’re smarter than Einstein?”  This is a pretty popular comeback since it appeals to the logical fallacy we seem to like the most; appeals to authority.  The truth is most people debating about religion (or for that matter climate change/evolution/etc.) on the internet don’t actually understand the topic well enough to be debating it in the first place.  As such any opportunity to bring in the word of someone more versed in the subject than they are is a welcome relief since it allows them to score a point without having to actually make an argument.  This is doubly annoying since as anyone with a basic background in logic knows the veracity of an argument is not based on the intelligence of the person arguing it but on the strength of the evidence in its favor.  Bringing up much smarter, more rational and more logical you are isn’t only a fallacy in itself but will almost certainly perpetuate more fallacies.

2) Stop misusing the word logical

This is one that really gets to me because I see it everywhere.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen a person attack a religion for not being “based on logic” at the same time implicating that atheism is a logical belief.  Often this is said in the manner of a winning argument as if the person thinks they have made some grand insight which cannot be countered.  Hate to break it to you but all you’ve done is shown that you don’t understand what the word logical means.

Quick philosophy lesson.  Logic is a branch of philosophy which studies what makes an argument valid.  While there are a few types the one most of us are familiar with is deductive reasoning, which generally takes the form of if x than y.  A example of that might go as such:

A: All apples are fruit

B: Some apples are red.

Therefore: Some fruit is red.

The conclusion follows perfectly from the assumptions.  As such, that right there is a logically valid argument.   But is it true?

Some are probably saying “Of course it’s true, you just said it was valid” and therein lies the confusion.  A valid argument is not necessarily a true one.  All it needs to be valid is for the conclusion to follow from the premises, not that the premises be correct themselves.  To illustrate that point let’s try another one.

1: All things created have a creator.

2: The Earth was created.

Therefore: The Earth has a creator.

This also is a logically valid argument and a perfect example for why attacking religion as illogical is a terrible debating tactic.  Religions can and have produced many perfectly valid arguments for the truth of their beliefs based on the assumptions of their faith.  While we can certainly attack the truthfulness of their assumption speaking of religions as illogical only exposes our own ignorance.  Speaking of ignorance…

3) Quit parroting arguments you heard from someone else

Let me be very clear what I’m talking about here.  I do not mean utilizing arguments you read about elsewhere for yourself.  Nothing wrong with learning from another, that is after all one of the best ways to learn.  What I’m talking about is when the only argument you can muster is entirely made up by other people.  Or to put it succinctly let’s construct an imaginary (though in truth very common) exchange.

Person 1:  Atheists have faith just like theists.

Person 2:  Whatever, atheism is like religion the way bald is a hair color.

Do you see the problem there?  Simply quoting a popular saying does not advance the conversation.  It does not add to the debate.  It doesn’t even show that you understand what you’re debating about.  All it shows is that you are capable of memorizing an internet meme.  Again there’s nothing wrong with using the ideas of others in you argument but you have to actually make an argument.

Well I think that will do for now.  Honestly there are probably a few more that could be added to this list but perhaps I’ll save those for another time.  Happy debating!

Company To Establish Colony On Mars June 4, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Beyond Earth.
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Been gone for awhile (vacation in Chicago) so forgive the lack of posts.  I have many backlogged but let’s start with a short one.

Making the rounds in the futurist/transhumanist community has been a promotional video from private space company named MarsOne.  As the name would imply the company is interested in establishing a human colony on Mars by 2023.  So far so ho hum but there are two elements of this plan that make it interesting.

The first is that the colony would be planned from the beginning as a permanent base, meaning that all colonists will be expected to stay for life. Anyone who signs up to be the first human on Mars will also be signing up to be the first dead human on Mars.  This is actually a pretty smart idea as it removes the problems and expenses of a return trip thus freeing up more resources for the base itself.  I can also imagine that selecting people who would know in advance that they would be in for the long haul might result in a psychologically stronger and more committed colony.

More interesting, and rather strange, is the proposed plan to fund the expedition.  According to the planners that funding would come by turning the whole thing into a giant space-themed reality show.  No, really.

Setting aside my initial gut reaction to hate anything which reminds me of reality television I can’t see how this would actually work.  People watch reality TV (so I’m told) largely for the human drama of watching terrible people acting in terrible ways.  It makes us feel better to know that no matter how bad we may behave at least we aren’t THAT bad.  Trying to slap that formula onto an incredibly complicated and let’s not forget risky mission strikes me as doomed to fail.  Either you end up with a boring reality show about focused colonists doing what they need to do to survive both the cold of space and the harshness of Mars or you end with the Kardashians in space and get to watch everything go to hell.