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NFTs Explained: What They Are and Why They’re Selling for Millions of Dollars

5 Březen, 2021 - 16:00

A couple of days ago, the musician Grimes sold some animations she made with her brother Mac on a website called Nifty Gateway. Some were one-offs, while others were limited editions of a few hundred—and all were snapped up in about 20 minutes, with total takings of more than $6 million.

Despite the steep price tag, anybody can watch or (with a simple right-click) save a copy of the videos, which show a cherub ascending over Mars, Earth, and imaginary landscapes. Rather than a copy of the files themselves, the eager buyers received a special kind of tradable certificate called a “non-fungible token” or NFT. But what they were really paying for was an aura of authenticity—and the ability to one day sell that aura of authenticity to somebody else.

NFTs are a cultural answer to creating technical scarcity on the internet, and they allow new types of digital goods. They are making inroads into the realms of high art, rock music, and even new mass-markets of virtual NBA trading cards. In the process, they are also making certain people rich.

How NFTs Work

NFTs are digital certificates that authenticate a claim of ownership to an asset, and allow it to be transferred or sold. The certificates are secured with blockchain technology similar to what underpins Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.

A blockchain is a decentralized alternative to a central database. Blockchains usually store information in encrypted form across a peer-to-peer network, which makes them very difficult to hack or tamper with. This in turn makes them useful for keeping important records.

The key difference between NFTs and cryptocurrencies is that currencies allow fungible trade, which means anyone can create Bitcoins that can be exchanged for other Bitcoins. NFTs are by definition non-fungible, and are deployed as individual chains of ownership to track a specific asset. NFTs are designed to uniquely restrict and represent a unique claim on an asset.

And here’s where things get weird. Often, NFTs are used to claim “ownership” of a digital asset that is otherwise completely copiable, pastable, and shareable—such as a movie, JPEG, or other digital file.

So What Is an Authentic Original Digital Copy?

Online, it’s hard to say what authenticity and ownership really mean. Internet culture and the internet itself have been driven by copying, pasting, and remixing to engender new forms of authentic creative work.

At a technical level, the internet is precisely a system for efficiently and openly taking a string of ones and zeros from this computer and making them accessible on that computer, somewhere else. Content available online is typically what economists call “non-rivalrous goods,” which means that one person watching or sharing or remixing a file doesn’t in any way impede other people from doing the same.

Constant sharing adds up to a near-infinite array of material to view, share, copy, or remix into something new, creating the economies of abundance on which online culture thrives.

TikTok is built around reimagining common audio loops with seemingly endless but unique accompanying visual rituals, which are themselves mimicked in seemingly endless variations. On Twitter, tweets are only valuable to the extent they are retweeted. Fake news only exists insofar as Facebook’s algorithm decides sharing it will increase engagement via driving more sharing.

Information Wants to Be Free

The life and longevity of digital content has depended on its ability to spread. The internet’s pioneering cyber-libertarians had a motto to describe this: information wants to be free. Attempts to stop information spreading online have historically required breaking aspects of technology (like encryption) or legal regimes like copyright.

NFTs, however, bring code and culture together to create a form of control that doesn’t rely on the law or sabotaging existing systems. They create a unique kind of “authenticity” in an otherwise shareable world.

What’s Next?

Nearly 40 years ago, Canadian science-fiction writer William Gibson famously described cyberspace as a “consensual hallucination” in which billions of users agreed that the online world was real. NFTs take this to the next level: they’re a consensual hallucination that this string of ones and zeros is different and more authentic than that (identical) string of ones and zeros.

NFTs work by reintroducing a mutual hallucination of scarcity into a world of abundance. There is no shortage of buyers: the NFT market is already worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Even humble sports trading cards will never be the same.

Are NFTs Different Enough to Break the Internet?

The real function of NFTs is to create a clear delineation between ordinary creators and consumers of online content and those privileged enough to be paid to produce content or claim to own “authentic” work. The internet decentralized content creation, but NFTs are trying to recentralize the distribution of culture.

NFTs facilitate the exchange of fungible money for non-fungible authenticity. It’s a well-known move that occurs in all sorts of industries, and one with a long history in, well, art history.

How the culture-code of NFTs will evolve is anyone’s guess, but at the moment, it is opening a lot of new ways to make new money change hands.

At first take, it might seem that this presents artists everywhere with a recourse to get paid for their otherwise copy-pastable work. Yet creating normative rules around paying for content online has not so far gone smoothly: think of the lackluster payments musicians receive from streaming services like Spotify.

NFTs have also been criticized for their profligate energy consumption, because they depend on a lot of computer power to encrypt their tokens. According to the online calculator at CryptoArt, the computations required to create NFTs for each of Grimes’ animations would have used enough electricity to boil a kettle 1.5 million times—and resulted in around 70 tons of CO2 emissions. I’m not sure that cost for future generations was priced into the current market value, or any appreciation as tokens cryptographically change hands.

Other than their tons of CO2 emissions, what’s real about NFTs is how their creation of technical scarcity enables a new cultural agreement about how something can be authentic and who controls that authenticity. NFTs create new forms of hierarchy, power, and exclusion on the wider web. They have already created a new type of haves and have-nots.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Image Credit: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Kategorie: Transhumanismus

Applications Are Open For a Free Trip Around the Moon on a SpaceX Rocket

4 Březen, 2021 - 16:00

Elon Musk wants to send people to space—lots of them. Besides the 100,000 he envisions sending to Mars each time it’s closely aligned with Earth, he’s determined to make commercial space flight a thing sooner rather than later. Taking a ride into space obviously won’t be cheap, so the prevailing assumption is that the passengers on these flights will be uber-rich. But on at least one early mission, this won’t be the case, because a Japanese billionaire is giving away eight spots.

Yusaku Maezawa announced in a tweet on Tuesday that he’ll be selecting his spaceflight companions from all over the world, emphasizing that he wants “people from all kinds of backgrounds” to apply.

Watch this video to learn more about the selection process. It also contains a special message from @elonmusk #dearMoon

↓Check the full version

— Yusaku Maezawa (MZ) (@yousuckMZ) March 2, 2021

Yesterday morning Maezawa tweeted that he’d already received over 100,000 applications from 216 different countries, with India, Japan, the US, UK, and France topping the list.

Maezawa made much of his fortune from a fashion retail website called Zozotown, which he launched in 2004 and has since grown to be Japan’s largest such retailer. Forbes lists his net worth as $2 billion.

He signed on with SpaceX as its first commercial passenger in 2018, saying he planned to invite several artists to join him on the mission. In this latest announcement, he seems to have expanded his definition of “artist” to include anyone who sees themselves as an artist or is working on some kind of creative project.

Slightly more specifically, Maezawa said, he’s looking for people who “can push the envelope to help other people and greater society in some way” and are “willing to support other crew members who share similar aspirations.” Given that he already has a huge pool of applicants, he’ll undoubtedly find many people who meet these requirements.

There are no details yet about what kind of preparation or training the crew members will need to undergo before the mission, but it will likely be similar to that planned for the Inspiration4 crew (a month ago SpaceX announced it’s targeting “no earlier than the fourth quarter of this year” to launch its first all-commercial astronaut mission, which will include three donated seats of its own, going to individuals not yet named).

SpaceX plans to train that crew in orbital mechanics, microgravity, zero gravity, and other forms of stress testing, as well as making sure they know their way around the Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft. They’ll also need to complete emergency preparedness training, exercises for properly putting on and taking off their spacesuits, and mission simulations. It’s a lot, but probably not more than you’d expect for someone who’s not an astronaut to be able to go to space.

There’s no mention of psychological testing or training, but it wouldn’t be surprising if that was a component as well; who’s to say that even the most brave and calm among us won’t have some sort of meltdown once trapped in a metal cylinder thousands of miles from home? The trip will last at least six days, as it takes three to get to the moon and three to get back.

The spacecraft planned for the mission is SpaceX’s Starship. 160 feet tall and 30 feet in diameter, Starship hasn’t had great luck with its recent test flights; the most recent one just took place yesterday, and though it landed successfully, it exploded on the landing pad shortly after. The two preceding rockets exploded on contact, so it does seem there’s been some improvement.

Maezawa’s flight is slated to take place sometime in 2023. Whether this timeline ends up panning out will likely depend largely on safety, and as it stands right now, SpaceX has some substantial ground to cover.

But hey—in a time when many people won’t even fly to a neighboring state, we may as well fantasize about a not-too-distant future in which we can not only fly to other countries again, but fly off the planet entirely. You can put in your own application to be part of Maezawa’s creative space crew here.

Image Credit: SpaceX

Kategorie: Transhumanismus

The Game Has Changed: Why We Need New Rules for Space Exploration

3 Březen, 2021 - 16:00

The first human expedition to Mars could take place within five to ten years. The crew will be made up mainly of volunteers, with the goal of establishing a colony on the red planet and eventually making the trip to Mars available to anyone.

Scientists are sketching simulations of optimal launch windows (that is, the most fuel-efficient orbital trajectory), running analyses on top candidate landing sites, and studying overall in situ resource utilization to try to determine how the first inhabitants can make use of native assets on Mars to support human life.

But before the first explorers set foot on Mars, there are other, equally pertinent matters that must be attended to. One of the first orders of business should be to determine a “Mars rulebook” and sign an agreement detailing these rules. This is crucial to guarantee a successful takeoff from Earth as well as descent and landing on the red planet. But space exploration now has a new structure and different players than in the past, making it more complicated to set and enforce rules.

Historical Precedent

The Outer Space Treaty was signed in 1967, with initial signatories being the US, UK, and the former Soviet Union. The treaty asserted that celestial bodies and outer space were not there for the taking; no party to the treaty was to claim sovereignty over space, the planets, or other objects in the solar system. Moreover, when the US and USSR were engaged in the Cold War, weaponization of space was categorically forbidden.

During the three ensuing decades, space research was conducted by countries and not private entities. In 1991, the collapse of the Soviet Union further strengthened America’s leadership in space, and in 1998 a multinational collaborative effort resulted in the launch of the International Space Station.

During the last decade, space programs started to weigh on state budgets, deepening deficits. In 2012, during Obama’s presidency, NASA saw a proposed funding reduction of nearly 40 percent of its robotic Mars exploration program.

In contrast, after the 2008 global financial crisis, Big Tech’s financial returns skyrocketed as their products and services became ubiquitous in our everyday lives. Soon after, the private sector’s push into space accelerated.

Space as a Business

Private companies devoted to space exploration started making big plans for the not-too-distant future. Virgin Galactic announced that by 2023 it would transport tourists to space at 32-hour intervals. Elon Musk said that by 2050 SpaceX will send one million people to colonize Mars, launching 3 Starship rockets every day with 300 people onboard each one. Jeff Bezos plans to convert his personal financial gain from Amazon into high-profile space exploration achievements; he sells $1 billion of Amazon stock each year to fund Blue Origin’s rocket venture.

NASA has entrusted multiple aspects of its space program to the private sector. Meanwhile, other countries are accelerating their state-run space exploration programs. India’s short-term goal is to send astronauts to Earth’s orbit by late this year. They also plan to jump on the race to colonize the moon and then Mars.

China aims to establish its own space station by 2022, and the United Arab Emirates—which deployed its first mission to Mars in July 2020—just recently saw its spacecraft Hope enter the Red Planet’s orbit with the objective of studying the Martian atmosphere.

Clearly the game has changed, as both the public and private sectors are players in the space market. Today, the private sector seems to be leading the effort while generating revenue as a result of manning state-public space programs.

But it’s important to note that companies are driven by their respective interests. When Musk says he wants to colonize Mars, he is talking on behalf of a company, not a government entity that signed the Outer Space Treaty back in 1967.

Big Questions

Many space-related endeavors—whether transporting astronauts or deploying exploratory probes—are already in the planning phase. The scientific community knows that there are giant asteroids invaluably rich in gold, platinum, nickel, and other precious metals. We are talking about planetoid bodies, such as 16 Psyche, with the raw potential to unlock wealth worth more than the global economy.

The Outer Space Treaty focused on the prevention of militarization and weaponization of space by the world’s superpowers. But it contains a whole realm of ambiguity and uncertainty with regards to exploration, mining, and commercial monetization of celestial assets. The gates of the ultimate frontier are therefore wide open, begging questions like:

To what extent are private enterprises allowed to exploit assets in space for their own private interest? Who do the assets discovered or extracted belong to? Should there be some kind of tax levied? What about regulation and enforcement of laws? Surely we will have a tight grasp on whomever crosses the Kármán Line, but what happens when we enter outer space?

If SpaceX is successful, the first permanent settlement on Mars would be formed by volunteers, who would join the program at their own risk. Musk says “there will be lots of jobs on Mars.” Those who embark on this journey will face primordial sociological challenges involving matters related to both the individual and the collective well-being of the colony. The rules agreed to on Earth could very well be broken on Mars.

Will the people who colonize Mars have their inalienable rights protected, like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Becoming an interplanetary species holds tremendous opportunity, but also enormous risk.

Following the Rules, Sharing the Wealth

A new, modern treaty similar to the Outer Space Treaty would be a good starting point for ensuring harmony between nations, fair practices by companies, and the well-being of both space travelers and those of us who remain on Earth. Another option would be to establish a trans-national governing body tasked with holding all parties engaged in space exploration accountable to a set of ground rules—a sort of United Nations for Space, if you will.

In addition, since we may generate substantial wealth from space exploration, we should pre-emptively set guidelines for distributing that wealth as a global inheritance; that is, besides rewarding the private initiative that helps make this happen, we should mandate a partial allocation of the financial gain toward human and social development on Earth.

Any enterprise, public or private, that’s able to convert space resources to wealth should embrace this milestone opportunity to give back. Investment could go towards, for example, helping solve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, carbon capture (part of the “Climate Action” goal), and other efforts to clean up some of the damage we’ve done to Earth.

If we are to become an interplanetary species, or aside from that, continue to explore space in a productive and worthwhile manner, no one country or company will be able to accomplish much on its own; cooperation and good governance will be fundamental. We should start thinking of space exploration as a collective human project rather than a competition between different parties. The sooner we do so, the more success we will have both on and off Earth.

Image Credit: NASA

Kategorie: Transhumanismus

This AI Thrashes the Hardest Atari Games by Memorizing Its Best Moves

2 Březen, 2021 - 16:00

Learning from rewards seems like the simplest thing. I make coffee, I sip coffee, I’m happy. My brain registers “brewing coffee” as an action that leads to a reward.

That’s the guiding insight behind deep reinforcement learning, a family of algorithms that famously smashed most of Atari’s gaming catalog and triumphed over humans in strategy games like Go. Here, an AI “agent” explores the game, trying out different actions and registering ones that let it win.

Except it’s not that simple. “Brewing coffee” isn’t one action; it’s a series of actions spanning several minutes, where you’re only rewarded at the very end. By just tasting the final product, how do you learn to fine-tune grind coarseness, water to coffee ratio, brewing temperature, and a gazillion other factors that result in the reward—tasty, perk-me-up coffee?

That’s the problem with “sparse rewards,” which are ironically very abundant in our messy, complex world. We don’t immediately get feedback from our actions—no video-game-style dings or points for just grinding coffee beans—yet somehow we’re able to learn and perform an entire sequence of arm and hand movements while half-asleep.

This week, researchers from UberAI and OpenAI teamed up to bestow this talent on AI.

The trick is to encourage AI agents to “return” to a previous step, one that’s promising for a winning solution. The agent then keeps a record of that state, reloads it, and branches out again to intentionally explore other solutions that may have been left behind on the first go-around. Video gamers are likely familiar with this idea: live, die, reload a saved point, try something else, repeat for a perfect run-through.

The new family of algorithms, appropriately dubbed “Go-Explore,” smashed notoriously difficult Atari games like Montezuma’s Revenge that were previously unsolvable by its AI predecessors, while trouncing human performance along the way.

It’s not just games and digital fun. In a computer simulation of a robotic arm, the team found that installing Go-Explore as its “brain” allowed it to solve a challenging series of actions when given very sparse rewards. Because the overarching idea is so simple, the authors say, it can be adapted and expanded to other real-world problems, such as drug design or language learning.

Growing Pains

How do you reward an algorithm?

Rewards are very hard to craft, the authors say. Take the problem of asking a robot to go to a fridge. A sparse reward will only give the robot “happy points” if it reaches its destination, which is similar to asking a baby, with no concept of space and danger, to crawl through a potential minefield of toys and other obstacles towards a fridge.

“In practice, reinforcement learning works very well, if you have very rich feedback, if you can tell, ‘hey, this move is good, that move is bad, this move is good, that move is bad,’” said study author Joost Huinzinga. However, in situations that offer very little feedback, “rewards can intentionally lead to a dead end. Randomly exploring the space just doesn’t cut it.”

The other extreme is providing denser rewards. In the same robot-to-fridge example, you could frequently reward the bot as it goes along its journey, essentially helping “map out” the exact recipe to success. But that’s troubling as well. Over-holding an AI’s hand could result in an extremely rigid robot that ignores new additions to its path—a pet, for example—leading to dangerous situations. It’s a deceptive AI solution that seems effective in a simple environment, but crashes in the real world.

What we need are AI agents that can tackle both problems, the team said.

Intelligent Exploration

The key is to return to the past.

For AI, motivation usually comes from “exploring new or unusual situations,” said Huizinga. It’s efficient, but comes with significant downsides. For one, the AI agent could prematurely stop going back to promising areas because it thinks it had already found a good solution. For another, it could simply forget a previous decision point because of the mechanics of how it probes the next step in a problem.

For a complex task, the end result is an AI that randomly stumbles around towards a solution while ignoring potentially better ones.

“Detaching from a place that was previously visited after collecting a reward doesn’t work in difficult games, because you might leave out important clues,” Huinzinga explained.

Go-Explore solves these problems with a simple principle: first return, then explore. In essence, the algorithm saves different approaches it previously tried and loads promising save points—once more likely to lead to victory—to explore further.

Digging a bit deeper, the AI stores screen caps from a game. It then analyzes saved points and groups images that look alike as a potential promising “save point” to return to. Rinse and repeat. The AI tries to maximize its final score in the game, and updates its save points when it achieves a new record score. Because Atari doesn’t usually allow people to revisit any random point, the team used an emulator, which is a kind of software that mimics the Atari system but with custom abilities such as saving and reloading at any time.

The trick worked like magic. When pitted against 55 Atari games in the OpenAI gym, now commonly used to benchmark reinforcement learning algorithms, Go-Explore knocked out state-of-the-art AI competitors over 85 percent of the time.

It also crushed games previously unbeatable by AI. Montezuma’s Revenge, for example, requires you to move Pedro, the blocky protagonist, through a labyrinth of underground temples while evading obstacles such as traps and enemies and gathering jewels. One bad jump could derail the path to the next level. It’s a perfect example of sparse rewards: you need a series of good actions to get to the reward—advancing onward.

Go-Explore didn’t just beat all levels of the game, a first for AI. It also scored higher than any previous record for reinforcement learning algorithms at lower levels while toppling the human world record.

Outside a gaming environment, Go-Explore was also able to boost the performance of a simulated robot arm. While it’s easy for humans to follow high-level guidance like “put the cup on this shelf in a cupboard,” robots often need explicit training—from grasping the cup to recognizing a cupboard, moving towards it while avoiding obstacles, and learning motions to not smash the cup when putting it down.

Here, similar to the real world, the digital robot arm was only rewarded when it placed the cup onto the correct shelf, out of four possible shelves. When pitted against another algorithm, Go-Explore quickly figured out the movements needed to place the cup, while its competitor struggled with even reliably picking the cup up.

Combining Forces

By itself, the “first return, then explore” idea behind Go-Explore is already powerful. The team thinks it can do even better.

One idea is to change the mechanics of save points. Rather than reloading saved states through the emulator, it’s possible to train a neural network to do the same, without needing to relaunch a saved state. It’s a potential way to make the AI even smarter, the team said, because it can “learn” to overcome one obstacle once, instead of solving the same problem again and again. The downside? It’s much more computationally intensive.

Another idea is to combine Go-Explore with an alternative form of learning, called “imitation learning.” Here, an AI observes human behavior and mimics it through a series of actions. Combined with Go-Explore, said study author Adrien Ecoffet, this could make more robust robots capable of handling all the complexity and messiness in the real world.

To the team, the implications go far beyond Go-Explore. The concept of “first return, then explore” seems to be especially powerful, suggesting “it may be a fundamental feature of learning in general.” The team said, “Harnessing these insights…may be essential…to create generally intelligent agents.”

Image Credit: Adrien Ecoffet, Joost Huizinga, Joel Lehman, Kenneth O. Stanley, and Jeff Clune

Kategorie: Transhumanismus

Graphene ‘Nano-Origami’ Could Take Us Past the End of Moore’s Law

1 Březen, 2021 - 16:00

Wonder material graphene is often touted as a potential way around the death of Moore’s Law, but harnessing its promising properties has proven tricky. Now, researchers have shown they can build graphene chips 100 times smaller than normal ones using a process they’ve dubbed “nano-origami.”

For decades our ability to miniaturize electronic components improved exponentially, and with it the performance of our chips. But in recent years we’ve started approaching the physical limits of the silicon technology we’ve become so reliant on, and progress is slowing.

The ability to build ever-faster chips has underpinned the rapid technological advances we’ve made in the last half-century, so understandably people are keen to keep that trend going. As a result, a plethora of new technologies are vying to take us past the end of Moore’s Law, but so far none have taken an obvious lead.

One of the most promising candidates is graphene, a form of carbon that comes in one-atom-thick sheets, which are both incredibly strong and have a range of remarkable electronic properties. Despite its potential, efforts to create electronics out of graphene and similar 2D materials have been progressing slowly.

One of the reasons is that the processes used to create these incredibly thin layers inevitably introduce defects that can change the properties of the material. Typically, these imperfections are seen as problematic, as any components made this way may not behave as expected.

But in a paper published in the journal ACS Nano, researchers from the University of Sussex in the UK decided to investigate exactly how these defects impact the properties of graphene and another 2D material called molybdenum disulfide, and how they could be exploited to design ultra-small microchips.

Building on their findings, the team has now shown that they can direct these defects to create minuscule electronic components. By wrinkling a sheet of graphene, they were able to get it to behave like a transistor without adding any additional materials.

“We’re mechanically creating kinks in a layer of graphene. It’s a bit like nano-origami,” Alan Dalton, who led the research, said in a press release.

“Using these nanomaterials will make our computer chips smaller and faster. It is absolutely critical that this happens as computer manufacturers are now at the limit of what they can do with traditional semiconducting technology.”

The work falls into an emerging line of research known as “straintronics,” which is uncovering the surprising ways in which mechanical strains in nanomaterials can dramatically change their electronic, magnetic, and even optical characteristics.

Now that the researchers have elucidated how different kinds of defects like wrinkles, domes, and holes impact the properties of these 2D materials, they’re working on ways to precisely pattern them to create more complex chips.

According to New Scientist, they have already mastered creating rows of wrinkles using pattern molds and generating domes by firing lasers at water molecules to make them expand, and they hope to have a functional prototype chip within five years.

They say that the approach allows them to build processors around 100 times smaller than conventional microchips, which could be thousands of times faster than today’s devices and would require far less energy and resources to make.

There’s still a long way to go to flesh out the potential of the approach, but it represents a promising new front in the race to keep the technological juggernaut we’ve created steaming ahead at full power.

Image Credit: seagul from Pixabay

Kategorie: Transhumanismus

This Wild Video Maps the Entire Internet and Its Evolution Since 1997

28 Únor, 2021 - 16:00

In the early days of digital computing, the machines were monolithic and isolated. They didn’t communicate. In fact, they couldn’t communicate. There was no lingua franca.

This problem was no secret. Computer scientists had been working on ways to network computers as early as 1962. Then on October 29, 1969—only a few months after Apollo 11 landed on the moon—grad student, Charley Kline, sent a message from his computer at UCLA to a computer some 350 miles north at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI). To Kline and his co-conspirator, Bill Duvall, it was no big deal. “It was just engineers working,” said Leonard Kleinrock, a pioneer of computer networking and a leader of the project.

In hindsight, however, the message was—in a technical sense, at least—the firing of the internet’s first two “neurons.” The network, called Arpanet, quickly expanded to other institutions and became a kind of proto-internet for researchers and scientists. Many of the concepts developed for Arpanet were applied to and are still at work in today’s internet.

Map of Arpanet in 1977. Image Credit: Arpanet

Of course, the gulf between Arpanet and the modern web is yawning.

The UCLA-SRI connection took place at a then lightning-quick 50 kilobits per second; today’s internet can hit speeds some 20,000 times faster. Arpanet maxed out at around 100 nodes (or connected computers). Today’s internet is a network of networks comprising billions of nodes worldwide.

The implications of all this need no introduction: The internet has civilization-bending influence.

For all that, it’s still a rather abstract concept. To most people, the internet is its content: News, images, videos, music, messages, and memes. But all that content lives on and is served up by a sprawling mass of interlinked computers spanning the globe.

To really visualize the sprawl, you need to map the territory. Maps of Arpanet were fairly straightforward engineering schematics, but the modern web’s scale is far too great for a sheet of paper and some straight-edge lines and dots. Enter Barrett Lyon.

In 2003, Lyon was just finishing school and working as a hired hacker. Companies tasked him with rooting out vulnerabilities in their systems, and he’d developed mapping tools for the job. His electronic sniffers would trace a network’s lines and nodes and report back what they found. Why not set them loose on the mother of all networks, he thought? So he did.

The resulting visualization recalled grand natural patterns, like networks of neurons or the large-scale structure of the universe. But it was at once more mundane and mind-boggling—representing, as it did, both a collection of mostly standard laptop and desktop computers connected to servers in run-of-the-mill office parks and an emerging technological force that was far more than the sum of it parts.

Lyon’s first full map of the internet, November 22, 2003. Image Credit: The Opte Project

In 2010, Lyon updated his map using a new method. Instead of the traceroutes he used in 2003, which aren’t always accurate, he turned to a more precise mapping tool using route tables generated by the Border Gateway Protocol (BGP), the internet’s main system for efficiently routing information. And now, he’s back with a new map based on BGP routes from the University of Oregon’s Route Views project. Only this time the map moves: It’s a roughly 25-year time-lapse of the internet’s explosive growth.

It’s a mesmerizing, almost organic visual. But it’s also more than that.

The colors map to regions: North America (blue), Europe (green), Latin America (purple), Asia Pacific (red), Africa (orange), and the internet backbone (white). The lines connect nodes; and the starbursts are internet providers for public, private, and government networks (think AT&T or Comcast or the military). The middle is the most highly connected region, and the periphery the least.

Because it’s animated over time, you can watch different regions come online. Equally, you can see regions blink on and off. Some countries, like China and Iran, linger on the outskirts, with fewer links in and out. This, Lyon notes, enables greater control of national networks, like, for example, China’s Great Firewall. During the Iranian protests in 2019, the government shut down most of the internet—connectivity fell to just five percent of average—and this is clearly apparent in the visualization. Big Iranian networks just disappear.

Most obvious, and dramatic, is just how much the internet has grown. There are now almost five billion people online. The remaining few billion will likely log on in the next decade.

“When I look at it, each one of those little squiggles and wiggles is human beings doing something,” Lyon recently told Wired. “People actually using the network, building the network, literally going across oceans and mountains with fiber optic cables and digging ditches. All of that work is reflected in one snapshot.” Clearly, a lot’s changed since 1997—but in a sense, we’re still just getting started.

Update (3/2/2021): Clarified that the Border Gateway Protocol (BGP), the internet’s main routing protocol, can be used to map the internet but isn’t itself a mapping tool.

Image Credit: Barrett Lyon / Opte

Kategorie: Transhumanismus

This Week’s Awesome Tech Stories From Around the Web (Through February 27)

27 Únor, 2021 - 16:00

An Extinct Cave Bear’s DNA Was Still Readable After 360,000 Years
George Dvorsky | Gizmodo
“The bone analyzed in the new study—a petrous bone from the inner ear of an extinct cave bear—was approximately seven times older than any the team had studied before, ‘showing that genome data can be recovered from temperate zone samples spanning more than 300 millennia,’ [Axel Barlow] said. Indeed, older DNA samples exist, but they were all sourced from fossils found in permafrost, like the astounding million-year-old mammoth teeth that recently made headlines.”


10 Breakthrough Technologies 2021
Staff | MIT Technology Review
“This list marks 20 years since we began compiling an annual selection of the year’s most important technologies. Some, such as mRNA vaccines, are already changing our lives, while others are still a few years off. Below, you’ll find a brief description along with a link to a feature article that probes each technology in detail. We hope you’ll enjoy and explore—taken together, we believe this list represents a glimpse into our collective future.”


She Beat Cancer at 10. Now She’s Set to Be the Youngest American in Space.
Kenneth Chang | The New York Times
“Ms. Arceneaux, a physician assistant at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, will be one of four people on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifting off from Florida. Scheduled to launch late this year, it is to be the first crewed mission to circle Earth in which no one on board is a professional astronaut.”


Kazuo Ishiguru Sees What the Future Is Doing to Us
Giles Harvey | The New York Times Magazine
“The book addresses itself to an urgent but neglected set of questions arising from a paradigm shift in human self-conception. If it one day becomes possible to replicate consciousness in a machine, will it still make sense to speak of an irreducible self, or will our ideas about our own exceptionalism go the way of the transistor radio?”


The Quantum Century
Miguel F. Morales | Ars Technica
“As tool builders, it is only very recently that we’ve been able to use quantum mechanics. Understanding and manipulating quantum devices has been like getting an intoxicating new superpower—there are so many things we can now build that would have been impossible just a few years ago. …As we look at these quantum technologies, envision what it will be like to live in a world where quantum devices are everywhere.”


Hunting for a Giant Black Hole, Scientists Found a Nest of Darkness
Dennis Overbye | The New York Times
“Two astronomers recently went looking for a monster black hole. …Instead, they found a nest of baby monsters, as many as five dozen: dark engines of annihilation, packed into a space barely larger than our own solar system, buzzing back and forth and throwing their considerable weight around in the dense core of the star cluster.”


3D Printed Home Technologies Scaling Up Around the World
Payal Dhar | IEEE Spectrum
“Despite the high capital investment needed for automated 3D-printing construction compared to conventional technologies, there are concomitant advantages, Satish says, such as in terms of safety, speed, scale and design complexity. ‘We still build using techniques and equipment and tools…that someone building 100 years ago would be familiar with,’ Ruben says. ‘It is the last major industry that hasn’t embraced new technology as a way to increase productivity.’i”


Artificial Neural Nets Finally Yield Clues to How Brains Learn
Anil Ananthaswamy | Quanta
“The learning algorithm that enables the runaway success of deep neural networks doesn’t work in biological brains, but researchers are finding alternatives that could. …[Yoshua] Bengio and many others inspired by [Geoffrey] Hinton have been thinking about more biologically plausible learning mechanisms that might at least match the success of backpropagation.”


The Supreme Court Owned Uber. What Comes Next Is Much Worse
Natasha Bernal | Wired UK
“Uber’s future is, for the first time, out of its hands. After 12 years of moving fast and breaking things, the slow progress of the courts and the looming specter of regulation are finally catching up with it. If the [UK] Supreme Court ruling lays down a marker, then what comes next will define not just Uber’s future, but the future of the entire gig economy.”

Image Credit: Marek Piwnicki / Unsplash

Kategorie: Transhumanismus

The World’s First 3D Printed School Will Be Built in Madagascar

26 Únor, 2021 - 16:00

3D printed houses have been popping up all over the map. Some are hive-shaped, some can float, some are up for sale. Now this practical, cost-cutting technology is being employed for another type of building: a school.

Located on the island of Madagascar, the project is a collaboration between San Francisco-based architecture firm Studio Mortazavi and Thinking Huts, a nonprofit whose mission is to increase global access to education through 3D printing. The school will be built on the campus of a university in Fianarantsoa, a city in the south central area of the island nation.

According to the World Economic Forum, lack of physical infrastructure is one of the biggest barriers to education. Building schools requires not only funds, human capital, and building materials, but also community collaboration and ongoing upkeep and maintenance. For people to feel good about sending their kids to school each day, the buildings should be conveniently located, appealing, comfortable to spend several hours in, and of course safe. All of this is harder to accomplish than you might think, especially in low-income areas.

Because of its comparatively low cost and quick turnaround time, 3D printing has been lauded as a possible solution to housing shortages and a tool to aid in disaster relief. Cost details of the Madagascar school haven’t been released, but if 3D printed houses can go up in a day for under $10,000 or list at a much lower price than their non-3D-printed neighbors, it’s safe to say that 3D printing a school is likely substantially cheaper than building it through traditional construction methods.

The school’s modular design resembles a honeycomb, where as few or as many nodes as needed can be linked together. Each node consists of a room with two bathrooms, a closet, and a front and rear entrance. The Fianarantsoa school with just have one node to start with, but as local technologists will participate in the building process, they’ll learn the 3D printing ins and outs and subsequently be able to add new nodes or build similar schools in other areas.

Artist rendering of the completed school. Image Credit: Studio Mortazavi/Thinking Huts

The printer for the project is coming from Hyperion Robotics, a Finnish company that specializes in 3D printing solutions for reinforced concrete. The building’s walls will be made of layers of a special cement mixture that Thinking Huts says emits less carbon dioxide than traditional concrete. The roof, doors, and windows will be sourced locally, and the whole process can be completed in less than a week, another major advantage over traditional building methods.

“We can build these schools in less than a week, including the foundation and all the electrical and plumbing work that’s involved,” said Amir Mortazavi, lead architect on the project. “Something like this would typically take months, if not even longer.”

The roof of the building will be equipped with solar panels to provide the school with power, and in a true melding of modern technology and traditional design, the pattern of its walls is based on Malagasy textiles.

Thinking Huts considered seven different countries for its first school, and ended up choosing Madagascar for the pilot based on its need for education infrastructure, stable political outlook, opportunity for growth, and renewable energy potential. However, the team is hoping the pilot will be the first of many similar projects across multiple countries. “We can use this as a case study,” Mortazavi said. “Then we can go to other countries around the world and train the local technologists to use the 3D printer and start a nonprofit there to be able to build schools.”

Construction of the school will take place in the latter half of this year, with hopes of getting students into the classroom as soon as the pandemic is no longer a major threat to the local community’s health.

Image Credit: Studio Mortazavi/Thinking Huts

Kategorie: Transhumanismus

Will Robots Make Good Friends? Scientists Are Already Starting to Find Out

25 Únor, 2021 - 16:00

In the 2012 film Robot and Frank, the protagonist, a retired cat burglar named Frank, is suffering the early symptoms of dementia. Concerned and guilty, his son buys him a “home robot” that can talk, do household chores like cooking and cleaning, and remind Frank to take his medicine. It’s a robot the likes of which we’re getting closer to building in the real world.

The film follows Frank, who is initially appalled by the idea of living with a robot, as he gradually begins to see the robot as both functionally useful and socially companionable. The film ends with a clear bond between man and machine, such that Frank is protective of the robot when the pair of them run into trouble.

This is, of course, a fictional story, but it challenges us to explore different kinds of human-to-robot bonds. My recent research on human-robot relationships examines this topic in detail, looking beyond sex robots and robot love affairs to examine that most profound and meaningful of relationships: friendship.

My colleague and I identified some potential risks, like the abandonment of human friends for robotic ones, but we also found several scenarios where robotic companionship can constructively augment people’s lives, leading to friendships that are directly comparable to human-to-human relationships.

Philosophy of Friendship

The robotics philosopher John Danaher sets a very high bar for what friendship means. His starting point is the “true” friendship first described by the Greek philosopher Aristotle, which saw an ideal friendship as premised on mutual good will, admiration, and shared values. In these terms, friendship is about a partnership of equals.

Building a robot that can satisfy Aristotle’s criteria is a substantial technical challenge and is some considerable way off, as Danaher himself admits. Robots that may seem to be getting close, such as Hanson Robotics’ Sophia, base their behavior on a library of pre-prepared responses: a humanoid chatbot, rather than a conversational equal. Anyone who’s had a testing back-and-forth with Alexa or Siri will know AI still has some way to go in this regard.

Aristotle also talked about other forms of “imperfect” friendship, such as “utilitarian” and “pleasure” friendships, which are considered inferior to true friendship because they don’t require symmetrical bonding and are often to one party’s unequal benefit. This form of friendship sets a relatively very low bar which some robots, like “sexbots” and robotic pets, clearly already meet.

Artificial Amigos

For some, relating to robots is just a natural extension of relating to other things in our world, like people, pets, and possessions. Psychologists have even observed how people respond naturally and socially towards media artefacts like computers and televisions. Humanoid robots, you’d have thought, are more personable than your home PC.

However, the field of “robot ethics” is far from unanimous on whether we can—or should— develop any form of friendship with robots. For an influential group of UK researchers who charted a set of “ethical principles of robotics,” human-robot “companionship” is an oxymoron, and to market robots as having social capabilities is dishonest and should be treated with caution, if not alarm. For these researchers, wasting emotional energy on entities that can only simulate emotions will always be less rewarding than forming human-to-human bonds.

But people are already developing bonds with basic robots, like vacuum-cleaning and lawn-trimming machines that can be bought for less than the price of a dishwasher. A surprisingly large number of people give these robots pet names—something they don’t do with their dishwashers. Some even take their cleaning robots on holiday.

Other evidence of emotional bonds with robots include the Shinto blessing ceremony for Sony Aibo robot dogs that were dismantled for spare parts, and the squad of US troops who fired a 21-gun salute, and awarded medals, to a bomb-disposal robot named “Boomer” after it was destroyed in action.

These stories, and the psychological evidence we have so far, make clear that we can extend emotional connections to things that are very different to us, even when we know they are manufactured and pre-programmed. But do those connections constitute a friendship comparable to that shared between humans?

True Friendship?

A colleague and I recently reviewed the extensive literature on human-to-human relationships to try to understand how, and if, the concepts we found could apply to bonds we might form with robots. We found evidence that many coveted human-to-human friendships do not in fact live up to Aristotle’s ideal.

We noted a wide range of human-to-human relationships, from relatives and lovers to parents, carers, service providers, and the intense (but unfortunately one-way) relationships we maintain with our celebrity heroes. Few of these relationships could be described as completely equal and, crucially, they are all destined to evolve over time.

All this means that expecting robots to form Aristotelian bonds with us is to set a standard even human relationships fail to live up to. We also observed forms of social connectedness that are rewarding and satisfying and yet are far from the ideal friendship outlined by the Greek philosopher.

We know that social interaction is rewarding in its own right, and something that, as social mammals, humans have a strong need for. It seems probable that relationships with robots could help to address the deep-seated urge we all feel for social connection—like providing physical comfort, emotional support, and enjoyable social exchanges—currently provided by other humans.

Our paper also discussed some potential risks. These arise particularly in settings where interaction with a robot could come to replace interaction with people, or where people are denied a choice as to whether they interact with a person or a robot—in a care setting, for instance.

These are important concerns, but they’re possibilities and not inevitabilities. In the literature we reviewed we actually found evidence of the opposite effect: robots acting to scaffold social interactions with others, acting as ice-breakers in groups, and helping people to improve their social skills or to boost their self-esteem.

It appears likely that, as time progresses, many of us will simply follow Frank’s path towards acceptance: scoffing at first, before settling into the idea that robots can make surprisingly good companions. Our research suggests that’s already happening—though perhaps not in a way of which Aristotle would have approved.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Image Credit: Andy Kelly on Unsplash

Kategorie: Transhumanismus

Flying Taxis Will Hit LA Skies by 2024, According to a California Startup’s Plan

24 Únor, 2021 - 16:00

Air taxis still seem like a far-off concept, especially in a time when a lot of people have stopped flying or using shared transportation altogether. But the technology has continued to advance nonetheless, as has the regulatory environment that will be a big part of determining when flying taxis can safely and legally take to the skies. An announcement this week from electric aircraft startup Archer Aviation just brought a future where you can hail a flight across town one step closer.

One of the first cities where this will be possible is Los Angeles. Archer announced yesterday that it plans to launch a network of air taxis in the city by 2024. The aircraft manufacturer joined forces with the LA mayor’s office, its Department of Transportation, and a public-private partnership called Urban Movement Labs to form the Urban Air Mobility Partnership, which will work on integrating air taxis into LA’s existing transportation networks and regulatory framework. The partnership is also working on designing “vertiports” where the taxis would take off and land, though helipads or parking garages could be used for this purpose initially.

Archer’s version of a flying taxi is called the Maker. It looks a bit like a helicopter, except instead of one large propeller above the cabin, it has three propellers sprouting from each of its two wings. The all-electric, zero-emissions aircraft can go up to 60 miles on a single charge, and can travel at speeds up to 150 miles per hour. The windows give passengers a 270-degree view, and if the outside world zooming past below you isn’t entertaining enough, there’s also a touch screen for flight information and other entertainment options.

If you’re thinking “this all sounds alright, but city traffic is already loud enough. the last thing we need is to add the sound of little planes roaring around overhead day and night,” fear not—the Maker is surprisingly quiet, with a decibel level of just 45. This falls somewhere between the “lowest limit of urban ambient sound” and a “quiet suburb.”

Though all the stats are in place, Archer hasn’t actually started manufacturing Makers yet. Earlier this year it announced a partnership with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA), and plans to start production of the aircraft in 2023, with hopes that FCA’s expertise will help drive down costs and bring a more affordable product to the market. That said, Archer hasn’t released any details of how much a Maker might cost.

Earlier this month, United Airlines made a deal with Archer to buy $1 billion worth of its aircraft, possibly as part of a plan to use the air taxis to transport passengers to and from airports. As reported by TechCrunch, using electric aircraft to get people to and from the airport could reduce CO2 emissions by up to 50 percent per passenger on a trip between Hollywood and Los Angeles International Airport.

There’s still a lot that needs to take place before we look up and see air taxis flying above our city streets. There need to be more takeoff and landing sites to make this mode of transportation practical and time-saving; its costs need to come down if anyone other than the wealthy are to be able to use it; air traffic control systems will need to be expanded and safety standards carefully adhered to; and, of course, city and state regulations need to allow it all to happen.

Despite the remaining hurdles, Archer is optimistic about its potential, projecting more than $12 billion of revenue by 2030. If that ends up being accurate, it will mean a lot of people are using air taxis to get around, and in more cities than just LA. Either way, it seems this mode of transportation is slowly but surely moving from far-off concept to near-term reality.

Image Credit: Archer Aviation

Kategorie: Transhumanismus

Facial Recognition Drones Will Use AI to Take the Perfect Picture of You

23 Únor, 2021 - 16:00

Facial recognition technology has been banned by multiple US cities, including Portland, Boston, and San Francisco. Besides the very real risk of the tech being biased against minorities, the technology also carries with it an uneasy sense that we’re creeping towards a surveillance state.

Despite these concerns, though, work to improve facial recognition tech is still forging ahead, with both private companies and governments looking to harness its potential for military, law enforcement, or profit-seeking applications.

One such company is an Israeli startup called AnyVision Interactive Technologies. AnyVision is looking to kick facial recognition up a notch by employing drones for image capture. A US patent application published earlier this month outlines the company’s system, which sounds like something straight out of a Black Mirror episode.

The drone captures an image of its “target person,” then analyzes the image to figure out how to get a better image; it adjusts its positioning in relation to the target, say by flying a bit lower or centering its angle. It then captures more images, and runs them through a machine learning model to get a “face classification” and a “classification probability score,” essentially trying to identify whether the person being photographed is in fact the person it’s looking for. If the probability score is too low, the system gets routed back to the first step, starting the image capture and refinement process all over again.

If the thought of a drone programmed to move itself around in whatever way necessary to capture the clearest possible picture of your face doesn’t freak you out, you must not have seen much dystopian sci-fi, nor cherish privacy as a basic right. Stationary cameras used for this purpose can at least be ducked under, turned away from, or quickly passed by; but a flying camera running on an algorithm that’s determined to identify its target is a different—and much more invasive—story.

The nightmare scenario is for technology like AnyVision’s to be employed by governments and law enforcement agencies. But the company says this is far from its intent; CEO Avi Golan told Fast Company that the picture-taking drones could be used for things like package delivery (to identify recipients and make sure the right person is getting the right package), or to help track employees for safety purposes in dangerous workplaces like mines. Golan added that there are “many opportunities in the civilian market” where AnyVision’s technology could be useful.

The company currently sells a “visual AI platform” that can be used for security purposes, like identifying a person of interest when he or she enters a store or building. It’s also marketing its product as a tool to help businesses and employees get back to work safely in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, writing that computer vision technology can help with contact tracing, contactless access, and remote authentication.

AnyVision was backed by Microsoft until 2019, when allegations arose that AnyVision’s technology was being used in a military surveillance project that tracked West Bank Palestinians. Microsoft has since not only stopped investing in any startups working on facial recognition tech, it also stopped selling its own version of the technology to law enforcement agencies, with the company’s president vowing not to resume until national laws “grounded in human rights” are in place to govern its use.

What might such laws look like? How would we determine where and when—and on whom—it’s ok to use something like a drone that self-adjusts until it captures an unmistakable image of someone’s face?

AnyVision’s drone patent is pending, but it and many other companies are quietly advancing similar technologies even as public opposition to them grows. Granted, there are positive uses for these tools, but it’s challenging to think of many where the ease or convenience benefits outweigh the privacy invasion and other drawbacks.

Shankar Narayan, technology and liberty project director at the American Civil Liberties Union, summed up our reflexive opposition to this sort of technology well, saying, “The basic premise of a free society is that you shouldn’t be subject to tracking by the government without suspicion of wrongdoing. […] face surveillance flips the premise of freedom on its head and you start becoming a society where everyone is tracked no matter what they do all the time.”

Golan, for his part, is optimistic, acknowledging that there’s some distance to bridge between his company’s work and the public favor. He told Business Insider, “I think it’s a futuristic technology, but I want to have it in my pocket until it becomes more accepted by humanity.”

Image Credit: Laurent Schmidt from Pixabay

Kategorie: Transhumanismus

Scientists Communicated With People While They Were Lucid Dreaming

22 Únor, 2021 - 16:00

We’ve probed the depths of Earth’s deepest trench, sent rovers to Mars, and observed other worlds billions of light years away. Yet we’ve never been able to decipher the mysterious, bizarre, and disjointed world of our own dreams. It seems impossible: after all, people who dream are fast asleep and oblivious to the outside world.

Except now, we can.

In a mind-bending paper published last week in Current Biology, teams of scientists from four countries found that it’s possible to communicate with people who are actively dreaming. It’s not simple information, either. The volunteers, roughly two dozen spread across four labs, were able to listen to math problems and answer them using facial twitches and eye movements. One group of sleepers could even decipher Morse code, and reply to the outside world in real time.

“Our experimental goal is akin to finding a way to talk with an astronaut who is on another world, but in this case the world is entirely fabricated on the basis of memories stored in the brain,” the researchers said.

This is crazy. Research into dreams has long relied on the recall of people after waking up, which—I’m sure you agree—is riddled with errors, confusion, and missed details. The new study means that we now have a way to directly engage with people while they’re deep asleep, probe the contents of their dreams, and potentially alter them.

“It’s exciting to try something that is seemingly impossible…We can now actually investigate the dreaming state directly and interactively,” said study author Dr. Kristoffer Appel at Osnabrück University. It opens the door to studies such as “learning during sleep…and then still remember it after waking up,” he added. Or using dreams as a new sort of psychotherapy, assisting people with nightmares in real time. Or for creative projects like writing or art, by tapping into a brain state that’s less bound by reality. Or even for entertainment—à la Total Recall or Inception—where a dreamer can be talked into a fantasy scenario of their choice.

There’s just one catch. Not all dream types straddle and bridge the inner mind and outside world. For it to work, you need to be able to lucid dream.

Dream Worlds

Dreams are amazing paradoxes. While we’re unconscious, the brain fabricates entire fantasies using bits and pieces of encounters during the day, mixed with our personal histories and subconscious ideas. While dreams are so common they feel mundane—people generally aren’t all that interested in hearing someone else’s nighttime mental excursions—scientists have long had a fascination with them as a proxy for the mind.

Sigmund Freud, for example, famously viewed dreams through his psychoanalytic lens, tying the interpretation of dreams to various unconscious “wish fulfillment” fantasies. More recently, dreams have been researched under the umbrella of “sleep cognition,” which scientists believe may be helpful for memory.

As we sleep, our brain activity goes through cycles of activity. Dreams often occur during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, named after its defining characteristic: our eyes rapidly dart all over the place. REM sleep has been tied to the brain “rewinding” its experiences from the previous day, and replaying them in fast-forward motion, so that critical memories stick around—something dubbed “memory consolidation.” Another school of thought thinks that dreams are our brain’s way of simulating future possibilities, silently sculpting our brain’s neural networks so that if a prediction does happen, we’re able to learn faster and more efficiently.

But the truth is, we really don’t know why we dream, the neuroscience behind dreams, or how the contents of a dream relate to experiences or memory. What if we could just ask the sleeping person as they’re dreaming?

Deep Contact

In the new study, the team didn’t recruit any average sleeper. They tapped into the minds of lucid dreamers.

Lucid dreaming sounds like something from a late-night infomercial. While most of us are mere passengers in our dreams, yanked around by our subconscious mind, lucid dreamers become aware during sleep that they’re dreaming. Once aware, they can consciously control the content of their dreams to their heart’s desire, untethered by the rules and physical laws of the real world.

This quirk allows lucid dreamers to use eye movements to communicate with the outside world. By measuring their brain waves using electroencephalography (EEG)—a “swim cap” embedded with electrodes worn like a beanie—researchers can distinguish these dream episodes using the brain’s electrical activity patterns.

The team recruited 36 people with the ability to lucid dream, inviting them into four labs spread across the US, France, Germany, and the Netherlands. The volunteers weren’t all experienced dream astronauts—while a few could easily achieve a lucid state, others were novices far less familiar with this type of dreaming. Scientists then trained each participant on a series of pre-arranged question-answer responses. For example, moving the eyes quickly from right to left signals “yes” or “1.” The participants then put on their brainwave-monitoring caps and went to sleep.

Here’s the really unusual part. The four teams each had a slightly different way to try and establish communication with their sleeping participant—something that’s totally not done in a multicenter scientific study, because it increases confounding factors. Yet these scientists embraced the uncertainty. If all four studies can trigger real-time chitchat between the sleeping and those awake, then that’s solid evidence for their main idea: that we can talk to lucid dreaming people.

The German team had perhaps the toughest experimental recipe. They trained the dreamers on Morse code while they were awake. As the participants entered REM sleep and achieved lucid dreaming, the team used a series of Morse code beeps to ask them yes-or-no questions, or simple math problems. For example, “what’s three plus one,” can be translated into Morse code form. The dreamers, while certified asleep based on their brain waves, would then roll their eyes left to right four times, signaling the answer is “four.”

It gets weirder. Other teams simply spoke to the dreaming person once they established that the dreamer was lucid from his eye movements. The French team, for example, asked if the participant liked chocolate. Another team tapped onto their volunteers’ skin a math problem, such as eight minus six.

“It’s amazing to sit in the lab and ask a bunch of questions, and then somebody might actually answer one,” said study author Karen Konkoly at Northwestern University. “It’s such an immediately rewarding type of experiment to do…You can see it right there while they’re still sleeping.”

Altogether, out of 158 tries to establish communication with the dreamers, the scientists were able to get the correct answer 18 percent of the time. The dreamers answered wrongly just a bit over three percent of the trials. The success rate may seem measly. However, when similar tests were tried during non-lucid REM sleep—when outward communication was likely non-existent—the success rate tanked to 0.2 percent.

“The fact that response signals were exceedingly rare during these communication attempts… lends additional credence to our position that correct signals were not spurious but rather reflect successful cases of communication during lucid dreaming,” the authors said.

A Woven Narrative

Even more fascinating, once awoken, the participants reported that the questions had incorporated into their dreams.

For example, one person said that he was at a party with friends when the scientist’s voice came “from the outside,” like the narrator of a movie. Another mentioned that he perceived finger tapping while he was “fighting against goblins” in the dream, and being surprised that he could do math in battle. A few people remembered their answers even after awakening.

Besides being pretty amazing, the study brings up some interesting questions about manipulating the contents and emotions of a sleeper’s dream. Could we use light, sound, or speech to guide someone away from a nightmare? Could we use dreams as a way to help improve sleep in people with depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder? And how would interactive dreaming affect the brain’s normal ability to learn or etch previous memories into the brain?

“We have a lot of different ideas and we’re excited to test them,” said Konkoly.

Image Credit: Study author Konkoly watches brain signals from a sleeping participant, image by K. Konkoly

Kategorie: Transhumanismus

We Sequenced the Oldest Ever DNA From Million-Year-Old Mammoths

21 Únor, 2021 - 16:00

Most people think of mammoths as the iconic woolly species from the last ice age, which ended around 12,000 years ago. But mammoths originated in Africa around five million years ago, then spread and diversified across Eurasia and North America.

About a million years ago there was one known species of mammoth inhabiting Siberia, the steppe mammoth. This was thought to be the ancestor of later species such as the woolly and Columbian mammoths. But was it?

In a new study, we show mammoth DNA as old as 1.2 million years can be recovered from remains found in permafrost deposits. By sequencing this DNA—studying the make up of its genetic information—we found a lineage of mammoths never described before, the hybrid origin of a mammoth species, and more.

Sequencing Million-Year-Old DNA

Back in 2017, we received samples from extremely old mammoth teeth that had been frozen in time in Siberian permafrost. A few days later, our colleague Patrícia Pečnerová was heading into the lab with a clear job—to extract DNA from some of the oldest known mammoth samples. She succeeded.

Some weeks later, we were looking at millions of DNA sequences that undoubtedly matched the African savannah elephant genome, the model we use to assemble the jigsaw puzzle of each mammoth genome we sequence. Pečnerová built some quick phylogenetic trees—like a family tree for the evolution of mammoths—and showed them to us. It was not quite a “Eureka!” moment like in the movies, but close.

It took a long time to make sure these sequences were actually very old mammoth DNA. For example, ancient DNA shows a characteristic, well-known pattern of chemical damage. While this can cause trouble for some genetic analyses, it also helps disentangle true ancient DNA from modern contaminants, which don’t show such a pattern. Our mammoth sequences did show the expected pattern.

The DNA sequences also had another characteristic of very old DNA—they were extremely fragmented. Instead of the longer DNA sequences found in younger, better preserved mammoth samples from the permafrost, we only had short ones.

This caused another problem, because shorter sequences are increasingly difficult to place in their correct position of the genome. They can also be confused with contamination. To avoid this we had to discard all the sequences below a certain length threshold, which was painful but necessary.

Woolly mammoth tusk in Siberia. Image Credit: Love Dalén, author provided Lost Lineages and Hybrid Origins

We tried to put our samples in the context of all known mammoth species. Our results clearly indicated the 1.1 million-year-old specimen—which we named Adycha—was ancestral to the woolly mammoths. But placing the lineage of another sample, dating to 1.2 million years ago, which we named Krestovka, proved to be much more difficult. It sometimes seemed closely related to the Columbian mammoth, sometimes to the woolly mammoth.

It took several genetic analyses and hours of discussion and whiteboard drawing to finally uncover the reason for this. The Columbian mammoth had a hybrid origin—not just one ancestor lineage, but two.

Our results paint a picture in which roughly half of the ancestry of the Columbian mammoth could be traced to the Krestovka lineage and the other half to the woolly mammoth lineage.

This could finally explain a long-lasting mammoth mystery, why all Columbian mammoths sequenced so far had mitochondrial genomes—genetic information entirely inherited from an animal’s mother—closely related to those of woolly mammoths. Now, we think the Columbian mammoths likely obtained their mitochondria by reproducing with woolly mammoth females.

Love Dalén and Patrícia Pečnerová with a mammoth tusk. Image Credit: Gleb Danilov, author provided Evolution: Caught in the Act

If we were to ask what makes a woolly mammoth a woolly mammoth, most people would refer to their furriness. But there are also many other characteristic adaptations of the woolly mammoth to arctic environments such as increased fat deposits, higher tolerance for cold temperatures, modified circadian rhythms and more. We looked at how many of those adaptations we could find already existing more than one million years ago. Surprisingly, we found a majority of these adaptations were already present in the genome of Adycha.

We think this finding could have wide implications in the study of how species evolve. There’s an open question in evolutionary biology, whether the rate of adaptation is accelerated during a speciation event—when populations become separate species—or if it’s a more gradual process.

Our data support the latter scenario, where there is no evidence of faster natural selection acting during the origin of the woolly mammoth. And most adaptations characteristic of the woolly mammoth were already present in its ancestral species that roamed the Siberian steppe over a million years ago.

Where’s the Limit?

Until now, the oldest DNA sequenced belonged to a horse specimen dated to between 560,000 and 780,000 years old and recovered from the permafrost deposits of Thistle Creek in the Yukon, Canada.

Our million-year-old mammoth samples share a crucial characteristic with the Thistle Creek horse, they were preserved in subzero permafrost deposits. Frozen at death, or soon thereafter, the degradation of the DNA molecules in these remains was slowed down for hundreds of thousands of years until we recovered and sequenced them.

We think permafrost preserved material holds the promise of even older DNA. However, since the oldest permafrost deposits are dated to the Early Pleistocene—around 2.6 million years ago—this may, sadly, put an upper limit on what is possible.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Banner Image Credit: Beth Zaiken/Centre for Palaeogenetics, author provided

Kategorie: Transhumanismus

This Week’s Awesome Tech Stories From Around the Web (Through February 20)

20 Únor, 2021 - 16:00

A New Artificial Intelligence Makes Mistakes—on Purpose
Will Knight | Wired
“It took about 50 years for computers to eviscerate humans in the venerable game of chess. A standard smartphone can now play the kind of moves that make a grandmaster’s head spin. But one artificial intelligence program is taking a few steps backward, to appreciate how average humans play—blunders and all.”


Bitcoin’s Price Rises to $50,000 as Mainstream Institutions Hop On
Timothy B. Lee | Ars Technica
“Bitcoin’s price is now far above the previous peak of $19,500 reached in December 2017. Bitcoin’s value has risen by almost 70 percent since the start of 2021. No single factor seems to be driving the cryptocurrency’s rise. Instead, the price is rising as more and more mainstream organizations are deciding to treat it as an ordinary investment asset.”


Million-Year-Old Mammoth Teeth Contain Oldest DNA Ever Found
Jeanne Timmons | Gizmodo
“An international team of scientists has sequenced DNA from mammoth teeth that is at least a million years old, if not older. This research, published today in Nature, not only provides exciting new insight into mammoth evolutionary history, it reveals an entirely unknown lineage of ancient mammoth.”


Scientists Accidentally Discover Strange Creatures Under a Half Mile of Ice
Matt Simon | Wired
“i‘It’s like, bloody hell!’ Smith says. ‘It’s just one big boulder in the middle of a relatively flat seafloor. It’s not as if the seafloor is littered with these things.’ Just his luck to drill in the only wrong place. Wrong place for collecting seafloor muck, but the absolute right place for a one-in-a-million shot at finding life in an environment that scientists didn’t reckon could support much of it.”


Highest-Resolution Images of DNA Reveal It’s Surprisingly Jiggly
George Dvorsky | Gizmodo
“Scientists have captured the highest-resolution images ever taken of DNA, revealing previously unseen twisting and squirming behaviors. …These hidden movements were revealed by computer simulations fed with the highest-resolution images ever taken of a single molecule of DNA. The new study is exposing previously unseen behaviors in the self-replicating molecule, and this research could eventually lead to the development of powerful new genetic therapies.”


The First Battery-Powered Tanker Is Coming to Tokyo
Maria Gallucci | IEEE Spectrum
“The Japanese tanker is Corvus’s first fully-electric coastal freighter project; the company hopes the e5 will be the first of hundreds more just like it. ‘We see it [as] a beachhead for the coastal shipping market globally,’ Puchalski said. ‘There are many other coastal freighter types that are similar in size and energy demand.’ The number of battery-powered ships has ballooned from virtually zero a decade ago to hundreds worldwide.”


Report: NASA’s Only Realistic Path for Humans on Mars Is Nuclear Propulsion
Eric Berger | Ars Technica
“Conducted at the request of NASA, a broad-based committee of experts assessed the viability of two means of propulsion—nuclear thermal and nuclear electric—for a human mission launching to Mars in 2039. ‘One of the primary takeaways of the report is that if we want to send humans to Mars, and we want to do so repeatedly and in a sustainable way, nuclear space propulsion is on the path,’ said [JPL’s] Bobby Braun.”

NASA’s Perseverance Rover Successfully Lands on Mars
Joey Roulette | The Verge
“Perseverance hit Mars’ atmosphere on time at 3:48PM ET at speeds of about 12,100 miles per hour, diving toward the surface in an infamously challenging sequence engineers call the “seven minutes of terror.” With an 11-minute comms delay between Mars and Earth, the spacecraft had to carry out its seven-minute plunge at all by itself with a wickedly complex set of pre-programmed instructions.”


A First-of-Its-Kind Geoengineering Experiment Is About to Take Its First Step
James Temple | MIT Technology Review
“When I visited Frank Keutsch in the fall of 2019, he walked me down to the lab, where the tube, wrapped in gray insulation, ran the length of a bench in the back corner. By filling it with the right combination of gases, at particular temperatures and pressures, Keutsch and his colleagues had simulated the conditions some 20 kilometers above Earth’s surface. In testing how various chemicals react in this rarefied air, the team hoped to conduct a crude test of a controversial scheme known as solar geoengineering.”

Image Credit: Garcia / Unsplash

Kategorie: Transhumanismus

The First Endangered American Animal Has Been Cloned

19 Únor, 2021 - 18:14

Last summer a horse named Kurt was born in Texas. Kurt wasn’t just any horse—he was a clone made from DNA that had been frozen for 40 years and came from an endangered wild horse species from Central Asia.

Kurt was—and still is—pretty special. But now he’s got some competition for the title of “most amazing endangered animal cloned from frozen DNA.” The new contender is a black-footed ferret named Elizabeth Ann.

Elizabeth Ann was born in December in a conservation center in Colorado, the result of years’ worth of careful research and planning. She’s the first-ever endangered American animal to be cloned—and she may be her species’ best hope for long-term survival.

About the Ferrets

Black-footed ferrets were endemic to Western US states like Wyoming and Colorado, but started to die off in the mid-1900s when their main food source, prairie dogs, also died off due to disease and habitat loss. A small population of the ferrets was discovered in Wyoming in the 1980s, and skin biopsies from several of them were sent to San Diego’s Frozen Zoo, where they went into a deep-freeze for over 30 years.

Scientists from conservation nonprofit Revive & Restore sequenced four of the ferrets’ genomes using cells from the frozen biopsies, finding that genetic variation in the species had declined by an average of 55 percent since the 1980s. They chose the most genetically diverse male and female (Willa, the mother, had three times more genetic diversity than the average black-footed ferret) and sent their cells to a lab, which used them to create the embryo that became Elizabeth Ann.

A Unique Embryo

How do you make an embryo from frozen skin cells, you ask? Scientists used an egg from a domestic ferret, the black-footed ferret’s closest living relative. They removed the egg’s nucleus and replaced it with the nucleus from one of Willa’s cells. With a small electric zap used as an activation stimulus, the cells were able to divide as normal. This process is known as somatic cell nuclear transfer, and it’s how Kurt the horse was born, as well as Dolly the sheep.

The embryo was implanted in a surrogate (non-black-footed) ferret, and the healthy clone of an endangered animal that lived almost 40 years ago was born in December. Revive & Restore calls the clone “the most genetically valuable black-footed ferret alive.”

Staying Alive

As far as science goes, this is pretty cool stuff. Elizabeth Ann is the beginning of an effort to make her species more genetically diverse, thus increasing its chances of long-term survival; she’ll soon be joined by other clones produced using the long-frozen cells, and they’ll be mated and bred based on the strongest genetic outcome. They’ll live at the National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center near Fort Collins, Colorado, and could be reintroduced into the wild as soon as 2025.

“It will be a slow, methodical process,” said Samantha Wisely, a conservation geneticist at the University of Florida who was part of the project. “We need to make absolutely sure that we’re not endangering the genetic lineage of black-footed ferrets by introducing this individual.”

The ferret population will be closely monitored as new clones are born, but the outlook is positive. In a US Fish and Wildlife Service statement, Ryan Phelan, executive director of Revive & Restore, said, “It was a commitment to seeing this species survive that has led to the successful birth of Elizabeth Ann. To see her now thriving ushers in a new era for her species and for conservation-dependent species everywhere. She is a win for biodiversity and for genetic rescue.”

Image Credit: Ryan Hagerty / USFWS

Kategorie: Transhumanismus

‘7 Minutes of Terror’: The Technology Perseverance Will Need to Survive Landing on Mars

18 Únor, 2021 - 17:35

This month has been a busy one for Mars exploration. Several countries sent missions to the red planet in June last year, taking advantage of a launch window. Most have now arrived after their eight-month voyage.

Within the next few days, NASA will perform a direct entry of the Martian atmosphere to land the Perseverance rover in Mars’s Jezero Crater.

Perseverance, about the size of a car, is the largest Mars payload ever—it literally weighs a ton (on Earth). After landing, the rover will search for signs of ancient life and gather samples to eventually be returned to Earth.

The mission will use similar hardware to that of the 2012 Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission, which landed the Curiosity rover, but will have certain upgrades including improved rover landing accuracy.

Curiosity’s voyage provided a wealth of information about what kind of environment Mars 2020 might face and what technology it would need to survive.

An artist’s impression of Mars 2020 approaching the red planet. NASA/JPL-Caltech Mars: a Most Alien Land

As Mars is a hostile and remote environment with an atmosphere about 100 times thinner than Earth’s, there’s little atmosphere for incoming spacecraft to use to slow down aerodynamically.

Rather, surviving entry to Mars requires a creative mix of aerodynamics, parachutes, retropropulsion (using engine thrust to decelerate for landing), and often a large airbag.

Also, models of Martian weather aren’t updated in real time, so we don’t know exactly what environment a probe will face during entry. Unpredictable weather events, especially dust storms, are one reason landing accuracy has suffered in previous missions.

NASA engineers call the entry, descent, and landing phase (EDL) of Mars entry missions the “seven minutes of terror.” In just seven minutes there are myriad ways entry can fail.

A profile of Mars 2020’s entry, descent and landing phase. NASA JPL Thermal Protection

The 2012 MSL spacecraft was fitted with a 4.5-meter-diameter heat shield that protected the vehicle during its descent through Mars’s atmosphere.

It entered the Martian atmosphere at around 5,900m per second. This is hypersonic, which means it’s more than five times the speed of sound.

Mars 2020 will be similar. It will rely heavily on its thermal protection system, including a front heat shield and backshell heat shield, to stop hot flow from damaging the rover stowed inside.

Pictured are the Mars 2020 backshell heat shield (foreground) and the main PICA heat shield (background). NASA/JPL-Caltech

At hypersonic speeds, Mars’s atmosphere won’t be able to get out of the spacecraft’s way fast enough. As a result, a strong shock wave will form off the front.

In this case, gas in front of the vehicle will be rapidly compressed, causing a huge jump in pressure and temperature between the shock wave and the heat shield.

The hot post-shock flow heats up the surface of the heat shield during the entry, but the heat shield protects the internal structure from this heat.

Since the MSL 2012 and Mars 2020 missions use relatively larger payloads, these spacecrafts are at higher risk of overheating during the entry phase.

But MSL effectively circumvented this issue, largely thanks to a specially-designed heat shield which was the first Mars vehicle ever to make use of NASA’s Phenolic Impregnated Carbon Ablator (PICA) material.

This material, which the Mars 2020 spacecraft also uses, is made of chopped carbon-fiber embedded in a synthetic resin. It’s very light, can absorb immense heat, and is an effective insulator.

Guided Entry

All entries before the 2012 MSL mission had been unguided, meaning they weren’t controlled in real-time by a flight computer.

Instead, the spacecraft were designed to hit Mars’s “entry interface” (125km above the ground) in a particular way, before landing wherever the Martian winds took them. With this came significant landing uncertainty.


The area of landing uncertainty is called the landing ellipse. NASA’s 1970s Viking Mars missions had an estimated landing ellipse of 280x100km. But both MSL and now Mars 2020 were built to outperform previous efforts.

The MSL mission was the first guided Mars entry. An upgraded version of the Apollo guidance computer was used to control the vehicle in real time to ensure an accurate landing.

With this, MSL reduced its estimated landing ellipse to 20×6.5km and ended up landing just 2km from its target. With any luck, Mars 2020 will achieve similar results.

Pictured are NASA’s various Mars landing sites, including the proposed Perseverance landing site. Perseverance is expected to land in a relatively less clear area. NASA/JPL-Caltech Supersonic Parachuting

A parachute will be used to slow down the Mars 2020 spacecraft enough for final landing maneuvers to be performed. With a 21.5m diameter, the parachute will be the largest ever used on Mars and will have to be deployed faster than the speed of sound.

Deploying the parachute at the right time will be critical for achieving an accurate landing. A brand new technology called “range trigger” will control the parachute’s deployment time, based on the spacecraft’s relative position to its desired landing spot.

State-of-the-Art Navigation

About 20 seconds after the parachute opens, the heat shield will separate from the spacecraft, exposing Perseverance to the Martian environment. Its cameras and sensors can begin to collect information as it approaches ground.

The rover’s specialized terrain-relative navigation system will help it land safely by diverting it to a stable landing surface.

Perseverance will compare a pre-loaded map of the landing site with images collected during its rapid descent. It should then be able to identify landmarks below and estimate its relative position to the ground to an accuracy of about 40m.

Terrain-relative navigation is far superior to methods used for past Mars entries. Older spacecraft had to rely on their own internal estimates of their location during entry.

And there was no way to effectively recalibrate this information. They could only guess where they were to an accuracy of about 2-3km as they approached ground.

The Final Touchdown

The parachute carrying the Mars 2020 spacecraft can only slow it down to about 320km per hour.

To land safely, the spacecraft will jettison the parachute and backshell and use rockets facing the ground to ease down for the final 2,100m. This is called “retropropulsion.”

And to avoid using airbags to land the rover (as was done in missions prior to MSL), Mars 2020 will use the “skycrane” maneuver; a set of cables will slowly lower Perseverance to the ground as it prepares for autonomous operation.

Once Perseverance senses its wheels are safely on the ground, it will cut the cables connected to the descent vehicle (which will fly off and crash somewhere in the distance).

And with that, the seven minutes of terror will be over.

Perseverance rover being placed on Martian soil by the skycrane. NASA/JPL-Caltech

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Kategorie: Transhumanismus

An Israeli Startup Is 3D Printing Cultured Ribeye Steaks

17 Únor, 2021 - 16:00

The market for meat alternatives is booming, but so far most products are only able to replicate the formless ground meat found in burgers, sausages, and nuggets. The world’s first 3D printed steak may be set to change that, opening the door to replicating any cut of meat we want.

Growing sensitivity to the environmental and ethical impacts of industrial animal agriculture has seen interest in plant-based diets boom. But companies have been quick to spot a major gap in the market: the morally conflicted carnivore who is swayed by the vegan’s argument but can’t imagine ever completely giving up on their favorite food.

This is leading to an explosion in companies looking to fill that gap with a variety of faux meats made from plant material or slaughter-free meat that’s grown in a lab rather than being cut from a carcass.

Some of these companies have already crossed over to the big time. Impossible Foods’ plant-based burgers are available at White Castle and Burger King, while Beyond Meat’s plant-based chicken is featured at KFC.

So-called “cultured meat” is lagging slightly behind, with the first commercial sale coming only in December, when Eat Just’s “chicken bites” were sold in a Singapore restaurant for $23. But money has been pouring into the sector, and a number of startups are planning to enter the market by 2022.

But for both approaches, there’s still a major hurdle to fully replicating the gastronomic experience of eating meat. While cultured methods work with the same raw ingredients and plant-based ones have found clever workarounds to mimic the taste of meat, they have struggled to create products that can replicate the complex networks of muscle, fat, and connective tissue that give whole cuts of meat their distinctive texture and flavor. And this is where the real money is. According to Business Insider, whole cuts like steak have the highest profit margins in the meat industry.

Advances in 3D printing may be set to change that, though. Last week, Israeli startup Aleph Farms unveiled the first lab-grown ribeye steak using their proprietary bio-printing process, which they say will eventually allow them to recreate any cut of meat.

The technology, developed in tandem with Israel’s Technion University, is similar to that being used in medical research to print “organoids” for drug testing, which one day could let us regrow entire organs from human cells. Using a device similar to an inkjet printer, the company lays down layers of support cells, fat cells, blood cells, and muscle cells that are then placed in an incubator to grow into the finished steak.

The secret behind creating a cut as complex as a ribeye is finding a solution to an issue that has plagued medical bio-printing as well. Building bulk tissue using a bio-printer isn’t that tough, but creating the fine network of blood vessels that ferry nutrients and waste products in and out of cells is much harder.

While the company isn’t giving away any details, they say they have created a proprietary process that acts similarly to a natural vascular system, helping nutrients across thicker sections of tissue during growth and maintaining a natural shape and structure before and after cooking.

It could take some time before you see these steaks in your local supermarket. The company doesn’t say how much it cost to make the bespoke steak, but judging by the price of other cultured meats, it won’t be cheap. And so far the only country to approve cultured meat for sale is Singapore, though regulators in the US have started the policymaking process.

The company also isn’t the only one relying on 3D printing to disrupt the meat industry. This week, another Israeli startup called Redefine Meat raised $29 million to build a large-scale pilot factory to start pumping out 3D printed plant-based steaks.

Rather than laying down layers of cells that then have to be incubated, they are using vegan-friendly mockups of muscle, fat, and blood to create complex patterns that mimic a well-marbled steak.

Whether the plant-based approach will be able to truly replicate the experience of biting into a juicy steak or the cultured meat industry will make cuts cheap enough for most of us remains to be seen. But it may not be long until your local butcher is hanging up his knives in favor of a 3D printer.

Image Credit: Aleph Farms

Kategorie: Transhumanismus

Massive National Health Study Looks to Tailor Your Diet to Your Genetic Makeup

16 Únor, 2021 - 16:00

Like taxes and death, nutrition is something we can’t escape. Eating should be easy. Yet it’s also massively confusing, prone to misinformation, and utterly personal.

Take competitive eaters who regularly chow down on thousands of calories without gaining weight. Compare them to people who pack on pounds just looking at a French fry. Or compare people who can tolerate any food to those who are sensitive or allergic to entire food groups. Or people who thrive on a high-fat diet like keto, to unfortunate souls who—with the same diet—need to stay close to the bathroom.

You get the idea: no one diet fits all. Yet nutrition science has long relied on averages to make dietary recommendations. From the 80s “fat is bad” paradigm to today’s “sugar is horrible” trend, it’s always been easy to vilify one food component, without digging into how each of us interact with the foodstuff we eat.

Now, thanks to a massive new project led by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), nutrition science is about to get the precision treatment. With a price tag of $156 million, the five-year-long study will examine how 10,000 Americans process food. The program, “Nutrition for Precision Health,” isn’t pulling punches. Each person will be given a highly controlled diet to reduce variability. They’ll then be thoroughly monitored for everything from blood sugar levels to their genes, proteins, and gut microbiome composition. Using the massive dataset, the program can then develop AI-based algorithms to predict individual responses to foods and diets.

If successful, we may soon have a scientifically-proven way of optimizing our diet and health based on our genes and gut microbes. While the culinary astronauts among us may cringe at the idea, for those with metabolic disorders or food intolerances, the algorithms are a powerful tool to aid nutritionists in prescribing diets to those who seek help.

Fuzzy Science

Nutrition science has had a bit of a “fuzzy” reputation. But it’s not through any fault of its own. The field faces two major unenviable challenges: one, the results are the average of entire study populations, and two, humans hate sticking to a strict diet for long enough to get consistent results. Ever tried a 14-day diet? Now imagine doing it for five years.

As Paul Coates, vice president of the American Society of Nutrition puts it, we’re all “free-range eaters,” which mucks up the resulting data.

That’s not to say classic nutrition science hasn’t had major wins. Take the Framingham Heart Study, which launched in 1948 with over 5,000 people to better understand heart and blood vessel health. The study was a first population-level triumph in linking diet to cardiovascular diseases, which remains one of the top killers today.

But to NIH’s director Dr. Francis Collins, it’s high time to bring nutrition science into the 21st century. In May 2020, the agency released a 10-year plan to dig into the nitty-gritty of nutrition, tackling the “what, when, why, and how to eat” to optimize health and reduce chronic health plagues such as diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.

It’s looking to be a wild ride. For example, the ambitious effort doesn’t just focus on the gut. Thanks to new research showing intimate connection between the gut and the brain—dubbed the gut-brain connection—the plan also embraces neuroscience as a component. Given the link between longevity and diet, it’ll also study the role of nutrition across our lifespans, or even how to use food as medicine.

And underlying all these fundamental questions? Personalization: how each of us responds to the food we eat.

All for One and One for All

The new program will be housed under the NIH’s flagship health project, All of Us. The research program aims to recruit one million people under its banner to build a Google Earth-style database of biology, health, lifestyle, and disease. The key is individuality: forget average treatments, personalization is the future.

To Dr. Griffin Rodgers, director of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDKK), now is the perfect time to explore precision nutrition. In a presentation last September, he laid out why. We’re beginning to understand how the microbiome influences health. We can rapidly perform multi-omics studies—that is, look at a person’s whole system of genes, proteins, and metabolism. AI and machine learning make it easier to analyze these massive datasets. Finally, digital health tech, offered through smartphones or smartwatches, makes everyday health tracking simple and affordable.

The project is planned in three stages. Roughly 10,000 volunteers from All of Us will wear various monitors—similar to Fitbits—to track their usual diets, physical activity, and blood sugar levels, creating a baseline. In the second stage, a subset of participants will regularly visit a clinic. There, they’ll be given a controlled, specific meal, and be monitored for a series of biomarkers such as how their blood sugar levels change.

Another subset of volunteers will be given three different types of diets, one following another with a “washout” period—a break—in between. The prepared study foods will be eaten at home, so the participants can go about their daily lives.

Finally, up to 1,000 volunteers will stay at a clinic for three two-week-long holidays. Here, their three meals will be strictly controlled, and outside food not allowed. While seemingly harsh, going from free range to controlled is the gold standard for nutrition science, because it weeds out other variables.

While on the diet, all three groups will undergo a series of clinical tests, ranging from genetics and microbiome composition to blood sugar levels, metabolism, and urine. Psychology and behavior measures will also be assessed. Further on the docket are socioeconomic factors, such as zip code.

With these comprehensive measures, “we are removing a lot of that ‘noise’ that we had for years, created by the factors that we were not measuring before,” said Dr. José Ordovás, a nutrition scientist at Tufts University.

As the study gathers data, on the back end, software engineers will begin building an infrastructure for storing, organizing, and searching the datasets. This library of data is then passed on to AI scientists to create models and algorithms that predict a person’s individual response to a diet. Finally, another five-year period will validate those models in clinical trials.

It’s not the first time a study has linked precision nutrition with AI. In 2015, an Israeli study of 800 people monitored their blood sugar levels and microbiome to parse out how individuals respond to different types of sugar intake. Using machine learning, the study built a software program to predict diets best suited for someone who is diabetic or hoping to lose weight.

But Nutrition for Precision Health is larger and far more sweeping than anything previously attempted. For now, the program is still at the planning stage, with a full launch expected in early 2023.

To Rodgers, the study isn’t just about generating “a wealth of data to fuel discovery science for years to come.” The resulting tools, methods, and paradigm shift will have “the potential to truly transform the field of nutrition science,” he said.

Image Credit: bestbrk /

Kategorie: Transhumanismus

IBM’s New Software Will Make Quantum Programs Run 100 Times Faster

15 Únor, 2021 - 16:00

The companies building quantum computers have made incredible progress in recent years, and the hardware is only half the problem. Now industry leader IBM has shared its vision of how we’re going to develop the software that will put these machines to good use.

So far, much of the media coverage around quantum computers has revolved around the race between IBM and main competitor Google to squeeze the most qubits into a processor. Last year, IBM even revealed its roadmap for the future of quantum computers, which predicts a 1,121 qubit device by as soon as 2023.

But these machines won’t be of any use unless we have programs to run on them. And because of the strange way quantum computers operate, we won’t be able to just boot up software designed for classical computers.

For a start, the underlying hardware is vastly different from the transistors traditional computers are built from, and there are actually multiple competing technologies than run the gamut from superconducting coils to trapped ions.

On top of that, rather than using this hardware to implement the kind of binary bits that software designers are used to, whose values can either be 1 or 0, the qubits at the heart of quantum computers can occupy various states that are a combination of both 1 and 0.

These qubits aren’t neatly defined the way bits in a classical computer are. Much of the power of these machines comes from using the quantum phenomenon of entanglement to intrinsically link the values of many qubits. This is why the power of quantum computers scales exponentially with the number of qubits, but it makes dealing with the qubits a major headache.

The probabilistic nature of quantum physics also means that the way quantum computers reach answers is very different from classical computers. They often have to run the same problem many times and take an average of the results rather than follow a neat, logical path.

All of this means that every layer of the computing stack needs to be redesigned, and IBM has now unveiled its vision for how this process should proceed. Key to their strategy is an open-source approach to the problem, pulling as many developers into the process as possible, and they’ve tried to match their software milestones to the hardware ones they released last year.

A look at IBM’s roadmap to advance quantum computers from today’s noisy, small-scale devices to larger, more advance quantum systems of the future. Credit: StoryTK for IBM

The first step will be to develop the lowest level of software that will actually control the operation of the underlying hardware. To that end, the company plans to release an update to its Qiskit software used to run quantum programs on a variety of hardware sometime this year.

Operating a quantum computer actually involves a delicate interplay between classical and quantum components, and the update will rejig the balance of these workloads to boost speeds. And rather than running the classical parts of the programs on the user’s computer, it will upload them to conventional hardware sitting directly next to the quantum processor to cut communication latencies.

Combined, this update should lead to a 100x speedup for some quantum programs, which the company says will mean calculations that currently take months will take just hours.

By 2023, further updates will significantly expand the kinds of quantum circuits that developers are able to work with, and new control systems will make it possible to take advantage of much larger quantum hardware—just in time for the company’s planned release of its 1,121 qubit Condor processor.

At this point, IBM thinks that the quantum software environment will be fleshed out enough that developers will no longer have to program at the device level. This will be a crucial step because it will allow a much larger pool of people to start working with these systems without having to really understand their underlying physics.

By 2025, they think we will have entered an era of “frictionless quantum computing” where developers and users no longer have to think about what kind of hardware is running their program, and quantum processes will be seamlessly integrated into their general workflows.

“We hope that by 2030, companies and users are running billions, if not a trillion quantum circuits a day, perhaps without even realizing that they’re doing so,” the authors of the roadmap wrote.

IBM has now set itself two aggressive and ambitious timelines that it needs to keep on track if its big push into quantum computing is to bear fruit. It’s almost inevitable that there will be hiccups along the way, but if it can keep more or less on schedule, quantum computing could well become a commercial reality within the decade.

Image Credit: Connie Zhou for IBM

Kategorie: Transhumanismus

See a Billion-Year Dance of Earth’s Tectonic Plates in 40 Seconds

14 Únor, 2021 - 16:00

Modern life can feel dizzying, like everything is motion and change. But there are some constants we set our lives against: the relative position of the stars wheeling above, the mountaintops below, and the continents on which we walk. These things feel immutable.

Of course, they aren’t.

The beauty of science is how far it extends our view into space and time. We now know the sun and stars whip around the center of our galaxy just as the Earth orbits the sun. The universe’s hundreds of billions of galaxies are likewise in ceaseless motion, colliding and coalescing in deep time.

And just as the stars are in motion, so too is the ground beneath our feet.

From decades analyzing Earth’s rocks, scientists have assembled an astonishing history of a restless, wandering planet. Earth’s core is a white-hot ball of iron and nickel nestled in a molten sea called the mantle. The surface on which we live is a thin crust of rock, jig-sawed into mammoth plates that skate over the planet’s interior. This motion is called plate tectonics.

The Earth’s plates move agonizingly slowly, little more than a few centimeters a year. To us mayfly-humans, they may as well be eternal and unchanging. But speed up the tape—and they’re anything but.

This week, a team of scientists from the University of Sydney published the most comprehensive simulation of Earth’s tectonic history yet. In a new video, you can watch the last billion years in less than a minute. “These plates move at the speed fingernails grow,” said the University of Sydney’s Dr. Sabin Zahirovic, a coauthor on the paper. “But when a billion years is condensed into 40 seconds a mesmerizing dance is revealed.”

Plates collide and grind past each other; continents form and break apart; oceans split and narrow. For most of that time, earth, sea, and sky would have appeared utterly alien to us.

How, you may understandably ask, can we possible know anything about the motion of Earth’s tectonic plates a billion years ago?

The video’s brevity and smooth visualization belies the intellectual effort that goes into an undertaking like this. In a paper describing the new tectonic model, the team goes over the evidence, gathered by a host of scientists over many years, in painstaking detail.

To stitch together plate simulations, geophysicists search for and record geologic formations correlating to past tectonic movement along plate borders. They also observe magnetic minerals in rock layers to determine the strength and direction of the Earth’s magnetic field over time. Together, this information offers clues about where rocks from around the world were located in the distant past.

The new research isn’t the first such simulation, nor is it the first to go so far back in time. In their paper, the researchers include a family tree of nine other full-plate reconstructions.

Until now, however, all the models have focused on shorter periods of time. Over the last four years, the team quilted four of these models into the simulation you see above—the first continuous, full-plate reconstruction spanning the last billion years.

And the model is, of course, more than a mind-boggling video.

Plate tectonics inform our understanding of the Earth’s composition, climate, and how life emerged and evolved. “Our planet is unique in the way that it hosts life,” said Professor Dietmar Muller, coauthor and leader of the University of Sydney’s EarthByte geosciences group. “But this is only possible because geological processes, like plate tectonics, provide a planetary life-support system.”

Tectonic motion is an evolutionary force—as populations of animals merge and separate over eons—and tectonics also drive planetary carbon and mineral cycles and affect sea level. All this influences both climate and creatures over geological cycles.

This week, in a separate study, for example, scientists from China’s Peking University said a thinning of Earth’s crust from roughly 1.8 billion to 0.8 billion years ago suggests a slowing of plate tectonics. As a result, the formation of mountains ground to a halt and literally wore down to nothing.

Their findings coincide with a period of slow evolution, known as the “boring billion.” More research is needed, but they suggest slower tectonics and mountain formation may have meant less replenishment of the life-sustaining elements upon which animals depend, and thus, lower productivity stalled evolution.

Science aside, it’s fascinating to travel so far into the past, when just three oceans—the Mirovoi Ocean, Mozambique Ocean, and Mawson Sea—lapped at the shores of supercontinent Rodinia. Or when Antarctica, now buried under miles of ice, was a rather balmy place, having wandered up near the equator.

Wait long enough, and the face of the planet will shift again, rearranged by its tectonic dance through deep time.

Image Credit: NASA

Kategorie: Transhumanismus