September 09, 2004 12:46 PM

Aliens Redux

A while back, I posted an entry called "Statistics and Aliens" where I claimed that the Drake Equation, a famous way of estimating the number of intelligent civilizations in our galaxy, may be wrong because it assumes statistical independence. I also noted that the possibility that we would be able to intercept the internal communications of other civilizations seems remote to me because information theory dictates that the better the technology, the more noise-like a communication will seem.

I've now found an article in New Scientist from a few weeks ago in which Frank Drake himself notes that our own technologies are making us harder and harder for aliens to hear (and thus presumably their technologies might make it hard for us to hear them), though the article doesn't mention the same information theoretic grounds that I do.

Also, so far as I know, I've seen no one else who questions the assumption of statistical independence in the Drake equation, which seems strange. Is anyone aware of another source that mentions that problem?

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September 08, 2004 11:37 PM

Bruce Sterling on The Singularity

Some years ago, Vernor Vinge came up with an interesting observation.

At some point in the next few decades, we're going to be able to build artificial intelligences that are comparable to human beings in intellectual power. Moore's Law being what it is, soon thereafter, we'll be able to build AIs that are smarter than people, and pretty soon after that, those AIs will be building yet further AIs that are far smarter than people, and so forth.

It is possible that before we learn how to build AIs, we'll first learn how to perform "intelligence amplification" or "IA", augmenting human brains with electronics or other mechanisms to produce intelligences that are better than human. Such amplified humans would be able to work on improving the amplification technologies, which may also lead to massively superhuman intelligences.

It is possible that the first superhuman intelligences will merely be faster versions of human intelligence implemented by simulating the human brain on a very fast hardware platform. Vinge calls this "weak" superhumanity, but it is still potentially quite impressive. K. Eric Drexler in his fantastic (but somewhat dated) book "Engines of Creation" (also available online), presents a mechanism for simulating a human brain, using a conservative nanotechnological design, that would run about a million times faster than a human brain. Such a being could perform a century's worth of engineering work in less than an hour. Presumably such minds might improve their own hardware designs with breathtaking speed. Drexler's design is a pure gedankenexperiment — no one is likely to ever build the precise construct he describes, but since it there is solid evidence that it could be built, it tells us that at least such a construct is possible, even if far better could be made.

Vinge notes that once there are intelligences that are substantially smarter than people, and which rapidly become smarter still, the world will rapidly change beyond all human comprehension. The limits of human intelligence will no longer be limit the speed of technological progress, and humans will no longer be the apex of our civilization.

Vinge wrote a famous essay some years ago on this topic, coining the term "The Singularity" for it. Once superhuman intelligence appears, our models of the future and our ability to predict what lies ahead get irreparably ruptured. No dog, however clever, will ever understand integral calculus, and it is equally unlikely that humans would understand the science and technologies of beings far smarter than we are. (Vinge's essay is very well written — I encourage people to give it a read.)

Vinge notes in his essay (as of 1993) that he would be surprised if such changes happened before 2005 or much later than 2030, but the dates are immaterial in my opinion. Whether such events happen in ten years or in a hundred years, the impact will be the same, and thirty years or a century are both a blink of an eye in the context of the whole of human history.

Do I believe Vinge? Very much so. Human intelligence is the result of physical processes taking place in the brain, and we will thus someday be able to simulate those processes with machines. We will likely also design machines that produce the same effect by different means, much as cars are not like horses but also provide transportation. To claim that we could never gain such abilities is to claim that human intelligence arises from a supernatural "soul" of some sort, and I see such overwhelming evidence against that claim that I cannot give it even passing credence. That which arises from a physical process we can eventually simulate and understand, and that which we can simulate and understand we can improve. Whether we enter the post-human era today, tomorrow or in two centuries is immaterial — it will happen eventually if we don't kill ourselves off first.

This brings us to the topic of Bruce Sterling.

Sterling has recently made vague attacks on Vinge's arguments in two public fora. One such attack was a speech he gave to the Long Now Foundation (available here). Today, I was pointed at an opinion piece in Wired with much the same content.

Here's an excerpt from the Wired essay:

A singularity looks great in special f/x, but is there any substance in the idea? When Vinge first posed the problem, he was concerned that the imminent eruption in artificial intelligence would lead to ubermenschen of unfathomable mental agility. More than a decade later, we still can't say with any precision what intelligence is, much less how to build it. If you fail to define your terms, it is easy to divide by zero and predict infinite exponential evolution. Sure, computers might someday awaken into something resembling human consciousness, but we have no metrics to describe that awakening and thus no objective way to recognize it if it happens. How would you test a claim like that?

Sterling misrepresents Vinge's essay on the singularity completely. Vinge made no claims to understand intelligence, but his argument does not require that we understand it precisely. Vinge never claimed that such breakthroughs would have happened by now, and his argument in no way requires a particular timetable. He made no claims about "infinite exponential evolution", either.

"Consciousness" is also a red herring. Asking "how would you test a claim like that" is clearly the wrong question to ask — Vinge's claim is not about "consciousness" and there is no need to test the "consciousness" of the superhuman intelligences. We will know if they are more intelligent than us by their actions, such as building constructs we cannot understand, and whether they are "conscious" or not is immaterial to the argument.

Sterling's tone throughout is laden with indirection. He doesn't ever come out and say "I think the Singularity is implausible for the following reasons" — much like astrologers or the Oracle of Delphi, he avoids making specific claims and thus can't be found to be obviously wrong.

The comments he does make, though, seem stunningly off the mark:

Even if machines remain inert and dumb, we still might provoke a singularity by giving humans a superboost. This notion is catnip for the techno-intelligentsia: "Wow, if we brainy geeks were even more like we already are, we'd be godlike!" Check out the biographies of real-life geniuses, though - Newton, Goethe, da Vinci, Einstein - and you find vulnerable mortals who have difficulty maintaining focus. If the world were full of da Vincis, we'd all be quarrelsome, gay, left-handed Italians who couldn't finish a painting.

Glib, but I hardly see what it has to do with Vinge's argument at all. Either minds are a physical phenomenon, and gedankenexperiments such as Drexler's point to ways that we might produce faster (and possibly "better") minds than our own, or they aren't physical phenomena and cannot be understood or simulated. Perhaps Sterling claims the mind does not arise from a physical phenomenon, though that would seem to be solidly contradicted by the science of our day. Perhaps he believes artificial intelligence research is forever doomed to fail even if the mind arises from physical phenomena, though I see little reason to assume that either. Perhaps he truly believes that all superhuman intelligences would be crippled by Attention Deficit Disorder, but that is a pretty implausible claim, and he certainly gives no evidence for it. Perhaps he finds the idea of people exploring this avenue of research distasteful or perhaps he hates smart people (the "brainy geeks" comment seemed a bit anti-intellectual), but any such distaste doesn't appear to have any relevance to whether Vinge is right or not.

Unfortunately, Sterling makes no arguments in any of these directions. He merely insinuates. Since he's fairly non-specific about what it is that he's claiming, one can't be completely sure of what it is that he believes.

What Sterling lacks in specificity, however, he makes up for in irrelevant and fairly bizarre side commentary, such as this:

More likely yet, we live in a dull, self-satisfied, squalid eddy in history, blundering around with no concept of progress and no sense of direction. We have no idea what we really want from our own lives or from society. And no Moore's law rising majestically on any 2-D graph is ever going make us magnificent or spiritual when we lack the will, vision, and appetite for spiritual magnificence.

None of this, of course, in any way intersects with Vinge's arguments in the slightest. It is a complete non-sequitur.

In spite of the fact that Sterling's final paragraphs are in no way relevant to his claims about the ides of the Singularity, I still must take issue with them. I don't see our society making "no progress" or being particularly "squalid". Frankly, it is amazing how much we've done even in the last couple of decades to reduce poverty, disease and other human ills. Virtually any objective measure one chooses to pick, from life expectancy among the poorest 20% of the population to the number of people living without indoor plumbing, will show that pretty clearly.

I also have to admit that I have no particular desire in my life for the "spiritual". If by "spiritual" he means religion, I have no belief in the supernatural, and no desire to see society waste more of its time on such flim-flam. If by "spiritual" he means not enough people share his particular tastes for art or architecture, well, a person who truly appreciates human freedom does not deny others the right to their own taste.

Of course, as I've noted, since Sterling is extremely vague, it is hard to know what he means with any precision. What I can say, though, is that he appears to have failed to make a coherent case against the idea of the Singularity.

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September 07, 2004 3:00 PM

Aging and Reliability Theory

Allan Schiffman's blog also has an entry describing a very interesting article in IEEE spectrum about aging. The article analyzes the aging process in terms of the discipline of reliability engineering, which is an interesting new approach. See Allan's blog or the article itself for details. A more detailed paper is available here.

I'm pleased to see that the problem of preventing aging is finally beginning to get serious attention from a variety of researchers, and that it is even being discussed in mainstream technical and scientific publications.

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September 07, 2004 1:52 PM

Is the Placebo Effect a Myth?

The Gene Expression blog recently reminded me of a study done a few years ago that debunks the placebo effect. I'm pretty surprised that it hasn't gotten more attention, especially since it has a lot of implications for the question of whether the mind can have significant impacts on the health of the body. I similarly note a study announced a couple of months ago that debunks the notion that elderly people can delay their own deaths until after major holidays.

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August 27, 2004 11:42 AM

New Jaw Grown on Patient's Back

The BBC reports on a man who had lost his jaw bone due to cancer. Doctors have grown him a new one:
After taking a 3D computer tomography (CT) scan of the patient's head, they used computer aided design to recreate the missing portion of the jaw-bone (mandible).

The design was used to construct a teflon model, which was then covered with a titanium cage.

The teflon was then removed, and the cage filled with bone mineral blocks, coated with bone marrow and a protein which accelerates bone growth.

They then implanted the scaffolding they had created under a muscle in the man's back, and waited. Bone grew into the scaffolding, which was then transplanted into the man's jaw. The transplant has "taken", and the patient is eating solid food again for the first time in years.

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August 26, 2004 6:06 PM

Transhumanism is Dangerous, says Francis Fukuyama

Reason Online reports:

"What ideas, if embraced, would pose the greatest threat to the welfare of humanity?" That question was posed to eight prominent policy intellectuals by the editors of Foreign Policy in its September/October issue (not yet available online). One of the eight savants consulted was Francis Fukuyama, professor of international political economy at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, author of Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, and a member of the President's Council on Bioethics. His choice for the world's most dangerous idea? Transhumanism.

I'm amused to see that Transhumanism is being taken seriously enough to be denounced by the intellectual famous for telling us that we have reached the end of history. (Fukuyama's idea of the end of history is the liberal Western democracy. At least this is a more pleasant thought than that of Fukuyama's inspiration Hegel, who believed history ended with the 19th century Prussian state, or another philosopher inspired by Hegel, Karl Marx, who thought the end of history would be the dictatorship of the proletariat.)

For those not in the know, "Transhumanism" is the idea that it may be desirable for humans to transcend their current biological limitations by technological augmentation or transformation. We are all currently limited in our lifespans, and in our physical and intellectual abilities. The transhumanists ask, why be limited? We nearly have the ability to modify ourselves in wonderful new ways, ranging from biochemical modifications all the way up to uploading our consciousnesses into computers. Why not, they ask, be more than human?

I must confess that I, too, espouse this "dangerous idea". I think it would be very pleasant to have a better memory, more intellectual capacity, the ability to think more clearly, a longer (or unbounded) lifespan, etc., and I see very little wrong with taking steps in that direction.

If it offends some people who don't like the idea of changing themselves, well, they can remain as they are. Live and let live. The libertarian principle says everyone should get to live their lives in peace provided they let others do the same, and if they prefer to die after a mere 80 or 100 years, or to leave their minds at their current capacity, I have no objections — so long as they don't interfere with me peacefully pursuing life, liberty and happiness in my own way.

However, there are those out there who aren't happy about people thinking these kinds of thoughts. Fukuyama is hardly the only person worried about the strange doings in the technosphere. Bill Joy has made a bit of a name for himself spreading his own brand of technological alarmism, and there are numerous others.

Am I worried that these anti-technology maunderings will slow the rate of technological progress? Not really. Even if the majority adopts a radically luddite policy (and, in fact, especially if they do), those that disobey will gain a strong competitive advantage. There is therefore fairly strong economic (and by the same token, evolutionary) pressure towards disobedience of such a stricture. In a world with hundreds of countries, some people somewhere will do the sorts of research that the "civilized" deem inappropriate. If the civilized really forswear the same technologies, they won't have the tools with which to stop the "uncivilized" anyway — they'll be out-gunned. There is therefore a very strong reason to believe that, at best, luddism could only slow down technological progress for a while — it could not stop it.

More to the point, although people often fear change, I think that it would be very difficult for governments to organize to stop it very effectively. They would have to do things like banning scientific research, improvements in computer technology, and such. I don't think that is going to happen. Even with substantial negative attention brought to bear, it only took a few years between Dolly the Sheep and the first successful production of cloned human embryos in South Korea. I doubt other attempts to slow progress will be particularly more successful.

The transhumanist idea that Fukuyama worries about is already out there, and ideas cannot be unthought. The transformation of much of the human race will happen. The question now is only whether to join in, or to stay behind, frightened of the opportunities the future will bring.

[Thanks to Monica White for the pointer that inspired this.]

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August 26, 2004 11:39 AM

Science News in Brief

I try to blog about neat scientific advances that I hear about, but it is getting harder to keep up with them. The pace these days is just overwhelming. Here are just a few things I've noticed recently.

The BBC reports about a group that has found ways to use "vaccines" to substantially down-regulate allergic responses.

The Gene Expression blog reports on an instance of one species of fish splitting into two species within twenty years. (I'm always amazed that people can still claim that evolution is "unproven".)

Science Magazine published a paper reporting the use of femtosecond laser pulses in combination with STMs to observe the motion of individual carbon monoxide molecules on a copper surface.

The BBC reports that Statins have been shown to slow HIV infections.

The BBC reports that a single protein in the brain, called NPS, appears to act as a major signal in both sleep and anxiety signaling pathways.

The FuturePundit blog reports that silencing either the TLR4 gene or the related CD14 signaling gene resulted in the substantial reduction of age related weight gain and bone loss in mice.

New Scientist reports that increasing the production of a protein called PPARdelta in the muscles of mice resulted in a two-thirds reduction in weight gain when the animals were fed a high fat diet. More interestingly, the mice also were able to run 92% longer than the controls. Both effects appear to have resulted from a doubling in the production of so-called "slow twitch" muscle in the mice.

There were a lot of other articles I've seen recently, but those were a few highlights. I know lots of people out there are skeptical of the notion that we're approaching some sort of "Technological Singularity", but as a passive observer of the science literature, let me note that discoveries that would have made front page headlines of mainstream newspapers a few years ago are now happening so often that they barely get mentioned in the news sections of the science press. The rate of discovery in molecular biology has become especially stunning — gaining access to complete genomes has opened up the floodgates as never before.

I'm becoming hopeful that major uncured illnesses such as Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, many cancers, etc., are going to be completely understood, and possibly even fully treatable, in the next decade.

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August 20, 2004 1:23 PM

ETC Group is run by High School dropout

The ETC Group, which I've blogged about before, puts out a constant stream of bizarre, ill informed attacks on biotechnology and nanotechnology.

Who runs the group? According to this article from Forbes:

His name is Pat R. Mooney, and he is a high school dropout from Canada with no scientific training.

Unfortunately, he's very effective even though most of his attacks are based on extremely bad science:

[H]is Ottawa organization, the ETC Group, is widely credited with being one of the first to raise health and environmental concerns about genetically modified food. Its efforts, along with those of other outfits like Greenpeace, led to a public relations fiasco for the biotech industry. In Europe the name Monsanto, which sells genetically modified seed, still exemplifies the ugly American multinational. Because of the fear Mooney helped generate, Nestle and others don't sell food with GM ingredients in Europe. Restaurants post signs assuring customers meals are virtually GM-free.

Now Mooney, 57, has set his target on nanotechnology, the business of manufacturing on a molecular scale.

My translation: nanotechnology could help rid the world of disease and poverty, but an ill-educated Luddite in Canada with a talent for getting press attention will be fighting hard to make sure that doesn't happen.

By the way, genetically modified plants had (and still have) the potential to radically reduce malnutrition in the third world, but people have managed to scare themselves so thoroughly about the technology that these crops may never be widely grown. Some countries even refuse food aid if it contains genetically modified grain. Thanks to the luddites, millions may die needlessly of starvation. Every time you see a picture of a child starving in the third world, remember Pat R. Mooney. (You should also remember anti-globalization protesters, government bureaucrats and lots of other folks, but that's another story.)

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August 20, 2004 12:57 PM

Hash Function Roundup

Ekr has posted a good summary of the recent results from Crypto '04 on the cryptanalysis of hash functions. The general gist is that, as of right now, SHA-1 and its "SHA-2" descendents have not yet been successfully attacked, but most of the others have.

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August 16, 2004 5:50 PM

More Hash Functions Broken

Following up on this rumor from earlier today.

There is still no confirmation out there of the break in SHA-1, but this preprint, which went up today, reports collisions in MD4, MD5, HAVAL-128 and RIPEMD, all achieved with very little CPU time. That pretty much covers all the cryptographic hash functions in use.

It feels as though once someone found the right thread to pull on, the whole sweater started to unravel.

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August 16, 2004 4:01 PM

Rumors of breaks in SHA-1

This will probably be incomprehensible to many of my readers — if you don't know anything about cryptography you might not even care about it. See this Wikipedia article if you would like an introduction to the topic of cryptographic hash functions.

Chen and Biham were due to report some attacks on SHA-0 this week at Crypto. Last week, it was reported that Antoine Joux had extended this work into a full scale method for finding collisions in SHA-0 with time complexity of 2^51, and would also be reporting his results at the conference.

Ed Felten is now reporting that a rumor has started at Crypto that someone has further extended the Joux attack to an attack on SHA-1 and may announce the details at conference later in the week. Since SHA-0 is only of academic interest but SHA-1 is deployed in lots of cryptosystems, this is naturally getting lots and lots of buzz.

As a side note, if this proves to be true, even if it is only a certificational weakness, it will be very embarrassing to the NSA. It is almost certainly the case that they would not release an algorithm that they knew had even a certificational weakness, thus implying that if there is such an attack, they did not know about it when they corrected SHA-0 into SHA-1.

It is unclear how such a break would impact HMAC when used with SHA-1 without knowing more details, if there are any details. Stay tuned.

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August 08, 2004 1:26 PM

More Victories for King Ludd

The New York Times is reporting (sorry, the link will stop working soon) that "animal rights activists" have managed to temporarily derail the construction of a biology laboratory at Cambridge.

The story leads with a photograph of several protesters, one of whom is carrying a sign which says "animal testing delays medical progress".

Of course, that's beyond merely untrue — it stands reality on its head. There is no good alternative to the use of animal models for most medical research. A few days ago, I reported on a breakthrough recently made on Alzheimer's Disease thanks to animal experiments. Animal experimentation is the reason we have the information we needed from that test — no rational person would agree to be injected with an experimental substance and then killed and autopsied a few days later, so we need to use animals for such tests.

Almost all of modern medicine, from vaccines to surgery, has been developed using animal models. Had we avoided all animal testing over the last several centuries, human lifespan today would be dramatically shorter.

On a similar note, I was recently reading an article in Wired about Craig Venter's project to sequence the genomes of vast numbers of previously unknown microorganisms. Venter's team is, essentially, sailing around the world, collecting a few gallons of water out of the ocean every couple hundred miles, and shotgun sequencing all the DNA in the living matter within the sample. Less than a percent of the microorganisms on the planet have ever been observed, let alone sequenced, so this is really neat work. The team is not only getting the first real glimpse at how large the population of microbial species really is, they're also getting an amazing sampling of previously unknown genes.

Unfortunately, it appears that lots of people, including the luddite ETC Group, are organizing oppose his work. They've even gotten his expedition halted in a few places where he crosses in to various territorial waters. Why? I really can't explain their rationale. I can't make out a coherent reason for opposing such research in anything they say. They make weird claims about "biopiracy" (whatever that might be) and such, but really it appears their major dislike for Venter is that they hate technology.

The article in Wired describes the bizarre events that happened when Venter arrived at Tahiti, which is ruled by the French. Remember in reading this that his activities consist of grabbing a few gallons of worthless ocean water here and there and studying the single celled microorganisms within — he isn't stealing ancient artworks or running a slave ship or any such.

Venter was immediately notified by Rockville of a fax from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs politely informing him that his application to conduct research in French Polynesia was denied. The ministry understood that the Sorcerer II's mission was to collect and study microorganisms that might prove helpful for health and industry, but France wished to protect its "patrimony" by restricting "extraction of these resources by foreign vessels." "It's French water, so I guess they're French microbes," Venter told me when he got the news.

[...] [W]hen the Sorcerer II reached the French Polynesian island of Hiva Oa in the Marquesas archipelago, the port captain there informed Venter and Howard that their vessel was not allowed to leave the harbor. Impounding a private foreign vessel merely on suspicion is against international law, and Venter protested to the US State Department, which informed the ministry that it considered the act a violation of the honor of the United States. The Sorcerer II was allowed to proceed as a normal tourist vessel, but with a warning not to attempt to take any samples.

Venter later got permission to continue sampling, but with unusual restrictions considering that he was taking nothing more than a few gallons of seawater:

[...] When I wake up the next day, Venter is in the main cabin reading an email from his office; Howard leans over his shoulder. Dill is setting the table for breakfast. "So the big news this morning is [...] the French are going to send a gunboat out to escort us," he tells me.[...]"They want to make sure we sample where we said we would. We're not supposed to tell the State Department about this. It might put a chill on French-American relations. Being as how they're so cozy right now and all," Dill says. "They'd like to know if we'd like to invite an officer on board, too," Venter says. "How do you say 'fuck you' in French?"

This trend towards luddism seems to be spreading.

I wish I had the ability to explain the position of such groups coherently enough to be able to attack them point by point, but I'm afraid that my contempt is a bit too strong for me to be able to do that. I really don't believe they have a rational position so I find it difficult to try to explain their position. ETC, for example, frequently puts out bizarre press releases about scientific work that they obviously don't understand even slightly. Most of their documents are so filled with technical mistakes that it is hard to even count all of them.

However, even though they don't seem to have much of a coherent or accurate argument on their side, such groups frequently are pretty good at getting a lot of attention. I think this is because fairly few people in the news media or in politics have any real personal understanding of science and technology, so they are not able to make informed judgments about the wild claims that are made.

I have to admit that I don't understand luddites well. Human welfare has been radically improved by technology. The progress we've made towards reducing poverty and human misery has been nothing short of breathtaking. Even Marx seemed to understand this pretty well. I get the feeling that the people who used to embrace communism now have switched to technophobia.

As a postscript, let me note that even the most radical anti-technology activists out there like the Unibomber, Ted Kaczynski, seem to make use of at least some technology in their lives. I doubt Kaczynski could have survived through the winter in his cabin without steel implements and an iron stove for heat. No one would know of Kaczynski's ideas but for his willingness to use of technology to write them down (even paper and pencils require pretty significant ingenuity and effort to produce). Even written down, high technology, including computers, has been the primary means by which his ideas have been disseminated. Some such people argue that they are merely using technology temporarily to try to fight technology, or that they do not oppose "appropriate" technologies like wood stoves. (Kaczynski doesn't seem to make any such arguments, though, or at least, none that I can see.) Even so, there is tremendous irony in anti-technologists making use of even primitive technologies, and further irony in their communicating by any method other than speech. I suspect, however, that the irony is lost on them.

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August 06, 2004 5:27 PM

More People May Get "Mad Cow" Than Previously Believed

The BBC is also reporting that variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, a.k.a., vCJD, a.k.a. the human analog of Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, a.k.a. BSE, a.k.a. "mad cow" disease, may be carried by more of the population than was previously believed. The incubation period of the disease may also be longer in some cases than was expected. Bad news for people who like eating cows that have eaten other cows.

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August 06, 2004 12:51 PM

Article from Neuron on Alzheimers

The article I referred to yesterday appears to be text available in full here.

Thanks to Steve Bellovin for the link. Steve also pointed out that the Wall Street Journal carried coverage today about a conference where that work was presented — apparently the conclusions are rather controversial. Having just read the paper, though, I'd say it looks like pretty good work assuming the results are reproduceable.

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August 05, 2004 12:35 PM

C. Elegans Mutation Rates Underestimated by 10x

The latest Nature is publishing a paper that describes an elegant experiment designed to directly measure the mutation rates in the well known "model organism" Caenorhabditis elegans.

The researchers raised hundreds of generations of C. elegans, carefully making sure they knew which generation was which by selecting a single organism to parent each new generation. (C. elegans is hermaphroditic and capable of self fertilization.) They then sequenced portions of the genome in each generation.

This direct measurement revealed a mutation rate an order of magnitude higher than had been previously estimated.

If this turns out to be correct, it has implications for everything from evolution to cancer mechanisms to aging.

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August 05, 2004 11:01 AM

Immunotherapy Halts Alzheimer's in Mice

A prominent feature of Alzheimer's disease is the development of "plaques" of a deformed version of amyloid protein, known as "beta amyloid". A long-standing hypothesis has held that the accumulation of beta amyloid plaques resulted in a cascade of problems, including the development of neurofibril tangles in the brain.

This article reports a study in which the injection of antibodies targeting the beta amyloid plaques into the brains of mice with a close analog of Alzheimer's disease managed to trigger a response in which the immune system cleared the plaques. Neurofibrillary tangles associated with the disease cleared spontaneously shortly after the amyloid plaques vanished. [Update: I've found another somewhat better report from Science Magazine here]

The treatment only worked in mice with early stages of the disease.

This is a very preliminary sort of result, but it is really quite exciting. Even if it does not lead to an immediate Alzheimer's treatment for humans, it does lend extremely strong evidence to the hypothesis that the beta amyloid accumulation in and of itself is the major mechanism triggering the symptoms of Alzheimer's, and that blocking the production of beta amyloid or clearing the plaques would halt the progress of the illness.

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August 03, 2004 1:18 PM

DIMACS Workshop to focus on Idea Futures

DIMACS at Rutgers University runs some interesting workshops. One that was just announced focuses on "Markets as Predictive Devices". Given that my old acquaintance Robin Hanson is one of the instigators, I assume that it will focus pretty heavily on Idea Futures.

For those unaware of the concept, it is a means to quantify predictions by using markets. The notion is to set up tradable contracts, much like futures contracts, which pay off not if guesses about the price of wheat or oil are correct, but if guesses about the future direction of technologies or world events are correct. It is hypothesized that the implied predictions given by the market price of the contracts will be more accurate than the educated guesses of pundits, because traders will have a monetary incentive to follow their heads rather than their hearts. There is some (as yet limited) evidence that this hypothesis is true.

I first saw the concept of Idea Futures under another name in "The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner (which incidently also coined or popularized a bunch of modern computer security jargon, such as the terms "worm" and "virus"). However, it was Robin who really formalized and spread the concept of Idea Futures, first in the magazine "Extropy", and later in more academic contexts.

Some of you may remember a DARPA proposal to set up betting markets on the odds of terrorist incidents, which was later withdrawn under heavy pressure. Robin's work was the basis for that idea.

(Some of you may also remember my recent blog entry about a company that is enabling trading in idea-futures like contracts.)

I'm not sure whether or not Idea Futures will have a dramatic impact on society, but the concept certainly has intellectual appeal. Perhaps someone should start trading a contract on whether Idea Futures will have a widespread effect (if only they could formulate the claim well!)

Posted by Perry E. Metzger | Send Feedback | Permalink | Categories: Economics, Science & Technology

August 01, 2004 9:03 PM

Another Very High Res Microscope

The Whitehead Institute at MIT reports that they are working on an extremely high resolution electron microscopy rig to permit direct imaging of the shapes of molecules. The article on the web is a bit low on detail — if anyone knows more and can tell me about it, please do.

Mechanisms that speed up the analysis of macromolecules will be of substantial importance to biotechnology and (ultimately) nanotechnology, so mechanisms that can achieve it, like (possibly) this one, and like Magnetic Resonance Force Microscopy, could be very important enabling technologies.

Posted by Perry E. Metzger | Send Feedback | Permalink | Categories: Science & Technology

July 29, 2004 2:10 PM

Francis Crick, Co-Discoverer of DNA, has Died.

Francis Crick, who co-discovered the structure of DNA with James Watson, has died. Here is the New York Times' obituary.

The Times piece has a great passage near the beginning:

The discovery of the structure of DNA resolved longstanding questions about the nature of the hereditary material and the manner in which it is copied as one generation succeeds another. The structure, almost immediately accepted, was electrifying to scientists not only because of its inherent elegance but also because it showed how biology, evolution and the nature of life itself could ultimately be explained in terms of physics and chemistry. Indeed, the desire to replace religious with rational explanations of life was a principal motivation of Dr. Crick's career.

Crick didn't just co-discover the structure of DNA — he went on to demonstrate how DNA is transcribed into proteins, and to instigate and supervise much of the foundational work of molecular biology. I think he'll be remembered for a long time.

Posted by Perry E. Metzger | Send Feedback | Permalink | Categories: Science & Technology

July 29, 2004 11:51 AM

Junk Science in New York

Today's New York Post has an article on New York City leasing out lampposts to 802.11 service providers. Normally I wouldn't bother to mention this, but it has a really stunning quote from Peter Vallone, who will be running for Mayor next year.

But all that radiation has some activists and officials concerned about the potential health implications of the antennas. "Apparently the city is willing to gamble with the health of its residents for $25 million," said Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. He is introducing legislation to require the companies to pay for radiation inspectors as part of their franchise agreements. "There is no study that has looked at the cumulative effect of these transmitters," he said.

That's got to be one of the dumbest things I've seen a politician say in... oh, sadly, hours. I wish it was unusual to see a politician spouting junk science and requesting rules to impede the construction of new infrastructure, but unfortunately it happens practically every time I look at the news.

For those not in the know, an 802.11 device puts out no more than a couple hundred milliwatts, and once you take the inverse square law into account, the capacity of such a device to transfer energy to anything nearby is pretty limited.

The city is also filled with millions of such low power emitters. If such devices were a problem, really we'd have much more serious problems than a few new pole top devices. Even banning the hundreds of thousands of existing 802.11 devices people have set up in their homes wouldn't be enough. Cell phones, cell phone towers, walkie-talkies, microwave ovens, microwave communications dishes, television and radio transmitters, etc. are everywhere, in the millions. We'd need to shut all of them down, too. That is ignoring all the televisions, radios, CD players, computers, etc., all of which emit a tiny amount of electromagnetic energy. If we got rid of all of these things, maybe then the marginal change caused by adding some pole-top 802.11 transmitters would be observable, even if it was still completely unimportant to health.

Luckily federal law keeps municipalities from preventing the construction of new cellphone base stations, but nothing protects companies from the likes of Mr. Vallone. Lets hope people laugh at him loud enough that he drops the whole thing, and soon.

Posted by Perry E. Metzger | Send Feedback | Permalink | Categories: Politics, Science & Technology

July 28, 2004 9:03 PM

UK Academy Proposes Regulating Nanotechnology

This BBC story just in from the "strangling the infant in the crib" department.

The Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering in the UK are about to propose new regulations governing nanotechnology, long before any real nanotechnology has even be developed.

Best quote from the online article:

"Our main concern is that this is a new, powerful technological platform that could be disruptive," said Jim Thomas, from the campaigning ETC (Erosion, Technology and Concentration) Group.

"What does it mean for the poor, disabled, the disadvantaged - people who are usually left out of the debate?"

He stressed that nanotechnology should be developed to benefit all, and that public engagement was essential.

How the poor and disadvantaged might be helped by delaying things like lifesaving technologies and radically less expensive goods, Mr. Thomas doesn't say. Presumably the disabled might be angry about medical nanobots going in, fixing their severed spinal cords and permanently ending their blissful paraplegia.

I'm reminded yet again that the speeches the bad guys in "Atlas Shrugged" make are not parodies — they're the sorts of things real people say. It is almost enough to make me reach for a pack of ciggies with dollar signs on the filters, only I think smoking is stupid.

Perhaps we can introduce Mr. Thomas to the bureaucrats in Ghana, who are also working to help the poor. They may have ideas to trade about the public betterment.

Posted by Perry E. Metzger | Send Feedback | Permalink | Categories: Economics, Politics, Science & Technology

July 28, 2004 2:27 PM


I've been citing Wikipedia articles a lot in my recent postings.

I'd like to give the Wikipedia people a bit of a plug. They've instigated a free encyclopedia, written by... well, anyone who cares to help write it. ("Free" in this case means both the free software and free beer senses of the word.) The web site that hosts the encyclopedia is a "Wiki", a system that allows anyone who sees a problem with a page or wants to contribute to do so, immediately. There's literally a button on every part of every page named "edit".

Wikis, like all "open source" style projects, work on the stone soup model. You start with a small implementation of an idea and convince lots of people that they should help you improve it. What starts as a kettle and a rock turns into something far, far better. The public good "problem" is stood on its head. The non-rivalrous, non-excludable nature of pure information doesn't bring the "market failure" traditional economic analysis would predict, but instead becomes an advantage begging to be harnessed.

If any project shows the power of an open source community, it is Wikipedia. In a few short years, they've produced, for free, one of the best information resources I'm familiar with, and they've barely even started. If you haven't looked at Wikipedia, you should.

By coincidence Slashdot is running an interview today with Wikipedia's founder Jimmy Wales.

There's a great quote in the interview that I'd like to share:

I frequently counsel people who are getting frustrated [...] to think about someone who lives without clean drinking water, without any proper means of education, and how our work might someday help that person. It puts flamewars into some perspective, I think.

Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That's what we're doing.

I think he's on to something. Couple

  • An internet filled with the complete sum of human knowledge
  • $10 laptop computers with cheap satelite internet access
and I think that it will no longer be possible to keep people poor and ignorant except if they want to be, no matter what their neighbors, religious leaders and governments might want.

For a fictional vision of what such technologies could bring, see The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson.

July 26, 2004 11:36 AM

Statistics and Aliens

Several blogs have pointed out a claim from Seth Shostak at the SETI Institute that, given the Drake Equation and Moore's Law, we should expect to discover radio signals from another civilization within 20 years or so.

This seems like a good opportunity for me to mention that I think Drake Equation is flawed. It calculates the number of technological civilizations we should expect to find in our galaxy by multiplying a few estimated quantities and probabilities. Unfortunately, it makes the assumption that these figures are statistically independent. I see no reason to make that assumption, so I think the Drake Equation is incorrect.

If the Drake Equation's input values are statistically independent, the development of one technological civilization would have no impact on the development of other technological civilizations. That seems unreasonable to me.

I think it's likely that any technological civilization will build Von Neumann Machines, i.e. self replicating devices, that explore and colonize the universe around them in every possible direction. Very likely these constructs will travel at a large fraction of the speed of light. Our own civilization is extremely young, and yet it should be able to create such things within the next century.

I thus think it is likely that any species capable of technological civilization starts expanding out at near the speed of light within tens of thousands of years of evolving. We've been around for something less than 1/100,000th of the life of the universe, which is a blink of of an eye on cosmic time scales. You would therefore expect that if another civilization is in your light cone, it should already have traveled to where you are. (This is a variation of the Fermi Paradox.)

So, if there are other folks out there that we could hear, they should be where we are already. However, if they were here already, we probably wouldn't be. Intelligent life has a way of drastically interfering with its environment. We've seen this phenomenon on Earth, where we've spread over the entire planet in a miniscule time. It isn't likely that other intelligent technologically capable species are going to arise on Earth so long as we're here.

Thus, we hear no one because if we weren't the first out the starting gate in our light cone, we wouldn't be here in the first place.

Does this mean I think SETI is a waste of time? Far from it. Among other things, I have a mediocre record as a pundit, so I could be wrong, and it would be a great mistake not to find out if there is other intelligent life out there. However, I will not be shocked if we hear nothing.

By the way, we may hear nothing even if there are other technological civilizations out there. There is an assumption that with sufficiently sensitive equipment, we should be able to pick up the internal communications of other civilizations. Our own television and radio broadcasts are, after all, likely to be detectable many light years away. However, this will not continue.

Information theory tells us that more densely packed a signal is, the more it resembles random noise. We're getting better and better at using bandwidth, so pretty soon I'd expect everything we send to be pretty indistinguishable from random. This has already started to happen. We're also starting to adopt spread spectrum radio technology very widely, and that, too, has the effect of making your broadcasts look like random noise. Lastly, in order to maximize the available bandwidth, we'll start more and more narrowly focusing our communications using phased arrays and other active antenna technologies, so most of our communications may be inaudible outside of teeny chunks of space.

Although the specifics of how we communicate by radio in the future will change, the fact that new technologies will produce signals more and more like random noise and harder and harder to hear at a distance is likely permanent. It is a response to fundamental laws about information theory and radio communications. I assume that if there is anyone out there, they will be subject to the same fundamental laws, so their communications will follow the same trend.

Posted by Perry E. Metzger | Send Feedback | Permalink | Categories: Science & Technology

July 24, 2004 6:03 PM

Magnetic Resonance Force Microscopy

In the future, when we design molecular machines, it will be helpful to be able to see the arrangement of the atoms in the individual molecules we are working with. Until now, that's been rather difficult. Currently, to determine the three dimensional structure of, say, a protein, we have to resort to fairly crude and time consuming methods like X-ray crystallography. However, things may be changing.

When I was a kid, they told us things in science classes like "no one will ever seen an atom because they are too small". Then, of course, in 1981, some smart folks invented Scanning Tunneling Microscopy ("STM") and suddenly people could take pictures of atoms. Soon we had Atomic Force Microscopy ("AFM") too.

Neither STM nor AFM are capable of doing things like showing us the detailed structure of a macromolecule like a protein, but now another variation on the theme has been invented, Magnetic Resonance Force Microscopy. It is a cross between Magnetic Resonance Imaging and scanning microscopes like the STM.

The first devices seem to be capable of detecting spin flips in individual electrons, and upping the sensitivity by a few orders of magnitude seems straightforward. This could be a major breakthrough. We may soon be able to directly image macromolecules. The impact of that capability on chemistry, biology and molecular nanotechnology would be huge.

Posted by Perry E. Metzger | Send Feedback | Permalink | Categories: Science & Technology