Tuesday, 16 June 2009
The Mount Toba incident, although unprecedented in magnitude, was part of a broad pattern. For a period of 2 million years, ending with the last ice age around 10,000 B.C., the Earth experienced a series of convulsive glacial events. This rapid-fire climate change meant that humans couldn?t rely on consistent patterns to know which animals to hunt, which plants to gather, or even which predators might be waiting around the corner.
How did we cope? By getting smarter. The neuro physi ol ogist William Calvin argues persuasively that modern human cognition?including sophisticated language and the capacity to plan ahead?evolved in response to the demands of this long age of turbulence. According to Calvin, the reason we survived is that our brains changed to meet the challenge: we transformed the ability to target a moving animal with a thrown rock into a capability for foresight and long-term planning. In the process, we may have developed syntax and formal structure from our simple language.
Our present century may not be quite as perilous for the human race as an ice age in the aftermath of a super-volcano eruption, but the next few decades will pose enormous hurdles that go beyond the climate crisis. The end of the fossil-fuel era, the fragility of the global food web, growing population density, and the spread of pandemics, as well as the emergence of radically transformative bio- and nano technologies?each of these threatens us with broad disruption or even devastation. And as good as our brains have become at planning ahead, we?re still biased toward looking for near-term, simple threats. Subtle, long-term risks, particularly those involving complex, global processes, remain devilishly hard for us to manage.
But here?s an optimistic scenario for you: if the next several decades are as bad as some of us fear they could be, we can respond, and survive, the way our species has done time and again: by getting smarter. But this time, we don?t have to rely solely on natural evolutionary processes to boost our intelligence. We can do it ourselves.
Most people don?t realize that this process is already under way. In fact, it?s happening all around us, across the full spectrum of how we understand intelligence. It?s visible in the hive mind of the Internet, in the powerful tools for simulation and visualization that are jump-starting new scientific disciplines, and in the development of drugs that some people (myself included) have discovered let them study harder, focus better, and stay awake longer with full clarity. So far, these augmentations have largely been outside of our bodies, but they?re very much part of who we are today: they?re physically separate from us, but we and they are becoming cognitively inseparable. And advances over the next few decades, driven by breakthroughs in genetic engineering and artificial intelligence, will make today?s technologies seem primitive. The nascent jargon of the field describes this as ? intelligence augmentation.? I prefer to think of it as ?You+.?
Scientists refer to the 12,000 years or so since the last ice age as the Holocene epoch. It encompasses the rise of human civilization and our co-evolution with tools and technologies that allow us to grapple with our physical environment. But if intelligence augmentation has the kind of impact I expect, we may soon have to start thinking of ourselves as living in an entirely new era. The focus of our technological evolution would be less on how we manage and adapt to our physical world, and more on how we manage and adapt to the immense amount of knowledge we?ve created. We can call it the N?ocene epoch, from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin?s concept of the N?osphere, a collective consciousness created by the deepening interaction of human minds. As that epoch draws closer, the world is becoming a very different place.
OF COURSE, WE?VE been augmenting our ability to think for millennia. When we developed written language, we significantly increased our functional memory and our ability to share insights and knowledge across time and space. The same thing happened with the invention of the printing press, the telegraph, and the radio. The rise of urbanization allowed a fraction of the populace to focus on more-cerebral tasks?a fraction that grew inexorably as more-complex economic and social practices demanded more knowledge work, and industrial technology reduced the demand for manual labor. And caffeine and nicotine, of course, are both classic cognitive-enhancement drugs, primitive though they may be.
With every technological step forward, though, has come anxiety about the possibility that technology harms our natural ability to think. These anxieties were given eloquent expression in these pages by Nicholas Carr, whose essay ?Is Google Making Us Stupid?? (July/August 2008 Atlantic) argued that the information-dense, hyperlink-rich, spastically churning Internet medium is effectively rewiring our brains, making it harder for us to engage in deep, relaxed contemplation.
Carr?s fears about the impact of wall-to-wall connectivity on the human intellect echo cyber-theorist Linda Stone?s description of ?continuous partial attention,? the modern phenomenon of having multiple activities and connections under way simultaneously. We?re becoming so accustomed to interruption that we?re starting to find focusing difficult, even when we?ve achieved a bit of quiet. It?s an induced form of ADD?a ?continuous partial attention-deficit disorder,? if you will.
There?s also just more information out there?because unlike with previous information media, with the Internet, creating material is nearly as easy as consuming it. And it?s easy to mistake more voices for more noise. In reality, though, the proliferation of diverse voices may actually improve our overall ability to think. In Everything Bad Is Good for You, Steven Johnson argues that the increasing complexity and range of media we engage with have, over the past century, made us smarter, rather than dumber, by providing a form of cognitive calisthenics. Even pulp-television shows and video games have become extraordinarily dense with detail, filled with subtle references to broader subjects, and more open to interactive engagement. They reward the capacity to make connections and to see patterns?precisely the kinds of skills we need for managing an information glut.
Scientists describe these skills as our ?fluid intelligence??the ability to find meaning in confusion and to solve new problems, independent of acquired knowledge. Fluid intelligence doesn?t look much like the capacity to memorize and recite facts, the skills that people have traditionally associated with brainpower. But building it up may improve the capacity to think deeply that Carr and others fear we?re losing for good. And we shouldn?t let the stresses associated with a transition to a new era blind us to that era?s astonishing potential. We swim in an ocean of data, accessible from nearly anywhere, generated by billions of devices. We?re only beginning to explore what we can do with this knowledge-at-a-touch.
Moreover, the technology-induced ADD that?s associated with this new world may be a short-term problem. The trouble isn?t that we have too much information at our fingertips, but that our tools for managing it are still in their infancy. Worries about ?information overload? predate the rise of the Web (Alvin Toffler coined the phrase in 1970), and many of the technologies that Carr worries about were developed precisely to help us get some control over a flood of data and ideas. Google isn?t the problem; it?s the beginning of a solution.
In any case, there?s no going back. The information sea isn?t going to dry up, and relying on cognitive habits evolved and perfected in an era of limited information flow?and limited information access?is futile. Strengthening our fluid intelligence is the only viable approach to navigating the age of constant connectivity.
Tuesday, 9 June 2009
New antibiotics could come from a
DNA binding compound that kills
bacteria in 2 minutes
PhysOrg.com June 9, 2009
A synthetic DNA binding compound
has proved surprisingly effective at
binding to the DNA of bacteria and
killing all the bacteria it touched
within two minutes, University of
Warwick researchers have found. The
compound is cylindrical in shape and
neatly fits within the major groove
of a DNA...
In Worms, Genetic Clues to
New York Times June 8, 2009
A little piece of the germline's
immortality can be acquired by the
ordinary cells of the body, and used
to give the organism extra
longevity, Massachusetts General
Hospital researchers have found. The
insulin-signaling pathway activates
a powerful gene regulator that
controls many genetic pathways,
including some that govern
Opening Doors on the Way to a
New York Times June 8, 2009
PR2, the first robot able to
navigate in a building reliably and
repeatedly recharge itself, has been
developed by Willow Garage. It is
powered by several Intel
microprocessor chips and "sees" with
a combination of sensors including
scanning lasers and video cameras....
Oily fish 'can halt eye disease'
BBC News June 8, 2009
Omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish
like mackerel and salmon) appear to
slow or even halt the progress of
age-related macular degeneration
(AMD), Tufts University researchers
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Steps to Living Well Forever by Ray
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contains many engaging dialogues
with the authors' future avatars.
Wednesday, 3 June 2009
Tuesday, 2 June 2009
Microsoft has unveiled its new control system for the Xbox 360, at the E3 Expo in Los Angeles.
Project Natal is a fully hands-free control system that will use face recognition and motion sensors to allow users to play games.
Film director Steven Spielberg, attending the launch, said it was "a window into what the future holds".
Although still in the early stages, Microsoft has sent prototypes to all the main game developers.
Speaking to the BBC, Mr Spielberg said he had always stated that "the main barrier stopping people getting into video games was the complexity of a games controller," and that Natal was "a whole new world".
"There is technology now that recognises not just your thumb, it recognises your entire person. The technology knows who you are," he said.
Mr Spielberg drew an analogy with the film industry, saying it was evolutionary step for games.
"It's like the square screen we saw all of our movies on in the early 1950s. Then The Robe came out in Cinemascope. And then came CinRam and Imax followed. That's what this [Natal] is.
During the demonstration, British developer Peter Molyneux showed how Natal could not only recognise faces, it could recognise facial expressions to determine what mood a player was in and react accordingly.
Mr Spielberg said this offered new opportunities for game development
"The video games industry has not allowed us the opportunity to cry, because we were too busy putting our adrenalin rush into the controller, or wherever we swing our arm with a Wii controller to get a result," he said.
"Because of that, there is no room for a video game to break your heart. We now have a little more room to be a little more emotional with Natal technology than we did before."
Speaking to the BBC, Piers Harding-Rolls, senior analyst with Screen Digest, said the success of Natal depended on a number of different factors.
"I think the technology looks very interesting but its success depends on the content and how easy it is to use," he said.
"The other aspect is cost and how they will get it out to the user base," he said.
"That said, I think Microsoft would like to get it out sooner, rather than later.
"Sales of the Xbox 360 hit their peak in 2008 and are now expected to decline, in terms of console sales, so you would expect them to get it out as soon as possible to rekindle interest in the platform."
The details of Project Natal had already leaked out a few weeks ago when the US patent office released documents, filed by Microsoft, of a "motion sensor that makes use of face recognition software and biometrics".
At the time, most experts believed that Microsoft were patenting concepts, rather than an actual application, and would focus on a motion detector similar to the Nintendo's Wii controller.
Speaking to the BBC, Shane Kim, Microsoft's Cooperate Vice-President of Xbox Strategy and Development, said they were worried the story was going to break before the official launch.
"Most of the information was out there, but no one was able to put the full story together," he said.
Project Natal was not the only big announcement from Microsoft.
The company unveiled 10 new games for the Xbox 360, including Beatles Rock Band, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Tony Hawk Ride and Final Fantasy XIII.
Tony Hawk Ride comes with its own skateboard controller, similar to the Wii Balance board, although this is the first time such a device had been available for the Xbox 360.
Tony Hawks, who was at the launch to promote his game, said it was something he had wanted for some time.
"I always wanted to do a game with a skateboard controller but the technology wasn't there until now," he said.
"It will allow anyone to grind rails and catch big airs; even if you have never been on a skateboard, it will let people achieve skate supremacy in the comfort of their own living rooms."
And in a follow up to the news that Microsoft had tied up a deal with Sky to show content via Xbox Live, Microsoft said they had entered a joint agreement with Facebook and Twitter to create what Mr Kim called "full integration between three of the largest social networking sites on the planet.
"For us, it's a very big priority to make Xbox live the next generation of social networking," he said.
Both Nintendo and Sony consoles stream video content using the BBC iPlayer.
Mr Kim played down allegations that Microsoft had opted to team up with Sky purely to differentiate themselves from their competitors.
"Our partnership with Sky is about bringing great video and entertainment to our UK customers. That was our focus," he said.