Archive for the ‘Future’ Category

George Church on the Future of Stem Cells

October 9, 2012

Technology Review has a good interview with the Harvard Geneticist.

Dr. Church also has a new book that just came out: Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves.

Elon Musk’s 1-Hour PandoDaily Interview

July 15, 2012

Here’s the video of Elon Musk being interviewed by PandoDaily.

By the way, sorry for posting mostly quick links here lately. I originally told myself that I would try to avoid doing that on this blog and instead focus on longer ruminations, but I’ve been working on too many other projects to do that. I suppose that quick links are better than nothing as long as they are good ones, so I hope you enjoy the ones I’ve shared. I’m sure at some point I’ll find the energy to work on more original content. In any case, thanks for reading!

Update (August 2nd, 2012): Here’s another interview with Elon Musk, this time by the LA Times, about his goals for SpaceX.

Update (August 8, 2012): Short video feature about Musk, SpaceX, and sending humans to Mars.

Update (September 8, 2012): Here’s a great interview with Elon Musk from Autoblog.

Update (September 10, 2012): Interview with Elon Musk by Kevin Rose (now at Google Ventures).

Update (November 22, 2012): Elon Musk speech and Q&A at the University of Oxford.

Aubrey de Grey on Regenerative Medicine

October 24, 2011

Biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey, the founder and chief science officer of the SENS Foundation, recently gave a talk at the MIT Club of Northern California.

I find his research on the diseases of aging fascinating, and his foundation is the main charity that I support because it has the best risk/reward ratio that I could find (in other words, each dollar spent there has a higher chance of making the world a much better place than a dollar spent elsewhere).

Here’s the video of the presentation:

If after that you want more, I recommend the book that he wrote for a mainstream book and the medical journal that he edits, Rejuvenation Research.

Doomsday Predictions

April 18, 2010

By definition, all but the last doomsday prediction is false. Yet it does not follow, as many seem to think, that all doomsday predictions must be false; what follow is only that all such predictions but one are false.

-Richard A. Posner, Catastrophe: Risk and Response, p. 13.

For more on existential risks, check out Nick Bostrom’s paper explaining what they are.

Aubrey de Grey on Mitochondrial Mutations and Aging

December 25, 2009

Amazon Text Stats

September 20, 2009

Amazon Text Stats image

Analyzing and Comparing Books
I have just noticed that Amazon has a “Text Stats” section on its book pages. I’m not sure how long it has been there, but it’s very interesting.

  • The Fog Index was developed by Robert Gunning. It indicates the number of years of formal education required to read and understand a passage of text.
  • The Flesch Index, developed in 1940 by Dr. Rudolph Flesch, is another indicator of reading ease. The score returned is based on a 100 point scale, with 100 being easiest to read. Scores between 90 and 100 are appropriate for 5th and 6th graders, while a college degree is considered necessary to understand text with a score between 0 and 30.
  • The Flesch-Kincaid Index is a refinement to the Flesch Index that tries to relate the score to a U.S. grade level. For example, text with a Flesch-Kincaid score of 10.1 would be considered suitable for someone with a 10th grade or higher reading level.

Information Technology & Book Writing
I wonder how long before publishers and writers start to use this data to better zero in on certain targets in the hope of better reaching their target demographics. I’m sure that someday – if it hasn’t already happened – writers will get notes from editors asking them to “bring the Fog Index rating of their manuscript down by at least 20%” or “reduce the number of complex words by 10%”, all based on statistical analysis of the composition of recent best sellers.

A kind of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) for books, in a way.

Like all tools, it could be abused and lead to bad results. But if used properly, it could result in more readable books and reduce the variability in quality output between individual editors (probably not by much, but any improvement would be welcome).

The pic on top of this post is from the Amazon page for I Am A Strange Loop by Douglas R. Hofstadter (which I’m currently reading).

Here’s an excerpt that I liked:

I Am A Strange Loop book

Update: Just to make it clear, this post isn’t an ad for I Am A Strange Loop. It’s just the book I looked up on Amazon when I noticed the Amazon Text Stats feature, and I thought some people might be curious to know which book the Text Stats in the screenshot came from.

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Aubrey de Grey’s Paper on the Methuselarity

September 17, 2009

Aubrey de Grey photo

Biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey at BIL

March 15, 2009

Aubrey de Grey at BIL Conference photo

When Aubrey de Grey’s Happy, I’m Happy…
Why? Because he’s one of the leaders and main instigators of the scientific movement working on defeating the diseases of aging, by far the number one cause of death and suffering in the ‘Western’ countries.

Future Current has a transcript of the talk that Aubrey gave at the BIL ad-hoc conference (a kind of less exclusive TED).

But the best way to experience this is to watch the video of Aubrey.

How? Why?
If you are new to all this, I recommend starting with this older TED talk or this longer Google Tech Talk, then this primer at FightAging, and then Aubrey and Michael Rae’s book, Ending Aging.

The best way to contribute to the research efforts are to donate to the Methuselah Foundation.

I Don’t Want To Live in a Post-Apocalyptic World

February 23, 2009

Image from The Road film, based on Cormac McCarthy's book

How About You?
I’ve just finished reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road at the recommendation of my cousin Marie-Eve. The setting is a post-apocalyptic world and the main protagonists – a father and son – basically spend all their time looking for food and shelter, and try to avoid being robbed or killed by other starving survivors.

It very much makes me not want to live in such a world. Everybody would probably agree. Yet few people actually do much to reduce the chances of of such a scenario happening. In fact, it’s worse than that; few people even seriously entertain the possibility that such a scenario could happen.

People don’t think about such things because they are unpleasant and they don’t feel they can do anything about them, but if more people actually did think about them, we could do something. We might never be completely safe, but we could significantly improve our odds over the status quo.

Danger From Two Directions: Ourselves and Nature.

Human technology is becoming more powerful all the time. We already face grave danger from nuclear weapons, and soon molecular manufacturing technologies and artificial general intelligence could pose new existential threats. We are also faced with slower, but serious, threats on the environmental side: Global warming, ocean acidification, deforestation/desertification, ecosystem collapse, etc.


Is Graphene/Graphane the Future of CPUs?

January 31, 2009

Graphene image

The Yin…
Graphene, shown above, is a very interesting material. It’s very strong (“strongest material ever measured“), and a very good electrical conductor: “The corresponding resistivity of the graphene sheet would be 10^−6 Ω·cm, less than the resistivity of silver, the lowest resistivity substance known at room temperature .” (source)

But what makes graphene even more interesting, in my opinion, is the recently discovered possibility of turning it into graphane simply by adding some hydrogen atoms.

Graphane image
Graphane. Carbon atoms in gray, hydrogen atoms in white.

…and the Yang
These hydrogen atoms apparently change the properties of the material in a very interesting way:

A hypothetical example for this is graphane (7), a wide-gap semiconductor, in which hydrogen is bonded to each carbon site of graphene. Here we show that by exposing graphene to atomic hydrogen, it is possible to transform this highly-conductive semimetal into an insulator.

What can you do with a good conductor that you can turn into an insulator by adding a few atoms?

Adieu to Silicon?
To me it seems like the obvious thing would be to try to make a CPU. If you can make enough pure graphene and you can control precisely where to add hydrogen atoms, you can probably replace photolithography, the technique currently used to make computer chips.

Your feature-size would be limited by how finely you can add hydrogen atoms to the graphene substrate (or maybe by electricity leakage – I’m not familiar enough with that to be sure), and your chips would be based on easy to find elements: carbon and hydrogen (though others would no doubt be needed – hydrogen is one way to modify graphene’s properties, but the Manchester University scientists who discovered graphane seem to think there are many others).

More R&D is required to know if this would work at all, and then to figure out practical ways to actually build microchips with these materials, but from what I know, it does seem very promising.

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Using a Polymer Implant to Program Your Immune System

January 28, 2009

Nature Materials has a fascinating paper on a kind of polymer implant that can ‘program’ your dendritic cells. This would allow doctors to use your own immune system to attack, for example, cancer cells. But it could also be used to combat other diseases related to the immune system (arthritis and diabetes are examples given by Technology Review), or even to “train other kinds of cells, including stem cells used to repair damage to the body.”

Here’s the abstract of the paper:

Cancer vaccines typically depend on cumbersome and expensive manipulation of cells in the laboratory, and subsequent cell transplantation leads to poor lymph-node homing and limited efficacy. We propose that materials mimicking key aspects of bacterial infection may instead be used to directly control immune-cell trafficking and activation in the body. It is demonstrated that polymers can be designed to first release a cytokine to recruit and house host dendritic cells, and subsequently present cancer antigens and danger signals to activate the resident dendritic cells and markedly enhance their homing to lymph nodes. Specific and protective anti-tumour immunity was generated with these materials, as 90% survival was achieved in animals that otherwise die from cancer within 25 days. These materials show promise as cancer vaccines, and more broadly suggest that polymers may be designed to program and control the trafficking of a variety of cell types in the body.

This immediately made me wonder if this technique could also be used to combat some of the diseases of aging that are caused by the accumulation of toxic by-products of metabolism that our immune system isn’t clearing up.

For example, maybe we could train our immune system to clear up the mis-folded protein aggregates (beta-amyloids) that accumulate in our brains throughout our lives and eventually, past a certain threshold, cause Alzheimer’s disease. A standard vaccine might do the trick, but maybe this technique could produce a more effective immune response?

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Unintended Consequences

January 3, 2009

oysters plate photo

According to Wikipedia:

The “law of unintended consequences” (also called the “law of unforeseen consequences”) states that any purposeful action will produce some unintended consequences. A classic example is a bypass — a road built to relieve traffic congestion on a congested road — that attracts new development and with it more traffic, resulting in two congested streets instead of one.

This maxim is not a scientific law; it is more a warning against the hubristic belief that humans can fully control the world around them. Stated in other words, each cause has more than one effect, and these effects will invariably include at least one unforeseen side effect. The unintended side effect can potentially be more significant than any of the intended effects.

A good example of this recently appeared in The Economist in an article about – of all things – oysters:

Oysters have relatively few natural predators: mainly starfish, which attach themselves to the shell with multitudinous teeth and patiently chew through, and the oyster drill, a species of carnivorous snail that attaches itself to a mollusc shell with a multi-toothed organ and inserts its proboscis, which releases enzymes that digest the creature in its home, making it easy to hoover up. Watermen once tried to defeat starfish by cutting each one they dragged up in half; unfortunately, since they regenerate, this doubled the starfish population.

Update: Another example from the same edition of the Economist, in a piece about birds in China titled The loneliness of the Chinese birdwatcher:

In 1958 Mao Zedong had declared war on songbirds, sparrows in particular: he claimed they consumed scarce grain. For three days and nights my neighbourhood, gripped like much of northern China by hysteria, had beaten pots and pans to keep birds on the move until they collapsed in exhaustion on the roofs and pavements of the courtyard houses. The consequence was a plague of locusts the next year that helped bring on a famine. “Suan le,” Mao had said when told that the anti-sparrow campaign was not working. “Forget it then.”

See also: Articles on Rationality

SpaceX Gets Big NASA Contract

December 28, 2008

SpaceX Dragon Capsule photo

NASA deal potentially worth $3.1 billion
SpaceX, a start-up founded in 2002 by Elon Musk, has just beaten Lockheed Martin and Boeing and gotten a juicy NASA contract. It’s amazing to think that it only took a few years to bring competition to the bloated and bureaucratic space sector. We can now expect prices to go down and innovation to go up.

HAWTHORNE, CA – December 23, 2008 – NASA today announced its selection of the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft for the International Space Station (ISS) Cargo Resupply Services (CRS) contract award. The contract is for a guaranteed minimum of 20,000 kg to be carried to the International Space Station. The firm contracted value is $1.6 billion and NASA may elect to order additional missions for a cumulative total contract value of up to $3.1 billion. […]

Under the CRS contract, SpaceX will deliver pressurized and unpressurized cargo to the ISS, and return cargo back to Earth. Cargo may include both NASA and NASA-sponsored payloads requiring a pressurized or unpressurized environment. SpaceX will provide the necessary services, test hardware and software, and mission-specific elements to integrate cargo with the Dragon delivery capsule.

Another company worth keeping an eye on is Bigelow Aerospace. They’re working on expandable space stations, and if they’re successful they will drive down the construction and maintenance costs of space structures. For a $100 billion, we should be able to get more than the ISS

Update: Irene Klotz at Discovery asks Elon Musk about the NASA contract.

Update 2: Check out these photos of Falcon 9 being assembled.

Update 3: Falcon 9 is now fully assembled.

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Source: SpaceX Press Release

See also:

Good News for Everybody who has a Brain

December 19, 2008

Brain in Jar photo

Rejuvenating The Brain
A study published in The EMBO Journal has identified proteins (calpain and cortactin) that help regulate the sprouting of connections between neurons, a phenomenon known as neural plasticity.

Neurons, or nerve cells, process and transmit information by electrochemical signalling and are the core components of the brain and spinal cord. During development, growing neurons are relatively plastic and can sprout new connections, however their plasticity levels drop rapidly as they mature and become integrated into neuronal networks. […]

“This discovery is exciting because we now know that neurons haven’t lost their capacity to re-grow connections, but instead are under constant repression by the protein calpain. If we can target therapies that block this mechanism, then neurons should be able to sprout new connections, therefore stimulating the brain’s ability to repair its wiring network.” […]

“The next step is to find a way to enhance neural plasticity without interfering with the good connections that are already in place.”

This surely has positive implications for the fight to extend healthy life in humans. For more on this topic, see Aubrey de Grey’s TED talk and his book Ending Aging.

Sources: Physorg, The University of British Columbia

Iodine Deficiency is Reducing the World’s I.Q.

December 4, 2008

Salt Shaker photo

Sadly, cost-effectiveness isn’t always a priority when it comes to humanitarian aid. In the same way that in the environmental sector it is common knowledge that cute endangered animals will receive more help than ugly ones, ease of marketing is also a big factor when it comes to helping our fellow humans. But if the people who manage aid funds (either voluntary charitable donations or tax money) looked for the biggest bang for the buck, salt iodization would become a priority and the world would be a better place.

From a Nicholas D. Kristof op-ed:

Almost one-third of the world’s people don’t get enough iodine from food and water. The result in extreme cases is large goiters that swell their necks, or other obvious impairments such as dwarfism or cretinism. But far more common is mental slowness.

When a pregnant woman doesn’t have enough iodine in her body, her child may suffer irreversible brain damage and could have an I.Q. that is 10 to 15 points lower than it would otherwise be. An educated guess is that iodine deficiency results in a needless loss of more than 1 billion I.Q. points around the world.

A campaign to iodize salt would cost about 2-3 cents per person reached per year, and it could probably be less since once awareness has be raised salt makers would add iodine to their products because it would become a competitive advantage that would pay for itself.

There is another New York Times article from 2006 on this subject: In Raising the World’s I.Q., the Secret’s in the Salt.

If you want to help (and not just with iodine, but also with vitamin A, folic acid, iron, and zinc), check out the The MicroNutrient Initiative, a Canadian non-profit “dedicated to ensuring that the world’s most vulnerable-especially women and children in developing countries-get the vitamins and minerals they need to survive and thrive.”

Addendum: Of course here “I.Q.” is used as shorthand for “intelligence” (whatever that means), and whatever happens, I.Q. will still be periodically normalized to average 100. That’s beside the point that making poor people healthier and smarter is a good thing in itself, and would indirectly lead to more good things.

The Risks of Failure of Nuclear Deterrence

November 26, 2008

Nuclear Warheads photo

Martin Hellman is a professor at Stanford, one of the co-inventors of public-key cryptography, and the creator of He has recently published an excellent essay about the risks of failure of nuclear deterrence: Soaring, Cryptography and Nuclear Weapons. (also available on PDF)

I highly recommend that you read it, along with the other resources on, and also subscribe to their newsletter (on the left on the frontpage).

There are also chapters on Nuclear War and Nuclear Terrorism in Global Catastrophic Risks (intro freely available as PDF here).

Update: Here’s a Martin Hellman quote from a piece he wrote called Work on Technology, War & Peace:

You have a right to know the risk of locating a nuclear power plant near your home and to object if you feel that risk is too high. Similarly, you should have a right to know know the risk of relying on nuclear weapons for our national security and to object if you feel that risk is too high. But almost no effort has gone into estimating that risk. To remedy that lack of information, this effort urgently calls for in-depth studies of the risk associated with nuclear deterrence.

While this new project may seem to have a much more modest goal than Beyond War, there is tremendous hidden potential: My preliminary analysis indicates that the risk from relying on nuclear weapons is thousands of times greater than is prudent. If the results of the proposed studies are anywhere near my preliminary estimate, those studies then become merely the first step in a long-term process of risk reduction. Because many later steps in that process seem impossible from our current vantage point, it is better to leave them to be discovered as the process unfolds, thereby removing objections that the effort is not rooted in reality.

Humans are Tone Deaf to Probabilistic Reasoning

October 30, 2008

In his book The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker makes an interesting point about the fact that our brains haven’t evolved to intuitively grasp probabilities. It is an acquired skill like reading, not something innate like walking.

This can lead to scenarios like this:

Some experts are describing the risks of accident at some nuclear waste storage site. They describe various conceivable sequences of events that could lead to failure. For example, accidental drilling in the wrong place, erosion, undetected cracks in the rocks, which could lead to groundwater contamination. Then natural water movement, or volcanic activity, or a large meteorite impact could damage the site and release radioactive materials in the biosphere. The experts will estimate the probability of each event, or each chain of event, and numbers like 1 in X millions will come up.

To the experts, this is reassuring. They are basically saying: “This is pretty damn safe.” But they are speaking a different language from most people.

As Pinker says:

“When people hear these analyses, however, they are not reassured but become more fearful than ever — they hadn’t realized there are so, many ways for something to go wrong! They mentally tabulate the number of disaster scenarios, rather than mentally aggregating the probabilities of the disaster scenarios.”

How to make it better
How can we improve the situation in the hope that more rational decision-taking will take place? The only short-term realistic solution seems to be education. Just like we have no innate cognitive organs for abstract mathematics or reading but still can learn to use our brains to acquire these skills, we should try to make the understanding of probabilistic thinking more widespread.

We don’t expect people who have never studied physics at all to be any good at it, so why do we expect that decision-makers (and the voters/shareholders that supports them) will be able to understand probabilities – especially in complex situations – when they weigh the pros and cons of some proposal.

Automatically Duplicating Keys from Photos

October 29, 2008

Duplicating Keys

This is one of those ideas that once you see you wonder why it hasn’t been done before. Well, it certainly was done often, but probably by expert locksmiths doing it manually… This software could simplify the whole procedure by an order of magnitude, making it accessible to any amateur.

UC San Diego computer scientists have built a software program that can perform key duplication without having the key. Instead, the computer scientists only need a photograph of the key. […]

In one demonstration of the new software system, the computer scientists took pictures of common residential house keys with a cell phone camera, fed the image into their software which then produced the information needed to create identical copies. In another example, they used a five inch telephoto lens to capture images from the roof of a campus building and duplicate keys sitting on a café table more than 200 feet away. […]

“If you go onto a photo-sharing site such as Flickr, you will find many photos of people’s keys that can be used to easily make duplicates. While people generally blur out the numbers on their credit cards and driver’s licenses before putting those photos on-line, they don’t realize that they should take the same precautions with their keys” said Savage.

It will take a little while before this technology is used by the common thief, but it’s only a matter of time before the software is freely available online and key-making machines that can take digital input are available, making duplicating keys easier (and safer) than other ways of breaking into houses.

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Source: Physorg

See also: Overestimating the CIA?