10 Questions with SIAI President Michael Vassar

June 10 2009 / by Alvis Brigis / In association with Future Blogger.net
Category: Social Issues   Year: 2009   Rating: 1

michael_vassar.jpg

Recently appointed Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence (SIAI) President Michael Vassar, a hardcore proponent of science and reason, emphasizes the importance of "human rationality" when discussing the future, making clear that SIAI is an "analytical think tank and research organization, not an advocacy group".  Vassar says he's apprehensive about a "possible decrease in the quality of debate as the [Singularity] goes mainstream" and that he would find a public backlash against intelligent debate of a Singularity "odd".

Enjoy the candid and insightful interview.

FB: What are your main near-term goals at SIAI? 
  • Put on a 2009 summit and establish a regular schedule of summits on alternating coasts and with a regular format.
  • Develop a body of technical and popular position papers and analysis that reflect our current views.
  • Develop software to help interested people to explore the future forecasting consequences of a range of assumptions.
  • Organize, probably with the Future of Humanity Institute, an essay contest in order to identify novel global catastrophic risks deserving of more serious analysis and drawing attention to the idea of rational treatment of catastrophic possibilities.
  • Reinvent Enlightenment values by building a better forum than currently exists for rational deliberation and cooperative analysis and decision making.
  • Most critically, as always, identify and train potential friendly AI researchers.
FB: Has the organization undergone any significant strategic or tactical shifts since you assumed the Executive Director position?

MV: Our efforts to develop a rigorous theory of Friendly Artificial Intelligence will continue, but our public outreach efforts will focus less narrowly on AI and more on the Singularity more generally and on promoting human rationality.

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Oregon Researchers Use Nano-shells of Algae to Trap Photons and Improve Solar Cell Efficiency

April 19 2009 / by Garry Golden / In association with Future Blogger.net
Category: Energy   Year: General   Rating: 5 Hot

Oregon Diatom SolarThe Future of Energy will be based on our ability to elegantly control the interactions of light, carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and metals.  And for all our engineering prowress of extracting and blowing up ancient bio-energy reserves (coal/oil), there is still so much to learn about basic energy systems from Mother Nature.

Laying Down Algae Shells for Solar Panels
Researchers from Oregon State University and Portland State University have developed a new way to make “dye-sensitized” solar cells using a 'bottom up' biological assembly processes over traditional silicon chemical engineering.

The teams are working with a type of solar cell that generates energy when 'photons bounce around like they were in a pinball machine, striking these dyes and producing electricity.'

Rather than build the solar cells using traditional technqiues, the team is tapping the outer shells of single-celled algae, known as diatoms, to improve the electrical output. (Diatoms are believed to be the ancient bio-source of petroleum.)

The team placed the algae on a transparent conductive glass surface, and then (removed) the living organic material, leaving behind the tiny skeletons of the diatoms to form a template that is integrated with nanoparticles of titanium dioxide to complete the solar cell design.

Biology's Nanostructured Shells & Bouncing Photons?
“Conventional thin-film, photo-synthesizing dyes also take photons from sunlight and transfer it to titanium dioxide, creating electricity,” said Greg Rorrer, an OSU professor of chemical engineering “But in this system the photons bounce around more inside the pores of the diatom shell, making it more efficient.”

The research team is still not clear how the process works, but 'the tiny holes in diatom shells appear to increase the interaction between photons and the dye to promote the conversion of light to electricity... potentially with a triple output of electricity.' 

According to the team, this is the 'first reported study of using a living organism to controllably fabricate semiconductor TiO2 nanostructures by a bottom-up self-assembly process.'  So, chalk up another early win for advanced bio-energy manufacturing strategies!

 

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'Self-Cleaning' Surface Coating Improves Solar Cell Performance

March 27 2009 / by Garry Golden / In association with Future Blogger.net
Category: Energy   Year: General   Rating: 2

gtResearchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have developed a unique super-'hydrophobic' (water repelling) surface coating that 'boosts the light absorption of silicon photovoltaic cells both by trapping light in three-dimensional structures, and by making the surfaces self-cleaning allowing rain or dew to wash away the dust and dirt that can accumulate on photovoltaic arrays'.

The 'self cleaning' design mimics the water repelling surface of a lotus leaf, 'which uses surface roughness at two different size scales to create high contact angles that encourage water from rain or (desert dew) condensation to bead up and run off. As the water runs off, it carries with it any surface dust or dirt – which also doesn't adhere because of the unique surface properties'.

"The more sunlight that goes into the photovoltaic cells and the less that reflects back, the higher the efficiency can be," said C.P. Wong, Regents' professor in Georgia Tech's School of Materials Science and Engineering. "Our simulations show that we can potentially increase the final efficiency of the cells by as much as two percent with this surface structure."

"A normal silicon surface reflects a lot of the light that comes in, but by doing this texturing, the reflection is reduced to less than five percent," said Dennis Hess, a professor in the Georgia Tech School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. "As much as 10 percent of the light that hits the cells is scattered because of dust and dirt of the surface. If you can keep the cells clean, in principle you can increase the efficiency. Even if you only improve this by a few percent, that could make a big difference."

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Cognitive Research Findings May Help Explain Social Brinkmanship

March 20 2009 / by Alvis Brigis / In association with Future Blogger.net
Category: Science   Year: 2009   Rating: 2

New cognitive research may help explain why human social systems prefer to push the envelope, creating critical "perfect storm" situations, instead of settling into equilibrium.

Ledge

If the global social brain is really just a scaled-up version of the individual brain, which in turn can also be viewed as an accelerator of existing bio-computional processes, then we should expect to uncover increasingly more parallels between individual and social cognition.  One such candidate is the phenomenon called Self-Organized Criticality, a form of inherent "brinkmanship" routinely found in advancing systems, particularly as they approach phase transitions.

Here's the more robust Wikipedia definition and links:

In physics, self-organized criticality (SOC) is a property of (classes of) dynamical systemscritical point as an attractor. Their macroscopic behaviour thus displays the spatial and/or temporal scale-invariance characteristic of the critical point of a phase transition, but without the neecliff_dont_walk.jpgd to tune control parameters to precise values.

The phenomenon was first identified by Katz in a seminal paper published in 1986 in Journal of Geophysical Research, building on earlier work by Knopoff, and later popularized by Per Bak, Chao Tang and Kurt Wiesenfeld ("BTW") in a paper published in 1987 in Physical Review Letters, and is considered to be one of the mechanisms by which complexity arises in nature. Its concepts have been enthusiastically applied across fields as diverse as geophysics, physical cosmology, evolutionary biology and ecology, economics, quantum gravity, sociology, solar physics, plasma physics, neurobiology and others.

A new U.K. study confirms that human brains do in fact rely on self-organized criticality for behaviors that may range from perception to action, reports World Science:

The re­search­ers used brain im­ag­ing tech­niques to meas­ure dy­nam­ic changes in the syn­chron­iz­a­tion of ac­ti­vity be­tween dif­fer­ent re­gions of the func­tion­al net­work in the hu­man brain. They al­so in­ves­t­i­gated the syn­chron­iz­a­tion of ac­ti­vity in com­puta­t­ional mod­els, and found that the “dy­nam­ic pro­file” they had iden­ti­fied in the brain was ex­actly re­flected in the mod­els.

Com­puta­t­ional net­works show­ing these char­ac­ter­is­tics have al­so been shown to have the best mem­o­ry and in­forma­t­ion-processing ca­pacity, re­search­ers say: crit­i­cal sys­tems can re­spond quickly and ex­ten­sively to small changes in their in­puts.

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How Many Hydrogen Or Carbon Atoms Can You Fit On A Football Field? How Many Football Fields Can You Fit In Your Pocket?

March 13 2009 / by Garry Golden / In association with Future Blogger.net
Category: Energy   Year: General   Rating: 2

MOF Football FieldHuman beings have mastered the brute-force era of ‘energy by engineering’ where we’ve pulled stored energy from the Earth locked up as coal, oil and natural gas.  But we are just beginning to achieve a more Zen-like ability to manipulate molecules that we harness and store ourselves.

Energy is about the interaction of molecules.  And the way human beings can create cleaner energy interactions is by designing materials at the nanoscale to achieve unprecedented performance.  Surface area is a key piece to this puzzle.

One Gram = One Football Field = How many molecules?
Now, imagine holding a material in your hand that was made up of tiny nano-sized ‘cages’ that could hold gas molecules like hydrogen and carbon.  Now imagine a gram of this material having the surface area of a football field.  How many hydrogen or carbon molecules could you fit in that space?   We don't yet know what practical storage systems might yield. This is a big question for energy researchers.

A research team led by University of Michigan’s Adam Matzger has created a novel nanoporous material known as UMCM-2 (University of Michigan Crystalline Material-2) that could claim the world record for surface area with more than 5,000 square meters per gram.

"Surface area is an important, intrinsic property that can affect the behavior of materials in processes ranging from the activity of catalysts to water detoxification to purification of hydrocarbons," Matzger said.   That means we can design high surface area materials to scrub carbon leaving cleaner hydrogen bonds, or desalinate water using less energy. 

Until recently the threshold for surface area was 3,000 square meters per gram. Then in 2004, a U-M team that included Matzger reported development of a material known as MOF-177 (metal-organic frameworks) that has the surface area of a football field.

"Pushing beyond that point has been difficult," Matzger said, but apparently not impossible using a new method of coordination copolymerization.  If it's hard to get your head around, just think: Building Legos wth Molecules! That's a Big Idea!

Related posts on The Energy Roadmap.com

 

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Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells Take a Big Step Towards Clinical Applications

March 04 2009 / by Bora / In association with Future Blogger.net
Category: Biotechnology   Year: 2009   Rating: 9 Hot

This week, researchers from Canada and Scotland made a major advancement in the field of stem cell biology. They discovered a method to successfully reprogram somatic cells into stem cells without the use of viruses.

Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) are a type of stem cells derived from adult somatic cells by forcing expression of genes shown to sufficiently reprogram somatic cells into stem cells. iPSCs have been shown to possess key characteristics of embryonic stem cells (ESCs), the most important of which is the ability to give rise to cells of all three germ layers. iPSCs are an ideal source of stem cells because they circumvent the need for human embryos to generate stem cells. Additionally, because they can be generated from one’s own somatic cells which are readily available, iPSCs can be used for patient-specific therapies, thereby reducing the risk of immune rejection.

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Waterproofing sand with nano-coatings developed to slow desertification

February 05 2009 / by Garry Golden / In association with Future Blogger.net
Category: Environment   Year: General   Rating: 2

Nanosand Pankaj SharmaReducing the amount of water needed to grow crops and prevent massive desertification could dramatically reduce the need for energy used in producing fertilizers, irrigation and desalination.

Hydrophobic Sand
Nanowerk has featured a story written by Derek Baldwin of Xpress News on the development and use of layers of hydrophobic (water resistant) sand that prevents water from evaporating to keep it closer to the root systems.

The nano-coated sand could be used as a sub-layer for farming, urban landscaping, and a wide range of eco-friendly industrial applications like oil spills. 

The proprietary coating process was developed by UAE-based DIME Hydrophobic Materials working with German scientist Helmut F. Schulze.  The product's performance has been verified by a German materials testing agency (without details on coating's own  environmental impact or longevity) and is now in pilot projects in the United Arab Emirates.
Visit: Photo Gallery/Pankaj Sharma

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[Video] What is the Future of Nanotechnology?

February 01 2009 / by Garry Golden
Category: Technology   Year: Beyond   Rating: 2

This mashup video project created by students in a Brown University Global Media course (2007) integrates various video clips that ask: What is nanotechnology?

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Progress on Stem Cells and Spinal Cord Injuries

January 30 2009 / by Jeff Hilford / In association with Future Blogger.net
Category: Biotechnology   Year: 2009   Rating: 7 Hot

There's no actual change in policy from the Obama administration on the stem cell front yet but some exciting things are happening and you can feel the pace picking up.  In the past week Geron Technologies announced that they have received FDA clearance to put their GRNOPC1 into clinical human trials and researchers in Spain also announced that they had had success in 120px-Mouse_embryonic_stem_cells-1.jpgtreating lab rats with significant spinal injuries.  While both studies have achieved impressive results in lab animals, a primary difference is that Geron uses embryonic stem cells to derive their hESC oligodendrocyte progenitor cells while the Spanish team used adult stem cells from tissue in the injured rats themselves to get their progenitor cells.  Miodrag Stojkovic, who headed up the study done in Spain, said that "we need both adult and embryonic stem cells to understand our body and apply this knowledge in regenerative medicine."

It's worth noting that the success has come with injuries where the spinal cord has been traumatically compromised but not entirely severed.  Also, the success in the rat recovery process has been demonstrated in injuries treated within 7-14 days of occurrence.  Though there is hope that treatments will be derived for those whose injuries are older, rapid application seems to be key and has also been found effective in treating a variety of neural injuries including stroke and brain trauma.

The Myth of Calorie Restriction and Life Extension

January 24 2009 / by Jeff Hilford / In association with Future Blogger.net
Category: Social Issues   Year: General   Rating: 5 Hot

Much has been made of Caloric Restriction (CR) and how it is the one true life-extension strategy currently available.  In countless articles and videos it has been given much attention and Fatmouse2.jpgthere are a bunch of folks whose stomachs are growling as we speak that will be disappointed to learn that this strategy may be flawed.

A new study by Raj Sohal and Michael Forster recapped on EurekAlert! shows that CR is essentially only effective when "an animal eats more than it can burn off."  The problem it seems is that it really only works for obese mice and has little or no benefit for those who aren't.

The study looked at two different genetically altered strains of mice - basically a fat mouse and a skinny mouse (I think this may have sitcom potential).  The takeaway was that calorie restriction helped the mouse that had been programmed to double its weight over its lifespan while it did not extend the life of the skinny mouse.  In fact, when CR is started later in life they found that it actually shortened the lifespans of leaner test subjects.  The authors noted that previous studies have also demonstrated that wild mice experience minimal life-extension benefits from CR.

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2063 A.D.: Future Predictions from the Past: Space Travel, Lunar Bases and Cheap Energy

January 20 2009 / by Garry Golden / In association with Future Blogger.net
Category: Technology   Year: Beyond   Rating: 2

2063 BookletOnline book publisher Lulu.com has a great look at past future predictions in its 'Paleo-Futures' storefront:

The booklet 2063 A.D. (Free PDF download; $25.30 print) was published by General Dynamics Astronautics, and placed into a time capsule in July of 1963.

Only 200 copies were ever printed. The 50 page book contains predictions by scientists, politicians, astronauts and military commanders about the state of space exploration in the year 2063.

As you'd suspect, given General Dynamic's business, there are many predictions about space travel, lunar bases and cheap energy resources. (So there is still time yet for their forecasts to come true!)

Lulu's edition is a reprint made from scans of the original 1963 book.

If you like this type of historical futures also check out the blog Paleo Future

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The Centralization AND Decentralization of Science

January 14 2009 / by Alvis Brigis / In association with Future Blogger.net
Category: Science   Year: General   Rating: 2

In his first ever post on the NYTimes' The Wild Side blog, biologist Aaron Hirsch describes what he sees as the increasing centralization and decentralization of scienctific processes.  These new approaches, he argues, are driving larger and more complex efforts to generate more useful useful data in different ways.

Centralization: Across many different fields, new data are generated by a smaller and smaller number of bigger and bigger projects. And with this process of centralization come changes in what scientists measure — and even in what scientists are.Centralization of Information

Hirsch attributes this to the high cost of powerful machines and technologies that can quickly generate results that otherwise would take far longer to discover.  This new dependence on massive facilities or operations, he argues, is changing the nature of the scientist.

It’s not only scientific instruments, but also the scientists themselves who are transformed by centralization. If the 19th century was an age of far-flung investigators alone in the wilderness or the book-lined study, the 21st century is, so far, an age of scientists as administrators.

Decentralization: Simultaneously, we are are experiencing a huge decentralization of much of our scientific process through projects such as SETI that tap the distributed power of personal laptops.  Hirsch labels this "Citizen Science".

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