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.
The 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!
Researchers 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."
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.
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:
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.
Human 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!
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.
Reducing 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
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 treating 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.
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 there 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.
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
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.
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".