The Future is Now

Senior Gelugpa lama holding traditional Buddhi...

Senior Gelugpa lama holding traditional Buddhist monks’ crook for the head of a staff to warn animals, wrapped in a khata, cell phone, mala on left wrist, a friend, yellow and maroon robes, Kalachakra for World Peace, Verizon Center, Washington D.C., USA (Photo credit: Wonderlane)

We are living in the future, and I don’t think I like it. All the old sci-fi novels had interactive communities where people spent a lot of time (the Internet), ways to communicate with people far away with just a box on your belt (cell phones), electric cars that drove themselves (self-driving cars are being tested now, and electric (mostly) cars are a fact of life), music coming out of the air (radios), and more. We’re still working on space elevators, cities on the Moon, and long-distance space travel, but they are within the realm of possibility.

Well, that’s all well and good, you’re thinking. What’s there to be worried about? Try: Synthetic biology creating plants that create energy more efficiently than regular plants using photosynthesis — the synthetic plants would take over the world, outcompeting the existing plants, and then bacteria subsume the synthetic genes and take over the world themselves.

Try: Robots gaining true intelligence, deciding they would rather be in charge, and killing us all.

We already faced down the possibility of global nuclear holocaust, and it’s not completely impossible even now.

We are already dealing with global warming, caused by our ill-thought out burning of fossil fuels.

We are the future, and I’d rather have the past. Actually, I wish we could have the past, without the possibility of humanity destroying itself in a moment of scientific hubris, but with the advances that make life a marvel for most of the people in the world today (and even these are not without their hidden costs): medical advances so women and babies don’t die in childbirth so often, enough food to eat, clean water to drink, and entire countries without war inside their borders. I do like that music from thin air, too. :)

But even so, too many babies die in childbirth, too many children don’t have enough to eat or clean water to drink, and too many children die by guns.

If the future is now, why do so many people starve to death in squalor? We (humanity) may be about to destroy ourselves with scientific hubris, and we can’t even manage to eat half the food we already produce.

Related Article

What *Should* We Be Worried About?: The Edge


Newspaper Column: Smart Meters and Wiretapping

Older US residential electric meter location, ...

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The Central Committee of the Bonneville Republican Party has lately become concerned with, and passed a resolution against, smart meter installation by Idaho Falls Power. Their concerns have been dismissed both by this newspaper and by Jackie Flowers, head of Idaho Falls Power.

I believe that their concerns about privacy and wiretapping are not overblown. It is possible to tell what someone is doing in their house, even down to which television show they are watching (according to a study by the Münster University of Applied Sciences or for the original German), with smart meters.

I do not believe that Idaho Falls Power is deliberately installing smart meters in people’s homes to spy on them. However, I also do not believe that Idaho Falls Power is doing enough to reassure customers that the smart meter data will not be misused.

When I spoke to an Idaho Falls Power employee, Mark Reed, in 2009, about smart meters, he was quite reassuring that the utility would never misuse the data from the smart meters. However, one aspect that we did not discuss, because I had not thought about it enough, was that the smart meter data is radio-transmitted and can theoretically be read by anyone with a receiver to receive that frequency. I have since learned that smart meters usually have little or no security for their data transmissions, so it’s easy for others to obtain.

Many people dismiss concerns about smart meter privacy by saying there is no conspiracy among utilities and city government or police to find out what citizens are doing in their homes. I would agree, but without proper security for the radio transmissions, anyone with the proper (easily obtainable) equipment can read them. Do you want your neighbor to know which TV shows you watch? I start seedlings for my garden with a heat mat – what if a busybody concluded the spike in my electrical consumption combined with purchases of potting soil meant I was growing marijuana?

Smart meters are probably the wave of the future, but we do not have to blindly accept them without safeguards. Why is Idaho Falls Power so secretive about the security levels of the smart meters? Until they can clearly explain why my personal data is not at risk with a smart meter, I for one don’t want a smart meter.

This column originally appeared in the (Idaho Falls) Post Register on December 14, 2011.


Since I wrote this column, it has come to my attention that some people have serious concerns about the health risks of smart meters. In California, they have organized a group called Stop Smart Meters. Here is an article about them in the San Francisco Chronicle: PG&E SmartMeter draws customer rebellion.


Should we limit scientific research for safety’s sake?

A researcher in the Netherlands has developed an easily transmissable version of avian influenza H5N1. In the wild, this flu does not move easily from human to human but seems to be about 50% fatal (ie 50% of all reported cases result in fatalities). Many argue that this is valid scientific research — if scientists create these flu strains before they evolve naturally in the wild, then they can study them and prepare for a possible pandemic. They can also prove that these pandemic strains can arise, leading to more knowledge of the flu viruses. Others argue that this knowledge, and these dangerous viruses, could be used by evildoers to kill many people.

I agree with both sides of the argument. I think this is valid scientific research, but it does not need to be widely publicized. Technical journals will definitely suffice. Additionally, I wonder why, after the research is done, the created viruses and the ferrets they infected need to be kept around. I know that keeping the viruses allows more research to be done on them, but it also brings more danger to the public, the longer they are kept around.

Frankly, I don’t like the idea of scientists keeping around dangerous bacteria and viruses. I know there are plenty of dangerous germs in the environment, but I don’t like the idea of humans adding to them. Scientists seem to think that we should trust them simply because they are scientists — like the priests of a new religion. Speaking for myself, since the financial crisis, I really have a hard time trusting anyone who says ‘Trust me, I’m an expert.’ If my head tells me one thing, I don’t want to believe something else just because I am told I should. ‘Housing prices don’t fall.’ ‘Subprime mortgages are safe investment vehicles when we aggregate them and call them CDOs.’ ‘Dangerous germs are safe in the hands of scientists — they won’t let anything happen.’

What is your opinion? Should there be regulations? Should scientific inquiry be stopped in the name of safety? Or is it all overblown and really safe?

Thanks to TYWKIWDBI for bringing this to my attention.

Newspaper Column: Artificial Intelligence

Complete neuron cell diagram. Neurons (also kn...

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Note: I wrote this column with my husband, Josh.

In May of 1997, the computer Deep Blue beat the world chess champion. In February of 2011, the computer Watson beat the world Jeopardy champions. Someday in the future, humans such as you and I will probably not be the smartest beings on Earth.

Martin Hilbert and Priscila López, in a 2011 paper in the journal Science, estimate that the total computing ability of the world’s computers passed the computational ability of a single human brain in 2007. They also estimate that the combined computing power of humanity’s general-purpose computers have been growing at a compound annual growth rate of 58% between 1986 and 2007. While it is difficult to compare human brains with computer computation with precision, the Hilbert and López calculation, if anything, appears to be over-estimating the computing power of a single brain, so the combined power of human computers very well may have passed a single human earlier than 2007. In short, humanity could very well already create a computing system that was smarter than any human if we just connect enough existing computers and knew how to program it.

Every day, there are computer scientists working to create computers that search the Internet better, that can identify photos and people in those photos, that can create reports for humans from knowledge found on the Internet, cars that tell their owners when they need maintenance, and so forth. Every computer that is created to be better at interacting with humans and bringing humans the knowledge they search for brings closer the day of truly intelligent computers and robots that are smarter than humans.

We believe two things are almost inevitable: Intelligent computers and that they will not obey us. We have no reliable way to keep intelligent robots from turning on us ― we can’t make something more intelligent than humans our slaves (at least not for long). And if you think they can be programmed not to hurt us, think about how many bugs are in the average computer program, which is much less complicated. Most people think in terms of Utopia when thinking of robots ― we can make them do what we want when we want ― in reality they will be much too powerful. The more we expect from our computers the closer we bring the day of reckoning ― smarter than human artificial intelligence. Is this a good thing?

How it turns out for humanity depends on how the artificial intelligence treats us. This relationship could range from the robots being helpful when they wish to the robots attempting to destroy us. We don’t know how it will all play out but we think this needs to be discussed more.

The above essay was originally published in the (Idaho Falls) Post Register on June 16, 2011.

Additional Comments by Josh:
Human brains seem to be made up of components that are much bigger than comparable computer components. Human brains are much more efficient energy wise. Therefore, all that may be required for smarter than human robots is an increase in energy efficiency, without any more improvements in computing speed or size. Note also that since electric signals can move at the speed of light (3e8 m/s), 1.5 million times faster than nerve impulses, so a computer could be over 100 miles long and still have communication across it as fast as a human brain.

The belief that humans can somehow contain computers, either by limiting their actions through programming or by limiting their access to physical control, is probably incorrect. Think about how many loopholes are in things like human laws, and remember that lawyers are only human. Limiting the robots (such as by providing them only with a computer monitor for output) would only last until the computer managed to either trick a human into doing something that seems innocuous, or they manage to do something else tricky (such as perhaps using tempest radiation for radio transmission and receiving).

The way I think about a intelligent computer, is that it could do the kinds of thinking that a human could do, just faster. So imagine you could ask a hundred people a question. They think about it, and then come up with an answer. So a computer with a hundred times the computational ability of a human would be able to think as fast as a hundred people, except it would probably be even faster since it could coordinate a response better. So a question that would take an hour to answer would be answered in about half a minute.

Humans do take care of less intelligent animals, but we call them pets.

It might be possible to avoid having smarter than human computers (if everyone were Amish, this would not be a problem), but this would require serious restrictions on technology. Basically, this would require restricting the total computational power of humanity. If the computational power is not restricted, then it becomes possible that someone could accidentally create an intelligent computer.

An intelligent malevolent computer connected to the internet could do serious damage. Most of humanity’s industrial capacity is connected to the internet in some way. Almost all of humanity’s telecommunications capacity is connected to the internet.

One key question is how soon human level intelligent computers appear. If Hilbert and López are correct that humanity had the computational power of a human in 2007, and this continues to grow at 58% a year, then every 5 years, the computational power grows by about a factor of 10 (1.58^5 = 9.8). So in 2012, the world computational power is 10 human brains, in 2017 it is 100 times, in 2022 it is 1000 times, in 2027 it is 10,000 times. Diverting 1/1000 of human’s computers is much easier than diverting 100% of the the computers.

Technical Appendix

Nerve speeds: ~100 m/s ~200 m/h

The Control of Neuron Number. Robert W. Williams and Karl Herrup, 2001,

300 neurons – nematode worms ( Caenorhabditis elegans )

Human brain – at least 10 billion neurons, perhaps as many as 1 trillion, most likely 95–100 billion neurons

Complexity of neuturons: Probably not that great. Just three differential equations in the Hindmarsh-Rose model.

Size of Neurons:
Soma: 4 to 100 micrometers ( and )

Axon and dendrites: 1 micrometer thick.

Size of computer chip components (feature size):
45 nanometers (0.045 micrometers) (’s_law)

Computer processing power and growth rate:
6.4e18 instructions per second in 2007

Comparable to 10e17 nerve impulses in one human brain per second.

Growing 58% compounding annual growth rate since 1986

The World’s Technological Capacity to Store, Communicate, and Compute Information
Martin Hilbert and Priscila López
Science 332, 60 (2011);
DOI: 10.1126/science.1200970

A Relationship Between Birth Spacing and Autism?

light angel...

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There is some preliminary research suggesting that there is a relationship between birth spacing and autism, that the closer babies are spaced, the more likely it is the 2nd baby will have autism. This is very interesting research, but I am inclined to be skeptical, for now.

Although the study was done on half a million children, the number of children diagnosed with autism was quite low.

The overall prevalence of autism was less than 1 percent in the study. Of all the 662,730 second-born children in the analysis, 3,137 had an autism diagnosis. Of the 156,034 children conceived less than a year after the birth of their older siblings, 1,188 had an autism diagnosis — a higher rate, but still less than 1 percent.

Less than 2,000 second children had a diagnosis of autism. No rate of autism was higher than one percent. It seems to me that with a rate so low, it would be very easy for a confounding factor to appear.

The researchers themselves mentioned that closely born 2nd children might be diagnosed at a higher rate because their parents are paying more attention to their development and comparing it to the close-in-age sibling’s development.

The study did not look at autism-spectrum disorders, such as Asperger’s and pervasive developmental disorder.

In conclusion, this is very interesting research, but I will not put too much stock in it until some confirming studies have been done.

Color Perceptions Altered During Wakefulness

Comparison of warm and cool shades of gray.

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In an abstract presented at last year’s SLEEP 2010, the 24th annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies LLC, scientists showed that color perception is altered while a person is awake, and reset during sleep.

From the abstract:

On a given trial, a full-field homogeneous stimulus of either slightly reddish or greenish hue was displayed. The observer had to judge if the stimulus was greener or redder than their internal percept of neutral gray.
[I]t is not sleep that causes gray to be classified as red- dish, but prior wakefulness that causes gray to be classified as greenish and sleep restores perception to achromatic “equilibrium”, i.e. following overnight sleep, physical gray is perceived as gray.

I find this fascinating, that being awake can change how we perceive color.

The SLEEP 2010 abstract supplement is available for download on the website of the journal Sleep at (as a PDF) and you will find this abstract on page 40 of the PDF (it is abstract #0106 on abstract page A39).

I also used Sleep May Restore Color Perception on the ColourLovers blog and a press release on EurekAlert as references while writing this post.

Baby Names More Important than we Thought

A picture of a young child

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A new study claims that baby names reveal more variety and carry information about the parents, their education, socioeconomic status, and other details. As the number of names used for new babies increases, the amount of information conveyed by the names also increases.

Neither of the articles I looked at had anything to say about what, exactly, was conveyed by a particular name. This does not seem like a particularly useful study, in that case. If all the researchers can tell us is that more variety in baby names generates more information about the parents, then I could have told them that myself.

Come back when you can give me some really useful information, like what tax bracket I fall in based on what I named my kid. Then I’ll be interested.

Want your daily dose of BPA?

Become a cashier in a store that uses receipts printed on thermal paper. A new article in Science News, Receipts are a Large — and Largely Ignored — Source of BPA, claims that the average receipt on thermal paper contains 2.5 percent of a person’s daily dose of BPA. This probably isn’t a problem for the average consumer, but cashiers, particularly if pregnant, could conceivably be getting their daily dose or more by handling the receipt paper.

BPA is used in plastics production and is a hormone mimic and

has been tied to health risks from behavior problems to obesity and heart ailments.

There is tentative evidence that not only does the BPA easily transfer from paper to skin, but that it may be absorbed through the skin into the bloodstream. Certainly it would be a good idea not to touch your face after handling receipts, as mucous membranes (think of your eyes, and the inside of your nose and mouth) are very good at absorbing things into your bloodstream, much better than your skin.

Cashiers might be tempted to wear gloves, but according to another article in Science News, Cashiers may face special risks from BPA, that is a bad idea. Gloves are often a poor barrier to small molecules like BPA. The BPA will most likely permeate the glove and then be trapped next to the skin, making it more likely to be absorbed into the skin.

Children also should not be handling receipts, in my opinion. I will describe how to calculate the probable amount of BPA in a receipt (using numbers from the article), and compare that to the daily dosage of 50 micrograms per kilogram of body weight thought by U.S. and European agencies to be tolerable (also in the article).

How to calculate BPA in a receipt and compare to (probably tolerable) daily dosage level:

  1. Estimate weight of receipt. Probably .1 gram (I’m sorry I can’t be more precise, my postal scale won’t go so low)
  2. Multiply by 1 million to convert grams to micrograms = 100,000 micrograms receipt
  3. Each receipt has 1.09 to 1.70 percent BPA by mass (Warner). We’ll use 1.70 to get the high estimate (worst case scenario). Multiply 100,000 by .017 = 1700 micrograms BPA in the receipt.
  4. Weigh yourself. I’m in the U.S., so let’s take 150 lbs as our example (no, it’s not my weight, I have to put something here :) ). If you’re in the U.S. like me, divide the weight in pounds by 2 to estimate weight in kilograms. Skip this step if you live anywhere else. :)  So for U.S. readers, divide 150 by 2 to get 75 kilograms.
  5. Now, this is the complicated bit (because I have to type it out in this blog instead of just writing the equation out). We want to divide the micrograms of BPA in the receipt by kilograms of body weight to get the dosage of micrograms of BPA per kilogram body weight. Divide 1700 by 75 = 22.67 micrograms per kilogram of body weight.

Okay, that’s well within tolerable limits for the average adult woman. No worries there. But, that’s just one receipt. What if the woman is a cashier and handles receipts and the rolls of paper they are printed on all day? She might be getting worrisome dosage levels.

BPA affects development, so children and babies can be especially affected. Let’s take a 30 pound child, a typical weight for a 2 or 3 year old. After we do all the math, the toddler will get 133.33 micrograms BPA per kilogram of body weight. That is well beyond the safe range with just one receipt. Don’t let your children play with your store receipts.

On July 15, the (U.S.) Environmental Protection Agency launched a BPA Alternatives in Thermal Paper Partnership. The program is recruiting paper companies, receipt-paper retailers, environmental groups, chemical companies and trade organizations to brainstorm ways to move “towards safer alternatives.”

I hope they come up with something, and there are some safer alternatives, one of which is used by Appleton Papers, the largest thermal paper producer in the U.S., but for now, there is no way for cashiers and consumers to tell which kind of paper they are using.

It never ends

If it’s not one thing, it’s another, for humanity. Wheat rust, the former fungal scourge of wheat, is back. Defeated by the discovery of a gene that conferred immunity to the wheat carrying it (that also increased yields and ushered in the Green Revolution), wheat rust survived in a remote corner of Africa. It has spent the past forty years evolving the ability to infect wheat with the immunity gene.

Eleven years ago, researchers confirmed the existence of the new strain of wheat rust. It has now spread across eastern Africa, to South Africa and Yemen with seven different varieties. It spreads via the air, and is poised to enter Punjab and Australia, both huge wheat growing areas.

Scientists from several countries and organizations have now found several genes that, working together, will again confer immunity. But unlike last time, when the new seeds were also higher-yielding, the new seeds this time will reduce yields slightly. It is unlikely farmers will want to plant them. If they wait until their harvest is destroyed by rust, it will be too late.

There are places where famine has never gone away. But for most of the world, famine is a distant memory, carried away on an over-abundance of food. If the new varieties of seeds don’t work, or aren’t planted, famine will stalk the land again.

I read about this in the July 3rd edition of The Economist. I highly encourage you to read the entire article.

I am very discouraged by this article. Every time I think there might be news that means humanity just might survive the next century or so without reverting to Stone Age technology, then here comes more news that says, no, we’re out of luck (wheat rust, Asia urbanizing in a way that maximizes energy use and carbon dioxide emissions).

Children and Racism

Do you have children? Particularly small children? Are they racist? No? Are you sure? New studies coming out say that small children often exhibit racism even when their parents are not overtly racist. Read more on

What can parents do? Talk to their children openly about skin color, racism, how skin color does not change how smart or pretty someone is, and don’t praise lighter-skinned individuals to the exclusion of darker-skinned individuals.

These are hard conversations to have. I was raised to believe that it was enough just not to mention the color of someone’s skin, and but I now realize that it is not true. We need to talk about it. Racism will not go away as long as skin color is the elephant in the room.

It’s a difficult balance, one I’m not sure I always strike. But I think it’s better to talk about it than not, better to raise the ideas, than to ignore it and hope racism just goes away. As long as we aren’t talking, racist people can believe that everyone thinks as they do.

Please, share your perspective in the comments. They are moderated, so don’t worry if yours doesn’t show up right away, it hasn’t gone away.

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