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Posts Tagged ‘science

[LINK] “If software looks like a brain and acts like a brain—will we treat it like one?”

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I have been sitting on Jenny Morber’s Ars Technica article about the treatment of artificial intelligence since last February. Myself, I’m inclined to favour treating artificial intelligences well, and not only because I believe in their potential. What kind of a society is it where the abuse of apparently sentient beings is normalized? (This is one reason, incidentally, why Star Wars‘ universe is unpleasant for me: What of the droids?)

Long the domain of science fiction, researchers are now working to create software that perfectly models human and animal brains. With an approach known as whole brain emulation (WBE), the idea is that if we can perfectly copy the functional structure of the brain, we will create software perfectly analogous to one. The upshot here is simple yet mind-boggling. Scientists hope to create software that could theoretically experience everything we experience: emotion, addiction, ambition, consciousness, and suffering.

“Right now in computer science, we make computer simulations of neural networks to figure out how the brain works,” Anders Sandberg, a computational neuroscientist and research fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, told Ars. “It seems possible that in a few decades we will take entire brains, scan them, turn them into computer code, and make simulations of everything going on in our brain.”

Everything. Of course, a perfect copy does not necessarily mean equivalent. Software is so… different. It’s a tool that performs because we tell it to perform. It’s difficult to imagine that we could imbue it with those same abilities that we believe make us human. To imagine our computers loving, hungering, and suffering probably feels a bit ridiculous. And some scientists would agree.

But there are others—scientists, futurists, the director of engineering at Google—who are working very seriously to make this happen.

For now, let’s set aside all the questions of if or when. Pretend that our understanding of the brain has expanded so much and our technology has become so great that this is our new reality: we, humans, have created conscious software. The question then becomes how to deal with it.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 22, 2016 at 4:04 pm

[LINK] On the disappearance of Lake Poopo, second-largest lake of Bolivia

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The Toronto Star features Carlos Valdez’s Associated Press article looking at the alarming scale of the catastrophe in Bolivia.

Overturned fishing skiffs lie abandoned on the shores of what was Bolivia’s second-largest lake. Beetles dine on bird carcasses and gulls fight for scraps under a glaring sun in what marshes remain.

Lake Poopo was officially declared evaporated last month. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people have lost their livelihoods and gone.

High on Bolivia’s semi-arid Andean plains at 3,700 metres and long subject to climatic whims, the shallow saline lake has essentially dried up before only to rebound to twice the area of Los Angeles.

But recovery may no longer be possible, scientists say.

“This is a picture of the future of climate change,” says Dirk Hoffman, a German glaciologist who studies how rising temperatures from the burning of fossil fuels has accelerated glacial melting in Bolivia.

As Andean glaciers disappear so do the sources of Poopo’s water. But other factors are in play in the demise of Bolivia’s second-largest body of water behind Lake Titicaca.

Drought caused by the recurrent El Nino meteorological phenomenon is considered the main driver. Authorities say another factor is the diversion of water from Poopo’s tributaries, mostly for mining but also for agriculture.

National Geographic has more.

Lake Poopó gets most of its water from the Desaguadero River, which flows from Lake Titicaca (Bolivia’s largest lake). According to the published management plan, water managers are supposed to allow flow down the river into Poopó, but they have recently allowed that to slow to a trickle.

Titicaca has plenty of water in it, so that’s not the problem, Borre says. Officials just aren’t opening control gates often enough to send water down the river. Some of the water is being diverted for agriculture and mining. And even when water is available, the river is often clogged with sedimentation, due to the runoff from development and mining in the area.

Poopó is high, at 12,000 feet (3,680 meters), and the area has warmed an estimated one degree Celsius over the past century, leading to an increase in the rate of evaporation from the lake. And the lack of rain over the past year has sped the process even further. But these factors weren’t surprises, Borre says, they were foreseeable changes that scientists anticipated.

What happened to Lake Poopó is not unlike the drying of the vast Aral Sea in Central Asia, says Sandra Postel, director of the Global Water Policy Project and a National Geographic Explorer. In both cases, a closed water system was overdrawn, with more water going out than coming in.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 22, 2016 at 3:54 pm

[LINK] “Jumping Spiders Can Think Ahead, Plan Detours”

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National Geographic‘s Michael Greshko notes the unusual intelligence of a certain kind of predatory spider. (Beautiful pictures, if you’re into this.)

With brains the size of a sesame seed, jumping spiders may seem like mental lightweights.

But a new study shows that many species plan out intricate detours to reach their prey—smarts usually associated with far bigger creatures.

The arachnids, already well known for their colors and elaborate mating rituals, have sharp vision and an impressive awareness of three-dimensional space.

“Their vision is more on par with vertebrates,” says Damian Elias of the University of California, Berkeley, who wasn’t involved in the new research. “And that allows them to do things that are physically impossible for other animals that size.”

Jumping spiders of the subfamily Spartaeinae (spar-TAY-in-ay) are particularly ambitious—they eat other spiders. Researchers suspect that preying on other predators requires extra intelligence and cunning.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 22, 2016 at 3:51 pm

[CAT] “Here’s why cats have such weird eyes”

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Science Alert carried Julia Calderone’s Business Insider article looking at the science behind the cat’s eye.

Cats have some of the most unique eyes in the animal world: Instead of having circular pupils like humans, the black parts in the centres of their eyes are vertical – which can adapt quickly and can open and close like the aperture of a camera. Why are cat eyes so special? It all comes down to how they use their vision, new research says.

By analysing 214 different species of land animals, researchers at UC Berkeley found that the way animals spend their day determines the shape of their pupils. The team published their study on 7 August 2015 in the journal Science Advances.

Pupil shape and size determines how much light gets to the eyes – and is then translated by the brain into a picture of the world around us. When it’s dark out our pupils expand to let in more light and enhance our vision, but when it’s bright out, our pupils get smaller to prevent overstimulation. Cat eyes do the same thing, but with much more finesse than humans.

Previous research has suggested that the thin-slitted pupils of domesticated house cats and other predatory animals allow for a wider range of muscle movements and for more light to enter the eye.

Thin slits in cats – as opposed to circular pupils – allow for a huge change between the constricted and dilated states, and are capable of undergoing a 135-to-300-fold change in area. Human pupils, for comparison, can only change their pupil area 15-fold, according to a press release from UC Berkeley.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 16, 2016 at 9:03 pm

Posted in Science

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[LINK] “Climate Change Is Throwing Ocean Food Webs Out of Whack”

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Wired‘s Chelsea Leu writes about the potential for climate change to disrupt the écologies of the oceans in any number of ways, some of which are–plausibly–wholly unknown.

For a whole month this year, the world’s atmosphere contained more than 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide, on average. That’s more CO2 than the atmosphere has seen for hundreds of thousands of years, and those levels just keep going up.

All that carbon in the atmosphere means hotter global temperatures and more severe weather, of course. But scientists have less of an idea of what climate change will do to the ocean—a complex, difficult-to-study realm that’s due for huge chemical and ecological shifts. And that’s worrying, because the oceans are also a big carbon sink and the source of sustenance for most life on Earth.

Some changes are pretty certain, says Charlie Stock, a climate modeler at NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Lab. The ocean of the future will be warmer than it is today. And its structure will also be different—less-dense warm water will stack on top of a layer of cold water, with less mixing between the two. “Ocean productivity is basically bringing together nutrients and light,” Stock says. Deeper water has more nutrients; the surface gets more light. If less often the twain shall meet, overall productivity could go down.

And a warming ocean jumbles up where animals can survive. Fish tend to follow the water that’s just the right temperature for them, so eventually, Stock says, tropical fish could end up in normally temperate waters. Some species’ habitats will get squeezed—especially animals adapted to very specific conditions at the poles. And critters at the equator have to deal with ocean temperatures that are warmer than they’re used to.

The ocean’s chemical changes are especially wrenching for denizens of deep water, says Lisa Levin, a biologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, in a paper published in Science today. They’ve adapted to living conditions that don’t change very often, and they tend to live longer and grow more slowly than their shallow water counterparts. So they’re sensitive: An uptick of one degree temperature-wise can push deep-water corals to the edge of their tolerance, and more acidic waters (from more carbon dioxide) make it much harder for them to build their chalky skeletons. That’s bad news, because those corals form the foundation (literally and figuratively) of entire ecosystems. “We could cross thresholds we don’t even know about,” she says.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 16, 2016 at 5:35 pm

[LINK] “Gulf of St. Lawrence hits record-high temperature”

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CBC reports on the warming of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

The Gulf of St. Lawrence reached its highest recorded average temperature in a century in 2015, scientists say.

The temperature 150 metres below the surface reached 6 C last year, the warmest in 100 years of observation.

Peter Galbraith, a research scientist with Department of Fisheries and Oceans, led the study and said he’s not surprised by the finding.

“We’ve been seeing this coming, and it’s not stopping,” he said.

The record temperature may be related to climate change, he said.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 16, 2016 at 5:30 pm

[LINK] On the latest Chang’e lunar missions of China

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The Planetary Society’s Emily Lakdawalla wrote about China’s exciting new plans for Moon exploration.

An article about Chang’e 4 appeared on the website of China Daily today, and it contains a small amount of news about China’s present and future lunar exploration plans. Thanks to @sinodefence on Twitter for the link and to scientist Quanzhi Ye for some help with translating the news.

It had already been reported that China planned to send Chang’e 4 (the backup model of the Chang’e 3 lander) to the lunar farside. The intent to land on the farside was announced on the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program website on December 2. The China Daily News article mentions launch dates, and they’re earlier than previously discussed. A communications relay satellite (based on the design of Chang’e 2) will be launched in June of 2018, and will take up a position at the Moon-Earth L2 point, where it will be able to see both the landing site and Earth. The lander will be launched at the end of 2018. There is still no official word on what the lander’s scientific payload will be, or even if it will carry another rover. Interestingly, the article mentions some kind of public involvement in the payload development. China already has experience navigating lunar orbiters to the L2 point. [. . .]

Guokr — a Chinese blog site that often hosts science-related content — posted a blog with a little more information about the planned Chang’e 4 mission. This is not an official source! The Guokr blog mentions the south pole-Aitken basin as a possible landing site.[. . .]

The China Daily News article also talks about “successful completion” of the Chang’e 3 mission. This does not mean the end of the mission, but rather an official statement that Chang’e 3 has been successful. Monthly contact with Chang’e 3 continues, although it’s not clear if it is still doing scientific observations. A review paper about Chang’e 3 recently appeared in the literature, which helped lunar mapper Phil Stooke update his maps of the Chang’e 3 landing site, likely for the final time. Here’s an overview, including the lovely names for the mini-craters observed by the lander during its descent:

More, including links and maps and photos, at the site.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 15, 2016 at 6:55 pm

Posted in Science

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