Our understanding of how things work increases every year. This increased understanding has led to ever improving technologies. When improved technology increases our ability to learn, the resulting accelleration of our intelligence approaches infinity.
Humans have an upper limit on the size and speed of their brains. Not so for machines. If machines can be programmed to learn, then machines can create a smarter machines. The smarter machine could then create an even smarter machine, etc. The result eventually leads to an intelligence that could undoubtedly solve all our problems. Global warming, disease, famine, and warfare could all be cured by such an "infinite" intelligence.
These concepts and other mind boggling ideas were presented at the Singularity Summit at Stanford University last week. The first speaker was Ray Kurzweil, whos recent 672-page book, The Singularity Is Near : When Humans Transcend Biology explains a concept known as the "singularity".
If you aren’t familiar with the concept of singularity, here is the elevator pitch:
Sometime in the next few years or decades, humanity will become capable of surpassing the upper limit on intelligence that has held since the rise of the human species. We will become capable of technologically creating smarter-than-human intelligence, perhaps through enhancement of the human brain, direct links between computers and the brain, or Artificial Intelligence. This event is called the "Singularity" by analogy with the singularity at the center of a black hole - just as our current model of physics breaks down when it attempts to describe the center of a black hole, our model of the future breaks down once the future contains smarter-than-human minds. Since technology is the product of cognition, the Singularity is an effect that snowballs once it occurs - the first smart minds can create smarter minds, and smarter minds can produce still smarter minds. —Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence
Douglas Hofstader followed Kurzweil, offering his critique of the Singularity. Hostader, professor of Cognitive Science and Computer Science Adjunct Professor of History and Philosophy of Science, Philosophy, Comparative Literature, and Psychology at the University of Indiana and the author of Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, doesn't buy into the whole Singularity vision.
I strongly recommend exploring this "Singularity" concept. I first came across it several years ago when I went to "Ask Jeeves" with my question "What is the purpose of life"? Jeeves recommended contributing to the "seed program" effort to create a "learning how to learn program" that would insure that when machines became super intelligent they would still take care of humans.
Plants first apeared on land about 450 million years ago. They reproduced in many ways, but there were no flowers. Then, about 130 million years ago, flowering plants appeared. Quickly they diversified and dominated the landscape.
How did flowering plants evolve from more primitive, nonflowering plants, such as mosses, ferns, conifers, and gingo trees? Evolutionist Charles Darwin referred to this puzzle as an "abominable mystery".
Charles Friedman now thinks he has identified the answer in a flowering plant that provides the missing evolutionary link. The species in question is the "living fossil" Amborella trichopoda, which is found only on the Pacific island of New Caledonia and diverged from the rest of the flowering plants 130 million years ago. Using sectioning and a variety of microscopic techniques, Friedman found that the plant's embryo sac, which produces the egg, has a different number of cells from those of other flowering plants (Nature, vol 441, p 337).
Friedman, is a professor in CU-Boulder's ecology and evolutionary biology department. "The study (in the May 18 issue of Nature) shows that the structure that houses the egg in Amborella is different from every other flowering plant known, and may be the potential missing link between flowering plants and their progenitors."
More significantly, the pattern of cell divisions producing the egg is reminiscent of that in other seed-forming plants such as conifers, rather than in flowering plants, making it a classic "missing link" species. "It is really fascinating as a possible holdover from primitive seed plants," says palaeobotanist James Doyle of the University of California at Davis.
Carl Ethan Akeley was born on May 19, 1864. Who was he, you wonder? He was a naturalist who developed the taxidermic method for mounting museum displays. He created anatomically correct mannikins, complete with every detail, to stretch hides over, and he mounted the animals in realistic poses. If you're at the museum, look around: there's lots of taxidermy to see, and it mostly began with the work of Carl Ethan Akeley.
The Human Genome Project, started in 1990, identifies genes and DNA sequences yielding a blueprint for human beings. This past week, a milestone in genomic research was reached. Scientists in London sequenced the last and most complex chromosome in the Human Genome-Chromosome 1.
Chromosome 1 contains nearly twice as many genes as an average chromosome and makes up eight percent of the human genetic code. Chromosome 1 is also linked to 350 illnesses including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Understanding this chromosome enables researchers to better comprehend specific diseases in turn improving diagnostic and disease treatments.
Dr. Simon Gregory, head of sequencing project in Sanger Institute in England states, “This achievement effectively closes the book on an important volume of the Human Genome Project.” Understanding our genetic make-up enables specific drug treatments. Perhaps in the future doctors will be able to look at our genetic history and prescribe medications, adjust dosage and select treatments based on a patient’s genetic information.
Researchers at the University of Massachusetts have discovered that ‘knocking out’ a specific protein found in T-cells reduces the ability of the HIV virus to use that cell to replicate.
T-cells are part of the immune system and their job is to 'eat' infectious agents, like the Human Immune Deficiency Virus (HIV). When HIV successfully infects a T-cell it renders the cell inoperative and uses it as a factory to produce more viruses. However, in order to do all of this, HIV has to penetrate the nucleus of the T-cell, the location of the DNA the virus hijacks for replication.
Scientists have discovered that HIV uses emerin, one of the T-cell’s many proteins, to penetrate the nucleus. Without emerin, HIV was less successful at penetrating the T-cell nucleus.
This discovery brings us closer to having an effective treatment for HIV—the virus that causes AIDS. AIDS is one of the most pressing public health concerns of the past years, as the epidemic continues to claim many lives.
Living in Minneapolis, I often ride my bike for exercise around the city lakes. The other day, while trying to get a ride in between rain showers, I was presented with a stunning rainbow. Actually, only a small portion of the arc was visible when I first saw it at Lake Harriet, but by the time I reached the west side of Lake Calhoun it had grown into a full blown double arced rainbow.
I stopped to admire it and regretted not having my camera with me because it was truly one of the best rainbows I had witnessed in a long time. A kid next to me, snapping a picture of it with his cell phone, wondered out loud, “How far away do you think that rainbow is?”
It was a good question and made me want to learn more about the atmospheric phenomenon.
Basically, rainbows are the result of sunlight being once reflected and twice refracted by raindrops. Certain conditions are required. First and foremost, the viewer needs to be located between the sun and rain clouds. A ray of sunlight enters an individual drop of water and is refracted (bent) as it enters, then reflected from the back of the drop, and refracted again as it exits the drop. The refractions cause the white sunlight to divide into separate colors. Each color refracts in slightly different amounts, red the least, and violet the most. A particular raindrop will reflect red light because it is positioned at just the right angle from your eye (42°). This is known as the “rainbow ray”. Another droplet located at a slightly different position will reflect blue light to your eye. Now multiply this by the innumerable suspended water droplets that make up a rain cloud, and you have a rainbow.
The main colors in a primary rainbow will have red at the top followed by orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. An easy way to remember the order is to note that the first letter of each color spells out the name ROY G. BIV.
The rainbow I witnessed had a second, fainter rainbow just above the first. This is the result of some light being reflected twice, and at a higher angle. The colors in a secondary arc are reversed with red on the bottom and violet on top.
The inside of a rainbow is always brighter than the sky outside the arc. This is because other rays of light are reflected from individual raindrops at angles smaller than the rainbow ray. Since this scattered light is made up of all the other incidental colors the light inside the bow is white.
So, how far away is a rainbow? I’ll let you figure that out for yourselves. The answer may surprise you.
Humorous naming possibilites abound for a new breed of bear discovered in the tundra of the Candian province of Nunavut. DNA tests have confirmed that the bear, shot by a Canadian hunter, is a previously-undiscovered cross between a Polar Bear and a Grizzly Bear. The hunter’s guide, Roger Kuptana, had noticed that the bear had a brown, spotty coloration and the slightly humped back of a grizzly, but not until last week did a DNA test confirm that a new hybrid had been discovered.
The possibility of a grizzly-polar bear hybrid has been known for years, and successful crossbreeds have been born in captivity. The range of the polar bear and the grizzly bear overlap slightly, and the breeding season of the two species are similar as well. However, no crossbreed had ever been found in the wild.
The DNA results are good news for the hunter, Jim Martell. He had been granted a permit to kill one wild polar bear, and the penalty for taking an grizzly bear without a permit is up to a year in jail. Now that the bear’s lineage has been established, Martell will not face any penalty and will be allowed to keep the bear as a trophy. He has dubbed it a “polargrizz.”
The crossbreed may indicate that there is a problem for both species. Both the Polar Bear and the Grizzly bear are considered threatened species, and the existence of hybrids might mean that the bears are having a difficult time finding mates. Additionally, wildlife geneticist David Paetaku (in an interview with CNN), expressed concern that the crossbreeding may water down the breeds of two already threatened animals.