Sunday, March 29, 2009

Buzz Aldrin's freaky space travel story

Aldrin_buzz Apropos of nothing, but worth a read, is Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin's tale of one of the most unusual things he saw during his 1969 mission to the moon. Aldrin was on a TCA panel for National Geographic Channel’s Expedition Week.

Here’s a lightly edited version of Aldrin’s story:

I guess the discovery that really baffled me started the first night en route to the moon beyond the Van Allen Belts. We closed the windows and turned out the lights and Mike Collins had the headset on to listen to Houston and Neil [Armstrong] and I were under the couch.

All of a sudden I saw a flash, and then another flash. And before I could move my eye to see what it was, it was gone. And then maybe a streak. And I kept seeing these, until I decided I wanted to go to sleep.

So when we had one day left coming back and I said to the other two guys, “You guys see anything funny last night, like some flashes of light, or something? Mike, did you see anything?”

“No, I didn’t see anything.”


“Oh, yeah. Yeah, I saw about a hundred of them.”

Well, it was obviously inside the spacecraft [because the windows were closed]. So we came back and reported that afterward. And to get to the bottom of if, the next flight was briefed. And they went up there. And they could see the flashes with their eyes shut.

Which meant that high Z particles were penetrating the spacecraft, your helmet, everything else -- and impacting the retina of your eye. And it’s an example of the kind of particles that are out there en route to human travel to Mars and so forth that we need to keep track of. And when they hit your brain, you just lost a cell of two of memory. So I guess that was one of the most unusual things we saw.

Friday, March 13, 2009

What Your Cell Phone Is Teaching Companies

Next time you glance at your BlackBerry, it may be useful to know you're not only checking e-mail, you're making a contribution to the central nervous system of the world.

A mobile phone is, after all, a kind of sensor: every time you send a text message, make a phone call, or download an e-mail, cellular towers pinpoint your position. With 4 billion handsets in use worldwide, that makes for trillions of data points flowing through the network every month and creating digital graphs of our paths through time and space. When aggregated, those individual paths convey a picture of a block, a community, a city even a whole society.

As Sandy Pentland, a professor at MIT's Media Lab, puts it, our cell phones have become the neurons in "an emerging and truly global nervous system."

Until recently, the information cascading out of our mobiles has been more or less ignored. In the past two years, however, there's been a paradigm shift as mobile companies seek new sources of revenue and smarter, more powerful phones embolden a new generation of software designers.

Taken together, these pressures have cracked the data vault. Established companies such as Nokia, Microsoft Relevant Products/Services and Google, as well as ambitious startups and academic researchers, are beginning to interpret the data sloughing off our digital selves. They're doing for real-world sites what the first Internet search companies did for Web sites in the late 1990s: index them, chart their relationships, and in the process learn about the people who move between them.

"Mobile is really the next frontier" for technology-oriented businesses," says Charles Golvin, an analyst with Forrester Research. "If you look at the next 1 to 3 billion online users, these people are going to be online on phones," making location an essential new data point for aspiring Googles to consider.

Search is only the beginning.

Location data will give marketers and advertisers new insight into consumers. Financiers are using it to predict retail trends and inform their stock trades. And researchers say that understanding the movements of people within a city block or neighborhood will enable policymakers to craft more effective government programs, and provide early indicators of a disease outbreak or other public hazard.

Too abstract? Heres a real-world example: Say a jazz group plays a 10 p.m. set at a downtown bar.

Using the location data they've collected, researchers can see where all the jazz aficionados ate dinner before the show, and what kind of late-night clubs they visit after the trumpets hit the final high C. They're putting the jazz club and, by extension, its patrons in the context of the rest of the city. That capability is on display in the company's first application for consumers, CitySense, which shows where everyone is in real time. Cell-phone users who download it can see which blocks are busier than usual, and even learn the most popular destinations people go to from their current location.

That might not sound like much, but if you're a business owner, its sweet music. Businesses spend enormous amounts of time and money trying to understand their customers. Surveys and focus groups, though, are blunt instruments. Sense Networks can craft customer profiles based on where people actually go and what they actually do not where they say they go and what they say they do.

© 2009 Daily Herald; Arlington Heights, Ill. under contract with YellowBrix. All rights reserved.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

“Singularity University”

Google and Nasa back new school for futurists

By David Gelles in San Francisco

Published: February 3 2009 05:02 | Last updated: February 3 2009 05:02

Google and Nasa are throwing their weight behind a new school for futurists in Silicon Valley to prepare scientists for an era when machines become cleverer than people.

The new institution, known as “Singularity University”, is to be headed by Ray Kurzweil, whose predictions about the exponential pace of technological change have made him a controversial figure in technology circles.

Google and Nasa’s backing demonstrates the growing mainstream acceptance of Mr Kurzweil’s views, which include a claim that before the middle of this century artificial intelligence will outstrip human beings, ushering in a new era of civilisation.

To be housed at Nasa’s Ames Research Center, a stone’s-throw from the Googleplex, the Singularity University will offer courses on biotechnology, nano-technology and artificial intelligence.

The so-called “singularity” is a theorised period of rapid technological progress in the near future. Mr Kurzweil, an American inventor, popularised the term in his 2005 book “The Singularity is Near”.

Proponents say that during the singularity, machines will be able to improve themselves using artificial intelligence and that smarter-than-human computers will solve problems including energy scarcity, climate change and hunger.

Yet many critics call the singularity dangerous. Some worry that a malicious artificial intelligence might annihilate the human race.

Mr Kurzweil said the university was launching now because many technologies were approaching a moment of radical advancement. “We’re getting to the steep part of the curve,” said Mr Kurzweil. “It’s not just electronics and computers. It’s any technology where we can measure the information content, like genetics.”

The school is backed by Larry Page, Google co-founder, and Peter Diamandis, chief executive of X-Prize, an organisation which provides grants to support technological change.

“We are anchoring the university in what is in the lab today, with an understanding of what’s in the realm of possibility in the future,” said Mr Diamandis, who will be vice-chancellor. “The day before something is truly a breakthrough, it’s a crazy idea.”

Despite its title, the school will not be an accredited university. Instead, it will be modelled on the International Space University in Strasbourg, France, the interdisciplinary, multi-cultural school that Mr Diamandis helped establish in 1987.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Internet users worldwide surpass 1 billion

January 23, 2009 4:35 PM PST

Posted by Dawn Kawamoto

McDonald's restaurants and global Internet usage share something in common: more than 1 billion served within a month.

Global Internet usage reached more than 1 billion unique visitors in December, with 41.3 percent in the Asia-Pacific region, according to a report released Friday by ComScore.

The study looked at Internet users over the age of 15 who accessed the Net from their home or work computers. Europe grabbed the next largest slice of the global Internet audience, with 28 percent, followed by the United States, with an 18.4 percent slice.

But Latin America, while comprising just 7.4 percent of the global Internet audience, is the region to watch, noted Jamie Gavin, a ComScore senior analyst.

"The U.S. is slowing down in its growth and momentum, but Latin America, with social networking and the mobile Internet, is expected to gain momentum over the next few years," Gavin said.

He noted that while population plays a role in aiding certain regions to lay claim to a larger Internet audience, another equally important factor is the ability of the Internet to easily cross borders and take root.

A closer look at countries within the regions reveals that China accounted for the most Internet users worldwide, with a 17.8 share of unique visitors. The United States ranked second, with 16.2 percent, and Japan ranked a distant third, at 6 percent.

Across specific Internet properties, Google carried a sizable share of the global Internet market, visited by 77 percent of the worldwide audience, or nearly 776 million users.

Microsoft Web sites were used by 64.2 percent of users worldwide, and Yahoo sites 55.8 percent, according to ComScore. Sites run by Time Warner's AOL, meanwhile, were used by 27.1 percent of the worldwide Internet audience.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Check out the audio interview on the link

Daniel Tammet on the Mind

Daniel Tammet’s mind does not work like most. He’s an autistic savant. One of just fifty or a hundred of his rare kind in the world.

He can recite pi out to 22,000 digits, from memory. And, maybe most unusually, he can talk about how he does it. About the lightning-fast associations and textures of reality that leap out at him.

Daniel Tammet is a savant and a great communicator. And his message is this: As strange and marvelous as his mind may seem, it is not that different from yours. You can learn from the autistic savant.

This hour, On Point: A tour of the wide horizon of the human mind.

-Tom Ashbrook

Monday, December 22, 2008

What Comes After Minds?

The human mind is the most complex thing we know. We feel this intuitively. But complexity is hard to measure. The total number of cells in a human brain may be no more than those in a watermelon, yet the diversity and functions of those cells in the brain exceed those in a fruit.


We can count up the number of parts, links, subparts, logical depth, and degrees of freedom of various complicated entities (a jumbo jet, rainforest, a star fish) and the final tally of components may near the total for a brain. Yet the function and results of those parts are way more complicated than the sum of the parts. When we begin to consider the multiple processes each part participates in, the complexity of the mind becomes more evident. Considered in the light of their behavior, living things outrank the inert in complexity, and smart things outrank dumb ones. We also have evidence for this claim in our efforts to manufacture complexity. Making a stone hammer is pretty easy. Making a horseless carriage more difficult. Making a synthetic organism more so. A human mind is yet more difficult to synthesize or recreate. We have not come close to achieving an artificial mind and some believe the complexity of the mind is so great that we will forever fail in that quest. Because of this difficulty and uncertainty, the mind is currently the paragon of complexity in creation.

If anything might rival the mind’s ultimate complexity, it would be the planetary biosphere. In its sheer mass and scale, the tangle of zillions of organisms and vast ecosystems in the biosphere trumps the 5 kilos of neurons and synapses in the brain – by miles. Yet we tend to assign greater complexity to the mind for two reasons. One, we think we understand how ecosystems work, although we can’t yet predict how they all work together. We have not conquered its planetary scale. On the other hand, we are baffled how the human mind works even in small regions. Scale is just one problem. Our mind parts are much more deeply entangled, reflective, recursive, and woven together into a unified whole than the biosphere. As a whole, the mind is a mystery still.

Two, the output of the biosphere is primarily more of itself. It will self-regulate and slowly evolve new species, but it has not produced new types of creation – except of course it produced human minds. But human minds have created all these other things, including miniature ecosystems and tiny biospheres, so we assign greater complexity to it.

This point was better said, more succinctly, by Emily Dickinson in her grenade of a poem.

The brain is wider than the sky,
For, put them side by side,
The one the other will contain,
With ease, and you, beside.

The asymmetry of compression is an important metric. The fact that the brain can contain an abstract of the biosphere, but the biosphere not contain an abstract of a human mind, suggests one is larger, or more complex, than the other.

While we have not yet made anything as complex as a human mind, we are trying to. The question is, what would be more complex than a human mind? What would we make if we could? What would such a thing do? In the story of technological evolution – or even biological evolution – what comes after minds?

The usual response to “what comes after a human mind” is better, faster, bigger minds. The same thing only more. That is probably true – we might be able to make or evolve bigger faster minds -- but as pictured they are still minds.

A more recent response, one that I have been championing, is that what comes after minds may be a biosphere of minds, an ecological network of many minds and many types of minds – sort of like rainforest of minds – that would have its own meta-level behavior and consequences. Just as a biological rainforest processes nutrients, energy, and diversity, this system of intelligences would process problems, memories, anticipations, data and knowledge. This rainforest of minds would contain all the human minds connected to it, as well as various artificial intelligences, as well as billions of semi-smart things linked up into a sprawling ecosystem of intelligences. Vegetable intelligences, insect intelligences, primate intelligences and human intelligences and maybe superhuman intelligences, all interacting in one seething network. As in any ecosystem, different agents have different capabilities and different roles. Some would cooperate, some would compete. The whole complex would be a dynamic beast, constantly in flux.

Franklin Trees 02

We could imagine the makeup of a rainforest of minds, but what would it do? Having thoughts, solving problems is what minds do. What does an ecosystem of minds do that an individual mind does not?

And what comes after it, if a biome of intelligences is next? If we let our imaginations construct the most complex entity possible, what does it do? I have found we either imagine it as a omniscient mind, or as a lesser god (almost the same thing). In a certain sense we can’t get beyond the paragon of a mind.

Cultures run on metaphors. The human mind is the current benchmark metaphor for our scientific society. Once upon a time we saw nature as an animal, then it was a clock, now we see it as a kind of mind. A mind is the metaphor for ultimate mystery, ultimate awe. It represents the standard for our attempts at creation. It is the metric for complexity. It is also our prison because we can’t see beyond it. This is the message of the Singularitans: we are incapable of imagining what comes after a human mind.

I don’t believe that, but I don’t know what the answer is either. I think it is too early in our technological development to have reached a limit of complexity. Surely in the next 100 or 500 years we’ll construct entities many thousands of times more complex than a human mind. As these ascend in prominence they will become the new metaphor.

Often the metaphor precedes the reality. We build what we can imagine. Can we imagine – now – what comes after minds?