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Should we engineer animals to be smart like humans?

Mojo Jojo meditating

Science fiction writer Tim Maughan reports on the real science of making animals smarter:

In 2011, a research team led by Sam Deadwyler of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, used five rhesus monkeys to study the factors that lead people with diseases like Alzheimer’s to lose control of their thought processes. The researchers trained the monkeys in an intelligence task that involved learning and identifying images and symbols. They were then given doses of cocaine in order to dull their intelligence and made to repeat the test, with predictably less impressive results.

What happened in the next stage of the research was remarkable. The same monkeys were fitted with neural prosthetics – brain implants designed to monitor and correct the functions of the neurons disabled by the cocaine. These implants successfully restored normal brain function to the monkeys when they were drugged – but crucially, if they were activated before the monkeys had been drugged, they improved the primates’ performance beyond their original test results. The aim of the experiments was to see whether neural prosthetics could theoretically be used to restore decision-making in humans who have suffered trauma or diseases such as Alzheimer’s – but as far as these specific tests were concerned at least, the brain prosthetics appeared to make the monkeys smarter.

Full Story: BBC: Should we engineer animals to be smart like humans?

While the obvious answer to that question is “hell no,” Tim points out that the medical research research motivations may make smarter animals an inevitability. He dives deeper into the ethical questions in the article.

More by Tim:

#burgerpunk

Zero Hours

Not on a Social Network? You’ve Still Got a Privacy Problem

Bob McMillan writes:

We already know that if you use an online social network, you give up a serious slice of your privacy thanks to the omnivorous way companies like Google and Facebook gather your personal data. But new academic research offers a glimpse of what these companies may be learning about people who don’t use their massive web services. And it’s a bit scary.

Because they couldn’t get their hands on data from the likes of Facebook or LinkedIn, the researchers studied publicly available data archived from an older social network, Friendster. They found that if Friendster had used certain state-of-the-art prediction algorithms, it could have divined sensitive information about non-members, including their sexual orientation. “At the time, it was possible for Friendster to predict the sexual orientation of people who did not have an account on Friendster,” says David Garcia, a postdoctoral researcher with Switzerland’s ETH Zurich university, who co-authored the study.

Full Story: Wired: Not on a Social Network? You’ve Still Got a Privacy Problem

This can be done through what are called “shadow profiles.” For example, if five of your friends invite you to join a new site called NeoSocial Company by punching your email address into a form on the site, the company could create a social graph based simply on your email address and who invited you, even if you don’t sign up for the service. They could even start to make some inferences about you based on what they know about your friends. Many sites also encourage you to upload your address book when you sign-up, so that i can help you connect with people you know who may already be using the service, or even to alert you if they sign-up later. If you do this, you could be helping these companies build shadow profiles of your contacts.

As Bob notes, an audit by Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner confirmed that Facebook doesn’t keep shadow profiles. But the technical capability is always there, and we have no real idea what sites that haven’t been audited are doing. What’s more, law enforcement can build social network graphs based on seized address books and cell phones, or even metadata demanded from telephone companies.

So even if you don’t have a cell phone, if a friend called your landline, then traveled to your house, then to another location, and then back to your house, someone with access to that information could make an educated guess that you went with that friend to that particular location.

That may sound paranoise, but don’t forget that the reason the Northwest Four were arrested probably to gather information on their contacts, not to prosecute them specifically.

Is the cult of positivity leading tech professionals to kill themselves?

Three years ago Zappos founder Tony Hsieh launched a ambitious project to transform downtown Las Vegas into a tech startup hub. It hasn’t exactly as planned. Nellie Bowles reports on a series of suicides by people involved in the project, and how the cult of positivity in the tech community may have contributed:

Hsieh seemed to work hard to keep each suicide quiet. Entrepreneurs told me there were few community resources made available, no large-scale gatherings, no cathartic outpouring, and that they felt confused about what was happening and why it was never addressed. Many in the Downtown Project, including a crisis counselor who worked with the parents of one entrepreneur, pointed to Hsieh’s philosophy — his obsession with happiness, and with imposing it upon the community — as one of the problems.

“Suicides happen anywhere. Look at the stats,” Hsieh said, sounding agitated, when I asked him about it one evening on folding chairs in the Learning Village, where speakers regularly come to lead sessions. “It’s harder for people who are really good students in school. Then they move in to this, where there is no instruction manual, and you have to be MacGyver on your own.”

My question appeared to make him uncomfortable. He scooted two seats away.

Full Story: Re/code: The Downtown Project Suicides: Can the Pursuit of Happiness Kill You?

The rest of the series looks interesting for anyone interested in cities and/or startups. (Wired did a big feature as well.)

See also:

Tech Has a Depression Problem

I’ve linked to stuff about the downsides of positive thinking often. Here are some highlights:

The benefits of pessemism

The Powerlessness of Positive Thinking

Smile or Die: Bright Sided as a 10 Minute Marker Board Cartoon

MK-ULTRA: The TV Series

mk-ultra

Deadline reports:

The CIA’s controversial mind-control program is getting a miniseries treatment at ABC. The network has put in development MKUltra, a historical mini from writer Karen Stillman and ABC Studios’ boutique division ABC Signature.

Full Story: Deadline: ABC Developing ‘MKUltra’ CIA Miniseries

Oh, and Twin Peaks is coming back, apparently.

(both via Warren Ellis)

See also:

My earlier write-up on MK-ULTRA

Did MK-ULTRA Kill “The James Bond Of Money”?

Mutation Vectors: All That Could Have Been Edition

amigandy

Status Update

A few weeks ago I decided to try out working from a standing desk. I gave up this week.

Surprisingly, the issue wasn’t my legs getting tired or back getting sore. The problem is that I couldn’t find a way to type while standing up that didn’t make my wrists hurt almost immediately upon beginning to type. I tried adjusting the height of the keyboard again and again, but never found a level that seemed to work. I don’t really think it was the keyboard height anyway. I mean, I work at various sub-optimal heights all the time and it doesn’t make me immediately sore.

Browsing

This week I wrote a short thing about the Amiga and how it was never was able to capture the bohemian demographic from Apple.

That sent me down a rabbit hole, including reading Jeremy Reimer’s epic history of the Amiga and watching this episode of The Computer Chronicles about the launch of the Amiga 3000.

I’ve never used an Amiga. But it really seemed to be something special that the technology industry hasn’t seen since. I really wonder what could have been if Commodore hadn’t mismanaged it into the ground.

Elsewhere:

John Herrman wraps up what’s wrong with online journalism today in a nice tight package that actually doubles as exactly what it critiques (in a good way). Hats off.

And speaking of journalism: Amy Westervelt writes about her experience in the “content” industry — ie, being a ghost writer for all those “thought leaders” on sites like Forbes.com, and why journalists shouldn’t take those gigs. I have to admit that my first thought was “Oh, thank god all those CEOs aren’t writing their own posts,” because that meant that at least writers are getting paid for that crap somehow. And who knows, if my career goes south I might have to resort to writing that stuff too. But seriously, these gigs suck.

And, finally, I’ve been thinking a lot about Tim Maly’s piece “What We Talk About When We Talk About What We Talk About When We Talk About Making,” and so should you.

Watching

ian-curtis

I’ve been on a big post-punk kick recently, so I rewatched Control and 24 Hour Party People this week. I’d say both are still worth watching, though as always these sorts films need to be taken with a grain of salt.

I really need to read Rip It Up and Start Again.

Listening

Spaceape died this week, and the world is a poorer place for it. At least he and Kode9 finished a new EP first. A cold comfort, really, though. We’ll never know a voice like his again.

Watching 24 Hour Party People made me want to listen to the Happy Mondays, who I’d never really listened to before, and listening to them made me want to listen to Pop Will Eat Itself, who I’d listened to a lot. Plus Ministry, Cabaret Voltaire and a bunch of other stuff.

Ebola patients buying survivors’ blood from black market, WHO warns

It doesn’t get much more biopunk than this:

As hospitals in nations hardest hit by Ebola struggle to keep up, desperate patients are turning to the black market to buy blood from survivors of the virus, the World Health Organization warned. [...]

Blood from survivors, referred to as convalescent serum, is said to have antibodies that can fight the deadly virus. Though the treatment is unproven, it has provided some promise for those fighting a disease that’s killing more than half of those it has infected.

Full Story: CNN: Ebola patients buying survivors’ blood from black market, WHO warns

Palliative Care for the Human Species

Arran James follows up a previous post about extinction:

It is the palliative care of the human that we should really consider. We open with a discussion of the dying Earth because it is this dying that is killing us: a vicarious species-suicide? These are dark thoughts that imply a loathing so great in our species that we’d take out everything else just to slit our own throats once and for all. But we’re not that grand, we’re all too limited, all too human still. Like smokers in the 1950s we didn’t know what we were doing, then we did and did nothing about it, then everyone said it was too late. We’re not quite sure of the periodicity. We don’t know if it is too late. What we do know is that we’ve had a mass terminal diagnosis and there is no consensus on the prognosis. What are we dying of then, if not some anthropathology [3]?

Full Story: synthetic_zero: Beyond palliative care

See also:

Mutation Vectors: Worst Case Scenarios Edition

Extinction Aesthetic

Automation by Capitalists Vs. Automation by Workers

From Kurukshetra:

The difference between “bad outsourcing” (“bad” from the labor/leftist perspective) and this case of outsourcing should be obvious. “Bad outsourcing” is done on the company’s terms–that is, in a situation where the worker has no say in the matter, and where the company boss outsources a job and pockets the difference between cheap foreign labor and American labor. Outsourcing by the workers, on the other hand, is just that: outsourcing done on terms dictated by the worker, where the worker outsources her own job and pockets the difference.

Now, extend this observation to automation. As it stands, there is a whole lot of concern (particularly, it seems, from economists) that the increasing rate of automation, roboticization, and cybernation is creating a secular decline in employment, leaving an increasing number of millions structurally unemployed, and severely limited in their ability to access the theoretical benefits of mass automation. But just as with outsourcing, the underlying reason why workers are losing out is because they hold little to no power in the process of implementing automation. Labor does not control the means of (automated) production; capital does.

Full Story: Kurukshetra: Automation by Capitalists Vs. Automation by Workers

Kurukshetra tables the discussion about whether someone making six figures a year is still part of the working class, which is understanable under the circumstance. But they also bypass the question of whether outsouring your job to someone else makes you into a capitalist, but in the case of automation, this no longer matters.

Mutation Vectors: Worst Case Scenarios Edition

Nomad from Hardware

Status Update

Taking a week off work.

Browsing

 Uncivilization festival

After posting about Warren Ellis’ extinction aesthetic thing on Monday, I figured I should look into the Dark Mountain Project a bit more. I figured the New York Times Magazine profile of Paul Kingsnorth would be as good a place to start as any.

Reading this led me to wonder what the current worst case scenarios for climate change, ocean acidification and peak soil are, which led me to a long piece from The Nation that, if I understand it correctly, reports that we could see a 3.5 Celsius increase in global temperatures as early as 2035. An increase of 3.5C would kill off the earth’s remaining plankton, which are already dying quickly thanks to ocean acidification, which would kick off a series of events leading to the death of most of our food sources.

In other words, we could be facing human extinction in just 21 years.

Actually, I imagine it would take at least a few more years after 2035 for the human species to actually go extinct. Maybe we’ll discover that some people can live on smaller amounts of food, or but it doesn’t sound like things will be pretty for the survivors.

And if we don’t hit those numbers by 2035, there’s a ticking time bomb of methane stored in arctic permafrosted soil, and that’s going to be thawing out sooner or later. And when that happens, temperatures are likely to go out of control fast.

Even if we make it to 2050, current projections estimate that our soil will only be able to produce about 30 percent of the amount of food we do today. That’s particularly bad news because new population projections predict that instead of peaking peaking at nine billion around 2050, we’re going to hit 11 billion by 2100 and keep growing (unless of course we all starve to death decades before we ever reach that point).

The good news is that these are just the worst case scenarios. Many scientists still think we can turn this around, at least somewhat. The bad news is that the worst case scenarios keep getting worse.

Other cheery subjects:

Good news: stop and frisk is all but gone in New York City and violent crime is still dropping. Bad news:

The police remain a visible presence in the borough’s Brownsville neighborhood, where the vast and violent expanse of public housing had made the neighborhood a proving ground for the department’s use of the tactics as a way to curb gun violence. As part of a new strategy called Omnipresence, the officers now stand on street corners like sentries, only rarely confronting young men and patting them down for weapons. But the residents of Brownsville, conditioned by the years of the stop-and-frisk tactics, still view these officers warily.

Elsewhere: Deb Chachra revisits Betsy Haibel’s article on the the tech industry’s consent problem and finds many more examples.

Watching

Wilson from Utopia

This week I watched Hardware, not realizing that human sterilization and population control were subplots. And finished watching the second season of Utopia (the British drama, not the U.S. reality show). I seem unable to escape the themes of human extinction and involuntary sterilization.

(You can read the first few issues free online)

Reading

Stray Bullets issue 3 "The Party" cover

Stray Bullets: Uber Alles Edition, which is the sort of thing that makes you think that humans deserve to go extinct.

Listening

The Bug: Angels & Devils

GOD: Possessions

The War on Teachers

Malcom Harris on Dana Goldstein’s book The Teacher Wars

The tag line to Dana Goldstein’s new book The Teacher Wars is “A history of America’s most embattled profession.” That Goldstein, an education journalist now at the fledgling Marshall Project, can make that claim without ruining her credibility before the first page speaks to the unique role educators play in American society. They’re (mostly) unionized government employees, but they spend their time working alone. We ask that they produce standardized results and demonstrate individualized care at the same time. We say their work is invaluable and pay them as if they were semiskilled. They come under frequent attack from all corners of the political map. Whether that necessarily makes teachers more embattled than psychologists or babysitters or coal miners or housewives I’m not sure, but they are certainly curious.

Full Story: The New Inquiry: Not for Teacher

(via Metafilter)

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