Monthly Archives: December 2009

“It’s a new world, Golde. A new world.”

Recently my dear friend, Deb, and I attended a showing of Fiddler on the Roof at the wonderful Canon theatre in Toronto. Although Topol, originally scheduled to reprise his role as Tevye, was unable to perform, the show was still as amazing as ever.

My title for this blog entry comes from a line spoken by Tevye to his wife: “It’s a new world, Golde. A new world.”

Well, if Tevye struggled to adapt to the changes upsetting his 1905 world, he would be utterly overwhelmed with what’s about to come in ours.

No, I’m not referring to 2012 and the Mayan calendar.

I am talking about technological breakthroughs that are going to make the inventions of the last two decades look almost stone age. Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an overstatement. But not by much.

Below I have reprinted an article from the NY Daily News by Ray Kurzweil that presents his prognostications for the coming decade. Admittedly, Kurzweil has a demonstrated tendency to overestimate things, but much of what he describes in this article is already well along the way to being realized.

It’s a new world, my readers. A new world.

Top futurist, Ray Kurzweil, predicts how technology will change humanity by 2020By Ray Kurzweil

Sunday, December 13th 2009, 1:40 AM

As we approach the end of the first decade of the new millennium, let’s consider what life will be like a decade hence. Changes in our lives from technology are moving faster and faster. The telephone took 50 years to reach a quarter of the U.S. population. Search engines, social networks and blogs have done that in just a few years time. Consider that Facebook started as a way for Harvard students to meet each other just six years ago; it now has 350 million users and counting.

Between now and 2020, the trend will continue, spreading cutting-edge technologies to every corner of the country and beginning to make innovations once consigned to the realm of science fiction real for millions of Americans. Specifically what can we expect? Solar power on steroids, longer lives, the chance to get rid of obesity once and for all, and portable computing devices that start becoming part of your body rather than being held in your hand.

What will drive all this accelerating change is precisely what has driven it this past half-century: the exponential growth in the power of information technology, which approximately doubles for the same cost every year. When I was an MIT undergraduate in 1965, we all shared a computer that took up half a building and cost tens of millions of dollars. The computer in my pocket today is a million times cheaper and a thousand times more powerful. That’s a billion-fold increase in the amount of computation per dollar since I was a student.

That incredible force — information technology that moves faster, then faster, then faster still — will power changes in every imaginable realm over the next decade.

Start with the basics. You’ve no doubt noticed that electronic gadgets are getting smaller and smaller; the iPod Shuffle holds 1,000 songs and weighs 0.38 ounces. Your phone is smaller than it was a few years ago and can do much more. By 2020, memory devices will be integrated into our clothing. And the very idea of a “smart phone” will begin to change. Rather than looking at a tiny screen, our glasses will beam images directly to our retinas, creating a high resolution virtual display that hovers in air.

That virtual display will be able to take over our entire visual field of view, putting us in a three-dimensional full immersion virtual reality environment. We’ll watch movies virtually and read virtual books. A lot of our personal and business meetings will take place in these 3D virtual worlds. The design of new virtual environments will be an art form. We’ll even have ways to touch one another virtually.

There are already beginning to be apps available for your iPhone or Android phone that allow you to look at a building and have the display superimpose what stores are inside it; Google Goggles, released last week, is the first free, widely-available version of such software. By 2020 we’ll routinely have pop ups in our visual field of view that give us background about the people and places that we’re looking at.

In other words, your memory will be constantly, instantaneously aided by the information available on the Internet. The two will begin to become indistinguishable.

How about energy? That doesn’t sound like an information technology. Fossil fuels, after all, are an early first industrial revolution, 19th century technology. But we are now applying nanotechnology — the science of essentially reprogramming matter at the level of molecules to create new materials and devices—to the design of renewable energy technologies such as solar energy. As a result, the cost per watt of solar energy is coming down rapidly and the total amount of solar energy is growing exponentially. It has in fact been doubling every two years for the past  20 years and is now only eight doublings away from meeting all of the world’s energy needs.

When I shared this fact with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a few weeks ago, he asked, “but is there enough sunlight to double solar energy eight more times?” I responded that we have 10,000 times more sunlight than we need to do this. The prime minister announced an Israeli energy initiative the next day at the Israeli Presidential Conference based on our conversation, setting a 10-year goal to create the technologies to completely replace fossil fuels.

It’s not just the gadgets we carry around and the power we use to fuel our lives that are subject to what I call “the law of accelerating returns.” Health and medicine, which used to be a hit or miss process, has now become an information technology.

We now have the software of life (our genes) and the means of upgrading that software. How long do you go without updating the software on your cell phone? Not long: it does it itself every few days or weeks. Yet we are walking around with obsolete software in our bodies that evolved thousands of years ago. Within 10 years, that will change.

Already today, there are over a thousand projects to change our genes away from disease and toward health, not just in newborns but in mature individuals. The Human Genome Project, which has catalogued our genetic material, was itself a very good example of the law of accelerating returns; the amount of genetic data that is sequenced has doubled every year and the cost has come down by half every year. We can now design health interventions on computers and test them out on biological simulators. These technologies are doubling in power every year and will be a thousand times more powerful in a decade.

By 2020, we will have the means to program our biology away from disease and aging, and toward significant advances in our ability to treat major diseases such as heart disease and cancer — an approach that will be fully mature by 2030.

We won’t just be able to lengthen our lives; we’ll be able to improve our lifestyles. By 2020, we will be testing drugs that will turn off the fat insulin receptor gene that tells our fat cells to hold on to every calorie. Holding on to every calorie was a good idea thousands of years ago when our genes evolved in the first place. Today it underlies an epidemic of obesity. By 2030, we will have made major strides in our ability to remain alive and healthy – and young – for very long periods of time. At that time, we’ll be adding more than a year every year to our remaining life expectancy, so the sands of time will start running in instead of running out.

No, it’s not going to be an entirely brave new world. Some things will look pretty similar in 2020. We’ll still drive cars — although they will have the intelligence to avoid many accidents and self-driving cars will at least be experimented with. All-electric cars will be popular. And in cities, don’t expect subways or buses to go away.

But in more and more ways big and small, hang in there and we’ll all get to see the remarkable century ahead.

Kurzweil is former recipient of the MIT-Lemelson prize, the world’s largest for innovation, and in 1999 was awarded the National Medal of Technology. He is the author of the books “The Singularity is Near” and “The Age of Spiritual Machines.”

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In a Galaxy Far, Far Away…

This is a very cool video from the American Museum of Natural History. Take a walk on the wild side.

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Monkey Talk

This is a reprint of an article on the Science Daily website – more proof that the differences that separate us from other animals are only of degree, not kind (as Darwin said so long ago).

Anyone else see implications in this for the moral status on non-human animals?

SYNTAX IN OUR PRIMATE COUSINS

ScienceDaily (Dec. 13, 2009) — A study carried out in Ivory Coast has shown that monkeys of a certain forest-dwelling species called Campbell’s monkeys emit six types of alert calls. The primates combine these calls into long vocal sequences which allow them to convey messages about social cohesion or various dangers, including predation.

Female Cercopithecus campbelli campbelli in captivity. (Credit: Copyright A. Laurence)

These results, obtained by researchers at the Ethologie Animale et Humaine research group (CNRS / Université Rennes 1), working with the universities of St Andrews in Scotland and Cocody-Abidjan in Ivory Coast, were published on the website of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The results reveal the most complex example of “proto-syntax” yet discovered in a non-human species.

For two years, at the Taï Monkey Project research station in the Taï national park in Ivory Coast, researchers studied the behavior of Campbell’s monkeys (Cercopithecus campbelli campbelli). These monkeys live in small groups of ten or so individuals, made up of an adult male, several adult females and their progeny.

Researchers from the Ethologie Animale et Humaine research group (CNRS / Université de Rennes 1), working with a psychologist and an ethologist from the universities of St Andrews in Scotland and Cocody-Abidjan in Ivory Coast, studied the loud calls of adult males, whose vocal repertory is very different from that of females. They observed the vocal response of males to various disturbances of their environment, notably encounters with natural predators (like the eagle and leopard). They also carried out visual simulation experiments (with stuffed leopards and eagles) as well as acoustic experiments (using a loud-speaker amplifying leopard or eagle calls and grunts) suggesting the presence of these predators.

These experiments showed that males have a repertory of six types of alert calls (Boom, Krak, Hok, Hok-oo, Krak-oo, Wak-oo) but only rarely use them in isolation, preferring to produce long vocal sequences of an average of 25 successive calls (each sequence being made up of 1 to 4 types of different calls). Furthermore, Campbell’s monkeys combine calls in order to convey different messages. By modifying a call sequence or the order of calls within a sequence, the messages are changed, and can relay precise information about the nature of the danger (a falling tree, a predator), the type of predator (eagle, leopard), how the predator was detected (acoustically, visually) but also about social events unrelated to predation (gathering before the group moves to another site, an encounter with another group of the same species at territory boundaries…).

This study shows the capacity of this monkey species for very complex vocal communication, both in the range of transmitted messages and in the techniques used to encode these messages. The same team of researchers had previously shown that males used a suffix “oo” to duplicate the size of his vocal repertory (which allowed them to produce the sounds Hok and Krak as well as Hok-oo and Krak-oo). In this new study, the ethologists explain some of the rules that govern the semantic combinations of calls. For example, Campbell’s monkeys can add a particular type of call to an existing sequence in order to make the message more precise or to alter it. They can also combine sequences relaying different messages in order to convey a third message.

This ability to combine calls may have appeared during the monkeys’ evolution to compensate for limited vocal flexibility (monkeys have less vocal flexibility than birds and cetaceans) and provide a way to encode new messages. This study shows a form of proto-syntax in this tree-dwelling monkey species which, as they live in a habitat with limited visibility, can only communicate vocally. This study raises the question of the potential existence of precursors to human language in animal vocal communication.

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6 Arctic Wonders, Courtesy of Natural Selection & National Geographic

These photos are from National Geographic

December 11, 2009--In the black depths of the frigid Arctic Ocean, scientists on a 2005 expedition found a splash of color: The brilliant, blood-red Crossota norvegica jellyfish (pictured). The creature was spotted by a remotely operated vehicle 8,530 feet (2,600 meters) underwater during a two-month National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) expedition to the Canada Basin, the deepest and least explored part of the Arctic waters. Though C. norvegica is not a new species, several new deep-sea animals were discovered during the expedition--some of which were announced in recent research papers in 2009. Biologist and team member Kevin Raskoff, of Monterey Peninsula College in California, was surprised at the diversity of jellyfish living in the extreme polar seas. "We knew there were going to be interesting jellies up there," Raskoff said by email, "but the reality surpassed all of our imaginations!" --Christine Dell'Amore —Photograph by Kevin Raskoff

Biologists captured a so-called sea angel, Clione limacina (pictured), at about 1,148 feet (350 meters) during a 2005 research expedition to the Arctic Ocean. This little angel apparently doesn't mind showing a little skin: It's actually a naked snail without a shell, scientists said in December 2009. Such marine snails--most of them the sizes of lentils--are widely eaten by many species, making them the "potato chip" of the oceans, biologist Gretchen Hofmann, of the University of California, said in a 2008 statement. —Photograph by Kevin Raskoff

A new genus and species of narcomedusa--a group of common jellyfish--was discovered from one specimen in 2002 and by the hundreds in 2005 (pictured, an individual spotted in 2005), a scientist said in December 2009. That scientists could discover a new genus of such a well-known jellyfish group highlights how little we know about the Arctic, Monterey Peninsula College's Raskoff said by email. Jellies are among the least understood groups of animals on Earth, Raskoff added. "They seem about as alien as animals get." —Photograph by Kevin Raskoff

Each siphonophore, such as the one seen above in 2005, is actually a colony of creatures related to jelly fish—such as the nectophores, or swimming bells, on the right half above, which provide propulsion for the colony. The members of the colony share a tubular stem (shown in orange), which delivers nutrients. Reaching 10 feet (3.1 meters) in length, some siphonophores are among the largest animals in the deep sea, Monterey Peninsula College's Raskoff said in December 2009. —Photograph by Kevin Raskoff

This red-and-purple Crossota millsae, collected deep in the Arctic Ocean in 2005, is also found off of California and Hawaii, a scientist said in December 2009. Biologists are realizing that jellyfish are more common predators in the oceans than thought, Monterey Peninsula College's Raskoff said by email. "They are a very underappreciated and understudied group that have big roles to play in the food webs of the deep sea." —Photograph by Kevin Raskoff

Sminthea arctica (pictured in 2005) is the most common jellyfish found in the Arctic Ocean, a scientist said in December 2009. Scientists plan to research more of the unexplored Arctic waters before warming and ice melt drastically transforms the ocean environment, according to NOAA's Web site. —Photograph by Kevin Raskoff

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An Advent Calendar That Makes My Heart Soar

Alan Taylor’s blog, The Big Picture, covers news stories in photographs. He has just posted a feature called,

Hubble Space Telescope Advent Calendar 2009

Each day between now and Dec. 25, Taylor will be releasing a photograph taken by the Hubble telescope. These photo’s (some old, some new) are spectacular.

This is an advent calendar that truly excites me. Who needs a cheap, waxy tasting chocolate square hidden beneath a cardboard door bearing a picture of Mary riding on a donkey when we have true wonders to enjoy like these photos.

Here are pics from the first three days of his calendar. I hope you will visit it daily and take time to ponder the wonder and glory of the universe and the immense privilege we have in being the results of a process of evolution that has led to our emotional and cognitive capacities for wonder, awe, humility, and joy.

DEC. 1

The spectacular structure of Planetary nebula NGC 2818 contains the outer layers of a star that were expelled into interstellar space. The glowing gaseous shrouds in the nebula were shed by the central star after it ran out of fuel to sustain the nuclear reactions in its core. This Hubble image was taken in November 2008 with the Wide Field Planetary Camera 2. The colors in the image represent a range of emissions coming from the clouds of the nebula: red represents nitrogen, green represents hydrogen, and blue represents oxygen. (NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team, STScI/AURA)

DEC. 2

This composite color infrared image of the center of our Milky Way galaxy reveals a new population of massive stars and new details in complex structures in the hot ionized gas swirling around the central 300 light-years. This view combines the sharp imaging of the Hubble Space Telescope's Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS) with color imagery from a previous Spitzer Space Telescope survey to make the sharpest infrared picture ever made of the Galactic core. The core is obscured in visible light by intervening dust clouds, but infrared light penetrates the dust. At this distance - 26,000 light-years away - Hubble reveals details in objects as small as 20 times the size of our own solar system. (NASA, ESA, Q.D. Wang (UMass, Amherst), JPL, and S. Stolovy (Spitzer Science Center/Caltech))

DEC. 3

On February 24, 2009, the Hubble Space Telescope took a photo of four moons of Saturn passing in front of their parent planet. In this view, the giant orange moon Titan casts a large shadow onto Saturn's north polar hood. Below Titan, near the ring plane and to the left is the moon Mimas, casting a much smaller shadow onto Saturn's equatorial cloud tops. Farther to the left, and off Saturn's disk, are the bright moon Dione and the fainter moon Enceladus. These pictures were taken with Hubble's Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 when Saturn was at a distance of roughly 1.25 billion km (775 million mi) from Earth. (NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team, STScI/AURA)

It’s always the season for wonder!

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