Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Demon Potential In Artificial Intelligence

And there we were thinking the robots were going to take over the world and destroy us all. Maybe. But what if it's not robots as such, but simply Artificial Intelligence that we should be worried about? Plenty of thoughts and fears on Rise Of AI in recent years, and here's some of the latest from Tesla car and Rocket X spacecraft inventor Elon Musk.

Started with this tweet:


Then expanded in this talk by Musk at MIT :
 I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence. If I were to guess like what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that. So we need to be very careful with the artificial intelligence. Increasingly scientists think there should be some regulatory oversight maybe at the national and international level, just to make sure that we don’t do something very foolish. With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon. In all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water, it’s like yeah he’s sure he can control the demon. Didn’t work out. 
You can watch the video of the Musk lecture least until AI takes over and begins deleting everything that warns humans of its rise. And power.

World's Largest Military Prepares For Fight Climate Change Disasters, Not World Wars

First mentioned this many years ago on this blog, but the scale of climate change-related disasters and potential for even greater disasters has increased over the past decade and so have the Pentagon's plans to try and deal with them. This report, extensive as is it, doesn't even get into the details of looming Water Wars, where states will go to war over access to water, and to protect valuable, life-giving water supplies.

From the NYTimes (excerpts): 
Climate change is accelerating, and it will place unparalleled strains on American military and intelligence agencies in coming years by causing ever more disruptive events around the globe, the nation’s top scientific research group said in a report issued Friday.
The group, the National Research Council, says in a study commissioned by the C.I.A. and other intelligence agencies that clusters of apparently unrelated events exacerbated by a warming climate will create more frequent but unpredictable crises in water supplies, food markets, energy supply chains and public health systems.
Climate-driven crises could lead to internal instability or international conflict and might force the United States to provide humanitarian assistance or, in some cases, military force to protect vital energy, economic or other interests, the study said.

The Defense Department has already taken major steps to plan for and adapt to climate change and has spent billions of dollars to make ships, aircraft and vehicles more fuel-efficient. Nonetheless, the 206-page study warns in sometimes bureaucratic language, the United States is ill prepared to assess and prepare for the catastrophes that a heated planet will produce.

“It is prudent to expect that over the course of a decade some climate events — including single events, conjunctions of events occurring simultaneously or in sequence in particular locations, and events affecting globally integrated systems that provide for human well-being — will produce consequences that exceed the capacity of the affected societies or global system to manage and that have global security implications serious enough to compel international response,” the report states.

In other words, states will fail, large populations subjected to famine, flood or disease will migrate across international borders, and national and international agencies will not have the resources to cope.

The report cites the simultaneous heat wave in Russia and floods in Pakistan in the summer of 2010 as disparate but linked climate-related events that taxed those societies.

It also cites the Nile River watershed as a place where climate-related conflict over water and farmland could arise as the combined populations of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia approach 300 million. South Korea and Saudi Arabia have purchased fertile land in the Nile watershed to produce crops to feed their people, but local forces could decide to seize the crops for their own use, potentially leading to international conflict, the report says.
The Full Story Is Here

We May Not Be Alone In The Universe, But We May Be The Oldest Civilisation

Something close to global despair erupted a few days ago, when Professor Brian Cox was misquoted as saying, "We are alone in the universe. Life on Planet Earth is a freak event, an accident," and various words to the same effect: There's Nobody Out There, There Is Just Us.

Here's the exact quote from Brian Cox's current TV series:
'There is only one advanced technological civilisation in this galaxy and there has only ever been one - and that's us. We are unique.

'It's a dizzying thought. There are billions of planets out there, surely there must have been a second genesis?

'But we must be careful because the story of life on this planet shows that the transition from single-celled life to complex life may not have been inevitable.'

The Daily Mail, and other media, interpreted these quite rational observations to mean this:

People went a bit crazy on social media, terrified at the thought that Planet Earth is the only planet in the known Universe to harbour life of any kind.

After tens of thousands of years humans have imagined life beyond this world. Gods, deities, living entities, alien visitors, some kind of intelligent life, no matter how how mystical or vague, anything to shake off the terror that we may be eternally, infinitely alone.

Of course, Brian Cox didn't mean any of that at all. But his tweets trying to clarify his thoughts didn't do much to cheer people up:
"FOR LAST TIME: I think life is common in universe. We MAY be only civilisation in Milky Way. There WILL be other civilisations in universe."

There are many scientists and astrobiologists who believe the Milky Way galaxy and the Universe may be teeming with life. But very few, if any, believe it may be life more intelligent that the best found on Planet Earth - humans, apes, elephants and a few other species.

Which is a bit of a spirit cruncher, too.

We're not alone, but humans are the oldest, most civilised intelligence in the galaxy. Seriously? Well, for many humans, that's almost as depressing as finding out we are eternally, infinitely alone.

Interesting piece on the age of life in the Universe, and why Earth may hold the oldest, most evolved forms of life going (excerpts):
Where are they? Aliens, that is. Why is there no sign of intelligent life in the universe anywhere other than on Earth? That question has puzzled inquiring minds for centuries, and has become more pressing over the past few years, as the discovery of planets going around stars other than the sun suggests the Milky Way (Earth’s home galaxy) harbours billions of worlds suitable for life, in that they are orbiting within a habitable zone warm enough to keep water liquid, but cool enough not to boil it.

There are many possible answers, of course. The origin of life may be hard. The evolution of intelligence may be hard. Intelligent life, having evolved, may find it impossible to devise technology to travel from star to star, or may not think the effort worth it.

Dr Piran and Dr Jimenez are interested in gamma-ray bursts (GRBs), the most energetic phenomena yet discovered in the universe. No one is certain what causes them, but the leading theories are a hypernova—the sudden collapse of a massive star to form a black hole—or a collision between two neutron stars, the ultra-dense remnants of supernovas (slightly less massive collapsed stars). What is not in doubt is their prodigious power: a typical GRB generates as much energy in a few seconds as a star will in its entire multi-billion-year lifetime. That would be bad news for any life-bearing planet which was too close.
 The Earthlike planet of most interest to human beings is, of course, Earth itself. Mankind’s home is 4.6 billion years old, and Dr Piran’s and Dr Jimenez’s model suggests there is almost a 90% chance that it has been hit by at least one GRB of this power in that period. For the first half of Earth’s existence, only the direct impact would have mattered, since there was no ozone layer to annihilate (the simple bacteria which existed at this time were either adapted to UV, or lived underground or underwater and were thus immune to its effects). But once photosynthesis started (about 2.3 billion years ago), oxygen—and therefore ozone, the triatomic form of that element—began to accumulate, and living things came out of hiding and got used to living under its protection. From then on, a nearby GRB would certainly have caused a mass extinction.

Whether the constant pressing of the evolutionary reset button suggested by the calculation Dr Piran and Dr Jimenez have made really is the explanation for humanity’s lack of contact with alien civilisations is, of course, a matter of speculation. But their work does indicate that the older the universe gets, the friendlier it becomes towards life. They reckon that, before about 5 billion years ago, GRBs were so frequent that life would have struggled to establish a foothold anywhere in the cosmos. If astronomers ever do discover life on another planet, then, it is unlikely to be much older than life on Earth itself.
Fascinating. The Full Story Is Here

Monday, September 15, 2014

Transformation Of Global Energy Grid Is Now Underway

For decades, those with the most to lose have told us, and campaigned loudly, that solar power, wind power, wave power were a waste of time and money. We were lied to. And countries that aren't shifting to renewable energy options are set to miss out on the biggest and potentially most profitable change in the way entire nations are powered in civilisation's history.

From the New York Times:
Electric utility executives all over the world are watching nervously as technologies they once dismissed as irrelevant begin to threaten their long-established business plans. Fights are erupting across the United States over the future rules for renewable power. Many poor countries, once intent on building coal-fired power plants to bring electricity to their people, are discussing whether they might leapfrog the fossil age and build clean grids from the outset.

A reckoning is at hand, and nowhere is that clearer than in Germany. Even as the country sets records nearly every month for renewable power production, the changes have devastated its utility companies, whose profits from power generation have collapsed.

A similar pattern may well play out in other countries that are pursuing ambitious plans for renewable energy. Some American states, impatient with legislative gridlock in Washington, have set aggressive goals of their own, aiming for 20 or 30 percent renewable energy as soon as 2020.
The word the Germans use for their plan is starting to make its way into conversations elsewhere: energiewende, the energy transition. Worldwide, Germany is being held up as a model, cited by environmental activists as proof that a transformation of the global energy system is possible.

The Rest Of The Story Is Here

Awful to think that Australia once led the world in solar power technology. Our entire country could be at least half-powered by solar by now, had those technical innovations and investments continued. But Big Coal and Old Electricity monopolies won out.

The Australian Abbott Government appears to be in the midst of a war against renewable energies. Hard to imagine they can hold out much longer, as the reality of our renewables-based future becomes even more impossible to ignore.

Where The Music Industry Now Looks For Its Stars Of Tomorrow: Vine

Music industry execs only listening to five or six seconds of a new musician's song on Vine isn't too far away from how they used to deal with demo tapes back in the 1980s and 90s. Record execs would, literally, listen to just a few seconds of a new song when they were working their way through unsolicited piles of audio tapes, and then later CDs. It wasn't unusual for a record company exec to whip through dozens of demo tapes in one afternoon.

So anyway, Vine, the six-seconds-only video clip site is running hot as the place to find new talent, and also be discovered, claims Buzzfeed:

The ability to engage large numbers of fans for six seconds at a time on Vine can suggest a starpower that will translate outside of the service, at record stores and on tour stages. If thousands of users are liking and reposting everything an artist shares, the thinking goes, then those same users can be mobilized to buy a new song or album, or to shell out for concert tickets when the artist comes to town.

“It’s a bit like meeting a band who’ve built an amazing following live and saying, ‘Wow this band is really connecting with people and they’re self-starters,’” said Massey. “They have their own motivation and they’ve created their own world already.”

There’s good reason to believe that activity on Vine has an impact on the marketplace. In July, Mendes’ debut single “Life of the Party” sold 148,000 copies in its first week and reached No. 24 on the Billboard Hot 100, making him the youngest artist ever to enter the top 25 of the chart with his first release. His subsequent self-titled EP, and first collection of all original songs, debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 and No. 1 on iTunes, selling 48,000 copies in its first week, according to SoundScan.

And beyond minting creative and camera-ready young artists, Vine has also proven an effective, if unconventional, distribution channel for hit songs. Because the service allows users to pair a separate audio track with their video, a song with the right tone can serve as a ready-made soundtrack. DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s manic barn burner “Turn Down for What” and the convulsive Martin Garrix floor-filler “Animals” punched up the action in countless Vines before spreading to radio and elsewhere online.

“‘Turn Down for What’ was initially an independent release, and before we signed it there were bootleg versions of the song already climbing up the iTunes chart,” said Imran Majid, head of A&R at Columbia Records. “We put the official version of the song up right before shutting down for Christmas break last year and it shot straight to No. 11. We said, ‘If this song reaches 30,000 in sales before we get back, we’ll all give each other high fives.’ It sold over 39,000 in a single day.”
It gets really interesting, and potentially very profitable, when Vine introduces a 'Buy' or 'Donate Now' button (to finance future recordings by an up and comer).

The Rest Of The Story Is Here

Has The Time Come To Purposely Dose Water Supplies WIth Powerful Drugs?

Considering some of the stories he wrote on the subject, it would be fascinating to hear what Philip K Dick would've thought of the idea of purposely dosing drinking water supplies with drugs to lower violence, depression and suicides: 
 Lithium has been known for its curative powers for centuries, if not millenniums. Lithia Springs, Ga., for example, with its natural lithium-enriched water, appears to have been an ancient Native American sacred site. By the late 19th century Lithia Springs was a famous health destination visited by Mark Twain and Presidents Grover Cleveland, William Howard Taft, William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt.

Lithium drinks were in huge demand for their reputed health-giving properties, so much so that the element was added to commercial drinks. 7-Up was originally called Bib-Label Lithiated Lemon-Lime Soda and contained lithium citrate right up until 1950. In fact, it’s been suggested that the 7 in 7-Up refers to the atomic mass of the lithium. (Maybe the “Up” referred to mood?) Even beer made with lithia water was available.
But today?
Today lithium is little discussed despite the huge public appetite for health information. Nor is it much advertised or even available. Scanning the shelves at a local chain store pharmacy, I discovered that standard vitamins did not contain lithium and the nutritional supplement section of the store had no products containing lithium. Lithium was available only in the relatively high-dose medication form that requires a prescription from a physician. Online, however, there are lithium products available including, amazingly enough, the original Lithia spring water.

Some scientists have, in fact, proposed that lithium be recognized as an essential trace element nutrient. Who knows what the impact on our society would be if micro-dose lithium were again part of our standard nutritional fare? What if it were added back to soft drinks or popular vitamin brands or even put into the water supply? The research to date strongly suggests that suicide levels would be reduced, and even perhaps other violent acts. And maybe the dementia rate would decline. We don’t know because the research hasn’t been done.

For the public health issue of suicide prevention alone, it seems imperative that such studies be conducted. In 2011, suicide was the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. Research on a simple element like lithium that has been around as a medication for over half a century and as a drink for millenniums may not seem like a high priority, but it should be.

A fascinating read in all. Definitely a subject that will be taken much more seriously very soon by Western governments.

Admit It - Your Twitter Addiction Is Making You Miss Out On Life

A painful, uncomfortable read for Twitter junkies, but David Fisher should be applauded for getting this out there (excerpts):

The end of Twitter for me was realising it wasn't really serving any purpose related to what I want to contribute through the job I did. I know who I serve - readers/public - and the Twitter feed I created didn't really do that. Twitter has no resonance, unless it is driven relentlessly, and the churn of content demolishes anything you might try to constructively build. It doesn't go anywhere. Like those bars with no closing time, it is endless and goes on and on.
I found weird things - I'd ask questions of politicians then later see tweets flash by with links to news stories based on the MP's tweeted answer. I'd deconstruct reports as they were released and find the results built into an analysis in some newspaper somewhere. I'd fight with those obnoxious characters and find the dialogue misconstrued or misquoted elsewhere.

As time went on, it became clear I, as a journalist, was part of the dialogue rather than simply recording it. And from all of that, Twitter didn't create anything of value for the time I put into it that couldn't have been produced elsewhere.

That was the nub of it - time better spent elsewhere and who I was serving. I stopped about 18,000 tweets in, written over an 18-month period.
One day, I was sitting in the newsroom watching a Twitter storm flare and die in a matter of hours.
It's common to Twitter - an intense ranting outrage online that roars and fades in an afternoon . It blew through my feed and after it had gone it was as if it had never been there. I looked at my screen and thought: What on earth am I doing?

What went wanting for the time sacrificed online? What time had I missed with friends? And family?

How many disjointed pieces of research get spat into cyberspace when bolting them together might have meant something? What arguments was I having online that I could better direct elsewhere?
 So I took a month off. In just days, my focus sharpened and I stepped back into the world. My son, 7, asked after Twitter and when I told him it was gone he said, "Good," and hugged me.
The people I had met online reached out in other ways, which was lovely.

The people I didn't enjoy disappeared. I had lost nothing, really, and gained much. Twitter is a time and attention soak and I loved it not at all.

The Rest Of The Story Is Here

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Star Wars Episode 7: More Leaked Pics - Falcon, X-Wing, 'Snout Beast'

Less than 24 hours after TMZ published a fat wad of on-set 'leaked' photos from the new Star Wars movie, yet more appear online. This time from inside Pinewood Studios in England.

Not so sure that Star Wars producers are actually "angry" these are getting out. As far as spoilers go, they don't show anything not already expected - the return of Han Solo's Millennium Falcon, an X-Wing fighter under construction, and one of the presumed plethora of aliens and creatures that will populate the new Star Wars trilogy.

The 'leaked' photos are no PR disaster as some entertainment websites claim.

The movie is a month into shooting, there is no teaser trailer yet, no poster, no official title, no official pics released at all, yet the 'leaked' photos are popping up across nerd blogs, Star Wars addict sites, an
d mainstream media across the planet. These pics are feeding the hunger for info on the new movie, at absolutely no cost to the moviemakers or Disney studio.

Also, the 'leaked' pics do exactly what producers and writer-director JJ Abrams want to be known about the new Star Wars movies - they are ditching a lot of the CGI for real sets, constructed space craft exteriors and interiors and Muppet-like creatures.

Expect more soon.

Star Wars Episode 7: First Photos From The Set

It has begun...

TMZ scored a swag of photos from the set of JJ Abrams' Star Wars: Episode 7, presumably taken by one or more of the extras, as there is a lot of pics of people in costumes standing around posing.

The images show creatures and set detail from Tattooine, where best guess would presume Luke Skywalker has returned to live three decades after the end of Return Of The Jedi, and presumably where his son is growing up when the movie opens.

Pics also indicate JJ Abrams is sticking by his pledge to use practical special effects, real sets and real set detail, instead of CGI everything, to give the new film a style and look closer to the original trilogy.

The full set of images are here, but here's a few of the better ones:

These photos are from the "huge set" in the Abu Dhabi desert, where shooting began in mid-May, 2014. The production has now moved to Pinewood Studios, in England. The Abu Dhabi set includes a full-scale shuttle craft and a town market, a tower and 'moisture vaporators.' Early scenes in the desert shoot included an explosion that leaves a huge blast crater. The film is scheduled for release in 2015. Director JJ Abrams wrote the script with Indiana Jones trilogy and The Empire Strikes Back co-writer Lawrence Kasdan.

George Lucas wrote the story summaries for Star Wars Episode 7, 8 and 9, and worked with Kasdan through a long pre-production process, after Lucas sold the Star Wars rights to Disney for $4 billion.

From Bloomberg Businessweek:
The reality of giving up control weighed on George Lucas, though. At the end of every week before she flew home to Los Angeles, Kennedy says, she asked Lucas how he was feeling. Sometimes he seemed at peace. Other times, not. “I’m sure he paused periodically to question whether he was really ready to walk away,” she says.
At first Lucas wouldn’t even turn over his rough sketches of the next three Star Wars films. When Disney executives asked to see them, he assured them they would be great and said they should just trust him. “Ultimately you have to say, ‘Look, I know what I’m doing. Buying my stories is part of what the deal is.’ I’ve worked at this for 40 years, and I’ve been pretty successful,” Lucas says. “I mean, I could have said, ‘Fine, well, I’ll just sell the company to somebody else.’ ”

Lucas attended story meetings for the new film, adjudicating the physical laws and attributes of the Star Wars universe.

“I mostly say, ‘You can’t do this. You can do that,’ ” Lucas says. “You know, ‘The cars don’t have wheels. They fly with antigravity.’ There’s a million little pieces. Or I can say, ‘He doesn’t have the power to do that, or he has to do this.’ I know all that stuff.”

More To Come

Monday, May 26, 2014

Pope Reads 'Free Palestine' Graffiti, Prays, At Israel's Wall

The Pope made an unannounced stop in Bethlehem to pray at Israel's gruesome wall cutting through the heart of Palestinian neighbourhoods. He told witnesses, "I know exactly what this wall means."

Joy swept through Gaza as word spread about the Pope's visit, and his being photographed in front of graffiti proclaiming "Free Palestine."

The Pope extended an invitation to both Israel and Palestine's leaders to join him at The Vatican for talks on June 6. Palestinian leaders accepted immediately. Israel had not responded, hours later.

This is one of the most remarkable, iconic news photos of 2014, perhaps of the decade:

Another pic showing more of the graffiti The Pope purposely allowed himself to be photographed in front of.

The graffiti reads: "Pope, we need some 1 to speak about justice. Bethlehem looks like Warsaw ghetto. Free Palestine"

The Pope's visit to Bethlehem and what's known as 'Israel's Apartheid Wall' sends a clear message to Israel. Stop delaying, get peace with Palestine sorted, get rid of this wall.

Gaza, the West Bank, The Vatican now waits for Israel's response.

UPDATE: Both Israel and Palestine have now accepted The Pope's invitation to talks at The Vatican in early June.
 26 Jewish extremists violently protesting The Pope's visit to Mount Zion were arrested:
"Demonstrators at King David's Tomb threw stones and bottles at Israel's security forces."

The Pope didn't arrive in Israel as his first stop on Holy Land visit. He arrived near Bethlehem in a Jordanian helicopter, and was passing through Bethlehem when he signaled driver to stop at the above graffiti on the Israel Wall. During a meeting with Palestine's President Abbas, he embraced him and called him "a peacemaker."

The Pope said he accepts the State of Palestine, urged the completion of the 'two state solution' and announced what was being done to the Palestinian people by Israel was "increasingly unacceptable."