June 27, 2009

(thankfully, not actually my car)

Well, dear readers, I’m off for eights weeks of summer vacation. I’ll be heading to Tennessee, Colorado, California, Canada, and Ohio visiting various family and friends. I’m not sure what my internet connection will be like during this period, but I’m guessing it’ll be sketchy. I still hope to do some more intermittent posting now and again, so please keep checking the blog. I’ll be back to normal at the end of August.

Have a great summer.

anticipating wrongdoing

June 27, 2009

Those of you who remember the movie Minority Report, with Tom Cruise, are familiar with the idea of anticipating someone’s future wronging and then taking preventative action against it. It’s an interesting idea, but when it came out in 2002, it was still science fiction. Now, it seems we could be getting closer to something like that with the preliminary (unpublished) results that Vincent Clark or the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque gave a talk at the Organization for Human Brain Mapping conference.

Clark claims that he can predict which drug addicts will relapse after treatment with 89% accuracy using both traditional psychiatric techniques and fMRI brain imaging. He used 400 subjects in his decade long study. What’s interesting about this approach is that it involves a more serious level of quantitative analysis (from the fMRI) than most psychiatric evaluations and thus would be a more rigorous metric by which to measure patients against a standard.

While determining if patients in treatment will relapse (and thus might need more treatment) is a beneficial evaluation for both society and the patient, it’s not hard to extend this type of test to a more ethically difficult scenario. Suppose someone develops a test that, with 90% accuracy, determines (via MRI or some other such technique) whether a violent offender in prison will commit a repeat act of violence after paroled. I think we’re a way off (if it’s even possible) from such a test, but still, the thought experiment is interesting.

How would our criminal justice system handle such a test? Since the ostensible goal of our penitentiaries is to “reform” those who’ve done wrong, could such a test be used to determine at what point someone’s been “reformed?” How do we balance the idea of reform with the idea of penance, a similarly old but quite different justification for imprisoning someone. How much testing of such a test would we need to actually implement it, since incorrect diagnosis could lead to either additional harm to citizens or wrongful confinement. Is there any (non 100%) level of efficacy that would be acceptable?

It strikes me that implementing a test like this in our criminal justice system would force us to rework a good deal of the philosophy behind locking people up (which I don’t think would be a bad thing). It’s an interesting thought experiment now, but perhaps in a few decades it will become a reality.

Blue light causes the cells to become activated, sending out electrical signals. Yellow light causes the cells to become inactive, blocking any signal propogation though it. (credit: h+ Magazine)

Blue light causes the cells to become activated, sending out electrical signals. Yellow light causes the cells to become inactive, blocking any signal propagation though it. (credit: h+ Magazine)

Implanting electrodes in someone’s brain and then shocking them seems somewhat sci-fi to most people, but it’s a medical reality. We’ve found that by electrically stimulating parts of the brain and vagus nerve, we can reduce the effects of epileptic seizures, Parkinsons’, and other disorders.

This whole process sounds incredibly complicated, and it is, but from a larger perspective, it’s quite simplistic. Basically, we just stick wires in peoples’ heads and shock them and see if their symptoms decrease. A slight divergence from this external electrical stimulation is the subfield of optogenetics, coined first by Karl Deisseroth at Stanford. I read a nice summary of his recent work in h+ Magazine and will give you the thumbnail sketch.

Instead of sticking an electrode down into your brain, Deisseroth’s group stuck a fiber optic cable that can deliver different wavelengths of yellow and blue light. Normal neurons are not light sensitive, but the targets of this optical stimulation are genetically modified to be so. Deisseroth’s group squirts in a bit of genetically engineered virus exactly in the brain where they want to stimulate. This virus has two genes culled from algae and archaeon that then reprogram the surrounding neurons to be sensitive to blue and yellow light.

These neurons now become inhibited, unable to produce an electrical signal, when subjected to the yellow light and excited, producing an electrical signal, when subjected to the blue light.

This process, while a good bit more involved than brain stimulation, achieves basically the same thing: getting neurons to fire when we want them to. But it also has then benefit of allowing us to directly block neurons from firing, which we could only somewhat achieve through electrical stimulation by shocking one part of the brain and hoping that it causes another part to go quiet in the way we want. Silencing areas of the brain directing could prove an incredible boon in getting the brain to behave in the way that we want.

I see this optogenetic technology as an additional tool, not necessarily a replacement, to electrical brain stimulation. As our understanding of how the neurons in specific parts of the brain are connected and our technology for controlling those neurons improve, our ability to mediate the many debilitating diseases and conditions that plague us will improve dramatically.

Some of you may be uncomfortable with the idea of messing around “under the hood” of the most complicated machine in the world, but I’d then ask you how direct stimulation (or inhibition) is really any different than the many drugs that target the brain. This technology is simply the next step in our ability to fine tune ourselves.

misguided spaceflight

June 24, 2009

NASAs nifty Constellation logo

NASA's nifty logo for Constellation: "Earth, Moon, Mars"

The Obama administration has ordered a review of NASA’s human spaceflight program, the next iteration of which is called Constellation and is planned to take us to back to the moon in 2020 and to Mars around 2030. Budget woes may delay the program, but I question the strategy in returning to the Moon.

To properly approach this issue, I must first explain the entire context of manned spaceflight. In my opinion, it’s a PR campaign. In the Cold War 50s, 60s, and 70s, we used spaceflight to flex our technological muscle. Not only did landing on the moon and the rest of the groundbreaking missions flaunt our scientific and engineering abilities to the world, it also inspired a generation of scientists an engineers here in the U.S. Hell, it still inspires me that we were able to land people on the moon.

In another perspective, one could argue, is that exploring is what we humans do, from Marco Polo to Leif Ericson to Shackleton. Exploring our planetary neighbors is simply the next phase. I’m quite amenable to this idea because I attach our desire to explore to our general quest to make sense of our surroundings.

Pursuing this desire is an important undertaking, but it shouldn’t distract from the rest of space exploration through probes, robots, and telescopes, a project with much more (in my opinion) scientific and philosophical promise. Given the massive cost of sending a human to the moon again (the GAO estimates as high as as $230 billion!), I can’t help but think that we can get more bang for our buck in other cosmological projects.

The ultimate goal for NASA’s Constellation project is putting humans on Mars (and returning them, of course). I this this goal is fruitful and is the natural next step to our space exploration. Going to the moon again simply because we can seems like a waste of time and resources.

When space exploration bleeds into politics and PR (and believe me, NASA’s got plenty to go around), we must be all the more thoughtful about which direction in space we’re going.

faith in AI

June 22, 2009

Namit Arora at 3quarksdaily has a very interesting and thoughtful post about the future (or lack thereof) of true artificial intelligence.

He does a good job at tracing the major phases of AI design, from essentially large databases to the more modern neural networks. He points out that while AIs have become more and more capable of solving well-defined problems (although one could argue we’ve been able to expend the set of solvable well-defined problems a great deal over the years), ultimately they will fail to reach the truly human je ne sais quoi because they are unable to become completely immersed in the human experience of emotions, relationships, and even simple relationships between objects and things in our world. (Arora borrows much of these ideas, which I am only briefly paraphrasing, from Hubert L. Dreyfus who borrows from Heidegger.)

While I agree that we are no where near the singularity, as Ray Kurzweil would have you believe, I disagree that we are no where nearer than when we started in the early days of artificial intelligence (that is, the 60s and 70s).

A big shift in the development of AI, in my opinion, was moving away from the teleological view of intelligence, away from “This is how we think the mind works, so this is how we’re going to program our AI.” The transition from symbolic (brute force) AI to neural networks marks a large shift in that it’s basically an acknowledgement that we programmers don’t know how to solve every problem. Now, what we still know how to do (and must do for now at least) is to define our problems. Thus, if I make an AI to solve a certain problem, I may run it though millions of machine-learning iterations so that it can figure out the best way to solve that problem, but I’m still defining the parameters, the heuristics that make that program determine whether the current technique it’s testing is good or not.

I agree that this approach, while yielding many powerful problem-solving applications, is ultimately doomed. But in pursuing it, we have bootstrapped ourselves into a less well-defined area of AI. If you believe (as I do, although I don’t like the religiously aspects of the word “believe”), that the brain is simply a collection of interconnected cells and nothing else, then in theory we can recreate it in silicone. The problem arises in determining how the cells (nodes in comp sci language) are interconnected. How can we even know where to start?

And here’s where the faith aspect comes in. I’ll call it what it is. As our understanding of the functional aspects of the brain improves (thanks to all the tools of modern technology) as do our computational processing and storage capabilities, I find it hard to think that we will not ultimately get there.

Yes, we will probably need a more philosophical view of what it means to be human and sentient. Yes, it will probably take us a long, long time from now, perhaps even after my lifetime, but remember, the field is incredibly new. I’m heartened by work done by Jeff Krichmar’s group at UC Irvine with neurobots in approaching the idea of intelligence from a non-bounded perspective.

As our technology and understanding of intelligence improves, I simply cannot believe (and here, perhaps, I am using a more religious flavor) that our quest to understand ourselves would allow us to abandon this project.

water vigilantism

June 22, 2009

(image credit: Science Progress)

(credit: Science Progress)

The U.S. Global Change Research Program recently released a study, which, among many daunting scenarios, projects the change in precipitation between 1961-79 to 2080-99. Needless, to say, there’s going to be a good bit less water falling over the coming years in the the southwest. This oncoming drought threatens both the future of agriculture and domestic and commercial water use in the area.

The politics of water rights in the West are fascinating and far to complicated to describe here. But the idea is that people who were “first in line,” so to speak, to sign up for the right of a certain amount of water from a river or other source get first dibs. What this translates into, though, is that preventing water from going into those natural channels is in effect “stealing” from the large pot that eventually gets divided along various lines.

I might be more sympathetic to this “crime” were it not for the following:
1) the way in which water rights are divided is incredibly complicated and often outdated;
2) it’s much more efficient to capture water on your own property, for your own use, than to let that water flow into natural channels only to have it pumped back to your house or building.

In April, Colorado passed a limited measure allowing people off the water grid to collect their own water for use in watering lawns and gardens. While a step in the the right direction, it’s not clear that other states will follow suit and/or expand water collection rights to those on the water grid.

Many homeowners have taken matters into their own hands regarding water usage, breaking the existing water laws. I support these measures both because I think they’re simply more efficient and because they set the stage for future improvements in water usage.

Some (mainly homeowners) have taken to collecting their roof water in barrels or cisterns. Others recycle greywater from washing machines, sinks, and showers (note, not toilets or sinks with garbage disposals) back into their yards. Allowing this kind of intelligent recycling promotes conservation on a local level as well as prevents us from wasting potable, treated water for things that don’t need it.

What’s more, in these two systems, the water not sucked up by the plants simply goes back into the natural aquifers.

We need to move to a more efficient and smart way of using this ever-dwindling resource in the West. Everyone acknowledges water shortage is a large problem, which may explain why many authorities sometimes look the other way over these types of infractions. When enough people embrace a technology or behavior that aims to ameliorate a serious problem, it becomes acceptable and can then become law.

Building a car

Building a car

I’ve been working on my car (’95 Infinity G20) recently and really am only beginning to appreciate how complicated and well-engineered it is. I think most of us take for granted that they’re complicated, a view certainly confirmed by looking under the hood. The interesting thing, though, is that every aspect of that complication is engineered in a very precise way. The thought that a team of people (or more like many teams over the years) sat down and designed every tiny part, every bend in the hose, every connection and bolt, really just boggles my mind.

Cars pale in comparison in complexity to something like a 747, an aircraft carrier, an industrial park, or a nuclear reactor, but they’re still incredible feats of engineering. We take so much of this complexity and mindful engineering for granted that it’s sometimes nice to step back and say, “You know, we humans are pretty damn clever.”

Here's a diagram of what I'm currently working on. The exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) valve it making my check-engine light go on. I have to figure out how to remove it and clean it. Wish me luck.

Here's a diagram of what I'm currently working on. The exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) valve it making my check-engine light go on. I have to figure out how to remove it and clean it. Wish me luck.