Science, technology & design

Men versus women

It’s widely accepted that women and men behave differently, but the great debate has always been whether it’s a question of nature or nurture. In her book, The Female Brain, neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendene says recent studies in the field of neuroimaging show that women and men actually use their brains differently. She’s well aware that her views may seem politically incorrect, but can’t deny her findings. She says that women are often more emotional due to a greater number of neurones in the area of the brain dedicated to emotion and memory. Men are better at spatial tasks because they use their right hemisphere more. A larger prefrontal cortex makes women generally more patient, and a smaller amygdala, the source of feelings of anger and fear, could make them less likely to fight. In newborns, the tendency of boys to gravitate towards toys such as trucks is that their eyes are more sensitive to movement, whereas girls’ eyes are more sensitive to colour and texture. And she’s not the only one that’s presenting these kinds of views.A number of experts believe that the male brain is predominately built for building and analytical tasks, while the female brain is built for empathy. Other academics have theorised that men have not only bigger brains, but also higher IQs, which would account for that fact that more men are chess grandmasters or Nobel Prize winners. Then again cultural and other biological factors cannot be ignored and size isn't everything - as men keep telling women.
Ref: Weekend Australian (AUS), 19-20 August 2006, ‘Why we’re hemispheres apart’, Carol Midgeley. from The Times
Search words: men, women, brains, thinking, gender

The risks of nanotechnology

The United States may be leading the world in the field of nanotechnology – a new science dealing with very small scale materials – but according a recent report they are not paying enough attention to the possible risks associated with the technology. The 176-page report released by the National Research Council – called ‘Matter of Size’ –claims there are many environmental, health and safety risks that have not been explored, despite the fact that nanoscale ingredients are already being used in products including cosmetics and food. Nanoparticles of even conventional substances can behave in ways they wouldn’t normally, and can cause chemical reactions in human cells and soil. Currently the US is spending around $11 million a year on research into the potential harms of nanotechnology – an industry that’s expected to be worth around $2 trillion in the next decade – but industry and environmental groups have pushed for funds of $50 million to $100 million per year.
Ref: The Washington Post (US), 26 September 2006, ‘Nanotechnology Risks Unknown’, Rick Weiss.
Search: risk, nanotechnology, nanoparticles

Software that learns

Experts predict that it’s only a matter of time before the way we live is changed by cognitive computing. It builds on the theory of Artificial Intelligence (AI), and will mean that rather than responding to pre-programmed or logical courses, machines will be able to learn as they go and respond to unexpected events. The challenge facing scientists is to create software that develops in response to its environment, building neural nets that hold past experiences that will build into consciousness and intelligence. Experts are optimistic about the development of cognitive computing, saying that we now know much more about the brain than during the AI hype of the 1980s. And as computers become increasingly more powerful, it’s theorised that they can help to model or even recreate human brains. If, or perhaps when, the technology comes to fruition, the applications will be boundless. Think of medical devices with cognitive technology, self-driving cars, and of course robots – which already constitute a growing market. Though these kinds of products may be a little while off, there’s already some use of cognitive computing on the shelves. The California-based Ugobe has released a pet dinosaur robot, Pleo, which reacts to its sound, touch and other experiences, eventually understanding them.
Ref: Red Herring (US), 7 August 2006, ‘If It Only Had a Brain’.
Search words: artificial intelligence, cognition, robots

And a robot wife

A Japanese computer scientist has built what he claims to be the world’s most humanlike (and attractive) android, but is it enough to fool people? The traditional test for intelligent machines has been for computers to attempt to convince judges that they are human (known as the Turing Test), but it is all done via teletype – seeing the machine would give the game away. In anticipation of the day when software can emulate human intelligence, Osaka scientist Hiroshi Ishiguro has created a human interface to house the computer. The android, modelled on a Japanese newscaster, has been painstakingly created to appear human, not just in looks, but in mannerisms and movements as well. The creator has found that some people, especially children and the elderly, have taken it for a human. Ishiguro feels the creation of a human-looking interface is important for communication, as most people prefer to deal with others face-to-face, but when it comes to androids close enough is not good enough. It has been shown that while people accept robots that look like robots, they are quite disturbed by those that look similar to humans, but not similar enough.
Ref: Scientific American Mind (US), June/July 2006, ‘My Date with a Robot’,
Robert Epstein.
Search words: robots, androids, artificial intelligence

Thermal conversion

In what might seem like a miracle, American company Changing World Technologies has been turning waste into oil. The bio-refinery uses the viscera of 35,000 turkeys, waste product from a nearby ConAgra Foods plant, and 20 tonnes of pork fat from slaughterhouses to churn out 500 barrels of renewable diesel per day. How is it done? The concept is nothing new - it’s the same one that nature uses to create crude oil. Hydrocarbon-based waste, such as dead animals, is subjected to extreme pressure and heat which decomposes the long-chain molecules into short-chain petroleum hydrocarbons. The only difference is that the bio-refinery has sped up the process. This Thermal Conversion Process is not just limited to animal waste; the plant can make oil from sewage, mixed plastics, even old tires. And what doesn’t come out as oil is made into high-grade fertiliser, or is water clean enough to be processed by a municipal wastewater system. Chief executive Brian Appel claims the process is the answer to three of the world’s biggest problems: waste, oil supplies and global warming. But if it’s that simple then why hasn’t anyone done it before? The main problem has been to make it profitable. The plant had originally predicted that they could produce the oil for US$15 a barrel, but in reality the cost has been $80, but with the introduction of a subsidy under the US Energy Bill, the company has now been able to make a slim profit, and has plans for projects in Italy and Spain. By the way, if you were a science fiction writer looking for an idea for a film – perhaps some kind of nightmare dystopia – the technology would also work using dead humans.
Ref: Cosmos Magazine (AUS), Issue 9, June/July 2006, ‘From Guts to Glory – Turing Waste into Oil’, Brad Lemley.
Search words: oil, diesel, waste, refinery, bio-fuels

Global warming

With experts warning the approach of a tipping point for global warming, they are looking to the sun itself for a little help to tackle the problem. A growing number of scientists believe that the sun’s activity can be linked to the Earth’s temperatures. These links are fairly controversial, and would only account for around 30 per cent of global warming, but there’s recent and fairly convincing evidence that links sunspots in particular to our climate. These eruptions have been particularly prevalent over the past 50 years, and if past patterns in solar activity are anything to go by, this heightened activity is usually followed by a slump. Historically, these slumps have coincided with mini ice ages, such as the ones affecting the Earth in the 15th and 17th centuries. If this predicted crash comes about, it will be go a long way to confirming the theories relating to the sun’s role in the Earth’s temperatures, and it may mean global cooling of around 0.2 Celsius. This may not sound like much, but it is on par with the most optimistic result hoped to be gained from restricting emissions in line with the Kyoto protocol. Experts hope that any brief respite from global warming will be a chance to implement pollutions controls and not a chance for industrial polluters or reluctant nations to become complacent.
Ref: New Scientist (US), 16 September 2006, ‘Saved by the sun’, Stuart Clark.
Search words: climate, global warming, sunspots