Science, technology & design

When tribes are more important than truth

We live in an age of science, but not everyone believes or understands science or the scientific method. Did you know a third of Americans believe humans have existed in their present form since time began? Many people actively reject what science says, while others believe evolution, GMOs and fluoride or vaccines, moon landings and 9/11, are just government conspiracies.

In America science doubt is on the rise, charged by the internet. It has become much easier to publish and widely circulate non-truths. The sheer volume of available information dilutes the truth; it’s always possible to find someone who agrees with you, no matter how crazy the idea.

Another reason for the rise of science scepticism, or even denial, is our brains crave meaning and detest randomness, so we tend to look for ‘evidence’ to support our view. Moreover, geopolitical change and rapid technological innovation are now racing ahead of our ability to comprehend what they might mean.

Science literacy isn't helping either. You might reasonably expect better teaching and communication of science would promote consensus on, say, climate change. But it appears to be doing the opposite with polarisation and antagonism on the rise.

However, the single largest factor may be tribal pressure. Alongside randomness, one of the things we loathe is being left outside a group. There is tremendous unspoken pressure to conform with whatever local values and opinions are.

Becoming a climate change denier in Washington DC or New York might be tricky, but out in the Texan oilfields, no problem. Scientists are a tribe too, but the good ones - the ones who overturn conventional wisdom - have always put rigorous scientific method ahead of received scientific ‘fact.’

Ref: National Geographic (US) March 2015, ‘The age of disbelief’ by J. Achenbach.
Source integrity: *****
Search words: Truth, conspiracies, facts
Trend tags: Too much information

Plant intelligence

The search for other forms of intelligence continues in outer space, but there could be forms of intelligence much closer to home. About 100 years ago, Jagdish Chandra Bose, an Indian biologist, argued plants, like homo sapiens, actively explore their environment and modify their behaviour according to what they find.

More recently, researchers have found plants are able to communicate awareness of their environment to other plants. There is even evidence emerging that plants have a form of memory and perhaps even ‘pay attention’.

How could this be so? The answer is most likely electrical signalling that enables sensory perception, which in turn allows plants to decide how to behave. Most likely this occurs in the roots, although leaves could contain some kind of signalling or processing ability.

For example, a Venus Flytrap can sense being touched, but it doesn't snap its trap shut on the first touch. Instead it snaps on the second touch. Similarly, a potted Mimosa pudica, the touch-me-not plant, will close its leaves if dropped from a small height, but somehow learns not to do so if repeatedly dropped.

It’s not quite correct to call this intelligence, but there is certainly a level of awareness and adaptive learning going on that would please some AI scientists. We think it’s highly likely that consciousness is a spectrum and it may be possible to have some kind of consciousness without having what humans consider to be a brain.

Ref: New Scientist (UK) 6 December 2014, ‘Roots of consciousness’ by A. Anathaswamy.
Source integrity: *****
Search words: Intelligence, plants
Trend tags: -

Your brain is in the game

For more than 100 years, science fiction writers have imagined a future where people can enter an alternative world or dimension. For the last 40 years or so, technologists have had a similar vision: a digital realm or gaming experience so immersive and convincing that it’s almost impossible to tell the difference between what’s real and what’s not.

The latest in this long line of digital dreamers is Palmer Lucky, the founder of Oculus Rift, who sold his invention to Facebook for a whopping $2 billion. Why so much? Because Virtual Reality (VR) is considered by some to be the next big thing and the Rift pulls off a trick many people had thought impossible: trick the brain into thinking it’s inside a game.

In a traditional computer game, the time-lag between what your eyes see or your brain experiences and what the screen does can be annoying. With gaming goggles on, it’s even worse. If you turn your head and the images don’t turn at the same speed, you can feel sick. It’s a long story how Palmer solved this problem but he’s smart, he persisted and he’s Lucky.

Where will this technology go next? As Mark Zuckerberg has said, games are merely the beginning. VR will almost certainly change how we consume media, but may also change how we communicate with each other. Whether that’s progress or not is open to trial and error, but VR conference calls, VR movies, VR theme parks and even VR ‘adult entertainment’ could all soon be your game.

Ref: Wired (US), 20 May 2014, ‘The inside story of Oculus Rift and how virtual reality became reality’, by P Rubin.
Source integrity: *****
Search words: VR, Rift, Facebook
Trend tags: VR

Technological advances for the next 500 + years

Evolution has changed human bodies and behaviour significantly over the past 2 million years. While biological evolution might have slowed down, it hasn’t stopped and technological evolution has barely started. So what inventions are likely to re-mould human society over the next 500 or even 1,000 years?

Extending human lifespans seems like a futurist’s fantasy but, as Anders Sandberg at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute points out: “We are already in the middle of this revolution.”

We have practically doubled human lifespans in three generations and there’s no reason to suppose it’s impossible to go further. Regular genetic maintenance and the replacement of worn out body parts could extend lifespans, but may create challenges for memory, which evolved for shorter lives. Online recording may help here, but human relationships were similarly designed to last not much more than 50 years. Can we remain in singular relationships for 100 years or more and how would we cope with the idea of having our grandparent’s grandparents alive?

Customisable bodies will almost certainly be another spin-off from further medical and technological knowledge. Artificial limbs are already undergoing a transformation, but prostheses could become a playground for fashion and even individual identity. Feel like a new arm that’s twice as strong as the original? Perhaps you’d like one that glows in the dark or covered in feathers (BIRDBRAIN)?

Customising would be controversial, but might be a reaction against societies that seem increasingly sanitised and lives lacking any sense of control. It might also usefully raise important questions about what it means to be human. Are you still human with feathers on your arm?

Another development on the horizon is decision-making machines. The idea of personalised algorithms making decisions for us isn't new, but eventually predictive systems could make nearly all our decisions. This might be a positive development, removing us from the trouble of too much choice, but it may prompt people to demand their autonomy.

Privacy matters may become more urgent too, although one suspects it could also become irrelevant. At the moment we seem content with public confessions and candid self-promotion online, so why not publicly display our emotions and even our innermost thoughts via wearable devices?

Finally, how about a world of endless abundance? We are used to the idea of the earth running out of resources to support the human population, but what if all waste were recycled, 3D printers could print anything, anywhere and molecular engineering could remould one material or object into another? This would then trivialise the ‘new’ while ‘old’ would become valuable and sought after – or lose its meaning altogether.

If science and urban expansion cause us to lose our ties to the natural world, how would this change our relationship with any remaining wild spaces? Will science and technology ultimately remove us from nature or bring us closer to it?

Ref: New Scientist (UK) 25 October 2014, ‘The next 1000 years’ by R. Nuwer.
Source integrity: *****
Search words: Prediction, evolution, death, privacy, decision-making
Trend tags:-