Science and Technology

How Long Do You Want to Live?

Flickr/Yann Gourvennec
Attentive readers will recall that I'm rather interested , as a human whose body stubbornly continues to age, in the prospect that science will one day enable us to extend our lives far beyond what is possible today. Throwing the "immortality" word around tends to turn people off, since it sounds so absurd (after all, nothing lives forever, not even our sun), but what about just living a whole lot longer than most of us expect to even when we're being optimistic? Is that something you'd want? My answer has always been, "Of course—are you kidding?" If advancements in medicine and technology can dramatically extend our lives—and assuming that we don't end up like Tithonus, the figure from Greek mythology who was granted eternal life but not eternal youth, so lived forever in a tortuous ever-increasing decrepitude—then I'm all for it. There are strong arguments that living for an extra 50 or 100 years (or more) might be great for you as an individual, but bad for society as a whole, but...

Burgers from the Future

This was definitely not grown in a lab. (Flickr/Simon Willison)
Let's talk meat, shall we? Americans eat a lot of it. Our cow population (or "inventory" if you prefer, as the beef industry does ) is almost 90 million, and total beef consumption in the U.S. is over 25 billion pounds. If you piled all those hamburgers in a stack, you'd have ... well, let's just say you'd have a really big stack of hamburgers. And we eat even more chicken, though a bit less pork; according to the National Chicken Council (unofficial motto: "B'cawk!"), total beef, pork, and poultry consumption adds up to more than 200 pounds a year for every waddling man, woman, and child in this great nation of ours. To a lot of people, even those who aren't vegetarians, industrial meat production is a moral compromise at best (and I say that as someone who does eat some kinds of meat). Most of us would just rather not think about the process that produced our chicken cutlet or burger. But what if you could produce the meat without actually killing an animal? And I don't mean some...

Today's Robot News

Atlas, who is perhaps not as cuddly as he should be.
It's Friday, which of course means we have to talk robots. Yesterday, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration (DARPA) unveiled Atlas, a humanoid robot it's using as part of its robotics challenge , in which teams of engineers will compete to write software that best employs Atlas' human-eradicating capabilities. Kidding, of course—they'll actually be trying to perform a series of tasks that might be needed in a disaster scenario. Frankly, I've always been skeptical about the potential of humanoid robots. Sure, it helps us to relate to them if they look like us, but the human body has a lot of limitations. For instance, hands are great, but should a robot have only two? Why not four or six, or eleven? The more hands, the more things you can do with them. And legs are extremely useful, especially for navigating uneven environments where wheels won't work well, like the rubble of a building that has fallen over, or the stairs in your house. But are two legs better than...

Is the World Facing the Next Pandemic?

A new deadly respiratory disease out of the Middle East is making the World Health Organization plenty nervous.  

AP Images/Anat Givon
GENEVA—Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization, is a slight, Chinese woman prone to power shades of lipstick. At the World Health Assembly in Geneva, where ministers of health from the U.N.’s 194 member countries gathered to discuss the world’s most pressing illnesses, Chan’s lip-color ranged from a light rose to fire-engine red, but her attitude never swayed. As Hong Kong’s Director of Health during the 2003 bird flu outbreak, Chan became known for both her wry humor and whip-sharp demeanor. In the middle of that epidemic, she told the press, “I eat chicken every day, don’t panic everyone.” Outside, reluctant local officials were killing over 1.5 million chickens at her behest. At the World Health Assembly, held from May 20 to 28th, she introduced various ministers as “my brother,” and “my sister,” drawing both laughter and applause from the buttoned-down attendees. But Chan’s epidemic persona made a repeat performance at this year’s assembly as a recent...

Cuddly Robots to Make Life in the Nursing Home Tolerable

Robots: Not just for nuns anymore. (Photo from Paro Robots U.S., Inc.)
In the movie Castaway , Tom Hanks' character, stranded on an island with no human companionship, dresses up a volleyball to look vaguely like a person's head, gives it a name ("Wilson"), then spends years having conversations with it. Near the end of the film, as Hanks is making his desperate attempt to return to civilization on a raft, Wilson gets washed overboard. There's a poignant moment when Hanks tries to reach Wilson, who is drifting away from the raft, then realizes sadly that he'll have to let it go if he's going to save himself. Because no matter how much emotion he's invested it with, in the end it's just a volleyball. Here in the actual world, there are lots of people who go through their days lacking companionship, many of whom live in nursing homes. As the Baby Boom generation ages, there are going to be a lot more of them. Which naturally leads to the question: Can we use robots to make their lives a little less miserable? Slate's Future Tense brings us the not-really-...

Highway Robbery for High-Speed Internet

Creative Commons
If you're one of those Northeastern elitists who reads The New York Times , you turned to the last page of the front section Friday and saw an op-ed from a Verizon executive making the case that "the United States has gained a global leadership position in the marketplace for broadband," and don't let anyone tell you different. "Hey," you might have said. "Didn't I read an almost identical op-ed in the Times just five days ago?" Indeed you did , though that one came not from a telecom executive but from a researcher at a telecom-funded think-tank . And if you live in Philadelphia, your paper recently featured this piece from a top executive at Comcast, explaining how, yes, American broadband is the bee's knees. That smells an awful lot like a concerted campaign to convince Americans not to demand better from their broadband providers. Perhaps they're trying to influence the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, who has been named by President Obama but not yet...

If Pot Becomes Legal

What will become of its secretive California hometown?

AP Photo
AP Photo/Ben Margot Humboldt Cannabis Center horticulturist Steve Tuck gestures beside both mature and baby marijuana plants he is growing for medical users of the drug. A t one point in Humboldt: Life on America’s Marijuana Frontier , Emily Brady’s account of her year in a remote Northern California county where pot is the cash crop that drives the local economy, one of the book’s subjects—a native of the area named Emma Worldpeace—talks to a new friend about the pictures of deceased classmates that hang on tackboard on Emma’s dorm room wall. “Did you know all these people who died?” she asked. “Yeah, I grew up with all of them,” Emma replied. “Oh my god, that seems so tragic.” The kicker was that Emma’s friend was the one who came from a “rough part of the Bay Area.” “Well sure, maybe every year someone from my school died,” her friend said. “But I went to high school with five or six thousand people.” In a large city, the fallout from youth violence represents an awful loss. In...

David Brooks and the Anti-Neuroscience Backlash

Flickr/TZA
Neuroscience has come a long way in recent years. Our understanding of the brain is expanding rapidly, even as we grasp more and more just how spectacularly complex the blob in your head is. And as we gain new understanding and new tools to look at what's going on in the brain, like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), it's not surprising that there are people—both legitimate scientists and hucksters—eager to push the technology where it might not be quite prepared to go. For instance, people are working on turning fMRI machines into lie detectors; there are even companies that claim they can use a brain scan to tell whether you're lying. But there's still disagreement about how reliable these methods are. So it's also not surprising that as neuroscience advances, we're seeing something of an anti-neuroscience backlash. Some of it is perfectly reasonable and measured, but some of it—like today's column by David Brooks of The New York Times —leaps right from criticism of...

Nothing to Hide, Much to Fear

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
I n reviewing the public’s ambivalent reaction to the disclosures of NSA data mining , I find that some people conclude that it’s no big deal, while others are uneasy but can’t quite explain why. It’s just a modest generic invasion of privacy that is not even activated in most cases. Presumably, this is a weapon that the authorities need to keep us safe. After closed-door hearings yesterday, some skeptics on Capitol Hill were somewhat reassured that safeguards are adequate. If you are in this camp, here are three good reasons to reconsider. First, the history of such surveillance is that it tends to be abused. As heedless of civil liberties as Attorney General Eric Holder has been, he is surely better than whoever the next Republican Attorney General might be. Remember Alberto Gonzalez? Secondly, the authorities tend to define terrorism down. After the Patriot Act was passed, Attorney General Gonzalez kept assuring the Congress and the American public that its sweeping powers would...

A Quiet Blockbuster

(AP Photo/J. David Ake) A s we near the end of this Supreme Court term, a number of cases of substantial interest to politically-aware people who aren't court specialists remain to be decided. Landmark rulings involving the constitutionality of affirmative action, crucial provisions of the Voting Rights Act, and laws discriminating against gays and lesbians are still up in the air. People without access to the physical opinions handed out at the Supreme Court building used to have to wait for media reports about the outcome of cases to trickle out. Today, opinions are released almost instantaneously in PDF form, transforming late-term opinion days into a minor event. According to Kali Borkoski of the indispensable SCOTUSBlog , more than 60,000 readers have viewed its live-blogging of yesterday's opinions, with more than 12,000 simultaneous viewers a little after 10 a.m, when the decisions are announced. However, the vast majority of these onlookers did not get rulings in the cases...

Keeping the Grim Reaper at Bay

Grandpa? Is that you? (Wikimedia Commons/Gaetan Lee)
This Sunday's New York Times business section had a big article on a guy named Dmitry Itskov, a Russian multi-millionaire who is using some of his money to solve the problems of hunger, environmental degradation, and mortality by creating a world in which all of us have out consciousness uploaded into avatars, or robot bodies. He calls it the 2045 Initiative, since that's his target date for it all coming together. Sound like a good idea? My opinion on this is complicated, but let's hear from him first: "That is the picture of this world that we created, with the minds we have today, with our set of values, with our egotism, our selfishness, our aggression," he went on. "Most of the world is suffering. What we're doing here does not look like the behavior of grown-ups. We're killing the planet and killing ourselves." To change that picture, he reasons, we must change our minds, or give them a chance to "evolve," to use one of his favorite words. Before our minds can evolve, though, we...

Your Next Car Will Be Part Robot

One of Google's self-driving cars. (Flickr/Guillermo Esteves)
Futurists have been predicting self-driving cars for decades, but for a long time it wasn't because the idea was a natural extrapolation of existing technology. Instead, from the standpoint of the 1950s or so, it just seemed like something we'd have in The Future, along with robot maids, vacations on the moon, and a spectacular network of vacuum tubes in every home. Today, almost all the technology necessary to allow cars to drive themselves is either already in existence or in the development process, and Google has already allowed its driverless cars to go hundreds of thousands of miles on their own. So the Department of Transportation has issued a policy statement laying out some of the issues that are likely to be confronted as these technologies develop, and establishing its research agenda to address the questions they'll need to answer in order to properly regulate driverless cars. The end point many people envision is that not only will all cars be self-driving, but you won't...

Washington, Colorado, and the Headaches of a Legal High

AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes
When Colorado and Washington State passed ballot measures legalizing marijuana last November, they weren’t just the first states in the country to do so—they were the first governments in the world to do so. While other nations and states, most notably the Netherlands and California, have decriminalized marijuana possession, the drug is still technically illegal. That means that while it’s tolerated by law enforcement, the government need not concern itself with a full-scale system for regulation and taxation. But there are advantages to legalizing the drug; Washington and Colorado can have a hand in making the product safer while they benefit from tax revenues. Both states are in the early stages of creating systems for taxation and regulation; the Washington State Liquor Control Board released a set of standards earlier this month, while Colorado’s state legislature has passed a series of recommendations from a task force. The differences between the two states' approaches will...

Face It: You're Crazy (But So Is Everyone Else)

Flickr/Mark Turnauckas, Carling Hale
Flickr/Mark Turnauckas C ommonly referred to as "the DSM," the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is often referred to as psychiatry's "Bible." If that's the case, imagine the outcry if an overzealous publisher merged the Gospels of Luke and Mark, and you have a pretty good idea of the controversy surrounding the release of the manual's fifth edition. After a six-year revision process—and nearly 20 years since the last edition—the American Psychiatric Association (APA) released the DSM-5 at its annual meeting this weekend, the product of 13 working groups and input from more than 1,500 professionals. Any effort to draw a line between the normal and the abnormal is sure to ignite debate, and it's no surprise that doctors and patients who rely on official diagnoses for health-insurance coverage have scrutinized the new DSM's every word. Among the most controversial changes : Grief following a loved one's death is now classified as a form of major depression;...

Big Brother Is You, Watching

Google's Sergey Brin, sportin' the specs. (Flickr/Thomas Hawk)
I stole the title of this post from an essay Mark Crispin Miller wrote 25 years ago about the effects of television, in which he argued that instead of a totalitarian government forcing us to submit through fear and oppression, we'd happily voluteer to be anesthetized by our TVs. Today though, the more proximate danger involves the rise of a kind of universal surveillance where we're being watched through much of our days, by governmental authorities, corporations looking to part us from our money, and each other. It's bad now, and it's only going to get worse. Which brings us to Google Glass, the augmented reality glasses rig that is getting closer to becoming a consumer product. People are starting to become concerned about the privacy implications of Google Glass, namely that you could be talking to someone who, unbeknownst to you, is recording everything you say. Or maybe you aren't even talking to them; maybe they're just walking behind you in the street, or sitting next to you...

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