Science and Technology

Slow and Steady Wins the Anti-Keystone XL Race

AP Photo/Nacogdoches Daily Sentinel, Andrew D. Brosig
Flickr/ Elizabeth Brossa G race Cagle knew what Keystone XL’s path through Texas meant for the state’s environment. The pipeline was going to run through the post-oak savannah, a type of forest that's drying out, desertifying. It’s one of the few places in the world where the ivory-billed woodpecker—one of the world's largest woodpeckers, a bird so endangered that for years no one had seen one alive—makes its home. Cagle graduated college at the end of 2012 and had planned to get a PhD.; she was studying ecology, biology, and chemistry. But she couldn’t just sit in a classroom while Texas was in danger. So, she took a risk. She sat in a tree. She stayed there while construction crews hired by TransCanada, the company behind the Keystone XL pipeline, came and took down the trees around her. In October, TransCanada sued the group she joined, the Tar Sands Blockade, along with other organizations employing direct action against the pipeline. As the company tried to stop the blockaders,...

Near-Death Experiences Getting Slightly Less Mysterious

Flickr/Telstar2000
The nonfiction publishing phenomenon of 2011 and 2012 was, without a doubt, Heaven Is For Real , an account of a three-year-old boy who during surgery visited heaven, where he met Jesus, who rides on a "rainbow horse." Young Colton Burpo's father Todd attested that it just had to be true, since Colton knew details he could never have learned elsewhere, like the fact that Jesus had marks on his hands. Sure, Todd Burpo is a pastor and the family is intensely religious, but still. It couldn't possibly have been a dream, right? Heaven Is For Real has sold an incredible 7.5 million copies, and is now in its 142nd week on The New York Times paperback non-fiction bestseller list . The top spot on that list is held by this year's nonfiction publishing phenomenon, Proof of Heaven , a neurosurgeon's account of how he fell into a coma and went you know where. It's "proof," you see, because the doctor had an extended vacation amongst the clouds, when his brain was, he says, "shut down." Could it...

Artificial Love

Like HAL, except way, way nicer.
Could you fall in love with Siri? OK, let's not say Siri in particular, since Siri is as dumb as a stump and doesn't understand anything you ask her. But what about a version of Siri that's a few generations away, one with not only better voice recognition but a real personality, one that learns and changes and gets to know you, one with which (whom?) you build a complicated relationship? Could you fall in love with that program? That's the question that Spike Jonze's new movie Her seems to be asking. Check out the trailer: Like most of Jonze's films, Her looks to be filled with longing and melancholy. And the possibility doesn't seem too far-fetched, both from the perspective of the software and our remarkable ability to imbue non-human things—both inanimate and otherwise—with human characteristics. After all, in Japan, there are men who have deep emotional relationships with pillows . Granted, that's absurd, but have you ever had a crush on a character in a television show? You know...

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...

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