10/17/14

Published!



My exciting and thought-provoking book, Winter of the Genomes, is now published. It explores how humans will fit into an evolving ecosystem being impacted by artificial intelligence. We are entering the age of AI and robots when they could take as many as half the jobs in industrialized countries. On the other hand, robots are also making inroads as lovable companions, and they don’t eat, drink water, or create waste.
  If populations drop due to pessimism about the economic future caused in part by robots and automation, as has started to be the case, the corresponding decline in energy demand will contribute to a significant reduction in global warming. Also, robots could be key to improving agricultural production thus helping to fend 
off a major global food crisis.
  Available as a paperback and e-book on Amazon. 

NOTE: My new booksite is http://futurebooks.info

and my new blog site is http://futurebooks.info/blog.html

9/15/14

Dinosaurs From Birds


An engaging example of genetic engineering, or synthetic biology, is creating living dinosaurs. Think Jurassic Park, the popular 1993 film. Imagine creating a living, breathing, Velociraptor or even a Neanderthal man.
Jurassic Park portrayed extracting dinosaur DNA from mosquitoes embedded for millions of years in amber, the transparent yellow and hardened tree sap. Scientists feel that while this approach might work, the chances of success are very small. One problem is that DNA can only survive for about 6.3 million years or so, and dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago. Another approach, which has more promise, is working backwards from birds. Reversing time, so to speak.
Paleontologists generally agree that birds descended from raptor dinosaurs. McGill University professor Hans Larsson and a former graduate student found that carnivorous dinosaur limb lengths showed a relatively stable scaling relationship with body size. The limb scaling changed when fore- and hind limbs dramatically decoupled from body size, which allowed birds to evolve from the dinosaurs. The hind legs shortened from monster thighs to very short and stick-like. The front legs evolved into wings. The long, heavy tails became residuals and were replaced by fans of feathers. The new bird species, of course, also had to develop hollow bones, small body sizes and high metabolic rates. Some dinosaurs already had feathers.
Their bigger discovery, however, was that the dinosaurs’ ancestral DNA is still present in the birds. In 2007, Larsson was examining a chicken embryo and with his microscope could find 16 vertebrae instead of the expected four to eight vertebrae—the bird had a residual reptilian tail. Larsson said, “For about 150 million years, this kind of tail has never existed in birds, but they have always carried it deep in their embryology.” Then he decided to see what would happen by manipulating the genetic make-up of the tail. He extended it by another three vertebrae. He had demonstrated a method for turning on dormant dinosaur genes.
A corroborating find was by Matt Harris and John Fallow at the University of Wisconsin in 2005. They found signs of undeveloped teeth in mutant chickens. Harris and Fallow turned-on the “teeth gene” using a triggering virus and their chicken grew the curved teeth like those of a dinosaur. (Can we still say “Scarce as hen’s teeth”?) They also programmed the chickens to grow feathers on their legs instead of scales. The dinosaurs’ genome, which was mutated to become a bird, could be reversed so a bird could become a dinosaur.
Larsson believes that in a hundred years or sooner geneticists will be able to retro-engineer dinosaurs including the gigantic Tyrannosaurus Rex. All the genetic coding is in the bird.

This is discussed in more detail in my new book, Winter of the Genomes. It can be ordered at Amazon.

9/9/14

Life at the Speed of Light


I have just finished a great new book, Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life by Dr. Craig Venter. It is about using DNA engineering to achieve synthetic biology. He first became well known when his Institute for Genomic Research completed the first genome sequence of a free-living organism, the bacterium Haemophilus influenzae. In 1998, he incorporated Celera Genomics to beat the government-funded effort to sequence the human genome, which has three billion chemical units and about 20,500 genes. Both teams jointly announced complete mapping of the genome in 2000 with the final sequence mapped in 2003. In that same year, Venter made the virus phi X 174 synthetically, and in 2010, he made the first synthetic bacterial cell, Mycoplasma mycoides. Synthetic Genomics is his latest company.
Venter has concluded that life is a DNA software system. This software creates and directs the construction of proteins and cells. Venter explains we can read the “software of life” by sequencing DNA. He says that if you have rewritten the software of a genome, you have changed life itself. The “DNA software” is analogous to computer software because it includes stored information and instructions to be used in a process. Information can be used, for example, to synthesize proteins, and the DNA software has the mechanisms, including the accompanying messenger RNA, to transport the information where needed. This is very similar to the early digital computers, which used punched paper tape or cards to reference and deliver information according to a program in the computer.
Venter writes in his book, “Now we can go the other direction by starting with the computerized digital code, designing a new life form, chemically synthesizing its DNA, and then booting it up to produce the actual organism. And because the information is now digital, we can send it anywhere at the speed of light and re-create the DNA and life at the other end.”
    I will talk more about the implications of this in my new book, Winter of the Genomes.It can be ordered on Amazon. 



8/30/14

Robobees To The Rescue



   Honeybees, which are of the greatest commercial interest, pollinate about a third of what we eat, including fruits, nuts and vegetables. Thirty-one percent of US bee colonies were lost in the winter of 2013 alone. Then, as the future of the honeybees seems dire indeed, the cavalry of the robots rushes to the rescue of the flowering plants and trees. Although they are not yet deployed into the waiting blossoms, they already have a name: robobees.
The current leader in robobees technology is a team at Harvard University. In May 2013, their School of Engineering and Applied Sciences announced that an experimental prototype of the robobee made its first controlled flight. Half the size of a paperclip, weighing less than a tenth of a gram, it powered upward, hovered on its delicate flapping wings, and flew away.
Writing in the Scientific American, the team leaders said, “In 2009 the three of us began to seriously consider what it would take to create a robotic bee colony. We wondered if mechanical bees could replicate not just an individual’s behavior but the unique behavior that emerges out of interactions among thousands of bees. We have now created the first RoboBees—flying bee-size robots—and are working on methods to make thousands of them cooperate like a real hive.”
A major engineering breakthrough was finding a way to power the high speed flapping of the 3 cm wings. The solution was piezoelectric effect actuators. Electric fields applied to tiny ceramic strips cause them to flap the bee’s wings at 120 times per second.

Read more at the Winter of the Genomes website. It can be ordered on Amazon.

8/24/14

Will Artificial Intelligence Destroy Mankind?


    Let us dispel the startling statements and popular movie themes telling us that artificial intelligence will greatly exceed human intelligence in just a few decades. There have been startling statements and popular movies telling us that artificial intelligence will greatly exceed human intelligence in just a few decades. There may be little doubt that this will be the case for applications mostly requiring massive and repetitive computing, but is not so certain for projects requiring significant imagination and creativity. In any case, it is highly unlikely that androids will be running around conquering the world.
AI Computers can access very large databases. They can be used in detailed multidimensional design. They can manage vast projects. There is talk of computer-like nanorobots that can circulate around in your body. There are even computer programs to invent new devices. However, as far as I am aware, no computer independently came up with the general theory of relativity.
Timothy Lee summarized the AI and robots limitations nicely in his story in Vox. See the the story here.
I write about this in detail in my new book,Winter of the Genomes available at Amazon.  

7/3/14

Malthus All Over Again


  The elephant in the room is serious overpopulation. It is a global overpopulation problem because we are essentially a global economy, and resources are drawn from all around the world. Energy, food, water and critical raw materials are shrinking away. Pollution is increasing.
  The North American countries, major Asian countries, and Europe are beginning to get involved with this problem in an unplanned and unexpected way. They are employing AI and robots for any application as soon as automation is technically and economically feasible. This could create massive unemployment, and for various reasons, population, already declining in many cases, could decline at an ever-faster rate. The beginning of declining populations in all major countries is described and documented by Michael S.Teitelbaum and Jay M. Winter in “Bye-Bye, Baby,” New York Times, March 6, 2014. Click here.
  A widely quoted figure is that robots will eliminate 25% to 50% of the jobs in the United States over the next twenty years. Of course, humans will work with some of those robots, and some humans will start new companies based on the applications of robots. So let’s use the low end of that range and project that in 2035 there will be 25% unemployment in the United States and most other developed countries. The situation probably will be complicated by untold numbers of immigrants pouring in, especially from the southern hemisphere, to escape the devastation of global warming and economic collapse in their less developed countries. Many of these immigrants will take some of the remaining bottom rung jobs.
  It may well be a discouraging time to start a family. The well-off families will be very uneasy and probably live in guarded gated communities. Higher education will be very expensive, and the upcoming generation will be unsure about what to study, what to do, and where to go. Social endowment programs like Social Security and Medicare may be cut to almost nothing due to lack of funding. Resources will be seriously dwindling and climate change will be causing major damage. The United States could find itself with an authoritarian government like today’s China or Russia in order to keep the peace and enforce controversial programs.
  Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834), an English demographer and economist, studied and wrote about these issues two centuries ago. He kept looking for the links between population, economy, and the environment. In 1798, he published his defining work, An Essay on the Principle of Population. He thought that population growth would block progress towards a utopian society. Malthus is most noted for his view that population multiples geometrically and food increases arithmetically, so that eventually mass starvation will set in.
  There has been a debate about Malthusian ideas ever since, and Malthus has risen and fallen in acceptability by both the public and academics. His major theory generally has not had an opportunity to be empirically tested because, despite the world’s startling population growth since that time, food production has kept pace through the adoption of scientific and mechanized agriculture. This enabled, in part, the Green Revolution that fed millions, especially in the Third World. In addition, Malthus did not foresee that greatly increased goods and services productivity due to technology and industrialization.
  Malthus argued that population increases are limited by the means of subsistence, and that when the means of subsistence increase, population will also increase. The population increase will be limited by misery and vice. This line of thought lead to the “Malthusian Trap,” named after him, stating that technological advances only result in more people and not in improved standards of living.
  Today, with productivity increasing again due to automation, AI and robots, ever larger numbers of relatively unskilled people are forced to accept subsistence jobs or unemployment. A difference now, compared to Malthus’s time, is the advent of planned families. Enabled by changing societal mores and contraceptives, and women finding careers their life focus a satisfactory alternative to staying at home and raising a family, can lead to dramatically lower birth rates. Contrary to the past trend and popular belief, declining population in both wealthy and poor countries is becoming the norm.

This is part of my new book, Winter of the Genomes, whose website is here and the book can be ordered at Amazon.

5/7/14

The Problem in the Age of Robots is Us


Suppose you lived a distant time from now, and you overheard the following exchange between a woman and a robot:
She: “I am the smartest. I went to the university. I am connected. I am the key to success around here.”
Robot: “Yes, but you and your kind need to eat and drink, to consume things like clothes, and to occupy large air conditioned spaces. You are too demanding and too expensive to continue living here.”

It will be a long time before robots will be able to make a value judgment like this, but this comparison is increasingly going to happen. Robots do not feel better if something or someone is doing their work for them. They just exist for the moment with no memory of the past or vision of the future. Since robots work much more cheaply and efficiently than humans, we will hardly resist assigning them to more and more of our daily tasks from vacuuming the floors to walking the dog.
The whole thing crystallized in my mind when I was in a remote village in Myanmar, or Burma, of all places. Through an interpreter, I asked a schoolteacher what she thought of robots (I never miss an opportunity to do book research!). She said, according to my notes, “The machines will take over a few things, then more things, until all you have to do is watch television. After many years, people will lose arms and legs for lack of use. You will turn into potatoes.” That’s the wisdom of a simple, village woman. It’s worth thinking about.

From the new book just published, Winter of the Genomes, click here. It can be ordered at Amazon.

3/27/14

Reducing Climate Change Through Automation


AI and robots in most cases are significantly cheaper than the human labor they replace. Therefore, after a decade or so of phase-in, they should be making serious inroads in employment. While this is a major social disruption, it also has a beneficial side.
     If the human population continues to decrease, and probably at an accelerating rate, the consumption of energy will fall correspondingly. The important consequences of this are that climate change will be slowed down or even halted, and environmental disaster may be averted or significantly postponed.
     How big could the “population effect” be? The best place to start would be with the unemployment predicted by a new Oxford University study http://bit.ly/IDpApG. The authors concluded that 47 percent of U.S. jobs might be lost to automation over the next decade or two. That would be 66 million jobs based on the approximately 140 million currently employed in 2014. But we know from mechanical automation of the late 1800s and early 1900s, notably the development of farm machinery, that new jobs are created due to the new machinery and other jobs are created due to advancing technology in general. Many of the displaced farm workers went to work in the cities.
     We have to start somewhere, so I will assume that half of the projected 47% of the workforce displaced from jobs is the net unemployment number. This 23 ½% or 33 million lost jobs. The other 33 million jobholders are accounted for by slower adoption of the automation than the Oxford study forecasted, some of the newly unemployed are retrained for other occupations, and there are new jobs created because of the automation: technicians, engineers, salespeople and others. The unemployment created by home robots, that I calculated to be less than a million, is very small by comparison.
     The U.S. annual energy consumption for those people permanently unemployed due to automation is about 231 million TOEs. A TOE is metric ton of oil equivalent and probably is the most common international energy unit. (The metric ton is 10% heavier than the U.S. ton.) This is how much energy would be saved if the population eventually declined by 33 million people. It is about equal to the energy consumption of Brazil. Assuming the other major industrialized countries adopted automation with an eventual similar reduction in population, the energy saved could be over 800 TOEs or about half the energy consumption of today’s European Union. The effect would spread itself out over twenty to fifty years, depending on the fertility rate.
     I can’t be more precise in my projection of possible energy saved due to automation because I do not know of a model that relates decline in energy consumption or decline in population to climate change. We can be sure, however, that job reduction through automation, over the long run, will be helpful in reducing the severity of climate change.

From my new book, Winter of the Genomes, whose website is http://bit.ly/1o7fICM and which can be ordered at Amazon.


3/7/14

The next great socioeconomic revolution.

Could robots be the fourth great socioeconomic revolution in modern American Life? First, automobiles replaced horses, enabling suburbia. Then along came television which brought the world into our living room. What sneaked up later was television's child, the video camera, which became the all-seeing eye, following us everywhere. Then there were smartphones which serve as our portal to the Web and to our friends.
     If we combine the mechanical genius of the automobile with the sentience of television and the connectedness provided by the smartphone, we find ourselves among the robots. They can be alive enough so we can love them, and they can revolutionize our economy.
     Like cars, television and smartphones, mass adoption of robots will depend on mass production to reduce their cost, and people-oriented packaging so that they can be be as attractive and simple to operate as smartphones.

See more in my new book, Winter of the Genomes.For its website Click here. It can be purchased at Amazon.

1/19/14

My new novel, Saving Juno, has been launched!


NSA’s major computer center is being taken over by an international plot to control the world. Juno, the AI supercomputer guiding the free world is endangered, and Dr. Tom Renwick, Juno's developer, is kidnapped. Civilization as we know it is threatened. What to do?
      In this fast-paced thriller, Tom’s super brain computer scientist son, Primo, is thrown into the fray. With mysterious agent, Wildflower, and trustworthy officials in Washington, Primo strikes back. Their trail to Tom is through a hall of mirrors and continuous plot twists. It ends in an orbiting computer satellite.

Saving Juno presents an action-packed adventure and new ways to look at national security. This is the third volume in the Juno Trilogy.The earlier volumes are Love Byte and A Viral Affair: Surviving the Pandemic.

1/4/14

Making Robots Common and Smart


     Once we see that the application of robots to single tasks that are well-defined is becoming routine, the next step is to see how robots can be made more intelligent. Think of the process like the evolution of species.
     First we have to make the most popular models in the millions in order to reduce costs and include exotic materials and subsystems. For example specialized circuit chips like the IBM neuronal chip that I have discussed earlier can only be justified by high volume production. This is no different than the process Apple started to make cell phones and tablets. The larger robots would eventually be manufactured in similar scale to appliances and cars. The designs of these mass produced robots, however, have to be perfected through iterative cycles of design or redesign, manufacturing, customer response, and redesign. This is evolution at work.
     Then the brains of these mechanical creatures must be improved with new knowledge and needs. Again the analogy with cell phones and tablets applies. New applications and software improvements can be digested into the robots by downloading these software packages just like apps and updates are downloaded into phones and computers. As is done in those devices, a lot of the device’s software could be stored in the clouds to be retrieved only as required. It’s not inconceivable that what started out as a relatively simple robot could evolve through software upgrades from a worm to a mouse to who knows? maybe a human in intelligence. 

You can read more about this in my new book Winter of the Genomes. It can be ordered on Amazon.

10/28/13

AI Meets Genomes


An era has ended and a new one is beginning. It’s about looking at the ecosystem as the interconnectedness of animals, plants and resources living as dynamic systems. Computers will be part of that interconnected as a new species, hopefully in a positive symbiotic relationship with mankind.

Lots of books have been written about technology. Lots of books have been written about ecology. My forthcoming book, Winter of the Genomes, seeks to look at both as a whole. The changing environment threatens all of mankind. Computers can help save us, but they will have to be part of society and the ecosystem as a new and involved species. They will depend on a symbiotic relationship with humans that hopefully will benefit everyone. The designs of AI devices are effectively genomes like our genomes and the genomes of all the species.

The advent of artificial intelligence and robots is like climate change in that we're told it's coming but we shrug it off. And then, one day, there it is, an intrusion in our lives.

We will increasingly be just nodes in a world-wide information network linked to the all-knowing Knowosphere. Smartphones are our hands, feet, eyes and ears. We confide in and trust the Knowosphere more than with almost all people we know or don’t know.

The coding of all of nature’s species, all humans, and all engineered design including AI programs, is in genomes. The genomes of ants and the engineering drawings, parts lists, and programs are the genomes of everything mechanical including, notably, robots. We can look at changes in civilization and the ecosphere through the Darwinian pressures on continually improving the genomes of all beings, natural or man-made.

What forces us to face up to the facts and opportunities of the emerging Brave New World is human over-population and the consequences for dwindling critical resources. The human population will reduce itself to a new equilibrium level and many functions now done by people will be done by AI devices. See more about the book at  http://bit.ly/1o7fICM. It can be ordered at Amazon.