Science and Technology links (April 28th, 2017)

It is estimated that our species, homo sapiens, appeared in Africa as far back as 200,000 years ago, and that we left Africa about 60,000 years ago. Confusingly, scientists found a 130,000-year-old archaeological site in southern California. So, maybe, there were human beings in America tens of thousands of years before our species left Africa. Homo sapiens were hardly the first human beings outside of Africa. It is believed that there were human beings of various types in Asia as far back as 600,000 years ago. It seems that some of them made it to America. What happened to them? How do they relate with us? Is any of this even true?

Our bodies produce myostatin, a protein that suppresses muscle growth. Some of us are naturally more muscular because we produce less myostatin. Obese people produce more myostatin. What happens if you take obese mice and prevent them from producing myostatin? Turns out that they appear to be healthier.

We all imagine that our ancestors were big and muscular whereas our descendants will be nerdy. In fact, human beings could get quite a bit more muscular in the coming decades. If you are paying attention, the process is probably already under way. When I was a kid, popular actors had unremarkable muscles, except maybe for a few like Arnold Schwarzenegger… I don’t imagine that most retirees will ever pump iron, but future therapies could keep older people quite a bit more muscular.

Kevin Kelly has a nice post on the myth of artificial intelligence as a threat to human beings. His core argument, which he made in his book the Inevitable and elsewhere, is that the concept of “general intelligence” is bogus. The Google search engine has intelligence that no human being can match, your dog has a kind of intelligence that you cannot match… and so forth. So we are unlikely to emulate human intelligence in our technology, and much more likely to produce forms of intelligence that best complement our own.

According to Yahoo! Finance, U.S. soda sales have been declining for the last 12 years. The article hints that public policies might be to blame:

The consumption of added sugar in foods and beverages has been linked to obesity and type 2 diabetes. The World Health Organization, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the American Heart Association have all recommended reducing consumption of soda as a way to cut down on added sugars.

So sugar is bad. What about salt? Low-sodium diet might not lower blood pressure: Findings from large, 16-year study contradict sodium limits in Dietary Guidelines for American. In other words, while you should cut down on sugar, salt is probably fine.

The Canadian prime minister Trudeau relies on cupping, the practice of creating a void within a cup that lies on the skin “to suck out pain, disease, and tension from the body”. Apparently, it can “suck out flu”. The prime minister appears in pictures with his shirt pulled up to clearly show the cupping marks, and his office confirmed the practice.

Economists seem to agree that the share of income that goes to labor is lower than it was. It is somewhat of a problem because most of us derive most of our income from our labor. Bloomberg has an article on the question. What is happening?

(…) companies themselves aren’t substituting machines for workers, as we might expect them to do if robots were getting really cheap. Instead, the economy is simply shifting resources toward a few large companies that are very capital-intensive, and away from the more numerous, smaller companies that use more human labor.

It is certainly true that companies like Google, Amazon, and Apple use fewer employees than comparable companies would have used in the past (like General Motors). They also rely a lot more on software and automation.

As you grow older, your bones and joints go to hell. I see many people in their forties and even thirties who suffer from painful joints, have chronic knee problems and so forth. It is not uncommon for people in their sixties and seventies to fall and break their bones. In a recent Nature paper, scientists found evidence that senescent cells, these cells that ought to die but slowly accumulate in our bodies over time, might be a significant part of the problem. It seems that removing senescent cells could help halt bone and joint aging (speculative).

Senescent chondrocytes are found in cartilage tissue isolated from patients undergoing joint replacement surgery, yet their role in disease pathogenesis is unknown. (…) Selective removal of the senescent cells from in vitro cultures of chondrocytes isolated from patients undergoing total knee replacement decreased expression of senescent and inflammatory markers while also increasing expression of cartilage tissue extracellular matrix proteins.

Billionaire Jack Ma predicts that in 30 years…

the Time Magazine cover for the best CEO of the year very likely will be a robot. It remembers better than you, it counts faster than you, and it won’t be angry with competitors

The puzzling part of his prediction is that he expects that the Time magazine will still be around in 30 years, and that it will still have a cover. Odd that.

Google has, at great cost, indexed 25 million books. A great fraction of these books are simply not available commercially. In many cases, it is not even possible to determine who “owns” the right to these books. Google could, at the flip of a button, make them available for free for the entire planet, to everyone rich and poor. Yet because of “copyright”, all these precious books will remain forever locked. You will have to go to Harvard or some other expensive school, if you want to consult the original that Google scanned. Though Google will not tell us about it, I bet that this large collection of books can prove invaluable for training machine learning software. In the novel Rainbows End, entrepreneurs are madly scanning books to train advanced artificial-intelligence software. Google had already done the scanning part: if the data is of any use for training artificial intelligence, they’d be silly not to use it. Of course, you won’t have access to the same data because the courts won’t allow it. (Further reading: Do we need copyright?)

IBM, after Google, is opening an artificial-intelligence research laboratory to collaborate with professor Bengio at the University of Montreal. So maybe it is a good time to do artificial intelligence in Canada, and in Montreal specifically. (Source: Claude Coulombe)

Crab blood is worth up to $14,000 per quart. Crabs like lobsters, spiders, and snails have blue blood because they rely on copper and not iron to carry oxygen. There are instances of all these animals that are very long lived, with lobsters exhibiting negligible senescence [meaning that their fitness does not diminish with age]. (Source: Gregor J. Rothfuss, P.D. Magnan)

Nice overview of the work accomplished by the late Hans Rosling:

Rosling’s first discovery was that many people are not aware of even the most basic facts about global health and global development. (…) He found that people’s worldviews often do not have much grounding in facts, even long before the “post-fact” era.

Rosling was criticized, rightly so, for offering a positive outlook on the world. However, what his critics often missed is that he offered all of us hard data… which is a lot better than whatever we go on usually.

Seth Godin asks What does “science” mean?

Science isn’t something to believe or not believe. It’s something to do.

This is a very important point. Science is a process. A scientist is someone who follows a rigorous process to arrive at the truth. There is faith in involved, but it is faith in the process, not in the results.

Believing something because it is in a science textbook as opposed to the bible is not what science is all about. The textbook is likely more reliable from a scientific point of view, but if you leave your doubts aside, you are missing the point of science.

I find that this point is regularly missed entirely, even by people who have a PhD in science. Science is not a body of knowledge. It is a process. The body of knowledge is useful, it is scholarship. But in that, a science like Physics is no different from Theology. Both of them benefit from the accumulated knowledge of the past. What makes Physics into a science is what physicists do, not what they know.

Byrne et al. in How Fast are Semiconductor Prices Falling? reassure us that the price of microprocessors is still falling fast if you adjust for quality:

The results from our preferred hedonic price index indicate that quality-adjusted microprocessor units prices have continued to fall rapidly, contrary to the picture from the Producer Price Index. Our results are consistent with other indicators of continued rapid technical progress in the semiconductor sector. Concerns that the semiconductor sector had faded as an engine of growth over the period covered by our analysis appear to be unwarranted.

Using stem cells, scientists have found a way to effectively rejuvenate the blood cells of old mice.

Immunotherapy is all the rage in oncology. The idea is to tweak your immune system into fighting cancer. When it works, it works better than just about anything. Sadly, it only works in 1 person out of 5, and we don’t know what sets these lucky people apart:

About 22 percent of melanoma patients that get a single round of treatment with Yervoy are alive 10 years later, (…)

What you should probably remember is that we are not winning the war against cancer. Not yet.

The Economist remind us that the reason we have so many cars is hat we effectively subsidize them through, among other things, free parking:

With such a surfeit of parking, most of it free, it is little wonder that most people get around Silicon Valley by car, or that the area has such appalling traffic jams.

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