Science and Technology links (July 14th, 2017)

PC shipments are at the lowest level of the last 10 years, and they have been declining for the last two years.

Using smartphone data, researchers are able for the first in history to measure objectively how active people are. Lots of prior research relied on questionnaires, but self-reported numbers are often much less objective than direct measures. A recent paper in Nature reports on their findings based on this better methodology. I find it interesting that people in Asia are often very active, followed by Europe… while people in America are much less active. The researchers also report that there is a lot of inequality within countries as to how active are, especially among the female population.

We need some perspective: I think that activity data is only the start. In the near future, we might be able to monitor the health of millions of people, and we might arrive at major breakthroughs by analyzing the resulting data.

Affordable, consumer-grade virtual reality (VR) started out about a year ago in 2016. The initial hardware releases were better than I was hoping. However, the software is lacking so the overall uptake is much weaker than what I was hoping for. I think we are in a chicken-or-the-egg dilemma, with software developers being unwilling to invest massively due to the lack of hardware penetration, and consumers are unwilling to invest in hardware due to the lack of software. It is not hopeless, however. The hardware is good, but it is complicated and still relatively expensive. This week, Facebook dropped the price of the Oculus Rift and its controller to US$400. You still need a gamer PC, which limits the market somewhat despite the price drop. Regarding the software, I am told that a huge market for the likes of the Oculus Rift is porn and it is booming market. Sadly, I don’t have nearly as much experience with VR porn as I should. Still, if games can’t drive VR, I am sure porn can. Bloomberg predicts that Facebook might release a $200 wireless headset in 2018, and we know that HTC Vive will release a wireless headset of its own. However, we don’t just need “wireless”, we also need “standalone”. It would be fine for high-quality headsets to come with a base of some sort, but the need to purchase, maintain and upgrade a Windows PC is too much. Not everyone is a gamer or a porn consumer. Another key point that I missed in the first year of the current VR revolution is the resolution issue. The current high-end headsets (HTC Vive and Oculus Rift) are quite good at giving you the illusion that you are in a virtual world… but because of the relatively low resolution of the headset, you are embodied in a character that has weak eyesight. This is apparent if you try to use VR as a virtual office: reading a document in VR is a painful experience… you have to bring the document in your face to be able to read comfortably. In the PlayStation VR headset, you can play non-VR games, but the experience is disappointing because of the low resolution. The resolution must be much higher than it is currently. You should be able to look at a TV screen in VR, and get a 1080p experience. This means that the headset itself must have a resolution much, much higher than 1080p. Or we need some kind of technological tricks.

The American FDA is about to approve what amounts to an anti-cancer gene therapy.

Apparently, President Trump has been complimenting the French first lady’s body. She is 64.

There is no computer that comes close to reaching one exaflop. It is often believed that if we had such a computer, we could run a full human brain simulation and, possibly, achieve human-like intelligence through a digital computer. Currently, the most powerful computers are all in China. The US government is apparently trying to stir things up by throwing money at the cause. The difficulty in reaching one exaflop with our current technology is power usage. That is, we could probably build right now a one exaflop computer, but we could not continuously power it up. To get some idea… a medium-size power station might generate something like 500 MegaWatts. Currently, you can buy graphics cards that generate a teraflop for 500 Watts. An exaflop is a million teraflops, so you’d need a million of these powerful cards, or 500 MegaWatts. I might be off by an order of magnitude, but the point is that you’d need a power station just to power your exaflop computer. Hardware is only as useful as the software that runs on it… and if you need a whole power station to keep the hardware running, chances are that you are not going to be given a lot of freedom in running software experiments. So a one exaflop computer that costs a fortune to run is probably nearly useless. For all of the money invested in massive computers, I cannot recall any discovery or breakthrough that followed.

Daniel Lemire, "Science and Technology links (July 14th, 2017)," in Daniel Lemire's blog, July 14, 2017.

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

9 thoughts on “Science and Technology links (July 14th, 2017)”

  1. “For all of the money invested in massive computers, I cannot recall any discovery or breakthrough that followed.” — the Mosaic web browser, the best thing ever developed by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications

    1. I am not sure how to read your comment but I choose to take as supporting my point of view that building enormous computers that are tremendously expensive to operate does not have a great track record regarding scientific progress. It is more important to democratize computing power because you cannot beat thousands of people hacking inexpensive computers as far as idea generation goes…

        1. One thing that the government is good at funding are projects that need lots of expensive and novel hardware. This can spur whole new industries in a way that is arguably more efficient than having the government try to create the industry through direct subsidies.

          So it is possible that this is the path taken by the Chinese governments. They may not know what to do with these supercomputers, but building them requires acquiring lots of high-level expertise.

  2. Yes, we should all be very grateful to porn and video games for it is these two markets which drive computer tech progress by infusing enough money in it, even better than the military.

    1. Human beings have this ability to engage in apparently frivolous activities… yet there is a long track record of these frivolous activities generating useful outcomes. We did not engage in the industrial revolution to feed people, but rather, initially, to generate better clothing (textile was the driver)… it is not like the people of Europe were naked before the industrial revolution… but they certainly did seek better underwear. The first mechanical computers (automata) were frivolous machines that were meant to amuse children… The first keyboard was meant to play music. And so forth.

  3. I am not sure what the driver was, but I think DNA sequencing falls under the “massive amounts of computing power” gamut. The gene therapy being mentioned probably needed that at the outset.

  4. I’d be surprised if DNA sequencing was helped by supercomputers.

    I expect that a PC with lots of RAM can probably handle all the DNA sequencing you can to do.

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