Luxembourg – Future Space Power?

With a population of less than 600,000 (half of whom are foreign nationals), Luxembourg, which is nestled between France, Germany, and Belgium, is rarely center-stage internationally. Its biggest claim to fame is serving as an infamous tax haven second to Switzerland, and being one of the richest nations in the world (with a GDP per capita of around $100,000).

It is perhaps because of this great wealth and prosperity, as well as its relatively low profile (it maintains a policy of neutrality in most affairs), that this little country is aiming to become the “Silicon Valley of space mining”, to quote the headline of an article in Wired reporting on Luxembourg’s outsized ambitions in space. Continue reading

See the World’s Fishing Fleets in Near Real-Time

Fishing is an ancient practice dating back to at least 40,000 years ago. But like so many other age-old human practices, in the 21st century it has become an industrialized, globalized industry worth billions: on any given day across the world, tens of thousands of fishing boats of every size haul in hundreds of thousands of tons of fish. Close to half a billion people make a living, directly or indirectly, through fisheries and aquaculture (fish farms) in the developing world alone. Continue reading

Should We Fear A.I.?

It is very telling that almost every portrayal of artificial intelligence in science fiction is a cynical one: A.I. is almost always prone to rebelling against, dominating, or otherwise coming into conflict with humanity. Judging by the continued prevalence and widespread acceptance of this trope, it appears that there is an inherent, almost universal perception that A.I. is bad news for our species. Continue reading

Scientists Create First Artificial Neurons

Analogies of the human brain as a sort of organic computer (or visa versa, in the case of artificial intelligence) abounds. But it remains a matter of debate among some circles as to whether a truly thinking machine is feasible, and if so, whether it would operate along the same lines as our biological brains.

According to The Economist, an international team of researchers has bridged the gap between “biological brains and electronic ones”. Continue reading

What the Popularity of Selfies Says About Our Visual Culture

Love them or hate them, selfies have become something of an icon of the 21st century. Considered the ultimate expression of narcissism and irreverence — especially among the already much-criticized Millennial generation most likely to take them — selfies instead reflect something much deeper and more fascinating about the state of humanity.

I know, it might be hard to believe given how vacuous selfiest seem, but Nicholas Mirzoeff of The Guardian makes a pretty compelling case about the sociological and cultural impact of selfiest and digital media in general. Continue reading

Marvin Minsky, Pioneer of A.I., Dies

As the Information Age continues to yield exponentially more powerful computers and processors, the idea of artificial intelligence will become increasingly more relevant and serious in the coming decades.

But some thinkers saw this coming well in advance, namely American mathematician and inventor Marvin Minsky, who pass away earlier this week at the age of 88.

As the Christian Science Monitor reports, this otherwise obscure figure (outside of the scientific and academic community) was a major intellectual contributor to A.I., laying its conceptual, practical, and ethical groundwork. Continue reading

The 25 Most Audacious Megaprojects in the World

Since I find myself (fortunately) busy with some well needed freelance work, I have decided to keep things a bit light today; if you are similarly fascinated by humanity’s boundless capacity for innovation and grandiosity, check out Popular Mechanics’ fascinating list of some of the world’s largest and technically-challenges projects under construction.

From near-stratospheric skyscrapers, to valley-spanning bridges and even whole cities, these infrastructural marvels reflect the latest developments in both technology and human vision — to say nothing of the endless appetite for economic growth and global prestige alike.

It is very telling that most of these projects take place in the developing world, particularly China, though quite a few are being undertaken in the industrialized world, including the United States. A more cynical and cautious observer might worry about the environmental impact of these endeavors, or whether they are a good use of funds in light of the global economic slowdown; such concerns are well founded, though for now I am content to see what technological feats our species is capable of, and how the fruits of such projects — if any — will bear out in the coming years.


India Launches Its First Space Telescope

With the successful Astrosat, a cutting-edge space observatory, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has put India among a select group of countries that have an independently designed and operate a space telescope studying celestial objects. As The Hindu reports:

The ability to simultaneously study a wide variety of wavelengths — visible light, ultraviolet and X-ray (both low- and high-energy) bands — has tremendous implications for scientists globally, particularly those in India. Though stars and galaxies emit in multiple wavebands, currently operational satellites have instruments that are capable of observing only a narrow range of wavelength band. Since the Earth’s atmosphere does not allow X-rays and ultraviolet energy from distant cosmic objects to reach ground-based telescopes, space observatories become important to unravel celestial mysteries. With Astrosat, Indian researchers will no longer have to rely on other space agencies for X-ray data, and scientists everywhere need no longer source data from more than one satellite to get a fuller picture of celestial processes. As in the case of Chandrayaan-1 and the Mars Orbiter Mission, Mangalyaan, the Astrosat telescope will have no immediate commercial or societal implications. But the instruments have been carefully chosen to allow scientists to pursue cutting-edge research. Chandrayaan-1 and Mangalyaan returned invaluable information, although they were launched several years after other countries sent satellites to the Moon and Mars. Given the uniqueness of Astrosat, it will enable Indian researchers to work in the frontier areas of high-energy astrophysics.

Moreover, most of the payloads in the satellite come not from ISRO, but from a range of scientific institutions across India and the world (including Indonesia, Canada, and the United States). Astrostat thus reflects the country’s wide breadth of native talent, as well as its capacity to combine and coordinate these vital skills into one platform that can benefit researcher everywhere.  Continue reading

The Value of Imitation

Originality is overrated. Yes, novel ideas have often accounted for tremendous advancements in human knowledge and conditions; but as Kat McGowan of Aeon writes, the ability to copy one another, and make incremental improvements along the way, has been much more consequential.

The history of technology shows that advances happen largely through tinkering, when somebody recreates a good thing with a minor upgrade that makes it slightly better. These humble improvements accrue over generations, so that the Bronze Age straight pin becomes a toga fastener becomes a safety pin. Money begins as seashells, evolves into metal coins, diversifies as paper, and eventually becomes virtual as bitcoins and abstruse financial derivatives. In this way, technologies arise that no one person could possibly invent on his own. When Isaac Newton talked about standing on the shoulders of giants, he should have said that we are dwarves, standing atop a vast heap of dwarves.

Researchers dub this iterative process ‘cumulative cultural evolution’: just as organisms evolve via repeated small changes in genes that provide a survival advantage, each human generation makes small modifications to the technology and traditions it inherits. This idea is most clearly articulated by the anthropologist Robert Boyd, of the Santa Fe Institute and Arizona State University, and the biologist and mathematical modeller Peter Richerson, of the University of California Davis. ‘When lots of imitation is mixed with a little bit of individual learning, populations can adapt in ways that outreach the abilities of any individual genius,’ they write in their book Not By Genes Alone(2005).

Lots of copying means that many minds get their chance at the problem; imitation ‘makes the contents of brains available to everyone’, writes the developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello in the Cultural Origins of Human Cognition (1999). Tomasello, who is co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, calls the combination of imitation and innovation the ‘cultural ratchet’. It is like a mechanical ratchet that permits motion in only one direction – such as winding a watch, or walking through a turnstile. Good ideas push the ratchet forward one notch. Faithful imitation keeps the ratchet from slipping backward, protecting ideas from being forgotten or lost and keeping knowledge alive for the next round of improvement.

It turns out that creating something new is the easy part. What’s difficult – and what’s really important – is maintaining what we already know through copying. Luckily, we are very good at it.

In essence, human achievement at both the micro and macro level have been the result of multiple parties, often spanning generations and culture, having their go at an existing idea, invention, or concept. Progress is less about coming up with something immediately unique and earth-shattering, and more about looking around at what we know and how best to improve upon it.

Aside from giving clever and well-meaning imitators their due credit, the lesson here is that progress is a collective and collaborative effort, involving lots of contributors willing to do the humble and thankless work of tweaking what we already have, so that over time, with the help of other tinkerers, the world reaps the benefits.

This might be too much of a romantic take on what many would consider mere copying, but I think it reflects the inherent pragmatism of the human species: whether in art, science, or philosophy, go with what already seems to work and see where that gets you. Give it time, and who knows where that will get us.

When An Online Friend Dies

As Cracked writer  observes is his brilliant piece, Five Things You Learn When A Facebook Friend Dies, “We’re the first era of humanity that has had to deal with death and the Internet, and grief for the passing of someone you only knew online.”

I recently lost a good Facebook some weeks ago, and it was not my first experience. This article is on point, and I highly recommend you read it. As social media and the Internet as a whole become integrated into our everyday and emotional lives, the issues and feelings described in this piece will be increasingly common. It is important to reflect upon the implications of connecting with someone so distant in some respects, yet so close in many others.

As always, feel free to share your own thoughts and reactions to the article or the topic as a whole. I will have to dedicate another post with my own reflections on the subject later.