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January 2008

January 31, 2008

CERN's LHC particle accelerator to begin operating in May, 2008

Update September 1, 2008: The LHC continues to ramp up to full production and the first attempt to circulate a beam of particles on September 10, 2008 will be broadcast live. See the full update here.

Update August 7, 2008: The LHC is scheduled to begin operation on September 10, 2008 and ramp up to full production in early 2009.


CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, is nearing completion of the world's largest and most complex scientific instrument. The final element in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) was lowered in place on January 22, 2008. The LHC is a particle accelerator which will be used to accelerate tiny particles to extraordinarily high velocities to observe their resulting transformation in collisions with one another. The facility is scheduled to begin operation in May, 2008. There have been a number of news articles in the past few years that have speculated on remotely possible catastrophic risks posed by the LHC.

One speculation is that the LHC will create miniature black holes. If this happened, standard physics theory expects that these black holes would evaporate very quickly due to Hawking Radiation. However, some have suggested a remote possibility that these miniature black holes would not evaporate, but would grow to consume the Earth within a short period of time.

Another highly unlikely possibility is that strangelets could be produced. Strangelets are hypothetical objects that are comprised of roughly equal numbers of up, down, and strange quarks. The concern is that these objects would begin to change other matter that they come in contact with into strange matter, resulting in a runaway process that converts the entire Earth to strange matter.

The consensus within the physics community is that the operation of the LHC is safe. Studies have been conducted which have analyzed the risks and concluded that these catastrophic scenarios are not credible. The official position of CERN is that experiments in particle accelerators are completely safe and the risks have already been adequately analyzed and dismissed in previous studies. A small minority, however, disagree. James Blodgett noted that Dr. Walter L. Wagner is so concerned about the existential risks of experiments to be conducted at the LHC that he is proceeding with an effort to initiate legal action against CERN to force it to conduct additional safety studies.

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LHC Nearing Full Operation, May Produce Black Holes

Chris K. Haley, NestedUniverse.net. Subscribe Get free RSS or email updates here.


January 27, 2008

The Feminist Bank Teller

Michael Graham Richard has a great post about a cognitive reasoning bias called the conjunction fallacy. He cites an example from the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman:

Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.

Which is more likely?

  1. Linda is a bank teller.
  2. Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

Take a moment to think about this question and your response before reading further to see the correct answer. Which do you think is more likely? The representativeness heuristic has its hand in helping us make the erroneous choice. From the Wikipedia entry:

The representativeness heuristic is a heuristic wherein commonality between objects of similar appearance is assumed. While often very useful in everyday life, it can also result in neglect of relevant base rates and other errors.

One way to think about the question more logically is to replace the propositions in the question with simple variables:

Which is more likely?

   1. A
   2. A and B

It can never be possible for statement 2 to have a higher probability than statement 1 because statement 2 makes an additional requirement. For example, if there is a 10% probability that Linda is a bank teller, and a 90% probability that Linda is active in the feminist movement, then the combined probability of Linda being a feminist bank teller - is 10% multiplied by 90%, or 9%. So statement 1 has a 10% probability of being true, and statement 2 has a 9% probability of being true. Since we can't have a probability that is greater than 100%, there is no condition that could be combined with A that would be able to make the combined probability of A and B being true greater than the probability of A being true alone.


January 22, 2008

Cell Phone Sensors Detect Radiation To Thwart Nuclear Terrorism

PhysOrg.com is reporting that researchers at Purdue University are working to develop a system that would use a network of cell phones to track radiation in an effort to prevent terrorist attacks with dirty bombs or nuclear weapons. Tiny solid-state radiation sensors are already commercially available and the additional circuitry would not add significant bulk to portable electronic products. The researchers tested the system and demonstrated that it is capable of detecting a weak radiation source 15 feet from the sensors. A fully developed system could cover a nation with millions of cell phones equipped with radiation sensors able to detect even light residues of radioactive material. Because cell phones already contain global positioning locators, the network of phones would serve as a large scale tracking system that would require no intervention from individual users.

Chris K. Haley, NestedUniverse.net. Subscribe Get free RSS or email updates here. 


January 21, 2008

Three dimensional human tissue printer

NewScientist is reporting that Dr. James J. Yoo of the Wake Forest University Institute for Regenerative Medicine has developed a way to use inkjet printer technology to build up three dimensional human tissues by printing layers of cells.

Dr. Yoo's research efforts are focused on tissue engineering technologies and cell-based therapies for the repair and replacement of diseased tissues and organs. Some of the tissues that may be produced by his invention include nerve, skin, pancreatic islet, and bone tissue.

Chris K. Haley, NestedUniverse.net. Subscribe here.

January 20, 2008

Distributed Computing Projects and the Singularity

Grid Computing
© iStockphoto.com / Felix Möckel

I have been an active supporter of a number of distributed computing projects for years. In the early 1990s, I participated in the Great Internet Mersenne Prime search and its challenge to find the largest prime numbers. I refocused my efforts on the SETI@home project in 1999 for two reasons. I felt that a distributed computing search for extraterrestrial radio transmissions was a great way to conduct SETI research for a relatively modest cost by analyzing data that was already being captured for other astronomical research projects. I also felt that, while mathematical research is a noble cause, SETI research had something more concrete to offer humanity, despite the enormous probabilities of success. There are certainly more unimportant things that could be done with spare computer cycles.

Recently, I've been reading the writings of Michael Anissimov, who is a leader in the Singularity community and a prolific science and technology writer. Michael co-founded the Immortality Institute, and is the Fundraising Director, North America for the Lifeboat Foundation. Michael is extremely intelligent and writes on a wide range of topics from Life Extension to Nanotechnology to Artificial Intelligence. His outlook for the future is inspiring and thought provoking. Two articles of his had a completely different outlook on the subject of SETI than my own: Aliens - There Are None and Aliens - Stop Looking. His arguments are persuasive and have convinced me to do some more research of my own on the subject, including the Fermi paradox.

But even if I'm not yet as convinced as Michael is in terms of calling for an outright end to SETI research, I realized that there are many more distributed computing projects that I can participate in that have a higher probability of affecting mankind in a positive way in the near term. For example, rosetta@home's search for the 3-dimensional shapes of proteins and the folding@home project to understand how proteins fold are both worthy projects. They have a high likelihood of helping understand and creating treatments for major diseases by using idle computer time from desktop computers.

Accordingly, I will be focusing the vast majority of my idle computer cycles on projects like these. The fact that I don't find these projects as personally exciting or interesting isn't the point. Finding ways to get through the Singularity quicker by helping humanity in the best way possible is.

Related Posts

Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence
Why Are We Alone? The Fermi Paradox
What is the Singularity?
The Singularity Effect
Upcoming Artificial Intelligence Events

Chris K. Haley, NestedUniverse.net. Subscribe Get free RSS or email updates here.

January 18, 2008

California stem cell research company produces two human embryonic clones

The Washington Post reported that scientists from Stemagen, a stem cell research company based in La Jolla California, created embryonic clones of two adults that developed to a stage that was more advanced than any previous experiment had achieved. The goal of Stemagen's research is to create personalized stem cells for patients suffering from various diseases that can then be grown into replacement tissues. Tissues fabricated in such as manner would not be rejected by a patient's immune system.

Chris K. Haley, NestedUniverse.net. Subscribe Get free RSS or email updates here. 

January 17, 2008

SciVestor Corporation launches Singularity-related technology research offerings

I spoke with Jonas Lamis, Executive Director of SciVestor Corporation regarding the launch of SciVestor this month. SciVestor is a research and advisory company focused on key Singularity technologies, and provides valuable insight as to the effects these emergent technologies will have on business, economic and societal models. SciVestor offers research reports that I believe are of value to investors who are looking to improve their investment strategies. Here is some key information that I have summarized from the SciVestor web site:

  • Robotics
    The robotics industry is expected to grow from $5B in 2007 to $50B in 2012. SciVestor believes the age of intelligent machines is at hand. From service robots to toys and teachers to companionship to war-fighting, the decade ahead will see a dramatic acceleration in human robot interaction (HRI).

  • Nanotechnology
    The rise of molecular manufacturing over the next decade portends a transformation across the supply and delivery chains. Traditional manufacturing enterprises could be displaced by distributed fabrication capabilities. Intellectual property rights for brands and designs will rise to the forefront when perfect replicas become commonplace.

  • Artificial Intelligence
    The software development marketplace is on a steady march to automation of more complex tasks and processes. In the decade ahead, we will see the rise of complex AI capabilities that will take ownership of virtually every repetitive digital task that could be automated. This shift will create significant disruptions in many career roles as well as with outsourcing companies that rely on human capital for efficiencies.

  • Life Extension
    At the intersection of genetics, biotechnology and Moore’s Law lies the new science of life extension. Over the next decade, we will see medical technologies deliver designer therapies targeting disease and degeneration on an individual basis. By 2015, we estimate that more than 10% of first world medical expenses will be devoted to life extension treatments, and many senior citizens in 2050 will have substantially lengthened, productive lifespans.

Jonas Lamis has extensive experience in corporate strategy, business development, and technology marketing with venture-backed enterprise software companies. He is Director of Partnerships at the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence. He is the founding editor of Architecture and Governance Magazine, authors the weblog Singularity U and co-launched RobotCentral.com. Jonas received his MBA from The University of Texas at Austin, an MS in Systems Engineering and Optimization from Georgia Institute of Technology, and a BS in Industrial Engineering from Purdue University.

Chris K. Haley, NestedUniverse.net. Subscribe Get free RSS or email updates here. 

January 13, 2008

Newsweek reporting significantly accurate computer thought decoding study

Newsweek is reporting the results of a scientific study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon who used MRI technology to scan the brains of human subjects. The subjects were shown a series of images of various tools (hammer, drill, pliers, etc). The subjects were then asked to think about the properties of the tools and the computer was tasked with determining which item the subject was thinking about. To make the computer task even more challenging, the researchers excluded information from the brain's visual cortex which would have made the problem a simpler pattern recognition exercise in which decoding techniques are already known. Instead, they focused the scanning on higher level cognitive areas.

The computer was able to determine with 78 percent accuracy when a subject was thinking about a hammer, say, instead of a pair of pliers. With one particular subject, the accuracy reached 94 percent.

Chris K. Haley, NestedUniverse.net. Subscribe Get free RSS or email updates here. 

January 11, 2008

Addressing Existential Risks Associated With The Singularity

Ryan's comments on my Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence article were very thought provoking for me. Some of the technological advances coming have existential risks and I wanted to solidify my strategy in addressing those risks.

I have tried to be careful about which organizations I have associated with based on my philosophy of actively enabling the Singularity in a safe manner. The Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence has a goal of promoting the development of friendly Artificial General Intelligence. The Lifeboat Foundation is a think tank which contemplates the risks associated with the Singularity and acts as a voice of reason in promoting a balanced approach to these technologies.

You can see a thought experiment going on right now at the Lifeboat Foundation with this poll assessing specific existential risks (runaway nanotech, unfriendly artificial intelligence, asteroid impacts, etc) and my thoughts on how to allocate a hypothetical $100M budget.

The Lifeboat Foundation has six active programs (plus a number of planned programs):

To protect against devastating asteroid strikes.

To protect against bioweapons and pandemics.

As the Internet grows in importance, an attack on it could cause physical as well as informational damage. An attack today on hospital systems or electric utilities could lead to deaths. In the future an attack could be used to alter the output that is produced by nanofactories worldwide leading to massive deaths.

LifeShield Bunkers
Developing fallback positions on Earth in case programs such as our BioShield and NanoShield fail globally or locally.

To protect against ecophages and nonreplicating nanoweapons.

To prevent nuclear, biological, and nanotechnological attacks from occurring by using surveillance and sousveillance to identify terrorists before they are able to launch their attacks.

Space Habitats
To build fail-safes against global existential risks by encouraging the spread of sustainable human civilization beyond Earth.

As with anything that has the power to be used in inappropriate ways, I believe that these technologies will try to be exploited by undesirable entities no matter what we do, so it is paramount that we stay ahead by developing these technologies first and develop ways to protect ourselves against their misuse.

Only a small minority of the general public has knowledge of these ideas at this point because of relatively low media coverage. Over the next few years, as the time horizon for deploying them shortens, the general public will begin calling for more regulation, and it's organizations like the SIAI and the Lifeboat Foundation that they will turn to for guidance.

Suggested Posts

Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence
What is the Singularity?
The Singularity Effect
Upcoming Artificial Intelligence Events
Distributed Computing Projects and the Singularity

Chris K. Haley, NestedUniverse.net. Subscribe Get free RSS or email updates here. 

January 08, 2008

First Impressions

I was engaged in a conversation the other day with someone about my new association with the Lifeboat Foundation and the opportunity that was presented to me to sit on one of the scientific advisory boards. Let me first point out that the person I was talking with is extremely intelligent, but has a lay person's knowledge of scientific topics, and is generally unfamiliar with Singularity related concepts in particular.

I immediately realized the opportunity in associating with the organization, but still did some reasonable due diligence research before joining it. During the course of the conversation, I explained the goals of the Lifeboat Foundation. I also showed some of the current work that it is doing, and some of the people associated with it by randomly showing some of their biographies. However, when I presented leading biomedical gerontologist Dr. Aubrey de Grey's biography, I was confronted with what was essentially an ad hominem argument regarding his trademark beard. I refer to this as an ad hominem argument because this person believed, without having previously seen or met Dr. de Grey, that his long beard was the sign of a large ego and that he was doing his cause a disservice by conveying a negative image to the public.

I do not personally know Dr. de Grey, nor do I know the reasons why he chooses to have a long beard. To me, the issue of his beard length has no bearing on the value of his work, and although I do not choose to wear a beard at the present time, I thrive on living in a world of diversity where one can do so. What I have gathered about Dr. de Grey is that he is a highly respected member of this community who has many important things to say. The situation was ironic because Dr. de Grey does research that relates to a medical condition affecting a member of this person's family.

I know the point that the person I was speaking with was honestly felt, and that she believed Dr. de Grey could better serve his cause by changing his appearance. But unconscious bias is something that affects all of us to some degree, and it is a subtle, but insidious error in reasoning. Fifty years ago, in the United States, with a different person, this discussion might have been about the color of someone's skin. Twenty-five years ago, it could have been about someone's sexual orientation. It's easy to see the errors in rational thinking of others looking in retrospect, but it's much harder to find our own biases. I long to know what errors in thinking style and biases that I myself harbor now, and which will only be evident with a clearer perspective in the future. As such, I will continue to follow the Overcoming Bias web site to help me in my journey.

I believe that Dr. de Grey reaches an even larger audience by making them take a second look at him. If he had a more common appearance, my debate partner would not have noticed him, and would not have engaged me in a lengthy conversation about his work. If this helps get our message out, then I implore Dr. de Grey to grow his beard even longer!

I eventually resorted to an appeal to authority to plead my case regarding the Lifeboat Foundation by creating a list of some of the more prominent people associated with the Foundation, their professions, and academic credentials. At first I regretted doing this. I am a student of Bayesian reasoning (thanks to Eliezer Yudkowsky) who would like to master the art and I know perfectly well that a person's title or degree can't prove their ideas. Ideas must be judged on their own merit. However, in this particular discussion, it made sense to use the appeal. It wasn't about an appeal to authority being a valid debating technique or not. It was about using the right tool to persuade one person to open their mind to a new idea.

I, for one, am no longer ashamed to have this tool in my bag of tricks, and will use it whenever I need to get one more person to consider a new idea, even for a brief moment.

Chris K. Haley, NestedUniverse.net. Subscribe Get free RSS or email updates here.