how would people react to alien life?

Here’s an interesting study from Frontiers in Psychology about how people might react to the discovery of real extraterrestrial life.

How will humanity react to the discovery of extraterrestrial life? Speculation on this topic abounds, but empirical research is practically non-existent. We report the results of three empirical studies assessing psychological reactions to the discovery of extraterrestrial life using the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) text analysis software. We examined language use in media coverage of past discovery announcements of this nature, with a focus on extraterrestrial microbial life (Pilot Study). A large online sample (N = 501) was asked to write about their own and humanity’s reaction to a hypothetical announcement of such a discovery (Study 1), and an independent, large online sample (N = 256) was asked to read and respond to a newspaper story about the claim that fossilized extraterrestrial microbial life had been found in a meteorite of Martian origin (Study 2). Across these studies, we found that reactions were significantly more positive than negative, and more reward vs. risk oriented. A mini-meta-analysis revealed large overall effect sizes (positive vs. negative affect language: g = 0.98; reward vs. risk language: g = 0.81). We also found that people’s forecasts of their own reactions showed a greater positivity bias than their forecasts of humanity’s reactions (Study 1), and that responses to reading an actual announcement of the discovery of extraterrestrial microbial life showed a greater positivity bias than responses to reading an actual announcement of the creation of man-made synthetic life (Study 2). Taken together, this work suggests that our reactions to a future confirmed discovery of microbial extraterrestrial life are likely to be fairly positive.

quantum computers

There has been some progress on quantum computers.

Quantum computers, after decades of research, have nearly enough oomph to perform calculations beyond any other computer on Earth. Their killer app is usually said to be factoring large numbers, which are the key to modern encryption. That’s still another decade off, at least. But even today’s rudimentary quantum processors are uncannily matched to the needs of machine learning. They manipulate vast arrays of data in a single step, pick out subtle patterns that classical computers are blind to, and don’t choke on incomplete or uncertain data. “There is a natural combination between the intrinsic statistical nature of quantum computing … and machine learning,” said Johannes Otterbach, a physicist at Rigetti Computing, a quantum-computer company in Berkeley, California.

If anything, the pendulum has now swung to the other extreme. Google, Microsoft, IBM and other tech giants are pouring money into quantum machine learning, and a startup incubator at the University of Toronto is devoted to it. “‘Machine learning’ is becoming a buzzword,” said Jacob Biamonte, a quantum physicist at the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology in Moscow. “When you mix that with ‘quantum,’ it becomes a mega-buzzword.”

why our institutions are failing to deliver optimal green infrastructure

I think this article explains well why real green infrastructure is hard to achieve. Multiple goverhment agencies are responsible for bits and pieces of it, and even if they are acting efficiently within each of their limited missions, they are not coordinating to achieve goals efficiently as a whole. I see this plenty in my professional life dealing with water, parks and transportation agencies.

Lost in Transactions: Analysing the Institutional Arrangements Underpinning Urban Green Infrastructure

Urban development has altered surface-water hydrology of landscapes and created urban heat island effects. With climate change, increasing frequency of extreme heat events and in some areas, episodic drought and flooding, present new challenges for urban areas. Green infrastructure holds potential as a cost-effective means of providing microclimate cooling and stormwater diversion. Further, green open spaces when combined with the provision of equipment and facilities have the potential to promote physical and emotional well-being. However successful implementation may be predicated on co-ordinated efforts of multiple agencies. The Institutional Analysis and Development framework developed by Crawford and Ostrom is used in a case study to understand the institutional impediments, transaction costs and gaps in responsibility associated with the delivery of green infrastructure. Lessons learned are potentially transferable to other urban settings. Our analysis reveals areas of high transaction costs as well as a gap in the polycentric decision-making of agencies. The local government council is concerned with the well-being of its residents but has limited financial capacity. None of the agencies who deliver green infrastructure have responsibility for facilitating the indirect or preventative health benefits. Thus, a co-ordination problem among agencies can lead to suboptimal investments in green infrastructure.


evidence-based restoration

If ecosystem restoration hasn’t been based on evidence in the past, what has it been based on?

Evidence-based restoration in the Anthropocene—from acting with purpose to acting for impact

The recognition that we are in the distinct new epoch of the Anthropocene suggests the necessity for ecological restoration to play a substantial role in repairing the Earth’s damaged ecosystems. Moreover, the precious yet limited resources devoted to restoration need to be used wisely. To do so, we call for the ecological restoration community to embrace the concept of evidence-based restoration. Evidence-based restoration involves the use of rigorous, repeatable, and transparent methods (i.e. systematic reviews) to identify and amass relevant knowledge sources, critically evaluate the science, and synthesize the credible science to yield robust policy and/or management advice needed to restore the Earth’s ecosystems. There are now several examples of restoration-relevant systematic reviews that have identified instances where restoration is entirely ineffective. Systematic reviews also serve as a tool to identify the knowledge gaps and the type of science needed (e.g. repeatable, appropriate replication, use of controls) to improve the evidence base. The restoration community, including both scientists and practitioners, needs to make evidence-based restoration a reality so that we can move from best intentions and acting with so-called “purpose” to acting for meaningful impact. Doing so has the potential to serve as a rallying point for reframing the Anthropocene as a so-called “good” epoch.

The Wizard and the Prophet

Charles Mann, author of 1491, has a new book called The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World.

Here’s the Amazon description:

From the best-selling, award-winning author of 1491 and 1493–an incisive portrait of the two little-known twentieth-century scientists, Norman Borlaug and William Vogt, whose diametrically opposed views shaped our ideas about the environment, laying the groundwork for how people in the twenty-first century will choose to live in tomorrow’s world.

In forty years, Earth’s population will reach ten billion. Can our world support that? What kind of world will it be? Those answering these questions generally fall into two deeply divided groups–Wizards and Prophets, as Charles Mann calls them in this balanced, authoritative, nonpolemical new book. The Prophets, he explains, follow William Vogt, a founding environmentalist who believed that in using more than our planet has to give, our prosperity will lead us to ruin. Cut back! was his mantra. Otherwise everyone will lose! The Wizards are the heirs of Norman Borlaug, whose research, in effect, wrangled the world in service to our species to produce modern high-yield crops that then saved millions from starvation. Innovate! was Borlaug’s cry. Only in that way can everyone win! Mann delves into these diverging viewpoints to assess the four great challenges humanity faces–food, water, energy, climate change–grounding each in historical context and weighing the options for the future. With our civilization on the line, the author’s insightful analysis is an essential addition to the urgent conversation about how our children will fare on an increasingly crowded Earth.

I made my own attempt to reconcile these world views a few years ago. My conclusion was that it is theoretically possible to grow without exceeding limits, if almost all innovation that occurs is aimed at transcending those limits. In the real world, I don’t think there is any evidence our species is capable of that. What is more likely is that technology helps us grow until we come up against the limits, then we experience a setback that takes us back under the limits, then eventually we start again. We may push the limits a little further each time, but the setbacks can be long and painful enough to ruin entire human lifetimes. If I am right, we haven’t even finished the first cycle yet as a planetary civilization. Mann’s book 1491, along with Jared Diamond’s Collapse, were instrumental in helping me to realize that regional and even continental cultures have experienced major setbacks before.

Polarization, Partisanship and Junk News Consumption over Social Media in the US

Maybe this is just the Brits picking on us. Or, maybe they are onto something.

Vidya Narayanan, Vlad Barash, John Kelly, Bence Kollanyi, Lisa-Maria Neudert, and Philip N. Howard. “Polarization, Partisanship and Junk News Consumption over Social Media in the US.” Data Memo 2018.1. Oxford, UK: Project on Computational Propaganda.

What kinds of social media users read junk news? We examine the distribution of the most significant sources of junk news in the three months before President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union Address. Drawing on a list of sources that consistently publish political news and information that is extremist, sensationalist, conspiratorial, masked commentary, fake news and other forms of junk news, we find that the distribution of such content is unevenly spread across the ideological spectrum. We demonstrate that (1) on Twitter, a network of Trump supporters shares the widest range of known junk news sources and circulates more junk news than all the other groups put together; (2) on Facebook, extreme hard right pages—distinct from Republican pages—share the widest range of known junk news sources and circulate more junk news than all the other audiences put together; (3) on average, the audiences for junk news on Twitter share a wider range of known junk news sources than audiences on Facebook’s public pages.

I hadn’t heard the term computational propaganda before. Here is how they describe it:

The Computational Propaganda Research Project (COMPROP) investigates the interaction of algorithms, automation and politics. This work includes analysis of how tools like social media bots are used to manipulate public opinion by amplifying or repressing political content, disinformation, hate speech, and junk news.

We use perspectives from organizational sociology, human computer interaction, communication, information science, and political science to interpret and analyze the evidence we are gathering. Our project is based at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford.

So in other words, we are all being manipulated by some very old and tired ideas using powerful new technologies Hitler and Stalin could only have dreamed of.