Tag Archives: artificial intelligence

What are the trends in ecology and evolution for 2018?

The journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution does an annual “Horizon Scan of Emerging Issues for Global Conservation and Biological Diversity”. I can only see the abstract so here is the one sentence describing the trends:

The issues highlighted span a wide range of fields and include thiamine deficiency in wild animals, the geographic expansion of chronic wasting disease, genetic control of invasive mammal populations and the effect of culturomics on conservation science, policy and action.

I was new to the term culturomics, and thought it might have something to do with synthesizing new compounds in giant vats of yogurt. But no, according to Wikipedia it is not that kind of culture, but relates to search and synthesis algorithms for scientific articles, which does indeed seem to be a recurring theme on this blog lately.

Culturomics is a form of computational lexicology that studies human behavior and cultural trends through the quantitative analysis of digitized texts.[1][2] Researchers data mine large digital archives to investigate cultural phenomena reflected in language and word usage.[3] The term is an American neologism first described in a 2010 Science article called Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books, co-authored by Harvard researchers Jean-Baptiste Michel and Erez Lieberman Aiden.[4]

At that point, I just needed to figure out what a neologism was, so I looked it up in Webster’s 1913 which some people say is the most artfully written dictionary:

Ne*ol”o*gism (?), n. [Cf. F. néologisme.]

1. The introduction of new words, or the use of old words in a new sense. Mrs. Browning.

2. A new word, phrase, or expression.

3. A new doctrine; specifically, rationalism.

Mrs. Browning? Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote a long poem called Aurora Leigh which contains the word. And no, I wouldn’t have learned that if I had looked up neologism in the New Oxford American Dictionary.

I learnt my complement of classic French
(Kept pure of Balzac and neologism,)
And German also, since she liked a range
Of liberal education,–tongues, not books.
I learnt a little algebra, a little
Of the mathematics,–brushed with extreme flounce
The circle of the sciences, because
She misliked women who are frivolous.

It goes on like that. Forever.

Oh okay, one more, here is the definition of flounce in Webster’s 1913:

Flounce, v. t. To deck with a flounce or flounces; as, to flounce a petticoat or a frock.

Flounce, n. [Cf. G. flausflausch, a tuft of wool or hair; akin to vliess, E.fleece; or perh. corrupted fr. rounce.] An ornamental appendage to the skirt of a woman’s dress, consisting of a strip gathered and sewed on by its upper edge around the skirt, and left hanging.

Flounce (?), v. i. [imp. & p. p.Flounced (flounst); p. pr. & vb. n.Flouncing(?).] [Cf. OSw. flunsa to immerge.] To throw the limbs and body one way and the other; to spring, turn, or twist with sudden effort or violence; to struggle, as a horse in mire; to flounder; to throw one’s self with a jerk or spasm, often as in displeasure.

To flutter and flounce will do nothing but batter and bruise us.

Barrow.

With his broad fins and forky tail he laves
The rising sirge, and flounces in the waves.

Addison.

“Sirge” I think is an old-timey spelling of “surge”. And if you look up “surge” in this dictionary, its usage is quite interesting and you want to go on. But that’s it for me.

 

November 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

  • I thought about war and peace in November. Well, mostly war. War is frightening. The United States of America appears to be flailing about militarily all over the world guided by no foreign policy. Big wars of the past have sometimes been started by overconfident leaders thinking they could get a quick military victory, only to find themselves bogged down in something much larger and more intractable than they imagined. But enemies are good to have – the Nazis understood that a scared population will believe what you tell them.
  • We should probably be sounding the alarm just as urgently, if not more urgently, on biodiversity as we are on global warming. But while the case against global warming is so simple most children can grasp it, the case against biodiversity loss is more difficult to articulate.
  • A theory of mass extinctions of the past is that they have been caused by massive volcanic eruptions burning off underground fossil fuels on a massive scale. Only, not quite at the rate we are doing it now. Rapid collapse of ice cliffs is another thing that might get us.

Most hopeful stories:

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • You can get an actuarial estimate of your life span online. You can also search your local library catalog automatically whenever you consider buying a book online. Libraries in small, medium, and large towns all over the U.S. appear to be included. Only, not my library. Boo, Philadelphia Free Library.
  • “Transportation as a service” may cause the collapse of the oil industry. Along similar but more mainstream lines, NACTO has released a “Blueprint for Autonomous Urbanism“, which is my most popular post at the moment I am writing this.
  • It’s possible that the kind of ideal planned economy envisioned by early Soviet economists (which never came to pass) could be realized with the computing power and algorithms just beginning to be available now.

 

October 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

  • Donald Trump’s proposed tax policies are based on numbers he just makes up. This is not a matter of differences of political opinion, it is a matter of made-up numbers that can be compared to actual measured numbers taken from reality. Large swaths of the public seem unaware or unconcerned about this difference. large enough swaths of the public are concerned enough, however, that we are accepting of a situation where the (very recently retired members of the) military appears to be taking a very active role in executive branch decision making.
  • U.S. diplomats in Cuba are being subjected to some kind of directional noise weapon, and nobody knows who is doing it or why.
  • It is possible that a catastrophic loss of insects is occurring and that it may lead to ecological collapse. Also, there is new evidence that pollution is harming human health and even the global economy more than previously thought.

Most hopeful stories:

  • The U.S. Democratic party could consider embracing an anti-monopoly platform. Spun the right way, this would be a pro-business policy in the sense of creating a level playing field for businesses of all sizes to compete and innovate, rather than a system that is unfairly skewed in favor of big business at the expense of small business, workers, and consumers.
  • Evaporation theoretically could be harnessed to produce enormous amounts of energy for human use.
  • Supersonic (civilian) travel is almost back.

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • A lot of the recyclables picked up at curbside in the U.S. are shipped to China for use as raw materials for manufactured goods that will be exported back to the U.S.
  • Even if autonomous trucks are not ready for tricky urban situations, they could be autonomous on the highway with a small number of remote-control drivers guiding a large number of tricks through tricky urban maneuvers, not unlike the way ports or trainyards are run now. There is also new thinking on how to transition highways gradually through a mix of human and computer-controlled vehicles, and eventually to full computer control. New research shows that even a small number of autonomous vehicles mixed in with human drivers will be safer for everyone. While some reports predict autonomous taxis will be available in the 2020s, Google says that number is more like 2017.
  • I mused about what it would take for a metropolitan area in the U.S. to achieve statehood. It seems like a tough uphill climb but I can imagine it having benefits not just for the metro area but for the economy and country as a whole.

I’ve been reading a little about Socrates lately. There was a debate in ancient Athens, during its radical experiments with direct democracy and free speech, that a smooth-talking rhetorical style could tend to carry the day over solidly argued logic and facts. So these concerns are not new, and there probably was no golden age when groups of Americans or other human beings were a lot better at logic-based decision making than we are now. Still, what is frustrating is that any individual human being clearly is capable of logic-based decision making, and yet we are repeatedly swayed and misled by faulty logic in groups.

The insect thing is really wild. I just spent three weeks in tropical Asia and was struck by how un-buggy it was compared to past trips. Which probably has absolutely nothing to do with the peer-reviewed journal article mentioned above. My garden in Philadelphia actually was quite buggy this summer, somewhat ironically with the striped mosquito varieties that have drained significant quantities of my blood on past trips to tropical Asia.

Google may release self-driving taxis in 2017

Google may be about to release a self-driving taxi service in months, not years.

Real driverless cars could come to the Phoenix area this year, according to a Monday report from The Information’s Amir Efrati. Two anonymous sources have told Efrati that Google’s self-driving car unit, Waymo, is preparing to launch “a commercial ride-sharing service powered by self-driving vehicles with no human ‘safety’ drivers as soon as this fall.”

Obviously, there’s no guarantee that Waymo will hit this ambitious target. But it’s a sign that Waymo believes its technology is very close to being ready for commercial use. And it suggests that Waymo is likely to introduce a fully driverless car network in 2018 if it doesn’t do so in the remaining months of 2017…

According to Efrati, Waymo’s service is likely to launch first in Chandler, a Phoenix suburb where Waymo has done extensive testing. Waymo chose the Phoenix area for its favorable weather, its wide, well-maintained streets, and the relative lack of pedestrians. Another important factor was the legal climate. Arizona has some of the nation’s most permissive laws regarding self-driving vehicles.

autonomous vehicles and safety

This article from the University of Illinois says that not only are autonomous vehicles safer than human drivers, but having just a few of them mixed in with the humans is actually safer for everyone.

The presence of just a few autonomous vehicles can eliminate the stop-and-go driving of the human drivers in traffic, along with the accident risk and fuel inefficiency it causes, according to new research. The finding indicates that self-driving cars and related technology may be even closer to revolutionizing traffic control than previously thought.

“Our experiments show that with as few as 5 percent of vehicles being automated and carefully controlled, we can eliminate stop-and-go waves caused by human driving behavior,” said Daniel B. Work, assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a lead researcher in the study…

The team conducted field experiments in Tucson, Arizona, in which a single autonomous vehicle circled a track continuously with at least 20 other human-driven cars. Under normal circumstances, human drivers naturally create stop-and-go traffic, even in the absence of bottlenecks, lane changes, merges or other disruptions, Work said. This phenomenon is called the “phantom traffic jam.” Researchers found that by controlling the pace of the autonomous car in the study, they were able to smooth out the traffic flow for all the cars. For the first time, researchers demonstrated experimentally that even a small percentage of such vehicles can have a significant impact on the road, eliminating waves and reducing the total fuel consumption by up to 40 percent.

transitioning a highway to driverless cars

This white paper proposes some ideas for transitioning a highway to driverless cars in several steps.

The first step would be allowing autonomous vehicles into HOV lanes, the next step would be dedicating a lane to autonomous vehicles, and the final step would be expanding until all lanes are autonomous only. Regulators may want to phase these steps in with vehicles reaching various levels of the NHTSA/SAE autonomous driving framework (e.g., Level 3 automatic braking and lane control or 4 automatic control of all aspects of driving without the need for human intervention). We believe the first step of allowing autonomous vehicles in the HOV lanes could begin immediately with Level 3 and higher vehicles. A dedicated lane (each way) for autonomous vehicles could occur as soon as we have a significant number of such vehicles on our roads which could be 2025 or earlier if a tipping point has occurred. We can imagine that limiting non-autonomous vehicles to one lane on I-5 could occur beginning in 2030, which would mean at least three exclusive lanes for autonomous vehicles from Seattle to Everett, two exclusive lanes from Everett to Marysville and one north of Marysville to Vancouver’s downtown area.

September 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

  • Fueled by supercharged sea temperatures, the 2017 hurricane season was a terrible, terrible season for hurricanes devastating coastal regions of the United States. One reason is that these storms not only were powerful and hit densely populated areas, but they set records for rapid intensification. Beyond all the human suffering, one thing I find disturbing is that I feel desensitized at this point when I think back to how I felt after Hurricane Katrina. The first major city destroyed is a shock, but later you get numb to it if you are not actually there. Then finally, a remote island territory is all but wiped out in what should be shocking fashion, and the public and government response is decidedly muted. This is what the age of climate change and weapons proliferation might be like, a long, slow process of shifting baselines where the unthinkable becomes thinkable over time.
  • In a story that U.S. media didn’t seem to pick up, China seemed to make a statement in its  official state-run media that it would defend North Korea in case of an unprovoked attack by the U.S. and its allies. John Bolton  and Lindsey Graham made comments suggesting they think any number of Korean dead would be a price worth paying for an unprovoked U.S. attack. The Trump administration is openly using Nazi propaganda.
  • During the Vietnam War the United States dropped approximately twice as many tons of bombs in Southeast Asia as the Allied forces combined used against both Germany and Japan in World War II. After the Cold War finally ended, Mikhail Gorbachev made some good suggestions for how to achieve a lasting peace. They were ignored. We may be witnessing the decline of the American Empire as a result.

Most hopeful stories:

  • It’s possible that a universal basic income could save the U.S. government money by replacing less efficient assistance programs.
  • There are also workable proposals for a U.S. single-payer health insurance program, although this one would somewhat obviously mean the government spending more money, which it would have to collect in taxes. People would come out ahead financially if the taxes were less than the premiums they are paying now, which doesn’t seem that hard, but of course this is politically tough given the incredibly effective propaganda the finance industry has used to kill the idea for the last 50 years.
  • Utility-scale solar energy cost dropped 30% in one year.

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • The FDA has approved formal trials of Ecstasy to treat post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • I learned that the OECD Science, Technology and Innovation Outlook named “ten key emerging technology trends”: The Internet of Things, Big data analytics, Artificial intelligence, Neurotechnologies, Nano/microsatellites, Nanomaterials, Additive manufacturing / 3D printing, Advanced energy storage technologies, Synthetic biology, Blockchain
  • In automation news, Tesla is testing automated truck platoons. And there’s a site that will try to predict whether robots will take your job.

autonomous trucks

This article from Wired brings up a couple points about autonomous trucks I hadn’t thought of before.

The startup Peloton is working on “platooning” trucks, or groups of vehicles that communicate via a wireless connection that helps them time their movements. At some point soon, the system might let a lead driver take over the steering for a bit, while those at the wheels in the vehicles behind could snooze, catch up on paperwork, meditate, whatever. California-based Embark would like to see driver-monitored trucks pilot themselves on interstates but be manually driven into warehouses by nimbler humans. Starsky Robotics has a similar vision, but says that the trickier driving maneuvers could be done by a human in a remote location, Predator drone-style. It’s unclear if any of these companies want—or will be able—to ever take the human out of the picture entirely…

So you could have one driver or no drives for a whole line of trucks on the highway. Then, when they get to town, a driver or even a remote driver could bring them in one at a time, if the computers are not yet up to the job.

One thing I think about is that this sounds a lot like trains. It’s hard for me to believe that platoons of trucks will be cost-effective with trains even after you take most drivers out of the equation. But remember that the highway system is automatically funded by all highway users through the gas tax, while rail companies are required to build and maintain their own infrastructure. Politicians in rural areas, which are greatly overrepresented in our electoral system at the state and federal levels, like this system because it makes taxpayers in the economically productive areas (aka cities) fund inefficient road networks in the mostly empty rural areas they represent. So this is not a level playing field where victory goes to the most efficient technology.

Logan and autonomous trucks

Not being a big superhero fan, I haven’t yet seen the movie Logan. Apparently, one thing in the movie is autonomous trucks.

About midway through the second act of the new X-Men movie Logan, there’s a scene that brings the superhero film’s vision of the future to life. Our heroes, on the run from the villainous Reavers, happen upon a car accident in the midwest. An autonomous truck vehicle has hit a horse trailer—and with nobody at the wheel, it’s hard to know why it happened.

I won’t go more into detail about the scene, spoilers, etc. But Logan’s writer and director James Mangold’s inclusion of the self-driving trucking machines makes it clear that the filmmaker understands the writing on the wall about the future of shipping. It’s a future without truck drivers.

Maybe as humans we find this idea creepy, but today’s human-driven trucks are incredibly dangerous and the autonomous trucks of the near future will almost certainly save human lives.