Cell Phones and Cancer

 Posted by at 6:20 PM  Tagged with: ,
Jul 152011

One of the goals when I started this blog was to start conversations, and to get people to think about things from perspectives that don’t fit with the narratives spun by most sources of commentary and news.  Today’s xkcd strip highlights an issue that perfectly illustrates that goal.

There’s been some debate about whether or not cell phones cause cancer.  Most studies haven’t found a link, but the World Health Organization decided there was enough evidence to declare a solid “maybe” and label cell phones as a potential risk factor.

Advocates on both sides have been up in arms, but interestingly enough, many members of the scholarly community have also reacted almost viscerally.  It’s true, most studies are inconclusive, but any scientist or statistician will tell you that proving a “no result” is extraordinarily difficult (because you never know whether there’s nothing to detect or whether your data and methods aren’t enough to detect it).

Part of me wonders if personal attachment to cell phones and general fears of technology are fueling some of the fervor with which this topic is debated, but there’s one point that’s largely absent from this conversation, and I’d like to put it front and center:

Cell phones haven’t been around that long.

Think about it.  How long have cell phones been around?  How long have people been attached to them?  How long since people started doing everything on their smart phones?  The most intense exposure to these devices has been incredibly recent.

So go ahead and say “almost every study fails to show that cell phones cause cancer.”  And go ahead and say “you’re pressing a radiation-emitting device into the side of your head for hours a day.”  But since we’re fundamentally arguing about long term health effects, can we also add the following headline?:

Chronological Analysis Shows that Cell Phones Haven’t Been Around Long Enough for Any Studies to Be Conclusive One Way or the Other.

Robot Roundup

 Posted by at 5:39 PM  Tagged with: , ,
Apr 152011

In 1997, Deep Blue played a series of chess games against Gary Kasparov, the world champion at the time.  Fourteen years later, Watson competed on three episodes of Jeopardy against the two best human players of all time.

Machines: 2; Humanity: 0.

What will be the next game or televised competition to be conquered by machines, unseating their human creators?  Checkers and Wheel of Fortune would probably be too easy.  Competing on The Bachelorette might be a little too hard.  But what about Dancing With the Stars?

For those of you who don’t know, we’re coming to the end of National Robotics Week.  To celebrate, I took a little robotics tour, and I wanted to share some of the amazing things I saw.

This started with me walking past a robot receptionist.  Believe it or not, that wasn’t part of the robotics festivities; I work next to a building that has a full time robot receptionist as an every day thing.  Yes, my life is more awesome than yours.

I then attended a robot slalom race, which consisted of a series of time trials to see which robot could navigate a course of wickets the fastest without going off track, getting lost, or exploding.  There was surprisingly little gambling involved, which gave me a business idea for next year’s competition.

After the race, I saw a robot kayak, which apparently has all sorts of non-recreational uses you’d never think of.  Navigating and exploring storm systems currently at sea (but which are headed for land) has some uses, and they’re also teaching seafaring robots to follow other seafaring objects (example usage of this ability: you could use these things to keep tabs on pirates).  The underwater versions, by which of course I mean robot submarines, have some other interesting applications as well.  I thought they had some excellent applications in researching and getting population estimates for sea life, and commercial fishermen would find their ability to locate and follow underwater objects invaluable.  A member of the design team–who also works for NASA on occasion–told me he’d figured out a way to use these robots to exponentially increase our ability to enforce environmental regulations (anyone illegally dumping anything into a river could be easily found out by these robots in situations that would stump a traditional investigation).  Finally, and I can’t stress this enough, being able to secretly follow objects underwater with robots will give rise to a whole new branch of awesome submarine movies (plus military applications blah blah blah).

Next up, I got to see two Robocup teams in action.  Robocup is the World Cup of Robot Soccer.  There are different divisions, and I got to see a Small Size scrimmage and a Humanoid skill drill.  The smaller robots are about the size of cantaloupes and the play with a golf ball.  The humanoid robots are a bigger, and decidedly less speedy and agile.  I thought it was interesting that in the non-humanoid classes, robotic design is a big part of the challenge, while on the humanoid side, the robots themselves are standard and it’s a programming challenge–no small task itself (teaching the robots to recognize where the ball is, what the other players are doing, coordinating plays, staying balanced while kicking, playing defense, etc.).  I don’t think today’s English Premiere League players need to worry about facing the same fate as Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, but their kids might not want to go pro until they secure a degree in accounting, or, you know, computer science.

The last stop on my whirlwind tour of the robot world–which, by the way, all took place within a five minute walk from my office, mostly in basements and garages (I had no idea there were so many robots underfoot!)–was a hydraulic humanoid robot that could mimic human movement through motion-capture technology.  It’s not a quick or easy learning process, but it is already learning how to dance.  I met a PhD student who’s working on adding the chicken dance to its repertoire.  I don’t want to spend a lot of time describing this, because it really defies explanation.  But don’t worry, at some point in your life, you just might see a descendant of the robot I met on Dancing With the Stars…

Into the Sunset

 Posted by at 3:31 PM  Tagged with: ,
Feb 262011

Columbia.  Challenger.  Discovery.  Atlantis.  Endeavour.

This Thursday marked the 39th and final launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery, and there’s some rather unique footage of the launch, taken mid-air from a nearby commercial flight.  This is the first of the fleet to be retired as the shuttle program draws to a close in 2011.  Endeavour and Atlantis are scheduled to make their final flights in April and June.  Challenger and Columbia were tragically lost in 1986 and 2003.

The five ships inspired a nation, and a planet, for decades, and their retirement is worthy of note.  The mere silhouette of a space shuttle is an icon capable of evoking a sense of wonderment in children and inner-children alike.  The names of these five vessels declared our mission, still in its infancy, to extend humanity’s reach and understanding as far as our abilities could take us.  And the teams behind each shuttle launch–made of astronauts, scientists, engineers, and countless others–represented the best we had to offer.  Even in the wake of costly and devastating mission failures, brave volunteers were lining up to be the next representatives of humanity to experience and explore the newest frontier.

Discovery will ride off into the sunset (in a way nothing else really can), and it’s an occasion worthy of note.  A program designed to ferry humanity into the future is now becoming a part of our past.  These storied spacecraft will give way to new vehicles, new technologies, and new discoveries.  And as excited as I am to focus on the spaceships of tomorrow, there will always be some nostalgia for the first fleet of shuttles, and gratitude for their gift of inspiration.

Our New Computer Overlords

 Posted by at 11:25 PM  Tagged with: ,
Feb 222011

So I’m sure all my readers are familiar with the exploits of Watson by now (for those of you living on a cave in Mars, Watson is a mechanical Jeopardy champion built by IBM).  I’m not going to rehash what everyone’s saying about what an amazing leap forward Watson represents (though it is pretty amazing).  I do, however, want to note a few things:

The Real Score

Watson not only beat two humans, but beat them in a way that more or less solidifies mechanical dominance in the field.  The fact that there were two human players likely worked AGAINST the human side, a fact which not many people seem to be aware of.  Saying it was 2-on-1 is misleading; in Jeopardy there aren’t any teams.  And I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Ken and Brad had a lot more in common–in every way–than either of them did with Watson.  So it’s easy to imagine that some questions clearly fall in the “easier for humans in general” category, while others fall in the “easier for computers in general” category.  So Ken and Brad were competing for the same pool of dollars, while Watson had singular dominion over the low-hanging robot fruit.  Now, that said, even if both human players had wagered their full earnings during that final Final Jeopardy, Watson still would have beaten the SUM of their scores by over $10,000.  And that’s the real metric: how does Watson do against humans in general, not how does Watson do in a free-for-all where humans are more likely to beat each other out for points than beat out a computer.

The Real Challenges

There’s a lot of talk about how Watson will change the future of many industries.  And it might.  In fact, technology like this almost certainly WILL change the future, and it’s absolutely worth paying attention to.  Jeopardy was a great field test for Watson, but there are key differences between the game show and industry applications.  First and foremost, the buzzer.  Watson could get to a buzzer in 10 milliseconds.  Human players aren’t quite that fast.  I wonder what the score would have been like if every player had a full minute to answer the question, and everybody answered every question.  Would Watson’s silly answers have proven to be more of a handicap?  Because when people talk about revolutionizing fields like tech support and medicine, a high accuracy rate is MUCH more important than an extra minute of speed (if that’s not obvious, think about which you’d prefer in a medical diagnostician, which is the kind of application people are suggesting).  I’d like to see Watson’s next challenge be in a situation that more closely approximates the kind of applications its designers envision.

The Real Winners

Watson may have won the match, but Watson doesn’t really have the ability to understand that.  It’s not that kind of artificial intelligence.  So let’s look at the real winners:

  1. Engineers and researchers at IBM.  Best.  Resumes.  Ever.
  2. Humanity as a whole, minus the people who will lose their jobs to a Watson-like system
  3. Ken Jennings.  This guy finally beat his arch-rival Brad for second place, got $300,000 in prize money (50% more than Brad, though half of all human earnings went to charity), and proved himself a class act.  He’s also once again a major national figure.  I highly recommend reading his post-game piece in Slate.  It’s filled with good humor, keen observations, and some quite quotable quips.
  4. Fans.  That was awesome to watch.

The Real Losers

OK, those were the winners.  Who lost?

  1. Ken and Brad.  Sorry, guys.
  2. Everyone who’s going to get outsourced to a computer.  This is an especially important category of losers, because unlike past victims of technological advancement (like the typewriter mechanics who lost their jobs to computers), this revolution may not create that many jobs.  If you can replace an entire call center with a few Watson installs, you might lose 100 unskilled positions for every 5 computer engineering/computer science positions.  Economists are going to keep a close eye on this one, and it’s entirely possible that I’m wrong, but this has some society-shaking implications that I don’t think we’ve seen yet.
  3. Google.  Watson isn’t ACTUALLY competing against humanity, not yet.  This was a game.  It’s competing against technological providers of answers.  So watch out, online data sources.  Google, Bing, IMDb, Wikipedia, WebMD…they all just got a little wake-up call, whether they know it or not.  You’ve got a lot of lead time, but business as usual won’t be a viable business forever.

Bottom line: we got a glimpse of the future last week.  And it was pretty fantastic, bordering on fantastical.  I, for one–in addition to welcoming our new computer overlords–can’t wait to see what comes next.

Egypt’s Hidden Hero

 Posted by at 10:10 PM  Tagged with: , , , ,
Feb 092011

You’ve probably read something about Egypt in the newspapers over the course of the last two weeks, unless you’ve been on Mars (in which case I’m totally jealous).  There’s been a lot of great reporting on a lot of great stories about the people of a nation demanding reform.  There’s also been a lot of analysis of underlying causes.  Mubarak’s self-serving policies and institutions are certainly reason enough for a civilian population to cry out for reform.  Egypt’s lack of oil, political scientists and foreign policy commentators have noted, makes revolution more likely than in the petro-dictatorships of nearby totalitarian regimes.  Roger Cohen of the New York times tells an interesting story involving cultural shifts and improvements in priorities.  But there’s an unsung hero in all of this, without which all the cultural shifts and petro-politics and oppressive policies would amount to business as usual.  And that hero is: social media and telecommunications technology.

That’s right.  Technology many Americans (especially parents) find intrusive and annoying is making possible a populist revolution half a world away.  This revolution is a story which, by some accounts, began with a facebook page.  Organizers certainly have efficaciously leveraged the power of social media to coalesce their movement in ways that would have been impossible a mere decade ago.  While the recent eruptions may have been somewhat sudden, the momentum has been building for years, as tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of like-minded people have been finding allies in their quest for change, preparing for this moment.

It’s hard to underestimate the impact of this connectivity within a restless population.  When people with feelings of discontentment are alone and isolated, they do nothing.  When assembling can be dangerous, the required motivation is often prohibitively high.  When communication is difficult, efforts are slowed, stopped, or never started.  But communications technology has been a game-changer.  It’s easy to find like-minded people; it’s easy to have free discussions; it’s easy to be connected and to feel connected.  It’s easy to have safe meetings; it’s easy to stay in touch; it’s easy to coordinate efforts; and it’s easy to see the numbers, and in them the strength, of a movement.

The Egyptian government is aware of the changing face of revolutionary forces.  It’s no coincidence that they basically kidnapped a Google executive (then lied about it, and eventually–under pressure–released him).  It’s no coincidence that the government attacked the telecommunications access of 80 million people in their efforts to fight back.  And it’s no coincidence that the most heartfelt voices of the Egyptian people are not being first relayed in the form of letters and interviews, but rather, in all kinds of tweets.

The Egyptians have a powerful ally in technology, and its power only increases with time.  The voice of the people is easier to hear today than it was yesterday, and it is growing ever louder.  Unless leaders learn to listen better, I can promise that Egypt is only the beginning.