Recently in Science, Technology & Health Category


Since rogue AI is in the news recently, it's worth remembering that AI can be dangerous even if it isn't malevolent. Nick Bostrum's paperclip maximizer is the canonical example.

First described by Bostrom (2003), a paperclip maximizer is an artificial general intelligence (AGI) whose goal is to maximize the number of paperclips in its collection. If it has been constructed with a roughly human level of general intelligence, the AGI might collect paperclips, earn money to buy paperclips, or begin to manufacture paperclips.

Most importantly, however, it would undergo an intelligence explosion: It would work to improve its own intelligence, where "intelligence" is understood in the sense of optimization power, the ability to maximize a reward/utility function--in this case, the number of paperclips. The AGI would improve its intelligence, not because it values more intelligence in its own right, but because more intelligence would help it achieve its goal of accumulating paperclips. Having increased its intelligence, it would produce more paperclips, and also use its enhanced abilities to further self-improve. Continuing this process, it would undergo an intelligence explosion and reach far-above-human levels.

It would innovate better and better techniques to maximize the number of paperclips. At some point, it might convert most of the matter in the solar system into paperclips.


Charlie Gard has died just a few days short of his first birthday. The parents believed that some experimental treatment could have helped Charlie months ago, but the UK government forbade it. "Choice" advocates would have been rioting in the streets if the government had stopped the parents from killing Charlie instead of stopping them from treating him. Sad story all around.


UK and European courts have decided that 10-month-old Charlie Gard will be removed from life support despite his parents' desire to take him to America for treatment.

The parents of terminally-ill baby Charlie Gard are 'utterly distraught' and facing fresh heartbreak after losing their final appeal in the European Court of Human Rights.

Chris Gard, 32, and Connie Yates, 31, wanted to take their 10-month-old son - who suffers from a rare genetic condition and has brain damage - to the US to undergo a therapy trial.

Doctors at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in London, where Charlie is being cared for, said they wanted him to be able to 'die with dignity'.

But the couple, from Bedfont, west London, raised almost £1.4million so they could take their son to America but a series of courts ruled in favour of the British doctors.

If this frightens and sickens you, blame the single payer system: whoever has the gold makes the rules.

What parent wouldn't gladly kill or die to protect their child?


Robert Thomson, CEO of News Corporation, laments the evisceration of his industry by cruel and calculating algorithms -- and the humans behind them.

Instead of making books appear, Amazon now also makes entire publishing houses disappear. I don't mean to speak well or fondly of competitors, given that HarperCollins is part of News Corporation, but one certainly felt much sympathy for Hachette, which was in dispute with Amazon over commissions, and so its books vanished from the site. It was Amazon's Hachette hatchet job. Shipment times were delayed, searches for Hachette authors were redirected to works of other publishers, etc., etc.

That is the wonder of an awesome, almighty algorithm - a tweak here and a tug there and you no longer exist, you are non-person or a non-company.

How can liberty flourish when the power over the algorithms that run our lives is concentrated in so few hands? Perhaps we should take steps to divide up that power before it's too late.


California is considering implementing a single-payer health system for everyone in the state. If such a system is created I think the results would be disappointing, but I'm completely in favor of the state giving it a shot.

Overall, many of the details behind California's single-payer proposal remain in flux. Under questioning from fellow lawmakers, Lara said the 15 percent payroll tax is "hypothetical" and "we don't have a financing mechanism yet for this bill."

Lara said he has sought a review from researchers at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst into potential funding sources for the measure. Lara also said there's no guarantee the Trump administration would grant the federal waivers necessary for California to shift Medicare and Medicaid funding into a single pot for universal health care.

States should be free to experiment, and I hope the federal government gives California the leeway it needs to make the best possible attempt.


Megan McArdle advises Republicans to do nothing yet with regards to Obamacare, and neatly captures America's conflicting desires on health care. McArdle outlines a fairly simple replacement plan and then explains why it can't happen.

However, this is completely politically infeasible, because voters don't want genuine insurance, by which I mean a pool that provides financial assistance for genuinely unforeseeable and unmanageable expenses. Voters want comprehensive coverage that kicks in at close to the first dollar of spending, no restrictions on treatments or their ability to see a doctor, nice American-style facilities, and so forth. They are also fond of their health-care professionals and do not wish to see provider incomes slashed and hospitals closed, nor do they want their taxes to go up, or to pay 10 percent of their annual income in premiums. This conflicting set of deeply held views is one major reason that Obamacare -- and American health-care policy more generally -- has the problems it does.

Your car insurance doesn't pay for your gas or oil changes. Your homeowners insurance doesn't pay for termite treatments or new paint. Why do you want your health insurance to pay for annual check-ups and ear infections? It can be done, but when you add a bunch of fixed expenses to an insurance plan, premiums go up in direct proportion plus management costs.


If true, it's a dumb move by Trump. Vaccines have saved millions (billions?) of lives.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a proponent of a widely discredited theory that vaccines cause autism, said Tuesday that President-elect Donald Trump asked him to chair a new commission on vaccines.

Hours later, however, a spokeswoman for Trump's transition said that while Trump would like to create a commission on autism, no final decision had been made.


You may be as surprised as I was to learn that 7-Eleven is beating Amazon at the drone delivery game! (That is, delivering product by drone, not delivering drones.) Well, ok, it looks like most of the credit goes to their delivery supplier: Flirtey.

"We have now successfully completed the first month of routine commercial drone deliveries to customer homes in partnership with 7-Eleven," Flirtey chief executive Matthew Sweeny said in a release.

"This is a giant leap towards a future where everyone can experience the convenience of Flirtey's instant store-to-door drone delivery."

Flirtey said it made 77 drone deliveries to homes of select customers on weekends in November, filling orders placed using a special application.

Ordered items, including food and over-the-counter medicine, were packed into special containers and flow by drones that used GPS capabilities to find addresses, according to Flirtey.

Drones hovered in the air and lowered packages to the ground, on average getting items to customers within 10 minutes, the company reported.


Old-age might seem a long way off, but if you care about your children you should buy long-term care insurance now. Unless the insurers are going to go out of business, in which case you shouldn't. Fortunately for us younger folks, the aging Baby Boomers will probably be forced to solve this problem in some manner before we're old. Of course, the cost of that solution will probably be paid by... us younger folks.

Enter the idea of long-term care insurance. Buy a policy when you're still relatively young and healthy, pay the premiums every year, and if you do end up needing intensive support services, you can go to a nursing home secure in the knowledge that your spouse and your legacy are protected. Personal-finance columnists have been solemnly recommending long-term care insurance for years, though in my experience, this advice is often just as solemnly ignored.

That's because the policies are now quite pricey. When long-term care policies were introduced a few decades ago, they seemed like an attractive deal. As it turns out, that's because they were underpricing the insurance. Insurers expected a significant portion of people to drop the insurance every year (meaning that their previously paid premiums would be all profit). Instead, only about 1 percent did. They also underestimated costs.

And while typical health insurers don't have to worry much about interest rates, because they generally pay this year's health care costs out of this year's premiums, long-term care insurers need to park the money between taking the premium in and paying the benefits out. The ultra-low interest rates of the last decade have made those investments less profitable, hurting them still further. And state regulators have proved resistant to efforts to raise premiums to make the insurance more actuarially sound.


Apparently roller coasters can help sufferers pass moderate-sized kidney stones. This is a fantastic discovery: theme park tickets are cheaper than visits to the doctor, and roller coasters are more fun than surgery!

The research, led by Michigan State University, was prompted by the case of a patient suffering from kidney stones who reported passing a stone after each of three consecutive rides on the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad roller coaster at Disney World in Florida.

Scientists then used 3D printer to create an anatomical model of a kidney filled with urine and three kidney stones of differing size.

The device was placed aboard a front seat on the same Disney World attraction, where over numerous rides it showed a stone passage rate of 16 per cent, while a ride on the back seat yielded a rate of 63 per cent.

Hopefully Obamacare will begin covering this treatment soon.


It would sure be exciting if these space tests of the EmDrive work.

The EmDrive, a hypothetical miracle propulsion system for outer space, has been sparking heated arguments for years. Now, Guido Fetta plans to settle the argument about reactionless space drives for once and for all by sending one into space to prove that it really generates thrust without exhaust.

Even if mainstream scientists say this is impossible.

Fetta is CEO of Cannae Inc, and inventor of the Cannae Drive. His creation is related to the EmDrive first demonstrated by British engineer Roger Shawyer in 2003. Both are closed systems filled with microwaves with no exhaust, yet which the inventors claim do produce thrust. There is no accepted theory of how this might work. Shawyer claims that relativistic effects produce different radiation pressures at the two ends of the drive, leading to a net force. Fetta pursues a similar idea involving Lorentz (electromagnetic) forces. NASA researchers have suggested that the drive is actually pushing against "quantum vacuum virtual plasma" of particles that shift in and out of existence.

Most physicists believe these far-out systems cannot work and that their potential benefits, such as getting to Mars in ten weeks, are illusory. After all, the law of conservation of momentum says that a rocket cannot accelerate forward without some form of exhaust ejected backwards. Yet the drumbeat goes on. Just last month, Jose Rodal claimed on the NASA Spaceflight forum that a NASA paper, "Measurement of Impulsive Thrust from a Closed Radio Frequency Cavity in Vacuum" has finally been peer-reviewed and accepted for publication by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, but this cannot be confirmed yet.


This XKCD comic captures many implications about the nonlinearity of software.

tasks.png

A person who is smart and experienced in other areas can find it very difficult to adjust his intuition to the software landscape.


Reading news about Zika victims is completely heartbreaking. Say a prayer for the children and families affected. Protecting public health should be a top priority for any government, and I urge American officials to take whatever actions are necessary to combat this disease.


Paracelsus said "the dose makes the poison", and it appears that low doses of radiation may actually be beneficial, similar to the way other moderate stresses can strengthen your body.

This molecular skirmish appears to invigorate the organism. Various findings point towards the conclusion that moderate stress of any kind is advantageous. Roundworms fed small amount of arsenic live longer. People who indulge in moderate levels of alcohol have reduced risks of heart attacks, diabetes and Alzheimer's according to epidemiological studies.

Yet these blessings do seem to be coupled with notable damage to genomes. But this is as true of exercise as it is for other sources of stress. "Even when you jog," says Wetzker, "the genomes in your cells come under attack." In this instance, the impact leads to muscles being strengthened.

Wetzker hypothesizes that there is a universal principle when it comes to stress response, namely that the body can acclimatize to -- or even requires -- any kind of moderate challenge. "After a few weeks in a cast, your muscles are withered." The body needs to be regularly pushed, even with radioactivity.

Wetzker, of course, admits that caution is required when it comes to nuclear radiation. It is too difficult to calculate doses and effects. Experiments on people to gain better insights are out of the question. The researcher believes, however, that there are ill people who would be willing to accept a small amount of risk.

Much of what we "know" is wrong.


UnitedHealth Group is pulling out of ObamaCare, but the law is "clearly" beneficial.

UnitedHealth's decision to pull back in Georgia and Arkansas beginning next year comes just days after a new Gallup survey documented a sharp decline in the rate of Americans who are still without coverage. Despite its rocky performance during its first two full years of operation - including higher than anticipated premiums and copayments and lower enrollments than projected - the ACA, along with expanded Medicare, clearly has been a boon for the nation's uninsured.

The problem with the "clearly" is twofold:

1. The assumption that a person covered by a plan with high premiums and co-payments is better off than a person without coverage. The costs may or may not outweigh the benefits, but the government has put its thumb on the scale by creating tax penalties for people who might otherwise benefit by foregoing coverage.

2. The mistaken conflations of insurance coverage with health care, and of health care with improved health. The possession of health insurance may or may not lead to better health care for an individual, and better health care may or may not lead to improved health. The goal is better health, but the only lever the government has is health insurance, which is doubly indirect.

So, the Gallup survey alone doesn't justify the use of "clearly". Let's wait to see some data showing actual improved health, not just more insurance coverage.


Said 18-time world Go champion Lee Sedol after his second loss to Google's AlphaGo software.

At first, Fan Hui thought the move was rather odd. But then he saw its beauty.

"It's not a human move. I've never seen a human play this move," he says. "So beautiful." It's a word he keeps repeating. Beautiful. Beautiful. Beautiful.

The average human will never understand this move. But Fan Hui has the benefit of watching AlphaGo up close for the past several months--playing the machine time and again. And the proof of the move's value lies in the eventual win for AlphaGo. Over two games, it has beaten the very best by playing in ways that no human would.

Get ready for artificial intelligences that make beautiful "moves" in every area of life that are incomprehensible to humans, and yet better than anything we can do.


Why is NOAA creating misleading graphs that show the earth has warmed since 1979, without showing data from the late 1950s that indicates the world was just as warm in 1957 as it is now?

warming trend.png

I combined the two graphs at the same scale below, and put a horizontal red reference line in, which shows that the earth's atmosphere has not warmed at all since the late 1950's.

The omission of this data from the NOAA report, is just their latest attempt to defraud the public. NOAA's best data shows no warming for 60 years. But it gets worse. The graph in the NOAA report shows about 0.5C warming from 1979 to 2010, but their original published data shows no warming during that period.


I mean "abortion clinics".

Abortion access in the U.S. has been vanishing at the fastest annual pace on record, propelled by Republican state lawmakers' push to legislate the industry out of existence. Since 2011, at least 162 abortion providers have shut or stopped offering the procedure, while just 21 opened.

At no time since before 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion, has a woman's ability to terminate a pregnancy been more dependent on her zip code or financial resources to travel. The drop-off in providers--more than one every two weeks--occurred in 35 states, in both small towns and big cities that are home to more than 30 million women of reproductive age.

Great job, Republicans!

California's loss of a dozen providers shows how availability declined, even in states led by Democrats, who tend to be friendly to abortion rights.

Great job, Democrats!

Most providers [in Texas] closed after the state became the largest and most populous in the U.S. to require that they become hospital-like outpatient surgical centers, which can cost millions to buy or build. The state also mandates that doctors have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. The drop-off in access has helped depress the abortion rate in the state by 13 percent, according to a July study, and providers there say full implementation of the law would leave almost a fifth of Texas women 150 miles or more from a facility.

Great job, Texas! Your baby-murder rate is down 13%. I'm sure we can all agree that it's good that we can protect the lives of these mothers with sensible medical standards while simultaneously reducing the murder of babies.


Good for Apple CEO Tim Cook for refusing the order to decrypt an iPhone.

Apple said on Wednesday that it would oppose and challenge a federal court order to help the F.B.I. unlock an iPhone used by one of the two attackers who killed 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif., in December.

On Tuesday, in a significant victory for the government, Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym of the Federal District Court for the District of Central California ordered Apple to bypass security functions on an iPhone 5c used by Syed Rizwan Farook, who was killed by the police along with his wife, Tashfeen Malik, after they attacked Mr. Farook's co-workers at a holiday gathering.

Judge Pym ordered Apple to build special software that would essentially act as a skeleton key capable of unlocking the phone.

But hours later, in a statement by its chief executive, Timothy D. Cook, Apple announced its refusal to comply. The move sets up a legal showdown between the company, which says it is eager to protect the privacy of its customers, and the law enforcement authorities, who say that new encryption technologies hamper their ability to prevent and solve crime.

There's no end to this rabbit hole once it gets opened. American citizens have a right to privacy, and a right to strong encryption.


You've got 10 times as many bacteria in your body as you do human cells, and it shouldn't be surprising that these hitchhikers have a huge effect on health. New research shows that by drugging our gut bacteria we may be able to significantly reduce the incidence of heart disease without changing our diets. Faster, please!

Writing in the journal Cell, researchers from the Cleveland Clinic and UCLA's division of cardiology suggest that disrupting the cascade of events that results in the production of TMAO might also prevent the kinds of fatty buildup in the arteries that leads to heart disease.

They came up with a chemical lookalike to choline, a common chemical compound that plays a key role in processing fatty acids. The lookalike chemical, called DMB, suppresses the first step in the lengthy process of TMAO production. Both in laboratory tests and in mice (where researchers added DMB to the drinking water), they saw that DMB drove down the amount of triethylamine available for liver enzymes to turn into artery-clogging TMAO.

In the study, mice were fed chow that typically doubles fatty buildup in the arteries. Among those mice that got DMB in their water, arterial buildup was significantly reduced; their arteries looked almost like those of normal, healthy mice, the researchers found.

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