All posts filed under: Technology

Technology

The hacker ethic

The arrest of a British cybersecurity researcher on charges of disseminating malware and conspiring to commit computer fraud and abuse provides a window into the complexities of hacking culture. In May, a person going by the nickname “MalwareTech” gained international fame – and near-universal praise – for figuring out how to slow, and ultimately effectively stop, the worldwide spread of the WannaCry malware attack. But in August, the person behind that nickname, Marcus Hutchins, was arrested on federal charges of writing and distributing a different malware attack first spotted back in 2014. The judicial system will sort out whether Hutchins, who has denied wrongdoing and pleaded not guilty, will face as much as 40 years in prison. But to me as a sociologist studying the culture and social patterns of cybercrime, Hutchins’ experience is emblematic of the values, beliefs and practices of many hackers. The hacker ethic The term “hacking” has its origins in the 1950s and 1960s at MIT, where it was used as a positive label to describe someone who tinkers with computers. …

Quantum consciousness

The mere mention of “quantum consciousness” makes most physicists cringe, as the phrase seems to evoke the vague, insipid musings of a New Age guru. But if a new hypothesis proves to be correct, quantum effects might indeed play some role in human cognition. Matthew Fisher, a physicist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, raised eyebrows late last year when he published a paper in Annals of Physics proposing that the nuclear spins of phosphorus atoms could serve as rudimentary “qubits” in the brain—which would essentially enable the brain to function like a quantum computer. As recently as 10 years ago, Fisher’s hypothesis would have been dismissed by many as nonsense. Physicists have been burned by this sort of thing before, most notably in 1989, when Roger Penrose proposed that mysterious protein structures called “microtubules” played a role in human consciousness by exploiting quantum effects. Few researchers believe such a hypothesis plausible. Patricia Churchland, a neurophilosopher at the University of California, San Diego, memorably opined that one might as well invoke “pixie dust in …

Doctor vs Crowdsourced AI diagnosis app

Shantanu Nundy recognized the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis when his 31-year-old patient suffering from crippling hand pain checked into Mary’s Center in Washington, D.C. Instead of immediately starting treatment, though, Nundy decided first to double-check his diagnosis using a smartphone app that helps with difficult medical cases by soliciting advice from doctors worldwide. Within a day, Nundy’s hunch was confirmed. The app had used artificial intelligence (AI) to analyze and filter advice from several medical specialists into an overall ranking of the most likely diagnoses. Created by the Human Diagnosis Project (Human Dx)—an organization that Nundy directs—the app is one of the latest examples of growing interest in human–AI collaboration to improve health care. Human Dx advocates the use of machine learning—a popular AI technique that automatically learns from classifying patterns in data—to crowdsource and build on the best medical knowledge from thousands of physicians across 70 countries. Physicians at several major medical research centers have shown early interest in the app. Human Dx on Thursday announced a new partnership with top medical profession organizations …

An artificial neural network for relational reasoning

How many parks are near the new home you’re thinking of buying? What’s the best dinner-wine pairing at a restaurant? These everyday questions require relational reasoning, an important component of higher thought that has been difficult for artificial intelligence (AI) to master. Now, researchers at Google’s DeepMind have developed a simple algorithm to handle such reasoning—and it has already beaten humans at a complex image comprehension test. Humans are generally pretty good at relational reasoning, a kind of thinking that uses logic to connect and compare places, sequences, and other entities. But the two main types of AI—statistical and symbolic—have been slow to develop similar capacities. Statistical AI, or machine learning, is great at pattern recognition, but not at using logic. And symbolic AI can reason about relationships using predetermined rules, but it’s not great at learning on the fly. The new study proposes a way to bridge the gap: an artificial neural network for relational reasoning. Similar to the way neurons are connected in the brain, neural nets stitch together tiny programs that collaboratively …

Khot’s insight

One summer afternoon in 2001, while visiting relatives in India, Subhash Khot drifted into his default mode — quietly contemplating the limits of computation. For hours, no one could tell whether the third-year Princeton University graduate student was working or merely sinking deeper into the living-room couch. That night, he woke up, scribbled something down and returned to bed. Over breakfast the next morning, he told his mother that he had come up with an interesting idea. She didn’t know what it was, but her reserved older son seemed unusually happy. Khot’s insight — now called the Unique Games Conjecture — helped him make progress on a problem he was working on at the time, but even Khot and his colleagues did not realize its potential. “It just sounded like an idea that would be nice if it was true,” recalled Khot, now a 36-year-old computer science professor at New York University’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences. When Khot returned to Princeton, he mentioned the idea to Sanjeev Arora, his doctoral adviser, who advised him …

Danger of artificial stupidity

It is not often that you are obliged to proclaim a much-loved international genius wrong, but in the alarming prediction made recently regarding Artificial Intelligence and the future of humankind, I believe Professor Stephen Hawking is. Well to be precise, being a theoretical physicist — in an echo of Schrödinger’s cat, famously both dead and alive at the same time — I believe the Professor is both wrong and right at the same time. Wrong because there are strong grounds for believing that computers will never be able to replicate all human cognitive faculties and right because even such emasculated machines may still pose a threat to humanity’s future existence; an existential threat, so to speak. In an interview on December 2, 2014 Rory Cellan-Jones asked how far engineers had come along the path towards creating artificial intelligence, and slightly worryingly Professor Hawking, replied “Once humans develop artificial intelligence it would take off on its own and redesign itself at an ever increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and …

Danger in the Polling Data

The devil in the data that left election forecasters with egg on their face this week has a familiar name — it’s the same villain that tripped up the banks that financed subprime mortgages back in 2007, causing the financial crisis. Its name is “correlated error.” Prediction models can make very accurate forecasts based on many not-so-accurate data points, but they depend on a crucial assumption — that the data points are all independent. In election forecasting, the data points are polls, which are clearly imperfect. Every individual poll has a relatively large margin of error amounting to several percentage points, sometimes favoring one candidate, sometimes the other, all skewed by hundreds of small things — the specific respondents chosen, the means of contact, the phrasing of questions, the representation of voter demographics and so on. These errors can be magically smoothed out by poll aggregation, giving a much more accurate mean polling number — provided the errors in individual polls were all due to different causes, and were therefore independent and uncorrelated. We saw …

Whats wrong with the Lockheed Martin’s F-35

The F-35 was billed as a fighter jet that could do almost everything the U.S. military desired, serving the Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy – and even Britain’s Royal Air Force and Royal Navy – all in one aircraft design. It’s supposed to replace and improve upon several current – and aging – aircraft types with widely different missions. It’s marketed as a cost-effective, powerful multi-role fighter airplane significantly better than anything potential adversaries could build in the next two decades. But it’s turned out to be none of those things. Officially begun in 2001, with roots extending back to the late 1980s, the F-35 program is nearly a decade behind schedule, and has failed to meet many of its original design requirements. It’s also become the most expensive defense program in world history, at around US$1.5 trillion before the fighter is phased out in 2070. The unit cost per airplane, above $100 million, is roughly twice what was promised early on. Even after President Trump lambasted the cost of the program in February, …

Digital to Biological Converter

Digital-to-Biological Converter printing

Biologist Craig Venter has previously built a brand-new species of bacteria through chemical synthesis. For now, we can’t literally print synthetic lifeforms, but we might be getting close since Craig has actually created a machine that can automatically synthesise DNA templates, RNA molecules, proteins and viral particles. This is all done on it’s own with no human intervention apart from sending the DNA sequence. This is pretty big news: printing the building blocks of life like ‘ink’ from a printer. Elon Musk has already teamed up with Venter in the hopes of printing synthetic life on Mars. The prototype was being worked on for years, but now the machine works in building some basics of life. Successfully constructing something larger like bacteria is being worked on, and who knows how far it can go in building life forms. First it was an idea that was part of science-fiction, now it’s becoming more of a science-reality. ‘Right now, it prints proteins. In the far future, it could print human babies on Mars.’ Messages can be sent to …

Quantum Computers

A quantum computer would be able to factor a large number far more quickly than the best available methods today. If researchers could build a quantum computer that could outperform classical supercomputers, the thinking goes, cryptographers could use a particular algorithm called Shor’s algorithm to render the RSA cryptosystem unsalvageable.