Monthly Archives: November 2005

Geneticists Claim Aging Breakthrough

This Guardian Unlimited article reports on the claim of researchers that they have achieved a breakthrough related to the aging process.

Summed up, it comes down to:

  • Organisms live six times longer in laboratory tests
  • Cells genetically ‘tricked’ into slow-ageing mode

The slow-aging mode is related to the mechanism that kicks in when our bodies are not getting the necessary amount of nutritions: the body thinks it is going through a period of food scarcity, and knows that it can’t afford to age, because it still needs to reproduce. Therefore, aging is slowed down.

And yes, that mechanism does go back all the way to the caveman-era.

The most important thing to keep an eye on, is this part:

In the experiment, Dr Longo’s team took yeast cells and knocked out two key genes, named Sir2 and SCH9. The latter governs the cells’ ability to convert nutrients into energy. They found that instead of dying after a week, the cells lived for up to six weeks. Dr Longo said parallel experiments on human liver cells appeared to replicate the effect, but refused to elaborate until the results have been published.

The amazing thing here is… it only took minor genetic modifications to achieve a sixfold increase in lifespan.

Researchers are finding ways to modify our own genes permanently, and to produce drugs that will mimic genetic modifications by inhibiting the mRNA that our genes produce. The latter one will effectively tell a gene to shut up, which gives the same result as if you’d disabled the gene completely. This technique is called RNAi.

Some day in the not too distant future (2010-2020 is supposed to be the Biotech-Era), we will see humans having genetic modifications routinely, and we are likely to benefit greatly from them.

For another great example of how a few small genetic modifications can have a profound effect, read my post about super-regenerative mice.

Kurzweil Touts Future Technology

Ray Kurzweil, well known inventor, futurologist and entrepreneur, touts the technologies of tomorrow in this CRN article:

The bulk of human intelligence is pattern recognition, which Kurzweil said is the quintessential example of a self-organizing system. This will be instrumental in the development of future Web-based applications, he added. For example, he said that Google has developed a speech tool for English-Arabic and Arabic-English translation, despite the fact that no one on the development team spoke Arabic. “I think this type of feature will be a standard feature on mobile phones by the next decade,” he said, giving a demonstration of the tool.

As proof that these types of evolutions will take place, Kurzweil used the example of artificial intelligence that is embedded everywhere in today’s society, from medical devices such as electrocardiogram machines and credit card fraud detection software. “If these narrow [artificial intelligence] programs suddenly stopped working, it would cripple the economic infrastructure,” he said.

By 2010, Kurzweil said, computers will begin to disappear, instead becoming embedded in the environment and into materials such as clothing and eyeglasses. Images will be written directly on human retinas, said Kurzweil, adding that the military uses this technology today in modeling virtual reality environments. “Search engines of the near future won’t wait to be asked for information,” he said.

Hmmm… sorta sounds like what I’ve described in a few previous posts of mine.

See The Future Of Computers and The Future Of Internet for related information.

Nanotubes Make Supersprings

Betterhumans reports on an interesting find with regard to the physical characteristics of nanotubes.

Researchers of the University of Florida speculate on the types of products that could possibly be created with future nano-materials:

Carbon nanotubes have been found to act like super-compressible springs, which could allow the creation of foam-like materials for everything from disposable coffee cups to new space shuttle insulation.

Research reported in the journal Science shows that films of aligned multiwalled carbon nanotubes can act like a layer of mattress springs and rebound in response to force. Unlike a mattress, however, the foams retain resilience even after thousands of compression cycles—there is no tradeoff between strength and flexibility.

“Carbon nanotubes display an exceptional combination of strength, flexibility, and low density, making them attractive and interesting materials for producing strong, ultra-light foam-like structures,” says Pulickel Ajayan, coauthor of the paper.

The Future Of Internet

If you’re familiar with the web, and you make sure you’re up to date on the latest thing, then no doubt you have heard of the Web 2.0.

The Internet will not continue to exist in its current form. Right now, we run our textprocessors, music players and games on our own local machines, and access the Internet for news, email, blogposts, fora, and many other things.

All that’s about to change.

The Internet of tomorrow is going to be a platform just like our current computers are now. It will no longer be a network that consists of many complex computer-system-nodes attached to it. It will be a complex computer system that serves web-services, that we will access through so-called thin clients.

Thin clients are client-computer-systems that do not have much application logic themselves, but rather depend on applications delivered to it from a remote source. In this case, that remote source will be Web 2.0.

As a result of this transformation, these are some of the advantages we’ll get from Web 2.0, according to O’Reilly:

  • Services, not packaged software, with cost-effective scalability
  • Control over unique, hard-to-recreate data sources that get richer as more people use them
  • Trusting users as co-developers
  • Harnessing collective intelligence
  • Leveraging the long tail through customer self-service
  • Software above the level of a single device
  • Lightweight user interfaces, development models, AND business models

(read O’Reilly’s article if you want to gain a more detailed understanding)

I have three advantages of my own to add to the list:

  • Because of the simplicity of future thin clients, they’re likely to be much smaller. Therefore, we are moving towards a truly mobile world.
  • You won’t be storing your data locally anymore, but on the new Web 2.0 platform instead. Your data will always be available to you from anywhere.
  • Not only will your own data be accessible to you. Because of plans to mass-digitize the world’s media, you’ll likely be able to stream any piece of media to your thin client whenever you like. That means only one tv-channel will exist: your own.

The main idea is that Web 2.0 will be the new computing platform.

Web 1.0 was commerce. Web 2.0 is people.

How will all of this come to pass, you ask?

If it’s up to Google, here’s how:

The same follows for the rumor that Google, as a dark fiber buyer, will turn itself into some kind of super ISP. Won’t happen. And WHY it won’t happen is because ISPs are lousy businesses and building one as anything more than an experiment (as they are doing in San Francisco with wireless) would only hurt Google’s earnings.

So why buy-up all that fiber, then?

The probable answer lies in one of Google’s underground parking garages in Mountain View. There, in a secret area off-limits even to regular GoogleFolk, is a shipping container. But it isn’t just any shipping container. This shipping container is a prototype data center. Google hired a pair of very bright industrial designers to figure out how to cram the greatest number of CPUs, the most storage, memory and power support into a 20- or 40-foot box. We’re talking about 5000 Opteron processors and 3.5 petabytes of disk storage that can be dropped-off overnight by a tractor-trailer rig. The idea is to plant one of these puppies anywhere Google owns access to fiber, basically turning the entire Internet into a giant processing and storage grid.

Google has big plans, and is likely to become an even larger and influential player than it already is. Many speculate that Google will even deal out some big fat blows to the current Microsoft monopoly.

As can be read in The Future Of Computers, the future of computers is going to be interesting.

The future web will transform the way we look at computers. Computation and functionality (through web-served applications) will be everywhere. It will be as omnipresent as oxygen.

For more information on Web 2.0, look here, here and here.

More On Solar Panels

My fellow-blogger JD, who runs the Peak Oil Debunked blogspot, has a very informative post on solar panels with plenty of links to follow for the curious.

From the post:

Traditional PV panels are highly efficient (at more than 20%), but they are very expensive and take a long time to pay for themselves, if ever. They’re also bulky, inflexible and difficult to install. Fortunately, a new generation of solar cells will soon be on the market that will revolutionise the world of solar power by using either nano-crystals or special polymers.

Apart from their extremely low cost, the whole point about these new cells is that they are incredibly flexible and unbelievably strong. They could be woven into fabrics, such as curtains, tents or clothing, or printed onto a lightweight, flexible film that can be stretched over a roof. They could be painted directly onto walls and will eventually be so strong they can even be stretched over a road. In other words, almost every type of surface can be covered by solar cells at a fraction of the cost of today’s panels.

…it’s entirely plausible that a 100% solar/hydrogen-powered lifestyle will be both affordable and cost-effective within a decade.

Disposable Solar Panel Now A Reality

A while ago, I posted Cheap Solar Power On The Way.

This article on disposable solar panels provides a nice follow-up.

From the article:

The voltage and power output of the solar cell is determined by the size of the poster. An A2-sized poster will deliver up to 100W of power, enough to charge a cellphone, power a radio or provide five hours of lighting, said Prof David Britton, a physicist specialising in nanotechnology.

“Many families cannot afford R1000 for a solar panel designed to last 30 years, but they can afford R10 every three to six months for a ‘disposable’ panel,” he said.

Shops could stock rolls of solar panel posters, and cut it to meet a customer’s needs. The poster could be mounted behind a window or attached to a cabinet.

Britton’s team has built a successful prototype and is seeking to commercialise the project.

[update]

While we’re at it, have a look at this potential Energy Breakthrough.

A team of researchers at the university’s nanotechnology center have almost doubled the efficiency rate of converting solar energy to electricity, and have plans to triple it by October 2006, in collaboration with colleagues from New Mexico State University.

The team, which aims to develop flexible solar cells, hopes that solar cell technology will be implemented into military defense contracts and into the consumer market within a year.

The idea is to “extract energy from the sun so that we don’t have to use fossil fuels,” said David Carroll, director of the university’s center for nanotechnology and molecular materials.

The cells currently convert about 6 percent of the sun’s solar energy into electricity, but the team hopes the cells will generate the predicted maximum of 12 percent in less than a year.

Using plastic instead of the traditional, heavier silicon, the new solar panels are more flexible and lightweight. Carroll said he hopes that those properties will propel the cells beyond the academic world into commercial use.

Going from 6% to 12% ain’t bad. However, solar panels with an efficiency of almost 40% already exist. I read about those a good while ago, but cannot find the link anymore.

If anybody of you faithful blogreaders have it… please let me know.

Artificial And Biological Intelligence

For those of you interested in reading up about artificial and biological intelligence, there is a nice article on ACM Ubiquity that talks about the past, present and possible future of AI, along with various insights on the matter.

Although it’s a lengthy article, it’s worth the read. Especially if you’re not familiar with AI and its possible implications, it’s guaranteed to force you to rethink your whole concept of AI.

Or it will give you some new insights at the very least…

From the article:

… First, if machines with consciousness are created, they would be living machines, that is, variations on life forms as we know them. Second, the material world is not causally closed, and consciousness influences its evolution. Matter and minds complement each other. At the level of the individual, even medical science that is strongly based on the machine paradigm has now acknowledged the influence of mind on body.

At a more abstract level, it is being argued that even if machines can be conscious, now that this property has emerged through increasing complexity of life-forms, humans will eventually create silicon machines with minds that will slowly spread all over the world, and the entire universe will eventually become a conscious machine.

The Future Of Hair

Ananova reports on a new find with respect to the genetics of hair.

Since Ananova has the nasty habit of removing articles from links, I’ll just copypaste the whole story here:

A pill to make your hair curl?

Scientists say they have identified the difference between straight and curly hair.

They believe it could lead to drugs that can make straight hair curly and vice versa, reports the Daily Telegraph.

Scientists also believe the discovery could lead to the death of hair dyes, as drugs could be used to restore colour in the prematurely grey.

In Clichy, Paris, a team from L’Oreal grew hair in the laboratory to get to the root of what makes hair curly or straight.

They found that the hair bulb, around four millimetres deep in the scalp, is hook-shaped in people with curly hair and straight in the case of European and Asian hair.

When it emerges from the scalp, the hair shaft retains the shape of the follicle.

“A curly follicle makes curly hair,” said Bruno Bernard, head of hair biology at L’Oreal. “This is a breakthrough. For a very long time people did not understand how hair got curly.”

Although the team has yet to find a “master switch” that controls follicle shape, Mr Bernard said it was now possible to think about how to change hair shape by using hormones or drugs.

“It is now possible to use biological methods to make curly hair straight and vice versa,” he said.

This is not the only thing happening in the area of hairloss right now. Researchers worldwide are working hard to cure baldness by coming up with hair multiplication techniques:

And that’s just four out of many players trying to find a cure for baldness. The hair multiplication techniques that these people are creating would obsolete old fashioned hair transplants, where a strip of hair is cut out of the back of the head.

The main drawbacks of hair transplants are the invasiveness of the prodedure and the limited amount of hair available from the back of the head. Also, only small amounts of hair can be transplanted at one time with hair transplants. It is labor intensive and therefore expensive.

Newer methods could allow for lots of hair follicles to be created/stimulated at one time, with one simple injection of a cell culture. Hair restoration could possibly become cheaper, and affordable for the masses in due time.

The future of hair sure looks good. 😉

Automated Legal Council In 2015?

Legal Week reports on the fact that Professor Richard Susskind, who is in the legal business and has done work on AI expert systems in the past, is still sticking to a certain prediction that he has made 10 years ago in his book ‘The Future Of Law’:

Susskind predicts that by 2015 legal services will be largely commoditised and for most commercial purposes clients will get the bulk of their legal advice online from expert systems, maintained and honed to near-perfect reliability by teams of lawyers. In the corporate environment firms will sell their knowledge, first and fore-most, and the traditional hand-holding role played by lawyers will take a back seat. Solicitors at many firms would be faced with tough career choices: go into rainmaking and business development; focus on knowledge-building and support or quality-checking online services; stick to advocacy and representation; or re-train and find a different job.

Sounds like a scenario straight out of Marshall Brain’s Robotic Nation.

Nobody ever gives this much thought… yet.

But what’s going to happen when AI-systems and -robots start taking over jobs of which we first thought that they required so-called ‘human creativity’? What happens when AI keeps nibbling at the bottom of the job-ladder, and makes its way up to where humans start having trouble keeping up?

This is exactly what’s happening right now.

For example, have a look at these autonomous cars.

If I were a chauffeur, or a pilot for that matter, I’d definately be worried about being out of a job in the coming years.

Nanotech To Cure Cancer By 2015?

Wired covers the National Cancer Institute’s goal to cure cancer by 2015, with the use of nanotechnology.

“It’s 21st-century medicine,” said Vicki Colvin of Rice University’s Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology. “It sits at the intersection of some of the greatest achievements in many different areas of science, from material science to cell biology to physics and advances in imaging.”

Indeed, the National Cancer Institute, which recently announced two waves of funding for nanotech training and research, sees nanotechnology as vital to its stated goal of “eliminating suffering and death from cancer by 2015.”

To anyone familiar with the long, often fruitless search for cancer’s cure, or the unfulfilled promise of nanotechnology, this may seem far-fetched. But in recent years, scientists have learned more about how cancer works at the cellular level. They have also learned to build molecules that could detect and destroy cancer cells, making today’s painful and often-ineffective treatments a thing of the past.

This is exactly what you’d expect from exponentially accelerating progress.

Many people assume that cancer won’t be solved for another few centuries, simply because we haven’t gotten very far yet in all these decades of research behind us. But that is incorrect. Because of the fact that progress is exponential, it is entirely possible to be very close to a complete solution for any given problem, while it seems you are still very far away in terms of ‘actual-work-done-so-far’.

This basically means that you are at the knee of the exponential curve, where it’s about to skyrocket into theoretical infinity.

You can compare it to solving a Rubik’s cube. If you don’t know any of the smart tricks available to solve one of those things quickly, it might take you years, if not decades, to solve one of those babies.

However, if you were familiar with some of the tricks to solve one, you can solve it in a few minutes.

No joke. I’ve actually seen a guy do this.

To sum it all up: science is starting to understand cancer’s secrets. Their desire to solve it by 2015 is, in my opinion, realistic.

NCI itself also realizes the implications of exponential growth.

From their 2015 target-date page:

Why is this goal feasible?

Dr. von Eschenbach: This is feasible because the intersection of exponential growth in biomedical research and the explosion of enabling technologies has resulted in a “new science” of oncology. This goal is also feasible because the fruits of cancer research since the signing of the National Cancer Act of 1971 have taught us a tremendous amount about cancer and brought us to a turning point.

We are now in the era of molecular oncology. We have more cancer researchers and more financial resources than ever before in the history of medical research. I believe we have an unprecedented opportunity to align our resources, our enabling technologies and our knowledge of cancer to achieve this goal.

And cancer research is not progressing in a vacuum. It contributes to, and benefits from, progress in all of the life sciences.

For more information on NCI and its 2015 target-date, visit the NCI Challenge Goal 2015-page.

For some extra information on the implication of exponential growth, see the Singularity FAQ.