Monthly Archives: July 2006

SENS Withstands Three Challenges : $20,000 Remains Unclaimed

If you don’t know who Aubrey de Grey is and what SENS is, you should first read The Quest For Immortality.

SENS Withstands Three Challenges : $20,000 Remains Unclaimed.

The science magazine Technology Review has released the results of the SENS Challenge, which was established to test the validity of SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence), the brainchild of longevity researcher Dr. Aubrey de Grey. SENS lays out a detailed engineering approach to alleviating and eventually reversing the debilitation caused by aging. Following a controversial profile of de Grey published by Technology Review in 2005, Dr. de Grey’s charitable foundation, the Methuselah Foundation, and Technology Review jointly offered $10,000 each to establish the SENS Challenge. This $20,000 purse would be awarded to qualified experts who could demonstrate that SENS was “so wrong that it was unworthy of learned debate”.

An eminent panel of judges, comprising Rodney Brooks, PhD, director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory; Anita Goel, MD and PhD, founder and chief executive of Nanobiosym; Vikram Kumar, MD, cofounder and chief executive of Dimagi, and a pathologist at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston; Nathan Myhrvold, PhD, cofounder and chief executive of Intellectual Ventures, and former chief technologist at Microsoft; and J. Craig Venter, PhD, founder of the Venter Institute and developer of whole-genome shotgun sequencing, which sped up the human genome project, deliberated over the three serious submissions and has now delivered its verdict.

The judges’ unanimous opinion is summed up by Dr. Myhrvold, who observed: “Some scientists react very negatively toward those who seek to claim the mantle of scientific authority for ideas that have not yet been proved. Estep et al. seem to have this philosophy. They raise many reasons to doubt SENS. Their submission does the best job in that regard. But at the same time, they are too quick to engage in name-calling, labeling ideas as ‘pseudo-scientific’ or ‘unscientific’ that they cannot really demonstrate are so. We need to remember that all hypotheses go through a stage where one or a small number of investigators believe something and others raise doubts.”

The summary:

Aubrey de Grey wants to solve the aging process with his SENS program. Because the idea of immortality is so controversial, SENS has received much criticism, depite having solid science to back it up.

In order to increase SENS’s credibility, the SENS challenge was created a year ago. Anybody who can show that SENS is so wrong that it is unworthy of serious attention from the scientific community, can win $20.000 dollars.

A few groups have tried to debunk SENS and have failed, causing SENS’s credibility to go up.

The Future Of Computers (6)

CNNMoney recently had 3 very interesting articles that let us in on the future of computers. I simply could not resist sharing these with all of you.

Quantum leap.

Brain prosthetics. Telepathy. Punctual flights. A futurist’s vision of where quantum computers will take us.

She awakes early on the morning of April 10, 2030, in the capable hands of her suburban Chicago apartment. All night, microscopic sensors in her bedside tables have monitored her breathing, heart rate, and brain activity.

The tiny blood sample she gave her bathroom sink last night has been analyzed for free radicals and precancerous cells; the appropriate preventative drugs will be delivered to her hotel in Atlanta this evening. It’s an expensive service, but as a gene therapist, Sharon Oja knows it’s worth it.

Computers everywhere: Their most common prediction is that we will see – or rather, we won’t see – computers everywhere, painted onto walls, in chairs, in your body, communicating with one another constantly and requiring no more power than that which they can glean from radio frequencies in the air.

‘I won’t have to remember anything’: Exponentially smarter computers also raise the possibility of achieving a couple of computer science’s long-held goals: a human-brain-imitating neural network and true (or near-true) artificial intelligence. “This is going to be my mental prosthesis,” says UCLA’s Yablonovitch. “Everything I want to know, I can look up. Everything I can forget, I can find. I’m going to get old, but it won’t matter. I won’t have to remember anything.”

Computers in your headband: Of all the scientists’ visions of the quantum future, Wolf’s may be the most out-there. “The vision is that we don’t have a laptop anymore,” Wolf says. “We don’t have a cellphone. We wear it. It’s a headband. And instead of having a screen, we have direct coupling into the right side of the brain.”

Coming soon: Google on your brain.

Down the road we’re probably going to have access to something approaching all information all the time. Our lives – much longer by then because of the implications of this for medical care – will be enriched, even as our behavior will be very unlike how we live today.

Already much of our software and data is moving to giant remote servers connected to the Internet. Our photos, music, software applications like Microsoft Word, and just about everything else we use a computer for will be accessible to us wherever we go.

The other huge, and related, move of the moment is toward ultimate mobility. Several trends are taking us there. The cellphone is becoming more like a PC while the PC is becoming more like a cellphone. In short, the next great era of computing – succeeding the PC one – will likely be about smaller, cheaper, more-powerful portable devices.

If you wonder how devices can get smaller and yet replace the PC, keep in mind that a major innovation we’re seeing right now is vastly-improved voice-recognition software. While it only works on the fast processors of a PC today, the inexorable growth of computing power will soon take that kind of power into your cellphone. So long keyboard!

Surfing the Web with nothing but brainwaves.

Someday, keyboards and computer mice will be remembered only as medieval-style torture devices for the wrists. All work – emails, spreadsheets, and Google searches – will be performed by mind control.

If you think that’s mind-blowing, try to wrap your head around the sensational research that’s been done on the brain of one Matthew Nagle by scientists at Brown University and three other institutions, in collaboration with Foxborough, Mass.-based company Cyberkinetics Neurotechnology Systems. The research was published for the first time last week in the British science journal Nature.

Nagle, a 26-year-old quadriplegic, was hooked up to a computer via an implant smaller than an aspirin that sits on top of his brain and reads electrical patterns. Using that technology, he learned how to move a cursor around a screen, play simple games, control a robotic arm, and even – couch potatoes, prepare to gasp in awe – turn his brain into a TV remote control. All while chatting amiably with the researchers. He even learned how to perform these tasks in less time than the average PC owner spends installing Microsoft Windows.

Already, the Brown researchers say, this kind of technology can enable a hooked-up human to write at 15 words a minute – half as fast as the average person writes by hand. Remember, though, that silicon-based technology typically doubles in capacity every two years.

So if improved hardware is all it takes to speed up the device, Cyberkinetics’ chip could be able to process thoughts as fast as speech – 110 to 170 words per minute – by 2012. Imagine issuing commands to a computer as quickly as you could talk.

But who would want to get a brain implant if they haven’t been struck by a drastic case of paralysis? Leaving aside the fact that there is a lucrative market for providing such profoundly life-enhancing products for millions of paralyzed patients, it may soon not even be necessary to stick a chip inside your skull to take advantage of this technology.

These are three lengty articles, but they are well worth the read.

This post is part of an ongoing series. To read the rest, see The Future of Computers (5).

Also see Extremely Fast Computers In Our Near Future.

Bird Flu Vaccine Breakthrough

Bird flu vaccine breakthrough.

The most effective vaccine developed so far to combat the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu has been unveiled.

Pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline is behind the prototype vaccine, based on a deactivated strain of H5N1 isolated in Indonesia last year.

It was tested on 400 adults in Belgium, using a proprietary adjuvant, an ingredient added to stimulate the immune system and increase the response.

The company said the vaccine provoked a strong response in more than 80% of the people tested – more than any other vaccine in development.

By the end of the year the company will know if it will be possible to mass-produce the vaccine, estimating the cost per dose could be £4.

“These results are highly significant and mark real progress,” said J P Garnier, GlaxoSmithKline’s chief executive officer, although he added: “There is still a lot more work to be done.”

But Prof Peter Dunnill, the chairman of University College London, said: “It would still only allow coverage of five per cent of the global population if all the world’s viral influenza vaccine capacity was used.”

Robot Destroys Lung Tumors Quickly

Radiation-armed robot rapidly destroys human lung tumors.

Device completely obliterates lung tumors within 3-4 months in some patients.

At the University of Pittsburgh, Ozhasoglu and approximately 30 colleagues form one of the largest US teams devoted to the CyberKnife, a radiation delivery system that uses an accurate, precise robotic arm to aim highly focused x-ray beams at the site of a tumor. Currently there are 76 active CyberKnife sites worldwide (with 45 in the US), and an additional 62 scheduled to be installed globally.

Recently, the Pittsburgh researchers upgraded their CyberKnife by adding a system called “Synchrony,” which accurately targets tumors that move as a result of breathing. Synchrony instructs the robotic arm to move the radiation source (a linear accelerator that produces x-rays) in sync with the tumor motion.

As a result of the unique real-time tumor tracking capabilities of their upgraded CyberKnife, the researchers have established detailed methods for the safe treatment of lung tumors which otherwise couldn’t be treated with a high dose of radiation due to lack of sufficient real-time tracking accuracy in other, more conventional radiation therapy machines.

Treating lung tumors with the enhanced Cyberknife requires only 1-3 sessions lasting 60-90 minutes. In conventional radiotherapy, patients must endure dozens of radiation treatments, each lasting about 15 minutes but requiring 20-30 hospital visits.

In a single treatment, Cyberknife blasts a lung tumor from all sides by delivering typically 100-150 intense, focused x-ray beams, causing the tumor to absorb approximately 10 times more radiation than in a conventional radiotherapy session. Cyberknife can deliver so much more radiation than other techniques because its robotic arm aims the x-rays precisely enough to avoid surrounding healthy tissue.

To track the moving tumor, the CyberKnife takes real-time x-ray pictures of the patient while using external markers attached to the patient’s chest or abdomen to follow tumors in real time with a few millimeters of accuracy. The researchers also applied Synchrony to treating tumors in the thorax and abdomen, which can move as much as 4 cm during respiration.

The rate of progress in biotechnology and robotics (and nanotech, and AI for that matter) never ceases to amaze me.

Are You Immune to Cancer?

Are You Immune to Cancer?

Seven years ago, biochemist Zheng Cui of Wake Forest University was conducting a routine experiment, injecting test mice with a strain of cancer cells so aggressive it caused a 100 percent death rate. Oddly, one of the mice wouldn’t die. Thinking he had made an error, Cui injected the mouse with a million times the lethal dose, but it still lived.

Cui was intrigued. He bred the mouse and found that 40 percent of its offspring share a remarkable resistance to many forms of cancer. When the animals’ immune systems identify a cancer cell, a genetic tweak allows their bodies to launch a massive attack of white blood cells that kills the budding tumor.

Now Cui and his colleagues have found a clue that may point the way to an actual cure. When they inject white blood cells from any of these anticancer mice into their nonresistant brethren, the injected animals become resistant as well, fighting off induced cancer in a matter of weeks or avoiding it entirely.

Even more promising, Cui has sampled a group of human volunteers and found that 10 to 15 percent have similar super cancer-fighting white blood cells. That could explain why some people never get cancer and why others’ tumors spontaneously regress. Cui proposes injecting these people’s white blood cells into cancer patients to see if he can transfer their immunity.

Other, more established oncologists point out that Cui’s mice are genetically uniform; humans, with their distinct DNA differences, would run a deadly risk of the donated cells attacking their host, even if they aren’t rejected first. Cui counters that these issues could be overcome, as they have been for other types of transplants. “All the delivery mechanisms are in place,” he says. “We truly believe that this is a viable approach.”

Immunity to cancer is a tantalizing promise. One that would take away one of mankind’s greatest fears.

Did you know that immunity to HIV also seems feasible?

Big Tests for Fuel Cells In 2007

Big tests for fuel cells coming in 2007.

Next year fuel cells could take a significant step forward, according to a CEO of one of the leading manufacturers of the technology.

In 2007, the U.S. military will conduct field tests of hybrid power systems, which combine lithium ion batteries and methanol fuel cells, Peng Lim, CEO of MTI Micro Fuel Cells, said during an interview here Tuesday. The hybrid power systems will be squeezed into portable radar and other devices and will be tried out in remote sensors that pick up vibrations, sounds or movement in the field and radio the data back to headquarters.

In hybrid systems, the small lithium ion battery provides peak power while the fuel cell recharges the battery or runs the equipment when less power is required to run it. Fuel cells harvest the energy from chemical reactions and then provide that energy (in the form of electrons) to devices.

“Fuel cells will be there to refill your tank, and your tank will be lithium ion batteries,” Lim said. “We will complement lithium ion. Over the next 10 years we could be a replacement.”

MTI plans to deliver a round of fuel cell prototypes to Samsung at the end of the year to power cell phones and a second round of prototypes in the spring of 2007, he said. If all goes well, Samsung could potentially incorporate fuel cells into products. Generally, a product can go from prototype to shelves in around 18 months.

Computers 500 Times Faster Than Today

Magnetic fields created using nanotechnology could make computers up to 500 times faster.

The University of Bath is to lead an international £555,000 three-year project to develop a system which could cut out the need for wiring to carry electric currents in silicon chips.

Computers double in power every 18 months or so as scientists and engineers develop ways to make silicon chips smaller. But in the next few years they will hit a limit imposed by the need to use electric wiring, which weakens signals sent between computer components at high speed.

The new research project could produce a way of carrying electric signal without the need for wiring. Wi fi internet systems and mobile phones use wireless technology now, but the electronics that create and use wireless signals are too large to be used within individual microchips successfully.

The process, called inverse electron spin resonance, uses the magnetic field to deflect electrons and to modify their magnetic direction. This creates oscillations of the electrons which makes them produce microwave energy. This can then be used to broadcast electric signals in free space without the weakening caused by wires.

The possibility of using the special semi-conductors in this way was first pointed out by Dr Alain Nogaret, of the University of Bath’s Department of Physics, in an important scientific paper in 2005 (Electrically Induced Raman Emission from Planar Spin Oscillator, in Physical Review Letters). The latest research is the first attempt to turn theory into practice.

“The work could be very important for the creation of faster, more powerful computers,” said Dr Nogaret.

“But if this research is successful, it could make computers with wireless semi-conductors a possibility within five or ten years of the end of the project. Then computers could be made anything from 200 to 500 times quicker and still be the same size.

The project is the only one which aims to create wireless emitters and receivers that fit on semi-conductor wafers, where individual devices are one ten thousandth of a millimetre in size.

It will also allow the creation of integrated circuits which will still continue to work properly even if some of its connections fail – the system can be programmed to reroute itself so that it can continue working. At present a failure in a connecting wire can put an integrated circuit out of action.

Also see The Future Of Computers and Extremely Fast Computers In Our Near Future.

Toyota Plans Plug-in Hybrids and Ethanol Cars

Toyota mulls plug-in hybrids, ethanol cars for US.

Toyota Motor Corp.’s (TM) top U.S executive said the Japanese auto maker may introduce ethanol-powered vehicles in the U.S. market in the “near term” and it is “pursuing a plug-in hybrid vehicle” in the U.S.

Toyota North America President Jim Press said the company, widely viewed as a fuel-efficiency leader in the auto industry, is embarking on the projects in an effort to “solve some of the key issues in our society, as well as encourage other auto makers to keep moving forward.” Press’s remarks came in a prepared speech released by Toyota in advance of an appearance before the National Press Club here.

“Toyota is strongly considering introducing a flex-fuel vehicle program in the United States in the near term,” Press said. “We’re already developing vehicles that can operate in ethanol-rich Brazil and we’re optimistic that we can offer similar vehicles to American consumers.”

Toyota’s entry into the E85 vehicle chase would likely be a relatively inexpensive venture and could give the auto maker one more tool in its assault on the U.S. market. It remains the fastest growing of the large car companies participating in the U.S. market and is threatening to eventually dethrone Ford as the No.2 player in the U.S.

Press did not elaborate in his remarks on the company’s exact plan related to plug-in hybrid vehicles, except to say the announcement of Toyota’s interest in such products has been “highly anticipated.” Ford (F) Chief Executive Bill Ford in May said his company is considering selling a plug-in hybrid vehicle, which can be plugged in when not in use in order to recharge batteries.

Toyota is considered to be the clear leader in the global market for gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles. The auto maker launched its Prius sedan in the 1990s in Japan and began exporting it to the U.S. shortly after it debuted. Press said Toyota has “sold more U.S. hybrids so far this year than Cadillac, Buick or Mercedes-Benz has sold cars.”

He said Toyota plans to launch its sixth hybrid in the U.S. market next year.

“Make no mistake about it, hybrids are the technology of the future and will play a starring role in the automotive industry during the 21st century,” he said. “That’s why Toyota is not backing off its strong commitment to hybrids. We know they are absolutely essential to the future success of this industry.”

Brainy Robots and Smart Computers

Brainy Robots Start Stepping Into Daily Life.

Last October, a robot car designed by a team of Stanford engineers covered 132 miles of desert road without human intervention to capture a $2 million prize offered by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, part of the Pentagon. The feat was particularly striking because 18 months earlier, during the first such competition, the best vehicle got no farther than seven miles, becoming stuck after driving off a mountain road.

Now the Pentagon agency has upped the ante: Next year the robots will be back on the road, this time in a simulated traffic setting. It is being called the “urban challenge.”

At Microsoft, researchers are working on the idea of “predestination.” They envision a software program that guesses where you are traveling based on previous trips, and then offers information that might be useful based on where the software thinks you are going.

Tellme Networks, a company in Mountain View, Calif., that provides voice recognition services for both customer service and telephone directory applications, is a good indicator of the progress that is being made in relatively constrained situations, like looking up a phone number or transferring a call.

Tellme supplies the system that automates directory information for toll-free business listings. When the service was first introduced in 2001, it could correctly answer fewer than 37 percent of phone calls without a human operator’s help. As the system has been constantly refined, the figure has now risen to 74 percent.

More striking advances are likely to come from new biological models of the brain. Researchers at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Lausanne, Switzerland, are building large-scale computer models to study how the brain works; they have used an I.B.M. parallel supercomputer to create the most detailed three-dimensional model to date of a column of 10,000 neurons in the neocortex.

“The goal of my lab in the past 10 to 12 years has been to go inside these little columns and try to figure out how they are built with exquisite detail,” said Henry Markram, a research scientist who is head of the Blue Brain project. “You can really now zoom in on single cells and watch the electrical activity emerging.”

Blue Brain researchers say they believe the simulation will provide fundamental insights that can be applied by scientists who are trying to simulate brain functions.

Maybe We Should Leave That Up to the Computer.

Do you think your high-paid managers really know best? A Dutch sociology professor has doubts.

The professor, Chris Snijders of the Eindhoven University of Technology, has been studying the routine decisions that managers make, and is convinced that computer models, by and large, can do a better job of it. He even issued a challenge late last year to any company willing to pit its humans against his algorithms.

“As long as you have some history and some quantifiable data from past experiences,” Mr. Snijders claims, a simple formula will soon outperform a professional’s decision-making skills. “It’s not just pie in the sky,” he said. “I have the data to support this.”

Some of Mr. Snijders’s experiments from the last two years have looked at the results that purchasing managers at more than 300 organizations got when they placed orders for computer equipment and software. Computer models given the same tasks achieved better results in categories like timeliness of delivery, adherence to the budget and accuracy of specifications.

No company has directly taken Mr. Snijders up on his challenge. But a Dutch insurer, Interpolis, whose legal aid department has been expanding rapidly in recent years, called in Mr. Snijders to evaluate a computer model it had designed to automate the routing of new cases — a job previously handled manually by the department’s in-house legal staff.

The manager in charge of the project, Ludo Smulders, said the model was much faster and more accurate than the old system. “We’re very satisfied about the results it’s given our organization,” he said. “That doesn’t mean there are no daily problems, but the problems are much smaller than when the humans did it by hand. And it lets them concentrate more on giving legal advice, which is what their job is.”

Mr. Snijders’s work builds on something researchers have known for decades: that mathematical models generally make more accurate predictions than humans do. Studies have shown that models can better predict, for example, the success or failure of a business start-up, the likelihood of recidivism and parole violation, and future performance in graduate school.

They also trump humans at making various medical diagnoses, picking the winning dogs at the racetrack and competing in online auctions. Computer-based decision-making has also grown increasingly popular in credit scoring, the insurance industry and some corners of Wall Street.

The main reason for computers’ edge is their consistency — or rather humans’ inconsistency — in applying their knowledge.

The summary: computers will eventually be better at everything, they’ll take over all our jobs, completely automise our economy and we will be living in robot nation.

If you want to read the full stories at the source (, you’ll need a login + password. These can be easily obtained from here.

Artificial Intelligence Reaches The Golden Years

AI Reaches the Golden Years.

Most recently, AI rose to meet Darpa’s Grand Challenge of creating a robot car that could drive itself along a desert road to a specific destination. Sebastian Thrun, leader of the Stanford University team that built Stanley (which won the 300-mile race and was named best robot ever by Wired magazine), envisions a future where cars will drive themselves, eliminating crashes and freeing up their passengers to pursue more productive activities than road rage.

“Certainly I was happy that we had won, but I was even happier that five other teams had finished. I think it shows that what Darpa had thought to be a real challenge was actually really possible,” said Thrun.

So while AI hasn’t put a robot in every household, the field has made strides, which makes room for speculation about the future.

If the rate of computational power grows exponentially, the possibilities of true artificial intelligence, as seen in movies like The Terminator and I, Robot, could be possible very soon, said Kurzweil.

He pictures a world where humans and machines have merged, enhancing our cognitive abilities and keeping our bodies healthy from the inside.

“It’s not a human civilization and a machine civilization competing with each other,” Kurzweil said. “It’s a human-machine civilization that’s already merged, and that merger is going to get more intimate.”

Thrun, who will be giving a keynote address on winning the Darpa Grand Challenge, says the first 50 years of AI is just the prologue. “I think 200 years from now we are going to smile back and think of this era as blind and stumbling people who were trying to make progress but didn’t know where to poke,” he said.

Also see This Computer May Be Too Smart, about a computer that can analyze facial expressions to read their mood.

“NEUROMARKETING.” Robinson also has gotten inquiries from online retailers and computer service providers, such as IBM, who envision tailoring their products to the emotional state of consumers. While surfing the Web, for instance, your computer could determine if you liked certain products and then modify content to your individual tastes or alter advertising to fit your mood.

The use of Robinson’s emotionally aware technology to improve company sales represents the latest advance in neuromarketing—the study of the brain’s response to marketing to measure consumer preferences. “Neuromarketing can help predict what products people are going to choose,” said Dr. Gemma Calvert, director of Neurosense, a British consulting firm.

Another application for the mind-reading computer is as an “emotional hearing aid” to help people with autism and Asperger syndrome, who have difficulty reading others’ emotions. Robinson’s MIT partners are designing a prototype headset that informs the wearer of people’s moods, and are currently improving its accuracy by recording individuals’ reactions to everyday events.