Daniel Lemire's blog

, 9 min read

Science and Technology links (April 14th, 2017)

I announced last week that Tesla, the electric car company run by Elon Musk, had surpassed Ford in value. This week, we learned that Tesla has surpassed General Motors. Tesla is the most valuable American car maker.

Suppose I told you that you were about to die, right now. But I could offer you an extra 15 years of life if you just paid for it. How much would you pay? Probably a lot. Yet richer Americans live 15 years older than poorer Americans. If you care at all about inequality, you probably ought to be very concerned with health. Poor’s people health degrades significantly faster than that of richer people as they grow older. It is not just that rich people have access to better anti-aging creams… it is that they have fewer cancers, fewer strokes, and so forth. The solution, of course, is not to make Bill Gates sick and frail, but rather to find affordable technologies that can keep poorer people free from cancer and strokes.

On this note, the first major anti-aging trial on companion dogs has published its first results. There are too few dogs over too short a timescale, but results are promising. The drug being used, and believed to have anti-aging properties, is rapamycin:

Our results showed no clinical side effects in the rapamycin-treated group compared to dogs receiving the placebo. Echocardiography suggested improvement in both diastolic and systolic age-related measures of heart function (E/A ratio, fractional shortening, and ejection fraction) in the rapamycin-treated dogs (…)

Rapamycin is already used in human patients, so it is relatively safe. As a dog lover, I can’t want to have the means to slow down the aging of my 4-legged companions.

Octopuses are weird:

Octopuses have three hearts, parrot-like beaks, venomous bites, and eight semi-autonomous arms that can taste the world. They squirt ink, contort through the tiniest of spaces, and melt into the world by changing both color and texture. They are (…) capable of wielding tools, solving problems, and sabotaging equipment. (…) They (…) fine-tune the information encoded by their genes without altering the genes themselves.

Really weird:

Within months of mating with a female, the male will actually die. Consequently, males do not live as long in the wild as females do. Females will carry the fertilized eggs with her until they grow enough to be released, usually in strings hanging around her den. She can lay up to 100,000 eggs. For the next several months, the female protects her eggs from predators and ensures they receive sufficient oxygen. During these times, which can last 2 to 10 months depending on the octopus species, the female does not eat and slowly wastes away. She usually lives long enough to blow the eggs free from her den so the paralarvae can break free and join the plankton cloud.

Philip Greenspun asks:

If learning maritime history is mostly reading books that are available in libraries or are no longer within copyright, why couldn’t a degree in the subject be earned by downloading a reading list and writing some papers? If the mission of a public university is to educate the public at a reasonable cost, why didn’t they offer this kind of degree online starting in the 1980s when personal computers became popular or the 1990s with the rise of the Web?

The answer is obvious: public universities are not in the business of educating at a reasonable cost. Higher education is a luxury good, albeit a subsidized one.

We still don’t know what aging is, but we know that we can date the age of a cell using “epigenetic”, the set of conditions that determine which genes are expressed. As cells age, harmful genes that are normally inactive get activated while useful genes become silenced. We don’t know whether it is the cause or consequence of aging, or both, or neither. Some people suffer from a rare syndrome called Werner syndrome which is characterized by accelerated aging. So what happens to the cells of people suffering from Werner syndrome? It turns out that, unsurprisingly, the epigenetic of their cell is “old”. That’s interesting because if people suffered from accelerated aging without corresponding epigenetic changes, we might think that the relevance of epigenetic changes was quite secondary. However, this new observation tells us that epigenetic changes are most likely central to the paradigm of aging. In turn, this means that any therapy that reverses epigenetic changes is likely useful. Fabian Giesen reminds us about how memory bandwidth has evolved over the years: “the available memory bandwidth per instruction has gone down substantially (…) It gets even worse if we look at GPUs.” This is the sort of non-trivial architectural issue that makes the difference between an algorithm that looks good on paper (and in a textbook) and code that runs fast. In my opinion, it also explains why stressing computational models, without accompanying empirical evidence, is a terrible way to teach programming. Or, to put it another way, mathematicians make really bad programmers. Some might argue that the evolution Giesen alludes to is an artifact of our current hardware designs. It might be, but there is also something fundamental at play: it gets more and more difficult to be efficient if the data is not close to where the computer occurs.

Gray hair seems to be a powerful predictor of bad health. Basically, the more gray hair you have, the more likely you are to have a stroke or a heart attack. This should come at no surprise: gray hair is a symptom that your body is not doing what it should. Dyeing your hair is a quick fix, but it is unlikely to affect your risk of death. Though there are a few anecdotal cases of gray-hair reversal (linked with cancer therapies), there is simply no known way right now (except for dye) to reverse gray hair. This is somewhat intriguing and suggests that we do not know enough about gray hair.

There is a widespread belief among people who do not regularly program software that if you coded something, then you somehow understand it. That’s often not even true to a first approximation. There is a growing realization that nobody understands the advanced artificial intelligence software we are building and deploying. Of course, we do not. And we won’t. So how do we make sure that the software does what we want it to do? Short answer: we run tests. This is in sharp contrast with much of computer science which is fascinated by the possibility of proving things mathematically. Sadly, the power of mathematics can be severely limited in its ability to handle complex real-world systems.

If you have a critical heart attack, doctors might install an artificial pump to keep you alive. Amazingly, many patients go on to fully recover and can live without the artificial pump or any further surgery:

For the first time, what we have shown is that heart function is restored in some patients – to the extent that they are just like someone healthy who has never had heart disease.

Price of virtual-reality headsets are declining. The Oculus Rift can be had for $500. The superior HTC Vive is now $700. Alas the software, though abundant, is still not sufficient to push everybody into wanting a headset.

Scientists believe that they have developed a more efficient kind of wheat that could improve yields by 20% thanks to more efficient photosynthesis. This could be either used to grow more wheat, or to grow the same about of wheat while leaving more land to wildlife.

Currently, developing new drugs is prohibitively expensive. In fact, the costs are rising exponentially, according to Eroom’s law. Any technology that can speed up tests has the potential to reduce costs. It seems that the American FDA is interested in supporting “organ on a chip” technologies. Basically, in this approach, we use synthetic miniature organs to test new drugs for safety.

Burger King ran an ad that triggered Google devices and got them to talk about Burger King’s products. So we live in a world where enough people have speech-enabled computers that such an advertisement campaign can be effective. That’s not amazing. What is amazing is that nobody seems to realize that it would have been hard science-fiction only five years ago.

Parkinson’s is a terrible disease, with no hint of a cure in sight. The main problem is that affected people lose neurons in charge of producing dopamine. Clearly, a cure would involve putting back these neurons. In recent work, scientists have managed to tweak other cells that are otherwise abundant, astrocytes, into producing dopamine. That’s an intriguing hack.

Which jobs can be automated? According to some list on the Internet, we can’t automate astronomers and models… but we can entirely automate aircraft cargo handling supervisors and logging equipment operators. That’s using the current technology. Well. I think that astronomy has been largely automated, and models… well, ever heard of Photoshop? It does automate a lot of the modeling work, doesn’t it? Aleksey ShipilÑ‘v has a long article on the Java memory model. It is interesting whether you care about Java or not. The lesson is that the software code written by the programmer is not what the machine does. Rather, the machine has to emulate an abstract machine that would run the code. It has a few concrete consequences:

  • The machine does not have to execute the code in the order specified by the programmer.
  • The machine does not have to execute all of the code (or even any of the code) specified by the programmer.

These nuances will haunt you when you try to dive deep into software. It is a bit like Physics… for the most part, the world around us is intuitive… until you look too far and then things start to act strangely.
Here is a nice quote:

In the same way, the limit on the speed of communication in Special Relativity gives rise to the relativity of simultaneity, the propagation delays on real hardware deconstruct the intuitive notion of simultaneity and global time.

Toyota demonstrated a “leg brace” to help paralyzed people walk. Of course, it is nothing else but a partial exoskeleton. Such technology would be useful not only to paralyzed people but to many of us if it were cheap enough.

The US government wants to use drone equipped with facial recognition to patrol the borders. I am not sure we have the technology yet to pull this off. Keeping thousands of drones in the air at all time is hard. Battery lives are short. Recharging batteries is a slow process. Drones fail, get hacked… But in time, maybe in 5 years or so, I could imagine drones patrolling borders in a cost-efficient manner. Not just borders, of course… For example, I’d love to have a drone patrolling the surroundings of my house. It could be activated whenever something suspicious is happening. Last year, people set fire to garbages in front of my house, and it damaged the pavement. We never found out who did it… What if I had had a drone to protect my house by getting close enough to get clear images? And I’m not even the top market for such technology. What about single women living alone or with young children?