These Past Weeks in Science & Tech - 002

May 2, 2017 by guidj

In this May’s edition of “These Past Weeks in Science & Tech”, I’ll be discussing


Biological Data Stores

Our bodies are walking a library of information. From chemical processes that regulate our biological functions, to experiences imprinted in our minds through exeprience, our cells somehow manage to store, access, and use information. So, it is no surpise that we should turn to biology to find the next generation of storage. Researchers Yaniv Erlich, from Columbia University, and Dina Zielinski the New York Genome Center, have come up with a method to successfully convert binary data into DNA strands, storing up to 2MB.

Their approach basically consists of mapping XORed binary sequences into DNA oligos, storing 2 bits per base. According to their benchmarks, they managed to store and retrieve up to 215 petabytes of data per gram. Last year’s Nobel prize in Chemistry went to scientists Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Sir J. Fraser Stoddart and Bernard L. Feringa for their work in using molecules for computing, by using the natural structure and other properties of molecules to represent information at high densities.

No doubt research in this field should unlock many potentials for the future. Should we mange to come up with ways to take advantage of the natural structure and format of molecules, we could easily gain orders of maginute more powerful machines. I wonder if with the advances in human and computer interfacing technology we’ll have a future generation of computers being about tapping into our own bodies for all the storage and processing we need.

Source: DNA, the Ultimate in Data Memory; Computers of the Future May Be Minuscule Molecular Machines

Snuggle to Survive

Ever wondered how connectivity in the digital age affect social relationships? A group of researchers including Shing-Tung Yau, William Caspar Graustein Professor of Mathematics, Ben Allen, researcher at the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics (PED), and Martin Nowak, PED director, have published work describing their study of cooperation in networks using evoluation game dynamics. They found that, from an evoluationary perspective, cooperation flourishes most in socities where agents have strong pairwise connections.

Their study consisted of measuring coaslescence, the number of steps one needs to climb in an ancestry tree to find a common ancestor between two indiviuals, in networks and graphs assumed to have weak-selection. Their tools not only allows them to measure which graphs have traits that foster cooperation, but also what changes could be made to the network structure to do so.

The results seem to stand with social psychology notions that few strong relationships are vital for survival (stronger cohesion, higher cooperation), and unify that with evoluationary theory. It also echoes proponents of inter-personal connectivity that advocate that simply having numerous (digital) social connections does not equate higher social cohesion. These findings can enable us to better understand cooperation in specific social groups, like classrooms and work teams, as well as its relationship to individuals’ personalities.

Source: Where Cooperation Thrives


Objective Diagnosis

Researchers from UC San Diego, in partnership with Rady Children’s Hospital, have come up with a way to consistently, and objectively measure muscle stiffness. They have designed and create a set of sensors that can be attached to sports gloves, to be used by doctors to measure muscle stiffness in an objective manner. The sensor pack consists of 300 pressure sensors, which measure the spasticity (level of muscle stiffness), and one motion sensor to measure speed.

Currently, even though there is a standard scale to measure spascity, doctors provide a subjective value depending on their personal judgement. According to the researchers tests, the assessment of different doctors agree at most 17% of the time. Their system was tested on a robot they designed that can be configure to specific resistence, and their system’s readings matched the actual resistence 64% of the time.

The benefits of this are clear: objective measures make for clearer judgement on medication dosage. Furthermore, the team continues to develop things further, trying to make the system more accurate, and convinient. Several forms of diagnosis could benefit from this, including physical therapy progress monitoring. A big win for healthcare.

Source: Sensor-filled glove could help doctors take guesswork out of physical exams

Human + AI = Pop Music

There has been considerable discource on how computers are replacing humans. However, there is a good portion of automation initiatives designed to aid humans instead. An example of this is Dr. Margareta Ackerman, from San Jose State University, and her work in using AI to help artists compose tracks. With her team, David Loker and Christopher Cassion, she has come up with two systems to do this, ALYSA and MABLE, which she fondly refers to as her daughters.

ALSYA takes in lyrics, one sentence at a time, and generates musical melodies and notes for them, while MABLE is being designed to help writers come up with lyrics. The idea behind ALYSA is to help boost creativity, by learning the relationship between words, syllabus and musical notes to then generate interesting melodies. Based on the lyrics, the system can suggest a variety of melodies to go with it.

Frequently, Pop songs will be repetitive in nature, so ALYSA actually penalizes repetitive melodies, making for more… less conventional tracks. Hopefully, this should make it easier for new upcoming artists to discover their own style, and help seasoned musicians wantint to re-invent theirs. With a human at the helm, we should be able to come up with productions that make some sense.

Source: Algorithm and rhyme


What’s Next?

This past April, Facebook announced during their Developer Conference that they have been working on creating brain-computer interfacing1. Their R&D team, lead by Regina Dugan who used to head DARPA, is creating devices and systems to transcribe words on people’s mind into text, in a non-invasive manner. I rephrase it: they’re building technology to map your thoughts, as you express them in words. A system that scans your brain dozens of times per minute. No doubt, this technology should connect to some kind of mobile device, to achieve their stated goal of allowing people to text without typing.

From robots doing food delivery2, to self-driving cars and self-flying vehicles3,4,5, with each day that passes, we seem to be getting closer and closer to a sci-fi future envisoned by AI researchers, and fiction writers alike, from the previous century. We are building systems to automatically delivery drugs are scheduled times inside people’s bodies6, and developing computational systems from molecules7. This is no sci-fi film. It’s reality.

The ubiquity with which technology is entraching itself in society today is as pervasive as it as ever been. We are seeing technolgy enabling extensions of ourselves into new ways, from extending our senses to allowing new mechanisms for interactivity and creativity, changing the dynamics of life as we know it. This, in turn, forces us to ask certain questions: What happens when no one needs to drive a car, pilot an aircraft, or give medicine to a patient? We design these things to take care of our needs; some of them more urgent or vital than others. And yet, they end up having unintended consequences; some of them more positive than others, and some just plain harmful. However, we must also admit that these technologies have added sigficant value to people’s lives, and will continue to do so.

From this point in time, it is hard to guess how things will play out in the future. After all, not everything posited to be the next big thing works out the way we initially think it will. There is a timeness for the adoption of technology in different areas: doctors need to vet whatever gadgets we want to implant in patients; regulation regarding road safety needs to be in place for self-driving cars; and new legistation for air traffic needs to be created to regulate drones and self-flying vehicles. But none of that stops the machine from going forward. It only changes the when.

I have come to find that there is no one thing that will define the future. There is no single technology that will revoluatianize the whole planet. There will be, instead, sparks of disperate tech transforming different industries, and facets of society simultaneously. That is, after all, what’s happening today. When I entered university, I would never have conceived that almost 10 years down the road, we’d be bent on going to Mars, and that alternative forms of energy would show to be viable. I am willing to bet that in 30 years time, few of us will be able to recognize the world then, much like older people don’t recognize the world we have today. The only thing we can expect, is change.