Googling Gives Us Answers—But Deprives Us Of Intelligence

The article I have provided a link for below is quite good even though its title may be somewhat misleading.  The deprivation of intelligence because of the ubiquitous use of search engines like Google is not what is addressed primarily in the guts of the article.  It is more a listing of the practical issues that the author sees with the current construct and use of search engines.

But I was drawn in by the title, which was something I have been thinking of for a while.  I realize that while I have access to a wealth of information because of the existence of the search engine, information that I am also able to freely share with others at the drop of a hat,  I am really not getting any smarter because of this.  It is questionable whether the amount of information that I can retain in my mind, and the kind of critical thinking that is crucial to my intelligence, have really been helped.  In fact, because of the easy availability of information, I might be less inclined to try to figure things out, and even retain information.  After all, why would I bother deriving the area of regular dodecagon when needed when all I need to do is look it up on the Internet.

via Google’s search algorithms act as our brains—but what are they trying to get us to think? — Quartz

Inside the Race to Build the Battery of Tomorrow | WIRED

If we can solve the problem of storing significant amounts of energy over long periods of time reliably, and with reasonable cost, we can change the world in ways not yet imagined!

via Inside the Race to Build the Battery of Tomorrow | WIRED

You can find a PBS video that talks about innovative methods that are being developed that do not even involve batteries if you look under the Technology tab at the website for a company discussed in the above article.  Great stuff!

The Latest SpaceX Mission

I watched a video of the latest SpaceX Mission this morning.

A few thoughts occur to me after viewing the video.  Major innovations have taken place even in the last 20 or 30 years in space travel.  The Space Shuttle has vanished into history and is being replaced by a family of new and much more advanced and smarter technologies.  The term “nimble” comes to mind when I think of the cost points and the efficiency of the systems being designed.  At this point SpaceX can even recover the first stage of their rockets for reuse by landing them vertically on a landing pad!  This would have sounded like science fiction even a few years ago.  Other players are also basing their designs on the principle of launch vehicles that are reusable.

A lot of the new technology is being developed by private organizations and not the government.  These efforts include SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, etc..   Hats off to the folks with the vision to invest their own money for further advancements in space.

While watching the video it struck me that all the narrators were dressed quite casually.  These folks appear to be people  in the mission team with significant responsibilities.  While the culture of casual attire at work is now common in the tech industry, I would have never have imagined something like this in a area of technology as serious as space travel.   I do not know if what we are seeing in the video was a careful decision made just for the camera, or if this really represents the work culture in an advanced technology environment like that at SpaceX.

 

CRISPR

How many of you have heard of CRISPR?   I gather from the Wikipedia article that it somehow holds the key to a gene editing technology that is relatively simple to implement compared to  older methods in this field.  Pioneers in this area of science include Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier.   This is mind-blowing stuff with many practical applications.   You can develop approaches to tackling diseases by modifying the DNA itself.  (Think of approaches to attacking cancer in the most efficient manner without having any of the current side-effects of such treatment.) You can easily modify the DNA of pests such as mosquitoes that spread diseases as a form of pest control.  You can easily modify the DNA of plants so that they are more useful to humans. You can easily modify the properties of microorganisms so that they are less dangerous to humans, and perhaps even do useful things for them.  The possibilities are endless, and therein lies the problem.

It is a fact that we human beings have played a very significant factor in determining the nature of the lifeforms that exist on this planet today.  As a process of evolution, human beings have changed over the centuries, and we have also managed to impact a lot of the things around us that we find in “nature”.  If you think that all the meats and the fruits and vegetables that we buy in the grocery store are all “natural”, think again.  They have all taken the form they are today only because we as humans have managed to affect changes to the lifeforms that are the basis of our foods in a certain way to our benefit.  We have dominated the environment of our planet in this context.  In addition to the evolutionary changes that we have caused (sped up through the process of efficient “farming”), we have also been affecting faster and more deliberate genetic changes through science in the last century or so.  While we may not have looked at what we were doing with that perspective, we have always been playing God.  And while all of this is happening, there is this moment every once in a while when we momentarily pause to consider the ethical impact of what we are doing.

The pace is now about to pick up significantly!  With simpler technology for gene editing, we have the capability to move forward much faster.  Not only that, we have the ability to open up newer frontiers in science, and with that raise a bunch of new ethical questions.

Medicine has always been about trying to take care of the problems of human beings at all stages of life and very often regardless of the costs involved.  We have been successful in extending human life significantly (for what reason, one is not always sure).  We are all about trying to make sure that people are healthy and that we overcome any health issue with all the resources available.  With the new gene repair technology, having access to all of this can become only a matter of cost.  There are of course always ethical questions involved when cost enters the picture.

But the more intriguing ethical dilemma to me will be about the process of creating a life.  It seems that not only will will be able to fix problems after birth, but we may even be able to address them before we are born.  Wow!  For example, if there is a risk of Down’s syndrome in a baby, perhaps we can now do something about it very easily before the baby is born!  Now, we are really playing God.

I suspect that some people are going to be appalled by the ethical questions that are raised, as if we are crossing some barrier that must not be breached.  But truth we told, we have always been playing God, and we have always been willing to accept any science and technology that we feel is to our benefit.  Only now the pace of “progress” increases, and this progress continues relentlessly.  It is all a continuum and the barriers that are only in our minds will be hurdled over before too long.   Where we are headed, nobody really knows.  This process started a long time ago.

The really crazy thing about all of this is even as science and technology leads us fearlessly across new frontiers, we are still unable to address some other basic requirements for humanity to thrive.  We still have inequality in the world. We still have poverty and hunger.  Crazy!

Cryptography Pioneers Receive ACM A.M. Turing Award

Modern day cryptography involves some absolutely fascinating math, some of which I have been fortunate to have been exposed to while working in the field of digital video broadcast systems.  The requirement that calls for the use of cryptography in video distribution is protection the content from pirates attempting to steal the video content.  At the most fundamental level,  the audio/video data that is transmitted is encrypted so that it is not in the clear for anybody and everybody to pick up.  One has to apply the process of decryption in order to recover the original content from a data stream (or bitstream).

The nature of the encryption process determines how easy it is for somebody to break the code in order to obtain the clear version of the data that is being sent.   When symmetric block ciphers are used for encryption, you need the encryption keys to figure out how to decrypt the data.  To break the system one could try to guess at the encryption key, or try to intercept the key that is being sent to the receiver separately.  In general, the shorter the encryption key, the quicker the guessing process is. The Data Encryption Standard (DES) that was more commonly used in the past has become easily breakable with the power of computers today.  These days, the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES), with its longer block sizes and keys, is more commonly used.  AES block ciphers are hard to crack using the brute force of computers even today. If you are trying to do this in real time with a stream of data that is being transmitted, it becomes close to impossible. (People used to think that the NSA had a backdoor into the AES algorithm.  Nowadays people talk more about capability the NSA might have to break the standard using raw computer power rather than by using a backdoor.)

Protection of the content being transmitted does not depend simply on the fact that data is encrypted.  The encryption only assures that nobody can make sense of the data easily as it is being sent.  The security is actually in the knowledge of the key that is needed to decrypt the data, and most efforts to break a system focus on this aspect of the system design.   In a real system there is some form of data exchange between the source and the destination related to the key, and security is compromised if this is discovered.   In any case, when it comes to video distribution, there are many additional strategies applied along with the  data stream encryption process itself in order to protect the content.

The Turing Award is being awarded this year to Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman for their invention of Public-Key Cryptography and Digital Signatures.  The concept is quite brilliant!  It is based on the use of an asymmetric cipher, something quite different from the symmetric block ciphers described earlier.  When a symmetric block cipher is used, the same key is used in the processes for encryption and decryption.  With an asymmetric cipher, the key being used for encryption is different from that used for decryption.  There is a relationship between the encryption key (also called the public key) and the decryption key (also called the private key) that cannot be guessed because of the complexity of the math involved in generating the key pair.  What this allows an entity to do is then distribute a public key in the clear to everybody for use in the communications process with itself, knowing that data that is generated during the communications process using this key pair cannot be made proper sense of by any other entity without the use of the correct decryption key, something which remains private.

The algorithms used for Public-key cryptography are more complex than those used for the block ciphers in use today and are ill-suited for real-time streaming of data.  Today, public key cryptography is primarily used for digital authentication of content and the creation of digital signatures that can be used to confirm the identity of the entity that you are communicating with. In the case of video broadcasting, they generally tend to be used for protecting the keys that are used in association with the block cipher encrypted audio/video data that is transmitted.

This is a fascinating subject, but you really need to know your math to delve deeper. There is a great book, a bible if you will, on the subject of Cryptography by Bruce Schneier, that anybody who is interested in the topic should read.