Later On

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Archive for July 11th, 2019

A gender-neutral pronoun from Sweden

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Lane Greene writes in the Economist 1843:

Hen (hɛn)

1. he, she, they (pronoun)

Germans surely don’t feel Schadenfreude more than, say, the French. But sometimes there’s a real link between words and culture, especially when a word is invented to serve a cultural goal. Feminist Sweden provides a rare example of this. In 2012 a children’s book used hen as a gender-neutral pronoun and kicked off a nationwide debate about the word. In Swedish han is “he” and hon is “she” but the language had no neutral word for cases such as “If a student has a concern, ___ should ask the teacher.” In English, “he” is traditional but sexist; some see “they” as illogical. Swedes faced a similar problem, until hen offered a solution. As well as covering cases where gender is unknown or unimportant, hen can also be used by those who identify as neither male nor female.

Swedish newspapers have steadily adopted it: last year hen appeared . . .

Written by LeisureGuy

11 July 2019 at 6:50 pm

Posted in Daily life, Memes

Curious About Consciousness? Ask the Self-Aware Machines

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John Pavlus writes in Quanta:

“I want to meet, in my lifetime, an alien species,” said Hod Lipson, a roboticist who runs the Creative Machines Lab at Columbia University. “I want to meet something that is intelligent and not human.” But instead of waiting for such beings to arrive, Lipson wants to build them himself — in the form of self-aware machines.

To that end, Lipson openly confronts a slippery concept — consciousness — that often feels verboten among his colleagues. “We used to refer to consciousness as ‘the C-word’ in robotics and AI circles, because we’re not allowed to touch that topic,” he said. “It’s too fluffy, nobody knows what it means, and we’re serious people so we’re not going to do that. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s almost one of the big unanswered questions, on par with origin of life and origin of the universe. What is sentience, creativity? What are emotions? We want to understand what it means to be human, but we also want to understand what it takes to create these things artificially. It’s time to address these questions head-on and not be shy about it.”

One of the basic building blocks of sentience or self-awareness, according to Lipson, is “self-simulation”: building up an internal representation of one’s body and how it moves in physical space, and then using that model to guide behavior. Lipson investigated artificial self-simulation as early as 2006, with a starfish-shaped robot that used evolutionary algorithms (and a few pre-loaded “hints about physics”) to teach itself how to flop forward on a tabletop. But the rise of modern artificial intelligence technology in 2012 (including convolutional neural networks and deep learning) “brought new wind into this whole research area,” he said.

In early 2019, Lipson’s lab revealed a robot arm that uses deep learning to generate its own internal self-model completely from scratch — in a process that Lipson describes as “not unlike a babbling baby observing its hands.” The robot’s self-model lets it accurately execute two different tasks — picking up and placing small balls into a cup, and writing letters with a marker — without requiring specific training for either one. Furthermore, when the researchers simulated damage to the robot’s body by adding a deformed component, the robot detected the change, updated its self-model accordingly, and was able to resume its tasks.

It’s a far cry from robots that think deep thoughts. But Lipson asserts that the difference is merely one of degree. “When you talk about self-awareness, people think the robot is going to suddenly wake up and say, ‘Hello, why am I here?’” Lipson said. “But self-awareness is not a black-and-white thing. It starts from very trivial things like, ‘Where is my hand going to move?’ It’s the same question, just on a shorter time horizon.”

Quanta spoke with Lipson about how to define self-awareness in robots, why it matters, and where it could lead. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

‌You’re clearly interested in big questions about the nature of consciousness — but why are you investigating them through robotics? Why aren’t you a philosopher or a neuroscientist?

To me the nice thing about robotics is that it forces you to translate your understanding into an algorithm and into a mechanism. You can’t beat around the bush, you can’t use empty words, you can’t say things like “canvas of reality” that mean different things to different people, because they’re too vague to translate into a machine. Robotics forces you to be concrete.

I want to build one of these things. I don’t want to just talk about it. The philosophers, with all due respect, have not made a lot of progress on this for a thousand years. Not for lack of interest, not for lack of smart people — it’s just too hard to approach it from the top down. Neuroscientists have approached this in a more quantitative way. Still, I think they’re also hampered by the fact that they’re taking a top-down approach.

If you want to understand consciousness, why start with the most complex conscious being — that is, a human? It’s like starting uphill, the most difficult way to start. Let’s try to look at simpler systems that are potentially easier to understand. That’s what we’re trying to do: We looked at something very trivial, [a robot] that has four degrees of freedom, and asked, “Can we make this thing self-simulate?”

Are self-simulation and self-awareness the same thing?

A system that can simulate itself is to some degree self-aware. And the degree to which it can simulate itself — the fidelity of that simulation, the short-term or long-term time horizon it can simulate itself within — all these different things factor into how much it is self-aware. That’s the basic hypothesis.

So you’re reducing a term like “self-awareness” to a more technical definition about self-simulation — the ability to build a virtual model of your own body in space.

Yes, we have a different definition that we use that is very concrete. It’s mathematical, you can measure it, you can quantify it, you can compute the error to what degree. Philosophers might say, “Well, that’s not how we see self-awareness.” Then the discussion usually becomes very vague. You can argue that our definition is not really self-awareness. But we have something that’s very grounded and easy to quantify, because we have a benchmark. The benchmark is the traditional, hand-coded self-model that an engineer gives to a robot. With our robot, we wanted to see if an AI algorithm can learn a self-model that’s equal or better than what that traditional, coded-by-hand model can do.

Why is a physical robot necessary? Why not investigate self-awareness in a disembodied system?

We’re looking for a closed system that can potentially simulate itself — and to do that, it needs to have inputs and outputs, but there also has to be a boundary, a place where you draw the “self.” A robot is a very natural kind of thing that does that. It has actions, it has sensations, and it has a boundary, so things happen to it and there’s something to simulate. I’m a roboticist, it’s sort of my first choice.

Did the robot create its self-model from a total blank slate?

We started with absolutely nothing, just as a matter of principle, to see how far we can go. In the previous case [with the starfish-shaped robot], we didn’t have the computational horsepower. We had to tell it, “You don’t know what you are and where your pieces are, but let me tell you about F = ma and other rules from physics that we know are true, and you take it from there.”

How does artificial intelligence play into this?

For some reason, we are very happy to have robots learn about the external world [using artificial intelligence], but when it comes to themselves, for some odd reason, we insist on hand-coding the model. So what we did is actually fairly trivial: We said, “Let’s take all that infrastructure that people have made to help robots learn about the world, and we’re going to turn it inside, on itself.” In one sentence, that’s all we did.

The robot made 1,000 random movements to gather data for the deep-learning algorithm to create the self-simulation. Is this the process that you describe as being like babbling in a human infant? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 July 2019 at 4:16 pm

Posted in Science, Technology

Cancer prevention: Caloric Restriction vs. Plant-Based Diets

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This short (4-minute) video is quite interesting:

Written by LeisureGuy

11 July 2019 at 4:09 pm

The author of ‘Black Hawk Down’ and an illustrator from ‘Archer’ adapt the Mueller report

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A readable version of the report, with illustrations.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 July 2019 at 3:08 pm

How Detained Children Are Treated Around the World

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Isaac Chotiner writes in the New Yorker:

The past two weeks has seen a surge in reporting on how U.S. Customs and Border Protection treats immigrants as they enter the country. On Monday, July 1st, lawmakers toured border-patrol facilities in El Paso and Clint, Texas, and spoke with women who were detained there. The women recounted that their children had been taken from them; they were being held in cramped cells with little access to fresh water and had been told to drink from the toilet. That day, ProPublica reported on a secret Facebook group for Border Patrol agents, with nearly ten thousand members, who posted vulgar insults of immigrants and of the lawmakers who visited them in Texas. On Sunday, the New York Times and the El Paso Times published an investigationinto the Border Patrol facility in Clint, where hundreds of children, many of them separated from family members, have been held in unsanitary, cruel, and overcrowded conditions. In response, the Trump Administration claimed that the border-patrol facilities were adequate, and President Trump called the Times piece a “hoax.”

In order to place this ongoing crisis into a broader international and historical context, I recently spoke by phone with Michael Garcia Bochenek, who is the senior counsel to the Children’s Rights division of Human Rights Watch. Bochenek, who previously served as the director of law and policy for Amnesty International’s London secretariat, has extensive experience visiting child detainees in the United States and around the world. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed what he learned from seeing detained children abroad, the attitudes of guards at border facilities, and why America makes it so difficult for human-rights advocates to visit detained children.

As this largely self-imposed humanitarian crisis has been developing on the border, what have you made of the images and reports you have been seeing, especially given your international experience?

“Self-imposed” is really the right word, not only in terms of a manufactured emergency. This is something that, numerically speaking, isn’t very unusual, something that in terms of capacity isn’t that much of a challenge, in a country with considerable resources. Anytime we are looking at deficiencies in terms of conditions of detention, lack of access to needed programming, lack of attention to mental-health and other health services—the cause of that is not that there is not money, or there is no capacity, or there is no expertise, as has been the case in some places that I have been. It’s a policy choice. It’s a choice to inflict these kinds of conditions on people, and in this case on children.

Can you discuss those other detention centers that you have seen around the world, where the conditions stem from a lack of expertise, or the country is overwhelmed?

The closest contexts that I can think of are primarily in the juvenile and criminal settings. These are kids, and sometimes adults, who are charged with crimes or convicted of crimes and who are going through a criminal process as opposed to an administrative immigration situation. For example, kids held in Brazil, or kids held in many other Latin American countries, are often held in overcrowded conditions. There is often a severe lack of access to necessary health care. Sometimes the quality of food is an issue. Rarely, in the case of Brazil, are education or other kinds of activities wholly unavailable, although sometimes there is a significant gender difference in terms of who gets offered what. Boys might get access to sporting activities, and girls are expected to sit quietly and do needlework. There are problems in that regard.

But, significantly, it’s not really a question, in a place like Brazil, that kids should have access to education. The question that often arises there is what curriculum should they follow, given that people are coming in and out all the time. In the United States, in contrast, particularly with these immigration holding cells, there’s absolutely no pretense of offering education. Even though, in some cases, we’re talking about having kids for weeks. If there are standards with relation to activities, they’re certainly observed in the breach.

In terms of caring for detained kids, is this something that democratic countries have always been much better about? Or is that distinction not helpful?

I think the answer to that probably has less to do with the form of government and more to do with other decisions. European Union countries have very few kids in detention, whether that’s juvenile justice or immigration detention, as compared to the United States. The United States is kind of a standout in the world, in the worst sense possible, around detention. When European countries do detain kids, they often do so with lots of support services.

In fact, at one point, I taught children’s rights at Georgetown Law School, and I took the law students, who were both U.S. students and foreign students, into the D.C. juvenile-detention center. A lot of the students from countries other than Europe were shocked by how clean U.S. facilities were. The U.S. students were appalled at the conditions. And the European students couldn’t believe what they were seeing. For the European students, particularly those from Scandinavia, Germany, Holland, and so on, what they were used to from their home countries was a far more nurturing environment than what they were seeing in this institutional setting that could well have been, in their mind, an adult correctional facility. Possibly for very, very serious offenders.

So are you saying democratic traditions and values do matter, just not in the United States?

If you ask me to contrast countries that most people would describe as democratic, those are the two obvious ends of the spectrum that come to mind. But—just to name a few places where I’ve gone into detention centers—Angola, Liberia, Brazil, Mexico, and Guatemala have significant degrees of repression, or certainly have targeted people for speaking out. Including kids. But, in all of those places, there’s some recognition that kids should be held in a way that is consistent with furthering their development. There is the idea of offering them rehabilitation, the idea of giving them a second chance, even if, in practice, that isn’t available because of the conditions in which they’re held. What is often lacking is the wherewithal to carry that out.

In many of the countries that I’ve been to, they have infrastructure that’s falling apart, staff that is going unpaid for periods of time—again, largely, it seems, because of resources. And there is an effort in some of these places to put real limits on the time that kids are held. So kids in Liberia, when I was there—very, very few of them are locked up, for very little time, even though in the adult system it was very common for people to be held without charge for the maximum time that was permitted.

I was going to say, one irony of this, if it’s an irony, is that it takes incredible resources to lock these kids up.

It takes a lot of money to do this. We’re talking about seven hundred and fifty to seven hundred and seventy-five dollars per day, per child. That’s a lot of money that could be used to do something else. We know that the other options—such as to place them with other family members, in foster-care facilities, in child facilities that are, in fact, living up to court orders or U.S. government settlement agreements—are cheaper. [In other words, the U.S. government is willing to pay extra to treat children like this. – LG]

What have you made of the debate about the term “concentration camp”? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 July 2019 at 2:19 pm

“Freedom” in America: When Fracking Companies Own the Gas Beneath Your Land

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Mayeta Clark writes in ProPublica:

When Beth Crowder and David Wentz bought their 351-acre property in West Virginia in 1975, they knew that they would only own the surface land, not the minerals beneath it. But it didn’t bother them.

“They showed us gas wells, which were these two tracks in a field where a vehicle would go to, to check on them monthly or even less often,” Crowder recalled. “They were really very, very innocuous.”

At that time, Crowder and Wentz did not envision what future drilling technology might entail and the scale of disruption it would bring to their lives. (They subsequently divorced, but both continue to live on the land.)

Since the mid-2000s, however, drilling companies have crisscrossed West Virginia using a technique that allowed them to drill horizontally from one property into gas deposits across a wide area. The boom is reshaping how West Virginia looks and sounds, as the Charleston Gazette-Mail and ProPublica documented last year.

Before 2007, West Virginia issued only a few dozen permits for horizontal drilling. Over the last decade, the state has issued nearly 5,000.

A new documentary released today by ProPublica and CBSN Originals shows how Crowder and Wentz found themselves right in the middle of this boom.

In late 2010, Crowder ran into a survey crew on the dirt road leading to her home. She learned of plans for a large well site on the property, which would include a 13-well “pad.” Crowder and Wentz fought back against the gas driller on their property, Pittsburgh-based EQT. They hired a lawyer and sent letters telling EQT that it did not have the right to build the pad site.

EQT went ahead anyway, clearing 42 acres of forest, some of which Wentz had cultivated for years for timber. The company put in a road, a 20-acre well pad and a storage pond.

Drilling and fracking just one of the wells that EQT built on Crowder and Wentz’s property required almost 11 million gallons of water and 1.8 million pounds of sand, all of which had to be trucked to the site. By comparison, vertical wells drilled on the property previously used just 305,000 pounds of sand in total.

West Virginia law states that mineral owners have the right to do what is “reasonably necessary” to access their minerals. But the legal concept of “reasonably necessary” was developed at a time when gas wells were a few pipes sticking out of the ground.

The majority of gas that EQT extracted from the well site on the property did not come from beneath Crowder and Wentz’s land, but rather from neighboring properties. The 1901 lease gave the company the right to produce gas from beneath the land owned by Crowder and Wentz, but it did not give them permission to use their land to drill into neighboring tracts.

In 2014, they sued EQT for trespassing. In 2017, they won a $190,000 victory in Doddridge County Circuit Court. EQT later appealed to the West Virginia Supreme Court.

Filing a lawsuit against a gas company in West Virginia is a difficult decision. Judges are elected in the state and some, including Supreme Court justices, receive donations from the industry for their election campaigns. Natural gas companies are also valued in communities where work is scarce.

In the last decade, the number of jobs provided by the sector has risen from around 8,000 to over 18,000, with average salaries ranging from $67,000 to more than $117,000, compared with $45,000 for most private-sector jobs in West Virginia, according to an analysis of data collected by Workforce West Virginia.

In 2018, more than half of the natural gas jobs were in the highest paid category, pipeline construction. But those jobs will likely decline in the next few years as the need for new pipelines diminishes.

On June 5, the West Virginia Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of Crowder and Wentz. The court said that natural gas companies must get permission from surface owners to use their land to drill into minerals under neighboring properties.

“The right must be expressly obtained, addressed, or reserved in the parties’ deeds, leases, or other writings,” Justice John Hutchison wrote.

For Crowder, Wentz and their lawyers, the decision was grounds for celebration.

“The short answer is, we won. And we won big time,” David McMahon, the couple’s lawyer, told them over the phone.

“It isn’t April Fool’s Day, is it?” Crowder asked, while Wentz, usually taciturn, cheered.

Joshua Fershee, a West Virginia University law professor who followed the case, said that the decision is not going to stop the drilling, but it will cost drillers more. “This is just really about making sure that people are compensated for giving up their rights,” he said.

A representative from EQT said in a statement last month that . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 July 2019 at 2:10 pm

Dialing Down the Grim Reaper Gene

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Dr. Michael Greger blogs:

Only about 1 in 10,000 people live to be a 100 years old. What’s their secret? I discuss this in my video Animal Protein Compared to Cigarette Smoking.

In 1993, a major breakthrough in longevity research was published about a single genetic mutation that doubled the lifespan of a tiny roundworm. Instead of all worms being dead by 30 days, the mutants lived 60 days or longer. This lifespan extension was “the largest yet reported in any organism.” This methuselah worm, a “medical marvel,” is “the equivalent of a healthy 200-year-old human.” All because of a single mutation? That shouldn’t happen. Presumably, aging is caused by multiple processes, affected by many genes. How could knocking out a single gene double lifespan?

What is this aging gene—a gene that so speeds up aging that if it’s knocked out, the animals live twice as long? It’s been called the Grim Reaper gene and is the worm equivalent of the human insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) receptor. Mutations of that same receptor in humans may help explain why some people live to be a hundred and other people don’t.

So, is it just the luck of the draw whether we got good genes or bad ones? No, we can turn on and off the expression of these genes, depending on what we eat. Years ago I profiled a remarkable series of experiments about IGF-1, a cancer-promoting growth hormone released in excess amounts by our liver when we eat animal protein. Men and women who don’t eat meat, egg white, or dairy proteins have significantly lower levels of IGF-1 circulating within their bodies, and switching people to a plant-based diet can significantly lower IGF-1 levels within just 11 days, markedly improving the ability of women’s bloodstreams to suppress breast cancer cell growth and then kill off breast cancer cells.

Similarly, the blood serum of men on a plant-based diet suppresses prostate cancer cell growth about eight times better than before they changed their diet. However, this dramatic improvement in cancer defenses is abolished if just the amount of IGF-1 banished from their systems as a result of eating and living healthier is added back. This is one way to explain the low rates of cancer among plant-based populations: The drop in animal protein intake leads to a drop in IGF-1, which in turn leads to a drop in cancer growth. The effect is so powerful that Dr. Dean Ornish and colleagues appeared to be able to reverse the progression of early-stage prostate cancer without chemotherapy, surgery, or radiation—just a plant-based diet and lifestyle program.

When we’re kids, we need growth hormones to grow. There’s a rare genetic defect that causes severe IGF-1 deficiency, leading to a type of dwarfism. It also apparently makes you effectively cancer-proof. A study reported not a single death from cancer in about 100 individuals with IGF-1 deficiency. What about 200 individuals? None developed cancer. Most malignant tumors are covered in IGF-1 receptors, but if there’s no IGF-1 around, they may not be able to grow and spread.

This may help explain why lives appear to be cut short by eating low-carb diets. It’s not just any low-carb diet, though. Specifically, low-carb diets based on animal sources appear to be the problem, whereas vegetable-based low-carb diets were associated with a lower risk of death. But low-carb diets are high in animal fat as well as animal protein, so how do we know the saturated animal fat wasn’t killing off people and it had nothing to do with the protein? What we need is a study that follows a few thousand people and their protein intakes for 20 years or so, and sees who lives longest, who gets cancer, and who doesn’t. But, there had never been a study like that…until now.

Six thousand men and women over age 50 from across the United States were followed for 18 years, and those under age 65 with high protein intakes had a 75 percent increase in overall mortality and a fourfold increase in the risk of dying from cancer. Does it matter what type of protein? Yes. “These associations were either abolished or attenuated if the proteins were plant derived,” which makes sense given the higher IGF-1 levels in those eating excess protein.

The sponsoring university sent out a press release with a memorable opening line: “That chicken wing you’re eating could be as deadly as a cigarette.” It explained that “eating a diet rich in animal proteins during middle age makes you four times more likely to die of cancer than someone with a low-protein diet—a mortality risk factor comparable to smoking.” And when they say “low-protein diet,” what they actually mean is getting the recommended amount of protein.

“Almost everyone is going to have a cancer cell or pre-cancer cell in them at some point. The question is: Does it progress?” said one of the lead researchers. That may depend on what we eat. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 July 2019 at 8:45 am

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