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Oct 15, 2007

Structure of influenza B virus protein gives clues to next pandemic

Posted by in categories: biological, defense, existential risks, lifeboat

Determining the structure of a protein called hemagglutinin on the surface of influenza B is giving researchers at Baylor College of Medicine and Rice University in Houston clues as to what kinds of mutations could spark the next flu pandemic.

This is interesting research and progress in understanding and possibly blocking changes that would lead to pandemics.

In a report that goes online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Drs. Qinghua Wang, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at BCM, and Jianpeng Ma, associate professor in the same department and their colleagues describe the actual structure of influenza B virus hemagglutinin and compare it to a similar protein on influenza A virus. That comparison may be key to understanding the changes that will have to occur before avian flu (which is a form of influenza A virus) mutates to a form that can easily infect humans, said Ma, who holds a joint appointment at Rice. He and Wang have identified a particular residue or portion of the protein that may play a role in how different types of hemagglutinin bind to human cells.

“What would it take for the bird flu to mutate and start killing people” That’s the next part of our work,” said Ma. Understanding that change may give scientists a handle on how to stymie it.

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Oct 9, 2007

Inflatable Mirrors on spacecraft would move asteroids fastest

Posted by in categories: asteroid/comet impacts, defense, existential risks, lifeboat, space

New Scientist reports on a new study by researchers led by Massimiliano Vasile of the University of Glasgow in Scotland have compared nine of the many methods proposed to ward off such objects, including blasting them with nuclear explosions.

The team assessed the methods according to three performance criteria: the amount of change each method would make to the asteroid’s orbit, the amount of warning time needed and the mass of the spacecraft needed for the mission.

The method that came out on top was a swarm of mirror-carrying spacecraft. The spacecraft would be launched from Earth to hover near the asteroid and concentrate sunlight onto a point on the asteroid’s surface.

In this way, they would heat the asteroid’s surface to more than 2100° C, enough to start vaporising it. As the gases spewed from the asteroid, they would create a small thrust in the opposite direction, altering the asteroid’s orbit.

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Oct 2, 2007

Geoengineering: A Cure for Global Warming

Posted by in categories: engineering, sustainability

Two of Britain’s leading environmental thinkers say it is time to develop a quick technical fix for climate change. Writing in the journal Nature, Science Museum head Chris Rapley and Gaia theorist James Lovelock suggest looking at boosting ocean take-up of CO2.

Floating pipes reaching down from the top of the ocean into colder water below move up and down with the swell.

As the pipe moves down, cold water flows up and out onto the ocean surface. A simple valve blocks any downward flow when the pipe is moving upwards.

Colder water is more “productive” — it contains more life, and so in principle can absorb more carbon.

Finally some practical solutions are being introduced to mitigate global warming. The BBC article mention the US company, Atmocean, that is already testing such a system.

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Sep 27, 2007

SCADA (in)Security’s Going to Cost Us

Posted by in categories: cybercrime/malcode, defense, existential risks

When I read about the “Aurora Generator Test” video that has been leaked to the media I wondered “why leak it now now and who benefits.” Like many of you, I question the reasons behind any leak from an “unnamed source” inside the US Federal government to the media. Hopefully we’ll all benefit from this particular leak.

Then I thought back to a conversation I had at a trade show booth I was working in several years ago. I was speaking with a fellow from the power generation industry. He indicated that he was very worried about the security ramifications of a hardware refresh of the SCADA systems that his utility was using to control its power generation equipment. The legacy UNIX-based SCADA systems were going to be replaced by Windows based systems. He was even more very worried that the “air gaps” that historically have been used to physically separate the SCADA control networks from power company’s regular data networks might be removed to cut costs.

Thankfully on July 19, 2007 the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission proposed to the North American Electric Reliability Corporation a set of new, and much overdue, cyber security standards that will, once adopted and enforced do a lot to help make an attacker’s job a lot harder. Thank God, the people who operate the most critically important part of our national infrastructure have noticed the obvious.

Hopefully a little sunlight will help accelerate the process of reducing the attack surface of North America’s power grid.

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Sep 27, 2007

New field-deployable biosensor detects avian influenza virus in minutes instead of days

Posted by in categories: biological, defense, lifeboat

A new biosensor developed at the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) can detect avian influenza in just minutes. In addition to being a rapid test, the biosensor is economical, field-deployable, sensitive to different viral strains and requires no labels or reagents.

This kind of technology could be applied to real time monitoring of other diseases as well.

Photograph of the optical biosensor that is approximately 16 millimeters by 33 millimeters in size. The horizontal purple lines are the channels on the waveguide. Credit: Gary Meek

“We can do real-time monitoring of avian influenza infections on the farm, in live-bird markets or in poultry processing facilities,” said Jie Xu, a research scientist in GTRI’s Electro-Optical Systems Laboratory (EOSL)

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Sep 6, 2007

The Other Side of the Immortality Coin

Posted by in category: existential risks

There are two sides to living as long as possible: developing the technologies to cure aging, such as SENS, and preventing human extinction risk, which threatens everybody. Unfortunately, in the life extensionist community, and the world at large, the balance of attention and support is lopsided in favor of the first side of the coin, while largely ignoring the second. I see people meticulously obsessed with caloric restriction and SENS, but apparently unaware of human extinction risks. There’s the global warming movement, sure, but no efforts to address the bio, nano, and AI risks.

It’s easy to understand why. Life extension therapies are a positive and happy thing, whereas existential risk is a negative and discouraging thing. The affect heuristic causes us to shy away from negative affect, while only focusing on projects with positive affect: life extension. Egocentric biases help magnify the effect, because it’s easier to imagine oneself aging and dying than getting wiped out along with billions of others as a result of a planetary plague, for instance. Attributional biases work against both sides of the immortality coin: because there’s no visible bad guy to fight, people aren’t as juiced up as they would be, about, say, protesting a human being like Bush.

Another element working against the risk side of the coin is the assignment of credit: a research team may be the first to significantly extend human life, in which case, the team and all their supporters get bragging rights. Prevention of existential risks is a bit hazier, consisting of networks of safeguards which all contribute a little bit towards lowering the probability of disaster. Existential risk prevention isn’t likely to be the way it is in the movies, where the hero punches out the mad scientist right before he presses the red button that says “Planet Destroyer”, but because of a cooperative network of individuals working to increase safety in the diverse areas that risks could emerge from: biotech, nanotech, and AI.

Present-day immortalists and transhumanists simply don’t care enough about existential risk. Many of them are at the same stage with regards to ideological progression as most of humanity is against the specter of death: accepting, in denial, dismissive. There are few things less pleasant to contemplate than humanity destroying itself, but it must be done anyhow, because if we slip and fall, there’s no getting up.

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Aug 27, 2007

Looking Human Extinction in the Face

Posted by in category: existential risks

A point on human extinction risk analysis.

To look at existential risk rationally requires that we maintain a cool, detached perspective. It’s somewhat hard to think of how this might be done, although watching videos of planetary destruction could actually help! As a detective needs to look at a few crime scenes before he can get experienced and move beyond being a simple gumshoe, existential risk analysts need to view simulations and thought experiments of planetary destruction before they can consider it without flinching. Because it is impossible to acquire experience of human extinction risk, as by definition no one is alive afterwards, we have to settle for simulations.

The reaction of many educated adults to extinction risk discussions reminds me of the reaction kids in my Middle School health classes had to the mention of the word “penis”: adolescent giggling. If I were to get onstage in front of a random audience and start talking about existential risk when they didn’t expect it, using words like “planetary destruction”, they’d probably start giggling, at least in their minds. Obviously, we have a way to mature as a society until we can look calmly at the prospect of our own demise. By resolving to do so yourself, you can be a part of the solution instead of the problem.

Last week a blogger for the Houston Chronicle, Eric Berger, covered my post on immortality and extinction risk, and the immaturity of most of the comments received is expected but also telling. One reader writes that we should hire Will Smith to save the world, another writes: “I don’t worry about this sort of thing, because when it happens, I’ll be dead and won’t care.” Just like how you get to see someone’s true self a little better when they’re a tad tipsy, we get to see what people really think of extinction risk analysis by their anonymous comments on a big website. When people are on the record, they aren’t likely to make pithy comments like those on the blog, but they might be thinking them, and what they say in public is likely to be a dressed-up version of these sentiments. For instance, there’s an article that appeared in The Mercury on the 22nd of April in 2003, “Disastronomer Royal: More Apocalyptic then the Pope”, which exemplifies the reaction to those who take the prospect of extinction risk seriously, referring to Martin Rees in this case. Extinction denialist articles are not hard to find on the Internet: just Google them.

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Aug 21, 2007

Risks Not Worth Worrying About

Posted by in categories: defense, futurism, lifeboat

There are dozens of published existential risks; there are undoubtedly many more that Nick Bostrom did not think of in his paper on the subject. Ideally, the Lifeboat Foundation and other organizations would identify each of these risks and take action to combat them all, but this simply isn’t realistic. We have a finite budget and a finite number of man-hours to spend on the problem, and our resources aren’t even particularly large compared with other non-profit organizations. If Lifeboat or other organizations are going to take serious action against existential risk, we need to identify the areas where we can do the most good, even at the expense of ignoring other risks. Humans like to totally eliminate risks, but this is a cognitive bias; it does not correspond to the most effective strategy. In general, when assessing existential risks, there are a number of useful heuristics:

- Any risk which has become widely known, or an issue in contemporary politics, will probably be very hard to deal with. Thus, even if it is a legitimate risk, it may be worth putting on the back burner; there’s no point in spending millions of dollars for little gain.

- Any risk which is totally natural (could happen without human intervention), must be highly improbable, as we know we have been on this planet for a hundred thousand years without getting killed off. To estimate the probability of these risks, use Laplace’s Law of Succession.

- Risks which we cannot affect the probability of can be safely ignored. It does us little good to know that there is a 1% chance of doom next Thursday, if we can’t do anything about it.

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Aug 18, 2007

Lifeboat Foundation Interview on Betterhumans

Posted by in category: lifeboat

Recently, our international spokesperson, Philippe Van Nedervelde, spoke to the deputy editor of Betterhumans, Parish Mozdzierz, on the Lifeboat Foundation, its goals and activities. Here is the first question:

Betterhumans: How did the formation of the Lifeboat Foundation come about?

Philippe Van Nedervelde: Lifeboat Foundation’s founder, Eric Klien, was shaken wide awake by 9/11. The new reality of what we call (exponentially accelerating) “Asymmetric Destructive Capability” (ADC) fully hit him: ever smaller groups of people can create ever more enormous amounts of damage. And all of this thanks to advances in technology. As a bracelet-wearing cryonicist, he knew of the potentials of nanotechnology (having attended MIT Nanotechnology Group meetings in the late 1980s), and that 9/11 was just a taste of things to come. Accordingly, the Lifeboat Foundation was incorporated within months of 9/11.

Read the whole thing here.

Aug 7, 2007

Power The Future, Through Cow Manure?

Posted by in category: sustainability

(via IsraGood)

With many governments pursuing new ways to power their cities via green energy, it looks like they soon may have another option to add to their list.

While most people think of cows as a “unconverted” forms of lunch and dinner, these harmless beasts may be able to energize our communities through the smelly presents that they often leave behind.

(Globes Online) GES said that the Hefer Valley plant is the first large-scale plant of its kind in Israel, and one of the first in the world. The plant utilizes 600 tons of manure a day. The manure is sterilized, and the solid and liquid waste are then processed to produce methane, which drives the generators to make electricity.

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