The Truth About Google X

Inside Google’s innovation lab, Google X. Not to be confused with Google Research: Research is “mostly bits”; X is “mostly atoms”. X is “tasked with making actual objects that interact with the physical world”. Main products so far: driverless cars, Google Glass, high-­altitude Wi-Fi balloons, and glucose-monitoring contact lenses. “Failure is not precisely the goal at Google X. But in many respects it is the means” (5,530 words)

Is There Anything Beyond Quantum Computing?

True, we don’t even have useful quantum computers yet, so it’s early to be asking. But since quantum computing already “defies our preconceptions about the ultimate limits of computation”, it’s logical to be wondering what might lie beyond. Is there a problem that couldn’t be solved efficiently by a quantum computer, but could be solved efficiently by some other computer allowed by the laws of physics? (2,730 words)

Life After Death

Bruno Frohlich specialises in “the noninvasive study of just about anything nonliving”. He runs the Smithsonian Institution’s computed tomography laboratory, scanning whatever his colleagues care to bring him from dead gorillas to Stradivarius violins. By training he is a forensic anthropologist: He solved the gruesome murder, involving a frozen and minced corpse, that inspired the Coen Brothers’ Fargo (1,560 words)

Rise Of The Robots

The robot revolution has been a mild disappointment — so far. Bomb disposal bots and free-range vacuum cleaners are useful, but not intelligent. The world is about to change, however: Robotics has hit the exponential part of the curve where it starts shooting almost vertically upwards towards machines that will hardly be machines any more — they will be our friends, enemies, equals, servants and superiors (1,006 words)

Human Evolution: The Neanderthal In The Family

New techniques for recovering DNA from ancient samples make it only a matter of time before the first million-year-old genome is sequenced. “Researchers may have luck using new extraction techniques on previously vexing remains such as Egyptian mummies.” Genetic discoveries are confirming the existence of long-extinct human populations — “ghost populations” — which were previously mere conjecture (2,400 words)

Injecting Computation Everywhere

Extended transcript of SXSW talk introducing Wolfram Language. The future lies with ubiquitous, intelligent, natural-language computing. “Increasingly, we’re going to have preemptive computation. We’re building towards that a lot with the Wolfram Language. Being able to model the world, and make predictions about what’s going to happen. Being able to tell you what you might want to do next” (6,200 words)

Why Physicists Make Up Stories In The Dark Pick of the day

Masterly essay on light and darkness in science and culture. We used to think of light as a simple state of nature. But in the late 19C scientists found light to be “a small slice of a rainbow” extending “far into the unseen” via radio waves, infrared and X-rays. Physics found its new frontiers in the worlds of the dark and the invisible, and began advancing into the territory of myth and mystery, of “dark matter” and “dark energy” (4,070 words)

Einstein And Pi

Elegant blogpost answering a relatively abstruse mathematical question — why does Einstein use π in his basic equation of general relativity? — in an enjoyable and accessible way. Einstein, improving on Newton, saw that “gravity is best described by a field theory”; which involves “integrating over the surface of a sphere”; and “the area of a sphere is proportional to π”. But read the whole thing (1,313 words)

The Geometry Of Starship Enterprise

Geek alert: If, and only if, you find deep satisfaction in both Star Trek and Fibonacci numbers, this piece may be the sum of all happiness. Captain Kirk’s Starship Enterprise was “the most recognised science fiction ship in the history of the genre”, thanks to the exacting work of its designer, Matt Jefferies. “Just as the Parthenon was built upon the firm foundations of the golden ratio, so too was the Enterprise” (4,000 words)

How Steve Perlman’s Revolutionary Wireless Technology Works

pCell technology for voice and data seems to be “years ahead of the rest of the industry”. But that doesn’t mean it will prevail. Mobile carriers would need to spend billions of dollars on new infrastructure. The real “doozie”, though, is another possible use for pCell technology: Wireless power transmission. “With transmission towers spaced every kilometer along major highways, electric cars would not need massive, expensive batteries” (4,700 words)

Space Elevators Are Totally Possible

“The gist of the idea is this: A long, strong tether is anchored at the equator and extends into geosynchronous orbit some 62,000 miles above the Earth. At the other end is a counterweight far enough away to keep the center of mass in orbit with the Earth so the cable stays over the same point above the equator as the planet rotates”. The problem until now was: How to make the cable? Carbon nanotubes provide the answer (975 words)

A Star In A Bottle

The “most complex machine ever built” is a nuclear reactor “based on an idea that Andrei Sakharov had in the 1950s” which will create “an artificial earthbound sun” by fusing hydrogen atoms into helium, releasing enough heat to “solve the world’s energy problems for the next thirty million years”. Cost so far: $20bn. Start-date: 2020. The site in France looks like something “drawn from the imagination of JG Ballard” (14,790 words)

Publishers Withdraw 120 Gibberish Papers

The Sokal hoax on an industrial scale. Top academic publishers accept scores of nonsense papers written by a computer programme called SCIgen, developed at MIT, which “randomly combines strings of words to produce fake computer-science papers”. Fiasco reveals a “spamming war at the heart of science”. Researchers rush to earn publishing credits, overwhelmed publishers let quality controls slide (1,100 words)

A Review Of Her

The first review to conclude with a list of the author’s relevant patents. “I would place some of the elements in Jonze’s depiction at around 2020, give or take a couple of years, such as the diffident and insulting videogame character he interacts with, and the pin-sized cameras that one can place like a freckle on one’s face. Samantha herself I would place at 2029, when the leap to human-level AI would be reasonably believable” (1,500 words)

The Case For Blunder

Review of Brilliant Blunders, by Mario Livio, telling how five great scientists — Darwin, Kelvin, Pauling, Hoyle, Einstein — proposed five wrong theories. “The inventor of a brilliant idea cannot tell whether it is right or wrong. Humans need beliefs in order to live, and great scientists are no exception. Great scientists produce right theories and wrong theories, and believe in them with equal conviction” (3,850 words)

Scientific Method: Statistical Errors

P value — “the probability of obtaining a test statistic at least as extreme as the one that was actually observed” — is “neither as reliable nor as objective as most scientists assume”. It can “summarise the data assuming a specific null hypothesis”; it cannot “work backwards and make statements about the underlying reality”. That requires another piece of information: the odds that a real effect was there in the first place (2,440 words)

Baxter And The Second Machine Age

Extract from The Second Machine Age. It’s easy enough to programme robots to do repetitive identical jobs; the problem comes in teaching them to deal with irregularities and uncertainties; that’s why you tend to need a few humans around on even the most automated factory floor. But what if a full range of human skills could be transferred directly from shopfloor workers to robots? That’s where Baxter comes in (1,230 words)

Our Quantum Reality Problem

Quantum theory is “supposed to describe the behaviour of elementary particles, atoms, molecules and every other form of matter in the universe”. But it is still something of a black box. “While the mathematics of quantum theory works very well in telling us what to expect at the end of an experiment, it seems peculiarly conceptually confusing when we try to understand what was happening during the experiment” (6,400 words)

Stephen Hawking: There Are No Black Holes

Popular science update. Sci-fi film makers please take note. Matter entering a black hole would not get squashed to nothing, nor fried. It would get “highly scrambled so that, as it is released through Hawking radiation, it would be in a vastly different form, making it almost impossible to work out what the swallowed objects once were … It would be worse than trying to reconstruct a book that you burned from its ashes” (1,350 words)

Social Media For Robots

Introducing a “Wikipedia for robots”, which “allows the knowledge created for one robot to be shared with another robot, anywhere else in the world, via a web-accessible database. When one robot in Germany learns what a toaster is and how it works, it can upload that information into the network. A robot in Japan which has never used a toaster before can log in and learn how to recognise one” (820 words)

Evolving Without Darwin

What if Darwin had never existed? We would still have got a theory of evolution, which was very much “in the air in Darwin’s time”. But natural selection might have waited another 30 years — and gained from the delay. If formulated in the 1890s, natural selection could have been “more firmly rooted in the newly emerging science of ecology, with its sense of complex interactions between organisms and their environments” (2,290 words)

Why Quants Don’t Know Everything

The quants always win at first — in finance, in sports, in computer dating, in national security. They discover “numerical patterns or ingenious algorithms” that beat existing markets. But then their edge disappears, because the new markets that they create have new patterns and new behaviours that can be gamed in new ways — and often more easily, by targeting the quants’ own explicit metrics (2,110 words)

What Scientific Idea Is Ready For Retirement?

The 174 notes and essays reponding to this year’s annual Edge Question amount to a book’s worth of reading; but well worth the time; few disappoint and many dazzle. Nina Jablonski’s call to get rid of “race” as a pseudo-scientific category is particularly well-argued, and conveniently placed close to the top of the stack. Martin Rees’s note, a little lower down, is also full of good things, if more diffuse (127,000 words)

How Credit Card Numbers Work

The first fifteen digits of the card number are determined by the issuing bank. The last digit is mathematically determined by the preceding digits, using a public-domain algorithm. When you enter a credit card number online, this last “check digit” will return an error message 90% of the time if you have transposed or mistyped any of the preceding digits; it will also detect 90% of randomly-generated fake credit card numbers (1,500 words)

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