Robot priests will change human spirituality / Humans + Tech #12
+ Living bricks made by bacteria, Programmable artificial lifeforms, Scientists discovered ‘mini-computers’ in human neurons, and Virtual reality may prevent effective formation of visual memories.
Hope you had a great week. I would like to highlight a newsletter that I enjoy—BIG by Matt Stoller. He writes about monopolies. I really enjoyed his post on Disney a couple of months back, and his recent post on Cheerleading monopolies in the US. I highly recommend subscribing to BIG if monopolies interest to you.
Here are this week’s articles:
🐞Artificial lifeforms designed by supercomputers are fully programmable [New Atlas]
🤖How robot priests will change human spirituality [Medium]
👨🔬Scientists discovered ‘mini-computers’ in human neurons—and that’s great news for AI [Singularity Hub]
🧠Virtual reality may prevent effective formation of visual memories [New Atlas]
🧱These living bricks use bacteria to build themselves [MIT Technology Review]
… and links to 10 more interesting articles further below.
Michael Irving, writing for New Atlas:
Robots are made to mimic living creatures, and as smart as they’re becoming, we can still look at them and understand that they aren’t “living” in any real sense. But that line is now beginning to blur. Researchers at the University of Vermont and the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts University have essentially created new creatures from frog cells, complete with programmable behaviors.
The new living robots are made of skin and heart cells taken from frog embryos, assembled into stable forms designed by a supercomputer and set loose in a Petri dish. The skin cells work to give the little critters their shape – which kind of resembles a blob with four “legs” – while the heart cells push them around with every pump.
“These are novel living machines,” says Joshua Bongard, co-lead researcher on the project. “They’re neither a traditional robot nor a known species of animal. It’s a new class of artifact: a living, programmable organism.”
Depending on your perspective, this is either utterly fascinating, extremely scary, or both.
I wonder, are they sentient? Can they become sentient? They can already heal themselves – doesn’t that require some sort of awareness and decision making? Please let me know your thoughts in the comments.
David O’Hara, writing on Medium:
I recently speculated about whether a machine could have a mystical experience. If we aren’t careful, the claim of divine inspiration can make the mystic’s words influential. When someone, whether human or machine, claims to have peeked behind the veil, we don’t know whether the prophet or the mystic has really glimpsed the divine. We only know what they claim, and it’s up to us to decide whether to trust them.
That’s an important question, because we’re being given more and more opportunities to trust machines to act in the roles of clergy. The company SoftBank Robotics created Pepper the robot to chant at Buddhist funerals in Japan, and a church in Germany programmed a machine to pronounce traditional blessings. Very recently in Dubai, the government’s cultural and Islamic affairs agency IACAD launched the first-ever “Virtual Ifta” that uses A.I. to issue fatwas. Other groups have experimented with machines that can hear confessions, offer prayers, or even offer sacraments.
Whether we believe in gods or not, our technologies can begin to function like gods, or like the priests that tell us how to behave. Even if we don’t intend them to, our machines can become our oracles, and where there are oracles, there are people ready to profit from those oracles.
I fully recommend reading the full article, as David brings up some really pertinent examples.
The important point here to consider is, do you have blind trust in your technology? If you do, it may be time to rethink that behaviour and evaluate the information from your devices, critically.
Shelly Fan, writing for Singularity Hub:
For 70 years, neurons were considered the basic computational unit of the brain. Yet according to a new study published this month in Science, the neurons in our cortex, the outermost “crust” of our brain, seem to have uniquely evolved to sustain incredibly complex computations in their input cables. It’s as if someone finally obtained proof that your computer’s electrical wiring is actually made up of mini-processors, each performing calculations before sending results to a CPU.
It’s weird. It’s controversial. But it has also just been seen for the first time in human neurons.
As the authors conclude: we long assumed that a neuron could only operate logical functions such as AND and OR, whereas more complex computations required entire networks. We find that activity in a neuron’s input cables can support complex logical operations using completely different rules than a single neuron.
So why should we care? Fundamentally, it has to do with intelligence—why we stand out among the animal kingdom, and how we can potentially replicate that intelligence with AI.
Our bodies are fascinating. It always amazes me how all the parts in our body are so efficient and capable with such low energy requirements. And the deeper we go into the human body, the more it seems that AI has a long way to go before it can replicate the functioning and energy efficiency of our brains.
Rich Haridy, writing for New Atlas:
As modern virtual reality technologies swiftly move into educational environments there has been surprisingly little research into how these tools affect learning outcomes. A new Japanese study is suggesting virtual reality may inhibit effective formation of visual memories, and in some contexts could result in poor educational results.
The new study specifically focused on the visual memory retention differences between active and passive VR. Active VR is when a head-mounted display (HMD) responds to subjective movements, allowing users to subjectively investigate an environment from different visual perspectives. Passive viewing, on the other hand, is when a HMD offers a single locked-off view, irrespective of a user’s head movements.
Interestingly, while the memory test results from both active and passive groups were similar immediately following the viewing, two weeks later the results in the active group had diminished while the passive group’s memories remained strong. The implication of the study is active VR viewing somewhat degrades a person’s ability to form strong visual memories.
I hope more comprehensive studies are done before VR is widely used in schools for learning.
Charlotte Jee, writing for MIT Technology Review:
The big idea: A new living substance can transform from a wet sand mixture into a solid brick, and even help to reproduce copies of itself.
How it was created: Researchers from the University of Colorado, Boulder, used a type of photosynthetic bacteria that absorbs carbon dioxide, sunlight, and nutrients and produces calcium carbonate—a rigid compound found in rocks, pearls, and seashells. They grew the bacteria in a warm mixture of salt water and other nutrients and combined it with sand and gelatin. The mixture was poured into a mold, and as it cooled the gelatin set, forming a “scaffold” able to support further bacterial growth. The bacteria deposited calcium carbonate throughout the scaffold, turning the soft sludge into a harder substance after about a day. The mixture looks green initially, but the color fades as it dries. The research was published in the journal Matter and was funded by DARPA, the US military’s research arm.
These bricks are not as strong as concrete but strong enough to build a house. The researchers say the technology is perfect for harsh environments like the desert or space. And buildings made with these bricks will even absorb greenhouse gasses.
Bad bacteria give good bacteria a bad rep, but bacteria, in general, are truly the unsung heroes of our planet.
Links to other amazing articles:
A teenager’s breakthrough gene therapy for sickle cell disease [The New York Times]
A machine can now keep livers alive outside the body for a week [MIT Technology Review]
An algorithm that learns through rewards may show how our brain does too [MIT Technology Review]
Researchers can make AI forget you [IEEE Spectrum]
Can a digital avatar fire you? [Wired]
The most evil tech companies [Slate]
FitBit can monitor your blood oxygen levels [CNET]
Every place is the same now [The Atlantic]
Quote of the week
This week’s quote is inspired by the robot priests article.
The real danger is not that computers will begin to think like men, but that men will begin to think like computers.
—Sydney Harris (Journalist)
I wish you a brilliant day!