TTI/Vanguard Newsletter: May 12, 2023

TTI/Vanguard’s Rebooting Computing conference, to be held in Montreal June 21–23, is coming up quicker than you think. In fact, the hotel room block closes May 15—that’s this coming Monday! The conference webpage includes the agenda, which features the not-to-be-missed field trip to member organization CAE, and the link to register.

By now we all know that chatbots rooted in large language models sometimes confidently spew falsehoods, but this study by NewsGuard focuses on how such chatbots lie differently when given the same prompt in diverse languages. (Jim Hendler, Cambridge, Mar 2023; Justin Curtis, Cambridge, Mar 2023)

Speaking of diversity, the Human Genome Project provided a transformational blueprint of the DNA that makes us who we are. But the encoded data was largely based on a single mixed-race individual with a bit of infill from a few others of European descent. This has proved limiting when it comes to understanding genetic conditions and diseases. The new buzzword on the lips of geneticists is the “pangenome,” which intentionally incorporates genetic sequences from people the world over. Click here to read the article.

Researchers who seek data-based approaches to the upper limit of human longevity encounter the challenges of applying statistics to increasingly small datasets: There just aren’t many people who have lived past the age of, say 110. As University of Illinois, Chicago, epidemiologist Jay Olshansky puts it, “Studying these extremely long-lived people is like studying Usain Bolt when it comes to running and saying, ‘Yeah, we can all run that fast.’” He instead says that the developed world has reached the upper limit of longevity: Even the eradication of cancer—which causes 22% of deaths—would only add two or three years to the average U.S. life expectancy. If it’s not cancer, something else will do us in in short order after a given age. Instead of focusing on extending lifespan, it is better to focus on living healthier lives with a focus on sustaining functional abilities and avoiding/mitigating frailty. (Sonia Arrison, Atlanta, Feb 2014) Click here to read the article.

A lot has happened since Ryan Abbott (Seattle, Mar 2020) shared the story of Stephen Thaler’s bid to grant patents for inventions by the DABUS AI he constructed. Along with a pandemic, there’s been a considerable brouhaha about advances in the capabilities of AIs (e.g., Aditya Ramesh, Washington, D.C., Sep 2022). Well, the U.S. Patent Office refused to issue patents to DABUS, and the Supreme Court has similarly refused to hear an appeal to a lower court’s ruling against awarding such patents, even with a powerhouse like Larry Lessig (Brussels, Jul 2002; Washington, D.C., Sep 1998) arguing in favor DABUS’s ingenuity. For the meantime, only people can be patent-holders. Click to here to read the article.

Sometimes you have to read an entire article to discover a hidden tidbit of interest. This story about the scourge of sargassum seaweed infestation along the Florida coast might fall into this category. If your newsletterer counted correctly, it is the 28th paragraph when the clever robotic solution to the problem first appears: Startup Seaweed Generation is deploying its autonomous robot AlgaRay to drag mats of floating sargassum back out to sea and then 200-m below the surface, where ambient pressure pops the seaweed’s air-filled pods, causing them to sink to the ocean floor. (Sampriti Bhattacharyya, San Francisco, Dec 2018; Ed Lu, San Francisco, Dec 2013) Click here to read the article.

To get to the carbon-free economy needed for the health of the planet and the organisms living on it, distributed power production and storage must be part of the energy mix. To foster progress, the U.S. Department of Energy has announced a $3B loan to Sunnova Energy Corporation to help finance a virtual power plant—”a network of resources that work in tandem to generate and save electricity for the grid or a specific utility.” Dubbed Project Hestia, each node will entail rooftop solar and battery storage, with a focus on marginalized communities—in particular on Puerto Rico and on homeowners with FICO scores below 680. (Saul Griffith, San Francisco, Dec 2019) Click here to read the article.

Face it: Origami is intriguing. This ancient art form is not just for folding swans, as Brian Chan (Miami, Dec 2011) has made plain. Nowadays, it’s not only for paper-based structures, either. Cornell researchers are exploiting the kinetics of a catalytic pathway in which ultrathin platinum sheets capped with titanium deform—bend—at room temperature in a dry environment with specificity (Daniela Rus, Boston, Apr 2014). The goal is to “develop autonomous material systems in which the controlling circuitry and onboard computation are controlled by the material’s physical response.” Click here to read the article.

Children make up the best songs, anyway. Better than grown-ups. Kids are always working on songs and throwing them away, like little origami things or paper airplanes. They don't care if they lose it; they'll just make another one.”—Tom Waits​​​​