Robots and Jobs; Man and Machine

clean towels yeah right do that without a washing machine

do that without a washing machine

A recent article in Harvard Business Review hit several key points I frequently find myself debating with colleagues who exhibit less than an optimistic stance toward the future of robotics and tech in society. Enjoy some fodder for your next futuristic philosophical discussion.

“It is becoming increasingly feasible and cost-effective today for robots to assume many of the repetitive, labor-intensive tasks that are part of many people’s jobs. … I do mean fortunately, because it is often these tasks that define the least meaningful and rewarding aspects of a person’s job.

I once mused on Quora that the biggest real first world problem is apathy. People too often live out their lives doing jobs they don’t really care about simply because those jobs pay the bills.

do this without a computer

do this without a computer

The past 20 months of my life have been spent at a computational neuroscience lab at MIT. I have a resounding, extraordinary respect for the capacity of a human mind. I find it sad – borderline tragic – for the majority of an adult’s life to be spent on a job that does not capitalize on the exquisite capacity of his or her mind. I personally find relief that there will be more creative, challenging jobs and fewer tedious, dangerous, repetitive ones in coming years.

Some think unemployment will skyrocket. Jobs will decline. Have those people forgotten the Industrial Revolution? It was challenging, but no doubt mankind has come out ahead. One glance through Steven Pinker’s stats tells you that we’re living in the most peaceful and healthy time in all of human history.

Thanks in part to an industrialized world, we enjoy modern resources like clean water and pleasures like the web. Job diversity has soared.

What’s more,

 “The robot has effectively assumed the responsibility for the dull, dirty or dangerous task – but has not replaced the human responsible for getting that job done. The robot in this equation is a tool – not at all unlike what a PC is for an office worker, a tractor is for a farmer, or a nail gun is to a home builder. All of those technologies were once speculated to be replacing or at least reducing the need for the humans that wielded them. Yet all of those professions still exist today, and the workers in those fields are better, happier, and more productive because of them.”

For more perspective on tech and innovation, I highly recommend The Pixar Story. In a nutshell, this documentary chronicles the co-evolution of computers and animation. Pixar saw computers as a tool for humans, not a substitute. Computers are not innately creative. They wouldn’t on their own accord animate Toy Story or Avatar. But humans with computers..now that’s a recipe for marvel. The same could be said for robotics. And with solid societal purpose.

“Over the next 40 years, we are going to see a dramatic drop in the percentage of working-age adults across the world. …. more people with fewer social security dollars competing for services, and fewer working people available to deliver those services to them… We will need robots to help us deal with this reality, doing the things we normally do for ourselves but that get harder to do as we get older.”

Final words of parting wisdom:

Before you dismiss this vision for a highly automated society, think about it the next time you put a load of laundry into your washing machine or hit the start button on the dishwasher as you head off to bed. These are tools that have automated unpleasant and time-consuming aspects of our lives, and given us more free time to pursue more productive or pleasurable activities.

Today most of us have great power and responsibility that we often take for granted: the power to choose how we spend our lives. As technological advances whittle away the availability of tedious employment, how will mankind respond?

Transitions are turbulent. But if the past is any indication of the future, humans will rise to the occasion.

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Macro Time Lapse: Great Barrier Reef

Macro coral images by Daniel Stupin of Microworld Photography. Scroll down for video.

slow life title frame Daniel Stupin macro coral Daniel Stupin video Slow Life macro coral image Daniel Stupin in Slow Life Video, coral, macro coral, photography, nature macro coral image Daniel Stupin in Slow Life Video, coral, macro coral, photography, nature macro coral image Daniel Stupin in Slow Life Video, coral, macro coral, photography, nature macro coral image Daniel Stupin in Slow Life Video, coral, macro coral, photography, nature macro coral image Daniel Stupin in Slow Life Video, coral, macro coral, photography, nature macro coral image Daniel Stupin in Slow Life Video, coral, macro coral, photography, nature macro coral image Daniel Stupin in Slow Life Video, coral, macro coral, photography, nature macro coral image Daniel Stupin in Slow Life Video, coral, macro coral, photography, nature macro coral image Daniel Stupin in Slow Life Video, coral, macro coral, photography, nature macro coral image Daniel Stupin in Slow Life Video, coral, macro coral, photography, nature macro coral image Daniel Stupin in Slow Life Video, coral, macro coral, photography, nature macro coral image Daniel Stupin in Slow Life Video, coral, macro coral, photography, nature macro coral image Daniel Stupin in Slow Life Video, coral, macro coral, photography, nature macro coral image Daniel Stupin in Slow Life Video, coral, macro coral, photography, nature

Daniel Stoupin‘s stunning reef timelapse consists of over 15,000 macro shots; each frame is 3-12 images merged together.

Despite the gorgeous footage, this view shows a near-microscopic oceanic battleground. Daniel explains:

By day most hard corals are cute and colorful. Their polyps coexist with their symbiotic algae and depend on light for nutrients produced by their photosynthetic symbionts. By night these polyps open up like flowers, but unlike flowers they turn into fierce predators, extend their tentacles, and sometimes invert their guts to digest the crap out of everything that they can reach. Coral colonies have to compete for substrate with other species, sometimes in violent battles. The winner is usually the species who digests faster or can resist digestive enzymes of the attackers better.

Enjoy the video:

Slow Life from Daniel Stoupin on Vimeo.

BRAIN Initiative: Thoughts on Interim Report to the NIH

neurons reconstructed in eyewire, connectome

We stand on the verge of a great journey into the unknown—the interior terrain of thinking, feeling, perceiving, learning, deciding, and acting to achieve our goals—that lives within the human brain. These capacities are the essence of our minds and the aspects of being human that matter most to us. Remarkably, these powerful yet exquisitely nuanced capacities emerge from electrical and chemical interactions among roughly 100 billion nerve cells and glial cells that compose our brains. All human brains share basic anatomical circuits and synaptic interactions, but the precise pattern of connections and interactions are highly variable from person to person—and therein lies the source of the remarkable variation we see in human behavior, from the breathtaking dance of a ballerina, to the elegant craftsmanship of a master carpenter, to the shrewd judgment of an expert trader. Our brains make us who we are, enabling us to perceive beauty, teach our children, remember loved ones, react against injustice, learn from history, and imagine a different future.

Preamble, The Goals of the BRAIN Initiative

Today is my one year anniversary at MIT. I’ve grown as a person and learned more than I ever imagined. To celebrate, I read a 50+ page NIH report, which was surprisingly awe inspiring. Here are my thoughts.

On Sept 16, 2013, an advisory committee of prominent neuroscientists presented a report to the NIH Director outlining the goals and objectives of the BRAIN Initiative for FY 2014.

Before we proceed, Iet’s back up. My greatest passion in life is understanding consciousness; understanding how the brain yields a thinking, feeling human being. That’s why I’m at Seung Lab working on EyeWire, attempting to catalyze exponential progress advancing neuroscience from the unknown into the understood. How exciting, how chill-inducing to read that the greatest minds on minds of our generation are teaming up and calling for unprecedented action in this direction, progress backed with investment and goals for disruptive, interdisciplinary collaboration that “reconceives what it means to be an experimental neuroscientist.” (13)

The report outlines several themes and high-priority research areas for 2014:

  1. Generate a Census of Cell Types
  2. Create Structural Maps of the Brain
  3. Develop New Large-Scale Network Recording Capabilities
  4. Develop A Suite of Tools for Circuit Manipulation
  5. Link Neuronal Activity to Behavior
  6. Integrate Theory, Modeling, Statistics, and Computation with Experimentation
  7. Delineate Mechanisms Underlying Human Imaging Technologies
  8. Create Mechanisms to Enable Collection of Human Data
  9. Disseminate Knowledge and Training

I am particularly excited about, well, all of these but for the interest of time I’ll hone it down. First, let’s reflect on the fact that we don’t even know how many types of cells there are in our own heads..and how quickly that’s changing. A catalog of cell types would provide a framework for existing research and a foundation for future experiments. Like everything in this report, it’s extremely exciting.

Second. Create a structural map of the brain. The report calls for a movement “towards [mapping] a full connectome.” Oh yes. There are many layers of functional circuits in the brain, all of which are important to our broader understanding. Special emphasis is given to integrating scales in both time and space and creating platforms that “enable understanding of the relation between neural structure and function.” The report calls for “faster, less expensive, and scalable approaches” that will reveal how how neural dynamics relate to complex behavior. Crowd-sourcing is specifically mentioned in this section, which needless to say amps me up.

neuron branches, eyewire,

I’ll skip now to numbers 5 and 6, which read as a call for revolutionary cross-boundary collaboration among researchers to create integrative tools for creating enriched, multidimensional datasets that, for example, might integrate molecular, functional and connectomic information. The report indicates a preferences for involvement from fields outside neuroscience such as computer science, statistics, engineering, physics and theory (and even calls for new theoretical tools and techniques — a “brain based theory of higher functions is notably lacking.” hello, opportunity).

This is not the time to play is safe.

I love this. Neuroscience is due a bit of disruption; we need to bring in minds from different fields — fields that the authors of this report may not have even considered, such as design. I think crucial components will be identifying and communicating neuroscience’s biggest accomplishments, current state of knowledge and present/future hurdles to communities of talented individuals and organizations, many of which may be outside academia, who will develop and test innovative solutions to them. We may use tools like Kaggle or host Hackathons, challenging a burgeoning global developer community to create software that will help solve neuroscience’s biggest difficulties. I’ve come to realize that while techniques do cost a considerable amount of time, it seems that software and big data analysis are what’s really needed to increase technolgical and analytical throughput by 100-1000x, as the report calls for. One infamous case of analytic delay is that of Earl Miller’s Lab at MIT. The team spent 2 weeks collecting functional activity data and 2 years analyzing it. Damn. We need tools, better AI and brave collaborations on all neruoscientific fronts. This is one area I’m particularly interested in catalyzing.

Another interesting component of this research is an open call to create a neuroscience data reservoir where researchers can store and one day maybe even crowd-source analysis of their research findings, specifically image data. Seung Lab (my lab) has an interest in this, so stay tuned.

synapse in eyewire

A final point of interest is #9, the dissemination of knowledge and training. In the context of citizen science, which will likely play an increasingly important role in neuroscientific progress, we need to share best practices and methods through which labs can involve the general public in the scientific method. We are actively working on such toolkits and events. Ping me if you are interested in collaborating on this or any other area.

Finally, going back to the big picture (my favorite), I’d like to point out that the report specifically calls for research “composed with a specific eye toward eventual impact for humans” and that “encourages changes in the culture of neuroscience.”

The challenge is to map the circuits of the brain, measure the fluctuating patterns of electrical and chemical activity flowing within those circuits, and understand how their interplay creates our unique cognitive and behavioral capabilities.

Our ultimate goal is to understand our own brains.. to understand the circuits and patterns of neural activity that give rise to mental experience and behavior.

It’s a wonderful time to be alive. I’m honored to have the opportunity to play a leading role in the future of neuroscience through EyeWire and specifically Seung Lab at MIT.

for science eyewire black on yellow, for science, eyewire, brain, design

Quantified Curiosity 2.0

ideas, Gephi, "network visualization" "Quantified Curiosity" Amy RobinsonBack in September I gave a talk at Stanford for Quantified Self titled Quantified Curiosity (summarized in this post, which includes slides and a links to videos refrenced in the talk). Below, check out the video complete with a text transcript.

Before you watch it, think about this. Who are you? Seriously, how do you answer that question? Does who you are change over time? How? Why? When? What if you could explore these questions empirically, with data that correlates with significant events in your life, data that collectively integrates to tell a story of who you are? This is what I begin to explore with Quantified Curiosity, a network exploration into the ideas that fuel me. As of March 2013, I’ve connected with a couple academic and corporate network powerhouses to this concept a few orders of magnitude higher and deeper. More on that soon.

Over the coming months, stay tuned for the evolution of questions, new visualizations, and curiosity progress reports. A goal of this side project is to create a platform that allows anyone to explore and graph his or her ideas over time. Here’s to tackling fundamental questions! Ping me if you are interested in brainstorming. Now, on with the evolution of ideas!

Transcript with slide selections:

Quantified Curiosity brainbow Amy RobinsonI am obsessed with thinking about thinking.

My name is Amy Robinson and I am here to share Quantified Curiosity.

I am very curious how the ideas that I encounter and the new things that I discover integrate and infuse to form who I am and who I will become.

A stranger at a TED Conference once walked up to me and said “Hi Amy, What inspires you?” Besides actually making me think about what inspires me, it made me think about how the things that inspire me change over time. I am not a constant, I am very dynamic; however, it’s hard to remember how I change and to keep it in perspective.

Those 5 seconds consequently have mattered much more than just 5 seconds and I wonder if the same is true for ideas. So I’ve been tracking them.

How? I email myself “interestingness.” So when I look at say an article or write notes or watch a cool video; anything that makes me think “hm, that’s interesting,” I email it to myself. For this talk I’ve compiled 6 months of this data into..a pretty big spreadsheet and some beautiful network visualizations.

Each line is an idea, an entry, and the data has attributes like a date, a link, an ngram (which is the subject and body text of the email), it’s tagged with topics and it’s also given an interestingness ranking of 1 being low and 5 being high.

ideas, Gephi, "Quantified Curiosity" Amy RobinsonSix months worth of data came to 770 unique entries – or ideas – in 772 different topics. Once this data was organized into a spreadsheet I was able to analyze it and look at it in a completely new way.

This is a weighted graph  [below] of the most important topics of all topics that were used at least 40 times and weighted either 4, the green bar for “important,” or 5, the blue bar for “most important,” they show up on this graph. You can see based on the importance that the most prevalent topics vary. For example, the green bar most important is “journal,” which is peer reviewed literature, not my personal notes, followed by biology and neuro. Whereas if you look at the blue bar “notes,” my personal notes, come up first.

"Quantified Curiosity" Amy Robinson

photosofnotes, photos, notes, tumblr, amy robinson, quantified curiosity,You can also look at most important entries over time [graph below]. The most important entries  tend to occur in clusters. I wonder do these clusters actually correspond to something? There’s a huge cluster in February, 14 items in 3 days. They actually correspond to my starting a new side project, photos of notes, it’s a tumblr blog where I just publish photos of my notes. In that case, yes, that cluster was something real. And I wondered, is this true for the other clusters?

quantified curiosity, QS, quantified self,

Turns out, yes. In March there’s another one where 21 items occur in a period of 21 days. It corresponds to something kind of goofy that I do — lifebonus emails. I send these out now quite periodically to my friends saying, ya know, share something beautiful, inspiring, intelligent or entertaining that you’ve discovered in the past week and they get a hypothetical lifebonus. It’s goofy, it’s fun, it rocks the inbox but again the data actually corresponds to my doing something new.

How else can we actually explore this?

We were able to formulate these ideas into Gephi, a free network graphing program. The way this works: the circles are called nodes and they correspond to topics that are tagged with ideas. The size of the nodes indicate how many times they were used in tandem with other nodes. The edges – the lines between them – are the actual ideas that are co-tagged with the two different topics.

ideas, graph, Gephi, "network visualization" "Quantified Curiosity" Amy Robinson, "Quantified Self", nodes, edges

ideas, graph, Gephi, "network visualization" "Quantified Curiosity" Amy Robinson, "Quantified Self", nodes, edgesYou can run statistics in Gephi to modularize communities so based on how connected groups of nodes are relative to the overall connectivity of the whole graph and see distinct communities. For example, the blue down at the bottom is science and science-related tags. The purple is work slash health — I work[ed] in health; you can probably actually infer that by looking at the graph. The red section is TED and TED-related tags, including TEDx and video. And then the green section is “self” and there were come cool things in there like playful, curious, ideas and Quora that popped up really close to me. But this is messy. It’s hard to see 10,500 edges so what you can do is you can actually isolate individual topics.

ideas, graph, Gephi, "network visualization" "Quantified Curiosity" Amy Robinson, "Quantified Self"

The yellow dot here is the tag “ideas” within all my ideas data. You can see the little green dot sort of off to the side. It exhibits what’s called a high “betweenness centrality.” In social network graphs that represent people, those nodes that have a high betweenness centrality are the ones that bridge gaps between distinct communities. They’re interdisciplinary in a way and it made me wonder, could the same be true for ideas? Those “in between” ideas, and how can I decipher this information?

ideas, Gephi, "network visualization" "Quantified Curiosity" Amy Robinson, "Quantified Self", beautifulWe can look at the graph of “beautiful” for an example. You see there’s a purple dot right in the middle. That’s “tech” and when I actually looked at these tags, there’s a series of beautiful, scientific, technological videos, that I’ve actually compiled on my blog [here!] if you’re curious to see them. You can also zoom in on this red section that were closely tagged with “beautiful” — so “TED”, “TEDx”, “side project”, I guess it’s a good sign that the things I do for free in my spare time incite a sense of awe and beauty. “Video” was the largest in that cluster.

ideas, Gephi, "network visualization" "Quantified Curiosity" Amy Robinson, "Quantified Self", video

When I actually look at the graph of “video,” it made me wonder how we could take this information and make it interactive. Imagine you were panning through this on a computer and rather than just looking at nodes, you could actually look at the content relative to where they’re tagged and other things

Here is the tag for “self.” A lot of this was intuitive — “TED,” “science,” — I’m geeky, I love TED. But one dot that very much surprised me, closely related to me — the green dot of Quora, Quora the social Q&A network.

ideas, Gephi, "network visualization" "Quantified Curiosity" Amy Robinson

ideas, Gephi, Quora, "network visualization" "Quantified Curiosity" Amy Robinson, "Quantified Self"This [left] is a graph of Quora. It’s highly infused with all the different communities of my ideas.

These are beautiful graphs; they’re elegant and nice to look at but what do they mean? What can you actually learn from exploring ideas in this type of way?

It puts them into context. By being able to see my ideas and see how they’re connected to each other, I’m able to think about myself in new ways. I’m able to see, rather than just the fact that I started a new blog or I sent out a lifebonus email to friends, I can see how that evolve and where it came about. Based on the features of these graphs, I can actually understand more about where my ideas come from and how they change over time. And there’s a lot that can be done in Gephi that I haven’t even gotten to yet.

Really, like that one line at TED, those 5 seconds carried a much greater weight than just 5 seconds. I think the same can be true of ideas. How do I remember what was new to me four years ago? How do I understand how the ideas that i encounter today are influencing me as a function of time? And I really wonder how I can discover more ways to think about myself and how I can explore how my mind looks relative to other people’s. I wonder if there are hidden patterns inside of this.

I don’t know the answers to these questions but I think that there are answers, or can be. I’m very curious to understand who I am and how I exist. Consciousness is my greatest curiosity and in the end I’ve learned that we need to think socially about how to better think about thinking. This was a momentous task to put all this  together and it can certainly be done more efficiently. Remember, you are extraordinary. Your mind is exquisite. You, the things that you think about and the things that are important to you, create who you are and who you will become. So imagine how you might answer the question “what inspires you?” if you had a quantified mind in your cognitive toolkit.

Thank you.

ideas, Gephi, "network visualization" "Quantified Curiosity" Amy Robinson, Quora, beautiful, video, self, quantified mind

Awesome Science GIFs

elephant toothpasteScience is awesome.

Thanks to the spectacular determination of human minds to explore, understand and play with the world around us, we’re in an unprecedented age of scientific discovery.

With 1.57×10^6 scientific papers published each year, one doesn’t stand a chance of absorbing all relevant new knowledge and interestingness until we get better at information digestion tools. Makes me imagine scientists submitting an infographic of their research with every publication. I’d love that.

Speaking of things I love, here’s one: chemical reaction GIFs, one of mankind’s finest internet creations.

Thanks to Stanford, we know a bit about the biological benefit of being awestruck (experiencing awesomeness is good for the brain and body).  The GIFs below give a jolt of awe — first because they’re novel and second because they entice one to ask ‘how does that work? why?’ and explore into a ‘random’ area of science, supplementing a new sense of ‘wow’ with a tidbit of knowledge. Useful? Perhaps not. Intellectually Invigorating? Definitely.

Foil Ship Floating

Sulphur hexafluoride

Foil ship floats in an aquarium of sulphur hexafluroide, a gas 6x denser than air. Here’s a cool deeper dive into sulphur hexafluoride sci from TEDxLondon (starts at 4:40).

Side note, breathing in sulphur hexafluoride lowers your voice to Bond villain status as Adam Savage of Mythbusters demonstrates:

Hot Nickel Ball vs Block of Ice

hit nickel versus ice

Mindfuck: Unmixing a Fluid

From New Scientist:

So how is this possible? When corn syrup – a viscous fluid – is mixed, friction dominates inertia and it maintains distinct layers when it flows. This behaviour can be predicted by its lowReynold’s number, a measure of how density, speed, and viscosity relate to each other. The phenomenon – called laminar flow – is exploited in many applications like ventilation systems and hydroelectric plants.

unmix a fluidSulfuric Acid on a Wet Sponge

sulfuric acid on a sponge

Meissner Effect

Superconductors work as, when cooled to a certain point, they lose all electrical resistance. This near absolute zero temperature causes atoms to cease random vibrations, thereby allowing un-impeded flow for its electrons and a total loss of electrical resistance. The Meissner effect is a common property of these zero electrical resistant superconductors. It works because the magnet’s magnetic field cannot penetrate the superconductor, causing its lines of force to be expelled back at it. This has the effect of creating a mirror-image of the magnet within the superconductor and, through the expelled lines of force it is creating, causes itself to levitate.

learn more

Meissner Effect Science GIF

Elephant Toothpaste

Hydrogen peroxide catalyzed by potassium iodide results in a foamy reaction as hydrogen peroxide decomoses rapidly into hydrogen and oxygen.

hydrogen peroxide catalyzed by hydrogen potassium iodide GIF

elephant toothpaste GIF

water drop hydrophobiaFinally, a Superhydrophobic Surface Coating.

Water droplets on a superhydrophobic surface are close to spherical, allowing beads to glide off a surface with almost no surface friction.

superhydrophobic coating

GIFs curated from Chemical Reaction GIF Subreddit discovered via It’s Okay To Be Smart.

Getcha Happy On

Our life is what our thoughts make it Marcus AureliusLife is awesome. While I’m waiting for a video edit to render, thought I’d throw together a little every day chipper.  Up next is a brief brainstorm of words I love…

Happy. Delighted. Spectacular. Stellar. Splendid. Wonderful. Awesome. Beautiful. Zesty. Thrilled. Bright. Effervescent. Astounding. Excellent. Fantastic. Superb. Exquisite. Marvelous. Stunning. Extraordinary. Lovely. Remarkable.  Still haven’t smiled? Get on this epic.

Alright, video should be done now :)  Have a great day.

It’s human nature to want to explore

I have mad respect for RedBull, an energy drink company turned powerhouse of epic. RedBull supports adventure. They embrace risk. They empower people to break bones and boundaries. Here’s their latest video, which is awesome.

I hear you like the wild ones, honey, is that true? Yes, yes it is.  I curate amazing, wild things from Red Bull on a new Facebook page called Be More Epic.

Transcript:

“I think it’s human nature to want to explore.

Find your line and go beyond it.

The only limit is the one you set yourself.”

Images brought to you by RedBull: