Friday Roundup: Habitable Planets and Mind Control

In today’s Friday Roundup, we discover there may be habitable planets just a few solar systems away, mind control is becoming a reality, entire lifeforms are being simulated, quantum entanglement is being perfected, and more.

Habitable planets

Potentially habitable planets exist only 20 light years away from us, much closer than anybody expected. What originally looked like only one planet, which was also starting to look unlikely, now turns out to be two planets, both of which could potentially support life.

The planets orbit a star very different from ours, a red dwarf, which is much dimmer. But the planets are also much closer to the star, residing in its “Goldilocks zone,” where thing’s aren’t too hot or too cold.

Related: The Life of Super-Earths: How the Hunt for Alien Worlds and Artificial Cells Will Revolutionize Life on Our Planet

Mind Control a Reality, In Monkeys

Scientists have shown that it is possible to alter behavior in monkeys. They did so by injecting them with genes which are sensitive to light, and then using light to stimulate very specific cells in the monkey’s brains.

They demonstrated that it was possible to generate subtle changes in the eye-movement behavior of the monkeys.

While this is potentially frightening news, the researchers are more interested in how this technology could be used in the future to treat brain and neuro disorders such as Parkinson’s, depression, OCD, addiction, and others.

Related: World Wide Mind: The Coming Integration of Humanity, Machines, and the Internet

Transparent Solar Cells

Researchers at UCLA have developed transparent solar cells. This means that windows in the future should be able to generate electricity, which will be particularly useful on skyscrapers.

Virtual Lifeform

For the first time ever, an entire lifeform has been simulated on a computer, down to its genes. It’s a model of a bacteria that attacks human lungs and genitals. Every single gene, all 525 of them, has been included in the simulation. It required a network of 128 computers to accomplish this feat. It successfully simulates the entire cell’s life cycle, including cell division.

Larger simulations in the future may allow us to simulate genetic diseases such as cancer and diabetes, and present the somewhat more frightening possibility of simulating what genetic engineering might do.

Related: Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software

Nanotech’s Unlikely Ally: Entropy

Computer simulations show that entropy can actually be harnessed in order to produce materials with bizarre properties, like shape-shifting. Entropy, which is typically referred to as “disorder,” can actually be used to produce structures that are more ordered.

Entropy is more accurately described as the tendency for collections of particles to move from less likely configurations to more likely configurations. Nanoparticles, which could hypothetically be designed to take on a wide variety of shapes, can actually end up configuring themselves in very “ordered” ways when entropy merely takes its course.

To demonstrate why this would happen, consider a bunch of dice floating in space. Entropy would generally make it unlikely for the dice to line up so that they face one another. But if you started pushing the dice together, entropy would actually reverse this tendency, so that the most likely configuration would be for the dice to face each other.

The most interesting thing about the simulation, however, was that the patterns that resulted could be surprisingly intricate. In one case, a pattern contained 52 particles before repeating, more detailed than anybody would have suspected.

Related: Understanding Nanotechnology

Quantum Entanglement at Larger Distances

Quantum entanglement is a process that essentially allows for one thing to be in two places at the same time. More specifically, when two quantum objects interact with one another, they become linked. Observations made to one particle instantly tell us something about the other particle.

This quantum weirdness makes it possible for calculations to be performed that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. Quantum computing is one potential avenue of research in the future, which would make it possible to dramatically improve the abilities of computers to solve certain types of problems, such as simulating the behavior of atoms and encrypting data in ways that can’t be decrypted.

The problem is that quantum entanglement is very difficult to sustain in a controlled way, since particles are always interacting with one another. But now, a new experiment has set a new record for the distance two particles have been separated and stayed entangled.

They particles, in this case rubidium atoms, were separated by an unprecedented 20 meters. This paves the way toward communication channels that would be physically impossible to intercept, a move that would be good for privacy, although perhaps bad for transparency.

Related: Natural Computing: DNA, Quantum Bits, and the Future of Smart Machines

Face Tells Sexual Orientation

Both men and women can predict whether or not a person is gay by their face, and this has actually been known by researchers for some time. (It’s important to note that they can’t predict it with 100% accuracy, just better than by chance.)

A new study investigated how this might be done, and concluded that it probably has something to do with our innate ability to process faces. Various studies have shown that we are better at spotting problems with faces when they are right side up than when they are upside down, most likely due to an innate part of our brain that is built to recognize faces.

This study investigated how turning a face upside down would affect our ability to guess somebody’s sexual orientation. They discovered that people could still do better than chance if the face was upside down, but not as good as if it were upright.

This suggests that sexual orientation is indicated by both the features themselves (which are easily observed upside down) and the way the features are oriented in relation to each other (which is only easily observed by humans when right side up).

The experiment also found out it is easier to tell a woman’s sexual orientation than a man’s.

HIV prevention drug approved by FDA

A drug called Truvada, which is actually a combination of two drugs, inhibits the reproduction of the HIV virus. The FDA has now approved it as a drug for use in the prevention of HIV infection.

Unfortunately, a year’s supply of the drug currently costs you $13,000, and insurance companies aren’t expected to cover it. Additionally, those who are HIV positive are advised not to use the drug, because it is not a cure for AIDS, and experts are concerned this will lead to drug-resistant strains of the virus.

3D Movie Fixes Man’s Vision

While watching the 3D movie Hugo, Bruce Bridgeman, who could previously only see in two dimensions, could suddenly see all three.

Bridgeman’s disorder was the result of an inability for his brain to combine the images from both eyes to form a single 3D image. This is the result of a failure for certain parts of his brain to develop during childhood.

The fact that 3D movies use different polarizations of light for each eye is thought to be responsible. Experiments with polarized light have led to similar breakthroughs for other patients.

Researchers believe that the movie’s ability to hold his attention and cause him to focus on objects for extended periods of time, as well as the way that it uses other visual cues to emphasize depth, played an important part in this as well.

Currently theory predicts that a child must have at least one moment of 3D in their life in order to develop this ability later in life, and indeed Bridgeman does recall a single moment from a cereal box gimmick. This allowed him to build the beginnings of a network in his brain that never fully formulated until he watched the movie, when suddenly the entire world jumped out at him.

Why We Spend More Time on Unimportant Decisions

A recent study discovered that, under the right circumstances, we actually spend more time on unimportant decisions than important ones.

In an experiment, participants were asked to make a decision between two tasks: one fun and one boring. Half of the participants were told that they couldn’t change their decision, and the other half were told that they could.

Additionally, another version of the task forced them to choose between two options that weren’t as easy to choose between, where both had pros and cons.

It’s not surprising that the participants spent more time on the difficult decision than the easy one. What is surprising is that they actually spent more time on the decision when it wasn’t binding. In other words, when the decision was less important, they spent more time on it.

The reason for this is that we tend to invest more mental energy in things that surprise us. When a decision isn’t important, we expect it to be easy. When it turns out it’s actually hard, we end up spending more time on it, even though we know the decision isn’t important.

Related: Predictably Irrational, Revised and Expanded Edition: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions

Google Brain Recognizes Humans, Cats

This news is a few weeks old, but if you haven’t heard about it you should. Google has developed a “brain” by connecting together 16,000 computer processors. (Your quad core doesn’t seem so hot anymore, does it?)

They fed the “brain” a series of pictures from YouTube thumbnails. Unlike similar experiments, the researchers spent no time labeling the images or doing anything to help it along. They simply allowed it to seek out patterns without any feedback from researchers.

The results were surprising. The brain could identify human faces with 81.7% accuracy, and human body parts with 76.7% accuracy. In some ways it may be less surprising that the brain was also skilled at detecting cats, with an accuracy of 74.8%. It’s true, the internet is made of cats.

Related: Machine Learning

Sea Star’s Rapid Evolution

More evidence that evolution occurs in relatively short bursts rather than over extended periods of time. An analysis of two species of sea stars discovers that they separated from one another as recently as 6,000 years ago, and 22,000 years at the most.

Related: The Structure of Evolutionary Theory

Friday Roundup: Cancer and HIV Cures, New Human Ancestor, and “Happiness Buttons”

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