Tag Archives: scientific illiteracy

Military robots, the latest models; Quantum computing at Univ of Toronto; Cultural Cognition Project at Yale; Carla Bruni and Stephen Hawking

There was an industry trade show of military robots  this week which caught my eye since I’ve been mentioning robots, military and otherwise, in my postings lately. Apparently military enthusiasm for robots continues unabated.  From the media release on Physorg.com,

“I think we’re at the beginning of an unmanned revolution,” Gary Kessler, who oversees unmanned aviation programs for the US Navy and Marines, told AFP.

“We’re spending billions of dollars on unmanned systems.”

There’s more,

In 2003, the US military had almost no robots in its arsenal but now has 7,000 unmanned aircraft and at least 10,000 ground vehicles.

The US Air Force, which initially resisted the idea of pilotless planes, said it trains more operators for unmanned aircraft than pilots for its fighter jets and bombers.

Interestingly, iRobot which sells robot vacuum cleaners (Roomba) to consumers also sells a “Wall-E lookalike robot” which searches enemy terrain and buildings to find and dismantle explosives.

This all reminds me of an article on BBC News (Call for debate on killer robots) which I posted about here when I was looking at the possibility (courtesy of an article by Jamais Cascio) of systems that are both unmanned and without operators, i.e. autonomous, intelligent systems/robots.

The University of Toronto (Canada) is hosting a conference on quantum information and control. From the media release on Azonano,

Quantum Information is a revolutionary approach to computing and communication which exploits the phenomena of quantum mechanics – the fundamental theory of nature at is most basic, sub-atomic level – to vastly enhance the capabilities of today’s computers and internet communication.

The conference is being held from August 24 – 27, 2009.

In yesterday’s posting about Andrew Maynard’s review of a book on science illiteracy I mentioned that I had a hesitation about one of the recommendations he made for further reading. Specifically, I have some reservations about the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School’s work on nanotechnology. To be absolutely fair, I’ve read only an earlier version of a paper (then titled) Affect, Values, and Nanotechnology Risk Perceptions: An Experimental Investigation.

I did try to read the latest version and the other papers on nanotechnology produced by the group but they’re behind paywalls (click on Download paper if you like but I just tested them and not one was accessible). So, I’m working off the copy that I could freely download at the time.

First, they are using the word cultural in a fashion that many of us are unfamiliar with. Culture in this paper is used in the context of risk perception and the specific theoretical underpinning comes from anthropologist, Mary Douglas. From the paper I downloaded,

Drawing heavily on the work of anthropologist Mary Douglas, one conception of the cultural cognition of risk divides cultural outlooks along two cross-cutting dimensions. The first, “hierarchy-egalitarianism” characterizes the relative preferences of persons for a society in which resources, opportunities, privileges and duties are distributed along fixed and differentiated (of gender, race, religion, and class, for example) versus one in which those goods are distributed without regard to such differences. The other, “individualism-communitarianism,” characterizes the relative preference of persons for a society in which individuals secure the conditions for their own flourishing without collective interference versus one in which the collective is charged with securing its members’ basic needs and in which individual interests are subordinated to collective ones.

This looks like a very politicized approach. Roughly speaking, you have the Horatio Alger/anybody can become president of the US success myth laced with Henry David Thoreau and his self-sufficient utopia cast against collective action (American Revolution, “power to the people”) and communism.

The authors found that people tended to shape their views about technology according to their values and the authors worried in their conclusion that nanotechnology could be the subject of intransigent attitudes on all sides. From the paper,

Nanotechnology, on this view, could go the route of nuclear power and other controversial technologies, becoming a focal point of culturally infused political conflict.

For my taste there’s just too much agenda underlying this work. Again, from the paper,

Those in a position to educate the public–from government officials to scientists to members of industry–must also intelligently frame that information in ways that make it possible for persons of diverse cultural orientation to reconcile it with their values.

Note that there is no hint that the discussion could go both ways and there’s the implication that if the information is framed “intelligently” that there will be acceptance.

If you can get your hands on the material, it is an interesting and useful read but proceed with caution.

As it’s Friday, I want to finish off with something a little lighter. Raincoaster has two amusing postings, one about Stephen Hawking and the debate on US health care reform. The other posting features a video of Carla Bruni, Mme Sarkozy and wife of French president Nicolas Sarkozy, singing. (She’s pretty good.) Have a nice weekend!

ETA (Aug.14, 2009 at 12 pm PST) I forgot to mention that the article concludes that how much you learn about nanotechnology (i.e. your scientific literacy) does not markedly affect your perception of the risks. From the paper,

One might suppose that as members of the public learn more about nanotechnology their assessment of its risk and benefits should converge. Our results suggest that exactly the opposite is likely to happen.

Janus particle breakthrough; science knowledge or illiteracy?

It’s a two-faced particle named after the Roman god, Janus (love the reference to Roman mythology) and complete control has been achieved. The Janus particle is made up of at least two different substances according to this 2005 news item on Phyorg.com. From the 2005 new item,

A Janus particle is composed of two fused hemispheres, each made from a different substance than the other. This means Janus particles could, for instance, carry two different and complementary medicines.

For instance, one side could hold compounds that bind to molecules specific to a certain tissue or disease, while the opposite side would carry the appropriate drug.

There are other potential applications as researchers at Duke University note in their media release posted on Phyorg.com on Aug. 12, 2009. The Duke researchers have achieved control over the particle’s movements. From the media release on Physorg.com,

Duke University engineers say they can for the first time control all the degrees of the particle’s motion, opening up broad possibilities for nanotechnology and device applications. Their unique technology should make it more likely that Janus particles can be used as the building blocks for a myriad of applications, including such new technologies as and self-propelling micromachines.

There are more details and a Janus particle video here. I did get a little confused with this description,

“Past experiments have only been able to achieve four degrees of control using a combination of magnetic and optical techniques,” said Nathan Jenness, a graduate student who completed his studies this year from Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering. He and co-author Randall Erb, also a graduate student, were first authors of a paper appearing online in the journal Advanced Materials. “We have created a novel Janus particle that can be manipulated or constrained with six degrees of freedom.”

I looked at the video where the range of motion appeared to be much broader than the 6 degrees that the researcher mentions. Perhaps the phrase “of freedom” is of more significance than I know. This brings me to Andrew Maynard’s discussion (on his blog 2020 Science) of a book on science illiteracy. Titled Unscientific Americans: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, the book’s authors (Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum) caught my attention with their recent essay (based in part on their book) on Salon.com where they elucidate their position.They make a compelling argument and one I find emotionally satisfying unfortunately it’s a little problematic as Maynard points out here.

It’s more than just amusing when Maynard (a scientist by training) notes that he could be described as scientifically illiterate since there are scientific terms that he doesn’t understand and that “Math makes my head ache.” If you take the comment to its logical conclusion,you can infer that all scientists are scientifically illiterate since none of them can know everything about science. Maynard notes that he enjoyed the book but has some major issues with the term “scientific illiteracy” as promotes and “us vs them” mentality and the book’s intellectual depth. He also offers some recommendations for reading about science and society.  I do have some hesitation about one of his recommendations but more about that tomorrow.