Thursday, February 28, 2019


Just a quick link to a lovely piece of news from Toledo, Ohio. After decades of watching the waters of Lake Erie become more polluted, and after a series of devastating toxic algae blooms, the citizens of Toledo overwhelmingly voted for the Lake Erie Bill of Rights. The new law grants Lake Erie many of the legal rights of a person or corporation, and allows citizens or the city to act as the lake's legal guardians, and sue or take other legal actions to protect it.

Lake Erie toxic algae bloom
Credit: NASA/Landsat
The city of Toledo joins a small but growing growing number of governments that have granted personhood rights to natural features such as lakes and rivers. You can read a previous blog post about similar actions in New Zealand, India and Columbia here.

And you can read about an effort by a group of philosophers and scientists to draft a declaration on the rights of water. You read that correctly; not only the right of people to have access to water, but the rights of water itself.


For other local legal action against unchecked pollution, check out this news from Exeter, NH.

And for an entire nation--Sweden--getting ready to give nature constitutional rights, click here.

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Sunday, February 10, 2019


Last year, nearly 40,000 people died in the U.S. from the use of firearms. Among those deaths, roughly 60 percent were suicides. And among those were more than 1000 young people between the ages of 10 and 19; nearly three children or teenagers every day.

As a quick internet search will show you, there's a lot of information available to parents, teachers and other concerned people about how to reduce the risk that a child will commit suicide. Unfortunately, many of these well-meaning and supposedly authoritative sources gloss over or fail even to mention the single biggest step to take to reduce the number of suicides by young people.

That step is--get guns out of their homes.

Young people and guns--a lethal combination

New research from the Boston School of Public Health (BUSPH) shows that on a state-by-state basis, every ten percent increase in gun ownership increases the youth suicide rate by 27 percent. That means that young people in states like Alaska, with the highest rate of gun ownership, were five times more likely to kill themselves than young people in states like New Jersey with the lowest percentage of guns in homes.

The rate of gun ownership varies greatly from state to state. The 10 states with the highest rates averaged more than one gun for every two households (52.5%), while the 10 states with the lowest gun ownership averaged just one gun per every five households.

Remarkably, gun ownership outweighed every other factor--poverty, race, educational levels, family structure, mental illness, drug and alcohol use, you name it--contributing to youth suicide. "This study demonstrates that the strongest single predictor of a state's youth suicide rate is the prevalence of household gun ownership in that state," says Michael Siegel, a community health researcher at BUSPH and the study's co-author.

The bottom line is clear. If you want to reduce the number of children and teenagers who kill themselves, the first and most significant thing to do is to get guns out of their homes.


You can find the full study here.


Young people in the U.S. are far more at risk from gun-related violence of all kinds than youth in other countries. You can read a zerospinzone post about that here.


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Friday, February 01, 2019


"Open the pod bay doors, HAL."
"I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that."

This classic exchange from Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey, epitomizes the risks of a self-aware artificial intelligence.

 Looking through the eye of HAL 9000
a scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey
Credit: Wikimedia

 People who tell us not to worry about the existential threat of super-smart artificial intelligence or Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) often argue that however brilliant AI agents--such as deep learning programs or autonomous robots--become at specific tasks, they'll inevitably lack the general, all-purpose kind of intelligence  humans have. Without that high-level understanding of oneself, the world, and one's place in it, those soothing voices say, AI is and will remain a safe and helpful technology; just another tool like a laptop or a smartphone.

I'd like to believe in the lovely AI-enhanced future AI enthusiasts envision, but I keep coming across flaws in their shiny picture. One, that just came to my attention today, is that robots are becoming self aware. That brings them one step closer to becoming truly autonomous agents, not just eager-to-please tools with a Swiss-Army-knife-full of potentially superhuman skills, but entities with minds and goals of their own, like HAL.

 Robot arm with developing self image overlay
Credit: Robert Kwiatkowski/Columbia Engineering

The latest research along this line comes from Hod Lipson, director of the Creative Machines Lab at Columbia University and graduate student Robert Kwiatkowski. They built an articulated robot arm with four degrees of freedom, allowing it to rotate, bend and grasp in a huge number of different ways. The arm was controlled by a deep-learning computer network. Deep learning networks mimic the human brain in being able to learn from experience, and are the basis of many of today's most powerful AI applications, such as Google's AlphaZero, which in the course of just one day of "play" became the world champion in chess, Shogi and Go.

Initially the arm's deep learning network--in effect its brain--had no idea of the size, shape or structure of the arm, nor of the ways it could move. However, much like a baby babbling as it learns to speak, the system made thousands of random motions from which it gradually created an accurate internal model of itself. What looks like a distorted shadow in the picture above is an overlay of the arm's model of itself early in its learning process. After 35 hours of practice, the system developed a very accurate self model. In the picture below, you can see how closely the shadowy overlay tracks the actual arm.

Robot arm with nearly perfect self image
Credit Kwiatkowski et al.

 You can watch a video of the robot "babbling" in order to create its self image at:

Once the robot arm's brain had an accurate self image, it could very quickly learn how to perform any number of specific tasks. In the video above, you can watch the arm pick up balls and place them in a container, and also print words.

And, much like a person learning to perform a familiar task under unusual circumstances, for example eating with one arm in a cast, the robot rapidly modified its self image when the experimenters substituted a longer, bent piece for one segment of the arm.

Until now, the authors explain, human programmers had to spell out a robot's size, shape, and potential movements in order for it to function. “But if we want robots to become independent, to adapt quickly to scenarios unforeseen by their creators," says Lipson, "then it’s essential that they learn to simulate themselves."

The researchers also suspect that having a self image able to plan and execute a multiplicity of tasks may represent a crucial step in human development. "We believe that this separation of self and task may also have been the origin of self awareness in humans," they write.

It may seem like a long way from a robot arm generating an accurate self image to a high-functioning, seemingly self aware AI like HAL. However, the pace of development in AI is dazzlingly fast and only getting faster. It may not take many iterations before Siri or your Google Assistant isn't just a chatty interface with an amazing collection of knowledge and skills, but a self aware entity, potentially with a mind of its own.


You can read the paper by Lipson and Kwiatkowsky  here.

For a more in-depth assessment of the risks of AI, here's a recent report.

And for an earlier zerospinzone commentary on the subject, click here.


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Followers of Zerospinzone know that I've been following the worldwide effort to eradicate polio, a disease that killed or paralyzed 350,000 children per year not long ago. Since the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) was launched in 1988, polio has been wiped out in country after country and continent after continent. The wild polio virus now hangs on in only a few countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria.

The good news is that in the first month of 2019 exactly zero cases of polio were reported. Not a single child fell ill with this once terrifying and deadly scourge. What a great achievement!

Polio virus--it may soon exist only in a few super-secure laboratories

This doesn't yet mean that the virus has been completely eradicated. It may still lurk undetected in a few countries, and there's a very small but real risk that the attenuated virus used for oral inoculations can mutate in some individuals and cause cases of the disease. This complicates the polio end-game, during which at-risk populations may need to receive injections of a vaccine that uses killed virus particles, a costlier and more difficult undertaking.

However, this month with no polio cases tells us that the decades-long worldwide campaign to eradicate polio is closing in on its goal.

The apparently growing number of parents who are choosing not to have their children vaccinated might give a moment's thought to the 1950s, when polio paralyzed 15,000 children per year in the U.S. alone, and smallpox disfigured or killed an estimated 50 million people every year. A massive, worldwide effort similar to the current battle to eradicate polio succeeded brilliantly; the last case of smallpox occurred in 1979. Had anti-vaccination sentiment and propaganda been as strong then as now, millions of people would have been disfigured, paralyzed, or would have died needlessly.


Seventy people, most of them children, have died from measles in the Philippines just in the past month. Every one of those deaths was preventable.


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