Scholarpedia content

Scholarpedia is in general a good idea. I’m liking the site at the moment as it has some fairly nice information on computational neuroscience and computational intelligence..


I worry that this kind of thing will saturate very quickly due to not enough content added in enough areas for the idea to reach critical mass. However as a counterargument, look at the popularity of arXiv. I think there’s a balance between reporting scientific progress because you enjoy doing so (and you want to increase the SNR), and because you get something out of it (publications/more research grants etc.). ArXiv is very much a case of ‘I was writing the paper anyway’. Perhaps scholarpedia may become popular amongst those who would like to write academic books about specific topics, but aren’t quite fully fledged.

No-one can argue that at the moment the site needs more content. I was wondering if anyone has considered (or been earmarked for) creating a section on quantum computing. Perhaps the information already available on Quantiki could somehow be reproduced or linked.

Embracing Polymath philosophy?

Is it possible to approximate (to some extent or other) a modern day Polymath? I for one would certainly like to, yet I’ve been told on several occasions that this is not possible. Specifically, that the extent of human knowledge is fundamentally too broad and deep for any one human to comprehend. And yes, I believe that this is true given the current definition of ‘any one human’.

However for a post-singularity human-machine hybrid with bio-electronic enhancement and connectivity to all other such instances, it would easily be possible. This state may well occur in the near future.* However, in order to bring about this revolution as quickly as possible, one must break a vicious circle and embrace the Polymath philosophy now. In order to bring about a singularity, we need to start working towards weaving together many fundamental technological and scientific strands of knowledge and understanding.

So I come to my point, which is that people in specialist subjects really need to read and actively work outside of their speciality. This breadth-focused approach may seem detrimental in some ways to the depth-based learning pursued by most academics. But hey, we’re really shooting ourselves in the foot here.

Breadth-based learning can complement an academic discipline. Concepts from far reaching areas can give ideas, insight and inspiration. They can even provide a motivation and reason for studying one particular area in such detail. For example studying the materials science of Josepshon junctions may help towards the implementation of quantum computers, leading to applications in many diverse fields. So you should learn as much as possible about those diverse fields.** [Note this may not be an entirely hypothetical example :)] Over the past few months I’ve been talking to quite a lot of people in different disciplines and concluded that we should really be talking and interacting more. Not only does it spark interesting and fun conversation, there can actually be tangible outcomes from this kind of collaboration.

This far-sight can be used as such a powerful motivational tool for research progress that I’m surprised traditional narrow discipline based teaching methods still exist. As such I feel that projects such as Singularity University are groundbreaking, and will pave the way forward.

Part of the Polymath philosophy would presumably involve teaching at a high-level from a young age. Current disciplines of science, engineering, mathematics etc. may well move towards a more connected scheme of understanding. Perhaps we can accelerate progress towards the Polymath state by embracing such learning models now. It’s a delicate problem of striking a balance between the depth and breadth of education.

* I may have been reading Kurzweil recently…
**As an aside this thinking also helps you to write successful grant applications!

Systems Biology and Quantum Computing

I just attended a coffee and cake morning (yes I have a radar for cake) at the Centre for Systems Biology with a theme of HPC. The general topic of the meeting was to discuss the use of the BlueBEAR cluster (1500 core Birmingham cluster) and other HPC centres for biological, microbiological, molecular and genetic applications.

I went along to see if anyone was interested in Quantum Computing 😀
Specifically I wanted to meet people who might want to explore QC (in the future) as a way of simulating neural nets and addressing some NP-HARD problems found in biological systems. And I met a few cool people, so that’s all good; it may be possible to establish some new collaborative links for future projects.

And being a little worried that people might get the wrong end of the stick and presume I was trying to out-parallelise the guy in charge of the HPCC, I explained that it would be a very useful resource for running QMC simulations…

A shortage of research technicians?

This is so true:

FINANCING SCIENCE – Needed: Professional Research Technicians: Government Funding Is Up, But Professionalism Still Suffers
(via Science Progress)

Often grants cover salaries for postdoc time, PhD student time and tenured academic staff hours. But what we need more often than not (especially in the experimental scenario) are skilled technicians, not just workshop technicians but people who actually know how to operate, modify and improve equipment, and understand on a basic level the experiments being performed. They don’t necessarily need an academic calling to perform such a job, but they would need a financial incentive as it would be rather specialised.

At large facilities these guys are known as ‘Instrument responsibles’.

Alternately, perhaps full economic costing in research proposals should include a slice for consultancy (e.g. for low temperature physics projects it would be very useful to have some DAQ / interface electronic engineers). Any offers welcome but I’m afraid I can only pay you in pizza at the moment 🙂

UKTA Cryonics meeting

On saturday I attended a UKH+ (UK Transhumanist Association) meeting. It was really great to meet some like-minded people there.

The talk was about “Cryonics in the UK: Reality and Vision”. I never really realised before that there is so much of a UK effort in this area. It was also rather relevant given that I’m an advocate of H+ practising low temperature physics. I went along as a skeptic, (especially as I usually try to AVOID coming into contact with cryogens ;)) but there were some extremely convincing arguments presented and the speaker responded well to the audience questions.


The main aspects of the talk were as follows:

Definition and introduction
Cryonics is the preservation of tissue after death using extremely low temperatures. Cells and DNA are preserved and do not break down as they would do if kept at room temperatures after death. The main idea is to warm and revive patients at a suitable time in the future such that nanotechnology will be advanced enough to repair any damage incurred during the freezing process. Patients pay for the privilege of being cryopreserved in this way.

Are we there yet?
Around 200 patients have been cryopreserved so far. No-one has of yet been revived, although tests on embryos have been successful with a survival rate of 80% of cells. Also, rabbit kidneys have undergone a complete vitrification process and have been transplanted successfully.

Financial matters
To be cryopreserved costs between $30,000 and $150,000 depending on the company and if you would like just neural preservation or whole-body preservation. It should be noted that a good life insurance policy will more than cover this cost.

Objections to cryonics
The main objections were from moral and religious grounds: “Death is the natural way” arguments. There was also the continuity of consciousness problem, i.e. will you be the same person when you are awakened if so many of your cells have been changed. The counter argument is that the body is essentially a meat machine and if all cells (and inter-neural connections) are reconstructed to their original state, the brain will effectively be unaltered by the procedure. Hard-wired memories and psychological traits will remain.
There are also objections about awakening in a strange world, but these are personal considerations. The general consensus is, if you prefer the idea of death over being in a strange world, that’s your choice. (I personally think it would be interesting to wake up in the future).

Practical considerations and problems
How will reanimated people integrate into society? How will they make money? Perhaps by this time we will have transcended the need for money. There may be memory loss / brain damage if the process cannot be fully reversed. In addition, terminal conditions prior to death will also need to be remedied. Cancer/cell damage may be easier to fix than viral/DNA damage once the patient is revived. However, both of these problems will presumably be overcome as technology advances further.

Even though the technology and science of cryopreservation needs to mature substantially, the main problem currently lies with political, geographical and social constraints. Cryonics is not legal in several countries/states. The only operational facilities are currently in the USA and Russia. In the UK, Cryonics UK offers a standby team who will ‘look after’ your body upon death and perform as much of the procedure as possible until you can be transported to a full cryonics facility.

There is also the problem of many deaths requiring autopsy, which kind of screws up the whole cryopreservation process; being cut into little bits and all that. The body may not be released from the morgue for several days, which doesn’t help keep you in good shape for the process.
People can now request autopsy by MRI on religious grounds, so perhaps this is something to lobby about if you are signed up for cryo. And of course there’s the question: Is it necessary to know how you died if you believe you will be revived in the future? Maybe it is even more important to know how you died so that you can be fixed? I wonder if MRI autopsy could be performed on patients once they are in cryostasis…

The current procedure
The standby team/funeral director will inject Glycerol and Heparin to prevent blood clotting. The body is stored in an ice bath to slow cell degeneration. The cardiovascular system is then used to administer a cryoprotectant to all tissue and cells. This works a bit like antifreeze; lowering the freezing point of the water in the cells and preventing the damaging ice crystals from forming so readily. If enough cryoprotectant can be administered, a large fraction of the body’s water does not freeze at all. However the full extent of damage to cells by the toxicity of concentrated cryoprotectant itself is not yet known, so a balance is struck with the amount administered. The body is then cooled using LN2 to a temperature of 77K (-196 degrees C) and popped in its new home, a cosy cryostat, for storage.

Here are some great links to learn more:
Cryonics UK
Cryonics Institute

For further information, Alcor has an excellent FAQ on their website which explains everything much better than I have attempted to here!

Warning: personal opinion ahead…

So what’s the deal? Should I sign up? Cryonics is sometimes regarded as the dark side of H+. Well, I guess we can think of this as a plan B. If we aren’t able to acheive full topological & functional mapping and digital reconstruction of specific instances of the human brain (aka uploading) in the next 50-60 years, it might be a good idea to have a backup plan…

Speaking of which, after the event I met and talked to Anders Sandberg about brain modelling and quantum computing, which was extremely useful and very cool.