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An Alphabet subsidiary is planning to build a futuristic neighborhood, not out of concrete and steel, but wood—and wood is looking good.Photograph by Daici Ano / Flickr

Last month, Dan Doctoroff, the C.E.O. of Sidewalk Labs, Google’s sibling company under Alphabet, answered a question about what his company “actually does” during a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session, replying, “The short answer is: We want to build the first truly 21st-century city.” Quayside, a Toronto neighborhood the company is developing in partnership with a Canadian tri-government agency, is the first step toward Doctoroff’s goal. It has been in the news recently because it could inspire a Black Mirror plot: It will be built from “the Internet up,” according to a project document, a merger of “physical and digital realms.” Fittingly, according to the New York Times, “No obvious way to opt out of Quayside’s surveillance systems exists, except by staying out of the area.”

But Quayside’s newsworthy for another, more encouraging reason: The plan is to build the place, not out of concrete and steel, but wood—and wood is looking good. A recent advance in wood technology, announced this month, should interest the neighborhood’s developers:…
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From the moment he arrived, Egor lived for mayhem. The time was 1982, and the place was the first online game world, called MUD (short for Multi-User Dungeon). Before Egor there had been duels, pranks, and the occasional fire-breathing dragon, all amiably playing out in the MUD world, hosted on the servers of the University of Essex. A rough kind of social contract had held.

Egor was the screen name of a player who set out to test the limits. He learned the shortcuts allowed by the code. He wrote scripts that let his character level up quickly. He discovered a way to fake other players’ logins. With a borrowed screen name, he would go on sprees of destruction, and watch with amusement as the real player logged on later to face a raging mob. He “ganked” new players—killed them before they knew which end of the sword to hold.

Thirty years down the road, an online multiplayer scene would grow geometrically from those few hundred players logging into the Essex server. About 618 million people now participate in online worlds; on a given day, the most popular might boast 2 million people playing at the same time. The…
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The cellist Jan Vogler famously claimed that art is what makes us human. But what if machines start making art too?

Here’s an example of a piece of art made by an artificial intelligence (AI):

A bit of art: A computer trained with images of graffiti produces its own art by spraying water onto concrete. The exhibit, titled About a Theory of ‘Graffiti’, was created by the artist yang02 and shown at the Artificial Intelligence Art and Aesthetics Exhibition in Okinawa this year.Courtesy of the Artificial Intelligence Art and Aesthetics Research Group

On the right side of the picture is a computer running an AI that has been trained with images of graffiti. It controls a plotting head that sprays water onto concrete blocks, on the left. The resulting patterns are a form of computer-generated art.

Is this fine art in the true sense? If it is, we would need to confront the possibility that some part of our humanity—the part that Vogler was referring to—has been captured by machines. The fact is, however, that while the output of the machine may be artistic, it is not making fine art.

When art is made to satisfy the needs of a third…
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The appeal of many floral scents to humans is a fortunate byproduct: We were not even around when they appeared. And, for all the effort, commercial perfumes rarely smell like flowers. Expensive, fancy bottles labeled jasmine or gardenia may smell wonderful but they are sad substitutes for the real thing.

One reason is that flowers generally produce very large mixtures of different volatile molecules, as many as a thousand. Some of these fall into related chemical groups and although they differ very slightly in chemical structure, they can produce very different smells. In closely related flowers, the volatile molecules can vary both in relative amounts (reflecting differential regulation of the genes and gene products needed) and in their chemical structures (reflecting the activity of genes evolved to produce the enzymes needed for synthesis). It’s not easy to figure out which components of a mixture are important for attracting insects or birds or for achieving a perfume attractive to people. It is especially challenging because our own sense of smell depends on a complex set of nerve cells and often differs from one person to another. The manufacture of the odors depends on a plant’s genes, and the ability of animals,…
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Most people do not know or even think that they communicate via smell as well as through words, tone, or body language. Photograph by Hans Neleman / Getty Images

What are the ingredients of a good relationship? Trust? Communication? Compromise?

How about a sense of smell? When researchers in the United Kingdom surveyed almost 500 people with anosmia (the loss of sense of smell), more than 50 percent of them reported feeling isolated, and blamed their relationship troubles on their affliction. “I worry I will never be able to share again properly in my social and sexual life—I feel like I am an observer,” lamented one anosmic. “It has reduced my desire,” said another. “So much of sexual closeness is wrapped up in smell: It’s how you know who you are with when the lights are off.”

Data back up their claims. A 2012 study on 32 patients co-led by Thomas Hummel at the Dresden University of Technology, in Germany, found that anosmic men had had one-fifth as many sexual relationships as able-nosed controls. While anosmic women didn’t experience this drop, they tended to be more insecure about their partners. Why that might be, researchers are not yet sure. But they have…
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Educational attainment has some qualitatively unique features that we’re going to have to be sensitive to when we attempt to study the genetics of it.Photograph by Joey Yee / Flickr

What if a wound of yours, a pierced ear, say, healed at a different rate depending on who was around you? A 2017 study explored this question, albeit with mice. Researchers paired mice together, punching holes in their ears, and tracked the rate of recovery. They found that the genome of a cagemate affected how fast their ears healed.

Benjamin Domingue, an assistant professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education who studies sociogenomics, was fascinated by what the researchers called an “indirect” or “social” genetic effect. He wanted to see if similar things were going on in humans. Through the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, a sample of 15,000 Americans who were between 7th and 12th grade in 1994-95, and which is now on its fifth wave of data collection, Domingue and his colleagues were able to test for the influence of social genetic effects on educational attainment and relationships like friendship. Previous studies, for instance, have demonstrated that friends…
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Few creatures can boast of devotions so deep as greylag geese. Most are monogamous; many spend their decade-long adult lives with the same goose, side-by-side in constant communication, taking another partner only if the first should die. It’s a remarkable degree of fidelity, and it includes relationships of a sort that some humans consider unnatural.

A greylag goose coupleBiodiversity Heritage Library via Flickr

Quite a few greylags, you see, are gay. As many as 20 percent by some accounts. That number might be high: It includes those males who first take a male partner but later pair with a female, or whose first bond is with a female, but after she dies, takes up with a gander. That said, plenty more are exclusively homosexual from beginning to end.

Which raises the question: Why?

That’s puzzled quite a few scientists—those who study greylag geese and also the hundreds of other animal species in which homosexuality is, confoundingly, found. After all, evolution is driven by reproduction. In animals, that requires—self-cloning reptiles not withstanding—the union of opposite sexes. Through a reproductive-success lens, homosexuality would appear counterproductive, if not downright aberrant. It’s certainly not…
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Nautilus by Charlotte Decroes Jacobs - 1w ago

The first time they met, French artist Françoise Gilot seemed more interested in her salad than in Jonas Salk—somewhat embarrassing for her friend Chantal Hunt, who had insisted she join them for lunch. Chantal’s husband, John Hunt, the executive vice president of the Salk Institute, had invited Salk to their home to discuss “Institute issues.” Gilot had warned Chantal that she was tired from completing the lithograph series at the Tamarind Workshop in Los Angeles, and she needed some rest before returning to Paris. “I’m going to go have lunch at a restaurant,” she told her friend. “I don’t want to see a scientist.” Chantal said she didn’t need to talk. “Fine,” Gilot replied, “I don’t talk.”1

The next evening, Gilot accompanied the Hunts to a black-tie dinner at the Institute. Seated with other artists, she enjoyed herself. Although she didn’t notice Salk, he saw her. Later he told Françoise he found the situation curious. One day she behaved “like a lump,” he said. The next day she was “laughing like I don’t know what.” He wondered, “Who is this person?”1 So he invited Gilot to the Institute for a private tour.

Once there, this woman who had silently looked…
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Is consciousness an instinct?

When feeling at sea about definitions and meanings in the mind/brain business, it is always rewarding to dial up William James once again.

William James

More than 125 years ago, James wrote a landmark article simply titled “What Is an Instinct?” He wastes no time in defining the concept:

Instinct is usually defined as the faculty of acting in such a way as to produce certain ends, without foresight of the ends, and without previous education in the performance…[Instincts] are the functional correlatives of structure. With the presence of a certain organ goes, one may say, almost always a native aptitude for its use. “Has the bird a gland for the secretion of oil? She knows instinctively how to press the oil from the gland, and apply it to the feather.”

The definition seems straightforward, and yet it is cleverly dualistic—an instinct is both a behavior and a physical structure. Yet using the structure calls upon an “aptitude,” which apparently comes along for free. Finding the physical correlates of an instinct is doable, but how do we learn whether a behavior is instinctual? Does it just happen? Not a very scientific answer. Does the bird start out with a reflex…
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Last week, John Brockman announced this year’s Edge.org “Annual Question” to be the last, and it has an appropriately culminating feel to it: “What is the last question?”Illustration by Sascha Grusche / Wikicommons

John Brockman has run out of questions, and it’s a shame. For 20 years, as a sort of homage to his late friend, the conceptual artist James Lee Byars, who in 1968 started “The World Question Center,” Brockman has been posing an “Annual Question” to some of the sharpest minds in the world, many of them scientists. Reviewing what might be a representative sample—“What is the most important invention in the past 2,000 years?”, “What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?”, and “What scientific idea is ready for retirement?”—it’s clear what Brockman wanted from his responders: to be intellectually daring, vulnerable, and contentious. Which is fitting, given the motto of Brockman’s website, Edge.org, to which the responses are posted: “To arrive at the edge of the world’s knowledge…”

Last week, Brockman announced this year’s “Annual Question” to be the last, and it has an appropriately culminating feel to it: “What is the last question?” By “the…
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