Why Did Humans Lose Their Fur?


We are the naked apes of the world, having shed most of our body hair long ago.

 

Homo neanderthalensis
Homo neanderthalensis, the earlier relatives of Homo sapiens, also evolved to shed most of their body hair. (Reconstruction based on Shanidar 1 by John Gurche / National Museum of Natural History)

Millions of modern humans ask themselves the same question every morning while looking in the mirror: Why am I so hairy? As a society, we spend millions of dollars per year on lip waxing, eyebrow threading, laser hair removal, and face and leg shaving, not to mention the cash we hand over to Supercuts or the neighborhood salon. But it turns out we are asking the wrong question—at least according to scientists who study human genetics and evolution. For them, the big mystery is why we are so hairless.

Evolutionary theorists have put forth numerous hypotheses for why humans became the naked mole rats of the primate world. Did we adapt to semi-aquatic environments? Does bare skin help us sweat to keep cool while hunting during the heat of the day? Did losing our fur allow us to read each other’s emotional responses such as fuming or blushing? Scientists aren’t exactly sure, but biologists are beginning to understand the physical mechanism that makes humans the naked apes. In particular, a recent study in the journal Cell Reports has begun to depilate the mystery at the molecular and genetic level.

Sarah Millar, co-senior author of the new study and a dermatology professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, explains that scientists are largely at a loss to explain why different hair patterns appear across human bodies. “We have really long hair on our scalps and short hair in other regions, and we’re hairless on our palms and the underside of our wrists and the soles of our feet,” she says. “No one understands really at all how these differences arise.”

In many mammals, an area known as the plantar skin, which is akin to the underside of the wrist in humans, is hairless, along with the footpads. But in a few species, including polar bears and rabbits, the plantar area is covered in fur. A researcher studying the plantar region of rabbits noticed that an inhibitor protein, called Dickkopf 2 or Dkk2, was not present in high levels, giving the team the fist clue that Dkk2 may be fundamental to hair growth. When the team looked at the hairless plantar region of mice, they found that there were high levels of Dkk2, suggesting the protein might keep bits of skin hairless by blocking a signaling pathway called WNT, which is known to control hair growth.

To investigate, the team compared normally developing mice with a group that had a mutation which prevents Dkk2 from being produced. They found that the mutant mice had hair growing on their plantar skin, providing more evidence that the inhibitor plays a role in determining what’s furry and what’s not.

But Millar suspects that the Dkk2 protein is not the end of the story. The hair that developed on the plantar skin of the mice with the mutation was shorter, finer and less evenly spaced than the rest of the animals’ hair. “Dkk2 is enough to prevent hair from growing, but not to get rid of all control mechanisms. There’s a lot more to look at.”

Even without the full picture, the finding could be important in future research into conditions like baldness, since the WNT pathway is likely still present in chrome domes—it’s just being blocked by Dkk2 or similar inhibitors in humans. Millar says understanding the way the inhibitor system works could also help in research of other skin conditions like psoriasis and vitiligo, which causes a blotchy loss of coloration on the skin.

Australopithecus afarensis
A reconstruction of the head of human ancestor Australopithecus afarensis, an extinct hominin that lived between about 3 and 4 million years ago. The famous Lucy skeleton belongs to the species Australopithecus afarensis

With a greater understanding of how skin is rendered hairless, the big question remaining is why humans became almost entirely hairless apes. Millar says there are some obvious reasons—for instance, having hair on our palms and wrists would make knapping stone tools or operating machinery rather difficult, and so human ancestors who lost this hair may have had an advantage. The reason the rest of our body lost its fur, however, has been up for debate for decades.

One popular idea that has gone in and out of favor since it was proposed is called the aquatic ape theory. The hypothesis suggests that human ancestors lived on the savannahs of Africa, gathering and hunting prey. But during the dry season, they would move to oases and lakesides and wade into shallow waters to collect aquatic tubers, shellfish or other food sources. The hypothesis suggests that, since hair is not a very good insulator in water, our species lost our fur and developed a layer of fat. The hypothesis even suggests that we might have developed bipedalism due to its advantages when wading into shallow water. But this idea, which has been around for decades, hasn’t received much support from the fossil record and isn’t taken seriously by most researchers.

A more widely accepted theory is that, when human ancestors moved from the cool shady forests into the savannah, they developed a new method of thermoregulation. Losing all that fur made it possible for hominins to hunt during the day in the hot grasslands without overheating. An increase in sweat glands, many more than other primates, also kept early humans on the cool side. The development of fire and clothing meant that humans could keep cool during the day and cozy up at night.

But these are not the only possibilities, and perhaps the loss of hair is due to a combination of factors. Evolutionary scientist Mark Pagel at the University of Reading has also proposed that going fur-less reduced the impact of lice and other parasites. Humans kept some patches of hair, like the stuff on our heads which protects from the sun and the stuff on our pubic regions which retains secreted pheromones. But the more hairless we got, Pagel says, the more attractive it became, and a stretch of hairless hide turned into a potent advertisement of a healthy, parasite-free mate.

One of the most intriguing theories is that the loss of hair on the face and some of the hair around the genitals may have helped with emotional communication. Mark Changizi, an evolutionary neurobiologist and director of human cognition at the research company 2AI, studies vision and color theory, and he says the reason for our hairless bodies may be in our eyes. While many animals have two types of cones, or the receptors in the eye that detect color, humans have three. Other animals that have three cones or more, like birds and reptiles, can see in a wide range of wavelengths in the visible light spectrum. But our third cone is unusual—it gives us a little extra power to detect hues right in the middle of the spectrum, allowing humans to pick out a vast range of shades that seem unnecessary for hunting or tracking.

Changizi proposes that the third cone allows us to communicate nonverbally by observing color changes in the face. “Having those two cones detecting wavelengths side by side is what you want if you want to be sensitive to oxygenation of hemoglobin under the skin to understand health or emotional changes,” he says. For instance, a baby whose skin looks a little green or blue can indicate illness, a pink blush might indicate sexual attraction, and a face flushing with red could indicate anger, even in people with darker skin tones. But the only way to see all of these emotional states is if humans lose their fur, especially on their faces.

In a 2006 paper in Biology Letters, Changizi found that primates with bare faces and sometimes bare rumps also tended to have three cones like humans, while fuzzy-faced monkeys lived their lives with just two cones. According to the paper, hairless faces and color vision seem to run together.

Millar says that it’s unlikely that her work will help us directly figure out whether humans are swimming apes, sweaty monkeys or blushing primates. But combining the new study’s molecular evidence of how hair grows with physical traits observed in humans will get us closer to the truth—or at least closer to a fuller, shinier head of hair.

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Guess Which Single Word Will Convince Other Humans You’re Not a Robot


That’s… not what we expected.

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If you were trying to convince another human that you yourself are also human, what would you say? Probably something about emotions, right? That might work – but other humans are more likely to believe your humanity if you talk about bodily functions.

Specifically, the word ‘poop’.

At least, that’s the finding from a study that sought to determine a “minimal Turing test”, narrowing the human-like intelligence assessment down to a single word.

A Turing test – named after mathematician Alan Turing – is a conceptual method for determining whether machines can think like a human. In its simplest form, it involves having a computerised chat with an AI – if a human can’t tell if they’re talking to a computer or a living being, the AI “passes” the test.

In a new paper, cognitive scientists John McCoy and Tomer Ullman of MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences (McCoy is now at the University of Pennsylvania) have described a twist on this classic concept.

They asked 1,089 study participants what single word they would choose for this purpose: not to help distinguish humans from machines, but to try to understand what we humans think makes us human.

The largest proportion – 47 percent – of the participants chose something related to emotions or thinking, what the researchers call “mind perception”.

By far the most popular option was love, clocking in at a rather large 14 percent of all responses. This was followed by compassion at 3.5 percent, human at 3.2 percent and please at 2.7 percent.

word cloud minimal turing(McCoy & Ullman/Journal of Experimental Social Psychology)

In all, there were 10 categories, such as food, including words like banana and pizza; non-humans, including words like dog or robot; life and death, including words like pain and alive; and body functions and profanity, which included words like poop and penis.

The next part of the study involved figuring out which of those words would be likely to convince other humans of humanity.

The researchers randomly put pairs of the top words from each of the 10 categories together – such as banana and empathy – and told a new group of 2,405 participants that one of the words was chosen by a machine and the other by a human (even though both words were chosen by humans).

This group’s task was to say which was which. Unsurprisingly, the least successful word was robot. But the most successful – poop – was a surprise.

minimal turing test word comparison(McCoy & Ullman/Journal of Experimental Social Psychology)

This could, the researchers said, be because ‘taboo’ words generate an emotional response, rather than simply describing one.

“The high average relative strengths of the words ‘love’, ‘mercy’, and ‘compassion’ is consistent with the importance of the experience dimension when distinguishing the minds of robots and people. However, the taboo category word (‘poop’) has the highest average relative strength, referring to bodily function and evoking an amused emotional response,” they wrote in their paper.

“This suggests that highly charged words, such as the colourful profanities appearing in Study 1, might be judged as given by a human over all words used in Study 2.”

Now that this information is on the internet where any old AI with WiFi could get access to it, the study may not really help us tell person from machine; but it does provide some fascinating insight into our self-perception, and what we feel it means to be human.

It’s also, the researchers said, a methodology that could help us explore our perceptions of different kinds of humans – what would we say, for instance, to convince someone else we were a man or a woman, a child or a grandparent, Chinese or Chilean?

“Recall the word that you initially chose to prove that you are human. Perhaps it was a common choice, or perhaps it appeared but one other time, your thoughts in secret affinity with the machinations that produced words such as caterpillar, ethereal, or shenanigans. You may have delighted that your word was judged highly human, or wondered how it would have fared,” the researchers wrote.

“Whatever your word, it rested on the ability to rapidly navigate a web of shared meanings, and to make nuanced predictions about how others would do the same. As much as love and compassion, this is part of what it is to be human.”

Also: poop, apparently.

The research has been published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

To Make AI Smarter, Humans Perform Oddball Low-Paid Tasks


Tucked into a back corner far from the street, the baby-food section of Whole Foods in San Francisco’s SoMa district doesn’t get much foot traffic. I glance around for the security guard, then reach towards the apple and broccoli superfood puffs. After dropping them into my empty shopping cart, I put them right back. “Did you get it?” I ask my coworker filming on his iPhone. It’s my first paid acting gig. I’m helping teach software the skills needed for future robots to help people with their shopping.

Whole Foods was an unwitting participant in this program, a project of German-Canadian startup Twenty Billion Neurons. I quietly perform nine other brief actions, including opening freezers, and pushing a cart from right to left, then left to right. Then I walk out without buying a thing. Later, it takes me around 30 minutes to edit the clips to the required 2 to 5 seconds, and upload them to Amazon’s crowdsourcing website Mechanical Turk. A few days later I am paid $3.50. If Twenty Billion ever creates software for a shopping assistant robot, it will make much more.

In sneaking around Whole Foods, I joined an invisible workforce being paid very little to do odd things in the name of advancing artificial intelligence. You may have been told AI is the gleaming pinnacle of technology. These workers are part of the messy human reality behind it.

Proponents believe every aspect of life and business should be and will be mediated by AI. It’s a campaign stoked by large tech companies such as Alphabet showing that machine learning can master tasks such as recognizing speech or images. But most current machine-learning systems such as voice assistants are built by training algorithms with giant stocks of labeled data. The labels come from ranks of contractors examining images, audio, or other data—that’s a koala, that’s a cat, she said “car.”

Now, researchers and entrepreneurs want to see AI understand and act in the physical world. Hence the need for workers to act out scenes in supermarkets and homes. They are generating the instructional material to teach algorithms about the world and the people in it.

That’s why I find myself lying face down on WIRED’s office floor one morning, coarse synthetic fibers pressing into my cheek. My editor snaps a photo. After uploading it to Mechanical Turk, I get paid 7 cents by an eight-person startup in Berkeley called Safely You. When I call CEO George Netscher to say thanks, he erupts in a surprised laugh, then turns mock serious. “Does that mean there’s a conflict of interest?” (The $6.30 I made reporting this article has been donated to the Haight Ashbury Free Clinics.)

Netscher’s startup makes software that monitors video feeds from elderly-care homes, to detect when a resident has fallen. People with dementia often can’t remember why or how they ended up on the floor. In 11 facilities around California, Safely You’s algorithms help staff quickly find the place in a video that will unseal the mystery.

Safely You was soliciting faked falls like mine to test how broad a view its system has of what a toppled human looks like. The company’s software has mostly been trained with video of elderly residents from care facilities, annotated by staff or contractors. Mixing in photos of 34-year-old journalists and anyone else willing to lay down for 7 cents should force the machine-learning algorithms to widen their understanding. “We’re trying to see how well we can generalize to arbitrary incidents or rooms or clothing,” says Netscher.

The startup that paid for my Whole Foods performance, Twenty Billion Neurons, is a bolder bet on the idea of paying people to perform for an audience of algorithms. Roland Memisevic, cofounder and CEO, is in the process of trademarking a term for what I did to earn my $3.50—crowd acting. He argues that it is the only practical path to give machines a dash of common sense about the physical world, a longstanding quest in AI. The company is gathering millions of crowd-acting videos, and using them to train software it hopes to sell clients in industries such as automobiles, retail, and home appliances.

Games like chess and Go, with their finite, regimented boards and well-defined rules, are well-suited to computers. The physical and spatial common sense we learn intuitively as children to navigate the real world is mostly beyond them. To pour a cup of coffee, you effortlessly grasp and balance cup and carafe, and control the arc of the pouring fluid. You draw on the same deep-seated knowledge, and a sense for the motivations of other humans, to interpret what you see in the world around you.

How to give some version of that to machines is a major challenge in AI. Some researchers think that the techniques that are so effective for recognizing speech or images won’t be much help, arguing new techniques are needed. Memisevic took leave from the prestigious Montreal Institute of Learning Algorithms to start Twenty Billion because he believes that existing techniques can do much more for us if trained properly. “They work incredibly well,” he says. “Why not extend them to more subtle aspects of reality by forcing them to learn things about the real world?”

To do that, the startup is amassing giant collections of clips in which crowd actors perform different physical actions. The hope is that algorithms trained to distinguish them will “learn” the essence of the physical world and human actions. It’s why when crowd acting in Whole Foods I not only took items from shelves and refrigerators, but also made near identical clips in which I only pretended to grab the product.

Twenty Billion’s first dataset, now released as open source, is physical reality 101. Its more than 100,000 clips depict simple manipulations of everyday objects. Disembodied hands pick up shoes, place a remote control inside a cardboard box, and push a green chili along a table until it falls off. Memisevic deflects questions about the client behind the casting call that I answered, which declared, “We want to build a robot that assists you while shopping in the supermarket.” He will say that automotive applications are a big area of interest; the company has worked with BMW. I see jobs posted to Mechanical Turk that describe a project, with only Twenty Billion’s name attached, aimed at allowing a car to identify what people are doing inside a vehicle. Workers were asked to feign snacking, dozing off, or reading in chairs. Software that can detect those actions might help semi-automated vehicles know when a human isn’t ready to take over the driving, or pop open a cupholder when you enter holding a drink.

Who are the crowd actors doing this work? One is Uğur Büyükşahin, a third-year geological engineering student in Ankara, Turkey, and star of hundreds of videos in Twenty Billion’s collection. He estimates spending about 7 to 10 hours a week on Mechanical Turk, earning roughly as much as he did in a shift with good tips at the restaurant where he used to work. Büyükşahin says Twenty Billion is one of his favorites, because it pays well, and promptly. Their sometimes odd assignments don’t bother him. “Some people may be shy about taking hundreds of videos in the supermarket, but I’m not,” Büyükşahin says. His girlfriend, by nature less outgoing, was initially wary of the project, but has come around after seeing his earnings, some of which have translated into gifts, such as a new set of curling tongs.

Büyükşahin and another Turker I speak with, Casey Cowden, a 31-year-old in Johnson City, Tennessee, tell me I’ve been doing crowd acting all wrong. All in, my 10 videos earned me an hourly rate of around $4.60. They achieve much higher rates by staying in the supermarket for as long as hours, binging on Twenty Billion’s tasks.

Büyükşahin says his personal record is 110 supermarket videos in a single hour. He uses a gimbal for higher-quality shots, batting away inquisitive store employees when necessary by bluffing about a university research project in AI. Cowden calculates that he and a friend each earned an hourly rate of $11.75 during two and half hours of crowd acting in a local Walmart. That’s more than Walmart’s $11 starting wage, or the $7.75 or so Cowden’s fiancee earns at Burger King.

Cowden seems to have more fun than Walmart employees, too. He began Turking early last year, after the construction company he was working for folded. Working from home means he can be around to care for his fiancee’s mother, who has Alzheimer’s. He says he was initially drawn to Twenty Billion’s assignments because, with the right strategy, they pay better than the data-entry work that dominates Mechanical Turk. But he also warmed to the idea of working on a technological frontier. Cowden tells me he tries to vary the backdrop, and even the clothing he wears, in different shoots. “You can’t train a robot to shop in a supermarket if the videos you have are all the same,” Cowden tells me. “I try to go the whole nine yards so the programming can get a diverse view.”

Mechanical Turk has often been called a modern-day sweatshop. A recent study found that median pay was around $2 an hour. But it lacks the communal atmosphere of a workhouse. The site’s labor is atomized into individuals working from homes or phones around the world.

Crowd acting sometimes give workers a chance to look each other in the face. Twenty Billion employs contract workers who review crowd-acting videos. But in a tactic common on Mechanical Turk, the startup sometimes uses crowd workers to review other crowd workers. I am paid 10 cents to review 50 clips of crowd actors working on the startup’s automotive project. I click to indicate if a worker stuck to the script—“falling asleep while sitting,” “drinking something from a cup or can,” or “holding something in both hands.”

A video from Twenty Billion Neurons describing its work.

The task transports me to bedrooms, lounges, and bathrooms. Many appear to be in places where 10 cents goes further than in San Francisco. I begin to appreciate different styles of acting. To fake falling asleep, a shirtless man in a darkened room leans gently backwards with a meditative look; a woman who appears to be inside a closet lets her head snap forward like a puppet with a cut string.

Some of the crowd actors are children—a breach of Amazon’s terms, which require workers to be at least 18. One Asian boy of around 9 in school uniform looks out from a grubby plastic chair in front of a chipped whitewashed wall, then feigns sleep. Another Asian boy, slightly older, performs “drinking from a cup or a can” while another child lies on a bed behind him. Twenty Billion’s CTO Ingo Bax tells me the company screens out such videos from its final datasets, but can’t rule out having paid out money for clips of child crowd actors before they were filtered. Memisevic says the company has protocols to prevent systematic payment for such material.

Children also appear in a trove of crowd-acting videos I discover on YouTube. In dozens of clips apparently made public by accident, people act out scripts like “One person runs down the stairs laughing holding a cup of coffee, while another person is fixing the doorknob.” Most appear to have been shot on the Indian subcontinent. Some have been captured by a crowd actor holding a phone to his or her forehead, for a first-person view.

I find the videos while trying to unmask the person behind crowd-acting jobs on Mechanical Turk from the “AI Indoors Project.” Forums where crowd workers gather to gripe and swap tips reveal that it’s a collaboration between Carnegie Mellon University and the Allen Institute for AI in Seattle. Like Twenty Billion, they are gathering crowd-acted videos by the thousand to try and improve algorithms’ understanding of the physical world and what we do in it. Nearly 10,000 clips have already been released for other researchers to play with in a collection aptly named Charades.

Gunnar Atli Sigurdsson, a grad student on the project, echoes Memisevic when I ask why he’s paying strangers to pour drinks or run down stairs with a phone held to their head. He wants algorithms to understand us. “We’ve been seeing AI systems getting very impressive at some very narrow, well-defined tasks like chess and Go,” Sigurdsson says. “But we want to have an AI butler in our apartment and have it understand our lives, not the stuff we’re posting on Facebook, the really boring stuff.”

If tech companies conquer that quotidian frontier of AI, it will likely be seen as the latest triumph of machine-learning experts. If Twenty Billion’s approach works out the truth will be messier and more interesting. If you ever get help from a robot in a supermarket, or ride in a car that understands what its occupants are doing, think of the crowd actors who may have trained it. Cowden, the Tennessean, says he liked Twenty Billion’s tasks in part because his mother is fighting bone cancer. Robots and software able to understand and intervene in our world could help address the growing shortage of nurses and home-health aides. If the projects they contribute to are successful, crowd actors could change the world—although they may be among the last to benefit.

When Humans Begin Colonizing Other Planets, Who Should Be in Charge?


Every summer for the past 20 years, Pascal Lee has traveled to the remote Canadian Arctic to pretend he’s on Mars. This cold, dry, pockmarked and essentially lifeless environment is one of the closest to the red planet that you can find on Earth—making it a great practice ground for driving Mars rovers.

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Lee, a planetary scientist at the SETI Institute in California, is the director of the NASA Haughton Mars Project, where he uses this analog Mars environment to investigate scientific questions concerning how humans might threaten life on other planets we colonize.

For example, if humans travel to Mars, would microbes transferred from our bodies thrive on Martian soil—threatening native Martian microbes and disrupting native ecosystems? Recent results from Lee’s research suggest the answer to that is no, at least not on the surface of Martian soil: Mars’ harsh climate and high UV radiation would kill off many of the microbes we may accidentally bring from Earth.

But the Haughton Mars Project—along with other Mars analog study sites in Antarctica and the Atacama Desert in Chile—also inadvertently bring to light numerous ethical questions of how we should behave as interplanetary colonists. As humans accelerate their space travel capacity and aim to colonize Mars in the next several decades, these questions are becoming less lofty and more immediately urgent.

Here’s another scenario: If humans were to land on Mars and were somehow lethally threatened by Martians, should humans attack the Martians? In his personal opinion, Lee says the answer would be yes. “If at some point it came down to either me or the microbe on Mars that’s going to survive, I’m probably not going to hesitate,” he says.

Yet these are not simple questions to address, and are not within the realm of the Haughton Mars Project to answer. The International Council for Science, consisting of 142 countries, has organized a Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) to help answer some of these questions and a United Nations Outer Space Treaty, in place since 1967, also helps streamline some of the ethical and legal implications that this issue raises.

But the treaty is meant to protect the safety of humans and scientific evidence of life on other planets, not to protect the environments or ecosystems of those planets. Moreover, the contents of the treaty are just guidelines: They are not laws, and the legal implications of not following them remain unclear, says Catharine Conley, head officer at NASA’s Planetary Protection Office.

“The peer pressure approach has, up until now, worked,” she says, explaining that it’s in space agencies’ best interest to work together since they often rely on each other for collaboration and advancement. But now, as more private companies like SpaceX enter the field to visit Mars, the playing field has changed.

“When you have other entities included that don’t have those same long term science objectives, it gets more complicated,” says Conley.

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A rover-like vehicle driving through the remote Arctic for the Haughton Mars Project. 

Under the current treaty guidelines, federal governments are responsible for the behavior of both their space agencies and nongovernmental space entities in their country. So a company like SpaceX must be authorized to launch by a government agency before lift off—but if it accidentally or intentionally fails to comply with the treaty guidelines at some point in flight, another country could theoretically sue the U.S. government or take other legal actions, says Conley.

Despite general good intentions and hard work to keep spacecraft free of contaminants, Conley says the biggest threat humans pose to other planets is what we don’t know—or what we think we know, but don’t. While research from the Haughton Mars Project suggests limited microbial transfer from rovers to Mars soil, other dynamics could exist on Mars or other planets that researchers haven’t even thought to anticipate.

“For certain types of Earth organisms, Mars is a gigantic dinner plate,” says Conley. “We don’t know, but it could be that those organisms would grow much more rapidly than they would on Earth because they have this unaffected environment and everything is there for them to use.”

So far, most of the attention to these ethical issues has focused on Mars, the most realistic subject of colonization in the near future. But other types of planets may bring up new concerns. “You can invent all kinds of scenarios, but the problem is currently it’s all open because no one has explored these things before,” says Conley, referring to the legal implications of contaminating Mars or another planet. “So until you have a case, you can’t decide what to do. But of course from the standpoint of planetary protection, as soon as you have a case, something has already gone wrong.”

There are also dangers that fall beyond the realm of planetary protection. Take energy production: In order for humans to live on another planet, we will need to develop a way to produce electricity. A substance called perchlorate exists in relatively high quantities on Mars (and also on Earth in bleach and other substances), making up about 1 percent of all the dust on the red planet. This highly energetic salt could potentially offer a good source of energy for humans on Mars, but not if humans accidentally introduce a microbe that eats it up before we have a chance to use it, says Conley.

Unfortunately, the guidelines put in place by the Outer Space Treaty won’t necessarily prevent this type of mistake from happening. The guidelines are strict on keeping spacecraft clean when looking for life on other planets, but less stringent for spacecraft traveling to a celestial body for other reasons. This is because planetary protection guidelines exist to preserve scientific evidence of extraterrestrial life—not the environments of other planets, says Gerhard Kminek, the planetary protection officer at the European Space Agency.

 

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An artist’s interpretation of a human colony on Mars. 

Working groups of COSPAR, including the Panel on Potentially Environmentally Detrimental Activities in Space, do explore how space activities might disrupt other planets’ environments. These panels report to the United Nations with their findings. But again, they only offer guidelines, not laws, says Kminek. So it’s up to international space agencies to recognize the importance of building best practices in spacecraft sanitation and keeping up with the sometimes onerous standards set by the Outer Space Treaty.

“If you do it badly once, that might be enough to compromise any future investigation related to life,” says Kminek. “And that’s why there is strong international consensus making sure there are no bad players around.”

The standards for travel also differ from one celestial body to another. For instance, Mars atmosphere is thick enough that it will burn off certain microbes upon entry—allowing spacecraft sanitation standards to remain laxer than they would be for vehicles landing somewhere with a very thin atmosphere, like Jupiter’s moon Europa, Kminek says.

That is, at least based on our understanding of these celestial bodies right now. During the Apollo missions to the Moon in the 1960s and 70s, we learned how unforeseen obstacles can cause critical problems in space travel. On the Moon, the threat lunar dust posed to astronauts was underestimated until it started getting stuck in the crevices of their face and in their zippers, jeopardizing the integrity of their spacesuits, says Margaret Race, a colleague of Conley’s at the SETI Institute.

“Had they been up there a little longer, their spacesuits would not have worked,” Race says.

Late astronaut and engineer Eugene Cernan, the last man to have walked on the Moon, stated the enormity of the dust problem during an Apollo 17 technical debrief in 1973: “I think dust is probably one of our greatest inhibitors to a nominal operation on the Moon,” he stated. “We can overcome other physiological or physical or mechanical problems except dust.”

Humans also didn’t do a good job limiting the transport of material from Earth to the Moon or vice versa, says Race. The Moon is lifeless, so this had little consequence on either celestial body. But if the Moon harbored life and a transfer of species did occur, the consequences would have been far greater. “If there were life on the Moon, we would have it here now,” she says. “We did the best we could at the time, but we didn’t understand.”

While space engineering has come a long way since the Apollo missions, plenty of work remains to determine the best practices in protecting life on other planets from humans, says Conley. And when we do finally land on Mars, the advancements will need to continue—even if it appears that scientists have sufficient knowledge of human threat to other planets.

“My response to that is, as soon as you eat your first candy bar, do you stop brushing your teeth?” says Conley. “We should keep doing it.” Because, in the end, what we don’t know will end up being the most dangerous threat humans pose to these other worlds.

The Brain Tech to Merge Humans and AI Is Already Being Developed


Are you scared of artificial intelligence (AI)?

Do you believe the warnings from folks like Prof. Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and others?

Is AI the greatest tool humanity will ever create, or are we “summoning the demon”?

To quote the head of AI at Singularity University, Neil Jacobstein, “It’s not artificial intelligence I’m worried about, it’s human stupidity.”

In a recent Abundance 360 webinar, I interviewed Bryan Johnson, the founder of a new company called Kernel which he seeded with $100 million.

To quote Bryan, “It’s not about AI vs. humans. Rather, it’s about creating HI, or ‘Human Intelligence’: the merger of humans and AI.”

Let’s dive in.

Meet Bryan Johnson and His New Company Kernel

Bryan Johnson is an amazing entrepreneur.

In 2007, he founded Braintree, an online and mobile payments provider. In 2013, PayPal acquired Braintree for $800 million.

In 2014, Bryan launched the OS Fund with $100 million of his personal capital to support inventors and scientists who aim to benefit humanity by rewriting the operating systems of life.

His investments include endeavors to cure age-related diseases and radically extend healthy human life to 100+ (Human Longevity Inc.), replicate the human visual cortex using artificial intelligence (Vicarious), expand humanity’s access to resources (Planetary Resources, Inc.), reinvent transportation using autonomous vehicles (Matternet), educate on accelerating technological progress (Singularity University), reimagine food using biology (Hampton Creek), make biology a predictable programming language (Emulate, Gingko Bioworks, Lygos, Pivot Bio, Synthego, Synthetic Genomics), and digitize analog businesses (3Scan, Emerald Cloud Lab, Plethora, Tempo Automation, Viv), among others.

Bryan is a big thinker, and now he is devoting his time, energy and resources to building “HI” through Kernel.

The company is building on 15 years of academic research at USC, funded by the NIH, DARPA and others, and they’ll begin human trials in the coming months.

But what is HI? And neuroprosthetics? And how is AI related?

Keep reading.

BCI, Neural Lace and HI

Your brain is composed of 100 billion cells called neurons, making 100 trillion synaptic connections.

These cells and their connections make you who you are and control everything you do, think and feel.

In combination with your sensory organs (i.e., eyes, ears), these systems shape how you perceive the world.

And sometimes, they can fail.

That’s where neuroprosthetics come into the picture.

The term “neuroprosthetics” describes the use of electronic devices to replace the function of impaired nervous systems or sensory organs.

They’ve been around for a while — the first cochlear implant was implanted in 1957 to help deaf individuals hear — and since then, over 350,000 have been implanted around the world, restoring hearing and dramatically improving quality of life for those individuals.

But cochlear implants only hint at a very exciting field that researchers call the brain-computer interface, or BCI: the direct communication pathway between the brain (the central nervous system, or CNS) and an external computing device.

The vision for BCI involves interfacing the digital world with the CNS for the purpose of augmenting or repairing human cognition.

You might have heard people like Elon Musk and others talking about a “neural lace” (this was actually a concept coined by science fiction writer Iain M. Banks).

Banks described a “neural lace” as essentially a very fine mesh that grows inside your brain and acts as a wireless brain-computer interface, releasing certain chemicals on command.

Well… though the idea might have started as science fiction, companies like Kernel are making it very real.

And once they do, we’ll have robust brain-computer interfaces, and we’ll be able to fix and augment ourselves. Ultimately this will also allow us to merge with AIs and become something more than just human.

Human Intelligence (HI)

Humans have always built tools of intelligence.

We started with rocks and progressively built more intelligent tools such as thermostats, calculators, computers and now AI. These are extensions of ourselves, and so we’ve been increasing our intelligence through our tools.

But now, our tools have become sophisticated enough (thanks to exponential technologies riding atop Moore’s Law) that we are about to incorporate them into our biology and take an exponential leap forward in intelligence.

This is so significant that it will change us as a species — we’re taking evolution into our own hands.

I like to say we’re going from evolution by natural selection — Darwinism — into evolution by intelligent direction.

We can now focus on technologies to augment human intelligence (HI).

This is what Bryan Johnson and Kernel are focused on.

The first step is to answer the basic question: can we mimic the natural function of neurons firing?

If we can mimic that natural functioning, and restore circuitry, or even if we can just maintain that circuitry, it begs the question: could we improve that circuitry?

Could we make certain memories stronger? Could we make certain memories weaker? Could we work with neural code in the same way we work with biological code via synthetic biology or genetic code? How do we read and write to neurons? Could we merge with AIs?

In my friend Ray Kurzweil’s mind, the answer is most certainly yes.

A Refresher on Ray Kurzweil’s Prediction

Ray Kurzweil is a brilliant technologist, futurist, and director of engineering at Google focused on AI and language processing.

He has also made more correct (and documented) technology predictions about the future than anyone:

As reported, “of the 147 predictions that Kurzweil has made since the 1990’s, fully 115 of them have turned out to be correct, and another 12 have turned out to be “essentially correct” (off by a year or two), giving his predictions a stunning 86% accuracy rate.”

Not too long ago, I wrote a post about his wildest prediction yet:

“In the early 2030s,” Ray said, “we are going to send nanorobots into the brain (via capillaries) that will provide full immersion virtual reality from within the nervous system and will connect our neocortex to the cloud. Just like how we can wirelessly expand the power of our smartphones 10,000-fold in the cloud today, we’ll be able to expand our neocortex in the cloud.”

A few weeks ago, I asked Bryan about Ray’s prediction about whether we’d be able to begin having our neocortex in the cloud by the 2030s.

His response, “Oh, I think it will happen before that.”

Exciting times.

Don’t Replace Humans with Robots — Allow Humans to Do What Robots Can


Article Image
MAX, a flexible exoskeleton, from suitX.

Artificial Intelligence hasn’t taken over the labor market, yet. It’s in unstructured workspaces where human laborers will continue to thrive, explained Dr. Homayoon Karerooni, founder and CEO of suiX. His company isn’t in the business of replacing humans with robot workers, rather his team wants to enhance and augment our abilities with MAX, a flexible exoskeleton.

“Our goal is to augment and support workers who perform demanding and repetitive tasks in unstructured workplaces in order to prevent and reduce injuries,” he said in a press release.

The MAX system comprises three exoskeleton modules: backX, shoulderX, and legX. So, depending on the task, a module could be worn to augment any kind of lifting, stooping, bending, or squatting. The company says it’s not just meant for picking up heavy things and putting them down, the suit and its modules are meant to decrease the rate of injury doing these repetitive maneuvers.

 For businesses and their employees, this technology would help to reduce workplace injury and enhance productivity. It’s basically a back brace that minimizes the amount of force and torque on the wearer’s back, which means less strain on the human and less risk of injury. But it’s industrial projects, like these, which will help fund suitX’s Phoenix line of bionic suits, which allows those bound to a wheelchair to walk.

The goal with Phoenix was to go a step beyond the wheelchair and create the independence we know advanced robotics can provide. These exoskeletons would go a long way in reducing healthcare costs, like MAX. The Phoenix, however, would prevent secondary injuries to those wheelchair-bound–a result from sitting for prolonged periods of time.

It’s the continued interest from military and industrial groups, asking for the creation of power-suits that enhance human strength, which will help propel this technology forward. And SuitX’s wheelchair-bound clients will (hopefully) be the beneficiaries.

Humans use similar sounds for common words in more than 6,000 languages


It’s like a universal, hidden language we never knew about.

A first-of-its-kind study looking at more than 6,000 languages has found that people from around the world tend to use the same sounds to signify common objects and ideas.

The findings suggest that humans speak a kind of ‘universal language’, perhaps influenced by biology, and go against a long-standing principle of modern linguistics – essentially, that there is no link between the sounds and the meaning of words.

“These sound symbolic patterns show up again and again across the world, independent of the geographical dispersal of humans and independent of language lineage,” says cognitive psychologist Morten H. Christiansen from Cornell University.

“There does seem to be something about the human condition that leads to these patterns. We don’t know what it is, but we know it’s there.”

Christiansen’s international team – including physicists, linguists, and computer scientists – conducted a massive analysis of almost two-thirds (62 percent) of the languages in use around the globe today.

Their investigation focused on basic vocabulary in each of these tongues, looking at the words used to describe up to 100 of the most common concepts people everywhere address every day: “dog”, “ear”, “water”, “tooth”, “you”, and so on.

They found a strong statistical relationship (74 sound–meaning associations) between the common concepts and the vocal sounds people make when referring to them.

In other words, despite the fact that foreign languages can sound totally confusing if you don’t understand them, there are actually a lot of similarities if you look closely – at least for the most common words, such as pronouns, body parts, properties (“small”, “full”) and verbs.

For example, the word for “nose” often involves “neh” or “oo” sounds; the terms for “red” and “round” usually include an “r” sound.

“It doesn’t mean all words have these sounds, but the relationship is much stronger than we’d expect by chance,” says Christiansen, noting that words for body parts in particular showed an unexpectedly high association between sounds and meaning.

And the associations can be negative too, with the words we use to describe things in different languages showing a common tendency to avoid particular vocal sounds – such as the word for “you”, which is unlikely to include sounds involving the letters u, o, p, t, d, q, s, r, and l.

As you may have noticed from that example, English doesn’t always obey the rules, and was noted as an outlier in many cases.

It’s not the first time scientists have observed a relationship between the sounds of words and their meanings across different languages. But nobody’s ever conducted such a huge analysis and shown just how far these commonalities – what’s called sound symbolism – actually extend.

The findings – published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – could make some pretty big waves in the scientific community.

A century ago, Swiss researcher Ferdinand de Saussure suggested that there was no relationship between the sounds we make and the meanings we intend, and the idea remains as one of the defining principles of modern linguistic theory.

“Most models for how words come into our lexicon are predicated on this assumption that the sound doesn’t tell you anything about what it represents,” cognitive psychologist Jaime Reilly from Temple University, who wasn’t involved in the study, told Sarah Kaplan at The Washington Post.

“So the really neat thing about this paper is it sort of questions whether that arbitrariness assumption actually holds across all words,” he added. “It’s going to end up being a very important study.”

But why do so many human languages demonstrate these ties to this hidden, universal language of sounds that informs the way we speak?

The researchers aren’t themselves sure. They considered it could be the remnant of some form of “prehistoric protolanguage” that was once spoken by the earliest humans before the evolution of modern languages – but their own analysis suggests it’s more likely that biology is somehow at play here.

“Perhaps these signals help to nudge kids into acquiring language,” says Christiansen. “Likely it has something to do with the human mind or brain, our ways of interacting, or signals we use when we learn or process language. That’s a key question for future research.”

Latest ocean warming review reveals extent of impacts on nature and humans.


Ocean warming is affecting humans in direct ways and the impacts are already being felt, including effects on fish stocks and crop yields, more extreme weather events and increased risk from water-borne diseases, according to what has been called the most comprehensive review available on the issue.

Aerial view of Arctic Ocean.

Ocean warming is affecting humans in direct ways and the impacts are already being felt, including effects on fish stocks and crop yields, more extreme weather events and increased risk from water-borne diseases, according to what has been called the most comprehensive review available on the issue, launched today by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Hawai’i.

The report, Explaining ocean warming: Causes, scale, effects and consequences, reviews the effects of ocean warming on species, ecosystems and on the benefits oceans provide to humans. Compiled by 80 scientists from 12 countries, it highlights detectable scientific evidence of impacts on marine life, from microorganisms to mammals, which are likely to increase significantly even under a low emissions scenario.

“Ocean warming is one of this generation’s greatest hidden challenges — and one for which we are completely unprepared,” says IUCN Director General Inger Andersen. “The only way to preserve the rich diversity of marine life, and to safeguard the protection and resources the ocean provides us with, is to cut greenhouse gas emissions rapidly and substantially.”

Ocean warming is already affecting ecosystems from polar to tropical regions, driving entire groups of species such as plankton, jellyfish, turtles and seabirds up to 10 degrees of latitude towards the poles, causing the loss of breeding grounds for turtles and seabirds, and affecting the breeding success of marine mammals, according to the report.

By damaging fish habitats and causing fish species to move to cooler waters, warming oceans are affecting fish stocks in some areas and are expected to lead to reduced catches in tropical regions, the report states.

In East Africa and the Western Indian Ocean, for example, ocean warming has reduced the abundance of some fish species by killing parts of the coral reefs they depend on, adding to losses caused by overfishing and destructive fishing techniques. In South-East Asia, harvests from marine fisheries are expected to fall by between 10% and 30% by 2050 relative to 1970-2000, as the distributions of fish species shift, under a high ‘business as usual’ greenhouse gas emission scenario, the report states.

“Most of the heat from human-induced warming since the 1970s — a staggering 93% — has been absorbed by the ocean, which acts as a buffer against climate change, but this comes at a price. We were astounded by the scale and extent of ocean warming effects on entire ecosystems made clear by this report,” says Dan Laffoley, Marine Vice Chair of the World Commission on Protected Areas at IUCN, and one of the lead authors.

The report also highlights evidence that ocean warming is causing increased disease in plant and animal populations, and impacting human health as pathogens spread more easily in warmer waters, including cholera-bearing bacteria and harmful algal blooms that cause neurological diseases like ciguatera.

Warming oceans are also affecting the weather, with a range of knock-on effects on humans. The number of severe hurricanes has increased at a rate of around 25-30% per degree of global warming, the report states.

Ocean warming has led to increased rainfall in mid-latitudes and monsoon areas, and less rain in various sub-tropical regions. These changes will have impacts on crop yields in important food-producing regions such as North America and India, according to the report.

The protection against climate change offered to us by oceans and their ecosystems — such as absorbing large amounts of CO2 and sheltering us from storms and erosion — is also likely to reduce as the ocean warms, according to the report.

The report’s recommendations include recognising the severity of ocean warming impacts on ocean ecosystems and the benefits they provide to humans, expanding marine protected areas, introducing legal protection for the high seas, better evaluating the social and economic risks associated with warming oceans and continuing to fill gaps in scientific knowledge, as well as cutting greenhouse gas emissions rapidly and substantially.

Ocean conservation is one of the major themes addressed by the ongoing IUCN Congress, where IUCN Members will vote on motions related to protecting the high seas and protected areas in Antarctica among many others.

OFF THE RECORD Researchers Make a SHOCKING Claim That Humans Did NOT Evolve On Earth!


This year, other scientists have argued that life originated on Mars, due to a mineral found in Martian meteorites, thought to be crucial to the genesis of life.

BUT, a new book by American ecologist Dr. Ellis Silver offers arguments, based on human physiology, that humans as species may not have evolved alongside other life on Earth – but arrived from elsewhere, brought here by aliens as recently as a few tens of thousands of years ago.

This is a BIG claim, however, the facts that Silver puts on the table will make you say “how did I not realized this sooner!!”

Silver, an environmentalist who is currently working with the effort to clean plastic debris from the Pacific, says his book aims to provoke debate – and is based on scientific work on the difference between humans and other animals.

“The Earth approximately meets our needs as a species, but perhaps not as strongly as whoever brought us here initially thought,” Silver said in an interview with Yahoo news.

“Mankind is supposedly the most highly developed species on the planet, yet is surprisingly unsuited and ill-equipped for Earth’s environment: harmed by sunlight, a strong dislike for naturally occurring foods, ridiculously high rates of chronic disease, and more.”

Dr. Ellis says that humans might suffer from bad backs because they evolved on a world with lower gravity.

He also says that it is strange that babies’ heads are so large and make it difficult for women to give birth, which can result in fatalities of the mother and infant.

“No other truly native species on this planet has this problem,” he says. Silver also points out to the “extra” 223 genes in human beings, which are not found in any other species, and to the lack of a fossil “missing link”.

“Lizards can sunbathe for as long as they like – and many of them do. We can just about get away with it for a week or two. But day after day in the sun? Forget it. You might as well just lie down on the freeway and wait for a bus to hit you.” We are dazzled by the sun, which is also odd, says Silver – most animals are not.

“We are all chronically ill,” says Silver.

“Indeed, if you can find a single person who is 100% fit and healthy and not suffering from some (perhaps hidden or unstated) condition or disorder (there’s an extensive list in the book) I would be extremely surprised – I have not been able to find anyone.” Silver continues.

This year, other scientists have argued that life originated on Mars, due to a mineral found in Martian meteorites, thought to be crucial to the genesis of life.

BUT, a new book by American ecologist Dr. Ellis Silver offers arguments, based on human physiology, that humans as species may not have evolved alongside other life on Earth – but arrived from elsewhere, brought here by aliens as recently as a few tens of thousands of years ago.

This is a BIG claim, however, the facts that Silver puts on the table will make you say “how did I not realized this sooner!!”

Silver, an environmentalist who is currently working with the effort to clean plastic debris from the Pacific, says his book aims to provoke debate – and is based on scientific work on the difference between humans and other animals.

“The Earth approximately meets our needs as a species, but perhaps not as strongly as whoever brought us here initially thought,” Silver said in an interview with Yahoo news.

“Mankind is supposedly the most highly developed species on the planet, yet is surprisingly unsuited and ill-equipped for Earth’s environment: harmed by sunlight, a strong dislike for naturally occurring foods, ridiculously high rates of chronic disease, and more.”

Dr. Ellis says that humans might suffer from bad backs because they evolved on a world with lower gravity.

He also says that it is strange that babies’ heads are so large and make it difficult for women to give birth, which can result in fatalities of the mother and infant.

“No other truly native species on this planet has this problem,” he says. Silver also points out to the “extra” 223 genes in human beings, which are not found in any other species, and to the lack of a fossil “missing link”.

“Lizards can sunbathe for as long as they like – and many of them do. We can just about get away with it for a week or two. But day after day in the sun? Forget it. You might as well just lie down on the freeway and wait for a bus to hit you.” We are dazzled by the sun, which is also odd, says Silver – most animals are not.

“We are all chronically ill,” says Silver.

“Indeed, if you can find a single person who is 100% fit and healthy and not suffering from some (perhaps hidden or unstated) condition or disorder (there’s an extensive list in the book) I would be extremely surprised – I have not been able to find anyone.” Silver continues.

Not-Earthlings

It’s like we desperately try to hide the fact that we do not fully belong in this Nature we try to fit in.

We say that we evolved but, if we truly evolved here, shouldn’t we be more in connection with Nature instead of being less and less, to a point that we even harm life around us?

Something just does not seem right.

This year, other scientists have argued that life originated on Mars, due to a mineral found in Martian meteorites, thought to be crucial to the genesis of life.

BUT, a new book by American ecologist Dr. Ellis Silver offers arguments, based on human physiology, that humans as species may not have evolved alongside other life on Earth – but arrived from elsewhere, brought here by aliens as recently as a few tens of thousands of years ago.

This is a BIG claim, however, the facts that Silver puts on the table will make you say “how did I not realized this sooner!!”

Silver, an environmentalist who is currently working with the effort to clean plastic debris from the Pacific, says his book aims to provoke debate – and is based on scientific work on the difference between humans and other animals.

“The Earth approximately meets our needs as a species, but perhaps not as strongly as whoever brought us here initially thought,” Silver said in an interview with Yahoo news.

“Mankind is supposedly the most highly developed species on the planet, yet is surprisingly unsuited and ill-equipped for Earth’s environment: harmed by sunlight, a strong dislike for naturally occurring foods, ridiculously high rates of chronic disease, and more.”

Dr. Ellis says that humans might suffer from bad backs because they evolved on a world with lower gravity.

He also says that it is strange that babies’ heads are so large and make it difficult for women to give birth, which can result in fatalities of the mother and infant.

“No other truly native species on this planet has this problem,” he says. Silver also points out to the “extra” 223 genes in human beings, which are not found in any other species, and to the lack of a fossil “missing link”.

“Lizards can sunbathe for as long as they like – and many of them do. We can just about get away with it for a week or two. But day after day in the sun? Forget it. You might as well just lie down on the freeway and wait for a bus to hit you.” We are dazzled by the sun, which is also odd, says Silver – most animals are not.

“We are all chronically ill,” says Silver.

“Indeed, if you can find a single person who is 100% fit and healthy and not suffering from some (perhaps hidden or unstated) condition or disorder (there’s an extensive list in the book) I would be extremely surprised – I have not been able to find anyone.” Silver continues.

Not-Earthlings

It’s like we desperately try to hide the fact that we do not fully belong in this Nature we try to fit in.

We say that we evolved but, if we truly evolved here, shouldn’t we be more in connection with Nature instead of being less and less, to a point that we even harm life around us?

Something just does not seem right.

 “I believe that many of our problems stem from the simple fact that our internal body clocks have evolved to expect a 25 hour day (this has been proven by sleep researchers), but the Earth’s day is only 24 hours. This is not a modern condition – the same factors can be traced all the way back through mankind’s history on Earth.”

There is another key element we usually tend to ignore.

Many people say that they don’t feel like they belong on Earth, nor feel at home here, says Dr. Ellis Silver.

And this fact is not something to see as irrelevant, especially not if the majority of the human population feels like this.

“This suggests (to me at least) that mankind may have evolved on a different planet, and we may have been brought here as a highly developed species.” says Silver

What if we migrated here from Mars? And this, believe it or not, is not as farfetched as it seems. Scientists recently discovered that Mars had a strong Magnetic field before it became a wasteland.

post_245_2_1 (1)

Mars is the only planet in our Solar System that has a day of 25 hours, it is further away from The Sun than Earth, it has weaker gravity and it was discovered that Mars had large amounts of water in the past.

What if there was some kind of destruction of global proportions and we had to migrate to save our species?

This would also prove the stories of Humanity being more evolved in the past, but because of an unknown incident we “fell” from “heaven” on earth, and went through a phase of forgetting.

“My thesis proposes that mankind did not evolve from that particular strain of life, but evolved elsewhere and was transported to Earth (as fully evolved Homo sapiens) between 60,000 and 200,000 years ago,” says Dr. Ellis Silver.

When robots eliminate jobs, humans will find better things to do


The fear of millions of jobs being automated out of existence by robots and artificial intelligence is real. Here’s how it will change the world — for the better.

The specter of robots taking over many of the world’s jobs — from retail to manufacturing to janitorial work to the military — has been hanging over humanity for decades. The threat has expanded recently to include not just robots but also artificial intelligence — algorithms — with solutions like Google’s search engine and IBM Watson proving that not only can technology do manual labor better than humans but it can also solve problems better, in some cases.

AI-robots

Preparations should be made to help retrain and place workers whose jobs are being eliminated — especially since some of society’s most economically vulnerable people and communities will be hit the hardest by the transition.

But while plenty of jobs will be automated out of existence, many types of jobs will remain resilient to automation. And, many of the people whose jobs are replaced by machines and algorithms will do what human beings have always done when technology has forced one of these transitions — they find better and more interesting things to do with their time. Some of them will even invent new things and push humanity forward in the process.

That’s not to belittle or demean people who worry about losing their jobs. There are few things more human than fearing for our jobs and the livelihood of our families. From the time humans stopped hunting-and-gathering and started settling in communities and taking on specialized roles in those communities, we’ve worried about our roles becoming useless and not being able to earn our keep.

That only intensified after the Industrial Revolution when factories and industry jobs replaced work that involved skilled trades, farming, and the labor to make handmade goods. More and more people became dependent on companies for the work to earn their livelihood.

So what happens when those companies replace a lot of those jobs with robots and algorithms? That’s the question hanging over humanity.

The answer is that humans usually find new things to do.

For example, farming used to be one of the largest labor sources in the United States. But, advancements in the way we farm have made it far more efficient and dramatically reduced the number of workers it takes to run farms — from 10 million in 1950 to 3 million by 2010,according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. During that same period, the U.S. technology industry was created and by 2014 it employed 6.5 million workers, according to CompTIA.

While those numbers net out quite nicely, obviously not all of those farmers became computer technicians and software engineers. But, it’s probably fair to say that a share of the kids who might have worked on the family farm ended up getting educated in computers and ultimately found more lucrative work there.

It’s the same principle that recessions tend to spawn surges of innovation. Many of today’s leading tech companies — including Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook — were all born during economic downturns. The Panic of 1873 was followed by a surge of new patent filings and the decades that followed gave us the light bulb, the telephone, the phonograph, the electrical grid, and the urban subway system.

Part of these outpourings is due to “necessity being the mother of invention” but part of it is also due to humans giving in to their natural curiosity and creativity when they have extra time on their hands. All of the things that robots and algorithms are good at mostly involve brute force — physical or computational. They don’t involve creativity or nuance, empathy or finesse.

Humans got to the top of the foodchain and became the shapers of the planet because of the size of our brains. We’re slower than a lot of other animals. Many of them are stronger than us. And we don’t have many natural gifts to be good hunters.

But we make great tools.

And those tools allow us to move across the ground faster than cheetahs, to fly farther than hawks and eagles, and to produce food in such quantities that we can put ourselves to work on other tasks.

Those tools include AI and robotics. When we think about how robotics, AI, and automation will cause havoc to today’s economic models, then the future does look bleak for workers. There’s likely to be displacement, upheaval, and societal changes when these trends fully take hold. But, we also shouldn’t discount that because of its potential scale, it will likely unleash an unprecedented new wave of innovation.

It will take a lot of people out of mindless jobs and give them the greatest resource of innovation: time.

Again, I don’t want to downplay the deprivation and heartache that are often a feature of these transitions. But as we anticipate the massive effects that automation will bring, we should also remember that we won’t know the full unintended consequences of untethering all of that human creativity and potential at once.

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