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The Engineer's Notebook

The Engineer's Notebook is a shared blog for entries that don't fit into a specific CR4 blog. Topics may range from grammar to physics and could be research or or an individual's thoughts - like you'd jot down in a well-used notebook.

Skyney is Coming, No Really (Technological Singularity)

Posted November 19, 2014 11:25 AM by HUSH

Last spring I was on vacation in Florida and took the hour drive from the beach into Orlando to visit Universal Studios. Many people elect for one of Disney's many, many family-oriented theme parks, but with no kids, and a severe affection for roller coasters and thrill rides, Universal Studios was my choice.

After spending, oh, I don't know, about $450 for a single-day pass for two people (seriously), I was entreated to a theme park full of movie-oriented attractions and rides representing today's most popular entertainment brands. Harry Potter. Shrek. Transformers. Despicable Me. Men in Black. Marvel Comics. The Simpsons. It was an all-out onslaught of merchandise and marketing. (If you're still with me, I promise, this is getting somewhere.)

Yet a few less-popular brands still exist in the park. Twister has its own ride. Beetlejuice has a show. I expected these fading brands to be replaced by more popular ones. I even attended a 3D live show of Terminator 2, complete with a Schwarzenegger imposter on a motorcycle, animatronic Terminators and mid-1990s 3D technology. It was obviously a let-down considering how developed 3D technology has become in the 20 years since the release of T2, and it was no surprise that the theater was less than a quarter-full during my showing.

So why does Terminator 2 3-D: Battle Across Time still stand as an attraction today? There are dozens of more profitable replacement options for an overage, unpopular attraction with a fading brand. Could it be that this live interpretation of humanity's battle versus Skynet is powerful reminder that the technological singularity is inevitable? Or is this blogger just grasping at straws while trying to segue into a post about such a topic?

It's definitely the latter, but at least hear me out.

You might remember the name Alan Horn--he is best known one of the lead developers of IBM's Watson, the supercomputer that appeared on Jeopardy! and is now used to assess treatments for lung cancer. Horn recently argued that whether humans want it to or not, technology will develop to a point where it begins to develop itself. It will be a cascading series of machines building machines, and it will make humans obsolete in every way, an event known as the technological singularity. Not only will humanity's thought processes be dwarfed by artificial superintelligence, but humanity's convictions on art and morality will be challenged in the name of optimization and efficiency. This will essentially make humans useless, but significant resources will still be spent on keeping us all alive, while humans contribute immense waste and pollution. This would be the point where the T-100s arrive and begin eradicating humanity. Many point out that an uncontrolled technological ascent has no reason to view humans as helpful or friendly. It wouldn't be actively malicious, but it would sometimes compete for the same resources, and would not be interested in furthering humanity's goals. Perhaps the best way of aligning our goals would be transhumanism, the concept of blending human physiology with bioengineering developments to create superhumans.

Futurologists have attempted to predict exactly when the singularity will occur. The median seems to be 2045, but the consensus is that it would definitely happen by 2100. This is based on the rate at which computational capacities compound, heavily influenced by Moore's law. Several things could slow down the rate of growth, such as software bottlenecks. Software has different development timescales than hardware, and even a superintelligent machine that is writing code would be playing catch-up to more advanced hardware. Also, according to other experts, eventually hardware reaches an upper threshold in computational speed--a threshold that would be reached in due time even with humans building machines.

Even if slowed, the singularity appears inevitable. For it to not occur, the Singularity University believes that intelligence augmentation needs to fail on six different impeding innovations: bioengineering, genetic engineering, nootropic drugs, AI assistants, brain-computer interfaces, and brain uploading. Even the success of one of these will lead to a singularity. It's so unavoidable, that Stephen Hawking believes superintelligence needs to be planned for today, because it could lead to lead to "technology outsmarting financial markets, out-inventing human researchers, out-manipulating human leaders, and developing weapons we cannot even understand."

Should we be worried about becoming obsolete ourselves, or is the concern of a technological singularity the stuff of science fiction?

15 comments; last comment on 11/21/2014
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Engineering Degree? Your 'Get Out of Jury Duty Free' Card

Posted August 20, 2014 9:03 AM by HUSH
Pathfinder Tags: career engineer jury duty

Jury duty is often described as a consequence of citizenship. "It's a civic duty!" and "Give back to your community!" are two of the more guilt-laced arguments which pressure people to fulfill this monotonous service.

Even though CSI and Law & Order can make jury duty seem just like Hollywood, first-time jurors are almost always disappointed. I've been called for jury duty twice in my life and here is the sequence.

1. Arrive on time. Wait.

2. Walk into a room. Wait.

3. File brief paperwork and drink bad coffee. Wait.

4. Walk into a courtroom-wait for judge.

5. Get excused.

6. Wait for 5-10 years for another jury duty notice.

It could be a lot worse. I could get stuck on a trial that takes months to deliberate. Or it could be a menial tax trial or grand jury. Instead, my inconvenience is getting to read only one chapter of the book I brought. After all, most jury summons include a paid excuse from work.

So while I'm not an engineer, and never claim to be, it could be that my occupation in a technical field (tech writing) has eliminated me from prior juror pools. I'm exposed to scientific principles, arithmetic, and engineering resources quite often, and it's not impossible that my familiarity with Socratic method has tainted my perspective.

Apparently, it's quite common for scientists and engineers to be eliminated from juror pools. There are a couple of reasons why this might be. In many cases, lawyers argue passionately for their side based on a series of assumptions-a liberty scientists and engineers do not have and often fail to entertain. Prosecutors and defense attorneys might be intimidated by a well-cultivated mind; it's rumored doctors, even retired ones, are often excused from criminal cases as well.

Bloggers at Scienctopia recognized two issues when they examined why jury duty should be hated by everyone, not just scientists. First, jurors are instructed to arrive at a conclusion based on the "preponderance of evidence." That means that a person who is able to analyze information and draw conclusions, without the interpretation of the lawyer, can't be (or at least shouldn't be) swayed by an emotional argument. Second, "beyond a reasonable doubt" is pretty much nonsense. Evidence either is or isn't; there is no open interpretation of the circumstances set forth.

While researching this blog post, I came across this reddit comment where the user mentioned his professor was excused because he needed to know what confidence interval described "beyond reasonable doubt." I wonder what unit of measure they used?

While this is a humorous way to examine why engineers get tossed from juror pools, it beautifully illustrates how constructive information processing affects decision making in unforeseen ways, and is also understood by other professionals, even if it goes unobserved amongst peers.

Interestingly, the jury selection system used in the United States is known as scientific jury selection (seems like an oxymoron). So do engineers have an internal bias that can't be overlooked? Would less wrongfully convicted people end up on death row or with a life sentence if more intelligent people served on juries? Can this question even really be answered?

42 comments; last comment on 08/26/2014
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Life is Random

Posted July 30, 2014 7:34 AM by HUSH
Pathfinder Tags: dinosaur extinction life Mars

I'm sure that by now you've heard yet another Jurassic Park film will be released next year. This time around the dinosaurs run amok and eat people, as opposed to the other films, where the dinosaurs run amok and eat people. But it remains an intriguing topic, so I'm sure the film will do well. Dinosaurs capture the imagination with equal parts sci-fi and horror, while reminding us the Earth was not always ours, and one day will not be ours any more.

Consider the recent discovery that dinosaurs nearly survived the asteroid that drove the giant lizards to extinction 66 million years ago. In fact, had the asteroid impacted at a different time, give or take a few million years, then dinosaurs likely would have survived, and mammals--and therefore humans--would have never thrived. The asteroid touched down just as dinosaur evolution entered a fragile period where carnivores had overhunted herbivores, meaning biodiversity and adaptabilities were low. As one of the lead authors noted:

"If the asteroid didn't hit…there is a good chance they would still be with us today. And if dinosaurs didn't go extinct, then mammals would have never had their opportunity to blossom. So if it wasn't for that asteroid, then humans probably wouldn't be here."

Naturally, this is where I remind you that life is completely by chance. There have been five extinction events in the Earth's brief 4.5 billion years, and scientists currently warn we're on track for number six. Then again, once one extinction event is over the countdown for the next one begins, so in the Sylvia Plath mindset it can be argued we're always on track for extinction.

The only difference is that this will be Earth's first species-induced extinction. This has been deemed the Holocene extinction, and upper estimates have determined humans may be responsible for 140,000 species extinctions per year. Climate change has been beaten to death in the media, and I don't plan on spending more than this sentence on its effects, because ultimately it's too late to stop.

That doesn't mean the human race is doomed. We're by far the most intelligent species to have dominated the planet, and when average Earth temperatures exceed 120° F (sometime before the year 2300) hopefully we'll have the technology straightened out to thrive in such conditions, along with all of the remaining animal inhabitants.

But we'll just be delaying the inevitable, right? Many people hope that Mars holds the secret to surviving a planetary extinction. Most scientists agree that at some point Mars was cultivating life--bacteria and microorganisms, but life nonetheless. At some point Mars lost its atmosphere, but some speculate that life may continue to thrive in methane vents or carbon dioxide geysers; NASA launches the geyser hopper lander in 2016 to investigate.

Life is random. Postpone the climate change and await the asteroid. There is no winning in evolutionary roulette.

14 comments; last comment on 08/04/2014
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Build a Better Fourth

Posted July 02, 2014 9:55 AM by HUSH
Pathfinder Tags: fireworks holiday July 4

I may or may not have mentioned this before, but the Fourth of July is awesome. It's an unusual holiday here in the U.S., as it's our only federal holiday in the summer, and law enforcement tends to be a little more lax (fireworks, open containers, and other frivolous violations). Also, it seems to be the only day of the year where everyone agrees to red, white, and blue everything. I realize that such a pompous display of national pride might seem weird to European readers, but realize we here have never had an up close and intimate view of righteous nationalism.

As such, I always do my best to give this day the celebration it deserves: fireworks, BBQ, baseball, and swimming. But it's not always easy to accomplish all these. Fireworks are either legal, illegal, or legally ambiguous depending on where you live. Anyone can grill burgers and dogs, but that's not BBQ. Baseball is great, but also admittedly boring. If you live in a city, finding a pool that isn't packed or gross is impossible.

So here are my pseudo-scientific tips on maximizing your Fourth, no matter your situation, and American or not.


The map at right illustrates the basic legal status of consumer fireworks for each state in the U.S. Many states are ambiguous or have loopholes; for example, in Pennsylvania, only out-of-state citizens can purchase fireworks and they must sign a waiver which promises to remove their purchase from the state within 24 hours. Really, despite what the map says, if there is a will, there is a way. Fortunately, police can only respond to so many fireworks calls, and you don't have to make a road trip to come up with the ingredients for bottle rockets.

Use this Instructables guide to create low-powered bottle rockets. Note: do this respectfully (in an open area away from people and homes), as CR4 has no liability if you act like a jerk with this information.


Grilling is not equal to barbeque. Even a native New Yorker can identify that. Simply put, BBQ requires some kind of wood smoke. I've been a smoking aficionado for about five years now. Here are some ribs on the grill from Memorial Day weekend prepared by yours truly. This weekend I'm going to smoke up some turkey legs.

There is no need for a commercial or homebuilt smoker, but these do tend to produce the best flavor. I use a second-hand Weber propane grill. The number one rule is patience: a good smoking process takes much longer than grilling. The rack temperature should be around 200° F, meaning one or two burners on low-medium. Wood chips from the local hardware store only run about $10. Soak them for about 30 minutes, and place them in a multi-layer foil packet. Poke some holes through the packet and place them directly over the grill baffles. Ideally, you should only turn your burgers, chicken, ribs, etc. once during cooking, and the fat side should start facing up. Use a meat thermometer to check temperatures.


I love baseball in a way that few others do. Many find it monotonous and sleepy. So instead of nodding off during the third inning, challenge your BBQ guests to a wiffle ball game. It's a low intensity game anyone can play, and a wiffle bat and ball are about $5. In 2011, New York State tried to establish government regulations regarding wiffle ball safety; sadly, they weren't joking.

Wiffle balls are called such because the construction of the ball allows pitchers extensive control of curveballs, producing "whiffs." The eight elliptical holes that perforate half of the ball determine how the ball acts when thrown. To produce the biggest curve possible, position your index and middle fingers on along the seam where the ball has been put together, with the holes pointing away from your body. Throw the pitch hard, and overhand like a baseball. A sweeping curve will decimate all opponents, as more airflow gets routed into the hollowness of the ball.


I'll admit I was very excited when I saw this photo of a clear lagoon floating in the Hudson River on PopMech. So, I was equally disappointed to learn it was a mock-up of what it would look like if Crystal Lagoons installed a floating lagoon in the harbor. These oversized pools are being installed in locations around the world, such as in Dubai, which also has too much garbage in the water for its population to swim. These lagoons can be towed to various venues and can also be turned into ice rinks in the winter. There is talk of making these an option for nuclear plants that use water to cool reactors and wreak havoc on local ecologies.

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The Internet of Things

Posted June 29, 2014 12:00 AM by Chelsey H

Interesting stuff on the internet

Happy 4th of July! Image Credit: JD Hancock

Going away for the summer? Consider checking out the World's Largest Underground Cave Trampoline.

It's impossible to hide from the World Cup these days - At least you can enjoy these beautiful pictures of the FIFA World Cup 2014 in Brazil.

You know I'm always talking about the importance of water. How about a bottle cap that reminds you to hydrate?

Abandon buildings are strangely fascinating: 12 Abandon Automobile Dealerships.

I'm heading to Arizona for 4th of July- This trick is going to be very handy.

Chocolate is also a favorite topic on CR4. NPR writes about How Chocolate Might Save the Planet.

For a better experience, keep your browser up to date.

Need a laugh? Watch these kids react to old computers

Bikers will love this - a bicycle frame handle for carrying your bike up stairs or when you're on a train.

Last but not least - Robots are creepy cool!

1 comments; last comment on 06/29/2014
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Virtual Reality and Facebook

Posted June 28, 2014 12:00 AM by Chelsey H

Another garage breakthrough strikes again. Palmer Luckey designed his first working prototype of a head-mounted 3D display in his garage at the age of 16.

Now 21, Palmer is the founder of Oculus VR, a company that is on the verge of releasing the Rift, an affordable virtual-reality headset for playing ultra-immersive video games and mentioned in this CR4 Post.

Although Palmer has no form engineering training, years of amassing and tinkering with head-mounted displays inspired him to design his own prototype and it has garnered the attention of venture capitalists to the tune of $91 million. The device has also attracted a following, including game programmer John Carmack, who led the development of influential video games such as Doom, Quake, and Rage.

But Facebook stepped up, buying the company for $2 billion this spring. This purchase is a sign that virtual reality (VR) is now sharp and cheap enough to have a huge potential for more video games. And now virtual reality doesn't have to stay in the realm of video games. The technology also has applications in teleconferencing, online shopping, and more passive forms of entertainment like movies. VR technology has been used for several years in some industries, including medicine where surgeons routinely practice operations using VR simulation. But the Rift offers better resolution at a lower price than anything on the market today.

Image Credit: Technology Review

When you use the Rift, you feel as though you're inside the virtual world. The technology, adapted from parts of smart phones, follows the movement of your head in real time. This allows the user to lean in to take a better look at a virtual flower or look into the skies at a virtual cloud.

The retail version will launch later this year or early next year. The Rift will offer resolution higher than 1,920 by 1,080 pixels per eye.

My first concern when I read about this technology was if it was going to make me motion-sick. Oculus reported that while some testers have reported nausea, they have almost eliminated this problem in the latest version. The experience is helped by the many stimulating worlds that artists today are able to create.

Keep your eyes out for the Rift on the market! Learn more about it by watching the video here.

Would you be interested in buying a VR headset?

This article is brought from MIT 10 Breakthrough Technologies 2014

2 comments; last comment on 06/29/2014
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