War, networked helmets, and "augmented cognition."

Science, technology, and life.
Nov. 16 2007 8:00 AM

Cyborg Soldiers

War, networked helmets, and "augmented cognition."

(For discussions of the latest topics, check out the Human Nature Fray.)

Engineers are integrating robots into animal societies. Latest example: Four robotic roaches persuaded 12 real roaches to congregate in an unnaturally dangerous place. Key trick: coating the robots with roach sex hormones. Objectives: 1) Study how animal groups make decisions. 2) See whether robots can fit in well enough to participate in those decisions. 3) Make robots better at learning and adapting. Other examples: robotic spiders, snakes, dogs, and monkeys. Scientists' official reassurance: "We are not interested in people." Fine print: "The scientists plan to extend their research to higher animals," starting with a robotic chicken designed to commandeer chicks. Warning: The roach robots were freed from ongoing human control, and in 4 out of 10 cases, they followed the decisions of the real roaches, instead of the other way around. (Related: a robot controlled by a roach; a robot controlled by a moth brain; a robot controlled by a detached eel brain; remote-controlled pigeons; remote-controlled rats.)

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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The U.S. military is funding a project to integrate human with artificial intelligence. Problem: Human brains are superior to computers at visual recognition but inferior at information processing. Solution: human-machine integration. Human component: A soldier or analyst who scans scenes or images. Machine component: Sensors that monitor the brain's activity and relay information about it to commanders or computers. Analytical application: Computers identify images and image areas flagged by the human scan and select those for more thorough scrutiny. Battlefield applications: 1) A prototype helmet already delivers "a visual readout for combat commanders showing the cognitive patterns of individual Soldiers." 2) "Brain pattern and heart rate data from system-equipped soldiers will be transmitted wirelessly to commanders in real-time to improve overall battlefield information management and decision-making." Project buzzwords: "real-time cognitive state assessment," "networked soldiers," "Augmented Cognition," "human-computer warfighting integral." Translation: We're fielding cyborgs. Human Nature's prediction: The next step will be to remove the human component from the battlefield and let machines provide the sensor mobility as well as the information processing. (Related: civilian cyborg enthusiasts; fighting terrorists with bomb-detecting robots.)

A study documented widespread distracted driving in New York City. Sample: 3,120 drivers observed at 50 red lights. Findings: 1) 23 percent were talking on cell phones. 2) Half of these were holding the phone, which is illegal. 3) 6 percent of all drivers were smoking, 4 percent were drinking, 3 percent were eating, and 2 percent were grooming. 4) One of every three drivers was guilty of at least one of these distractions. Libertarian spins: 1) The study shows that banning handheld cell-phone calls backfired, since people on hands-free phones, thinking they're safe, are "the most likely to engage in grooming, eating, drinking and smoking" at the wheel. 2) It shows "people are smoking in their cars because it's banned in other venues," so we're forcing people to smoke in the most dangerous place. Public safety spin: No problem, we'll just ban smoking in cars and talking on hands-free cell phones, too. (Actually, we're already banning smoking in cars. For examples, look  here, here, here, and here.)

Update on male birth control: A "selective androgen receptor modulator" succeeded in animal tests. Mechanism: The drug stops sperm production by suppressing a hormone in the brain. Regimen: You'd take the pill for two months or so to wipe out your sperm count. Results in rats: 1) 100 percent effective after 70 days of use. 2) 100 percent fertility restored after 100 subsequent days of nonuse. Possible bonus: "boosting muscle mass," since drug companies have already been researching the drug to prevent muscle loss. Fine print: The drug shrank the rats' prostates, so it'll be a while before it's ready for humans. Related: 1) Another sperm-suppression drug. 2) Drug companies won't develop male birth control. 3) Actually, the government is funding it. 4) Men fail to complete the vasectomy process. 5) The joy of spray-on condoms.

Scientists reportedly cloned a monkey and derived useful stem cells from its embryonic clones. If confirmed, it's the first time any primate, including humans, has been truly cloned. Key breakthrough: a technical tweak that surmounts the previous obstacle to primate cloning. Next obstacle: The scientists "tried to implant about 100 cloned embryos into the wombs of around 50 surrogate rhesus macaque mothers but have not yet succeeded with the birth of any cloned offspring." Liberal reaction: Human therapeutic cloning is next, thank God. Conservative reaction: Human reproductive cloning is next, God help us. Liberal reassurances: 1) "No one who is in a position to actually try to apply to humans what the … scientists did with monkeys has any interest in using cloning to reproduce or mass produce people." 2) "Cloning to create actual people is still very hard to do." 3) "A cloned embryo in a lab dish has no ability to develop into a person." Skeptical view: Let's make sure this isn't fraud like the last time somebody claimed to have cloned a human. Human Nature's view: Fetal harvesting is a more likely danger than reproductive cloning.

The governor of Georgia held a public prayer vigil and asked God for rain to relieve the state's drought. This is at least the third time a Georgia governor has tried it. Governor's quotes: 1) Georgians haven't conserved water enough, so the drought is God's attempt to "get our attention." 2) "We come here very reverently and respectfully to pray up a storm." 3) "God, we need you. We need rain." 4) "God can make it rain tomorrow, he can make it rain next week or next month." Ministers' quotes: 1) "Oh God, let rain fall on this land of Georgia." 2) "We are entrepreneurs for you, dear God." Results: 1) The vigil "ended with the sun shining through what had been a somewhat cloudy morning." However, 2) Wednesday's forecast calls for a 60 percent chance of showers. Critiques: 1) "Hail Priest-King Perdue." 2) "God is not an ATM machine." 3) God is not an extortionist. 4) God is already aware of the drought. 5) "You can't make up for years of water mismanagement with a prayer session." 6) Less faith, more works. Defenses: 1) It's "worth a shot." 2) It worked last time. Human Nature's view: Intercessory prayer is an experimental failure. (Add your take here.)

France plans to triple its arsenal of surveillance cameras from 340,000 to 1 million. Plans: 1) 6,500 networked cameras in the Paris transit system. 2) Connecting other cities' cameras to police control rooms. 3) Aerial surveillance drones. Rationales: 1) Fighting terrorism. 2) Fighting crime and gangs. 3) Monitoring riots. 4) We want to be more like Britain, which is thwarting terrorists with lots of cameras. Objections: 1) What about liberte? 2) The government is sending "flying robots" over our cities so it won't have to supply enough cops. Related: 1) Surveillance cameras (with loudspeakers) in Britain. 2) Surveillance cameras in China. 3) Surveillance cameras on the U.S. border. 4) Surveillance cameras in Manhattan. 5) Human Nature's take on drones vs. terrorists.

A study says curvy women are smarter. Sample: 16,000 females. Result: Women with high ratios of hip to waist size "scored significantly higher on [cognitive] tests, as did their children." Theories: 1) Hip fat contains omega3 acids, which promote "growth of the brain during pregnancy" and "could improve the woman's own mental abilities," whereas waist fat has more omega6 acids, "which are less suited to brain growth." 2) Teen mothers produce dumber kids because they're thinner and deficient in omega3. 3) Men like curvy women due to "the double enticement of both an intelligent partner and an intelligent child." Skeptical reactions: 1) The omega3 theory is pure speculation. 2) Diet and class are more plausible explanations. 3) Men don't care that much about waist-to-hip ratio. Rosy feminist spin: "Research that proves you can be sexy and intelligent is really positive." Cynical feminist spin: Except when it implies that being unshapely makes you stupid. (Related: Slate's XX Factor on a similar new study.)

Discoveries of genetic differences between races are worrying intellectuals. Benefits of finding differences: 1) It helps us understand diseases. 2) It helps people clarify their ancestry. 3) It helps us target drugs and prenatal tests to populations likely to benefit from them. Fears: 1) Race research will "find" differences in intelligence. 2) It'll validate supremacists. 3) It'll validate profiling. 4) It'll undermine affirmative action. 5) It'll psych out minority kids. 6) It'll scare minorities away from cooperating with genetic research. 7) It'll scare sponsors away from funding the research. Superficial worry: It's all confusion and lies. Deep worry: It might be true. Human Nature's view: Let science check out the possibilities, no matter how unwelcome they may be. (Related: Are Jews genetically intelligent?)

A study suggests the earlier you lose your virginity, the less likely you are to become a delinquent. Old finding: Kids who have early sex become delinquents. New findings: 1) When you eliminate genetic differences by comparing twins, those who have sex earlier don't become more delinquent. 2) Compared with fraternal twins, identical twins lose their virginity at relatively similar ages, which implies that the age at which you lose your virginity is genetically influenced. 3) In fact, "adolescents who had sex at younger ages were less likely to end up delinquent than those who lost their virginity later." Researchers' conclusions: 1) Early sex and delinquency share a genetic basis, probably in propensity to take risks. 2) For teens with risk-taking genes, "sexual relationships may offer an alternative to trouble." Old advice: Pet your dog, not your date. New advice: Pop a cherry, not a cap. Bonus report: Kids who smoke pot (but not cigarettes) are "significantly more likely to practice sports and they have a better relationship with their peers" than kids who smoke neither. (Related: the case for lowering the age of sexual consent.)

Human Nature columns:  1)

Are Jews genetically smart? 2) Newt Gingrich,

. 3) Race, intelligence, and

. 4) The lessons of

. 5) Rethinking the

. 6) The

of 2007. 7) Are conservatives

? 8)  Larry Craig's anti-gay

. 9) The jihad against

. 10) 

and

.

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