Sunday, March 2, 2014

Topics of Interest

(Picture from here.)

A lot of good stuff coming over the transom from Io9 lately. The picture left was derived from Googles partnership with organizations to create a deforestation monitoring tool: Global Forest Watch. The blue tends towards reforestation. Red tends towards deforestation. Norway, status quo. Sweden, much change.

Here's the first ever geological map of Ganymede.

These tunnels are beautiful. I especially want to visit the Guoliang Tunnel in China. I wonder what the accident rate is.

There's a good discussion here on how Kepler has changed our view of the universe. Just a few years ago there was no evidence for any other planets other than hope and optimism. But Kepler has given us an estimate there are on average 1.6 planets around every star in our galaxy-- or 160 billion planets. And that doesn't include free moving planetary objects.

Kepler also suggests that 22% of the sunlike stars in the Milky Way are Earth sized. That's about 2 billion possible planets.

There's company out there. We just haven't met them yet.

Original articles herehere and here.

Finally, here's a really good article on the similarity between the brains of dogs and humans. First, the study examined the area of the brain in both humans and dogs that responds to the human voice. Turns out they are the same. Emotionally charged sounds such as whimpering dogs or crying children caused similar responses in both species.

The study suggests that dogs are as conscious as human children. (Original NYTimes article here.)

There are two distinct possibilities, both of which are discussed by the authors. The first is that in the 100k years we've been associated with dogs and the 20k years we've been actively working with them, we've modified their brains to respond to us. This is, no doubt true. However, the authors think the data shows something different. They believe that these associations are much, much older. They speculate that the structures are common between humans and dogs and existed when primates and canids ancestry split-- about 100 million years ago.

If this is true and dogs are as conscious as children then it brings right to the forefront the whole "is conscious necessary?" argument. This discussion centers around is consciousness an artifact of general cognition, an unnecessary emergent property of the mammalian brain or a positive attribute selected for by evolution? The cons of consciousness are its metabolic expense and relative slowness to unconscious activities. The pros of consciousness selection are exactly the same: if it's so counter productive why do we have it? Natural selection would select against such extravagant expense if it wasn't useful.

But if it shows up all over in vertebrates the discussion narrows to: it's either a necessary but useless byproduct of mammalian brain or it has positive attributes that outweigh its expense. It seems that some of the bird studies of intelligence might be able to at least broaden argument to byproducts of vertebrate brains.

Which, to my mind, makes the argument fairly thin. I suspect that though some birds might have a cognitive level sufficient to support consciousness, I suspect that many do not. Whereas I suspect that there are many more mammalian species that can support consciousness. This is not purely chauvinism on my part. Birds and mammals parted ways long before the evolution of the neocortex and its equivalent in avians. The neural mechanism used for intelligence in the two groups is markedly different.

Add to that the tremendous limitations imposed by flight. Whatever birds have to do in their brains it must be in a small package. The expense of cognition and conscious must be justified by its utility and the expense for birds is much, much higher than for mammals. So if crows, parrots, etc., are conscious it must be advantageous for them.

Original article here.

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