Posts Tagged ‘The Future’

Like islands jutting out of a smooth ocean surface, dreams puncture our sleep with disjointed episodes of consciousness. How states of awareness emerge from a sleeping brain has long baffled scientists and philosophers alike.

For decades, scientists have associated dreaming with rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, a sleep stage in which the resting brain paradoxically generates high-frequency brain waves that closely resemble those of when we’re awake.

Yet dreaming isn’t exclusive to REM sleep. A series of oddball reports also found signs of dreaming during non-REM deep sleep, when the brain is dominated by slow-wave activity—the opposite of an alert, active, conscious brain.

Now, thanks to a new study published in Nature Neuroscience, we may have an answer to the tricky dilemma.

By closely monitoring the brain waves of sleeping volunteers, a team of scientists at the University of Wisconsin pinpointed a local “hot spot” in the brain that fires up when we dream, regardless of whether a person is in non-REM or REM sleep.

“You can really identify a signature of the dreaming brain,” says study author Dr. Francesca Siclari.

What’s more, using an algorithm developed based on their observations, the team could accurately predict whether a person is dreaming with nearly 90 percent accuracy, and—here’s the crazy part—roughly parse out the content of those dreams.

“[What we find is that] maybe the dreaming brain and the waking brain are much more similar than one imagined,” says Siclari.

The study not only opens the door to modulating dreams for PTSD therapy, but may also help researchers better tackle the perpetual mystery of consciousness.

“The importance beyond the article is really quite astounding,” says Dr. Mark Blagrove at Swansea University in Wales, who was not involved in the study.


The anatomy of sleep

During a full night’s sleep we cycle through different sleep stages characterized by distinctive brain activity patterns. Scientists often use EEG to precisely capture each sleep stage, which involves placing 256 electrodes against a person’s scalp to monitor the number and size of brainwaves at different frequencies.

When we doze off for the night, our brains generate low-frequency activity that sweeps across the entire surface. These waves signal that the neurons are in their “down state” and unable to communicate between brain regions—that’s why low-frequency activity is often linked to the loss of consciousness.

These slow oscillations of non-REM sleep eventually transform into high-frequency activity, signaling the entry into REM sleep. This is the sleep stage traditionally associated with vivid dreaming—the connection is so deeply etched into sleep research that reports of dreamless REM sleep or dreams during non-REM sleep were largely ignored as oddities.

These strange cases tell us that our current understanding of the neurobiology of sleep is incomplete, and that’s what we tackled in this study, explain the authors.

Dream hunters

To reconcile these paradoxical results, Siclari and team monitored the brain activity of 32 volunteers with EEG and woke them up during the night at random intervals. The team then asked the sleepy participants whether they were dreaming, and if so, what were the contents of the dream. In all, this happened over 200 times throughout the night.

Rather than seeing a global shift in activity that correlates to dreaming, the team surprisingly uncovered a brain region at the back of the head—the posterior “hot zone”—that dynamically shifted its activity based on the occurrence of dreams.

Dreams were associated with a decrease in low-frequency waves in the hot zone, along with an increase in high-frequency waves that reflect high rates of neuronal firing and brain activity—a sort of local awakening, irrespective of the sleep stage or overall brain activity.

“It only seems to need a very circumscribed, a very restricted activation of the brain to generate conscious experiences,” says Siclari. “Until now we thought that large regions of the brain needed to be active to generate conscious experiences.”

That the hot zone leaped to action during dreams makes sense, explain the authors. Previous work showed stimulating these brain regions with an electrode can induce feelings of being “in a parallel world.” The hot zone also contains areas that integrate sensory information to build a virtual model of the world around us. This type of simulation lays the groundwork of our many dream worlds, and the hot zone seems to be extremely suited for the job, say the authors.

If an active hot zone is, in fact, a “dreaming signature,” its activity should be able to predict whether a person is dreaming at any time. The authors crafted an algorithm based on their findings and tested its accuracy on a separate group of people.

“We woke them up whenever the algorithm alerted us that they were dreaming, a total of 84 times,” the researchers say.

Overall, the algorithm rocked its predictions with roughly 90 percent accuracy—it even nailed cases where the participants couldn’t remember the content of their dreams but knew that they were dreaming.

Dream readers

Since the hot zone contains areas that process visual information, the researchers wondered if they could get a glimpse into the content of the participants’ dreams simply by reading EEG recordings.

Dreams can be purely perceptual with unfolding narratives, or they can be more abstract and “thought-like,” the team explains. Faces, places, movement and speech are all common components of dreams and processed by easily identifiable regions in the hot zone, so the team decided to focus on those aspects.

Remarkably, volunteers that reported talking in their dreams showed activity in their language-related regions; those who dreamed of people had their facial recognition centers activate.

“This suggests that dreams recruit the same brain regions as experiences in wakefulness for specific contents,” says Siclari, adding that previous studies were only able to show this in the “twilight zone,” the transition between sleep and wakefulness.

Finally, the team asked what happens when we know we were dreaming, but can’t remember the specific details. As it happens, this frustrating state has its own EEG signature: remembering the details of a dream was associated with a spike in high-frequency activity in the frontal regions of the brain.

This raises some interesting questions, such as whether the frontal lobes are important for lucid dreaming, a meta-state in which people recognize that they’re dreaming and can alter the contents of the dream, says the team.

Consciousness arising

The team can’t yet explain what is activating the hot zone during dreams, but the answers may reveal whether dreaming has a biological purpose, such as processing memories into larger concepts of the world.

Mapping out activity patterns in the dreaming brain could also lead to ways to directly manipulate our dreams using non-invasive procedures such as transcranial direct-current stimulation. Inducing a dreamless state could help people with insomnia, and disrupting a fearful dream by suppressing dreaming may potentially allow patients with PTSD a good night’s sleep.

Dr. Giulo Tononi, the lead author of this study, believes that the study’s implications go far beyond sleep.

“[W]e were able to compare what changes in the brain when we are conscious, that is, when we are dreaming, compared to when we are unconscious, during the same behavioral state of sleep,” he says.

During sleep, people are cut off from the environment. Therefore, researchers could hone in on brain regions that truly support consciousness while avoiding confounding factors that reflect other changes brought about by coma, anesthesia or environmental stimuli.

“This study suggests that dreaming may constitute a valuable model for the study of consciousness,” says Tononi.

https://singularityhub.com/2017/04/19/neuroscientists-can-now-read-your-dreams-with-a-simple-brain-scan/?utm_source=Singularity+Hub+Newsletter&utm_campaign=f817034455-Hub_Daily_Newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_f0cf60cdae-f817034455-58158129

By Vanessa Bates Ramirez

In recent years, technology has been producing more and more novel ways to diagnose and treat illness.

Urine tests will soon be able to detect cancer: https://singularityhub.com/2016/10/14/detecting-cancer-early-with-nanosensors-and-a-urine-test/

Smartphone apps can diagnose STDs:https://singularityhub.com/2016/12/25/your-smartphones-next-big-trick-to-make-you-healthier-than-ever/

Chatbots can provide quality mental healthcare: https://singularityhub.com/2016/10/10/bridging-the-mental-healthcare-gap-with-artificial-intelligence/

Joining this list is a minimally-invasive technique that’s been getting increasing buzz across various sectors of healthcare: disease detection by voice analysis.

It’s basically what it sounds like: you talk, and a computer analyzes your voice and screens for illness. Most of the indicators that machine learning algorithms can pick up aren’t detectable to the human ear.

When we do hear irregularities in our own voices or those of others, the fact we’re noticing them at all means they’re extreme; elongating syllables, slurring, trembling, or using a tone that’s unusually flat or nasal could all be indicators of different health conditions. Even if we can hear them, though, unless someone says, “I’m having chest pain” or “I’m depressed,” we don’t know how to analyze or interpret these biomarkers.

Computers soon will, though.

Researchers from various medical centers, universities, and healthcare companies have collected voice recordings from hundreds of patients and fed them to machine learning software that compares the voices to those of healthy people, with the aim of establishing patterns clear enough to pinpoint vocal disease indicators.

In one particularly encouraging study, doctors from the Mayo Clinic worked with Israeli company Beyond Verbal to analyze voice recordings from 120 people who were scheduled for a coronary angiography. Participants used an app on their phones to record 30-second intervals of themselves reading a piece of text, describing a positive experience, then describing a negative experience. Doctors also took recordings from a control group of 25 patients who were either healthy or getting non-heart-related tests.

The doctors found 13 different voice characteristics associated with coronary artery disease. Most notably, the biggest differences between heart patients and non-heart patients’ voices occurred when they talked about a negative experience.

Heart disease isn’t the only illness that shows promise for voice diagnosis. Researchers are also making headway in the conditions below.

ADHD: German company Audioprofiling is using voice analysis to diagnose ADHD in children, achieving greater than 90 percent accuracy in identifying previously diagnosed kids based on their speech alone. The company’s founder gave speech rhythm as an example indicator for ADHD, saying children with the condition speak in syllables less equal in length.
PTSD: With the goal of decreasing the suicide rate among military service members, Boston-based Cogito partnered with the Department of Veterans Affairs to use a voice analysis app to monitor service members’ moods. Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital are also using the app as part of a two-year study to track the health of 1,000 patients with bipolar disorder and depression.
Brain injury: In June 2016, the US Army partnered with MIT’s Lincoln Lab to develop an algorithm that uses voice to diagnose mild traumatic brain injury. Brain injury biomarkers may include elongated syllables and vowel sounds or difficulty pronouncing phrases that require complex facial muscle movements.
Parkinson’s: Parkinson’s disease has no biomarkers and can only be diagnosed via a costly in-clinic analysis with a neurologist. The Parkinson’s Voice Initiative is changing that by analyzing 30-second voice recordings with machine learning software, achieving 98.6 percent accuracy in detecting whether or not a participant suffers from the disease.
Challenges remain before vocal disease diagnosis becomes truly viable and widespread. For starters, there are privacy concerns over the personal health data identifiable in voice samples. It’s also not yet clear how well algorithms developed for English-speakers will perform with other languages.

Despite these hurdles, our voices appear to be on their way to becoming key players in our health.

https://singularityhub.com/2017/02/13/talking-to-a-computer-may-soon-be-enough-to-diagnose-illness/?utm_source=Singularity+Hub+Newsletter&utm_campaign=14105f9a16-Hub_Daily_Newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_f0cf60cdae-14105f9a16-58158129

Physicist Steven Desch has come up with a novel solution to the problems that now beset the Arctic. He and a team of colleagues from Arizona State University want to replenish the region’s shrinking sea ice – by building 10 million wind-powered pumps over the Arctic ice cap. In winter, these would be used to pump water to the surface of the ice where it would freeze, thickening the cap.

The pumps could add an extra metre of sea ice to the Arctic’s current layer, Desch argues. The current cap rarely exceeds 2-3 metres in thickness and is being eroded constantly as the planet succumbs to climate change.

“Thicker ice would mean longer-lasting ice. In turn, that would mean the danger of all sea ice disappearing from the Arctic in summer would be reduced significantly,” Desch told the Observer.

Desch and his team have put forward the scheme in a paper that has just been published in Earth’s Future, the journal of the American Geophysical Union, and have worked out a price tag for the project: $500bn (£400bn).

It is an astonishing sum. However, it is the kind of outlay that may become necessary if we want to halt the calamity that faces the Arctic, says Desch, who, like many other scientists, has become alarmed at temperature change in the region. They say that it is now warming twice as fast as their climate models predicted only a few years ago and argue that the 2015 Paris agreement to limit global warming will be insufficient to prevent the region’s sea ice disappearing completely in summer, possibly by 2030.

“Our only strategy at present seems to be to tell people to stop burning fossil fuels,” says Desch. “It’s a good idea but it is going to need a lot more than that to stop the Arctic’s sea ice from disappearing.”

The loss of the Arctic’s summer sea ice cover would disrupt life in the region, endanger many of its species, from Arctic cod to polar bears, and destroy a pristine habitat. It would also trigger further warming of the planet by removing ice that reflects solar radiation back into space, disrupt weather patterns across the northern hemisphere and melt permafrost, releasing more carbon gases into the atmosphere.

Hence Desch’s scheme to use wind pumps to bring water that is insulated from the bitter Arctic cold to its icy surface, where it will freeze and thicken the ice cap. Nor is the physicist alone in his Arctic scheming: other projects to halt sea-ice loss include one to artificially whiten the Arctic by scattering light-coloured aerosol particles over it to reflect solar radiation back into space, and another to spray sea water into the atmosphere above the region to create clouds that would also reflect sunlight away from the surface.

All the projects are highly imaginative – and extremely costly. The fact that they are even being considered reveals just how desperately worried researchers have become about the Arctic. “The situation is causing grave concern,” says Professor Julienne Stroeve, of University College London. “It is now much more dire than even our worst case scenarios originally suggested.’

Last November, when sea ice should have begun thickening and spreading over the Arctic as winter set in, the region warmed up. Temperatures should have plummeted to -25C but reached several degrees above freezing instead. “It’s been about 20C warmer than normal over most of the Arctic Ocean. This is unprecedented,” research professor Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University told the Guardian in November. “These temperatures are literally off the charts for where they should be at this time of year. It is pretty shocking. The Arctic has been breaking records all year. It is exciting but also scary.”

Nor have things got better in the intervening months. Figures issued by the US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), in Boulder, Colorado, last week revealed that in January the Arctic’s sea ice covered 13.38 million sq km, the lowest January extent in the 38 years since satellites began surveying the region. That figure is 260,000 sq km below the level for January last year, which was the previous lowest extent for that month, and a worrying 1.26 million sq km below the long-term average for January.

In fact, sea ice growth stalled during the second week of January – in the heart of the Arctic winter – while the ice cap actually retreated within the Kara and Barents seas, and within the Sea of Okhotsk. Similarly, the Svalbard archipelago, normally shrouded in ice, has remained relatively free because of the inflow of warm Atlantic water along the western part of the island chain. Although there has been some recovery, sea ice remains well below all previous record lows.

This paucity of sea ice bodes ill for the Arctic’s summer months when cover traditionally drops to its lower annual level, and could plunge to a record minimum this year. Most scientists expect that, at current emission rates, the Arctic will be reliably free of sea ice in summer by 2030.

By “free” they mean there will be less than 1m sq km of sea ice left in the Arctic, most of it packed into remote bays and channels, while the central Arctic Ocean over the north pole will be completely open. And by “reliably”, scientists mean there will have been five consecutive years with less than 1m sq km of ice by the year 2050. The first single ice-free year will come much earlier than this, however.

And when that happens, the consequences are likely to be severe for the human and animal inhabitants of the region. An ice-free Arctic will be wide open to commercial exploitation, for example. Already, mining, oil and tourism companies have revealed plans to begin operations – schemes that could put severe strain on indigenous communities’ way of life in the region.

Equally worrying is the likely impact on wildlife, says Stroeve. “Juvenile Arctic cod like to hang out under the sea ice. Polar bears hunt on sea ice, and seals give birth on it. We have no idea what will happen when that lot disappears. In addition, there is the problem of increasing numbers of warm spells during which rain falls instead of snow. That rain then freezes on the ground and forms a hard coating that prevents reindeer and caribou from finding food under the snow.”

Nor would the rest of the world be isolated. With less ice to reflect solar radiation back into space, the dark ocean waters of the high latitudes will warm and the Arctic will heat up even further.

“If you warm the Arctic you decrease the temperature difference between the poles and the mid-latitudes, and that affects the polar vortex, the winds that blow between the mid latitudes and the high latitudes,” says Henry Burgess, head of the Arctic office of the UK Natural Environment Research Council.

“Normally this process tends to keep the cold in the high north and milder air in mid-latitudes but there is an increasing risk this will be disrupted as the temperature differential gets weaker. We may get more and more long, cold spells spilling down from the Arctic, longer and slower periods of Atlantic storms and equally warmer periods in the Arctic. What happens up there touches us all. It is hard to believe you can take away several million sq km of ice a few thousand kilometres to the north and not expect there will be an impact on weather patterns here in the UK.”

For her part, Stroeve puts it more bleakly: “We are carrying out a blind experiment on our planet whose outcome is almost impossible to guess.”

This point is backed by Desch. “Sea ice is disappearing from the Arctic – rapidly. The sorts of options we are proposing need to be researched and discussed now. If we are provocative and get people to think about this, that is good.

“The question is: do I think our project would work? Yes. I am confident it would. But we do need to put a realistic cost on these things. We cannot keep on just telling people, ‘Stop driving your car or it’s the end of the world’. We have to give them alternative options, though equally we need to price them.”

THE BIG SHRINK
The Arctic ice cap reaches its maximum extent every March and then, over the next six months, dwindles. The trough is reached around mid-September at the end of the melting season. The ice growth cycle then restarts. However, the extent of regrowth began slackening towards the end of the last century. According to meteorologists, the Arctic’s ice cover at its minimum is now decreasing by 13% every decade – a direct consequence of heating triggered by increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Climate change deniers claim this loss is matched by gains in sea ice around the Antarctic. It is not. Antarctic ice fluctuations are slight compared with the Arctic’s plummeting coverage and if you combine the changes at both poles, you find more than a million sq km of ice has been lost globally in 30 years.

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/feb/12/plan-to-refreeze-arctic-before-ice-goes-for-good-climate-change

by Arjun Kharpal

Billionaire Elon Musk is known for his futuristic ideas and his latest suggestion might just save us from being irrelevant as artificial intelligence (AI) grows more prominent.

The Tesla and SpaceX CEO said on Monday that humans need to merge with machines to become a sort of cyborg.

“Over time I think we will probably see a closer merger of biological intelligence and digital intelligence,” Musk told an audience at the World Government Summit in Dubai, where he also launched Tesla in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

“It’s mostly about the bandwidth, the speed of the connection between your brain and the digital version of yourself, particularly output.”

Musk explained what he meant by saying that computers can communicate at “a trillion bits per second”, while humans, whose main communication method is typing with their fingers via a mobile device, can do about 10 bits per second.

In an age when AI threatens to become widespread, humans would be useless, so there’s a need to merge with machines, according to Musk.

“Some high bandwidth interface to the brain will be something that helps achieve a symbiosis between human and machine intelligence and maybe solves the control problem and the usefulness problem,” Musk explained.

The technologists proposal would see a new layer of a brain able to access information quickly and tap into artificial intelligence. It’s not the first time Musk has spoken about the need for humans to evolve, but it’s a constant theme of his talks on how society can deal with the disruptive threat of AI.

‘Very quick’ disruption

During his talk, Musk touched upon his fear of “deep AI” which goes beyond driverless cars to what he called “artificial general intelligence”. This he described as AI that is “smarter than the smartest human on earth” and called it a “dangerous situation”.

While this might be some way off, the Tesla boss said the more immediate threat is how AI, particularly autonomous cars, which his own firm is developing, will displace jobs. He said the disruption to people whose job it is to drive will take place over the next 20 years, after which 12 to 15 percent of the global workforce will be unemployed.

“The most near term impact from a technology standpoint is autonomous cars … That is going to happen much faster than people realize and it’s going to be a great convenience,” Musk said.

“But there are many people whose jobs are to drive. In fact I think it might be the single largest employer of people … Driving in various forms. So we need to figure out new roles for what do those people do, but it will be very disruptive and very quick.”

http://www.cnbc.com/2017/02/13/elon-musk-humans-merge-machines-cyborg-artificial-intelligence-robots.html

BY VANESSA BATES RAMIREZ

Drivers on Colorado’s interstate 25 may have gotten a good scare last Thursday, and it wasn’t a Halloween prank—glancing into the cab of an Otto 18-wheeler loaded with a beer delivery, they’d have been stunned to notice there was no one at the wheel.

In the first-ever commercial shipment completed using self-driving technology, the truck drove itself 120 miles from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs while its human driver sat in the sleeper cab. The driver did have control of the truck from departure until it got on the highway, and took over again when it was time to exit the highway.

Uber acquired Otto in August for $680 million. The company partnered with Anheuser-Busch for its first autonomous delivery, which consisted of 50,000 cans of beer—cargo many would consider highly valuable.

How the trucks work

Because of the relatively constant speed and less-dense surroundings, highway driving is much simpler for a driverless vehicle than city driving. There are no stop signs or pedestrians to worry about, and it’s not even necessary to change lanes if the delivery’s not on a tight schedule.

To switch from human driver to self-driving mode, all the driver had to do was press a button labeled “engage,” and this kicked the truck’s $30,000 of retro-fitted technology into action: there are three lidars mounted on the cab and trailer, a radar attached to the bumper, and a high-precision camera above the windshield.

The company made sure to plan the trip at a low-traffic time and on a day with clear weather, carefully studying the route to make sure there wouldn’t be any surprises the truck couldn’t handle along the way.

Why they’re disruptive

Though self-driving cars certainly get more hype than self-driving trucks do, self-driving truck are currently more necessary and could have an equally disruptive, if not larger, effect on the economy. Anheuser-Busch alone estimates it could save $50 million a year (and that’s just in the US) by deploying autonomous trucks across its distribution network.

Now extrapolate those savings over the entire trucking industry, extending the $50 million estimate to every company that delivers a similar volume of cargo throughout the US via trucks. The total easily leaps into the billions.

But what about all those jobs?

This doesn’t mean the company would fire all its drivers; savings would come from primarily from reduced fuel costs and a more efficient delivery schedule.

As of September 2016, the trucking industry employed around 1.5 million people, and 70 percent of cargo in the US is moved by trucks, with total freight tonnage predicted to grow 35% over the next ten years.

That’s a lot of freight. And as it turns out, the industry is sorely lacking in drivers to move it. The American Trucking Association estimates its current shortfall of drivers at 48,000. So rather than displacing jobs, autonomous trucking technology may actually help lift some of the burden off a tightly-stretched workforce.

Rather than pulling over to sleep when they get tired, drivers could simply time their breaks to coincide with long stretches of highway, essentially napping on the job and saving valuable time, not to mention getting their deliveries to their destinations faster.

In an interview with Bloomberg, Otto president and co-founder Lior Ron assured viewers that trucking jobs aren’t going anywhere anytime soon: “The future is really those drivers becoming more of a copilot to the technology, doing all the driving on city streets manually, then taking off onto the highway, where the technology can help drive those long and very cumbersome miles… for the foreseeable future, there’s a driver in the cabin and the driver is now safer, making more money, and can finish the route faster.”

Besides taking a load off drivers, self-driving trucks will likely make the roads far safer. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, about one in ten highway deaths occurs in a crash involving a large truck, and over 3,600 people were killed in large truck crashes in 2014.

The biggest culprit? Human error.

It’s not a done deal just yet

Otto’s trucks are considered to be in the Level 4 group of autonomous vehicles, which means human drivers are unnecessary in reasonably-controlled environments; on the highway, drivers can actually take a nap if they want to. In comparison, Tesla’s Autopilot system is considered Level 2, meaning it helps the driver by maintaining speed and avoiding obstacles, but the driver still needs to be engaged and paying close attention.

Besides the fact that the technology has a ways to go before being ready for large-scale deployment, barriers like regulation and plain old resistance to change could slow things down.

Drivers interviewed for a New York Times article were far from endorsing the co-pilot idea, due both to safety concerns and the degree to which self-driving technology would change the nature of their jobs.

If it were me, I know a whole lot of testing would have to be done before I’d be okay with falling asleep inside a vehicle moving at 60 miles an hour without a driver.

Once the technology’s been proven to a fail-proof rate, however, truckers may slowly adapt to the idea of being able to drive 1,200 miles in the time it used to take to drive 800.

An Uber Self-Driving Truck Just Took Off With 50,000 Beers

By Richard Gray

Etched with strange pictograms, lines and wedge-shaped markings, they lay buried in the dusty desert earth of Iraq for thousands of years. The clay tablets left by the ancient Sumerians around 5,000 years ago provide what are thought to be the earliest written record of a long dead people.

Although it took decades for archaeologists to decipher the mysterious language preserved on the slabs, they have provided glimpses of what life was like at the dawn of civilisation.

Similar tablets and carved stones have been unearthed at the sites of other mighty cultures that have long since vanished – from the hieroglyphics of the Ancient Egyptians to the inscriptions of the Maya of Mesoamerica.

The stories and details they contain have stood the test of time, surviving through the millennia to be unearthed and deciphered by modern historians. But there are fears that future archaeologists may not benefit from the same sort of immutable record when they come to search for evidence of our own civilisation. We live in a digital world where information is stored as lists of tiny electronic ones and zeros that can be edited or even wiped clean by a few accidental strokes on a keyboard. “Unfortunately we live in an age that will leave hardly any written traces,” explained Martin Kunze.

Kunze’s solution is the Memory of Mankind project, a collaboration between academics, universities, newspapers and libraries to create a modern version of those first ancient Sumerian tablets discovered in the desert. Their plan is to gather together the accumulated knowledge of our time and store it underground in the caverns carved out in one of the oldest salt mines in the world, in the mountains of Austria’s picturesque Salzkammergut. “The main point of what we are doing is to store information in a way that it is readable in the future. It is a backup of our knowledge, our history and our stories,” says Kunze.

Creating a stone “time capsule” may seem archaic in the age where most of our knowledge now floats around the internet cloud, but a slide back into the technological dark ages is not beyond comprehension. The advent of the internet has seen people have more information at their fingertips than at any previous point in human history. Yet the huge repositories of knowledge we have built up are perilously vulnerable.

Ever more information is being stored digitally on remote computer servers and hard disks. How many of us have hard copies of the photographs we took on our last holiday, for example.

The situation gets more serious when we consider scientific papers that are now solely published online. Entire catalogues of video footage from news broadcasters, television and film are stored digitally. Official documents and government papers reside in digital libraries.

Yet a conference of space weather scientists, together with officials from Nasa and the US Government, earlier this year warned of the fragile nature of all this digital information. Charged particles thrown out by the sun in a powerful solar storm could trigger electromagnetic surges that could render our electronic devices useless and wipe data stored in memory drives.

Such storms are a real threat, and they happen relatively regularly. A report produced by the British Government last year highlighted that severe solar storms appear to happen every 100 years.

The last major coronal mass ejection to hit the Earth, known as the Carrington event, was in 1859 and is thought to have been the biggest in 500 years. It blew telegraph systems all over the world and pylons threw sparks. In the age of the internet, such an event would be catastrophic.

But there are other threats too – malicious hackers or even careless officials could tamper with these digital records or delete them altogether. And what if we simply lose the ability to read this information? Technology is changing so fast that media formats are quickly rendered obsolete. Minidiscs, VHS and the humble floppy disk have become outdated within decades.

Few computers even come with DVD drives now, while giving the current generation of teenagers a floppy disk would leave them flummoxed. If information is stored on one of these formats and the technology needed to access it disappears completely, then it could be lost forever.

Hence the desire to keep a hard copy of our most important documents. Unfortunately, even the more traditional forms of storing information are also unlikely to keep information safe for more than a few centuries. While we have some paper manuscripts that have survived for hundreds of years – and in the case of papyrus scrolls, for thousands – unless they are stored in the right conditions, most disintegrate to dust after a couple of hundred years. Newspaper can decompose within six weeks if it gets wet.

“It is very likely that in the long term the only traces of our present activities will be global warming, nuclear waste and Red Bull cans,” says Kunze. “The amount of data is inflating rapidly, so the real challenge becomes selecting what we want to keep for our grandchildren and those that come after them.”

Which is why Kunze and his colleagues are instead looking further back in time for inspiration, to those Sumerian stone tablets. The Memory of Mankind team hopes to create an indelible record of our way of life by imprinting official documents, details about our culture, scientific papers, biographies, popular novels, news stories and even images onto square ceramic plates measuring eight inches (20cm) across.

This hinges on a special process that Kunze describes as “ceramic microfilm”, which he says is the most durable data storage system in the world. The flat ceramic plates are covered with a dark coating and a high energy laser is then used to write into them.

Each of these tablets can hold up to five million characters – about the same as a four-hundred-page book. They are acid- and alkali-resistant and can withstand temperatures of 1300C. A second type of tablet can carry colour pictures and diagrams along with 50,000 characters before being sealed with a transparent glaze.

The plates are then stacked inside ceramic boxes and tucked into the dark caverns of a salt mine in Hallstatt, Austria. As a resting place for what could be described as the ultimate time capsule, it is impressive. In the right light the walls still glisten with the remnants of salt, which extracts moisture and desiccates the air.

The salt itself has a Plasticine-like property that helps to seal fractures and cracks, keeping the tomb watertight. Buried beneath millions of tonnes of rock, the records will be able to survive for millennia and perhaps even entire ice ages, Kunze believes.

In some distant future after our own civilisation has vanished, they could prove invaluable to any who find them. They could help resurrect forgotten knowledge for cultures less advanced than our own, or provide a wealth of historical information for more advanced civilisations to ensure our own achievements, and our mistakes, can be learned from.

But it could also have value in the shorter term too.

“We are trying to create something that will not only be a collection of information for a distant future, but it will also be a gift for our grandchildren,” says Kunze. “Memory of Mankind can serve as a backup of knowledge in case of an event like war, a pandemic or a meteorite that throws us back centuries within two or three generations. A society can lose skills and knowledge very quickly – in the 6th Century, Europe largely lost the ability to read and write within three generations.”

Already the Memory of Mankind archive contains an eclectic glimpse of our society. Among the information etched into the ceramic plates are books summarising the history of individual countries around the world. Towns and villages have also opted to include their own local histories. A thousand of the world’s most important books – chosen by combining published lists using an algorithm developed by the University of Vienna – will be cut into the coating on the ceramic plates.

Museums are including images of precious objects in their collections along with descriptions of what we have learned about them. The Krumau Madonna – a sculpture dating to the late 14th Century currently sitting in the Museum of Art History in Vienna – is already there, along with paintings by the Baroque artists Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck.

There are plates featuring pictures of fossils – dinosaurs, prehistoric fish and extinct ammonites – alongside a description of what we know about them. Even our current understanding of our own origins are included, with pictures of one of the earliest examples of sculpture ever found – the Venus of Willendorf.

Much of the material included on the tablets is in German, but there are tablets in English, French and other languages.

A handful of celebrities have also found themselves immortalised in the salt-lined vaults. Baywatch star and singer David Hasselhoff has a particularly lengthy entry as does German singer Nena who had a hit with 99 Red Balloons in the 1980s. Nestled among them is a plate detailing the story of Edward Snowden and his leak of classified material from the US National Security Agency.

The University of Vienna has been placing prize winning PhD dissertations and scientific papers onto the tablets. Included in the archive are plates describing genetic modification and bioengineering patents, explaining what today’s scientists have achieved and how they managed it.

And alongside research, everyday objects like washing machines, smartphones and televisions are also being documented as a record of what life is like today.

The plates also serve as a warning for future generations – with sites of nuclear waste dumps pinpointed so future generations might know to avoid them or to clean them up if they have the technology. Newspapers have been asked to send their daily editorials to provide a repository of opinions as well as facts.

In many ways, the real problem is what not to include. “We probably have about 0.1% of the antique literature yet in the modern world publishing is as easy as posting something on the internet or sending a tweet,” explains Kunze. “Publications about science, space flight and medicine – the things we really spend money on – drown in the mass of data we produce. The Large Hadron Collider produces something like 30 Petabytes of data a year, but this is equal to just 0.003% of annual internet traffic. “A random fragment of 0.1% of our present day data will result in a very distorted view of our time.”

To tackle this, Kunze and his colleagues are organising a conference in November next year to bring scientists, historians, archaeologists, linguists and philosophers together to create a blueprint for selecting content for the project. The team also hope to immortalise glimpses of mundane, everyday life as members of the public are encouraged to create tablets of their own. “We are saving cooking recipes and stories of love and personal events,” adds Kunze. “On one plate, a little girl has included three photographs of her confirmation and written a short bit of text about it. They give a glimpse of everyday life that will be very valuable.”

Preserved tweets

Memory of Mankind is not the only project to face the daunting task of preserving humanity’s accumulated knowledge. Librarians around the world are also looking at the knotty problem of how to save the information from the modern age.

The University of California Los Angeles, for instance, is archiving tweets related to major events and preserving them in their own archives. “We are collecting tweets from Cairo on the day of the January 25th revolution for example,” explained Todd Grappone, associate university librarian. “We are then translating them into multiple languages and saving them in file formats that are likely to be robust for the future. We are only doing it digitally at the moment as we have something like 1,000 cellphone videos from that event alone, but the value of that is enormous.”

Another project, called the Human Document Project, is aiming to record information on wafers of tungsten/silicon nitride. Initially they have been etching them with dozens of tiny QR codes – a type of two-dimensional barcode – which can be read using smartphones, but they say the final disks will hold information written in a form that can be read using a microscope.

Leon Abelmann, a researcher at Twente University in Enschede, the Netherlands, is one of the driving forces behind the project. He says that they are hoping to produce something that will be able to survive for one million years and are now starting to collaborate with the Memory of Mankind. “We would be really happy if we found information left for us by an intelligence that has already been extinct for a million years,” he said. “So we think future intelligent beings will be too. The mere fact that we need to take a helicopter view of ourselves will hopefully make us realise that the differences between us are trivial.”

Buried under a mountain, it may seem unlikely that any future generations would be able to find these tablets. For this reason, Memory of Mankind will has engraved some small tokens with a map pinpointing the archives’ location, which they will then bury at strategic places around the world. Other tokens are being entrusted to 50 holders who will pass them onto the next generation.

To ensure those who do find it can actually read what is in there, the Memory of Mankind team has been creating their own Rosetta Stone – thousands of images labelled with their names and meanings.

All of which gives a hint at the ambition of what they are trying to do. The individuals who unearth this gold-mine of knowledge could be very different from our own. In a few thousand years civilisation may have advanced beyond our reckoning or descended back to the dark ages. Perhaps it will not even be humans who end up uncovering our memories. “We could be looking at some other form of intelligent life,” adds Kunze.

We will never know what those future archaeologists will make of our civilisation when they wipe the dust away from the tablets in thousands of years’ time, but we can hope that like the ancient Sumarians, we will not be forgotten.

http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20161018-the-worlds-knowledge-is-being-buried-in-a-salt-mine

Thanks to Kebmodee for bringing this to the It’s Interesting community.