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Resisting the Urge to Smush a Spider

Question: What should we think about when the next time we crush an insect? 

Hugh Raffles:  Well, don’t.  Don’t swat a fly and don’t smush a spider.  You don’t need to do that and just think about how interesting they are and maybe just look at them.  I think we can - I really do think it enriches our lives to look at them and to pay attention to them.  Not just act as if they're not there in the world.  They're not around us.  They're really fascinating animals and they're just - yeah, they're just really, really interesting.  And paying attention to something small and looking at their - looking at what they're doing and trying to think about what their lives are like and how they're moving through the world I think is a really enriching thing. 

One of the things that I love from doing this book that’s really stayed with me is that we live in a world that is the real world through us and that is completely - we think it’s the objective reality that we have and it is our object reality.  But, other animals, and it’s very clear with insects, they have a completely different sense of time for instance and a completely different sense of space.  They see the world really differently.  Their visual sense is completely different.  Their hearing, if they have it, is completely different.  They pick up vibrations and we don’t really.

So, the world they move in is actually a completely different world.  It’s not just that they see it differently, it is just a completely different world that they’re in.  So, when we go to swat a fly, unless we’ve got a fly swatter, and we go like this to a fly because time moves in a completely different way for a fly.  It’s very easy for them to get out of the way, apart from their vision’s so much better.  Because our arm is moving so incredibly slowly, they have endless time to do that.  So, to me this stuff is really interesting.  There are just these - we live in the midst of multiple worlds really and the one we’re in is the one we’re in and that’s the one we live in, but there are endless numbers and probably an infinite number of them that are also here around us, but we’re just aware of them anyway at all.

Question: How have we changed life for insects?

Hugh Raffles: Everything we’ve built and everything we do changes the world for all its inhabitants.  Our lives are all so entangled right now, where there's not really any separation between us and animals or us and objects.  We’re all part of each other now.  Yeah, I don’t really know how to answer that except that they - we all condition each other’s lives, it’s just that we really have the - we have more of an ability to do that than any other being I suppose.  We’re just very, very powerful. 

Question: Are they more adaptable than we are?

Hugh Raffles: One of the things about the category of insects is that it’s so enormously broad.  There are millions of species and just billions of individual animals, so some of them will adapt and some of them are very, very sensitive because they have these incredibly specific niches that they live in.  And so, if that’s disrupted in some way then they just - they’re sunk really.

But, some of them and particularly the ones that we’re really familiar with like flies and roaches are just phenomenally adaptable and they’ve adapted to us, so they’ve become companion species to us and they figured out how to make the most of living with us and they’re probably better - they’re obviously way better at living with us than we are living with them because we spend our time trying to get rid of them and they spend their time trying to make the most of us.  So, yeah, they're pretty adaptable.

Recorded on March 22, 2010

The New School anthropologist explains why, instead of killing bugs, we should pay attention to them and think about their place in the world around us.

Does conscious AI deserve rights?

If machines develop consciousness, or if we manage to give it to them, the human-robot dynamic will forever be different.

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  • Does AI—and, more specifically, conscious AI—deserve moral rights? In this thought exploration, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, ethics and tech professor Joanna Bryson, philosopher and cognitive scientist Susan Schneider, physicist Max Tegmark, philosopher Peter Singer, and bioethicist Glenn Cohen all weigh in on the question of AI rights.
  • Given the grave tragedy of slavery throughout human history, philosophers and technologists must answer this question ahead of technological development to avoid humanity creating a slave class of conscious beings.
  • One potential safeguard against that? Regulation. Once we define the context in which AI requires rights, the simplest solution may be to not build that thing.

A new hydrogel might be strong enough for knee replacements

Duke University researchers might have solved a half-century old problem.

Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • Duke University researchers created a hydrogel that appears to be as strong and flexible as human cartilage.
  • The blend of three polymers provides enough flexibility and durability to mimic the knee.
  • The next step is to test this hydrogel in sheep; human use can take at least three years.
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Hints of the 4th dimension have been detected by physicists

What would it be like to experience the 4th dimension?

Two different experiments show hints of a 4th spatial dimension. Credit: Zilberberg Group / ETH Zürich
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Physicists have understood at least theoretically, that there may be higher dimensions, besides our normal three. The first clue came in 1905 when Einstein developed his theory of special relativity. Of course, by dimensions we’re talking about length, width, and height. Generally speaking, when we talk about a fourth dimension, it’s considered space-time. But here, physicists mean a spatial dimension beyond the normal three, not a parallel universe, as such dimensions are mistaken for in popular sci-fi shows.

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Predicting PTSD symptoms becomes possible with a new test

An algorithm may allow doctors to assess PTSD candidates for early intervention after traumatic ER visits.

Image source: camillo jimenez/Unsplash
Technology & Innovation
  • 10-15% of people visiting emergency rooms eventually develop symptoms of long-lasting PTSD.
  • Early treatment is available but there's been no way to tell who needs it.
  • Using clinical data already being collected, machine learning can identify who's at risk.

The psychological scars a traumatic experience can leave behind may have a more profound effect on a person than the original traumatic experience. Long after an acute emergency is resolved, victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) continue to suffer its consequences.

In the U.S. some 30 million patients are annually treated in emergency departments (EDs) for a range of traumatic injuries. Add to that urgent admissions to the ED with the onset of COVID-19 symptoms. Health experts predict that some 10 percent to 15 percent of these people will develop long-lasting PTSD within a year of the initial incident. While there are interventions that can help individuals avoid PTSD, there's been no reliable way to identify those most likely to need it.

That may now have changed. A multi-disciplinary team of researchers has developed a method for predicting who is most likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic emergency-room experience. Their study is published in the journal Nature Medicine.

70 data points and machine learning

nurse wrapping patient's arm

Image source: Creators Collective/Unsplash

Study lead author Katharina Schultebraucks of Columbia University's Department Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons says:

"For many trauma patients, the ED visit is often their sole contact with the health care system. The time immediately after a traumatic injury is a critical window for identifying people at risk for PTSD and arranging appropriate follow-up treatment. The earlier we can treat those at risk, the better the likely outcomes."

The new PTSD test uses machine learning and 70 clinical data points plus a clinical stress-level assessment to develop a PTSD score for an individual that identifies their risk of acquiring the condition.

Among the 70 data points are stress hormone levels, inflammatory signals, high blood pressure, and an anxiety-level assessment. Says Schultebraucks, "We selected measures that are routinely collected in the ED and logged in the electronic medical record, plus answers to a few short questions about the psychological stress response. The idea was to create a tool that would be universally available and would add little burden to ED personnel."

Researchers used data from adult trauma survivors in Atlanta, Georgia (377 individuals) and New York City (221 individuals) to test their system.

Of this cohort, 90 percent of those predicted to be at high risk developed long-lasting PTSD symptoms within a year of the initial traumatic event — just 5 percent of people who never developed PTSD symptoms had been erroneously identified as being at risk.

On the other side of the coin, 29 percent of individuals were 'false negatives," tagged by the algorithm as not being at risk of PTSD, but then developing symptoms.

Going forward

person leaning their head on another's shoulder

Image source: Külli Kittus/Unsplash

Schultebraucks looks forward to more testing as the researchers continue to refine their algorithm and to instill confidence in the approach among ED clinicians: "Because previous models for predicting PTSD risk have not been validated in independent samples like our model, they haven't been adopted in clinical practice." She expects that, "Testing and validation of our model in larger samples will be necessary for the algorithm to be ready-to-use in the general population."

"Currently only 7% of level-1 trauma centers routinely screen for PTSD," notes Schultebraucks. "We hope that the algorithm will provide ED clinicians with a rapid, automatic readout that they could use for discharge planning and the prevention of PTSD." She envisions the algorithm being implemented in the future as a feature of electronic medical records.

The researchers also plan to test their algorithm at predicting PTSD in people whose traumatic experiences come in the form of health events such as heart attacks and strokes, as opposed to visits to the emergency department.

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