MonthAugust 2010

How Technology Made Us Humans

The Man of Year Million

In his book, “The Artificial Ape,” anthropologist and archaeologist Timothy Taylor makes the startling claim that we did not make tools, tools made us.

He reminds us that the oldest stone tools we’ve found are 2.5 million years old. But the genus to which we belong, Homo, is only 2.2 million years old, at least according to the current fossil record. Our species, Homo sapiens, has been around for less time than the gap between tool creation and our genus.

In a fascinating interview with New Scientist, Taylor believes “earlier hominids called australopithecines were responsible for the stone tools . . . The tools caused the genus Homo to emerge.”

How does that reverse the human-technology equation? Taylor believes that the creation of tools – in his example a sling to carry an infant – is “how encephalisation took place in the genus Homo.” The creation of technology to take care of infants allowed them to be born more helpless. In other words, the development of initial tech allowed evolutionary forces to shape us in a particular fashion. In fact, perhaps forced them to do so.

ReadWriteWeb: How Technology Made Us Humans

Will our brains shrink due to our external ones? Not necessarily. The current trend is a demand for more and more intelligent and educated people to operate and program those machines. Even though I’d like to see computers get easier to operate and program, I would still expect see a demand for humans to do increasingly complex work with them.

3 Best University Majors According to Microsoft

Artificial intelligence

These are the areas of concentration Microsoft is most in need of right now, according to its jobs blog:

Data Mining/Machine Learning/AI/Natural Language Processing

Business Intelligence/Competitive Intelligence

Analytics/Statistics – specifically Web Analytics, A/B Testing and statistical analysis

Microsoft Careers Jobs Blog: The Top Three hottest new majors for a career in technology

No surprises there. See “The Coming Data Explosion” for more on the subject of big data.

(via Don)

Update: See also: The Big Data Explosion and the Demand for the Statistical Tools to Analyze It “If The Graduate were remade today, the advice to young Benjamin Braddock might be ‘just one word… statistics.'”

Slackers Better at “Fun” Activities

Word search

The researchers first screened participants of comparable academic ability, categorizing them as interested in achievement or interested in fun. They then had the students look at a computer screen that flashed words related to high achievement (for instance, “win,” “excel” and “master”). In subsequent tests of ability such as a word-search puzzle, the participants who were interested in achievement performed significantly better than did those who were not.

That experiment confirmed conven tional assumptions, but the next one had a confounding outcome. Participants were again primed with high-achievement words and asked to complete a word-search puzzle. But instead of describing the task as a serious test of verbal pro ficiency as before, the researchers called it “fun.” The results of that simple seman tic change were profound: not only did the supposed slackers perform better on the task this time around, their scores actually surpassed those of the high-achievement crowd.

Scientific American: Slackers Better at “Fun” Activities

I read a similar study years ago that I’ve never been able to find. Researchers in that study found that different groups did better on tests that were called “work” and called “games.” Some people did better at “work” than “games,” other did better at “games” than “work.”

Photo by Sarah Le Clerc

(via Kyle)

See also: Brain network links cognition, motivation (Also via Kyle)

Loneliness May Lead to Theism and Animism


And God stepped out on space,
And he looked around and said:
I’m lonely—
I’ll make me a world . . . (Johnson, 1927/1990, p. 17)

Physicists have the scientific tools to suggest that Johnson may have gotten his poem profoundly wrong, but psychologists have the scientific tools to suggest that Johnson may have gotten his poem profoundly backward. In three studies, people who were chronically disconnected from others (Study 1) or momentarily led to think about disconnection (Studies 2 and 3) appeared to create humanlike agents in their environment— from gadgets to pets to supernatural agents such as God. These studies go beyond simply demonstrating that social disconnection leads people to seek companionship from nonhuman agents, showing that social disconnection can alter the way these agents are conceptualized or represented. Lonely people cannot make themselves a world, of course, but they can make themselves a mindful gadget, a thoughtful pet, or a god to populate that world.

MindHacks: Solitude conjures imaginary companions

Am I correct in believing that many religious practices include extended isolation as an initiatory or even ongoing practice for the priestly classes or even rank and file?

What the Brain is Doing When it is “Idle”

Idle brain

Until recently, scientists would have found little of interest in the purposeless, mind-wandering spaces between Mrazek’s conscious breakfast-making tasks — they were just the brain idling between meaningful activity.

But in the span of a few short years, they have instead come to view mental leisure as important, purposeful work — work that relies on a powerful and far-flung network of brain cells firing in unison.

Neuroscientists call it the “default mode network.” […]

That’s in sharp contrast to the pattern struck by the brain when hard at work: In this mode, introspection is suppressed while we attend to pressing business — we “lose ourselves” in work. As we do so, scientists see the default mode network go quiet and other networks come alive.

LA Times: An idle brain may be the self’s workshop

I’ve noted before that the bored brain uses more energy than an engaged brain (and that also boredom can be lethal). It seems clear that we also need enough idle time as well.

African Food Production Challenged by ‘Land Grab’ for Biofuels

African land grab

European Union countries must drop their biofuels targets or else risk plunging more Africans into hunger and raising carbon emissions, according to Friends of the Earth (FoE).

In a campaign launching today, the charity accuses European companies of land-grabbing throughout Africa to grow biofuel crops that directly compete with food crops. Biofuel companies counter that they consult with local governments, bring investment and jobs, and often produce fuels for the local market. […]

Producers argue they typically farm land not destined, or suitable for, food crops. But campaigners reject those claims, with FoE saying that biofuel crops, including non-edible ones such as jatropha, “are competing directly with food crops for fertile land”. […]

Sun Biofuels, a British company farming land in Mozambique and Tanzania and named in the report, criticised the charity’s research as “emotional and anecdotal” and said that its time would be better spent looking into ways to develop equitable farming models in Africa.

Guardian: Friends of the Earth urges end to ‘land grab’ for biofuels

Anyone know more about this situation?

(via Chris Arkenberg)

The Economist: Seven Questions for Jay Rosen

Jay Rosen

Good interview with Jay Rosen in The Economist:

DiA: Media is a business, and many of the media outlets that are doing the best business are those that tell their audiences what they want to hear, and those that pursue the politics-as-horse-race model. So how do we change the incentives in order to make the media more informative? Or does the public simply get the media it deserves?

Mr Rosen: Is The Economist in the business of telling its readers what they want to hear? Is that how the magazine is edited? I doubt it. But I hear the business is doing pretty well. So how is that possible? Look: the alternative to chasing clicks is building trust and an editorial brand. “What people want” arguments don’t impress me. I think anyone with a half a brain knows that you have to listen to demand and give people what they have no way to demand. You have to listen to them, and assert your authority from time to time, because listening well is what gives you the authority to recommend what is not immediately in demand.

The Economist: Seven Questions for Jay Rosen

Bacteria Survives in Space, Without Oxygen, for a Year and a Half


The bugs were put on the exterior of the space station to see how they would cope in the hostile conditions that exist above the Earth’s atmosphere.

And when scientists inspected the microbes a year and a half later, they found many were still alive.

These survivors are now thriving in a laboratory at the Open University (OU) in Milton Keynes.

The experiment is part of a quest to find microbes that could be useful to future astronauts who venture beyond low-Earth orbit to explore the rest of the Solar System. […]

This type of research also plays into the popular theory that micro-organisms can somehow be transported between the planets in rocks – in meteorites – to seed life where it does not yet exist.

BBC: Beer microbes live 553 days outside ISS

Interestingly, the bacteria selected weren’t known extremophiles, they were selected apparently at random.

Austin Osman Spare Blog and Forthcoming Museum Exhibit in the UK

Austin Osman Spare

The Bones Go Last is a new blog dedicated to Austin Osman Spare.

Of particular note is this post featuring a clip from the Daily Mail in 1904 about a showing of Spare’s work when he was a teenager at a public library in Southwark.

Spare’s work will be returning to Southwark next month with temporary exhibit at the Cuming Museum from Monday 13 September 2010 to Sunday 14 November 2010. More details here.

E.O. Wilson Proposes New Theory of Social Evolution


For decades, selflessness — as exhibited in eusocial insect colonies where workers sacrifice themselves for the greater good — has been explained in terms of genetic relatedness. Called kin selection, it was a neat solution to the conundrum of selflessness in what was supposedly an every-animal-for-itself evolutionary battle.

One early proponent was now-legendary Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson, a founder of modern sociobiology. Now Wilson is leading the counterattack. […]

The researchers offer their own alternative theory, based on standard natural selection, but with a twist: After starting with a focus on a single founder, selection moves to the level of colony. From this perspective, a worker ant is something like a cell — part of a larger evolutionary unit, not a unit unto itself.

“Our model proves that looking at a worker ant and asking why it is altruistic is the wrong level of analysis,” said Tarnita. “The important unit is the colony.”

Wired Science: E.O. Wilson Proposes New Theory of Social Evolution

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