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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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Archive for date: 11-2012

Synthetic brains by 2030

Ray Kurzweil's new book

My latest Mind and Matter column is on Ray Kurzweil's new book:

When an IBM computer program called Deep Blue defeated Garry Kasparov at chess in 1997, wise folk opined that since chess was just a game of logic, this was neither significant nor surprising. Mastering the subtleties of human language, including similes, puns and humor, would remain far beyond the reach of a computer.

Last year another IBM program, Watson, triumphed at just these challenges by winning "Jeopardy!" (Sample achievement: Watson worked out that a long, tiresome speech delivered by a frothy pie topping was a "meringue harangue.") So is it time to take seriously the prospect of artificial intelligence emulating human abilities?


Taleb on emergence and trial and error

My review of Nassim Nicholas Taleb's new book in the Wall Street Journal:

You don't need a physics degree to ride a bicycle. Nor, Nassim Nicholas Taleb realized one day, do traders need to understand the mathematical theorems of options trading to trade options. Instead traders discover "heuristics," or rules of thumb, by trial and error. These are then formalized by academics into theorems and taught to new generations of traders, who become slaves to theory, ignore their own common sense and end by blowing up the system. In a neat echo of its own thesis, Mr. Taleb's paper making this point sat unpublished for seven years while academic reviewers tried to alter it to fit their prejudices.

Britain's mad biomass dash

Burning wood is the worst thing you can do for carbon dioxide emissions

I have an opinion article in The Times today:

Never has an undercover video sting delighted its victims more. A Greenpeace investigation has caught some Tory MPs scheming to save the countryside from wind farms and cut ordinary people's energy bills while Lib Dems, Guardian writers and Greenpeace activists defend subsidies for fat-cat capitalists and rich landowners with their snouts in the wind-farm trough. Said Tories will be inundated with fan mail.

Yet, for all the furore wind power generates, the bald truth is that it is an irrelevance. Its contribution to cutting carbon dioxide emissions is at best a statistical asterisk. As Professor Gordon Hughes, of the University of Edinburgh, has shown, if wind ever does make a significant contribution to energy capacity its intermittent nature would require a wasteful "spinning" back-up of gas-fired power stations, so it would still make no difference to emissions or might make them worse.

Does sexual selection explain dislike of inequality?

It is not the peacock with big-enough tail that gets to mate, but the one with the biggest tail

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on the connection between our interest in relative inequality and the theory of sexual selection:

Evolution by sexual selection is an idea that goes back to Charles Darwin. He had little doubt that it explained much about human beings, and modern biologists generally agree. One of them has even put a figure on it, concluding that some 54.8% of selection in human beings is effectively caused by reproduction of the sexiest rather than survival of the fittest.

Some years ago, the evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller in his book "The Mating Mind" explored the notion that since human males woo their mates with art, poetry, music and humor, as well as with brawn, much of the expansion of our brain may have been sexually selected.

The Medieval Warm Period

More and more evidence that it was warm and global

Single Vision

All animal vision derives from one common ancestor

My latest Mind and Matter column is on the origin of vision in animals and a vindication for Darwin:

Until recently it was possible, even plausible, to think that the faculty of vision had originated several times during the course of animal evolution. New research suggests not: vision arose only once and earlier than expected, before 700 million years ago.

Davide Pisani and colleagues from the National University of Ireland have traced the ancestry of the three kinds of "opsin" protein that animals use, in combination with a pigment, to detect light. By comparing the genome sequences of sponges, jellyfish and other animals, they tracked the origin of opsins back to the common ancestor of all animals except sponges, but including a flat, shapeless thing called a placozoan. Some time after 755 million years ago, the common ancestor of ourselves and the placozoa duplicated a gene and changed one of the copies into a recognizable opsin.

Diseases and pests are the real ecological threat

The bureaucracy's carbon obsession is distracting

I have an article in this week's Spectator about ash trees and exotic pests:

I'm pessimistic about the ash trees. It seems unlikely that a fungus that killed 90 per cent of Denmark's trees and spreads by air will not be devastating here, too. There is a glimmer of hope in the fact that ash, unlike elms, reproduce sexually so they are not clones - uniformly vulnerable to the pathogen. But it's only a glimmer: tree parasites, from chestnut blight to pine beauty moth, have a habit of sweeping through species pretty rampantly, because trees are so long-lived they cannot evolve resistance in time.

The Forestry Commission's apologists are pleading 'cuts' as an excuse for its failure to do anything more timely to get ahead of the threat, but as a woodland owner I am not convinced. An organisation that has the time and the budget to pore over my every felling or planting application in triplicate and come back with fussy and bossy comments could surely spare a smidgen of interest in looming threats from continental fungi that have been spreading out from Poland for 20 years. The commission was warned four years ago of the problem.