Video games solve scientific problems

This article from Ars Technica highlights the cross-pollination of my two favourite topics: Science and Gaming.

https://arstechnica.com/gaming/2017/07/level-up-how-video-games-evolved-to-solve-significant-scientific-problems/

What is a video game? It is an interactive medium which takes the input of one or more players and displays the output on a computer screen or TVs. When was the first video game born? It was in the autumn of 1958 when a physicist William Higinbotham created Tennis for Two in Brookhaven National Laboratory. A dot, representing a tennis ball, flies across a primitive CRT screen whenever the player flicks the controls. The whole setup was like a glorified oscilloscope detecting erratic voltage signals.

tennis_for_two_on_a_dumont_lab_oscilloscope_type_304-a
Tennis for Two on analog computer. Dope.

Video games have evolved since then and became one of the biggest industries in the world. According to Entertainment Software Association, the industry sold over 24.5 billion games and generated more than $34.4 billion in revenue. There is no sign of slowing down either. Twitch.tv, the world’s largest video game streaming platform, revealed its statistics in 2016: there are 2.2 million streamers (players that broadcast their gaming session online), clocking in 292 million minutes watched online. That’s roughly equal to 555 years, big data!

Nonetheless video games can show its productive value when used correctly. Apart from the educational value of video games in recent curriculum (Kerbal Space Program, MinecraftEdu), a few brilliant video games make use of the collaborative and problem-solving nature of the platform to solve scientific problems, for example Foldit (protein structure), EteRNA (RNA folding) and Phylo (NP-hard computational problem). It is a form of citizen science in which the general public solves a scientific problem together. One notable discovery was in 2011 where a group of players solved the structure of an enzyme critical in AIDS virus reproduction.

nsmb-2119-f1
Protein prediction by the Foldit Void Crushers Group.

Game on, players!

 

The Woman Speaks [48hour Scifi London 2017]

In April, I wrote a short piece for a competition called 48 Hour Flash Fiction 2017 organized by New Scientist, SCI-FI-LONDON and Urbanfantasist.com.

I was given the story elements required (title, a piece of dialogue that must be in the story etc) on the 8th of April and 48 hours to complete a 2,000 words story. It was a grueling experience – what word to use, what science issue to incorporate, how to unfold the story – but I did learn a lot from it. I would say at the point of time it was heavily inspired by popular culture that I enjoyed the most, mainly in the genres of dystopian or futurology. Here is the article transcribed faithfully as below.


Title: THE WOMAN SPEAKS

Dialogue: Music cannot exist in a vacuum.

Science (Optional): A machine that records people’s dreams for morning playback – would you share them or want to watch them?

Word Count: 1583 Words

The Woman Speaks

“Good morning, Mr. Patterson.” A warm female voice echoes in the room.

I open my eyes and peer at the holo-display. 6:00 am sharp, a standard time made compulsory for all Class-C workers in the country. I quickly roll off the bed and make a beeline to the washroom. I am getting dressed for work while the female voice continues the briefing of the summary of the day with my favourite playlist on the stream. An image of a middle-aged woman flickers on the bathroom mirror.

“Mr. Patterson, you dreamt of your mother for a consecutive period of five days pertaining to the matter of your five years old birthday party. Do you require any professional help?” I groan a little. That was my dream last night. A “Smart Doctor” dialog pops up, accompanied with a list of suggested psychologists in my neighbourhood if I am inclined to do so.

“No, Sarah, I told you not to poke your finger into my dream again!” I yell before realising that the voice does not have a finger at all. She’s an artificial intelligence built by those smart brains in the mega corporations. I do not understand how this “Smart Personal AssistantTM in the Cloud” works; I never learnt it in the school I went. I just know it is given free to everyone in the country, so I don’t really care. She falls silent. The hot steam from the showerhead subsides.

I sigh. There is no use in venting anger to a virtual person. Sometimes I am just dissatisfied with my life – getting screened and filtered out of the system when deemed not worthy for the college, and there is no way to learn any skills other than the assigned one by the government – all the resources on the web have been adjusted to my social status.

The holo-display blares loudly, displaying 7:00am in red rays. I charge out of my small dorm and hop on a hovering car. There are another four people in the car already on the same Share-a-Drive, all staring blankly to the front. I rub my nose and turn on my device as well. Everyone used to hold a “smartphone” twenty years ago. I recalled my first iPhone 8 for the tenth year old birthday. Now the chip is directly on the retina, providing a stream of non-stop, tailored information to the users’ eyes, all day long while they are awake. The mega corporations have even come up with a way to tap into their dreams while they sleep. Dreams, the vault of secrets and desires, have been cracked open and reduced to mere data points on the graphs.

I shake my head: what’s wrong with me and these philosophical thoughts? I have never learnt Descartes, Zhuangzi or Vasubandhu – wait a second, how do these names swim into my mind?

“Mr. Patterson, please proceed to Meeting Room 3 when you arrive at the company.” I am disrupted by Sarah’s prompt. It smells like an urgent request. I eye-ball the “Accept” button and wonder who demanded my audience. My boss, Ms. Jacqueline, is not very keen of my performance lately. I shudder at the thought of losing my job.

The car whizzes on the highway for ten minutes and stopped in front of a complex. Tall buildings sprawled across the horizon, glinting with grey under the Sun. The weather is a nice forty degrees Celsius, unlike yesterday where a heat wave killed three people in the neighbourhood. I alight and spot my section-mates. Mr. Lee and Ms. Abagail in my section are walking to the assembly point. I make a turn to the Administration.

I cannot put my finger at the exact date I started working in the company, not even the interviews. The job seems to be prearranged way before I graduated from high school. Perhaps it is the filter system again, I think. I authenticate myself at the gate. Not many people work here, at least not for my rank. A blue navigating line appears in my field of view to provide guidance.

Exquisite drawings are displayed along the walls of the corridor. Van Gogh, da Vinci, Zhang Daqian, Monet… I can’t help but stop to appreciate them. The strokes, the flow of colours, and the light brushes to draw the faces…

“Mr. Patterson, your next meeting will start in 3 minutes. Please proceed to Meeting Room 3.” The female voice breaks my train of thoughts with a friendly tone. I pick up my pace.

The room is nothing that I have seen before. A huge pedestal is at the other end of the room with holo-displays everywhere. Dozens of men and women are busily working on the displays, flicking and tapping virtual buttons and switches. I behold at the scene.

“Welcome, Mr. Patterson.” It is the familiar voice of Sarah. Not from my device, but directly emanating from the pedestal.

“Sa…Sarah?” I raise my voice.

“Oh my dear, don’t you forget me?” A figure emerges behind the floating holo-displays. A middle-aged woman. “I gave birth to you, remember?”

I step back in shock. She looks exactly like mom, always appearing in my dreams and recalling myself of the sweet memories.

“Sarah, why on Earth…”

“Corrections, two to be exact. One, we are not on Earth. Two, I am Sarah, but not the one you are thinking.” She points at her own eyes.

“Wait a minute, who are you exactly?” I can’t tell the reality from dream anymore.

“I created you, Patterson. Or your internal name, Subject #312. You are the first robot that possesses human-like memory.” She turned a holo-display towards me and pulled up a holo-blueprint.

“We have perfected the way to make robots. At least in the physical appearance. We mastered the manufacturing process, understood how nervous and circular systems work, we even sliced brains into tiny pieces to study all the nature offers to us.” She seems to be making a speech to an empty audience. “We still don’t understand how memory works. What lunch did I have yesterday? What flower did I receive for my valentine’s day twenty years ago?”

She clears her throat and faces me. “More importantly, how does memory interact with our actions and our emotions?”

“I don’t understand…” I stumble upon my words.

She smiles to me. “It’s alright, Patterson. We felt the same before we found the missing piece. The dreams. A constant feedback of signals back to human brain when the physical body is down to repair every night. The sleep time is a moment when the mind has the total freedom to feel, to construct, and to cleanse the memories.”

She takes a pose as if she were conducting a musical piece. “Let me illustrate it with an example. We can mix and match different notes through algorithms. Tempo, virtuoso, all sorts of intricate moments. But those is not music. Totally inferior to Beethoven, Bach and Mozart. Those which are composed organically.”

Her fingers moved in the air in an Allegro tempo.

“However, music cannot exist in a vacuum.” She stopped at the last word, as if thinking of a hard problem. “Algorithms can run perfectly with high computing power, but the result is just unreal. It is an uncanny valley in which we can tell what is computer generated and what is not. Art is hard to silicone chips.” She laughs at her joke and I somehow make some exhaling sound from my nose to reduce my anxiety.

“So we decided to fill up the vacuum. We want our robots to learn from their senses and experience even when they self-repair at nights. So we assembled five hundreds robots, loaded up with different initial memories,” she look into my eyes, “and made them dream every night. You are one of them.” She winks.

The memories? Like the birthday parties during my childhood? The red iPhone I got? Those were all fake? I squint at the holo-displays on the pedestal and see videos playing. Mr. Lee had a wet dream with his fantasized object and Ms. Abagail was looking forward for a trip to Neo-Shanghai. All of the dreams are recorded, shared and watched in this room. The results are analysed and then feedback to our memory. Every night.

“Guess what we observed? The emergence of emotions. Not the pre-programmed ones where you enter different loops based on the conditions, but those emerge spontaneously from nothing. We found that these beautiful displays of inner states tremendously helpful to form a higher state of mind. Consciousness, self-realisation, a soul if you like to call it.”

She turns her back to me. The air feels still in the room now. “This soul, combined with a robot’s superior computing power, allows you to form far more connections in your neuron network. Recently you grow appreciation towards abstract concepts, don’t you? To you, art, philosophy, music is beautiful instead of some random pixels or noises.”

I start to feel dizzy. It is too much for me to handle right now. She wave her hands and two droids crowd beside me, restraining me by the arms.

“Good night, Mr. Patterson. That’s a great soul you have built, and we thank you for your hard work.” The two robots disassemble my skull before I blank out.

… …

… …

“Good morning, Mr. Patterson.” A warm female voice echoes in the room.

HKU to cancel Astronomy and Maths-Physics Majors

The University of Hong Kong (HKU) is planning to cross out two majors from its list in Faculty of Science: Astronomy and Mathematics-Physics, starting from the academic year 2018/19. (Source)

powerpnt_2016-08-10_19-23-36

One of my colleagues shared this news to me through an HK Podcast (Cantonese). As a Physics graduate, I could empathise what the students and alumni shared in the interviews. Based on what reasons should these two majors be cancelled? What would happen to the only Astronomy major offered in the whole Hong Kong?

HKU’s Dean of Science Matthew Evans explained to the students that “[they] are not choosing to enroll on these majors.” The low enrollment rate is the main reason cited. He also said that the efficient use of resources and academic time prompted the action. Such decision upset the students and alumni.

Lam Chiu-ying was one of the graduates from the HKU’s mathematics-physics major in 1971. He was also the former director of the Hong Kong Observatory. He thinks that a good university should not be chasing after fleeting trends and only focusing on subjects that brings in students. He likens such phenomenon to a supermarket – a place only offering popular items.

It kind of reflects how cut throat the competition in Hong Kong is. It is not unusual for a university to close unpopular courses, but HKU has a unique position: it is the only Hong Kong university that runs an astronomy major. According to Scival, University of Hong Kong has strong scholarly output in the field of Physics and Astronomy. The publications is increasing over the years, for example about 2,000 publications in the last 5 years. 20.6% of the works are in the top 10% most cited worldwide, and 37.0% of the publications are published in the top 10% journals worldwide as well.

2017-05-11_143711

We need to relook at the role of university. It is supposed to be the center of scholarly research and innovation, and at the same time the place where future generation gets advanced education. I think that HKU should put more thoughts in getting more students interested in such subjects instead of simply closing them down. By working with high schools and government authorities, the university can give more exposure to the astronomy and physics and ignite the passion among Hong Kong young generation.

Scientific American: What is “anti-science”?

march20at20aaas20boston
Source: Science

Being “anti-science” does not mean that denying the benefits of scientific research or the validity of scientific methods. We can’t do anything but feel helpless or ruined to see Trump’s government’s recent policy changes in science (e.g. cut of EPA and NASA budget, anti-vaccine stance, downplaying of climate change). People in United States started a March for Science movement to “call for science that upholds the common good and for policy makers to enact evidence based policies in the public interest.

In light of such sentiment, we can’t emphasis enough the importance of upholding the integrity and value of scientific research, especially when it comes to policy making process which affects the lives of millions. We need, however, to revisit the definition of “anti-science”.

As highlighted in a recent Scientific American article, the attitudes towards science cannot be divided clearly to two opposing sides “pro-” and “anti-science”. Human behaviour is more nuanced. It is more appropriate to address anti-science as denial of certain scientific issues. One that agrees with vaccination may deny the evidences of climate change. Psychologists call it motivated biased, which means we treat facts to reinforce our beliefs instead of convincing ourselves the otherwise is true. In short, we like to twist facts.

As the information is getting more accessible and easily retrieved and shared, people are likely susceptible to form “echo chamber”, be it on Facebook, Twitter or other social media. We seek out information that supports ourselves, and refuse or outright deny evidences that oppose to our beliefs. As called “motivated reasoning“, we are all tribal creatures.

Another interesting point brought up by the article is that people do not deny the scientific facts themselves, but the implication of solutions to the problems unsurfaced by the facts. Let’s say climate change. If the climate change is true, the implied solutions are to reduce the reliance on fossil fuel, to cut down the consumption of diary products and to invest in renewable energy industry. When confronted with a change of habit, human are very unlikely to change. It is called solution aversion.

So for us who wants to make a change, please keep an open mind. Understand the different backgrounds of the audience, and try to motivate them from the root cause.

Conquer

“So tell me, what’s the whole point of doing this?”

I sat down quietly on the metal chair. I wished the cold sensation could wake me up from this nightmarish reality.

“I have told you our intention. We’ve done our part, and now it’s your turn to decide. As the best person Earth could offer, I have a great faith in you to make the optimal decision.”

As the appointed Diplomat of the Earth, I was out of my wits for the first time. In my career spanning three decades, I have achieved the unachievables. I stopped Russia from invading the fringe countries with my diplomatic skills; I reconciled the long grudge between North and South Korea and disarmed the nukes by having a long overnight talk with the President Kim; and I witnessed the birth of Earth Federation unified under the same flag. I thought it was finally time to call it a day and had the chance to enjoy my retirement somewhere in Iceland, before they came to us.

“Well, Mr Frederick, we can’t resolve this if you don’t speak at all!” Another shrill. These strangers spoke with a focused, high pitched voice. The humanoid, roughly 8 feet tall, was tapping two appendages on his left arm. He was one of the many who came on the day. For an unknown reason, the alien fleet – dare I say alien while they spoke perfect English – just emerged on top of the stratosphere. Were they here to greet, to inquire, or to conquer? No one knew, and that’s the reason why I was sent here.

“I represent Earth Federation to welcome you and your friends, and …” I started my welcome speech before getting interrupted by another shrill.
“What’s the joy of unification? Why are you putting yourself in a risky, distasteful, restraining state in which you don’t grow at all?” He turned around and faced me. His eyes were of inquiry, of caring without any sense of anger. It’s like how an elder reproached his child.

I clenched my fists. “Thank you for your concern. The people on Earth realized that wars between nations and tribes don’t really advance the humanity as a race, and only under a peaceful condition we could make our lives better by devoting the resources to better uses.”

“I would say you were misguided and misinformed. Having a big, unified nation doesn’t really reap the benefits you just said. What science do the scientists should research? What machines do the engineers should build? What epics do the poets should compose? What anthems do the people should sing? Divided nations bring fire to the fight, and the people are motivated to fight for a better tomorrow. For an analogy, imagine a perfect lake: the water stays stagnant, lifeless if the water didn’t flow at all. Break the border a little, and the water will flow to form a river, bringing lives around.”

“Divided nations conquer each other. A united nation conquer itself from within. The difference is that one leads to prosperity, another complacency.” He cast a thoughtful stare with his single eye before locking the room.

That was the first meeting with these aliens. This memory was still replaying vividly in my head every night in my sleep. I have lost count of the days that have passed, but I could see, from my little room, that the electric lights on Earth was getting less and dimmer. Didn’t they figure out nuclear power or other energy sources before I came? I observed less and less launches of satellites or spaceships as if the Earth has closed the border to Space. What happened to the space policy? Don’t we want to explore beyond the Earth after we settled all the differences among us?

Without the spirit to conquer, humanity seemed to be conquered from within.

via Daily Prompt: Conquer

Science Busking at NUS Open Day 2017

Here are my juniors at NUS Open Day this year! Hurray!

A Bucket Full of Science

Picture1.png

Last Saturday students in our course* put up a wonderful performance during NUS Open day 2017, communicating science to public visitors in the form of busking!

Below is a short description and a mosaic of pictures to illustrate each busking activity.

Marshmallow Cannon

A marshmallow is in a hollow tube is ejected by one blowing into the tube. Participants are challenged to send the marshmallow flying as far as possible. Our science communicators then explain the physics of the moving marshmallow inside and outside the tube, and discuss the parameters affecting the distance traveled by the marshmallow (such as the dimensions of the tube and the angle of elevation).

Science of Coffee

The science behind a good cup of coffee is demonstrated by live brewing and coffee tasting. Visitors are invited to taste different samples of coffee made with different brewing parameters such as grind size and temperature, and…

View original post 223 more words

Swarm

He spun around his thrusters, speeding away from the disintegrated Sun. Although broken down into tiny globules of plasma matter, the collective mass of the remnants was still able to pull objects fairly easily, all thanks to gravity. He didn’t want to fall to the centre and get surrounded by the blazing glitters.

Under the slow yet deep hums of the ion engines, he flicked switches and pushed buttons frantically. The survival instinct had kicked in – he gotta run away from this menace. He has seen this exact scene before in the Aegean System where Perxians destroyed the stars one by one. Their grey fleets hovered in the dark void and sent out the silent killers – innumerable amount of tiny drones.

They looked completely harmless at the first sight. In his scope, he could only see small dots creeping across the view, creeping on the small golden pie. It reminded him of his mother’s raspberry pie baked in a sunny afternoon. Black ants came and formed a trail to the pie, busily following each other’s pheromone to the food. Being a young boy, he could not fathom why the ants were so busy, nor where they came from – He only knew how to crush them using his thumbs. The ants remained unmoved, and he still remembered how the crushed ants smelled on his hand.

“Warning: Small unmanned drones approaching. Number: Unable to calculate.” He woke up from his reminiscence. Thousands of small dots started blinking on his starmap, forming a green trail from behind, at the starboard side. Like ants looking for their food, these tiny dots were on a steady course to its prey – his space capsule.

 

via Daily Prompt: Swarm