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Do IQ test results mean anything at all?

The answer is yes — but only in certain circumstances and that "yes" comes with a whole bunch of caveats. At Discover, Emily Sohn has a nice basic primer on what we know now about intelligence testing and what your score on an IQ test does and doesn't mean. Maggie 12

Washington's $52.6 billion "black budget" exposed

The Washington Post's Barton Gellman and Greg Miller detail the vast sums of money America spends on intelligence operations, far from public scrutiny.

Among the notable revelations in the budget summary:

•Spending by the CIA has surged past that of every other spy agency, with $14.7 billion in requested funding for 2013. The figure vastly exceeds outside estimates and is nearly 50 percent above that of the National Security Agency, which conducts eavesdropping operations and has long been considered the behemoth of the community.

•The CIA and NSA have launched aggressive new efforts to hack into foreign computer networks to steal information or sabotage enemy systems, embracing what the budget refers to as “offensive cyber operations.”

•The NSA planned to investigate at least 4,000 possible insider threats in 2013, cases in which the agency suspected sensitive information may have been compromised by one of its own. The budget documents show that the U.S. intelligence community has sought to strengthen its ability to detect what it calls “anomalous behavior” by personnel with access to highly classified material.

•U.S. intelligence officials take an active interest in foes as well as friends. Pakistan is described in detail as an “intractable target,” and counterintelligence operations “are strategically focused against [the] priority targets of China, Russia, Iran, Cuba and Israel.”

Don't miss this incredible, clarifying interactive chart.

Octopus limbs have a mind of their own

A couple of years ago, I recorded a talk on octopus neurobiology. One of the freakiest things you'll learn, if you watch it, is that an octopus' "brain" isn't really a centralized thing the way ours is. The processing capacity is distributed throughout the animal's body. At io9 today, Annalee Newitz writes about a new study that backs up that idea, demonstrating that disembodied octopus arms react to threats in ways a severed human hand never could. Maggie 14

Petraeus outed by Gmail

As reported earlier today, CIA chief David Petraeus has resigned after an FBI probe into whether someone else was using his email led to the discovery he was having an extramarital affair.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the investigation focused on his Gmail account, and that the traffic they observed "led agents to believe the woman or someone close to her had sought access to his email." The woman in question has now been identified as West Point graduate Paula Broadwell, author of "All In: The Education of General David Petraeus."

While Mr. Petraeus was still a general, he had email exchanges with the woman, but there wasn't a physical relationship, the person said. The affair began after Mr. Petraeus retired from the Army in August 2011 and ended months ago, the person said.

Previously: CIA chief Petraeus steps down, having failed to keep his drone in his pants

An animal rights pop quiz

"Over the weekend, I borrowed a friend’s time machine and cold-bloodedly killed a Neandertal, a Homo erectus, an Australopithecus, a dolphin, a chimp, eight sentient robots, the first extraterrestrial visitor to Earth, and my neighbor with the unreasonably loud sound system. Question: in the eyes of the law, how many murders did I just commit?" — John Rennie on the ongoing debate about intelligence, species, and the rights of non-human persons. Read his great story at Smart Planet. (Via Philip Yam) NOW WITH WORKING LINK! Maggie

The case for dolphin rights

Recently, I posted a series of videos where science writers talked about some of the fascinating things they learned at the 2012 American Association for the Advancement of Science conference. In one of those clips, Eric Michael Johnson talked a bit about a panel session on whether or not certain cetaceans—primarily whales and dolphins—deserve to have legal rights under the law, the same as people have.

This is an issue that just begs controversy. But in a recent blog post following up on that panel and the meaning behind it, Johnson explains that it's not quite as crazy an idea as it might at first sound.

It was just this understanding of rights as obligations that governments must obey that formed the basis for a declaration of rights for cetaceans (whales and dolphins) at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science held in Vancouver, Canada last month. Such a declaration is a minefield ripe for misunderstanding, as the BBC quickly demonstrated with their headline, “Dolphins deserve same rights as humans, say scientists.” However, according to Thomas I. White, Conrad N. Hilton Chair of Business Ethics at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, the idea of granting personhood rights to nonhumans would not make them equal to humans under law. They would not vote, sit on a jury, or attend public school. However, by legally making whales and dolphins “nonhuman persons,” with individual rights under law, it would obligate governments to protect cetaceans from slaughter or abuse.

“The evidence for cognitive and affective sophistication—currently most strongly documented in dolphins—supports the claim that these cetaceans are ‘non-human persons,’” said White. As a result, cetaceans should be seen as “beyond use” by humans and have “moral standing” as individuals. “It is, therefore, ethically indefensible to kill, injure or keep these beings captive for human purposes,” he said.

Johnson also makes an interesting point—there's a legal basis for this kind of thing. After all, if corporations can be people, my friends, why not dolphins?

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Image: Dolphins, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from hassanrafeek's photostream

Maher Arar on Canada's pro-torture policy

Maher Arar, a Canadian who was rendered to Syria for years of brutal torture on the basis of bad information from Canada's intelligence agencies, writes in Prism about the revelation that Canadian public safety minister Vic Toews has given Canadian intelligence agencies and police the green light to use information derived from torture in their work. Arar cites examples of rendition and torture based on the "Hollywood fantasy that underlines the 'ticking bomb' scenario that minister Toews was apparently contemplating when he wrote this directive."

What makes this direction even more alarming is that the fat annual budgets devoted to enhancing national security have not been balanced by a similar increase in oversight. In fact, the government chose to ignore the most important recommendation of Justice O’Connor which is to establish a credible oversight agency that has the required powers to monitor and investigate the activities of the RCMP and those of other agencies involved in the gathering and dissemination of national security information. Unlike the powerless Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP (CPC) or the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC) this agency would also be granted subpoena power to compel all agencies to produce the required documents.

Coming back to the directive one can only cite two examples here which I believe are sufficient to illustrate the hollowness of the argument presented in the directive. The first relates to the invasion of Iraq which we now know was based on false intelligence (see this video) that was extracted from Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi while he was being tortured in Egypt. Al-Libi was later found dead inside his prison cell. Some human rights activists believe the Gaddafi regime liquidated him three years after he was rendered to Libya by the CIA.

Torture Directive 2.0 (Thanks, Richard!)

(Image: Rothenburg Germany Torture Museum, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from nanpalmero's photostream) (Thanks, Richard!)

Evil computer just wants to be friends

In the tradition of The Shining re-cut to look like an uplifting comedy, comes this music video, which repurposes scenes from several movies—most prominently 2001: A Space Odyssey—to tell the story of a misunderstood computer that accidentally hurts the ones it loves.

The song is "Limited" by Jascha. The video was created by my friend John Pavlus (who has also made some cool films about entropy and the Antikythera Mechanism). He says:

It seemed like a fun challenge to take images that have acquired so much "baggage" over the years — like the glowering cyclops eye of HAL from 2001, which has become visual shorthand for "evil machine" — and try to attach completely opposite emotional associations to them. What if something like HAL wasn't evil at all, but just misunderstood in its intentions, like a puppy who plays too rough with its owner? That's exactly the image that Jascha's plaintive refrain in "Limited" put into my head. Remixing material from five very different films creates a necessarily impressionistic approach to telling a story, so maybe the story this video tells in your head isn't the same one that it tells in mine. Either way I hope it's a good one.

Video Link

Scientists build robot octopus, one tentacle at a time

Last year, I interviewed Binyamin Hochner of Hebrew University about his work developing new robotics systems based on the neurobiology of octopuses and other cephalopods. That interview ended up being incorporated into a video about cephalopod intelligence that was posted here on BoingBoing.

Long story short: Cephalopods don't have their neurons organized in the same way that we vertebrates do. An octopus has as many neurons as a cat, but instead of relying on a central brain, the octopus' neurons are far more scattered. Some are centralized into what we might think of as a "brain"—in this case, a donut-shaped organ that actually wraps around the octopus' esophagus. But the bulk of the neurons are distributed throughout the octopus' body. When the octopus moves, the centralized and decentralized neurons work together, sharing information and the duties of processing and control*.

Researchers like Hochner think that distributed processing system could make for better robots that can do more thinking on their own. Now, his work is paying off. In the video above, you can see the robotic arm produced by an interdisciplinary, team funded by the European Commission, of which Hochner is a part. The 17-inch arm can grasp objects and is the first step in a larger plan to build an entire robot octopus.

I'll say that again, "Robot octopus." Feel free to squeel with delight.

Video Link

*For the record, this is my guess for why the technically dead squid in that video Xeni posted on Monday still reacted when doused with soy sauce. Squid have distributed neurons, just like octopuses. So some of its "brain" was dead. But the distributed neurons spread throughout its arms were still, apparently, somewhat functional. In the video, I mentioned that one of the scientists I spoke with told me that the humane way to kill an octopus was to kill the whole octopus at once.