Field of Science

Highlights from the Year in Ideas

The New York Times Year in Review section always has some good ones. Some highlights for me from this year:

  • Does feeling like a fraud make you act like one? Researchers gave experiment subjects designer-style sunglasses from boxes marked "authentic" or "counterfeit". They then put the subjects in situations with an incentive to be dishonest; far more of the subjects who were told they were wearing counterfeit designer glasses acted in a dishonest manner. Possible conclusion: wearing the "counterfeit" glasses (in reality all the glasses were authentic) made people feel like they were dishonest, and they acted accordingly.

  • Battle-bots with a moral compass: A roboticist is collaborating with the US army on combat robots (e.g. predator drones) that can weigh military objectives against civilian harm, and adhere to codes of international law. Personally, I'd rather trust human beings with moral decisions, but seeing as we have robots fighting our wars already, putting some safeguards in them is better than nothing.

  • Proof by blog: Fields medalist mathematician Timothy Gowers decided to run an experiment on his blog by challenging his readers to collaboratively prove a mathematical that he himself could not. Six weeks and hundreds of collaborators later, the theorem was proven, and is planned for publication under the name DHJ Polymath. This success inspired the creation of the polymath project, which aims to advance mathematics through "massively collaborative mathematical research programs".

  • Conditional microfinance: The website matches prospective philanthropists with artists, journalists, inventors, and others needing funding for their projects. The twist: unless a project attracts enough funding to meet its needs, no one pays a dime. So you don't need to worry about throwing money at something you're not sure anyone else will invest in; just pledge and see what happens!

  • SmartTrash Here's a case where I'm not so excited by the invention itself (a garbage can that scans barcodes items as they go in to see if they can be sold for money) as with the general idea it portends: I've always thought of our trash system as one of the worst inefficiencies in our society, in both economical and environmental terms. Outfitting garbage cans with microchips is a possible first step in designing a waste management system that isn't actually wasteful.

Finally, there's one "idea" that involves a complete misunderstanding of evolutionary game theory, as far as I can tell. I'll give this one a separate post when I get around to it.