Our pick of the week’s science and technology stories, including the science behind dog and cat food, the value of Google and 18th-Century artificial intelligence.

Beauteous beasts
Emily Anthes | Aeon | 25 March 2013

On the science and morality of genetically modified animals. "GloFish mark the beginning of a new age, one in which we can directly manipulate the genomes of our creature companions to make them more alluring. Now that biotechnology is giving us new ways to reshape animals, how far should we allow ourselves to go in the pursuit of animal beauty?" 

Brains of the animal kingdom
Frans De Waal | Wall Street Journal | 22 March 2013
"We have grossly underestimated both the scope and the scale of animal intelligence. Can an octopus use tools? Do chimpanzees have a sense of fairness? Can birds guess what others know? Do rats feel empathy for their friends? Just a few decades ago we would have answered 'No' to all such questions. Now we're not so sure."

Interview with Jaron Lanier
JP O'Malley | Spectator | 22 March 2013

On the tensions between technology and free will. "Where do you put the end of the human ego? And where do you let the algorithm sort out human affairs? I don’t think we should decide in advance where that line should be. Instead we should experiment to find it. In the old days before computation, this was the line between market and government." 

Chess and 18th-Century artificial intelligence
Adam Gopnik | BBC | 22 March 2013

Reflections on The Mechanical Turk, an eighteenth-century device which purported to be a chess-playing machine, but which worked by means of a human chess-player concealed inside the cabinet. The inventor, Johann Maelzel, "picked up chess players on the run, wherever he happened to be, as Chuck Berry used to hire back-up bands on the road." 

The Universe is 13.82 billion years old
Phil Plait | Slate | 21 March 2013

Space telescope maps Universe by capturing background radiation from Big Bang. "What they found is pretty amazing: The Universe is lopsided on a vast scale. What can this mean? It could mean dark energy is changing over time, for example. Another idea is that we’re seeing some pattern imprinted on the Universe from before the Big Bang." 

How the science of swarms can help us fight cancer and predict the future
Ed Yong | Wired | 19 March 2013

What we can learn from locusts, minnows, and flocks of sheep. "Thanks to new observation technologies, powerful software, and statistical methods, the mechanics of collectives are being revealed. The rules may explain everything from how cancer spreads to how the brain works and how armadas of robot-driven cars might someday navigate highways." 

Google was worth 1,838,389 workers in 1998, maybe
Ethan Herdrick | Ethan Herdrick | 18 March 2013
Valuing Google in terms of human labour needed to do the same job otherwise. By this calculation, you would need 262,627 workers to do one internet search and return a result within three minutes. "It gives you an upper limit on the value of the innovation, since, if it paid to do it the labour intensive way, that would have been happening."

Chemistry of kibble
Mary Roach | Popular Science | 7 March 2013

How do you get dogs and cats to eat dry pet food? Much as you get humans to eat Cheerios. Coat cheap pellets with chemical flavours. Cats love pyrophosphates: "Most of the difference between Tuna Treat and Poultry Platter is in the name and the picture on the label". Dogs are trickier. What smells good to them doesn't usually smell good to humans.

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