Dec 17, 2016

The Paris Hilton Problem… with Artificial Intelligence

The fear and excitement of artificial intelligence or thinking machines has been a popular conversation for decades. Movies like The Terminator or A.I. conceptualize the debate as machines becoming self aware and taking over the world (literally). While not being a technological luddite, we are getting closer to the ability of computers to think like humans, and is this necessarily a good thing? A recent New York Times article states:

The implications of progress in A.I. are being brought into sharp relief now by the broadcasting of a recorded competition pitting the I.B.M. computing system named Watson against the two best human Jeopardy players, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.

Watson is an effort by I.B.M. researchers to advance a set of techniques used to process human language. It provides striking evidence that computing systems will no longer be limited to responding to simple commands. Machines will increasingly be able to pick apart jargon, nuance and even riddles. In attacking the problem of the ambiguity of human language, computer science is now closing in on what researchers refer to as the “Paris Hilton problem” — the ability, for example, to determine whether a query is being made by someone who is trying to reserve a hotel in France, or simply to pass time surfing the Internet.

If, as many predict, Watson defeats its human opponents on Wednesday, much will be made of the philosophical consequences of the machine’s achievement. Moreover, the I.B.M. demonstration also foretells profound sociological and economic changes.

Watson competes on Jeopardy

As computers are able perform tasks at a reduced cost to the employer, will jobs become obsolete? If computer can understand human language, riddles and possibly even jokes, do we need to rethink what it means to be human? Is is ethical to abolish all technology that has an obvious possible determent to society? However, what about A.I.’s positive impact in the field of scientific research and increased quality of life? Where does one draw the line in the sand when creating technology that can think and anticipate and calculate like humans (but at an increased rate and infinite storage capacity)???

Dec 13, 2016

Science in the Pub event JUST added for next week, Thursday 2/24!

Hi Pubfans, sorry for the short notice, but we have just added an event next Thursday, Feb 24 from 6-8 PM at Austin’s Pizza on Guadalupe.

Some of you may notice that this is a change in venue, time and day for us. This is a one-time change in order to make room for this special event. Please do us the favor of helping get the word out to your friends.

UT-Austin researcher Dr. Sara Sawyer will be joined by Robert Gifford from Rockefeller University to discuss the field of paleovirology. They are both young leaders in the subject, and we are very excited to have them. Viruses and their ancestors have shaped animal evolution from the very beginning, and they will be telling us all about the forensic evidence leftover today that helps us recreate this evolutionary battlefield. Where will our love/hate relationship with viruses take us in the future? We’ll cover that too.

Come join us for the same great science, the same jargon-free atmosphere, the same cold beer . . . and this time with pizza! If you have any questions, email us at scienceinthepub at gmail dot com. See you next week!

Dec 9, 2016

The Science of Paleovirology

Before this week’s SITP, you may be asking “What is Paleovirology???” Well, we’re glad you asked. For more information about this interesting new field of research we recommend this podcast from On Point and NPR from back in 2007.

For a current look at the state-of-the-art in this field and an amazing perspective on your genome, come see Dr. Sara Sawyer of The University of Texas at

Come early, Grab a drink and Learn with us!

Dec 6, 2016

New Worlds for Digging

Fossils have always tickled my imagination. The simple fact that an organism can be preserved for millions, and sometimes billions of years is tantalizing to me. When fossils were first unearthed, humans began to understand the ancient origins of life. As we acquired the ability to dig deeper and deeper, more and more of earth’s biography was written, all full of surprises.

As it turns out, nature spared no parts in generating a stunning radiation of life that still to this day has only been partially discovered and even less so described. Notably, the cambrian explosion that occurred roughly 500 million years ago is considered the big bang of biology, as it spawned numerous diverse species.

This event is obvious in the fossil record and its full extent will likely never be known. There will always be dirt to dig and so it is likely that we will be digging up fossils for plenty a time to come. This is great news because fossils continue to unravel mysteries about the past that help us understand our own origins. Scientists are now finding that some fossils may even tell us something about the future.

But before jumping into hyperspace mode, there are some friends I must pay due. For a long time I associated fossils explicitly with dinosaurs. Probably because they make awesome fossils. So much so that I was responsible for plenty of unwanted ‘dig sites’ as a youngster (I was hoping to piece together a T-Rex one day but never got around to it).

In any case, the original discovery of the gargantuan creatures we now know of as dinosaurs must have truly been surprising. They have since captivated minds enough to inform the field of paleontology. Although dinosaurs leave behind the most obvious kind of fossils, remnants of over a hundred thousand other species have now been discovered.

So far only fossils in the ‘bare bones’ sense of the word have been discussed. However, scientists are beginning to redefine what a fossil is and how to find them. Take for example your neighborhood astrophysicist. In 1964, a few of these stargazers realized something mind-blowing. What they thought was noise coming from their fancy radio telescope was actually the remnant of a death-star-status explosion that happened over thirteen billion years ago! The cosmic background radiation is an ancient artifact that is now a cornerstone concept in the big bang theory and arguably the oldest fossil in the known universe. Well, I should say, our known universe. What is interesting to note is that it was not a shovel that allowed these astrophysicists to find this magnificent fossil, but a telescope.

These days molecular biologists are getting in on the fossil hunting fun, too. Thanks to the human genome project it was discovered that 8% of our genome is actually made up of dormant viruses. It is speculated that they were deactivated by our immune system, an ode to our evolutionary success. A cool power tool called a molecular clock has helped to estimate that some of these viruses are more than a hundred million years old. This has incredible implications for the role of viruses in our own long-term evolution, an idea that has only recently drawn appreciation. Our genomes may very well be considered junkyards for old virus parts.

With all the large-scale sequencing projects going on now, we are pretty much finding remnants of viruses everywhere we look. We are even beginning to reconstruct ancient viruses (don’t worry, it’s pretty safe) to earn a glimpse into long-term virus evolution. There is hope that elucidating patterns in the past may allow us to better detect emerging viruses and design more effective vaccines.

Fossils have no doubt taught us a great deal about ourselves. The depth that they allow us to travel back in time is worth careful consideration. From bones, to explosions, to DNA. Scientific fields as divergent as paleontology, astrophysics, and molecular evolution are all digging for fossils to learn about the history of our planet.

Come learn more about the emerging field of Paleovirology at Austin’s Pizza on Guadalupe this Thursday February 24 at 6:00pm. Science in the Pub presents Dr. Sara Sawyer from the University of Texas and Dr. Robert Gifford from Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center, both evolutionary biologists that will be highlighting recent discoveries in paleovirology research.

Dec 4, 2016

Next Science in the Pub is This Week!

“Memories for Tomorrow: The Past, the Future, and the Brain”

Dr. Alison Preston of UT-Austin’s Center for Learning and Memory will be digging deep into how we create and process our memories. It will truly be a Science in the Pub you can’t forget (get it?)

We return to our home at the Cactus Cafe this week. The event will begin at 5 PM on Friday, March 4th. As always, admission is free and seating is limited so arrive early and have a beer!


Bringing you Austin's best science, live from the historic Cactus Cafe.

Next Science In The Pub

Memories for Tomorrow: The Past, the Future, and the Brain

Join us March 4th at 5 PM at the Cactus Cafe:

Dr. Alison Preston of UT's Center for Learning and Memory will be digging deep into how we create and process our memories. It will truly be a Science in the Pub you can't forget.