Science Diet: The High-Tech World Cup

Get these articles now on your Kindle/iOS/Android device or save them to your Readability account.

1. The Beautiful Game is now more high-tech

If you’ve been watching the World Cup (of course you have), you may have seen the referee wield a magic spray, used to draw a Lakshman rekha for the players forming the wall when free kicks are taken. It looks rather like shaving foam. To be precise, it is “a mixture of butane, isobutane and propane gas, a foaming agent, water, and other chemicals. When it leaves the can, the gas depressurizes and expands, creating small, water-covered droplets on the field. The butane mixture later evaporates, leaving only water and surfactant residue behind.” So now you know.

There’s also the cool new goal-line technology: 14 cameras on the roofs of the stadiums track the ball. As many as 500 frames are captured each second, which enables accurate detection of the ball position to within an impressive five millimetres. Similar technology, of course, has been in use in cricket and tennis for a while now. No doubt it is useful. Besides, it is particularly reassuring to be told by the TV producers — after the players have celebrated like crazy — that it is a goal when the ball hits the back of the net each time. Just in case you didn’t know. And just in case the referee misses it, he gets a text message — an encrypted one, no less — on his watch.

The Adidas Brazuca.
The Adidas Brazuca, the official ball for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Image Credit: Steindy [GFDL 1.2], via Wikimedia Commons.

Then there’s the ball itself, called Brazuca, made by Adidas (and made in Pakistan). It is made of only six panels instead of the normal 12 or 16. Apparently, this translates into lesser water absorption and more durability. Not to be outdone, Nike has something cooler still. Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney haven’t exactly set the World Cup alight so far, but they, along with Neymar, will be toting around 3D-printed bags. And 3D-printed shin guards too. See them in the gallery here.

2. A quantum computer that (probably) isn’t

The great physicist Richard Feynman once famously said, “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.” Despite that, he was one of the first to envision a new kind of computer based on the laws of quantum mechanics. For a couple of years now, D-Wave Systems has been claiming to have developed a quantum computer. However, in keeping with the Feynman quote above, no one knows for sure how it works. Or even if it works.

Unlike classical computers which use 0s and 1s, or bits, a quantum computer uses quantum bits, or qubits, which can be both 0 and 1 at the same time. Such superposition allows a quantum computer to perform computations in parallel, making it much faster than a classical computer. But technical difficulties abound: for instance, the qubits have to be shielded from the outside world to prevent the information stored in them from being destroyed. D-Wave tried an approach called adiabatic annealing that made this task somewhat easier. The trade-off was that the system they developed wasn’t a general-purpose computer. It could be used only to solve a specific type of problem, namely, optimization problems.

The “quantum” computer developed by D-Wave Systems is a chip with tiny loops of niobium wire cooled to almost absolute zero, to make them superconducting. Google and NASA have acquired one of these, which costs a cool $10 million. So has Lockheed Martin. They put it through various tests, against off-the-shelf software, and found it quicker — thousands of times quicker — although this was best seen only in a small subset of problems. But critics said this wasn’t a valid test, as the off-the-shelf products were not optimized to solve these particular problems. Moreover, the harder the problem, the more time the D-Wave needed. And the time needed to solve a problem increased with the problem’s size much faster than would be expected for a quantum computer. A report published in Science yesterday shows that it is not quicker when used to solve certain benchmark computing problems.

Photograph of a chip constructed by D-Wave Systems Inc. designed to operate as a 128-qubit superconducting adiabatic quantum optimization processor, mounted in a sample holder.
Photograph of a chip constructed by D-Wave Systems Inc., designed to operate as a 128-qubit superconducting adiabatic quantum optimization processor, mounted in a sample holder. Image Credit: D-Wave Systems, Inc. [CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.
What does D-Wave have to say about all this? They insist that the wrong benchmark problems were used and different types of problems should be used to see which one their product is faster at. There are other possibilities too: It could be that quantum annealing is not faster than classical methods. Or perhaps noise — interference from the outside world — is preventing the D-Wave from functioning as hoped. Time will tell.

3. Neuroscience and free will

Powerful though quantum computers may one day be, there may still be things beyond raw computational power. Such as intelligence. And free will.

Consider a man who suddenly begins to exhibit criminal tendencies and commits a crime. It is later discovered that he had a brain tumour in an area of the brain involved in controlling impulses; removing the tumour restored him to a control over his actions. Or perhaps it could be the case that he had experienced changes in his brain chemistry leading to poor decision-making. In such cases, was the crime his fault or his biology’s fault? Can he be held responsible for actions that he had no control over? (In legalese, they’re called “automatisms.”)

With the discoveries of modern neuroscience, such instances in real life lead one to question whether free will exists. The question is whether all of our actions are on autopilot or whether some of it, at some level, is “free.” Where do we draw the line between blame and biology, a line that seems to shift with improving technology? (Lots more on this fascinating issue here.) What’s more, this poses problems for the criminal-justice system as it exists now, which rests on the assumption that we are responsible for our actions and that all are equal in the eyes of the law.

When deciding on the appropriate punishment for such a person, the key question, argues celebrity neuroscientist David Eagleman, is not how culpable he is but how he is likely to behave in the future. Is it possible to help such people — to train them, despite their biology — to control their impulses? How about customized rehabilitation instead of incarceration?

David Eagleman muses on what all this means for science — we are entering what was once the exclusive realm of philosophy. Now, though, they are not idle questions. (A riveting talk is here.)

4. The travails of an Indian rationalist

Today, he finds himself stuck far away from home in Finland, his self-imposed exile necessitated by religious fanatics using an archaic blasphemy law which is incompatible with the “scientific temper” required of each Indian citizen by the Constitution. If he returns to India, he will be jailed. Or worse, killed.

Two years ago, a crucifix of Jesus Christ at a church in Mumbai started dripping water from its feet. The elated church authorities hailed it as a miracle and started distributing this water to the faithful. It took rationalist Sanal Edamaruku little time to investigate the matter and expose the truth — the water was from a toilet drainage nearby, which found its way to the statue’s feet by capillary action. There followed a raucous live debate on TV, wherein Sanal was asked to apologize and threatened with consequences should he fail to do so. He refused, which led to the church authorities filing cases against him. Threatened by the police and fearing for his freedom and life, and fearing the fate which befell his friend and fellow rationalist Narendra Dabholkar, he fled India.

Sanal Edamaruku at a Mumbai church after exposing the "miracle."   Image Credit: Subodh Sinha, via Wikimedia Commons
Sanal Edamaruku at a Mumbai church after exposing the reported miracle. Image Credit: Subodh Sinha, via Wikimedia Commons

This is far from the only time Sanal Edamaruku has ruffled feathers. He has been on a mission to expose godmen and their miraculous feats, and as the President of the Indian Rationalist Association, he has been on the forefront in the battle against ignorance and superstition, going to villages to reach out to people.

Clearly, in this case, truth has not set him free.

Write a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *