| |1. Motorised nose wheels will let planes leave gates by themselvesЧт., 14 дек.[−]
THE frustrations of air travel are many and varied: enduring the scrum to board; rummaging for room in the overhead lockers; waiting patiently for “the last two remaining passengers” to be extracted from the shops. After all that, those on the aircraft often find that it has failed to push back from the gate in time to meet its take-off slot. Because, under their own power, planes can only go forward, they rely on a tug when reversing from a gate. If such is not available, has lost its driver or has broken down, at the gate the plane must stay.
This may soon change, though. WheelTug, a company in Gibraltar, has spent over a decade developing electric motors to drive an aircraft’s nose wheel. This month it employed Stirling Dynamics, an engineering firm in Bristol, England, to help prepare the device for certification by air-safety authorities. It has tested a prototype and hopes its motorised wheels will be available in 2019 for fitting onto versions of the Boeing 737,... Continue reading
|↑|2. Military robots are getting smaller and more capableЧт., 14 дек.[−]
ON NOVEMBER 12th a video called “Slaughterbots” was uploaded to YouTube. It is the brainchild of Stuart Russell, a professor of artificial intelligence at the University of California, Berkeley, and was paid for by the Future of Life Institute (FLI), a group of concerned scientists and technologists that includes Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking and Martin Rees, Britain’s Astronomer Royal. It is set in a near-future in which small drones fitted with face-recognition systems and shaped explosive charges can be programmed to seek out and kill known individuals or classes of individuals (those wearing a particular uniform, for example). In one scene, the drones are shown collaborating with each other to gain entrance to a building. One acts as a petard, blasting through a wall to grant access to the others.
“Slaughterbots” is fiction. The question Dr Russell poses is, “how long will it remain so?” For military laboratories around the planet are busy developing small, autonomous robots... Continue reading
|↑|3. Might a recent extrasolar visitor be an alien spacecraft?Чт., 14 дек.[−]
’OUMUAMUA, an object tumbling through space that was discovered on October 19th, has already made history. The speed at which it is moving relative to the sun means that it cannot be native to the solar system. Its official designation is thus 1I/2017 U1, with the “I” standing for “interstellar”—the first time this designation has ever been used.
That is exciting. Some scientists, though, entertain an even more exciting possibility: what if ’Oumuamua is not an asteroid, as most think, but an alien spacecraft? Asteroids come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, but ’Oumuamua seems particularly odd. As best as astronomers can tell, it is cigarlike, being roughly 180 metres long but only about 30 metres wide. That makes it more elongated than anything known of in the solar system. Such a shape would be a sensible choice for a spaceship, since it would minimise the scouring effect of interstellar dust.
With that in mind the Breakthrough Listen project, an... Continue reading
|↑|4. A way to predict sinkholes under spas near the Dead SeaСр., 13 дек.[−]
THE Dead Sea is, as its name implies, far too salty to be of use to fishermen or farmers. But its mineral-rich waters are valued by the owners of the spas that thrive along its shores in Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territory of the West Bank. The spa industry, however, faces a threat from a plague of sinkholes that have struck in recent years. These have damaged roads and buildings at Ein Gedi beach, in Israel, and hit the Mineral Beach Spa in Mitzpe Shalem, an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, so hard that it is unusable.
Until now, it has been impossible to predict more than a few weeks in advance where a sinkhole will appear. But, as he reports in Geology, Meir Abelson of the Geological Survey of Israel thinks he can change that. Employing buried monitoring devices, he believes he can forecast where such holes will form several years before they actually do so.
Most of the more than... Continue reading
|↑|5. Big fish keep tropical forests healthyВт., 12 дек.[−]
Big fish, big trees
FOR anglers nothing beats catching a big fish. Commercial fisherfolk also prefer to haul in big specimens. Unfortunately, in recent years, research has shown that selectively capturing the largest fish has worrying ecological consequences. In some species the large ones are the healthiest ones, and so the ones most likely to breed successfully. In others they are the oldest, and so the most experienced at eluding predators or securing resources, such as food and breeding sites. In tropical wetlands, such as the Pantanal and Amazon regions of Brazil, the largest fish are also vital in dispersing seeds—and thus maintaining and regenerating habitat.
Trees in these areas fruit most prolifically during the summer, when local rivers burst their banks and flood the land, making those fruit available to fish, which gladly gobble them up. Then, as the fish swim around the floodplain, they pass the seeds inside those fruit, which often... Continue reading
|↑|6. Women ask fewer questions than men at seminarsЧт., 07 дек.[−]
ONE theory to explain the low share of women in senior academic jobs is that they have less self-confidence than men. This hypothesis is supported by data in a new working paper, by a team of researchers from five universities in America and Europe. In this study, observers counted the attendees, and the questions they asked, at 247 departmental talks and seminars in biology, psychology and philosophy that took place at 35 universities in ten countries. On average, half of each seminar’s audience was female. Men, however, were over 2.5 times more likely to pose questions to the speakers—an action that may be viewed (rightly or wrongly) as a sign of greater competence.
This male skew in question-asking was observable, however, only in those seminars in which a man asked the first question. When a woman did so, the gender split in question-asking was, on average, proportional to that of the audience. Simply handing the microphone to a woman rather than a man when the floor is opened for... Continue reading
|↑|7. A nasty-tasting shellfish could be just the job for cleaning riversЧт., 07 дек.[−]
SHELLFISH thrive in waters rich in nutrients. These include the nitrogen used in fertiliser, which passes from the land into rivers and then into the sea. The shellfish grow, as do the profits of those who harvest them. The problem comes when discharges into the sea are tainted with more noxious material, such as bacteria that pose a threat to human health. Once the bugs are in the shellfish, they can be passed on to anyone who eats them.
This problem—and another, of excess nitrogen that can cause poisonous algal blooms—might be mitigated by shellfish that people don’t eat, reckon Eve Galimany and Julie Rose at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration at Milford Laboratory in Connecticut. As they report in Environmental Science & Technology, their chosen candidate for the job is the ribbed mussel, more formally known as Geukensia demissa.
The ribbed mussel is edible, but it tastes terrible and so... Continue reading
|↑|8. Taking DNA sequencing into the fieldЧт., 07 дек.[−]
DEVICES for analysing DNA used to be big, clunky and not very good. Hundreds were required for the initial sequencing of the human genome, a project that started in the late 1990s and took over a decade to complete at a cost of at least $500m. Since then, sequencing a human genome has become a routine process; prices have fallen to below $1,000. Although the machines that do the job have got better and more compact, they still cost several hundred thousand dollars. Various groups are trying to make them smaller and cheaper.
The first device small enough to put in your pocket is already on the market. It comes from Oxford Nanopore, a maker of DNA-sequencing equipment based in the eponymous English city. It is about the size of a chunky mobile phone. Although the machine is swathed in patents, other miniature devices are bound to follow in time.
The MinION, as the device is called, is first plugged into a laptop. It works by sucking strands of DNA through a “flow... Continue reading
|↑|9. All the buzz at AI’s big shindigСр., 06 дек.[−]
“CORPORATE conferences still suck.” So read the T-shirt sported by Ben Recht, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, as he collected an award at the Neural Information Processing Systems (NIPS) conference this week. Dr Recht, pictured above in lecture mode, was protesting against the flood of corporate money pouring into NIPS, aping the words Kurt Cobain wrote on a T-shirt when he appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone in 1992.
“It’s not an academic conference anymore,” Dr Recht says wistfully, perched in the Californian sun on the steps of the Long Beach Convention Centre. He complains that folk would rather go to corporate-sponsored parties these days (Intel’s featured Flo Rida, a rapper), than poster sessions. AI, it seems, is the new rock and roll.
NIPS began in 1987 as a humble little conference on an obscure branch of machine learning called neural networks. It spent the first 13 years of its life in Denver, then moved to Vancouver for a decade. It used to be a quiet affair, with a few hundred mathy computer scientists coming together to explain how they had solved some abstract problem in a new way.
Then, at the 2003 conference, Geoffrey Hinton, a British polymath, and a cabal of AI researchers founded the Neural Computation & Adaptive Perception... Continue reading
|↑|10. Game over for virtual reality?Пт., 01 дек.[−]
LIKE the rest of the consumer-electronics industry, video-game makers would be lost without the traditional binge buying that happens between mid-November and the late December. This year’s gift-giving season will be as much a treat for makers of video-gaming gadgets as for their happy recipients. Prices of the headsets, sensors and controllers that let game-players explore the artificial world of virtual reality (VR) have been slashed to levels most families can now afford. Stockings could be bulging with VR headsets from Samsung, Dell, Sony, HTC, Oculus (a division of Facebook) and others. For those willing to wait until early 2018, costs could fall still further—as a new, even cheaper generation of VR headsets hits the market.
Despite the merry ho, ho, ho, however, there is a distinct whiff of urgency in the air. Virtual reality has failed to live up to its hype, and mainstream consumers never really bought into the technology. Even ardent gaming fans have been slow to... Continue reading
|↑|11. Why shrinking glaciers could mean more volcanic eruptionsЧт., 30 нояб.[−]
|Hot to trotAT THE end of the last ice age, around 11,700 years ago, Earth’s climate began warming rapidly. As the planet heated up, its vast glaciers fell back. Almost immediately afterwards (in geological terms, at least) volcanic activity surged. That was nothing new. The geological record has plenty of evidence of big glacial retreats that are followed by more frequent volcanic eruptions. Glaciers, in other words, seem to suppress volcanoes, which, by the same token, flourish in their absence.This, at least, is the case for really big climatic swings. What has been less clear is whether more modest changes in ice cover might also affect the rate of eruptions. Given that humans are busy warming the planet, and therefore shrinking the few, relatively puny glaciers that still exist, this question matters. It would be good to know if more volcanic eruptions might be another consequence of global warming. In a paper just published in ||↑|12. After years of success, progress against malaria is slowingЧт., 30 нояб.[−]
MALARIA has been a scourge for most of history. In recent years, a good deal of progress has been made against the disease. But, as the World Malaria Report 2017, published on November 29th by the World Health Organisation, explains, that progress seems to be tailing off. The reason is unclear. Fingers are, however, being pointed at a decline in a technique known as indoor residual spraying (IRS). This involves coating the interior walls of buildings in malaria-prone areas with insecticide, to kill mosquitoes that land on them. The report says that the proportion of people at risk of malaria who are protected by IRS has fallen from 5.8% in 2010 to 2.9% in 2016. Again, it is unclear why. It may be an unintended consequence of the sensible policy of rotating, over the years, the insecticides used for IRS. This helps suppress the evolution of insecticide-resistance in mosquitoes. But it often means replacing conventional pyrethroid insecticides with more expensive alternatives, which some people cannot afford.